Starting down the path of Rotten Tomatoes

With Rotten Tomatoes‘ 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, I’ve decided to do a retrospective on my memories from our early days of Rotten Tomatoes. As  a Rotten Tomatoes founder along with my partners Patrick Lee and Senh Duong, I’ve never really had a chance to document some of the stories from our early days. I ask for forgiveness in advance if there are errors as I’m trying to recall details from 20 or more years ago, really a lifetime in internet years (and yet I still feel like it was all so recent).

Watching Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, released in the summer of 1999, was a life-changing moment for me. No, the movie was an utter letdown for a life-long Star Wars fan like me, but I thank George Lucas for making such a mediocre movie as the online reaction to the movie helped change my mindset about what I wanted to do in life.

In May 1999, the week before Episode I came out, I got to see the film at an early, private radio promotion screening that also had a few film critics in attendance. When Rotten Tomatoes co-founder Senh asked me earlier in the week whether I wanted to catch a sneak preview of the most anticipated movie of my life (and probably in all of history), of course I replied ‘yes’ and I made the 90 minute drive alone from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Sacramento.


Senh had launched Rotten Tomatoes nearly a year earlier as a hobby project while working at our web agency at the time. Design Reactor, which our third Rotten Tomatoes co-founder and I had started right after my graduation from Cal in 1997, was making rapid headway as the lead web development agency for Disney Channel and at the time I was making a weekly trip back and forth between the Bay Area and Burbank happy and proud to be working for such a prominent client in the field that I loved.

Senh and I at Big Game in November 2005, right before leaving Rotten Tomatoes and continuing my entrepreneurial dreams in China

Nonetheless, the many sleepless nights of hard work with little outside recognition must had worn down Senh early on. In August 1998 (now 20 years ago!), he had come up with the idea for Rotten Tomatoes. Really, it was quite a genius, thinking out-side-the-box idea at the time and I’m quite envious that I hadn’t thought about it before. Both Senh and I are super movie afficianados. Senh is ethnically Chinese but from Vietnam with a short interlude in Hong Kong before arriving in the relatively rural Sacramento in the 1980’s. For Senh, 80s action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone play such a pivotal part of not just his childhood, but also his general perception of Hollywood and America overall. In the same vein, I was equally a movie fan, but my tastes were much more diverse. Senh and I could talk endlessly about our favorite films and directors, but I was also obsessive about small films from mini-majors and indie productions.

I was born in Ohio, but raised in suburban Maryland. When summers rolled around, my brothers and I would live Los Angeles in the increasingly immigrant Chinese community of Alhambra to see my father. As all my school friends were in Maryland rather than LA, with the lack of friends nearby, my brother and I basically spent every summer going to the movie theater and watching tons of summer movies of every sort. For him, it turned in to a profession as he chased his moviemaking dreams in Hollywood after college. For me, it meant that movies were always a major part of my life, even after I began chasing my dotcom dreams in college. It was a point of pride for me to have Disney as my major client so soon after graduating college that, unlike Senh, I didn’t really think much of building something “even greater”.

For Senh, however, he had more of an “artist” mentality (very similar to a “founder” mentality) and wasn’t content with essentially working as “affordable labor” for Disney. We couldn’t even publicly claim our hard efforts building such breakthrough projects as Zoog Disney, ToonDisney.comDisneyChannel.com, and eventually much of ABC.com. When Jackie Chan, his Hong Kong film idol, was about to star in Rush Hour, his first major Hollywood movie, Senh devoted his time to building his version of a “fan page”. He collected all of the news articles and film reviews in the weeks preceding the movie’s release and put them on a single page. In reality, while he meant to build a site for Rush Hour, since the film’s release got delayed, he actually continued the process of aggregating different review quotations and news headlines for other movies about to release. The first film page to launch was Neil Labute’s Your Friends & Neighbors, and by the time it had launched on August 13, 1998, he had already come up with some of Rotten Tomatoes’ key elements: The Tomatometer, Fresh and Rotten icons for reviews, review quotations and links, and the “Rotten Tomatoes” name. Senh had even registered the domain name rotten-tomatoes.com for his new web site. He began posting links to the aggregated Rotten Tomatoes movie review pages to the rec.arts.movies newsgroup and getting decent response from other newsgroup participants.

