Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Venture Capital vs Volunteer Capital
At least once a month I get someone who asks me if I would be interested in raising venture capital to start an online video network. It always is flattering to think that someone thinks that I could raise VC. Me? A guy that wears sunglasses almost 24/7 and is known to hang out with sexy women in lingerie who jump on beds and have pillow fights in their bras and panties? How could I raise venture capital from companies like Panorama Capital, Highland Capital,New Enterprise Associates, Redpoint Ventures,Greycroft Partners, BV Capital or Sequoia Capital to start a video network?
Sure the VC like me. They will read my name badge at a conference and then raise their hand and high five me while saying, " Dude, I love the CPR episode!" But I just don't see these guys giving me money. Even if they did I know that someday they would take what ever I built away from me and give it to a grown up person to run. I know that I'm a "Starter" trying to become a "Builder" and I'm definitely not a "Minder."
I've learned that Venture Capitalists have many strings attached and if I raise money to do something I know I will be a marionette and the VCs will be pulling my strings much like the way Studios and Networks have pushed and pulled me for years.
I've stopped producing Studio and Network Television work for almost six months now. I've spent the past half year pursuing Online Video, both for myself and for others through consulting gigs. I left doing studio projects because I wanted creative freedom. I've always wanted to be able to paint my own pictures and now for the first time in my life I see the reality of being able to do that. Sure it may not be on the scale that I want at first but as an artist I'm plagued with ideas both large and small. Up until the democratization of video production and distribution I've never been able to create and distribute my ideas for millions to see. French Maid TV has changed all that for me.
I'm an Independent Filmmaker at heart. A storyteller. (Unfortunately I don't see an opportunity to make money with "story" online video yet so I'm sticking with "spectacle" for now) I've made short films and I've followed the Indy film movement for quite some time. I've studied the different ways of funding, producing and distributing Independent films. As I've learned more about financing a film I've realized from a business stand point, unless you are going to have a known celebrity, explosions or nudity in your film you shouldn't make it. Over the years I've produced several movie trailers for Independent films chasing distribution and time and time again I would hear the filmmakers say things like, "A distributor asked if there were any explosions." " If only I had a celebrity." "If only I had shot some nudity." If you wanted to get your film picked up by a distributor you needed those things and even being picked up by a distributor didn't mean your film would ever get seen but that's a whole different story.
Now for the first time you don't need a distributor for your short films and in the years to come you won't need a distributor for your Independent film to be seen by millions either - if you can put together all of the pieces of the monetization puzzle.
With Independent film you had a few choices of getting your film funded but the most common and successful way was an LLC where you would put together a business plan and create an Limited Liability Corporation of which you were the managing partner. Next you would find 35 investors to cough up the dough and then you would beg borrow and steal the rest. You would call in all kinds of favors and get as many volunteers to work on your film as possible. Another way to fund your film might be borrowing money from family members who had it to lend. One writer/producer, Rian Johnson who used to cut TV promos for me did that. Rian got all his buddies to help out as crew, found a few celebrities to star in his film, shot it on HD and cut the film himself. Then he submitted his film to Sundance. Not only did he get into Sundance but he won a special award and sold his film BRICK to Focus. I went to Sundance to watch his film and afterwards I asked him what has been the funniest thing anyone has said to you here at Sundance and his answer was, "Here is 2 million bucks for your film."
Like that story and the story of the Blair Witch Project there are a few exceptions to the rule that most Independent films don't get seen by an audience but in online video that is different and in some cases where people have been volunteering to help filmmakers and other artists the work is being seen on a much bigger scale than ever before.
Take for example CHERUB the slapstick parody of Joss Whedon's ANGEL, released as an Internet video series by Seattle-based producer Stephen McCandless and his Caution Zero Network. Stephen runs a small theater in Seattle. A theater that has had people volunteering or working for peanuts for 20 years. Then for the hell of it they did the online video Cherub. Lots of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans from all over the world watched it. It was such a success that Stephen decided to do another project called, "What the Funny." This time though Stephen could say to his potential volunteers, "The last online video series we did has been seen by more people then have come to this theater in the last 20 years." Wow! That's a pretty impressive statement and to actors who want to be in local theater to be seen by an audience, any audience, this is music to their ears.
From a crew perspective in Independent film people volunteer to be involved, to learn, to get experience and to meet new people - all things that might lead to paying jobs down the road. Many times people will volunteer on a film to get a "bump up." A PA will work as a production coordinator or production manager. A grip might work as a key grip or a camera operator or camera assistant might volunteer as a director of photography. Volunteers get valuable experience at someone else's expense.
Independent film volunteers "Invest" their time hoping it will pay off on a much greater scale down the road just like Venture Capitalists invest their money hoping for a much greater pay day down the road.
We are now at a time where the threshold of video content creation and distribution are low - anyone can get a video on YouTube but can anyone create a ongoing series that makes enough money to live on? Ahh, YES. Just Ask A Ninja.
Now Kent and Douglas bootstrapped Ask A Ninja, got funding from their family so that they could work full time on Ask A Ninja and then instead of selling Ask A Ninja they got an advertising deal with Federated Media and sold advertising on their website.
"That's great Tim but my family doesn't have any money and even if they did they wouldn't give it to me to go make some stupid ass online video."
Okay, do you believe in yourself?
Do you have a good idea that will attract tens of millions of views?
Can you get other people excited about your vision?
Do you know how to write a compelling Craigslist post?
Do you have access to video and editing gear?
If you answered yes to those five questions you should seriously think about Volunteer Capital as a way of funding your online video project and maybe even your online video network.
"Come on Tim an Online Video Network? You're crazy!"
I am crazy but even YouTube used and uses Volunteer Capital.
"No they didn't. You are full of crap. Chad Hurley and Steven Chen had VC from Sequoia Capital and got bought by Google."
Sure YouTube had funding for the technical infrastructure and bandwidth but how much did they pay for all the cameras, computers, editing, acting, singing, locations, cats, ceiling fans, farts and all the other capital that went into creating and uploading the user generated videos on YouTube?
Nothing. Their production and programming was and is Volunteer Capital.
How much does NBC pay for their programming?
Think about this, YouTube launched when you still had to pay for bandwidth for your videos to be hosted. Now with sites like YouTube, Revver, Blip.TV and with distribution applications like TubeMogul you can "super distribute" your videos with one click. Another thing, sites like Ning and Facebook were not available either.
If you want to create your own game, get to play with your own ball and not have to worry about the money bags taking it away from you now is the time to do it and do it with Volunteer Capital.