Roku CEO Anthony Wood explains why people don’t want to talk to their TVs and why he no longer reads business books
Roku has built a dominant position as the co-leading streaming video distribution platform in U.S. households, in a near dead-heat with Amazon. The two companies own more than 70% market share, according to research firm Parks Associates.
But can Roku maintain its lead over Apple and Google if Americans’ future is a house controlled by a voice-enabled smart-home device that can turn on and off a television and change the channel?
That’s not what people want, claims Roku CEO and founder Anthony Wood. He spoke with CNBC’s Alex Sherman in an exclusive interview.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Wood’s thoughts on Roku’s culture can be found here.)
Sherman: Let’s talk about interactivity. Is it just a matter of time before Roku lets me watch sports and bet from my TV at the same time and do other sorts of cool stuff people have never seen before?
Wood: It’s a complicated question. A couple points. One, it’s not as bad as it used to be, but even today, many companies just don’t really understand the attitude people have when watching TV. They want to sit there, drink their beer, and watch TV. You’ve seen over the years, there was this whole phase where there were interactive TV companies. They all failed, because people don’t want to do that. My philosophy is to keep things very simple. So any time interactive ideas have come up, we would not do that.
That said, there are some exceptions. For example, advertising — we offer interactivity to our ad partners. If you see an ad you’re interested in, like a car ad, you can browse, or do something simple like press a button and send me a text with an offer. So, we experiment with that type of interactivity because it doesn’t get in the way of the viewing experience. If you want to get a free coupon because you’re interested in a commercial, press a button, you can do that.
One of our main goals as a platform is to help you find content that you want to watch. Things like universal search — where you can search across services for an actor or a movie — and get information about if something is free on one service or you have to pay for it on another, that type of interactivity is something that people love, if it’s around discovering content. So, we’re looking for other ways to help people discover content that’s interactive in its nature.
In terms of sports betting — maybe. We’ll see.
Is the future of the TV ecosystem one where every device in the home is connected, and I just call out to my TV and it turns on, and I don’t need a remote anymore?
We are incredibly focused on being the best TV experience. That’s why we’re successful. There are a lot capabilities that I think are silly. People generally do not want to talk to their TV to turn it on, for example. Because as soon as you turn it on, you need to pick up your remote control anyway.
Well, you do today, maybe, but theoretically, you don’t have to, right? Why can’t I control everything by voice? Isn’t that easier?
I don’t think people want to talk to their TV. In cases where it’s faster and easier — search, for example — we make voice remotes. We focus on integrating voice into areas where it can really make a difference, like entering your password or your e-mail address or searching — those are things where it’s tedious to tap stuff out on your remote. But other areas, like just scrolling up and down or the power button, it’s actually easier to use the remote.
But I always lose my remote.
Well, that’s why we let you use your phone as a remote. We also have a cool feature called remote finder, where we help you find your remote for you. We’re big believers in remotes. You look at Chromecast, they made a huge bet that people wouldn’t use their remotes. That wasn’t the case.
One topic that investors are curious about is international expansion. Do you have a broad road map for international? I know you’re in Canada, Mexico and Brazil a little bit. But there’s a whole world out there. What’s the plan? Lay it out for us.
We have a strategy. We have tactics and road maps which we don’t disclose. But our strategy is pretty straightforward. If you look at the evolution of our business model, first we focus on scale, and once you have enough scale, then you start focusing on monetization. That’s the same strategy we’re talking on international. With most countries, we are still at the building scale stage as opposed to the monetization. There are some exceptions. With Canada, as you mentioned, that’s the first country we entered. Now we sell ads there and we have The Roku Channel there. So we’re doing monetization there.
The other part of our strategy is using the same techniques that have worked for us in the U.S. and applying them internationally. So, focus on growing our smart TV market share — we’re No. 1 in smart TV market share in the U.S. We’re No. 1 in Canada. We’re No. 2 in Mexico. Samsung is No. 1 there, but we’re catching up fast. So focusing on smart TVs and selling low-cost players is how we gain scale. For example, when we launch a player now, we launch it in many countries at the same time as opposed to just the U.S.
If you look at all the countries that we’ve entered, our market share is growing and we’re doing well. Android has been the default choice internationally for a long time because it was the only option. So they’re our biggest competitor. But as we add new countries and start focusing on them, we have an awesome solution. The same reason we’ve won in the U.S. is the same reason we expect to win internationally.
I’ll get into this in the main feature more in depth, but after you started Roku, you worked for Reed Hastings at Netflix for about nine months. Have you modeled your leadership at Roku after him? And if not, has there been anyone you’ve tried to emulate?
My relationship with Netflix is obviously very important to Roku, but I only worked there for nine months. It was nine months. It was a great experience. I’ve got lots of people I respect, but I haven’t tried to copy anyone in particular. I used to read a lot of business books when I was younger, but now I’ve stopped.