Early on, I had concerns about the legality of “aggregating quotations and links”. In those early days, the closest comparison would be the Drudge Report, but the quotation aggregation that Senh was doing was even riskier. It’s a commonplace practice now and commonly considered as covered legally under “Fair Use”, but back then it was still indeterminate. I think Senh’s “immigrant outsider” background and his artist mentality were important — they allowed him to think “outside-of-the-box” and make the important leap to come up something wholly new and innovative by aggregating this quotations, links, and ratings into the Tomatometer where as someone like me born and raised in the U.S. would have considered it too legally risky.

In the subsequent months, Senh’s “Jackie Chan fan project” blossomed in to his passion. He dedicated more and more of his time to updating and expanding Rotten Tomatoes including spending daytime going to the Berkeley Public Library to manually cull quotes from print newspapers and magazines (many of which hadn’t gone online yet in 1998) and all-nighters on the critical Thursday nights before movie openings on Fridays. At the same time, though, our little web design firm Design Reactor, had finally landed on the rollercoaster growth path as our initially small business with Disney Channel blossomed into becoming the primary web agency for the whole of Disney Cable Television. In the several months following the launch of Rotten Tomatoes, our company grew from 6 or 7 employees to 20-plus employees and interns and landed a seven-figure, yearlong deal with Disney to maintain and expand the whole of Disney Channel and affiliated web sites. During all of this, Senh became less and less interested in “working for Disney” and more and more obsessed with Rotten Tomatoes. Being a fan of movies and a fan of the web site, I helped initially by helping to do some minor programming, hosting the web site on our Design Reactor servers, and making the process easier for Senh by changing his manual HTML pages to more maintainable and reuseable templates. Nonetheless, both Patrick and I could clear see that Senh’s interest in Design Reactor was waning so we asked him to leave the company and so he could work full-time pursuing his Rotten Tomaotes passion and so that we could bring in a replacement as Creative Director (Joe Huang) who could dedicate his time to our growing web design company.

Instead of hanging around the Bay Area and helping us grow Design Reactor, Senh decided to move back to Sacramento and teamed up with his high school classmates Binh Ngo and Bobby Lee to continue running Rotten Tomatoes from Senh’s garage. In the first couple of months after departing Design Reactor, I don’t think Senh was even 100% certain about using his time to make Rotten Tomatoes a business. There was a short period of time during those early months where the three of them decided to shoot a movie together rather than continue updating Rotten Tomatoes and, as a consequence, there were no updates to the site for several weeks, though they resumed after deciding to not film the indie movie.

At the same time that Senh, Binh, and Bobby were updating Rotten Tomatoes from Sacramento, I was getting run down by my weekly trips between the Bay Area and Burbank simultaneously growing our Disney business to cover Disney Channel, Zoog Disney, and Toon Disney and producing two new Flash/Shockwave games for them every week. All of the newfound business from Disney allowed us to move to professional high rise offices in Emeryville and hire a professional CFO for the company. Despite our success with Design Reactor, I was begining to get run down by the constant client-handling and envious of being able to build and own our own property like Rotten Tomatoes.


This was the situation as I drove up to Sacramento to go watch the early critics screening of Star Wars: Episode I with Senh, Binh, and Bobby that fateful May night. Senh and I had always had a great relationship chatting about movies and, on the car drive over from Senh’s house to the theater, our movie geek conversation about Star Wars continued without missing a beat. After the movie ended, I clearly remember walking out of the theater and noticing other people’s reactions. Before the  screening, the local radio station had also given tickets to fans. One of the super fans dressed in a Darth Maul costume replete with a homemade, dual-blade light saber and face paint. He walked out of the theater with such a dejected look on his face as if he had just realized that his entire childhood was a lie.

Leaving the theater, Senh and I talked about what we had just saw. I think we both realized at the same time that this huge build up to the release of Episode I was a huge opportunity for Rotten Tomatoes. The fact that the movie was just “so-so” was even better for the web site — there was going to be some really split opinions about the movie over the subsequent days. During the car ride home, I told Senh that I really wanted to work on Rotten Tomatoes rather than just doing Disney work day-in-and-day-out. I’d talk to Patrick about having Design Reactor dedicate more time and resources towards helping Rotten Tomatoes. Watching Star Wars: Episode I and talking with Senh on that car ride back was a pivotal moment for me. It made me come to realize that, despite how proud I was of the product and relationship we had built with Disney, that what I really wanted out of life was to build something I could claim for my own. I really wanted to work in earnest on Rotten Tomatoes.

