DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.

Entries in DigitalHollywood (7)


Social TV panel at Digital Hollywood

I'll be speaking again at the Digital Hollywood conference, which runs from April 29th to May 2nd, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Marina del Rey, California

The panel is on Wednesday, May 1st, 12:30 PM - 1:45 PM in Salon III, and entitled:

The Social TV Ecosystem: Smart TVs, Guides, OTT Content, Tablets-Smartphones and Apps

There is no separating it - TV viewing and social media have joined hands. TV shows are posting tweets and encouraging an immediate social relationship among viewers. TV celebrities are reaching out to their fan base and viewers are creating a host of social media-TV relationships. As most major websites, from Facebook and Twitter to the TV sites themselves enable their communities to reach other, all roads lead to the further interaction between the TV viewer and social media technologies.

Moderated by Mark Ghuneim, CEO, Trendrr, the panel includes:

Jeremy Toeman, CEO, Dijit Media
Rebecca Baldwin, VP/GM, Zap2it
Nash Parker, Director, Emerging Technology Commercialization, Alcatel-Lucent
Nick DeMartino, President, Nick DeMartino Consulting
Benjamin Chen, Chairman, Viggle Inc.
Marc Scarpa, Producer / Director x factor digital, Grammy live, incubus hq
Diane Bernard, CEO, FLM.TV


Accelerators and Incubators and Content: A Deeper Dive

The amazing worldwide upsurge of start-up accelerators and incubators was reflected at last week’s Digital Hollywood conference, which featured three packed sessions exploring the topic.

I moderated a “Think Tank” on incubating digital content that featured Ana Serrano, Founder of ideaBOOST  (which I advise), Richard Wolpert, cofounder of Amplify.LA and Chris Gartin, cofounder of io/LA 

It used to be simple, there were accelerators and there were incubators. (Here's the difference).

But, check out some of the other programs represented at the DH conference and you'll see a wide range of models that are emerging to meet a lot of different needs than the venture backed early stage seed accelerators, as exemplified by Y-Combinator and TechStars. (DH speakers came from Originate, Cross Campus, Tipping Point Partners, Turner's Media Camp, Portland Innovation Experiment (PIE), Mucker Labs, and Idealab New Venture Group.

Along with crowdfunding, the accelerator phenomenon is the most-buzzed-about innovation in the start-up world, inspired by the success of the investor-backed Y-Combinator and TechStars that apply a combination of mentoring, seed investment, and exposure to help launch tech startups.

The contours of this ‘seed capital’ model have been widely analyzedchewed over, contemplated, and copied.

What Accelerators Do Right

If an entrepreneur is willing to give the accelerator equity in their company and devote a few months of intensive work, a host of benefits will come their way, as a recent survey of accelerator graduates suggests. 

Accelerators are good at:

1. Generating and validating an idea and a business model. 

2. Investing and finding more investors. 

3. Providing contacts and opening doors. 

4. Providing mentors, advisors and guidance. 

5. Providing hands-on help or education. 

6. Helping in product development and testing. 

7. Helping with product marketing and user acquisition. 

8. Providing a peer group in a high-pressure environment. 

9. Providing a physical location and support resources. 

10. Negotiating and providing discounts, freebies and perks.

Which Accelerators Will Fail?

The proof, of course, is in the pudding, e.g., whether start-ups are able to attract additional capital, customers, and revenues, and, over time, produce an exit (sale or stock offering) that provides returns to the initial investors. It’s probably too soon to tally the success of most of these young companies, but industry veteran Peter Relan recently predicted in a controversial post that 90% of accelerators will ultimately fail on financial terms, because they will be unable to produce profits equal to investments.

Nonetheless, Relan believes the accelerator model creates genuine value for the industry and the country beyond simple ROI, because they constitute “a new education system, one where relevant real-world experience has begun to trump degrees. The right program can provide the same connections that accompanied acceptance into the right university 15 years ago.”

