The Internet History Podcast continues its survey of the pioneering social/community sites by sitting down with David Bohnett, who, along with John Rezner, founded Geocities. David recounts how a lifelong passion for communications tech inspired the idea of Geocities, how and why the site grew to become one of the 5 most popular web destinations in the world by the late 90s, as well as the company’s blockbuster sale to Yahoo. We also marvel at how Geocities lives on, thanks to the passion and affection of the Geocities community.
Visit the Internet History Podcast to hear the interview.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
Brian McCullen: Welcome to the Internet History Podcast. I’m your host, Brian McCullen. Today, we’re going to continue our survey of the pioneering social/community websites by sitting down with David Bohnett who, along with John Rezner, founded Geocities. David recounts for us how a lifelong passion for communications technology inspired the idea of Geocities, how and why that site grew to become one of the 5 most popular web destinations in the world by the late ’90s, as well as the companies’ blockbuster sale to Yahoo! We also marvel at how Geocities lives on thanks to the passion and affection of the Geocities community. Towards the end, we also talk a bit about his philanthropy which, granted, a lot of the people we talk to are engaged in philanthropic efforts, but David is next level. Seriously, the guy is prolific to say the least. Please enjoy this conversation with the fascinating David Bohnett. David Bohnett, thanks for coming on the Internet History Podcast.
David Bohnett: Happy to be here, Brian. Thank you.
Brian McCullen: Is it true, you grew up in Chicago, right?
David Bohnett: I did, a western suburb called Hinsdale.
Brian McCullen: Were you a tech kid? Were you into computers and things like that?
David Bohnett: I was always interested in mechanical things. I had a real fascination with … back from the very beginning, with telephones. I just thought telephones were the coolest thing, and it was the technology of the telephone itself, but it was also the network and the system. I remember, I had a number that would ring the telephone back and I thought that that’s just like the coolest thing ever, and I would dial that then hang up, and the phone would ring back.
Growing up, I would go visit the Museum of Science and Industry in downtown Chicago and the Bell Telephone System. I remember Bell had a fantastic exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. It was a very early fascination with telephones, and then I was a ham radio operator so I learned Morse code and started with my novice ham radio license then graduated up to my general ham radio license. I built heathkits for ham radios and I did that in junior high and high school.
Brian McCullen: Maybe a communication’s geek, we could say?
David Bohnett: Exactly, yeah.
Brian McCullen: When you go to the University of Southern California, what’s the degree that you’re pursuing?
David Bohnett: I was interested in pursuing a Computer Science degree and USC had an early Computer Science program, and I was also interested in pursuing a business background. I get to USC and I start to take Computer Science courses… at that point you had to get a Math degree to get a Computer Science degree, because it was mostly about the theory of hardware and computer theory versus what I was really interested in which was the application side, business applications or consumer applications. I did take a number of Programming courses and did a lot of main frame work with punch cards, and then ended up having a kind of minor in Computer Science and a degree in Business.
Brian McCullen: Right, you got the MBA from the University of Michigan. You started off with Arthur Andersen, is that right?
David Bohnett: I started off with Andersen Consulting out of graduate school, which actually ended up becoming Accenture, but at the time that I started with it, it was called Andersen Consulting. It was an arm of Arthur Andersen Company. I started right out doing application design and programming for business information systems. I would help design general ledger systems … I helped design general ledger systems for the HP 3000. I did a combination of systems analysis, design, coding… just the stuff I love to do. I did inventory systems and it was a great time to learn structure and program development, and actually, hands-on coding at the same time.
Brian McCullen: That leads to a couple of different jobs with various software companies in the ’80s?
David Bohnett: A friend of mine had started a software company here in Southern California called the Central Software. It was mainframe system automation products, reports distribution, online report dealing. I had a variety of jobs at that company. It was a small software company – I managed the development group… I was CFO at some point. Then, I did product marketing and product management and that company was… Central Software was acquired by Goal Systems in Columbus and Goal Systems was then acquired by Legent Corporation, and I had a series of jobs throughout those acquisitions, but the most important was product manager which was really instrumental and very helpful for my future career.
