The most effective organizations in the information age count their Intellectual Property as their strongest asset. While it is People who create that IP, modern management seems to view People as an afterthought.
In ancient times, “entrepreneurs” would build armies and set out to conquer foreign lands.
“The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” ― Genghis Khan… whose ambitions and envy apparently far surpassed others.
In the era preceding warships, airplanes and tanks, armies traveled far and wide. Building the army was half the battle, maintaining its sharpness and readiness another. Indeed, Alexander the Great spent a decade wandering around the then-known land. Literally his journey was as much of a payoff as the riches he looted throughout.
How do you assemble your army? How do you keep it united and focused? How do you motivate and reward them?
Balance, part 1
This year, the WFH revolution meant that employees could apply to join armies from far flung destinations. One day, I received a call from Acme Corp. regarding a former soldier of mine, whom we’ll call “Tracy.”
Universal basic income is inevitable, partly because earning gainful income is one of the fundamental rights and privileges in society. As such, I did my best to focus on Tracy’s strengths. I was confident Tracy would land the job. Some time later, I learned that Acme had not, in fact, hired Tracy, citing the applicant’s lack of readiness to help them on a front that you’d think would be our comparative advantage.
As I am prone to do, instead of faulting Tracy, I asked: “what could I have done differently?” Not just in my reference call with Acme Corp., but when Tracy was still with us.
Stop Sheltering People
The answer, I instinctively knew, was that my idealistic management style needed to change. But a second less subtle reality occurred to me: I needed to stop sheltering my team from reality, as it was a disservice to them and the rest of my team.
Flashback to 2018
In 2016, we embarked on WM2020 after our “hockey stick growth curve period” to avoid the Mature/Declining/Death stage of our evolution.
By the end of 2020, the bet paid off. But it wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked it to be.
My favorite time of the year is bonus season. At the end of 2018, I sent the following internal email:
While the vast majority of people who received their new salaries and bonuses were very happy, in two instances, people in two depts didn't initially love their compensation... when we discussed the details with them, they were surprised to learn that those units were still losing money, and in doing so, they totally changed their outlook and position. It dawned on me that "sheltering" employees from losses in their dept didn't really serve anyone's interests, so going forward, we will be much more direct with individuals.
I think that's what I want to do with you this year as well: just be more transparent and make you responsible for your unit’s P&L so that you don't think it's a question of perceived value or a lack of appreciation (towards you), but simply a realistic reflection of the fact that the unit isn't revenue generating. We want to remain committed to what we hired you to lead, grow, and develop. We recognize that takes time: WatchMojo lost money for 6 years, and it’s what is driving the investment in everything else we’re pushing into.
People Have Selective Memory
Partly due to my Nature and disposition, I have a tendency to give credit to others and absorb the blame. It’s partly because I like to be a decent human being, but largely because it creates a more laid-back atmosphere to do the post mortem when things skid off the rails. Obviously, that creates a pleasant collective work environment in the near-term, but I’m not sure it helps the individuals in the long-term – as the Tracy episode led me to suspect. After all, if you keep giving credit generously but never really give honest, constructive feedback, then your soldiers believe they are all-starts even if they wouldn’t be drafted by others. Harsh as it seems, based on Tracy’s experience, those are all facts.
Until 2018, I managed all of the copyright matters myself, which – while not an actual material legal risk – added much anxiety and stress. As I delegated the management of copyright claims and strikes to the various channel managers, they were surprised and shocked to see the volume and friction involved. I would assure them that the DMCA protocols were automated and procedural, but I could see that those who gained insights into that struggle nonetheless maybe began to empathize a tad more with the burden I was carrying.
Entrepreneurship is a Constant Struggle
Indeed, until then, I’d sheltered my team from the challenges of our business. All businesses have their share of obstacles, but few are this comfortable and transparent to discuss them. As more people flock to entrepreneurship, I see how many are so ill-equipped to succeed due to their lack of realism.
WatchMojo’s fifteen year history could be broken down into three phases:
- 2006-2012: a struggle to survive in the face of a meritless lawsuit which was followed by financial challenges leading to operating in a state of insolvency and growing operating losses;
- 2013-17: Navigating a platform like YouTube while getting caught in copyright crossfire;
- 2017-present: Leading the company as it experienced a period of organizational growth, which meant that – returning to the army analogy – as we set out to conquer new lands, we’d invariably suffer some casualties. Sometimes it may have been due to poor planning, an element of surprise; but in other cases, it was just that not everyone was an effective soldier, let alone wanted to fight.