Beyond VC Expectations

Not all accelerators and incubators are financed by venture investors. There various models – let’s call them start-up factories --- sponsored by cities, universities, economic development authorities, even clusters of angel investors in a region. They often have non-market objectives, for instance, creating jobs in a region or improving the performance of a given industry.

A recent example is the “Made in New York” Media Center, an incubator to be launched soon in Brooklyn by the Independent Feature Project in conjunction with General Assembly and the City of New York. 

Other accelerators are sponsored by a company, for example ad agency Weiden + Kennedy’s sponsorship of the Portland Incubation Experiment (PIE); Turner Broadcasting’s launch of Media Camp); and the Canadian Film Centre’s launch of ideaBOOST – each has its own reason for making the investment.

Turner is looking for tech companies that address business needs within the broadcasting industry, and which can help Turner thrive. Companies incubated within PIE may also have a media focus, but in addition, are intended to support the Portland tech ecosystem. IdeaBOOST seeks to help the Canadian content business, as well as to encourage its practitioners to build sustainable companies using principles derived from the lean start-up movement.

These and other accelerator models will blend program features to meet their own goals beyond the straight-up ROI expectations of venture investors (fast growth, 10-100x return).

VCs Don’t Like Content Companies

The classic seed-accelerator concentrates on technology start-ups, which, if successful, can scale rapidly and deliver a Google-level return on investment. Like a mutual fund, the accelerator spreads investors’ risk across a bundle of investments, and then injects the companies with capital, learning, and networking.

Like certain VCs, there are industry-specific accelerators, for example in health care, biotech, nanotechnology, automotive, and others.

But, until recently, not content. In posts here and here, I suggested that maybe the chasm between content and tech is blurring.

VC’s historically do not much like content companies, as a recent TechCrunch post articulated, despite the fact that people spend a third of their time online consuming content. 

Content companies are tough to “scale” quickly, meaning grow the number of customers, and therefore revenue potential. Certainly not like tech platform superstars like Pinterest, which added 11 million monthly uniques in 9 months.

Furthermore, content companies rarely have huge exits like an acquisition – meaning smaller paydays for investors, and a sale often takes longer than tech businesses.

Finally, the traditional tech investors consider content companies to be lifestyle businesses, and simply are not capable of reaching “$100mm and then $1 billion in revenues – anything less is insufficient.”

Enter IdeaBoost

“I’m reluctant to even use the word ‘accelerator,’” said IdeaBOOST’s Serrano at the Digital Hollywood panel, in part because its model veers from the ‘classic’ accelerator model in several ways: It is financed with funds from the government and two large private companies, not VCs looking for a big payday from participants; IdeaBOOST does not take an equity stake in its companies; and most importantly, its first group of eight companies are all building content.

IdeaBOOST, which official kick-offs its first four-month cohort on November 5th in Toronto, is a hybrid model that borrows from many sources in order to support aspiring content companies.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo inspired IdeaBOOST to include the public in the development process. But instead of soliciting funds, applicants ask the online public to “boost” their project, and in the process acquire a database of prospective customer email addresses before even being selected. IdeaBOOST applicants drummed up more than 300,000 votes in just a month.

This focus upon audience engagement is a key differentiator for ideaBOOST, borrowed from the lean startup movement’s focus upon customer development. The 8 companies accepted in ideaBOOST will be required to use customer validation processes as they develop their product, business plan, and audience engagement scenarios. Mentors for IdeaBOOST companies include content, business, and tech experts from Canada and the U.S.

Co-working space

Founders of Amplify.LA and io/LA have both tech and entertainment cred, and have recruited talent from across both industries. "Pure" content start-ups are in the minority, says Amplify's Wolpert, but if the company can grow, they consider it. io/LA does feature more involvement by talent, so their hybrid model, just launched this year, will be intriguing to track. 