Brian McCullen: Because it taught you how to develop products and bring them through their life cycle and bring them to market, that sort of thing?
David Bohnett: Exactly. And having had such extensive experience with all facets of the products. The product manager position, if it’s a good one, is the best overview of what the product is all about because you interface with the development group, you interface with the sales team, you look at what the competition is doing, you’re responsible for promoting and pricing the product, developing and determining what features go in new releases. It was a great way to see the entire life cycle, all the different phases and stages of the product, from being developed to being sold.
Brian McCullen: Now, I had read … This might be too cute a story, but I had read that you first learned of the web in a magazine article on a plane. I also get the sense that maybe before that you might have been active on early online services and message boards and things like that.
David Bohnett: That’s right, Brian. I did read about the web on a PC Magazine article on an airplane, but I mean really going back to my ham radio days, I was always fascinated about… with my interest in telephones, fascinated with technology that helps people communicate with each other. When PCs came out, that was great, but then when the Hayes modems came, when the first 300 baud modem came out and you could actually connect the computer to a phone line and talk to the outside world, that’s when everything really changed for me. You would dial-up to BBS’s, proprietary board systems, and then there was CompuServe, Prodigy, and then there was AOL after that and that was just fascinating to me. It opened a whole new world of finding people; communicating with people of similar interest no matter where they were.
Brian McCullen: Is it this background as being a communication’s geek that you see the web and it strikes you, “There’s something that I can do here. There’s something for me here. There’s a business here.” Is that sort of how the gestation started?
David Bohnett: Well Brian, it was almost, except that I have no idea what the business side was going to be, but once I read that article … This was just about the time … This is 1994 and the web was being opened up for commercial use. I just felt like I had to be a part of it. I just felt like it was something that has so much potential and it was so exciting. I remember having to install the 32 bit extensions on Windows and I had an ISDN line installed at my apartment, and I downloaded a Mosaic. It was just like, “Wow, this is unbelievable.” At the time I thought, “This has a potential to be a global online service.” I had that structure in my mind of CompuServe and AOL and I thought, “This could be the global version of an online service.” I just couldn’t sleep, it was so exciting and I wanted to be a part of it.
Brian McCullen: Walk me through how this leads to Beverly Hills Internet.
David Bohnett: I started using the web and I thought, “This has incredible potential and at some point every business is going to have a website.” I was overwhelmed by the thought of what it could be. I was living in Beverly Hills and I started a company called Beverly Hills Internet, and the first service we offered was website hosting. I learned HTML and with a partner, John Rezner, setup a web hosting service for a number of businesses or a few banks. There were a few local businesses and we hosted their very first website. While we were doing that, I was trying to think of what else could we do that was beyond web hosting, and I had an early, early fascination with web cams, because when I saw some of the very first web cams, I thought, “This creates a sense of context that you’re in a different place. That you’re actually seeing something happening somewhere else.” There’s a difference in TV. It was just this amazing fascination and one of the very, very early web cams … I think there’s, like, a wikipedia page about a coffeepot in Cambridge, England, and engineers had hooked up a very primitive web cam because they didn’t want to go to the next floor down and up to see if there is coffee, so they hooked up this web cam and I just thought that’s the coolest thing ever.
I really wanted for us to do our own web cams. With John Rezner, who was the tech side of the business, we bought a couple of Sun SPARCstations and a couple of camcorders, and we wired the camcorder output to the boards inside the … There’s no such thing as a web cam and we wired it to the boards inside the Sun and I had a friend who had a graphic design business in Hollywood at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and our office was in Beverly Hills. We put up 2 web cams, one pointing to a bus bench on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and the other pointing to the corner of Hollywood and Vine. These would refresh every, I think, 6 to 8 seconds, because there wasn’t bandwidth or technology for live streaming, and then just started to kind of blast out. That we have these web cams and at that same time, I was thinking, “How can we leverage the visibility of this?”
