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The SaaS powering streaming apps | ViewLift
Rarely do we come across entrepreneurs who’ve been building businesses for 40 years and that’s why this episode is very special! Take an exclusive glimpse into the mind of a streaming industry pioneer- Rick Allen!
Rick Allen is a seasoned media industry veteran with a remarkable track record. With notable roles such as board member for MapQuest, Senior VP for Discovery Communications, CEO of Sporting News, and CEO/President of National Geographic Ventures, Rick has consistently made significant contributions to the industry.
Rick's brainchild, ViewLift is a B2B SaaS company revolutionizing the streaming industry. It's like Shopify for streaming, helping content owners effortlessly stream and monetise their content via subscriptions and advertising. Talk about competing head-on with the giants like Netflix and Disney Hotstar!
Rick's wisdom and insights paint a vivid picture of the streaming industry's evolution. Rick speaks about his fascinating journey, spanning four decades of building iconic American businesses and shaping government institutions!
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Rick Allen: This is Rick Allen, the CEO of Viewlift, and I'm delighted to be with Akshay on The Podium.
I grew up in the Midwest and the east coast of the United States. Born in Massachusetts, raised in upstate New York, outside of Detroit, outside of Chicago, outside of New York City.
And went to school at Dartmouth in New Hampshire and law school at the University of Chicago on the south side of Chicago. And finally got out to where I've always self-identified as home, which was Los Angeles. Went out there after law school, and lived in LA for 15 years.
And then through a mixture of circumstances, came to DC.
Akshay Datt: How did you start your career, once you finished law school?
Rick Allen: I was doing international corporate work which was a variety of different things, but it ended up focusing on inbound investment to the United States from folks who were still or had originally been non-US citizens and work with them on a range of different business transactions; was always business-oriented, found a great firm called Morgan Lewis & Bockius in LA, which was growing very rapidly. Big international firm, small LA office. Perfect combination for me. Went there and practiced and had a really wonderful time at it and probably would've stayed a lawyer except that my favorite client who had become a very good personal friend, invited me to become CEO of his group of 35 different entities.
I was 29 years old. I was remarkably unqualified for anything approaching that. I had to stop and consider- do I leave the legal profession, which I'm enjoying, the firm is treating me incredibly well, I love my clients and everything else, and try to learn something new. And I was confident that my chairman would teach me how to be a CEO and that that would be useful and fun and hopefully could make a contribution.
Akshay Datt: So what were these groups of companies into?
Rick Allen: Pretty much everything, it was a family-owned series of enterprises, but just at an enormous scale. They owned a very significant amount of real estate.
We were the number one and number two largest commercial landowner in the Golden Triangle of Beverly Hills during one of its many heydays. We had a number of high fashion retail operations and then we did anything else that my partners thought might be interesting and where we might be able to learn something and hopefully do well at the underlying business.
So we looked at making a run at two big movie studios which we were interested for their operating business, but also for the real estate they had. We ended up not winning either of those bids but learned a lot about it.
Akshay Datt: As a CEO, were you like incubating the new initiatives? Were you operationally involved in the various businesses?
Rick Allen: Yes, absolutely. And it would range in any given day from, a major transaction to, small resetting of the staff in an operating company.
And then legal oversight, we had lots of outside attorneys, but I was doing most of the deal negotiation myself directly and some of the legal work. We had a general council who was real good and outside council as well. But, occasionally it's just faster to get it done yourself.
Akshay Datt: You had a friendly long stint there, about nine years. What made you want to try the next thing? Where were you at the end of those nine years?
Rick Allen: Well, I was extremely happy. We had created or extended many blue chip brands and that became really important over the course of my career because I enjoyed understanding what challenges global brands face, how they become of high popularity, how they retain that position, what the threats are, how you can help refurbish a brand that slipped a bit.
All of that blue chip brand building really started in these years when I was CEO of the management entity: Pacific Triangle Management Corporation. I also learned a great deal about acquisitions of all kinds of things. And that was very important. And then it also taught me how to stay on top of a highly disruptive industry. We were in industries that were constantly being disrupted. Real estate is notorious for its ebbs and flows, but many of our other businesses similarly were impacted. And on the side I was learning a little bit about the media business, mainly because I was continuing my involvement with national politics. So much of national politics runs through California particularly in terms of its fundraising, but also in presidential campaigns. California is awfully important in the primary season and in the general, so I was learning entertainment and technology because many of the folks that I was working with on the political side were engaged in those sectors. So that gave me a perspective on those businesses, which became even more important later down the road.
I had the opportunity to start to work with real giants in the business world, including studio heads, including my own partners' presidential candidates across every four-year cycle. And that experience of working directly with them was exceptionally helpful to me to understand how folks were at the top of their business what their pain points are, how you can assist them in fleshing out their strategy and recognizing it, and operationalizing it.
I learned an incredible amount about business from Dorma Booby, who was my chairman and his brothers.
So it was a wonderful time. I, at the tail end of that period, wrote the first edition of a book on Robert Kennedy's speeches and life and history which coincided with the 25th anniversary of his death. It was released in 1993, which was the anniversary. I was reading galley proofs when Bill Clinton got elected as president and suddenly I found that I had a new opportunity to consider.
Akshay Datt: What was that new opportunity?
Rick Allen: My closest friend, John Emerson; former law school roommate, was running the Clinton campaign in California. And a man named Eli Siegel was running the national campaign. And among the very few things that I did during the course of the campaign was write two memos about a topic that Governor Clinton had talked about at real passion and length during the campaign.
