He and the rest of the founders sold ZipList in April for a reported $14 million, presumably producing a robust windfall. Allen would not comment on the deal.
Allen, 41, is a rapid-fire conversationalist who has a gift for finding the next big thing, whether it’s disruptive software, a cool Web site or filming classroom lectures.
“I generally see things ahead of others, and I have the engineering acumen to build a product,” said the graduate of George Mason University.
Allen gravitated to computers — think Atari, Commodore — while growing up during the 1970s and 1980s in Fairfax County, where his father was an engineer for the U.S. Navy and his mother was a schoolteacher.
“I would buy programming books, and they had recipes for games,” he said. “And you could learn to build them yourself.”
In high school, he was pulling down $15,000 a year as a part-time programmer at a Fortune 500 company. He tooled around in a 1976 BMW 530i, which he also used on his second job, delivering Domino’s pizzas at night.
“Precocious, curious and impatient. Those are the qualities you need to be an entrepreneur,” Allen said. “I didn’t come from money. I just worked hard.”
Although he has a knack for starting things, he doesn’t have a passion for the daily grind of managing.
“I’m not great at operations . . . the day-to-day routine,” he said. “Hiring. Firing. Managing the profit and loss statement. Personnel reviews. [Not many fans there.] Taxes. Audits. It’s stuff that is critically important. I would rather help the product development and marketing and engineering teams.”
So he creates the sparks that set the game afoot. Besides ZipList, an online shopping and recipe site that helps consumer goods companies sell their wares to grocery shoppers, Allen has created a host of other companies aimed at disrupting marketplaces.
He started Source Digital in 1989 when he was right out of Robert E. Lee High School in Fairfax. He pushed the desktop publisher, which produced pamphlets and books for corporate clients, to $13 million in revenue and sold it for a seven-figure profit around 1995.
He took that money and rolled it into Axicom, which helped cable TV companies digitize their commercials from tape.
Three years later, he shut down the business and lost $2 million, crushed by well-funded competitors such as nCube, founded by Larry Ellison, multibillionaire creator of Oracle.
The Axicom debacle delivered an important lesson: The best product doesn’t always win. “You need a great product to get in the door, but you also need great marketing, big balance sheets, great sales. You need to understand the competition.”