Warner, Bill

Bill WarnerBill Warner is the founder of Avid Technology, Wildfire Communications, FutureBoston, and Warner Research. Avid makes video, audio and film editing systems that make, manage, and move media, and Mr. Warner won an Emmy in 1993 for the development of the Avid Media Composer. In 1999, Avid won an Oscar® for its success in transforming the editing process in film-making. Wildfire developed an innovative electronic secretary that used speech recognition to manage one’s phone calls and messages. Wildfire was sold to Orange, PLC, in 2000. In 2002, Warner started a shared-space center for entrepreneurs called the Collaboration Space at Warner Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This center is now called the Brickyard Collaboration Space and provides low-cost space to early stage entrepreneurs.

In addition, Mr. Warner has acted as an angel investor for eight start-ups, and for three non-profits. The start-ups are in such diverse areas as 3D animation, email-based blogging, event networking, ad insertion for online videos, visual environments for nightclubs, shared calendars, and compensation design and management. The non-profits are involved with historic/current mapping of Boston for planning purposes, a film school, and an open-source mechanical design approach for new vehicles for people with disabilities.

[Bio adapted from TechStars.org.]

tompeters.com asks …

What’s your one-line descriptor of yourself, Bill?

BW: I’m an entrepreneur and friend of entrepreneurs. I help entrepreneurs start their companies right. I intend to help entrepreneurs follow their hearts in the way they create their start-ups.

I gather that you see people doing this incorrectly.

BW: I saw myself do it in one company correctly and another company not so correctly. For a long time I wondered, “What’s the difference?”

I started Avid Technology in 1987. We shipped the product in 1989. In 1990 we did $7 million in sales. In 1991 we did $21 million, then $54, $113, $240, and then over $400 million.

Are you still involved with Avid?

BW: Other than emotionally, no. [Laughter] Although, the nice thing about being the founder is that you’re always the founder. I started Avid at age 32. I had worked for seven years in various high-tech companies. I only had six months of management experience, managing one guy named Saul. But I figured, I’m ready to do this and I’m going to see how it goes. If it doesn’t work I’ll get a job.

Obviously it worked.

BW: Right. Avid became very successful very quickly. Then I had an idea for a new company. I had always thought that my second company would be my big company and that the first one would be smaller. By the time I was starting my second company, Avid was on its way to making $21 million. I didn’t expect it to get that big, and I certainly didn’t expect it to peak at $900 million.

In 1991 I had this idea for a new company. I first got a cell phone in 1990. I was amazed that I could make a call in the car. But once I made the call, I got voice mail. I almost never reached a person. These are all people who had called me and I was calling them back. I was thinking, “This is just crazy. This should be reversed. You should basically just get on the phone, let people know that you are on the phone and let them call you if they have time and want to talk.”

I didn’t realize it but I was creating a social network on the phone. Of course, back then the idea of a social network didn’t exist. Even AOL Instant Messenger hadn’t happened yet—the idea of buddies and being able to see if your buddies are online.

So when I went to propose Wildfire to the venture capitalists they all looked at it and said, “This looks like a service.” I said, “Yeah. It’s a service.” And they said, “We don’t fund services.” Six VCs said the same thing, so I made what I thought was a fairly innocuous change. They want to fund boxes, so I’ll make a box that delivers the Wildfire service within a company rather than to everyone. What I didn’t realize was that I was making a decision that went against intention.


BW: I had never really thought about what my intention was. Intention is all about how you intend to help people. With Avid, I intended to help people tell their story. We made a digital system that was really good and fast at telling your story. I had great alignment between the intention—I intend to help people tell their story—and the invention, the Media Composer. All along the way people would push me on certain things, but I would hold steady and I constantly stayed in line with intention.

Now Wildfire was one of these start-ups that got an enormous amount of PR. It was a tremendous advance for its time.

I knew some tech guys who were just ga-ga about it.

BW: I have this concept about intention, invention, and who your people are. Intention is your ability to help people. Invention is your conduit for doing it.

Your people are the people you really care about. With Wildfire, the people I cared about were the people who wanted to talk to each other but were having a hard time making contact. And they wanted to talk to each other so much that they might even pay for a system that would make that easier.

Instead, we ended up building an electronic secretary and the people that it was aimed at were not my people. I didn’t really want to give people an electronic secretary. I didn’t want to help people screen calls. It was counter to my intention.

So this was just about circumventing voicemail. You got on your phone, other people could see that and connect with you. It was like voice instant messaging.

