Chat with Chet

Chet Kanojia is an uncommon CEO. He dislikes ceremony: titles, business cards, photos… the man has no office! But he does have a few ideas that he was willing to share in an interview for our blog. 

Why Aereo? Why now?
The idea that consumers are going to use the Internet for most things, including accessing live television, is inevitable. It is just a question of time. We think the time is now. There are so many factors that drive this including level of broadband penetration and changing habits due to mobility. Television content has also evolved – you watch content now that you would never have seen before. But, how consumers get access hasn’t kept pace. It is inevitable that the business model must modernize along with the TV content. Consumers want choice and it is inevitable that someone will step up to provide just that.

So you’re stepping up – creating the technology and responding to public demand. How would you define yourself as a consumer?
Impatient.  Quality is very important to me. I’m willing to pay for extraordinary quality and absolutely willing to pay for something new that is unique, magical, and innovative.

Have you always been an entrepreneurial type of person?
I suppose I have. I grew up in Bhopal India, and my parents didn’t give us any allowance. We were not allowed to have a “job” so that meant I had to be creative about making a few bucks (no paper routes for kids) if I wanted anything. I wanted a stereo in my room, so I decided to make one for myself (it was kind of barebones, open circuits… for some reason I thought this would also impress girls… go figure).  When some of my parent’s friends saw this they asked if I could make them some too so I started making and selling low cost bookshelf speakers when I was 13. At the time, people in India had these tower speakers for their living rooms. They were big and completely impractical for other spaces, so I built smaller speakers for different locations in their homes. I sold them to my neighbors and parents’ friends. I had a workshop in my garage. The stereos were basic.  They weren’t great quality, but they were good enough and cost 15 bucks so people wanted them AND I could sell them on the benefit.

Engineer and businessman in the making!  And the entrepreneurism obviously continued. What followed?
I’ve worked on and developed handwriting compression, digital cameras, advertising systems, and ice-cream machines. (That was my favorite, talk about Quality Assurance for this project – I probably gained 30 pounds!) It’s been a pattern for me, I can’t sit still for very long and I HAVE to make a path for myself… walking in other people’s paths just isn’t interesting.  Other people’s journeys are very inspiring but following someone else’s playbook isn’t fun for me. Most of all, I’ve always been very fortunate to be surrounded by people that let me work on things I find interesting.

What gives you a rush when building a company?
Dreaming, selling others on the dream, and being attracted to people with interesting ideas. It’s terrifying most of the time, having a bottomless pit in your stomach, but it’s the only way to live for me. Building a startup is kind of like weather in New England… just wait a few hours and you go from despair to euphoria. The key is to not make any decisions in either the trough or the peak, as decisions at any of those times are fueled either by paranoia OR delusion!

How would you describe the culture at Aereo?
We are a flexible organization. Our hierarchy is idealistically flat. We foster an environment where everybody has the ability to question and ideas are always welcome. They’re expected, actually. I encourage diversity and expect everyone to be individuals. As we continue to grow, this mantra must remain consistent. It is very important to me.

What drives you?
Visual imagery. When I developed the idea for Aereo, I kept picturing rows and rows of antennas. On one side there were antennas and on the other side was me, a happy consumer. I’m a very visual person. I actually tend to think of complex problems in a visual manner.  Whether it’s a deal, software problem, anything… everything is visual for me.

What’s been the biggest challenge throughout this undertaking? 
The constant compromise between imagination and engineering while placing a bet on what the future might look like. Engineering is the art of the possible. You imagine something and you try to create it, maybe without solving the entire problem but enough to create a meaningful impact and then improve on it… the trick is to have enough of an intuition to know what’s going to make you distinct and have the customers take notice.

How did you develop the concept for Aereo?
After my last company became part of Microsoft and I completed my tenure there, I was restless and looking to grow, create and learn again. I did some soul searching, and concluded that I loved the video business and wanted to go back to the rush of the startup.  I’ve been associated with the Cable industry for about 12 years and it’s truly awesome to watch how the entire industry has evolved (I also love hanging out with old timers, you absorb a lot of wisdom). The industry had evolved to its current state due to accidents of technology and limitations. Most people don’t realize that the tiers and packages on pay TV grew out of technical necessities. Observing the trends solidified the need in my mind, which was a technology platform that enabled consumers to get TV online thus creating a starting point for consumers to have alternatives. I was closely watching the evolution of law, technology, and consumer behavior. Once my restlessness got the better of me, I decided to jump in and follow my passion.

Did you have a light bulb moment?
Not a light bulb moment but a scary moment. It happened on a trip to India after I left Microsoft. I was on a trip visiting a school that we support with my family, and on my first night I couldn’t sleep. I was outside Kolkata, trying to sleep on these hard wooden planks and my mind was racing. I started pacing around the room. I knew I wanted to see what could be done about this antenna idea that I had been turning over in my head. I knew I wanted to solve the problem of helping people break out of the pay TV big bundle. I realized the simplest way to solve the problem was to remind people of their right to access broadcast television with an antenna and therefore enable them to get their own antenna, which meant they had to be small, efficient, and remotely controllable by consumers. It was a monumental challenge. In some ways it was exciting because it involved an engineering challenge, but ultimately it was scary because for my dream to come true, first I had to make it real from an engineering standpoint. It was a science experiment.

Interesting because “science experiment” were the first words that came into my mind when I saw the arrays.  
It was very much a tech and science experiment. Conventional wisdom is minimizing the unknowns. You don’t invent too much in any startup. You have to get to first base and then figure it out.  But in Aereo’s case we had to literally INVENT new technology, build it and then see if the consumers liked it.  Initially I was petrified at the magnitude of the challenge.  But as usually happens to me, I ran a few miles to integrate the data.  I went for a run and the one thing that became clear was that IF we could get the technology to work, we would be the FIRST credible attempt at enabling true consumer choice.  Once the magnitude of this became clear, my usual instinct of extraordinary input kicked and I decided that this what I was wanted to do.

It was a meaningful challenge, indeed. But stressful nonetheless. What keeps you sane when the pressure is on?
Family and friends AND visualization.

And blogging?
I don’t think I could blog my way out of a paper bag.