The phrase ‘timing is everything’ couldn’t be truer for the business endeavor started by Alec Ellsworth and Ryan Brooks nearly 25 years ago. It was on the brink of one of the most revolutionary inventions of our time – the Internet.
Recognizing this new technology would be a game-changer for business communications, Ellsworth and Brooks launched Internet Connect in 1994 to provide businesses and institutions with high-speed connections to the Internet. Catering to mid- and large-size corporations, Internet Connect’s impressive client list included Harley-Davidson, Case Corporation, Kalmbach Publishing, Firstar Bank (US bank), M&I Data, Strong Funds, Manpower, the city of Milwaukee, and many others.
It was at Brooks’ and Ellsworth’s alma mater, Marquette University, that the idea for Internet Connect was born. The two met through Brooks’ dad, who happened to be Ellsworth’s professor. “It was early in the tech-space time, and the Internet was brand new at Marquette,” says Ellsworth, who was on the path to becoming a dentist. “The Internet wasn’t adapted for home use yet; only certain institutions were experimenting with the technology.”
A man by the name of Steve Goodman was instrumental in helping Ellsworth and Brooks make Internet Connect a reality. A staff member of Marquette’s math and computer science departments, Goodman set up Brooks’ and Ellsworth’s first Internet connection in a room inside the dental school where Marquette’s student computer society met. The year was 1990. “It was a little room with a large Internet connection,” remembers Ellsworth, who was in his first year of dental school at the time. “Goodman was a wealth of knowledge when it came to the Internet, and he willingly shared his wisdom with us. He helped us understand how it all worked. Without him, Internet Connect might never have come to be.”
Ellsworth’s passion shifted from teeth to technology as he and Brooks saw the very first web browser and home pages come to life. “We knew the Internet was going to be a big deal,” says Ellsworth. These up-and-coming entrepreneurs watched the Internet grow quickly – from one site to 20 sites and more. “We started to realize that anyone could use the Internet and gain value from it.”
It was around this time that Brooks became a system administrator at the Helen Bader Foundation, running a network of NeXT computers. A company created by Steve Jobs, NeXT was used to build some of the world’s first web pages and the first web server. The guts of this technology are still used today in iPads and cell phones. Brooks not only witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web while working at Helen Bader, he gained valuable experience that would help him launch his own company with Ellsworth.
Ellsworth’s career as a dentist was short-lived. It wasn’t long after graduation that he walked away from dentistry to devote himself to Internet Connect full time. Surprisingly, it was a decision that Ellsworth’s father completely supported. “He believed in me and my idea, which was an important differentiator in moving forward with this new business venture,” shares Ellsworth. “Everyone else, on the other hand, thought I was nuts.”
When looking for a place to land, Internet Connect chose the Technology Innovation Center (TIC) in the Milwaukee County Research Park. “We needed a place where we could grow, and the TIC was the perfect option,” says Brooks. As an early tenant of the building, Internet Connect’s growth synched up with that of the TIC – both businesses were young and growing at the same time. Starting with just three employees on the third floor, Internet Connect eventually grew to consume half the space on that level. “We brought the Internet with us, and all of TIC’s tenants were among our first customers.”
Internet Connect dealt with many companies who had an enterprise network but were not connected to the outside world. “These businesses were like islands,” explains Ellsworth. “They came to our office to see things online and it didn’t take them long to realize they needed an Internet presence, and they needed it right away. Internet Connect helped take their business worldwide.”
What began as a hobby at Marquette soon exploded into a highly successful company. Internet Connect broke even in the first year and doubled in size within three years. The Internet service provider pushed its network out to other Wisconsin cities, such as Madison, Appleton, Green Bay and Eau Claire. They even added markets in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and North Carolina, continuing to manage everything – from marketing to technical support – at the Research Park. Eventually, Internet Connect had 15 points of presence (POP).
“The TIC became an Internet hub, making the Research Park the place to be,” says Ellsworth. “The building lived up to its name and was viewed as a great place for techie start-ups to incubate and grow, and we saw new Internet-related businesses springing up.”
In 1998, Brooks and Ellsworth answered a Request for Proposal (RFP) for Time Warner Telecom, a national telephone company with 21 markets nationwide. Internet Connect won the RFP, beating out big names like Sprint and PSINet (which later became Cogent Communications). “We rolled out a national network, building a robust Internet network for businesses all around the country,” recalls Brooks. “Internet Connect started in a corner room with three people and now just four years later, we had 30 employees and were participating in an IPO (Initial Public Offering). It was pretty unbelievable.”
Time Warner Telecom acquired Internet Connect in 1998 and later that year, the combined company went public. Ellsworth stayed on through the year 2000 as president of the Internet and Data Division, while Brooks remained with Time Warner Telecom for approximately four years as their chief scientist. Time Warner was later acquired by Level 3, which was subsequently acquired by CenturyLink.
Brooks’ and Ellsworth’s love for technology has continued to be a lifelong pursuit. “Technology ‘got us’ both,” says Ellsworth, who has taken on a consultative role with a variety of companies as an IT integrator since moving on from Internet Connect. Originally hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, near Los Angeles, Ellsworth said he wasn’t exposed to computers until his first year in college. “The operating system is what really got me into this stuff,” he says. “It was the intuitiveness of the Mac versus character-based WordPerfect that I fell for.”
For Brooks, a Milwaukee native, his infatuation with technology began at a young age when he attended UWM’s “College for Kids” program and used a computer for the first time. “From that moment on, I was hooked,” says Brooks. After Internet Connect, Brooks co-founded several data center services and IOT (Internet of Things) businesses. This tech-savvy individual is also an amateur astronomer, who has an observatory right in his own back yard.
“We learned a lot along the way, made mistakes, and met a lot of great people,” says Ellsworth of his Internet Connect experience. “When starting a business, you have to be willing to take risks. I left behind what could’ve been a perfectly comfortable dental career to go after something potentially much more rewarding. It was a little scary at the time, but I certainly don’t regret it. Being in the right place at the right time made all the difference for Internet Connect, and we would’ve been fools to not take advantage of this amazing opportunity.”