I went up to an early internet trade show where Jerry Yang and David Filo were setting up their booth and I was setting up my booth, and I was on the way back and I was thinking, “How can we leverage this traffic? I thought, “Let’s give away free home pages so that anybody can setup their own free website,” and that idea wasn’t necessarily unique, but what was unique was the sense of we will have communities of interest where people can setup pages about whatever they like around certain themes and we would use the locations, real-life locations as themes. We have this web cam in Hollywood and then people could setup fan pages about celebrities, et cetera, and we have this web cam in Beverly Hills, we could setup about shopping and high-end. We would name our communities after real places or thematically related real places like Coliseums for sports and Nashville for country music and Area 51 for science and technology and West Hollywood for lesbian and gay related themes and Wall Street for financial themes.
That was kind of how the pieces came together. It was the web cams which generated a lot of early traffic. It was giving away the free web pages, but then organizing those into thematic communities of interest. It wasn’t just this hot pot, there was a coherence to the sites and I worked the HTML for the initial ‘How You Setup Your Webpage’ and at that point, it was AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. We setup different … That was really the only way people could get on the web until the ISP’s came along and got popular. We had templates for AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe users and I had templates with certain graphic elements and ways to include pictures, and we setup this context where you would actually have a neighbor. When you signed up for a site at Geocities, you would go through this sequence where you would pick the thematic neighborhood and then you’d be shown kind of a 2D representation of a street and you’d kind of pick your address on the street. You had a context for setting up your webpage, that you’re a part of a neighborhood that had someone on either side of you and everyone in the neighborhood who was interested in similar interests. That’s the story of how it got started.
Brian McCullen: Because I don’t think we’ve mentioned it, the name is Geocities, it becomes Geocities because you’re extending that geographic metaphor to these sites. Also to be clear, there were templates … It wasn’t just hard coding. If I homestead at a Geocities site, I didn’t have to necessarily hard code the whole thing myself?
David Bohnett: No, there were templates where you would … An interface through the online services and you could put in text, you could put in other HTML links, you could include graphics, and you could include photos, and at one point, along the way, we would develop our own HTML editors and website builders and we acquired a couple of early website creation tools, but it started with templates.
Brian McCullen: For the context at the time, when does it shift into being Geocities? Is this around ’96-ish or so?
David Bohnett: The company started in ’94 and, I think, Geocities was really in ’95. At some point in ’95.
Brian McCullen: What was the traction like? How soon was there significant uptake and all of a sudden, you know, you’re seeing thousands, and then tens of thousands, of people starting sites?
David Bohnett: I sent an e-mail probably to … I’m going to say 16-18 people that I knew and I said, “I launched this service and you can setup your own free web page,” and it just took off from there. I had a desktop PC and I had an e-mail client, and every time someone would sign up for a new Geocities site, I’d get an e-mail and it would ring, like there’d be a ding. I would sit at my desk and I’d be meeting with somebody or not, and there’d be a ding and then I’d see who that was and then the thing started becoming faster and faster, and within a matter of months, it was in the thousands and then months after that, it was in the tens of thousands… and at one point, it was 8 per second, I think, 24 hours a day, that people are setting up sites.
Brian McCullen: What about fundraising, because I believe that you had self-funded the start of the company, but at one point do you have to go talk to VCs and start to really get big?
David Bohnett: That’s right, Brian. I bootstrapped the company myself and rented office and bought servers and did not pay myself nor did John take any kind of salary, it was the 2 of us for quite a long time. I think maybe brought on 1 or 2 employees and I would … I reached out to dozens of VCs and funders and people just weren’t getting it. I mean, the internet was still so new. The business models were completely undeveloped. I mean, I remember the very first banner ad was a Volvo and it was like, “Wow, there’s advertising in the internet. Who knew?” So internet, for a long time, went on without any sense of what the business models would be. There was some hope and expectation that e-commerce would someday take off and that advertising might someday be significant, but nobody had any sense.
