The Come Up

RockWater, Chris Erwin

Interviews with entrepreneurs and executives who are shaking things up and building exciting new companies. In industries like new Hollywood, podcasting, ecommerce, and the metaverse. Entertaining you with stories you won't hear anywhere else, from the next generation of leaders that are going to change the world. Brought to you by Chris Erwin, the founder of RockWater and 15-year veteran operator, seller, and investor of media, commerce, and technology companies.

Camila Victoriano — Founder of Sonoro on Building LA Times Studios, Latinx Podcast Innovation, and Following the Story VS the Medium
Sep 15 2022
Camila Victoriano — Founder of Sonoro on Building LA Times Studios, Latinx Podcast Innovation, and Following the Story VS the Medium
This interview features Camila Victoriano, Co-Founder and Head of Partnerships at Sonoro.  We discuss how fan fiction taught her to see nerds as heroes, being in the room when Dirty John was pitched to become a podcast, her crash course to figure out the business of podcasting, becoming a first time founder during COVID, why the Mexico audio market is like the US four years ago, Sonoro's growth to a global entertainment company, and why there are no limits to Latino stories.Subscribe to our newsletter. We explore the intersection of media, technology, and commerce: sign-up linkLearn more about our market research and executive advisory: RockWater websiteFollow us on LinkedIn: RockWater LinkedInEmail us: tcupod@wearerockwater.comInterview TranscriptThe interview was lightly edited for clarity.Chris Erwin:Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.Camila Victoriano:So in 2017, we had a meeting with the editor in chief at the time, and he was like, let me sit you guys down and read you this out loud. And it was what would become Dirty John. That's when we realized there's something here that I think could be our first big swing in audio and in podcasting. And we got to talking and at that point we were like, I think we can do something here. And I think there's a story here to be told in audio. When it launched, it took us all by surprise with how well it did. Obviously we knew it was a good story, but I think you never know when something's going to be that much of a hit. Today, it probably has over 80 million downloads.Chris Erwin:This week's episode features Camila Victoriano, co-founder and head of partnerships at Sonoro. So Camila grew up in Miami as a self-described nerd with a passion for books and fan fiction. She then went to Harvard to study English, literature and history, which led to her early career, starting at the LA Times. While there, she became a founding member of their studios division and a “audio champion”. Then in 2020, she went on to co-found Sonoro, a global entertainment company focused on creating premium, culturally relevant content that starts in audio and comes alive in TV, film and beyond.Sonoro collaborates with leading and emerging Latinx storytellers from over a dozen countries to develop original franchises in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Some highlights of our chat include how fan fiction taught her to see nerds as heroes being in the room when Dirty John was pitched to become a podcast, her crash course to figure out the business of podcasting, becoming a first time founder during COVID, why the Mexico audio market is like the US four years ago and why there are no limits to Latino stories. All right, let's get to it. Camila, thanks for being on the podcast.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.Chris Erwin:For sure. So let's rewind a bit and I think it'd be helpful to hear about where you grew up in Miami and what your household was like. Tell us about that.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. So I grew up in Miami, Florida, very proud and loud Latino community, which I was very lucky to be a part of, in the Coral Gables Pinecrest area for those that know Miami and my household was great. My dad, he worked in shipping with South America. My mom was a stay at home mom. And so really as most kids of immigrants, I had obviously parents I loved and looked up to, but it was very different than folks that maybe have parents that grew up in America and knew the ins and outs of the job market and schools and things like that. But really great household, really always pushing me to be ambitious and to reach for the stars. So I was, yeah, just lucky to have parents always that were super supportive. Questioned a little bit, the English major, that path that I chose to go on, but we're generally really happy and really supportive with everything that I pursued.Chris Erwin:Yeah. And where did your parents immigrate from?Camila Victoriano:My mom is Peruvian and my dad was Chilean.Chris Erwin:I have been to both countries to surf. I was in Lobitos in I think Northern Peru and I was also in Pichilemu in Chile and yeah, just absolutely beautiful countries. Great food, great culture. So do you visit those countries often?Camila Victoriano:I visited Chile once, much to the chagrin of my father, but Peru, I visited so many times and yeah, they both have incredible food, incredible wine. So you can't really go wrong. I did Machu Picchu and Cusco, and that sort of trip with my mom once I graduated college, which is really great just to go back and be a tourist in our country, but they're both beautiful and yeah, I love going back.Chris Erwin:Oh, that's awesome. All right. So growing up in your household, what were some of your early passions and interests? I know yesterday we talked about that you had an early interest in storytelling, but in some more traditional forms dating back to the ‘90s, but yeah. Tell us about that. What were you into?Camila Victoriano:I was always a huge reader. It's funny because my parents read, but not super frequently. My grandparents were big readers, but I always, always gravitated towards books. I remember, like many people of my generation when I was six, I read the first Harry Potter book and that was just mind blowing for me and I think...Chris Erwin:At six years old? Because I think I learned to read at like five.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. I had help with my mom a little bit but I remember we read it together and we would just mark with a crayon every time where we ended on the page. But I remember that book was like, I think when I first really understood how detailed and how enveloping worlds could be. And I think starting from that point, I just went full on into fantasy, YA, all sorts of books. I was just reading obsessively. It also helped that I was a classic nerd in middle school and high school and all throughout childhood, really. So I think for me, books, literature stories were just a way to see the world, see people like me, a lot of times in fantasy books or in sci-fi books in particular, you have the nerds as heroes.And so I think for me, that was a big part of why I gravitated to those genres in particular. But yeah, I just read all the time and then I did light gaming. So I played the Sims, again, similar idea though. You're world building. You're living vicariously through these avatars, but that was really how I spent most of my time, I obviously played outside a little bit too, but I was a big indoor reader always.Chris Erwin:Got it. This is interesting because the last interview I just did was with Adam Reimer, the CEO of Optic Gaming, and we talked a lot, he was born in the late ‘70s. So he was like a 1980s self described internet nerd as he says, before being a nerd was cool. So he was going to web meetups at bowling alleys when he was just a young teenager. Over through line with you because he was in Fort Lauderdale and you grew up in Miami. So two Florida nerds.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. Nerds unite. I love it.Chris Erwin:Nerds unite. You also mentioned that you also got into fan fiction. Were you writing fan fiction? Were you consuming it? Was it a mix of both?Camila Victoriano:A mix of both. So that's really in middle school in particular, how I really bonded with my small group of friends. I remember my best friend and I, we connected, we were on the bus reading a Harry Potter fanfiction on at that point it was fanfiction.net. And that is also again, similarly because in person with people, it was just like, we weren't really connecting that much. And so that community online was huge for me and my friend. We read all the time, people had comments, you had editors that you worked with and we wrote them ourselves too. And I think, looking back in the retrospective for me, that's where I think I first started to realize the potential of world building really in storytelling and in media and entertainment. It’s like, it didn't stop with the canon text. You could really expand beyond that.We loved telling stories about Harry Potter's parents and how they would go to Hogwarts, like super in the weeds, deep fandom. I don't know. I think for me that was just a real eye opener too, of like, oh, there's a whole online community. And I don't think at that point I was really thinking business. But I think for me, that's where I started to redirect my focus much more seriously too of, oh, this isn't just like, oh, I like books for fun. There's people all around the world that are incredibly passionate and spending hours upon hours of time, oftentimes after hours of school to just write and to really immerse themselves in these universes. And I remember writing them and reading them, just realizing how badly I wanted to be a part of creating things that caused the same feeling. And so for me, that was huge in that respect too.Chris Erwin:Well, thinking about fanfiction, literally there are now companies and platforms that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars that foster fanfiction, the communities around them. I think of Wattpad where you have film studios and TV studios, and a lot of the streamers that are now optioning IP from these fanfiction communities to make into long form premium content. Pretty incredible to see. So you go to high school and then you end up going to Harvard. I think you end up becoming an English major at Harvard. Was that always the intent from when you were in high school, it's like, yes, I'm going to go and get an English degree? What were you thinking? How did you want to spend your time in college? And then how did that evolve after you went?Camila Victoriano:I was typical good student in high school, right, but I think the older I got, the more I realized, oh no, my passion really lies in my English classes, my history classes. Obviously, I think math, once I got to calculus, I was like, all right, this might not be for me. And then science never really gravitated towards, so for me, it was always very clear that even though I tended to be a generalist in many things, my passion and my heart really was in writing and reading and stories and in history too, in the real world and how they intersected and how they affected each other. And so I remember when I was applying to schools again, my parents were like, are you sure you want to do English?Because for them, it was in Latin America, many of the schools don't have that many practical degrees like that. You pick something a bit more technical. So I remember I would tell them, oh yeah, don't worry. I'm going to do English, but I'm going to minor in economics, which never happened. Once I got there, I was like, absolutely not, but that's what I would tell them because I was like, oh no, I'm going to be an English major, but I'm going to have some business acumen to go with it. And I think at that point when I was going into college and applying to schools, what I wanted to do was go into book publishing. And I really wanted to, I remember I had seen that Sandra Bullock movie, the proposal where she's an editor and I was like, that's what I want to do. And so at that point I was talking to, we have this really awesome local bookstore in Miami called Books and Books.And I went and met with the owner, Mitchell Kaplan had a conversation with him. And I remember I told him I wanted to get into books. I wanted to get into publishing. And he's like, look, you're young, you're getting into college. I run a bookstore, but I would tell you, don't worry so much about the medium, just follow the content where the content's going. And that was a huge eye opener. Even though it seems now obvious to, sitting here saying that, I think for me at that age where I was, so it's easy to get one track mind of like, this is what I want to do, and there's nothing else, to get that advice from someone who was running a place that I loved and went to so frequently growing up.And I think that for me, gave me a bit more flexibility going into college, just saying, okay, let's see where I gravitate towards. I know I want to do something creative. I know I want to still study English, but maybe he's right and I don't have to just stick to publishing. So when I got into Harvard I still, again, focused my classes, really liberal arts, right, like film classes, history classes. But I was a bit more, when I got there, unclear of what that would actually lead to in an exciting way, I think. But that was probably a really great piece of advice that affected how I thought about what would come next after Harvard.Chris Erwin:Yeah. So following that thread, I really love that advice of, don't worry about the medium, just follow the content. Clearly I think that really influenced a later decision that you made about doubling down on audio. But before we get there, in terms of following the content, at Harvard, it seems like you dabbled in a few different things where you did an internship with the LA Times, which is maybe news and journalistic reporting. You're also a staff writer for the Harvard political review. So what did following the content look like for you when you were at school?Camila Victoriano:So Harvard can be a really overwhelming place. My mom had gone to college, my dad hadn't finished. So it was a semi first gen college experience where I was like, whoa, once I got there. It was incredibly, the first semester and a half were really, really overwhelming. And I had to get my bearings a little bit, but I think once I got there I tried to dabble in a lot of things. And I think there was literary magazine, there was the Crimson, which is a classic. And then there was a few other organizations like the Harvard Political Review at the Institute of politics. And so I sat in a few things and it's crazy. For people that don't know, once you get there, you still have to apply to these things.You haven't gotten there and then you're done and you're good to go and everything's set up. There's a pretty rigorous application process for most of these clubs, which makes it overwhelming. And so for me, what I ended up finding a home in, in terms of just the community and the way they welcomed you in when you came into the club was the Harvard Political Review. And as one does in college, you get a bit more political, you get a bit more aware of what's going on around you, world politics. And so I think I was in that head space already and wanted to flex a little bit of my writing skills outside of class. And so there I was able to really pitch anything. So I would pitch, I remember like culture pieces about the politics of hipsters, of all things, and then would later do a piece on rhinos that are going extinct.So it was really varied and it allowed me to be free with the things I wanted to write about and explore outside of class and in a super non-judgmental space that was like, yeah, pursue it. And we had all these professors that we had access to, to interview and to talk about these things. So it was just a great place to flex the muscles. But I think mainly my focus in college was building relationships with my friends, if I'm totally honest. I think as someone that's super ambitious and super driven, I was very particular and followed step by step exactly what I needed to do in high school to get into the school I wanted to get to. And then once I was there, I was like, let me enjoy this for a second. Let me meet people and have fun and intermurals and just...Chris Erwin:Wander a bit.Camila Victoriano:Wander a bit, 100%. And I think especially freshman year and sophomore year was very much like let me just wander, take random classes. I took a computer science class, which was a horrible mistake, but just giving myself the opportunity to make mistakes. And I think then by junior, senior year is when I realized, okay, no, I still like this path that I'm going on. I like the storytelling. I like literature. I like writing. Maybe I'm leaning a bit more political. Again, that's why I applied junior year for the LA Times internship because was that through line of, I still want to be in storytelling. I still want to be in media, but now in this college experience and getting into young adulthood, I'm becoming much more aware of the political and socioeconomical world around me. Let me go into media, that's maybe pushing that forward a little bit and a bit more public service.Chris Erwin:Clearly it was a positive experience because I believe that after graduation, you decided to commit to the LA Times full time.Camila Victoriano:Yes.Chris Erwin:And just to go back on a couple of points you noted just about wandering. I think, when I review resumes for people that are applying to my firm, RockWater, my first internship was right before my senior year of college. The summer before senior year. I now look at resumes where people start doing internships literally in high school, and they have six years of working experience before they graduate. It's super impressive. My little brother took a gap year before Harvard and I think that wandering around and figuring out what he likes, what he doesn't like is really valuable. And I always tell people, like my own professional career, I did some things early on that I didn't love, but I learned a lot and it helped shape to where I want to point myself later on. So I think that's really good advice for the listeners here.Camila Victoriano:Absolutely.Chris Erwin:I'm curious, so was there any kind of gap period, or did you just get to work at the LA Times right after you graduated?Camila Victoriano:I went straight into it. I took the summer after college to travel a bit. That's when I went to Cusco with my mom, I went to Columbia. So I went a little bit around Latin America, but other than that, that fall went straight into it. But I think to your point, and again, taking a step back a little bit like freshman summer, I went to study abroad in Paris for the summer. So just again, I had traveled outside the country maybe once or twice, but not a lot. And so for me, that was a really, I was like, let me utilize some of these resources that I have. And so it was, again, that wandering and then the sophomore summer I worked at a literary magazine. So again, going more deep into literature. So I did dabble in a couple things here and there before fully committing, but after graduating pretty much went straight into work.Chris Erwin:And so you get there and are you, again, working in the publisher's office?Camila Victoriano:Working more broadly, for the “business side” of the company, right. So I'm working on business development really broadly. What that started as was how do you diversify revenue streams? How do you develop new projects from the journalism? Basically, what are new ways to make money in a digital space? We pursued projects at this time, and I actually got to see through to fruition because I was there full time, an event series within what was called the festival of books. We developed a new zone focused on digital storytelling. So we brought on VR companies, audio storytelling companies, just thinking about how to expand what the company was putting forward as storytelling, which was cool to me.And also an interesting dynamic for me as someone that loved books to be like, let me throw VR into the mix and into the book festival, but it was really fulfilling, and after pursuing a few different things, developing a couple of platform pitches internally, what really stuck with our team and with me was in 2017, a year into that job, audio as a real business opportunity for the newsroom and for the media company. So in 2017, we had a meeting with the editor in chief at the time and he brought us this story and he was like, let me sit you guys down and read this aloud to you. It was very cinematic, but it was what would become Dirty John.Chris Erwin:The editor in chief read this story out loud to your team?Camila Victoriano:Yes. So just literally, it was a team of me and my boss and that was it. And he was like, let me sit you guys down and read you this out loud. And it was what then Christopher Goffard had the journalist had written as what was going to just be maybe a series online for the paper. And I think that's when we realized like, oh wait, there's something here that I think could be our first big swing in audio and in podcasting. And we got to talking and at that point, Wondery had just gotten started to another podcast company that obviously now sold to Amazon music. And so we met with [Hernan 00:17:57] and the early team there and we were like, I think we can do something here. And I think there's a story here to be told in audio.And so again, a year out of college, I'm there helping put together the production team that would create this massive story or what would become a massive story, we didn't know at the time. And what I was able to do was basically help primarily the launch strategy and help the marketing teams and the sales teams put together what's this actually going to look like when we got this out, there was the first time we had done anything like that. And so it was a pretty wild experience. And then of course when it launched, it took us all by surprise with how well it did. Obviously we knew it was a good story, but I think you never know when something's going to be that much of a hit. And I think today it probably has over 80 million downloads and it's been adapted both scripted and unscripted on Bravo and oxygen and had a season two ordered on Bravo.So it was a crazy experience. And I think for me, it was just like the ding ding ding of, oh, hey, remember what Mitchell told you in high school? Which was, follow the content, not necessarily the medium. And for me I had never really explored audio at that time. My parents were not people that listened to public radio in the car. That was not something I grew up with or that environment. So that was really my first entry point into audio and into podcasting. And as I started to dig into it more, I remember I was such a late listener to Serial and to S town. And I was like, oh my God, this is unreal and something that I've never heard of. I've never heard anything like this before. I probably never read anything like this before. And so I remember I asked my boss at the time, I was like, can I do this full time? I was like, can I just work on building out this audio division and this team? And I think at that point, luckily because Dirty John had been such a huge success, everyone was like, yeah, this is worth doing in a more serious way.Chris Erwin:Before we expand on that, this is a pretty incredible story. So you are in the room as your editor in chief is reading you the Dirty John story. So just remind me, with Dirty John, it was initially just a story. It wasn't like, oh, hey, we created this because we want to make this into an audio series or anything else. It was just, hey, Camila, you're looking at different ways to diversify revenue for the company, looking at different mediums for our content. Here seems to be a pretty incredible story. And was your editor in chief recommending that you make it into a podcast or is that something that came up in the room in real time?Camila Victoriano:No, I think he had already been thinking of it and that's to his credit. Right. And he was like, I think this might be it. And how do we get this done? And then I think Chris Goffard in particular is a great journalist. And he writes these amazing, more feature length pieces. And so his style of storytelling really lended itself to that as opposed to a breaking news reporter. And so he had already thought when he got the piece, this might be a good podcast or it might be our good first podcast. And I think he brought us in because we were the R&D crew of two that existed in the organization to really help make it happen. And so again, once we connected with the Wondery team and put the LA Times team together, it was a match made in heaven, I think. And it worked really, really well.Chris Erwin:It seems like you went right to Hernan and the Wondery team, were you like, hey, we should talk to some of the other audio and radio companies that are out there, or did you just go straight to Wondery?Camila Victoriano:We just went straight to them. And to be honest, I think that was something else our editors suggested. And I think to be honest, it did end up working really well because I think, we were coming from a very journalistic perspective and that's where I started to learn a bit more of the different ways to tell stories in audio, right. Start very character driven, really narrative as if you're making a movie. And so I think that it was a great match honestly, and I don't think we may have maybe looked at other things here and there, but it felt like a good fit right off the bat.Chris Erwin:You said you were working on the marketing strategy and the launch, right, of the series. Do you think there was any special things that you guys did? Obviously it's incredible story and it really resonated with audiences at scale, but were there any initial marketing tactics or buzz that really helped tip that into the mainstream?Camila Victoriano:I think what we decided to do, which was perhaps different than how some podcasts had been marketed before, because till then it had really been public radio driven, was I forget who said this, but it was basically like let's market this as if it was a movie or what would we do if we were launching a film? And so we really went all out in splashing our newspaper with these beautiful full page spreads. We were the LA paper, and so we had all this FYC, for your consideration advertising that would, you'd see those spreads for movies all the time. And so we were like, why don't we just make one of our own? And so it was a full team effort with the designers, the marketing team, me and my boss at the time and just putting together this plan where we really went all out.And I think that definitely caught the attention of our subscribers, which obviously were the first touch point to this story. And we did similar things online where we had, what's called a homepage takeover where basically everywhere you look online, you're seeing advertisements for Dirty John for this story. And so we had newsletters and I think a lot of that 360 approach to promoting it online, in print, although that's not as common, but on social newsletters and really just hitting all the touch points is something that definitely I have taken with me in my career. And I think is also just becoming much more common across podcasting as we launch and others launch more narrative nonfiction, fiction series, that sort of thing where they're becoming really entertainment franchises beyond just a really great maybe non-fiction or reported story. But I think absolutely the way we thought about marketing it helped to change the way that our subscribers and then the listeners that came in through more word of mouth, saw the show and understood it for, oh no, this is entertainment. It's journalism driven, but it's entertainment.Chris Erwin:It's a really good note because an increasing challenge for any content creators or content market is how do you stand out through the noise? There is more content across more mediums today than ever before. And so how do you really cut through the noise, drive mass awareness, but also be focused and really go after a niche community as well? It's not an easy formula. Sorry. I wanted to go a little bit back in time, but that was really helpful context. But then to the point where you said, okay, you're talking to your boss, your leadership. And you're like, I think there's something really big here in audio. I want to focus my efforts here full time. I also think this is interesting Camila, because when we were talking yesterday, you said that you took an atypical path in some ways where you followed the content, you followed your passions.It wasn't like, I'm going to go to school. And then I'm also going to get a dual computer science degree or economics or some quantitative math. And then I'm going to go do two years at McKinsey or an investment bank. And I think you following your heart it then puts you into these serendipitous moments, like being in the room when your editor in chief comes with Dirty John, and then you're like, hey, I've been working on these passion projects. I think there's something to do here in audio, let's go forth together. And then you just happen to be in the room at these incredible moments and then you're raising your hand for where your heart is telling you to go. And it's obviously put you on an incredible path, which we're going to talk more about. That's something that I'm just taking away here from hearing your story.Camila Victoriano:Thanks. That's a great way to put it. It's following my gut a little bit, and I think it just goes back to again, how I was raised and I think my parents were always, there's this funny saying in Spanish, [foreign language 00:25:29], which is like, if you don't cry, you don't get fed, basically. And so I took that to heart and like, yeah, I have a passion. And I think that part of me, the inclination is like, oh, if I work really hard, it'll get noticed. But sometimes it is like, no, you have to really actively say it out loud. And I think sometimes for people that are younger, like I was the youngest by like 10 years in a lot of the spaces I've been in, it's hard sometimes to do that and to raise your hand and say, I want this. But I think when I really felt that I did it and I think it's something I've just been working on in general.Chris Erwin:So you raise your hand and you say that you want to focus on what you perceive as a big audio opportunity for the LA Times. What does that look like for next steps?Camila Victoriano:Really, what that meant was I was the only person working full time on the business side, on this project, which was daunting, but also great because I got to have different touchpoints with all the teams. And so for me, it really became, how do I build essentially a mini startup within this legacy organization and how do we make something that moves quickly and can be nimble and can be experimental in an organization that, as I said earlier is nearly 140 years old at this point? So it was really exciting and really daunting. And so what I did first and foremost was figure out a good cadence to meet with my colleagues in the newsroom. And what it allowed me to do was really focus on offering them insight into the content that was really working well in the space that perhaps is maybe a bit more data driven, I would say.I was really looking at what was working well and also working with our data and product teams to see what were the types of stories that listeners or in our case, readers were gravitating towards and offering that insight to the journalist and to the editors and really working hand in hand with them to figure out based on that, what were they excited about turning into audio or what were they excited about putting resources behind? And so I was focusing a lot on content strategy in the very beginning of how do we follow up this phenomenon, which was also, I think for everyone, you have this huge hit, you want the sequel to be just as good.Chris Erwin:And to be clear. So the data that you're looking at is both in terms of the content that the LA Times is putting out. Like your articles, I'm not sure if you were also doing video as well, looking at who's consuming that, how often are they consuming it, is that type of content performing well relative to other content? In addition, looking at metrics for just podcasting overall, what genres are performing well, what do the formats look like? Is it short form or long form audio? So you are taking that for your own understanding and then educating a lot of the writers and the journalists in the newsroom. Because then when you put that information together, better ideas can start to germinate within your business. Is that right?Camila Victoriano:Absolutely. Yeah. And then what they would be able to offer me was insight sometimes into maybe investigations they were conducting, or they would be able to tell me, yeah, that is a great story, but maybe the sources aren't going to speak on audio. So it was a really wonderful collaboration between the business side and the newsroom in a way that was really organic and really respected the work that they were doing, but also offered them a bit of insight into, hey, we're exploring this new thing together. Here's how we might do it in the best way. And so I was doing a lot of that in a lot of that more high level content strategy, basically to guide the editors into figuring out what might come next. And then also just doing everything else, basically that the journalists weren't doing, right, or that they couldn't do because they were busy reporting amazing stories, which was building on an actual business model for what this might look like, which was difficult, because it was very early days and our sales team had never sold a podcast before.They had sold digital, had sold print, had sold events. And also marketing is like, how do we replicate what we did with Dirty John in a way that was sustainable and in a way that, how do we replicate that by tracking what actually worked well from that experience? Right? Because we could always splash all of our pages and flash all of our online presence with images and with links to the show, but figuring out how to basically make a report of what actually worked to drive listeners. And so it was a lot of in the very beginning, trying to digest and figure out what are the things that we could replicate and what is the “formula” that worked in Dirty John and others. Some of the stuff is hard to quantify and you can't measure, but trying to measure as much as I could to be able to build out a plan for, okay, we think we can make this many more shows and they have to hit these particular metrics. And I was doing a little bit of everything. Literally, like I said, my sales team or the sales team at the LA Times, they had never sold podcasts before. So I was literally calling podcast agencies and selling ads.Chris Erwin:You were selling ads yourself?Camila Victoriano:Yeah, I was. I remember I called ad results. We were doing a show about Bill Cosby, which is not an easy subject to pitch to sales, but I was getting on the phone, calling people and selling ads into the show. So it was really scrappy.Chris Erwin:Yeah. So essentially a one person team where you're creating the vision and the business plan and then also executing against it as well. That's a lot. Did you have a mandate from your leadership, which is like, hey Camila, we believe in your vision here, but we want within one year we expect like X amount of revenue or within three months. Come with a clear business plan and how much capital you need to grow it and then we're going to green light it. What were the expectations from your boss?Camila Victoriano:Yeah. It wasn't anything that specific to be honest, I think mainly the main mandate very broadly was like, Hey, this needs to make money after a certain point. Right. And it can't go on for so long of just, because a lot of people while making podcasts is cheaper than making a pilot, it's also very resource intensive. So while maybe it's not a lot of cash out the door, it's a lot of time from a lot of people to make something that is high touch investigative, like a year of reporting sometimes. And so I was asking a lot of the newsroom and the journalists. And so I had to work with our finance team at the time to build out a model that basically showed at least break even for year one and then started to make some profit after that or some revenue.And so it wasn't as super strict thing, but I think obviously they wanted it to be revenue generating and relied on me and my counterparts on finance department to put that model together. And again, I was an English major. I had never made a spreadsheet. I had never made a model V lookup, it was very new to me. All of that was the first time I was doing any of that. So for me, those next three years or so were an incredible crash course into all of the practical skills that perhaps I hadn't learned in the English major was those were all learned in that time period of building a business model, putting together business plans, content strategy, and then executing marketing plans and sales plans at the same time.Chris Erwin:So I have to ask, clearly your love and your passion is for storytelling, right? So now you're figuring out the business plan for how