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Shifting Focus

Robin Richards says he can’t stay at a company longer than four years without starting to itch for a new opportunity. Fortunately for the 56 year old, those opportunities have popped up time and again during his lucrative career. Migrating from Michigan in 1978 after studying political science and philosophy at Michigan State – “I drove until I saw the San Fernando Valley exit – it sounded pretty” – Richards tried his hand at law school. But he dropped out after a business installing Pac-Man and Atari games in 7-Eleven convenience stores took off. He went on to lead four more companies over the next few decades, including MP3.com and Tickets.com. His latest venture is CareerArc Group LLC, an umbrella that includes Internships.com, TweetMyJobs and CareerBeam, a job website. Richards talked to the Business Journal from his corner office overlooking Burbank’s Media District. It’s decorated with photos of himself with dignitaries including Bill Clinton – whom he calls “one of the smartest men I’ve ever met.” On his wall is a letter from Hector, a child helped by the Chase Foundation, a non-profit founded by Richards’ family after the death of their son Chase to childhood leukemia. Adjacent to the child’s note is a letter from Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Clearly, Richards is a man with diverse interests. Questions: You’ve led quite a diverse list of companies. How did you end up in internships? Answer: All my kids’ friends kept coming up to me asking for internships. “Mr. Richards can I have an internship? Mr. Richards can I have a job?” I said go to the Internet for gods sakes. They said there isn’t anywhere to go. I said why don’t you go to the career center? They said they only have 50 internships. There are 4,000 kids looking for one at school, and they only have 50. And you saw an opportunity in that? Yup, that’s when I called my partner Paul Ouyang and said time to go back to work. We’d been off for about 6 months since we sold the last company, and I said “Time to go back to work.” Why internships? This is the farm system. How do you have a major league without a farm system? Just let the players find the team? That seems rather inefficient. Something as important as jobs, there should be a training ground and a place to connect people. Part of your new venture emphasizes Tweeting, but I couldn’t help but notice you don’t Tweet from your own account a lot. I love Twitter, but it’s way too easy for me to wax philosophically and watch people follow and come back. And Twitter grabs you at certain times. You could be daydreaming, you could be up late, coming back from a party. Twitter is a place you need to be careful. Your innermost thoughts that you want to tell the world. And that’s when you know it isn’t good. You started and sold Tickets.com, then MP3.com and now have Internships.com. Those are some pretty marquee website names. Can’t imagine they came cheap. Oh yeah, we paid $1,800 back in the day for Tickets.com, after offering $500. But that was a fun negotiation. We paid $800,000 for the Internships.com URL. Each of your companies has been, for all intents and purposes at their time, a tech company. Are you a tech whiz? I understand technology. I don’t do technology. I have been around enough technology people that I understand that they can do anything if they understand it. If they are part of the team, they can make a computer do anything. MP3.com made quite a splash. You were sued many times by some of the largest music companies out there. I consider every one of those fights to be short-sighted on the part of the music industry. I think the facts speak for themselves. It was a $44 billion industry and it’s far short of that today, with consumption tripled. If they had partnered with MP3, instead of attacking MP3, then that would have been better for them. The fact that we did it doesn’t mean you should ignore it because you didn’t do it. And then, well, hello Napster! They got to meet the devil and therefore they are no longer what they once were because they were very stubborn. What was your first company? So I was sitting in a 7-Eleven one night very late eating my hot dog and a soda for 52 cents because I was going to school and had no money. After I finished studying, I’d go down and I’d get a hot dog and a Coke and the arcade was right across the street at La Cienega and Santa Monica. It was a big arcade at the time, and I kept seeing all the arcade people coming into the 7-Eleven, so I decided one day I was going to count his foot traffic between 10 and one in the morning. The next day, I went over and counted the foot traffic at the arcade at one in the morning, and more people went to the 7-Eleven, so I said to the guy, “It’s all the same people. Why don’t we put a video game here and see what happens?” And what happened? They made a fortune. $500 each per week. We made a fortune, and then every 7-Eleven in the area got them from me and that was the end of law school. Was your family on-board with the switch from future lawyer to video games? My wife did hate when I took her out to dinner with quarters. It was really funny. She said “You can’t do that anymore with the quarters, it’s embarrassing.” So I said OK, and in the 7-Eleven near my house, I put a change machine, so that I could have dollars to take my wife out. That became the hottest