I put projections together and I was confident that with a large enough audience we would be able to monetize the traffic at some point, but it was so early and it was really to a point where I just can’t keep doing this anymore. No one was funding and I was seriously running out of money and a couple of times I met with John and I just said, “Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wind this down,” and at that point, there was a Northern California VC called CMG, and they saw the potential, good for them, and they did a term sheet and we raised $2 million. At that point, we could really then hire people and … We were always struggling to keep up with the demand for the service. We were always struggling to add servers and storage capacity and I mean, the Cloud was a decade and a half away, so we had to build everything ourselves. Then we raised a number of successive rounds of financing after that.
Brian McCullen: I’m glad you mentioned that because people always say how much cheaper it is to do a web startup nowadays, you know, even from 15 years ago when I did my first company, it’s infinitely cheaper and easier. I’m super curious about issues of storage, servers, bandwidth, that sort of thing. Were those insane costs that you were always struggling to stay on top of as well?
David Bohnett: It was a struggle on a number of fronts. It was finding the bandwidth capacity to handle the amount of traffic that we were generating and we were consistently on the Top 10, if not, in the Top 5, in terms of site popularity and people were uploading pictures and files like crazy and creating sites, and we had a hard time finding ISPs that had the infrastructure to keep up … The bandwidth infrastructure to keep up with the demand. That was a challenge and the ISPs initially just didn’t believe that we were generating so much traffic, but we did and we would tax certain parts of their network so there was that side of it.
There was the financial side to make sure we had the capital for the servers and then there was the technology side. We had to build so much of this technology ourselves and we had rooms and rooms of racks and servers and storage and disk drives. We would go up to the ISPs and we just had cage after cage after cage of servers and we would constantly be adding storage capacity and processing capability, and it was a monumental task. We gave away websites for free and it was the users who created the content. There’s a little bit of it on the side which is I was a passionate advocate of the validity of user-generated content. That the internet was all about giving people the opportunity to contribute and participate and feel like they were a part of the medium. That it was not a top-down programmed model like radio and television. It was a bottoms-up, user-generated content model.
All of this seems, like, super obvious now, but at the time, it was just unknown and part of the challenge in raising capital was … I remember so many meetings where people would say, “Why would someone want to look at a page created by someone else? Why would they want to look at someone’s page about golf or about horticulture or about finance as opposed to a professional editorial?” and I said, “Because that’s what people want to do. They want to share their knowledge with other people and they want to connect with them.” It was many, many, many people who remained unconvinced on that score, but I was a passionate advocate of the integrity and the validity of user-generated content. In order to acquire all this content, we gave away the sites for free.
That gets back to my other point, which is about performance and bandwidth and response time… and there was a theme in the movie, The Social Network, where one of the founders from Facebook, and the place was going like crazy and he was on a mobile phone at the swimming pool and it was system problems and it was down and he just went nuts because people couldn’t get to their Facebook sites, and that was my main 24 hours, 7 days a week that the site was fast, the site was easy to use, it was always available and people would say, “Well, you’re giving this stuff away for free, why do you care so much about performance and response time?” I said, “It’s because we’re giving it away for free. The users are the ones that are creating the valuable content, which is creating all the traffic and unless it easy and fast, they’re going to go somewhere else. They’re not going to create the content.”
Long way around by saying that I’m such an advocate for user-generated content, and the fact that we had to have response time as if people were paying a lot of money, not just because they weren’t paying any money, and that leads to a lot of debates at the board level and with investors… “Well, what if just charge a $1 a month? You’ve got millions of users, what if we charge 50 cents?” and I had to push back every step of the way and said, “No, it’s not what this is about. This is about kind of an open source community where everybody can participate no matter what.”
Brian McCullen: Because you don’t want to go the subscription route, the business model you settle on eventually is advertising, right?
David Bohnett: Advertising and e-commerce. It was precious. It was the fact that these neighborhoods have targeted demographics that are attractive to advertising. What advertisers want is a captive audience that they know shares an interest in their products. There were no ad servers, we had to build our own ad servers, there were no ad networks, we had to do all that. All that, we had to do. We had to build an ad point, there were no ad sales agencies and we built an ad sales force and called on agencies in New York and Los Angeles, and landed quite a number of early accounts, and then e-commerce. Again, we would do deals with sports companies and we had subscription deals for media, and that was the promise of what ended up being the business models for social networks today and how they make money, and that’s what we started way back when.
