How 2 Entrepreneurs Went From Living In a Car to Building a $10 Million Business

If you’re a fan of Shark Tank, you saw Shaan Patel close an investment deal with Mark Cuban in Season 7 for his test-prep startup, Prep Expert SAT & ACT Preparation. (I wrote about how his test-prep courses went from $600,000 in pre-Shark Tank sales to over $7 million after airing on the show.)

Now Shaan has partnered with digital marketer Adam Lawrence to launch a new course company, ClearHat Marketing. ClearHat offers ten HD-video courses on subjects like content marketing, Facebook ads, AdWords, SEO, webinars, etc. Their goal is simple: To teach entrepreneurs how to use

digital marketing to grow their businesses. (For more tips from Shaan and Adam, check out their free online digital marketing class.)

Granted it might seem odd that entrepreneurs focused on test prep would go into the digital marketing space, but then again maybe not: Both were frustrated from working with party digital marketing agencies, and when they brought digital marketing in-house, revenues dramatically increased. 

So in a time-honored entrepreneurial tradition, they’re leveraging the knowledge they gained. Like Prep Expert, which offers test-prep courses based on Shaan’s experience going from an average score to a perfect score on the SAT, ClearHat offers marketing courses based on their experience going from 0 to $10 million in revenue.

But why call the company ClearHat? 

Obviously there are two types of search engine optimization,” Adam says, ‘blackhat’ and ‘whitehat.’ Blackhat SEO techniques are the ‘illegal’ tactics that digital marketers use to quickly get businesses ranked high on search results… but then almost guarantee that your business will get banned from Google results altogether.

“‘Whitehat’ SEO techniques are the ‘legal’ tactics digital marketers use to get businesses ranked high on search results. We wanted to go one step further than whitehat, so we chose ‘ClearHat.’ Plus, digital marketing is black box that many entrepreneurs don’t understand, and we’re here to make it clear.”   

Shaan and Adam’s knowledge doesn’t come from a classic digital marketing background. Adam  worked as a bartender in Los Angeles and spent nights sleeping in his car. Shaan’s parents immigrated to the United States with $70; he grew up in their budget motel in Las Vegas.

And they built Internet businesses to escape their humble beginnings. “Most great digital marketers wouldn’t work for someone else,” Shaan says. “They would just build their own multimillion-dollar company. That’s us.”

Adam feels that makes ClearHat a company for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs: They applied the teaching methods from the test-prep courses at Prep Expert to their marketing courses at ClearHat, and then spent almost a year creating courses alongside expert teachers.

Of course the digital marketing industry is incredibly competitive, but Shaan doesn’t see that as a problem. “Test-prep is also an uber-competitive industry,” he says. “I had 100 literary agents and publishers tell me not to enter test-prep because it was too competitive. But if you can build a great product, you can have success in any industry. Too many people focus on what others are doing, rather than focusing on what they themselves should be doing, which only leads to distraction.

“As an entrepreneur,” Shaan says, “competition should never scare you.”

Speaking of competition, I asked Shaan and Adam to share one digital marketing strategy they feel is particularly effective:

  • Implement automated webinars. “Webinars are the perfect way to sell to your potential customers,” Shaan says, “because you get an hour of their undivided attention. And your webinar can be completely automated? We use a platform called Everwebinar: Our automated webinar for Prep Expert has generated over a $1 million in revenue alone.”      
  • Use Facebook Ads to advertise your media articles. “If your business has been featured in a news outlet,” Adam says, “then you should be advertising that article on Facebook. The reach will be much greater than when you share that media article organically. In addition, the cost-per-click on these articles will be very low because users are more likely to click on them than a sales ad — it’s interesting content! This is a great way to have new potential customers learn about your business. One article written about one of our clients has generated nearly $1 million in revenue for that business.”