And that was the notion of a domestic Peace Corps. I had been fascinated by that because it was an idea that Robert Kennedy had and believed in passionately and didn't live long enough to realize. But I had always thought if I had a chance to see that happen I would want to do so. And so, I had sent those memos in to Eli Siegel, who was surprised by the President after the successful general election by being asked to come back and put that program together within the White House. Went to visit with Eli in the interregnum in the transition period and on the inaugural weekend. And I was helping him lay out organization and thinking about where the pressure points were gonna be with Congress and how to mount the effort to get the legislation through.
And really how you take a President's vision on a critical issue and bring it to life. And in the first week of the administration, I was there working with Eli over the weekend. Came to be a Sunday and I was gonna go back to LA and he said "okay, we have to sit down and talk." And I said, " okay."
And he said, "you really love this?" And I said, "well, of course I do. I mean, this is something, I've wanted since I was 14." And he said, "well, we'd like you to come back." And I said, "Eli, what are you talking about? Who is we and what do you mean by come back?" And he said, "well, the president would like you to join me in the senior staff.
I'd like you to be my deputy and let's put this thing together." I said, "oh man, please don't ask me this, we're headed into a recession, at least in the California real estate market. It's terrible time for my businesses to be gone. Not a good thing for my partners. My kids are little . I just turned in this book draft."
I said, "don't ask me because if you're really serious about this." And he said, "we're serious. Go home, talk to your wife talk to your partners and let me know." I went home, talked to my wife that Sunday night, went in on Monday had lunch with my partners, told them what was up and they said, you gotta do this.
That was a Monday. I got on a plane on Wednesday and I was suddenly in the White House. And the first seven weeks I was there, I did not leave the building before midnight any day of the week. And the senior staff meeting was at seven o'clock in the morning. So it was really long , but really fun.
So that's how we got going on that.
Akshay Datt: I want to ask a couple of questions here before we move forward. Most of my listeners won't understand what is the Peace Corps. So can you just define what is the Peace Corps and that was your core idea?
Rick Allen: President John Kennedy created the Peace Corps in his administration, it was an idea he had talked about during the course of the 1960 presidential election. And the Peace Corps idea, which was really brought to fruition by his brother-in-law, Sar Shriver and others was to help Americans do service abroad, particularly in developing countries to extend the talent, the energy, the training of Americans, young and old, to help communities.
Bill Clinton's notion of a domestic version of that which became AmeriCorps was similar in thinking; that individuals have the opportunity to have enormous impact on communities and help meet unmet needs. What President Clinton wanted to do was create a program that had a number of benefits for the communities.
They got incredibly talented, passionate, hardworking individuals, most of them young, right after high school or right after college principally to work for one to two years serving in those communities. The AmeriCorps members received a very modest stipend, frankly, it wasn't enough to live on.
But that was the objective. And then on the completion of their service, they received a scholarship if they were continuing their education or loan repayment if they had student loan debt. It was really a double win. The communities got people who were taking care of their problems, whether it was environmental, if it was in education, in healthcare- just this army of passionate Americans and the individuals who went through it got the enormous benefit of service, which has been statistically indicated over the decades, is a tremendously formative event for individuals and tends to teach them things that they continue to utilize through the rest of their lives.
Akshay Datt: Why were you so fascinated by Robert Kennedy? You wrote a book on him.
Rick Allen: Robert Kennedy was really the most extraordinary elected official and political aspirant that I had ever seen. Certainly as a young person I felt that he spoke with an extraordinary amount of authenticity about the principle problems that Americans and America as a nation faced.
He had bold solutions which really were hard to map on the normal partisan line, he was much more interested in what's gonna work. He felt that it was unacceptable for Americans to ignore so many of our fellow citizens and in a global context to not really be furthering the ideals that we held dear in trying to make the lives of all of the citizens on this planet more complete.
That combination of message and messenger was just exceptionally motivating to me. Then he delivered what I believe to be among the best speeches in the English language in the 20th century. The pure beauty of what he wrote and what he spoke really resonated with me.
There are two speeches that most folks would give you as a quick answer. The first was in June of 1966 in Cape Town, South Africa. In fact, if you go to our book website, which is rfkspeeches.com you can hear his Cape Town speech June 4th, 1966, which is an extraordinary piece of literature.
But was the start of a trip that almost changed the trajectory of South Africa. This is 1966. In many ways, the heart of apartheid, the government had tried to keep Robert Kennedy out, but he was the former Attorney General of the United States, sitting Senator from New York, brother of the martyred president.
And they couldn't keep him out. So he and his wife Ethel went to South Africa and had this whirlwind week-long trip where he was absolutely everywhere and writing the book. I have a friend in South Africa who went into the newspaper morgues and pulled out the old archives. And in the English language papers, they would put 6, 7, 8 journalists on Kennedy each day.
And you'd look at the paper and it looked like it was, the times of Robert Kennedy. He'd start at dawn and he'd go until midnight and he would talk to desperately poor people in the township, oppressed by the apartheid regime. He'd talk to business leaders. He'd talk to the nonprofit sector.
He went to visit the first peace prize winner of African chief, Lathuli, who was banned by the regime and was living in his remote homeland. Kennedy went, met with him, then came back to Soweto and gave that largest township the first messages they had from their leader in a number of years.
The speech that I mentioned in Cape Town is particularly remarkable because it compares South Africa and the United States and talks about the common weaknesses and the common hope that both of those nations and histories and populations have. And it's just beautifully and powerfully written.
