• Tech

Programming Provocateurs

14 minute read
Coco Masters

As a new-media start-up, MobiTV, based in Emeryville, Calif., owes its creative pulse to 219 employees–up from just 90 a year ago and on the way to more than 300 by year-end. The common denominator of working here is change–constant, even calamitous at times, but vibrant. Workers average a new deployment, a step in developing new-media services, every 2 1/2 weeks. They are people who are motivated by how they leave an imprint on their world. And one thing is certain: television will never be the same. MobiTV has liberated TV from the box in the living room and transformed it into what more than one person calls the “65-year-old killer app.”

Anyone who watches news or comedy or viral videos or listens to XM radio on a Treo, mobile phone or PC knows that MobiTV has been making waves. Just after its co-founders conceived the start-up’s objective seven years ago–to solve the problem of large-scale, global data transmission on mobile devices–a eucalyptus branch fell outside Phillip Alvelda’s Oakland Hills home, where the three sat brainstorming. The tree smashed his hot tub. Alvelda, a physicist, can probably explain the energy wave given off. But he could not necessarily say what triggered him and Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison to agree that day to combine their expertise in technology, marketing and project management for a start-up, launched in 2003, that now rivals any other outfit in mobile broadband and music services. MobiTV has more than 2 million subscribers and 110 video channels and 80 audio channels for a range of more than 150 devices across 25 carriers worldwide, including Sprint and AT&T Unity. At $10 a month per subscriber, MobiTV has more than doubled revenues annually for the past several years.

Now CEO, Alvelda, 42, says talent flocks to the company, where the average age is 34, lured by the prospect of working the leading edge–and a big payday when the company goes public or gets bought out. Employee numbers, known by everyone, are status symbols to show who got in early. Alvelda is No. 1. And as he searches for new “superstars” to add to his team, MobiTV surges ahead of revenue projections and subscriber count, chasing the world’s 2.2 billion mobile users–starting with the 221 million wireless users in the U.S., where 2.3% (5.1 million) subscribe to mobile TV and video services. MobiTV raised $100 million last quarter with the help of partners, including Hearst and Adobe. That will allow it to forestall the strictures of a public company. But as Alvelda focuses on growth, he also awaits the right moment to launch an IPO.

Alvelda’s office resembles that of a physics prof: shelves stacked with books, galaxy screen saver on the desktop–even the whiteboard scrawl. Alvelda’s excitable demeanor and wool sweater also serve the scene, as does his stellar résumé, which lists degrees from M.I.T. and jobs with NASA and the Defense Department. But signs of accomplishment–the Emmy on his desk, framed patents and a photo with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger–bespeak a former government technologist who isn’t afraid to show off a little.

Alvelda has so far figured out how to achieve his work goal: to grow MobiTV with the best people who can keep the company relevant. “Here we are,” he says, “a tiny, clever mouse dancing between elephants.” That’s some rodent. Every new MobiTV product or service touches a multitude of partners and involves infrastructure, new technologies (for server, handset and network), testing, integration with carriers, marketing and sales support, business development and contract negotiations. “It’s a real three-ring circus,” he says. “You have to make sure that no one drops anything as they juggle. It’s a huge coordination exercise.”

Only after reading Jerry Kaplan’s book on GO Corp.–a former tech high flyer that flamed out–did Alvelda realize the marketability of a concept contained in a chapter of his 1995 Ph.D. thesis. That concept begat MicroDisplay, his first start-up, that same year and united his twin passions: education and technology. “There is an aspect of education and communication that helps people to grow personally that I never anticipated as part of the corporate world,” he says.

MobiTV has reinforced Alvelda’s belief that “with the right people, you have a tremendous amount of flexibility.” His priority, he says, is to find people who can navigate the rapidly changing landscape and deal with ambiguity in their industry and in their work. MobiTV has a so-called all-hands meeting every Friday, during which employees share “moments of greatness” or praise their colleagues. MobiTV’s successes, however, cause Alvelda “a new nervousness,” he says, about the responsibility that goes with being a public service and utility. He says the London bombings and Hurricane Katrina tested MobiTV’s reliability as well as the market for getting news over mobile phones. For Alvelda, his experience at the World Economic Forum this year affirmed demand for such services. He says leaders of developing countries recognized MobiTV’s potential for bringing information to their communities. “Now they don’t lay copper. They put up cell towers,” says Alvelda. “It leapfrogs some of the challenges of the past.”