How 2 Entrepreneurs Went From Living In a Car to Building a $10 Million Business

If you’re a fan of Shark Tank, you saw Shaan Patel close an investment deal with Mark Cuban in Season 7 for his test-prep startup, Prep Expert SAT & ACT Preparation. (I wrote about how his test-prep courses went from $600,000 in pre-Shark Tank sales to over $7 million after airing on the show.)

Now Shaan has partnered with digital marketer Adam Lawrence to launch a new course company, ClearHat Marketing. ClearHat offers ten HD-video courses on subjects like content marketing, Facebook ads, AdWords, SEO, webinars, etc. Their goal is simple: To teach entrepreneurs how to use

digital marketing to grow their businesses. (For more tips from Shaan and Adam, check out their free online digital marketing class.)

Granted it might seem odd that entrepreneurs focused on test prep would go into the digital marketing space, but then again maybe not: Both were frustrated from working with party digital marketing agencies, and when they brought digital marketing in-house, revenues dramatically increased. 

So in a time-honored entrepreneurial tradition, they’re leveraging the knowledge they gained. Like Prep Expert, which offers test-prep courses based on Shaan’s experience going from an average score to a perfect score on the SAT, ClearHat offers marketing courses based on their experience going from 0 to $10 million in revenue.

But why call the company ClearHat? 

Obviously there are two types of search engine optimization,” Adam says, ‘blackhat’ and ‘whitehat.’ Blackhat SEO techniques are the ‘illegal’ tactics that digital marketers use to quickly get businesses ranked high on search results… but then almost guarantee that your business will get banned from Google results altogether.

“‘Whitehat’ SEO techniques are the ‘legal’ tactics digital marketers use to get businesses ranked high on search results. We wanted to go one step further than whitehat, so we chose ‘ClearHat.’ Plus, digital marketing is black box that many entrepreneurs don’t understand, and we’re here to make it clear.”   

Shaan and Adam’s knowledge doesn’t come from a classic digital marketing background. Adam  worked as a bartender in Los Angeles and spent nights sleeping in his car. Shaan’s parents immigrated to the United States with $70; he grew up in their budget motel in Las Vegas.

And they built Internet businesses to escape their humble beginnings. “Most great digital marketers wouldn’t work for someone else,” Shaan says. “They would just build their own multimillion-dollar company. That’s us.”

Adam feels that makes ClearHat a company for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs: They applied the teaching methods from the test-prep courses at Prep Expert to their marketing courses at ClearHat, and then spent almost a year creating courses alongside expert teachers.

Of course the digital marketing industry is incredibly competitive, but Shaan doesn’t see that as a problem. “Test-prep is also an uber-competitive industry,” he says. “I had 100 literary agents and publishers tell me not to enter test-prep because it was too competitive. But if you can build a great product, you can have success in any industry. Too many people focus on what others are doing, rather than focusing on what they themselves should be doing, which only leads to distraction.

“As an entrepreneur,” Shaan says, “competition should never scare you.”

Speaking of competition, I asked Shaan and Adam to share one digital marketing strategy they feel is particularly effective:

  • Implement automated webinars. “Webinars are the perfect way to sell to your potential customers,” Shaan says, “because you get an hour of their undivided attention. And your webinar can be completely automated? We use a platform called Everwebinar: Our automated webinar for Prep Expert has generated over a $1 million in revenue alone.”      
  • Use Facebook Ads to advertise your media articles. “If your business has been featured in a news outlet,” Adam says, “then you should be advertising that article on Facebook. The reach will be much greater than when you share that media article organically. In addition, the cost-per-click on these articles will be very low because users are more likely to click on them than a sales ad — it’s interesting content! This is a great way to have new potential customers learn about your business. One article written about one of our clients has generated nearly $1 million in revenue for that business.”

Why a Fitness Startup Chose to Bootstrap Its Way to Success

A couple of young entrepreneurs in the fitness space named Tim Suski and Corey Spangler are focused on a franchise model and building their startup from scratch using a bootstrapping method, not accepting any money from outside sources. And they happen to be doing very well with their San Diego-based Rush Cycle studio despite the oversaturation that is occurring in the niche fitness industry.

