Shelby Bonnie ’82 combined his fascination with computers and his business propensity to become an early pioneer in the Internet space, co-founding with Halsey Minor the computer content site CNET.com in 1994. The company would go on to launch Download.com, News.com, Gamespot, and many other properties before being sold to CBS in 2007.
Bonnie demonstrated his aptitude for computers early in his Hotchkiss career, causing the School a measure of chagrin. “Prep year, when computers were still a novelty, I created a program to ‘appropriate’ passwords so I could access the administrator’s private area. I was caught when the system crashed, and I got off with a slap of the wrist,” says Bonnie. “In my senior year, as a member of the Discipline Committee, I had to sit in judgement of two students who did the exact same thing.”
Bonnie, whose father Ned graduated in 1948 following his own father who was in the Class of 1911, was destined for Hotchkiss. “There wasn't a lot of discussion, and I remember how happy my dad was when I received the acceptance letter.” Yet Bonnie really struggled the first two years. “I was a pimply-faced, computer geek, awkward kid from Kentucky. At some point my parents told me I could leave, as long as I made the decision. Ultimately, I decided to stay, and for the first time there, I owned it. Thanks to some good friends and faculty members I got to a happier place. Faculty member Ellen Torrey, in particular, made a real effort.”
Coming from a long line of equestrians, Bonnie also credits riding as key to his sanity. “I was part of a small group of horse enthusiasts who got to ride at a farm in Salisbury. It was meaningful for me to live in Van Santvoord Dorm. My dad was invited to ride George Van Santvoord’s horse when he was at Hotchkiss. Dad’s relationship with Van Santvoord was a big part of his wonderful experience at the School.” Ned Bonnie went on to have a prominent career in equine law.
After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S., Bonnie received his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He began his career in finance in New York. “I had spent time covering the media industry. CNET was the combination of media and my love of computers. Our big idea was to create a 24-hour cable channel about computers and digital technology with a companion online service. It was 1992, and Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL were what most people considered online services. Over the next two years, the Internet would blossom, and we were blessed to be early participants.”
CNET was an important early pioneer in the online content space, and Bonnie led the effort to innovate in the advertising space. He served as CNET’s chairman and CEO from 2000 to 2006, and concurrently became chairman of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and was named Publisher of the Year by the IAB in 2006.
Since leaving CNET, he has continued to be involved in start-ups. Bonnie established Whiskey Media in 2008 (the name is a reference to a Kentucky distillery owned by his family before prohibition), which he ran and ultimately sold.
His latest endeavor is a video tool called Worbler AI. “Creators, through TikTok, YouTube and other social media, have easy access to large audiences. Those creators have lots of tools – libraries of photos and videos, fonts, art, and monetization tools, but they don’t have great tools for sounds and voices. We have built a huge library of voices, sound filters, sound effects and sounds that you can add to any video. Using text to voice you can add all sorts of cool voices – wicked witches, sports announcers, cowboys, politicians – we have hundreds of voices. You will even be able to build a custom voice for your dog.”
Bonnie has given his time and considerable expertise to the board of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) for more than 20 years, serving as chair of its finance committee. The fund, now a leading environmental organization, began on Long Island in 1967 when a group of scientists fought to save ospreys from the toxic pesticide DDT. Now, EDF focuses on big solutions for the biggest issues facing the global environment, including market-based solutions.
“An interesting example of out-of-the-box solutions at EDF is the MethaneSAT. This fall, due to the work of EDF, a satellite will be launched that can detect methane leaks from space. From a climate standpoint, one of the easiest short-term tools to manage temperatures is to decrease the amount of methane being emitted into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and much of the emissions come from leaks from the oil and gas industry. By providing detection of methane leaks for free to industry, energy producers can rely on their own economic self-interest to plug those leaks so they can monetize the gas.” Bonnie adds that the organization takes a pro-market, entrepreneurial approach to environmental problems and has a balance of Democrats and Republicans on the Board.
Though his father passed away in 2018, his mother still lives on the same farm in Kentucky where he grew up. His parents have been hugely influential in his life. “They had deep confidence in me and what I could become, while at the same time giving me the space to make choices, and at times, to flounder. Now that I am a parent, I realize how hard that was. They encouraged me to find my own way, making me resilient, confident in my own abilities, and willing to find a path that works for me.”
“My time at Hotchkiss provided an incredibly important foundation, and my initial unhappiness and subsequent choice to stay taught me that it is your life and you have to make of it what you want. Play to your strengths and steer away from your weaknesses. I struggled with foreign languages, and fondly remember Mrs. Becker’s comment on my final report card: ‘It would be in Shelby’s and Hotchkiss’s best interest that this be his last year of French.’ I have done my best to follow her advice.”
Bonnie and his wife, Carol, have three children: Mason, 24, a recent Georgetown graduate; Henry, 21, currently at Dartmouth; and Virginia, 18, who will be heading to UVA next year. “Our boys are talented in lacrosse both playing in college, and Virginia is a very competitive equestrian. Anyone who knew me at Hotchkiss will attest that I was not much of an athlete – my kids have out-performed me both in academics and in athletics.”