Yesterday we looked at how companies can avoid dying through innovation, risk-taking. Today we look at the method to the madness of our series of bold bets which paid off.

In 2016, I was meeting with Time Inc. to explore a partnership. In essence, they wanted to buy WatchMojo to gain a popular digital brand that resonated with younger audiences. Additionally, we were exploring “video-fying” their core brands – Fortune, Time, People, etc. 

I read Henry Luce’s biography called The Publisher. From the 10-Year Old Overnight Success:

Luce had launched Time in 1923, which went on to become quite the success. He then launched Fortune in 1929, which also went on to become an institution. Eventually he capitalized on the rise of photography by buying a magazine called Life in 1936 to acquire the naming rights, which he then remade into his vision. It went on to become the most successful magazine of its era, before it was phased out in 1972. While reading The Publisher, I recognized that WatchMojo carried such goodwill—or brand equity—and commanded such a passionate audience, that I needed to let it realize its full potential. 

If I was getting too complacent or comfortable to do more, then I should hand off the reins to someone more willing to push the envelope. To succeed as a leader, be it as an entrepreneur or an executive, you need to be restless in wanting more. While I didn’t know if WatchMojo was the equivalent of Time, Fortune, Life or Sports Illustrated—which Luce subsequently launched in 1954—I was going to find out.

By 2016, WatchMojo was experiencing some bona fide success after setting its sights on YouTube, but I remained under one spectre or another, hence why I always remained trigger-shy to go all out. Companies lay off personnel like you and I change socks. I’m not like most people. I always worried that if we went under, I’d have a responsibility to my employees.

Anyway, that summer I finally visited Greece (where my wife is originally from and where I wrote 10-Year Overnight Success). There was something about navigating the sea and land that inspired me to go into overdrive. The result was WM2020 – a series of bets across approximately 10 inter-related initiatives I felt would ensure we would be larger in 2020 than we were in 2016. 

It wasn’t obvious, but it worked. I’ve alluded to WM2020 before but never really spelled them out. Here they are.

  1. Direct sales

YouTube was revolutionary for many reasons, one of which was AdSense/Truview and “baked-in monetization.” In my earliest pitches to VCs I would tell them – even before Google bought YouTube – that inasmuch as Google’s AdWords/Adsense inserted paid links off each page and built a marketplace for keywords, it would somehow do the same with YouTube. Naturally, pre-rolls are a native implementation. But in doing so, it allows for individuals and organizations to bypass a sales team, which is partly why Hollywood as we know it is dead. I was a sales exec from 2000-05 and at heart will always be one, but let’s be honest, sales teams are a challenge to manage in the best of times.

Nonetheless, if by year 10 I wasn’t gonna cash out and ride into the sunset, then as CEO I had an obligation to grow the organization and as such, given our size and scale, having a direct line of communication into marketers was paramount. 

Before finalizing what to do, I hit the books to find out what we should not do. A couple of cautionary tales stood out.

Machinima was an early YouTube pioneer, one of the first MCNs. The company merits a whole, dedicated website due to its legacy, but for the context here, it built a large sales force which competed with YouTube’s sales force selling media (ads, be it pre-roll video ads, or display ads, etc). The result was exactly what you would expect.

Funny or Die was one of our contemporaries, co-founded by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, but as you’d expect from Hollywood folks, they realized there was no short-term payoff in web programming, so they retreated back to producing long-form shows and movies, even though their digital fare has always been good thanks to their relationships with talent. Sequoia funded them at launch. In 2012, it raised financing from Turner Media (Time Warner) and struck a repping deal which turned out to be disastrous. Four years later it raised money from AMC. Four years later: brutal layoffs. Now that’s some kind of quadrennial event.

So instead of doing what Machinima or Funny or Die did, we did it our way. We scored some points, gave up a few… but did in the process:

  1. Geographies

The most successful people marry their personal and professional interests. I recognized early on that the most valuable brands like Coke and MTV commanded outsized Goodwill (brand equity) and were global in nature. Thus, I set our sights on international expansion, which seemed obvious given YouTube’s global nature. 

