Rob Glaser’s Real Legacy: A New Mass Medium, New Markets, and Constant Reinvention

The biggest news in a very busy week around the Seattle technology scene has been that Rob Glaser is out as chief executive of RealNetworks. Glaser stepped down on Wednesday after 16 years at the helm, but he remains chairman of the board and Real’s largest shareholder.

Back in 1994, after leaving Microsoft, Glaser founded Progressive Networks, which changed its name to RealNetworks and became a publicly traded company in 1997. Real is best known for its contributions in digital media, such as RealPlayer and RealAudio multimedia software, the RealGames and RealArcade video game business, and Rhapsody music service. (See a few thoughtful stories about Glaser’s impact on the tech world and the Seattle startup community, in the Seattle Times and TechFlash, and All Things Digital.)

Glaser, 47, has been a controversial figure throughout his time at Real, having earned a reputation as an intense and demanding leader. Some people will no doubt be interested in recent reports that he was “eased out” by Real’s board of directors, or that the value of his stock in the company has gone up by $40 million since he resigned. (He held 51,972,162 shares, or about a 38 percent stake in the company, as of its most recent proxy filing last August.)

But I wanted to start processing the news this week by talking with people Glaser worked with, to get a better sense of the man behind the reputation: his leadership qualities, vision, and impact. Here are some of the thoughts and reactions I’ve gotten so far from former Real employees in the business community.

From Kelly Jo MacArthur, former general counsel and chief of staff at RealNetworks (a 10-year veteran who left the company in 2007):

“Rob is indeed a visionary thinker. Throughout the time I’ve known him, people around the world have sought out his perspective, ideas, and vision. My hope is that we’ll get a lot more of Rob’s vision throughout society. He has a lot of perspective and interest in issues like climate change, and he’s very focused on the set of societal problems we’re facing for the next hundred years. And the opportunities we’ve created through a new mass medium, in the truest sense of the word, that we can all control and inform. It truly gives us the ability to be a much more educated, democratized, communicative, informed world. Which was one of his goals when he first wrote the business plan for Progressive Networks in 1994. The world is there now.

“I don’t know what [his] next thing will be. He must have so many possibilities. He still owns 38 percent of RealNetworks and is the chairman of the board. He cares very, very deeply about everyone at RealNetworks and the success of the company, frankly, less because of his financial interest than because he cares so deeply about the company and the people. I think he’ll continue to play the role of helping Real transform itself and move forward in the future.

“Transition is hard for any leader. But ideally, great leaders understand when their teams are ready and the time has come to let them lead the charge and step into a different place. I think he’ll be productive at Real in a different capacity. The team he has in place is extremely capable. Rob has a unique ability to hire some of the absolutely very best and brightest and committed people. That’s never changed, not in 16 years. The company went through and survived two very, very difficult economic cycles that few companies of its size and resources could. They survived many monumental shifts in the technology industry. They came out on the other side of being in the gun sights of Microsoft.

“I read somewhere this week that Rob is known for taking on big fights, and that’s one of the things that can make him interesting to work for. The challenge, of course, is always to know when to choose the right fights. You’re not going to get it right 100 percent of the time. If you see things very differently and you have a big vision, and you’re going to risk upsetting established traditions and paradigms, then you have to be willing to take on a few very big fights. He’s been capable of that, and the company has survived. They have a very strong base of assets.

“And they’ve reinvented themselves. One thing Rob has done very well, I don’t know if he gets enough credit for it, he has constantly reinvented the company. He has learned not only from mistakes that Real made, but also from the lessons that are happening around us. He can turn a corner very, very quickly. For example, after introducing streaming media, Real was the first company to really introduce viable, commercial streaming video in a way that dramatically changed the opportunities for streaming video and allowed other people to go and build a business.

“In the early days, when Rob would talk about wanting to build an entirely new mass medium, he would say several times a day, this will [bring about] changes in society that are so much bigger than we can see, and we will likely only be able to participate in a very small amount of those, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go empower as many other industries to take advantage of this. Because the long-term, cumulative effects on the world will be much greater and more important.”

From Sujal Patel, founder and CEO of Isilon Systems:

“Rob’s leadership, and the culture he built at Real, attracted a group of incredibly talented and highly motivated individuals. His drive and passion inspired many of us to reach beyond what we thought was possible. At Real, many of us honed our ability to think creatively and challenge conventional thinking. The result has been the creation of a number of companies, Isilon and Second Life among them, that leveraged that ability to create entirely new market categories. Rob should be credited not only for his leadership, but for the entrepreneurial spirit that he inspired in so many of us.”

From Dan Shapiro, co-founder and former CEO of Ontela (now chief technology officer at Photobucket):

“Rob was a bold leader who was not afraid to define company strategy, in real time, as information came in. This can be a tremendous asset and a terrible liability, occasionally at the same time. I expect that without Rob, RealNetworks will be a lot more risk averse. I’m not surprised this went over well with Wall Street in the short term, but it was that willingness to go out on a limb that kept Real whole through two economic meltdowns. I expect things to be less exciting with him gone.”

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