Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart and the place where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses.
Joining me today is frankly an entrepreneur who I didn’t know–I was going to say much, but that’s a lie–I didn’t know anything about until I started prepping for this interview. Frankly, a few minutes before the interview started, I started asking him all kinds of skeptical questions like, “Is this really true?” and so on. I had research that showed that he had a lot of traffic. SimilarWeb showed traffic was up, but I just didn’t know about it. I had no idea this whole thing was growing. Anyway today I’m going to find out how big he got it and also how he built it this far.
Joining me is Richard Botto. He is the founder of Stage 32. It’s the world’s only dedicated platform for connecting–I wrote that intro wrong, Richard. I know we were chatting and we said let’s do a professional intro. How would you introduce Stage 32? What’s the one-sentence description?
Richard: The world’s only platform dedicated to connecting and educating film, television and theater creators.
Andrew: I wrote that as we were talking and I have tons of typos all over that. I should not be a writer. This interview is sponsored by Acuity Scheduling, which I’ll tell you more about later. It’s also sponsored by Toptal, which of course I’ll tell you more about later.
Richard, good to have you on here.
Richard: Great to be here. Really appreciate it, Andrew.
Andrew: What is your goal with being here? A lot of times people want to be on Mixergy because they’re trying to find partnerships. Sometimes they’re trying to raise money. I’m wondering what your goal is here. This isn’t your audience. That’s why.
Richard: Well, we’re fortunate as it comes to the VC world, we’re getting a lot of attention right now. So, it’s not really that. I enjoy being on shows like this. I enjoy talking about my history as an entrepreneur. I enjoy helping other people if I could impart any wisdom during these podcasts and interviews. I always find that to be very worthwhile and rewarding for me. But I’d like to get the word out about what we’re doing and shine some light on that. So, I’m an admirer of the show, to be perfectly honest.
Andrew: Well, thanks. Are you still an admirer after I gave you that intro?
Richard: Yeah, I’m down a notch. No, I’m just kidding.
Andrew: My goal is to find out about the kinds of companies that I don’t see on TechCrunch on a regular basis, frankly, the kinds of people who don’t get to the top of Hacker News because I feel like there’s a world of successful companies out there that we’re completely ignoring. I want to learn from them. For you, the whole thing started before you even launched this on Wall Street. You told our producer that just wasn’t the right place for you. Why not? What’s wrong with Wall Street for your temperament?
Richard: Well, I enjoyed my time there. I’ve always been business-minded, money-minded, number-minded. I enjoy all of it. But for a long period of time, the desire was always to run my own business. So, I left Wall Street during the early age of the internet, the early days, early stages of it and got involved with a few ecommerce companies, started one on my own to try to help people bring their businesses online. That was very right place–
Andrew: What did your ecommerce company do and what was it called?
Richard: It was actually IntWebInc back in the day. What we did was we connected a lot of people–a lot of people didn’t really know how to get online, ecommerce-wise. What we did was we did a lot of consulting. We even consulted with companies like Macy’s back in those days who didn’t believe in bringing their business online. But we worked with a lot of companies to help set them up with merchant accounts and to get them set up to be able to take processing online.
Andrew: To create processing online, meaning merchant accounts?
Richard: Merchant accounts. Yeah. Absolutely.
Andrew: It’s good money in merchant accounts.
Richard: Exactly. It was right place, right time at that time. I did that for a number of years. But my heart–I worked as an actor as well back in those days. I took acting classes in college and did some theater. I was always a writer. I was always someone that enjoyed the creative side of things. In 2000, I started a magazine called Razor. It was a national men’s lifestyle magazine that competed in the arena with GQ, Esquire and we actually outsold a couple of those magazines for a while. We had a readership of about 1.5 million.
The great thing about doing that business, besides that it’s a very tough business when you get to the business end of it, was being able to work on both sides of what I really enjoyed, the business side and then the creative side working with tremendous writers, people like David Mamet. We had Paul Haggis and James Carville and people like that in the magazine. A regular contributor was Mark Cuban–people like that that really were about the time of that time and were very, very creative people and were very, very smart people. It was an enjoyable undertaking from that perspective.
Andrew: You know what? I think I found an old article here from ClickZ from 1998 about Interweb, Inc. It was an Atlanta company?
Andrew: Was it acquired by Think New Ideas, Inc. or was this a different Interweb Inc.?
Richard: No, that would have to be a different company.
Andrew: Ah, I see. Okay. I’m just doing research as we’re talking to see what I could uncover about these different companies. Razor Magazine had these incredible women on the cover.
Richard: Razor, man, everybody loved this magazine. It was what GQ was back in the 80s. At the time when we launched, everybody was bowing to the Maxim Magazine model, which was the McNugget journalism and not really very fashion forward. GQ was going from having Michael Jordan on the cover in $3,000 suits standing in front of a Rolls-Royce to Lindsay Lohan standing in her underwear in front of a barrel of cherries very subtly sitting on top of the barrel.
We went for the long-form journalism. We were very fashion forward. We were very popular in the fashion community in New York. The hardest part about that, as anybody will tell you if they’ve been in the publishing business and you’re doing it on that scale is that as a single-title publisher, you face some really uphill climbs.
Andrew: What’s the big challenge as a single-title publisher?
Richard: Well, you can’t sell across multiple titles and you can’t give discounts across multiple titles.
Andrew: To advertisers, I see.
