Rich Riley on Finding Tech From Finance During the Dot-Com Bubble

Editor’s Three Key Takeaways
  1. The pace of change around us is mind-blowing. Be cutting edge and don't be disrupted. The worse thing you can do is think you will never go obsolete.
  2. There are layers and layers that make up the reality around us. Stay attentive. Find problems. Try solutions.
  3. With all the resources around you, it's surprising how quickly and inexpensively you can build things. Do it.

After spending a few years at investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), Rich Riley stumbled upon an internet problem and decided to build out Log-Me-On.com. It was subsequently acquired by Yahoo, and Rich tagged along for a 13-year stretch, during which he got to experience London and Geneva to work as the Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Yahoo Europe, Middle East and Africa, and eventually switching back to become Executive Vice President, Americas, Yahoo’s largest department. When Rich left Yahoo, he wanted to fill the role of CEO at a company he could really get involved in. Fortunately, Shazam found him and it was love at first sight, and he has been CEO of Shazam for four years and counting.

Rich graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business in 1996, majoring in Finance and Entrepreneurial Management.


What was the path that you took leading up to your first venture?

I chose Wharton over several other Ivy League schools for the incredible business education. I was very eager to learn from the best and get to Wall Street and thought Wharton that was the best place to do that.

I have always been an entrepreneur. In high school, there was lots of yards and so I had a lawn mowing company. I was always thinking about entrepreneurial ventures, which led to a dual concentration in finance and entrepreneurial management at Wharton. I really enjoyed my work and the entrepreneurial management courses, where the professors brought in real world examples and experiences into the classroom (Editor’s Notes: MGMT 235: Management of Innovation and MGMT 264: Entrepreneurial Management are great courses that offer this type of exposure. See more here). I played football my first year and stopped after that. I was president of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity and very active in that.

When did your entrepreneurial aspiration pick up?

A couple years [into investment banking], I was still working incredible hours but really enjoying it. I was traveling a lot for that role, and then on one airplane ride, I had an idea around organizing usernames and passwords. I asked a good friend of mine in the I.T. group at DLJ if there was a service that does what I was thinking. Keep in mind, this was 1998, so the Internet was really just getting started. To give you an idea, we were just starting to use e-mail as a core business tool. We were quick to say:

“Why don't we create one?”

With DLJ's blessing, we created a side project and built a service called Log-Me-On.com. The concept was that you would go to Log-Me-On.com, input all your usernames and passwords and this would be the place where you started your internet experience. You would go to Log-Me-On.com and click on the Wall Street Journal and it would automatically log you in. Now, you wouldn't need to always carry around all these usernames and passwords. We built this site, and we were promoting it very guerrilla style. We got thousands of users, and it was going fine.

How did you really start pushing Log-Me-On.com?

We didn’t want to go obsolete. We started asking questions like, “What if you didn't have to go to Log-Me-on.com? What if we were just in the browser?” My friend's brother is an incredibly talented software developer and he figured out how to make something persistent in the browser. At the time, Netscape and Internet Explorer were the two primary browsers. No one had ever done what he figured out, and we quickly realized that we needed to protect this intellectual property. We went and got the best intellectual property attorney that we could get, without much of a budget, and filed a patent on the technology.

Where did you decide to take the technology?

We decided this technology would best be used on a big platform. There were three big Internet companies at the time: Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos. We created mockup toolbars for each and leveraging my network, we were able to get Jerry Yang at Yahoo and George Bell at Excite both interested. Both placed bids for the company, and in the end, we sold it to Yahoo. There were four of us working on the company at the time, and we all moved out to California. In 1999, I joined as the 799th employee of Yahoo in their corporate development group in California.

Editor’s Note: To reiterate, Rich ended up having a 13-year run at Yahoo. He was there for a lot of dotcom boom and the bust. He attributed his loyalty to the fact that Jerry Yang believed in them. It was a fast-pace environment that kept giving him more responsibility.

Your biggest takeaway from Penn?

One is the opportunities that I had coming out of Penn were tremendous. You really get catapulted into great roles at great companies that really get your career off to a fast start. I look at a lot of my classmates that have gone on to do really amazing things from that sort of launch pad. I also think that having some of the background that you get at Wharton around finance, modeling, and really understanding the core economics of any business. How business really works and how financial statements come together are thing that are harder to pick up later.

Having the entrepreneurial management training and seeing lots of real world examples, dealing with a lot of case studies, really hones your instincts at a young age.

Going off of your comment about the core skill set, how do you choose between breadth versus depth in different topic areas?

The core is the most important part. Understanding the fundamentals of accounting and of corporate finance. I remember the course where we had to simulate taking the company public and how you build those financial statements and position that company. And I thought those really built a great core around the financial underpinnings of a business.

I also took some courses that got more specialized around how to price debt securities and things like that. That's less applicable to a lot of things. You really don't need to understand that in the vast majority of roles, unless you’re really heading down a pure play Wall Street investor kind of track.

What would you advise for open-minded students who aren’t dead set on one path?

I would advise them to get the core of accounting and finance. But then also to pick up the core of marketing and sales and other functions.

What I thought was nice about entrepreneurial management courses was you got to really apply that stuff. And so I loved learning the accounting and the finance and then going over the entrepreneurial management and having to write the business plan for my company. Which included putting together financials and then also a marketing plan and letting me apply that knowledge. This type of application helped me retain it, as opposed to taking highly specialized courses that are just less applicable unless you know what you want to do and which is tremendous.