Brian McCullen: I think there is a key point to stress here, which is because you had the foresight to section these off into sections based on interest and community, and so that made it easier to sell targeted advertising based on interest and things like that?
David Bohnett: Yeah, that was the whole key in it and it was successful. I mean, it was the very early version of what has become today a combination of social networks and others.
Brian McCullen: We’ll come back to that again before we end, but so within a couple of years, you’ve got tens of millions of users. I think by the time of maybe the IPO, you’re approaching, like, 38 million users and Geocities is regularly in the Top 5, at least, in terms of the most trafficked websites by 1997-1998. You’ve already addressed this to a certain extent, but was there ever a concern that you would not be able to scale, you know, 38 million sounds, like a large number, until you realize that Facebook today has 1.4 billion. Was there a concern that the growth would just spiral out of your control at some point?
David Bohnett: You said scale… would we not be able to handle the scale?
Brian McCullen: Yes.
David Bohnett: I was never concerned about that. I was mostly concerned with like companies at that stage, making sure we had the right talent and we could keep up and find enough engineers to really help scale the company. That was my … The leadership and the management and all that, that was my biggest concern. I didn’t have any concern about scaling the business side, it was more the people side of it and building the company.
Brian McCullen: Was that some of the motivation as well for the IPO? The reason I ask that is people have all sorts of different answers to this. Some people are like, they’ve reached a point where we just had the IPO because everyone else was, other people are like we had to arm ourselves because everyone else was arming themselves with tons of money from IPOs and things like that.
David Bohnett: We had raised quite a lot of financing leading up to the IPO, I think, series B or E along the way. An IPO is just another financing event. It’s a public financing event, but the purpose of an IPO is to raise additional funds to seal the growth of the company. Most people look at an IPO as some big payday and no, it’s just you raise … I bootstrapped the company myself, so that’s a fundraising event, and then we had a series of private rounds. Then, an IPO is just a public round and the purpose, as I say, of an IPO is to eject additional funds for the future growth of the company, and then what happens during an IPO is the stock becomes publicly traded. It’s the public that is fueling… The public has bought shares and theoretically, as it should be, most of that money goes into the company for the future growth. Once we had our IPO, I was pleased because we had additional capital that we could then continue to invest and build the business.
Brian McCullen: We haven’t mentioned competitors in your space yet. There were sites like Tripod and Angelfire, and I think the Globe later, it it’s light, to do personal home pages and things like that. Just speak on the competition in your space a little bit. Was it a feature race with places like Angelfire and Tripod and things like that?
David Bohnett: It’s a good way to put it, yeah. I think that was part of it. I was always concerned that we continue to achieve critical mass and dominance in the space by adding additional features and making sure that … A lot of it had to do with performance and reliability that we all struggled with some of the same growth challenges, and some companies struggled more than others, and we had an early first mover advantage. I knew Bo Peabody from Tripod and really admired what he did, and the Angelfire people were doing their thing and competition is a good thing. I think we had a leg up because we’re a first mover and we had the contextual … we had the sense of, I think, I hate to use the word community because it gets overused, but we were always so focused on community and thematic coherence that I think that that gave us an advantage over the competitors.
Brian McCullen: Let’s do then and talk about the obvious idea that sites like these, sites like Geocities and other community-based, user-generated content sites were sort of laying the ground work for what we now call social media and social in general. Do you feel like perhaps, that maybe, we’re a few years too early and, literally, the main reason I ask that question is because in 1998, there weren’t a lot of digital cameras yet. By 2004- 2005, when Facebook comes along, people have digital cameras, they can post pictures from parties and things like that, and you’re still in the dial-up era, you’re still in a film camera era, was it maybe … the company, you know, Geocities was wildly successful, but I’m wondering if maybe the idea wasn’t quite mature yet in 1998.