Richard: It’s tough. The story I always like to tell–it was a learning experience but it was one of those writing on the wall kind of things–is that every issue was going up as far as readership was concerned. Every audit that would come out, the ABC audit, which prints the subscription numbers and everything. We would be one or two every time if not the only one showing an improvement quarter over quarter as far as sales. But on the advertising front, we were facing those challenges. We would get big wins, like we would get the Ford GT and things of that nature.
But I had a meeting with a top–let’s just call him a top fashion house and a guy that’s been buying for 35 years, this fashion house–he said to me straight out, “This is the best magazine in the space. It is the best fashion editorial since GQ in the 80s. I hate what GQ and Esquire are doing right now but I can’t pull them because if I pull them, I’ve got to pull from all Conde Nast, all Hearst. I’m not going to get the deals that I can get. So, even I don’t like putting my clothes there, unless I can find money elsewhere, I can’t come with you.”
That was a really eye-opening moment for us. This was like four or five years in. It was a tough ride, especially when you’re selling so well. Our final issue outsold them all. Our final ten issues outsold the last. So, it was a really tough thing because our readership was just climbing and climbing and climbing.
Andrew: And did you close it down?
Richard: Yeah, I closed it down in 2006.
Andrew: Why? Why not sell it?
Richard: Again, the problem was that the lifeblood of a magazine, of course, is the advertising dollars. The other problem that was happening at the time or the other shift that was happening–again, it’s why so many of these magazines, including ones as accomplished as Mademoiselle that was around for 70 years and now shuttered is that the money was going online.
Ironically, we had a really, really robust online version of the magazine and extra things that everybody’s doing now, extra material for subscribers–way ahead of its time. But they weren’t taking money from print and putting it into the online version of the magazine or of the company. They were taking that money and throwing it anywhere else online. They wanted to be front page of Yahoo.
Nobody had really gotten to the point where the subtleties of how you advertise online were in play for them. They were just looking at who had the highest traffic and taking money from one spot and putting it in another. They weren’t expanding their budgets. They were stealing from one to pay for another.
Andrew: Did you start the magazine or did you take it over in 2004?
Richard: No, I launched it in 2000. I became editor in 2004. I was publisher the entire time and then I started editing it in 2004.
Andrew: I see. So, how did you feel when you had to close this magazine down that was so–I’m seeing a bunch of articles here. As you’re talking, I’m doing some research on it. I’m following up on what I looked at before. You were a big personality at the time and the magazine drew in incredible celebrities.
Andrew: How did you feel about it? Be open.
Richard: Toughest business day of my life. There’s no getting around it. I had a staff of about 30 who I loved dearly who were dedicated to the cause and really believed in what we were doing. I loved all of them and to have to walk in–again, I believed in it. It was very, very tough.
The readers were so dedicated that you would get these letters about every issue and they were just so passionate and people were following–I was living the lifestyle that we were trying to project in the magazine that Razor guy. People were relating to that. So, there were so many aspects to it and so many feelings.
Andrew: What’s part of the fun lifestyle that you lived because of this?
Richard: It was the progressive guy. It was the guy we used to joke that it was the guy who was done with his Maxim years but not ready for his Esquire years. It was the GQ guy of the 80s in a lot of ways because GQ wasn’t doing it anymore. It was the fashion-forward, self-made, progressive-thinking guy. It was a lot of fun. But that wasn’t the tough part of shutting it down. I didn’t have to get rid of that lifestyle. I was doing fine.
But it was tough to have to let so many good people go and to walk into that conference room and tell everybody that this is it was something I will never forget and something that fuels my fire with everything else I’ve done since then, including my creative endeavors.
Andrew: Did you go through a depression because of it?
Richard: I wouldn’t say a depression. I didn’t lock myself in a dark room. I would say that it took me a while to be able to want to pursue something again. I had ideas and even I always say that I’m a screenwriter and an actor and producer as well. You take on a project or you write a script, I always say that no matter what you do as creative, you’re an entrepreneur of your own career in your own way when you’re a creative.
It was tough for me to even get into that creative space to do writing or when people were approaching me about a film to say, “Yeah, I’m going to take it on as a producer.” It took a while for me to jump back in, maybe a year. It was a six-year run with the magazine. There was that feeling of I need to take a little time mentally as well. But yeah, it was a real tough ride there for a little while.
Andrew: I get it. You know, they’re still selling issues of it on eBay. I see the James Caan issue being sold. Halle Berry is the most expensive copy being sold. Billy Bob Thornton is selling on there as a cover story.
Richard: It’s incredible. The James Caan shoot, by the way, I was at that shoot on the day of Brando’s funeral. That was a great time to be with James Caan. He told us Brando stories all day long. It’s amazing. I still get letters about Razor. I still get people writing me saying, “I wish you’d bring it back. I loved it so much. It was so fantastic.” That makes me feel good.
Andrew: You said that your lifestyle didn’t have to change because of it. Where did the money come from, then, for you?
Richard: Well, I did well with the business. The magazine didn’t lose a ton of money. We had profitable issues. But it was clear the writing was on the wall to support that kind of staff. We needed that staff. It was a very big editorial undertaking. Plus I had offices in New York and salespeople in New York and salespeople in LA. The economics just didn’t make sense. So, I had done well with certain things and some other businesses.
Andrew: What’s a certain thing that did well?
Richard: Well, the first business did well, investments did well.
Andrew: You mean the internet business that we talked about earlier.
Richard: Yeah. I made some personal investments that did pretty well. So, I was in a decent enough shape that the lifestyle was still great.
Andrew: What happened to that first business? You sold it, you said? I guess the article I read was not about your business.
