Semantics: The meaning of Thane Kerner's Silverchair success
Last year, Inc. magazine ranked Silverchair as one of the fastest growing private companies in America. Locally, the technical publishing company, while employing 240 people, has a lower profile. Even its cool digs above Urban Outfitters on the Downtown Mall are sort of hidden away.
Co-founder and CEO Thane Kerner similarly has had a lower public profile, although he's well known in certain circles (hint: Dave Matthews).
Kerner, along with his brother, Will, was a founder of Live Arts in the late '80s, back when the fledgling theater company in the Michie Building on Market Street was the site of Friday night raves. A decade or so later, Kerner led the fundraising for the arts center on Water Street that houses Second Street Gallery, Lighthouse, and Live Arts.
In May, Kerner sold part of Silverchair to raise capital to plow into the company's semantic technology, which is used in STM– scientific, technical, and medical– publishing to help users to find the specific technical information they need. STM is an initialism that's popping up everywhere these days, and Kerner is poised to capture the lucrative market.
Back in 1993, says Kerner, "I was trying to figure out what the world was going to look like." He'd already worked in technical publishing at Carden Jennings and as publisher of Experimental Hematology, and he knew there was a demand for medical information.
"I can't claim to have started with a compelling vision," he says. "But I knew it was so important in the marketplace. A clinician needs the latest research." And he also knew that medical professionals would always pay 50 times the cost of standard books for such information.
Silverchair's technology sifts through a tome such as the Journal of the American Medical Association to help physicians, students, and researchers find exactly the information they need online, he explains.
In May, parent company Silverchair Holdings sold the part of the company that targets the rapidly growing senior care industry. Kerner won't say how much Silverchair Learning Systems went for– private companies don't have to– but he does allow, "We got a good return."
A Charlottesville native, Kerner broke family tradition by going to college at the University of North Carolina, where he majored in journalism.
"I'd done performance in college," he says, "but I decided with Live Arts to never get on stage." Instead, Kerner stayed "grounded in business," as he puts it. "With Live Arts, at times they thought I was a hard ass."
Still, Kerner remained in touch with his artistic side, designing all the studio-recording covers (and most of the live releases as well) from 1993 through 2005 for Dave Matthews Band.
Even after the sale, CEO Kerner rules a major roost, with 180 workers. And he notes that both companies will remain in Charlottesville– with a young workforce that loves being on the Downtown Mall.
Perks at Silverchair include free chair massages once a month. The first 10 years, employees got March 15– the Ides of March– off. "Now it's your birthday," says Kerner.
With the future looking bright for Silverchair, Kerner anticipates steady hiring over the next year. Yet with a successful, growing business, there's a basic problem: space. "It's harder as we get larger," he says.
That's a problem a lot of businesses would love to have.
Why here? I was born in Charlottesville, decamped at age one and returned at age 25. Charlottesville has the effect on its natives that San Juan Capistrano has on its swallows.
What's worst about living here? The unreliability of commuter flights.
Favorite hangout? The Odeon (in Tribeca).
Most overrated virtue? Of the big seven, I suppose Chastity is rather out of fashion, isn't it? But I struggle more with Kindness, personally. I'd prefer to be Kinder than I am.
People would be surprised to know: I am a pancake artist. I make complex pancake paintings for my daughter every Saturday. Their sophistication often surprises people. (And I struggle with Humility, as well.)
What would you change about yourself? I'd like to have Lance's VO2 Max. [The lung capacity of Lance Armstrong–editor]
Proudest accomplishment? When I left my last job working for someone else 19 years ago, I set the goal of establishing a company in whose boardroom I would be the dumbest guy at the table. I have accomplished that objective in full.
People find most annoying about you: This is a weekly tabloid, not an encyclopedia.
Whom do you admire? Gerhard Richter, Bill Drummond, Bernard Sumner, Peter Thiel, Christopher Hitchens, Jeff Buckalew.
Favorite book? Excruciating question. I'll go with Untouchable American Pastoral by John Banville Roth.
Subject that causes you to rant? The Affordable Care Act. And random mid-block pedestrian crossings. (See? I need to work on Kindness.)
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Self-driving cars.
Biggest 21st-century creep out? I went to get a new driver's license a few months ago and was advised that I had an outstanding speeding ticket from North Carolina, dated 1983, for which remittance was required before I could renew. Understand that I've renewed at least a half-dozen times in the intervening years and it had never arisen. Brace yourself: the states are strapped for cash and there's serious ROI for connecting these legacy databases.
What do you drive? Audi A6.
In your car CD player right now: Pet Sounds Revisited, wherein various contemporary UK alternative artists cover the Beach Boys classic; Corky's Debt to His Father by Mayo Thompson of The Red Krayola; the remastered edition of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless; Spooky Action at a Distance by Lotus Plaza; Enough Thunder by James Blake; and Salon des Amateurs by Hauschka.
Next journey? Excluding business travel (which trips are busman's holidays rather than "journeys"), I'm pondering a week in the Cotswolds this summer.
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I got a speeding ticket in 1983. ;-)
Regret: These are generally unhelpful.
Favorite comfort food: Lamb Rogan Josh and a 500ml Kingfisher.
Always in your refrigerator: 3 or 4 pink grapefruits, and a few ounces of weed. Just kidding–I don't smoke pot. Obviously.
Must-see TV: I watch only college basketball; 30-ish games in 3 months with a perfect ending– it's all you need.
Describe a perfect day. Start with a long bike ride at 6am, brunch with my family on the patio, couple of hours reading by the pool, swimming race vs. my daughter, grill some burgers with a few beers, a nap, and then Elon Musk drops by and asks me to head up on a SpaceX flight with him before dinner.
Walter Mitty fantasy: See above– although my Mitty fantasies are mostly abysmally banal. In general, one can realize one's fantasies with sufficient persistence, but typically in real life they don't deliver the unalloyed emotional kick of the fantasy alone.
Who'd play you in the movie? Hervé Villechaize.
Most embarrassing moment? When I can't remember the name of someone to whom I've been introduced multiple times. Hurry up with the facial-recognition-database-eyeglasses.
Best advice you ever got? Bill Passano, CEO of Williams & Wilkins, said to me in 1992, "If you're going to do a business, you have to do it." He meant: Concept is not sufficient. Execution is essential, and it's hard, and it gets harder as you grow.
Favorite bumper sticker? 186,000 miles per second: It's not just a good idea– it's the law.