The kind of experience that I had would make you a better product manager at Facebook, or management consultant, or business development person at Google, or wherever you wanted to go. The path that I took really applies to a wide variety of things. In most roles, you're trying to assess the business impact of things whether it's a new product or a partnership or you’re trying to sell something.

Was there a particular industry of interest when you first started?

Not really. Because of my summer experiences, I was hoping to get a role on Wall Street and in the investment banking capacity because there were very few spots of the time and it's changed a lot in 20 years. One of the things that I liked about this mindset was that I remained a generalist, so I got to work on a wide variety of industries and up-and-down the whole range of buying and selling companies, raising capital for and structuring companies.

If I was advising someone, I would say: > Think about passionate, but also think about optionality. that are going to open doors for you and give you more choices. A lot about career management is about creating choices for yourself.

How did you navigate Log-Me-On.com without a solid core competency in technology?

So growing up I had one of the first computers and dabbled in writing code. But I didn’t even consider computer science as a major or have any plans to be a technologist when I was underground. A lot of what technology is doing is trying real world problems. In my case, I stumbled across a problem I was having around usernames and passwords and then was able to go partner and bring the technical skills that I needed to try to solve that problem. I'm pretty active on the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship Advisory Board, and we talk about what a great opportunity that the students have, to work on different projects in a cross-discipline manner.

It's rare that one person has all the skills. You can be a technology person, without being a technologist. But you better make sure that you've got some really talented engineers as partners.

A lot of students who have an inclination towards technology, but not necessarily the technologist skills have insecurities towards pursuing tech industries. What advice do you have for them?

What’s interesting is that there used be a technology sector and there were tech companies and then other companies would literally outsource their technology. It was viewed of as a non-core thing. I think it's becoming increasingly hard to find any company that doesn't think technology is core to what they do. I think Goldman Sachs has more software engineers than most tech companies.
This is a good example of a company with traditional roots truly embracing technologies in the way they're going to compete in the future and not be disrupted. At least half the startups in Silicon Valley are trying to disrupt something.

Students need to be curious about technology and how things work and what's possible.

They don’t necessarily need to understand how to write software or what languages things are written.

Learn to ask, "How could friction be removed from this business or this process? How would you do this if you were to start from scratch and leveraging all the technology is possible?"

How can students think in the manner that you described without a core engineering degree? How do they identify these places for disruption when they lack an understanding of how the technology works in a fundamental manner?

It's a really good question. I think doing projects can help. I know a lot of Wharton students are doing business plans and creating ventures and projects and things like that. If I was there today, I would partner with people in the computer science program, and work on something fun.

You can build stuff quite inexpensively and you can learn a lot from this type of rapid prototyping.

Students are growing up as digital natives, whereas lot of my peers were very late to get on the technology curve.

I would encourage people to download lots of apps and really try to lean in and push yourself to be an early adopter of various technologies. You’ve got to think about, “Where is this stuff going? How can it be applied to problems that need to be solved?” Then, when you are considering internships and job searches, find places that are on the cutting edges as opposed to places that are about to be disrupted.

So Jeff Weiner from LinkedIn always championed that everyone should have a one-line life goal in terms of their career. His has always been to reform education. What would yours be?

So I know Jeff and I used to work for him. He's really one of the incredible success stories that I know. I don't really have a one-liner like that. My career has been about working with great people in an environment where I feel that I can add value to create more opportunities for myself as well as the company. I know an executive coach that always says,

"Find your purpose as opposed to your passion,"

which really resonated with me.

I think people have to be little bit careful. I've largely ended up in the music industry in my current role. The music industry isn’t just for people who love music. Loving music doesn't necessarily lead to a career full of purpose and meet some of the other criteria I just mentioned.

What is something funny or interesting about your career?

So I started out in finance, assuming that I would be an investment banker. Maybe turn into an investor. Just generally stay in Wall Street. Then I had a wild idea on a plane one night, and next thing you know, I’m an Internet guy. I take a role, and next thing you know I’ve worked for a company that’s primarily associated with music. Now, I’m on the Billboard's Power 100 List of executives in the music industry. Definitely not something I ever thought I would be on.

But I loved it. Diversity: OK! Wall Street: Awesome, OK. Internet: Amazing, wow! Music industry: so interesting!

And then right now I'm producing a TV show with Mark Burnett and Jamie Foxx as the host and it's called "Beat Shazam" and it's going to be on every Thursday night this summer.

I'm spending a lot of time on that right now but I'm an executive producer of the show, with Mark Burnett, who is a legend. If you'd asked me when I was undergrad, “Do you think you'll ever produce a TV show?” I’m not sure if I would have known how to answer the question. But it's awesome.

But to your point about being open-minded,

You’ve got to create options for yourself and follow your instinct. Then, get ready for an exciting career journey into doing things that you never thought you’d end up doing.

Also, feel free to email in any followup questions. Part 2 Shazam interview to come.


Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent DLJ, Yahoo, Shazam or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.

Header photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Rampage45

Bill He

Aspiring Engineer, Product Builder, and Traveler. Likes to resonate at his own frequency and sometimes at that of his Ukulele. Strong sustainability advocate. Works on The Sign.al's servers.

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