David Bohnett: Well, the idea was an extension of … there’s just a long continuum of this kind of user-generated content idea and electronic communication that there was a pretty popular site before, it’s called The Wall, which was a really popular community-based site where people would gather and then, as we talked earlier, there were bulletin boards before that, so I don’t know if it’s too early – the way to put it, more just that we were of our time. We took advantage and we were pioneers and I guess the way to put it, maybe too early is appropriate. We were pioneers of certain technology in certain ways that help build the foundations for what was to come and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it at the time that we were.
Brian McCullen: Yeah and I think that Geocities has such an amazing … people have such affection for Geocities because so many people learned how to live life online, learned things like creating a digital identity through Geocities, through their first Geocities home pages and things like that.
David Bohnett: There’s this really great Instagram site called Humans of New York, have you heard of it?
Brian McCullen: Yeah, absolutely.
David Bohnett: For those that aren’t aware, it’s an extremely popular Instagram site and he’s also done books and everyday this fellow roams the streets of New York to take people’s pictures and then post their story and he does it in a very incredibly engaging way. I was sitting outside the Apple store a couple of years ago at 59th and 5th. It was one of those balmy New York nights, it was probably like 10:30 at night, and I was on my phone just sitting in the plaza at the GM Building and this fellow comes up to me, and I’m sitting there by myself and he said, “Can I take your picture?” and I said, “Sure.” He took my picture and then he said, “What’s your proudest moment?” just like that. He took my picture and said, “What’s your proudest moment?” and I guess I had said, “I guess my proudest moment leads from a personal achievement, at a business standpoint, was having founded a website called Geocities and built it up and then went public in 1998 down on NASDAQ.” He then put that on Humans of New York and he credits Geocities as getting him … it’s his start and his inspiration for ultimately what became Humans of New York, because his first website, his first experience online was creating a website on Geocities. To your point, you know, that’s just tremendously gratifying to see, to know that you helped play a part in something that has now bloomed into hundreds of millions of flowers, so to speak.
Brian McCullen: Again, speaking to the esteem and the love that people have for Geocities, we haven’t mentioned that Geocities gets bought by Yahoo!, but we’ll get to that in a second. After Yahoo! Shuts Geocities down, there’s been this tremendous grass roots movement to preserve Geocities. I assume you’re aware of that?
David Bohnett: Yes, yes. I can talk about that or I can talk about the acquisition? Which one?
Brian McCullen: Let’s do the acquisition first since we’d be putting the cart before the horse. How does Yahoo! approach you and how does that sort of deal start to come together?
David Bohnett: We had raised money from… I had mentioned CMG early on and they were … they then became very big backers of Lycos which was a very successful and popular search engine at the time and we had also raised money from Softbank, which was a big backer of Yahoo! We had investors who were both very invested in search engines at the time, Yahoo! and Lycos, and they were very popular in competing search engines. This is way before Google. At the same time that there was an opportunity for us to go public, both of those companies were very supportive when we went public in ’98, late ’98 and I thought, “Once we’re public, we’d like to pretty much remain an independent company for a while.”
I had stepped down as CEO. I was founder and CEO and I had stepped down about 6 to 9 months before the IPO, because, as we talked about, my background was in Software and Tech and our business model was really media/ad supported, and so we were very, very fortunate and I did this more than willingly. I thought it was really important. We’re very fortunate to attract very experienced senior publishing executive Tom Evans who came from US News and World Report. He was a publisher of that magazine. He had extensive background and credibility with ad agencies and publishers. Tom took a big, great leap of faith, good for him, came on board as CEO and he actually took us through the road show and the public offering, and I remained Chairman of the company. It’s a good example of the importance of a founder kind of recognizing and realizing when it’s time to take a different role, and there are other stories for other days about what happens when that doesn’t happen.
The company went public in ’98, I had a sense that we would remain independent and then in early ’99, it was a very frothy time, and both Lycos and Yahoo! were interested in acquiring the company, and Yahoo! ultimately did acquire the company and I was thrilled for many number of reasons. I highly, highly respected Yahoo! and as I say, I was up at the trade show in ’94 when they were just getting started and setting up their own booth. It was a very, very lucrative financial transaction which I’m very grateful for, for the investors and the employees, and what then happened was a very significant, serious attempt by Yahoo! to leverage and take advantage of the traffic and the service, but what happens is very common, that there are other companies that then start up, whose sole focus is this business model… so there was MySpace that came along, there was Friendster, and when companies start up and they’re laser focused on a certain area, they can outrun the giants and that’s really what happened… is Yahoo! had a very, very diverse set of applications and business model and was unable to really invest enough to keep up with what innovative startups can do. 10 years later, Geocities was shut down.