Richard: No, actually my brother still has–I pretty much sold most of it to him and have a little tiny piece of it. He still runs some of it.
Andrew: I see. I guess you made money from profits on that business. Is that right?
Richard: Yeah, did very well.
Andrew: Do you remember how old you were when you became a millionaire, self-made? I know your dad did pretty well.
Richard: My father did well. My father ran a pharmaceutical advertising company in New York and did very well. One of my earliest memories of that was him coming home with The New York Times and I think there was the top 100 businesses in New York and I think he was in the 70s or something–pretty cool. It’s something I think about, something that fueled my fires when I was thinking about becoming an entrepreneur.
Andrew: How? I’ll come back to that other question. But how does what your dad did fuel your fire?
Richard: Just the idea of being his own guy and being in control of a company. I had seen him work for other bigger pharmaceutical companies. He didn’t start out this way. He worked as a pharmacist and then he worked in pharmaceutical advertising and he worked for some bigger companies out of New York. Then a bunch of people who were working for one particular company, the four of them decided they were going to go and start this other company and he was going to be the CEO.
So, I got to see it on both ends. I got to see him work for the man, so to speak, and then I got to see him run his own show. There was something about that. There was something about going up to Manhattan and 34th and 7th, being a block from the Garden, which was my epicenter, my earth–I was a Ranger fan and a Knick fan–being in that environment and saying that’s something that’s very, very appealing to me and something that I feel like I’d like to do, not necessarily pharmaceutical advertising, but running a business and having that sort of control and that creativity, which is a big part of it for me as well, that creative freedom.
Andrew: My dad had an office not too far from there. It was on 8th Avenue and 50-something Street. I also was influenced. I used to go every summer break between school and summer camp and go work for him and to just see that he got to do what he wanted to do–I remember one day in the middle of the day, he decided he wanted to go buy sports jackets. I said, “Why sports jackets?” He said, “I’m feeling a little down and I want to go buy a jacket. It will make me happier.”
I thought, “You have the power that you can just go buy a jacket and take off in the middle of the day. I’m in school I can’t take off in the middle of the day and you get to do that?” And then of course you’d walk in and they’d take good care of him because he was buying a jacket. Those little things kind of stick with you and show you this is the world that is possible where your teachers, my teachers, anyway, would show up and say you have to show up at a certain time or else you’re not going to make it in life. I could see how that would be a counter weight to it.
Richard: There was also the part of watching–my grandfather worked for General Motors, again in Manhattan. He was a boss of a division. So, to watch him inspire people and to watch him motivate people and run his own show was something that was very appealing to me as well. Then to see my father do it, to be able to lead and to be able to inspire and motivate, that was something that was always appealing to me as well.
That’s why, I guess, it was so tough shutting Razor because these 30 people look to you and you hope that you bring out the best in them but you also hope more than that as a boss that they bring out the best in you. When they do that and when you have that feeling and you have those types of people–and I hate to sound cliché–but it does become sort of a family.
There’s something very inspiring about going into the job every day when that’s what you have around you. I watched that with my dad. It was sort of that Mad Men-era. It was later than that. It wasn’t the 60s. It was the 70s, but it was the same type of thing with people smoking in the office and having cocktails at noon and all this other stuff.
But there was that family feel. At the holidays, you would see some of these people. They’d have parties and you’d be going out to here or there and going to people’s homes. There’s something to that and there’s something so romantic about that to me. I don’t know. I just think it’s kind of in you, but when you see it growing up, I think it comes out of you, I guess. If it’s lying dormant, it comes to the surface.
Andrew: I feel that with me too. I try to hide that from myself, pretend I’m not influenced by it. But the truth is I was. All right. Let’s hold on to that question I asked you about million dollars just for a moment while I do a sponsorship message and then we’ll come back and start off with that. The sponsor is Acuity Scheduling.
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So, Richard, thanks for hanging with me through that ad.
Richard: That was a great ad.
Andrew: Thanks, I was feeling especially inspired. I said I’ve got to speed it up, but I’m feeling inspired, so I went a little bit longer.
Richard: You were in the zone.
Andrew: I was. That’s the place. I was in the zone. So, when did you become a millionaire for the first time, self-made?
Richard: Probably around 28, 29.
Andrew: Do you remember–I guess you don’t remember the date, but do you remember the impact that it had on you?
Richard: I don’t remember the date or the time. It’s funny. This is, again, going to sound cliché. But it was not about that to me. To me, the milestones have always been more business-oriented than person in a lot of ways. It’s funny because when I was doing Razor, people used to always come up to me and say, “Man, the restaurant business and the publishing business… You must be a sadistic bastard.”
Let’s say we had a profitable issue or we’d get in the New York Post, their media section would write about us and say, “They’re profitable,” and go into the audit numbers. I’d say it’s not about the profitability. It’s about the next step and the next step. Are we sustaining it? For me, when we hit a million readers, for example, when we got that ABC audit and we had a million, I sat there and went, “Ah, there we go.”
Andrew: A million readers.
Richard: That’s a million to me. Even with Stage 32 right now when we hit certain milestones it’s like that’s the reward. It’s seeing the stickiness, to see it take hold, to see that momentum. That’s so rewarding to me, so much more than the monetary rewards. I guess part of that, I don’t know. Again, I think part of that you feel if you do things right and you’re doing things right by the people you’re trying to serve–in the magazine business, of course it was the employees and the readers.
