How playing World of Warcraft every day for a year led to building $1 billion startup Glassdoor

Glassdoor Robert HohmanBusiness Insider/Julie BortGlassdoor co-founder CEO Robert Hohman

Glassdoor co-founder and CEO Robert Hohman is the first to admit that he’s a major geek.

To this day he runs his 450-person startup by day, and still personally codes for it at night. His head of engineering “puts up with me,” Hohman tells us, then explains he’s still “a good software engineer.”

When not running the company or coding the site, he’s playing StarCraft with his two expert-level sons.

In fact, Glassdoor wouldn’t even be around if it weren’t for StarCraft’s older, sister game, World of Warcraft, he tells us.

I took a year off and played World of Warcraft. Every day. I would pat the kids on the bottom every morning, send them to school and then I would dominate as an Orc Warrior.

That’s because in 2006, Hohman quit a fabulous job as president of Hotwire to do nothing but play the game. Full time. For a year.

And the second he hit the highest level, the itch to play was scratched and he needed a new thing to obsess over. So he launched a startup.

In his words: “I took a year off and played World of Warcraft. I would pat the kids on the bottom every morning, send them to school and then I would dominate as an Orc Warrior.”

He adds, “I played for a year non-stop and then I hit the maximum level in WoW. I was maniacal in chasing this goal and literally the next day I started a company, Glassdoor.”

The meaning of ‘community’

The year of WoW helped him decide the kind of company he wanted to build.

“I learned from playing WoW about community. It was the first time I really felt part of a online community. I’d be up the morning and be excited to see my guild. Isn’t that nerdy?” he laughs.

An online community has different characteristics than a real-world one, he discovered.

“There’s a space and time ‘shift,'” he describes. “A ‘real’ community is governed by normal rules of space and time, but online is not. It happens across all hours of days and night and across all parts of the world.”

Glassdoor Robert Hohman and young familyRobert HohmanGlassdoor Robert Hohman and his young family during his year as a full-time WoW Orc warrior

These days he’s moved on to Starcraft, which he now plays competitively with his two pre-teen sons.

“My kids and I play now. We just got back from a tournament. My sons are pretty darn good and want to be pro video game players. That’s a thing now,” he says, clearly wishing it was “a thing” when he spent his year playing.

If his sons choose to become pro video gamers, “I support it absolutely. I think it’s amazing. Starcraft is like chess at 100,000 kilometers per hour. My 12-year old thinks faster than I do. He processes strategic info at a speed faster than me,” he says.

Early days as a Microsoftie

When Hohman walked away from Hotwire to become a full time Orc Warrior, he could “afford it,” he admits to us.

Robert Hohman and familyRobert HohmanRobert Hohman and family. His pre-teen sons dream of being pro-video gamers

He joined Microsoft straight from college.

“At 22, I went to work at Microsoft. When I tell young people that today, they look as if they are embarrassed for me. And I have to tell them, ‘No, no — it was was like getting hired at Google back then, or Facebook. This was 1993.”

These were Microsoft’s hey-dey years, not long after its IPO in 1986. Microsoft’s stock was skyrocketing and it turned 10,000 of its early employees into millionaires, the story goes.

At Microsoft he joined the team that built Expedia, which began life as Microsoft’s in-house travel site.

Microsoft spun out Expedia and then took it public in the heady pre-Internet bubble days. It is still the only Microsoft spin-out that went public.

After a stint owned by IAC, Expedia was again spun out on its own, along with some of IAC’s other travel sites like Hotwire.

Hotwire was handed to Hohman to lead as president.

All told, Hohman spent about a decade working at Microsoft, Expedia, Hotwire, and its related sites, before he quit to play WoW full-time.

Inspired by Steve Jobs

But Hohman tells us, his true dream was always to be a startup CEO, a dream that started he was 16 and inspired by Steve Jobs.

Glassdoor employeesBusiness Insider/Julie BortGlassdoor employees at work in the Mill Valley, California, headquarters office

“I read a book about Steve Jobs by John Sculley,” Hohman tells us. (In 1987 Sculley published”Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple : A Journey of Adventure, Ideas, and the Future” in which he talks about how Jobs lured him from Pepsi to Apple.)

The book made Hohman want to “star in a company” he said, “I loved the whole idea of creating something from nothing.”

So the day after achieving the highest score in WoW, he had a conversation with Richard Barton.

Barton was Expedia’s CEO, his friend since the Microsoft days. (Barton also co-founded Zillow and was working as a VC for Benchmark at about this time.)

Hohman told him that with sites like Yelp, people could share all kinds of information about dentists and plumbers, but there was still no way to shares reviews about a far more important thing: their jobs.

He wanted to build a Yelp for job seekers.

Turning point

Hohman says the big fear back then was how companies would react to a site that let people talk about their pay and work environment.

He had meticulously planned out a lot of the other details. For instance, to seed the site with some starter salary and review data, the founders called called every engineer they knew and asked them about their jobs, offering them a chance to win a free iPod.

Glassdoor foundersGlassdoorGlassdoor founders Robert Hohman, Tim Besse, Rich Barton

Between Hohman and Barton and their third co-founder, Tim Besse, also from Expedia, they knew a LOT of engineers.

“Engineers will tell you anything for a free piece of electronics. We found that out,” he said.

The biggest struggle was figuring out a business model. Hohman and team eventually noodled out that the recruiters were their target market. It turns out, showing ads for job openings to someone already researching your company has a high rate of success, he says.

The turning point when he knew Glassdoor was going succeed came the first time a CEO personally emailed him to dispute his low “CEO rating” on the site. The CEO was not pleased and wanted it changed. Hohman politely refused.

Those emails come fast and furious now.

“You’d be stunned how many Fortune 500 CEOs email me. They will dispute the CEO rating, dispute we’re calculating it right because it doesn’t match their own internal analysis. I have to explain to them that we have our own internal algorithm,” Hohman says.

Growing fast

Earlier this year Glassdoor passed another milestone, surpassing CareerBuilder in terms of U.S. website visitors, according to comScore. It is now the fastest growing career site on the net, it says.

Robert Hohman WoW mugBusiness Insider/Julie BortGlassdoor CEO Robert Hohman with his WoW mug

This growth is fresh off a $US70 million infusion of capital in January, led by Google Capital, and the company has close to a $US1 billion valuation. (It’s raised $US160 million total to date).

Glassdoor now has 36,000 companies actively involved with the site, with more than 2,100 paying employer customers using the site for recruiting (including about a third of Fortune 500), 30 million registered users in more than 190 countries who have shared more than 8 million reviews and salaries.

These days Hohman is even working with the White House to provide employment data.

And he still has his WoW mug from his year off. He keeps it in his office.

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