Commentary

To Succeed In Content Biz, Stay True To Your Vision

Last week, I discussed and outlined the business rules that have served as the foundation to most of my licensing deals.  Mind you, as much as we've walked to the beat of our own drum, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that we'd implicitly been at the mercy of others in two ways.

For one, we were producing a lot of lifestyle-oriented programming that we often licensed to other media companies, who in turn wanted to create "push" inventory to in turn serve their own CPG clients.

Second, we were producing the type of content that would-be acquirers were telling me they were seeking to acquire in corporate development deals.

Going back to 2006, everyone -- and I mean everyone, from TheStreet, to CBS, CNET, Yahoo, and MSNBC --  at one point or another looked at acquiring WatchMojo, with those talks usually spawning out of some kind of initial, more arms'-length discussion about a business partnership.  I won't even get into the sea of talks we had with institutional investors over the years.  In any case, the strategics (other media companies) may have been picking my brains while studying the online video market. But assuming what they were telling me was truthful, they were also intrigued by our production model -- and, as more than one person said, the fact that I was one of the few content executives able to read a P&L statement.

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Mind you, it was one dead-end discussion after another, often due to some externality (NBC and Microsoft divorcing, or CBS buying CNET, or an executive leading a given deal leaving, etc.). 

As much as I cherished our independence, subconsciously I sought a bigger platform.  By entertaining all of those discussions -- and in all honesty, occasionally spearheading and driving them -- I was delaying giving my company a shot to succeed on its own merits.  Considering I was a finance guy before I became a content guy, that may have been normal.  Mind you, the online video market was also pretty embryonic, so it wasn't like the opportunity cost of focusing on a deal was hurting us too much.

But, by the time the last talks ended, something had changed.  A lot, in fact -- especially the market, which was becoming more mature, with anew tide of competitors entering. I used to think that raising investments would give us more street cred, but eventually I realized that wasn't true.  Similarly, I'd lost the desire to do a deal with the strategics just for the sake of doing a deal.  Suddenly, I realized being part of a bigger platform was overrated, too (it was neither good nor bad in and of itself).

They say insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  I don't know if I was insane because I was greenlighting the same range of content and expecting a different result, or because I kept holding talks that in the end went nowhere.  But the thing is, unless you keep doing the same thing over and over, how do you ever notice a positive result? 

Before long, I admitted to myself that I had to stop producing what others wanted us to produce and focus on what I wanted to produce.  The vanity of saying our clients were so-and-so didn't matter much anymore, if I didn't produce what I really cared about. Again, that was possible with a maturing market.

Nowadays, I get a lot of content companies and executives coming to me saying, "We have produced this or that, do you want to distribute it?" We all need to find distribution somewhere.  But eventually, you find an opening where you can break free and do your own thing, on your own terms. 

Now, don't get me wrong. We ourselves rely increasingly on YouTube today, while last year we counted on others.  But better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

In the end, being an entrepreneur in the content business means having to compromise all the time. But eventually, regardless of what you do on a day-to-day basis, you see a light at the end of the tunnel that's actually not an oncoming train. 

Pay attention to that light and drop everything else that is a distraction.  Run in a straight line toward it and don't look back.

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