“We are not leaving because we didn’t make money for the company or we did a bad job. We are leaving because of pure capitalism.” via Vanity Fair.
I owe a considerable debt of gratitude to more experienced executives and entrepreneurs who, over the years, gave me some diplomatic advice as well as some tough love. While not all their counsel was necessarily on point, I always could extract essential nuggets of wisdom, and find ways to relate those both to my own roots and my ongoing journey to improve my future prospects. Now, since WatchMojo’s new venture ContextTV (Linkedin | YouTube) isn’t limited to helping only young entrepreneurs but also intrapreneurs and executives looking for a new lease on (work) life, then I’m tackling this topic which at certain points may seem harsh, but is intended to help experienced executives find a new vocation on our side of the fence in the new media world.
Help Me if You Can, I’m Feeling Down / And I Do Appreciate You Being ‘Round / Help Me Get My Feet Back on the Ground
Everywhere you look, you see old media trying to right-size their organization to better defend their turf and take on new challengers. Print media was the first to feel the impact: magazines and newspapers are mere shadows of their former selves. Radio has evolved and morphed through satellite radio and streaming services. Television and film held out, but even those titanic fields proved vulnerable to the forces of technology, first brought by the big Internet tech firms like Google, Facebook or Amazon, and more recently, by streaming giants like Netflix.
Fox Employees Brace for Disney Merger Transition, Variety wrote, as Disney prepared to swallow Fox to expand its own content library but with little use for the people that run the day-to-day. It sounds harsh, but no one needs to tell execs who’ve honed their craft in these cutthroat environments that the world is a harsh place. Ironically, inasmuch as the founders of the studios headed out west for warmer climates and to be far away from Edison’s patents, it’s as if today’s executives thought that as “gatekeepers” they would be sheltered from the tsunamis of disruption triggered by technology.
Lesson #1: Storytelling (& Understanding the Business Thereof) Will Only Grow More Valuable.
When I started WatchMojo, I told anyone who’d listen that it was less about whether content remained king, but more so that content would serve as the great differentiator to the dominant distribution platforms (those being portals at the time, but gradually video sharing platforms like YouTube, then today’s streaming giants). As such, Hollywood execs who find themselves on the receiving end of pink slips have much to offer, but where some may stumble is in conflating value with cost, while pricing themselves out of the job market. I’ve had conversations on this topic with fellow entrepreneurs, headhunters/recruiters, investors and executives in-between jobs looking for new challenges. A lot of people won’t like what I will say, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hear it.
Lesson #2: Your Old Salary at Your Old Company is Old News.
Recently I caught up with a headhunter. He told me that every meeting he emphasized to newly unemployed candidates that they shouldn’t even mention their old salaries. The media industry in particular got fat over the course of the 20th century. When well-run, media is a profitable business. While the Web’s disruptive nature sent shockwaves throughout the industry by affecting many companies and jobs, those who survived the first wave of trauma continued to trek along, largely unscathed. But, the Internet shrinks markets, and software is indeed eating the world. Those who continued on their merry way after the dot com bubble, Nasdaq crash, Lehman econocalypse, 2011 hiccup and the 2018 reset are now waking up and realizing that “hey, times have changed.”
Whereas previous shocks were externalities, the current trauma is unique to the industry (in short: technology has disrupted media, but not totally won over the world of entertainment yet) and is compounded by the fact that the power and influence of traditional gatekeepers have not only waned, but toppled. As media companies scramble to consolidate and merge to wring out efficiencies, the casualties are redundant workforces who realize that there are way too many employees earning way too much at the top, with few distinct, unique and actual tasks and roles, many of which could be merged and handled by fewer employees. There’s simply nowhere for all of them to go.
My fan club won’t grow as a result of saying any of this, but if you are affected, the sooner you embrace this, the sooner you will open a new chapter in your professional life, and develop a competitive advantage.
Lesson #3: You Don’t Need to Outrun the Bear, You Need to Outrun Your Peers.
Netflix, Google, et al. aren’t the bogeymen, they are merely convenient excuses. While applying a job-cutting hatchet to management positions isn’t pleasant or tactful on a one-off basis, doing so in a mass fashion by way of consolidation seems, ironically, more humane.
Indeed, as one FOX staffer put it: “We are not leaving because we didn’t make money for the company or we did a bad job. We are leaving because of pure capitalism.”
Here’s a word to the wise to those who are a) young enough not to retire, and b) smart enough to recognize opportunities at new media companies who survive the current reset (Buzzfeed or Vice, for example, are undergoing their own reset and likely not hiring as aggressively as they once did): again, whatever your previous total compensation was, don’t even mention it. Let me rephrase that: if you are going to mention it to anyone, sure, mention it to the founder of the company you are interviewing with or meeting because it’s helpful to know, but then don’t ever mention it to anyone else. Definitely don’t mention it to your new colleagues. They won’t be “impressed.” They will be turned off. If anything, they will resent you for it and it will hold you back from succeeding in your new role. Why?
