He’s not a Berkeley grad. His Bay Area background is exaggerated. But John Flowers does have taxpayer support.

A Million Little Pixels 

He’s not a Berkeley grad. His Bay Area background is exaggerated. But John Flowers does have taxpayer support.

Today's seminar on raising venture capital will be presented by a man wearing a long-sleeved checkered shirt, blue jeans and black tennis shoes. "This is dressed up for me," John Flowers announces at the outset of his PowerPoint demonstration. "Usually, I'm dressed in sandals and shorts and a T-shirt that says something offensive."

Flowers is the 35-year-old founder and CEO of an Overland Park technology company called Kozoru. He is standing at the front of a room at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center. His audience is a group of two dozen young entrepreneurs, guys and gals in their twenties willing to sacrifice a Friday evening for the opportunity to learn the ways of parting investors from their money.

In spite of his casual appearance (or maybe because of it), Flowers is well-qualified to make the presentation. The Silicon Valley veteran says he's raised $70 million in his career. He has even been backed by the government: Kozoru received $500,000 from a Kansas state agency that spends lottery and race-track proceeds on economic development.

Flowers assures the entrepreneurs that his lesson will be something special. "Every time I do a presentation, I start from scratch," he says.

His head shot pops up on a projector screen behind him.

"Let's talk about me," he says.

Flowers' story begins with his doing "skunk works," or secret projects, at Microsoft in the early 1990s. "There was a time when Microsoft was actually cool," Flowers says.

In addition to working for Bill Gates, Flowers says he was a computer hacker. He talks about having attended Def Con, a 1994 hacker convention. Six companies that sell computer software meant to keep out hackers offered $10,000 to anyone who could crack their security systems in a Capture the Flag contest, he says. Flowers claims that he scored five of the six "flags" and then went for drinks with friends.

Flowers used his hacker background to start a network security company. Hiverworld, which became nCircle, today employs 300 people. Forty-foot brass lions stand sentry in the company's San Francisco office.

One of the young entrepreneurs, Mark Pydynowski, stops Flowers. "Why did you leave nCircle?" he asks. Clad in a dark suit, Pydynowski seems curious to know why someone would walk away from a flourishing company. Flowers says he's the type of person who needs to move on and do something new after a while. He says there were "no hard feelings" when he left nCircle.

Flowers moves on to his current project, Kozoru. He created the company to develop a search engine that understands natural language. Instead of typing keywords, users would enter questions to find their answers. Getting computers to understand linguistics has been called the holy grail of search technology. Ask Jeeves built a brand name on the idea, but the technology itself didn't really work. Flowers came up with what he thought was a unique approach — and a hell of a back story. He claims that he decided to start the company after studying Buddhism at a temple in Thailand.

Flowers moved to Johnson County in 2003 and started Kozoru a year later. He raised a total of $3 million and recruited a team of computer experts from the Bay Area and Austin, Texas. The company planned to launch its service in the summer of 2005. But the deadline came and went without a product debut. The problems, it turned out, were more difficult to solve than Flowers had imagined.

Also, the appeal of a question-and-answer search remains in doubt. At one point, the Kozoru team brought in a focus group. Test subjects sat in front of computers and were instructed to enter questions into the Kozoru search bar. "Nobody asked it a question," Flowers says in an interview. "Every single person typed in keywords. It's the funniest thing. You put a search bar in front of someone, it's like someone has trained you to think like Google rather than you thinking like you."

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