Loading...

Out on the Web 

GeoCities founder David Bohnett just wanted to make the WWW a community. Now he's worth $350 million.

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999

GeoCities founder David Bohnett just wanted to make the WWW a community. Now he’s worth $350 million.

As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, David Bohnett -- founder of the GeoCities Web site, philanthropist and one of the latest in the string of supersize millionaires spawned by the Internet -- found himself staffing a gay crisis phone line. “In those days,” he says, “that‘s what gay activism was: You worked on a crisis line.” Admitting to be gay often brought on feelings of unbearable isolation and even thoughts of suicide, he remembers.

“You could identify with that desperate voice on the other end who felt like he was all alone,” Bohnett, 43, remembers. “By listening, you could help somebody.” He compares the sensation to “walking into a gay bar for the first time or attending a pride festival,” when he felt the connection, knowing “there are other people who are the same as I am.”

Related Stories

It was that same gift for interconnectedness that led Bohnett to create GeoCities in Santa Monica. Starting in 1994, GeoCities dedicated itself to providing members with the tools to build their own presence on the Web, search for others with similar interests and, then, mingle. Four short years later, the influential Media Matrix tracking service ranked GeoCities among the top three most trafficked sites on the Web. The company went public in August of 1998. Nine months later, Yahoo Inc. came calling. Some $4 billion later, the two companies merged, leaving Bohnett $350 million richer.

“I felt that giving people the chance to talk about who they are and what their thoughts and hopes and aspirations and experiences were -- just like the crisis line -- is a very empowering thing,” Bohnett says. Providing a free home page to everyone on his network was not only democratic, it was humanistic.

“Plenty of people said that GeoCities is all about personal publishing and has nothing to do with community,” Bohnett acknowledges. “But when someone creates a Web site about their interests and other people interact, that’s what community is all about. Community is a sense of shared interaction and participation.”

“A community site like GeoCities, integrated with a network site like Yahoo, provides users with a one-stop shop on the Web,” says Steve Harmon, founder and CEO of e-harmon.com, a top Internet investing firm. “It allows Yahoo to reach more people and drive its business and revenue ahead. For GeoCities, it gives its users an integrated Web experience that‘s convenient. It was a great deal for GeoCities investors.”

No kidding. GeoCities’ shares rocketed up 42 12, to 117 14 on news of the sale. Yahoo was up 31 78, to 367 34. (The company this week was trading at 218 34.)

Not bad for a self-described electronics geek from suburban Hinsdale, Illinois, west of Chicago. Bohnett grew up in a household that stressed the value of hard work and “particularly, good education,” he says. His father was in the wholesale fuel-oil business, and his mother was a preschool teacher and homemaker. Unfortunately, the Norman Rockwell setup didn‘t accommodate young David’s feelings of being different. “I never thought I was a good Little League player,” he remembers.

Always interested in things “electric, electronic or mechanical,” Bohnett combined his geekiness (taking apart watches, building radios) with entrepreneurial zeal (selling Amway products to his parents‘ friends). His alienation as a gay person created “an overlay of sensitivity” that ultimately served him well, Bohnett says.

“Growing up, being aware that you’re different, your senses are always attuned to how people are reacting to you,” he recalls. “That experience creates a lot of sensitivity.”

While studying business administration at USC, Bohnett came out to himself as a gay man -- “not a choice,” he says, but “a realization: ‘This is who I am.’” Like many gay men in the ‘70s, he put off the daunting task of sharing the realization with his parents. After receiving an MBA in finance from the University of Michigan, Bohnett started his career as with Arthur Andersen & Co., a worldwide accounting and consulting firm, but knew that, because he was gay, “It wasn’t going to be easy.” The heterosexual social expectations made it “tough to evolve and succeed,” he remembers. “I would have had to push down who I was, and that didn‘t seem right to me.”

Then Bohnett met L.A. Municipal Judge Rand Schrader, one of the first openly gay jurists in the U.S. As deputy city attorney under Burt Pines, Schrader previously had been the first openly gay attorney in any public law office. The two men fell in love, allowing Bohnett to leave the corporate world, come out to his family (which eventually accepted Schrader) and meld his business career with gay activism.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • Peepshow Menagerie's Dungeons & Dragons Burlesque
    Dungeons & Dragons characters seduced D&D fans at Peepshow Menagerie's monthly theatrical burlesque show this weekend at Fais Do Do. Game Master Micah Cover along with Patrick The Bank Robber hosted the epic quest of heroes and monsters on their role playing adventure. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Lina in L.A. -- Tiki Oasis
    Pin-up girls, beatnik boys and tiki lovers from L.A. and beyond made a splash at San Diego's Crowne Plaza Hotel, which hosted the annual Tiki Oasis event, this year themed "Beat Tiki" with a groovy "60s beat" thrust. The wild weekender took over the grounds with colorful cocktails, non-stop pool and room parties, fashion shows, seminars, shopping and live entertainment including burlesque, bands and more.

    See also: Tiki Oasis, a Convention for Fans of Retro Tropical Kitsch
  • Lina in L.A. -- Swinghouse Studios' Farewell to Hollywood Soiree
    A rocking, raging night was had by all when Swinghouse Studios marked a big move Saturday night. The legendary Hollywood recording and rehearsal space, which has been home to big bands and wild bashes for two decades (first on Cahuenga Blvd. and then on Willoughby Ave. near Santa Monica Blvd.) will soon move to Atwater Village. Food trucks, drinks, and great live sets by Prima Donna, Dorothy, The Beta Machine and Alexa Melo highlighted the bittersweet revelry.