Senh, Binh, and Bobby, while hard-working, didn’t really have much technical knowledge. As a consequence, I sought out at first to help them on the technical end. Firstly, Rotten Tomatoes was still using the “rotten-tomatoes.com” domain name so after getting back home I immediately went about registering “rottentomatoes.com” (no dash) which, luckily, had still not been registered. Secondly, we hosted the site on a web server sitting in our Design Reactor offices which helped accomodate the server load in subsequent months. Ironically, by this point in time, becoming Disney’s web agency of choice meant that we were the only agency to have a dual T1 line guaranteeing top-of-the-line network speeds that connected directly to Disney’s private network so that we could develop and test code for all of Disney Channel before deploying to Disney’s production servers. Thanks to Disney paying for our exorbitant (at the time) network line, Rotten Tomatoes was able to share the network access and web server resources in those important summer months in 1999 as site traffic took off.

True to form, in the several days following that Star Wars: Episode I screening as early reviews began pouring in, the traffic to the site exploded. The day the movie released, the Tomatometer score hovered around 58%-61% and constantly flipped back and forth multiple times between FRESH and ROTTEN as we added newly published reviews (I see now that it’s settled on a more permanent rotten rating of 55%). More and more movie fan sites and message boards began linking and referring to Rotten Tomatoes’ Episode I web page and traffic continued to pour in. For the first time, the Tomatometer rating became an actual point of conversation amongst critics and tons of Star Wars fans and the reaction to Rotten Tomatoes set us on the path to make this a real project.


In the subsequent summer weeks, several important things happened to further push us towards making Rotten Tomatoes a full-time business pursuit:

Around April 1999, my brother, working as an aspiring producer at Sony by this point, sent me a video tape of The Blair Witch Project, which had become the buzz hit of Sundance in January but hadn’t released in theaters yet. I had heard so much of this indie horror movie and was even more enthusiastic since it was filmed not too far away from my hometown of Columbia, Maryland. I popped it into the VHS player at the office one weekend and we all watched it together with Senh, who had I believe had also come down from Sacramento to watch with us that weekend. It scared the crap out of some of our teammates, but more importantly, it was pretty obvious after watching the movie that it was pretty special because opinions on the movie were so divided. Patrick, who also grew up in suburban Maryland even closer to where Blair Witch was shot, absolutely hated the movie, and particularly hated how illogically and childish the characters in the movie acted. I loved the movie and Senh was in the middle with his opinion. We knew that online opinion would also be similarly vociferous.

Following on Star Wars: Episode I in May, the release of The Blair Witch Project and all of the film fan discussion in July further confirmed our feeling that Rotten Tomatoes was on to something. People were constantly returning to Rotten Tomatoes to read all of the film reviews, commentary, and debate on such a controversial movie. Because of Episode I and Blair Witch, Rotten Tomatoes was becoming more and more known — Leslie Miller from USA Today featured Rotten Tomatoes and Netscape selected the site as a “Pick of the Day”. Most gratifyingly, Roger Ebert highlighted Rotten Tomatoes in “Yahoo! Internet Life” magazine, a short-lived publication that educated users on the best sites to surf. Roger was an early hero of both Senh and me; consequently, it’s hard to understate how much it meant to us to have his personal validation during our early days.