BW: It was. I called it the Virtual Hallway.


BW: Yeah. But we never actually sold the product based on the Virtual Hallway. Instead people used it as an electronic secretary and as advanced voicemail.

Here is the real problem. I believe that the energy for a new company comes from its founder and the people that get added later when they’re fulfilling the primary intention of the founder. With Avid we did and with Wildfire we didn’t.

I never had the language to say to the potential investors, “Look. It must be a network because I intend to help people feel closer together. The only way they can feel closer together is if they are on the same network and they can see each other and they can reach out and ask to talk and be able to talk. Without that network I cannot achieve the intention.”

I was the one who changed the invention as a result of their feedback so that I could get funding.

You lost sight of your own vision in order to get funding.

BW: The key isn’t so much vision. The key is intention.

What’s the difference?

BW: There is one more piece and that is beliefs. Your beliefs are often behind your actions. Once I heard six people say, “No,” my belief was that everyone would say, “No.”

Like the book that gets sent to publishers and rejected 150 times and finally gets accepted and turns into a huge best-seller.

BW: We sold Wildfire to Orange for well over $100 million. So there was a good exit.


BW: It was a very exciting product and Orange was a great acquirer. They were extremely excited to have the company and they put in a lot of time and money. But at the end of the day, they were not able to make the product a market success. My belief is that it was because the invention—electronic secretary—wasn’t true to the intention—to help people feel closer together. In fact, people felt farther apart.

Some jaded folks would say, “You walked away with $100 million. It couldn’t have been that bad.”

BW: If you define success only in financial terms, then Wildfire was a great success. Investors came out with anywhere between five and ten times their money. It could easily be argued that had I followed my heart with Wildfire, we would have made considerably less money. But we’ll never know.

Obviously, it bugs the hell out of you.

BW: Worse, because I can’t blame it on someone else. That’s why I believe it is so important to understand what your intention is.

Tom Peters always says, “Only pissed-off people change the world.” Looks like that’s the case with you.

BW: When people get pissed off, it’s actually triggering their energy around helping.

I like that.

BW: Rather, it’s people that see a need and it triggers in them an intention and an invention. It is basically the marriage of observation of need and intention that helps them make an invention. That invention is a conduit to flow their intention to their people.

With Avid, my people were the editors. That’s who I cared about. When I woke up in the morning that’s who I thought about. And when I went to bed at night I asked myself, “Have we done what they need?”

Where does this put you now? You’re trying to help other companies not make the same mistakes you did? Getting them to really understand what their intention is?

BW: Absolutely. I’m working on tools that I can use with entrepreneurs. One tool is to explain to them the overall energy diagram of how this works.

My belief is that there are three key pieces to this. One is intention, which is how you help people. That is like your DNA; you are just good at helping people a certain way. The other piece is your inventions. You make them so that you can help people in your own way.

The third piece is beliefs. What are your beliefs? Do you believe that you can make this kind of thing? If you don’t believe it, you won’t do it. Do you believe you can make it cheap enough? Do you believe the people will buy it? Do you believe you have the talent? Do you believe you can get the talent?

All these things are beliefs. And some beliefs are wrong and you should change them and some beliefs are right and you should keep them.

So you examine the beliefs and intentions of entrepreneurs?

BW: I ask “Why?” at four levels. One is the intention level. Why? What is your intention? Two is the invention level. Why? Why are you making this? And then “Who?” Who are your people? And you’ve got to love them. If you don’t love your people, then don’t bother doing this.

And the fourth thing is to plumb their beliefs?

BW: Yes. As you build your team, you need to have diversity in terms of each new person’s people, who they’re trying to help. When we wake up in the morning, my people are different than your people. At Avid, for me it was editors, for someone else it was the people at the post-production facility.

The key is to design this whole thing with a method I call Co-Flow, which is the flow of energy from me to my people and the flow of energy from you to your people. There is one rule. You get to flow energy to your people only if you increase flow to the founder’s people. My intention comes first as the founder.

If you don’t, you get a reduction in energy. It’s like an internal combustion engine. You have to put the fuel in, then compress it, and then spark it. You can’t put the fuel in and then spark it without compressing it. It has to go in a sequence.

With Co-Flow, the core energy comes from the founder. Look at hugely successful companies like Google. There is a core flow in Google, which is about helping you and me search. When is the last time you wrote a check to Google?

I haven’t.

