Dan Ciporin, as chief executive of DealTime.com, runs one of the most popular comparison-shopping sites on the World Wide Web. Ciporin, age 43, discovered his passion for business and corporate management in the most unlikely of places -- a refugee camp in Thailand where he rebuilt and ran the education system for Cambodian refugee children who had fled genocide by the Khmer Rouge.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1980, Ciporin worked as a summer volunteer teaching English in the Sa Kaeo camp, home to 35,000 Cambodian refugees, as part of a program sponsored by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and partly funded by the United Nations. Ciporin had planned to
return to a job trading commodities in Philadelphia, but instead accepted an offer from the IRC to stay on and run all the schools in the camp. He worked in Sa Kaeo for two years and then traveled around Asia for a year before returning to the United States to study for his MBA at Yale University.
Ciporin told Aish.com:
What I wanted to do with my life was organize people toward common goals.
"Thailand was one of the formative experiences of my life. I was 21 years old and flying by the seat of my pants. I was essentially the chairman of the board of education for this town of 35,000 people. I had 600 people working for me and my job was to try and rebuild the educational system in the refugee camp after the Khmer Rouge had destroyed all the schools, and systematically slaughtered anyone with more than a junior high school education.”
Ciporin says that this "life-shaping experience" is what led him to a management career.
"I didn't plan to go into business at all, and one of the things that struck me in Cambodia was the realization that what I wanted to do with my life was to organize people toward common goals. And business school seemed like the logical next step.”
Indeed, now more than ever, Ciporin is able to put those management skills to great use. He is trying to lead DealTime's 150 employees worldwide toward the common goal of turning the 4-year-old Internet company profitable, in the face of a struggling global economy and an extremely battered Internet sector.
Ciporin may be well on his way to achieving that goal. Internet tracking service netScore currently lists Dealtime as the most popular online comparison-shopping service worldwide with about 7.5 million unique visitors per month. Dealtime just surpassed chief rival Bizrate to grab the number one global spot in September and was less than 100,000 visitors shy of beating Bizrate in the U.S. market last month. And over just the past several weeks, Dealtime has acquired two popular shopping sites from internet portals Alta Vista and Terra Lycos that are expected to significantly boost its internet traffic even further.
Dealtime, which allows Internet users to search the Web for the best prices on products and services they wish to purchase, is currently ranked by netScore as the 12th most popular Internet shopping site and the 175th most frequently visited site among all English-language sites on the World Wide Web. With proprietary technology developed in Israel, DealTime is able to search thousands of online merchants in minutes and provide consumers with the added bonus of expert sales advice.
Under Ciporin's leadership, DealTime has made many other great strides toward the company's goal of profitability. It has secured major investors like AOL/Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Bank of America and Singapore Telecom. The company has also developed new revenue sources by powering the back end, or the underlying technology, of many of the Internet's most popular shopping sites, including America Online and iWon. DealTime also powers the wireless shopping for ATT, Sprint and Nextel, supplying a portable version of its comparison-shopping service that is tailored for the Web browsers built into many mobile phones.
DealTime had filed for a $50 million public offering in March 2000, just days before Internet stocks began their precipitous decline. DealTime had to postpone the IPO, but is still hoping to go public in the not-too-distant future.
Ciporin says DealTime is trying to gradually grow its business so it is well placed to succeed when the economy turns around. He says DealTime is "well on the path to profitability", but like most Internet companies is still deeply in the red. DealTime's sales were about $6.7 million last year, while its losses grew to about $47 million.
Has the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and its negative effect on the economy has had any impact on DealTime?
"I come to work in the morning knowing that 6,000 people got slaughtered a few miles down the road by these vermin."
"It is absolutely harder. I come to work in the morning knowing that 6,000 people got slaughtered a few miles down the road by these vermin. Economically, it's a very fearful time right now. There was a very marked slowdown in DealTime business immediately after the attack, but it has since come back to levels before the bombing. One analyst says Internet shopping will benefit because people will be afraid to go to shopping malls. I don't know if this is true or not. But I am surprised that business has rebounded so quickly.”
Ciporin joined DealTime, an Israeli company with headquarters in New York, in 1999, leaving behind what he calls a "great career” at MasterCard. During his eight years at MasterCard, he helped put together the first co-branded credit card with ATT, and not long afterward was promoted to senior vice president of global debit products.