It is every bit as resonant today as it was then. So that's one speech that was a highly prepared address. A lot of folks contributed to it. The other speech I'd point to is the absolute opposite of that- the night Martin Luther King was killed April 4th, 1968. And Robert Kennedy's extemporaneous remarks in the heart of the black community of Indianapolis, Indiana were brief, unbelievably evocative and credited for Indianapolis staying calm that night when 119 cities in the United States exploded in the violence.
Many people killed, tremendous property damage, but not Indianapolis and I think that speech had a lot to do with it and is well worth reading. I have a whole book of them. Go to the website, check them out. We've actually got a film from the Indianapolis speech there, so you can actually see it as delivered.
Akshay Datt: Sounds amazing. What were those years like inside the White House? Did you get the domestic Peace Corps off the ground and how did it take off?
Rick Allen: We did. It was something that the president made very clear he wanted to get through as his first major domestic initiative.
I had committed to coming back on what I thought was gonna be a leave of absence. I told him I'd get the legislation through and then I'd go back to my businesses. A couple of things happened. The first was, it was a large project and a complex one. And I came to learn that you can't be on a leave of absence and be an executive officer at the White House.
So I had to formally resign my positions and turn over my interest to my partners and really make that shift. We were able to get the legislation up to the hill in that first year. We faced all sorts of challenges including an effort by the Republicans to use military recruiting and the military against us.
Through the conversations we had with Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, And the heads of the services, we worked through all of those issues, got their support. Then a man named Jesse Helms, who was fairly legendary as a segregationist and disruptive presence in the Senate put a filibuster up against the bill as we were getting it through the Senate, and we had to break his filibuster.
Really a whole series of extraordinary things. Got the legislation through. Then the following summer, did a pilot program to actually bring young people in and see how it would work and then launch the program and get 25,000 AmeriCorps members out in the field. I stayed for the first three years of the administration, I had the opportunity to work on some other things.
In addition to AmeriCorps. I was friends with his speech writers, they would let me intern with them, basically help in tiny ways if I could. And write the speeches for the president that were related to our program; have a bigger role in that.
But it was absolutely an exceptional time. None of us got enough sleep. We made mistakes out of exhaustion and bad political judgment on a variety of issues over time. But we knew we were working for an extraordinary leader and we were doing the right things for the country.
So we kept pushing until we got them right. And we're fortunate enough to get a lot of them, right. The record of the Clinton administration on the economy and having the economy fully benefit Americans of all levels is the strongest in the second half of the 20th century.
Akshay Datt: This must have been a very potent mix of impact- working with great set of people, access to the president in a way, why didn't you keep working? Why did you leave after three years?
Rick Allen: It was really instructive to work with a great leader. Additionally, AmeriCorps itself, we chose the structure of a government corporation and we merged existing federal entities into it. And then we did startups in all 50 states with the governors of those states.
It was a very significant business challenge which I enjoyed doing, and Eli, who was a fantastic leader and businessman was incredibly effective at that. And the staff we pulled together were among the best in the world. A future Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lu and I shared offices. Jack worked with us and others, Shirley Sagau and others that went on to extraordinary leadership roles.
But I was a business person, as I kept telling the head of presidential personnel, 'if I do not go back to business, I'm gonna end up parking cars at the end of this, because the private sector just doesn't understand the public sector and doesn't necessarily value public service.' So I was persuaded to stay at the end of each year, and finally at the end of the third year, I said, "look, I have to get back to business, it was time."
Akshay Datt: W hat did you get back into?
Rick Allen: I was going to go back home to California, that was the original plan. And I had gotten to know a gentleman by the name of John Hendricks, who was the founder of the Discovery channels and what is now Discovery Time Warner.
John Hendricks is one of the most visionary leaders I've ever run across. Truly extraordinary in thinking about the role of media in popular culture and how it can be a positive force on a global basis. And John said to me, "look, don't go back. The family's all here now." And our families were friends and he said, "look that's going well, stay here a couple years. I want to take the discovery brand beyond just the television channel. And I'd like you to help me doing that. And then we have operational roles as a higher gun to merge business units, help them grow, bring in permanent staff; be a pinch hitter." I worked with John for two years on those sorts of projects.
Learned a lot about the entertainment industry and, additional experiences in the M & A field, which were tremendously useful for me. Once again, absolutely Blue chip brand, still very much in its ascent phase, early years. That was the first time I was involved in the digital world.
We had a very strong website and web business and we were extremely active across the landscape of television, retail, web over a range of initiatives.
Akshay Datt: What was the retail business of Discovery? Like selling CDs?
Rick Allen: We had a much broader vision for retail- books for all ages, interesting and unusual games, a variety of merchandise from around the world that helped you understand other cultures. In the flagship store, which we established here in Washington, DC we had a two story T-Rex Fossil, real Museum quality. That was the level at which we were operating. And that dovetailed well into the approach we took in travel, which was a business I was also engaged in.
Discovery had its own discovery travel, which was aimed at being a distinctive player within the travel marketplace and helping people realize what were, in many cases, lifelong aspirations to visit the far flung areas of the earth, and learn something more about the places that they had watched on the Discovery Channel.
Akshay Datt: Then what, after that two year stint with Discovery?
Rick Allen: I was once again getting ready to go back to LA, and I was approached by an executive search firm to become the CEO of the for-profit arm of the National Geographic Society. The National Geographic was and is one of the great global brands, more than a century heritage, and enormously talented and passionate people providing exceptional content around the world.
