Changing the Television Game: A History of Vizio with William Wang
TV’s were expensive. You had to spend an arm and a leg to get an ok one. However, Vizio changed that. When they hit the shelves at Costco it changed the entire TV world. Instead of spending a minimum of $1500 for an ok plasma screen you could get a crystal clear flat screen for $499. In other words, Vizio made tv’s accessible to everyone. Soon, TV prices started tumbling down and now are the same price as a computer monitor.
Just recently LeEco has announced that they have acquired Vizio for $2 billion. Anyone can see that Vizio is doing well. However, the story behind the man who made it all happen, founder William Wang, brings light to how hard work and tough consequences are the key ingredients to success.
by George Ko
Photos by George Ko and Eric Nakamura. Video by George Ko
GR: What was it like growing up in Taiwan? Did your childhood have any effects on the way you run your business?
William Wang: Well, I was a pretty good student when I grew up in Taiwan. My family was able to put us in the best elementary school in Taiwan. I'd say I studied pretty hard and it was a typical Asian school. It would go from seven o'clock in the morning until six o'clock at night. It was a lot of work. Yeah, I learned about discipline from school, for sure. Growing up in Taiwan also gave me the knowledge of how to deal with Asians which I think I use in my career quite a bit. Again, the culture is a little bit different, so you just have to deal with them differently. Today, a lot of my suppliers are based in Taiwan and I used what I learned from school quite a bit.
GR: What was different about Asia vs. the U.S.?
W: Asians are a lot different from Americans. If you don't spend your time overseas, you don't know what the American dream is all about. You don't have the freedom. You don't have the luxury to think big in Asia. I mean, none of my friends wanted to be entrepreneurs. None of my friends thought that they were going to have their own businesses. None of my friends thought that they can be a leader in their particular field. We just didn't have the luxury of thinking that big. Living in Asia for 12 years made me appreciate America so much more and makes me feel great about being here, being in the U.S. and living the American dream.
None of my friends thought that they were going to have their own businesses. None of my friends thought that they can be a leader in their particular field. We just didn't have the luxury of thinking that big.
GR: What did your father do?
W: My father worked for this company called Pacific Wire and Cable. He's a material manager for the company. He sells cables and wires to the local companies in Taiwan.
GR: Cables and wires— that's related to TV's. Did you think in any way while you were growing up that you would be in an industry related to your dad’s?
W: No, I never thought. Growing up, I wanted to be an artist. I like art. I wanted to be an architect. I liked to build buildings. I never thought I'd go into the field of electronics or be an entrepreneur.
GR: I read somewhere that you love American film/TV. Did you watch them in Taiwan? Were there specific TV shows you really enjoyed that you would re-watch?
W: My first exposure to American culture was when I was in Hawaii. Since no one really talked to me in Hawaii, the only thing I listened to was the TV set. I learned a lot of English from the TV shows, like Charlie's Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man. These are really, really old shows, probably you guys have never heard of them. I also watched American football. I used to watch TV all the time. It was a huge difference living in Taiwan versus living in Hawaii. The education system in Hawaii was not 7am to 6pm like in Taiwan. It was more like 9am to 1:30pm. So, I had a lot of time watch TV. I learned a lot of English from watching TV.
The education system in Hawaii was not 7am to 6pm like in Taiwan. It was more like 9am to 1:30pm. So, I had a lot of time watch TV. I learned a lot of English from watching TV.
GR: Back to your journey, do you mind talking about your transition to USC?
W: Yeah. We came to Orange County in 1978. I went to Edison High School and somehow got into USC. I applied as an electrical engineering and got accepted in that field. So I went to USC as an engineering student. That was quite interesting.
GR: Why not architecture, if you don’t mind me asking?
W: Well, I think there were several reasons. I was pretty geeky. I kind of liked all the toys and stereo systems. Back then, the Walkman was a big deal. I was a typical geeky, nerdy kid. So, engineering was probably a good choice. At the same time, architects didn’t really get paid a lot of money, and my parents discouraged me from becoming an architect. Electrical engineering was the hottest career at the time, and also the hardest to get in; you get paid the most after you graduate. For those reasons I picked electrical engineering.
GR: What was it like being an engineer at USC?