Our web design business Design Reactor was growing by leaps and bounds. By this point, our business had expanded from just being 90% Disney work, to having a more diverse portfolio of clients adding on Artisan Entertainment (who, in a touch of fate, had grown to success with the release of The Blair Witch Project) and Warner Bros.. Despite this success, we were increasingly casting an eye towards building our own project that we could claim for ourselves. At the same time that we moved out of our Berkeley office (a little before the release of Episode I), our office mates Lyle and Dennis Fong from the original Berkeley office had created Gamers.com, the world’s first gaming online portal, and in October 1999 raised $11M, an eye-poppingly big investment back then. I think both Patrick and I were envious of their success and wanted to build something that could surpass our friends’ at Gamers. In this light, it was relatively easy to agree to bring Rotten Tomatoes back into Design Reactor as a full-time project. Seeing as how our web design business was already growing quickly, our original idea was for Senh to move back to the Bay Area and for Design Reactor to incubate Rotten Tomatoes. Patrick talked to some of our potential angel investors, and based off of our success with Design Reactor, they were willing to invest in Design Reactor as an “IdeaLab“-style incubator with Rotten Tomatoes as the first incubated project. However, as we began putting the business plan together for Rotten Tomatoes, we quickly came to the realization that our incubator idea was stupid. Life was too short and the three of us were more passionate about building Rotten Tomatoes full-time rather than working across a bunch of projects for others.

Luckily, our  investors believed in us as a team and most of them willingly put money in on the basis of Rotten Tomatoes rather than our former “Design Reactor incubator” plan. In early 2000, I already began transitioning our Disney work (which had expanded to include ABC.com) over to a sister company. We were already sub-contracting some work to this company and they took over our Design Reactor name and portfolio and we took an equity stake and the decent cash and receivables we had built in the Design Reactor ledger.

My final project for Design Reactor was in late March 2000 — I flew down to Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards where Design Reactor ran and updated the official Oscars.com web site during the awards. Subsequent to my work for the ceremony, I flew back to the Bay Area and, in the following week, our one and only round of investment in Rotten Tomatoes arrived in our bank account and I began working on Rotten Tomatoes full-time.

Then, the very next week, the dotcom bubble burst and things began crashing down around us. That, however, is a story for another post…

Rotten Tomatoes leaders circa April 26, 2000: Paul Lee (business development), Patrick Lee (CEO), Lily Chi (CFO), Senh Duong (COO and creator), and me (CTO)
The rest of the Rotten Tomatoes team from our office in Emeryville in a San Francisco Chronicle article published right after we officially started Rotten Tomatoes as an independent company

For more of my Rotten Tomatoes 20th anniversary articles, check out my other memories.

Postscript:

Like I said, I haven’t really had the opportunity to document our early days at Rotten Tomatoes and there were plenty of people who I’ve neglected to publicly thank. First, of course I want to thank my co-founders Patrick Lee and Senh Duong and the rest of the Rotten Tomatoes crew who stayed with us through the whole roller-coaster ride: Lily Chi, Binh Ngo, Paul Lee, and Susan Nakasora. Also, thanks to the many other friends who lent a hand during our startup years.

Thanks to Larry Barber, one of our first Design Reactor clients and an early business advisor. Larry took a look at Patrick and I when we were young, eager 21/22 year old entrepreneurs and unfailingly believed in our potential. Thanks to Larry’s daughter, the late Cara Barber Hamm, who staked her early career at both Disney Channel and Warner Bros. to bring us in to the fold and giving us the first opportunity to shine. Thanks to Brian Bowman, who later came in later to head both DisneyChannel.com and ABC.com and helped us grow Design Reactor from a startup into a real business. Without Brian, I wouldn’t have spent New Year’s countdown of 2000 hard at work programming the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” Online Game for launch the following week. The extra-large invoice from that special overtime probably eventually extended Rotten Tomatoes’ runway by a year or two later on when cash was running short.

Finally, I want to give a repeated thanks to both Senh, who came up with the idea for Rotten Tomatoes, and also Lyle Fong, founder of Gamers.com which eventually turned in to Lithium. Both are immigrant entrepreneurs who had the innate drive to build something great that they could claim for themselves. Without the two of them, I might not have been inspired to take the big step of walking away from Design Reactor and Disney to also pursue my dreams of building something of long-lasting impact and value like Rotten Tomatoes

Stephen’s mini-autobiography

Stephen Wang

I was born in the United States in Toledo, Ohio to Taiwanese parents, but eventually landed in Columbia, Maryland where I grew up. As a child, I would spend summer in Alhambra, California (near Los Angeles) where the primarily Chinese-American community stood in stark contrast to the mostly white Columbia. I developed an early interest in programming primarily from my Commodore 64 where I initially began writing computer games in BASIC.

