His name might not be as well-known as Mark Zuckerberg’s, but David Bohnett laid much of the groundwork for today’s social media revolution. From his days as a young ham radio enthusiast in Chicago’s suburbs, Bohnett was always fascinated by technology’s role in connecting people, and he was one of the first to recognize the potential of the Internet. In 1994, he founded Geocities, a website that allowed users to create their own pages and meet people with similar interests – a decade before Facebook. After five years, when Bohnett’s site was one of the most popular on the Internet, he sold the company to Yahoo Inc., netting a nine-figure payday. He has used the money to start his own venture capital firm, which has backed a number of Silicon Beach stars, and to support political and social causes such as gay rights. A youthful 56, Bohnett now spends his days running from one engagement to the next, meeting with high-powered politicians, renowned artists and tech wunderkinds. He recently sat down with the Business Journal at his impeccably designed Beverly Hills office to discuss the rise and fall of Geocities, why he spends so much time on philanthropic work and how he once raced golf carts with Gustavo Dudamel at a party while Frank Gehry and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looked on.
Question: How did you manage to get into computers before they became so ubiquitous?
Answer: I was one of the fortunate ones – and this was similar to Bill Gates – my high school had a computer programming course in the basic programming language. We had a time-share terminal, teletype terminal where you would load your programs in on a punch paper tape and then run it back through the terminal on a time share. I was absolutely fascinated by it.
So you took to it right away?
I had always been interested in mechanical things, electronic things. I was an amateur radio operator in high school, which was really a precursor to everything that came later with the Internet and online services. I was always interested in the intersection of technology and communication, technology and connecting with other people.
Did you study computer science in college?
I initially started studying computer science, but at that point the computer science degree was a subset of a math major. I wasn’t interested so much in math theory behind computers; I was interested in the business applications for computer science. Although I took a number of computer programming courses, I then switched to business.
How did you end up back in the computer world?
I had a series of jobs in both finance and in the software business. A friend of mine had started a software company in the San Fernando Valley called Essential Software. That job was seminal for me because I had hands-on experience across a variety of functions: managing programmers, at one point I was the CFO and at one point I became product manager. I had marketing, operations and finance experience within that small growing company.
How did Geocities get its start?
Along the way, I was fascinated by the PC and online services. Shortly after the PC was introduced, modems came out and with modems you could then connect PCs to the rest of the world, pre-Internet. I had to be part of it, and I really wanted to be involved from the beginning. I knew from all my experience that people wanted to connect to other people. They had something to say about themselves or what their interests were. That was how Geocities got started.
What was the idea behind it?
The idea was to create communities of interest where people could set up their own free websites, talk about what was interesting to them and meet other people.
Sounds a lot like a social network.
It was a social network, and it was pre-Facebook and pre-Myspace. But it was post-online service, postlistservs. So there’s a whole continuum of user-generated content and social networks, and Geocities was part of that continuing evolution of the social networking phenomenon.
Why isn’t Geocities now a giant like Facebook?
The history of transformative innovations like the Internet and television and radio is about continuing the investment to keep up with the advances in the technology. As the innovation evolves, the applications within the innovation, like Geocities, either evolve or they die. There’s this opportunity for people to come in with fresh ideas and topple giants, so to speak, and that’s pretty common. Geocities fell to the rapid pace of innovation on the Internet.
It’s a cycle.
Before Facebook there was Myspace, which was huge, and before there was Myspace there was Friendster, which was huge. The potential was there (for Geocities), but it’s a fairly common scenario that startups come in and seize the day.
How did you feel when Geocities was shut down a few years ago?
It had its time. I feel like we had a place in the evolution of social networking and I’m pleased that we were a big part of it. And as there wasn’t investment in keeping it going, it was time to move on.
You weren’t involved with the company for very long.
I started the company in 1994, we went public in 1998 and we sold to Yahoo in 1999. That was a period of tremendous growth on the Internet.
You reportedly made almost $300 million off the sale. Not a bad payday.
I had a decent percentage when the company was sold. I was very fortunate – the timing was terrific for me and everyone else that worked for Geocities at the time.
Why did you begin investing in startups rather than founding another company?
You don’t want to try to re-create your former success – I’m mindful of that. I thought I had, and I do have, a lot to contribute from my experience to entrepreneurs going forward. Rather than build another company, I get a lot of satisfaction working with entrepreneurs to help them build their companies. While I was still active with Geocities, I started to invest in other startups (such as) Stamps.com and NetZero. I could have my hand in three or four different companies at the same time.
