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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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Trailblazers

True Vision

By Monika Blackwell

Contributor

As a child, Anthony Wood ’90 was nothing short of industrious. His family’s home in Georgia abutted a golf course, and the youngster would collect overshot balls from a nearby creek.

“I’d sell them back to the golfers for 25 cents,” Wood explained.

He always looked for a way to turn a profit, and it helped that in addition to recognizing opportunities, he was highly skilled at building things. In addition to a homemade rollercoaster and transistor radio kits, he designed tree houses—one of which he sold to a neighbor’s child for $20.

While other kids might have relished putting things together solely to figure out how they worked, Wood was drawn to the process itself. He liked making things—pure and simple. And he liked success.

Decades later, driven by the same curiosity and aptitude, Wood became a Silicon Valley sensation as the founder and CEO of Roku.

Anthony Wood '90 first began experimenting with computer programming as a teenager in the Netherlands. 

“Hello, World”

At age 13, Wood’s family moved to the Netherlands, where he attended the American School of the Hague and unlocked a new world for himself: computer coding.

“I became interested in electronics,” he said. “My school had a computer, so I stayed after school and taught myself to program.”

With a BASIC book as their guide, Wood and another student would spend hours at the computer terminal. When his family moved to Houston a few years later, Wood convinced his dad to help him split the cost of a computer—a TRS-80—so he could continue programming. It didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial bug to bite. To recoup the money he spent, Wood researched how he could sell his programs.

“Back then, there were two ways to make a profit,” he said. “You could sell your programs to a magazine where they’d be printed in the back, or you could sell them to a publishing company.”

After some rejections, Wood took a different approach. He started his first company, AW Software, and sold one copy.

While his success was limited, the experience furnished Wood with the confidence he needed to explore senior-level computer classes—such as operating system design and assembly language programming—as a freshman at Texas A&M University in 1983. When it came time to select a major, however, he chose electrical engineering to learn something new. “I thought I knew enough about computers and didn’t know enough about electronics,” he said.

After a few years in the engineering program, Wood started his second company, SunRize Industries. SunRize developed software for the Commodore Amiga PC, and its most popular products were digital audio tools for editors. The enterprise grew from a dorm room pet project to a 14-person team working out of an office space near the Chicken Oil Company in Bryan. It was sustainable until his grades began to suffer.

“I was very optimistic,” he said. “I’d sign up for classes, but I’d be too busy to go. And worst of all, I didn’t drop them. My grades went down, and the university sent me a probation letter saying that if my grades didn’t improve, I’d be kicked out.”

Wood made the difficult decision to shut down SunRize and focus on graduating. In 1990, he received his degree, packed up a U-Haul and moved to California with his then-girlfriend (now wife), Susan ’89, a fellow Aggie who majored in environmental design.  

Tech Hunch

In California, Wood re-established SunRize and continued developing programs for the Commodore Amiga.

“Amiga was a small market, but it was a pioneer in desktop video,” Wood said. “Now everyone makes videos on their computers, but back then computers weren’t fast enough. The Amiga was the first model with some add-ons that allowed video production.”

SunRize operated until 1995, after Commodore went out of business. Wood briefly considered adapting SunRize tools to work on other PCs, but he recognized something bigger on the horizon: the rise of the internet. With the profit from SunRize, he started a company named iBand to build a tool for creating websites. Before long, he found himself onstage at a conference showcasing iBand’s work. Representatives from the company Macromedia were in the audience, and within a few weeks, Wood had sold his first company.

He stayed on with Macromedia through a two-year employment contract, but negotiated to exit the contract a few months early. “It was my first job at a real company, which was a big shock,” he said. “I had just turned 30. I’d never had a boss before, and I didn’t understand their language. I had just moved from Texas and was unfamiliar with Silicon Valley tech culture.”

For Wood, the question of what to do next was one part risk, one part hunch and one part sheer genius—with a dash of Star Trek fandom mixed in. He wanted to build hardware that allowed users to record their favorite shows without the hassle of VHS tapes.

“Back then, we used the VCR to record TV shows. When ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ was on, I’d set the timer and watch it when I got home,” he said. “But eventually, I’d wind up with all of these unlabeled and unorganized tapes.”

By monitoring Fry’s Electronics advertisements, Wood followed the price of hard drives and predicted when they would be cheap enough to build his “personal television.” He started ReplayTV, the first company to offer a digital video recorder, or DVR. Unfortunately, ReplayTV wasn’t the only DVR option, nor did it gain the most hype. Instead, TiVo entered the DVR market and quickly went public. It’s still a sore spot for Wood, but he calls the experience “eye-opening.”

Despite the setback, Wood’s best invention was yet to come. His ability to recognize the next best thing in the tech world would be the impetus behind Roku.

Anthony Wood '90 revolutionized the television industry. Today, Roku is one of the most popular options for streaming on-demand content. 

A Better Way to Watch TV

Wood considers Roku his sixth company—he counts SunRize once for its College Station days and a second time for its California redux.

“Susan and I were eating at a Japanese restaurant one night, and I was trying to think of a name for Roku,” he said. “I asked the waiter the Japanese word for five, which is ‘go.’ Go was a failed technology company back in the day, so I said, ‘What about six?’ The waiter said, ‘Roku,’ and I said, ‘Okay, we’ll go with that.’”

Roku transforms a user’s television experience, bringing the scope and interactivity of the internet into the centerpiece of one’s living room—something that many companies have tried and failed to do. Roku successfully gives people access to thousands of streaming, on-demand content options. Wood calls it “a better way to watch TV.”

“We focus on a product that’s super easy to use, a great value and has lots of content,” he said. “In the U.S., we have about half of the market. About 50 percent of active streaming players are Roku players. And then we have Roku TVs, which also run our operating system.”

The company has found multiple ways to generate a profit. Beyond selling hardware, the majority of its profit comes from a media and licensing business that monetizes active customers. Other portions derive from advertising and billing fees.

Roku also has neutrality on its side and avoids direct competition with its content partners. “We’re the only streaming company with both Amazon Instant Video and Google,” said Wood. “We’re the only company besides Google that has Google. Partnerships are pretty common in the tech industry, but what’s increasingly less common is neutrality.”

Wood won’t reveal how much his company is now worth, but he will tell you that Roku had $400 million in sales last year and finished 2016 with more than 13 million active accounts. The company also streamed 9 billion hours of content in the last year and is steadily increasing its share of the smart TV market.

Greg Garner, a principal hardware engineer at Roku and a longtime friend and colleague of Wood’s, calls him a triple threat. “Anthony’s very technical. He understands the hardware and the software, which is very rare,” Garner said. “And I can’t figure out how he does this, but he somehow predicts future trends and can form a business around an idea a year or two before the trend hits.”

Wood’s third threat, according to Garner: “He’s a risk-taker who encourages the same behavior in his employees.”

It helps that Roku employees are some of the best in the business, and Wood has strived to maintain a company culture that ensures employees are in an environment that matches their strengths. Part of that culture emphasizes rewarding hard work. Once, while his team spent weeks working evenings and weekends to meet a deadline, Wood flew in some of his Texas favorites—barbecue and Blue Bell ice cream.

He says there’s one other important Texas throwback that remains part of the Roku culture—something he learned at Texas A&M.

“We do an all-hands meeting once a year, and our last one was 600 people. In the early days, there were only 10 or 20 of us, so I thought I’d train the staff on the proper way to start a meeting by saying, ‘Howdy.’ Now that we’ve grown, I still say it by default, and they all say ‘Howdy’ back.”