In this particular business, it’s the employees and the members of the community. The monetary stuff is going to take care of itself. You’re going to hit those milestones anyway. You’re going to make money if you’re doing it right. I think that it’s kind of reverse engineering that if you are–if you know what the mission is, if you’ve identified the mission and you’ve identified what you’re looking accomplish and you execute on that mission and you hit those accomplishments or hit those milestones, you’re going to live a good life.
You’re going to live okay because you’re going to have money and you’re going to have the satisfaction of doing it well. I think if you’re an entrepreneur to begin with, that’s really the reward you want to have is the feeling of the satisfaction that you’re doing it well, that you’re hitting the mark that you intended to hit when you set out.
Andrew: So, was it the magazine that got you to that point?
Richard: No. It was the business before. The magazine was an up and down struggle. We made some money. We lost some money. No. That wasn’t it.
Andrew: Okay. It was the internet business? Were you ever–I don’t know how to ask this–were you ever in the porn business?
Richard: No. We did–oh my god you must have…
Andrew: I’m doing research as we’re talking.
Richard: No. We did ecommerce for every type of business out there. We did billing for everything out there from sporting goods stores, to major companies to adult. I used to say we were like Comcast. We didn’t discriminate on what we broadcast.
Andrew: I see. This is Keith Kelly, who, I guess in a New York Post article said–
Richard: Oh, don’t even get me started on Keith Kelly.
Andrew: What happened with Keith Kelly?
Richard: That was a hack job and a half.
Andrew: Just as you guys were getting ready to close down, he just went after you in the post.
Richard: Yeah. It was a hack job. Him and I had it out after that. Keith and I were actually friends for a little while but Keith wants to sell newspapers.
Andrew: What do you mean by had it out?
Richard: It was poor reporting and it was not accurate at all. Even how it reported on the closing at the time, I don’t remember all the details of it, it was ten years ago. But it just wasn’t very well done. He didn’t contact me at all. If you’re a journalist–and I come from a journalistic background obviously running a magazine–you go to the source. You don’t just print things.
Andrew: I see. He had your cell phone number from what I could see.
Richard: Of course. He and I were friends. When his kids were born, I sent him freaking champagne. When I was in New York, we would get together. Guy that wanted to sell newspapers, not surprising.
Andrew: All right. So, then you say–actually, you then became an actor afterwards?
Richard: No, I was an actor in college. I did some theater in New York. I did it for a while. I also did some writing, not screenwriting at the time. But the acting stuff stayed with me. Again, the creative juices that kind of were being–well, the creative juices were being fueled by the Razor years, for sure. But that also got me fired back up to kind of get back onto the creative side on the filmmaking side and everything along those lines.
Andrew: What led to Stage 32? Where did the idea come from?
Richard: After I shut Razor, just by virtue of the contacts I made during the years of doing Razor, I spent a lot of time in LA. I was asked to produce a film, be involved with a film that at the time had Julianne Moore and Richard Gere attached. It was a year-long process of putting this thing together. It fell apart. While I was falling apart, I was meeting a bunch of people and got involved with another film called “Another Happy Day” which went to Sundance in 2011. The beginnings of that were in 2009.
What I realized as I was starting to get back into it and I was beginning to produce this film and I was just starting to do some screenwriting was that I wanted to expand my network. I turned to social media to do that. I looked at Facebook and I just couldn’t wrap my hands around it as far as I had limited time. I didn’t like the idea of spending a lot of time with friends and family when I know they could reach me via text, phone, email.
I went on to LinkedIn and LinkedIn has its place, but not necessarily for creatives. I went out into the groups within LinkedIn and made some posts asking for guidance on screenwriting and rewrite process and all that and just fall into the ether. I used to joke that LinkedIn was where conversations go to die for creatives.
And then there was one other aspect to this before I get the “Another Happy Day” thing that kind of pulled me all the way in on this was that I went to go try to find a rewriting course for screenwriting, something to sort of reinforce what I already knew. I went online and I found one and it was a guy teaching it.
I had no idea who this guy was. I did some research on him and Googled him. He claimed to be an expert on screenwriting and had covered scripts to Warner Brothers and Lionsgate and on and on and on. When I looked him up, on his LinkedIn account, he was an insurance adjustor from Lincoln, Nebraska. I said that doesn’t sit very well with me. I don’t like creatives getting ripped off.
I started having this idea about a niche social network. I really believe that there were only going to be so many broad-based social networks that can be possibly out there. Obviously Facebook had a stranglehold at that point and others were coming into the space, obviously Twitter. I said okay, I think that niche networks and concentrated networks are where it’s going to go. I also think that ed-tech and education is where it’s going to go. I like the idea of blending these two.
So, the embryonic idea of this was in 2009. When we were filming “Another Happy Day,” which was a movie that was written and directed by Sam Levinson, who’s Barry Levinson’s son, and we were shooting in Michigan with Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin and Thomas Haden Church and Kate Bosworth. It was a great cast. You’re working with the local Michigan crew. You’re shooting in Michigan because that’s where you’re getting the tax incentives out of.
If you’re shooting an independent film, it really legitimately is like summer camp. Everybody comes together. Everybody works for nothing. The stars were getting paid scale. They were staying in the same hotel as everybody else, a three-star Hilton in the middle of nowhere with one of those pools that you could picture in your mind, the concrete, prison-looking pool. Everybody would hang out there at night and have a beer. We would all swear to one another just like you do at summer camp that when the movie was over, we’re all going to stay together and we’re all going to stay in touch and we’re all going to help one another.