Every technologist, says Alvelda, wonders what impact he will have on the world. “You start to realize that opportunity to leverage the economics of the First World to build a business and use it to change life in the Second and Third World,” he says. “How many people have a chance to do that?” At least 219, and counting.

RYAN PRESSLER MIGHT BE described as a techno-Hessian. Don’t misunderstand. He likes contributing to what he considers “the technology that is revolutionizing how people access entertainment and media.” And the organic goodies, such as his daily dose of Kagome juice, delivered by MobiTV’s kitchen (stocked by the same people who do Google’s food service), clicks with his interest in nature and biology. But Pressler is like a lot of thirtysomething tech vets who experienced the dotcom bust: reliable, flexible–and portable.

He designs for MobiTV’s user interface, the screen configuration that consumers navigate to get to the programs they want, which also helps define the brand visually. He cut his teeth eight years ago designing PC software for a long-dead start-up called DoDots, then spent five years on DVR software design at TiVo–creator of another revolutionary product and one, he says, “people can no longer imagine living without.”

Pressler says MobiTV has similar potential: to create a multimedia entertainment product “like TiVo minus the DVR.” Pressler, 34, hits the age of the average employee on the nose and falls into the main demographic of MobiTV’s subscribers. This “scary playful” company, he says, is riding on the talents and creativity of people just like him. That’s the fun of it.

“I hope that something strikes large in the company,” he says. Perhaps it will be Pressler. MobiTV outsourced the design of a demo it needed for a consumer-electronics show, and over two months the Manhattan-based firm that got the job produced many designs. But one that Pressler did for another product beat them all. “That was my shining moment thus far,” he says.

Seated in his cubicle, flanked by a succulent cactus and a miniature wooden mannequin (today posing as Frankenstein), Pressler says he will stick around for a while, and then perhaps find another hot ticket. “‘A while’ used to mean 10 years,” he says, reflecting on his answer. “It’s two to four years in these parts. The pace is accelerated in Silicon Valley.”

KAY JOHANSSON MISSES THE dark chocolate he got at home in Sweden. But he knows that giving up the sweet treat is a small price to pay for moving from Popwire, a former Ericsson company in Stockholm, to MobiTV last September. As chief technology officer, Johansson, 37, has been making bets on changing the media-delivery game on mobile telephones (of which he owns three) since 2000. You might think of him as MobiTV’s cartographer, the one who creates the technology road map and links strategy with scale to grow the start-up into a mature company. “I’ve made every mistake in the book,” says Johansson confidently. But that’s assuming there is a book for the nascent industry.

At Popwire, which launched the first TV broadcast over a 3G network with Ericsson in 2000, Johansson helped develop an end-to-end media-streaming infrastructure. More recently, he has watched European carriers give up trying to create mobile-TV services in-house and start looking for outside vendors to handle them, which is MobiTV’s opportunity. It’s a classic make-or-buy situation; Johansson is in the middle of it. Says he: “They are the brand name. We are the one to run this service and develop the technology.”

For a kid who wanted to be an exobiologist or a physicist, Johansson has found his dream job developing technologies and solutions unheard of five years ago. He says TV on mobiles requires a new paradigm: “It’s a new way of consuming contents. I don’t see any limits to what we can do.”

To give shape to that new paradigm is MobiTV’s adoption of the WiMAX standard, a.k.a. “wi-fi on crack.” It combines unicast (a stream to a single user at a time, like the Internet) and broadcast, increasing capacity to allow higher data rates, two-way communication and so on. “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface,” he says. Maybe he’ll eventually get it to download chocolate bars.

IN A YOUNG COMPANY, IT IS sometimes helpful not to know what you’re not supposed to accomplish. Desiree Rodriguez packed for a six-week assignment in London to build up MobiTV’s presence in Britain. As a twentysomething new hire who parachuted into business development at a start-up relatively unknown overseas, she half expected to be shown the door at Turner Broadcasting or Channel 4 before getting a word in. But they, like others in Britain, saw the value in getting their programming on the rapidly expanding number of mobile devices.

