By Sahil Patel
When I ask Ran Harnevo, president of video at AOL, to describe himself, he says: “I’m an Israeli who is living in New York, and an entrepreneur who is working in corporate — so I’m bipolar by definition… and I like that.”
Aside from its outright cleverness, the quote reveals something else about the man who’s built AOL into an online video powerhouse: He’s not interested in the meaningless corporate-speak that most of us have grown accustomed to. We’re not getting a steady diet of words like innovative, creative, or disruptive. Ran Harnevo tells it like it is.
“Ran is a zero-BS entrepreneur,” says Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor, who first met Harnevo when the latter was raising money for 5min Media, an early online video startup that later became Harnevo’s entry into the AOL family. (Trainor eventually joined the 5min advisory board when the startup closed its Series A round with Spark Capital.) “Ran is able to synthesize the macro view on our evolving space into hyper-pragmatic actions that build a business.”
In fact, if you trace Harnevo’s career back to when he launched 5min, you’ll notice a man who’s able to foresee what’s next for the online video industry, and has the acumen to ensure he and his company are ready for it.
Even if — and Harnevo will be the first to tell you — his actual entry into the online video game was premised on the “wrong” idea.
“5min in the beginning was supposed to be a video platform for do-it-yourself content,” says Harnevo. “We looked at the internet, we looked at YouTube, and we thought the DIY category was not well represented. So many people have skills, and we thought there was a real opportunity in creating something like a Wikipedia for video.”
Soon after, though, 5min discovered where the real opportunity was. “We started to realize that as big as our own destination would eventually be, we had so many competitors in the DIY space that just didn’t have videos,” he says.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in such a situation, where you have a clear advantage over your competitors, it must be a good feeling. After all, it’s a clear indicator that you’re doing something right.
But I bet most people, in such a situation, wouldn’t immediately consider their next move to be to help those competitors out. That’s what Harnevo and 5min did — and built an even bigger business for themselves.
“We called 25 of our competitors and offered them our content — we closed 20 deals from those calls,” says Harnevo. “Which led us to understand that the big problem of the internet in early 2008 was not to create a vertical video destination, but to actually connect content creators with publishers at scale.”
Seizing the opportunity, 5min shifted into the syndication business. Already knee-deep in DIY content, the startup soon expanded to other verticals, including news and entertainment. “We never stopped scaling,” says Harnevo, as the platform grew from 5 million uniques to 24 million in six months.
“It was a real problem we tried to solve,” says Harnevo, the no-BS exec. “A lot of startups assume there’s a problem that they then try to solve, but a lot of times it’s not a real problem.”
“#Candidly Nicole,” one of the most successful series out of AOL’s most recent original content slate, which, in total, has accumulated more than 150 million views since last spring.
Today, 5min’s platform is the core of the AOL On Network, which has rapidly become the premier syndication platform for professionally-made video content. The idea was, and is, based on the “fact that the internet is open and fragmented, but if you can create a platform that can help a lot of players, and not really get blocked by the effort to market your own unique proposition, then you can create real value in the marketplace.”
How’s that worked out for AOL? Since buying 5min, AOL has gone from 150 million views per month to 1.4 billion, according to Harnevo.
“Our acquisition of 5min in 2010 was as much about its leader as it was the platform,” says Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL. “Bringing
in a visionary in the video space has proven to be instrumental to our growth strategy as the AOL On Network has developed the only open platform for premium content under Ran’s leadership.”
“Tim decided to have my back on this space. I give him so much credit because it was so early in the game,” adds Harnevo. “He allowed us to take our startup and play in the big leagues.”
But Harnevo’s not done yet. A man of opportunity, there are still plenty more that he’s already chasing, from global expansion to the very future of video entertainment.
“The whole pipe is being reinvented,” says Harnevo. “What we’re trying to do with AOL On is to really think about how the merged TV and online video business will look like in 5–10 years. I think Adap.tv” — [which Harnevo was instrumental in acquiring] — “is an integral part of that. Beneath content and distribution, you need a strong monetization platform. I look at AOL as tech, distribution, content, and monetization coming together.”
“We are trying to connect ecosystems where others are trying to prove why theirs is better,” he continues, on a roll.
If that reminds you of AOL’s commentary surrounding the launch of One by AOL, then you can sense just how important Harnevo has been to AOL’s rise in online video.
“Ran was in the Israeli air force. And he’s used some of that same skill set — acute vision, calm-under-pressure, and steady trigger finger — to turn AOL On into a digital video juggernaut,” says Roy Sekoff, founder and president of HuffPost Live. “It’s been both enlightening and a lot of fun working shoulder-to-shoulder with him over the past three years trying to help figure out what, in the future, people will watch and how they’ll watch it.”
So, if Ran Harnevo has something to say, maybe you should listen.
It’s a big week here at VideoInk, as we unveiled our inaugural Power-Sixer on Monday. If you enjoyed reading about Mr. Ran Harnevo, check out the other executives we’ve already profiled: Maker Studios’ Erin McPherson and CAA’s David Freeman. And come back the rest of this week as we continue highlighting the biggest game-changers in the online video business.