Mixed Signals

OTTCon 2012: Santayana and Learning From The Past?

4/06/2012 10:42 PM

It’s been more than a decade since I saw, in person, the former head of and founder of ReplayTV.

His name is Anthony Wood, and he used to attend and speak at conferences produced by my company, The Carmel Group. We had fun reminiscing recently for a few precious moments at the 3d annual OTT Con in Santa Clara, Calif., from March 20-21

Yet, it is fascinating to note that Wood today is not so famous for his first foray into the world of digital video recorders, but rather for how he went from there to the world of add-on set-top boxes, in the iteration of today’s Roku. Some of that success comes from Mr. Wood practicing some sage advice from a well-known historian, named George Santayana.

Wood went from a bankrupt ReplayTV in 2001, to a much more financially viable Roku today, on the basis of a lot of hard work and a handful of lessons, one or two of which is worth passing along to every entrepreneurial newcomer in the telecom business today.

Indeed, one is a lesson portrayed by many a successful business person, and one that Wood would likely say he is lucky to have learned young enough in his failures at ReplayTV, to be able to take that lesson and apply it to a success at Roku.
That lesson is to remember those among the status quo, when pioneering new products and services, be they hardware, software, or something or someone else.

In the case of ReplayTV, it was a fierce rival of TiVo for dominance in the emerging DVR business, going back to the 1997-1998 timeframe (See, Digital Video Recorders: DVRs Changing TV and Advertising Forever, by Focal Press, for a more detailed account of this earliest DVR era.

And, by his own admission, what Wood and his ReplayTV team did back in this timeframe was to push changes in front of the studio status quo a bit too quickly and a bit too aggressively. This occurred to the point where ReplayTV was sued by Paramount and other studios and networks, for various copyright infringement claims. And that, in essence, helped lead to bankruptcy and the eventual demise of ReplayTV.

TiVo, on the other hand, also pushed the envelope, but simply not as aggressively, and not as carelessly. Indeed, TiVo was more respectful of the existing studios, networks, providers, operators, and content owners (which is some of why TiVo is around today and ReplayTV is not).

Which bring us full circle to the OTT Con show and Mr. Wood’s opening keynote address on March 20. When asked a question about lessons learned, his first response, somewhat humorously, was “Buy more Apple stock.” But his next, absolutely serious, response, was to “Pay a bit more attention to and work with the traditional stakeholders.”

And that, interestingly enough, is what is helping to make Roku work so well, in the 2012 version of a Wood company.

The lesson here for young entrepreneurs, a la Wood: create lots of new things and ideas, but remember to find a place at the table - a respectful and productive one — for the existing players. Indeed, as I look out at the ivi’s, the Sky Angel’s, the Aereo/Bamboom’s and, to a lesser extent, the Boxee’s, of the telecom world’s current newcomers, I can’t help but more firmly wish this “Santayana Lesson” upon them.

After all, wasn’t it Santayana who coined the phrase: “Those who cannot learn from history, are condemned to repeat it”?

Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman and CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based consultancy The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com). He can be reached at jimmy@carmelgroup.com.