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.”
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.
“The energy between them was obvious at every moment,” says activist-author Torie Osborn, who is currently executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation. “They did lots of entertaining. While David put on the china and Rand cooked, we engaged in passionate discussion about city politics, gay literature, AIDS activism, whatever. The food was great, the gossip was hot, and the political conversation was savvy.”
The last time Osborn remembers seeing Schrader, “David was pushing him in a wheelchair,” she says. “They were both gamely trying to look brave but looked so sad.”
Ironically, it was Schrader’s death from AIDS, 10 years into their relationship, that launched Bohnett into his professional triumph. Leaving his job in the software industry at Legent and Goal Systems with “no specific plans in mind,” he moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills and took some time off to travel: New York, Paris, Key West. In fact, it was on an October 1994 plane ride from Los Angeles to New York that Bohnett first read about the World Wide Web. “This is what I want to do,” he said to himself. Ever the efficient administrator, he immediately wrote out a to-do list: “Buy a new PC, learn about the Web.” a
“I had always been fascinated by computers and modems and bulletin-board systems,” says Bohnett, who had worked extensively in computer systems during his business career. “I saw the Web as one big version of Prodigy or AOL — a place where people from all over the world would connect in a variety of ways. I thought the Web was going to be this huge arena where everyone would somehow have access and be connected. I thought, ‘Let’s create something that takes the concept of interactivity and communication, and apply it to the World Wide Web.‘ I was looking to throw myself into something.”
Using his “entire life’s savings” and Rand‘s life-insurance money ($386,000), Bohnett created Beverly Hills Internet, installing the first ever World Wide Web live video camera overlooking Hollywood and Vine. Hollyweird-cam, capturing foot and car traffic at the storied corner 247, was an instant hit. “I used the legendary location as a way of creating a context in people’s minds, in this case, entertainment,” he says.
But Bohnett wanted to go even farther in exploiting the place-name identification dynamic. Renaming his site GeoCities, Bohnett began in December of 1996 to create online theme neighborhoods (Athens, Broadway, the Tropics, Times Square), allowing individuals, coined “Homesteaders,” to set up their own free personal Web pages and interact with others. In 1997, GeoCities welcomed its 1 millionth Homesteader, making it one of the fastest-growing sites on the Web. With an $86 million IPO in 1998, GeoCities became the latest Wall Street dot-com darling. Bohnett used the infusion of capital to add a search engine, user interfaces, site-navigation features and new tools for Web publishing and e-commerce. In April 1999, just before the Yahoo sale, GeoCities announced first-quarter revenues of $7,842,000, an astonishing 261 percent leap from the year before. After a period of intense wooing by Yahoo and others, Bohnett decided to bestow his baby on the popular Internet portal.
“Right company, right culture, right price, right time,” he says. “Yahoo was the best home for GeoCities, and ensured that our original vision would be carried out in a big way.”
Not surprisingly, Bohnett no longer lives in a one-bedroom apartment. We meet at his home in Holmby Hills, a midcentury modern designed by architect A. Quincy Jones for actor Gary Cooper. The house is understated, even spare, showcasing his art collection — works by David Hockney, Willem de Kooning, Keith Haring and Mark DiSuvero. We are served lunch — a simple pasta — alfresco, overlooking the pool and gardens.
Bohnett is dressed in beige slacks and a crisp pastel shirt, unpretentious but every bit the MBA. He places his sunglasses and cell phone on the table, but ignores the constant ringing to begin talking about me: how much he likes my work for the gay press, and how well I “integrated” my identity as a gay man with my work. I have to labor to turn the spotlight back on to him.
After coffee, Bohnett walks me through the house to the modest office of the David Bohnett Foundation, his charitable-giving organization. On the way, we stop at a wall lined with photographs. Most of the shots are of Bohnett and Schrader; whether elegantly dressed in tuxedos or bundled up in winter garb, they appear crazy in love. Clearly, this is Bohnett‘s way of telling me that his meteoric rise is as much a romantic story as it is a Horatio Alger tale — inspirational, maybe, but not without tragic overtones. The businessman veneer evaporates as he identifies each of the photos in his life with a sense of resigned longing.
“The more you give, the more you get,” he insists, breaking the slightly melancholy mood that has descended. Is he talking about his past relationship or his present business? “Giving can be considered a selfish act, because you get so much more back than you give,” he says.
Unlike some of his fellow Internet millionaires, Bohnett will never be accused of sitting on his money. Even before his foundation was officially established, he gave $125,000 each to two local organizations, GLAAD and the Gay and Lesbian Center. The total endowment for the David Bohnett Foundation, a state- and federal-registered nonprofit, is about $28 million, he says.
Bohnett has carefully earmarked six areas of giving, falling loosely under the umbrella of social activism. In addition to GLAAD and the Center, Bohnett will make grants in the areas of transportation (“I think it has a lot to do with providing equal-access opportunity for everybody in terms of being able to get to work and live where they want to live; when you look at the history of mass transit, it’s all about social issues”), voter registration (“I don‘t care how they vote, just that they vote”), handgun control (“to the extent I can make a difference given the magnitude of the problem”) and animal activism (“I think it’s important in terms of our overall place in the world”).
Bohnett also manages his own portfolio through his investment company, Baroda Ventures LLC, and sits on the boards of directors of NCR Corp. in Dayton, Ohio, Stamps.com in Santa Monica, NetZero Inc. in Westlake Village and several other privately held Internet ventures — the future of e-commerce in their respective industries, he believes. In addition, he was named a Regents‘ Lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles and will deliver several addresses during the 1999-2000 academic year.
Last weekend, Bohnett was honored by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center with this year’s Rand Schrader Distinguished Achievement Award for his “remarkable and courageous record of championing gay and lesbian equality and greatly enhancing the visibility of lesbian and gay people.” His selection had nothing to do with his relationship with Schrader; rather, the two men‘s lives tracked so closely, it was simply a poetic coincidence that one would be honored in the other’s name.
“I met Randy when I was 27 years old,” Bohnett reflects, “and was very much in love with him throughout our whole time together. To receive an award named in his honor is a wonderful tribute to him, to our life together, and to the achievements I‘ve had as a result of his love and support.”
As the interview draws to an end, I realize I still have no idea why Bohnett triumphed, rather than being felled by the tragedy of AIDS or marginalized as a gay computer geek. Why you? I finally ask. What makes you different?
“I read a quote the other day by Albert Einstein,” Bohnett says. “He said that the most important question people should answer for themselves is whether or not they think the universe is benevolent. When you answer that question, everything else in your life really follows from that core belief. Do you feel there’s hope and goodness? I do!”