Is there a reason you stopped? Did you feel like you just didn’t get any use out of them anymore?
I think you go through different phases in your career. When you first start out, just like when you first start out in college, you just have no clue. So, reading books and talking to people is a good way to learn the basics. As you advance, I think, you become much more experienced, and you find that a lot of the books are not helpful. Like, “Oh yeah, if I didn’t know anything, that’s what I’d do,” but that’s not actually the right way to do it.
One of the best things I’ve done to help me build my skills since Roku has grown is to have an adviser — kind of like a coach. He used to be the CEO of a public company. So when I have issues, I talk to him. That’s David Krall. He was the CEO of Avid. He works one day a week for us being an adviser. Talking to an experienced CEO is helpful.
Describe yourself as a leader.
What I try to do is hire good people — people I want to work with, so there’s a good chemistry and team — and devise a strategy and some high-level goals. I might come up with the strategy or work with the team to develop the strategy, but there will be a strategy. I think I’m pretty strategic. And then, focus on execution, giving people the freedom and whatever they need to do their job. That’s what I spend my time on — hiring and strategy.
You’re 56 years old, is that right?
Maybe. That sounds right.
Do you expect to be running Roku as an independently traded company ten years from now?
I have no idea. I’m happy running Roku right now. I have no idea what I’m going to do 10 years from now.
Do you know who your successor at Roku will be?
All public companies have to have a succession plan, so we have one. I focus a lot on developing talent on my team. But often there’s talent outside the company as well. So, I don’t know. I have no plans to leave, but if we were to hire a new CEO, I’d imagine we’d look internally and externally.
DOJ asks for independent probe into FTX bankruptcy, a likely tactic to gather evidence on alleged fraud
John Ray, chief executive officer of FTX Cryptocurrency Derivatives Exchange, arrives at bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.
Eric Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Department of Justice has requested that an independent examiner be appointed to review “substantial and serious allegations of fraud, dishonesty” and “incompetence” after the implosion of Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire. It could be one way for the DOJ to gather evidence of alleged fraud.
In a filing in Delaware federal bankruptcy court, Andrew Vara, a U.S. bankruptcy trustee, told the court that the allegations of corporate misconduct and complete failure merited an immediate and speedy examination of the events leading up to FTX’s stunning collapse three weeks ago.
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Vara said there’s a substantial basis to believe that Bankman-Fried and other managers mismanaged FTX or engaged in fraudulent conduct.
“It seems to me that the DOJ is trying to use the bankruptcy process as a way of getting evidence,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told CNBC.
“Many times, the Department of Justice and bankruptcy estates in fraud cases work together in compiling potential restitution or other types of actions to make victims whole,” he said. The DOJ “will likely be part of the asset recovery and potentially having a Victims Fund with money going to those that lost money and what the Department of Justice potentially will view as a fraud.”
“It just shows a level of interest and attention that they’re paying to this that should be troubling to Mr. Bankman-Fried.”
Vara said an examination is preferable to an internal investigation because of the wider implications the company’s collapse may have on the crypto industry.
Another legal expert said that there could be other factors at play too, including the extensive political donations that FTX executives were involved in on both sides of the aisle.
There have been “campaign donations on both sides of the aisle from FTX and there have been political overtones and undertones in this case,” said Braden Perry, former senior trial attorney at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and Kennyhertz Perry partner.
“I think that this is just out of prudence and out of caution to make sure that whatever is happening is done at an independent level,” Perry continued.
It’s not unusual to appoint a bankruptcy examiner. There was one to oversee the crypto bankruptcy process of Celsius Network, for example.
Bankruptcies above a certain size require an examiner. In this case, the U.S. Trustee said that an examiner is mandatory because FTX’s fixed, liquidated and unsecured debts to customers exceed the $5 million threshold.
FTX’s November collapse left creditors reeling over the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, in some cases, and has rocked the wider crypto world. BlockFi, a crypto lender, filed for bankruptcy protection in New Jersey last week.
Tech layoffs send visa holders on frantic search for employment to avoid deportation
After years of seemingly boundless expansion, the U.S. tech industry has hit a wall. Companies are in cash preservation mode, leading to thousands of job cuts a month and a surge of layoffs in November.
While the sudden loss of a paycheck can be devastating for anyone, especially during the holiday season, the recent wave of reductions is having an outsized impact on skilled workers who are living in the U.S. on temporary visas and are at risk of being sent home if they can’t secure a new job in short order.
Tech companies are among the employers with the most approvals for H-1B visas, which are granted to people in specialty occupations that often require a college degree and extra training. Silicon Valley has for years leaned on temporary visas issued by the government to employ thousands of foreign workers in technical fields such as engineering, biotech and computer science. That’s a big reason tech companies have been outspoken in their defense of immigrants’ rights.
Workers on temporary visas often have 60 to 90 days to find a new gig so they can avoid being deported.