Suski and Spangler have embraced the standard spin class “party on a bike” model, with the lights down low and the music turned up. 

Interested in this particular area, I recently spoke with Suski about his challenges and his game plan for continued growth.

What are the challenges and perceived benefits of bootstrapping a startup in the fitness space?

Suski: Bootstrapping (along with any other industry to be honest) definitely has its challenges; they tend to be most magnified in the very early stages. Being bootstrapped made it difficult to recruit instructor talent, which in the boutique fitness industry is the lifeline of your business, so we had to scrap and pitch our way to get local talent on our side. We also had to be efficient with our capital, especially when it came to building out our studio/physical location itself, because we could not invest in everything some of our competitors had like massive studio spaces, entertainment and technology, showers etc. so we were competing with million dollar build outs!

We also had to depend more on word of mouth referrals and marketing, as we did not have a massive digital advertising/marketing budget to work with, so we had to get creative with our partnerships and events that didn’t cost much, but gave us maximum exposure. I remember we hosted this class inside Neiman Marcus for the launch of an athlesuire brand within Nordstrom . . . we rented a U-Haul and had to shuffle 25 bikes through the streets, into the mall and up a service elevator just to host this class.

Now with all of that said I think all of those challenges actually turned into benefits long term for our company and culture. We grew from grassroots beginnings and attracted all of our early talent and employees based off of pure passion and energy. So everyone who was working with us was not doing it for a paycheck, but rather because they vibed with the Rush Cycle philosophy and what we stood for.

Another great example of a story of how our challenges turned into strengths inside our brand . . . right when we opened our very first studio this beautiful, big indoor cycling studio opened up about a mile away from us. They had big name local investors backing it, a gorgeous brand, million dollar build out, etc. I remember Corey [Spangler] and I had a conversation and said OK we can’t beat them with money, a bigger studio or larger ad spend, so let’s invest everything we have into our people and talent. They closed their doors within a year and we continued to thrive!

There is certainly a current cycling “craze.” What makes you think that it will continue and/or sustain itself over time?

Suski: There isn’t just an indoor cycling studio craze, but rather a macro shift that has taken place in the fitness industry as a whole. People are demanding a focused/specialized workout, with a unique experience that also provides a valuable core product (the 45 minute heart pumping workout). They no longer want to just be a number at a big box gym, they want to feel like they are apart of a special community that shares the same goals and aspirations as they do.

Also, group exercise has been around forever and indoor cycling has been the most popular version of that since the 80s, so at its core our product is valuable to our consumers/clients . . . we have just put an exciting experience around that now and offer a new way to get the same health benefits in a much more attractive environment. I always like to say there will never be a day where we wake up and an article is published stating fitness is bad for you . . . so if we continue to provide a valuable workout in an inspiring setting there will never be a day where indoor cycling is not thriving.

What are the startup costs with creating a studio? What type of revenue do you have to see to just break even?

Suski: Startup costs associated with a Rush Cycle franchise location will be between $350,000 – $420,000 all inclusive (soup to nuts). From the franchise fee, architecture/construction to marketing spend and working capital needed. We have had franchise studios that are operationally (cash flow) break even at month 2 of having doors open.

Why is it still a good time to try to break into the very saturated fitness industry?

Suski: People involved or familiar with the fitness space will tend to have a misconception that the industry is saturated. We aren’t even close to seeing that happen, we get about 40-60 leads a week from people who are interested in learning how to franchise with Rush Cycle from every single state and now country as well (and keep in mind we are just an emerging brand at this point). There are so many neighborhoods/cities that are in desperate need of and demand a quality brand/workout like Rush Cycle . . . there is a lot to be done and we are excited to be positioned to rapidly expand.

