William “Bill” Pence has always been a tinkerer who loves a good challenge, starting with his first piece of software for the Commodore 64. Looking back, he’s amazed he survived doing physics experiments on his parent’s old television set. He came down from his home in New York City to tell the crowd at Startup Grind DC about his latest challenge: In April 2014, Bill signed on as AOL’s Global Chief Technical Officer.
AOL who? Yes, they get that a lot. “Just wait,” Bill says. Since the AOL/Verizon merger, AOL’s reputation hasn’t caught up with its new status. The $4.4 billion deal in May to combine the largest mobile network provider with one of the world’s top five internet properties has the potential to dominate.
Bill had watched AOL spin out of its failed Time-Warner merger and make moves under CEO Tim Armstrong to acquire “disruptive, innovative contemplators” such as Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Engadget. In addition to news and other content, AOL’s platform currently delivers online video services and ads.
“You’ve got to remember that the AOL-Time Warner merger happened [in 2000] when 40% of the world was still on dial up. There is merit in watching where the world is going. We’re in a different era now. The world is mobile.”
AOL is on it, developing video shows for millions of smartphone and tablet users.
After 25 years in the technology business, Bill understands the importance of timing. He recognizes the Verizon/AOL merger as a strategic fit for a mobile world. It is the telecom giant’s opportunity to use a proven platform to keep its sales pipeline filled and stream new products and services as the mobile market matures.
The Spotlight’s on Mobile Video
Right now, everybody is looking to the future of mobile video services. That means opportunities for those with technology to address how to distribute and monetize mobile video. Bill explains:
“It sounds generic but think about what kind of ad formats are created, what kind of subscription models, how does it work cross screen? Is it pure OTT cable box replacement or is it a utility model around video, or social network wrapped around video? Is it another experience? The area is exploding.”
The Power of Perspective
Bill has an affinity for disruptive startups. He has a B.S. in physics from UVA and a PhD in electrical engineering from Cornell. He was raised in northern Virginia, where the Pence family has lived for a couple of hundred years. After a decade in IBM’s research arm, he joined the dot.com world with online music pioneer Napster (2003-2007). He recalls Napster’s push to get beyond the difficult U.S. music industry.
“We were so aggressive we built a back end to a service in Japan for feature phones,” he laughs. While Napster does business as Rhapsody in the U.S., it still does business as Napster overseas. He notes: “Spotify is obviously the one who has taken the idea and run with it now.”
Bill spent the next nine years as CTO, then as COO, for content publisher WebMD. He’s particularly proud of “Naked Man,” a symptom checker feature that hypochondriacs find irresistible.
As the world went mobile, the possibilities for delivering content and services expanded.
“When we started tracking mobile use at WebMD it was 5%; we thought it would maybe level out at 30-40%. It kept shooting up and we’re looking at ending at 90/10,” he says. Bill learns from the past, but doesn’t get stuck looking back. Adaptation is key to survival. IBM invented DOS but lost the PC operating system to Microsoft and survived. “AIM is a great product, it’s got a place in the world, but there are a hundred other things to do. You’ve got to keep moving,” Bill says. He explains:
“This Internet thing, no way it’s game over. I’ve been in it a long time. I met the founders of Friendster who thought they had it locked up. Then MySpace came along. When I saw Facebook, I thought, who needs another social network? Behavior changes. Mobile changes delivery and distribution. In the search space, Google search is under threat now because of the shift from desktop to mobile. There has been transformation around mobile and video as phones are increasingly used at home for video consumption and social networking. Apple and Amazon are trying to reinvent themselves.”
Where We’re Headed
The world is moving towards an integrated delivery system. Unlike Facebook, which is a closed ecosystem of user-provided information and Facebook reporting, AOL has an open approach to working with others. For example, ONE by AOL allows advertisers to bring in their own data.
“We built ONE by AOL to take the online advertising world to the next level. We’ve assembled platforms for delivering ads; we’ve also delivered platforms for measuring impact events, targeting them on a personal basis through data that we have and also looking at attributions. We’ve bought some companies to help marketers understand the end-to-end ad journey.”
AOL is one of the top five Internet properties on the planet, so there’s scale, but day to day Bill says they have to break down barriers. Since he arrived, Bill has helped move the company to gmail and Google apps, and rolled out Slack to its enterprises. As to the big picture, AOL joins industry giants, like GE, in transitioning 100% to the cloud. It’s going to take years to do it responsibly.
Bill embraces the challenge. The opportunity to explore the mobile Internet’s future is irresistible. He says: “I saw AOL as a turn around. I came to work for Tim. I like to work for people who are innovative, aggressive, and kind of a little bit of a maniac. I love working for Tim.”
Something in the Water at Loring AFB?
Most Startup Grind interviews go through the requisite guest bio. Where are you from, what did your parents do? One coincidence surprised and delighted Startup Grind DC director, Brian Park. Not only had both worked at some point in their lives at AOL, each had been born/raised awhile at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, the closest military base in the continental U.S. to the Soviet Union.
Bill likes to say: “When the sites go down I’m never worried because I was born when nuclear war was about to break out.”
His father was a strategic air command tanker pilot flying tankers over the North Pole to refuel B-52s and his mother, pregnant with Bill, stayed on the base and was issued a pistol should the Russian paratroopers drop in.
There must be something in the water at Loring AFB that breeds tech-savvy, risk-taking entrepreneurs. This article was first published at StartupGrind.com.