And then all of a sudden the movie wraps and I went back to LA and I didn’t really hear from anybody until I would get emails from people or calls from people who worked on the movie saying, “Hey, the tax incentives are drying up here in Michigan. I want to come to LA. Who do you know? Can you help me? Who can you hook me up with?” I sat there and I said, “Okay, I’ve got to take the action on this idea.” I have to take action on this idea of a concentrated network making this world a little bit smaller, making it concentrated only for film, television and theater creatives.
And then the second phase of that or the second idea of that was to bring in education. But I knew I had to build the network first and be able to bring in the education later. That’s kind of the process of how it got there. The only other thing that stayed with me was during my acting days in New York, I worked with some tremendous actors.
At the time, social media was in its infancy. Even when I went back to it a little bit in the early 2000s, you had Myspace, you had Friendster and you really didn’t have a lot. You’d go to the bar at night with all the other actors and you’d hope that somebody would be a champion of who you are and what you do and introduce you to a casting director or if something was being case, say, “Hey, this guy is right for the part.” But it didn’t happen that often. So, I saw a lot of my friends who were much more talented than I was leave the game. So, that stayed with me years and years later.
Finally in early 2011 I said, “I’m going to build the first phase of this.” I did it a little backwards. I didn’t go to my friends in the industry first and ask them if they thought it was a good idea. I said, “Let me build out the first phase of this and then bring it to them.”
Andrew: What did you build it in? What platform did you guys use?
Richard: It was written in SQL. Drupal at the beginning and now Cake.
Andrew: Drupal and what is it now?
Andrew: Cake. That’s a feature-rich site. I didn’t imagine you guys built all those features yourself.
Richard: We did.
Andrew: I know we built a community on Mixergy and we used–I don’t like our software nearly as much as yours. You guys are much more Facebook-like in the chat.
Richard: Yeah. It’s been a long process. It’s one I’m very proud of. Our CTO, Derrick Ontiveros was with me from day one.
Andrew: How’d you find him?
Richard: I found him through connections. People recommended him. He came in. He understood the idea for the first phase of it. Back then, again, it was Drupal and he pieced together what he could. At the time, he was freelance. I didn’t bring him on right away. But over time, as he continued to build this out, it was really in tune or attuned to what I was thinking and we started working really, really well together. He came into the company.
Andrew: Who’s Curt Blakeney?
Richard: Curt was also a partner and is no longer with the company.
Andrew: What happened? It looks like you guys or he wiped out his profile page on Stage 32 and on LinkedIn he wiped out any reference to it.
Richard: Yeah. He’s just no longer with the company. He decided to go another route, basically. That’s what he wanted to do.
Andrew: Does he own any piece of the company?
Richard: A small piece.
Andrew: Was it a harsh breakup?
Richard: It wasn’t the best.
Richard: It wasn’t the best.
Andrew: What was it about? Can you be open about that?
Richard: Ultimately I think some people have the makeup to be in a startup and understand that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. But you know, there were other personal reasons for him on his side that he wanted to go another route, even financially it takes a while to get things moving with a startup. I don’t think he recognized the marathon nature of things, as I said earlier.
Andrew: I don’t see much about him online. All right. So, you had your idea and one of the things I heard you did, you told our producer, you asked 100 people what they thought of it and if they liked it, you wanted them to do one thing and if they didn’t, you asked them to do something else. What was your process with them?
Richard: Yeah. What I did was I made a list of 100 industry friends. I went to them and I just said, “Look, this is what I’m looking to do.” Before I kicked it off, informally I would go to bars or go out to events and say, “Hey, what social networks are you on?” You get Facebook, you get this. “Are you getting any work out of it?” “No.” I said, “Okay.” I’d make a little note of who said what.
I went to 100 of them and I said, “Here’s the platform I built. Here’s the first phase. If you like what you see, please invite five fellow creatives, minimum. If you don’t like what you see, please give me three reasons why. Even if you like it and you want to give me three reasons for improvements or whatever, I’m happy to hear.”
That took about a month and a half. I tracked every one of them down. 97 of them joined. Three of them didn’t. The three that didn’t was more about time restraints and things like that but gave me some good ideas that we actually implemented many of them because I thought they were very good. Those three people, I’m proud to say, are now members.
What was really, really cool was that I wouldn’t say all 97 who joined immediately invited people, but a large bulk of them did. With each one that joined, it was sort of like the old Purell commercial. They told a person. They told two people, and so on and so on. It was a crowdsourced effort.
No matter who joined, when you joined you got a message from me welcoming you to the site, giving you the mission statement of what we’re looking to do, some information about the site and then that ask at the end, that ask to please invite five fellow creatives if you like what you see. We still do that to this day. The site, we’re at 500,000 people now and the community has been almost completely crowdsourced just through that method.
Andrew: One of the things that I guess I don’t see on the early versions of your site and you told our producer didn’t exist was the lounge, that that’s a big piece of feedback that you got.
Richard: No. The lounge was something that we put that in phase two. I put it in phase two because I felt the first thing we needed to do was to get people talking. The second thing we wanted to do was to see–we wanted to see what the main disciplines were as far as the community was concerned.
We noticed right away that we had a lot of actors. We noticed right away we had a lot of screenwriters. We had a lot of filmmakers. We didn’t have a lot of cinematographers early. We didn’t have a lot of voice actors early. What we did was when we created the lounge, which was basically our version of forums, we call it the Stage 32 Lounge, a little cute name, to make it more swagger-y and comfortable.
We started with the disciplines that we felt we needed to service the most where we got the biggest community. As each discipline grew, that’s when we would add another section of the lounge. Now I believe we’re over 20, 30 topics.