Melinda Gates Says VC Is Still a Boys’ Club. This Startup Founder Has an Innovative Solution to That

When Ashwini Anburajan went on a roadshow a few years ago to raise funds for her ad tech startup, OpenUp, she encountered a level of rejection she had never experienced before.

“I had VCs openly tell me, ‘You’re great, it seems like you’re good at sales, but you should come work for us rather than run your own company,” she recalls. “I was a female founder. I was a woman of color. And I had rarely met such resistance –and, quite frankly–discrimination, until I went out to raise venture capital.”

Ashwini Anburajan

While she managed to raise a very small amount of capital from angel funds, she ended up bootstrapping her startup with its initial revenue streams. 

Among women of color trying to raise funds for their startups, Anburajan is not alone: Of the $84 billion of VC investment that went into startups in 2017, just 2.7 percent were invested in women-led companies, according to Fortune. And just 0.2 percent of all VC dollars were invested in startups led by women of color.

“In many ways, the venture and startup ecosystem is still a boys’ club –one that all too often excludes, disadvantages, and mistreats talented women who want to contribute to it,” Melinda Gates, investor and cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told Fortune recently. “The data tells us that’s harmful to society and bad for business.”

Last year, Anburajan applied to the accelerator program at 500 Startups. “Ad tech is a male-dominated industry. There are very, very few female founders in it. I said, okay, let’s go to 500 Startups. They’re considered a growth accelerator and they really teach you marketing and sales to grow your company,” she says.

Over drinks at one of 500 Startups’ weekly “Tequila Friday” social mixers, Anburajan and her fellow entrepreneurs were chatting about the buzz in Silicon Valley around ICOs –initial coin offerings. While several of her fellow founders had already raised financing from VCs, they decided to launch an ICO as a way to expand their ability to raise funds.

Thirty startups pooled together to establish the 22X Fund, which they named after Batch 22, their cohort at 500 Startups. Like a startup index fund, the 22X Fund enables investors to buy into a pool of equity from all the companies.

“As an investor in the fund, what you are buying, essentially, is similar to a traditional share in a company. But what’s different is that it’s a tokenized investment so it’s executed on the blockchain,” explains Anburajan, who has helped spearhead the fund.

22X Fund is expecting to close $35 million over the next few months. One million dollars will be given to each of the 30 companies in the fund in exchange for 10 percent of equity.

Securitize, which owns the fund, will also host the fundraising and handle compliance. Investors can sell the tokens after one year, and they last nine years.

In addition to attracting a more diverse investor profile, the 50 or so founders behind the 30 companies participating in the fund are also a diverse bunch. “50 percent of the founders are international. A little less than 20 percent of the founders are women. This is very different from VC where just two percent of funding went to women in 2017,” she says.

“For a female founder like me, being part of a group of companies raising money gives me a better chance at raising capital in a way that the VC market just doesn’t allow for.”

What about female-led VC companies? “I’ve met with tons of female-led VC companies. Maybe they don’t have the same selection biases, but they’re operating on the same investment model as male-led VCs. I don’t think the answer is more female VCs or partners. We need a new investment thesis.”

“I think we’re seeing a “Time’s Up/#MeToo” movement for fundraising. Women are helping women. People of color are banding together,” says Tereza Nemessanyi, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Microsoft in New York, where she leads the company’s work with early-stage, venture-grade startups.

“Ashwini is intrepid when it comes to building her own company, but she never stops showing up to help other women raise money. That’s something women do.”

(Note: 22X Fund is not a client of mine, nor do I have any other business dealings with the company.)

9 Things I Learned About Entrepreneurship Only After Becoming an Entrepreneur

By Justin Zastrow, CEO of Smart Armor.

There are many things I’ve come to learn as an entrepreneur. Simply put, it’s not for the weak. I remember a younger and more naive version of myself and what I thought being a business owner meant. After many failures and some successes, I’ve learned along the way what it really means to be an entrepreneur.

It’s hard. 

