I was going to resist sharing any public thoughts on the end of Rob Glaser’s 16 year reign at the head of RealNetworks. But as I read through some of the comment boards, trolls and scrubs who have never started anything in their life have taken some cheap shots, so I’m going to give my take.
In 1994, we had 14.4 modems and something called Mozilla to surf the web. Microsoft was finally rethinking their now infamous decision that the Internet wasn’t a place where they should concentrate. And Glaser looked into his crystal ball and said, “You know what, I bet some day we’re going to use our computers to watch programming more than we use our TV’s.” You have to remember, that back in 1994 that idea was akin to someone today saying, “I’m going to be able to take this IP signal from my watch and make it a holographic projector that plays HD signals against blank walls at 1080i.”
Now, not every decision was right. And plenty of smart people were under-utilized. I was just a young Marketing Manager, and never in the inner circle of decision making, so I have little insight, and sometimes fell victim, to some head scratching decisions.
But at the end of the day, Rob built an industry from scratch, weathered recessions of 2001 and 2009, had to battle the full force of Microsoft’s vengeance when they realized it was a space they needed to be in, distributed more than a billion RealPlayers without much of a marketing budget, took his company public, changed his business model on the fly from software to subscription, and had to balance the public’s desire for free media vs the music industry’s desire to extort money from all of us. That’s a pretty complex game of Lemonade Stand he had going. Go through and name all the companies that you’ve seen in your lifetime that started before (or around) Real and have been more successful while staying independent. Microsoft, Apple, Google, ebay, Amazon, Yahoo. You can’t say AOL – they sold out. Skype – sell out. YouTube – sell out. Netscape – gone. Napster – gone. Maybe Adobe and Oracle? Sidewalk – gone. Expedia came out of Microsoft and sold out to IAB, so they don’t count. I’m sure there are a few more, but the list is pretty small.
It would have been easy for Rob to sell to Microsoft in the late 90′s for a few billion. We all probably would have made a few more short-term bucks. And Microsoft would have had to spend way less money than they did over the next decade systematically trying to destroy Real. But he didn’t sell, so we all took our sticks and bows to fight against the machine guns – and we did pretty well.
I have a lot of anecdotes about Rob that don’t need to be shared here, but I’ll sum it all up with this. If you have the pleasure to run into him at an event, introduce yourself and say hi. He’ll grill you on your business and ask 100 questions abut what you’re working on. The conversation will move so fast that it will be hard to keep up. But you’ll understand how smart the guy really is, and you’ll see that he simply wanted to win.
My guess is that around the halls of RealNetworks this week, people are looking forward to change. They see a happier, more corporate, less politically incorrect place where they won’t get yelled at for mistakes. But the problem is that most of those people weren’t there in the 90′s. To them, there’s always been audio and video on the Internet, and they simply don’t get why Real was such a big deal. They don’t understand that they worked for the Web’s very own Marconi, they just want to complain about his flaws. But around the city, you see Real Alumni collectively tipping our caps. And I know a lot of people say this, but I still have more friends than I can count from my days at Real. The people were there (with some notable exceptions) were fantastic. Smart, gifted, ridiculously focused and cool. There was something about that company, especially back in the 1990′s, that drew great people who were glutton for punishment. I remember telling my dad when I first started there, “It’s pretty scary. Every meeting I feel like I’m the dumbest guy in the room.”
No one is perfect, and like everyone Rob has his flaws, but it was a real professional privilege to work down the food chain from someone who built an entire industry.