commodity and I got more locations because of a stupid change machine. It was funny. So after you sold the video game distribution business, did you sit down and try to figure out a new plan? Ideas are organic and any entrepreneur who tells you they sit down at the table and think of a business idea is full of it. But somehow you ended up in telemarketing. I was working distributing coffee and soda machines to offices. But I was spending all my time on the phone trying to get appointments to talk to people. So I hired someone to make my appointments for me. Next thing I knew, other distributors wanted to use my service. So I sold them each appointment for $40. It grew from there. Was it funded by the video game company money? Funding was really hard. Don’t forget, it was 1985. Laws were very different back then. And there was a brilliant man who was chairman of City National Bank. So I walked into City National bank in Beverly Hills and said ‘I’ve got more business than I know what to do with. I’ve got the greatest business you’ll ever see. I’m probably not as sophisticated as I should be with my financials, but if you’ll come down and see my business, you’ll really love it and I could really use a loan.’ Did someone come? So, Bram Goldsmith, the chairman, came down and I told him I could use $10,000 and he said “Wow this is a good idea, come down tomorrow and get it.” So I did. Went down there and filled out a few papers. That was the old days of banking. And he was right and I was a loyal long-term customer of City National and that’s how the old community bankers did their work. You made millions off the sale of that company, Lexi International. Where did the name come from? It was named after my oldest daughter. I figured if I was really going to build my first big company, I had to have additional strength not to quit. And if I put my daughter’s name on the door then I wouldn’t quit. Are your other children going to have company’s named after them? No, if there had been a big Internet presence back then, I could have gotten telemarketing. com and that would have been easier. Now, I want to get URLs that are what you do for a living. Name them what they are. Plumbing. com, Tickets.com, Internships.com How did you end up switching from telemarketing to selling tickets online? Well, I was looking for something similar to what we did telemarketing, in that I was looking for a way to change a market. Standing in long lines around a corner to get tickets seemed pretty silly after the Internet started. How did you convince promoters to sell their tickets through you? We didn’t. We had some inventory: golf, minor league baseball, stuff that people wouldn’t stand in a line for anyway. So I told my team that what we could do was work as hard and as fast as we could to do the back end stuff, the platform. We put together the seating charts, the database of what people were looking for and where they were looking for it. We figured out how to handle surges of 300,000 tickets sold in 30 seconds. And then you sold the database and the platform? We sold it a couple hundred days after we got it, for tens of millions of dollars. We had to get it done and show what it could do as fast as we could do it before someone else could set it up. There’s a note from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the wall there. What is it for? Well, the last time I saw him was at a fundraiser for public education at Mark Zuckerberg’s. (Newark, N.J. Mayor) Cory Booker implemented Tweet My Jobs in Newark, and he was one of the first officials to adopt the platform. Chris Christie reached out to Zuckerberg and Cory Booker to help with their campaign for public education, and that was a letter that came after that event. You and your family founded the Chase Foundation. Tell me about that. Twenty-two years ago our son Chase died of leukemia. It was 10 days from diagnosis to death. And our daughters needed Child Life therapists to help them through it and at the time there was only one therapist at Children’s Hospital. They help children and families through trauma using art therapy and play therapy, and we thought that everyone should have access to this. So we have the Child-Life Playroom at Children’s Hospital; we’ve expanded to Mattel Children’s Hospital and in December we’re opening a Chase Place at Providence Tarzana Medical Center. We do some work on this every day. Now what is this about you and will.i.am? So, back when they started the X-Prize, there were a bunch of scientists at Carnegie Mellon who were working in robotics and trying to get something to the Mars. They heard I was a good fundraiser, and asked me to be on their board and help them make the money they needed to keep doing it. So what did you do? I said, get a pop star, get them to record a single and have it only available for download from your Mars-robot. I suggested will.i.am. But I didn’t know him. Then one night, at the Conga Room at Staples Center, who do I see but will.i.am. I introduced myself, told him all about the idea and he was into it. But the company went out of business before we could get it done. Then, years later, I ran into him at a party at Elon Musk’s and I said “I don’t think you’ll remember me, but..” and he said “That’s why I’m here! I did it with Elon Musk!” This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

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