A Tale of Two Armies
By 2016, the core team of young professionals I’d hired in 2006 had grown into very capable lieutenants but by their own admission may have not yet been tested to lead a whole battalion in combat.
Being uncomfortable spending other people’s money, I shunned financing and bankrolled our WM2020 series of bets through our balance sheet.
In baseball, you can miss seven times out of ten and still end up in the Hall of Fame. If I objectively assess WM2020’s batting average, we fared well and that initiative explains our solid year in 2020. However, one thing I’d do differently is be more transparent with the people in each initiative.
Most companies secure a contract and then launch an initiative to deliver on the obligations therein, i.e. a publisher secures a sponsorship from Bank of America, and then proceeds to build out the deliverables. We didn’t do that. That would have been the normal way to operate.
Given our history of deficit-financing our programming, we proceeded to self-finance WM2020, proceeding to hire young and experienced soldiers, mercenaries and missionaries, hoping that we could recreate the magic and capture lighting in a bottle, again.
Backing projects sounds great, but you have to support the people and give them the resources needed. That starts with Transparency and Trust.
TRUST & TRANSPARENCY
The reality is WM2020 was not a one-time, 2016/17 initiative, but more of a constant business philosophy to continuously push the envelope and have an open mind about new opportunities. In fact, WatchMojo’s success in 2013-onwards was a result of us testing a plethora of initiatives early on. Indeed, in 2020 and 2021, we’re effectively incubating new ideas – some of which will falter, while others will take flight. But by having sheltered my team, they got a rosy and clean, but ultimately incomplete, picture of how messy such conflicts are as success boils down to how humans manage the vices and virtues.
After a period of hyper-growth from 2016 to 2018, we used 2019 to streamline our operations and ensure we focused on the soldiers who share our values and work ethic. 2020 was a unique year in many ways, but once we saw that we’d end up on a strong note, the onus was on me to revisit the drawing board and map out our next frontiers.
If I could be blamed for one thing, it’s having way too many ideas and being very open to my team’s proposals. By mid-year, when I began to plan for 2021, I listed over 25 projects that were in many stages of development (concept, testing, roll-out, commercialization, scale-up). When I spoke to our executive team, they updated that list and we were staring at 53 (!) possible projects. I knew that we wanted to narrow the list of to 5, maybe 10 projects. That was the start.
Fail or Fly?
In 2016/17, I thought it would be crude – especially given my upbringing – to tell the people leading the WM2020 initiatives that they had a short runway, and if the projects would not break-even by a given timeline, they would be shelved. Thus, I sheltered everyone from that business reality. This time, I would not repeat that mistake, though realized I needed to relay it more diplomatically than that (even though that is exactly how all companies manage that reality).
This time, I would force the project leaders to own it all: the good, bad and ugly – and that means owning the P&L (or profit or loss, income statement).
Now bear in mind, while I attended business school, the majority of my army consisted of aspiring creatives from English, Communications, Journalism programs. I add “aspiring,” because wanting to be the next Martin Scorcese is definitely not the same thing as being the next Scorcese.
I’ve always made myself available to discuss business with them, but also wanted to balance deluging them with arcane business theory and principles. However, for those who sought to grow into managers and lead projects and people, that meant that they would ultimately need to understand the fundamentals of business planning – whether they liked it or not.
This is why this year we unveiled RAM within The Academy, our equivalent of GE’s vaunted Crotonville training program.
- For starters, The Academy refers to the fact that we’ll look at case studies to determine the best course of action, encourage analysis and rely a bit on data before making decisions. It also connotes bringing in outside experts and speakers so there are more voices educating and training the team. I’ve discussed this in the Myth of the Entrepreneur.
- RAM stands for Resource Allocation Management and aims to better prioritize and invest in the PROJECTS we want to undertake at any given point of TIME. Timing is a major consideration of this effort and initiative.
- The idea is to FOCUS on less projects and work with a handful of employees at any given moment in time.
Coming up with ideas and initiatives are wonderful, but success requires a lot more follow-through, effort and resources. The challenge is I want to empower (and ultimately reward) the creatives who truly drive the business, instead of parachuting business managers on top of them. But to achieve that, something’s gotta give, and that means the creatives need to take the time to learn about business.