But there was a disadvantage. The brand had gotten old. The magazine was its biggest media property and the average age was really escalating. The question was how do you take an iconic brand and give it new life and extend it in new directions? And the principle one that I was tasked with was the media enterprise and specifically to launch the cable channel.
I had 10 business units reporting to me of which TV and film was the biggest. And within that division, the channel project very quickly became the biggest in the building. But before I took the position, I went to John Hendricks and I said, "I wasn't looking for this. It came to me. There's no way I can do it without it being competitive with discovery. I wouldn't be remotely qualified for this job but for you taking a chance on me. And I wanna see how you feel about this because if you're uncomfortable with me going, I'm gonna just turn this down now." And he said, "Rick, are they gonna hire that position?"
And I said, "well, yeah, they kind of have to." He said, "well, why would I ever prefer to have somebody other than a friend in that role?" And I said, "well, other people are not as high-minded and big spirited as you are, John." With that blessing, I went off to National Geographic.
Akshay Datt: What is the difference between the for-profit and non-profit of national Geographic?
Rick Allen: This is a real Alice Wonderland hole that I doubt The Podium listeners wanna fall too deeply into. But not-for-profits are, their institutions that exist for a public purpose and therefore don't pay income tax. For-profit entities are trying to maximize their profits for whomever their owners are and do pay taxes.
National Geographic had no owners. The parent entity was the Society, which was a not-for-profit. They were established for exploration and adventure and learning. But when they started doing media activities they decided they would do that in a for-profit structure. This was a subsidiary of the society and everything that was competing in a normal commercial context we put into the for-profit entity.
I could run businesses on the nonprofit side. And I did have a couple of them, including once again, travel and others, including our maps division.
Akshay Datt: Did they have enough funds in the balance sheet to launch a channel?
Rick Allen: No, it takes substantial investment.
Akshay Datt: How did you launch the channel? And did you take it global also? Because I know I used to watch National Geographic back in India.
Rick Allen: It' s done very well in India and around the world, and I'm very proud of our team for starting it and all the folks who've come in the year since we've grown it so extraordinarily. We launched internationally in the late nineties. The board wanted us to show that we could do a 24 hour channel with keeping the highest aspirations of the brand. We launched in the UK and the Scandinavian countries, and then came the big challenge, which was to launch in the US and that was an exceptionally large number.
I went to the board of the parent entity, the not-for-profit, and said, I can't in good conscience recommend that the society takes on this level of financial commitment. And if we aren't going to do that, then we have to have very large partners. We had then partnered abroad with B Sky B and with NBC International.
I talked to both of those companies about the US and Fox, the US affiliate or related entity to B. Sky B, was very interested in being our partner. I spent a year making that deal happen. And it was the most complicated thing I've been involved in and one where we had to see around a lot of corners because we knew we were getting into business with a purely commercial enterprise and one that really is a bit Darwinian and certainly just a very adroit and aggressive competitor in a commercial context. And if you're the smaller partner and you're a not-for-profit there are a lot of protections you need to have. And if it's your brand and your brand's a century and a half old, and that's what's giving all the dynamism to this enterprise, you've gotta be very careful.
And I'm glad to say that it worked out for everybody. It was a good relationship with Fox and for Fox, fabulous for the National Geographic, the Enterprise, the media entity was ultimately sold after I left, t o Fox.
I took controlling interest and then it went to Disney. When the Fox assets were sold to Disney, I had started with Disney with Bob Iger. And it would've been very interesting if they had been our partner, but I believe both that's the right home for National Geographic now, and that Fox was an extraordinary partner in getting us off the ground.
Akshay Datt: Disney owns that brand, or the brand is licensed to them?
Rick Allen: They own the media expression of that brand. National Geographic has been paid for that channel essentially three times now. And the result is that it was a multi-billion dollar asset and it led to about a billion dollars in endowment which they now can put out at the nonprofit level for exploration, research, education.
And the folks who run the channel day-to-day are absolutely among the best in the television business- visionary, insanely hardworking, and really good in a tough industry. Courtney Monroe, who runs the channels, has been a friend for a long time, I think the world of her and the rest of the folks at the channel.
They continue to extend the legacy every day.
Akshay Datt: You created a billion dollars of value for them while you were there.
Rick Allen: It was 7 billion dollars but it wasn't just me, so there's no way I'm gonna even take credit for a seventh of that. We had a fantastic and supportive board who could have said, "you're insane, we're not gonna do this."
My colleagues were amazing. Tim Kelly, who ran the television and film unit was as good a business partner as I'll ever have in my life. And again, I can't say enough about the folks at Fox and how they were to work with. I had the chance to work on the NBC side with David Zaslav who has been running Discovery for the last 20 years.
It's a small industry in a way, and it was an exceptional way to come into it. And it included all of the digital assets of National Geographic which allowed us to become a real leader in a space that was still nascent. But we had a terrific website and moved pretty aggressively in the years after I left in the social media.
National Geographic is one of the strongest brands on Instagram, for example, in the world. And they do terrific work on every part of the digital ecosystem.
Akshay Datt: How long was this stint with National Geographic?
Rick Allen: I had committed to five years and I ended up serving six. I left at the end of 2002, if memory serves. And I had been asked by the late Paul Allen, who was the co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, Paul had a very diverse and gigantic portfolio of companies. He owned sports teams, NBA and NFL teams.
But he also owned an entity called Sporting. Which was the oldest sports media company in America, which was a print product and had both a magazine and a books division. He had added a national radio network, 6:00 AM radio stations and a pioneer and fantasy sports.
