Network: Wanted: grown-up to supervise geeks

George Bell used to be a documentary film-maker. He spent a lot of time sleeping in tents, working with wild animals. It turned out to be the perfect background for the job of supervising a bunch of tecchies at an Internet startup. The CEO of Excite@Home talks to Liz Bailey
Click to follow
If you've never met anyone who talks like a machine-gun firing, well, welcome to the world of George Bell, president of global media company Excite@Home. He has a lot to say, and he says it all - fast.

Unlike the company he works for, Bell has a varied history. "I spent the first six months believing that Excite had made a terrible mistake in hiring me, that whatever skills I had weren't appropriate for the job. I had no technology background; I had never been a CEO; and I'd never lived in California." He pauses. "Otherwise, it seemed a marriage made in heaven."

Excite - originally six Stanford graduates and their search engine - merged with @Home, a Net start-up that delivers high-speed Internet access to homes via the US cable-TV infrastructure, earlier this year.

Bell started working at Excite in late December 1995; Excite headhunted him away from Times Mirror in New York, where he was in charge of nine outdoor magazine titles, 250 people and an pounds 50m budget.

Before this, Bell had made documentaries. "I never went to business school. I was a writer and I majored in English at Harvard." He made documentaries because, he says, "I wanted to write and I wanted to travel. In those days, the people who got the biggest budgets were TV networks. We still worked in 16mm film. Tape was coming along, but I thought 16mm was sort of romantic."

The life itself wasn't romantic in the least. "Most of my documentaries were in Third World countries. I've been to Africa 30 times, I've been to Everest four times. For 10 years, I spent about 100 nights every year in tents. And generally under pretty miserable conditions." He adds: "It's a life I gave up because I realised I couldn't be married and live 100 nights a year in tents."

But documentary film-making taught him valuable management techniques - the hard way. Like the Internet, he says, "You had someone else's money - National Geographic's, or ABC's. Once you'd sold them this idea, when you got to the Central African Republic and realised you couldn't find the pygmies, you still had to make the show, because you'd rented all the equipment, you'd spent all the air miles.

"I had no idea that the documentary training ground was going to be a relevant way for me to understand management challenges on the Internet. The relevance was, we had no idea what we were doing. We also had money given to us by other people - this time it was venture capitalists. We were wrong about the plan, so we had to make it up after we arrived at the beginning point of the Internet; we changed the business model every three or four months for the first year.

"And I had to become a builder of teams based on a knowledge base of zero. The equivalent of being the youngest, least experienced guy on the documentary crew, who was also in charge, was my burden in being the least technically savvy but also being in charge."

Bell was hired primarily because, as of June 1995, Excite had "about $500,000" and, he says, "One of the conditions venture capitalists often impose on little start-up ventures is, `I'll give you the money, but you have to go and get some adult supervision'."

Excite had meant to hire a technical CEO, but the six Stanford graduates began to realise "that their business model wasn't going to be about packaging the piece of software as a search engine for corporations". Bell recalls: "They said, `Well, wait a minute. What if the search engine created enough traffic that you could build a different model around it, like subscriptions?' Then they said, `well, maybe we should be looking for someone who has more association with content, and who understands subscription- based services'."

When the Excite people interviewed him, Bell remembers they were "these guys who had high-top basketball shoes on, dude shorts and Stanford T- shirts that they got for free when they graduated". Bell wore a suit. "I had never heard of Kleiner Perkins [venture capitalists]. I had never heard of Silicon Valley.

"It was an odd cultural meeting - New York suit meets Silicon Valley wonder boys. They had not left the building in quite a long time. In fact, the stench would indicate people had been bolted down there for a while - they were full-on geeks.

"I took a bunch of notes, thinking, `My God, I don't understand half of what they're saying, but if I take very good notes I'll be able to read them on the plane and I'll understand the whole business when I get home.' I read my notes on the plane, and I wasn't any better off."

Nevertheless, he took the job. "What excited me was, it wasn't this big corporation, it was a small group of people; it had a little bit of money. They were saying: `Look, Goddammit, we don't even know what this is, but we're going to make it work and we're not going to fail.'"

But Bell had another reason for joining Excite. "I missed making something. I was in an environment at Times Mirror where you and I might have a terrific idea, but - oh my God the 5.39 train is arriving at Penn Station and I have to leave now - you lived for the salary." At Excite, he says, "I had to cut my salary by 200 to 300 per cent, but I got a boatload of [share] options."

In May of this year, Excite and @Home completed their merger. @Home's Milo Modine, an ex-Nasa engineer, figured out "the architecture of how this would all work, without destroying the cable systems," says Bell. "Milo's analysis was, think of the Internet as a big freeway, with lots of on-ramps. I don't care how big the freeway is - it's just about how big the on-ramps are. Otherwise, what you'll be screwed by in the end is hundreds and hundreds of bottlenecks everywhere.

"His solution to all this was to establish a distributed architecture, so you've got multiple points of presence and, second, to develop some caching technologies, where you could locally store pages and advertising and so forth. It's a very elegant solution." Obviously, Bell has picked up the technological know-how along the way. "Some," he says. "Osmosis."

Broadband offers both speed and enormous bandwidth. What Excite@Home will begin to deliver in February is, Bell says, "richer, denser content - content with fewer clicks".

He adds that "In broadband we're also going to offer bandwidth-intensive applications, because we can. You'll be able, for example, to do a 3D comparison of a stock you own with a `basket' of 10 equivalent stocks, to see if it's underperforming the basket."

Within two to five years, broadband's other key attribute - what Bell refers to as "its always-on capability" - will mean Excite@Home broadband products and services will begin to "displace traditional media and communications services in the home".

"When broadband is pervasive, and it's always on," says Bell, "I go away on vacation. I can set my @Home service to turn on and off the lights in my home to make it look like I'm there, or open and close the garage door every day."

You almost can't imagine George Bell ever having done anything else but run a new media company. "I have no idea what any of us would do after this," he admits. "I assume you'd do something that's really different. Like knitting."