W: I wasn't very good at it. It was my first time away from home and being exposed to the non-family life, so my attendance wasn’t that great. I didn't study that hard. I wasn't a great student, but I learned a lot in college. I learned how to deal with people. I learned how to cope with a crisis. I learned how to deal with taking exams. You better study pretty hard. I think the most important thing is that I learned how to deal with pressure: pressure of not being the best, pressure of not being able to finish first, pressure of facing reality. So, I think I kind of learned that discipline from college, because I failed. My GPA was like 2.3 or 2.4. I couldn't get into grad school. All my friends went on to grad school. When I went from Taiwan to Hawaii, all my friends are gone. After graduation, all my friends are gone again. I'm all by myself because, again. I had no choice but to be done with school because my GPA wasn't good enough. I failed again. This later on set the foundation and the tone for my working discipline.
I wasn't a great student, but I learned a lot in college. I learned how to deal with people. I learned how to cope with a crisis. I learned how to deal with taking exams.
GR: So, what did you do after college?
W: So, I couldn't get a really decent job like the rest of my buddies. I think the average starting salary was like, $32,000-$35,000 for an electrical engineering major. I couldn't get a real electrical engineering job. I found a job in Long Beach as a technical support engineer at a display company that sold monitors to IBM. I got paid $1,700 a month. I learned pretty quick how to be a technical support engineer and it also gave me the opportunity to do marketing and sales. I learned a lot during those four years while working for somebody.
GR: I’m guessing you transitioned into the TV world after working in the monitor business. However, how did you make that leap to take on the big TV tycoons like Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung, especially when the industry was already so established?
W: Well, it took a lot of years before I set that foundation. I believed that I could create better technology for computer monitors. I quit my job in 1990 and started my own business. I became an entrepreneur at 26 years old. I didn't even know the definition of entrepreneur at the time. I didn't know how to read a balance sheet or income statement. I didn't go to business school. I didn't know anything about accounting, or hiring, but I had a pretty good understanding of the display business.
I wanted to build a new display else could build. I believed that if I built a better product at a better spec with better technology, somebody will buy it. I convinced a couple of people to give me $300,000 when I started it. Between 1990 and 2002, I bounced around the computer monitor industry and I made a lot of money quickly. I was 28 before I made my first million dollars. I expanded the company quite a bit. I went from myself to about 450 people in four years. At the time, the computer industry was going crazy so I didn't think anybody could screw up.
Eventually, I lost all my money because I mismanaged the company. I expanded the company too fast. My ego was too high and I became a little too greedy. The most important thing though was that I didn't really invest a lot in people. I pretty much believed in myself and believed in the technology, but I didn't really build an infrastructure or environment for people to help me build a team. So, after 12 years, from 1990 to 2002, I paid for my successes and for my screw ups. I lost like 45 million dollars
GR: In the midst of all this, you were also in the notorious Singapore Airlines crash in Taiwan in 2000. What was that experience like?
W: Yeah, you probably don't want to experience that. I wasn't supposed to be on that flight. I was supposed to be on a China Airlines flight that afternoon which took off about five hours prior to this flight. The only reason I chose that flight was because I needed to have a meeting with one of my creditors in Taiwan. Back then my previous business wasn't doing that well. So, I had a lot of issues, a lot of problems. I had to meet with one of my suppliers in Taiwan. They didn't really want to see me, because of my debt. I said, "I got to come see you. I want you to give me some time to pay off the debt." They proposed a time to meet so I changed my flight for them.
On the evening I was leaving Taiwan for the U.S. there was a typhoon. The wind was blowing over 50mph. I asked my guys to call Singapore Airlines. I said, "if you're taking off, I'm going to fly because I want to go back to the U.S. quick. I want to come back for my daughter’s first trick or treat." It was Halloween night. So, if you leave at 11pm Taiwan, you get back in California at 7pm, the same day, Halloween night. So, I took the flight and unfortunately the captain went the wrong runway.