can you actually create a new sustainable business that's going to tell stories in a different way on new mediums. Did you enjoy doing some of that business work or was it more of like, eh, I don't mind doing it because it allows me to execute towards this primary goal or were you starting to see like, oh, I actually like using both sides of my brain, operating on both sides of the house. What did that feel like for you?Camila Victoriano:I think it was definitely the latter. I think I never expected to “business” as I had always thought of it. Right. I think there were certain things that I could really do without, I did not love sales calling and pitching. I was like, I could do without ever doing this again. But I think for me, what I realized during that time period and working with the folks on the finance team, our COO, our sales, I was like, these guys are all really creative and actually figuring out how this is going to work and how this is going to be sustainable is actually weirdly fun and interesting and challenges my brain. And it's funny to put it that way, but again, as an English major, as someone that didn't grow up with parents or in a community where people were doing really traditional jobs or working as high powered business executives, I had never been in that space.And so I think for me, the brainstorming of what are we going to do, what types of shows are we going to make? How is it going to make money? How are we going to make stuff that's meaningful and powerful and makes a difference, but also not go broke? That was actually really fun for me and really creative in a weird way. Business can be creative. And at the same time, I got a lot of joy from just sitting in newsroom meetings and hearing their stories that they wanted to tell and working with, call them creatives, but the journalists really.And I think that's when I realized, oh, I can be in this space. I can be in this creative space as a facilitator of all these people that maybe have the boots on the ground, making the stories. And I actually really enjoy the operational part weirdly. And I think my brain does like being in both sides where I can brainstorm stories and I can be a part of green light meetings and I can have my opinion based on obviously personal taste, but also what I understand about the market and at the same time, really enjoy putting spreadsheets together, which sounds so lame, but it was fun.Chris Erwin:Hey listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guest, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work. And it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it, everybody. Let's get back to the interview.I think you're hitting on a couple notes, which are important. So just one, I think I can just sense from our listeners, some tears of joy, we are calling finance professionals and the FP&A teams at these media businesses that they have creative aspects to their work. I think they really appreciate that, but I think it is true. And I think, look, I've seen this because I started after my banking career, I was very early in the YouTube MCN, digital video days. And there's all these incredible visions of how to build these new modern media businesses, but the actual business fundamentals of how do we make money? How do we have sustainable profit where we can keep doing this year over year? I feel like a lot of those big questions were not addressed. Now that's fundamentally changed 10 years later, but I think people with your mindset is there's a chance to bring great content to these new audiences that want to consume content in different ways.But we got to find a way where there's business sense here, right, where there's going to be money pouring in from partnerships and from brands or from investors or from the fans themselves. And that allows you to keep building, to keep iterating, to create something beautiful and great and different. So clearly you have a really sharp mind for this. This is a good transition to talk about how you ended up going over to Sonoro and meeting Josh and being a co-founder of that business. To tie a bow in your LA Times experience, where did you essentially eventually take the business before you decided to do something else?Camila Victoriano:By 2019 or so, we had launched about eight or nine different shows. They were true crime limited series, but also what was important to us was to have some more recurring community driven projects. We did a really wonderful show called Asian Enough with two of our reporters, Jen Yamato and Frank Shyong. And it was just about what it means to be Asian enough and how that question is something that they asked themselves a lot and other people in the community asked themselves a lot. And I think that's an in general question that I, as a Latina can relate to. So there was a lot of also really, I don't want to say public service, but really community driven projects as well that I was really proud of. And then also of course, we had Chasing Cosby men in the window, Detective Trap, all these really awesome, true crime series that were our bread and butter by the end.And luckily all of them did really well. They all would hit the top of their charts. A couple of them I believe are in development for TV. And I was just really excited to see more than anything too, that the process of brainstorming those ideas and of bringing them to life was so much smoother by the end. Our sales team was total pro that's selling podcasts by the end. Now they still have a podcast salesperson. I think what I was most proud of from year one to year three basically, was that it wasn't anymore a struggle to push these things through, it was very much LA Times studios as we called it was really embedded in the organization and podcasts were a real serious part of the business of the LA Times and still are.And we got to make some amazing shows. All of them had advertisers when they launched, which was again for us a huge success metric. We were able to sell things before they even came out because advertisers trusted us to make it successful. And I think that was a huge success point for me having been on those calls in the beginning. I feel like that's a little bit why too, again, making this jump into Sonoro, why after that point I felt good about leaving because I was like, I feel really great about what I've built and what I've helped set up here. And I feel okay that I can step away now.Chris Erwin:Okay. And so were you planning on transitioning out or did this opportunity to work with Sonoro come up and you're like, hey, this is hard to turn down?Camila Victoriano:It was a little bit of both in my head. I was itching for something bigger, a bigger challenge, how I mentioned LA Times studios was really this mini mini startup within a legacy organization. I had gotten the itch of building something from the ground up and feeling really excited about that. And so I think at that point, I had been at the LA Times total, including my internship probably for close to five years. And so it had been a really solid run. And I think I was ready to look for my next challenge and as I was in that head space, just so happens, got introduced to Josh through our mutual friend, Adam Sachs. And when I met him, I think our energies, just to jump right into it, but our energies really, really matched well. We met over zoom a couple times.Chris Erwin:And when was this Camila?Camila Victoriano:This was in early, early, early 2020. So gearing up for what was to come unbeknownst to me.Chris Erwin:It was right before COVID.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. Yeah. And so we had met a couple times and I'm a real detail oriented person. And I think what was exciting to me about working with someone like Josh was he came in and had a really inspirational vision for what he wanted to achieve. And I got very excited and felt very aligned with that vision and what I had been thinking about recently over the last few years, just being in the audio space and in media.And I thought, might as well go for it. I felt like it was the right time for me to do something from scratch, to take honestly a risk. And what seemed like a risk at the time, because I had been working in a very sort of traditional company that probably wasn't going anywhere. And in general, I think in my life had been pretty risk averse. I think I had just done everything the way I was supposed to do it. Right. And so I think that for me this was, okay, I'm going to take a risk. I feel like I've gained a lot of confidence over the last five years and a lot of skill sets and I'm ready for the challenge. So, yeah, chose to jump in it with him.Chris Erwin:Camila, what's the quick elevator pitch or overview of Sonoro?Camila Victoriano:So, Sonoro is a global entertainment company that creates audio content with the goal of developing it into TV, film, books, other audio derivatives, and our community focus is 500 million global Spanish speakers and US Latinos. So our entire shows are made by Latinos and our entire team is a hundred percent bilingual and bicultural.Chris Erwin:In terms of being inspired by the vision, were there things from the outset where you're like, hey, Josh, I love this idea, but here's what I would do a bit differently? Was there any of that in the beginning?Camila Victoriano:What I was able to offer was the experience being in the industry. Right. And so I think my eagerness really came from wanting to try shows that were outside the podcast norm "a little bit". We had done a lot of true crime at the LA Times, but I was really excited to try stuff that would resonate. For Sonoro, it's really our core consumer are the 500 million global Spanish speakers and the US Latinos. Again, I came from Miami. I'm a Latina. What was exciting to me in general about creating stories that were empowering Latino creators was let's not set a boundary about what the narrative that they have to tell is. Let's let them tell sci-fi stories, fantasy stories, horror, thrillers, that maybe don't have anything to do with being Latino, but are just feature Latino characters in it like they would any other sci-fi.And so I think for me, what was really exciting was pushing those boundaries a little bit and leaving that creative flexibility to the creators and trusting them and their experiences, knowing that if we really relied on the specifics of their experience and their story, inherently, that would have a universal impact. What we Josh and I talked a lot about in the beginning was the success of shows like Money Heist, and those that hadn't come out yet reaffirmed our point later in the year, like Squid Game and Lupin, that more and more people were consuming global content.That was, if you're a French person watching Lupin, there's probably so many inside jokes that I totally missed, but I still really enjoyed it. But they're going to enjoy it even more because it's culturally specific to them. And so I think that's what a little bit what I was really trying to push forward in the early shows that we made and still today of we can be really culturally specific, so that if we're making a show set in Mexico, Mexicans, they're like, oh yeah, this is really made for me, and I get this, and this sounds like where I'm from and who I am. But someone that is listening in the Bronx can still really enjoy it and have a sense of cultural community with the story, but it's more universal in that sense.Chris Erwin:Got it. Very well said. So, you align on visions with Josh, but you also have your distinct point of view. And then is it like, hey, within one to two months of meeting, you joined the Sonoro, and you helped co-found the company and build it to what it is today, or was there a longer [courting 00:43:24] period?Camila Victoriano:I think we literally talked on Zoom twice.Chris Erwin:And then it was like, all right, Camila's on board.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. I don't know. We just, we really got along really well and we clicked really easily. And I was like, I think this can work. I think we have a good rapport. We always joke, we're both Capricorns, so I think that that helps.Chris Erwin:What are the attributes of a Capricorn?Camila Victoriano:Very driven, very type A, very low BS. So I was like, okay, I think we can understand each other. So I don't know. It just felt right. It felt like everything was aligning. I was getting that edge to go and build something and start with... In general, I was just saying, I want to start with a really young team. That's what I wanted to do. That's as far as I had gotten in my head space about it, and then to get this connection from Adam, literally as that was happening, it just felt way too serendipitous to pass up.And also then to have honestly such an immediate connection with Josh of like, oh, okay, I think we can work well together, and I think we understand each other and how we like to do things and how we like to work, that still to this day nearly three years in is true. I think it checks so many boxes that I was like, I just have to, again, it was the first big risk I've taken, honestly; career wise or school wise, if I'm looking that far back. But it felt right, and it felt like the right time to do it. So I just went for it.Chris Erwin:Well, so it's funny that you say all this. I've known Josh for a few years now. And in terms of how you describe him of like he's very ambitious, very driven, very direct, no BS. Camila Victoriano:Yeah.Chris Erwin:And as I'm getting to know you, I get that sense as well. And literally just, I think we spoke for the first time yesterday, but I'm also seeing just how complimentary the both of you are in working together. So I think that explains a lot of the recent success that we've seen with Sonoro over the past few years, not surprised. After a couple Zoom meetings, you guys partner up and then what do you first start working on?Camila Victoriano:So the first year that we really started, and we really formally kicked things off, kid you not, March 2020. So it was weird timing. But really what we were first trying to do is test out if we could actually make things that people loved. That is all we cared about. We were like, can we make shows that people love, that people binge into the deeps in the middle of the night? And can we do it well? And can we do it at a high quality? Because I think that was important to both of us is in general when you're seeing, especially in Latin America and the US, content for Latinos, like traditional telenovelas, the production value just isn't there. And so that was really important to us. And so the first year we launched a lot of traditional bread and butter podcast, chat shows that really quickly climbed up the charts.Personal interviews, comedy, wellness, your traditional categories in Mexico specifically, and started to build out our network there really quickly, because I think a lot of the creators that were more independent there saw us as a reliable resource to help them grow their shows and to really be; for us, it was like, we want to be the partner of choice for any creator podcast or media company, executive director that wants to work and make really great content that just so happens to be created by Latinos.And so that along with let's make stuff people love were our two big mandates in the beginning, and it worked really well. Our first original scripted series launch that we did was a show called Crónicas Obscuras. It was a horror franchise that we launched in October. And that came off of a similar premise, which was Latinos over index and horror. We love horror movies, horror shows, anything. But most of the horror shows or movies that do really well are either based on European legends and European horror stories or feature zero to no Latino characters that, and if they're there, do they make it towards the end? Maybe not. And so-Chris Erwin:They get killed off early.Camila Victoriano:Yeah, definitely not the final character left. So for us, it was like, this is one genre that we know already has a huge gap in terms of how Latinos consume it and how it's being made. And so we said, this is going to be our franchise where we're going to tell Latin American legends, set in Latin America with Latin American characters. And so our first season of Crónicas was about these things called Los Nahuales, which are basically werewolves, but they also turn into other characters like snakes and things like that. And the show, we did it super high production value. We recorded with this thing called binaural audio where you literally have a mic that looks like a head and people can walk around it. And so if you're wearing headphones, the show, you can feel things coming up from behind you, but it's just because of the way that we recorded it with this special mic.And we had the voice actor who's done Homer Simpson in Mexico for 20 years. That was our big celebrity for that season star in the show. And the show ricochet up to number one podcast in general in Mexico. And it did really, really well. And that was our first success of this is an original show that Sonoro produced fully in-house, wrote, direct, production, casting, marketing. And we were able to launch it and people really, really loved it. Next few months after that, we launched a few similar series. The big one, of course, is a show called Toxicomanía, which launched in April of '21, which was, again, similarly mission driven, but always entertaining. It was based on a true story. A Mexican doctor in the 1940s that convinced the president of Mexico to legalize all drugs for six months, which no one knows happened.For six months in Mexico, all drugs were legal and you could get them in government mandated dispensaries. And it was this doctor's way of saying, hey, this is how we build a progressive society. This was an obvious one. Again, it's like the combination of our mission, which is, this is a story about Latinos, in particular Mexicans and drugs that you haven't seen before because when you think Mexico or drugs in media, you think Narcos, but this was actually something very different. But then what we did is we turned it into a really entertaining dramatic thriller. We were inspired by movies like The Big Short and things like that, where it was like it was teaching you something about history, but in a way that was really, really entertaining.And then we partnered with the actor, Luis Gerardo Mendez, who's an amazing Mexican star and really starting to come into his own in the US to executive produce and star in the project. And that show did insanely well. We launched it on 4/20. So again, it was the combination of mission, entertainment, production value, the right partner, and also a really strategic marketing launch of this is obviously a story that people are going to love and it's about drugs, so we're going to launch it on 4/20. And it did really, really well. It was number one in Mexico across Latin America. Number two in the United States in fiction, even though it was only in Spanish.And now we just announced earlier this year that it's going to be developed into a film at Paramount+. And so that to me is a perfect case study of what we really tried to do that first year is let's partner with the best creators. Let's make the best content and see if people love it. And I think we proved that to ourselves that first year, year and a half.Chris Erwin:When you entered the, call, the Mexican creator and audio landscape, was it competitive? Were there a lot of other production companies that were either Latin America based, Mexico based, or from the US that were trying to operate in that market? And two, follow up question, was there a sense of with the creators that were there, did a lot of them want to create in audio and to expand their creator ambitions, or was it something like, oh, we didn't even know that we can do this, but then after talking with you Camilla and your team, they're like, oh yeah, typically, I just create a bunch of videos on YouTube or whatever else, but I'd love to do something in a more scripted or [premium 00:50:55] or narrative form in podcasting. Let's figure out what that looks like together?Camila Victoriano:Yeah. I think in terms of the landscape, there were very few to none established. There were a lot of independent creators. So we actually are head of production; Andrés Vargas. He is this great heart of the Mexican podcast creator network. He was really a first mover there for sure. And I think we worked together really to bring on a lot of these early chat show podcasts into our network to kickstart that, but there wasn't a lot of established companies there. There weren't any. And so for us really, it was a mainly an education challenge, not so much the creators. I think there were, like I said, independent comedians or wellness experts that had already started to realize, oh, this podcasting thing is makes a lot of sense for me to expand into. And we focused on working with them, but really more so for the talent.So for our scripted projects is explaining that, hey, you don't have to have hair and makeup. You can just go into the studio for literally four hours and you make a whole series. And I think for us, that was how, especially when we were early on unknown, reaching out to these huge stars like Luis, being able to pitch it as this is still a really... And this is what I love about audio, right? Is like it's still, even though it's been around for a good chunk of time and you could argue all the way back to radio dramas and radio plays, it still feels like such a creative and experimental space. And I think that's what got a lot of the talent in particular that we were speaking to for our scripted projects excited, that they could try something different. This wasn't your traditional production, where you had to go in with a 5:00 AM call time.It was very much, especially in early COVID days. It's like you could do it from your house. We'll send you a kit. No worries. We'll do it over Zoom. But it was a lot of education really for them, for their managers, but people were excited. I think they thought this is a chance for me to play and for me to have fun and for me to do something different and which made the whole experience, especially of those early recordings, just really special.Chris Erwin:So going back to a point that we talked about with your experience at the LA Times, it was follow the content, but then figure out the business model. How do we make this sustainable? So what did that look like for you working with Josh and the team of like, okay, we found this incredible creator community. We have these shows that are becoming number one in their local markets and they're crossing international borders into the US and more. But how do we actually generate sustainable revenue for this? And what are the right revenue streams beyond what everyone just talks about for podcast ad sales, et cetera? So what was some of the initial work? What did that look like for you guys? And where does that look like going forward as you think about the medium and monetization differently?Camila Victoriano:Yeah, absolutely. I think in Mexico, in particular, again, it was all about education, education, education. And I think for us, since we focused that first year really on just launching great shows and making sure that they were hits, then our counterparts in Mexico were able to go to brands and say, hey, look, we already know this works and explain a little bit the medium and how to interact with consumers and how to write an audio ad. So it's still early days in that market, but we've been able to work with really amazing brands like McDonald's, like Netflix. A lot of CPG brands in particular are really excited about this space. And so I think we're really, the more we talk to brands every month, it gets easier. And I think where the podcast market in the US was maybe four years ago is where they're at right now.And I think we're reaching those innovators in the brand space that are excited to try something new and it's working really well for them. And we're getting a lot of people that come back, come back again because the audience for podcasting is the traditional ones that you see here in the US. They are younger, they have more disposable income typically. And so I think a lot of the brands are really excited about that. And then the US, of course, it's a totally different game. You have your direct response advertisers, which are the bread and butter of podcast advertising, but what we're really excited about is bigger brand presenting sponsorships, especially in our fiction series. That is where we're really looking to double down on in this year. For example, we had a show called Princess of South Beach, which was a 36 episode telenovela in English and in Spanish, and [Lincoln 00:55:02] came on as a presenting sponsor. And we produced this really incredible integrated piece into the content itself.So it was a funny telenovela set in Miami, and we created a chat show or a TV show basically like an Enews called Tea with Tatianna, where she was talking to people around the family that the show was about while integrating Lincoln in a really seamless way. So for us, it's always about thinking a few steps ahead of what's the market going to look like in a year or two, and how can we get ahead of that? And how can we be really, really creative about the way that we integrate brands, so that it doesn't disrupt the content; number one, but also it gives them better value and it gives them much more seamless integration with the content that we already know listeners are loving. And so that's really what we're focused on in the US in particular is those bigger integrations into, in particular, our scripted content.Chris Erwin:Camila, as a young rising leader, where you raised your hand and essentially got to be at the helm of what is the new LA Times studio division, where you're helping to tell stories in different ways. And now you're a co-founder at Sonoro. Looking back on your young career, what are some of your leadership learnings to date, upon reflecting of you as a leader earlier on, maybe a few years back to the leader you are today? What have you learned and what do you want to keep working on?Camila Victoriano:The main thing I've learned has probably been more about human interaction, how you work with people and how you build a team. I think at the LA Times in particular, newsrooms are tough, because it's the business side traditionally and over the years has never... hasn't always been super friendly. And so what I learned really well there and also building a team over Zoom these last few years is communication is critical. And over communicating and making sure everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing, why, and just offering up the opportunity to answer questions and to be there as a leader that listens to people and to listens to maybe questions they have about work, about their life. I think for me, that's always really important and something that I've valued from mentors in my life of they're there to listen and they're not going to... I was a very precocious early career person.I was always like, why is this happening, or what's going on? And I wanted to know as much as possible. And so communication, I think, is something that I always valued as a younger employee or as an early career. And so that's always what I'm trying to communicate or to convey to our employees now and to back then the newsroom is like, I want to be someone that they have a lot of FaceTime with and that communicates a lot with them about strategy and about what we're doing, what we're doing and gets them really excited.Chris Erwin:I like that. I run a lean team, but I realize, I can never overcommunicate. So things that I just assume that the team knows, the reality is that they don't. These things are in my head. And so every day it's important to just remind the team, what is our mission? What are we focused on? What were wins from yesterday? What are learnings and what are we maybe changing? That is literally a daily conversation. And I would much rather over-communicate than under-communicate. So I think that's very well said. Another point here is you now have investors. You raised a round of capital a couple years ago from some blue chip firms. And what have the learnings been there for you where you're following the content, you're building community around your shows. You're figuring out the business model and driving new revenue, but you also have to answer to a board. What is that like for you?Camila Victoriano:I think that's been the most exciting thing for me, honestly. What I have learned from working with our investors is just really relying on them to jump in when we have questions and using them as experts in the field too. And I think that's, they're there to help us and they're there to work with us and to partner with us on this venture. And so for me, it's really, in particular, we have some younger people that we work with and younger investors that are my age and collaborating with them on how to be leaders and how to build this business. And just, again, having that open dialogue and open communication of not being afraid to ask them questions, I think, has been the biggest learning for me and the part that's been most exciting about working with them.Chris Erwin:Realizing that good investors are really allies and partners through your business. These are not overlords that are micromanaging or only coming in when things are tough. They're there to be there for the good and the bad. And when you have a really great set of investors that can really amplify your business an incredible way. Look, a final note before we transition to our rapid fire segment is, Camila, what are you excited about for what's next at Sonoro, for what's coming up in the rest of 2022 and beyond? Tell us about the future vision and what that looks like for you.Camila Victoriano:First and foremost, I'm really excited about all of the shows that we have cooking for this year. Earlier this summer, we launched a romcom called Love & Noraebang, which was a really beautiful story that featured a Mexican-American character and a Korean character falling in love that was just incredibly well done with an amazing cast. We have so many other shows in the works that I think are going to get people really excited. I'd also say that we have a lot of really great announcements coming up in terms of derivatives for our projects, that I'm excited to get out into the world, and really honestly, for this year and next year to really bulk up that part of the business as well. We've launched some incredible, incredible podcasts, but now I'm excited for those to start cooking as TV shows or films and for people to start hearing about that and hopefully watching them soon. That is definitely what I'm very excited about.Chris Erwin:Awesome. Before rapid fire, Camila, I'm just going to give you some kudos. So I've known Josh for a few years now and spent a decent amount of time with him. I've also known Adam Sachs for about a lifetime, right? He was actually the first person that I interviewed on The Come Up podcast. Both of them have said amazing things about you, but we have never met in person until literally just yesterday. And now I understand why they say such good things. I think hearing how you stayed so true to your heart and passionate about following content and exploring different mediums, how you've then followed this exciting serendipitous path to put you at the forefront of this incredible new media industry like in podcasting and all things audio. I think it's an incredible story for you. And I understand why you are one of these young up and coming leaders because you have such incredible content vision.You have a very clear understanding of what fans want and how to delight them. And I think you do marry both sides of the media brain of having really strong creative intuition, but really strong business savvy and just leaning in to get stuff done. So I give you a ton of accolades and I've already been excited about Sonoro's business well before this conversation, but walking away from this interview, remain even more excited and I'm pumped to have the rest of this business community and listeners spend more time with the shows that Sonoro's putting out into the world. So, job very well done.Camila Victoriano:Well, thank you. I really appreciate that.Chris Erwin:Yeah. You're welcome. All right, so we're going to move on to the rapid fire. This is the final segment. Very simple rules, Camila. The rules are as follows. So I'm going to ask you, I think, six or seven questions and the responses are to be one sentence or maybe just a couple words. Do you understand the rules?Camila Victoriano:I understand and I'm wary of the rules.Chris Erwin:Okay. Here we go. Proudest life moment?Camila Victoriano:I think founding Sonoro, closely followed up by, and this might be lame, getting into Harvard was a pretty big deal for me.Chris Erwin:Those are both fantastic. What do you want to do less of for the remainder of 2022?Camila Victoriano:Less reactivity, more proactivity.Chris Erwin:What one to two things drive your success?Camila Victoriano:I think our employees, and the work that they do drives me a lot, and also my family.Chris Erwin:Advice for media and podcast execs going into the second part of this year?Camila Victoriano:Listen to the consumer, listen to the listeners. I think they have... I'm using too many words. I'm going to follow your rules. Listen to the listeners.Chris Erwin:I dig it. Any future startup ambitions?Camila Victoriano:Oh boy. My heart and soul is in Sonoro right now. So we'll see what happens after, but that's all I can think about at the moment.Chris Erwin:Maybe you can have a conversation when Josh isn't listening.Camila Victoriano:Yeah, exactly.Chris Erwin:I actually want to go back to one of the rapid fire questions. When you say you want to be more proactive. Just tell me a little bit more about that.Camila Victoriano:I think when you're building a startup, it gets very easy to get caught up in the day to day and the little fires and the things that pop up and exciting new opportunities. And I think for me, it's really, it's similar to... I meditate quite a bit and just staying present and saying, okay, what am I working on right now? And staying focused and just being more proactive, I think, about thinking of solutions, new ideas, new projects. We do a lot of that, but I think especially in the moment that we're in, it's easy to get caught up in what's happening day to day and what comes up. I think sitting more with thoughts and with our strategy and our content and being more proactive about what's next and those steps that we're taking.Chris Erwin:Easy, final question. How can people get in contact with you?Camila Victoriano:Well, they can reach me on email, probably; camila@sonoromedia.com. Maybe I'll regret that, but feel free to reach out.Chris Erwin:I would say that we have some pretty great listeners. So the quality of reachout should hopefully be good.Camila Victoriano:Yeah, I'm not worried about it.Chris Erwin:All right, Camila, that's it. Thanks for being on the show.Camila Victoriano:Yeah. Thank you so much. This was awesome.Chris Erwin:That was such a fun interview with Camila. Like I said, I had never met her before yesterday. So it was really nice to spend time with her on the podcast and hear her story. It truly is remarkable, and I'm really pumped to see what she does next at Sonoro. All right. Quick heads up that our company has a new service offering. We just introduce RockWater Plus, which is for companies who want an ongoing consulting partner at a low monthly retainer, yet also need a partner who can flex up for bigger projects when they arise.Chris Erwin:So who is this for? Well, three main stakeholders. One, operators who seek growth and better run operations. Two, investors who need help with custom industry research and diligence. And three, leadership who wants a bolt on strategy team and thought partner. So what is included with RockWater Plus? We do weekly calls to review KPIs or any ad hoc operational needs. We create KPI dashboards to do monthly performance tracking. We do ad hoc research ranging from customer surveys to case studies, to whitespace analysis. Financial modeling, where we can understand your addressable market size, do P&L forecast, ROI analyses, even cash runway projections.Chris Erwin:We also do monthly trend reports to track new co launches, M&A activity, partnership activity in the space. And lastly, we make strategic introductions to new hires, investors for fundraising, and then also potential commercial strategic partnerships. So if any of this sounds appealing or you want to learn more, reach out to us at hello@wearerockwater.com. We can set a call with our leadership. All right. Lastly, we love to hear from our listeners. If you have any feedback on the show or any ideas for guests, shoot us a note at tcupod@wearerockwater.com. All right, that's it everybody. Thanks for listening.Chris Erwin:The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter. And you could follow us on Twitter @TCUpod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali. And special thanks to Alex Zirin and Eric Kenigsberg from the RockWater team.
