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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Sky Dayton, 32

Earthlink Network

In 1994, Sky Dayton wanted to connect to the Internet, just then emerging as a nugget of ground truth from the fog of hype about an "information superhighway." Dayton toiled nearly 80 hours configuring his computer for Net access--a numbingly complicated chore.

Intent on simplifying this task, he founded Earthlink Network--now one of the nation’s top five Internet service providers (ISPs), with more than 1.3 million subscribers. Attribute that success to Dayton’s near-religious commitment to the user’s experience: from spending heavily on customer service to innovations such as introducing the $19.95 monthly flat rate for unlimited surfing. That change came in November 1995, when most ISPs were still clinging to the notion of hourly fees.

Dayton--a high-school graduate who started up a West Hollywood, Calif., coffeehouse before getting into the Internet business--believes the Internet is the next great mass medium, replacing television. While that’s no mental stretch, getting the masses connected is: Only one in five Americans now has Internet access. Earthlink is working to connect the rest, and Dayton remains chairman of the Pasadena, Calif.-based company. Meanwhile, he is looking to play a new role in the Internet’s growth through eCompanies, a Santa Monica, Calif., incubator for Web startups that he launched over the summer with executives from Disney.

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