There were two runways: 5L and 5R. The pilot was supposed to take 5L because it was the longest runway in Taipei Airport. But instead of turning into 5L, he turned into 5R which was under construction. For some reason, the 5R runway was still lit. Somebody turned on the lights for a dead runway. Because it's raining so hard and because Taipei Airport had no ground radar, nobody knew exactly where the plane was. The captain decided to take off on the wrong runway and half the plane was lifted up in the air. I was in the front of the plane, so we're up, I don't know, God, 40, 50 feet up in the air. All of a sudden, I heard this noise, like somebody knocking on the door and I immediately tilted to the left. The plane hit the construction equipment and we came down pretty quick. About 60,000 gallons of jet fuel blew up at once. There was a lot of panic. The first thing that came into my mind was obviously in the crash. The second thing that flashed through my mind was my family. At the same time, all of my headache from losing a lot of money went away. Next thing I knew I’m still alive.
All of a sudden, I heard this noise, like somebody knocking on the door and I immediately tilted to the left. The plane hit the construction equipment and we came down pretty quick. About 60,000 gallons of jet fuel blew up at once. There was a lot of panic. The first thing that came into my mind was obviously the crash. The second thing that flashed through my mind was my family.
GR: Did they pull you out of the plane?
W: No, no. Actually, I was running on the plane. The fire came from underneath me. The next thing you knew, I couldn't breathe. The explosion sucked all the oxygen away, so I couldn't breathe and there was thick smoke everywhere too. So, I got up and I started running. I unbuckled my seatbelt, and I started running on the plane. The plane was still moving forward at 100mph. The momentum from the speed carried us forward for another mile and a half. During the same time I was running on the plane, trying to open the door on my right hand side. I couldn't open the door on the right. I tried to open the door on the left. I have no memory afterwards. All I knew was that the next thing I remembered was the door popping open. The rain came in and hit my face and the hot air pushed me out. I got ejected from the plane. I got pushed out and I was five feet from the tarmac, so I jumped from the plane, and I started running pretty quickly. I think eight or nine people followed me out. I stayed on the runway for 20,30 minutes in the rain for quite some time before the cars and a little van came to pick us up. I was choking on these huge black balls of whatever from the smoke. But I wasn't injured. I was one of the few, fortunate people that weren't injured at all. I think half the people died on that plane.
The explosion sucked all the oxygen away, so I couldn't breathe and there was thick smoke everywhere too. So, I got up and I started running. I unbuckled my seatbelt, and I started running on the plane.
GR: So two big events in your life happened with your old company, the crash and the business debt. How did you go from there to building Vizio?
W: I actually came back to the U.S. pretty quickly. I wanted to come back. I didn't want to stay in Taiwan. I wasn't injured. In fact, I came back three days after the incident. I still had a lot of problems, a lot of headaches from my previous business and I cleaned that up over the next few years. In 2002, started Vizio with $600,000. Most of the startup cost came from my second mortgage on my house.
GR: How did your family feel about you starting another company?
W: My wife's pretty supportive. My daughter was pretty young. My parents are very supportive and because of their support, it allowed me to be an entrepreneur. That gave me the comfort and the luxury of thinking big and to take risks. And if they didn't support my crazy, risk taking career, I don't think I could be here. I grew up in a great family that allowed me to take risks and my wife allows me to take risks. It was pretty risky considering the only thing we had back then was my house.
GR: That's so important to hear. Sometimes, when we look up to role models we think that their success is individual. However, we forget it's a community of people that allows that person to succeed.
W: Yeah. I often tell people who want to be an entrepreneur that you first have to make sure you have an environment that allows you to take risks. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, know that all the statistics are against you. How many businesses last more than 10 years? Not a lot. It's difficult. It's not easy to be risk averse. It's just a completely different business. I think most people can't afford to take risks. If you have a kid, a family which you need to feed, how do you really take that risk and put all your lifetime savings in a really vulnerable situation? It's tough. So, not everybody can be an entrepreneur. Again, I think I'm pretty fortunate.
I often tell people who want to be an entrepreneur that you first have to make sure you have an environment that allows you to take risks.
GR: We all know Vizio today. That's one of the main TV’s you see when you walk into Best Buy or Costco. But how did you get there with Sony and Samsung as the clear dominators? What was the vision and goal you set out when you started the company on day one?
