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N. Tonawanda native helps put Zite app on CNN's radar

Most likely to succeed, indeed.

California software company Zite turned heads last month when CNN bought the maker of the popular iPad newsreader app for a reported $20 million. Mark Johnson, a North Tonawanda native and its high school's class of 1996 valedictorian, was at the helm when the deal happened.

Though startups that hit paydirt -- like Google and Microsoft -- make headlines, far more of them toil away in obscurity without ever making it big.

Looking at Johnson's track record, one might think otherwise.

He was a product manager at three successful search startups that later sold for big bucks: SideStep, which was acquired by Kayak for $180 million in 2007; Kosmix, which was acquired by Walmart in April; and Powerset, acquired by Microsoft in 2008.

Still, the only acquisition that happened while Johnson was on board was Powerset's, where he worked on Bing.com.

"Most people work at startups, they work really, really hard and never get acquired, never make it," Johnson said.

Johnson, who has a degree in philosophy from Stanford, cites the Microsoft acquisition as the turning point in his career.

"I remember the day of the acquisition. It was really exciting, all these people were writing about us. I said 'Mark, enjoy this day, because this is never going to happen again,' " he said.

But it did.

And when CNN placed its $20 million bet, all eyes were on Zite and Johnson.

The deal's high profile has served as a motivational force.

"It will force me to really buckle down and make it work," he said. "The press doesn't bother me, the public light doesn't bother me. At the end of the day, I go back to the office and we talk about what users need and how we can change the way people consume information."

Zite's free Apple iPad software application creates a personalized "magazine," using a keen algorithm to pull together content according to the user's preferences and reading styles -- automatically learning what the user likes and getting more astute with each use. It has found a rabid following and been downloaded 12 million times around the world.

In an open letter to Zite's blog, K.C. Estenson, general manager of CNN Digital, called Zite's technology, in his "humble opinion, best in class."

"One of the things that made Zite so attractive to us is the fact that it is so well loved by its current users," said Estenson.

In fact, love for Zite is what drew both Estenson and Johnson to the company.

"K.C. was a user first and foremost," Johnson said. "He came to us and it turned into an acquisition."

Johnson was an adviser to the eight-person Zite before becoming CEO in April.

"I left a really cushy job at Microsoft because I was obsessed with the product and wanted to take it to the next level," Johnson said.

Now that Zite is flush with capital, Johnson can pursue that passion like never before.

His classmates are not surprised by his success. He was voted "most likely to succeed," after all. But the payoff is thrilling, nonetheless.

"It's just so exciting to have someone recognize all of the hard work you've done, to put down money and say, 'We really value your business,' " Johnson said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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