SideReel – Zach Larson – 2 of 2

"The road to success is littered with lots of bodies and failure." SideReel is the largest independent web TV platform, helping users find and watch shows online.

Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they decide to build a company. What was the hardest part about launching or building SideReel, and how did you overcome this obstacle?

Zach: The hardest part was…Well, there were a couple of specific challenges that SideReel faced. The hardest part honestly, I think, was going back to the founder thing, was that we all had certain different things we were looking for at the company, so negotiating how we were going to work together, and there was a lot of us.

So, it’s different than if it’s just two people and you just kind of work in partnership. As soon as you have more than three or four people, communication becomes more of a challenge, cultural overhead is important, and so, us recognizing what different people we’re supposed to be working on and being able to work efficiently around that. Us being able to communicate effectively and make decisions effectively as a group. Making decisions as a group is hard. That was a big challenge.

It took us awhile to get over that, but we constantly worked on it. We also faced technical challenges. We started in 2006 with the kind of no SQL approach before any of the platforms existed to help you do that, and so we built one on our own, which was stupid. It was a stupid decision for us to do. Well, it ended up being [inaudible 01:17] up around the storage and access layer, when we really didn’t need it. We did it under the principle of, no one knows what we need other than us, but that incurred a lot of drag and caused us to do a rewrite. Three years in, it ended up being good for us, but if we had maybe been a little more, a little less crazy about technology choices, I think we would have regained some efficiency there. But, I think it worked out fine.

Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business and your users that you didn’t realize before you launched?

Zach: Well, we learned that you can make a profitable, an efficient enterprise profitable from just advertising. We didn’t know that in the beginning, it took us a little while to figure out, but that worked out fine. We didn’t know how easy it was to produce our own video, our own pretty high quality, short form video which we ended up doing a lot of. We didn’t know you could make a lot of money video ads around that time. We didn’t know how hard it would be to hire engineers. Because, yes indeed, it is really hard to hire engineers.

Users, we didn’t know that they would watch as many ads as they would and they do. As long as the value that they’re being provided is what they want and it’s good enough, they’re willing to put up with a lot for a free service, which is great. Services need to make money on the Internet, and that’s one way to do it. So, we learned that about users, and also just how addicted people are to television.

I started SideReel because I really cared about TV, but there are people who are really addicted to television, I mean they watch 20 to 40 hours of TV a week. That’s like a whole second job and they really do it. And they watched and before SideReel came along, they kept index cards with little notes in their wallets. Some of them had Excel spreadsheets full of episodes that they had watched and hadn’t watched. I mean, insane amounts of detail that I never thought people actually had that problem, but it turns out that they do.

Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make starting companies look easy. We know it can be difficult. We want to dispel some myths here, so my question for you is: what talents or skills do you possess that come easily or intuitively for you? What has been difficult, and how have you managed that?

Zach: First of all, there’s nothing about starting a company that’s easy. There’s nothing about starting a company that’s easy. It looks easy after the fact for companies that are successful, of course, the road to success is littered with bodies. It’s just how it works. There’s nothing about it that’s easy. Everything about it is hard. Specifically, pouring every ounce of brain power you have for years and years onto a single problem, is exhausting in a way that you can’t even possibly contemplate until you’re doing it, or have done it.

What comes easy to me, I’m pretty good at communication. I’m pretty good at organizing people. Things that I’m really seeing be raised to optimally and most effectively getting people to work together. I’m really good at that kind of stuff. And also knowing when to interact with users early, being able to take early user feedback, sort of digest that into a coherent product whole, you know, is something I’m good at which is what I do on that.

I’m not really good at the technical stuff. I’m just not. I come from a technical background, but realistically, I’m not a good technical guy. So, I have to work really hard at learning what’s important and learning how things work so that when I communicate with people who are technical, that’s the backbone of a internet company, I can communicate with them, at least, from the place of knowing one-ninth of what they know, and that’s something.

Also, it took me a long time, throughout SideReel to understand the importance of having no ego. As a product guy, in the beginning, I really thought it was my job to have all the ideas, and it’s really not. It was really hard for me to come across that learning, and my CEO, bless his heart, he helped me through that in an amazing way. He and another coach of ours really sort of had a core set of trouble understanding things and agreeing about things, and he really worked through it with me, which was great, to get me to the place where I would realize that it’s not about my idea, it’s about the best idea.

