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Posted: November 01, 2009

Executive Edge: Kimbal Musk

Serial entrepreneur tackles 
culinary and 
tech worlds

Lynn Bronikowski

ExecEdge_KimballMusk_LG.jpg

 

Kimbal Musk has come a long way since camping out in the offices of Zip2, the Palo Alto, Calif., Internet company he co-founded with his brother, Elon.

They'd eat at Jack in the Box and shower at the YMCA while building the content-management giant they sold in 1999 to Compaq for $307 million in one of the biggest transactions of its kind in the Internet industry.
Elon stayed on in California, founding PayPal, the electric car company Tesla Motors and SpaceX, a satellite launch firm.

Meanwhile Kimbal advised and helped found several software and technology companies, and graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York. In 2004 he moved to Boulder where today he is CEO of OneRiot, a real-time search engine that recently secured $7 million in additional funding from venture capitalists.

"It's a challenging environment, and angel investors are going through massive change not knowing quite what to do," said Musk, 37, who left his native South Africa at age 18 and came to the United States via Canada, where he earned a business degree from Queen's University. "But what we're doing is exciting, and we're doing phenomenally well, so this was a vote of confidence in the real-time search market."

One Riot, which evolved from a startup formerly known as Me.dium, employs 28 and is hiring search engineers. The company is growing its partner network and has seen searches zoom from 4 million per month in June to 1 million per day as it marks its first anniversary. Its partners Yahoo and Microsoft recently released a version of Internet Explorer bundled with OneRiot real-time search.

"We're growing faster than expected," said Musk, choosing not to disclose financials but eager to talk about his other passion - cooking - which not only led him to enroll in culinary school following the sale of Zip2 but to open The Kitchen, a community bistro in Boulder that has been named among America's best restaurants by Food & Wine, Zagat's and the James Beard Foundation.

"My mother always told me to eat brown bread and yogurt," Musk said of his dietician mother's advice on healthy eating. "So early on, I was the cook in the house and became a pretty good cook. I went to New York to properly learn how to cook - and yes, the experience was right out of ‘Hell's Kitchen.'"

By day, he'd talk tech and by night he'd dash to culinary classes.

"There I was, consulting to some of the biggest companies in the world, and I'd have to cut off meetings because you didn't dare be late," said Musk, whose life in New York would take a dark turn on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was blocks away when the towers fell, and you just can't imagine what it was like to see the pile of melted metal," said Musk, who holed up with family and friends in a small apartment and stepped up to volunteer.

 "I helped feed the firefighters for six weeks. I was a recent graduate of the French Culinary Institute and they had me peeling potatoes for a week. But I had an opportunity to work with some of the top chefs in the city."

And he knew it was time to open his dream restaurant, to leave behind the big city and start fresh. He and his wife, Jennifer Lewin, toured the West - from Santa Fe, N.M., to Jackson Hole, Wyo. - before settling on Boulder where Lewin went to the University of Colorado.

"You feel like you're part of something here, part of the community," he said, noting that he tries to extend that feeling to OneRiot employees through ownership shares. "I want to give them a feeling like they're part of something, too, part of our company."

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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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