A key tenet of Context is King is transparency. Another is truthfulness. Today the prospects for entrepreneurs are wildly different; but the challenges remain the same.
Writing, like dreaming, helps process information and cope with one’s emotions. When I wrote my third book The 10-Year Overnight Success, we had celebrated a milestone and I needed to walk the line between “greed” and “fear” – the ongoing balance between risk-taking and risk-mitigating that an entrepreneur is always recalibrating.
Roots of PTSD in Corporations: Unreasonable People & Demands
One of the many crossroads I faced was recruiting more senior C-level executives, a handful of industry peers who had more experience than me, worked in larger media organizations and whom I felt, mainly, could further develop and groom by co-founding vice-presidents, whom I had hired out of school and developed into strong contributors, but who by their own admission lacked the kind of management skills more seasoned executives had.
I’ll cover the recruiting, hiring, managing of senior execs later, but overall it was a positive experience that played a part in elevating the company to where we are today, but also admittedly came with its own challenges, struggles, frustrations, limitations and drawbacks for a company of our pedigree and evolution. If you are a more senior executive and looking for tips on how to be more successful in a new position, read this.
Over that period, a couple of those more senior executives referenced their own post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is defined as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.” Suffice to say I would never cast my challenges and trials in that description. I recognize that today I am in the group of 1%, but as we’d discuss their corporate experiences and I’d listen, I could see the toll that corporate life had on individuals. Growth at any costs, layoffs with little remorse, decisions with not much thought given to their recourse.
Hearing others talk about their own PTSD opened my eyes to the awesome culture we’d created at WatchMojo, but as time went by and I recollected those conversations, I would be hearing echoes of my own trauma, which is defined as “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.”
I feel your pain
From 2000-05, I was an executive and minority shareholder at AskMen working for an overall good guy who helped me a lot in becoming the executive and entrepreneur that I am today. As all entrepreneurs and humans are: he had his flaws. He wasn’t perfect but as far as bosses go, he was fine; a bit demanding but as a driven individual, I was quite fine with that tenor and mood. I was appreciative of the opportunity then and once I launched WatchMojo empathized with the stress that a leader of an organization goes through.
We’ve all had demanding bosses, but in the context of a PTSD article, what is pertinent here was his tendency to emphasize the bad as a master of hindsight and MMQB’ing. I’ve always learned how to do better by studying others’ good and bad traits. Trying to avoid that, at WatchMojo we have the #LiveAndLearn mindset where we discuss things and move on. It’s possible because I didn’t have a gang of investors on my back pushing me subconsciously to scapegoat my team, which invariably happens in such contexts.
Any chance I get, I emphasize the good in people but if we’re going to be truthful and transparent in an article on PTSD, I admit that my tenure there caused me much stress as a young twenty-something. WatchMojo’s statement of purpose is Here to Serve; when you are always trying to please others, seeing people’s displays of ungratefulness had a compound, negative effect.
The silver lining which led me to be a far better manager when I launched WatchMojo, constantly focusing on the good and using the bad as lessons to draw from and build upon.
I’m not perfect, no one is, but show me any founder who works with the same 4 co-founders (one of whom is my awesome wife) 15 years after launching the business, and I will show you the value of temperament and diplomacy, character and integrity.
No Rest for the… Driven
WatchMojo is the house that YouTube built – something I’ve covered in my format/platform fit analysis and when YouTube became our favored trading partner. YouTube galvanized its grip on video and media throughout the 2010s, replacing TV as the leading consumption platform (arguably alongside Netflix). If ESPN and MTV had built their brands on cable, we had done so on YouTube.
From 2012 to 2018, YouTube’s policy changes were a roller coaster ride which was both long-term stabilizing, but near-term turbulent. It was cleaning up its catalog, increased its brand safety standards, continued to change its copyright and DMCA policies which invariably had unintended consequences. From the introduction to the 10-Year Overnight Success:
On Sunday, December 20th, 2013, I was standing by my then five-year-old daughter Roxy in Montreal’s Rockland Center, waiting for her to meet Santa Claus. I was eager to get the meet and greet over with and head home to tend to the comments on our most recently-published video, when I got a spate of emails from our fans informing me that our WatchMojo YouTube channel was down. It was numbing, but not entirely surprising.
