Culture  /  Oral History

The Definitive Oral History of TiVo

How the original DVR paved the way for Netflix and the cord-cutter movement.

Jim Barton: We collapsed the concept into a single box on your TV to capture content off your television feeds and present that back to you. We came to the idea of pausing live TV, being able to record things, and all the pieces you need to manage all that.

Howard Look: I came on in early 1998… I was a video junkie. My wife and I, we watched a lot of TV. My job was to program the VCR in the morning every day before work. We had seven VHS tapes for Saturday through Sunday, which I would program.

Richard Bullwinkle (TiVo’s chief evangelist, 1998–2002): People didn’t realize the need — that you should never have to stay home to watch Friends. But NBC had us brainwashed.

Howard Look: To me, it was really obvious how disruptive it could be.

Mike Ramsay: We did get questions from some of the VCs, like, “Well, why won’t the big companies just do it themselves and just crush you? You are talking about a product that may violate copyright if it is recording television programs and manipulating them.” They said, “You are stepping into a world of large companies whose vested interest is that you not succeed.”

Mike Ramsay: We went about trying to build a team. We needed a few engineers. First place we were was in Santa Clara.

Howard Look: We took turns picking up the pizza orders. Instead of a receptionist, we had a motion-sensor frog that would make noise so we knew someone had walked in. I was employee number 16. [Within] months, we outgrew the space and moved to a new office building in Sunnyvale. We were bouncing around a space that had 200 or 300 seating capacity.

Mike Ramsay: [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen gave us $3 million.

Howard Look: We flew up to Seattle to demo the product for Allen at his Mercer Island home. While we talked, koi fish were splashing in a pond. He kept pulling out bags of potato chips. He asked a lot of good questions. And then he asked, “Would you like to see my home media environment?” He took us to an underground bunker with a 200-seat movie theater. And he had robotic arms programmed to put VHS tapes into VCRs.

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