LEADING QUESTIONS: Inside the mind of Scott Jones

Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses and civic leaders to talk shop about their latest projects and the decisions that lead to success.

Scott Jones, 50, has achieved a legendary status among Indiana entrepreneurs, thanks to several game-changing technological advances that one can legitimately claim have changed the way people work and play.

At 25, he co-founded the firm Boston Technology Inc., where he invented a version of voice mail now said to be in use by some 2 billion people worldwide. In 1996, he co-founded Escient LLC, which sought to merge the Internet, digital data and devices to ease access to entertainment and information. That led to Gracenote, one of the first companies to develop music recognition software now at the heart of digital music products. Currently, he’s CEO of ChaCha Search Inc., an online-and-mobile search service that allows users to call in or text questions to live attendants (or a well-stocked database of related queries) in order to get a direct answer.

A graduate of North Central High School, Jones focused on math and physics at Indiana University in Bloomington and graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s of science degree and a major in computer science.  He was faced with a crucial decision: whether to take a lucrative gig as a programmer or accept a pittance working at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the video at top, Jones discusses his decision and how that led to his breakthrough with voice mail. He also reveals a formative experience at his first high school in Louisville, Ky., where at a towering 6-foot-5 he overcame his essential nerdiness and played center on the basketball team.

As a youngster, Jones was a poster child for precociousness. As one frequently told family story goes, he completely disassembled his mother’s IBM Selectric typewriter to figure out how it worked, and then reassembled it with such care that it still operated properly. He also had a keen interest in entrepreneurial pursuits, staging haunted houses in his basement and constructing miniature golf courses in his backyard.

He also would mount lemonade stands on a whim, which he now realizes taught him early lessons in investment, production and marketing. Through his foundation Think Forward, Jones in 2010 spearheaded the Indianapolis debut of Lemonade Day, a nationwide event that encourages children to set up their own stands and consider issues such as planning, budgeting and customer service. In the video below, Jones details the results from the local event, which inspired more than 7,400 one-day beverage businesses.

Jones maintains a file cabinet of thousands of ideas at his home in Carmel, but the biggest of them all came early in his career as he struggled to create a version of then-fledgling voice mail technology that could be expanded to a city- or region-wide scale. In the video below, Jones details the outside-the-box solution he dreamed up, as well as the fortuitous discovery of a key piece of technology in another entrepreneur’s garage.

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