Your Company’s North Star is the singular belief and principle that drives all other decisions. But companies should also have organizations that provide a beacon for where they want to steer their ship.
As an entrepreneur, you’ll always be benchmarked to your peers. How you communicate your story and position your firm will determine whom your comparables are. Ideally, the strategy you pursue suits your strengths, comparable advantage, market opportunities that fit those. More near-sighted and short-term thinking entrepreneurs may look at which companies command the best valuations and attract financing easiest and pursue that.
Regardless, you should always have in mind an organization (or a few) that serve as your Beacon. A beacon is some form of signal (i.e. fire/light) that you are steering towards. In my opinion, that shouldn’t be an existing comparable/competitor, but either
- a more mature company that “has been there, done that” in your field, or
- a contemporary who’s further developed in their field, which operates in a different segment, but for one reason or another inspires and influences you. It’s not quite an archetype, prototype, blueprint, or role model… but rather a beacon because it represents a general direction and not the precise course.
It’s like I sometimes tell a colleague: use this as a roadmap, and not a blueprint.
First, a word on “Comps”
NFL coaching great Vince Lombardi would say that the “score is for the fans in the seats, you care about outplaying the guy in front of you.” To some extent, current comparables are for the analysts and bankers, as a warrior you have to think more long-term.
What are you valued at is a reflection of peers in your cohort group. A few years ago, investment bankers would share this with me, for example.
As a finance-trained individual, naturally I look at our larger media brethren, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever viewed Buzzfeed, Vice or Vox as my “beacon,” let alone our northern star (especially given their culture issues over the years). To be clear, I think some of their culture issues stemmed from a growth-at-all costs mindset. We stayed small and retained more of a family vibe; but we’re small relative to them.
WatchMojo’s First Beacon: YouTube’s Version of MTV/ESPN
To me, I’ve always framed WatchMojo in two distinct trajectories. The first one is the ESPN/MTV cable brand beacon.
With YouTube replacing TV as the leading consumption platform & WatchMojo being one of the biggest media brands built on the platform, WatchMojo is conceptually where ESPN or MTV were in the mid-1980s. In 1980, each had a relatively large market share on cable but there was little economic activity (the pie was small, their piece of the pie was huge – but not worth that much). Then by the 1990s, cable surpassed network TV but their piece of the pie was smaller, but worth more. Those pioneers of cable went on to reach their full potential within Disney and Viacom. Before cable entered its maturity and declining stages, it may have lost market share but saw revenues grow, because each viewer and market share point became more valuable. Similarly, after setting our sights on YouTube in 2012, we hit our stride in 2013 and in 2014 were the 7th largest YouTube channel in the world! As YouTube evolved from pariah to the belle of the ball, the “empire struck back” and competition grew:
That burgeoning $75 billion television ad market will only fully cross over the dam with more premium programming, more engagement and so on – and why competition is instinctively good.
The Web – and YouTube of note – is the new cable, it”s already surpassed TV in terms of consumption. So we are a young ESPN/MTV (circa 1985) on the new cable. When I say that, it’s not really to brag, but more to emphasize: “we better continue to iterate and evolve!”
We have now spent nearly a decade as one of the hundred largest channels in the world and one of arguably ten or so with 100 billion minutes of watch time. Last year, I gave myself a break and stopped being down on myself because all of WM2020’s initiatives didn’t take off and focused on gratitude over expectations. That is a major accomplishment, I’m very proud of our team for executing the strategy.
“The Next Viacom”
I’ve heard many fellow entrepreneurs say they were building “the next Viacom,” to which I’d counter that “Viacom will be the next Viacom.”
By the late 1990s, MTV and ESPN were the pinnacle of quality programming. But they didn’t start that way: I Want My MTV and Those Guys Have All the Fun are great testaments to that. Considering Viacom/MTV’s missteps and Disney/ESPN’s current predicament, you recognize how fragile and vulnerable everything is. Instead of building the next MTV/ESPN brand or Viacom/Disney company, I’ve turned my sights on how to create the next version of Liberty Media around that first building block, WatchMojo. I suppose as a finance-trained individual, that’s diversification and portfolio theory.
In terms of blueprint for that, I didn’t need to look far.
After/while building the cable industry with TCI, John Malone proceeded to create Liberty Media, with investments in media & technology companies to fill the distribution pipes he had built with programming (Malone’s biography Cable Cowboy lays it out all splendidly and is one of the must-read books for all media entrepreneurs and executives). Granicus’ model appeared before me while at (of all places) the Nickelodeon resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Always the ambitious type, it seemed a given that I’d say I want to build the next Liberty Media.
There’s only one Amazon and Jeff Bezos, but in some ways, I see the divide as such:
As a masochist who’s always driven by finding fair and mutually beneficial arrangements, I’ll outline my thinking below.
