How I Made It: He lost money as a young CEO. Then he founded TV giant Vizio
William Wang, 55, is founder and chief executive of Vizio, one of the nation’s bestselling TV brands, which is tackling new ways of streaming television. Irvine-based Vizio has more than 400 employees and offices across the country.
Starting from scratch
Wang has always liked to build from the ground up — both in the figurative sense that he built his company from scratch, and literally; when he was younger, he wanted to be an architect. In college, Wang realized that engineering was a more lucrative industry, and so he took a different path. But he’s never totally lost the architecture bug. In his spare time, he builds houses.
Wang bought an old house in Newport Beach, knocked it down, and is now working with an architect, interior designer and general contractor to realize his vision for the space. He’s done the same with a lot in Northern California. “It’s like building a product,” he said. “You pretty much start from scratch, with an empty lot.”
Wang was born in Taiwan. His family moved to Hawaii when he was 12. Two years later, in 1978, they moved to Orange County, where he attended Edison High School in Huntington Beach. After graduating from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, Wang got his first job in the computer industry as a technical support specialist, answering phone calls for a company that built computer monitors for IBM.
Wang credits his parents for immigrating to the U.S., which opened doors for him, and for modeling what hard work looks like.
“I was pretty inspired by the freedom. The possibility to start a company. I was inspired by the American lifestyle,” he said. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ is a word I learned in the U.S. I don’t think it’s a word I heard in Asia, back then.” He looked to American entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for inspiration.
Wang will readily admit he’s made some blunders along the way that cost him a lot of money. “I thought I knew everything,” Wang said. “I was a kid.”
At age 26, Wang started a company to build a better monitor than those offered by industry giant IBM using $50,000 he had saved, $150,000 in seed money from a former boss and a $150,000 commitment from a manufacturer in Taiwan. The company grew fast, and Wang started more companies. But Wang said he didn’t have the knowledge or skills to manage them effectively.
“I was a CEO at 26 and I didn’t even know what CEO meant,” he said. “I didn’t know how to look at a balance sheet, but I was running my own company.” He made his first million dollars before he was 29 years old.
But around 1996, Wang’s firms began hemorrhaging money, and in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he was forced to liquidate all five of them. His takeaway, two decades later, is to always seek out professional managers for help. He said he has worked hard to craft Vizio’s management team. He used to try to micromanage. Now he works to put together teams that have skills he doesn’t, and empowers them as much as he can.
“Even today I always try to tell myself: ‘You really don’t know what you don’t know,’ ” Wang said.
Putting things in perspective
In November 2000, Wang got on a plane to head back to Los Angeles after meeting creditors about his cash-flow problems. At the Taipei airport, the pilot took the wrong runway, one that was under construction, Wang told Inc. Magazine in 2007. As the plane was about to lift off, it hit some construction equipment.
Laden with fuel, its tanks burst into flames. Wang was sitting in the front of the plane and ran for an exit. About 80 passengers — more than half the people on the plane — died in the crash. Wang, who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, said the life-threatening experience put his financial problems in perspective.
“I was still stuck with all these bad businesses, but I had a better attitude,” he said to Inc. Within a few years, Wang had cleaned up his assets.
Treating people with respect
When he first started out, he used to think of his job as managing a business. Now he thinks about it in terms of managing and empowering a team of people, Wang said.
Wang takes cues from his mother, who always put others before her — they were a higher priority. He tries to run his company like that. Vizio is only as good as the managers he uplifts, he said.
Conversations with people are key, he said.
“Listen to their ideas. Treat everyone with respect. That’s the No. 1 priority,” Wang said.
ProPublica revealed in 2015 that Vizio was tracking information about what consumers were watching on their smart TVs and sharing the data with advertisers.
The Federal Trade Commission and the New Jersey attorney general’s office brought charges against the company. Vizio paid $2.2 million to settle charges in 2017, and a federal court order required that the company get explicit permission from users before tracking data. Vizio also agreed to pay $17 million as part of a class action lawsuit settlement.
Wang maintains that Vizio was never secretly collecting data. “We had an opt-in policy that was more like what you see on the internet,” he said. He added that the FTC wanted to create a separate higher standard of privacy for TVs, and that the company worked with the agency to come up with “the most simple, easy to understand consumer data sharing opt-in anywhere.”
“The TV remains the most private device in the average consumer’s connected life,” Wang said.
Streaming changed the TV industry
In the late 1990s, the U.S. government was looking to push the TV market into the digital age. At the time, TV transmissions used analog technology, occupying a huge spectrum of bandwidth. The government wanted to instead auction off that bandwidth to cellphone manufacturers.
But the technology that would meet the new digital standards the government was pushing for was expensive — TVs would be about $14,000 a piece, Wang said.
He recalled telling himself: “I can do it for $3,000,” and started the business in 2002 that became Vizio. Now, the TV business is at another inflection point, Wang said, with new ways of streaming online transforming the industry.
Before there were a select number of channels — a limit to the bandwidth. Now there are seemingly infinite channels on fragmented platforms. Access is virtually unlimited, and manufacturers are tasked with making sure their audience is able to view and receive all of these channels.
“It makes our jobs pretty challenging,” Wang said.
An example of one of the problems Vizio has tried to tackle, he said, is the traditional TV remote. The traditional model doesn’t necessarily make sense anymore. People aren’t surfing channels by pressing up and down arrows.
So three years ago, Vizio launched its first homegrown software platform for a smart TV. And instead of a traditional remote, the software included a 6-inch tablet.
“When you run into problems, you just have to keep going at it,” Wang said. “Entrepreneurs always have to tell themselves that.”
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