The following is an excerpt from my 3rd book: The 10-Year Overnight Success An Entrepreneur’s Manifesto: How WatchMojo Built The Most Successful Media Brand On YouTube. Published in fall 2016, it captured a decade’s journey and published at a moment in time when we’d experienced an amazing 3-year run growing from 10,000 subscribers to 10,000,000. We’d just been hacked – which wasn’t fatal in near-term but certainly hacked away at our growth rates. But that came with a silver lining. I’m posting something soon on the “state of YouTube” and instead of repeating most of this in that post, I figured I would publish the excerpt and link back to it. If you like it, get the whole book on Amazon!

The Benefits Of Competition

It was clear that anyone and everyone would start to pump out lists, with clickbaity titles and racy thumbnails, either based on our most successful clips or tabloid topics that would grab people’s attention. Some of the more brazen ones adopted that approach, while others didn’t enter a downward spiral but instead just began doing lists. At YouTube’s 2016 Brandcast, I ran into Complex’s Scott Cherkin, we exchanged pleasantries and he half-joked that he was telling his team to focus on doing Top 10s. I don’t think he was kidding, and it wasn’t like he needed my permission to begin with!

To paraphrase Gordon Gekko; competition is good. Competition is right, competition works. Competition clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Competition in all of its forms; for life, money, love and knowledge has pushed the upward surge of mankind.

Earlier, when I wrote that, unlike tech, content isn’t a zero-sum game, it doesn’t mean that as a content producer you can coast on your success and assume that the sun will rise again tomorrow. In the media world, everyone’s always vying for attention, whether it’s content in the newspapers you picked up from the newsstand, the magazines you read, the radio station you stopped on, the channels you switched to, and even the website you visit. On YouTube it’s much the same, but we never devised a strategy for the numbers. We created content we liked and we felt completed our catalog. Did we ever think that the “Top 10 Influential Religious Figures” would do better than sex, drugs, and violence?

Of course not.

As new channels pushed the envelope fighting for clicks, we had to decide if we’d follow suit, or stay true to our content while paying attention to things like analytics and metadata we’d historically chose to de-emphasize.

When Buzzfeed began to take off, I sensed that companies like Vice or Complex had to decide whether they’d turn into one big cat listicle (to be fair, Buzzfeed is much more than that). But they didn’t. They may have taken cues but they stuck to their guns. Over the years I’d gotten to know Complex’s CEO Rich Antoniello, who was one of the smartest guys in the industry. Most CEOs may have been tempted to take the brand they’d built and take it downstream, chasing clicks and scale for scale’s sake and rendering the business worthless in the process. Maybe that’s why Complex decided to cash in and sell to Verizon/Hearst, in what turned out to be a great outcome for everyone involved. A part of me regretted not finding a way to join forces, but given the firm’s roots—it was founded by Mark Ecko, and the company had acquired the remains of OnNetworks, one of our earlier competitors who’d raised too much cash and misspent most of it—I sensed that it had a complicated cap table and investors who were wary of doling out big money for another male-oriented brand. A cap (or capitalization) table, for the record, is simply who owns how much of the company.

As Complex was a brand with a representation business, I looked up to Antoniello and Cherkin in many ways, but I’d ultimately wanted to build a better Vice Media: one main brand (in all fairness, Vice does have sister brands, but 99% of the value is baked into Vice).

In any case, with regards to competition, much of the internal and external issues we had came from being one of the largest channels. I was in typical zenmaster mode, happy to see other channels do Top 10s because suddenly it would become more transparent as to how much work went into each list. And to those with less of an ethical sensitivity, it would be clear how much we held back and didn’t chase clicks and views at any cost.

It made sense, given our history:

  • At 100K subscriptions, we wanted to establish CREDIBILITY. We did that.
  • At 1M subscriptions, we became a leader in this type of content and wanted to establish being the ultimate AUTHORITY in ranking pop culture by reducing errors and avoiding being accused of clickbait titles. We did that.
  • At 5M subscriptions, we wanted to project the same banter and fun we had when deciding the lists, so we showed a bit more PERSONALITY.

But at 10M subscribers and beyond, we sought PERFECTION; to ensure every title was fair and accurate, that every entry made sense, that our criteria was detailed and well explained, and that the conclusions tied things up in a pretty bow for our audience. In some ways, we became worried about offending a vocal minority. But this is the Internet, and accidentally offending people is par for the course.

We got better in an academic sense, but we’re not Scientific American. We provide entertainment, but became too rigid when coming up with titles, choosing topics, etc., to avoid being accused of being wrong, unfair, or incomplete.

We were here to inform and entertain, not get caught up in our own heads or bogged down by the rules we set.

So it was now going to be all about SIMPLICITY.

If you enjoyed, get the whole book on Amazon!