Ciporin said that while he was working for MasterCard, he received phone calls from numerous headhunters trying to recruit him for management positions with Internet startups, but he was waiting for the right opportunity. "A lot of these calls made no sense to me. They just slapped ‘dot.com' on the end and called it a business. Then I got a call from a headhunter about DealTime, and the whole concept hit me like a ton of bricks."
A lot of this made no sense. They slapped 'dot.com' on the end and called it a business.
Although there is a part of him that misses the security of a well-established company like MasterCard, Ciporin says he has no regrets about leaving.
"The Internet is in essence another industrial revolution. It certainly will have the same impact in terms of an economic event in our lifetimes," he says.
"With DealTime, I can experience the adrenalin rush that comes with always being on the edge. I am creating a brand new business, implementing a brand new business model in a brand new medium. It's a tightrope out there as far as the markets are concerned. You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit and be willing to take risks. But with risks, come rewards."
THE JEWISH ANGLE
Ciporin, married six years with two young children, says one of the toughest aspects of his work at DealTime is the long hours spent away from his family.
"I try to get home at a reasonable hour, so I can at least see my kids before they go to bed or give them a hug and kiss when they're in bed. The older my son gets, the more he wants to spend time with me.”
How does Ciporin balance the profitability/ethical dynamic?
"Lots of tough decisions get made every day. Many short-term things are easy to do, but you wouldn't feel good looking at yourself in the mirror in the morning. Whatever I do, I try to ask: 5, 10, 20 years from now, will I look back on this and feel good about what I did? Whether it's with family, work, or in a social or community context, I think if you are a trusting, courageous individual with integrity and ethics, you have to operate that way.”
Years from now, will I look back on this and feel good about what I did?
A Reform Jew, Ciporin says that while being Jewish did not help or hinder him at other jobs, it has made his work easier at DealTime, a company founded by two Israelis that employs numerous observant Jews. At DealTime, Ciporin has been exposed to Orthodox Judaism for the first time in his life and is currently learning about Judaism with an Orthodox rabbi.
"Being Jewish for me has always been something like being Italian -- more of a nationality than a religion. I think that is changing a little." I used to look at the Bible as kind of a cultural myth, more parable than reality. Now some things are much more real in terms of factual reality than perhaps I might have believed before. I am still on the journey.”
"One misconception I had is that living all of God's laws would somehow straightjacket you into not being very fun, carefree, or spontaneous -- but rather someone who is always single-minded in conversations and burdened with restrictions that would make it difficult to interact socially in a way that felt comfortable. In conversations, friendships and discussions with my observant colleagues, I've found I had a very inaccurate assumption.”
Ciporin says that back in the Sa Kaeo refugee camp in Thailand, he became interested in Buddhism, the local religion. "The worst thing that wrenched my heart was that according to the Buddhist doctrine of karma, whatever you did in your previous life, you paid for in your next life. So there was a certain sadness amongst the Cambodians in terms of what they did to deserve this kind of collective suffering."
Ciporin describes the refugee camps as "sort of a Holocaust scenario" following the slaughter of about 3 million people by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
"What made the experience even more incredible was that the Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge into Thailand, so the Khmer Rouge fled Cambodia along with the refugees. The army pushed out both the Khmer Rouge and the people. So they were all together in this camp and it was a situation similar to one in which Nazis and Jews would be together. You had some very ugly incidents in which refugees thought they recognized former soldiers from the Khmer Rouge who killed their relatives."
While Ciporin has enjoyed a great deal of success throughout his career, it is clear that in many ways, the success he cherishes most is that which he achieved at Sa Kaeo.
My new year's resolution is to set aside time for community and general philanthropic activity.
"It was a privilege to set up the education system in Sa Kaeo, because I felt like I made a genuine difference. And I could see the effects every day."
Ciporin's experience in Cambodia instilled the value of helping those in need. How has this ethic found expression in his busy life today?
"Unfortunately, I'm not nearly as involved as I'd like to be. It's very difficult to find the time. I give money; that tends to be the easy way out. At this point my new year's resolution is that after this holiday season, a very crucial one for us, I will set aside time for community and general philanthropic activity. Because you can't put parts of your life on hold forever.”
Asked what advice he would give someone starting out in his field, Ciporin said, "Work hard and be focused. Keep your eye on where you want to be in the next five years, and then work backwards from there."