Mike Grisko — CFO at Atmosphere on Raising $150M, Becoming a 2x Founder, and the Future of TV for Business
Aug 4 2022
Mike Grisko — CFO at Atmosphere on Raising $150M, Becoming a 2x Founder, and the Future of TV for Business
This interview features Mike Grisko, CFO and Co-Founder of Atmosphere.  We discuss running an NCAA tourney at age 7, getting laid off during the Great Financial crisis, almost selling the Chive to Playboy, the challenge with professional politeness in UK work culture, raising $150 million in growth capital and quadrupling the team in 5 years, and what he looks forward to next.Subscribe to our newsletter. We explore the intersection of media, technology, and commerce: sign-up linkLearn more about our market research and executive advisory: RockWater websiteFollow us on LinkedIn: RockWater LinkedInEmail us: tcupod@wearerockwater.comInterview TranscriptThe interview was lightly edited for clarity.Chris Erwin:Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up. A podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.Mike Grisko:We have this concept internally, like giving up your Legos. Your job description changes every three to six months when you're going through rapid growth. 18 months ago, we were less than 100 people. Yeah, today we're close to 450 employees just at Atmosphere. And so that requires you to change your roles. Some of the things that I was doing back in 2018, 19, 20, it's just not scalable at that level. And so being able to hire great people, reassign tasks and responsibilities is absolutely critical.Chris Erwin:This week's episode features Mike Grisko, co-founder and CFO of Atmosphere. So Mike was born in the south side of Chicago and was the oldest of five siblings. He then studied at University of Illinois and his early career started in finance and consulting, including Pricewaterhouse Coopers in London and Moelis & Company in Chicago. While at Moelis, he met the founders of The Chive and was recruited for his first C-suite role as CFO. Soon after relocating to Austin, Mike partnered up with The Chive's leadership team to co-found Atmosphere, where he is helping to grow and scale the leading streaming TV service for businesses offering free audio optional TV. Some highlights of our chat include running an NCAA 20 at age seven, getting laid off during the great financial crisis, almost selling The Chive to Playboy, the challenge with professional politeness in UK work culture, raising 150 million in growth capital and quadrupling the team in five years, and what he looks forward to next. All right, let's get to it.Chris Erwin:Mike, thanks for being on the podcast.Mike Grisko:Yes, absolutely. It's a pleasure to join you on The Come Up. Really looking forward to getting into it.Chris Erwin:There's a lot of stories to tell here. As always, we're going to rewind a bit and we're going to talk about where you grew up and your childhood. So I think you're a Midwest kid. Tell us about that.Mike Grisko:I am a Midwest kid. Grew up on the south side of Chicago. 103rd and Pulaski for any local Chicago listeners. Was the oldest five kids. My mother was a ER nurse. My dad worked in engineering sales. It was a great spot to grow up. It was very much a blue collar neighborhood. We lived right across the street from Tally's Corner, which was famous for just so many cops and firefighters that had to live within the city limits. My mom was one of seven. My dad, one of four. And everybody lived within a couple miles of each other. So just cousins everywhere. So yeah, it's a fun neighborhood to grow up in. I don't know what your childhood was like, Chris, but it was very Stranger Things for us. You just go on your bike, you'd be gone all day. You just got to be back before the street lights came on.Chris Erwin:Oh, I hear you. I was born in '82, so I'm an '80s, '90s kid. And in the suburbs I was born Rumson, New Jersey, an hour outside the city. And it was about like, you get on your bike and you just travel all around the county and you get into trouble, you find dirt jumps, you go meet up with your friends late night. I remember taking the bikes out at 3:00 AM during sleepovers. It was the best.Mike Grisko:It was the best. Was Chicagoan through and through before. Now residing in Austin, Texas.Chris Erwin:So, okay. Being the oldest... I have two brothers, I have a twin and then a younger brother who's six years younger. And so you're the oldest of five. What was your role? Did you have a patriarch type role amongst the brotherhood?Mike Grisko:Absolutely. Especially my dad traveled quite a bit for work. It was definitely more of a patriarchal role took on but still. We were just very tight knit crew. Still are.Chris Erwin:Getting into middle school and high school. What were some of your passions back then? What did you like to do?Mike Grisko:We were always playing sports. You had the neighborhood crew. You're playing fast pitch against a parking lot wall. In addition to doing sports, it was also a bit of a nerd. Constantly reading, just super competitive in school. It was less about the learning, it was more just getting better marks than anybody who was around me. But yeah, that stuck with me for quite a while.Chris Erwin:Got it. Well, look today, you're the CFO and co-founder of Atmosphere and you've also had a CFO role at Chive. So were you big into the quant side and into mathematics and other science and other similar subject areas?Mike Grisko:Yeah, there's a bit of that. And then I've just always been incredibly fascinated by business and markets. Grew up in the '80s and when I was a... I think it was six or seven, my uncle started calling me Gordon Gekko. I think because I was the only-Chris Erwin:It's a great nickname.Mike Grisko:I know. I think it's because I was like the only seven year old who was running an NCAA tournament and I was doing betting spreads every NFL Sunday going down the line. Yeah. So it definitely makes sense, the career path that I chose, doing finance, doing the investment banking thing and choosing this direction.Chris Erwin:Kind of makes sense because you end up going for undergrad to the University of Illinois where you focus on finance and accountancy. So when you went to school, what were you thinking that you were going to do afterwards?Mike Grisko:When I got down there I wasn't really sure. It wasn't until I actually did study abroad program, which was in Melbourne Australia, which was some of the best months of my life. It was just absolutely incredible. Yeah, the fact that my best friend and I both got full scholarships to go down there was just such a deal. I mean, we got accepted. We just could not believe that they took both our applications.Chris Erwin:What did you get into? Did you do any surfing while you were out there?Mike Grisko:Did do some surfing, played Aussie rules football. We tried to get stuck into everything, just being able to travel and just the people and just such a fun environment. But that's really when I took a step back and started looking at like, "Okay, when I get back, I got to figure out an internship." And that's when chatting with a bunch of folks, really started to lean towards trying to get on an investment banking track. And so it's amazing. Sometimes you do really need to take a huge step away to start to piece that all together and figure it out. Because I really had no clue probably up until then.Chris Erwin:It's funny. It's almost a bit of the reverse, but it reflects your personality and your interests. Typical consultants or Fortune 500 executives or bankers will go on a sabbatical and say, "I don't want to be in these industries anymore. I'm going to go do something different." But you go to Australia, have the time of your life and you're like, "I need to go into hardcore finance. That's the path." I went in a very similar direction. I was an investment banker right out of undergrad too. All right. So that becomes your focus. What's your first internship or your first role in school?Mike Grisko:So I did an internship for Wells Fargo. Got to see the lending side, their corporate lending group, so did a summer of shadowing the analyst doing underwriting. And it was great. This is in the high times of banking. This was in '07. So the summer of '07, everything's riding high. I remember winning the internship competition. So they flew me out to San Francisco with my brother just for first prize for winning this thing.Chris Erwin:He was your plus one? You're like, "I'm going to bring my bro."Mike Grisko:Yeah. Yeah. And it was a very good learning ground, but I still... There's a few guys who I was friends with at Illinois who had gotten into the investment banking side. And so I decided to double down and just... Thanks Wells Fargo, but I really wanted to take a dive into the IB side and learn how to do M&A and capital raise and the rest. I'm sure probably similar sort of path as you. Must have been at least 20 to 30 different places I was submitting applications doing interviews with. Just running through the whole process.Chris Erwin:Yeah, it's a very intense process. But it's funny. Hearing from the people that have interviewed on the podcast, I think back to Michael Cohen at the Whistle, which was acquired by Eleven Sports. He started out as a credit analyst at Wells Fargo in Atlanta, before he went into do investment banking. And we actually worked at the same firm and I started out as a credit analyst at Bank of New York, which is now BNY Mellon. And you, you now run a free ad supported streaming platform for businesses. You started as a corporate credit analyst and then went to investment banking. If you're going to do finance and media, that feels like the path.Mike Grisko:Yeah. It's got to be. It's tried and true then. You got three examples right there.Chris Erwin:So then, okay, you graduate and then you go full time into Lincoln Financial. And you're an analyst there for about a year. What were those early years like?Mike Grisko:It's a mid-market investment bank, heavy Chicago presence. It was a good shock to the system going from your university environment to full corporate world and pretty intensive as I'm sure you remember from your banking days. So I had started in August of 2008 and so I think it was six to eight weeks before Lehman went under. Things looked like they were riding high and then all of a sudden... I just remember being very new, but then also seeing the senior bankers just going ghost white as deals are just being paused or put on hold or it went from they were closing close to a deal a day, M&A or a debt advisory deal, and then it just completely dries up.Mike Grisko:The first deal I ever did, it was automotive wire harness business. I was being spun out of Alcoa. And it was just bleeding money. Went from, if you remember, with all the automotive ODMs just shuttering production, they were like the fifth player in that industry. Basically overnight, they went to negative 80 million [inaudible 00:09:46] and trying to find a partner for that. That was great learning ground. But I ended up getting laid off into that second wave of layoffs they did in March 2009.Chris Erwin:Laid off in March of 2009 after the debt crisis hit. Yeah. I have some stories of what happened at my bank and I'm curious to hear yours. So yeah. What happened to you and what was going through your head?Mike Grisko:It's a big shock to the system. It's a kick in the teeth. It did a couple things. It really hardened me to, "All right, this is the actual professional and corporate world. Nobody's spots guaranteed." And I think it even that much more determined and more resolved to like, "Hey, whatever is next. I know I'm going to have to really outwork everybody else around me."Chris Erwin:I hear you. I joined the workforce in 2005. I was at my investment bank when the 2008 credit crisis hit. And I was still a young professional. And I felt like, "Oh, I'm insulated. This is a tough time for everyone. But I'm young. The leadership's going to take care of all of us." And I remember getting called into the manager's office one day. Everyone at the company's salary was cut drastically.Chris Erwin:And I was like, "Whoa." I felt the impact personally, in a very meaningful way in that day. And I was like, "All right, this is legit. This is the real deal." And I had to make changes to my lifestyle. I actually negotiated down my rent from my apartment in New York City, down 25%. Something I'm actually still very proud of. I built a nice spreadsheet defending that. But it does gut check you and it questions, "Okay. Is there a job for me here over the next year or two? Is my career derailed?" Is my whole future grand plan that I had sorted out in undergrad have to be completely reset?" But I think it's helpful for it to build resilience, right?Mike Grisko:100%. I thought for sure coming out of school, it was, "Hey, do two years to three years as an analyst. Hop over to PE. Maybe go get an MBA. Just follow the very traditional path." But I think that moment really drove me in a very different direction.Chris Erwin:Tell us about that new direction, because I think you end up going to Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Chicago for a few years before you end up at Moelis.Mike Grisko:In that period after getting laid off March '09, basically bottom tick the market. It was slim pickings out there for jobs. I even looked into potentially doing a program to get into medical school and doing a complete 180, picking up some undergrad science credits so I can apply to med school.Mike Grisko:But then by time, two or three months in, I was starting to get some good looks. And I had an analyst role on a corp dev team in Chicago, and then also got offered a position as an analyst at PWC in their corporate finance group, which they were just restarting. And so they had basically shuttered their investment banking practice, but then were bringing it back. And so I was the first analyst they hired in the US and I thought "Here's an opportunity to get it back on track." And a lot of corporate carve outs, cross border M&A was their big MO and huge selling point for me was they committed that, "Hey, you do a couple years here and hopefully we can get you over to London or one of our other international offices to do a two year program," which I ended up doing in 2011.Chris Erwin:So you went to London in 2011 for two years working for PWC?Mike Grisko:Yeah. It was fantastic. I mean the great, great mid-market M&A group over there. It was one of the coolest experiences of my professional career. Just being able to live and get fully immersed in a culture, especially in a professional culture. Anybody who ever has the opportunity, I highly, highly recommend. Because it really just does stretch you and challenge you in different ways. You knew how to do your job, but it's almost like the gravity's just off a bit.Chris Erwin:Okay. I like that. I've never heard that description, but I'm into it.Mike Grisko:All new faces, all new companies, all new lingo, trying to pick that up and then still trying to understand folks who have Manchester accents.Chris Erwin:What was one of the biggest cultural differences in doing business over there that you learned?Mike Grisko:I'd say the biggest one, you don't realize, there's just a professional politeness in the UK. So both with your superior is just not being fully direct with you in feedback. In addition to when you would be delivering direct feedback to analysts. They were offtaken. You might not be getting the full picture. We tend to be a little bit more direct and blunt here in the US than the Brits are.Chris Erwin:Something I think about is when I studied abroad in Spain, I met a guy named Tim Slee, who co-founded an ad agency with Steven Murphy. Shout outs to these guys. They're still very close friends of mine too today. And they would talk about their professional work culture was every day at 5:30 PM, they're hitting the bars. And they are buying rounds for all their clients and all their team. And they're like, "That's just how business is done over here. You drink a lot of pints and that gets revenue in the door." And I was like, "That's a lot to sign up for after a full day." I remember as a banker, I was just running spreadsheets till midnight.Mike Grisko:I don't know how you could socialize or network or do a professional career if you don't drink over there. I definitely learned how to go to the pub for a pint or two, and then be able to go back to the desk and start banging things out in the evening. It was just an incredible experience. My wife and I, we got engaged over during that two year stint.Chris Erwin:You brought your girlfriend who became your fiance on that trip. Okay, got it.Mike Grisko:Yes. That's a story for a different podcast. Having the conversation with her dad about her quitting her job and moving over with me.Chris Erwin:You're like, "I'm choosing her instead of my brother this time. Now I'm going to take my girlfriend on this trip."Mike Grisko:Yeah. And we ended up getting engaged shortly into our trip over there. But in two years, I think we visited close to 45 different cities. We were just so good about travel. It was a lot easier, didn't have kids then, to be very mobile on the weekends. And the Brits are great about taking time off.Chris Erwin:All of Europe is really good at it.Mike Grisko:When they said four weeks of vacation and they're like, "We expect you to use it." I'm like, "Absolutely will."Chris Erwin:Yeah. Maybe you bring that back to the Atmosphere culture. All right. So look, you spend around five years there. And then before we talk about your rise up at Chive Media Group and Atmosphere, you were at Moelis & Co for around three years. Tell us about your work there.Mike Grisko:I was starting to get to the stage I'd done enough smaller middle market deals. Enough corporate divestiture work. Really wanted to start seeing some more higher level capital markets and some larger transactions. And so I started shopping around at some different banks. Opportunity came up at Moelis and I jumped on it. Everything I was looking for just to gain from an experience level, next level on debt and equity capital raise to deals to getting to work on my first restructuring bankruptcy work to working on hostile defense deal with Ken Moelis.Mike Grisko:There was a pretty cool experience that really did give that next level of professional training. And I think that's the one thing like I started to realize being in investment banking, the true value of the relationships that you build, and just being able to sit in the room as well. In the room with the exact team observing and or advising on the actions to take and some of the biggest transactions or moves that they're going to be making. It's a great ground to just really absorb a ton.Mike Grisko:So in addition to like the financial training, the Excel sheets, and everything that comes with deals and running process, the network that I was able to build, just what I was able to observe and absorb, I think for some very talented professionals, both within the bank, but then the executives I got to work with, incredibly valuable. You just cannot replace that and the level of reps that you get in the career.Chris Erwin:I very much agree with that. You think about the 10,000 hours thing and the amount of time I spent creating investor decks and confidential information memorandums, AKA CIMS. And all the financial models, the merger models, the LBO dilution analysis, et cetera, the most rewarding experiences were when we were in meetings or had conference calls with private equity owners or family offices that own these cable, media, and telecom companies. And they're thinking about how do we drive more enterprise value?Chris Erwin:Do we spin this off? Do we go acquire these other companies and do a roll up scenario where there are synergies and thinking about, we have this network of management teams, who do we want to place based on the strategy that we have here? How are we going to finance with debt or equity or some other more alternative vehicles and just to hear the decision making in the rooms. And it was like, where are these men and women? Where are they being slow and calculated? Then where are they trusting their gut and moving really quickly? Just to be a fly in the wall was so valuable for my career.Chris Erwin:And I take a lot of that into the work that I did at Big Frame and Awesomeness in thinking about when Big Frame made a decision to sell itself and the work and the advice that we give our clients now. And often days, I wish I still had access to some of those calls every week. I get it through my client work, but just to be a sponge and just be able to just listen as a mid 20 year old. So valuable.Mike Grisko:Incredibly valuable. Yeah. That's well said, Chris. That's the big thing. And I have so much appreciation for it now. Just having seen both working alongside a lot of incredibly talented professionals in addition to some ones that were making bad decisions.Chris Erwin:Can we steer them the right way? TBD.Mike Grisko:But honestly, yeah. You're able to just listen, observe. You're just kind of building that muscle memory for when things are coming fast, as they really have over the last couple years, in my current role as an operator, it helps you just really break things down into first principles and what are we really trying to drive towards? It's helped make my decision making very formulaic. I think that's incredibly valuable. I like to say that... I'm sure we'll talk about Atmosphere in a second, but operating, whether it's startup, growth company, et cetera. It is a wicked learning environment. The variables are always changing. The dynamics are always changing. And so you're constantly going to be seeing new things. And so the ability to read, react, and adjust is super critical, a really valuable skill set that banking taught me.Chris Erwin:Well, let's talk about that transition, Mike. So your role as an advisor, as consultant, as a banker, now you make a decision, as they say, you go to the line. You go to one of the portfolio companies. So in 2017 you transitioned to Chive Media Group. How did that come to be?Mike Grisko:Well, it's twofold. I go back to the point on network and I got an opportunity to... One of the deals I worked on at Moelis back in 2014, 2015 was advising Chive Media Group. John and Leo Resig co-founders of The Chive back in 2008, starting in 2012, 2013, they really started to catch fire. I mean, it was a true social movement. You had folks wearing Bill Murray t-shirts and Keep Calm and Chive On. Folks wearing the shirts everywhere. So they brought Moelis in to take a look at strategic alternatives. And so over an 11 month period, we looked at everything from buying up smaller competitors to doing [inaudible 00:20:56] recap, to even potentially selling.Mike Grisko:And so we actually got pretty far down the path with Playboy, but Leo and John couldn't get comfortable with the deal and the management team that was there at the time. They decided to pull out. And so that was in mid 2015, but stayed in touch with both Leo and John. And when the prior CFO, who was part of the founding team was looking to move on in 2017, Leo called me up and I jumped at the opportunity. So that's some of the backstory just on how I came across the opportunity. Leo tells me now, I think I was the only person he reached out to.Chris Erwin:He was like, "I think I like this guy, Mike, he was on our deal team. Let's take a bet on him."Mike Grisko:It's very tight interview process, but it goes back to the point that building network from that seed in banking is just incredibly valuable. That wasn't the first time that I was offered a job by a client. You get so close to your clients when you're working alongside them. But this is the one I jumped at. The biggest thing is if you know Leo and John, they're just real salt to the earth humans. And that meant a lot to me. To be leaving banking into something that was a lot more unknown.Mike Grisko:Yeah. I knew whatever happened with the business, they were going to do the right thing by myself and my family. And I think that was the most critical thing I was looking for is I really wanted to jump into an operational role. I'd spent a little over nine years advising CFOs. There was some that I had incredible respect for. There was some I thought I could do that job better. The opportunity to jump right into this was just too good to pass up. And then there was the personal side of this, which at the time we were making this decision, I had a 11 month old son and then my wife was pregnant with our daughter.Chris Erwin:Oh, wow.Mike Grisko:Yeah. So the ability to go into something that had a little bit more flexibility or control over your hours was big for me.Chris Erwin:You were moving too. Because you were moving to Austin from Chicago.Mike Grisko:Yeah. The full go. And I think it's that personal relationship with John and Leo, that we're two feet in. Sold a place in Chicago and moved down to Austin, away from family again.Chris Erwin:Your 30 cousins and brothers.Mike Grisko:Right. Yeah. And rest is history.Chris Erwin:Hey listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work. And it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it everybody. Let's get back to the interview.Chris Erwin:You make the transition. And I hear you on the point of it's all about relationships. I think I was having a call the other day with Jason Rapp from Whisper Advisors who I've just gotten to know. And he had a note that I really liked. He said, "Companies are not sold, they're bought." And I think the implication there is it's about there being a clear strategic fit, but also this notion of there's relationships developed with strategic and commercial partners over time, and more often than not an investment or an acquisition is made from two companies who have many data points, a trend line of building a rapport and a relationship. And I think that also speaks to how executive hirings and placements, particularly at the C-suite level are done. You weren't out of the blue, it was long term relationship building where Leo and John had been exposed to your work. So I think that's important for our listeners to just be mindful of. We always say that. Say start planting the seeds now.Mike Grisko:I think that has been incredibly important. Those relationships and the relationships that I quickly developed with the other C-suite members at The Chive who are now at Atmosphere. You want to be working with good people. It is just so difficult to get a startup business into a true growth path and on a true path to success. Being able to do that with folks that you trust and truly enjoy working with is so critical. It starts at the top. If you want your entire company growing the [inaudible 00:25:02] in the same direction, it really does start with having a cohesive leadership group.Chris Erwin:So let's talk about when you show up, what are you guys working on? What are the goals in 2017, 2018, fast forward a few years, where do you guys get to? And that's going to set up the story for how Atmosphere was incubated, but take us back to that.Mike Grisko:I walked in at a pretty critical time for the company. There was a lot of different initiatives that Chive Media Group was chasing. It became pretty apparent quickly that we couldn't do all of them. The business needed an overall guiding direction and overarching focus. And so my first three months on the job, Leo and John asked me to, "Hey, just give us your full assessment as an outsider." And spent just a ton of time on a listening tour, diving into data. Became pretty clear that we were sitting on something incredibly powerful with Chive TV, which at the time was maybe in a little over 1000 locations and had six or seven dedicated employees to that product line. We knew that we had something incredibly powerful.Mike Grisko:We thought we had something incredibly powerful with that business, but we also had just many other initiatives, everything from original content creation with Chive Studios to some large initiatives, both on the digital ad sales side to a lot of different facets that they were chasing on the e-commerce side. So everything was set up for big strategic meeting in December of 2017. Myself, John, Leo, Eric Spielman, our chief strategy officer, and Alen Durbuzovic, our CTO. And we made some very critical decisions to really lay out, "Hey, here's our vision for the next three years." It included shuttering some business lines, re-orging some groups. All on the guise of trying to take the Chive TV product line and turn it into a real business.Chris Erwin:You start and pretty soon after you start, you're making some very big decisions at the company, contributing to that to allow you guys to focus on where you think the biggest win is. Atmosphere, I think technically founded in 2018, but Chive TV, you guys were working on this probably well before that, is that right?Mike Grisko:Yeah. So Chive TV was the original proof of concept. It was started in late 2014, early 2015 as an audience extension play. As the landscape got more and more competitive competing for eyeballs with Instagram, Facebook, and every other platform, Roku opened up their marketplace for content companies to build apps. And so they decided that technological opening allowed them to build a streaming TV app. And then they also were able to leverage the strong community on The Chive to help get distribution because the content programming, they realized quickly like, "Yeah, this is good for in-home, but this actually works incredibly well in bars and restaurants." And so that was the initial, "Hey, can we build an app? Can we distribute it? Can we actually make this work?" And that's where in the early days, I mean, they're a lot of learnings the guys talk about.Mike Grisko:And so it really teed up into 2018 where we had to go from, "Hey, this is a product with potential. How can we actually turn this into a real business?" That was the big mission of 2018 to see how we could really craft the story around Atmosphere as a platform. So Atmosphere, as it exists today, streaming TV platform for businesses. Over 50 different audio optional channels. We like to say we have a channel for every type of venue, whether you're a pediatric office or gym or a bar restaurant, we got a channel that's programmed for you. Everything from Chive TV, which is now a channel fully owned by Atmosphere to we have a Happy TV channel. We have Paws TV with cute puppies and kittens. We have partner channels such as America's Funnies Home Videos, Red Bull TV, and Disney's X Games. So we have quite a few.Chris Erwin:Mike, you have this content network, you have all these different channels that cater to different offices, different business environments, et cetera. And you make a decision as a company that it's like, "All right, foot on the gas. This is not just going to be an exciting new growth initiative out of Chive. This is its own standalone business that will probably require a separate growth plan, separate capitalization, and more." So when you guys convene, you, Spielman, the Resigs, and whoever else, what decisions do you make to really amplify the opportunity here?Mike Grisko:You summed it up pretty well from you, Chris. It really came down to this business has the ability to be a platform and like an N of 1 platform, the actual network that can tape over this niche of streaming TV for business. That's a big ambitious plan. So obviously would require risk capital to fund it if we really wanted to chase the velocity that we thought was there. It couldn't continue to be self-funded by The Chive and really drive to where it needed to be.Mike Grisko:Putting together that plan, and it was complications. Spinning the business off all of the shared services that were going to be required to spin it off. The conflict of interest was a big issue for VCs who were concerned if they threw millions of dollars into this new Atmosphere, entity in business, if it wasn't going well, would the entire founding team just turn around and go back to working at Chive Media Group and say, "Sorry, unfortunately, that didn't work out." It was a tough one to sell through. And if you remember in 2018, nobody wanted to touch ad supported startup businesses. Everyone was focused on subscription.Chris Erwin:Oh, how the world has changed. Just think of Netflix launching an advertising platform.Mike Grisko:Exactly. There was several times we thought about pivoting and driving resources hard into venues paying subscriptions. But luckily we stuck with the plan because we saw how much leverage there was in advertising to this massive underserved market.Chris Erwin:All right. So when you think about there's the big, exciting stuff to do, which is all right, what's the new growth plan who we hiring for this go raise venture capital, then there's all the administrative stuff of... All right. Yeah. Like you said, allocating shared services, who works on what, how do we communicate that, how do we set up a dedicated legal entity and put the right resources into that? All these little things that you as a CFO probably had to take care of.Mike Grisko:Yeah. And this is also where you and I met. As I'm pulling a lot of this stuff together with the group and bringing on lawyers, getting advisors all set, you and I got connected through Jason Anderson and you guys did an engagement for us both to... Well, number one, be that initial test run before we hit the market just on materials and the story, the model, just the entire thing, which was incredibly helpful and just help us. Like most VC fundraising rounds, it really comes down to the product, the team, and the TAM. And so helping us to find that overall opportunity in isolating our unit economics. There was a lot there because again, it wasn't just another enterprise SAS software business that was easy to digest and easy for VCs to give seed/Series A funding.Chris Erwin:I will say thank you to Jason Anderson for that intro. And it was a delight to meet you and Eric nearly five years ago now and have gotten to know the Resigs a little bit. But really, yeah, Mike, you're the first point of contact. I remember working arm in arm with you on some of this stuff. I have an image in my head of one of the financial runway slides of "Here's the traction for what we did last year," which I don't even know if it broke a million. "Here's our five year forecast," which was maybe at the low tens of millions. And the numbers that you guys are putting up on the board today are much bigger than that.Chris Erwin:But you guys were very hopeful, very optimistic. You saw a need in the market, but we also could sense that it wasn't a guarantee. It was a big swing. Chive was a business that had been around for over 10 years. It was time to find a new growth opportunity. And also, not just from a value creation perspective, but I think just for the team and for the brothers of an exciting new thing to dig into. And there was conviction and excitement, but it was clear that you guys were taking a big risk and there was uncertainty. I'm curious to hear the early days, when did you realize you really had something special here? Because you hit some big headwinds during COVID and maybe even a little bit before that, but things did change. Walk me through that.Mike Grisko:So our first headwind that we fought through was we'd agreed to heads of terms with a VC in early 2019 to do our initial funding. And they pulled out. They had internal issues that they had to sort out and they just could not do any fundings. And so we had to go back to our underbidder, who was Charlie Plauche from S3. And Charlie didn't try to take advantage of the situation. He stood up and honored his initial term sheet for the most part. And S3 ventures, if you don't know, Austin based VC, and Charlie was willing to roll up his sleeve, all those things we talked about with the conflict of interest, he and the team were willing to do the work because they saw the big potential. And his read on it, not only was this a massive opportunity, but this is a team that's done it before. And so it's an advantage that they've had The Chive business and been operating successfully for 10 plus years.Chris Erwin:Wow. Yeah. He probably had a chance to bend you guys over a barrel. But instead I think he was probably exhibiting the type of partnership behavior of, "Hey, this is how I'm going to act when you guys are in a moment of need and I'm going to be a resource for you guys and positive asset in good times and in bad." That's a fantastic move on his part.Mike Grisko:And then you flash forward a year, we did a series A extension in bringing on Valor Equity. And we closed that deal on March 6th. And if you remember, I think on March 8th, that was a Sunday that oil tanked 40%. But Jon Shulkin and the team at Valor, they never for a second wavered just on their commitment. And that's a rocky time to be stepping into a new investment, especially one with its end markets being bars, restaurants, gyms.Chris Erwin:Just to be clear, because we glossed over this quickly, when oil had that precipitous drop, that was essentially the week during the massive shutdown for COVID in the US and throughout the world. So the times fundamentally changed.Mike Grisko:Our end users of our service are all out of home venues. And so all subject to lockdowns. It was a trying couple months, but great support from our investors. Having a cohesive team to make some moves to change up the cost structure. And we got through it. Very little turnover and an employee base that was just still so bought into the story. And so to your question on inflection point, really then in Q3 of that year, right around mid August, we really started to see things uptick in the dailies. And so the big question on the business back in 2020, great, we're starting to understand that you can truly build a network in a fairly economic way to get distribution into these B2B customers. Get them signed up, get them to stream. The question was, all right, so if you build all this supply, are advertisers going to come? And that started to be answered in Q3. If you remember, everybody pulled back in the advertising world in Q2 of 2020. As they reassessed, they started to redeploy more and more money into connected TV environments and streaming TV environments.Mike Grisko:And we were one of the benefactors of that, especially in the programmatic open exchange. And so we started to see that coming through in the dailies and then the narrative really flipped. And then in October we did an inside up round. So, it's all of a sudden like now the story was almost flipped with VCs looking to preempt because they saw the traction was starting to build for what we were building.Chris Erwin:And then that leads to, I think in January of this year you announce a blowout round. You announce $100 million in new capital. I think 80 million equity and 20 million in debt.Mike Grisko:Yeah. You flash forward to 2021, which was just one of the most memorable, positive years in my career. But I'm sure there was others that shared that sentiment, but Valor Equity preempted and led our series B raised 25 million in April. And then Sageview led our series C that we've announced in January of 2022, an $80 million round plus a $20 million debt facility with bridge. And so over that three year path, we've now been able to raise $145 million worth of capital and really have been able to put that to work incredibly efficiently in building this network where you go back five years, about 1000 venues. We're now streaming in over 29,000 venues today, reaching close to 40 million people on a monthly basis and generating a lot of ad inventory.Chris Erwin:And just to make this exciting for potential venue partners. If you want to grow your network, people listening to this podcast, what is the value that you bring by putting Atmosphere on their walls?Mike Grisko:Yeah. I like to sum it up as it's better, simple, and free. So it's better content for at least TV. You think TV for business was never broken. It just was never right to begin with. Everything that you see out in bar, restaurant, or gym is content that was built for in-home consumption with audio. It is talking heads. It is entertainment that's going to require the voiceover. We purpose build everything for that audioless experience.Mike Grisko:So it's fast paced. Our news and sports channels, heavy typography that allows the viewer to really just consume visually. So it's better content for these screens and it gives you an alternative to live sports because not everybody is a sports fan and there's not always a relevant game on. And simplicity. There are no monthly contracts. We overnight you a device for free. It is a five minute install process, logging onto your wifi and away you go. And for the venue, it's free. For a free product, you're getting better content to entertain your patrons. And depending on the type of venue you are, we have multi TV locations and single TV locations. So if you're single TV location, such as a waiting room, auto repair shop, you're a car wash, why are you paying for cable? This gives you a cut the cord option in providing entertainment in the waiting room. And then if you're a multi TV location, this is just a great alternative for those other moments.Chris Erwin:I think that sums it up quite well. I like the notion of "It's not broken, it was just never right." So what would you say to wrap up the Atmosphere segment before we go into the rapid fire and we close this out and as a leader, you're at a company like you were saying that at Chive, I think you guys were around 50 to 75 people. Now Atmosphere, it's over 400. What are some of the lessons that you've learned scaling an organization this quickly? How have your responsibilities evolved? What does that look like?Mike Grisko:We have this concept internally, like giving up your Legos. Your job description changes every three to six months when you're going through rapid growth. 18 months ago, we were less than 100 people. Yeah, today we're close to 450 employees just at Atmosphere. And so that requires you to change your roles. Some of the things that I was doing back in 2018, 19, 20, it's just not scalable at that level. And so being able to hire great people, reassign tasks and responsibilities is absolutely critical.Chris Erwin:And what is something as you think about inspiring your team, inspiring the culture there personally. What is something that maybe you do different today than what you did three to five years ago?Mike Grisko:Something our exec team talks about a lot is authenticity. I think if you are just real with people, you show them a bit of yourself, but then also give them an environment that allows them to just come to work as they are. They don't have to pretend to be someone different in a professional setting than they are outside of the office. You give that to them and it just engenders great environment, creative problem solving, and just people with good energy that want to be part of this mission.Chris Erwin:Yeah. I think it's a great mission. I think a lot of people should join the Atmosphere wave. A final note from me, Mike, in the spirit of authenticity to give you some kudos. Something that came across to me when we first met back in 2018 was just, this is a really sharp guy. He's building something exciting in this business, but he also feels very genuine and very grounded. I have always gravitated towards people from the Midwest. I went to grad school at Kellogg in Chicago, have had a lot of team members at RockWater and some of the other companies I've been at from the Midwest. And there's always just something special about them.Chris Erwin:I think you 100% fall into that category. I think of the days where you had so much conviction early on, but you were willing to work so hard to manifest this future that you guys had thought about. And I remember getting late night and early morning emails from you being like, "All right, I've been refining our business model. I think I have a new idea for the TAM. Let's talk through it." You were burning the candle at both ends to really will this thing to life. And it's awesome to see now looking back what you've accomplished for your career. And you guys haven't even had your big exit yet. So I think there's so much opportunity ahead of you and you deserve a special shoutout.Mike Grisko:Thanks, Chris. As amazing as this whole run has been. Yeah. I don't know if I'd want to redo 2017 through early 2019 again. A lot of decisions that we made back then in building this thing out that seem obvious now were not obvious then. It was a lot of rigor and work to really position this thing to set it on the right path to where we're at today. But it's great to see the traction and how far we've come as a team.Chris Erwin:It's amazing. So we're going to move into the final segment, Mike. It's called the rapid fire round. Here are the rules. I'm going to ask you six questions. Your responses are to be brief. They can be one sentence or maybe just a couple words. Do you understand the rules?Mike Grisko:Yep.Chris Erwin:All right, here we go.Mike Grisko:I'm in.Chris Erwin:Proudest life moment?Mike Grisko:Outside of my family and kids being born, I would have to say the proudest professional moment was our last all hands and seeing how big this company has gotten and the number of folks that are now underneath the Atmosphere umbrella is pretty incredible.Chris Erwin:What do you want to do less of in 2022?Mike Grisko:I'm really trying to do less time on my phone at home. The less screen time at home, more time present with the kiddos.Chris Erwin:What do you want to do more of? Well, I guess you just answered that. More time with the kiddos.Mike Grisko:More time with the kiddos and also more sleep. That's been a big thing this year. So far, so good.Chris Erwin:What one to two things drive your success?Mike Grisko:I go back to, after getting laid off, I laid out two rules for myself and it was "Always work harder than the guy next to you" and "Do things the right way." It's pretty basic, but that's always how I attack everything.Chris Erwin:This is one I actually just want to expand on for a second. When you say "do things the right way," just give us a little bit more context there.Mike Grisko:It's treat others how you want to be treated. It's be fair. Work with integrity. That will always get you much further in the end.Chris Erwin:Got it. Well said. All right, last couple here. Any future startup ambitions?Mike Grisko:I actually helped co-found a business last year. Project Bankman. It's a crypto services business that is building solutions for brands on the blockchain. And so we were looking for a solution for Chive Media Group for effectively a branded social token that could replace our loyalty points. Wasn't really one out there. And so we partnered with a gentleman, Gavin Gillis, who is a ton of experience in the crypto space. And we put together a business plan. We're able to raise seed funding and that business is doing incredibly well in signing up new clients, including The Chive and some other financial institutions and airlines just to build them solutions on the blockchain.Chris Erwin:That's awesome. All right. Last one, Mike, this is very easy. How can people get in contact with you?Mike Grisko:LinkedIn.Chris Erwin:Okay. Hit up Mike on LinkedIn. All right, Mike. That is it. Thank you for being on the podcast.Mike Grisko:Chris. This was awesome. Thank you very much. Incredible host. Thanks for making me look good.Chris Erwin:Of course.Chris Erwin:All right. That was a really fun interview with Mike. That has been a long time coming and I'm very glad that we finally were able to make that happen. All right. Quick heads up that our company has a new service offering. We just introduce RockWater Plus, which is for companies who want an ongoing consulting partner at a low monthly retainer, yet also need a partner who can flex up for bigger projects when they arise.Chris Erwin:So who is this for? Well, three main stakeholders. One, operators who seek growth and better run operations. Two, investors who need help with custom industry research and diligence. And three, leadership who wants a bolt on strategy team and thought partner. So what is included with RockWater Plus? We do weekly calls to review KPIs or any ad hoc operational needs. We create KPI dashboards to do monthly performance tracking. We do ad hoc research ranging from customer surveys to case studies, to whitespace analysis. Financial modeling, where we can understand your addressable market size, do P&L forecast. ROI analyses, even cash runway projections.Chris Erwin:We also do monthly trend reports to track new co launches, M&A activity, partnership activity in the space. And lastly, we make strategic introductions to new hires, investors for fundraising, and then also potential commercial strategic partnerships. So if any of this sounds appealing or you want to learn more, reach out to us at hello@wearerockwater.com. We can set a call with our leadership. All right. Lastly, we love to hear from our listeners. If you have any feedback on the show or any ideas for guests, shoot us a note at tcupod@wearerockwater.com. All right, that's it everybody. Thanks for listening.Chris Erwin:The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter. And you could follow us on Twitter @TCUpod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali. And special thanks to Alex Zirin and Eric Kenigsberg from the RockWater team.
