Present life: Bell, formerly the CEO of Internet portal Excite Inc., took his current position after Excite merged with At Home in a May stock swap. Prior to the merger, Excite had 750 employees, $154 million in annual revenues, and a market cap of $7.3 billion.
Former life: As a writer and producer of documentaries for ABC, CBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, Bell won four Emmy awards. Between 1980 and 1991, he produced more than 40 films, mostly on nature conservation, wildlife and vanishing cultures, shooting in such locations as Mount Everest and Africa's Ituri rain forest. "My first few documentaries on vanishing tribes, I didn't realize that you have to bring a lot of cigarettes," Bell says. "The tribes in the Central African Republic use them to trade with one another--they live in a barter world. We had fistfuls of money with us and thought that would cover everything."
Lessons learned: "You learn the importance of planning, and what to do when the plan adds up to nothing. The clock's ticking and each day on location is your money. You have to be action-oriented when plans go awry. So sometimes you're inventing a story because the story you initially wanted to shoot never happened. That's why with mountain-climbing documentaries, in some of the best ones the team never reaches the summit. You have to go into the filming knowing you have no predictable outcome.
"At Excite, we first planned everything around being a search engine. When we went public, in 1996, our big revenue driver was Web-site advertisements. We didn't realize Net searches would let us be in so many other businesses--free E-mail, chats, newsgroups--as we began thinking of ourselves as a media company rather than a search company. We didn't go after free E-mail sites like Hotmail.com aggressively early on, and of course they've all shot up since then and been bought."
Bell ended up adapting Excite to take advantage of the Web's most valuable opportunities. The site, once only a search engine, now comprises 23 separate revenue streams, including auctions and free E-mail. Bell believes his experience in packaging visual elements for fresh eyes will help Excite@Home as it brings the Internet to many for the first time. "When you look at a subject a long time, you see subtleties others can't. If you're looking at straw-colored lions walking in straw-colored grass in Africa, after three days of filming you see them really well. For the same shot, it takes the audience four times longer to see the lions. You can't ever mistake your experience for what mass consumers go through on their first exposure."