W: First of all, you've got to stick to your mission. Our mission was to build the best technology at the most affordable price. It wasn't easy to accomplish this, but you've got to stick to it. You've got to believe. You've got to have faith that your mission statement is right. I truly believed that I would sell the greatest picture quality TV at the most affordable price. Even until today, I think everybody at the company knows that. Second, you have to look beyond just building a business and making money. You have to look beyond how much money you make, and look at exactly what company you want to create, right? We're here to please the consumer, but at the same time, I want to build an enterprise. I don't want to be just an entrepreneur, working on my own entrepreneurship. I did that before and it didn't work out that well. I want to build an enterprise made of great, talented people who I want to hang around with, who I know, will carry us through hard times. This time around, I think we hired a really talented group of people. I'm proud to say that Vizio has enterprise value today. I also transitioned at a good time. The government was pushing the digital TV and it gave me an opportunity. Ultimately, we've now become a true force in the industry because we have a great team of people.
Our mission was to build the best technology at the most affordable price. It wasn't easy to accomplish this, but you've got to stick to it. You've got to believe. You've got to have faith that your mission statement is right.
I want to build an enterprise made of great, talented people who I want to hang around with, who I know, will carry us through hard times.
GR: Was there one milestone that you hit, that made you sit back and say "Wow, we did it."
W: I think it was seven or six years ago. One day, I walked into the office and I there were people running around. Honestly, there was a lot of people I didn't know, but I felt the energy in the air. I walked into the office and I felt that, "wow, this company is bigger than me." That was the moment. That was the defining moment for me. The company was finally bigger than me. Vizio is now Vizio. Vizio is not me anymore. Vizio is a brand everybody knows. Vizio is a place you want to work at. People call this a home. That was a defining moment when I walked into the office. This company is finally bigger than me now.
GR: You've also done a lot for the community. You've helped with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and you've worked with the American Film Institute. Do you mind talking about your philanthropy?
W: I think money is a powerful tool. It's not just about building Vizio the company, but also building the community that’s around us, hopefully to make a better society. I do what I can. I don't believe that the money is mine. If you look at a dollar bill, take it out of your wallet. Does it have your name on it? It has somebody else's name on it. Doesn’t it say, U.S.A.? It's not mine. I think in many cases, the right thing for me to do is not keep money but now how to use it right.
It's not just about building Vizio the company, but also building the community that’s around us, hopefully to make a better society. I do what I can. I don't believe that the money is mine. If you look at a dollar bill, take it out of your wallet. Does it have your name on it? It has somebody else's name on it. Doesn’t it say, U.S.A.? It's not mine.
GR: Is there one product at Vizio that you're really excited about?
W: Yeah, what we like to do is build a better TV. Again, TV is so old fashioned. The remote control started 60 or 70 years ago and people are still using it. But people still hate it. I believe it's our responsibility, our job to make sure that TV usage is a lot easier. Today there's so many sources for TV shows, right? You can stream online, you can watch from cable, and you can watch the tv antennae. So, it's our responsibility to build a TV that is easier. Everybody's working on a smart TV. We want smart TV's to be so smart that it's dumb for the consumer. Right? So, there's a lot of challenges ahead of us but we're working on it.
GR: I'm just curious, out of all the streaming services is there one that you really enjoy? That you keep going back to?
W: No, I love them all. I love them all.
GR: What would be your top five TV shows or movies that you've seen, that you like to browse through if you're taking a break?
W: If I'm taking a break? I'm a really bad TV watcher. I go from channel to channel. I go from channel 2 to 400, you know? I watch golf time sometimes. I like to watch movies. I watch HBO, Cinemax, Netflix, and Amazon. Also, the news. Every now and then I watch CNN or FOX. I switch back and forth.
GR: Are you a big Game of Thrones or Westworld person?
W: Yeah, I watch a little bit of both. I never spent a lot of time. I don't have a lot of time to binge watch every single episode but they're good shows. There's a lot of great shows.
GR: Was there a time when you figured out the balance between your work life and your outside of work life? Because I'm sure in the beginning, it was all work. I'm just wondering how you figured that out.
W: I don't think I figured it out yet. It's still difficult. You got to have fun with what you do. I like my work. I like to building a company like this. I like to build a company bigger than me. It's just like building a house and it will sit there forever, at least for a couple hundred years, hopefully. So, I like to build. I love to build a family. I really enjoy building a family. My daughter, she's now in school and I think that's a process that I really enjoy.