“It’s this amazing talent pool that the U.S. is fortunate to attract, and they’re always living on the edge,” said Sophie Alcorn, an immigration lawyer based in Mountain View, California, who specializes in securing visas for tech workers. “Many of them up are up against this 60-day grace period deadline. They have a chance to find a new job to sponsor them, and if they can’t do that, they have to leave the U.S. So it’s a stressful time for everybody.”
The already grim situation worsened in November, when Meta, Amazon, Twitter, Lyft, Salesforce, HP and DoorDash announced significant cuts to their workforces. More than 50,000 tech workers were let go from their jobs in November, according to data collected by the website Layoffs.fyi.
Amazon gave staffers who were laid off 60 days to search for a new role inside the company, after which they’d be offered severance, according to a former Amazon Web Services employee who lost his job. The person spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.
In fiscal 2021, Amazon had the most approved petitions for H-1B visas, with 6,182, according to a National Foundation for American Policy review of U.S. immigration data. Google, IBM and Microsoft also ranked near the top of the list.
The former AWS employee has been in the country for two years on student and employment visas. He said he was unexpectedly laid off at the beginning of November, just months after joining the company as an engineer. Despite Amazon informing him that he had 60 days to find another position internally, the person said his manager advised him to apply for jobs elsewhere due the company’s pullback in hiring. Amazon said in November it’s pausing hiring for its corporate workforce.
An Amazon spokesperson didn’t provide a comment beyond what CEO Andy Jassy said last month, when he told those affected by the layoffs that the company would help them find new roles.
Companies generally aren’t specifying what percentage of the people being laid off are on visas. A search for “layoffs H1B” on LinkedIn surfaces a stream of posts from workers who recently lost their jobs and are expressing concern about the 60-day unemployment window. Visa holders have been sharing resources on Discord servers, the anonymous professional network Blind and in WhatsApp groups, the former AWS employee said.
It had already been a frenetic few years for foreign workers in the U.S. well before surging inflation and concerns of a recession sparked the latest round of job cuts.
The Trump administration’s hostile posture toward immigration put the H-1B program at risk. As president in 2020, Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending work visas, including those with H-1B status, claiming they hurt employment prospects for Americans. The move drew a strong rebuke from tech executives, who said the program serves as a pipeline for talented individuals and strengthens American companies. President Joe Biden allowed the Trump-era ban to expire last year.
Whatever relief the Biden presidency provided is of limited value to those who are now jobless. An engineer who was recently laid off by gene-sequencing technology company Illumina said he hoped his employer would sponsor his transfer to an H-1B visa. He’s here on a different visa, known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation.
The former Illumina employee, who spoke on condition that he not be named, not only has to find a new job within 90 days from the layoff date, but his OPT visa expires in August. Any company that hires him must be willing to sponsor his visa transfer and pay the related fees. He’s considering going back to school in order to extend his stay in the U.S., but he’s anxious about taking on student loans.
Illumina said in November it was cutting about 5% of its global workforce. A company spokesperson told CNBC that less than 10% of impacted employees were here on H-1B or related visas.
“We are engaging with each employee individually so that they understand the impact to their employment eligibility and options to remain in the U.S.,” the spokesperson said by email. “We are working to review each and every situation to ensure great care for those impacted, and to ensure compliance with immigration law.”
The ex-employee said he had dreams of working for Illumina, planting roots in the U.S. and buying a house. Now, he said, he’s just trying to find a way to stay in the country without going deep into debt. In just a matter of months, it’s “like a night and day difference,” he said.
Elon Musk suspends Ye’s Twitter account after swastika post
Ye’s Twitter account was suspended again Friday for violating the social media platform’s rules on “incitement to violence,” CEO Elon Musk said.
The rapper, formerly known as Kanye West, appeared to post an image of a swastika, a symbol synonymous with the Nazis, inside a Star of David, a prominent symbol of Judaism.
Musk said he “tried his best” in response to Ye’s tweet, which can no longer be viewed. “Despite that, he again violated our rule against incitement to violence. Account will be suspended.”
Ye’s tweet came after he made antisemetic comments in an interview with the controversial radio host Alex Jones on Thursday. Ye referred to “the Jewish media” and said he saw “good things about Hitler” in an hourlong conversation with the conspiracy theorist.
In October, Twitter locked Ye’s account for an unspecified amount of time following a string of antisemitic remarks which escalated into threatening and hateful comments about Jewish people. He returned to Twitter in November.
The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” is finding the limits of that tested in his early days of owning Twitter.
Musk has attempted to make sweeping changes in his first few days in charge, including gutting a huge swathe of Twitter’s workforce and launching an $8 per month “Verified” service that allows users to buy the coveted blue check mark.
Twitter was forced to pause its subscription service however after users abused it by paying the fee to get a blue check then impersonating celebrities.
Musk said last week that the “Verified” service would be relaunched on Friday with different colored check marks, but there has been no update on whether this is still the case.
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