As a young, nerdy teenager I was able to hide my social ineptitude by transforming into a punk rock, liberal flag-waving youth. Some of my more memorable achievements as a teenager include helping to organize one of the first public performances by punk rock gods Fugazi during freshman year of high school, spending multiple nights protesting the first Iraq War in front of the White House, and directing multiple high school plays as part of being a theater geek. I was addicted to the music of the Violent Femmes, Smashing Pumpkins, and The Smiths.

As a consequence, it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that my next step was to go to the University of California, Berkeley, once the home to liberalism and protest. However, upon entering Berkeley, I actually became much more moderate and my passions shifted away to more pragmatic goals. I entered Cal in 1993 initially with a double major of Computer Science and Political Science, still split between whether wanting to be a computer engineer or a lawyer like my oldest brother. I really enjoyed my political science classes more than my computer science classes, but became hooked on the World Wide Web after seeing someone using the early NCSA Mosaic browser for the first time in 1994. I immediately began devouring materials on HTML and CGI programming and became a resident expert about the Web amongst my friends (who, at the time, were mostly interested in playing Doom). Luckily, this personal passion became a part of my professional life.

Furthermore, my other primary passion was movies which I had watched endlessly and can debate like any proper film geek. My middle brother has a similar passion which has resulted in him pursuing his passion as film producer, while I have applied my interest in work like Rotten Tomatoes and Alive Not Dead.

After college, I remained in the San Francisco Bay Area until 2005 and took part in the Internet boom by co-founding companies Rotten Tomatoes and Design Reactor.

I eventually decided to move out to China at the end of 2005 because I wanted to improve my Mandarin Chinese and to take part in the huge change and opportunities. I stayed about a year in Xiamen, Fujian which is a beautiful coastal town across from Taiwan and still my favorite city in China. In late 2006, I moved to Hong Kong to start my current venture, Alive Not Dead, and stayed for about three years. I then moved to Beijing in October 2009 and lived there for three years before returning to Hong Kong in August 2012. I’m currently living in Guangzhou.

To read more about my professional life and other autobiographical tales, be sure to check out my About Me page.

Rotten Tomatoes (2000-2005)

Rotten Tomatoes

Note: This post is part of an extended auto-biography which is collected in my About page.

In late 1999, despite having considerable success with our web design firm, Design Reactor, Patrick Lee and I were interested in pursuing a new venture that could have exponential growth like many of the new web start-ups that our friends had started rather than the linear growth of our current company. In addition, we wanted to be able to dedicate our hard effort towards creating a product that we could claim as our own rather than designing web sites for other clients.

We were incubating a new project by Design Reactor’s former Creative Director, Senh Duong, who had previously created a web site that aggregated film reviews from across the web and in-print and presented a film percentile rating in an easy-to-read page, Rotten Tomatoes. Senh had spent a brief amount of time developing the initial web site from home and I was helping in free time with setting up the site on the servers and providing technical assistance when needed. Unexpectedly, Senh’s novel garage project rapidly grew in popularity, especially during the critical summer of 1999 when viral hit The Blair Witch Project and Star Wars: Episode I were released. Site traffic and media exposure grew to the point where we invited Senh to return to Design Reactor where we could incubate the project and find a way for the project to run as a business. Eventually, we decided to form a company around Rotten Tomatoes and we raised a round of funding that allowed us to transition Design Reactor to a sister company while we moved our existing team to work on growing Rotten Tomatoes as an independent company. This allowed Design Reactor to continue growing and the current management team have added large tech clients such as Apple, Cisco, and AMD.

Very shortly after we transitioned to doing Rotten Tomatoes in April 2000, the dot-com bubble burst and formerly powerful internet companies around us began falling apart. Immediately, online advertising, Rotten Tomatoes‘ primary revenue source, began plummeting with effective CPMs dropping to as little as 1-2% of their former values. Like many other companies, we had to drastically cut back on our staff in order to stay in business, eventually ending up with as few as seven team members. On the flip side, however, we had raised our funding right before the bubble burst which meant that we were able to rapidly cut back on our expenses unlike our competitors and partners who were bound by many long-term, expensive contracts. It also challenged us to engineer novel solutions towards expanding the site more efficiently and finding alternative revenue streams.

As Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the company, I managed the transition of the web site away from resource-intensive static HTML to a database-driven, LAMP-platform based web site. We developed our own, novel content management system named “Web Farm” that allowed us to rapidly expand our content to eventually comprehensively cover over 100,000 titles and hundreds of thousands of actors, directors, and other celebrities. Early on, Rotten Tomatoes editors had to read thousands of film reviews each week and extract a summary quotation and fresh/rotten rating from each one.. However, through a partnership with the the Movie Review Query Engine, we were able to comprehensively include millions of film reviews and ratings covering over a thousand sources automatically. Additionally, we developed our own system where film critics could register and login to our web site and assign their own quotations ratings and establish their own critics’ profile. In conjunction with our partnership with the Online Film Critics’ Society, an association of over a hundred of the Internet’s top film critics, we were able to greatly reduce the burden on our editors of comprehensively collecting film reviews by over half as well as play a vital role in promoting online film criticism.

With our ability to comprehensively and efficiently collect entertainment data, we began a data licensing program. We licensed our film data to numerous clients including Netflix and Microsoft. Because of Rotten Tomatoes‘ growing popularity, online partners such as Apple (integrated into the iTunes Store), Google (integrated into the first Google Desktop release),  and Ask.com (previously integrated into all movie keyword searches) have included our ratings system into their products. We also worked with both Hollywood trade industry magazines, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to include Rotten Tomatoes ratings as part of their regular film coverage which helped bolster the Tomatometer as a respected brand in the film industry. Data licensing became an important revenue stream as well as a means for expanding Rotten Tomatoes across other media sources.

Our traffic rapidly expanded to 6.2 million unique visitors a month (ComScore, January 2006 when I departed Rotten Tomatoes), largely in part to the intensive search engine optimization we performed on Rotten Tomatoes early on. While search engine optimization was still in it’s infancy in the early 2000’s, we worked hard to get Rotten Tomatoes film pages linked across various directories and link exchanges as well as optimizing on-page HTML code to rank highly on search engines. As a result of this work, Rotten Tomatoes pages have become reliably ranked within the first ten results amongst most Google-based film keyword searches. This increasing traffic helped monetize our online ad revenues to rebuild our primary revenue stream.

Another major revenue component was from partner affiliate sales. Movie fans coming upon our site were able to buy online movie tickets (via MovieTickets.com), posters (via AllPosters.com) and merchandise (via Sideshow Toy and others) from the films easily from the film pages. Additionally, we included comparison prices powered by PriceGrabber.com so users could find the most affordable DVD prices. Finally, we partnered with The New York Times and presented their film reviews in a highlighted position on our film review pages (although their ratings remained of equal value with all other reviews on the page as usual). These companies paid us every time a user clicked on a link or purchased and item and, with these partnerships, our affiliate sales grew to comprise a large fraction of our revenue, further stabilizing the declining revenue from online ads due to the dot-com bust.

In conjunction with our rapidly growing search engine-derived traffic, we also created the web’s first dedicated entertainment social network, The Vine. The Vine, launched on Rotten Tomatoes in October 2003, was modeled after a mix of Friendster and Xanga, and allowed people to easily share their reviews and ratings for all films, music, and video games. Other features which were ahead-of-their-time included structured ranking lists and customizable “groups” which allowed fans to create shared group blogs and profiles. We also leveraged this system and worked with all of the major and minor film studios and distributors to create mini-sites, sweepstakes contests, and more as part of rebuilding our online advertising revenue stream.

In addition to this early social networking system, we hosted a large film message board system. The Rotten Tomatoes forums eventually became the most active film forums online and developed it’s own unique community of film fans that went on to hold annual Las Vegas Rotten Tomatoes fans meetup events in Las Vegas (which I unfortunately never had the chance to attend). Fun fact: As far as I know, three weddings occurred from fans who met each other online in our formerly rabidly popular Rotten Tomatoes forums.

While the early years of Rotten Tomatoes and the dot-com bust felt like the online world was collapsing on top of us, eventually we were able to grow the traffic and our revenue to the point where Rotten Tomatoes was a stable and profitable company with multiple, growing revenue streams. By 2003, we were one of the few players in our niche who was able to claim profitability and the largest of the unacquired, independent film web sites. We were beginning to receive unsolicited acquisition offers from other companies, but turned them all down because we felt we had further work and expansion ahead of us. In 2004, we received a suitably large offer from IGN Entertainment, the largest video games web network (IGN.com, GameSpy.com), and Rotten Tomatoes was acquired in August 2004.

