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How You Can Become Ma Bell

Karen Kaplan, a freelance writer who covers technology and careers, can reached by e-mail at Karen.Kaplan@latimes.com

AT&T; Corp. Time Warner Inc. Tele-Communications Inc.

You.

Sure, the telecommunications industry is dominated by multibillion-dollar companies whose programs, wires and services boast millions of customers. But there is still plenty of room for upstart entrepreneurs to break into the business, experts say.

“People are going to get enormously rich exploiting this market,” said Edward F. Tuck, a West Covina-based venture capitalist who has helped launch more than half a dozen telecom start-ups. “Telecommunications increases the efficiency of the way we live, and that’s why it’s exploding.”

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Although the technology of telecom may seem frighteningly complicated--and the industry in general may appear equally complex--it’s actually comparatively easy for entrepreneurs to break into the business.

“Telecommunications is one of the most fair markets in the world,” said Doug Lockie, founder of Endgate Corp., a maker of radio processors in Sunnyvale, Calif. “If you build something better, people will buy it.”

Jeff Lawrence can attest to that. He and some friends founded Trillium Digital Systems in 1988 with about $1,000 they had pooled. They began shipping their first software product for networks less than 2 1/2 years later. In 1995, the Brentwood-based firm recorded $10 million in sales.

Telecom start-ups can also benefit from venture capital funding. Investors typically look for companies with the potential to go from zero to $50 million in five to seven years. The speedy rate of development of telecom products makes the industry attractive.

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“Telecommunications goes from the lab to a commercialized product in eight to 10 years,” said Robert Yandrofski, founder of Superconducting Core Technologies in Golden, Colo., a firm that last year began selling hardware to enhance the clarity of cellular phone calls. “That’s much faster than the 40 years of development time that were typical of transistors, lasers” and other earlier generations of technology.

The rapid change in the industry makes it even easier for people with little or no technical background to jump into the fray, said Gary Sutton, who has run a computer supply business and an aerospace company despite holding a bachelor’s degree in the decidedly low-tech field of journalism.

“You will find yourself having to play catch-up and doing extra reading,” he said. “But things are changing so fast that even the techies have a hard time keeping up.”

Plus, as more products are brought to market, nontechnical people such as lawyers and MBAs will be needed to hammer out licensing agreements, marketing strategies and other essential tasks.

All of which means that career opportunities in telecom are not limited to techies with years of experience. The most important prerequisite is having an idea for a desirable product.

“There is an enormous opportunity over the next 10 years,” Tuck said. “If you see an application, I encourage you to take a very hard look at it, because your idea could be as good as anyone else’s.”


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