That was a n attempt to merge very different entities in completely different cities. Paul was in Seattle. The company was hemorrhaging money very rapidly. What Paul wanted me to do was come in and do a turnaround and rationalize the business and ultimately sell it to somebody who could grow it better than we could, and also to help him on a variety of his other investments and interests. I had the chance to work with him there, on bringing in new leadership for the sports teams where we were tremendously fortunate to attract a fellow by the name of Todd Leiweke, who has gone on to an even greater career in sports and sports management, who was fabulous for Paul's franchises.
And Paul had a cable channel called Tech TV which was also running very substantially in the red. And we ended up putting an auction together for them and selling that asset off because it was well managed, but it was a standalone and the cable business in that era and now, just doesn't allow a standalone operator to have enough market clout to get the distribution you need.
We recommended to Paul that he sell it and then ran the process to do it.
Akshay Datt: Did you find a new home for the sports news business?
Rick Allen: We did. We sold it to a unit of Conde Nast because the core of the business was in print and they were superb at it, and they put it in a unit that had other sports titles and aspirations. From Paul's perspective, we accomplished the assignment.
Akshay Datt: What next? I think this is where you started View Lift after this stint.
Rick Allen: At this point we're now in 2007, I had stuck around post-sale a little bit with the buyer of sporting news and then was moving on. Ted Leonsis had become a friend. He is an extraordinary giant in multiple fields. He was then the vice chairman of AOL and he was about to go Emeritus there. He had been the largest individual shareholder of AOL and vital in its extraordinary growth. He also owned the NHL, the hockey team in Washington, DC, the Washington Capitals and was a minority partner with the right to buy up to a majority position in the NBA team, the Washington Wizards then called the Washington Bullets. And I started talking to Ted, he was leaving AOL, I was leaving sporting news. What do we wanna be when we grow up? What would be fun to do? Should we start a business? Should we buy a business? And through a mixture of circumstances, he was approached about providing finishing financing on a documentary.
He said, "well, you know about this stuff. That's what Discovery in Nat Geo did." I said, "yeah, actually I'm familiar with this filmmaker's work, because she did work for Nat Geo and for Discovery." So he said, "all right, go and see what she's got in the can on this documentary and see if we should help her finish it up."
And we did. The film was called Kicking It. It was about the homeless World Cup. It had premiered at Sundance and played at Tribeca. It was taken out theatrically. We sold it to ESPN which was its principle distribution. And it was a ton of fun. It was a good piece of film, important subject.
And at the end of it, we looked at each other and Ted said, "well, maybe we should make more movies. We'll raise a fund and produce five or 10 movies a year." And as I started to do the business plan for that couple weeks later, he called me and he said, " I'm not convinced that the world needs more films from Rick and Ted."
He said, "remind me how many films applied to Sundance our year?" And I said, "25,000." And he said, "and how many got accepted?" And I said, "130." He said, "oh my." And he said, "and how many were documentaries?" And I said, "around about 40." He said, "how many got distribution our year of any kind?" I said, "there were only seven of us and we got more distribution than I think anybody else that year."
He said, "well, why isn't that the problem to solve?" Because the 25,000 applicants are a fraction of the active filmmakers. They're not able to reach a global audience because the mechanism of art houses and independent theaters are constrained. TV doesn't wanna buy one off films. And he said, "these folks are creating great films that aren't getting seen.""
And he said," I am confident." And again, this is 2007. Netflix is still sending you DVDs in the mail. YouTube existed but had funny cat videos and really nothing out.
Akshay Datt: This is pre-Google acquisition.
Rick Allen: Ted said, " right now you can't stream a full length feature film, but very soon the bandwidth will enable that and that will make this relevant for people around the globe. Let's use these new digital tools to create a way for the great top level of filmmakers to reach the great ultimate level of consumers without getting caught in the middle."
If you think of the hourglass, get through the middle of the hourglass, that became Snag films, that was our objective. We ended up having about 5,000 films in our library. It was an incredibly tough business, but one of the best decisions we made, and I think it's relevant to your entrepreneurs in the audience, we were finding it very difficult to make a business out of independent films and digital distribution.
We were lucky that because of Ted's credibility, we launched with an extraordinary group of shareholders. Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL and his wife Jean. New enterprise associates- really the granddaddy of the tech venture capital funds, ultimately Comcast Ventures and others.
We had great backing financial and strategic, but the business was tough.
Akshay Datt: But what was the business? This was a distribution business?
Rick Allen: It was a distribution which included in some cases all distributions.
So we had films that we took out, theatrically, we sold to television, but our bread and butter was snag films, which was a digital service on an ad supported model, rev share to the filmmakers. And our principal innovation, which I credit my board with, was that the minute that over the top started, my board said, "don't worry about figuring out which of these platforms is gonna be the winner and the loser.
Get up on them all, have channels on all of them. Get to understand this ecosystem because consumers want choice, want ease of accessibility, want business models that make sense for them at that particular time. But what they most want is a lot of content on the device they want, at the time they want. Figure out how to do that."
And we did it very effectively. We were the 14th developer for the iPad. We were one of Roku's first long form channels, its first independent film channel. And on every device we were a launch partner or a near launch partner. By 2014 we were on a couple dozen different device platforms.
And the big players in the media landscape like HBO were on three or four. The head of one of those big entities called me, a friend of mine, and he said, Rick, "I don't get it. I know you've got a small scrappy startup company. I've got 4,000 software developers. I'm on four devices.