Earlier in the week, YouTube had updated its ContentID copyright policies and parameters. As a result, some of our videos which featured music clips and movie excerpts had been flagged. We’d immediately reached out to the various rights holders—all of whom proceeded to retract claims—but unbeknownst to me YouTube’s overtaxed copyright department had not processed the retractions in time and, on that Sunday afternoon, our channel went down for a period of 21 hours. Our million-plus subscribers were confused and alarmed, turning to social media sites like Twitter to wonder why “YouTube had killed WatchMojo.” It was flattering to see people actually cared about us.
Except in the moment I was numb. My wife Christine had taken my other, younger, daughter Maya to one of the stores in the mall. If I could name it, I’d be lying. I stood there patiently waiting to meet Santa Claus like any great parent would, but knowing that every second mattered, I couldn’t help but want to hightail it outta there. When our fans went to our channel, they’d see that it was effectively “terminated due to copyright violations.” I thought of comedian Chris Rock’s line about a cop stopping a black driver and accusing them of having stolen the car.
“Get out the car, get out of the fucking car! You stole this car,” he’d tell audiences. “l'm like, ‘damn, maybe I did.’”
I looked down at Roxy’s adorable round face and pleaded, “I think Santa Claus is going to be late, maybe we can go home?” To my utter shock and dismay, Roxy acquiesced. If there’s one thing I love more than reasonable adults, it’s reasonable children.
Ambition is one Hell of a Drug
Born in Iran in 1978, my relationship with my roots is complicated. As a student of history, I had been drawn to Alexander the Great as the most influential secular figure in history. Alexander’s ambitions fuelled his exploits, but ultimately led to his premature death one month shy of his 33rd birthday in 323 BC. Alexander had many influences: his father Philip and the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great who predated him by three hundred years and was known for his generosity, wisdom, better temperament, fairness and sense of justice who is famous for freeing the Jewish captives in Babylonia and allowing them to return to their homeland (more in my series on Insecurities).
As side note, I realize people may think I look up to Alexander – and I don’t blame them – but while I find Alexander to be a fascinating person, he was a deeply flawed person who not only wore down his soldiers but also killed him top lieutenants, driven by hubris and blind ambition. The man lacked balance, and worse, could not manage people or places for his life. He could, however, fight and never lost a battle. The person I have always earnestly tried to base my worldview on was more Cyrus the Great, through granted, he may be a bit more boring than Alexander, an interesting “character” of sorts in a movie or TV show, so to speak. I concluded that article by adding: and yes, I have some of his influences in some of my comedy, drama, and dramedy projects in development.
Back to the script, another influence of Alexander’s was Achilles, the central character in the Iliad and the greatest of Greek warriors who was strong, resilient but who succumbed with an arrow to his heel. For WatchMojo viewers: he was profiled in the movie Troy.
As a resilient and durable person with masochist tendencies, it was not lost on me that even the most ardent of warriors have an Achilles Heel.
Gratitude vs Expectations
As the 2010s were ending, I began to reflect on how much we’d accomplished throughout the decade and shifted from focusing on what we hadn’t accomplished, to what we had, which began to soften some of things that kept me up at night. I discussed the merits of focusing on gratitude over expectations in a video with the WatchMojo lady, Rebecca.
A Lethal Cocktail?
Entrepreneurs are misunderstood. In our own way, the root of entrepreneurship is idealism and independence, wanting to do it your way. The tonic is drive and ambition.
I was a reluctant entrepreneur who eventually started a company to treat stakeholders the way I felt they ought to be treated. The opening of my first book Course To Success references Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher who put employees first, clients second, followed by shareholders.
With such lofty ideals in mind, I began to dream of WatchMojo in 2005 before launching officially on January 23rd 2006 – nearly fifteen years ago.
Today, something happened that triggered the successive sources of trauma I experienced then. More on what that was below.