But the business merits were not. CPM rates are low in most places, but to me, this wasn’t about near-term financials.

American pop culture travels far and wide. WatchMojo was known for Americana. Even though English is widely spoken, not serving global audiences in their native tongue was both a bad business decision and poor service – which given our statement of purpose left me dissatisfied. 

We went all-in, but first focused on Español. My father had worked for the ambassador of Spain in Tehran, we lived in Madrid in 1983 and I’d traveled to many Latin American countries and loved the people.

Logistically it proved challenging, but to a masochist who sought to solve problems and delight his constituencies, there was no way I wouldn’t want to serve Hispanic audiences. Today, our International editions account for 50% of our reach, though I think our competition wonders why bother. Sometimes, it’s just not about money.

  1. Platforms

When I read Cable Cowboy on John Malone, it reiterated that 

Narrator’s voice: Facebook was not, after all, the chosen one. #FutureArticle.

  1. Demographics

When I joined AskMen, I shared a series of ideas with my boss, thinking I was slicing bread before his eyes and curing polio. Within moments, he leaned into his filing cabinet, pulled out a bound document and showed me the venerable AskMen business plan. In it laid about half of “my” ideas. Ideas are nice, execution is nicer.

When we made our big bets and staked the future of the business on our core pillars, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that we would serve an audience of predominantly young males… and indeed, as we maintained our presence on YouTube as our original audience got older, our audience diverged to bizarrely served a very young AND older audience. 

With music as one of its key pillars, YouTube’s boundaryless nature may have made a Post Malone / Ozzy collaboration seem normal, but that didn’t mean that we could follow a Top 10 Ozzy Osbourne songs list with a top 10 One Direction songs. It would create mayhem and mischief in the comments section.

Eventually, we launched MsMojo (#FutureArticle), then JrMojo, to serve a wider female viewership and kids. 

  1. Verticals

A common tactic on YouTube is to spin off new channels once you realize your initial channel’s audience isn’t interested in anything else. Whereas people would understand that NBC would air SNL, the local news, Seinfeld – i.e. a wide variety of formats and genres – on YouTube when you subscribe to a channel you are in fact opting in for new episodes of a show. As such, even though we started off very horizontally, given how our success came from an admitted narrow “content formula,” then any time we strayed, our audience would push back.

We launched new channels in gaming (MojoPlays), travel (MojoTravels), entrepreneurship (ContextTV – of which Context Is King is its companion channel), Science (Unveiled), and so on. 

  1. Data (machine learning, AI, etc)

Content isn’t technology, but the Web’s digital nature emboldened analysts to try to “hack” the formula and forecast what audiences wanted, and so on. While a combination of “art and science” makes sense to combine to better serve audiences, I’ve personally never felt fully compelled to go all “moneyball” because it’s clear that in aggregate, sex and violence will do better than other topics, but that’s not necessarily where a storyteller wants to focus on. We experimented a bit using data science in the areas of: 

a) Editorial
b) Insights for marketers
c) Development / Production for studios and networks…

I’ll cover this later on if anyone’s interested.

  1. Formats 

When I am on stage talking about the evolution of web video and rise of YouTube and discuss WatchMojo’s part in it throughout, I modestly say that “hey, we didn’t invent top 10s – Letterman, Wayne’s World, Moses and his Ten Commandments.” But the fact remains, to much of the generation who grew up on YouTube, WatchMojo became synonymous with lists, top 10 lists.

Most people should be content if they have such a hit. But when you’re a driven entrepreneur, for better or worse, you strive for more.

Thus, we recognized that if we were to truly move away from being a YouTube channel to a media company, we would need to strike another successful recipe and published:

  1. Products 

Product means many things, and we expanded into multiple new product lines. It’s not enough to say “we should get into eCommerce,” you need People to manage the initiative and Products to offer. We parlayed our research and team’s writing chops to venture into eBooks. As we suspected, YouTube viewers are not much into reading eBooks if they can watch videos on said topic.

We did also, however, venture into technology products. We have a nifty little software that has a lot of promise and enabled us to scale our operations.

