Q+A: WatchMojo CEO’s new book, ‘The 10-Year Overnight Success’

Anyone watching the Habs take on the New York Islanders last week may have noticed a peculiar sight at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Behind the goaltender’s net was the logo of a Montreal-born-and-bred media company: WatchMojo.

“We got a lot of emails and texts that night. You do a double-take seeing our logo behind the net all of a sudden,” said WatchMojo’s CEO,  Ashkan Karbasfrooshan.

Perhaps it’s a small sign pointing to the Youtube content-creator’s success over the years. Unsurprisingly, the name of Karbasfrooshan’s new book that came out last week is The 10-Year Overnight Success: An Entrepreneur’s Manifesto: How WatchMojo Built The Most Successful Media Brand On YouTube. WatchMojo

Watchmojo creates Youtube channels with short, interesting videos mostly targeted towards male millennials. Only eight YouTube channels in the world have more subscribers and all-time views than WatchMojo: six are music label channels. With 13 million subscribers and  30 million viewers, WatchMojo calls itself the most successful media brand that was built on YouTube. Its channel is larger than those of VICE, VOX Media, the WWE, Buzzfeed, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel.

We caught up with Karbasfrooshan for a quick Q+A on the new book launch. It’s available via paperback and Kindle.

MTLinTECH: You named your book “The 10-Year Overnight Success.” It seems like an appropriate title.

Ashkan Karbasfrooshan: That’s an oxymoron. By definition if you’ve been around for 10 years you are not an overnight success. I think that could be a big theme today with the lean startup movement everyone went through. There’s this false assumption where you hear about something blowing up overnight when realistically these things take a lot of time.

MTLinTECH: In the book you cover financing, digital media, YouTube, copyright law, and more. The narrative covers the evolution of video content creators and breaks down “WatchMojo’s transformation into a Youtube colossus” after years of trials and tribulations. Why did you write this book?

AK: It’s actually my third book. I’ve also written a book for students and a book on Alexander the Great. Originally I wanted to write a kind of industry observation, but I knew if I were to write that book I’d end up pissing off a lot of our partners. I can’t explain why Vessel failed or why Hulu missed the boat without pissing off people. So I said let’s just shelve this.

But this year as we’re celebrating ten years, I had just read William Randolph Hearst’s and Henry Lewis’ biographies (heart, time inc) and I realized that while those are company stories, they’re largely biographies. So I finally said if I’m going to tell the WatchMojo story I kind of have to take this angle where I take you through the highs, the origins, the hits and the misses over the last ten years.

MTLinTECH: Any particular stories you think readers will really like?

AK: I was rejected probably 100 times by venture capitalists. About 10 times we were close to selling or merging with another company. We set up in Montreal and we took on huge competitors that had up to $100 million in venture capital and we managed to outlast them. We got sued once and we prevailed. I explain how we did it and why.

I also explain missteps and miscommunications that were fatal, but things that all entreprenurs go through. Literally 13 years ago my wife and I were both super unhappy with our jobs. I reached out to a friend about this idea that video would be the future of the media industry. We were five to 10 people for six, seven years and now we’re 45 full time with 100 freelancers around the world.

MTLinTECH: Who tried to sue you?

AK: My last company was acquired by Newscorp and they alleged that I was violating my non-competition agreement, but I wasn’t. All the lawyers I spoke to said it was an intimidation tactic and I represented myself in court and won.

MTLinTECH: The struggle is real.

AK: (laughs).

MTLinTECH: Did you learn anything about yourself in the writing process?

AK: I realized that WatchMojo has a lot more upside in the future.

Mitch Joel, a Montrealer, sold his ad agency to WPP, the biggest marketing and communication firm in the world. I ran into him in the park and I asked why. He said “there’s a difference between being an entrepreneur and being entrepreneurial. An entrepreneur is someone who is ultimately willing to risk his/her own resources, namely capital, whereas being entrepreneurial is someone who has creative ideas and wants to try new things.” And he said he got to a point where he wasn’t necessarily an entrepreneur. There were so many ideas he wanted to go after but he didn’t feel like he wanted to play with his own capital.

And I would say I’ve had to come to grips with that. WatchMojo has accomplished a lot, we’re profitable and we’ve never raised a penny of venture capital. And there’s a lot of ideas I have. Through this book I had to come to grips with whether I was willing to pursue opportunities with the companies profits or was I becoming less of a risk-taker.

MTLinTECH: Any advice for Montrealer entrepreneurs?

AK: We face a lot of people who don’t believe in what we’re trying to accomplish, so I think persistence is the most important thing. In San Francisco or New York it’s normal to be ambitious but in Montreal you’re kind of an outlier for having those ambitions. It’s just something that you have to understand and accept, and once people see your logo at an NHL game they say, “Hey, I always believed you.”

Still, things happen so fast that you can’t get complacent or arrogant, and that’s what keeps us up at night at WatchMojo. In a sense I’m always paranoid, always looking behind my shoulder and saying we gotta do things better, faster. I remember when we were four guys in the same room and you just have to enjoy these times.

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