First Strike: Frivolous lawsuit
Starting a business is hard. Most fail in their first year. You have certain (i.e. guaranteed) costs with rather unpredictable revenues, if any. I knew we’d lose money – the first startup I worked at, meta search engine Mamma, had $38 (not a typo) in revenues in year 1. I think WatchMojo did something like $50,000 in 2006 with losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What exacerbated the challenge early on wasn’t any operational matter, but the sheer pettiness my old boss and his new backers at IGN Entertainment (today IGN is a unit of Ziff Davis; at the time, it had been acquired by News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch). Having caught on to the web & social media, he had bought Intermix (parent of MySpace) first for $580 million, followed by IGN for $650 million.
When I got their meritless initial cease & desist letter accusing me of violating my non-compete, I reached out initially as I am prone to do rather diplomatically. Knowing I was right on the merits but didn’t need to open up a litigation front, I asked them to propose any reasonable resolution.
One of them accidentally replied to all and called me a “putz.” I didn’t hear further until their counsel insisted that nothing but a full cessation of any operations would suffice.
A Declaration of War Merits a War Measures Act
Judging by my early interests in history (particularly Ancient Times and the 20th century) and my biographical research on military planners, I write vividly in war-like analogies despite my utter hatred for war and its atrocities.
Despite clearly not competing with my old employer, for reasons that remain petty and vindictive, I was served with an injunction in March 2006, which led to a trial in May of that year. Despite having zero legal training and experience, I studied injunctions over a period of 48-72 hours and proceeded to annihilate the aggressors, routing them. That I represented myself and took on the then-president of the bar association was a nice accomplishment; today he’s a judge.
Meanwhile, they retreated back to their camp, but insisted on maintaining the charade.
There are many means of war. I’m sure others have spent more time breaking those down, but a back-of-the-envelope breakdown would look like this (what am I missing?)
Trauma from Trial
As a masochist and competitor, sure, I was up to the task to the point of writing about it and taunting them publicly while I mounted my defense and legal counter-attack. But I’d be lying if I said 2006 was fun and easy.
Have you ever had something the next day that made you nervous, anxious, restless and unable to sleep? Or something that crept in your dreams as you try to sleep? Personally, when that happens, I can’t wait to face it the next day mainly to gate it and come out on the other side. But that day, you are fatigued and once the source of unease is done, relieved in a tired way.
Now imagine living that every night, from March 2006 until some time in early 2007 when the matter settled. The trade consisted of, in essence:
- Team Murdoch promise to leave me alone,
- Team WatchMojo stops writing about it publicly. Granted, on the legal front I now had proof of them committing perjury in addition to being confident of prevailing at the merits.
While my former AskMen “teammates” never had the decency to apologize or acknowledge matters, all of FOX’s units ended up licensing our content: IGN, Hulu, MySpace and so on. It was a small victory but a traumatic experience. I’m happy I did it once, but wouldn’t want to do it again.
Ronnie James Dio once said if you keep waiting for an apology from people who don’t have the decency or intellectual honesty to offer one, you will only harm yourself. Eventually, I moved on.
(I took down most of my writings from the trial, but I suppose one day I will cover the Xs and Os of the lawsuit in greater detail, as it was a very educational experience in the areas of labor law, injunctions, etc).
The silver lining? More confidence in navigating legal quagmires that foreshadowed my 2010s. I also learned that the words that you agree to on a signed document are half the equation, the people you sign those documents with count as much. Dishonest people will find ways to disagree, honest people overcome any disagreement.
Second Shock: Financial Losses and Going Broke
Before I could enjoy the legal “victory,” I was already losing sleep over something else: money, ironic, since I’ve never been particularly driven by money or material things. I tell aspiring entrepreneurs, I was only fortunate enough to make money because I didn’t care about money. That’s another way of saying think of where you need to be in 3 years, instead of chasing the near-term profits, because in economic terms, near-term profits draw competition, which erodes profit margins. After all, things that scale overnight aren’t necessarily sustainable, and things that are sustainable don’t scale overnight.
