For Zite CEO, no meeting is truly random (Day on the Job)

Having just sold his startup to CNN, Zite CEO Mark Johnson plows through a day packed with meetings that all add up, one way or another. CNET is there to witness a day in the work life of a tech exec.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
12 min read
Zite CEO Mark Johnson (left) works in his San Francisco office. CNET recently spent a day with him as part of the new series, Day on the Job. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Welcome to Day on the Job, a new series looking at what life is like inside the technology business. Over the coming months, I'll be visiting a wide variety of tech companies, with an emphasis on startups, each time shadowing one person for a whole day.

It could be the CEO, or it could be an engineer or a designer. Or anyone in between. The idea is not to uncover dark secrets or business plans, but instead to take readers alongside the people who are creating the products they use every day or may be using in the future.

In order to make the companies I'll be visiting feel comfortable and safe about having a reporter with a notebook in the room for a day, I will agree with them on a series of ground rules. These may vary from visit to visit, but the starting point will be: First, I will not name any business partners or those involved in deals that I see or hear my subjects interacting with. Second, I will not write about any forward-looking business plans or partnerships that I encounter during my visits, unless I have specific permission to do so. And third, beyond those terms, if my subject doesn't want me to write about something, they will have to ask me to leave the room. Otherwise, it's on the record. If your company would like to be part of this series, please write to me at daniel.terdiman@cbsinteractive.com and let's talk.

The technology industry is full of interesting people doing innovative things, but for the most part, we don't get to see behind the curtain. That's unfortunate, and changing that dynamic is what Day on the Job is all about.

Meet Zite
On August 30, CNN announced it had agreed to buy Zite, the maker of a popular iPad news aggregation app, for a reported $20 million to $25 million. Zite's CEO is Mark Johnson, a former senior program manager lead for Microsoft's Bing, and now an employee of CNN's parent, Turner. By chance, I had already agreed to launch Day on the Job with Johnson last week, so my timing, while not perfect, was a bit of good fortune: the ink on the deal was barely dry.

Johnson has a good memory. In his days at Bing, he had worked with a talented designer, and now, in need of someone to run Zite's design team, Johnson was trying to recruit his old friend. Not long before, he had told this friend about an upcoming trip to New York, and the designer mentioned in passing what must have been a throwaway line: he really wanted a few pairs of Uniqlo socks that, outside of Japan, could only be bought in the retailer's one giant store in the Big Apple.

Now, meeting over a sushi lunch in the SOMA district of San Francisco to discuss whether he'd be able to hire his friend, Johnson produced a bag with a flourish. Inside the bag was eight pairs of the socks, but the designer didn't even have to look inside. He recognized the Uniqlo bag immediately. "Oh, my god," he said. "I'm so excited for this." And then he added, "just give me the bill."

But that wasn't on at all. Johnson knew that though these were just socks, by producing these hard-to-come-by treats and showing that he cared enough to remember, he'd impress his old friend--and hopefully help him make up his mind to leave the comfort and security of a high-paying job at Microsoft. "That's your signing bonus," Johnson said, smiling.

An unexpected CEO
Even in an era where CEOs walk around in jeans and black turtlenecks, or T-shirts and hoodies, Johnson isn't the one you'd think was running the company if you walked into a room with him and his employees. He's of average height and and super-thin build, and has a "'fro" of curly reddish-brown hair. He wears glasses and speaks in a slightly high-pitched voice. Today, he's wearing brown corduroys, a lime-green Izod golf shirt, sneakers with super-short white socks, a brown belt, a watch, and a black ring on his right ring finger.

But spend any time with him in a business setting, and you can quickly see why he's the man in charge: He's smart, quick, well-informed, compassionate, and certain of what he wants. And while he loves to play hard, he also works hard: His days begin when he gets up around 7 a.m. and quickly jumps into e-mail. He gets to the office by 9:30, works all day, then generally goes to the gym before going home to work for two or three more hours.

A busy day
Though Johnson's day is non-stop work, his calendar is only half-planned, and he likes it that way, as it gives him time to keep up on e-mail, to have random chats with people, and to do any of the myriad other tasks that come up.

Today, though, there's a full plate. There's an 11 o'clock staff meeting, lunch with the designer recruit, a 2:30 conference call with a major consumer electronics manufacturer for whose tablet Zite will soon launch an app, a 3:30 meeting with a CNNMoney reporter, a 4 p.m. meeting with a director of business development candidate; a 4:30 phone call with a venture capitalist, and drinks at 5:30 with a wealth manager whom a friend from high school has suggested Johnson meet. But there's something missing.