BW: And I haven’t. Yet somebody is paying for them to have the most massive searching system in the world. It is not us. We are the founders’ people. And other people came along and said, “My people are advertisers who are looking to find people.” And Google, from the very beginning, always said, “We will not do anything to search that makes it less good for our searchers. If you can make it better, than you can do something. If you want to do advertising, you’ve got to make it better, not worse.”

Now, Alta Vista had a different view, which was, “We need money. We have people searching. If you add something that brings in money and makes it worse for the searchers, that’s okay.” That is a different belief. They ended up creating a negative Co-Flow. They basically added flows on the side that reduced the core flow.

I think that makes a lot of sense. You’d like to see companies mimic Google in the sense that internally each party was serving its customers in the most—I don’t know what the word is—the most efficient—

BW: It’s the most energetic.

The most energetic way. Thank you.

BW: I would argue that it is an energy model, if you will. One model would be a straight hierarchy, “My way or the highway. All I care about are my people. Everybody just does what I say.” Right?


BW: Even people who are autocratic—Steve Jobs, for example—I don’t think he does it that way. I think he establishes his intentions, unstated. He doesn’t use that language exactly. But he makes it quite possible for other people to add their invention and flow their intention in these products.

I think a Co-Flow model will generate more results for less input of money, time, and energy than anything else.

Because it is the most efficient flow of energy.

BW: I think nature uses this model. The big thing is, it is a regenerative flow. What happens is, when somebody has an intention, they are able to build something that flows that intention to the people that they care about so that they can help them. The amount of energy that it creates in them and in the people around them is so huge that it re-energizes them further. It isn’t so much that it is just so efficient on the first pass through. It just keeps building up. So it’s an upward spiral.

Have you put this into play with anyone?

BW: Yeah. I’ve been working on this with entrepreneurs for the last five years.

Do people get this idea intuitively? Or do they struggle with it?

BW: They totally get it and they’re able to do it. But in and of itself, it is not a surefire formula for success.

The product still has to appeal to a market.

BW: Right. There are so many other factors. There are other classic models that I think are also helpful. You need a strong team. One entrepreneur working really well is not enough.

Right. On your blog you mention that you shouldn’t hire your friends and that you’ve got to be rigorous about who you hire. You can’t bring another warm body in because you like to play pool together.

BW: Right. That’s the playbook.

A colleague pointed out that I’ve been quite successful hiring my friends in companies like Avid and Wildfire. Actually, though, these were people I knew professionally and had a lot of respect for. My point is that you have to hire people who can do an awesome job, and not take the easy path of just someone you know and are comfortable with.

Do you see that a lot with young companies?

BW: It’s more of a problem with growing companies, especially here in New England. California tends to be considerably tougher.

Really? Why do you think that is?

BW: California has grown up with the idea of new blood and building on that. New England has grown up with building on solidity and people who have done it before.

Those Mayflower folks.

BW: Right.

Interesting. It finally dawned on me that California is at least 100 years younger than the East Coast. It’s a different country, even though we’re all connected.

BW: Yeah. It’s a different culture. We have to do some more of what they do in their culture. And that’s why I’m proposing that we have to change our playbook. Another item in the playbook is that we’ve got to push each other. It is not acceptable to say, “Well, that looks good enough.”

And that is why another blog post I wrote is about the singles, doubles, triples, home runs, and grand slams. We need more home runs and grand slams here. We cannot build a vibrant technology economy just on singles, doubles, and triples.

Are you a native New Englander?

BW: No. I grew up in New Jersey.

So maybe you see this more clearly. What you are identifying is a huge problem.

BW: Oh, yeah. And it’s been happening for a long time. It is not going to change overnight. But it’s all changing. Social networks are changing our own social fabric at a very high rate.

New England is refreshed every year with a new class of students, and, at any given time, we have about 500,000 just in Massachusetts. So there is a lot that can happen in a relatively short period of time.

Do you see a need for some sort of infrastructure or system that reaches out to them in a more deliberate way than is perhaps happening now?

BW: Absolutely. It’s going to have to be grassroots, not a state program.

I hear you have a collaboration center.

BW: I don’t any more. I built the collaboration space as a tool that would help me do what I do. At the peak we had about 50 people there. The one that I’m at now has about 900.

I stumbled across something in the Boston Globe the other day. They are thinking about creating a “Geekville” or a nerd hostel. It would be a collaboration space meets living space.