Lesson #4: It’s Not About What You Did in the Past, It’s About What You Are Going to Do in the Future.
The world is different. Your old salary was, like a tree’s diameter, a reflection of decades of past growth. It’s not an indication of the value you will bring in the future.
As entrepreneurs, by nature we know what we don’t know. That’s why we surround ourselves with others who know different things. We see things differently. But for you to succeed, you need to fit in with an existing organization and culture that may be wary when you show up: a whole generation that doesn’t really know what you did, yet is armed with knowledge and mastery of tools and platforms that mean a lot more going forward than what your skill set is worth. By and large, young people don’t know what they don’t know. And they don’t know… a lot.
The stereotype is partly true: many come out of school expecting to be vice-presidents. And that’s those who are actually seeking employment. Then there are the “wantrepreneurs” who bypass getting any experience whatsoever, because they fancy themselves the next Mark Zuckerberg. One out of a million of those may very well be the next Zuck, but most . . . not so much. As a founder, I see your value (though I won’t match your cost/price), but my team may not. I need you to work with me to first put you in a position to earn their trust and respect. Until you do, you are simply in their way.
Lesson #5: On one hand, to Entrepreneurs: Loyalty Trumps Experience
When I started to recruit more seasoned executives, I spent a lot of time ensuring that the culture and communications stayed intact. I diplomatically respected the seniors’ contributions, but had the courage and confidence to hold my ground when I felt their requests would spill over and create issues down the road.
Most of the companies that are thriving today have workforces made up of younger people who embraced risk early on. While many of the senior executives at various companies looked towards the WatchMojos of the world with uncertainty about our prospects (“Good luck with that ‘business,’ pal”), younger people jumped on board and helped me build the business. Most CEO/founders like me will have an appreciation & loyalty towards that group. That’s the irony: back in the day people worked for an organization all their life but loyalty was hollow; today I feel that, by showing employees loyalty, they will prove loyal in return over time, and want to work for the organization, even though they can move around.
Lesson #6: The Adage of “It’s Not What You Know but Who You Know” Isn’t Really True Anymore.
Your Rolodex is impressive, and sure, that’s partly why you are valuable to an entrepreneur, but with many of your peers no longer actually in those positions, its value is therefore iffy at best. I learned that quickly in 2005. I left my position at a company to start a company. It’s not like I held some supreme position of power, but it was clear that some of my “power” was rooted in the position. As an entrepreneur, I had to start anew. Thus, when I meet an executive in-between jobs, I’m not as wowed by their contacts as they are. It’s every person for themselves.
Lesson #7: Understand Just How Much Things Will be Different.
That Variety article closes off with: “Maybe they’re not sitting in a high-paying job at one of the studios,” says Vogel. “Maybe they’re at a startup. And maybe your lunch tab and first-class travel aren’t coming out of the company’s pocket — it’s coming out of your own pocket.” Here’s the thing: if you have business lunches to take and places to travel, you will already be ahead of the game. Why? Demand and supply are a reality, and there are simply way too many veterans entering the free agent market.
Lesson #8: Entrepreneurs Aren’t Perfect, but We See the Good in Everyone and Everything.
We don’t mind bending our salary structures to reflect experience but to expect new businesses to pay someone to reflect the economic realities of Disney or Fox (or Google, etc.) is both fantasy and self-defeating.
As founders, we don’t have egos. We are not territorial. We know that the skills you developed over the years could definitely come handy in training, educating and coaching the armies of younger soldiers we have recruited.
We want to win, so we recognize that if we want to move from being the Minnesota Twins to being the New York Yankees, we need to sign a free agent or two. But, firstly, there are quite simply way too many free agents on the market. And secondly, when the dust settles, adding you to the mix will have spill-overs towards others who will likely be around long after you leave for the next chapter in your life. What we may not be able to offer in salary, we can more than make up elsewhere. We can ensure that you have an insane amount of work/life/play balance in your life, which by now you have probably come to appreciate.
Eric Schmidt put it best: when someone asks you if you want to join a rocket ship, don’t haggle over the seat (title) or price of admission (salary), get on the rocket ship and enjoy the ride… because as much as new companies are “growth engines,” another thing we entrepreneurs realize is that you can have too many cooks in the kitchen. So space is limited.
Help us, help you, help (all of) us. In the meantime, follow ContextTV (Linkedin | YouTube) for more advice and tough love to create work/life/balance. If you have read this far, watch my colleague and I discuss this some more and provide some anecdotes.