Inside the mind of Boy Genius, whose blog sold for millions
Like that, the veil was lifted.
One boy (now, man) made such a racket for mobile industry executives over the last 3 1/2 years that he seemingly upended how mobile juggernauts approach product leaks. Throughout that time, he remained almost universally unknown.
Until Monday night.
His name is Jonathan Geller, but his friends, enemies, business partners and employees call him Boy Genius.
Just a few months after Geller, now 23, got his start as a teenage blogger for AOL's Engadget, he spun off his column as a separate entity called Boy Genius Report. Once incorporated, the New York media start-up picked up seven employees since it began in October 2006. Some of them had no idea what his real name was until this week.
On Monday, Boy Genius Report was acquired by Mail.com Media Corp. (MMC) in a "multimillion-dollar deal," Geller said on the phone Tuesday. The mobile news and rumor site gets 1.5 million readers a month.
As part of the deal, Boy Genius Report will be renamed BGR.com, will expand into a number of new areas beyond mobile phones and is looking to hire. Geller will continue to oversee editorial and business operations with the title editor in chief.
"Jonathan has single-handedly built an influential site with original content that appeals to an extremely engaged and loyal following," MMC Chief Executive Jay Penske said in a statement, "and he’s done it all before his 23rd birthday."
To build an online media empire worth millions before being old enough to rent a car at some places, Geller took an unusual route. During his sophomore year of high school, he dropped out to pursue his dream job.
At the time, his fantasy didn't include publishing secrets about unreleased cellphones. Most teens would jump at the opportunity to gloat about the gig Geller landed at 16, but he asked that it remain off the record to protect his privacy.
There, in an industry unrelated to communications or wireless, he made the connections that would lead to scoring the hottest phones, in some cases, a year in advance of their release to the market.
The name Boy Genius came from one of his childhood idols, a music executive named Justin Smith who himself goes by an alias.
"When I was 16, I think that was the first time I met Just Blaze, who's a really great hip-hop producer, and he was one of my favorites since I was really, really young," Geller said in an interview in New York recently. "He just started calling me that once."
Ryan Block, then an editor at Engadget, recalled stumbling on Geller through online forums. As Boy Genius, Geller frequented mobile consumer message boards and posted pictures of never-before-seen phones under his now-infamous alias, Block said Tuesday on the phone from New York.
"He was doing it for reputation," explained Block, who now runs a site called Gdgt. "So if you're doing it for reputation, you want to reach the largest possible audience."
Looking to expand Boy Genius' platform, Block and his Gdgt co-founder Peter Rojas, who also founded Engadget, offered Geller a job. Branded Boy Genius Report, the column bent some of Engadget's editorial policies regarding anonymous authors. Some posts were attributed to Geller's real name -- relics that still can be found through a Google search -- but seemingly no one noticed.
That was except for one Palm worker who stalked him obsessively, said Geller and his former boss. The man frequently called Geller and sent details to his inbox with ominous notes about the blogger's family and his whereabouts in a fruitless attempt to scare him into silence, Geller said.
Geller, whose name was still unknown to me at the time of our first interview two weeks ago, is calculated in his approach to a simple lunch meeting. He weaved between "off the record," "on the record" and "again, off the record" seamlessly like an executive for Lockheed Martin Corp. After we parted ways, he hopped into the passenger seat of a Cadillac Escalade.
Why Geller remained anonymous seemed a mystery even to himself. He played the alias off nonchalantly -- despite not telling me who he was -- claiming that it wasn't important and that no one really cared. "It won't stay this way forever," he said a couple of weeks ago. "I think there's some sort of authenticity factor with someone knowing who you are in terms of editorial coverage."
The reason for remaining Boy Genius seemed more abstract. Geller appeared to be driven by luck and his appreciation for netting quite a bit of it. Several times during our one-hour meeting, he rapped his knuckles against the table. "Knock on wood," he responded to questions about whether a source had ever burned him or about the company's profitability.
But Geller had planned for months to ditch the moniker. He didn't care about disclosing his name, even at a time when fewer than 100 people knew it, he said. In reality, he didn't want to get scooped.
And so the unveiling happened on his blog in a press release posted late Monday. His big reveal was unsexy, modest.
"I don't feel like it's going to be a big deal," Geller predicted during our interview. "What am I going to do? Put a post up with my picture? Nobody would care." Later, he admitted that making a hoopla out of his identity could have distracted people from news of the acquisition.
Did anybody care? Some commentators on Twitter and on Boy Genius Report gawked at the unveiling in the way that the revelation of Cosmo Kramer's first name on "Seinfeld" was good for a minute of entertainment. It was perhaps a disappointing reaction for someone who was once the subject of the blog world's equivalent of Shakespearean lore.
"They'd think it'd be, like, 100 people, like an actual network of people," Geller remembered of the initial Boy Genius speculation. "After a certain point, people just stopped caring."
Geller and his team of three bloggers have been credited with contributing to a major change in how the digital hardware business handles product leaks and marketing. Four years ago, it was an industry of secrecy, with prototypes closely guarded from competitors. Now, Geller estimates that 70% of leaks are planned -- because he's been on the disseminating end of many.
"When I first started doing this, a lot of people were pissed," he said. "It's ridiculous how things have sort of changed."
Geller reminisces about the good old days like an industry veteran. But when things move as quickly as they do in the technology world, when a company like Apple in three years can go from computer maker to mobile juggernaut, a 23-year-old really has practically seen it all.
"Even now, some of the companies aren't as smart as they should be," he said of how phone manufacturers handle leaks. "Listen, you might not like it, but if you can't accept it, innovate or die. You've really got to roll with the punches here."
-- Mark Milian
Photo: Jonathan Geller. Credit: Boy Genius Report