It’s not even my job as a product guy to have all the ideas, or even have any ideas. My job is to corral things and get things arranged, and set up systems so that people can have the best ideas presented and elected. And that’s something that took me a long time to realize. Also, to better understand that, in the beginning of the company, through many years, I operated both the product side and the engineering side, and understanding that those two things are very different. And while in the first year, that’s just how it was, we didn’t have anybody else to do it. As we grew, it was a detriment that I needed to focus on one thing or the other. That was the proper position, that’s how I ended up just focusing solely on product.

Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching SideReel?

Zach: Going back to the no ego thing, embracing that in every single type of conversation and bit of organization that you have, that it doesn’t matter if it’s your idea. Doesn’t matter if it’s the other person’s idea. Teaching other people that’s important, that just to listen to other people with open ears, try to understand where they’re coming from, try to put it into a frame that you can understand, repeat it back to them, make sure that they agree with that, and then use that as a place to generate consensus from. And that basic framework has been the most important lesson that I’ve gotten out of SideReel for me. It’s been more helpful than anything.

Matthew: What bit of advice do you wish you would have known before launching SideReel?

Zach: Boy, don’t build a custom back end, that’s silly. That would have been real nice. It would have been nice to know that, just for peace of mind, that the first year to two years that eventually it won’t be so hard, it won’t be so dire. You might not be living every week as if it’s your last week, because you’ll eventually make enough money to, at least, contribute back to your rent. That’d be nice. Those things would be nice.

I think that knowing that there are other people out there who are just as crazy as I am, and just as crazy as the rest of the SideReel founders were would be really nice to have. We were never really active in the startup community, and there wasn’t really much of one, in the same way that there is now, in 2006, 2007 and having people, just go through that wringer with us, just even alongside would have been nice, but that’s how it is.

Matthew: What mentor has played a significant impact in your development?

Zach: Well, there’s really two. One is Marcy Swenson. She was one of the former executives for Critical Path back in the first build, and now she coaches and teaches people how to deal with being a founder and all that. She’s fantastic at that. And she was the first one the first couple of years for me.

The second was…actually there were three. William Petrie was the second one and he’s an agile guy, he’s got his own company now and he really helped me understand the importance of how people work on what they produce, and understanding that that’s something that people really care about and can really improve, not just the quality of those people’s lives but the quality of what they produce and how they produce it. He taught me a lot about that.

And the last one is a woman named Janice Gracher [SP], she helped me a lot about the importance of design, how to think about design in a way that made sense to me, and how to incorporate user experience stuff into a consumer product in ways that I hadn’t really thought about before, even though I tried.

Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?

Zach: Location, opportunity, and by location I mean, are you in a marketplace where there’s an opportunity to take advantage of something? Do you have the opportunity to do it? Can you afford to not make any money for awhile and just kind of bang on your thing? Do you have a passion about what you’re trying to do, in whatever form? It could be a passion about building your organization, it could be a passion about the product that you’re building, it could be a passion about working with the people that you’re working with. But do you have a passion for some reason to be involved in it? I think that that’s it. Other than that, just go do it.

The up front risks of doing some sort of online, entrepreneurial enterprise these days is very low. Hardware costs are low, server time is low, you can do all this stuff for a commodity of things. There are great frameworks that will help you through this stuff, through the technology challenges. Just go do it and talk to people, talk to your users who would be your users early and listen to them. Really, really listen to them because that’s something that I messed up in the early days, is I talked but didn’t listen to them and ended up running ourselves into a corner. But if you talk to them and really listen to what they want, and really listen to the problems that they had, you’ll end up building something that they will actually use, is ultimately what you are trying to do anyway.

Matthew: Before we close, I would love for you to give our audience your big vision for SideReel and how you hope it will continue to change the world.

Zach: Side Reel is an intricate thing, and our big vision is: I have no idea if that’s the right choice. That right now, the problem that we’re working on is Social TV, so are a lot of people that people want to interact with their friends and people with similar tastes around television. Television is one of the social and cultural touchstones of our world and that’s what we’re working against. But that might fail, and we’ll have to figure that out, figure out what the next thing is.

People still have problems navigating the sea of content, and I think that SideReel will always have a place as, especially within Roadie the acquiring company, as a key place for people to figure out what they want to watch, how they want to watch it, and when they want to watch it, and what to watch next.

Matthew: It’s been a great pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at SideReel. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more and join your community, you can visit their website at www.sidereel.com.

This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. Thanks so much, Zach.

Zach: Thanks a lot.

 
 

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