Question: As a kid, what career did you want to pursue? Was it tech oriented?
Answer: I was absolutely clueless, really. I had no idea what jobs you could do, other than the obvious: doctor, teacher, those kinds of jobs. I studied international politics, and I was always very interested in the world and foreign affairs and travel, so I thought for a while something in the area of diplomacy would be interesting. But I don't work so well within rigid, disciplined structures, so working in the government probably wasn't the best for me. And after 10 years in traditional British hierarchical institutions I decided I probably wasn't going to go down the traditional British path. I very much needed to get out.
Q: What was it like growing up in England?
A: I lived quite a country life. My father worked at a private school and we lived on the grounds of the school, which was basically like a country estate. It had woods and streams and a river and big grounds, I don't know how many acres. It was a very outdoor lifestyle; I basically spent my childhood digging holes in the ground and getting muddy. It was a lot of fun.
Q: What did your father teach?
A: French and German. My mother taught German to adults. They were very good at languages.
Q: Do you speak any languages?
A: (Laughs.) I speak German, badly. I just don't have a good ear for it.
Q: Why did you decide to come to the States?
A: I'd always had a big interest in the States because I have relatives here, in San Diego and San Francisco. The first time I came to the States was when one of my cousins got married, and the wedding invite was awesome. The directions were: Take the Golden Gate Bridge, take the first exit, turn right. And I thought, "Well, jeez, I've got to go to that wedding." So my wife and I came here and decided not to leave. It's a beautiful place from an outdoors perspective, and I like the people. Plus, it's a lot cheaper, the pound versus the dollar. Though the American lifestyle makes you a little lazy.
Q: How so?
A: Well, the first few years we lived here, for example, we didn't have a dryer because in England you dry your clothing by hanging it up on a washing line. And we thought it makes even more sense here, because it's really hot. It wasn't for like five or six years that we got a dryer. But now we probably couldn't live without one. And we still don't have a TV.
Q: Really? You're an ad guy and no TV?
A: We have an actual screen that we watch movies on, but I hate American TV. I hate the ads. There are too many of them. (Laughs.) And I know this is a bit ironic coming from a guy in advertising. But I find the ads really intrusive, they come too often and they're really dumb.
Q: You could get TiVo and skip the ads.
A: We did get TV for a month, and it was terrible. We weren't missing anything. I use the radio, the Internet, read a lot of magazines and books.
Q: So let's talk about OpenX. Describe it.
A: It's the largest independent ad server in the world. So if you have a Web site, you install the software and it helps you configure the ads that run on the site and then manage the flow of ads as they come in.
Q: Can you be more specific?
A: Think of it as three parts. On the one hand you have you and your site. On the other hand you have all the guys who are buying your ads. In the middle, the ad server links the two. Our software is used by well north of 100,000 Web sites, and it handles more than a quarter-trillion ads a month.
Q: How did you get involved in this line of work?
A: Kind of luck. A guy I'd worked with at Boston Consulting Group in London, Talmadge O'Neill, we got to know each other very well because we worked on a project in Israel for El Al Airlines. When he came back to the U.S., he started at GoTo.com, and I had just finished business school at Stanford. Talmadge said, "Why don't you come down to L.A. and intern with us for a while?" That's how I started. I never thought of myself as a guy who'd get into advertising, but what I realized was that advertising is a way that fuels the growth of companies.
Q: How's that?
A: This little company, GoTo, had come up with a way to help really small companies find their voice on this new medium, the Web. And that's been the thread I've been following since then, which is how do you create these marketplaces that enable companies to speak to consumers on their own terms and grow from a tiny, one-person company to a large one that creates a lot of jobs and value.
Q: So you're fascinated about how it can help small businesses?
A: Yes. And I'm interested in how do you make the way they communicate to consumers useful to the consumer? The kind of advertising I don't like are those phone calls you get in the evening about something you've expressed no interest in, and they're calling at a really inopportune time, usually when you're trying to put the kids in the bath. That's really intrusive. What I loved about search is it's someone who's expressing an interest at that point in time in a particular thing, whether it's a new rain jacket or a white board or a flight. That's awesome.
Q: What were the challenges at Overture as it pioneered the paid search model?