Adam Rymer — CEO at OpTic Gaming on 1980's Internet Nerds, Adapting to Napster, and the Future of Esports
Jul 7 2022
Adam Rymer — CEO at OpTic Gaming on 1980's Internet Nerds, Adapting to Napster, and the Future of Esports
This interview features Adam Rymer, CEO of OpTic Gaming. We discuss what he learned from running Harvard’s campus store, adapting to Napster at Universal Music, why entertainment doesn’t value innovation, being on Universal Pictures’ greenlight committee, scaling Legendary Digital and working alongside Chris Hardwick and Amy Poehler, how to create communities for gamers, why he plays Fornite with his son, and how to follow your own roadmap.Subscribe to our newsletter. We explore the intersection of media, technology, and commerce: sign-up linkLearn more about our market research and executive advisory: RockWater websiteFollow us on LinkedIn: RockWater LinkedInEmail us: tcupod@wearerockwater.com Interview TranscriptThe interview was lightly edited for clarity.Chris Erwin:This week's episode features Adam Rymer, CEO of OpTic Gaming. So Adam was born in Fort Lauderdale and was a self-described '80s internet nerd. That meant hanging out on internet bulletin boards and attending internet meetups at bowling alleys. His online passions paid off and he ended up going to Harvard after writing an admission essay, comparing entertainment dollars versus grocery store dollars. Adam's early career included Universal Music where three months after beginning his new role Napster was launched. And Adam had to figure out questions like, "What now? And who do we sue?" After rising up to the exec ranks at Universal Adam then struck out on his own to co-founder production company that worked on projects like the Rover and sci-fi hit arrival. He then became president at nerd and legendary networks where he helped build a multi-platform media business alongside stars like Chris Hardwick and Amy Poehler today. Adam is the CEO of OpTic Gaming, where he is helping to grow and scale one of the world's most exciting companies operating at the intersection of gaming and entertainment.Chris Erwin:Adam, thanks for being on The Come Up Podcast.Adam Rymer:Great to be here, man. Good to see you.Chris Erwin:Yeah. So where are you calling in from?Adam Rymer:I am in Dallas, been here about two years now.Chris Erwin:Are you in the Envy offices right now?Adam Rymer:We are. I moved here in the middle of COVID and we've been, believe it or not, working mostly in the office since I got here.Chris Erwin:Like to hear that people getting back to the office environment. Well, we're going to talk about Envy more, but actually want to rewind a bit, Adam. So going back a few years here, I want to hear about where you grew up and a little bit of what your childhood was like to see if there's any kind of glimpses into this media and digital executive that you've become.Adam Rymer:I am a Florida man. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale. Born in Miami, grew up in Fort Lauderdale, '70s and '80s which whatever anybody thinks about Miami and south Florida now is not what it was like when I was there. It was retiree paradise. And then the occasional spring break debauchery but of course, I was too young to really understand and appreciate any of it. So I just saw all these college kids coming in and thinking that would be awesome. And then by the time I was actually old enough to enjoy spring break, that it all gotten kicked out of south Florida and moved to Daytona and Cancun and wherever else. So missed out on all the benefit of all of it. But Florida was an interesting place to grow up in the '70s and '80s. Left at 17, never really went back, but definitely helped shape my desire to stay someplace warm for the rest of my life.Chris Erwin:Okay. So I have to ask you, what was your household like growing up? Were your parents into the same things that you're into now, media entertainment, digital gaming, gaming, what that looked like back in the day was very different, but what did your parents do and what were some of your early inspirations?Adam Rymer:My dad was a physician. He was an immigrant. My mom helped run the household. I had a younger sister who was six years younger than I. And so we were not overly close partially because of the age difference. And partially because we were just into different things, I was probably what you would call a quintessential nerd back in the day when it was very, very uncool to be a nerd. I got an Apple 2e when I was, I don't know, probably like eight or 10 years old and was goofing around on that with floppy discs and playing Zork and all the text base games and whatever else I could get my hands on. I remember connecting to BBSs back in the day. That was how I spent a lot of my free time.Chris Erwin:But BBS?Adam Rymer:Yeah. BBS was a bulletin board system. It was the modern, the old precursor to, I guess what you'd call like a social media network today. It was dial-in multi-communication platform where you could type and talk to other people and play games with people online, text-based games for the most part and south Florida, believe it or not, was actually the hub of some of the biggest BBS companies in the .country every now and then we'd go to meetups with people who were on these, these services, but you'd get online and play trivia and you'd play just chat with each other. And I guess back in the day, you'd consider it pretty weird. And today you just call it WhatsApp.Chris Erwin:So question, you said we would go to meetups. How old are you and who is we? Are you going with your parents or friends?Adam Rymer:Yeah. I was like 13, 14, and I'd have friends that would drive me around. We'd meet at like bowling alleys and family entertainment centers like arcades and mini golf places. And there'd be people from 14 to 40, but everybody was just connected through these online environments of being... At the time, I guess we were outcast and ostracized. And like I said, we were big old nerds.Chris Erwin:Were your parents supportive of some of your interests here with these meetups and the BBSs?Adam Rymer:Yeah, I mean, they didn't really know what was going on. For me, it was just a way to meet people and make friends and met some really interesting folks. Met some really odd, strange folks through it. Some people went on to greatness and do some pretty cool things. Some people faded off into obscurity. I think it definitely helped define and set my career in motion from being part of something that was just on the cutting edge of interactivity and technology. And 'cause there was a lot of steps to it, right. We had to, you had to get a 300-baud modem. You had to connect a phone line to it. You had to pay for time on the service by dropping off some money at a house or sending something in somewhere else. And I mean, it was really complicated, but we made it work. It was a weird time. It was like during the days of war games, if you remember the movie War Games, it was like that sort of universe.Chris Erwin:I've known you for years now. This is the first time I've really asked about your upbringing in your childhood. And within one minute, learn something completely new, but it makes sense. Everyone nowadays talks about how do you build community? How do you build fandom amongst different media brands, participants, creators, and users, et cetera? And you have now three to four decades of experience of building fandom on the internet. It's all becoming much more clear. So as you go to high school and then you're applying for college, what did you think that you were going to do?Adam Rymer:It's funny so we used to go to Disney World a lot in Florida, right? Because it's only about two-hour drive from where I lived. And I was always, I guess, kind of a weird business-focused kid at a certain level. I remember writing my college essay about Disney, but not about the cool entertainment factor of Disney about the business of Disney and how I found it super interesting that when you would go to someplace like Disney World, that you would be totally open to spending $8 on a Mickey bar ice cream that if you were just at a grocery store, you would totally freak out about highway robbery. You would just never spend that kind of money. And, I wrote my essay about like entertainment dollars being different from regular dollars. I did, I guess-Chris Erwin:So precocious.Adam Rymer:... I was a weird kid and at the time I was like, "I want to be Michael Eisner." Michael Eisner was my idol at the time not knowing a whole lot about anything, but knowing Disney and seeing how that was working, I was like, "That's my aspiration." Right? So went off to college. And at the time I was focused on engineering because as a nerd, geeky kid, I thought I was going to be an engineer, but within a year of college, I shifted over to being an economics major and really focusing more on business and really put most of my efforts into pursuing kind of game theory and business and economics.Chris Erwin:You went to Harvard up in Cambridge, right?Adam Rymer:That's the one. Yeah.Chris Erwin:So your essay must have been something special to get into that school. Right?Adam Rymer:God. To this day, I don't know how I got in. I'll tell you, I mean, it's my 25th reunion this year. I look around and I see other people from my class and I see kids today and I mean the quality of students and applications is just phenomenal. And to this day I count my lucky stars that I went there and got in there and survived. It was the hardest experience in my life. I can't even tell you, I felt overwhelmed half the time, lucky half the time. I mean, it was something.Chris Erwin:Well, if you're going to a reunion, my dad, I think is Harvard '70. And I think he's going to his reunion this year as well. So maybe you guys can bump into one another there. So you're at Harvard, you're feeling overwhelmed, but feeling lucky and grateful. And do you think you get more clarity on what you want to do when you're graduating?Adam Rymer:Yeah. Well, look, while I was there, I had my first real work experience. So we had this thing called Harvard Student Agencies. And what that is a bunch of student-run businesses on campus that are sanctioned by the university. And they let students sort of operate businesses through a platform that the university puts together. And I started out running something called the Campus Store, which basically sold futons and refrigerators and class rings and all the stuff you need for dorm rooms. And then my second year I became vice president of the organization. And one of the things that organization also did was produce the Let's Go Travel Guides, which might be a sign of another era, but it was books that you would use to go travel abroad and low-budget travel through Europe and other places around the world.Adam Rymer:And it was a team of hundreds of students that would write these books and go out and travel and run these businesses. And I did that for two and a half years of my time at school. And I found my time working and helping to run these businesses to be maybe the best education that I got over my time there. So by the time that I was graduating, I was pretty dead set on being in the business world, operating, trying to figure out some way to be an executive in some way, shape or form. Didn't necessarily know exactly what type of business to run. So I ended up going into management consulting, coming out of school because to me that seemed like the best landing spot, where I could get a sense of a bunch of different industries, bunch of different businesses, try to solve some problems for different companies and then figure out what I wanted to do from there. Or just do that for the rest of my life. Because from what I heard, that was a pretty cool thing to do.Chris Erwin:Got it. You go to L.E.K. Consulting in the late '90s. Was the experience what you expected it to be?Adam Rymer:So, so late '90s, I got to take you back a minute. I mean, at the time computers were still relatively, they weren't new, but they were not as useful as they are today. Everything was hard. The internet was slow. The amount of data that you had access to wasn't quite there, Google wasn't quite there. So I was building a lot of financial models. It was hard to do the research. We were printing things out on overhead projector slides for client presentations. PowerPoint was not as user friendly as it is today. I think I, when I started there, we were using Lotus 1-2-3, not even Excel. I was working probably 80 to 100 hours. I found the work interesting. I found the rigor interesting. I found the type of things we were doing interesting. I did not find the clients. I was working on overly exciting, and that was a big epiphany for me.Adam Rymer:I found it really hard to stay focused working for industries that I didn't have a passion for. At one point I was no joke... People say these things as jokes, I was working for a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, literally a company that made vacuum cleaners and I was helping them reallocate their sales force across the country. It was just hard. I was on the road and I was looking through maps and I was looking at different DMAs and I was trying to help them figure this out. I also spent a lot of time working in the biotech space, trying to look at different drugs that were coming to market and how they should be priced and talking to a lot of doctors and physicians about whether they would use the product and whether they would get approved by the FDA.Adam Rymer:And look, it wasn't my background. I mean, I purposely stayed away from anything pre-med I don't think I took any biology classes past ninth grade. The work was fun. The hours were rough, but not being passionate about the day to day subject was a real challenge for me. So about a year in, I was trying to figure out what was next.Chris Erwin:I hear you. I mean, I was a banker, right when I graduated from school undergrad. I think from like 2005 to 2010. And yeah, we were able to pull down 10-Ks and SEC filings, from the internet and able to get a bunch of financial information using Excel to create models. And I just remember all my MDs being like, "We used to have to get the 10-K's physically mailed to us." They didn't have Excel and they were doing modeling by hand on paper or in these really basic computer systems. And I was like, "Either that sounds terrible or it was better because you could just focus and do less." Where when you have access to technology your bosses just expect, "Well, you can work on five assignments at the same time." Right? You're equipped. But anyway, I digress.Chris Erwin:So then, okay, you do that for a couple of years and then I think you make a decision that instead of being an advisor and consultant, you want to go work for a company. You go to the line, quote, unquote, "some people say." And you go to Universal Music. So how was that transition for you?Adam Rymer:I mean, it was a magical transition for me. I mean, it was a happenstance lucky break for me and my career and the whole rest of my career, to be honest with you. And it goes down in something I think about still on a regular basis is having been a nerd. I mean, this goes back to the BBS story is I had built a PC. I was living in Cambridge. I was downloading the first MP3 files off the internet from really obscure search engines, like web crawler and LICOs. And I bought the first MP3 player that was ever made. And I would take this MP3 player to the gym and the use case for a portable MP3 player I found fascinating. The other options available at the time were a Walkman with a tape that you had to make a mix tape for, or a CD player, which for those who don't remember them, trying to get a CD player not to skip when you're at the gym or on a treadmill is almost impossible.Adam Rymer:And so I, part of me just realized like this digital music universe is going to be the way to go. This is just going to completely take over the future as the technology gets better. And I went to the consulting company I was at, and I said, "Look, we should sell a project to the music business and help them figure out the future of digital music, because there's no doubt in my mind that this is going to change the whole face of how the music industry works." To their credit they let me help work on selling that project and they successfully did sell the project. To not their credit they didn't let me work on the project.Chris Erwin:You can be the idea, the inspiration, create the pitch. And then it's like, "And you're off the team."Adam Rymer:So I left and that was the impetus for me leaving. I applied for a job at Universal and I was very fortunate to get an interview and then ultimately get hired to go join the strategy group at Universal Music in New York in, I think it was 1999, early 1999. It was a life-changing moment because the beginning in 1999 MP3 files and digital music was starting to be a huge subject of conversation. It was on the front page of USA Today. I was quoted in a bunch of things. It was something that everybody was talking about and knew was coming. But what nobody saw coming was Napster and Napster happened about three months after I got to Universal.Chris Erwin:Oh wow.Adam Rymer:So all of a sudden I was thrown into the fire with, it wasn't just me we had a team of people. But it was the, "Okay. Piracy is real. It's not going anywhere. How do we solve this?" Do we start suing the companies? Do we start suing our customers? Do we create our own technology? Do we create a subscription service, which is no joke, an idea that we presented at the time in 1999. What do we do? How do we solve this problem? Because it's not going anywhere and technology isn't where it is today.Chris Erwin:Follow-up question on that. Adam, did you feel that the leadership, did they understand the weight of the situation? Were they really panicked, very concerned or it's like, "This is an issue we should sort this out over the next five years, but take your time and be thoughtful." What was that sense inside the building?Adam Rymer:I'm going to answer that in a couple ways. I mean, this is a problem that I have seen throughout my entire career, which is that at traditional entertainment companies, the leadership is rarely incentivized to try to really innovate solutions to the biggest challenges that are in front of them. There's a lot of reasons for that. And I don't necessarily blame the leadership that's at these companies. A lot of them are publicly traded. They need to hit their quarterly returns. They're incentivized to hit those quarterly returns. Innovation is very rarely valued at these companies the way that it needs to be. Oftentimes they can buy innovation when they need to. Right? They're big enough. They've got public stock and if there's a startup, they can often buy the company that's going to solve their innovation problem. The difficulty in these cases is when you're dealing with something that's inherently illegal or theoretically illegal, you can't just buy the illegal thing and make that part of your repertoire.Adam Rymer:So the answer that was given was essentially like, "Look, let's let the courts figure this out." It was somewhat of a, "Well, obviously this is illegal. So the government should just stop this and get in front of it and shut it down because we have the right to sell music on discs and all these other things." And I think there was an inherent unwillingness to accept the fact that the consumers get to decide these things. Consumers get to decide how they want to consume content, how they want to live their lives. And ultimately it's the entertainment companies and the media companies who have to answer to the consumers on these things. And that's where I saw the biggest disconnect. And it wasn't just at the music industry. I've seen that through most of my career.Chris Erwin:Yeah. You were at Universal Music for about one to two years. So, and clearly had some early exposure to digital, but we're seeing that this is a theme from very early on in your career and your childhood. But then shortly thereafter you go to Universal Pictures. Why'd you make that transition? Did you feel, "Hey, there's a lot of inertia here, things aren't changing and I want to go to another part of the house," or was it something else? What was that catalyst for change?Adam Rymer:Well, for anybody who remembers the advent of Napster and piracy, also the crash of 2000 from a tech standpoint, just really killed the entire music industry. I mean, the music industry was cratering at that point. People were losing their jobs. Revenue was cut more or less than half very quickly. And I had an opportunity to go to business school. So I jumped and I decided I was going to ride out the storm of 2000 and everything else while I was in business school. And if there was still a music industry to go back to, I loved the music business. I would've gone back to music after business school, but between 2000 and 2002, while I was in school, the music industry kept falling. They couldn't quite figure out the solution. And I spent my summer at Universal Pictures looking at a another side of entertainment.Adam Rymer:So after school that turned into a full-time offer. My thought on it was the biggest challenge the music industry had was technology hit them like a title wave because the technology at the time had already caught up to the feasibility for music, meaning you could download a song in a reasonable amount of time to make it useful for the end-user, right? It only took a couple minutes, 5, 10 minutes at most to download a song, if not an album based on where technology was in 1999. When I graduated from, from school and went off to film the technology, wasn't there to download a movie, right? We were still a long way off from maybe not that long, but technology hadn't quite hit the film business in terms of feasibility for the piracy and the not having enough time to get in front of.Adam Rymer:So the way I saw it was this is an opportunity to get into the film business and try to help them stave off the problems that the music industry faced. How do I take the learnings from music and apply it to the film business and try to do some things differently here that we couldn't do there?Chris Erwin:You go there and you have a seven-year run and you end up rising to become I think the SP of digital for Universal Pictures where you're managing an international staff of, I think over 20 people across the US as well as London and Tokyo, if I'm right. Did you feel that at that point that you were coming into your own as an executive where you have a vision, you know how to solve problems, you know how to build the teams? And did you feel like that was a transformational moment in your career?Adam Rymer:I thought so. I thought so. It was the, "Hey, this is great. My career's really advancing. I'm at the senior levels of a major studio. I'm getting to present to some really cool people." I'm continued to have some really lucky experiences. Got involved in some very cool projects. I was always very much on the business side of it. I was pretty far removed from I'd say the creative side. It wasn't until the very end of my stint at Universal that I got put on the green light committee at Universal, which is where you actually get to have a say over which films get made at the studio, which was a pretty cool experience. Although it didn't last very long.Chris Erwin:How big is that committee and how much weight did your particular vote from the digital strategy side count?Adam Rymer:I'm not sure how much weight anybody's individual vote has, except for a couple of people on those committees. There's about 10 people on that committee across the studio. You've got home entertainment and marketing and production and the head of the studio and those kinds of things. It's fascinating. I mean, it's very kind of closed-door sort of, sort of setting very private, almost Illuminati-ish, but it was pretty cool to be in the room for some of it. But my job was to weigh in on what the digital and alternative revenue streams could be for the titles that we were working on. So things like video games, YouTube content, ancillary products. At the time we were talking about things like ring tones. What's the other stuff that we can do out of these films to generate revenue.Adam Rymer:And then I would be on the hook for delivering those numbers against the P&L for that particular title. It was pretty neat. And I felt like things were going pretty well for my career at that point, for sure. Now the downside was during my time there, we kept getting acquired. And for most people getting acquired sounds like it's a pretty awesome thing. Usually, there's like, "Hey, you got paid out. That's a big success, big exit." Well, in the big giant corporate world, those kinds of acquisitions usually get met with, "Hey, we're just kind of sitting on our hands for a while." So Universal was a big company. And when I started working for them, it was owned by Seagram. Then it was owned by Vivendi. Then it was owned by GE. And when I left, it had been acquired by Comcast.Adam Rymer:And we were always the acquired company, which meant that the acquiring company was taking their people, having them learn about the business that they were buying, meeting with everybody trying to figure out what everybody did, which resulted in a whole lot of work for all of us to educate them. And usually, that met with a whole bunch of reorganization and strategy redesignChris Erwin:Hey listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of the Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work. And it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it everybody. Let's get back to the interview.Chris Erwin:So, Adam, I totally feel you on if you're always the target and you're being acquired the reeducation of the new leadership. It's a lot. I mean, I remember when Big Frame was bought by Awesomeness TV and then Verizon, and then Hearst then invested thereafter, and then Comcast NBC U came and bought Dreamworks, which had owned Awesomeness. And there's always the strategic goal shift, the mandate shift there's reorganizations. And there's a point where you're just like, "I just want to get to work." And look, that's the nature of the beast, but was that a reason why after your seven-year run, you then started to explore entrepreneurship? You were the co-founder and COO and CFO of Lava Bear Films. And you did that for a few years. Was that the reason why you made the switch?Adam Rymer:Yeah, look, I mean, there were management changes and to be honest, I had been part of a very big company where I was an employee number. I still remember my employee number to this day, which says a lot, and it was an eight-digit number. So I was just a little tired of being in that kind of structure and part of me who likes solving problems and actually making things happen and not having a whole lot of red tape. There was an opportunity in front of me. The chairman of Universal had left and had an opportunity to start a film production company and asked me to help him put the business plan together for it and raise some capital and go after it. So I thought it would be a great chance for me to not only learn how to start a company from scratch but also learn about the other side of the business, the creative side of the business. How do you actually make content from start to finish?Chris Erwin:Well, you must have been doing something right at universal if the chairman leaves and wants to bring you on board to his next venture, right?Adam Rymer:I would hope so. I would hope so.Chris Erwin:So you're there. You learned the creative side of the business, which I think is, I've talked about this on a few podcasts, right? Usually, in entertainment, you're either on the business side of the house or on the creative side of the house. It's rare for people to speak both those languages. I think of people maybe like Bob Iger or David Zaslav at Discovery in Warner Media. Right. So it's smart to build out that muscle and I think that you are an executive producer on The Rover and you helped finance the movie Arrival?Adam Rymer:That's right.Chris Erwin:Produced by FilmNation and [inaudible 00:28:25] and Glen Basner and they're good friends of ours.Adam Rymer:Great guys.Chris Erwin:Yeah. They're the best. And so you do that for four years and did you see like, "Hey, maybe there's a world where you stay in the creative side of entertainment?" Was that interesting to you?Adam Rymer:Look, it was an amazing experience. I always wanted to see how the whole sausages gets made from start to end and really got to do that. I was going around to film festivals. I was reading scripts. I was handling some of the talent deals. I was negotiating a lot of the financing for the films. We were selling the projects internationally. We were dealing with the studios. We were looking at the marketing for the films when they came out. But for I'm sure you've talked about this on some other podcasts the filmmaking process is very long and very slow. And so for me, it was I like being on the creative side of the business or having involvement on the creative side. But I don't know that filmmaking was the place for me to explore that in the long term, because I'm so used to being in areas where things move very quickly, right?Adam Rymer:Even the music business moves relatively quickly. And on the digital world, I was watching things happen. Snapchat was starting to happen and Twitch wasn't quite there yet, but YouTube was really starting to take off and there were all these other things that were happening in the background. And I just felt like I was missing some really cool, innovative opportunities that were going on. So I had an opportunity to go join Legendary, which was at the time a pretty cool independent studio started by Thomas Tull. They had made Godzilla and Hangover and King Kong and 300. And he asked me if I would help them build their digital businesses over there.Chris Erwin:Was it an immediate yes? Like, "Oh yeah, this makes sense. This is an incredible studio with some incredible IP. There's a lot I can do here. Let's get to work." Or were you evaluating other things too?Adam Rymer:I wasn't evaluating other things. And it was pretty hard decision because you this was a company that I had helped start and I was a pretty big piece of, but the opportunity and it was a blank slate. I was kind of handed a, "We don't know what the right answer is and we need somebody who's got enough experience on both sides of the equation here that understands making some content, understands distribution, understands the business side of it to really help us figure out what we should do with this asset that we have." They had just acquired Nerdist and just didn't have a solid business plan on how to start making real revenues out of it. So for me, it was a puzzle to solve right back to the things that I love, which is trying to put pieces together.Adam Rymer:At a certain level the film business has a very defined path, right? There's not much to solve in that. There's always new innovations that are getting made. There's new ways to finance a film. But for the most part, the business model of making movies is relatively defined. You might say that Netflix has changed that in some way, shape, or form, but there wasn't a whole lot of, "How am I going to do this for the next 20 years and innovate and do some neat things?" And at Legendary, it felt like there was a real chance to try all sorts of new ideas.Chris Erwin:When you enter their first year, they've acquired Nerdist and I think that was... Was that founded by Chris Hardwick?Adam Rymer:Correct? Yep.Chris Erwin:And so what did you think of, okay, these are the wins that I want to get in year one. I think that we are capable of doing this. It also feels innovative. And then I think it's going to set you up to have an exciting career overseeing digital at Legendary going forward. What