BW: That’s a great idea. If the city subsidizes it and it becomes very cost effective for people, they will use it. It is just like when you do subsidized housing for artists. Artists come and they populate the area and they bring other people and all kinds of stuff happens. It’s worth it. And I think it’s the same with technology people. There is a lot of benefit to having people in a concentration.

Could that help change the culture here?

BW: With collaboration centers, people are working together between companies. Whereas historically in New England, everybody works on their own and they tend not to collaborate. They just announce their product and say, “Here it is.”

We’re still connected to the old world here.

BW: The good news is that if we had time, I could probably list 20 ways we are changing. It’s happening quickly.

Give me a few.

BW: Over the last two years I’ve run an unconference. Rather than a conference that has pre-arranged speakers, this is a conference that begins with what they call a marketplace of ideas. In the first hour people propose sessions and people decide if they want to go to those sessions.

It’s unusual in this area. We had 430 people. They generated 80 sessions.

So any one of those 400-plus people could get up and say, “This is a session I want to lead,” and it would get voted on?

BW: It’s not voted on formally. They put it on the board and people vote with their feet. It was a hugely successful event. When we first did it in 2008, people were sort of shocked and wondering, “What is an unconference?” And now everybody’s saying, “Oh, yeah, the unconference. I’m going to that.”

Is that an annual event now?

BW: Yes. Another way things are changing is that venture capitalists in New England are starting to blog or use Twitter. VCs are starting to have open office hours where if you want to see them, you just send an e-mail and you’re given a slot without vetting. It’s just, “Come on in.”

Well, that’s a change.

BW: Another example is that there is a recognition that experience is not what it was cracked up to be and employers are looking at people for what their potential is rather than what their history is. That’s a change.

You mentioned Twitter. Are you an investor?

BW: No. But I’m an investor in Posterous, which makes a blog-by-e-mail system, which also connects in with Twitter and Facebook.

I’m familiar with Posterous. I think it’s great. You can upload video, text, and pictures, just by sending an e-mail. Why did you choose to invest in Posterous? Why does it excite you?

BW: Well, let’s start with Twitter. For example, one of the ways I describe Twitter is that it is a transmitter. Imagine if somebody said, “I can give you this transmitter and it will transmit across the entire globe, in real time. And it can reach up to and including every single person who uses Twitter. And it’s free.” Well, that’s pretty cool. And then they say, “Well, wait. There’s more. People can tune in to whomever they want. They can essentially say, ‘These are the 25 channels I want to listen to.’ And we’ll let you know if they’ve tuned into you and who they are. Furthermore, the transmitter can transmit anything: video, audio, text, you name it (because it can point to any blog). It’s a pretty cool transmitter, huh?”


BW: A radio transmitter can’t do that. The world is changing. The access to the transmitters used to be incredibly tightly held by a small group of people like broadcasters, newspapers, and magazines. That was pretty much it.

Now everybody gets a transmitter. I consider my Twitter feed to be another broadcast mechanism, another media outlet. I look and see what media people are pointing me towards and I look at those things. Now I pretty much only read the New York Times and the things people are mentioning on Twitter.

With this increased activity of people transmitting, transmitting is much more efficient. People review the transmissions and cull out what they care about, leave what they don’t. You may only care about one out of ten tweets that you see on Twitter. One out of ten is fine. It takes milliseconds to look at a tweet. The result is that it’s a way more efficient way for people to get information out.

It seems to have gone mainstream. People are still debating the validity—

BW: People who are debating that are the same ones who were wondering whether the Internet was going to go anywhere.

[Laughter] You’re right. What I’m reading these days does seem to be what’s linked from Twitter. How does Posterous fit in here?

BW: My intention is to help people tell their story. What better tool than something that simply requires an email to put your story up for everybody to see. And it actually connects to Twitter and Facebook. It’s an incredible storytelling tool.

Helping people tell their stories is an ongoing intention for you?

BW: Of course intentions are ongoing for people. And they invent in different ways. My intention is also to help people feel closer together.

You’ve also invented a hand cycle.

BW: Right.

Do you cycle a lot?

BW: I don’t cycle as much as I would like to. But I probably go riding twice a day because my dog loves to go out with me.

What kind of hand cycle are you riding now?

BW: I ride a 1982 New England hand cycle, which was my first company. I’m also testing the Morph.

That’s a bike that flattens out for riding out on the streets and then closes up to make itself more maneuverable in a dwelling?

BW: Right.

Is that close to becoming a product?

BW: Yeah.

That’s exciting. Bill, thanks for your time.

BW: Thank you Erik.

Blog: Bill Warner’s Blog