In early 2010, Rotten Tomatoes was sold by News Corporation and is now a part of Flixster, the leading movies social network.

Design Reactor (1997-2000)

Note: This post is part of an extended auto-biography which is collected in my About page.

Late in my senior year of college in 1997, I met with Patrick Lee, a college classmate who had similarly started a growing start-up (Human Ingenuity) and had hired Go! Designs to create his company’s web site. We had discussions about how we might be able to expand the web design work we were doing at Go! Designs. As a result, Patrick and I left our respective startups and forming a new partnership, Design Reactor. The first day after my graduation, we sealed our commitment by signing a lease to a new office on 2223 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and got to work assembling a small army of designers and engineers from amongst our talented group of college classmates to expand the scope and scale of our web design work.

Design Reactor's first office at 2223 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
Design Reactor's first office at 2223 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley. We resided on the second floor above The Luggage Center (for that ever-present smell of old leather) and shared the subleased the additional space to our friends and fellow internet startups from Gamers Extreme (gamers.com) and Baycis Internet Solutions. Next door is our favorite lunch spot, EZ Stop Deli, home to the world's tastiest BBQ chicken sandwich.

During our first year, despite a slow beginning completing low-cost web design work for local tech companies, we were able to break the barrier and land The Disney Channel as a major client. Over the next two years, we were able to grow our relationship with Disney to become the primary web design firm for the Disney/ABC TV Networks as well as designing various Walt Disney Studios official movie web sites.

As the primary client manager for Disney/ABC, I’m most proud of the work we did to create and operate the online portion of Zoog Disney, the primary programming block on The Disney Channel and also Disney’s first foray into online, on-air synergy. The award-winning ZoogDisney.com was an ambitious web site for kids to connect with their favorite Disney Channel TV shows. While producing the ZoogDisney.com, we developed web sites for all of the Disney Channel TV shows and over 120 web-based games where kids’ fan messages and game hi-scores were posted each week on-air on The Disney Channel.

Other highlights of our work for Disney included creating ToonDisney.com, the official web site for Disney’s all Disney cartoon cable channel. As a measure of Disney’s trust in Design Reactor, we were the first web design firm permitted to animate the Disney’s Fab Five cartoon characters (i.e. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto) online. Our work for Disney eventually resulted in us also becoming the primary web vendor for ABC. At ABC, we created the “Who Wants to Be Millionaire?” Online Game which, at the time, was one of the most heavily-played games online, as well as managed the official Oscar.com web site for the Academy Awards in 2000.

Despite requiring me to split my time between our Design Reactor team in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Disney Channel/Disney.com offices in Los Angeles, I really enjoyed my time building some really enjoyable web destinations and games for such a great client and feel blessed being entrusted with the large responsibility at such a young age.

Our close relationship with Disney provided us with the chance to grow Design Reactor to a team of 28 people and we were able to dedicate ourselves to becoming one of the premier web design firms in the entertainment industry. Here are some of the other fun projects that we worked on:

  • Leveraging the success with Disney, we were able to eventually work with many additional film studios (Warner Bros., Universal, Fox, Sony, Artisan Entertainment) to produce official web sites for many films.
  • Working with Warner Bros. Online, we participated in their “Entertaindom” project, WB’s first foray into original online web programming. We produced two original web series for WB including a Flash-based cartoon series we wrote with character design by the head animator of WB’s “The Animaniacs”.
  • My business partner, Patrick, and I originally had met in college as members of the Cal Wushu Team. Wushu is Chinese martial arts whose most famous practitioner is actor Jet Li. As a result, in 1999 we fulfilled our dream of meeting Jet in-person and were commissioned to create and manage his Official Web Site. Created as Jet was first entering Hollywood films, the web site allowed Jet to connect and grow a global community of fans and share his unique life perspective and philosophy. Even after departing Design Reactor, we continue to work with Jet and his various efforts online including his Official Web Site.

As one of the leading web design firms in the entertainment industry, Design Reactor gave me the opportunity to play a role in the emerging connection between entertainment and the Internet at a really young age and a chance to immediately work post-graduation with a great circle of smart friends and classmates from Berkeley.