Smith's in at PlanetOut

The young gay online company with the troubled past and promising future has a new president, Megan Smith.

3 min read
Megan Smith has raced across the Australian outback in a solar-powered car that she helped build, worked in Japan for Apple, traveled through Europe for General Magic, and addressed deforestation in South America--not necessarily in that order.

Now the 32-year-old MIT mechanical engineering grad is taking on a project that rivals them all. She is the new president of PlanetOut, a young gay online company with a troubled past and promising future.

The last time PlanetOut made the news, at the end of January, it announced its reorganization after a power struggle threatened to shut it down.

Tom Rielly, founder and now chief executive officer of PlanetOut, had been temporarily ousted from the board but regained power, replacing outgoing president and CEO Jon Huggett.

Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm that had poured $2.7 million into PlanetOut, also pulled the plug in January, leaving some to wonder whether the organization would be able to make it financially. But Rielly, who took over as majority stake holder, said PlanetOut is in good financial shape. America Online's (AOL) Greenhouse Networks stayed in as a minority partner.

While the going hasn't always been easy, Rielly, appointed chairman of the board last night, said the company has been growing since January. "Things at PlanetOut are going better than expected," he said. The community, which has a large presence on America Online as well as the Web, tripled its hours on AOL between December and May, and Web traffic more than doubled since the announcement, he said. Advertising impressions were up to 3.4 million in April.

Smith, appointed president last night, said she's excited by the opportunity. "I just really believe that PlanetOut is in the right place at the right time," she said. "We are inventing the whole Internet business together--as we set up, we're also inventing how we do it."

Enthusiasm aside, and truth be told, Smith landed at PlanetOut almost by accident.

Last summer she decided to leave her job at General Magic, where for six years she had done everything from mechanical engineering to managing products to working on commercial and strategic alliances and business development.

She wanted to "switch gears" and do community work. Her plan was to go to the Carter Center to work on housing for poor people. Then Rielly called.

"I had left General Magic and six days later Tom called and said 'we are shipping our product, can you come for a month and do it?'"

She stayed for several months, deciding to leave when Rielly was originally ousted from the board. She went back to Australia for some R&R.

Then, Rielly called again. Soon, Smith was on a plane back to PlanetOut. The fit, both say, is a natural.

"He knows I believe in this team. He saw me successfully lead this team and keep them together in pretty rough times," Smith said.

Smith knows the technical side of the business as well as the marketing side, and marketing is exactly what a company like PlanetOut needs, Rielly said. She also comes with an impressive list of contacts that include the likes of Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Lab, the president of MIT, and Disney fellows Marvin Minsky and Alan Kay--to name a few.

Danny Krifcher, president of Greenhouse and a PlanetOut board member, is equally enthusiastic about Smith can bring to the table.

"She comes out of the world of technology and the world of media," Krifcher said. "She has done a great job to really tighten up and motivate the PlanetOut team."

But there is a bottom line, Krifcher said: PlanetOut needs to make money and Smith seems to be helping.

"At the end of the day the mantra is big revenues," Krifcher said. "I'm very bullish on PlanetOut. I think if you look at the gay community, they're a community where we know their passion about online and the Internet. We know they have disproportionate discretionary revenue and there's more and more advertisers that are targeting the gay community."