A: There were quite a lot. It's funny because a lot of good ideas look obvious in hindsight. But then, people thought putting money in search was just a heretical idea. It was like blending editorial with advertising in journalism. There was a lot of industry resistance, and a lot of the major portals at that time were really against the idea. Of course, now it drives most of the Internet economy.
Q: How did you overcome that resistance?
A: A lot of that was my job. I just spent a lot of time with people. I flew to Dulles or Redmond or wherever it was multiple, multiple times, and spent a lot of time talking through how it worked, what we did, how people advertised, how we put in protections to try to make sure people got the relevant listings.
Q: How did you end up at Yahoo?
A: Yahoo and Overture were partners, and I went over there prior to Yahoo buying Overture. Paid search was becoming a huge source of revenue for Yahoo and I made the decision around Christmas of 2002 to join.
Q: Why did you leave Yahoo to go to a startup?
A: I was just ready for a change. You go through these cycles. I felt like I'd had a good experience at a larger company, leading a big team, dealing with lots of money and all that kind of stuff. I was definitely still learning, but I felt I was learning at a slower rate than if I went back to a startup.
Q: What have been the challenges moving to a smaller company?
A: Actually, operationally it's been a lot easier. Existentially it's a lot harder. We're trying to work out how we create a business here. There are more fundamental questions. But that's exactly what I was looking for, getting back to the roots of how you build a business from very little, rather than how do you optimize a business from very much. They're just different challenges.
Q: Have you had any role models that have helped you on your way?
A: I knew you were going to ask that. That's the toughest question. I've never really had heroes. But I did always like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think it's really interesting that someone like that could go through life and make it all happen just with his energy and effort and intelligence and sheer force of will. He came to America with nothing.
Q: It's interesting you look at it that way because I remember when he was first elected governor, a lot of people treated it like a joke.
A: Right. And when he became a movie actor, people thought it was absolutely preposterous. Him becoming a governor was considered preposterous. And he just plows through it all with this incredible force of will and this sort of optimism.
Q: Let's talk about your globetrotting. I understand you just returned from a trip to Nicaragua. How was it?
A: Great. We spent about 10 days at an eco-lodge near San Juan del Sur. It was very chill, a very cool place. It's got little cabins that are built on stilts in the trees. We spent a lot of time in the rain forest, looking for bugs and monkeys. On our drive back to the city, we stopped at a live volcano. I'm sure they would never let you do this in the U.S., but you can drive right up to the edge. There's smoke pouring out of this thing. We didn't spend very long there. (Laughs). Our daughters were thrilled.
Q: Why do you travel so often?
A: I always try to go to at least one new country a year. I guess the motivation is to experience new things, to see different climates, landscapes, different people, different food. Actually, the different food is a big part of it.
Q: What's the strangest thing you've eaten?
A: It's actually a drink. After I graduated from Stanford, my wife and I were in Central Asia, in this remote part of Kyrgyzstan, where they drink what's called kumis, which is fermented horse's milk. It's like liquid Gorgonzola. It definitely inspires the gag reflex.
Q: Then why did you drink it?
A: You have to. In a lot of countries, the sharing of food is a very important act. It's how they welcome strangers and show hospitality, so you try to eat what you're given. They top kumis off with fat, generally. It's the most prized thing because it has the most calorific density. So they give you this piece of meat, and it's just white, pure fat.
Q: Was Kyrgyzstan your favorite place to visit?
A: Yes, though my wife and I liked Pakistan a lot. The mountains are unbelievable, the people are very friendly and it's just a wild place. The roads are some of the scariest I can ever imagine. I went there in 1998, when they first tried to kill Osama bin Laden with cruise missiles. One day we're in this town, and there's a lot of noise, a lot of people in the street. They told all Americans to leave, and we just said, "Well, we're not Americans. We're fine. We're Scottish." (Laughs) By the way, I'd only recommend visiting these places to people who like the outdoors and roughing it.
Q: Not a lot of five star hotels in Kyrgyzstan?
Title: Chief Executive
Company: OpenX Technologies Inc.
Born: 1970; Poole, England
Education: B.S., London School of Economics; master's, Oxford University; M.B.A., Stanford University
Career Turning Point: Joining GoTo.com in 1998 and playing a part in pioneering search marketing
Most Influential People: Arnold Schwarzenegger; Sir Isaiah Berlin, an intellectual historian at Oxford
Personal: Lives in Altadena with his wife and two children
Hobbies: Adventure travel, hiking, trail running
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