Becoming an entrepreneur is perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. Of course there are days that are easier, but being responsible — not only for your own paycheck but for your employees’ — is difficult. Even “days off” are challenging because there’s this never-ending guilt of feeling like you could be working. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It doesn’t pay well.

I think many of us can (reluctantly) admit that we were unrealistic when it came to our business plan and model. It’s important to work hard toward these financial goals, but know that when starting a business, you should plan on everything taking twice as long and costing twice as much.  

Nothing goes according to plan.

If there is one piece of advice I can give anyone going into business, it’s this: Prepare to be unprepared. No matter how many spreadsheets, project plans and meetings about plans you make, chances are the plan will change 100 times — and even then you’re more than likely going to operate on a more reactive basis instead of proactive. This is okay, take a breath and continue to conquer.

You will argue with your business partners and team.

This can be very frustrating and if your business is anything like mine, your team members may also be your closest friends. If this is the case, try your best to always separate the two relationships. Don’t take things personally and remain respectful, even when you disagree. It will make all the difference.

I was (am) so naive.

When I hear people talk about starting their own business because of the freedom it will give them and that “the 9-to-5” just wasn’t for them and how great being your own boss is, I can’t help but want to laugh. Sure, you may not have to work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but that’s only because you are working every waking second. And being your own boss is fun until you realize just how hard it is to tell yourself what to do — and then hold yourself accountable.

I’m not actually a boss.

Speaking of being your own boss, this was perhaps the biggest letdown of them all. Yes, I get to call the shots and make choices that I wouldn’t have as an employee, but it’s not as “sexy” as it sounds. As a boss, you get to pay bills, pay a boatload in payroll/business taxes, take a beating from any unhappy client and be responsible for people’s paychecks. At times, it can be an unbearable amount of pressure. I am fortunate to have a business partner with whom I share 50 percent of the stress, but not every entrepreneur does.

There are no weekends.

You can work really hard at maintaining a work-life balance, but many business owners don’t ever truly stop working. You may go a whole Sunday without answering an email once in a while, but still be checking emails at least once an hour to make sure everything is alright. Anyone who works in a startup especially can understand this.

It’s okay to be proud.

I spent the better part of last year being humble about what I’ve done and now I can say this: Staying humble is for the birds. I hear the same comment all the time: “Oh, I could never run my own business. I don’t know how you do it.” I used to think that people were crazy. This was cake for the first few months — or the “honeymoon stage” of entrepreneurship. But fast forward to having employees, big clients and huge partnerships and now I know that I’m the crazy one. It is extremely hard work and not everyone has it in them. I do, and if you do too, go us! Give yourself credit where credit is due.  

It’s all been worth it.

Don’t let all my complaining fool you: I would not change a single thing about my experience being an entrepreneur. The last few years of owning businesses have taught me more than my college years and earlier career working for others, and being an entrepreneur is the only thing I will ever do. It might not always mean operating my current business, but as new entrepreneurs may find, being a business owner is like an addiction — one I have no intention of quitting.

Justin Zastrow is CEO of Smart Armor, which links app-driven, wireless-locking technology to secure your belongings and simplify your life.

3 Questions You Need to Ask Before Starting a Business, According to Top Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs tend to get caught up in the maze of “shiny objects“, and as a result, steer their business off-course. Look, I get it. For many first-time entrepreneurs, the biggest concern is running out of money. So they will try pretty much everything and anything to turn a profit. But at the same time, it’s important to focus on the fundamentals, instead of getting distracted.

Recently, I interviewed a seasoned entrepreneur who understands exactly that on my Home Service Expert podcast. His name is Terry Nicholson, and among other things, he’s been the national trainer of a NYSE-listed home services company. Now, as the President of Praxis S-10, he’s on a mission to help other home service contractors succeed.