was that first mandate for you?Adam Rymer:First thing was really figuring out how are we going to generate consistent revenue? Because at the time the video part of Nerdist was founded as one of the funded YouTube channels. Some people might remember that YouTube was putting a lot of money into funding channels for the purpose of creating more premium content on YouTube and right around 2014, they stopped funding those channels. And so a lot of these channels ended up in no man's land of figuring out how they were going to keep their business running. And so for me, the first step was okay, well, now that we don't have this stipend coming from YouTube every year, how are we going to find ways to just generate consistent revenue even if we're still operating at a little bit of loss, something that we can project to keep it all moving. So at the time we had the Nerdist podcast and we had some content that was existing on YouTube, and my first step was, well, how do we start monetizing podcasts in a better way?Adam Rymer:So I was able to take Chris's podcast and structure a deal with Midroll and that helped get us really kicked off with our first seven-figure deal, which let me hire some more staff and start to figure out some new lines of business.Chris Erwin:Did you feel like, "Hey, we figured out a digital revenue model here for media brands and fandoms built around big personalities"? And so did that then inspire you to say, "Well, let's start buying some other companies to add onto this roster"? Because I think you then acquired Geek and Sundry and then Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party.Adam Rymer:That's right. So the idea was, well, if we can create enough of scale around these celebrity-driven community content businesses, then we can justify having an infrastructure that can support all of them the right way. So that allowed us to have a sales team that could support all of them, and start doing branded content deals that could leverage the communities that were built across all of them simultaneously bring some staff efficiencies together, and allow content production to be more efficient. So we had our entire... We had our own content production team. We had our own studio where we produced all of the content that we're making for the YouTube channels ourselves and for our branded content features. And ultimately that led us to start a Twitch channel with Geek and Sundry, which is where I started to learn quite a lot about Livestream.Chris Erwin:So do you feel at this point it's like, "All right." You're attached to a big studio, you have a lot of resources, you have incredible IP to work with, but you also, you're running your own division, which has its own P&L. It seems like you're on both the creative and the business sides of the house, where you have a real strong point of view of what content we're creating. How do we monetize it? What's getting green-lit? What new platforms are we experimenting with? You're building out a team against your vision. Did you feel like, "Hey, I feel like I have it all right now"? This is checking all the boxes for my career.Adam Rymer:In hindsight, I guess so. I mean, at time it felt very stressful. At the time it felt like we were building the plane while we were flying it. And there weren't a whole lot of examples for us to point to say, "Hey, we're doing it like these guys," or we've got somebody else that's done it in front of us. There were the MCNs out there that were aggregating a bunch of channels together. And they had a somewhat different business model, but there was nobody who was really trying to create more premium level content on a regular basis. And I mean, I had to answer to a pretty senior studio executive. So I had a lot of pressure from that side, but I did have the luxury of a good balance sheet. So I wasn't having to deal with trying to raise capital on a regular basis to keep the thing afloat.Adam Rymer:There was a couple years there where it really felt like the coolest, most fun job that I ever could have thought I've had. We were going down to ComicCon. Chris was moderating panels for us in Hall H. Got to go backstage and hang out with the cast of all the Marvel films before they got on Hall H. we had all sorts of fun people coming by the studio to be in the content, got to watch and be part of a lot of the content that was being filmed at our location. I think most of the people that were there at the time will tell you that it was a pretty magical place to be for a couple of years.Chris Erwin:I mean, I remember going to your offices a couple times during that period and just looking around at the different sets and the studios. And I was like, "This sounds like a pretty amazing gig, Adam." I knew that you were working really hard and that it was a lot and you were kind of figuring things out on the fly as you said, but I think everything in retrospect, you get some clarity of like, "Oh, that was a pretty cool moment." You know? And I think that was a very cool moment for you. And clearly, you learned a lot, which has bolstered your career. But I'm curious to hear you so you started experimenting with Twitch. I think that's just an interesting precursor to some of the channels and the partners that you work with today, particularly in gaming, similar to when you saw the power of MP3s when you were up in Cambridge.Chris Erwin:And then you saw how that was going to disrupt the music space. When you were first exposed to Twitch, did a light bulb go off on your head and say, "Hey, there's something incredibly exciting about the power of live?" What was that moment like for you?Adam Rymer:I'll be honest. I wasn't the biggest, "Hey, we're going to figure out how to monetize this immediately live streaming." I was the suit in the room on it. I had some people from Geek and Sundry come to me and they said, "We think that we can create a channel for Geek and Sundry and stream different kinds of content, just do some stuff out of our office. And we will minimize the cost that it takes for us to do it and we'll give it a shot. And they did it and they got it up and running and they spent as little as they could to create a set and livestream and got a bunch of equipment donated. And it was okay. And Felicia came on and streamed with it and that helped build an audience for it. And it was programmed. I mean, the thing that was most interesting about it was it actually had a schedule.Adam Rymer:There were shows that were on certain times of day, certain days of the week, it was a live-streamed TV network. Maybe one of the first of its kind. It started to gain some traction, but it was when Felicia brought in her friends at Critical Role to stream their Dungeons and Dragons game that we really started to see the magic of what live-streaming could be.Chris Erwin:What was unique about bringing Critical Role in live-streaming Dungeons and Dragons? What did you feel was special for the audience or to help amplify marketing? What was that?Adam Rymer:Well, I mean, what was amazing about it was it found a community that never had a place to call home. So most of Twitch was watching people play video games. There was some what you'd call today, just chatting going on, which is mostly what Geek and Sundry was. There was some game playing, but nobody was really streaming D and D at the time or doing things that were a little more creative like that in a meaningful, well-produced way. And all of a sudden this show found a home and started to spread by word of mouth and it had some great talent attached to it, right? Everybody who's on Critical Role is professional voice actors in their own right. And so they brought a level of confidence to it that don't think many people have seen before. And Matt Mercer's just a genius as a DM at the end of the day. So giving this community, which is spread out around the world a home one day a week, where they can all get together and share an experience at the same time, really became a magical place to be.Adam Rymer:So Twitch loved us because we were bringing in a community that wasn't necessarily there naturally again, because most of Twitch was more based around video gaming and the D and D community loved it because it was giving them a place that they had never had before. It was a little bit like lightning in a bottle.Chris Erwin:It just goes back to, I think I was listening to a podcast by Ben Thompson a couple weeks ago. And I think a point that was made is never underestimate the ability of the internet to reach these incredibly niche fandoms all around the world. There is interest in anything at a minimum, at least one person will be into something if you put it out there. But I think Dungeons and Dragons has this massive community and like you said, but they didn't really have a place to call home and you guys created that for them. I think that was just like so beautifully articulated. I love that. So you're doing your thing at Nerdist and Legendary you're there for five years, but then at the end of your five-year run, you go into this exploratory phase where you're advising a few different companies.Chris Erwin:I think you're reimagining cinema with a company called WeVu. And I remember being in your living room, having some brainstorm sessions around that with a few mutual friends, shout out to Adam Sachs. And then you end up as at the CEO, as of Envy Gaming, a big bet on the gaming space. How did that run come to an end? And then it kicked off. I'm going to make a bet on the gaming space. What did that look like for you?Adam Rymer:Sure. So Legendary sold to a big Chinese company called Wanda and I'll make it a short story. It was just the fit for me at the new version of the company wasn't quite the same as it was under the previous leadership. So I left and started advising companies that I just thought were really interesting and cool out there. Did some work with [inaudible 00:40:44]. Did some work with Participant. Did some work with ranker.com, other friends of mine that I had known over the years that I just had a chance to really help out here and there. And then out of the blue, right before COVID hit, I got a call from a recruiter about this position with NB Gaming. And as I've said, I've been a gamer geek nerd most of my life. And I've been paying attention to what's been going on in the gaming and Esports space for a long time.Adam Rymer:At Universal, I was responsible for all the video game work that was done. We had produced a couple games while I was there. We looked at buying a big video game publisher while I was there. So the video game space wasn't totally new to me, but the video game lifestyle space was a little bit new. And I had been following the growth of Twitch, the growth of what you'd call the celebrity influencers and creators that were emerging on the platform. And I had seen some of these Esports organizations. I hadn't necessarily known of Envy at the time, but I did know of a couple of the other ones that were out there. And I saw the potential, right? I saw the early days of a new form of brand and community entertainment, which was emerging on Twitch and other platforms because it was interactive. And when I started meeting the people that were here at Envy, it really felt like the next phase of innovation for me.Adam Rymer:And if you think about the path of my career, which has always been trying to find where's that edge of entertainment and technology and consumer behavior music with Napster and film with digital distribution and Nerdist with community-based content. This really feels like the edge of the universe at the moment, in terms of where the community is starting to emerge, where you've got a new generation of people who are not watching traditional television. It felt to me like this is a place to plant my flag for a while and see how I can help this develop.Chris Erwin:So you end up moving. You were based out of LA. Your family was in LA but the role was in Dallas. Did you just move there full-time in the beginning or were you commuting like four days a week in Dallas? And then back to LA on the weekends?Adam Rymer:I moved here to Dallas in the summer of 2020 having never met anybody at the company in person because we were all working from home. And my family stayed back in LA because of the pandemic. And I would fly back home every two weeks to see them. And we did that for about nine months while my kid was finishing the school year. It was an interesting time to be away from home and in a new city that I knew absolutely nothing about. I had never really been to Dallas before. I knew nothing about the city.Chris Erwin:Did you take on the role without ever meeting anyone from the founding team, the leadership, or the investor group in person? It was all Zoom calls and then you signed on the dotted line?Adam Rymer:Yes.Chris Erwin:Wow. That's a big decision.Adam Rymer:Yes. That's how convinced I was about the future of this space and also the people that were involved with it. So the interesting part about that period of time is I have a son who at the time was eight years old. And the way that he and I would stay in touch and I think this is telling to the future of this space, the way he and I would stay in touch while I was living in Dallas and he was in LA is we would play Fortnite together. Several times during the week I would get home from work, we'd both load up Fortnite and we'd put on the cameras. And while we were playing Fortnite, we'd catch up on how school was going and what his friends were up to and how he's doing. And that to me was the whole reason why I'm in this space.Adam Rymer:Because yes, we were playing a game and we were shooting people and we were like having a good time, but it was really just about us spending time together and talking to each other and interacting with each other. And that's what I think we're going to remember at the end of the day and not what skin we were wearing or any of that kind of thing, which to me shows how gaming is just the natural way of interacting and communicating for people today.Chris Erwin:That is so cool. I mean, I think about from our generations like Gen X and Millennials, oh, early memories of your father, it's like going fishing together, right. Going camping. And I think that your son, right, these like Gen Alpha, their memories will be like, "I remember when we used to play that old game Fortnight and we used to talk and catch up about our what was going on in school." It's just going to be a whole transformation of memories of childhood and with their parents, you know?Adam Rymer:Absolutely.Chris Erwin:I love that. We always say for us, you need to be where your clients are at. Tell our clients to don't resist or to be forceful. And I really like you're meeting your kid where he's at. If you look at the stats, we just did a big research project for a toy retailer of where are parents and kids independently and then also as a co-viewing unit spending their time online. It's on social media and it's in these big gaming environments, like Fortnite, like Roblox, like Minecraft. So I think that's pretty smart parenting, Adam. I am not a parent, but I think that it seems like smart parenting from afar.Adam Rymer:Absolutely. It's a new world. I keep trying to explain to people who are in a, I don't even want to say older generation, right because I don't feel like I'm old these days, but I'll just say anybody who's Gen X and older, we tend to use the word gamer, right? As like, "Oh, there's gamers." People are gamers and it's a misnomer now. It made sense for our generation because gaming was such a new thing for people to do. Not everybody had an Xbox, not everybody had an Atari. Gaming wasn't a natural course of business. But for this new generation, for the younger generations, asking somebody if they're a gamer is like asking people in our generations, if they listen to music or if they go to the movies.Adam Rymer:Well, you might talk to people and say, "Hey, what TV shows are you watching?" And there might be people who say, "I don't watch TV" and you're going to say, "Okay, well, that's strange. I mean, most people watch TV." But in this generation, I think we are increasingly reaching the stage of saying, "What games do you play?" Not, "Are you a gamer?" Because to me that is the given for this generation.Chris Erwin:I love that. Such a poignant point. Couple quick questions before we go onto our closing rapid fire. But when you got in there, I remember I'm like, "Adam, so what's your initial focus there?" And I think that you had a point of view like you've done at your other companies of what is the 360 monetization model? How do you take these teams, these players... How do you build media brands around them? How do you build fandoms? What is the talent-driven model to really take this business to the next level? If you could just tell our listeners what your initial re-imagination and growth vision for the company was in year one.Adam Rymer:A lot of it is applying principles to it at a certain level. What we do, isn't very different from other forms of media and entertainment that I've been involved with. And other people have been involved with in the past, which is we have a brand that has stature and meaning and association. It has a community around it. And through that brand and through the content that we create, we reach our users, we reach their eyeballs. It helps our brands and advertisers reach their eyeballs and it helps us connect with them. And so that's no different from any other form of media, whether that was magazines back in the day or television, or filmed entertainment, it is at a certain level. It is reach and it is scale. And so when I came in here first, it was really just understanding the dynamics of the industry.Adam Rymer:Where does monetization happen? What platforms does it happen on? How do we actually get in touch with these people? What kind of data is available? But then it was what are the assets that we actually have and what levers can we pull and what is our programming? So when you start thinking of the brand and your programming, you start saying to yourself, okay, well, I've got teams and I've got content creators, and I've got original programming that we put out. And you start looking at the pieces of your organization as what reach to each of those pieces have. So I've got this team and they play a certain game. Let's call it rocket league. Well, what audience does that rocket league team bring to me? Where are those people from? What demographic is that group of people? Are they mostly in the US or are they mostly international?Adam Rymer:What age are they? What states do they come from? What do they care about? What brands and industries are they interested in? And then I've got our call of duty team. Same thing. What reach do they have? Switch over to our content creator side. Okay. Well, if I'm going to bring on a new content creator, what's the audience that I'm getting from working with that content creator? It's not overly different. I mean, it is, there are differences in nuances, but if you are Discovery Channel and you're thinking about filling the 8:00 PM slot on Thursday, well, what are you going to put on in that 8:00 PM slot? You don't want to put on something that overlaps with another show that you already get that audience from. This is the whole definition of programming. It's the same reason why Game of Thrones and Westworld aren't on at the same time for HBO. They sequence those things because they want to optimize the programming and make sure that people stay subscribed to HBO for a longer period of time.Adam Rymer:So understanding your audience, understanding who's coming in, understanding the reach that you get with the assets that you have available starts to get the company thinking about us as a media property. And once you shift your mindset to thinking about it as a media property rather than necessarily a sports team, you start to build business processes around that in a different way. And that's what we're focused on at the moment.Chris Erwin:I don't think I've heard a smarter encapsulation of a media strategy than your past couple minutes, Adam. So very well done. So I'm curious in putting that strategy in place, just over the past almost two years, what are some of your favorite moments of some wins with the team? I was reading on LinkedIn. There's the Valorant Championships and the Green Wall, the Fandom really coming alive, having over a million concurrent viewers of the competition. Is that one of them? Are there others? What has that been for you?Adam Rymer:To start with our Call of Duty team won the CDL Championship within a month of me being here at Envy, which was mind-numbing. It's like, imagine joining the Chicago bulls five days before they won the NBA Championship, right? It's that kind of thing. And all of a sudden you've got a ring and you've got a trophy and you've got all this stuff and you barely started to understand what this world is all about. It was a pretty phenomenal moment. It was an amazing way to get indoctrinated into the space and get excited about it all. So now I've got a championship ring that's sitting in my office and that was a pretty fun, pretty fun moment. But yeah, about a year later, we merged with OpTic Gaming, which some of the listeners might know is one of the biggest, most passionate fan bases in the world when it comes to gaming and Esports.Adam Rymer:And that has been like wildfire for us. Hector Hex, just an amazing individual who's knows how to work with his audience and knows how to create content, and knows how to bring the audience into the brand in a really phenomenal way. And he's been educating us on a bunch of things that we didn't quite understand, and we've been working with him on some of the monetization things and just really couldn't have put two better organizations together. So within two months of bringing those organizations together, we won the Valorant Championship in Iceland, which is, as you were mentioning, had over a million people watching it. And just again, just another one of those too picture-perfect of a moment for us. Great memories that we're going to have forever.Chris Erwin:That's awesome. A final question for you is what's next for Envy gaming? What should people be watching for in some of the upcoming announcements, some new business initiatives? I think I was looking at from your team, there's some new virtual character immersion like CodeMiko. I'm pronouncing that right? Maybe some web three activations. What are you working on right now?Adam Rymer:What I think you're going to see out of us over the next year is really continued expansion of optic from a brand perspective, in terms of the areas that we're in. Just really trying to explore new ways to reach our fan base and build communities. I think the whole world of Web3, and I think a lot of people talk about Web3 without necessarily... I'm not saying I'm an expert in it, but I don't think a lot of people quite understand some of the dynamics of what makes Web3 different from Web2. And the biggest thing to me about Web3 that makes it different is community. If you don't have a community tied to some Web3 initiative, then you're missing it. I'll give you an perfect example. Web2 is about user acquisition on a one-to-one basis.Adam Rymer:So you've got a game like Candy Crush and you spend 50 cents to bring somebody in to Candy Crush and they spend a $1.50 on the game. You've made a dollar in profit and you can just keep doing that cycle all day. And you find new ways to bring more people in and you get a huge user base. There's a community that maybe gets formed online on Reddit boards and whatever else talking about Candy Crush, but the community is not an inherent part of what makes Candy Crush successful. In Web3 it's a little bit different. Web3 is if you bring somebody in, if you spend 50 cents to bring somebody to your Web3 platform and they get there and there isn't a whole community for them to connect to, they're going to leave. There's nothing for them to do. The community actually makes your project valuable.Adam Rymer:So in game terms, it's like bringing somebody in to play Fortnite, and they're just sitting in the queue, waiting for the game to start. And because there aren't 90 other people for you to play the game with, you're just sitting there and you're just waiting and waiting and nothing happens. And so it doesn't matter how much you spend on user acquisition, you didn't get your value for it. So we're going to be spending a lot of time on how do we build our community in new ways? How do we get the information about who our community is? Where do they live? What are they looking for us to do? How do we bring value to them? And how do we find partners that want to provide value back to our community? So how do we find those really interesting partnerships where we can take the Green Wall and OpTic and Envy and work together with those platforms to create really interesting dynamic opportunities together and not try to just have everything operate through our own vertical.Chris Erwin:Well said, something that we talk about at RockWater is the sense of valuing your community and communal ownership. I think that there's been a lot of literature over the past, call it year, particularly as you look at the building of different game franchises, where these users, their engagements, all the dollars that they spend on the games, all their engagement that can drive advertising revenues, right? And in-game purchases, the value that they create for a few stakeholders or investors or game owners, and it really gets siphoned to just a few. So the question then becomes, "Well, how do you reward the community for all the value that they're creating?" And I think there's actually a much bigger win there where if there's more of that two-way street, in terms of value sharing, the overall pie gets a lot bigger and everyone can win. And so I think that's a really, really smart mentality.Chris Erwin:Adam, I'll close it out with this before we get the rapid-fire. I just want to give you some kudos here. I think we were first introduced when I was probably at Big Frame and Awesomeness. So this is probably around maybe like 2015 to 2017 timeframe.Adam Rymer:Wow.Chris Erwin:And I know dating us a bit. And I just remember when I met you, you were running Nerdist and Legendary Networks at the time. I was like, "This is a guy who's a super sharp operator." He totally gets it. He's got both sides of his brain activating. I very much thought on the business side, on the creative side, I thought you really understood talent. You knew traditional entertainment, you knew digital. And I thought you were a very, very special mind and operator. And I remember when you were in your, what I call here in my notes, the exploration phase. So like after Nerdist and before you went to Envy Gaming, I think there was a period where you are wondering what really excites you. What's really going to get you going. And I think a lot of things that come across your plate that you weren't too thrilled about. And I just knew, I mean, I don't know if I ever shared this with you the right thing's going to come across Adam's desk and he's going to crush it. And it's going to be a really exciting moment for his career. Now I look back at all the success that you've had with Envy over the past, less than a couple years, and I am not surprised whatsoever. And I can't wait to see what you do there over the next two to three years. So I wanted to just share that with you.Adam Rymer:Thank you, my friend. It was definitely an adventure after leaving Legendary. There were points where I felt like I just needed to take something for the sake of taking something. I will wholeheartedly recommend people holding out for as long as you possibly can to find the right thing that feels right. If you can. Obviously don't sacrifice your family in your future and all those kinds of things. But if you can find the right thing, it definitely pays off.Chris Erwin:Very well said. All right, Adam. So we're going to get into the rapid-fire six questions. The rules are simple. It is short answer one sentence, or maybe just a couple of words. Do you understand the rules?Adam Rymer:I think so.Chris Erwin:All right. Proudest life moment?Adam Rymer:Birth of my child.Chris Erwin:What do you want to do less of in the second half of 2022?Adam Rymer:Less stress, more outside.Chris Erwin:Less stress, more outside. What one to two things, drive your success?Adam Rymer:Paying attention to everything going on out there.Chris Erwin:Advice for media gaming and Esports execs going into the remainder of this year?Adam Rymer:That's a tough one. Bear with the downside. There's still a huge opportunity in front of all of us, but manage this downside economy at the moment. And there's a bright light, but follow the path.Chris Erwin:Got it. All right. Last couple. Any future startup ambitions? Can you see yourself starting something from scratch in the future?Adam Rymer:For sure. Never a shortage of ideas that I've got. In fact, I think it's probably maybe a problem that I have. I am hopeful that I'll be launching something again sometime soon. We'll see. We'll see. if you got any ideas, send them my way, but yeah, definitely be starting some things soon.Chris Erwin:I think you got enough on your plate. I'm going to hold back on sending you too much, but maybe in a few years time. How can people get in contact with you?Adam Rymer:I'm pretty easy. It's Adam@Envy.ggChris Erwin:Adam. This was a delight. Thanks for being on the podcast.Adam Rymer:For sure. Great to be here. Let's do it again sometime.Chris Erwin:All right. That interview was just awesome. I don't think I've interviewed anyone in the gaming space yet to date. And I stand by my point that I think Adam is one of the sharpest minds that's operating at the intersection of content community in commerce. He's been in the business for a really long time who really understands the business fundamentals. And he's got an incredible set of stories. So a real gift to have him on the show, very excited for what he continues to build with OpTic Gaming. Okay. Also, as many of you know RockWater is market research and strategy advisory for the media technology and commerce industries. We've just introduced a new offering, which allows us to work with more partners. It's called RockWater Plus. It's an offering for companies who want an ongoing consulting partner at a low monthly retainer yet who might also need a partner who can flex up for bigger projects.Chris Erwin:So we've worked with a large range of companies from big and small. Big Fortune 50 like Google and YouTube and big cable networks and studios like Viacom, CBS, and Warner Media to a variety of digital publisher, upstarts and retail brands, and more. So with Plus, we do a variety of things. We can have weekly calls to address any immediate business concerns that you have. We can set up KPI dashboards that allow you to make database decisions around how to best operate and grow your business. We can do ad hoc research, ad hoc financial modeling. If you're doing market sizing need to do P&L forecasts or valuations to assess your business before you go out to investors and so much more. So if you're interested in this and you think it could be helpful shoot us a note at hello@wearerockwater.com. And then lastly, we always love any feedback on our show. If you have ideas for guests for just feedback on the format, shoot us a note at TCUpod@wearerockwater.com. All right, that's it. Everybody. Thanks for listening.The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple podcast and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter. And you could follow us on Twitter @TCUPod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali. And special thanks to Alex Zirin and Felicity Huang from the RockWater team.—Ping us anytime at hello@wearerockwater.com. We love to hear from our readers.