You're on 24 devices. What in the world are you doing and will you do it for us?" And our CTO, a man named Manik Bambha who had built out this technology platform and who is now the president of our company, Manik, had been making the same argument; "listen, the technology platform is the interesting asset here. Why don't we white label it, convert in the B2B company and go out and help to stream and monetize other people's content, where they will take the responsibility for getting the content and marketing to their audience." And, I was in love with the original Ideas Snag films, and it took a while for them to beat it into my head.
But ultimately we realized that we should make the pivot; another great business lesson for an entrepreneur. Our board was extremely supportive. And at the end of 2014, we started really focusing on that B2B business on the technology platform. We made it our sole focus around 2017.
And by 2018 or 2019, we just rebranded the company as Viewlift.
Akshay Datt: I wanna ask a couple of questions here. In India, our introduction to OT T was through apps like YouTube, Netflix, Disney's app called Hotstar. These are all standalone apps. What do you mean when you say that you were on 14 different platforms.
How did OTT progress in the US?
Rick Allen: The platforms I'm talking about in addition to websites are mobile platforms. So iOS and Android, most importantly on a global basis. But others, the boxes like Roku and Apple TV and Android TV and others, smart TVs, game consoles, anywhere that allowed you to set up your own channel via an app and stream to a device.
Some of the devices were for the at home viewing- huge screen smart TVs. Some were very small mobile devices, some were in between. But the notion was whether you're at home in the office, on the run, you'll be able to get the content you're interested in and have a great experience in all of those different form factor sizes.
So the easiest way for you to think about it is we were creating Netflixes for our clients. These were under their brands, their content, their audience, they owned it and operated it, decided what content to put up. But what we did was give them a platform which was stable, which was scalable, which allowed them to follow any business model they were interested in, ad supported pay-per-view, authenticated television subscription, and then gave them all the tools to operate that with us standing beside them to ensure stability and help move towards growth.
We were offering our clients not only video streaming on any business model, but other types of content, consumer facing data in the sports world, player statistics articles, pictures, all sorts of things. Building platform that did that and did it across every imaginable device was just amazingly complicated.
And in the way of the digital world, pivoting on a dime and improving things based on being willing to change at any moment.
Akshay Datt: Till 2014 when it was a B2C business, it was largely like a loss making business?
Rick Allen: Yes, that's true. We had various parts of the business that were profitable, including what was referred to as the Bible of the independent film world. It was a site called Indie Wire which was tremendously respected in the film industry.
We built that up tenfold and then sold it to a company called Penske Media which is headed by Jay Penske; really one of the most extraordinary business leaders I know globally. He had daily variety and he added a range of other entertainment assets. That was the perfect acquirer from our perspective.
I t's a transaction that I'm really proud of because everybody won- the employees, the journalists at Indie Wire became part of a bigger family and frankly, a better family than we could offer them. We got a good return for our shareholders' investments. Jay got a real jewel and knew how to polish it, so everybody ended up ahead.
I feel fortunate for that. The overall business because of the requirements of building out the technology and when we were still consumer facing, marketing and trying to find viewers was just incredibly expensive. And that was one of the reasons we made the pivot.
Akshay Datt: How did you discover pricing? You must have had a journey to figure out what's the best way to price it and with your early customers.
Rick Allen: Th ere were some folks who were providing streaming services at the time, so obviously you compare to the marketplace.
One of our very early clients, it was going to be starting a new business for them. And they had a very large set of customers who wanted to make the transition to digital, didn't wanna incur the capital expense. We entered a rev share with them. And that allowed them to get into the business and gave us a very good return as that business built up over time.
Akshay Datt: That was a pretty bold bet to take, to work early on Rev share. You had confidence in that brand that they would be able to bring in revenue.
Rick Allen: Yeah, they had tremendous content and they were great marketers, and they had a proven big audience who is consuming in DVD form. We thought we could project what a digital business would look like for them. But it was a big risk.
Akshay Datt: W hat is the way in which pricing is calculated? Is it on number of hours of content or number of subscribers?
Rick Allen: No, we have a couple of elements of our financial package. One is just basic license fees, so assess licensing of the basic functionality of the platform. Then there are variable fees which do change depending on the size of the business, and those are usually third party costs, storage and streaming being the two biggest, where the more bits you move, the more you pay.
And then the third aspect, not all of our clients use, that's customizing above and beyond the core attributes of the platform because they want specific functionality to be able to reflect their marketplace. Those are the principle elements of our business model as a B2B business.
Akshay Datt: Help me understand the customer onboarding journey. Once there is an in principle agreement what happens next?
Rick Allen: Over time, we've really become expert at this part of the process because any business getting to an initial deal is maybe the first step in the journey.
We have an onboarding team that meets with the client that walks them through in great depth what the platform can do for them, that trains their personnel, that encodes and uploads all of their assets into the cloud, and that helps them launch, determine which devices they want to go on.
And our clients have their own selection of devices and often they start with a smaller set and continue to grow and reach new devices over time. So our onboarding process is really time tested. And it's designed to be able to work with very big clients and small clients.
Akshay Datt: The devices on which a client wants to be present on, you handle the relationship with the owners of those device ecosystems? So they don't need to go and talk to Roku that, "we wanna launch on Roku," that you handle that for them?
Rick Allen: That's correct. On many platforms, the platform has an editorial function and you have to submit the app not only for technical review, but if you're saying, "I want to have a channel for the Italian Pro basketball League," they have to say, "yes, I'd really like to have that on my service."
