The Entrepreneur Behind Aereo
It's a singular and almost inconceivable position that Chet Kanojia, the founder and CEO of Aereo, has found himself in. The fate of his company rests on the outcome of a single day in court--and he supports the fact the life of the company he's spent the past three years buildling is in the hands of nine justices.
Tuesday, the case of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., goes before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Remarkably, Kanojia is not outwardly rattled by this Shakespearian--or perhaps even Seinfeldian--situation: "This is what makes sense," he told me he thought when deciding to not oppose the major broadcast networks' appeal to the Supreme Court to take up their case against Aereo. (If you're not familiar with the meat of the case being argued before the court, know that it hinges on Aereo's rights--or lack thereof--to broadcast network television programming to customers' computers. A primer on the legal arguments is here, if you'd like to read more.)
In reporting on Aereo, I had the privilege of spending a couple partial days with Kanojia, and meet some of the other people behind this innovative company, both in its New York City headquarters in SoHo, and in its Boston office. I was intrigued not just by the technological solution Kanojia and his team had dreamed up, built, and sold to tens of thousands of people. I was also fascinated by the sheer pace of iteration that happened at Aereo. And one thing was clear: This had a lot to do with Kanojia himself. So I began to try to explore the roots of Kanojia's remarkable leadership traits. From my feature in the May issue of Inc. magazine:
Kanojia, who grew up in Bhopal, India, learned early that life can change in an instant. When Kanojia was 10, his father suffered a heart attack that left him unable to work for years, crippling the family's finances. Kanojia says this informed his thinking, to always have a "Plan B and Plan C. And D."
Kanojia moved to the United States to study engineering in 1991. In 1995, around the time Netscape went public, he struck out on his own. "I had that star in my eye," says Kanojia, now a U.S. citizen. "Every punk who could write two lines of code was going to be the next Marc Andreessen or Bill Gates." His first company, Navic Networks, which developed technology that allowed cable companies to collect data on subscribers, sold to Microsoft in 2008 for a reported $250 million.
Venture capitalist Amish Jani made one of his first investments in Navic. Now managing director at FirstMark Capital, Jani says funding Aereo was a no-brainer. "He's incredibly motivated," Jani says. "Maybe it's the immigrant effect, but there's not a lazy bone in his body."
What didn't quite make it into the magazine is this: Kanojia possesses a placid demeanor, but it doesn't run deep. Even during his privileged boyhood in a well-off family in Bhopal, India, he knew he wanted to stand out. "I never wanted to be the kid who went to Harvard and who went to McKinsey," says Kanojia, who is 44 years old. "So there's a little anti-convention streak."
After his father's heart attack, the years of recovery that followed influenced the younger Kanojia to a perhaps greater extent. Oftentimes after dinner, his father would take long walks, occasionally dragging teenage Chet with him. And they'd talk. The Big Talks. They'd talk about classic Hindu principles, of leading a Vedic life, or of yoga practice. As Kanojia tells it, a lot of these lessons stuck.
"One of the things he would always say is, 'look at that dog. That dog can feed itself. In life, putting food in your belly isn't your problem. [Your problem] is: Have you accomplished anything,'" Kanojia says. "So I look at 'average' as that dog. How could you not want to be different?"
Kanojia is familiar with soaring highs as well as hardship. His first company, Navic Networks, developed technology that allowed cable providers to collect data on subscribers' viewing and use that information to program targeted advertisements. The company's software at the time was quite widespread: It was in about 35 million cable boxes. After more than two grueling years of acquisition talks Kanojia describes in pained tones, he finally got glory: He finalized the sale of Navic to Microsoft in 2008 for a reported $250 million.
Kanojia led Aereo through its early stages exceedingly well. He brought on CTO Joe Lipowski and hired principal engineer Jim Bingham, who together took the antenna from wisp of idea to prototype to proven concept in a mere 18 months. Their teams also engineered the hardware and software that are the horsepower behind the tiny metal rods, antenna-board's software and capacitors that change an antenna's electrical properties so it can tune into a single broadcast's 6-megahertz frequency, rather than the entire broadcast spectrum at once, as does a big rabbit-ear antenna at home. In the vein of Apple or Tesla, most everything is engineered in-house. And most equipment (with the exception of the copper antennae, which are stamped in China) is manufactured in the United States.
Kanojia wasn't always a model CEO. He admits that his intense drive got the best of him at Navic--and employees at times reported disliking him.
"I feel like if it's under our control, we should always be doing better. We should be able to be doing newer, better, more interesting," he says. Separately, when describing the two years he spent navigating a potential acquisition while running Navic, he says, "I drove everybody absolutely bat-shit crazy by just push, push, push, push."
In the past decade, though, Kanojia has become an avid runner and golfer, has built a family, and focused quite a bit of effort on his management style. Today, his emotions are so controlled that when I ask him sitting down for an interview in the company's SoHo office in New York City, how he's feeling with the Supreme Court case looming, he simply repeats my question, "How are you feeling," pauses, and sighs. "I mean." Another pause. "I care very deeply about what happens."
He continues: "I think anybody who's ever worked with a collection of people knows that your psychoses spill over to your colleagues very quickly. And in particular if you're a CEO, you can't ask people to stay focused and strong and do their jobs if you're falling apart."
It's not just an act. When the ruling from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was handed down--a significant win for Aereo--Kanojia says his reaction was "sort of like, 'OK, yeah whatever.' Same feeling with all of these things."
That even-keel response should not be mistaken for indifference. Kanojia says one thing being a CEO for the greater part of a decade has taught him is to master those things one can command; and to not dwell on those one cannot. He explained: "If it's out of your control you just, woosh," he moved both hands up and away from his body in a dramatic sweep. "That's the distinction I would make. If things are not in your control, they're not in your control. It is what it is."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.