But at the time, exacerbated from the legal conflict, our finances were increasingly in disarray. One reason why I was grateful to AskMen is that in 2000 when I joined the online magazine, my net worth was zero to negative. By 2005, heading up the company’s revenue efforts and writing my heart out, I had saved a few hundred thousand dollars via income, commission, bonuses and the proceeds of the sale to IGN. Small sums in New York City or San Fran, but a warchest in Montreal (or so I thought). In 2005, Silicon Valley remained active in startup financings; NYC was rising into the behemoth it has grown today. Montreal was moribund as Toronto had become the greater center of commerce, though that also meant that Toronto’s higher cost of living and opportunity cost made Montreal a better eventual hub for startups, that need lower startup costs to survive.
By December 2007, I ran out of money. December of that year was a bruising period in my life. My wife was pregnant with our eldest daughter (after having experienced a miscarriage – something I opened up about in the 10-Year Overnight Success as well, taboo then, but since become more discussed).
I was exploring bringing on a fellow successful B2B software entrepreneur as investor & COO. He was exploring the opportunity along with a venture capital group in Toronto. VCs didn’t like content, but this one was considering backing us based on this entrepreneur’s decision.
December in Montreal is painful. Toronto is supposement milder, but with the city nestled on Lake Ontario, the winds are punishing. We made it to Toronto one brutal morning to meet the VC group and discuss a partnership. As idealistic people who see the world as half-full are prone to do, I thought it went well and returned excited.
The next morning, they both passed, not understanding the revenue model around content (a common refrain).
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.”
Entrepreneurship is a series of wins and losses, intertwined with one another. I used to say
“if you wake up to good news, don’t let it get to your head but enjoy it, because the law of averages means bad news is coming… and if you get bad news, don’t sweat it too much, because if you get worse news, you will miss that initial state of mind.”
And yes, I consider myself to be an optimistic!
By coincidence, today I had to visit my old condo, where WatchMojo was effectively founded. As I walked around, I stood by the window looking across the street… I had a flashback thirteen years ago to that December 2007.
What happened on that corner?
Fresh off a legal victory, we had secured a moral one by signing a deal in the summer of 2007 with Murdoch’s MySpace unit and managed to command “MGs” (minimum guarantees), but to proceed with the contract, we needed to obtain Errors and Omissions insurance, something other platforms like YouTube did not require. By this point, YouTube’s embeddable player had proliferated on MySpace – then the #1 social network.
By going viral, YouTube emerged as the largest video platform and second largest search engine. MySpace was now Murdoch’s who wanted to “kill YouTube.” Fox being a big media company required things like E&O insurance which YouTube (as a more nascent platform) did not.
Problem? In 2007 if you told an insurance company you published videos on the internet, the natural reaction was to presume you were in porn. It didn’t help that we had a shiny red couch in our earliest of videos, but I digress. It was hard enough to explain the usage and protection we needed, it was harder to pay for it. I was broke, there was no way I could see making payroll in 2007, let alone coming up with the premium. Eventually I found a provider willing to underwrite the E&O insurance, but had no funds left. It was right before Christmas, as time was of the essence, he agreed to come by our condo so we could kick in the MGs by January. I met him on that corner and used a cash advance VISA check. Debt underwrote us from 2008 to 2011.
The revenue from the deal wasn’t as large as I’d hoped, but the MGs eventually kicked in and helped. We got to see another day. I’ll spare you the travails from 2007-2011 when we finally broke even – but it was more of the same, and chronicled in the 10-Year Overnight Success.
Third Trauma: Platform Turbulence
An entrepreneur’s success hinges on a modicum of vision, a good amount of ambition, excellent execution skills, above all else persistence, various amounts of luck and timing, focus once you nail product/market (or in our world platform/format), and of course resiliency. The first 6 I first referenced in a 2012 article I published for TechCrunch, reposted here on Context Is King in the TechCrunch archives. I added Focus after we made our four big bets. Resiliency got inducted into this hall of fame in the year of the pandemic.
When I speak to students at colleges, I tell them that despite the challenge du jour – today a pandemic but previously the great depression and 2000 market crash – there remains opportunity.
The best builders found opportunities in threats, turned weaknesses into strength. Critics pointed to our distribution on YouTube as a weakness and fair use reliance as a threat – both proved to be pillars of our success.