James Creech — Paladin CEO on Selling to Brandwatch, Influencer SAAS, and Recasting Success
Jun 9 2022
James Creech — Paladin CEO on Selling to Brandwatch, Influencer SAAS, and Recasting Success
This interview features James Creech, SVP Influencer Strategy at Brandwatch and founder of Paladin. We discuss how former GE CEO Jack Welch inspired James to be a number one category leader, using his down payment on a house to start Paladin, his make or break pivot when the creator economy evolved in 2018, working till 3AM over Christmas to sell his company, why James and I are kindred spirits, and the power of recasting your success.Subscribe to our newsletter. We explore the intersection of media, technology, and commerce: sign-up linkLearn more about our market research and executive advisory: RockWater websiteFollow The Come Up on Twitter: @TCUpodEmail us: tcupod@wearerockwater.com---EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:Chris Erwin:Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.James Creech:Thomas and Ole and I all put considerable capital into the project. To put that in perspective, at the time, Thomas was getting married. His fiancé, she was amazing to say, "We believe in this dream, and we want to put that money that we would have saved for a big, nice wedding with our family and friends towards investing in this startup." I had been saving to buy a house, so I took essentially a down payment on what I would do to buy a house and said, "I'm all in on the business." Every penny to my name and probably even some I didn't have like went into Paladin. Then, Ole had recently gone out and bought a Tesla. He ended up driving back to the dealership and returning the Tesla, so he could take all of that money and put it into Paladin. So, every single one of us was all in from day one.Chris Erwin:This week's episode features James Creech, SVP influencer strategy at Brandwatch and founder of Paladin. So, James was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in Bakersfield, California with parents who worked in oil and gas. Early on, James was a creative. In high school, he made sketch comedy videos with his friends and thought film and TV was his future. So, he went to USC Film School and ended up running the college TV station, but soon realized that he really enjoyed and was good at the business side of entertainment. His career started at a video advertising startup, where he helped scale the team to over 40 employees, but then moved on to Bent Pixels, which started as an early YouTube MCN.Chris Erwin:While there, James took a big bet on launching a technology SaaS product for the early creator economy, which he ended up spinning out and leading as CEO, until its recent sale to Brandwatch just a few months ago. Today, James leads influencer strategy at Brandwatch and stays busy on the side, advising over 10 different companies and publishing content on his podcast and blog. Some highlights of our chat include how former GE CEO Jack Welch inspired James to be a number one category leader, when he used his down payment on a house to start Paladin, his make or break pivot when the creator economy evolved in 2018, working till 3:00 AM over Christmas to sell his company, why James and I are kindred spirits, and the power of recasting your success. All right, let's get to it. James, thanks for being on The Come Up podcast.James Creech:Hey, Chris. Thank you, excited to be here.Chris Erwin:This has been a bit of a long time coming. I think I was on your podcast a year or two ago, and I said, "James, I'm going to have to get you on mine someday." And, we're finally making it happen. When we were doing the prep, I just got even more excited, because I realized just how cool and exciting your story is. So, excited to share that with the listeners, and as always, let's rewind a bit. So, we're going to go back. Tell us about where you grew up, what your household and what your parents were like.James Creech:So, I was born in Houston, Texas, but grew up mostly in Bakersfield, California. So, I always tell people, "You could probably guess what my parents did for a living, right?" We worked in oil and gas. So, I spent most of my life, yeah, in Bakersfield, from ages four to 18, essentially. My childhood was great. I have a younger brother and sister. We're a close family. We had the chance to do a lot of traveling when we were younger, which was fun. I remember soccer practice and tennis and Cub Scouts, mock trial. We were involved in a lot of activities, and our parents were very much a part of those activities and the stuff that we enjoyed as kids.Chris Erwin:Quick interjection, how far did you get in Cub Scouts?James Creech:To the end of Cub Scouts. Never made it to boy Scouts.Chris Erwin:Did you achieve the Webelos badge?James Creech:Yeah, I was a Webelos. I think that's about as far as I made it.Chris Erwin:Nice. I did one up you a bit. I got to Eagle Scout with my twin brother.James Creech:Congrats. Wow, that's a huge achievement.Chris Erwin:It's a lot of work. Back to you, so grew up in Bakersfield, had some younger siblings. Early on, what were your passions? What were you into? Was there any glimpse into the career that you have today?James Creech:I think when I was a kid, I used to tell people what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be the governor of California. I don't know where that came from. I don't know that I have any sort of interest or passion in politics. I think as I got older, I would say I lacked the moral flexibility to pursue a career in that field, but was interested in politics and government early on. Somehow, that morphed into maybe being interested in law and going to law school at a certain point. I was pre-law at USC, so that was certainly a passion. I ended up doing the mock trial, as I mentioned, and then interned at a law firm and realized, hey, a lot of love for the legal profession, a lot of great friends who are lawyers, et cetera, but that probably wasn't the path for me.James Creech:In high school, the thing that really captured my intention was making videos with my friends, essentially comedy shorts. It's interesting, the timing, right? I was inspired by SNL and all these other amazing sketch comedy programs. Had I been a generation later, let alone maybe even five years later, the videos I made probably would've ended up on YouTube and now TikTok. But, because of the timing, I just made videos with my friends, and we made DVDs and shared them with our friends and family. But, it wasn't any sort of big distribution.Chris Erwin:It's never too late, James. It's never too late.James Creech:Yeah. There's an archive of a lot of old, embarrassing footage somewhere.Chris Erwin:Yeah, IP libraries are in high demand, high valuation. So, there could be something there.James Creech:So, that's what I was doing and figured, okay, well, I'm interested in media and entertainment. I applied and was accepted into the USC Film School and thought, okay, I'm going to go into film production, right? Fast forward a little bit, and I realized in college, well, I'm way more interested in the business side than I am in say the creative or the technical side. The stuff I liked doing in high school with my friends was making videos, which was really more about the experience of being together, less about the filmmaking process. But, yeah, that was kind of the early days.Chris Erwin:Yeah. So, I have to ask, what was your role in doing these sketch comedy or sketch segments? Were you a director? Were you a writer? Were you an actor? Was it all the above? And, I also want to hear, if you just have an example of one of the things that you guys did, I'd love to hear about it.James Creech:Oh, boy. So, I was an instigator. A ringleader is maybe the right word. We did all sorts of stuff. We were filming on these really small handheld cameras. I would certainly come up with sketch ideas and get my friends involved. We would shoot them. I would edit them. We would share them. There's plenty of stories that I can tell you, many of which are maybe too embarrassing for the podcast. So, we'll save that for a beer sometime, but one that definitely stands out is we kind of faked this kidnapping of our friend. He had a new girlfriend. He was really invested in that relationship, not spending as much time with our buddies. So, I said, "Okay, let's go to his house one afternoon, dressed all in black like ninjas," and his parents knew. We gave everyone a heads up, but we went in and kidnapped him for the day, which was a lot of fun. So, that's probably one that stands out.Chris Erwin:It's funny, hearing you tell these stories. So, I just started listening to This Is Important Podcast from the crew of Workaholics. They started just by making different sketch videos. They were filming wrestling matches in their backyard. Just hearing about some of their stories and how they started, and then they talk about, yeah, and then we sold the show to Viacom. How did this happen in Comedy Central?James Creech:Yeah, I wish that was the journey, was certainly inspired by Derrick Comedy and some of the other early, early YouTube sketch groups. We didn't get that far, right? It was fun to run around in our backyard and make videos, and that's where it ended for us.Chris Erwin:Yeah, cool. All right, so you get into USC Film School in 2012. I believe that you end up with a marketing and poli sci focus. But, tell us about you showed up at school. What was your initial focus? And, then it seems like it pivoted as you started to understand that you realized the appeal of the business side of entertainment, versus the creative side.James Creech:Yeah, so I went to USC, 2008. So, it was right around the housing crisis, financial crisis, which I don't know, as an 18 year old, you're fairly oblivious to. But, I was passionate about filmmaking. I was excited to be in the film program, also in the poli sci school. So, I was kind of running this dual track of, okay, well, I'm earning my political science degree, but I'm also taking these film courses and think that's what I want to do after I graduate. I got involved at the college TV station, called Trojan Vision, which is the largest TV station in the country. We broadcast to over a million homes, and I just kind of fell into it and fell in love with it. So, I was a producer on a show my freshman year, worked hard, got promoted to senior producer, second semester.James Creech:I was like, "Hey, I really like this TV thing. I like being involved at the station, meeting other students," applied for a staff position the next year and became an executive producer of a show. Okay, my first experience running a show, working in live television, it's exciting. It's the adrenaline rush of making something go on the air Monday through Friday. Through that experience, said, "Okay, I like the organization of the show, coming up with new ideas." We were experimenting with new technologies like HD broadcasts and live remotes and stuff at the time. So, I was like, "Okay, I'm excited about this," and people kept saying, "Maybe you should take some business classes." And, I thought to myself as a sophomore, well, hey, no. I'm doing the film path. I've got political science. I don't know what the business thing's about.James Creech:But, luckily USC has a very flexible structure and approach to curriculum. So, you could kind of dabble and take a couple classes. So, I said, "What's the worst that could happen? I'll take a business class or two," found out right away, hey, this is where I should be, and ended up transferring into the business school as a junior. So, I'm taking these intro 101 classes surrounded by freshmen. So, I had a very different mindset, let's say, going to the business school. I'm really excited to be here. There are certain things I want to learn. I'm finding ways to apply this over at the television station. I had been promoted to the general manager, so I was running the whole station at this point, which is a real budget.Chris Erwin:That's a lot of responsibility at a young age. What you said, it's one of the largest college broadcast stations in the US, and you're going ... Is there live programming Monday to Friday? That's a big deal.James Creech:Money through Friday, yeah, hours and hours of content. I was working essentially a full time load, basically 40 hours a week while going to school. But, I loved it. I loved every minute of it, creating television, working with students, and making something out of nothing, and putting it on the air every night, sometimes better, sometimes worse. But, I loved it.Chris Erwin:Okay, so you start taking these business classes, and right away, you're like, "This is a good fit." Then, what are you starting to think about what you want to do when you graduate?James Creech:Between my junior and senior year of college, I got an internship at Blizzard Entertainment. I grew up as a gamer. I wasn't necessarily a desktop gamer. I was more of a console gamer, but loved the opportunity to get exposure to another form of entertainment and work in a bigger company and try to decide what was right for me. So, as I was going through that process, had a great summer internship experience, came back, and had the opportunity to say, "Do I continue as the general manager of the TV station one more year as a senior?" But, kind of realized, maybe it was time to pass on the baton. So, it was hard to say goodbye, but I ended up getting another internship opportunity at this ad tech startup, this company in LA that was helping brands and media agencies promote video content on YouTube.James Creech:This was pre TruView, very early days, helping to make videos go viral. I was just, I guess, really interested in social media, but also, a USC alum was the COO. She was hiring. It was close to campus. It paid. I'm interested in this career path, but also it checks a lot of the boxes as a student that I want to make sure it's a good fit. So, I fell into that internship opportunity and just got hooked right away on the adrenaline rush of working in early stage companies. So, meanwhile, I had been recruiting, trying to figure out what do I want to do after I graduate. I had out law school or becoming a lawyer from my internship opportunity. I realized, okay, I'm more interested in the business side, so I'm gravitating towards that.James Creech:I like this startup company I'm working at, but I had always thought of myself as going into corporate America. So, I did recruitment on campus. I was offered a job to do business consulting and move to New York, which was kind of my dream. I was very excited as an almost 22 year old getting ready to graduate, moved to the Big Apple, and have this, what seemed like a really exciting, glamorous job at the time with travel and everything else. But, long story short, fell into working at Channel Factory, this ad tech startup, loved the team and the mission and the opportunity. They convinced me to stick around, so ended up declining the offer to do consulting and stay on the startup trajectory.Chris Erwin:I think what I'm starting to see here is you're on a unique path where you have both the creative know how and understanding, as well as the business savvy. That's very rare in Hollywood, right? I think of people like Bob Iger at Disney that has both of those sides of the brains, but it's a pretty rare profile, which probably explains a lot of the success that you've had in a very young career to date. Okay, so you go to Channel Factory, and what do you focus on there? Because, it seems like you start at the company when it's pretty early on, and they're on a really high growth trajectory. And, you facilitated some incredible wins there. Tell us about that.James Creech:Yeah, it was ground floor, right? It was in the founder's living room, essentially. We were building a business out of thin air, which was enticing to me and kind of felt similar to live TV production. Okay, there's this excitement. There's this adrenaline rush. You can have a big impact. So, I was basically the fifth employee, came in as an operator, doing a little bit of everything, strategic projects, built out ad operations group, hiring, training, commercial ops. I ended up working quite a bit coaching and supporting and at some points managing some of the sales team.Chris Erwin:This is all in like your young mid-20s, right? Because, you just listed off a lot of different things.James Creech:Yeah. We were all young, for the most part at that time. We were early 20s. It was a young company. It was an exciting opportunity in an early stage of the business. We ended up, of course, bringing in some more senior experienced folks, but there was this meritocracy to an extent, this excitement for youth and passion. So, we were all kind of figuring it out as we went along, and I was this person who didn't know anything going into it, but was just excited about where the company was going and the type of impact that I could have. So, we grew that business to whatever, 40 plus people, and close to or exceeding eight figure revenues. We opened offices in New York and Chicago. It was this wild ride for two and a half years, so learned a lot of lessons, both good and bad.Chris Erwin:Can you elaborate on some of those lessons?James Creech:I learned a lot about how to treat people, right? I didn't always agree with the founder and the leadership at Channel Factory. I had some great people that I learned from and supported me. Then, there were certainly some differences of opinion at times. I would say the other thing is it taught me a lot about the type of leader that I wanted to be and the type of business that I wanted to build one day. It's instructive to learn what not to do sometimes, as it is to learn what to do. But, I got great contacts and relationships. A lot of the people at Channel Factory have also gone on to do some amazing things, many of whom have become very talented entrepreneurs. So, it was this kind of amazing talent pool and this breeding ground for incredible individuals who were passionate about digital video and making an impact on the space, and that's been exciting to be a part of. There were certainly some things that we did really well, and being a young company, made a lot of mistakes, myself included. And, you learn from that and keep going.Chris Erwin:I love what you said. I always repeat this in interviews. It's very important to learn what not to do or what you don't like. In the beginning of my career where I was an investment banker, I worked with some incredible people and developed some incredible skills. But, there was also a lot of experiences and things that I was exposed to that I really did not enjoy, I thought were not good influences to the rest of my career. I consider that very valuable. When I talk to young people that are emerging from the undergrad and entering the workforce, it's this thought of, I have to nail my first few jobs, and that sets up everything for me. The answer, no, I don't recommend that.Chris Erwin:Try new things and experiment, and if it doesn't go well, that's totally okay. And, you're going to learn from that. That was some of the most valuable experiences for me. So, I like what you just said there, James. I think that's spot on. So, after a few years there, you then end up at Bent Pixels, where you also realized some great wins for the company. So, tell us about some of the work that you were doing there and how this set you up for your first big entrepreneurial venture, which is Paladin.James Creech:So, I entered Bent Pixels as an operator. That's what I had done at Channel Factory. The company at the time was a multichannel network in the heyday of MCNs, right? So, there was this time of excitement around Maker Studios and Fullscreen and Awesomeness TV, and Machinima, this early wave of digital disruptors helping YouTube talent grow their audience, monetize their content, figure out the early stages of influencer marketing, and what now we've grown to know as the creator economy. But, this was ground zero, right? You remember. You were there, too. So, this was the very, very early stages of what these future digital businesses were going to look like.Chris Erwin:And, tell us exactly, what did Bent Pixels do specifically? Were they a software platform for the early creator economy?James Creech:They did three things, right? They were a traditional YouTube multichannel network, so they provided services to YouTube channel owners and creators to help them monetize their content. They offered digital rights management services, so they would help IP rights holders monetize and enforce anti-piracy against their content on YouTube. So, they were using the content ID tools and additional manual services to help manage those content libraries. Then, they did audience development, so they were doing channel management and audience growth for brands that wanted help with their YouTube presence, so not unlike Fullscreen, Maker, many others at the time, right? So, when we came in, Bent Pixels was probably a top 30 global MCN. It was probably in the top five for rights management. I don't know, hard to say where it fell in the audience development or channel management services business, just because so many people were trying to get into that space.James Creech:We were doing all of this and facilitating it through technology, right? So, when I came into the business, I mentioned I started as an operator. And, I looked around, and I said, "This business doesn't need operators, right? We have a very capable COO, a general manager." I was looking for ways to do process improvement, cut costs, or optimize systems. There just wasn't much of that to do. The company was profitable and growing, and it had been fairly well managed, right? Well, what the business needs is growth. That's completely new to me.James Creech:I don't really know the space I was coming from, I say is the demand side. I was working with brands and media agencies, and all of a sudden, I kind of end up on the supply side, right? Now, I'm working with talent and content creators. This business doesn't really need all of the skills that I necessarily have historically had. So, we've got to figure this out, right? So, I just reached out to as many people as I could in my network and then through LinkedIn and said, "Hey, I'm curious to learn more about this space. Are you up for getting together for coffee or having a conversation?"Chris Erwin:This is very interesting. What was your primary networking tool? Were you using LinkedIn back in the day for this?James Creech:I was super early to LinkedIn, and I would just reach out to people. I would say, "Hey, I think what you're doing is really interesting. I think this space is early on. There's probably a lot we could learn from each other. Are you open to meeting for coffee or jumping on a call?" And, you'd be surprised, so many people said yes, especially all over the world, right? I was meeting people in Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific. It was this amazing opportunity to meet these other entrepreneurs who were like, "Yeah, everyone's early. We're all trying to figure this out. What are the things that are working for you? What are the challenges?" So, it was a lot of just connecting and sharing and learning from one another. But, obviously LinkedIn has changed a lot, A, over the years, B, post-Microsoft acquisition. But, in those early days, I was a young, snotty nosed kid, very earnestly trying to meet people and be helpful to the extent that I could. And, people were very kind to share their time and experience with me.Chris Erwin:I love that. You and I were actually just talking about this, I think, on LinkedIn. I just started a 30 day LinkedIn challenge. I think LinkedIn is one of the most powerful social networking platforms for professionals, hands down. I've been pretty active on it for the past few years, but our team is definitely ramping up our investment in it in terms of the type of content that we're creating. We've been doing a lot of experimenting, as well as the cadence of content as well.James Creech:Which is amazing. I can't wait to follow your content journey. I did something very similar in 2021, where I wrote every weekday, and it was such a stretch goal. I learned a ton from it, which we can talk about at some point, but I love LinkedIn, very supportive of the platform's evolution into becoming more of a content destination, and like you said, showcasing professional stories and helping people connect. It's getting back to some of those early roots of what it helped me pursue in my career.Chris Erwin:I love that. Well, maybe we'll have to do a mini series of a podcast about LinkedIn best practices. So, you start reaching out to all these different contacts across the world, focused on how do we share mutual learnings, and how do we grow? So, what did you learn? Then, what did you take from your learnings and apply to Bent Pixels?James Creech:So, what I kept hearing was everyone was facing similar challenges, especially as we tried to figure out how to scale. You have to remember at the time, people were focused on initially hundreds of creators. Then, it became thousands of creators. At the highest levels of Maker, Awesomeness, we were managing tens of thousands of creators. Bent Pixels had tens of thousands of YouTube channel partners that they were supporting. This was before YouTube had the infrastructure tools, resources, support to help those creators themselves. So, MCNs were the first line of defense. The demand, the excitement for the space was so dynamic that it was this gold rush mentality, this exciting time of help and enable as many channel creators as possible.James Creech:So, we had been building some software internally at Bent Pixels at the time out of necessity to figure out, okay, how do we find the right creators? How do we manage those relationships, pay them accurately and on time? Eventually, that would become, how do we manage branded content projects with them? Everyone else was doing the same thing. They were trying to build tools in house. They were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. How do we take Salesforce and DocuSign and all these other tools off the shelf, stitch them together into this Franken-suite, and hope for the best? And, it was expensive, and it wasn't working. So, I kept hearing this, and I thought to myself, well, hey, if everyone's facing the same problems, and we're building what to me feels like a pretty good software solution for this, that should be the business, right? I was a big acolyte of Jack Welch back in the days. I would read a lot of his books, this legendary CEO and leader of GE.James Creech:One of the things that stuck out to me is, if you're not one or two in a category, you should cut it, right? So, it just occurred to me at every leadership meeting, I was like, "We have an opportunity. There's this untapped market potential to build software for this new breed of creative companies, and no one's doing it right. So, we should be first to market. We could be a leader there. It's great that we have this profitable growing business, but we're never going to win, right? We're not going to be one or two in the category. We're going to be ... Maybe we move from 30 to 20 or five to three, right?" So, I was advocating for that. Now, the way it was perceived on the other side is, well, wait a minute. We've built this business, at that point I think over five or six years. It is growing. It is profitable.James Creech:All these other companies have raised massive VC investment. They have a lot more resources. We're happy with our business, and we want to keep developing it, but we're not going to bet the house on James's crazy idea, right? They were advocating, hey, let's get into paid media. It's what a lot of other people are doing at the time. There's a big opportunity. I had that background from Channel Factory. So, they kept saying, "No, forget about that. Focus on paid media." I don't know. I was persistent, probably very annoying, young naivete, saying, "I really believe in this idea. Just give me a shot." They shut me down a few times and just said, "No, let's focus on the paid media thing."James Creech:Until, finally one day in some leadership meeting, with the support of our CTO Ole at the time, they said, "You know what?" I think maybe just to shut me up, "Okay, fine, right? You can have two months, 60 days. Give it a shot. Let's see what happens, right? And, if it doesn't work," which they fully expected it wouldn't, "After the field experiment, we'll go back to focusing on paid media." And, I said, "Sounds like a fair deal to me, right? I'll take that bet." So, in those next two months, I signed Maker Studios, Defy Media, Me Too, Networks, and 2btube, which would later go on to become the largest Spanish language creator community in the world. So, all of a sudden, they said, "Wait a minute. This is really interesting. We didn't think you would sign a customer, let alone four of the top players in the space. This is absolutely what we're focusing on, and you should do this full time."Chris Erwin:Did you have to evolve the technology product to service these clients as well as reposition your services to actually close these prospects? So, you had to do both, because you didn't have a technology background before this. You hadn't built tech products. You weren't a project manager, but you had to become this for this new role, correct?James Creech:Yeah. I am passionate about technology, had never been in product, had been adjacent to it, but said, "Yeah, we've got to figure this out." We built a software application that's meant for internal use. We have to figure out access rights, provisioning, white labeling, to make this an externally consumable tool. We need to figure out how to price it. We have to figure out how to sell this to our essentially competitors, right? We were working with these companies that were also in many respects offering the same services or going after the same talent. So, in some conversations, that was a bit awkward, right?James Creech:It said, "Well, how do we know that you're not going to take this data or use this technology to better your business and not ours, right?" So, that was a tricky thing to dance around and navigate. Huge props due to our technical team, Ole our CTO, [inaudible 00:25:56], a lot of our early engineering design product resources who were making this thing happen behind the scenes. I was out there kind of selling the dream, but they were the ones executing on this. A lot of it was just need finding, listening to the market. What do you need? Does the current tool in some form serve that? How do we adapt it to fit what you need? And, what else should we be building in the future so that we can help you get there?Chris Erwin:Hey, listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work, and it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it, everybody. Let's get back to the interview. It's interesting, because just listening to this story, one version would be ... And, James builds this incredible business at Bent Pixels, and he does that for the next 10 years of his career. But, the reality is that actually, you're there for a couple years, and then you found Paladin. So, after this initial two months of success, what actually caused you to say, "Hey, I want to break out and create a different suite of technology tools for the creator economy?"James Creech:So, I think in success, we got even more excited and probably a bit persistent on my idea that, okay, this is really working. We're now signing more and more customers. We're going to put more resources into this. Now, we are the market leader. We're first to market. We're building a name for ourselves in this category. People are rethinking the perception of Bent Pixels as a software company, as a technology vendor, whereas to creators, there's still this brand identity around being an MCN, being a services business, being a media company. But, I'm kind of casting Bent Pixels in this new light and trying to position or change the branding to be this enterprise software tool. Meanwhile, that business segment is growing. Engineers are expensive, so we're adding a lot of headcount to service the need and the customers.James Creech:It got to a certain point where I'm still advocating, hey, let's sell off or shut down the other business units, because look around. A number of other acquisitions had happened. Awesomeness was acquired by Dreamworks. Maker Studios sold to Disney. There was all this M&A activity happening. So, I'm like, "Okay, it's probably a good time to think about what does an exit look like for the media business?" Then, we can focus. We can really double down on this technology play. So, I was advocating for that. The rest of the leadership team said, "It's very clear that you're passionate about this. We don't necessarily all share the same vision or belief in that strategy, but obviously, the way you run a media company and a tech startup, a high growth tech company, require different fundamentals, principles, capital. So, maybe these businesses should live on their own, right?"James Creech:So, that's when the idea was floated that we should spin it out, right? So, it was at the time myself, Ole, our CTO, and I had convinced my good friend and partner in crime, Thomas Kramer, who worked with me back in the Channel Factory days. So, he and I kept in touch. We would catch up and talk about a lot of these challenges. I said, "Would you come over here and lead product for us?" He got excited about that vision and that opportunity, so it was really the three of us advocating for this opportunity. Initially, I was kind of resistant, to be honest. I said, "No, like, I think this is where the business is going. We should focus on this." Ultimately, saw the light that, yes, okay, we should separate these companies.James Creech:For a long time, I wanted the software business to continue to be called Bent Pixels, and that maybe the media company should rebrand as something, Millennial Studios. There were some other ideas that were floated, but after whatever, six months of back and forth and working it out cooperatively as a team, we decided, okay, Thomas and Ole and James will basically buy the software IP and spin out and form a new company, and then will rebrand it, come up with a new name. Bent Pixels will continue as a customer of Paladin, but there will not be any formal relationship between the two businesses. I wanted to be very clear that Paladin is its own company and eliminate that conflict of interest idea. I think Bent Pixels was very happy to say, "Okay, we can offload these expenses from developers and sales people and everything else off our books, focus on our knitting, and get back to the growth of the media business." We worked that all out to happen April of 2016. So, that