Two years and 25 deals later, Rodriguez, 26, decamped from the thriving London office for Emeryville. As director of business development, she’s ready to work with partners like Viacom, NBC and Turner and target other major media companies. The mission is to program–and monetize–their content for mobile phones. Rodriguez plans to help expand MobiTV’s role as a distributor that fashions content into made-for-mobile programs such as Fox Sports and ABC News Now as well as unique content channels. “At the end of the day, we’re an enabler,” she says with buoyant vitality, accented by hair nearly as orange as her patent-leather shoes.

Given her enthusiasm, it comes as no surprise when Rodriguez says she works at MobiTV for the people. She has fed off the excitement of the start-up since the day she came to work, her laptop and mobile phone in tow. Her work ethic, she says, comes from her entrepreneurial family and a father who has done everything from construction to property development. Having grown up on a ranch as the youngest of five, she jokes that she was on the family payroll at age 5.

In a way, she’s reliving that 24-hour work experience. “Friends think I’m sold on the Kool-Aid,” she says. “But at midnight there are others working alongside me. Here I have the energy like I’m working with my family: you butt heads sometimes, but at the end of the day you’re all about sink or swim.”

A BIG PART OF JACK HALLAHAN’S job–though he does it naturally–is to notice when old things become new again. For instance, stop-motion, a technique he obsessed over as an 8-year-old making faux commercials with his older brother on a Super 8 camera, is back in music videos. Branded entertainment, which put the soap in daytime TV, is resurfacing in reality TV and Second Life. And of course, television, the 65-year-old killer app.

For an adman who grew up wanting to be in advertising and now confesses to “a seriously bad case of arrested development,” it would seem that “newness” to Hallahan is the return of “relevance.” And as MobiTV’s Department of One, he is all about relevance, specifically as it relates to MobiTV and persuading advertisers to put their messaging on its network. “You have to be relevant and entertaining, and you have to be on your game,” he tells them.

A mobile phone presents a new level of engagement for advertisers. It is one-to-one, he says, and for them “that is both the upside and the challenge.” Once they get it in their hands, “they start to awaken. You can see they’re trying to figure out, ‘Where can this go? I need to get here.'”

He’s a follower of his own advice. Hallahan, 45, had used a life coach to try to find a job that would be the perfect fit. An early adapter of MobiTV, he first came to the company as a partner of an ad firm to make a pitch for its business. The reverse happened. “What I saw here was the ability to lead the advertising community into new water,” he says. “That for me was an interesting challenge because it’s requiring a lot of the skills that I’ve acquired over the years.” Having climbed a “significant learning curve” at MobiTV, Hallahan is focused on getting the user to interact with the advertiser through branded content and channels, as well as localized, targeted advertising. “I’m in a position to influence a lot of the things that are happening,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be exposed on its earliest level–and driving some of it.” It clearly drives him.

IT DOESN’T BOTHER JASON MIKAMI that people all over the world see and hear what goes on in his closet. In fact, it’s his job to figure out what to do when they can’t. Inside the network operations closet–“the NOC room”–time passes in 15-sec. increments. A wall of 14 flat screens blinks with paired images like a nightmarishly complex game of Memory.

Here, a few of Mikami’s staff monitor about 200 audio and video channels for glitches in service for MobiTV’s carriers. Can’t hear XM Radio or NPR? Call Mikami. Frozen CNN video? Call Mikami–provided the rare instance that someone on his staff of 45 (up from 6 in April 2005) can’t handle it. NOC-ers flag problems by closely analyzing snippets of audio and video contents. “The NOC folks act as the first tier and open up the trouble tickets and provide the meat of the information that allows our technical staff to handle the problem,” says Mikami.

He’s not here just to be MobiTV’s head techie. The attraction is that the job is in new media and blends technology and business operations. He has a joint technical degree and M.B.A. and worked for about six years at Wink, a company for interactive TV, but craved “something small and new.” He found it at MobiTV. “We’re pioneers,” he says. “I can’t hire someone who has done my job before or mentor me in that way because it’s never been done.”

Years ago he would have given his left pinkie to be the 12th man on the Golden State Warriors’ roster. That MobiTV’s hoop team, now defunct, lost every game in the Emeryville league doesn’t bode well for a career change. But Mikami, 36, isn’t done with start-ups: he is diverting some of his earnings to create a winery within three years at his family’s 15-acre vineyard of Zinfandel in Lodi, Calif. He’s also taking viniculture classes at the University of California at Davis and planning a three-month sabbatical to get his hands dirty interning at a local winery. Again, it will be small and new: he envisions about 1,000 cases for his first vintage.

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