Brian McCullen: Are you surprised that such an effort has been made to preserve digital history, I mean, literally digital history that existed on Geocities pages?
David Bohnett: I have to say I am a little bit surprised. I’ve moved on after the sale of the company and have started up my own venture capital fund focusing on early stage tech startups, and I have been doing that for the last 15 or so years, and it has been very happy to stay active in the field, and I thought that Geocities was a certain period of my career and now I’m focusing on other philanthropic and business endeavors and didn’t really … I am kind of surprised, didn’t really expect… I’m in support of an artist that has re-created the archive, and has done a project called Deleted Cities and that’s been on display at art museums around the world, and that’s just one of several initiatives to mine this fascinating digital archive.
Brian McCullen: Baroda Ventures is your capital firm, correct?
David Bohnett: Correct.
Brian McCullen: That’s what you’ve been doing subsequently, but I also have to really tip my hat to you, of the 50 odd people that we’ve interviewed so far, you really are one of the most active and like, really, really committed philanthropist that I’ve been lucky enough to speak to. The list is so long, but maybe just tell me about the David Bohnett Foundation and what the role is for that foundation?
David Bohnett: The mission is to improve society through social activism and we have just a handful of key program areas that are significant and most important to us. They include such things as voter participation, voter registration, initiatives, socially responsible mass transit, policy in mass transit, initiatives including biplanes and bike sharing, gun regulation, gun safety, anti-gun violence programs, social service programs, particularly in lesbian and gay areas focused on marriage equality and access to technology. This is all an extension of the things we’ve been talking about, which is giving people an opportunity to have a fair shake in society. Geocities was giving people an opportunity to contribute and participate on the internet and connect with others and feel empowered, and the foundation is the same thing in terms of helping underserved and underprivileged, and tackling some of these major initiatives that are so important in my mind to a fair society.
Brian McCullen: I have to ask because you’re someone that’s been so prominent in LGBT activism and philanthropy, you know, we talk all the time about how fast the tech world moves, but I’m wondering, have you been amazed at how quickly LGBT has evolved, the rights and like, even from 10 years ago I feel like I wouldn’t have imagined that we’d be where … The battle’s not won yet, but I wouldn’t imagine we would be where we are now, even 10 years ago.
David Bohnett: I mean I have to say that I kind of saw this coming and my activism dates back to my days in graduate school at the University of Michigan, 1978 to 1980 when I worked in a campus sponsored Lesbian and Gay Student Union and it was a counseling center and we did seminars, etc. Then in the early ’80s, when I was building my career in LA in the software business, I was a co-founder of the Los Angeles Chapter of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and GLAAD is focused on the positive and balanced portrayals of lesbians and gays in the media. I would start to write letters in the early ’80s to producers and television networks and movie companies that were portraying very negative stereotypes of lesbians and gay men, and that was pretty common at the time.
I thought if we can win over the media, if we can promote the positive portrayal of lesbians and gays in the media, that we’re going to prevail. That’s going to help facilitate others in their own coming out process. The most powerful thing that anybody can do is not give money, it’s to stand up for who they are, particularly if you’re lesbian or gay. Coming out is the most basic thing, the most powerful form of activism there is. In order for people to come out, they have to feel comfortable that there are other people like them out there, and they have to see them on TV and in the movies. It took a while, but if you go from 1985 to 2015, that’s 30 years. Once things really started to accelerate, we’re almost there.
Brian McCullen: There is a sense of maybe the snowball gathering mass.
David Bohnett: Yeah.
Brian McCullen: One other thing before we wrap up. I’m New York-based, so when I talk to New York-based tech people, we talk a lot about Silicon Valley and New York as a tech scene. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about Los Angeles as a tech hub, either back in the ’90s or maybe more interestingly today?
