Lessons Of Our $100 Million Pilot

Google spent $100 million to figure out that YouTube users didn't place a premium on television content.  It took me one pilot to come to the same conclusion.  No, it didn't cost me $100 million, but the lessons we learned were probably the same as from YouTube's $100 million initiative.

This past week we turned eight years old.  By online video standards, we're dinosaurs.  Back in 2006, the first week we launched, I emailed Mark Cuban to ask him if he would be interested in investing in my company.  As he is prone to do if you manage to snag his attention, he replied right away and asked for a link.  Once he reviewed the video in question (a skit), he graciously passed, saying it "wasn't something that got [him] excited."  Bruised ego notwithstanding, I moved on from that first of many more rejections and passes over the years. 

Onwards and Upwards

In 2013, I came across an article Cuban had written about YouTube.  I emailed him to say that he was right on some of the points, but wrong on a few.  In the ensuing email exchange, we chatted about online video and YouTube. Before long, we agreed for my company to do a paid pilot for AXS.

Believe it or not, I have never had any ambitions to “on TV."  I have written some screenplays, and it's inevitable that our brand will expand to traditional media platforms.  But if I had to specify a given goal, it was to build a brand and have a very passionate audience.

Meanwhile, I was developing a better appreciation of everything that it took to create made-for-TV programming.  I also realized the true opportunity cost.

AXS liked the pilot, and that's when I realized once we "could be on TV," then I "didn't have to be on TV at any cost."  But a deal was a deal, so we agreed to finish the pilot and deliver it to their liking. But I made the decision to turn down the network's request for more content. 

I'll spare the details of the ensuing conversation.  In the end, we refunded them the pilot money and retained the rights, and instead of it gathering dust in our vaults, we released it to our viewers to mark our eight-year anniversary.

To be clear, Cuban’s the ultimate entrepreneur's entrepreneur and still commands my respect.  But he's also a shark -- and as an entrepreneur yourself, you have to ask if you want to swim in his pool.

Meanwhile, it's abundantly clear that passing on a TV deal to double down on our content, brand and audience on YouTube was without a doubt the right thing to do..

The episode taught me a few things:

-- On TV, it's all about presentation.  Online, it's really all about the content.

-- On TV, you have to fill up 22 or 48 minutes of content, meaning you need a lot of filler. Online, you learn not to waste your audience’s time. To me, it's akin to a band opening up with their best songs during a concert.

-- If something isn't broken, don't try to fix it.  We had zero intention of changing our online modus operandi to a more traditional look and feel, but if we had any inclination, the feedback was clear: Don't!

The most important lesson: Always follow your gut and bet on yourself.

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3 comments about "Lessons Of Our $100 Million Pilot".
  1. Richard Gillam from DeskSite , January 29, 2014 at 4:17 p.m.
    Hey Ashkan, I enjoyed your article and loved your summary of the differences between typical online and TV content - with respect to filler, etc. I also enjoyed your Mark Cuban story; I also pitched Mark via email when my company first started, and he also replied and eventually passed as well. I have to say how impressive it is for a guy like that to even respond, given the number of blind pitches as he must get daily...unreal. Richard
  2. Walter Sabo from SABO media , January 29, 2014 at 4:47 p.m.
    These differences ---each medium creates its own stars---were revealed to HITVIEWS clients starting in 2007. It was also explained by me personally to youtube execs in 2010 and ignored. They failed to protect their investors since we gave them the info before the 100million waste. Each medium creates its owns stars and they are discrete to the medium
  3. Ken Nicholas from MindOnMedia[Sales] , January 29, 2014 at 6:16 p.m.
    Congrats on 8 years, Ashkan! Great to see...