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Follow Curiosity, Count on Serendipity

“Donald Trump’s hair should not be allowed on TV”, declared Barry Diller – media mogul, e-commerce czar, former Hollywood studio chief and self-confessed ‘contrarian’ – when he visited the HBS campus on April 15th.

As the man behind such blockbusters as Saturday Night Fever, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Beverly Hills Cop, Diller has been around Hollywood and the media circuit long enough to know exactly what should be seen. And during his keynote speech for the 4th Annual Entertainment & Media Conference, Diller took no prisoners, firing salvoes in his no-nonsense style at the FCC, Richard Branson and even his former boss at Fox, Rupert Murdoch, whom he described as having “ratty politics”.

Diller’s LA story is the stuff of legend. He started out in the mail-room at the talent agency William Morris and it’s whispered that he often steamed open important letters to get the jump on deals being brokered across town. His early tenacity propelled him through Tinseltown’s ranks, to ABC, President of Paramount Pictures, CEO of Fox and finally at Vivendi Universal. He sums up the last experience with “most French hate Americans…it wasn’t even a thrill ride, it was a rough process. I had nothing to learn from it other than ‘don’t do that'”.

During his time in Hollywood, Barry Diller has developed quite the reputation for himself – as master deal-maker, in work as in play (including snagging himself fashion designer and arch-socialite Diane von Furstenberg along the way). There is a story – about which Diller was coy during his keynote speech – about how he threw a brick at an employee during an angry exchange…a brick that lodged itself in the wall behind the hapless schmoe. Said schmoe is now apparently quite the Hollywood bigwig, who hangs the framed brick on his office wall as a badge of honor.

On the subject of personalities, Diller was not shy about expressing his free and frank opinion on others – ripping into Donald Trump’s hair and vain gloriousness and following that up swiftly by talking about UK entrepreneur Richard Branson (who is currently shooting an Apprentice-style show), whom he branded “a show-boater”.

Diller had kinder words for News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, who had presided over Diller during his time at Fox studios. He described him as “more substantial [than Branson]”, and as someone who “has got a wonderful group of assets, without equal, [and] of all these people, he is the truest entrepreneur”. He said about Murdoch, “entrepreneurship is the only tuning fork he listens to…he will say with glee he’s betting the company”. However, Diller ended the portrait of his former boss with his assessment, “I don’t like the dark vein of some of his conservative edges…I don’t like Fox News”.

This brought Diller back to his current favorite subject – media and public service. He proffered, “someone once said, television is just like a toaster, only an appliance and nothing to do with public service…well, I think that is a crackpot idea”, continuing to add that this was the “reason why CBS built a great news organization”. As he was warned in the past “broadcasting really used to have a very clear public service quotient, and it’s been lost”.

Serving on the FCC Advisory Committee, what’s on Diller’s mind right now is the concentration of media power in the hands of a few. A crusader for independent production and distribution, Diller expressed frustration at the growing consolidation in the industry, saying “I am not against power, it is inevitable…but you have to have rules and regulations”.

While conceding “independence is no longer practical”, he lamented the fact that “there used to be lots of entrepreneurial energy, like with Ted Turner, [and] that is virtually gone now”.

In advising future entrepreneurs at HBS, he had this to say, “Keep your instincts clean. No one can make you feel secure about insecure prospects. I never thought it was important to do research for what was unresearchable…you need to think ‘I just like this’. If I like it, there’s a chance someone else will like it. And you can’t do any more than that. Research gives false comfort – they should wear headdresses and bones and dance around the table, then you’ll know it for what it is”.

He went on to say “rarely in business do you get enough facts to make the decision, it’s usually a minute or mile short…therefore it means it’s not obvious…you have to find it in the air, you have to hear it…the process of doing that is filled with creative conflict…with argument, with passion, in the person’s voice – you figure out the right course”. So much for due diligence, but it holds true, for what is there if an entrepreneur cannot trust his instincts?

And it was this instinct and energy that has led him form InterActive Corporation (IAC) since leaving Hollywood. Behind this late-nineties name is a company that has diligently snapped up some of the hottest and most profitable online brands, including Match.com, Expedia, Hotels.com, Ticketmaster, Lending Tree and Evite.

So, whereas you used to pay for a movie ticket if you wanted to make out, now, thanks to Barry Diller, you can meet your date online, buy the ticket to the movie – make out – then, if things go well, get a hotel, catch a flight for your honeymoon and buy your first home. And Barry Diller will take your dollar every step of the way.

He claims his conversion from offline to online media was due to “an epiphany”. While on a trip to QVC studios to watch his wife sell designer goods, “I saw it…and there was a green screen with calls coming in…the first primitive convergence of phones, television and computers. I had never seen interactivity like that. All I knew was that the application of that was going to change things. That process really made me believe something was going to happen”.

And it is such encounters that lead him to believe that breaking into the business is as much by luck as by design, saying “follow curiosity and count on serendipity. You have to listen to where you curiosity is. To have a specific hard-ass goal…that is not going to happen that way…it is not wise to go that way. I’ve never had a goal in my life, ever”.

Summing up, he declared, “the only thing I am interested is in getting to the truth of an issue. When I am around, it is noisy. You have to pull barriers down. Corner people. The arguments go furiously…some people like it, some don’t”, but at the end of the day, “we have a rule that there is no stupid idea”.

However, despite this assertion, you get the feeling that with Barry Diller, if his gut doesn’t agree with you, there’s only one outcome – to quote the classic George Burns line, “Say good-night, Gracie.”

May 10, 2004
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