Jesse Lipson '00 and Brooks Bell '02

Designs on business

Jesse Lipson '00 and Brooks Bell '02

 Photo: Elizabeth Galecke

As a boy in Baltimore, Jesse Lipson '00 seemed destined to be an entrepreneur. Among other projects, he invented magic tricks and started a company to sell them to magic stores. "I had fun and made a little money," he says. "I just liked doing it."

Across the continent in Alaska, Brooks Bell '02 nurtured dreams of tapping her creative talents as a graphic designer. "It was my entire identity growing up," she says.

Duke nudged them in other directions--not so much off course as toward wider-ranging interests. Lipson majored in philosophy, expecting to head to graduate school and prepare for a career in academe or consulting, or perhaps go to law school. Bell, when faced with the choice between a design school with its relatively narrow curriculum and the cornucopia of courses at a liberal-arts institution, had chosen Duke. She majored in psychology.

By graduation, they were both turning back toward those childhood dreams. Lipson finished a semester early, in time to catch the end of the high-tech bubble of the Nineties. He took a job with an Internet startup, working on ways to help companies add their branding to e-mail communications. But the staff was small enough that he also tried his hand at Web design. Soon, he had freelance jobs updating websites and generating online graphics.

Meanwhile, at Duke, Bell signed up for an elective in graphic design, which reawakened her interest in that field. For a course project, she and Lipson designed a Christmas present for her mother--a website for her orthodontics training company. "She loved it, and said I should start a business doing it," Bell recalls.

By the time Bell graduated, also a semester early, Lipson had left the startup for his own ventures. His father, a pharmacist and professor of pharmacy, had died unexpectedly in May 2001, leaving a small consulting business that sampled the effectiveness of pharmaceutical companies' advertising materials.

Lipson took over the operation, later selling 65 percent to a group that agreed to run it. The company was sold in 2005 for $5.5 million, of which he and his sister split 45 percent.

Lipson met Brooks during her freshman year at the bonfire celebrations after a Duke-UNC basketball game, and they quickly grew close. These days, they are partners in business and in life, running three Web-based companies from trendy office space in downtown Raleigh and looking toward marriage in August.

Lipson is deep into computer programming, designing software products to automate and standardize business processes through his company, novel labs. Formerly the research arm of novelProjects, his website design, maintenance, and servicing company, novel labs was spun off into a separate company in 2004. Bell presides over Brooks Bell Interactive, a performance-oriented online-marketing firm that creates advertising and other online media for national clients.

Looking back over his ventures since leaving Duke, and toward the future, Lipson says he suspects he'll qualify as a "serial entrepreneur," one who creates a company, grows it, sells it, and moves on to a new project.

Once a year, he returns to Duke to speak to aspiring entrepreneurs. His favorite advice: Why wait? Freshman year is the perfect time to start a business, he says. "You have access to professors and other smart people, and you don't need to make money."

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