was when we took the leap and said, "Okay, we're going to set out on our own."Chris Erwin:Did you raise outside capital to give you and your two other founders the ability to purchase the software, purchase the IP, and kickstart what you called Paladin in April, 2016?James Creech:We didn't. We thought about it, but the way we originally structured the deal was Thomas and Ole and I all put considerable capital into the project. Then, some of our partners from Bent Pixels also came in as angel investors. They said, "We like you guys. We believe in what you are doing. We want to support you." So, they were kind enough to give us a little bit of seed capital to help us get through the early days of burn and very kindly help us figure out how to set up our books and transfer the employee leases and all these things that as first time entrepreneurs, you have to figure out. So, they were very helpful and kind and patient with us. But, Thomas and Ole and I were pretty much all in.James Creech:So, to put that in perspective, at the time Thomas was getting married, and he had promised his fiance this amazing wedding. She was amazing to say, "We believe in this dream, and as part of starting our life together, we want to put that money that we would have saved for a big nice wedding with our family and friends towards investing in this startup, right?" So, that was Thomas's contribution. I had been saving to buy a house, so I took essentially a down payment on what I would do to buy a house and said, "I'm all in on the business."James Creech:Every penny to my name and probably even some I didn't have like went into Paladin. Then, Ole has the best story of all, was living in Norway. He's Norwegian and had recently gone out and bought a Tesla, right? Because, he loved the sustainability mission. He loved electric cars, this beautiful new vehicle, right when they had first come out, 2016. He ended up driving back to the dealership and returning the Tesla, so he could take all of that money and put it into Paladin. So, every single one of us was all in from day one.Chris Erwin:Dude, this is wild, because typically, VC backed founders, if the founders have a new business idea, they will mitigate the risk by saying, "Okay, I'm going to contribute a significant amount of my time, right?" It could be a few years in building out this venture, but they're not putting in their own capital. They're going to get capital from third parties, venture funds. Then, that capital is going to be at risk. You are essentially doubly invested with your time and your own savings. But, I think what that means is that you probably had so much belief in what you are building that you wouldn't have done it otherwise.Chris Erwin:I think that belief is clearly very powerful, and for all of you guys to have had that, where you have Thomas contributing his wedding funds, and you have Ole contributing his Tesla funds, and you're even getting from former Bent Pixel employees, angel investment. I think that shows there's really something there. It's almost like with those dynamics, it would've been easy to raise venture capital, because they would've looked at the founders and said, "Oh, my God, their gumption that this is going to happen is so powerful, we want to be in." But, probably better for you guys, because I know you will tell the story of how you sold the company. You guys owned the majority of the equity. I had never knew that story, James. I never knew those dynamics around your business. That's incredible.James Creech:Thinking back to the time, imagining how I felt, I remember being 25. Your goals and your priorities at 25 and whatever, early 30s, are very different. But, something inside me just said, "We have to do this, right? We have the right team. It's the right time. It's the right opportunity." You look at the data. Most successful entrepreneurs are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, right? They've had-Chris Erwin:The average entrepreneur is older than 40.James Creech:Right, and they've had time to build a network. They've had experiences, failures along the way. I had not thought of myself as an entrepreneur up until this point, but something just tugged at me where I was like, "I can't imagine doing anything else." Although I had historically been very risk averse, I was just like, "We can't miss this, right? We have to do it, and we have to do it now. And, if it means going all in, if that's what it takes, then yeah, let's do it. There's no better time to do it than when we're young." So, having that conviction, which I think again is a lot of ... We didn't know any better, right? We were just hoping for the best.Chris Erwin:Which, actually I think is a good thing, to be delusional. You have to be delusional as an entrepreneur. The odds are stacked against you.James Creech:Big time.Chris Erwin:And, you are delusional, but it worked in your favor.James Creech:Yeah, exactly.Chris Erwin:So, you start the company. All right, you all contribute your capital. Paladin is now a thing. So, what are the first steps? Do you rent an office together? Is it, okay, we've got five new hires that we've got to make? What did that first year look like for you?James Creech:Yeah, terrifying, right? You've just jumped off the cliff, and you have to figure out how to build the airplane. Everyone was excited. I don't know if other people were nervous, but we had engineers. We had sales people. We had product folks who were working with us.Chris Erwin:What was the total team size from the beginning?James Creech:It was small. I want to say it was eight to 10, right? We had three founders and then the engineering team and then some of the business folks in LA. We had an office. So, we continued to rent the office. Basically, everything that was in Los Angeles became Paladin, and Bent Pixels had historically been based out of Las Vegas, so they just kept their operations. But, yeah, we had the office lease. We had all these salaries and payroll we had to be responsible for. So, all of a sudden, it's a lot of responsibility overnight to take eight plus people's livelihoods into account. We were losing money every month, right? We're looking at the burn. We knew we had to sell like crazy to just get out of the hole. Our reserves were not very high. We're talking about, we started this business with a few hundred thousand dollars, not any sort of big investment and no VC capital. So, it was all our money and very quickly needed to figure out, okay, how do we make this thing work?Chris Erwin:What were some of the early proof points where it was, okay, this thing is going to exist for more than just six months? What were some of those early wins? And, did you ever think about raising venture capital?James Creech:So, we sold like crazy in order to get to the break even point, and that was 100% of my time and energy in those early days. I think one of the biggest turning points was closing Awesomeness TV. So, I was working with a lot of your former friends and colleagues, Matt Levin, Parker Jones, Kelly Day, also worked a lot with Jen Robinson, the CTO. This was the first six figure deal that we closed as Paladin. I'm trying to remember if that's true. Maker Studios, I think also ended up being a six figure deal, but I think the original commitment was smaller. So, when I closed the Awesomeness deal, it was the biggest customer we'd ever signed. It was like, wow, we're a real business all of a sudden, that this huge venture backed company is going to make a bet on this small startup and offload a lot of its cost. Awesomeness was spending significant sums of money and engineering headcount on these processes at the time.Chris Erwin:Awesomeness spent a lot of money back in the day.James Creech:And, look, they were managing probably the largest network in the world at a certain point, 90,000 creators. We said, "We want to come in and make that easier for you." I think in many respects, we could. Jen Robinson and others saw the opportunity and believed in us and worked really closely with us to make that happen. But, that was absolutely a turning point of, okay, we're signing, as customers, some of the biggest players in the world. They're making this bet on us, and these are real contracts with real budget behind them. That was certainly a turning point.Chris Erwin:This is great to hear, considering the current macro-economy that we're going into, right? So, we are recording this podcast in the middle of May. We have faced, over the last quarter, the 1.4% decline in GDP in the US. I think there's a lot of signals of the global macro-economy slowing. Out of China, there's supply chain issues, rising interest rates, inflation. You name it. I say all of this, because companies are going to need to start thinking about ... I think access to venture capital is going to become a lot more challenging.Chris Erwin:So, what's the best form of capital? It's revenue, and it's having a business that works. So, you guys, that was your approach in 2016, which is, if we're going to finance this business, we're going to create a product that meets the market need, and we're going to sell it successfully. Then, so you closed some big deals like Awesomeness. So, that early validation must have been very rallying the team, and we got something here, right? So, it seems like that success continues for a bit. But, then there's a point in your business where you were telling me a pivot had to happen, right? So, kind of tell that journey from that founding. You have some initial success like the deal you just mentioned, and then what is happening until you realize something's got to change here?James Creech:So, first of all, I love putting it in context, because at the time, people would ask us, "Oh, are you venture backed, right?" As if that were a sign of stability, right? We would do info-sec evaluations through Disney, through Viacom for Awesomeness. People wanted to make sure we weren't going to go out of business tomorrow. I remember thinking to myself, yeah, I would tell people kind of jokingly, "Yeah, we raise money from our customers, and we call it revenue. We have this different model. We're bootstrapped. It's very unusual," and people got a kick out of that. But, to me, it was, okay, we got over the hump. Now, we're break even, profitable. We're reinvesting everything back into the business. So, we closed the deal. We hire another engineer. We hire a new salesperson. But, you had asked, did you ever entertain the idea of raising capital?James Creech:We did. Probably the most serious thought we had around it was we looked at potentially acquiring Epoxy. I don't know if you remember those guys back in the day. They had raised a significant sum. They were great entrepreneurs with a good idea that was probably just a few years ahead of their time, backed by some of the biggest VCs here in LA. I think they raised something like $8 million and just were having a tough time figuring out the business model. This was before people thought, well, can we get creators to pay for anything? And, I really liked Juan and Jason, and they introduced us to Mark Suster at Upfront. We spent a lot of time together, saying, "Does it make sense for Paladin to get an additional capital infusion and then acquire the Epoxy asset and turn it into an enterprise product?"James Creech:We figured we have relationships. We know how to sell this. For a variety of reasons, we decided not to proceed, and it's a shame. They ended up selling the business to someone else, but that was the most serious discussion we had around it. The business certainly changed significantly over the years, right? So, in those early days, we were primarily focused on helping multichannel networks and other digital businesses, so talent management companies and agencies, figure out how to manage digital talent. First, it was YouTube. Very quickly, it became a multi-platform world. So, it was Vine for a little bit, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. Then, you have things like Twitch come on the scene, and obviously later in our history, TikTok. So, the business was becoming much more multi-platform. The YouTube MCN business evolved significantly, right?James Creech:There were phases or stages to that business, but it became very clear that the 1.0 model of mass aggregation and monetizing off of the passive AdSense revenue was a bit of a dinosaur, and the new business model was focused on branded content and paid media and other incremental ways to build a business around the creative portfolios that these talent were were producing. So, we knew our business needed to change to keep up. The biggest signal was influencer marketing, right? If you looked at, well, how are creators making money, sure, they make millions of dollars a year in YouTube AdSense revenue, but there's this enormous opportunity from brands in branded content.James Creech:Then, of course later on, we'd see e-commerce, but at the time, we said, "Okay, we need to build tools to help our customers and ideal future customers support this activity. So, let's build better influencer identification and discovery tools. Let's build a much more robust CRM for not just agencies, but for brands. Let's think about creating sales materials, because people are spending so much time generating pitch decks, right?" I remember running influencer campaigns, and it was, okay, go ask the influencer for screenshots and put that into a PowerPoint presentation. Email it over to the client, and then they're going to ask for revisions.James Creech:You go back and forth, right? Why don't we just tap into the social APIs, pull all that data on demand, and create this robust real time reporting around the campaign, so that, A, you deliver better results, and B, you can actually monitor and optimize campaign performance in real time. So, that was really the direction that we started to go, was saying, "Okay, as much as we still want to support these customers and this opportunity, we're slightly modifying our strategy, and we're adjusting course to go pursue this influencer marketing opportunity, because it's brands and agencies figuring out how to work with creative talent in the digital economy."Chris Erwin:Got it. That was a big pivot that happened around what time, James?James Creech:Around 2018, 2019.Chris Erwin:And, so did that cause some real friction at your company? Did you have to rethink, hey, do we have the right team? Do we have the right sales strategy? Do we have the right relationships? Do we have to rethink how we're doing coverage? Do we need to build new products and services? And, do we have the right director of engineering to do that? So, what were some of those big key decisions that you had to work through as you pivoted the business?James Creech:Well, certainly, changing the identity and the branding of the business a bit, also the product offering, right? So, again, going back to need finding, what do the customers want? How do we build that out? It's easy to build something for one customer, but how do we build something for hundreds or thousands of customers? And, what is the right team composition that will help us to get there, right? It's classic innovator's dilemma of, well, we're still very dependent on these existing customers and their business needs. And, we want to continue to support that. But, at the same time, we need to be investing in this new direction. And, there were some hard conversations and hard decisions that came about from that, right? Some people on the team were very excited, made the transition easily. Other people said, "Maybe this is my stop on the train, and I'm going to get off and pursue other opportunities."James Creech:Other people were excited about the direction and couldn't make it work, or performance started to slip as we shifted strategy. So, you have to make some tough calls, but the team worked really hard through that time period to help us change course. It's not the most dramatic pivot in the world, but it certainly felt like a big shift at the time. It didn't happen overnight. We've got this North Star. We're going to move towards it over the course of 12, 24 months. And, I remember we got our entire team together in Poland. We've historically had a big operations center for engineering in Kraków. We brought the whole team in to Poland and said, "This is our vision. This is what we're going to build together." I think that was really energizing, to harness the energy of everyone and say, "We have this shared mission and objective. Here's why we believe it's going to drive business value, better opportunity." And, it wasn't easy, but certainly was the right choice to start to move in that direction.Chris Erwin:I like that a lot. We had a team reflection last week, and we're realizing that just having run an advisory business for five years that has gone through a rebranding and a transformation in the last couple years, as we're entering this new macro-economy and just also thinking about who are the clients we work with when we provide certain services? What feels great and is right in our wheelhouse, versus what feels like we're stretched or doing something different? And, there was a big kumbaya moment where we came together. To better service our clients in the industry, we need to really rethink things. It was some tough conversations, but when you just face it head on, and then you empower your team and be like, "You guys are all here for a reason. What are your ideas for how to fix this? And, how do we all rally behind that?"Chris Erwin:And, it was a very powerful moment. I'm saying that, because it feels like when you had this conversation with your engineering team in Poland, you have to face this stuff head on. There's certain people, like you said, this is their stop on the train, and they're going to get off. But, for those that it's the right fit, keep going forward. That's best for everybody. I particularly feel very reinvigorated after this conversation, and I see this incredible potential for success going forward. I have a much smaller business than what you have. Did you feel coming out of that, you're invigorated, you're excited? And, did you have that same feeling when you first founded Paladin of, we got this, we're going to crush this? There's no doubt in the world. Were you feeling that?James Creech:I wish I could say yes, but I don't think so. Founding a business and running a business is an emotional journey. I'm so privileged to have two amazing co-founders, because sometimes you have a bad day, or you lose sight of what you're building towards. They can help lift you up, and vice versa. But, there were some tough times around 2018, 2019, where we were making this change, because the environment, the business conditions around us had changed. We realized we needed to do something to continue to grow and to survive. Again, I started the business with youthful idealism and ambition. Sometimes, we set really high goals for ourselves, and we don't always live up to them. I'm still very proud of what we built and how we had done it, but it's easy to move the goal post on yourself.James Creech:So, looking at that time in our journey, I remember we were committed to figuring it out and moving forward. But, I have to tell you honestly, there were some very tough times in those years of ... Are we doing the right thing? Are we making the right choice? And, are we going to get through it? Because, it was really challenging. Once it started to work, absolutely, it felt amazing, right? Things really started to click in 2020, and I had more passion and enthusiasm for the business than I had back in 2016. It re-lit this fire in us of, okay, we got through the hard work, the two years of making this change. We see where it's going. We're rebuilding in this new direction, and it's fun. We're hitting our stride. Everything's growing really quickly. We're bringing on new customers, new team members. We're winning, and that's the exciting part. But, in the slog of making that transition, it wasn't always fun. That's for sure.Chris Erwin:I hear that, but I think you're right. There's just something as an entrepreneur and a founder and a CEO. You have to trust your gut. Are we having fun? Does this feel right? You can have all the KPI dashboards in the world and follow all the numbers, but there's just some intuition that's really important. As I reflect in my career, there's moments where I can specifically say I felt differently about a business decision, and I didn't listen to my gut, and it was a major miss. So, as a business owner, now I'm listening to my gut more. I want to be a database decision maker, but I think instincts are very, very valuable when you have to pivot and move quickly and also really energize your team. I hear that.James Creech:You need both.Chris Erwin:You end up selling the company to Brandwatch, which I think was just announced over the past month. So, I'm curious to hear the story to exit right after this success, the 2019 pivot to now. How did you end up selling to Brandwatch?James Creech:We were evaluating, what is the next step for us in 2021? As I mentioned, the business started to really hit its stride in 2020. We were looking around at the overall market landscape, and look, influencer marketing is a crowded, competitive space. It's great. It keeps us sharp, but we realized if we want to continue to grow and compete in this space, then we need to either raise money and start to double down on sales and marketing or execute on a broader roll up strategy. Or, we can find someone who shares our vision and our passion for this category, but has more resources and can help accelerate our growth, right? So, the calculus for us at the time was ... You look at our well known, well funded competitors. Do we go out and raise money? It's certainly a path. That's an option.James Creech:Paladin had customers in over 35 countries, across five or six continents. So, we were competing against different people in Germany, than we were in Singapore, than we were in Dubai. So, it was different by market, but we recognized that, okay, we need to raise capital to help accelerate, or we need to find an exit. So, thinking about the fundraising process, as I mentioned, we're bootstrapped. A lot of us had good, favorable positions on the cap table. If we raise money, you dilute the ownership, and you kick out the goal post, I don't know, two plus years, let's say. And, the other thing I was cognizant of is, well, it seems to be this interesting moment in time where things are happening at such a rate, people want to get into this space. It's probably the right time for us to find a partner. We had had a lot of inbound interest, so we said, "Let's test the waters and see what the reception is. If we don't find anyone we like, we can always fall back on our current plan of just keep growing, or we can look at the fundraising alternative."Chris Erwin:So, you were getting inbounds from companies that were interested in kicking the tires around you potentially in an acquisition?James Creech:Yeah. We have throughout the history of the business, but it became especially acute interest in, let's say Q1, Q2 of 2021. So, I reached out to my banker friend, Jason Rapp at Whisper and said, "It seems like there's some interest here. We should probably run a process. How should we handle these conversations?" So, he came on to help us with that, very quickly had some phenomenal conversations with great people that I think saw what we were building and wanted to help add fuel to the fire. But, I was fortunate to meet Giles Palmer, the original founder of Brandwatch, who now works at Cision, the parent company. We just hit it off. He said, "Can you spend some time with our product team?" We met the product and engineering team. It was like magic from the first call.James Creech:They loved the product. They saw what we were doing. It fit very neatly into their thesis and what Brandwatch has been building in and around consumer intelligence and being a leader in social listening. They have been merging with Falcon.io, which is an amazing social media management tool. Influencer marketing was very clearly just the third leg of the stool. So, we got excited about that. They said, "Hey, can we talk tomorrow? Can we talk Monday after that?" And, very quickly, it escalated where they made an offer, and it was the right offer and the right time. We said, "Yeah, let's go into diligence." So, we ran diligence over the holidays. So, I was at Christmas with my family, Christmas 2021, hanging out with family during the day, and then working until about 3:00 AM every night, because A, I had a lot of work to do.James Creech:And, B, I had these colleagues in Europe who were also burning the midnight oil on their holidays. So, going through all of DD, and then we kind of finished that in early to mid-February. At the same time, we were running a parallel path on the purchase agreement documents with legal, reached an agreement on that in end of February. Then, we had to do a 30 day hold for DOJ approvals, announced in March, and then finally closed the acquisition at end of March. So, long process, but a lot of learnings and an exhilarating outcome. So, it's been amazing to see it all the way through.Chris Erwin:Wow.James Creech:It is such a process, right? It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done. People tell at the end, "Oh, congratulations. We're so excited for you." And, that's amazing, right? You experience all the emotions of joy, excitement, elation, but at the same time, strangely, at least I also experienced this feeling of loss, which I think is natural. It's kind of closing of one chapter and beginning of another, where you're saying goodbye to this thing that you've built and you've poured so much of your energy and time and money and everything else into. It's like a kid maybe growing up and going to college.James Creech:It's exciting. It's the next evolution, but it's also saying goodbye to the thing that I knew in its past form. Then, honestly, there's this just overwhelming sense of relief, because a lot of it feels like deliverables and juggling so many plates and keeping everyone happy. Every different constituency has something else they want from this outcome. So, if you're able to get to a point where everyone's satisfied, or as much as you can, you just get it done. It's this amazing feeling of, whew, right? We did it, and that relief is also very comforting and satisfying, I suppose.Chris Erwin:One last quick question before we get into rapid fire is, what's next for James? You're going to stay on at Brandwatch for a while. Are you going to go start your next company? What are you thinking?James Creech:So, I have come on to Brandwatch as the SVP of influencer strategy. So, I get to work with the global leadership team to help think through how do we inject influencer and creator economy strategy into the entire business, which is so exciting, right? I've spent too much time and energy on this to walk away for now, so I'm very excited to be in this new phase of the business, doubling down on what we've built, adding more resources, combining that with the amazing product suite that Brandwatch has. So, I'm still all in, excited about what we're doing. As you mentioned earlier, I'm still involved in a lot of advisory engagements, and it's fun for me to get to give back and support other early stage entrepreneurs. So, still a big passion for me and something I make time for, but in terms of my day to day focus, yeah, it's 100% all in on Brandwatch.Chris Erwin:Before rapid fire, James, I just want to give you some kudos. I have known you for a while in the industry. I think our LinkedIn posts have crossed paths for at least over five to seven years. I think our relationship, we've gotten to know one another better, I think over the past couple. I was on your podcast. Now, you're on mine. I think there could be a fun future ahead where we collaborate on different things. That's a separate convo, but I just want to say, as I've gotten to know you, learning about just how thoughtful that you've been in building your business, how thoughtful, how you are in building for the creator economy, I think one of the things that got me excited when I entered the whole YouTube MCN space back in 2012 was this positive sum mindset.Chris Erwin:We can all grow together. There's incredible opportunity. I think that you embody that feeling incredibly well. You just put out a lot of positive, good juju into the world. You're very supportive of so many people. I think it has a really big impact, and I think it's a great inspiration for so many others. So, massive kudos, and I hear you on this notion of loss, loss and relief. You had this baby. You took a huge bet on it. It's worked out incredibly well for you and your team and your co-founders, but James, you're a young guy with a very bright future ahead. You have many, many more exciting wins that lie ahead in your future. Just have faith and the trust that we are lucky that you have the time to go and do that work.James Creech:Well, thank you. Thank you for all of that. It's very kind. I'm flattered, and I've felt for a long time that you and I are maybe kindred spirits in a sense, right? Oh, I've got to spend more time with this Chris guy, because you're very obviously very intelligent, well connected, thoughtful in the content that you share, the communities that you curate through your events and dinner series, and things like that. Also, I just think we have a lot of personal interests, like your real estate investing and everything else. So, any chance, any excuse I have to get more Chris Erwin in my life, I will take it. So, just putting that out there, because very much excited about that. And, one other note, maybe just to kind of close things out is, as I mentioned, started the business in my mid-20s. I'm now in my early 30s.James Creech:As you go through this process, I think the most impactful thing that I've learned is recasting what defines success. For a lot of people, it's, oh, you sold the business. It's this very rewarding financial and career milestone. But, I don't think that's what it's all about. As much as I'm trying to be present and enjoy this moment and celebrate the win with our team who helped us build this business over the years, the way I think about success now didn't happen on March 31st, right?James Creech:Success is measured a year or two, five years from now, if it works. Can we integrate this product successfully into the overall Brandwatch suite and offering? Can we continue to create great career opportunities for our team? Do we continue to provide an excellent product and support level for our customers? Are we meaningfully advancing the creator economy and supporting this industry and its future evolution? So, maybe that's me moving the goal post on myself again, but I'm trying to tell myself, well, what matters is not just check the box. You sold the business. What matters is that it works and that the thesis we all had going into this is successful. At least, we're going to all put our energy into making it as successful as it can be.Chris Erwin:I love that, James, beautifully said. So, now rapid fire, all right?James Creech:Bring it on.Chris Erwin:The rules are, we have six questions. They must be answered in short form, so could be one sentence, or it could just be one to two words. Do you understand the rules, James?James Creech:I am notoriously loquacious, but I accept your challenge, yes.Chris Erwin:All right, first one, proudest life moment?James Creech:Personal, getting engaged to my fiance. Professional, selling Paladin.Chris Erwin:What do you want to do less of in the remainder of 2022?James Creech:I'd like to spend less time in some of the operational aspects of the business, A, because I don't think I'm necessarily best suited to do that, so handing that off, and worrying. I think I can repurpose my energies.Chris Erwin:What do you want to do more of the rest of the year?James Creech:Oh, boy, rock climbing, pickleball, time with friends and family, vacation, and pursuing alternative investments.Chris Erwin:I like that. What one to two things drive your success?James Creech:Servant leadership, which kind of goes back to my childhood, huge examples from both my parents. Tenacity and going out of my way to be helpful to other people in my network, so paying it forward, I guess.Chris Erwin:Advice for creator economy execs going into the remainder of this year?James Creech:Watch the macroeconomic conditions, because things are changing quickly. Experiment and don't be afraid to change direction.Chris Erwin:Got it. Any future startup ambitions?James Creech:100%, yeah. Not right at this moment. I'm definitely involved in a lot of early stage companies and supporting other entrepreneurs. So, startups will always be near and dear to my heart, but also excited to drive innovation and entrepreneurship within brand watch.Chris Erwin:All right, last one, James. This one's pretty easy. How can people get in contact with you?James Creech:LinkedIn is the best way. Find me on LinkedIn, James Creech. You can follow my content there. I haven't been posting as regularly as I should have, but a lot of people are motivating me to get back in. So, certainly that and always happy to chat. So, feel free to reach out.Chris Erwin:James, this was a total delight. Thanks for being on the podcast.James Creech:Thank you, Chris.Chris Erwin:Wow, that was such a fun interview. James is just simply a very delightful human. All right, a few quick things before we wrap here. Our RockWater team is likely going to be at VidCon on Friday, June 24th, so hope to see some of you there. In addition, as a reminder that earlier this year we published our 2022 investment theses where we make predictions and talk about trends across a variety of our coverage areas, including Web3, the creator economy, podcasting and audio, sports media, and so much more. So, if you have interest in checking out that deck, shoot us an email at Hello@WeAreRockWater.com. In addition, on Thursday, November 3rd, we're hosting another executive event in New York City. It'll be for founders, investors, and operators within media and commerce and with a particular focus on sports. If you'd like to attend, just shoot us a note, and we can get you an invite. Lastly, we love to hear from our listeners. So, if you have any feedback on the show, if you have any ideas for guests, shoot us a note at TCUPod@WeAreRockWater.com. All right, that's it, everybody. Thanks for listening.Chris Erwin:The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. If you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at WeAreRockWater.com/Newsletter. And, you could follow us on Twitter @TCUPod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zizali. And, special thanks to Alex Zirin and Eric Kenigsberg from the RockWater team.