Terry shared with me three questions that he and his partner Jim Abrams (who co-founded Inc. 5000 franchise Fyzical) would ask before they start a new business opportunity. These three questions will really help you evaluate whether your business idea is worth bringing to the market… and predict whether a business will succeed or fail:

1. How can we bring to the consumer a unique product/service?

The only way to make a huge margin in business is to have a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) that brings 10 times more value than anyone else in the market.

I know most people will go “duh, Tommy”… but trust me, I cringe so badly at the number of businesses which claim that they are different, when all they’ve done is just to tweak a product or service in a non-meaningful way. To make up for their lack of USP, these companies tend to play the “variety” game, and offer a ton of different products or services. But take it from me: this doesn’t work.

If you want to build a sustainable business, here’s what you do instead: focus on one thing, and do it incredibly well. For example, my company sells high-end garage doors, and we offer quality which is unbeatable. People simply can’t get this level of quality from our competitors — which is why our company is still growing, after 12 years.

2. How can we bring this product/service to the consumer more economically?

Now, to be clear, this is different from just simply slashing your profit margins just to beat your competitors. It’s about doing what you can to give your customer the best deal.

Many companies do this is through research and development — they explore new technologies, and find ways to reduce their cost of production without affecting the quality. But what if you’re a young business, and you have no money to invest into research and development? Don’t sweat it — there are other ways to push your costs down. One example: you can create a checklist that your employees follow every single time when working with customers, which will make the work they do immediately more efficient.

One last thing: it’s also possible to give your customers more value without revising your prices. While my company doesn’t compete based on price, we offer lifetime warranties on our garage door springs. Our customers love knowing that their garage door springs will last a lifetime — and that’s why they leave us 5-star reviews on Yelp, and recommend their friends to us.

3. How can we bring this product/service to the marketplace more conveniently?

You don’t need to invent something completely revolutionary and game changing, such as Uber. All you need to do is observe the pain points of your customers and eliminate them – that’s all it takes to build a successful business.

For example: we know our customers hate it when the fixtures in their home fall apart, one at a time. First, their gate doesn’t close properly. Next, their garage door roller breaks. They have to burn multiple weeks fixing these problems, and it’s a pain in the ass. So here’s what we do: we try to diagnose and solve all our customers’ problems in one visit, so that they save time and money upfront. Then, we upsell them at the right time. We get a bigger sale done, and they get a few problems fixed at once. It’s a win-win!

Everyone can start a business, but if you want to build a successful business, you’ll need to look at your business model critically before you even begin. So before you jump into that new venture you’re so excited about, ask yourself these three questions — everything else can wait.

Why the Creator of ‘The Walking Dead’ Turned Down a Lucrative Food Licensing Deal

You might think the most unlikely feat the creators of The Walking Dead pulled off was beating Sunday Night Football in the ratings.

But that pales in comparison to creating a company that enables themselves and other creators to maintain control of their properties across all platforms. Typically, creators give up much if not all of the creative — and financial — control over their intellectual properties when they sign with a studio. So Robert Kirkman and David Alpert co-founded Skybound, a studio that enables creators to maintain control of their properties across all platforms.

Partners have access to the company’s film, television, comics, video games, licensing and merchandising divisions (what they call the company’s “Wheel of Awesome”) to build their franchises.

In part one of my interview with Robert and David, we talked about the origins of the company and how they applied their creator-led approach to The Walking Dead video games.

Now we’ll look at how their model works for creative entrepreneurs — and the business of creativity.

Say I have an idea for a comic book. Say my idea is actually Robert’s new book, Oblivion Song. I approach you. What happens?

David: If that’s your idea, Robert and I will definitely like it. (Laughs.) Then we’ll take you to meet our editorial department and get buy-in between you and them. You make your directly to them. We don’t tell them, “We’re doing this.” We want them to believe in your project, too.

That’s where studios historically have failed. They force departments to take on projects. They force a property across brands, and in the process the creative soul gets lost.

Then we take you around all the different spokes around what we call the “Wheel of Awesome” and get buy-in as early as possible from all the different departments.

