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Tripod founder promotes "Silicon Village"

Bo Peabody teams up with a college buddy and one of his professors to fund a nest of Web start-ups emanating out of rural Williamstown, Massachusetts.

First there was Silicon Valley. Then came Silicon Alley. And now, Silicon Village?

That is the vision, at least, of Tripod founder and Lycos executive Bo Peabody. Peabody has teamed up with Williams College buddy Matt Harris and former economics professor and current Lycos board member Richard Sabot to fund a nest of Web start-ups emanating from rural Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The trio hopes to transform this quaint western Massachusetts town into a new hub for Web media.

"The Web makes location less important," said Harris, managing director of The Berkshires Capital Investors, a venture capital firm in Williamstown. "Out in western Mass, there are lots of smart people, an incredibly low cost of living, and a lot of talented employees coming out of Tripod."

Silicon Village would follow a number of other technology hot spots that have sprouted up outside California. New York's Silicon Alley, Virginia's Silicon Dominion, and the Boston area's Route 128 corridor have all risen to prominence, though none approaches the status of the now-fabled Santa Clara Valley just south of San Francisco.

Continuing that trend is the phenomenal growth of the Internet, which has taken its place alongside semiconductors and mini-computers as a key to economic and technological growth worldwide. Moreover, it is the Web--and its unique invitation for telecommuting--that makes smaller, even rural, areas like Williamstown major hubs of business.

Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains, Williamstown has a population of 8,364--about 2,000 of whom are Williams College students. It's three hours away from the nearest international airport.

Harris, who worked for three years with Bain in Boston after graduating in 1994, was tapped by three Williams alumni to develop Berkshires Capital's Internet portfolio. Soon after joining, Harris's firm invested $350,000 in a project that college friend Bo Peabody had been developing even while at school.

That project was Tripod, which has since become one of the largest communities of personal home pages on the Web. In February, 1998, Lycos acquired Tripod for $58 million in stock. Berkshires Capital's investment has since increased fivefold, according to Harris.

To date, Berkshires Capital has invested in 11 Williamstown Web start-ups, including Tripod; Cambridge Intelligence Agency, a Web customer service firm;, an email events service; and Employease, an employment management service.

Harris says the most compelling reason to set up shop in the area is simple: It's cheap. Office space is priced at a fraction of what it is in other areas, and the cost of living is low. For example, Tripod pays $2.50 per square foot per year. That's 5 percent of what parent company Lycos pays in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Harris said.

As with anything, however, there are trade-offs. Rural Massachusetts isn't for everyone, especially those seeking life in the big city or winters without snow.

Business executives admit that a good 50 percent of their job candidates are turned off by Williamstown. Most opt for life in Boston or New York.

Those who accept positions usually want to make a change from the fast pace of city life. As a result, the ones who take the plunge end up staying for a long time and remain loyal to their company.

"You keep people up there, which is different than New York," said Barbara Johnson,'s chief executive, who has just opened a New York office.

Such attractive features have created business in rural areas in other parts of the country as well. Loudoun County, Virginia, is booming thanks to the presence of America Online, Network Solutions, and PSINet. Christine Harrington was one who decided to try her hand in the country, in Williamstown. Having accepted a position as executive editor for after a dozen years in Washington, the Williams grad is moving back to the "Purple Valley."

Harrington says she decided to move to Williamstown mainly for an opportunity to work on the Web. But she also was ready for a quieter lifestyle.

"I had to find a place that had meaningful work and be surrounded by beauty," Harrington said. "And there's no traffic."