After finding success in software, Kevin O’Connor supports the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and other educational institutions.
Kevin O’Connor, a Livonia native and University of Michigan graduate, started three companies in three decades and now is CEO of Graphiq (formerly FindTheBest) in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Google the name Kevin O’Connor and the first link that pops up is for the host of the TV show, This Old House. Then there’s a guy who plays for a soccer team in the League of Ireland. The one described as “entrepreneur and investor” takes a bit more digging — and that anonymity is exactly how O’Connor likes it.
“I dress in workout clothes every day and drive a 2008 pickup truck,” says the Kevin O’Connor who grew up in Livonia and has launched and run three different startups in three different decades. “I’m as happy today as I was living off $6,000 a year right out of college, sleeping on the floor with no furniture or car.”
That was just before he founded his first company, Intercomputer Communications Corp., in 1983. His second, DoubleClick, came along in 1995. His current venture, Graphiq (formerly FindTheBest), began in 2010.
O’Connor’s neighborhood was Six Mile and Merriman, “one of the most homogenous societies in the U.S.,” he recalls. “Everyone was all the same: middle class and white. We all lived in the same kind of house, just the epitome of suburbia.”
His mom was a teacher, his dad an electrical engineer at Ford Motor Co., which may explain why young Kevin spent many blissful hours picking through his neighbors’ garbage bins looking for old TVs, radios — virtually anything with a plug that he could pull apart and examine.
“I was kind of an inventor, a tinkerer,” he says. “I was a bit weird in that I knew I wanted to be an engineer. So I was going to get my Ph.D. and go work at Bell Labs. That was my map in life. But I kind of fell out of that when I went to Detroit Catholic Central High School.
“I was commuting to Detroit every day, and there were kids that came from all over the area — from wealthy communities and a lot of poor kids from Detroit, too. That was the first time I experienced a hugely diverse community.
“We became brothers at DCC,” O’Connor says of his memories of fellow students at Catholic Central, “and they showed me the city. We’d bribe our way for $1 per person into Red Wings games and concerts at Olympia Stadium. We’d sneak into bars together, and I still remember an exciting night at the Last Chance Bar — the name described it perfectly. Detroit toughened me up and gave me confidence.”
After graduating in 1979, O’Connor enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but only because there was no place for him at the General Motors Institute in Flint. “I wanted to become a car guy,” he says, “but only if I could go into research. And they said there were no internships in that area. So I ended up going to Michigan.”
He graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts in electrical engineering. “I did a few internships with software companies while I was at Michigan,” O’Connor says, “and by then I knew that was my future. I always wanted to get my Ph.D.”
But ironically, on the very day he was accepted into U-M’s Ph.D. program, O’Connor dropped out, deciding instead to move to Cincinnati and start Intercomputer Communications Corp. “We grew it for 10 years, into a 300-person company with about $35 million in revenue,” O’Connor says, “and then sold it to DCA down in Atlanta.”
O’Connor quit the company in 1995 and proceeded to spend most of the next several months holed up in a suburban Atlanta basement with a colleague, Dwight Merriman, brainstorming dozens of ideas for what in those days was a largely unexplored Internet. “(There were) probably only about a million people on it at that time,” O’Connor says. “We were trying to figure out, How (are) the economics going to work? Who’s going to make money?”
Ultimately, they emerged with what became the revolutionary startup DoubleClick, which allowed advertisers to target their audiences while controlling and tracking reach, frequency, and performance. Google bought the company in 2007 for $3.1 billion.
Nowadays O’Connor is totally immersed in Graphiq, a technology company based in Santa Barbara, Calif., that allows consumers to compare everything from colleges to cars to cat breeds. “Our specialty is taking vast amounts of data and turning it into vertical search engines,” O’Connor says. “We have a library of something like 10 billion visualizations that people can access.
“I often joke that I started the company so I’d have people to play basketball with,” he says. “Lunch is sacred at work; it’s when we work out. I typically play basketball three times a week, soccer once or twice, and surf if there (are any waves). I coached all of my kids in soccer and basketball.”
O’Connor’s roots in Michigan still run deep: He has a brother in Dexter, a sister in Ada, his parents have a place near Traverse City, and his son Kian is a freshman at U-M in Ann Arbor, which O’Connor generously supports as part of his philanthropic focus on education.
While readily attributing much of his success to his experiences in Detroit as a young man — in particular at Detroit Catholic Cen-tral — O’Connor’s outlook for the city’s future is bluntly honest, even bleak.
“I get asked about the demise and recovery often,” he says. “People want Detroit to succeed because we love the underdog, but this isn’t enough because we’ve seen this film before. I keep reading about (Founder and Chairman) Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans. God love him, but he’s not enough.”
Nor is O’Connor impressed with many of the proposals designed to expedite the city’s comeback. “There have been a lot of bad recovery ideas for Detroit,” he says. “Urban farming? Really? Land is cheap and a lot cleaner in Iowa. Entrepreneurship? Startups need educated employees, and educated employees want safe neighborhoods and great schools. It would take decades for startups to employ a large number of people. Startups (consist of) one or two jobs. (It’s) very, very uncertain. You need 8,000 to 10,000 jobs.”
His solution to revitalize the city?
“Detroit needs to shrink,” he says. “The surrounding cities should incorporate some of the adjacent areas, or they should be partitioned off into new cities. Detroit is simply too big to govern. Lower taxes, reduce regulations, and (offer) vouchers and charter schools. Michigan should become a libertarian/free-market paradise.”
His opinions are controversial, and they raise an obvious question about O’Connor’s overall business philosophy.
“I see business as simply about solving a big problem better than anybody else,” he says. “Providing solutions is about creating value, and our common store of value is money. (When) you create a lot of value, you create a lot of money. So when we talk about growing the business, it’s always about, How do we solve a problem? I love technology and inventing products. I would have done it all for free.”
Of course, he didn’t. O’Connor seems eerily normal and centered for someone who’s enjoyed such astounding success and wealth. The reason is rooted in one of the first jobs he ever had.
“I was 16 years old,” he says, “washing dishes at this businessman’s restaurant in Livonia. I forget the name of it. And the owner was kind of an a—hole, talking down to me, treating me as an inferior. I told myself back then that regardless of any success I may enjoy, I would always treat every person the same, with dignity, and I feel I do.” db