Andrew: All right. Let me take another break here. Before I do, actually, I’m looking at the early bios of the CTO, Derrick–how do you pronounce the last name?
Andrew: And on the bottom, it says, “When he’s not in the office, you can find Derrick feverishly coding at his favorite coffee shop, carefully avoiding eye contact with hipsters.” He’s a CTO, but he started out as a freelancer, right?
Richard: Yeah. He did. The coffee shop was a coffee shop in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was living there at the time.
Andrew: Cool. The reason I bring that up is because if you’re looking for a freelancer to help build your business or maybe help start your business–I don’t mean you, Richard, you’ve already started your business, but I think it could be applicable to you too–there’s a network of really sharp, top developers over at Toptal.com.
We’re not talking about the guys who can barely get work or in a country where you can’t connect with them who are looking to work for you for $2 an hour. We’re talking about the best of the best, the guys who would be working at Silicon Valley elites. There’s a network of them at Toptal that have been vetted, that have been screened, that have been tested by other developers and only after they go through this rigorous process are they part of this network of developers. Frankly, 97% of people who tried don’t end up in there.
So, this network of developers is available to you if you’re looking to hire a developer full-time, part-time, as a freelancer who will come in on a project, whatever it is. All you have to do is go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. You let them know how you work. You let them know what you’re looking for. You let them know about the project you’re getting into.
By the way, when I say you let them know, I mean on the phone. You need to chat with someone. You need to talk to someone about your project, about your frustration with how things are going right now, about your vision for it so they could then go and find the right person within their network and make that connection for you. You don’t have to hire that person if you don’t like them. You can talk to them and work things out with them, but if you like them, many people like the first or second person they’re introduced to.
If you like them, you can get started often within days because they’re part of this network and ready to go. When you do, you get, frankly, if you start working with them. You have a two-week period that you are 100% satisfied. I don’t know anyone who does that, even the cheapo freelance sites don’t do it.
These are the best of the best. You definitely can’t do it when you’re hiring a CTO like this. They will let you have two weeks to test the person out. If you’re happy, you can continue on. If you’re unhappy, you don’t have to pay them. Toptal will pay them out of their pockets. And if you’re a Mixergy fan and you go over right now, they’re going to give you 80 free developer hours when you sign up for 80.
I’ve talked about this in other interviews and the guests have written down–you guys have seen this–and ended up signing up for it. I know that because I’ve also said in past interviews that if you need an intro to my guy over at Toptal, I’m happy to do it. You can just email me, Andrew@Mixergy.com and I’ll make the introduction. But you’ll get great service even if you just go to them directly, Toptal.com/Mixergy.
Richard: Great service. That’s fantastic.
Andrew: It’s amazing. Andreessen Horowitz invested in them. These guys are doing so freaking well. All right. And also, they’re doing well with ads on Mixergy, which is really good for me because that’s the kind of sponsor you want to keep. We’re talking about a blue chip sponsor like that.
Richard: I’ll tell you what also–this is not in the bio or anywhere else either–I also did seven years of radio, sports radio on ESPN and Fox affiliates and I have to say, we call that in the business a crack segue.
Andrew: Thank you. I’ve struggled with them in the past. I’m trying to figure it out as I go along. I’m really proud when I get my ads right because you know what? You’ve seen this. The top radio guys growing up were also the guys who did killer commercials. We’re talking about Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Paul Harvey, people who could sell mattresses and make you think, “I’ve got to get that mattress or else there’s something wrong with me.”
Howard Stern used to do commercials for–it was a summer camp for Jewish adults in New York. He would go on about how when he was a kid he was a dork. The only time he really shined was when he went to summer camp because he was completely separated from all his usual life and he got to fully be himself. He made me want to go to this Jewish summer camp for adults and I was a kid. I got to go to summer camp and I hated it. When you can really sell as a talker, that’s when you know you’ve become a good talker.
All right. You’ve built up the business. It’s time to now start to generate some sales. Did you try anything else before you got into education?
Richard: No. It was always the objective where you feel like we were way ahead of the curve in a lot of ways from the idea that we believed that the entire mission of this thing was going to be to connect people in a supportive environment but then to give them access and opportunity and training through the education and through other offerings, including when we acquired The Happy Writers, which I’m sure we’ll get into.
Education was always the goal. What I did for the first two years when we were building up the community was I went around town and made my contacts with people in the industry who I felt would be good educators and they were all vetted. These were all people that have, as we like to say around here, climbed to the top of the mountain and were willing to tell people how they got there.
So, these were all accomplished people or people that were working in some sort of instructional environment that had the credentials to do so. So, by the time we were ready to launch education, I had over 200 people ready to teach. Today we have over 500. It’s something that we were very proud of and something we were ready to go on from day one as far as a revenue driver for the site, or the primary one anyway.
Andrew: I was actually trying to figure out which computer did I log into your account on to Stage 32. I have an account on both computers. So, I’m looking to see who’s teaching right now. Actually, I can’t find a list this fast.
Richard: I’ll give you a perfect example. We have one today from Jaia Thomas. She’s an intellectual property attorney in LA. She’s one of the top intellectual property, IP, attorneys in the world. She spoke on the idea of protecting your work because it’s a big deal, especially in this day in age, in the internet age, protecting your work, how screenwriters can protect their work through the WGA and the Library of Congress, what is patentable? What is protectable? What is an idea? Can you steal an idea? Can you protect an idea? That kind of thing.