Timing: Being Right Too Early = Being Wrong
I am ultimately blessed to have graduated, ironically, in 1999: the finance world was decimated by the triple effects of the Nasdaq crashing, the dot com bubble bursting and 9/11 (keep 9/11 in mind if you read my forthcoming article on Insecurities in the days to come).
The Web’s hype had burst, and only the misfits, rebels and outcasts would remain in the industry or be drawn to it. It was a great time!
While boneheadedly deciding not to invest in Google at its IPO, I understood Google’s dexterity, prowess and might to know that with YouTube under its wing, the platform would be unstoppable. I was generally more bullish on YouTube than YouTube’s own executives were; whom I am sure could write a piece or two on PTSD themselves.
At the onset, we embraced hyper-distribution like most others in our cohort group.
My Achilles Heel?
Today WatchMojo is known for mashup countdown top 10 lists ranking the best movies, TV shows and gaming. When we made our big bets, music was arguably the first anchor.
As a user, I mainly listened to music all the time on the platform. When we launched, few were producing videos like ours, which caught the attention of the record labels. We first worked in partnership with UMG, WMG, Sony and BMG doing interviews of then-unknown artists like Justin Bieber, moving on to doing biographies of popular celebrities to mark new releases, to eventually focusing on top 10s – be it artist specific or on a given theme.
A writer and biographer at heart, looking back it’s clear that I was channeling the soundtrack of my life through my creation to introduce my musical influences to new fans. The labels loved us, and it was all good.
Does Money Ruin All Good Things?
I’m an ethical capitalist, I see the good and bad in all ideologies. YouTube would have not survived anywhere else but within Google. But after Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition in 2006, it was clear that eventually, Google would focus on monetization. Wisely, Google took its time, then adopted a scorched earth policy.
YouTube’s early team was admittedly not very realistic, forecasting $20 CPMs when the real number was in fact closer to $1.
To fend off litigation from NBC Universal and Viacom, YouTube launched ContentID, which I compare to nuclear energy – it makes a ton of sense, but could go off the rails and if abused, deadly.
Eventually, I expanded on the system (here is the Fair Use archives) that had caused me so much anguish and frustration, both for educational purposes and as a public relations deterrent effort with the right mix of diplomacy, confidence, assertiveness, and hint of crazy!
Caught in the Crossfire
Traditional rights holders viewed Google as a frenemy and YouTube as the hostile, dependent family member of said frenemy. That dynamic, ironically, helped us tremendously. I’ve compared WatchMojo’s evolution to that of MTV and ESPN, as YouTube replaced television. Viacom not embracing YouTube helped open up the field, as some of our content wasn’t that dissimilar than what you’d see on VH1.
Labels were blindsided by Napster, began to cut costs, and by the 2010s had a more nuanced relationship with YouTube due to ContentID, which they knew could give them a back door access to YouTube’s boundaryless web of videos, many of which were music (I’d say YouTube was built on music and gaming, although UGC and DYI may have been its soul).
Labels loved us.
YouTube liked us.
Labels didn’t love YouTube.
We were in the way.
It was that simple. Managing YouTube was like finding myself in a Mexican standoff.
I managed to tame ContentID and YouTube’s insanely illogic application of the DMCA. Note I didn’t say “interpretation.” On a couple of occasions, I had to dramatically escalate matters but with YouTube, I never wanted to embarrass them. With others, I had sometimes no choice but to go public, since legal threats would be like shooting a water gun at a raging inferno.
I like to think I’ve always been fair, respectful and mainly, realistic with YouTube and their brass: it’s the world’s greatest website which is caught between a rock and a hard place. If WatchMojo is my second family, work-wise the folks at YouTube emerged as our distant relatives, aka most favored nation (we didn’t have a corporate owner or venture investor, after all).
But it was bruising. I had showered my adversaries with a litany of ammo (i.e. precedents) to put down any threats, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t under constant fire.
The Struggle Within
If entrepreneurs are eternal optimists; we’re also perpetually paranoid.
Looking back, I spent a new year’s at a resort physically with my family in Mexico, but mentally with Adele, fearing her label would “strike us.”
