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Dave Baggett

Alumnus Dave Baggett, co-creator of Crash Bandicoot, sets out to make e-mail "smart."

By Jackie Zakrewsky
Photo by Jared Goralnick

Imagine unleashing your creativity to create the next hot video game. Then follow that up with a startup that turns any web surfer into a savvy airfare shopper and nets you and your partners a cool $700 million when you sell your company to Google.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the career highlights of Dave Baggett, the 2009 Distinguished Alumnus of the College of Arts and Humanities. Now as the founder and president of Arcode, based in Bethesda, Md., Baggett has set his sights on a new challenge—to make e-mail “smart”—undeterred that e-mail is “not sexy or interesting” for most startup people.

“It’s been sort of the forgotten stepchild of the Internet,” said Baggett, a 1992 magna cum laude graduate who double majored in linguistics and computer science. “Nobody invests in it anymore. People view it as pretty much ‘done.’

Except at Arcode—where Baggett places a premium on creative thinking. “Are they kind of predisposed to think broadly about things and creatively?” he wants to know of potential employees. “Can they imagine the world being very different than the way it is now?”

As an employer, he said, “the most difficult to find skill … is creativity, honest-to-God creativity. … That’s the golden skill … and it’s very rare, shockingly rare.” That’s one reason why he believes everyone should be taking some arts and humanities courses, regardless of their main field of study, because “you’re forced to make these connections that lead to creativity.”

Half of Arcode’s six full-time employees are Maryland grads, each of whom has an arts and humanities background: Baggett, in linguistics; his former college roommate Bryan Buck ’92, whose Maryland degrees include a B.A. in East Asian languages and literature along with a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in computer science; and web designer and Art Department alumnus Charlie Pinnix '11, whom Baggett hired immediately upon graduation last May.

 “I’ve always been creative,” Baggett said. “It’s not so much company versus painting or company versus novel. It’s that desire to create something that compels you. I was always into writing, so you can see that as kind of a proxy for this general creative spark. I think creating companies is just one manifestation of that creative spark.”

The idea for his latest venture had its genesis in long-standing jokes with his tech-savvy colleagues about the need for a better e-mail client. “We thought, well, in the future there’s going to be some mail client called Über Mail, where it’s going to understand what your messages are about, help you organize them, and help you deal with all these messages and show you the stuff that matters and kind of let the stuff that doesn’t matter sink to the bottom”—which, in effect, describes the aim of Arcode.

Baggett expects his new company will deliver its product, known as “Inky,” directly to consumers through later this year. However, he is more committed to getting it right than meeting an arbitrary release date. “It’s one reason why we haven’t released it yet, because it’s not there yet. We’re kind of getting close, but we’re still redoing the way the messages appear in what we call the preview pane,” he said. “It’s just not quite right.”

Baggett’s passion for Inky encompasses all aspects of the business, including marketing and branding of the product. “Creating the look and feel, that’s just as integral to the process as the coding,” he said, “and so if you outsource that, you’re kind of outsourcing what should be a core competency. … We’ve invested a lot of effort in trying to think through the messages we want to convey to consumers and trying to design a character and a name that conveys some of that.”

The public face of Inky is a “somewhat cute” character, said Baggett, to reinforce the message that the product will offer users a “smart, simple, and safe” way to manage their e-mail accounts.

On the business side, Arcode’s work has “the two ingredients,” Baggett said. “It has the ingredients of potentially billions of users—billions with a B—which most things don’t. And it has the defensibility property, which makes it worth trying to do as a startup.”

One way to “build defensibility in a startup is to do something that’s very hard and, therefore, even larger companies that have lots more resources than you will not easily be able to clone what you do,” he said, “and making e-mail smart has a lot of that character.”

Baggett’s business success came by way of a detour. En route to earning a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT, Baggett picked up a master’s degree but was lured away from his studies in computational phonology to join Naughty Dog in 1995. “I kind of describe it as running away to join the circus,” he said. “I had always wanted to write games ‘for real.’ I had always done them kind of as an amateur.” At Naughty Dog, Baggett worked on the hit Crash Bandicoot series, an adventure game that took computer-based graphics to a new level and enabled Sony to gain traction quickly in the video game console market.

Next came ITA software, which he founded with fellow MIT grads in Cambridge, Mass., in 1998. The startup took on a seemingly intractable computing challenge in the travel industry, then relying on expensive, inefficient mainframe computers to retrieve flight information, and came up with the now widely imitated matrix that quickly displays search results by airline, flight, and price. ITA clients include travel commerce sites such as Orbitz and Kayak and airlines ranging from Southwest to Virgin Atlantic.

Several years before Google acquired ITA in 2011, Baggett had moved back to Maryland with his wife, Catherine Young ’89, and their two children, and cut back on his involvement with ITA, where he had served as COO. By 2008, “I started thinking very seriously about what to do next,” he said. Arcode took shape.

Despite the demands of running a startup, Baggett takes time to give back to his alma mater. He supports the Baggett Fellows and Scholars programs in the Linguistics Department in the College of Arts and Humanities. He also serves as the College’s representative on the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees. “They’re going to kick me off at some point and I’m going to be very disappointed,” he said with a laugh.

In the meantime, not settling for the status quo remains paramount for Baggett: “How about if we move this button over there? ‘Well, that’s weird. That’s not how it’s been done before.’ Yeah, but here’s what’s good about that. How about if we just got rid of that control?”

It’s the sort of thinking Baggett expects of himself and his employees. “I think the idea that [the arts and humanities] are optional or somehow superfluous is completely ridiculous,” he said.