The two programs have also grafted the seed-accelerator model onto another important trend, the co-working movement. Both groups have facilities which house the companies receiving their investments. In addition, other start-ups and creatives are free to work out of the space, with tiered fees based upon what the companies use. Both have active educational programs featuring thought leaders, experienced entrepreneurs and mentors from their accelerator. Both programs foster synergy between and among the membership, with the result that participants can quickly build teams, stronger companies and better products.

If you’re looking for a great work environment for your start-up in either Santa Monica or Hollywood, check them out. And chances are, there is a similar opportunity in your community. Just check out these examples from around the world.  


• Transmedia Storytelling

I participated in a panel on Transmedia Storytelling at the 2011 Digital Hollywood Content Summit. Here are the slides I used for my part of the presentation. 


If you'd like to download the slides, go to SlideShare. Note: there are extensive comments that you can see better if you download the presentation.  


• Meet up at Digital Hollywood - May 2-5

Digital Hollywood is a time-honored ritual for many of us in the media and technology businesses. 

On Wednesday, May 4th,  I'll be speaking on a panel about transmedia moderated by John Couch, part of a day-long transmedia focus for the Content Summit track of the conference. Details here

On Thursday, May 5th, I'm moderating a panel focused upon personalization issues in mobile and other media, details here

Please join the audience for these and many other killer panels. And, of course, the real fun is hanging out in the lobby and catching up with friends and colleagues, old and new. If you plan to attend, let me know and we'll find time to meet up. This year the event is moving to the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, a superb venue for schmoozing. 


• TIPS on how to Moderate a Conference Panel, Pt. 2: TELLING THE STORY


Part 1 of my post on How to Moderate a Conference Panel focused on steps you might take prior to the day of the panel session itself -- recruiting speakers, communicating with them, extracting the information you need, planning and running a conference call, and the like.

Part 2 focuses on some techniques and insights aimed at conducting the session itself. We've all experienced bad panel sessions. Nine times out of ten, the problem is with the moderator who is either too lazy to shape the experience on behalf of the audience. He may be a superstar figure within the industry, and is just too busy to prepare. Or perhaps it's the all-too-common assumption that the attraction is the speakers, and the moderator's job is to "let them speak." Au contraire. The moderator's job, in my opinion, is to craft a story out of the bits and pieces of talk and presentation that fill the typical 60 to 90 minute conference panel. How?

Moderator as Narrator. I used to make documentary films, most of which were of the “verite” style in which the story unfolded without a narrator. This is hard to do well. The audience likes some help. This is also true at conferences, where, let’s face it, the audience may be paying even less attention to your  content than they would be at a theatre. Just as the narrator is a guide for  the documentary audience, providing context, information, and moving the story along, so too is the moderator the guide for the conference panel audience. It’s true, the “story” is rarely as dramatic or compelling as a film or a novel. Often a conference topic will focus on the nitty-gritty business of our field. But there is a “story” in every panel, if you look for it. And by doing so, your audience will think you are brilliant. How? Here are some simple tips:

  • Tell them what your panelists are going to say, remind them each time a new speaker begins his/her presentation, summarize what was just said, and wrap up the story with a personal lesson you have learned.

Note: This is my reinterpretation of a tip I got a long time ago when I started moderating panels at NATPE — the National Association of Television Programming Executives. Back in the day, if you were on a NATPE panel, you received “The Really Useful Hand-Dandy Moderator’s & Panelist’s Handbook.” Beth Braen, NATPE’s Senior Vice President Marketing, told me this morning that NATPE plans to update the handbook and post it to their online speaker and FAQ sections.  Some other tips:

Start on time, end on time.  On the day of the panel, whether you have a pre-panel gathering or not, it is your responsibility as the moderator to get people on the platform, ready to start on time. This is a courtesy to the audience, and will make you popular with the conference coordinator, too! If you have a latecomer on your panel, tough noogies, start anyway.

Introductions. Introduce yourself quickly, and then your panelists, using a simple title and then adding what each speaker will focus upon. This is the beginning of your narration. (Do NOT repeat what may already be printed in the conference brochure.) 

