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Founder at Work: Mike Ramsay, Co-founder of TiVo

October 13th, 2010 :: Monika Jansen

In the newest installment of my monthly “Founder at Work” series, I turn the spotlight on Mike Ramsay, co-founder of TiVo, which was launched way back in 1999.  As Jessica Livingston says in her book Founders at Work, TiVo, like Google, has become such an integral part of our lives that its name is now a verb.  The digital video recorder (DVR) has revolutionized the way we watch TV, and unlike VCRs, it is actually easy to use (no more blinking 12:00).

Here’s what we can learn from Mike Ramsay, who founded TiVo in 1997 with Jim Barton.

If it’s boring, make it fun. Mike, who is originally from Scotland, was very inspired by the confident, can-do attitude in the US, especially in Silicon Valley.  Even though he’s an engineer by training, he has the creative mind of an entrepreneur.  He wanted to do something with computers in the entertainment space, because most computer applications can be really boring.  At the time, he was working at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) and spending a lot of time with movie people.  His one-time colleague at Hewlett-Packard, Jim Barton, was working on a video-on-demand system for SGI, but they knew they could do something better together.  After numerous lunch meetings, they decided to launch a company that made an easy-to-use, interactive television system for consumers.

Focus your business. TiVo was originally a “home server network thing” loaded with applications.  Mike and Jim quickly realized this was way too complicated and would be a hard sell for the average consumer.  Because it had so many apps, they decided to focus on the one killer app that consumers would go for.  They thought the DVR idea was the best.

Create a playground atmosphere at work. Mike was very worried about attracting a great team of engineers to design the best DVR possible.  The best and brightest look for a challenge—they want a playground that gives them the freedom to play around and figure out a solution.  The DVR required a user-friendly interface, it had to be controlled by remote, and the very complex technology behind it was totally new—it had to simultaneously record and playback and be easy to program and use.  Because it was a consumer product, it couldn’t be outrageously expensive, but it had to work perfectly.  The challenges were big enough that within 6 months, they had assembled a brilliant team of engineers.

Don’t underestimate the competition…to make mistakes. Back in the early days, TiVo had one competitor, Replay, which launched a DVR right after TiVo.  The competition between the two companies was fierce, but eventually Replay did TiVo a big favor.  They introduced automatic commercial skipping and they let you share programs over the Internet.  The media companies went ballistic and sued Replay.  TiVo suddenly looked like the good guy in the DVR market, and media companies from Disney to Viacom put money into the company.  Mike said he still doesn’t understand why they did so, but he acknowledged that TiVo is now a media company rather than a consumer product company.