News today that Rob Glaser is stepping down as CEO of RealNetworks after sixteen years at the helm.
I think it’s probably fair — and maybe even an understatement — to say that within the technology industry, Rob has not always been beloved. I’m sure plenty of people will offer their opinions about what he did right, wrong, and could have done better at Real.
I worked with Rob at Real from 1997 to 2004. I haven’t kept up with Real these past five years, and haven’t kept in touch with Rob the last couple of years. But I also think — no, know — that Rob has not always been as well-understood or appreciated as he should be, and wanted to set down my perspective for what it’s worth.
First of all — what a fighter and survivor. It’s hard enough to be an entrepreneur, to pioneer not only a new technology but a business, and to build a company out of that and to take it public. Harder still to do that for a decade, let alone sixteen years.
But imagine the difficulty when the richest company in the world, a ruthless and entrenched monopoly, decides to crush your business. For this is what Real faced starting in 1998, when Microsoft began a systematic attack against Real’s core business — audio and video streaming. Rob not only hung tough, but pushed the company to pivot, and through sheer will forced it to reinvent itself and to stay afloat despite the attacks from the Borg.
Among technology leaders the past decade, only Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen really have any clue what it was like to face Microsoft head-on, at it’s most ruthless and at the height of its powers (we forget what they were like in our Age of Google, they seem so defanged). And let history note that they threw in the towel (selling Netscape to AOL).
Second, Rob is one of those rare CEOs and entrepreneurs who really is interesting and interested; a polymath who is curious (and often well-informed) about music, politics, economics, science. It was always a treat to talk with him, and the talk was often about things other than work. My partner Janet made an interesting point about Rob to me years ago — that he almost never talked about himself, but instead wanted to talk with you and about you. Truly a rarity when compared to the ego-centric and ego-filled technology world.
Third, in my time at Real, and in particular in my first few years there, he assembled an awfully interesting and talented group of folks. Folks like Maria Cantwell (now a US Senator), Philip Rosedale (founder of SecondLife), Ian Freed (who now runs the Kindle effort), and literally dozens of others who have gone on to interesting entrepreneurial adventures of their own, or who serve in very senior roles at renowned media and technology companies. This wasn’t an accident, and it was Rob who drew so many interesting, talented folks to Real over the years.
An emblematic sicknesses of our culture these past 10-15 years — and one that has particularly afflicted those of us who are entrepreneurs, technology writers, and investors — has been our unhealthy celebration of P. T. Barnum’s who have done not much more than flip bad assets to unwitting buyers. Someone who sells their company for a couple hundred million, or a few billion, and pockets most of it becomes a hero in our world. Even if their company is dismantled within months or proved worthless. Even if their employees subsequently lose their jobs. Even if the stockholders in the acquiring company lose their shirts.
Whereas someone who sticks at a job for sixteen years, keeps his troops employed, keeps his company alive — well, we don’t show much admiration then.
I’m sure Rob Glaser made his share of mistakes. Don’t we all? But he helped to birth a foundation technology for the internet; he built a company, took it public and came to work every day for sixteen years through thick and thin. That’s damned honorable in my book.