Timing. You’ve already decided in advance the maximum amount of time each speaker has been allotted. You may reiterate this in your remarks, so the audience knows what’s coming, and as a reminder for each speaker. Keep a stop watch (which most phones have now) going, and be firm about ending each segment.

Moderator Questions. As each speaker goes through their shtick, formulate a question or two, derived from what they actually said. Make notes! What is missing? What should they be covering? What are the implications? Did they make news in something they said? By customizing a question tailored to each speaker, you help the audience understand their unique contribution, and also avoid that dreaded panel process of going down the row with the same question. No question needs five answers. Sometimes two or more panelists are on different sides of an issue. This gives me a chance to let them mix it up directly. Key point here is: tailor and focus your questions.

You’re a surrogate for the audience. Another role you play is surrogate audience member, especially true with a big audience. I will often ask for a show of hands at the beginning of the session to help my speakers (and myself) understand the types of folks in the audience. The focus of your questions will be quite different, for example, if the majority of attendees are producers, or engineers, or lawyers, or investors. Etc.

A note about self-promotion. Nobody speaks at an industry conference with entirely altruistic motives. We all want to bring attention to ourselves, to our companies, to our product or service. As moderator, you can help your speakers to achieve this goal by impressing upon them how truly dreadful a panel can be when its members do nothing but sell and promote. You are indeed the stand-in for the audience, which can tolerate only slight commercial crapola before they will rebel, often by getting up and leaving. Unless your speaker is making a newsworthy announcement about his/her company during your panel, the focus should be on the TOPIC.

As a reward for your panelists’ good behavior, the moderator can use cleverly worded questions to allow panelists to shine. For instance at my Digital Hollywood panel, as I went down the table with my customized question, I also invited each speaker to provide a “success story” that one of their clients, customers, or users had experienced. This provides good, user-oriented information while still highlighting the value of each speaker's company.

Audience Q&A.  You’ll want to wrap up your own questions and the panel discussion in time for audience questions, as well as a final summary. Don’t cheat the audience. They are paying (usually) and they rightly expect to have some chance at access to your experts.  That said, it’s also true that not all audience questions are worth answering. Regardless of the “quality” of the question, you can control the flow of the discussion by restating or simply repeating the question, and then directing it to a panelist to answer. If you’re good at it, you can make a weak question better than it is.

You must be vigilant in managing the Q&A. Don’t let people make speeches — cut them off politely. If the question is not directed at a particular person, after you summarize it, you should pick a single person to answer, using your intuition and sense of fairness. As the end approaches, warn the audience that you have time for one or two more questions.

Summarize. In my experience, the summary you provide for the panel will make it more memorable than any other single action. You help folks remember what happened, validate the speakers' contributions, and, most importantly, finish off your narrative -- complete the story. You also demonstrate a degree of mastery that will stick in the minds of many.

Your task is to compose and deliver a distillation of a session (maybe 60-90 minutes) in real-time. This is challenging, because you're busy the whole time. I find that the easiest way to summarize is simply to personalize your response. As the audience surrogate, share what you heard, what you learned, and why it’s important to the field. A sentence or two for each speaker will suffice. What’s more important is your conclusion, delivered with conviction that the experience you just shared was valuable.

Thank you’s.  BTW, I send an individualized note to each speaker on my panel, and anyone who helped me with the logistics, as well as the conference coordinator. Sounds corny but it's usually appreciated.

In closing, I return to the hotel lobby with my two friends. After tossing about our opinions on moderating panels, I got ready to leave, but was stopped by Ms. Parker’s one liner: “I’ve mastered the art of moderating panels. Now I have to master the art of getting paid for it.” It’s true, this is one thankless task. We do it to maintain our profile within the industry, to create visibility for ourselves or our companies, to get clients, and, sometimes, to learn about a new subject. But we don’t do it to get rich.

“That’s called ‘facilitating,’” said Ms. Tamer, my other friend. “People hire facilitators, not moderators.” That’s a subject for a future post.