During a spring break vacation, I was effectively “hanging with Drake,” worried that a publishing unit would lower the boom on us. Truth was the law was on our side and technically I was probably a tad over-paranoid… but the bottom line was, for 2,000 straight nights from 2012 to 2018, I went to bed worrying about frivolous claims and waking up scanning my emails looking for notifications. YouTube was the main culprit, but this image from Facebook’s equally byzantine “system” says it all:
How is this fair or just?
Walking the fine line…
I frequently say that humans walk the fine line between
- good vs evil
- risk vs return
- greed vs fear
But sometimes, those binary options bleed into one. Over time, I separated risk from fear, thanks to a chat with my counterpart at YouTube (#Defcon1).
Fair use was a moderate risk, for sure, but largely manageable and largely: in my head, self-imposed. All me. Not just “all me” in
1) the “inside of my head” sense,
but also “all me” meaning
2) I was voluntarily covering music which represented 99% of my headaches but ironically its rightsholders had essentially confirmed were helpful. No harm, no damages, no copyright infringement.
The labels had also admitted that their ongoing use of ContentID against us was more a means to achieve a business objective, and not actually as copyright management tool (this merits a separate article but was critical in me managing my anxiety better).
3) I fed off the intellectual debate and legal challenge, which was crazy considering…
All entrepreneurs are masochists, but some are more masochist than others
… I am not a lawyer! Naturally I’d researched and spoken with a handful to dozen of skilled lawyers over the years, but I would largely manage the escalated matters myself.
To that effect, I was effectively a boxer, a pugilist.
I was playing competitive amateur soccer and a prolific striker who was always subconsiously planning moves and counter-moves against parties who were egregiously over-stepping the law, abetted by YouTube’s ContentID.
The real combat was the one inside the ContentID ring.
The frustrating part was WatchMojo and the labels always had great relationships, and WatchMojo and YouTube had a fine relationship, but being caught in between due to YouTube’s open platform nature meant we were always caught in the crossfire.
Things would get worse before they got better.
Layers of Insanity
In 2017, I made a decision that to this day makes a ton of sense, but which would compound the stress to come. The details are for another day.
In 2018, I was in Mexico City meeting our WatchMojo Español partners (great city, great people, great country, great community) when I got a call from YouTube.
Their new ContentID rules posed a possible risk and would increase the volume of claims in a material manner, but the actual outcome was admittedly TBD. One thing I have learned to manage my emotions is to avoid getting too caught up in eventualities. Yes it’s good to plan ahead and only the paranoid survive, but at my level it was obviously unhealthy.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that while no one ever really doubts my intentions, sometimes the perception misses the mark.
The difference between intention and perception are your words, actions, and deeds. Many times I would frustrate my counterparts at YouTube, and for that I would humbly apologize when need be, but the reality was I had the well-being of fifty people (directly) on my mind as well as another hundred-plus freelancers (whom I have always considered as part of the extended family).
The stakes were different, but I do recognize and empathize the trauma that YouTube staff felt as the platform blasted off into an orbit, when for example a creator attacked the YouTube HQ. Creator burnout had become a bigger reality, and while I didn’t suffer from burnout from the same causes, the pressures were intense.
We’re all driven by insecurities. Good and bad. Conscious or subconscious.
As I grew older, I also realized how much I reveled in the underdog role. The outsider. In all of my scripted projects in development, that is the one, common denominator.
I was always moved by injustice and inequality and thus driven to help the underdog. Frequently I will connect people who apply for part-time or full-time work with colleagues. Very few people gave me opportunities so I over-compensated once “successful” to help others, which isn’t as obvious as it sounds (another day, another article)
The Paradox of Success
As we grew more successful, I understood that we were also wealthier off, thanks to YouTube’s money machine. But since I was never driven by money, to me that was a hollow victory. By the time we turned a profit, my paranoia and sources of trauma had shifted from shutting down due to
a) a lawsuit from Fox, to
b) running out of money, to
c) ContentID wrecking us by virtue of being knocked off a platform that was always treading the line between “confidence interval” and “margin of error.”