We do that because we want them to be excited, but we also want them to give you their feedback early on.

[embedded content]

And if every other department sees your idea and says, “There’s no t-shirt here,” or, “There’s no movie”… we still do comic books just as comic books. We’re a company that operates trans-media — but we don’t have to exclusively do trans-media.

We’ll be excited if we “just” do the comic book. But if our games group gets excited, now we have two spokes on the Wheel of Awesomeness. If our games group and our comics group is excited, then the merchandise group is likely to get excited… then TV… then the VR group, the live events group… and suddenly you’re the CEO of all these different properties.

Is it rare to find a creator that is interested in the business side as well?

Robert: Speaking for myself, I enjoy the business side. I enjoy the corporate side. I feel like that’s been my strength from the beginning, looking at all angles of a story and figuring out how to sell and position it while I’m writing it. So I’ve always been mindful of those things, and I get a real charge out of seeing Skybound bring new creators into the fold. 

love being a part of that aspect of the business.

There are also boring aspects of running a company like this, but I let David handle those. (Laughs.) 

Our partnership leaves me time to do my own things, which is very important. I still write The Walking Dead comic, I still write Invincible and Outcast, I’m launching Oblivion Song… that, plus the TV stuff, keeps me very busy. 

Let’s talk about that. How do you juggle all of those different creative projects?

Robert: It’s obviously fairly complex to have all these different stories going, but having a full day creatively is great. I do have to move from project to project, but being really excited about what I’ll do next helps me focus on wrapping up what I’m doing now. That feeling of finishing so I can start something new helps drive you.

It also makes you really tired. 

Is it distracting to have plenty of your own projects going yet also be looking for other creators to bring into the Skybound fold?

David: To be honest, one of the best parts of doing this is when we find something great. And it’s even better when our team brings in someone like Donnie Cates and Redneck

That’s when it feels like the machine is really working. It’s not just Robert and I pitching our story to people, it’s also our people who believe in the culture and go out and find great creators.  

That’s the most fulfilling aspect. When we sign off on a book… that’s when we feel like the system is doing what it should be doing.

Working with incredibly creative people isn’t always easy, though. You take on a fair bit of risk when you take on a creator and his or her project.

Robert: We taking giant leaps of faith. We gamble on the people we work with.

One positive side of the studio model is that when they strong-arm a creator out the door, they have complete control. That’s not always a dumb move — it’s a risk-averse model. They think, “Why tolerate this potentially crazy person in our stable organization?” 

So yes, we face that, too. It’s a real risk. If you give the keys to the Wheel of Awesome to someone that is not fit to drive, it’s a problem. And we’ve been in positions where it hasn’t worked. 

David: But that comes with our basic premise of doing things differently. No one has built a studio that makes media across so many platforms, especially with such a creator-friendly vision… and we want to fulfill that promise. That means taking risks, both commercially as well as on people.

The right people should be eager to partner with you, though. A creator with an entrepreneurial spirit should love your model.

Robert: Breaking into comics wasn’t easy for me. I banged my head against a lot of walls, had lots of failures and plenty of stops and starts… so we’ve tried to create an environment where creators can skip some of those steps I lived through.  

That’s very important to me. The Skybound deal is something that would have really been exciting for me early on.

Entrepreneurs like to solve problems, and we feel Skybound solves a number of problems for creative people.

At what point do you step in and basically reel in a creator’s vision if you don’t feel it will work?

Robert: That’s an interesting question. Riding that line is the sweet spot. When you’re scared of an idea… when you’re really not sure if it will work… that’s one of the reasons we empower our creative department heads to make those decisions. They’re at the cutting edge of their fields.

But scary ideas is the new of the game when you’re trying new things. “Is this too weird?” is a question we often ask ourselves. The Walking Dead was something I was very passionate about, but it was very difficult to get off the ground because there weren’t any successful zombie stories in existence, and hat make publishers averse to the idea.

