There's Something About Kurnit
Scott Kurnit's new venture, AdKeeper, brings him full circle to his family heritage in the advertising business. But the path wasn't so clear-cut early on.
"We grew up in a family where we talked during shows and everyone was quiet during commercials," says Kurnit, founder and CEO of AdKeeper, whose father, mother, two brothers, uncle and wife all were in the advertising business. "I am very lucky to have grown up with it." Yet Kurnit didn't go into advertising - instead taking on a number of programming positions early in his career. But there was business to learn and to adapt from his family's experiences. Even at a young age, lots of advertising and marketing discussions gave him the sense - and a feel for the risks - of what it is like to run your own operation.
"I would overhear conversations at the dinner table about how my father didn't get paid," says Kurnit. (Shep Kurnit was partner of Delehanty, Kurnit & Geller, a strong ad agency in the '60s.) "I didn't get it. [But] I learned a lesson. When it's your [company], you are the last guy to get paid. At six or seven years old, I learned entrepreneurism."
Kurnit's brother, Paul Kurnit, was president of Griffin Bacal, a DDB agency that focused on kids TV and media. Another brother, Rick Kurnit, is a partner in Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, a commercial law firm focusing on advertising, media and entertainment.
Now, with AdKeeper, Scott Kurnit looks to give what, no doubt, much of his family probably has been concerned about in servicing advertising clients - more specific return on their media/advertising investment. With AdKeeper, consumers - in a passive, less intrusive way - can save advertising for review at a future date.
Despite the advertising associations of his family, Kurnit says, "I was a renegade." He started out as a programming executive at a local pbs station, then at Warner Amex's 1970s interactive cable experiment, Qube, and at pay-per-view services, Viacom's Viewer's Choice and Showtime Event Television in the '80s and '90s.
Those last Viacom efforts were a predictor of things to come - letting consumers, with one click of a remote control button, pay for and then watch, movies, boxing matches, musical concerts and wrestling events. "Pay-per-view was somewhat ahead of its time - with the coming of video-on-demand," says Kurnit. "Qube was 25 years ahead of its time."
In the '90s, Kurnit transitioned into the Internet world where consumers weren't using TV remotes but using computer mouses to point and click. He first had a position at Prodigy and then went for a brief period to News Corp./MCI Communications' Internet venture. It was at Prodigy, where he was executive vice president of consumer products, marketing and development, that Kurnit got the idea for About.com, which would go on to be his very big financial success.
"I wanted to turn Prodigy into About.com," says Kurnit of the future business where hundreds of "guides"- experts in their field - would focus on specific topics that consumers wanted to know more about. But Prodigy's stodgy owners - IBM, Sears, among them - wanted no part of it. "That was fortunate for me," he says, considering what came to Kurnit later in the decade.
In the early days of the Internet, Prodigy, like AOL, was a closed-end digital/Internet system that content providers were vying to get attached to. But soon after getting to Prodigy, Kurnit realized the Internet was about to change - access to Web browsers would dramatically shift and open up things.
"One day there was this content person who wanted to wine and dine me," he recalled. "It wasn't long after that I had to take him to lunch."
Kurnit was able to catch up - in a big way - cofounding About.com in 1995, which rose to become a top 10 Internet site among unique visitors in 2000. Timing was in Kurnit's favor as well, selling the company later that year - just before the big Internet crash - to Primedia for $690 million.
Josh Sapan, president/CEO of Rainbow Media Holdings, who worked at Showtime with Kurnit, says of him: "I remember a baseball card from my youth, Vada Pinson of the Cincinnati Reds, which read: 'Hits like Mantle, fields like Mays, runs like nobody.' Scott is the business version of that. He combines inventiveness, management capability and tenacity."
Mike Perlis, president/CEO of Forbes Media, says of Kurnit: "Scott is the single most determined and confident [executive]. He will do whatever it takes to win and will do it with a smile!" The seemingly always upbeat Kurnit also credits his successes to what he learned from other executives. Two of them come from his days working at Showtime and at Viacom, including legendary boxing promoter Don King ("Clearly not professionally trained as a marketer, but has some of the best marketing instincts ever") and Las Vegas hotel/hospitality icon Steve Wynn ("The most brilliant trained marketer ever").
Lastly, there was former Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross, who ran the big media company when Kurnit was a young programmer at Warner Amex. ("He made you feel like a million bucks. He made you feel like you belonged.")
As a harbinger of things to come, Kurnit, while growing up in East Meadow and Great Neck, Long Island, was already witnessing some experimentation in ways to manage and manipulate video screens - even if it was on an analog basis.
In an effort to watch TV outside on their patio, Kurnit says his father cut out a hole in the side of a garage and stuck a TV set in the space. It wasn't too good for watching in the daytime, but at night it worked well. Problem is, being exposed to the elements, the tv set rusted quickly. In that vein, Kurnit is a great believer that "invention is good, but invention is risky."
More importantly, he believes Internet businesses - like About.com and AdKeeper - need to begin slowly, from the ground up, as "an upside-down pyramid."
"Consumers first, advertisers second and AdKeeper third," says Kurnit. "You have to build things to last."