Sphere Leader Has Exited AOL–But Staying on as "Special" Venture Advisor

Published on November 4, 2009
by Kara Swisher


Tony Conrad, CEO and co-founder of Sphere–the contextually relevant content engine AOL bought in the spring of 2008 for upward of $25 million–left the Time Warner (TWX) online unit last month, several sources have told BoomTown in recent weeks.

But, in an effort by AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong to hold onto entrepreneurial talent, Conrad (pictured above) has agreed to become “Special Advisor” to its AOL Ventures Unit, headed by Jon Brod.

Conrad, who also works as a partner at San Francisco venture firm True Ventures, is also apparently looking to launch a new start-up.

These many moves have now been confirmed by a blog post–obtained by BoomTown–set to be published by Conrad at Sphere, which has recently changed its name to Surphace (a goofy moniker that still makes me weep, and not for joy).

Titled, “Next,” the post will also be appearing on the True Ventures site.

In it, Conrad outlined the changes and also gave big thanks all around.

You can read the whole thing below. In the post, Conrad noted that “I also find myself with a burning need to start another company…[and] I’ve decided that I need to move on from Sphere to figure it out.”

Sphere was founded in 2005 and raised about $4.25 million from many investors, some of which included Radar Partners, Trident Capital and well-known Web players Scott Kurnit and Will Hearst.

Conrad, who was involved with Webmail and RSS aggregator Oddpost (acquired by Yahoo in 2004), is also on the board of Automattic/WordPress, the blog publishing system this site uses.

This kind of history gives him a lot of Silicon Valley cred to help AOL, which also recently hired former Yahoo (YHOO) exec Brad Garlinghouse to run its communications arm and be its “CEO of Silicon Valley.”

Both will be working with Brod, who came to AOL via its acquisition of hyperlocal community news start-up Patch Media.

Brod has previously worked closely with Armstrong, who was a major Patch investor.

All these players will have their hands full trying to push AOL’s reputation among entrepreneurs, which is–how can I put it delicately?–pretty nonexistent.

But boosting innovation will be key to success as AOL prepares to spin off from Time Warner later in the year.

And that was not exactly helped by its recently released slate of board picks, who are a little light on fast-paced, Web 2.0 entrepreneurial skills.

So, keeping someone like Conrad in the AOL tent is a good move, especially since several similar execs at start-ups bought by the online giant have left.

They include Michael Jones of Userplane, who is now COO of News Corp. (NWS) social networking unit MySpace, as well as many others.

Here is a video interview I did with Conrad in mid-2007 (which also includes a visit with GigaOm’s Om Malik):

And here is Conrad’s blog post:


It’s been almost five years since Martin Remy, Steve Neiker, Toni Schneider and I started working on Sphere. For me, it’s around 10% of a life. And it’s a time when I find myself thinking a lot about a particular question: What do I want to do next?

In 2005, I had the good fortune of being on the founding team of Sphere and joining True Ventures simultaneously. I always thought that I’d eventually focus all of my attention on one or the other, but both were too much fun and I guess I’m selfish in that way. As time passed, I went deeper into each role and I never got around to choosing one or the other. It worked out nicely. True is on its second fund and Sphere had a successful sale to AOL in 2008. Most importantly, Sphere’s business and team are both thriving within AOL. While I’m proud of my contributions to both, the heroes in this equation are Martin, Steve, Toni, Shea DiDonna, Braughm Ricke, Om Malik, Puneet Agarwal, John Burke, Phil Black, Jon Callaghan, Marty Moe, Bill Wilson and AOL–they trusted and empowered me to pursue both. I am extremely grateful.

As I’ve thought through the question of what’s next, I’ve realized that I love the complementary perspectives acquired from building a company as an entrepreneur and investor. They are symbiotic roles and it’s really hard to say which has influenced me more. While my role at True as a Venture Partner will continue to deepen (because there is nothing more rewarding than working with people you admire and trust), I also find myself with a burning need to start another company. I’ve discovered my formula and doing both makes me happiest.

As for my next company, I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but I’ve decided that I need to move on from Sphere (now Surphace) to figure it out. This may feel like old news as I’ve been working to make myself obsolete as Josh Guttman transitioned into the CEO role. My decision is easy as I know that Surphace is in excellent hands. I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving if I didn’t believe that Josh was the right leader for the business today. He’s a natural leader and has a strategy for the future that I believe is going to accelerate growth for Surphace and AOL. I couldn’t be more pleased for Josh and excited for the Surphace team.

As for my thoughts about Surphace and AOL’s future, I’m more optimistic than ever. We joined AOL at an opportune time. AOL is doing what great, sustainable businesses do every so often – they’re reinventing themselves. As the business model of the oldest and one of the biggest Internet businesses evolves, Sphere/Surphace has become an important piece of their strategy to reach across and engage the web. In the past year, we’ve had an insiders’ view into how AOL’s new leadership team has moved aggressively to engage their audience (new vertical focused websites; a focus on engagement and not page-views for page-views sake; hiring leading journalistic talent when others downsized; acquisitions in the local content space; shorter development cycles with an emphasis on release, iterate and release). There is nothing like winning and the AOL publishing business is winning. As a result, I’m pleased to also announce that I’ve agreed to serve as a Special Advisor to AOL Ventures as they reinvent themselves. I am thrilled at this opportunity to evolve my relationship.

I want to give a huge thanks to the people who’ve made the last few years what they were: my family tops the list, an entrepreneur is only as good as their support system and this is my secret sauce. My co-founders, Martin and Steve, who trusted me to play a role in helping them get the tech they invented the exposure it deserved. Toni and Phil who taught me about generosity at a moment when I was able to learn. Matt Mullenweg who opened up my thinking of how a start-up operates. Marty and Bill who have been consistently supportive since Day One–I can’t underscore enough how much I appreciate the manner in which they’ve empowered us to thrive in an appropriately independent environment. They have treated me (and the Sphere team) with enormous respect for which I am both thankful and flattered. The original Sphere team, the current Surphace team who have embraced AOL. Our investors and advisors who supported and helped shape our vision. The True team and entrepreneurs who have taught me about sacrifice, vision, execution and the value of pursuing your dreams–and, of course, Lewis Dvorkin, Kevin Lockland and Bill who paid us the nicest compliment of all in offering to acquire our company and then doing so.

It’s been a thrilling, at times difficult, always rewarding and lucky ride I’ve been on. Thanks to all.

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