Michael Cohen — CEO at Team Whistle on Wall Street to Digital, Scaling $0-100M, Leadership, and Exits
Apr 14 2022
Michael Cohen — CEO at Team Whistle on Wall Street to Digital, Scaling $0-100M, Leadership, and Exits
This interview features Michael Cohen, CEO at Team Whistle. We discuss being denied by a Goldman Sachs recruiter, when wearing a suit can be bad for business, being on the launch team of Whistle Sports, why the movie The Martian inspires his leadership, executing an M&A roll-up strategy and going from $0-100M in revenue, exiting to ELEVEN Group, and learning how to “play it where it lies”.Subscribe to our newsletter. We explore the intersection of media, technology, and commerce: sign-up linkLearn more about our market research and executive advisory: RockWater websiteFollow The Come Up on Twitter: @TCUpodEmail us: tcupod@wearerockwater.com---EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: Chris Erwin:Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders. Michael Cohen:The presenter started off his presentation, and he said, "None of you in this room are going to get a job at Goldman Sachs right out of school." Sort of the most deflating thing ever. I've been preparing for this for an ungodly amount of time. And I was so angry for so long, but what I took away from that has stayed with me for my entire career, because what he then went on to say was, "I didn't start a Goldman Sachs. I started at X company. I then went to Y, then over to company A, and ultimately got to where I am today as a managing director at Goldman Sachs." And his point was that not all career paths are linear. You have to have different experiences along the way that ultimately allow you to become a better managing director at Goldman Sachs, or wherever you were going. Chris Erwin:This week's episode features Michael Cohen, CEO of Team Whistle and chief transformation officer of ELEVEN Group. Michael was born in Long Island and grew up with parents who worked in tourism and technology. He decided to migrate to Atlanta for college, kicked off his career in a financial training program at Wells Fargo, but he soon returned to his home turf in New York City to be an investment banker, where Michael learned how to tell stories with numbers. Of note, this is where we first met and actually worked together for a few years. Chris Erwin:Michael's career then progressed into private equity and strategy consulting, but he left to take an early bet in digital media and helped launch Whistle Sports in 2014. Today, Michael is the CEO and has spent the past year integrating the business into its new owner, ELEVEN Group. Some highlights of our chat include being denied by a Goldman Sachs recruiter, when wearing a suit can be bad for business, why the movie "The Martian" inspires his leadership, executing an M&A roll up strategy and going from zero to a hundred million in revenue, and learning how to play it where it lies. Now I've known Michael for over 15 years, and he's one of my favorites to share industry notes with and riff about all things creator economy. Telling his story has been a long time coming, so let's get to it. Chris Erwin:All right, Michael, thanks for being on the podcast. Michael Cohen:Chris, thanks for having me. Been a long, long time that we've known each other, so I'm excited to chat with you. Chris Erwin:Yeah. This has been a long time coming. I think I've been asking you to be on the podcast for almost over a couple years now. There was some assumed perhaps missed emails or lack of responses or who knows what, but finally able to make it happen today. Michael Cohen:I take the fifth, but I'm glad I'm glad to be here today. Chris Erwin:All right, Michael. I've known you for a long time. I think dating back to 2006. This is ... I know. It's pretty crazy to say that. It's almost over 15 years starting in Wall Street finance into the world of digital media. A lot to talk about today, but let's start where you grew up, if there's any glimpses into your early career. Let's rewind a bit and tell us about where you grew up and what your household was like. Michael Cohen:I grew up in Long Island in New York, a nice, quiet suburban town called Jericho. I have an older brother and my two parents as well. The town was a very small town. Everybody knew each other, which was great, but also a little bit of a bubble. And so I think having grown up in that environment, it was something that I liked a lot, but also knew it was something I needed to get out of and experience the world a bit different. And I think part of my childhood allowed me to do that. My mom worked in travel, which allowed us to go to all different places. Some I appreciated at the time. Some, I certainly did not as a kid. Whish I could go back and appreciate some of those more, but again, this is well before we had digital cameras, let alone Instagram. Michael Cohen:You couldn't experience a culture the way you potentially can today through Instagram or other apps. I got to have a feel for other cultures around the world through that lens. And then my dad worked in and around technology for his entire career, which was pretty awesome. He traveled to Japan a lot. And I would always ... We went to the consumer electronic show, when CES was actually consumer electronics, or at least more prominently consumer electronics. I would inevitably have some new gadget. I remember a small, little TV that had a massive antenna that I got channel two on, which was great, super exciting as a kid. And then I definitely had the first MP3 player, which I think it was called the Diamond Rio. Chris Erwin:It could hold five songs? Michael Cohen:Yeah. It literally had I think five songs. You could upgrade the memory and you might get eight songs. It was literally the coolest thing ever, but you'd use it to go for a run because you had a Walkman. That was the only other thing. And if you do more than a 20 minute run, that's kind of it. But I think being around my mom and dad who were both working, gave me a strong appreciation for hard work and work ethic. I think both of the industries that they were in gave me perspectives that I probably wouldn't necessarily have had. I'd say my older brother, in terms of work ethic, not to say he didn't have great work ethic, but he is wildly smart. And he didn't actually have to work all that hard to do really well, which, on the other hand, I believe I'm somewhat smart, but also had to do a lot of hard work to keep up. That's just something that's always driven me. Chris Erwin:Michael, I think you have many moments of great intelligence, so don't cut yourself short there. All right. With your mother in travel, your father in tech, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do as a kid? Did a lot of people in your community work in New York City? Did they work in finance? What were you thinking about your careers you were preparing for college? Michael Cohen:Yeah, we had a lot of different folks in the neighborhood. Some worked in finance, some accountants, a variety of folks that worked in different industries. I think for me, business was something that was always an area where I wanted to focus. I knew I wanted to be a business man at that time, follow predominantly in my dad's footsteps and be able to work with a great company and travel, be a part of important meetings, a big team. All that stuff was important to me. Exactly where and what that meant was certainly TBD. Again, we didn't have internet, and all that stuff wasn't as prevalent as it is today to sort of understand all the options and choices. Chris Erwin:And actually, a quick tangent to that ... As a kid, what were your hobbies? What were your passions? What did you do outside the classroom? Michael Cohen:Played a lot of sports. I grew up in a neighborhood that after school, all of us would get our bikes. We'd go to a park. We go back to the school. We'd play pick up basketball, roller hockey, baseball, you name it. We were out until dinnertime. And that was just awesome, being able to always be playing sports. And then at home, I would say because I was able to get exposure to a lot of the technology, I probably had the latest and greatest computers, these massive machines, and got to tinker around with that. So played on the computers. I probably had the first CD burner that existed, and turned that into a little entrepreneurial business in high school, selling CDs. Chris Erwin:Burned popular CDs that you would buy at the time and sell them to your friends? Michael Cohen:There was a very popular dance mix. I don't remember what it was, but it was one of those things that ... I don't know if it was Tower Records or one of those [inaudible 00:08:06] things that you get 22 songs or something on. And it's a mix. I had this CD burner. My friend and I, we started selling these CDs for a few bucks to our friends. It was a nice little side hustle back in high school. Chris Erwin:Okay, so there's a little bit of an entrepreneurial bend in you. I see that. You decide to go to college, and you go to Emory university in the south. What were you thinking when you went to Emory? What was the plan there? Michael Cohen:It was interesting. My brother had gone to Emory. I went down to visit him, Emory in Atlanta, Georgia, early 2000s. The "dirty south" was really having a moment in terms of growth, in terms of pop culture, a really awesome vibrant place. I think for me, having grown up in more of a smaller neighborhood where I knew a lot of the people, I think feeling like a bigger fish in a smaller pond was something that was more exciting. And I think looking at Emory, looking at the curriculum, the school wasn't super small, but at the same time, it would give me warmer weather and the ability to feel part of the movement in pop culture happening at the time. Chris Erwin:And so from there, you end up going into finance, right when you graduate, which I think is around 2005. And I think you end up at Wells Fargo. What was your thinking there for your first role out of school? Michael Cohen:I'll back you up a little bit. At Emory, I majored certainly in business, but with a concentration in finance and marketing. And again, I had always had the desire to be a leader, wanting to be the head of a company someday. Didn't know exactly what that meant at the time, but that was always something that was important to me. I remember going to a ... The school had put on a road show of meeting different investment banks. I got to go to Goldman Sachs, the cream of the crop. I remember this so clearly. I had my suit on, I had studied, I had the vault guides. I knew every question that could be answered. I was ready, and the presenter started off his presentation. And he said, "None of you in this room are going to get a job at Goldman Sachs right out of school." Chris Erwin:Why are you there? Michael Cohen:I'm like, "Well, this is sort of the most deflating thing ever. And I've been preparing for this for an ungodly amount of time." I was so angry for so long, but what I took away from that has stayed with me for my entire career, and it's something I pass on. Because what he then went on to say was, "I didn't start at Goldman Sachs. I started at X company. I then went to Y. I went then over to company A, and then I went to company B and ultimately got to where I am today as a managing director at Goldman Sachs." And his point was that not all career paths are linear. You have to have different experiences along the way that ultimately allow you to become a better managing director at Goldman Sachs, or wherever you were going. Michael Cohen:Fast forward, that stuck with me. I didn't get a job at Goldman Sachs and actually, for the first time in my life, I decided to take a different road. I stayed in Atlanta after I graduated when a lot of my peers were moving back to Manhattan and New York. Again, Atlanta during this time was really booming, and I was excited about the city. I worked for Wells Fargo in their corporate banking group, where we were lending money to large Fortune 500 companies. Michael Cohen:It was a really interesting experience because it was so foundational in terms of learning and the training program that Wells Fargo had. It was just an incredible training program, got exposure to a lot of different people, a lot of different industries that we were covering. And it really gave me a very solid foundation. Ultimately, it was something that I would say, started to lay a very strong finance acumen for me down in Atlanta. I stayed down in Atlanta for a year after graduation and worked at Wells Fargo. It was a two year training program and my focus was all right, it's not investment banking, but maybe I can complete this training program in one year versus two years. So I completed all the training requirements. Chris Erwin:This is actually where we have a lot of overlap. Right after undergrad, I also started my career as a corporate banker. I went to the Bank of New York. It's now known as BNY Mellon. Similar to you, we were lending to Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. So paper manufacturing, TMT, energy and utilities, and much more. I remember spending a lot of time pouring over financial statements and getting into all the details. I learned a ton. Follow up question for you, Michael, is what did you like most about the training program? Michael Cohen:What was great about the training program is that, and I remember this so clearly, they taught you how to hold your plate and a glass at a cocktail dinner. They taught you how to answer the phone. And you think about these soft skills that you take for granted today. Most people don't even use a phone anymore, let alone know how to actually pick up the phone. Go to a cocktail party, how you're supposed to hold the glass on the plate with one hand so you have the other hand free to shake someone's hand. Little fun things that you learned outside of just the core finance and accounting. Michael Cohen:But what was interesting, and why I ultimately decided to move back to New York, was it was a little too slow for me in Atlanta at the time. Still very much a nine to five attitude in that city in terms of where I was, and the opportunity to advance as fast as I would've wanted. This is when I got the opportunity to move to New York, and I landed a job at Waller Capital, which is where you and I had worked together. Chris Erwin:I remember that first meeting where I think you had just joined within the past handful of months. This is I think in 2006, and very similar experience to you, incredible training program at Bank of New York, learned a lot from the leadership there, but wanted something that was more faster paced. Wanted to jam in the hours while I was young in my twenties. I remember coming to an interview at night in the office, and this was a small office, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or one rock, and meeting at the upstairs meeting room. It was in the dark. I walk in and I think we do a 45 minute or hour interview. And I was like, "Wow, look at this guy. He's got a similar background to me, but he's super sharp. He's very confident. And you got me very, very excited about the role." The interview I had was okay. Chris Erwin:But I guess it was good enough to give me the job, because I remember getting an offer letter shortly thereafter and then joined the company a few weeks after that. I'm curious, one of the things we talked about before was building three legs of the stool. Each of those legs being finance, operations, and strategy and leadership. What do you think that you got out of your experience at Waller Capital? And then you moved to The Cypress Group thereafter, what was the financial acumen that you were really building at that point? Michael Cohen:I think it was a few different things. It was a core foundational skillset in corporate finance and accounting, which is really understanding how the numbers work, how an income statement, a balance sheet, a cash flow, not only how that works, which I think I learned in Wells Fargo, but in investment banking and at Waller capital was more of how it's applied. Because what we did was we were advising companies ... As you know, you worked there, but we were advising companies on raising capital to support their businesses and more often selling the companies. Helping them with the most important moment of their lives to sell them to somebody else. How do you write a story based on these numbers and present them to the marketplace? I think that was ...What I learned there was really the combination of how to use numbers to tell stories. And certainly learned a massive attention to detail. Michael Cohen:You talk about Jeff Brandon, who we both worked with. I remember what he said to me. He goes, "In our business, 99% right is a hundred percent wrong." And that's really stuck with me. The detail side of that, because what he was trying to say was one wrong number calls out your credibility to a client, to a potential buyer. And it's cast judgment, cast doubt on the rest of the financial model. So we really, the threshold for being correct was there was really zero tolerance. It taught you how to double check, how to triple check your work, how to work with others, like yourself, to ask questions, to make sure that you were approaching things the right way. Michael Cohen:I would say the storytelling with numbers, the attention to detail, and then again, work ethic. Because we worked long hours together to ultimately be able to deliver for our clients. And you had to find a solution. I'll give you an example of that, which was, we had a pitch, it was a very large pitch. We had done the pitch deck. We were all ready. Again, Waller Capital was media and telecom. I don't think we hit that early, but we spent a lot of time focused on cable companies. These cable companies, if you zoom out of a map of the United States, it's like a puzzle. There's pictures of this map that we would often use in our pitch decks to show how some different assets, where a strategic fit of different areas. Well, that needed to be part of a physical pitch deck. Michael Cohen:And unfortunately the files were so large that they couldn't print out. Again, this is '06, so didn't have these great printers that you can buy off the shelves today. And I had said to the managing director, "Look, sorry, there's just nothing I can do. It won't print. It keeps jamming. It won't print." And the response was like, "That's just not acceptable. I need this for a pitch tomorrow morning. It's got to be at my house in Greenwich by 4:00 AM, because I've got a 6:00 AM flight." So, okay. And I've got my new shoes on, my new suit, my investment banker gear. Meanwhile, I'm living on a couch at this point, and I go down to the financial printers on Wall Street, and begging them to take this file. The financial printers were the people that actually printed out all the 10Ks, all the SEC documents that had to be physically printed back in the day. Michael Cohen:I begged them to find a way to get this file open. Ultimately after going to three different ones, I found someone that was able to print it. They printed it. I bartered with them, so instead of charging with me, we said, "Hey, the next virtual data room that we use will go with you." And I took a black car all the way to Greenwich. I dropped it off. My feet were all blistered up. Ultimately got home, got a couple hours of sleep, and back in the office by nine o'clock. While going through that, I was obviously fairly frustrated and tired and exhausted, but it taught me that every problem has a solution. You just have to work it hard enough. I think those three plus years at Waller Capital really instilled a core foundation in how I work, and not only what I know, but how I work and what I really am able to do. Chris Erwin:Very well said. After investment banking for a few years, you then head to private equity. You head to the Cypress Group and Torque Capital. Tell us about experience and what the training was there that was setting you up for the rest of your career. Michael Cohen:Wat was really interesting coming out of Waller Capital after three years was, I don't know how many different sell side mandates we were on, but probably, 30, 40 over my time there. Sell side is when, as you know, when you're selling a company to the marketplace, so you're representing a seller and you're going out and you're positioning them to a marketplace of buyers to ultimately sell it. Now, what was really fascinating for me, and what I wanted to do, was go on the opposite side. Okay. You sell the company, now what happens? A buyer buys it, what do they do now? How do they operate it? And Cypress Group was a two and a half billion dollar private equity firm. I would say they were focused on diversified industrials and manufacturing. Michael Cohen:And for me, what I wanted to get next in my career was a broader exposure to the economy. No better way to do that than getting more involved in industrials and manufacturing. The other side of it is I wanted to be involved in the actual operations of the company. Cypress was sort of nearing the end of its fun life, but really was focusing on portfolio operations. It would give me an opportunity to really roll up my sleeves, work with various executives in each of these companies that they had owned, and literally be on the front lines of operations. And I think that was an incredible experience, particularly because the fall of Lehman Brothers happened during that. When you have exposure to everything from automotive companies to kitchen cabinets during a recessionary period, how do you operate those businesses? Michael Cohen:It's one thing when you can't stop selling kitchen cabinets. It's another thing when home builds are cut in half, and you've got a massive manufacturing line needs to be retooled or relooked at. And so how do you fix that? I was able to go to many interesting places similar to our days in Waller Capital, driving around the country and various markets, and get on the manufacturing floor. What I remember very clearly are two things. One, the first company I went to that we owned, I was wearing a suit, tie, nice shoes, clearly bringing a New York aura to this company that was in Tennessee, I believe. And it was like, who is this guy? What is he doing here? How can he possibly help me? Michael Cohen:I quickly learned culturally, you can't get things done by decree. What I quickly did was, the next day I changed. I was no longer wearing a suit. I was a little bit more suitable, but I started just asking questions and listening. What I took away was, what are the biggest pain points that the CEO has, that some of the senior managers have. And ultimately I came away from that trip knowing that if I could solve some of those pain points for them ... And some of them were fairly easy. Some of them were, "Hey, I need just better communication between the board and us," or, "Hey, there's this issue that keeps popping up." These were fairly simple, but it just required connecting of dots to do. And I did that, and what was magical out of that was the respect and credibility that I was able to get. Michael Cohen:From that point on, I was able to acclimate and get involved in these companies in a way where I started to be able to understand truly what would move the needle for them as operators, versus me wearing a New York private equity hat. And that was probably the most fun I had ever had. It really reinforced my desire to really be an operator. I had now investment banking, private equity experience. After two years ... Private equity was a two year program. You signed two years, and then you're typically off to business school or you do something else. Ultimately, I had asked the head of the private equity firm for his advice on what I should do next. I said, "Hey, should I go to business school?" Michael Cohen:I had taken GMAT. I had done well. He was a big golfer. He said, "Play it where it lies." He goes, "You're sitting in the fairway. Why would you go to business school? You've already got the education. Everything you would've gotten, you've seen. You've been operating. You've been operating through these tough environments." And this was about the time where we saw an opportunity in the market to create what I would call a lower middle market distressed fund that would focus on these smaller companies that were forgotten during the post Lehman era, that were still extremely valuable, had a lot of asset value, again from manufacturing, whether that was equipment or what they were doing, but just were victims of the challenging environment. Going in, helping to restructure those, bringing those back to life, was awesome. It was the best. After two years, I joined a couple of folks there. Michael Cohen:We created this vehicle called Torque Capital Group. It still exists today. We made a couple of investments. I was really part of the very beginning of a fund, the very beginning of the investment that we made, putting together a hundred day plan, living in places like New Hampshire and outer Georgia, really working with the operators on what is this next iteration of the company. That was just such an incredible experience. What I took from that was ultimately, I was more excited about the top line growth side of things, the innovation that was happening in Silicon Alley. That then led me to the next stage of the career. Chris Erwin:Few interesting notes there. One, in terms of really listening, and being aware, and understanding the cultural nuances when you're working with different companies or leadership ... I feel you on that because I remember you and I used to do this. We used to do the cable tours when we were in banking, and I would show up to the middle of nowhere, Missouri or middle of nowhere, Wyoming to a cable head end, where we were representing the seller. The private equity company, their buyer, and their leadership and diligence team would come out. They'd all just be in general outdoor work gear. And I'm showing up in a suit, slacks, nice leather shoes. I was totally the odd man out. I thought that dressing nice like that would get me respect in the room, or respect in a situation because I was typically 20 years younger than everyone else that was there. Chris Erwin:That was not the case, and I learned pretty quickly that I got to adjust the wardrobe. And I got to listen more to the people that are around me if I'm going to have an impact in this situation. I think that's very right. And your boss, I think at the Cypress Group said, "Play it where it lies." Probably around that time, it's 2011 for you, I decided to go to business school because I think I realized I was making a change where I wanted to change geographies. I wanted to change roles. I wanted to change industries, and I felt that I didn't have the right skillset and I didn't have the right plan. I needed to reset and take two years to get the operating experience that I needed. Chris Erwin:It's funny, we took two different paths, but ended up in pretty similar industries thereafter, and pretty similar roles that have diverged over the past few years. It's just funny to kind of reflect on that. All right, so then after Torque Capital, we're going to get shortly to your rise in digital media at Team Whistle, but I think there was a quick stint of strategy work that you were doing. Tell us quickly about that, and then we'll get to your current role now. Michael Cohen:So now, I've got the finance acumen under me, I've got the operational acumen under me, and I see very clearly what I need next, which is more of the strategy work that was missing. What I was looking for at the time was, do I jump into a startup and take some sort of role that's ... I think at the time everyone coming from private equity or MBAs was looking for a business development role, or a strategy role within these companies. I got some really great advice from an angel investor who introduced me to the CEO of Fahrenheit 212, which their whole mantra, how do we take an existing asset, existing distribution channels, existing marketplace position, and how do we leverage that to create a new product, a new technology, bring that to market and ultimately build a startup within a Fortune 500 company? Michael Cohen:I was advised by this angel investor who said to me, "Go talk to Fahrenheit. I think this is a great bridge that will ultimately get you into more of that operating role, that startup role, but this is a great place to go. You'll have the ability to work with large Fortune 500 companies that you've been working with, but you'll also be able to help them work on new products, new innovation, very exciting activities." And so got the job where I was an engagement manager. My role there was to lead different engagements. I got the opportunity to work with everyone from Citigroup, to Samsung, and a number of others in between, but big companies and big challenges that we were trying to tackle for them. One of the best pieces of advice I got from the founder, a guy by the name of Jeff Valletta, stuck with me. He said, "Free yourself from the fear of failure." Michael Cohen:What he was saying was a couple things. One is, in innovation, you're going to fail sometimes, but if you play your hands scared, you're never going to innovate. The team that we built at Fahrenheit was there to support you. So it was one, the team around you is here to support you, so don't worry about you failing. And two, don't worry about the product failing because you're going to learn from it. And it was about iteration. It was a great environment to frankly, retrain my brain because in banking and private equity, when you hit a wall, you think about how do I financial engineer around this? How do I cut it? In innovation when you hit a wall, that's opportunity. Michael Cohen:It took me a number of months to sort of retrain my brain on that notion that this is opportunity, and so how do we innovate around it? How do we innovate through it? What does this mean in terms of opportunity? That to me was an incredible experience. I was at Fahrenheit for about a year, and then I left and ultimately started my own consulting company. And why did I leave? Well, something interesting happens when you work with Fortune 500 companies and you deliver them, at least in my experience there was you deliver them this great strategy. You deliver them this great idea. They sign off on it. Two things happen: one, the person who's the key stakeholder gets promoted and it's no longer their problem. Or two, they decide to take it internally. They're like, this is great. We're going to run with it from here. The idea of me getting to build a startup within a Fortune 500 company was not really a super viable path. You're able to bring the strategy to life, but often, they're going to run with it on there. Michael Cohen:So obviously lots of internal stakeholders, lots of different things you need to do. And being inside the company was how they were able to be successful with it or take it. But at that point, I was very confident in the skillset that I had built. And so I started my own consulting company called, Who Is M. Cohen Ventures. Chris Erwin:Can I just ask why, Who Is M. Cohen? Michael Cohen:A friend of mine was more advanced in the social media space at the time than I was. In terms of branding and everything, I was like, "I need a Twitter handle. What Twitter handle should I do?" I couldn't redo my AOL handle from high school. So he's like, "What about who is M. Cohen? There's so many Michael Cohens out there. What about who is M. Cohen?" And so I took that as my Twitter handle, and then I just started branding a lot of other things with it. I liked it. Chris Erwin:Hey listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating, wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work, and it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it. Everybody let's get back to the interview. Chris Erwin:After Fahrenheit and after Who Is M. Cohen Ventures, you joined what is now known as Team Whistle back in 2013. I'm curious to hear, from your point of view, how you ended up making this transition. Because I do remember when I was graduating from Kellogg, I was working for a company called Pritzker that actually invested in Big Frame and Awesomeness. I joined Big Frame back in, I think July 2012. I remember increasingly getting calls from you being like, "Hey Chris, I see you're working at Big Frame. You're in the YouTube MCN world, what's going on there? What are you doing? How are you building?" And I remember the frequency of those calls really ratcheting up. I think there was an eventual call I got from you, which was, "Hey, I joined Whistle." And I thought that was awesome. I loved having one of my financial brethren making the move into digital media where there's going to be some more quantitative focused minds and strategy minds entering the mix, which we needed. But how did that come to be from your side? Michael Cohen:I was doing the consulting thing as Who Is M. Cohen Ventures. One of my clients was the Whistle, and I was doing consulting for probably six months. I had a number of clients, probably had five different clients. And I wasn't sure whether I was going to just keep building a consulting company or do something else. It would actually, frankly, gave me the opportunity to date a lot of really interesting companies. I worked with small seed stage companies, some more funded companies, and some actually Fortune 500 companies as a consultant. But, I would say what got me to join Whistle was two things that happened. One, I would come home and I would talk to my wife and she said to me, "What's interesting, you talk about all your clients. When you talk about Whistle, you say, we. When you talk about your other clients, you say they." It was a really interesting, subtle observation that she had made. Michael Cohen:And then too, Chris, as you know, back in time, this was a wild west. Not many people knew what YouTubers were. It was probably the only platform that had creators. I don't think the term influencer was coined yet. And then Disney comes in and buys maker studios for a billion dollars. I sit there and say, well, one, there's a great team, a small team, but really interesting people that are here. And then two, there's just got some validation in this industry that perhaps there is some validation coming from Disney. Michael Cohen:At that point, John West, who was the founder of Whistle, said, "Hey, we got to raise some money, so I can't have my finance person as a consultant. So you going to join? You can create a consulting company anytime in your life. There's not going to be many opportunities you get to join a company at an early stage like Whistle." And he's a great salesman and a great mentor and friend, so I jumped on board. At the time it was called The Whistle and that began the nine plus year journey that I'm still on right now. Chris Erwin:Got it. When you first joined, what was the mandate? Was it, "Hey, Michael, we need to raise money. Let's get the model and the deck together"? And then the money's raised, what was your mandate immediately thereafter? Michael Cohen:They had raised some seed capital. Really I joined in 2013 and I would say our public launch was January 1st, 2014. And the premise of what we were trying to do was if you were to reimagine ESPN today, how would you do it? That was the question that we were asking ourselves at the time. It would be very different than what was happening back then. Traditional media, in our view, underserved today's generation. It was mostly a one way broadcast directly to you from the old guys with gray hair, talking about the glory days, talking about this scandal, that scandal. And, when I came on, the mandate was to help figure out what's the initial strategy that we want to take this on. Our view was, looking at how ESPN came to be and studying it, was ESPN came to be on the back of cable and satellite providers. They bought sports rights and, again, they sold them and then sold it to Telcos and had licensing fees and all that type of stuff. Michael Cohen:Our view was that the next company was going to be built on the back of social media company. Instead of cable and satellite, you're going to have the Facebooks, the YouTubes, et cetera. But our view was that instead of sports rights, it was going to be social influencer rights. And so the first step of what we did was we created a sports MCN, like a Big Frame before us, or a Maker, or Style Hall. All these others that were either generalists, or they were very vertical focused, Style Hall being more fashion and beauty. Tastemade, being more around food. Michael Cohen:There was still room for sports. The first thing that we did and that I was part of, was really trying to come up with that strategy. Once we landed on the MCN strategy, which, our view at the time we came after a number of other companies, was instead of this actually being the destination we're trying to go to, it was more of the vehicle. Michael Cohen:And what I mean by that is, we would create this MCN, we'd have a lot of creators under our belt. It would give us access to tons of data, which would then give us the ability to learn more about the audience and then figure out how best to serve that audience. So I would say the initial part of me coming on was helping with the capital raise, putting the deck together, putting together a financial model. But in order to put together a deck in a financial model, you of course need the business strategy. Looking back nine years, it's very easy to tell a linear story on what we did, but between us that's BS. We all know building a company is not a linear story. So that was the first piece of coming on. Chris Erwin:When you launch in January of 2014, did the launch go as expected? What surprised you? Michael Cohen:We were so focused at the time of being a very good for you sports media company that we launched Dude Perfect, as I'm sure many people know, one of the largest creators in the world. I think they were only 2 million subscribers on YouTube at the time. Now they're multiples of that. They were one of our launch partners and a number of others were. We had PR around it. It was great. And then we're watching YouTube videos and we see you can block certain categories that you don't want to run ads. Our whole premise was certainly no alcohol, only really positive advertisements that could go on it. We didn't want soft drinks. We didn't want certain junk food. I think we got served a Pepsi ad or something, and it caused a whole panic of are we having sugary drinks? Michael Cohen:Are we allowed to have sugary drinks? Are we not allowed to have sugary drinks? And I think that was a funny moment. But at the time the rally cry was build our subscribers, the subscriber network, on subscribers being on YouTube. We had different targets that we ran after to bring creators on, to hit a certain subscriber threshold, which, was more of a proxy for the size of our audience and how we would be able to monetize it. But I remember that early on, it was getting a little over spooked on a very non-controversial ad that ran in pre-roll on YouTube. Chris Erwin:Yeah. And I have to ask, what was it like for you to start working with creators for the first time? For me coming out of finance, so venture capital, business school, Wall Street. I was very accustomed to working with private equity leadership, sophisticated investors, C-suite executives from the companies that we were representing. Transitioning into this intersection of digital media technology and entertainment, working with creators and personalities, working with the representatives that manage them. That was an entirely new world for me, both working with those talent and the reps in house, and then also out of our building as well. Did you have a lot of creator exposure early on at Whistle? Michael Cohen:I would say I wasn't leading the creator efforts. We had an awesome person named Julie Kikla who came from YouTube that helped us launch that. Dev Sethi then came on, who I know has been on your podcast here, but definitely got exposure to the different creators. I would say that my diversified experience in the past very much helped me for how to navigate, how to partner with these creators, who very often were not sophisticated businesses. And certainly at the time they weren't. First and foremost, they're in incredibly talented, innovative creators that they're most suited to creating incredibly engaging content. The monetization side of it was where we came in to help them. Michael Cohen:And so trying to apply a commercial acumen to a creative acumen often was easy to meet with challenges. But I think my prior experiences ... Where the story in private equity where had to really acclimate to the people around me, working in the strategy roles, and having empathy for what it's like to be in a larger company, what it's like to be in a smaller company, understanding both a commercial desire, but also a creative of desire, and how that all works together. I would say it gave me the tools to have a lot more empathy for it. Certainly didn't prepare me for the world of mom-agers and dad-agers, and how intensely passionate those folks are about their sons, their daughters, but I was prepared. But I've learned a lot in terms of how to partner. Chris Erwin:So phase one, with the initial launch of Whistle, call it the MCN stage, and some learnings there. And then I think there was a decision where working with the team, you guys then enter phase two, where you're investing in intellectual property, audience growth, capabilities. This is I think where you transition from Whistle Sports to Whistle. Tell us how that came to be. Michael Cohen:We went from The Whistle to Whistle Sports. We started off as The Whistle. When we launched, we were Whistle Sports. It was important to make the point that, we were Whistle Sports. We weren't well known at the time, so making sure that the name stood for what we were was important. As we evolved, and as we studied the data, we learned that sport was being defined very differently for this generation. We were focused more on a YouTuber generation, I would say, mid to late teens, the mid to late twenties. We learned a lot from them and really no greater learning than they are really defined by the intersection of multiple passion points. Sports fans today are very much, yes, I may be a ravenous sports fan, but I also care about the pop culture aspect. I care about the music aspect. I care about the culinary aspect of it. Michael Cohen:Very often today we're taking it for granted, because on Instagram you can see an athlete out partying on yacht, and what they're doing behind the scenes. You see them walking their dogs. You have such a more intimate exposure. I think at the time, again, it was really only YouTube was the platform that had the most data that you could get followed by. Facebook's started to get in it. But we learned from the data that there was a white space that we could create content in that was more what I would call sport attainment. As we were talking to a number of our advertising partners, they said, "Look, your name's Whistle Sports, but you're not sports. Sports is, what I would say, classically defined as what an ESPN is doing, what a Bleacher was doing, a Turner was doing at the time, you guys are more entertainment. The content you're creating is more entertainment. And if you focus on sports and entertainment, that's a much bigger pot that you can focus on. So have you thought about dropping the name sports when you're going from your go to market standpoint?" Michael Cohen:We started to test it, and all of a sudden we are getting lots more RFPs, lots more inbound interests, lots more PR opportunities, because we were really defining a new category. And early on, I would say in that category definition, people that would say to us, "You're trying to be everything to everyone. You're really sitting in this middle