With the growth of Silicon Beach, this is the place to be.
I think there’s a tremendous amount of traction in Los Angeles. It’s the real deal. You’re seeing more investment coming in. You’re seeing entrepreneurs choosing to stay in Los Angeles versus moving up to Silicon Valley. I think Los Angeles still has that sense of embracing creativity and opportunity in ways that have advantages versus other places.
Did you do anything else with money from the sale?
I started the David Bohnett Foundation in 1999. I set up four or five key program areas for investment from the foundation, all around the broad mission of improving society through social activism and social justice investment.
Why is that so important to you?
My parents were very active in community service and that was something that I was exposed to at an early age. My father was active in the local chamber of commerce. My mother was active with a social service agency called the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society. My grandparents were very active in their community support. It just was part of my growing up, going to community events.
What does your foundation focus on?
One is gay and lesbian community services programs.
How did you get into that?
My activism started at the University of Michigan, when I was studying for my M.B.A. I had a work study grant from the university and I had to pick a job that was part of an approved university work study grant. There was a gay and lesbian student counseling center at Michigan – one of the very first gay and lesbian student centers in the country. I became a volunteer in the counseling program, doing hotline counseling for students who were coming out.
When did you come out?
In college, in the late ’70s.
Was it difficult to do it at that time?
Much more difficult than it is today. Even today it’s still a challenge. But I felt that it was important for me to be genuine to who I am and that’s why I came out.
Was your family supportive?
I was fortunate. My family has always been very supportive.
Are you surprised at the pace of change in the gay rights movement over the past few years?
Yes. To get to where we are today, I thought we’d get there but I didn’t think we would get there this fast. For many people, myself included, it’s not fast enough, but, relatively, the pace of change has increased dramatically in the last five to seven years.
What else does the foundation focus on?
There’s an area of funding and investment around the cultural arts. My objective is to ensure that the arts are as open and as accessible to as many people in our community as possible, particularly underserved populations. So, my effort at the L.A. Philharmonic, my effort through LACMA are about programming and initiatives that help broaden the outreach of those institutions to underserved populations.
Are you a big art collector?
I am. I like modern and contemporary art. There are certain artists that work on the intersection between art and technology. I am passionate about that because that covers a broad spectrum of interests for me.
You’re now chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Do you hang out with Gustavo Dudamel, the star music director?
When we go on tour, it’s all social, so you’ll see him at dinners and after concerts. He’s got a young family now, and I don’t necessarily see him for breakfast and lunch, but I’ll see him for L.A. Phil things.
Is he as energetic as he seems?
He’s very engaging and very personable and very self-effacing.
How involved were you in convincing him to come to Los Angeles?
I was part of a small group of people that helped recruit him. But it was really Deborah Borda and Esa-Pekka Salonen who took the lead. Esa-Pekka is the former music director; Deborah Borda is the president-CEO. I think one of the key things – and I was involved in this as a board member and subsequently board chairman – is we made the decision to make a significant investment in our youth orchestra programs before we secured a commitment from Gustavo to come here.
You also hosted a pivotal dinner at your home for him.
We had a dinner in 2007 with Frank Gehry and John Williams and Esa-Pekka and the mayor and Deborah and me.
Wow. That must have been an interesting night.
Actually, I knew (Dudamel) was interested in race car driving and fast cars, and I had a Segway standup two-wheel scooter.
Where are you going with this?
As soon as he came and was introduced to people, I said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” He just loved it. He was riding the Segway all around outside and he rode it in the front door and rode it around the living room and people got a kick out of it. I also had a couple of golf carts because I lived on a property that had some extensive paths. So we got in the golf carts and raced all around the property.
You raced golf carts with one of the world’s most renowned conductors?
That, I think, made him feel comfortable and loosened him up. It was one part of the evening where he was able to be himself and let go and enjoy himself.
Did you give a speech that night?
The remarks I gave that evening were very brief. I was thinking, “What could I say that conveys the sense of Los Angeles?” I said, “Most of us in Los Angeles are from somewhere else and for most of us here, we’re lucky because we chose Los Angeles and in turn Los Angeles chooses us.” I chose to move here from Chicago and I feel like Los Angeles has then chosen me to be a part of what’s going on here.
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