"Part of this job is to be a connector. If there's not an immediate need, they'll think of you later....They can be seemingly random meetings, but you never know which ones are going to bear fruit."
--Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite

"Shoot, did I delete another meeting I wasn't supposed to," Johnson says to no one in particular. "Poop....First thing, I have to figure out why I deleted this meeting. That annoys me."

But then he starts explaining why he takes so many meetings. "It's important to meet a lot of people," he says. "Part of this job is to be a connector. If there's not an immediate need, they'll think of you later....They can be seemingly random meetings, but you never know which ones are going to bear fruit."

That may well be how Zite came to be acquired by CNN in fact. Johnson told me that after Zite's launch earlier this year, "We were contacted by CNN because they were fans of the application. What started off as talk about a strategic investment eventually turned into an acquisition. From first contact to term sheet took about three months."

Morning meeting
Johnson is not an engineer. He is a manager of people and information, and the MacBook Air he spends his day in front of reflects this. "Basicallly, I live in e-mail," he says, adding, "Yahoo Messenger and Google Chat are absolutely indispensable."

Indeed, a look at his computer reveals that there are 11 open Google Chat windows, and a similar number in Yahoo Messenger. He's also running Hip Chat, "a modern IRC client" the Zite team uses all the time, Safari, iCal, Evernote, Skype, Twitter, Stickies, and of course, his e-mail client. He complains about the horrid integration between his e-mail and iCal, recalling how Outlook had always done a good job of that. "I really miss the days of having Outlook, oddly enough," he admits.

Zite CEO Mark Johnson sits at his MacBook Air. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LinkedIn is always open in his browser, he tells me, and adds that he gets a ton of meeting requests through the social network, "especially since the acquisition." The service is also key, he says, in gathering intelligence on anyone he's meeting with. Talking with an employee about whether or not it's possible to access Turner's internal org chart, he says, "I don't go into a meeting with anyone unless I've looked at their LinkedIn profile....Do they report to someone who's your enemy, or who's your friend? It's important to know."

Zite itself is small: Just eight people work there, and of those, four are based in Vancouver, British Columbia. With a Bing water bottle, a messy stack of business cards, two Socialize.com coffee cups, and a pack of Marlboro Lights next to his Mac, Johnson calls the 11 a.m. meeting to order, three other Zite employees gathered close enough to hear the call, which is piped through Skype on the computer.

As the call begins, I notice a stack of "Welcome to Turner" human resources packets and a bunch of blue health-care related fanny packs on a side table. The local team works at three Ikea tables and sits in a collection of random chairs. Through the sun shade covering the window, I can see AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, directly across the street.

"Hello. I'm finishing my bagel," Johnson says, starting the call. "Is everyone there?"

With an upbeat, friendly tone, he explains that this is the first of many weekly staff meetings, and that he hopes each one after will be on a Monday. He chats briefly about an upcoming dinner with members of Turner's people that the whole Zite team will be in San Francisco for, and then he says to the people in Vancouver that he's sorry for a recent payroll problem likely caused by a snafu at Turner. "I want to apologize profusely," he says. "You will be getting checks this week."

Another topic is office space. Now part of a big organization, it no longer seems appropriate for Zite to be hidden away in an anonymous co-working environment that it shares with about 30 other small outfits. And in fact Turner is pushing for the startup to relocate. What's not clear is whether the company will be moving into existing Turner offices, or if it will get its own space somewhere. But Johnson says he's "not a big fan" of that idea. "I would like to be separate."

A big facet of the acquisition by CNN is that Zite is being given a lot of autonomy. That's reflected in part by the fact that Johnson is not only keeping the title of CEO, but "KC Estenson, my new boss, was insistent that I keep my CEO title," Johnson tells me. "He wants Zite to exercise our independence and felt that maintaining my title as CEO--as opposed to 'GM of the Zite division' or something else--would be an important external signal."

iPhone up next
Back on the call, Johnson is talking about key focus areas. First, he says, is recruiting. He says he knows that without more coders, Zite can't advance its product. And without doing that, they can't make the kinds of announcements that have several times brought the company loads of new users.

So far, Zite is only available for the iPad. But Johnson reminds the team--and later tells me it's OK to write--that the next device Zite will be on is the iPhone, and he wonders how quickly users of Apple's smart phone will adopt it. "I have a theory," he says. "iPhone downloads will [match] iPads within eight weeks of launch. We need an office pool on when those dates cross."