This year our efforts here expanded to offer GetMojo, which I think has legs.

  1. Events

I got the inspiration to launch a video content company in 2005, seeing Live 8, streamed by Aol.

While reading I Want My MTV and Those Guys Have All the Fun on ESPN, I began to envision what WatchMojo’s equivalent of MTV’s VMAs or ESPN’s Gameday would look like.

We produced the first WatchMojo Live in NYC back on May 31 2017, followed by London on July 11 2017. The idea was to build it out into an eventual Live Aid / MTV music awards: 
i) featuring established global artists while 
ii) recognizing up-and-coming local talent… 

This was at a time when President Trump was elected and threatening to build borders, and me thinking YouTube was this global stage where creativity traveled, in a boundaryless manner.

In NYC the 1st half was a business-to-business (B2B) segment on advertising etc. and the 2nd half in the evening featuring music and comedy. London was a bit more polished, the 1st half was a bit better than the NY touching on overall well-being, but we only live-streamed the 2nd half.

Long-term, we had a bit of a global aspiration & flavor where we’d do shows around the world and blend English programming with the local city (a Portuguese / English show in Rio, a French / English show in Paris at YouTube Spaces around the world), but alone there was no way we could do that while running the core biz. It was ambitious but way too cumbersome. So I shelved it. 

We were about to do WatchMojo Live in Toronto in March 2020 but then Covid derailed that. That was about taking WatchMojo (ranking top 10s) and adapting it into an event… with the theme of How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture. 

10. Suggest: ______

It’s one thing to say the best ideas can come from anyone, including the 21-year old intern… it’s another thing to be open to it, and make room at the table. I was always disappointed when my team didn’t seize the opportunity to suggest ideas, push back on mine… Times have changed, in the same way that entrepreneurs have far more funding options.

For these initiatives to succeed: you need product/editorial to mesh with distribution/platform/occasion in a model that makes economic sense. We leveraged our balance sheet, all of these were deficit-financed, hiring before any revenue coming in from them. To avoid the hired teams to panic or worry, we never focused on the P&L, but by sheltering them, I’m unsure that was wise. More on sheltering in a #FutureArticle.

Suffice to Say…

I assure you the contents on Context Is King are not intended for my colleagues, whom I appreciate, respect, and value. The majority always recognized how lucky we were to follow in the footsteps of Cirque du Soleil, Just for Laughs, Vice Media and sure, to some extent, AskMen, as the next in line exporting media & entertainment to global audiences out of Montreal.

I draw on my experiences – the wins and losses – to help those who want to reach their full potential, which entails leading others. When you create opportunities for people, understanding others’ thinking may help you avoid from feeling disappointed, disillusioned, disheartened and depressed. The problem, I’ve learned, is not in others… but us as we strive for better balance.

I admit that I found it peculiar and “peak lack of awareness” when a young employee with no experience before WatchMojo and not really doing that much above and beyond their job push back on one of these experiences. I’d sometimes want to tell them to pause for a second and ask if they’d be working at WatchMojo if it wasn’t for us seeking to constantly take risks, experiment and so on. Again, as someone who was offered so few opportunities, repeatedly seen the door slam shut on my face, I found people’s lack of awareness on this disappointing, but eventually realized, it was unfair to wonder why those privileged to not have faced my challenges and/or didn’t “need” to work would feel that way. Canada wasn’t America, Montreal wasn’t Anytown, USA… they weren’t an Iranian, Muslim-born Canadian who had to create their own opportunities. I had a unique background, a different perspective, I had to stop thinking that others shared my vantage point.

But it just takes a few to make you questions things… instead of turning my back on good and embracing evil, I strengthened my Principles but adapted my Tactics. My resolve and commitment to create and give back is unabated, but I am indeed more selective about who I give them to, for one, and secondly, no longer throw people in a pool thinking they can swim. Most people can’t. You have to better train and help those who want to. More on that in a #FutureArticle.

These were the internal WM2020 initiatives, to find out what happened, read this.

Of course, eventually you realize that for every dollar you were willing and eager to invest internally, you may want to invest externally.