A bit like WM2020, RAM is a state of mind and philosophy, but it signalled a new management style and era. For the first cohort, I acknowledged that some projects were more developed than others but that didn’t change the need for such an approach. An analogy would be a student who may have already taken a prerequisite class, and not needing to do everything that a more embryonic project would entail. But the point was: if you want the spoils, you need to understand what’s beneath the hood.
In my youth, I worked as a busboy, a waiter, a cook, a customer service rep – all jobs I enjoyed, but ultimately what society looks down as “entry level” or “front line” work. To me, those are the critical “faces” of a business. But if someone is content to remain in that position 3 or 5 years later and not pursue growth opportunities, then it’s hard for them to be compensated as a manager would, who’s responsible for the unit’s success and its profitability.
RAM was me formulating how I viewed these initiatives but assigning the full ownership to employees – regardless of rank – to position them for success. It was also, for me, a way to pull in BIPOC, women, and other overlooked employees and entice them to embrace business management so that they could emerge as leaders. If I may be candid, I was a bit disappointed when early on, some of the young female team members didn’t really buy into it. I felt like hiring women was only part of the equation, you had to set them up to succeed – and that invariably meant training and support. But, I was ecstatic when all of the female participants then embraced the initiative and found value by the end of it. That was the point: to embrace fear, to overcome that inner-voice that doubts your capability.
I realized that as much as I wanted to showcase our talent at future conferences and business events, I could not feed them – unprepared and ill-equipped – to the lions. The onus was on me/us to better train them. Sure, we hired “gamers and fans of movies/TV shows” to create shoulder programming covering the franchises and people fans are into, but why stop and take those who are interested in bigger challenges and pave the way for them to become better rounded leaders? Why couldn’t the next CEO of WatchMojo be a woman? It’s easy to say “anyone” can be “anything,” but what are you as the leader of the organization doing to make that possible? It boils down to education and experiences.
The initiative wasn’t perfect at the onset, but nothing is. I realize that at any moment in time,
- certain projects will take precedence over others;
- defining success is relative, fluid and subjective;
- some initiatives are more mature than others and having an embryonic concept in the program alongside a fleshed out initiative that needs fine-tuning makes little sense.
I was also somewhat happy to hear some teammates voice their unhappiness when they weren’t included in the first cohort, reminding me, again, that how and when you communicate things is as important as what you communicate!
But those were all details and growing pains. The “big idea” was recognizing that
1) A given project may be embryonic in nature but has tremendous upside. The idea is to find the right fit between staff and project to allow both the project and the individual to flourish.
2) Given the cluttered digital media landscape, we need to innovate rather than imitate. Challenging ourselves, being comfortable with the uncomfortable is key to succeed.
3) Some projects may indeed be mature enough to not require an injection of resources, but there are some that can benefit from additional resources to accelerate growth. We need to understand what is needed to take that mature initiative to the next level. In essence, I wanted to give people the tools required to succeed.
4) Moreover, we want to create clearer career paths for those who show initiative.
Balance, part 2
Ultimately, like everything else, it boils down to balance. I don’t ever want to change and tell people “hey if this isn’t profitable by month 6, we will have to let you go.” Screw that. But, that doesn’t mean that I need to live in the other extreme and pretend a P&L doesn’t matter.
The “bottom line” is people are paramount. Your people have feelings and emotions and if I’ve experienced any degree of success, it’s because empathy is a hell of an aphrodisiac. I’ll always find a new role for someone if a Project doesn’t pan out – but, eventually, if a soldier doesn’t want to fight, they are not going to be part of my army.
The Big Picture
If I had to draw up how RAM and The Academy fit in our reality, this diagram explains how it all comes together:
1. At our core, we have an army of creators who serve audiences with information and entertainment programming on fandom.
A. We match our priorities to focus on projects based on internal objectives & strengths, inbound and outbound business & corporate development efforts.
2. We evaluate opportunities to determine if alongside or instead of a commercial agreement alone, there’s a thesis to invest (Mojo or Granicus)
B. We have created many jobs in the local economy and media industry, and A + 2 allow us to invest to create more jobs.
3. We work with academic organizations to recruit and develop training programs for our employees to better capitalize on A and execute on 1.
C. Throughout these efforts, we also advise & consult others (be it startups or established companies)
4. We capture some of the content (reports, studies, analysis) and publish across our brands.
D. We give back via the WatchMojo Foundation.