Finally, he talks about some of the business deals he's considering. Zite has always been ad-free, but he discusses a few potential partnerships under which Zite's presentation of news stories might include some partner-specific channels. But he also gives a nod to how important it is to do such things properly. These are "not just business problems," he says. "They're product problems: How to present [the channels] in the product."

It's time to end the call, and he clicks to close the Skype connection. The software make its characteristic cash-register sound, and Johnson echos it. "Woot, woot," he says.

Sushi and recruiting
Next up is the lunch meeting with the designer he wants to recruit. Over a selection of sushi, Johnson explains that while there isn't yet a formal offer letter, he's able to make an oral offer, and quickly spells out the proposed salary. And then they discuss titles. The first suggestion is "senior designer," but Johnson thinks that may not be enough. "Lead is higher than senior," he says. "Let's call you lead designer. I want you to be in that role. I would rather hire you knowing you're going to be growing into that role than hire someone over you."

Lunch over, the bill comes. Johnson pays for himself and the designer, and with tip, it comes to $55.55. "I love it when I can make the check like that," he says, his voice rising operatically. "I'm a math geek!"

He's also clear about his view of when it's time to talk about new products. Shortly after returning to the office, it was time for the conference call with the giant consumer electronics maker. The main topic was the forthcoming release of a Zite app for the tech giant's tablet, and the fact that the huge company wanted to preannounce the app in an electronic mailing that would reach 80,000 people.

For Johnson, this was a bad idea. He felt that such advance notice only serves to give critics fodder to complain about why, for example, Zite wasn't picking a different device to develop for. And he didn't enjoy the notion of having to answer public questions on the release before it was finished. His point was persuasive, and by the end of the call, he'd carried the day. There would be no preannouncement.

'My office away from my office'
When you work in a small room with several other people, it can be tempting to seek an alternate setting, especially if you're the CEO.

That's why, for his next two meetings, Johnson went downstairs to a ground-floor coffee shop directly below Zite's co-working space. First up was a casual discussion with a local reporter for CNNMoney, and Johnson greeted him by saying that the cafe was his "office away from my office." I was assured that this had nothing to do with CNN's having bought Zite. This was not a hard-news interview. The reporter wasn't seeking a specific story and didn't even have a notebook.

The two talked leisurely about CNN, about real estate, and about inventor Ray Kurzweil's theory of the Singularity. This was a chance for the Stanford-educated Johnson--whose Twitter handle is philosophygeek--to indulge one of his passions. The reporter asked if he believed in computers smart enough to modify themselves, and Johnson said, "My view on intelligence is that it's hard to imagine a higher intelligence with so much access to its lower-level hardware."

Watching him talk, I noted that Johnson seemed at once effusive and comfortable, and nervous. His shoulders were slightly scrunched up, and he constantly bobbed his legs beneath the table. Yet, he seemed in control and always the successful executive.

Zite CEO Mark Johnson sits and listens as he interviews a potential hire. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

As the reporter walked away, Johnson's next appointment arrived. "This is my office away from my office," he told the woman, a candidate for the position of Zite director of business development. With her, he was totally different. There was no nervousness, no scrunched shoulders. His voice never rose, and he was all business. He was at ease, yet it was much less informal than he'd been minutes before.

The meeting went well. The woman had plenty of business development experience, and Johnson was interested in her ideas of how Zite might incorporate partners' channels into its otherwise ad-free news flow. As they stood up to go, he said to her earnestly that they should continue their conversation. This didn't seem like a kiss-off. While he wasn't hiring her on the spot, like he was trying to do with the designer, he told me later he was very interested in what she could bring to the company.

The day was drawing to a close. There were still a couple more meetings to go--one on the phone, and one at a bar a few blocks away. I was exhausted from just tracking Johnson all day, but he seemed like he was still full of energy. We walked back towards his building, and he realized that for the second time that day, he'd forgotten his key card.

But no matter. A quick phone call, and he was back inside, back in his domain. He won't talk about the specifics of how the CNN acquisition will change his life, other than to say that he hopes he can start some angel investing, become an adviser to a few companies, and sit on the board of a company or two. But, he says, "my day-to-day shouldn't change too much."

That means more meetings, more phone calls, and more e-mail. And more hiring. It turns out that the designer's offer letter arrived right after the sushi lunch, and he agreed to take the job. "I'm hoping that he'll give notice today," Johnson told me by e-mail last Friday. "My first post-acquisition hire! Yay!"