Among a scattering of cardboard boxes, several men clad in jeans and plaid shirts sit on couches chatting about software. The office has the distinctive marks of a tech startup, but it’s not in Silicon Valley. It’s on Bow Street in Cambridge.
The head of the quickly expanding company, Harvard grad Christopher Thorpe ’98 has spent the last two years as chief executive officer of Philo, an Internet service that delivers live-streaming television to college students.
But Philo goes beyond March Madness and reruns of Seinfeld. This startup has been recognized for its unique, revolutionary intentions and was named one of the most innovative companies of 2014 by Fast Company. Soft-spoken and articulate, Thorpe has used his skills as a businessman, a computer science Ph.D, and an experienced advisor to tech startups to expand the company and reach more students.
Phil(o) of the Future
Philo began as a Harvard dorm-room startup when students Nicholas Krasney ’09 and Tuan Ho ’09 created a satellite dish on their wall using tin foil to pick up and transmit TV signals to their laptops. After many of their friends asked for access, Tivli—which later changed its name to Philo to avoid confusion with other companies—was created.
Originally piloted at Harvard, Philo now offers it live-stream Internet TV service at over a dozen schools including Yale University, Pepperdine University, and University of Washington. Because colleges tend to be digitally ahead of the curve, Thorpe and his team are planning to pilot Philo at over a dozen more schools this fall.
“The best reason to start with colleges is that universities have always led the Internet by 5 to 10 years,” Thorpe said. “By building a product usable for young people, we are building a product for the future.”
Though seemingly similar to Netflix or Hulu, which both allow users to watch shows on demand, Philo preserves the traditional format of TV watching—changing channels and watching commercials. But, Philo expands the outlets through which students can legally watch TV shows: they can sit around a table and watch Philo on their laptop, play a show in an Internet side window while writing a paper, or watch TV on their mobile device. Though Thorpe says he values the traditional TV set, he sees room for innovation in television viewing.
“I think there’s always going to be a place for a big screen TV on the wall of a living room,” Thorpe said. “The way that TV is distributed into the living room will change, but the way people enjoy television won’t change.”
To create this unique television experience, Thorpe has compiled a team, infrastructure, and a business strategy that has propelled the company into startup stardom.
You can’t simultaneously have the fire and passion about your idea and be realistic about certain facts. The only way to solve that is to see people who care not only about your company but also about you, as an individual.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Turning a dorm-room startup into a successful business necessitates both perspective and irrational optimism according to Thorpe. “It’s an old Kenny Rogers song—you’ve gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ‘em.”
Often, he said, startup founders focus so much on one particular idea that they are afraid to change directions. Entrepreneurs with irrational faith in themselves need a levelheaded ally to push them towards ongoing success.
“You can’t simultaneously have that fire and passion about your idea and be able to be realistic about certain facts,” Thorpe said. “The way to solve that is to see people who care not only about your company but also about you as an individual.”
Thorpe has served as that rational force behind Philo. Well-versed in all aspects of running a tech start up—technology, media rights, business, and finance—Thorpe has been able to bring his expertise and outside perspective to improve the founders’ vision for the company. “Part of it is facing reality at every point of the way. Are you achieving the goals you set? Are you getting the traction you need?” Thorpe said.
Thorpe facilitated a defining move for Philo by spearheading the company’s decision to work with television providers to stream channels. By seeking this permission from providers to stream content, Thorpe has created a legal, reliable TV service. However, this has also been a challenge for Philo because some of its competitors are able to thrive by evading legalities and flourish under the radar.
“It was a risk—the companies could have said no,” Thorpe said. “We’ve worked hard to establish Philo as an ally of the people who invest time and money in creating great content.”
This move has made other content providers more willing to work with Philo, driving the business forward.
Thorpe credits his team for much of Philo’s success and compares the team-like nature of Philo’s leaders with that of Facebook. “Facebook created the most successful social network with an uncompromising focus on excellence in the team, product, and in the experience,” Thorpe said. “To start with, we have to have that same focus on excellence: building an excellent team and an excellent product.”
Often, startups fail when the founding team disintegrates. Thorpe continuously emphasizes the importance of hiring and cultivating a talented staff and maintaining the roots of the company.
“I think the most important leadership idea I can say is simultaneously recruiting the most talented people we can find and having the humility to know our strengths and weaknesses,” Thorpe said.
By hiring people who can counter his weaknesses, Thorpe was able to build a well-rounded team of individuals. His VP of Finance, Sara Dunleavy, a longtime financial officer to tech companies, handles accounting and human resources while his CTO, Thomer Gil, leads the engineering team and has recruited other techies who have contributed to the company.
Furthermore, Thorpe has a forgiving policy, which allows his staff room to experiment and push the limits of technology. He adopted this policy from his mentor Michael Hammer, a businessman who collaborated with Thorpe on a financial company for which he worked earlier in his career.
“There are two lessons one of my mentors Michael Hammer taught me: only two things should be punished in companies—incompetence and failure to face reality,” Thorpe said. “[At Philo] we don’t punish mistakes. We are honest about mistakes and [understand that] very smart people sometimes make mistakes.”
Thorpe’s knack for innovation and thoughtful leadership has contributed to Philo’s success and promise to push the limits of the future of TV.