That’s a very, very important part of the business and something that I get to speak all over the world. I’m very grateful for that and blessed for that on screenwriting and filmmaking. It’s a question that comes up almost every single time I speak on a panel or give a talk. We brought in Jaia because not only is she fantastic and not only is she overly qualified, but she’s on top of everything that’s changing because with each new streaming deal out there and everybody that’s coming into the space, everything that’s happening online–this was also about music rights and all that–it changes. It changes rapidly. So, that’s a prime example of somebody that we’ll bring in to teach that kind of class.
Andrew: I see a lot of the classes are $59.
Richard: We have webinars, classes and labs.
Andrew: I see. So, I guess I’m looking at the webinars right now. What’s the split between the teacher and the company?
Richard: The teacher usually gets about 20% of the revenue. We try to bring on teachers as well that are willing to go out and promote themselves or are willing to go out and promote the fact that they are teaching. Many of our teachers–it’s incredible, though–many of our teachers will not take the 20% or will take the 20% and donate it to charity.
It’s amazing how many of our instructors are just looking to get back, which is something that again, I think it’s a product of the environment that we’re trying to create, these very positive and giving environment we’ve tried to cultivate since day one. So, it’s cool when that happens. It’s cool when they come in and say, “I don’t need the money. Give it to charity. I’ll give them the name of my charity and send them a check.”
Andrew: Cool. How do you get them?
Richard: Well, again, I’m fortunate to be a repped screenwriter in LA. I’m known as a producer out here. A couple of my employees are filmmakers. I just have a lot of contacts in the business. The cool thing that happened after maybe the first year of driving education or introducing education is that our teachers, our instructors started giving us referrals, sending people our way.
Again, they go through a vetting process anyway or we researched them thoroughly, some of them we don’t have to, but it’s very well known. It’s amazing how often we’ll get a referral from somebody that teaches for us. Like I said, now we’re up over 500 people who either are involved in education or involved on The Happy Writers side with the pitching.
Andrew: How much revenue is coming from the education right now? Say 2015, what’s the revenue from the education part of the business?
Richard: Over $1 million.
Andrew: Over $1 million comes from education?
Andrew: Wow. And then you mentioned Happy Writers. That came through an acquisition.
Richard: Yeah. We acquired The Happy Writers. I mentioned earlier I’m a screenwriter. For some reason, it bothers me. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen in this business, in the industry. There are a lot of scams for acting. As an actor, those bother me. But the screenwriting ones for some reason bother me a hell of a lot more. I don’t know why that is.
But I feel like everybody and their mother is coming online claiming to be an expert and offering pitching, let’s say. You go to pitch the executive. You go to an event and you go to pitch the executive and the executive is an 18-year old assistant that has absolutely no pull within the agency.
There was a company called The Happy Writers run by a guy named Joey Tuccio. He worked for Bold Films. He was an executive there. Bold just did “Whiplash” and “Nightcrawler” last year, had a very good year. He just loved working with writers. He was a development executive. He decided that he didn’t want to be in the industry. He wanted to help writers. So, he started this company. He had a lot of contacts in the business and this allowed him to start this company.
He spoke to a bunch of the executives in the business who said, “Look, it’s so hard to find good material.” Everybody is sending in junk and a lot of places have the unsolicited material rule anyway so you can’t send it in. So, they’re relying on referrals and if that dries up, there’s just no material.
So, he went to them and said, “What if I could connect you to writers? What if I could connect you to vetted writers,” writers who have the chops and have the good material and have material that you are looking for if you’re looking for a specific genre or a specific type of writer, that I could connect you to those people. Everybody said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
So, he started connecting people via Skype, pitching via Skype. So, you have the executive on one side and you have the writer on the other. I talked to a bunch of writers I knew that had worked with Joey and they loved it and they loved the process and there were a bunch of success stories. So, I decided to sit in on a four-day event online–well, at his offices but the event was happening online.
By the end of the fourth day, I said, “We’ve got to make a deal here.” This is too impressive and so much about the philosophy of what my company is about, which again, is creating a positive environment and creating access and opportunity and making it real, making real opportunities.
As a creative, you’re just nothing without support. You’re nothing. People prey on that. People prey on the dreams. But if there’s a reality to your dreams, if you’re putting in the work, then the hardest part after you put in the work is having the access to get that work seen. So, it’s a philosophy that we’ve built from day one that we want to connect people and give them the access and this was a company that was doing just that literally. So, we acquired them in 2013.
Andrew: So, I’m on your site under Happy Writers. There is Ryan Christians, who is a creative executive at Marc Platt Productions. They have worked on “Wanted,” “Legally Blond,” and a bunch of other movies. I can, for $45, pitch him and I could pick form his calendar the time that I want to pitch him. So, I can do like Wednesday of this week at 4:10, I could pay $45 and pitch him. That’s the model.
Richard: That’s right. That’s the model. Usually there will be a two and a half hour window where you can pick your ten-minute window. That’s the model. To this date, we’ve had 200 success stories. Again, this is another thing that people do online. They call success a free option. We don’t look at that as a success. We look at that as you’re getting ripped off.
We measure success as landing representation, having a sale, being staffed, getting an assignment, a paid assignment and we’ve had over 200 success stories. The company itself has had over 200 since it started in 2011. Since we acquired them, I would say 125 to 130 have come since the acquisition.
Andrew: Wow. How much revenue is coming from that?
