Rocketboom Approaches 10 Year Anniversary


Rocketboom just entered it’s 9th year. Wow. Rocketboom is indisputably the longest running online video show in the world. I’ll wait another year or two to do the big review. The quick update for today:

For most of Rocketboom’s life there was no market to support it. And to this day, I’ve still never taken investment. So I had to go out and invent my own deals and always worried about food and shelter for the company (and myself). You can track this on my blog here and in the archives at http://dembot.net I made the best of it. Today, there is an incredible online video industry that is established and successfully on it’s way upwards. It took me awhile to adjust once it arrived, and to figure out how to transition from doing my own thing to participating in the new YouTube economy, e.g., but I’m figuring that out now while focusing on the product with my time.

Me? Well, I used to never say the word “product”, even though that’s prob my strong suit here. I had to become a businessman for Rocketboom and came to see the world this way sometimes. I was the last person on Earth to run a business the day Rocketboom started. But I figured a few things out, mostly right here in public. I’ve had some great moments and some really terrible ones too.

At heart, I’m driven by the process of innovation. Rocketboom was part of an innovative movement early on that actively demonstrated freedom from broadcast restrictions — freedom for the moving image. This one key factor is what drove me. Know Your Meme iterated on that process. Magma is another step in this movement. My latest effort with Humanwire, which has taken literally years to build upon, will, I hope, be seen as yet another iteration on what can be done with the medium, when the imagination becomes free. It’s a powerful medium to take hold of, way beyond just news and entertainment. 

For those who have been around, you know that contrary to hoarding the spotlight when I’ve had it, I have made it my primary mission all of these years to inspire others to jump in and join the online video revolution. Rocketboom played a big part in inspiring many shows and people along the way, especially for those who have worked at Rocketboom and gone on to do similar work elsewhere.

At it’s peak size about two years ago, Rocketboom had 15 full-time employees, 10+ contractors, and I was spending between $60k and $80k a month, but the revenue being generated was still almost entirely special one-off sponsorship deals and it was difficult and very stressful to sustain. We were doing it, but it was a ruff lifestyle. The main Rocketboom show had sprouted into a network of shows including Rocketboom Daily, Humanwire, Rocketboom Tech, Rocketboom NYC and Know Your Meme. We were also running essentially three web community platforms to support these shows, Rocketboom, Know Your Meme and Magma. Know Your Meme had become one of the top 2000 sites with an enormous active community.

I’ll never forget the day I was talking with a venture capitalist in December of 2010. I was standing there going through everything we were doing and he stopped me right in mid-sentence with a statement that wasn’t even a question. “How are you running three businesses?”, he said. And like I mentioned, it wasn’t a question. But the reason why I remember this so well is because I was so prepared for that exact reaction and had my answer: “That’s why I need investment.” That was my solution to the situation I was in and I think investment at that time would of been just about the right time. My company had ballooned in size and spending but the market was finally coming to life so there was no longer a need to “wait for the market” or invent one, it had finally come down to simple, real world projections for plugging in. Had I taken investment earlier, Rocketboom would have been dead several times over for having come too soon on that front, but this seemed like the right moment.

Yet somehow, my company had become internally sick. Other online video companies were suddenly growing faster with less stress while becoming more nimble and efficient it seemed. My business had become slow and bureaucratic. We had become the enemy. Internal politics, office drama and in general, too much stress. Salaries and spending were too high to sustain. I was becoming less engaged with Rocketboom and KYM as they had become established as platforms and was trying to transition to focusing on Magma, all of which was simply too much to do under the circumstances, and too soon. I got all of these works up and running but when it came time to operating them, and keeping them running, the market was not there for it, and I made the mistake of not being engaged enough in the day-to-day operations to see what Rocketboom had become. 

I made a pretty big decision around that time because just as he did say he would like to invest in one of the companies, Know Your Meme, I got another offer to sell Know Your Meme. Do I take the investment? Or do I sell? It was a tuff decision but the answer was pretty clear for me. I was not actually ready for the investment. My company was not a healthy company. The market was ready for me, but I was not ready for the market. Dramatic changes needed to be made. I needed to take what I had learned over the last decade online and start over.

CHANGES

Within the first 6 months of 2011, I sold Know Your Meme, put the Rocketboom Tech show on hiatus (the sponsorship with Intel had just completed at the end of 2010), phased out the NYC show, worked on the backend partnerships only for the Humaniwre show and all together slashed and burned the place all the way back to where I started in 2004.

From an organizational/resources perspective, the most recent iteration of Rocketboom content involves only two people. Myself and one contractor, Keghan. I’ve had no other contractors, no employees, no office and no overhead since re-releasing the show with Keghan as the anchor exactly six months ago. I have written, directed, produced, edited and published every episode myself. I needed to put everything else aside and get back to the art of the show, at it’s core. I’m not so great at doing *everything*, of course. My production skills are lacking. My writing is what it is. I’m still learning Final Cut Pro. I simply can’t compete alone with a team of many. But now that I am refreshed on what it takes compared to what it took me alone years ago when I first established Rocketboom, and by contrast to what Rocketboom had become when it was overly bloated at its peak size, I feel I’m in a good position to re-scale the now tiny audience (esp. relative to the audience we had with 6 shows and a large staff) and to rescale the business and production methods more efficiently in the process.

For starters, I just brought the two best writers Rocketboom ever had back on board along two new editors, under a new workflow that will start to come to life in the upcoming weeks. Slowly, slowly. With Humanwire on the way, I will soon have a new story director/producer. And I plan to spend some serious midnight oil myself in the upcoming months integrating Magma into Rocketboom as the basis for building on the Rocketboom community. I’ll be keeping my eyes set on developing revenue via YouTube for now (which means I can focus on developing the shows). Our old youtube subscribers have been flushed out and the audience, rebooted. It’s a pretty calm and quiet birthday this year, less of a time for celebrating and more of a time for pondering the mere fact that Rocketboom still exists.

There are always haters, but a lot of people really love the show still. We have thousands of episodes that continue to be seen and comented on everyday. It’s turning into a pretty exciting time in terms of the business proposition of Rocketboom. Without having to race to be first (something that was so important to me in 2004), a slow and steady, sustainable build is in order.

Again Im reminded of the “format” for Rocketboom which seems to still work. Rocketboom happened at just the right time way back when, and in a strange turn of events, appears to be happening anew at just the right time again. If nothing else, let this be one example of a wake-up call to independent publishers who have a dream. We’ve been doing it with just two people for the last several months. Some do it with just one. In terms of building an audience, we are just at the beginning again. Clearly if I can do it so easily, you can. The window of opportunity is still very much wide open.

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