We handle that for all of our clients.
Akshay Datt: How big is this market, is it like a winner take all where, eventually you would probably just have three or four big players, or are there a lot of streaming players out there?
Rick Allen: There are a large number, particularly if you take a look globally, but there are very few of them that can say that they're truly end to end, which we are.
And by that I mean if you are a company that has content, a sports league, a sports team, a cable channel, a production entity, a fitness video provider, you walk in with the content, you know who your market is, you have some scale advantage in reaching them. Maybe because you are a cable channel and you're able to use the cable channel to point people towards your direct to consumer DTC, over the top service.
We will upload onboard associate with metadata. We'll build out all of the applications on all the devices you desire. We'll get you distribution, on that basis, direct to consumer. We'll also work with you on getting that content to your other distribution partners to social media and others. Monetize it in accordance with any of your business models, again, add supported subscription, pay-per-view, authenticated tv, all of that. Help you collect payment from consumers in every currency on earth. Associate with tax preparers and all of the jurisdictions, handle your two-way communication with all of your consumers. Whether it's pushing out notices about new content, offering different subscription opportunities and plans, as well as taking back the consumer feedback, personalizing offerings through the apps to all of their fans or viewers.
And then we have the best real-time dashboard in the industry, which allows the business owner to see how his or her business is doing. What content is being watched in what region, in what timeframe? Where do people tune off? How is it monetizing? How did you attract that customer? What's their lifetime value for you?
All of those key business metrics are facilitated through this dashboard. So we are truly end to end. You walk in with the content, you walk out with the ability to see your business performing in a digital marketplace and making you money.
Akshay Datt: On one side you have content and mostly we are talking about video content here. And on the other side you have the eyeballs or the end consumers. And then there are the pipes. So one type of pipe is these large streamers like say, Netflix, Disney, on. Then you have these ads supported pipes like say YouTube which allows anybody with a video to start earning that ad supported revenue.
And then you have these smaller streamers. So is there a very massive market of those small streamers, could be just with say 5,000 downloads to 50,000 download kind of businesses. Or will these all eventually move into like consolidation where they would be just a few large streamers. So for example, now even YouTube allows you to monetize subscriptions, you can get paying subscribers for your channels. Is there a large market opportunity here for what you're providing?
Rick Allen: We think so. And again, you're talking about aggregators. So Netflix is an aggregator, YouTube is an aggregator. If I take your podcast to YouTube it's like a giant mall, all sorts of people walking around in the mall, they may come to your store, they may not come to your store.
How your store is presented to them, you don't control. That's YouTube's decision. How they find individual pieces of content, you don't control. You are giving up a big chunk of whatever the business model is to them as aggregators, and you're not getting much data. The principle reason that content owners want direct to consumer is not because it will exist to the exclusion of other kinds of distribution deals, but because it complements linear distribution and working with other aggregators so that you'll have a real depth of knowledge to know who your consumers are and fine tune your offering.
Almost all industries tend towards consolidation. We've seen it in our industry sector, and many of the poorly designed or inadequately financed folks who were in the world did drop out.
If you look at it from the client's perspective, if they can go up on Amazon or go sell to Netflix, appear on YouTube, and they can supplement the advantages of those aggregators with their own direct to consumer service, then that's the best of all worlds.
Akshay Datt: An d if you already have a large YouTube channel, then their cost of acquisition goes down because, through that YouTube channel, you can tell people, "download our streaming app, or we are available on our platforms." Therefore even if you don't necessarily have money to do customer acquisition, if you already have customers engaging with you through other platforms, then this gives you an additional source of monetization.
Rick Allen: T he clients come to us with the content, with the knowledge of who their consumers are and some scale advantage to reaching them, pushing it from their cable channel, pushing it from their YouTube channel. You really can't do that with Amazon or Netflix.
They're not gonna let you, but it'll certainly make your brand known, and then, finding distribution partners and marketing techniques that work in a digital landscape. For most of our clients, the content they're offering, they are making for other outlets and with other needs in mind.
This is almost always additive to their other forms of distribution and it makes them less subject to the disruptions in the marketplace.
Akshay Datt: I want to ask a few questions about the possible use of AI or algorithms here. T he reason why people love Netflix is because of the recommendation engine, so do you help your customers achieve that level of sophistication in the recommendation engine and, in terms of starting from labeling that content so that the engine works better? Help me understand some of that.
Rick Allen: I t is a multi-step process, as you said. And it's mainly machine learning as opposed to ai. And I can explain the difference if that's useful, but what we're trying to do is personalize the service. The objective is to delight the viewer on an individual basis. What is relevant to them?
What content do they want surfaced for them while you learn from their behavior, what they're watching, what they're clicking on, what they're clicking out of. You may have an editorial overlay where I've got my own folks who are promoting the best romcom currently out in the market. And I'm gonna recommend that to you as a curator.
And then you also have input from your social graph. What are people like you and your friends watching? We try to personalize using a mixture of all of those factors. The most data comes from actual consumption patterns but you're constantly testing them against others who are watching similar sorts of stuff and improving the algorithm and explaining to a viewer, to a fan I'm asking for your email and a bit about you as part of making this service more personalized. When I ask you who's your favorite team or who's your favorite actress, the reason I'm asking it is so I can make it easier for you to find what you want.
Akshay Datt: Does the labeling of content happen, is it machine generated labels or when the content provider is uploading content, they put in labels?
Rick Allen: It's usually the latter, and it always starts with the latter. The question is, what metadata do you want associated with the content?