Richard: It’s a decent amount of revenue. I would say 30% of our revenue comes from that. But again, it’s such a rewarding part of the business because there is success coming from it. And again, the executives that we work with–we work with everybody from Lionsgate to the Weinstein Company to AMC. You go on and on and on. We work with pretty much everybody in the business.
Andrew: So, it’s education and these connections. That’s the total revenue right now.
Richard: Yeah. We never were about advertising. We’re not going to bomb the community with advertising. We have house ads for our own education, of course, but we’re not going to feed all sorts of ads or anything like that.
Andrew: I’m trying to find out more about where you guys are getting traffic from right now. Indiewire–I guess they wrote an article about you, right?
Richard: We’ve had coverage. Forbes did a great article on us, calling us LinkedIn meets Lynda, which we obviously loved. We loved it more when LinkedIn bought Lynda for $1.5 billion. We were very happy with that. The article actually came out before that, though. We’ve had coverage from all the major trades. We’ve been covered in Variety. We’ve been covered in The Hollywood Reporter.
Indiewire, which is the top independent film site on the web has covered us a number of times and is very supportive of everything we’re doing. We really are recognized in the community as the leaders in online education for people working in film and that’s only grown, especially over the last year.
Andrew: You guys also used one of my sponsors, not one from this cycle, but CloudSponge so that when someone joins, you make it easier for them to grab all their friends who they want to get their friends’ email addresses from their address books. GoToWebinar, I guess, is what you’re using to do your webinars?
Richard: At the current moment, yeah, that’s what we’re using for the webinars.
Andrew: Do you like them?
Richard: A hiccup here and there. I think there are some other programs out there that are starting to accelerate and may bypass them soon. But they’ve been fine. I just think that sometimes the compatibility could be a little quirky at times, to be brutally honest, which I just was.
Andrew: I get it. I’ve actually been having trouble. I use GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar. So far I’ve had the best success with them, but I haven’t found anything that’s 100%.
Richard: No. It’s tough. It’s definitely a developing…
Andrew: It’s strange. It’s been around for a while, but it does feel like it’s still developing.
Richard: It definitely is still developing. I think the best is yet to come. It’s amazing when we’re talking about VR as much as we’re talking about VR that we can’t get the meeting software right.
Andrew: Yeah. But it’s interesting to see that you guys are just using off the shelf software like that.
Andrew: Cool. What’s the best part of having done all this?
Richard: The best part, really–again, not to sound polyanna-ish or BS–it really is the success of our members. Every time a success story comes in, we have a success story section in the lounge or somebody gets signed from The Happy Writers or a movie comes together off the site or we get one of these stories–these are actually my favorite.
The whole idea was to make this world smaller. Filmmaking isn’t only happening in Hollywood anymore. It’s hardly happening at all in Hollywood anymore. It’s happening all over the world. It’s a DIY world. People aren’t worried about getting into theaters anymore as far as distribution is concerned. People are happy with online distribution and streaming.
So, that’s made the world much, much smaller. It’s made everybody more accessible. The stories that I love and the thing that has been the most rewarding is having a filmmaker in India hire a composer in Florida, which just recently happened for a major motion picture, to score the film. He can’t find anybody around him that’s getting the material. So, that happened recently.
Andrew: How do you keep track of these success stories? It’s really hard to keep track of success stories. The best company that I’ve seen at doing that was Visual Website Optimize. They would do all these A/B tests. Once a test that you did beat what you were doing before, there was an automated message that said, “Do you want to be a case study? Fill out this form.” That’s how they collect their case studies at the perfect time.
Richard: I’ve seen that. We actually have used them. That is pretty clever.
Andrew: Yeah. It’s a challenge otherwise, especially if people have to come back to your site and remember to fill in their information and let you know about it. But do you have one place where they can tell you? What’s the way that you guys keep track of your success stories?
Richard: Well, with The Happy Writers, we keep a running list because everybody–we know that it’s happening. If a writer is getting hired by a manager or signed by a manager, we know that’s going to happen so we keep a running list over communication with both the writer and the executive in that case.
On the actual site, we have a couple of things. We have a job section where if you have a project and you have cast and crew needs, you post them. People apply to them. When the project manager accepts somebody for a role or takes somebody on, it’s automatically posted into a feed. People on the community know about it that this person has been hired for this particular job. So, that’s one way.
Then in the lounge that we spoke about earlier, we have a section called success stories and people will go in there and post, “I landed this,” or, “I signed this,” or, “We financed this film through connections we made on the site.” Not everybody does that. That’s the most manual way. It’s again, like you said you’ve got to get people to come back and actually do it.
But again, it’s the inspiring part about this. For half a million people, you would think that it doesn’t have that small community feel, but it really, really does. Everybody is so supportive of one another when these things happen, not only are people compelled to post about it, but a million come in behind it and offer their congratulations and support.
Andrew: Cool. The website is Stage32.com for anyone that wants to check out. The sponsor is AcuityScheduling.com/Mixergy and Toptal.com/Mixergy. Of course, we’ll have it in the show notes. If you haven’t subscribed yet to the podcast, do it. Do it and you’ll get every one of my interviews directly delivered to whatever device you want and that’s available at Mixergy.com/Podcast or wherever fine podcasts are sold and distributed.
Hey, before I say goodbye, how has this interview been for you?
Richard: This has been awesome. I had a blast doing this. You had me on my toes the whole time.
Andrew: I was rehashing old stories, bringing them up.
Richard: I loved it.
Andrew: I’m glad you were willing to go with it. Good.
Andrew: It’s good to have you on here. Thank you for doing this interview. Thank you all for being a part of Mixergy. Bye, everyone.