The Paradox of Pain
Non-stop, going back fifteen years. But, being resilient and a masochist, it was somewhat of a turn-on and high, as well.
For fifteen years, I also traveled non-stop. The pandemic changed everyone’s schedules and routines. As I reflect on a record 2020 fiscal year and process my thoughts and emotions, I realize that in hindsight, while I was highlighting the irony and hypocrisy of ContentID, I was actually channeling my senses of injustice and unfairness to
i) having been induced by larger media companies – notably the labels – to help promote their releases and artists;
ii) invested blood, sweat and tears to hire accordingly to serve them;
iii) did a great job at it (in 2014, WatchMojo was the 7th largest channel based on subscribers added and views generated; and we have been one of the top 100 channels globally for a decade now);
iv) then saw Youtube open up a nuclear weapon which rights holders – but also equally intermediaries who were mandated to manage rights on behalf of rights holders – weaponized in unlawful ways to encroach on our rights.
You want uncomfortable war analogies? YouTube had opened up its weapons of mass destruction to parties who were now using it against us.
I suppose subconsciously, I felt a sense of:
- hypocrisy given YouTube’s own history in alleged piracy.
- injustice since by and large the underlying rights holders supported us and/or were unlikely to sue us let alone prevail: our videos were not only prima facie fair use, but since a copyright infringement case is step 1 of a subsequent larger question of what the damages (if any) were. After all, the purpose of copyright is to promote the arts & sciences. Fair use, by way of criticism, commentary, parody, news and so on further promoted the arts and sciences.
The Paradox of Partnerships
WatchMojo may have been the house that YouTube built, but it was also what could have kill us, even though increasingly, the platform was becoming more stable (though prone to glitches and so on). While the risk was a valid one, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t as material as I’d maybe made it to be, as the quintessential paranoid type.
Throughout, I defended the organization and put down most of the attacks, some in more colorful and creative ways than others. It was a high, which also made any rights holder even consider a frivolous action asking whether the investment in costs and time would merit it, since I would likely just have fun and view it as a learning experience. Once a student, always a student.
But, that drive and ambition to succeed came at a toll.
The Ultimate Sin: Sheltering
To win the war, you must pick and choose your battles.
In March 2018, I turned 40. By then, it was clear that certain rights holders supported us more than others. It just made sense to put down my sword and stop the cat-and-mouse game we was playing with those who were less open to fair use: the music establishment.
I won’t lie, when I saw YouTube hire former Universal (Def Jam) and Warner Music Group exec Lyor Cohen as its head of music to better serve the labels’ needs as legitimate key partners and compete against Spotify, I knew what was to come. Don’t get me wrong, we still cover music and remain very proud of our massive back catalog of music editorial spanning genres, decades, artists. But, my approach changed: I had done what I sought out to do – as a music fan, historian/biographer, entrepreneur, defender of media’s rights – continuing that fight meant possibly harming WatchMojo, and sacrificing my team’s well-being. Sometimes, you win the war, you have to pick and choose your battles.
I wasn’t only a big music fan, I was also very much into sports, counting NFL running back Barry Sanders as one of the greatest athletes I’d seen in any position, at any sport. No one could catch him: he was elusive, you’d think he’d never gotten hit. But obviously, the hits pile up. He retired at a relatively young age, walking away from it all at the peak of his abilities, realizing there are bigger things in life. I never seriously contemplated walking away from it all, partly because I am responsible for many people’s livelihoods. But I did realize that like Sanders, the status quo wasn’t really sustainable nor healthy. I had the privilege to find a middle ground.
It’s not a life for all, entrepreneurship, but it’s a life I will gladly take.
They say entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.
This year, the pandemic actually brought me further clarity, ridding me of needless complexity. Donald Rumsfeld would say that you don’t go to war with the army you want, but the army you have. I would add that I saw the benefits of a smaller, tight-knit army that shared a common goal and beliefs, with the kind of commitment and work ethic required to win the war.
Personally, as my daughters turn 12 and 10, I acknowledge – like many during this pandemic – how much I traveled and chased an elusive goal that was always right here, before me.