When you do things that aren’t safe, you’re going to be scared. Whether you should be too scared to try them… that’s the question.

Along the same lines, how do you balance art and commerce? You’re in a creative business, without business you don’t get the opportunity to create.

David: Robert and I balance each other fairly well. We realize we’re going to make mistakes along the way, but as long as we stay true to our principles and what is best for the creative aspect of the business, we’ll be okay.

But that doesn’t mean each individual decision is easy. We received a license proposal from Food Lion that was incredibly lucrative. It was really great deal, I loved the quality of the product, there was a significant financial component involved… and Robert said, “No.”

I was like, “Dude, what do you mean? It’s a great product. There’s a lot of money involved.”

He said, “I just don’t see Food Lions on The Walking Dead. We have TWD coffee, TWD wine, those are all fine for me… but food, no.”

In my mind I wanted to whip out a spreadsheet to show him the numbers, but then I thought, “No, he’s right. I don’t need to understand why that doesn’t work, but what’s important is that he’s willing to tell me no.” 

Robert: I know that can come across like “crazy creative people are wrecking our business,” but we empower people to do that. I made a seemingly arbitrary decision that The Walking Dead food doesn’t feel good to me — but trusting the intuition of crazy creative types is something that strengthens us as a company.

Even though there are also specific examples of where it has held us back. (Laughs.)

So why does something like TWD wine work?

David: When we started talking about wine, the conversation naturally turned to how you would sell the wine. Normally you talk about the romantic story of how the wine was made, how you had to climb three days on a yak to get to the top of the hillside where the grapes were grown… you have to tell a story when you sell a mass market wine.  

Telling stories is something we know how to do.

The way people market wine in stores is through shelf talkers, and we thought, “What if we make the bottle the shelf talker? There’s an AR component: You hold your phone up in front of the bottle and the zombie pops out of the bottle, shatters the glass, and eats your phone.

Or, if you put the bottle with Rick on it next to another bottle, Rick and the zombie fight.

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The Walking Dead Trio connects our narrative with a good product at a good price, and there’s a collectable component involved, too. That fits within our world. Robert was comfortable with that.

But not food. (Laughs.)

Robert: In a broader sense, we’re always 1000 percent aware that no matter how passionate we are about something, we can never match the level of passion of the creator. That passion is something that helps drive decisions — and also helps drive our company.

Another common conflict with art and commerce is deciding when something is “done.” Many creative people feel they have to compromise excellence to meet deadlines.

David: Let me challenge the premise to that question. We don’t ever have to make that compromise. Granted, a great work of art is never “finished.” You could rewrite a script a million times.

But one of the reasons Robert and The Walking Dead is so successful is that he’s published every month for fifteen years. Sure, we will argue up until the last minute and make it as perfect as possible… but then we have to ship.

The tension between those two things is what makes great work happen. Making deadlines is part of the creative process. You can always make something better, but if you take three years to write one issue, who will read it? You have to tell a story with regularity and rhythm or it’s not a story.

Robert: I like to think I’m productive, but I’m always behind schedule on something. I’m as much of a self-loathing, insecure re-writer as anyone… so for me, a project is done when don’t want to look at it anymore. That tells me it’s time to move forward.

When do you decide to put something aside?

Robert: I do that all the time with new ideas, but I don’t really discard anything. I keep a working document of all of my ideas.

Like with Oblivion Song: I had the nugget of the idea ten years ago, and it very much evolved and changed and got better every time I revisited it.

Five years from now, where would you like Skybound to be?

David: Bigger than Disney. (Laughs.)

I’m going to walk that one back. We have the same type of vision, but we don’t need to be that size to have a huge impact on the culture writ large.

What we are really trying to do is create the studio of the future: Great creators, creative-friendly policies, and the application of digital processes that allow us to move exceptionally fast.

We want to be the creator-friendly studio for the digital age. That’s true now… and will still be true five years from now.