Because those are the markers that the algorithm searches through and the clients have the best idea about what the most important metadata is. But we do make suggestions to them. We do help them test and we'll brainstorm with them to try to accomplish their objectives
Akshay Datt: D o you have an ad platform where brands can come in and directly work with the Viewlift clients for advertising on their streaming services? Is it something like that or each client goes and acquires advertisers on their own?
Rick Allen: What we've done is integrate in with the premium ad networks so that the advertising can be served smoothly.
Some of our clients sell their own advertising. Most everybody wants their uncommitted slots to be picked up. We're making that easier for them and offering the clients more and more ad network choices. But we don't have our own ad sales.
Akshay Datt: What's your average earning per client? I want to understand pricing a little more. What would be a ballpark or a range that you would earn from a streamer?
Rick Allen: A client could end up spending with us in US dollars, mid five figures a year, up over a million dollars a year.
And it depends on the size of their business and their aspirations.
Akshay Datt: T he bites moved like that would be a big determinant of the pricing.
Rick Allen: It's all based on the amount of data being transferred because that's how the big players in the marketplace like AWS charge and we're able to pass along those third parties at better pricing than our clients can get on their own, because we have many clients.
We've got that kind of aggregator's discount on those services.
Akshay Datt: That is a pass through. That's not a revenue source for you?
Rick Allen: It is a revenue source in that we take the savings and a portion of its margin for us, and a portion of its savings for our clients.
Akshay Datt: But is that a bigger contributor to your margin or the license fees is a bigger contributor?
Rick Allen: License fees are a bigger contribution to the margin, as you would expect from a SaaS business.
Akshay Datt: And help me understand the streamers you work with, what are they into, sports or entertainment or documentary?
Rick Allen: Let me talk about them by category. We have some enormous media companies like NBC Universal.
We handle their NBCU kids subscription product. We're very proud of that. I think we're the only independent platform that works with NBC because they've got their tens of thousands of developers and everything else. So we're very proud of that.
We represent two of the biggest local television station ownership groups in the United States, Next door and TEGNA, TEGNA is also a shareholder of ours and a great relationship. We represent, a Indian movie and television studio called Hoi Choi which is really an exceptional company.
We've learned a great deal from them and I think we've helped them learn quite a bit as well about the digital world. They are an Indian based company that produces television and film in the Bengali language. They are experts in that regional market, not just within India, but in the expats around the world.
They've built a superb subscription service. We have a number of other similar entities usually that are distinguished by the type of content or the language of the content, like Hoi Choi. And then we have a whole bunch of sports clients that are both leagues and teams. When I use the example of the Italian Pro Basketball League, LMP is a client of ours.
In 2015, they started streaming, not with us, transferred over to us a couple of years after they began, immediately doubled their business, and they're real pioneers. It's a big league in that it has almost a hundred teams in two different divisions and 1800 games a season. But it's a small league in that almost all of these teams are heavily associated with their local communities and not giant businesses.
So you have to be very cost effective. They create all of this content, all of these live games. You have to find a cost efficient way of getting that to the folks who wanna watch it, primarily in Italy, but around the world. And that's a subscription service. You've gotta help them figure out what pricing and plan modifications are most successful.
We're in the midst of a hug e project for our first client, which is monumental Sports and Entertainment. Ted Leonsis is the principal partner there, and it's his sports teams. They've now bought their own linear network which was NBC Sports Washington.
They've got both a linear network and then the digital network, which we've been running for them from launch. And they're in the midst of a gigantic best of class, new service that we're helping to develop with them. Incredibly exciting project marquee sports teams. They also have the women's basketball, the WNBA franchise, the mystics.
They have eSports, they have G league, which is the developmental league for the NBA . So lots of different teams and content, tremendously farsighted and successful executive team and a passionate regional fan base, and we're helping them to build the next level of that service. So again, big entities, small entities and trying to offer the right size products for them based on who they are, what their audience is, and what their economics allow.
Akshay Datt: What kind of annualized revenue run rate are you at, if you're at liberty to share?
Rick Allen: We have been profitable the last three and a half years.
So we're very proud of that. Because that means you're a sustainable business, which is always the goal of an entrepreneur. And we're interested in growing rapidly, and that means new clients in every marketplace and new types of content. Media and news and sports are our principle content areas, but the technology is agnostic we can apply the tool set for others and we will.
Akshay Datt: So what is your role in the company and, what do you see in your role going forward?
Rick Allen: First and foremost, it's to bring in the best possible people we can associate. We've been very lucky to get an extraordinary group of colleagues who have their own areas of expertise far in excess of mine.
That's the first job of a CEO, second job is to keep looking at the marketplace and seeing what we can learn from it and try to be a thought leader in that marketplace, so that the company can become better known and you have a diverse set of inputs into what you're doing and how you're doing it.
And the third area is working with the board and the shareholders so that the people who've allowed you to be in business are happy with you continuing to be in business. So if you focus on the clients and potential clients, the colleagues and the owners, that's a pretty full day.
Akshay Datt: What do you see as the exit event for the investors in View Lift? Would it be an IPO, would it be an acquisition?
Rick Allen: Our shareholders are not emotional about the business.
If there was an opportunity to grow by buying other companies, we'd do it. If we thought our best opportunity was settle to somebody, we'd do it, if we thought we were a good candidate for an IPO. Every member of my board has taken companies public. So we can do whatever makes sense and that allows us to focus on building the best possible business and not feeling, the warm air on the back of your neck.
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