Rome wasn’t built overnight
Now the parallels between TCI and WatchMojo are not perfect, no analogy is, but reaching 150 million viewers in 150 countries, WatchMojo seemed like an enviable anchor to parlay.
Liberty Media’s portfolio has evolved over the decades, it’s hard to envision achieving the scale of Liberty Media, but given that the Internet shrinks industries, I’m not sure that’s possible or even desirable. I acknowledge that innovate from within, let alone investing in third-party businesses isn’t an obvious endeavor, but a man can dream!
Second Beacon: Next Media & Entertainment Export out of Montreal, Canada
As a proud Montrealer, I envisioned WatchMojo growing in the footsteps of previous great media & entertainment export out of the city:
- Just For Laughs / Juste pour rire (we nearly supported ICM’s bid when the LA-based talent agency acquired the comedy festival brand),
- VICE Media &
- Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group.
In 2007, the big four accounting firm Ernst & Young awarded its Entrepreneur of the Year award to Cirque founder Guy Laliberté (who has since sold his entire stake to focus on Lune Rouge). In 2016, EY recognized WatchMojo’s accomplishments by awarding me that same award (though he went on to win the big global prize, whereas Montreal was my “last stop”). I’ve always sincerely stressed: “while packaged and presented as an award to an individual is really more an organizational recognition.” I meant it. Behind (alongside) every great man is a greater wife (or spouse!) and every great entrepreneur a great team. I had built a formidable machine.
[A funny anecdote: Christine and I had noticed that every category’s winner was the third-listed candidate. As the night progressed, we were (say for example) category of 14 out of 15, and by category 13… “la tendance se maintient,” we were going to win].
Laliberté, like all other notable business and creative leaders wasn’t perfect, but to the extent that he managed to marry business acumen with creative flair, he was certainly an influence. After selling his final 10% of his stake in Cirque to launch/focus on Lune Rouge and continue his journey as storyteller/entrepreneur, he would go on to note:
"I really believe that 1 gift my life have given me is this 50-50 creative-business brain. I grew up in this type of very balanced world of business & creativity. My mom was very creative/eccentric. My father was a PR guy, a wheeler-dealer."
I could not agree more.
Always A Team Effort
I credit my operational team enormously for streamlining the business, growing the key metrics and improving the culture and communications after our hyper-growth phase (by our standards). We saw the limitations of investing internally, and while I sincerely desire to give back to the next generation of entrepreneurs, I didn’t want to add further strain by “forcing” acquisitions and investments onto the team. Granicus Group serves not just as a vehicle for me to give back, but also as a “release valve.”
There’s a universe of things that are no brainers for WatchMojo, and then other things that are one or multiple degrees of separation away.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” African Proverb
As I began to evaluate private investment opportunities, I developed a better appreciation for the time required and the process involved. It was as if – in the latest instalment of “everything happens for a reason” – our big WM2020 bet paid off, but taught me lessons to avoid repeating the same mistakes:
- moving too fast,
- trusting people too quickly,
- assuming people thought and acted like me (who wants that!?)
To learn faster, I decided to establish some alliances, of sorts.
I’ll be the first to admit that in many ways, I am an outsider even in my own backyard. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel by myself, I invested with Holt Accelerator and began to support an accelerator borne out of Laliberté’s Lune Rouge, Zu Capital as technology disrupts media & entertainment.
“Zu strives to capture the essence of Guy Laliberté’s core as the quintessential ‘storyteller/entrepreneur.’ Guy married his passion for arts and showmanship with brilliant business acumen and relentless execution to turn an ambitious, fledgling dream into a global behemoth. With a tremendous amount of innovative technologies disrupting media & entertainment, Zu seeks to recruit the best entrepreneurs and support them in their course to success.”
If you see that in Zu’s media kit, let’s just say I didn’t plagiarize the description. I’m learning a ton with Holt and Zu so that I can spend more of my time to continue to grow WatchMojo, which is about to embark on its next expansion phase (albeit wiser, smarter). I really feel like we’re arriving in Manhattan in the 1800s – with an entire generation how raised online and with so much more change to come post-Covid.
Granicus, in effect, becomes my “giving back” vehicle, and will touch on
The more I stay disciplined and WatchMojo focuses, the better for all.
What Drive People? Insecurities
Was my interest in partnering with Zu (whose spiritual founder is local legend and global icon Laliberté) and Holt (whose lineage traces back to Sir Herbert Holt) a coincidence?
Honestly, yes and no. While the business merits of such partnerships and relationships are valuable, it also echoes that I’ve said about humans being driven by insecurities – good/bad, conscious/subconscious, etc.
Having had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Montreal, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a cocktail of vice and virtue brewing the desire to align myself a bit more with the establishment, while retaining some independence. Mind you, given the way everyone feels subconsciously, I’m sure both Zu and Holt would not consider themselves as the establishment per se, and as outsiders themselves.
It’s like I’ve been saying, everything is subjective and relative. Context is king.