David Bohnett: Well, it was very sparse when I first started. Northern California and Silicon Valley was hot with all the new internet and tech startups and in 1994, there was nobody here. For some other reason, it’s just hard to raise money, but I always felt very, very fortunate to be out of that frothy Silicon Valley environment and to be able to build Geocities kind of on my own down here in Southern California, and we helped … We’re part of the tech scene early on and now, just … you used the term snowball, there’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure here now and big companies and small companies, there’s a whole ecosystem that didn’t exist. You have spin-offs now from Snapchat and spin-offs from Geocities and others just in the last 4-5 years, this whole Los Angeles/Southern California, you know, tech environment, has become huge.
Brian McCullen: Final question because you know, it’s 20 years on now from when you started Geocities and now that it seems like social is the fabric that really connects all of technology almost as much as electricity does. Looking back on it with the lens of 20 years, this idea that you had even as a kid of like, the fascination of people communicating with each other and being a communication’s geek. Has the technology caught up to what you always imagined it would be or are we not there yet or what do you think of this idea of people connecting online where it is today?
David Bohnett: When I was a kid in Hinsdale, I had a little wooden block that I taped to my wrist and it was a Dick Tracy-like wrist radio, and now with the Apple watch, you know, science fiction truly comes true. It’s just amazing. I’m tremendously excited about the technology that’s here now and the future technology to come, but what I’m dismayed about is … If you look at the 20 year span, what Geocities was about was sharing knowledge about ideas and knowledge about topics and we’ve gotten away from that to just sharing knowledge about ourselves and our faces. Where is the platform for people who really have … I mean, everybody has something to contribute, everybody has knowledge in certain areas that they’re passionate about and I’m dismayed that that didn’t flourish the way it was flourishing in the Geocities era and maybe you have an opinion about that, Brian, I’m not sure.
Brian McCullen: You’re saying that maybe you would want a platform for a more elevated discourse, possibly?
David Bohnett: Yeah, elevated makes it sound more sophisticated than it is. It’s more of a platform for people who connect with others based upon their love of certain subject matter, you know? Wikipedia is kind of that, but it doesn’t have that mass appeal so if someone is interested, you know, pick any kind of subject. Someone is interested in golf, yeah, there are golf sites but I’m just … there is so much knowledge, collective knowledge, and I’m not sure that we’re … crowdfunding, who would have thought of that 20 years ago, but I’m not sure we’re Crowdfunding the human intellectual potential that’s out there.
Brian McCullen: Yeah, I can agree that perhaps the discourse, generally, is maybe a little selfish? Would that be the word right now?
David Bohnett: Yeah, self-centered.
Brian McCullen: I don’t know, I mean, this is only the 1st 20 years of this sort of stuff.
David Bohnett: That’s right and I’m never an optimist. You’re right, that’s a good way to end that.
Brian McCullen: David Bohnett, thank you so much for remembering all that. I was a huge Geocities user so this is one of my … I’ve been most excited for this interview and I really think that Geocities deserves credit for being one of the pioneers of basically what all of technology is today. Thank you for talking about all that.
David Bohnett: Well, what you’re doing is the embodiment and very consistent with what we’ve been talking about for the last hour, because you’re conducting interviews like this and putting that experience and knowledge out into the world, and that’s extremely valuable so thank you, thank you very much for that.
Brian McCullen: Well, thank you. This is an industry that doesn’t do well with its history so we’re trying to change that.
David Bohnett: Terrific, Brian. Good to talk to you.
Brian McCullen: If this is the first time you’re listening to this podcast, please subscribe to us on your podcast app of choice. There’s plenty more great internet history where that came from and if you’re a long time listener then you know what to do to help us out. Rate and review us on iTunes because iTunes gives credit to reviews and ratings and the more great reviews we get, the more people will discover us. As always, there’s more info on our website, www.internethistorypodcast.com. The show’s Twitter handle is @nethistorypod and my personal Twitter is @brianmcc. Thanks for listening.