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Which part of Octopart don't you understand?

May 22, 2008 |  5:14 pm
Octopart founders Andres Morey, Sam Wurzel and Harish Agarwal

You’ve probably never heard of Octopart. It’s not the world’s sexiest start-up. But it is the kind of sleeper hit that shows the seemingly endless promise of innovation in Silicon Valley -- and how the Internet is shaking up traditional industries by finding new solutions to old problems.

Octopart is a search engine for electronic parts. It used to be that you had to thumb through phonebook-size catalogs and fill out purchase orders to get parts. Now you can just search the inventories of electronics parts sellers to find the best deal, then order them online.

Octopart is the work of three physics grad school dropouts: Andres Morey, 28, Sam Wurzel, 27, and Harish Agarwal, 26. It all began in April 2006 when Morey was building a laser for a particle physics experiment at the south pole. Fed up with searching different websites to locate electronic parts, he called Wurzel to suggest they build a search engine. Wurzel, who shared Morey’s frustration, agreed. Wurzel came up with the name because...

... he liked the concept of an octopus reaching out with its tentacles to grab different parts.

"When we started we didn’t know how to do any Web programming whatsoever," Morey said. "We didn’t even know how to set up a Web server or a database. But we both sort of fell in love with all the new things we were learning."

Soon Morey, in grad school at UC Berkeley, and Wurzel, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, were coding until 4 a.m. A month later Wurzel bought a desktop computer at a yard sale for $50, and that functioned as Octopart’s first server. By summertime, they had launched what Morey calls the first "crappy" version of Octopart.

In November 2006, Octopart caught a lucky break. Morey and Wurzel hooked up with Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston. They run Y Combinator, which funds and advises young start-ups. Wurzel, who had just dropped out of grad school to live in Argentina, and Morey, who had gone to the south pole to deploy his laser, logged in remotely to continue their work using the server still sitting in Berkeley. The day Morey returned from the pole in January 2007, they started a three-month stint with Y Combinator.

For a month, Morey remained convinced that he could finish his PhD by going to school in the morning and working on Octopart in the afternoon. Graham soon set him straight. "If you want Octopart to succeed, if you want people to invest in you, you have to be fully committed," he said.

After a weekend of soul searching, Morey dropped out. Graham presented him with a T-shirt: "Strap on some plums."

Plums strapped, Morey persuaded Agarwal to drop out of Berkeley too. "I knew he loved to code so I started asking him to help us with the hope that it would light a fire," Morey said. It did.

Today the threesome is really cooking. Their company, now based in San Francisco, is nearly profitable and has already turned down acquisition offers.

Just goes to show what three guys and a start-up can do.

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo: Octopart founders Andres Morey, Sam Wurzel and Harish Agarwal