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The Value of Being in a Nexus
08.16.11

I've been thinking about an idea lately. The genesis of this thought was me questioning myself in wondering why I'm not producing more stuff. When I was a product manager, I would have this clock in my head -- a feeling of, "When's the last time I shipped something?" I think that same feeling manifests itself now -- only instead of shipping technology products or features, it's around creating new content. I'm going to give 3 short examples and then try and tie them together:

1) My friend was telling me a story of his friend who works at one of the biggest commercial production houses in the world. The receptionist there has done multiple national voice-over spots for commercials that house was working on. She got started doing that (which she had never done before) because they would be producing something, need someone to do some voice over, saw her -- and that was that. One voice-over became two which became a short voice reel which turned into getting an agent, etc. etc.

2) I'm reading a book called "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" [link]. Probably my favorite show on TV is a show on ESPN called Pardon the Interruption or PTI. It comes on at 230pm PST every day -- the show that comes on righr before PTI is "Around the Horn" and its host is a Tony Reali. Reali started off as a researcher on PTI, affectionately called "stat boy." The first host of "Around the Horn" was Max Kellerman -- a well-known sports TV personality. Max had apparently gotten sick once or twice and, very last minute, ESPN needed someone -- and just pulled Reali to do it. Reali did this twice for two days in total. (note: no prior training or anything) When Max's contract was up -- he left to go to Fox SportsNet. ESPN was surprised by this and literally had no one to host "Around the Horn." So they picked the most obvious candidate -- the guy who had actually done it for them before -- their researcher, Tony Reali. Reali worked on a one-day contract (repeatedly renewed) for a year and a half. ESPN was going to bring in candidates to actually audition for the job but never did. Reali is now (and has been for years) the host of one of ESPN's mainstay shows. 

3) The Sundance Institute put on a Comedy Shorts Lab in L.A. a couple of weeks ago [link]. They had a panel with a bunch of folks from Funny or Die and they said that
a) despite being Funny or Die, they have no money (so no ability to pay crew, actors, locations, etc.) and
b) they produce ~35 pieces of content every month

I wrote a blog post about startups + incubators a few months ago [link] where I wrote that, when it comes to incubators, one should try and go to where the extraordinary is ordinary. The first phase of this is geographic. When I moved to Palo Alto, I used to take TaeKwonDo lessons. One of my TaeKwonDo instructors was a venture capitalist. That's something that only happens in Palo Alto. That's the value of geographically locating yourself in the nexus of what you care about.

The second phase is broadly social circle. In Silicon Valley, it's normal to be a (or be friends with) venture capitalists, startup founders, tech employees, etc. In Los Angeles, your friends will be editors, cinematographers, writers, directors, actors, and so on. Those jobs are every day and nothing special. They're not easy or easy to get necessarily -- but there's definitely no mental block in the sense of, "I don't know anyone that does that." You do. It also means that these people can either help you in your career or dreams or, when you're trying to get your startup off the ground or shoot a film -- be useful in that effort.

The third phase -- and the phase that I've been struggling with -- is what my friend Kate describes as "my people." It's people that not only have shared values with you, but people that you enjoy working with, push you (and you allow them to push you because of a certain comfort and respect level), and you're all broadly trending towards some sort of common goal. It's one of the things that I miss about a place like Google and didn't fully appreciate when I was there -- the opportunities to learn and get better were much higher because the ecosystem had both a lot of projects / opportunities and also a lot of talented individuals who had similar skills that could push and improve your own work.

My first job out of college was at amazon.com. When I was in school, I was obsessed with Silcon Valley and startups. A small example -- I founded the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club -- which came about because I emailed a future professor of mine, Ed Zschau [link] (who was a former entrepreneur, venture capitalist, member of the House of Representatives, and newly appointed Princeton professor) -- I said that I loved what he had done in his life and if we could meet. This was *before* I matriculated and years before I was even eligible to take his class. He encouraged my goals and I was one of the co-founders of the Entrepreneurship Club which ran an annual $10K business plan competition (sponsored by a partner from Greylock.) When I got the job offer from amazon.com, I thought it was perfect -- I didn't have to take the risk of working for an unknown company (particularly in terms of resume risk) and while I wasn't in Silicon Valley, I would still be in an important tech center -- Seattle. Wrong. Seattle is absolutely nothing like Silicon Valley. It's a wonderful, sleepy little town with a handful of tech companies but it pales in comparison to Silicon Valley. It's not much smaller, it's orders of magnitude smaller in terms of volume, energy, attitude, and ambition.

So when I decided i wanted to be an actor in film/TV -- I told myself not to make that same mistake again -- to move to the nexus of entertainment, Los Angeles (first phase).

The first two examples I talked about above (the voice-over artist and Tony Reali) -- I think is an example of literally putting yourself in the right social circle -- in those cases, it's working in a place where stuff is being made (second phase). Undoubtedly, there's a large element in those stories of luck -- being in the right place at the right time. But here's where it's not luck. My friend who told me the story of the voice-over artist -- he told me that story because his friend asked him to learn how to become an assistant editor, to apprentice under him, and to work at that production house. His friend knows that he wants to be an actor and the folks at the production house have actually already seen some of his commercial work and think it's good. Now, if he takes that job -- and goes into that production facility a few times a week (the job is really flexible to allow him to still audition, etc.) -- what are the odds that every so often one of the directors or producers needs a last minute replacement for a commercial or film or something else and says, "Hey -- what about...?" There's real value in that.

The last example (and I think a great example of the third phase) is the Funny or Die example I mentioned. What I left out of that story is that on stage were 8 people from Funny or Die. 2 of them were part of their corporate arm -- generating business by selling studios / productions companies / etc. on hiring Funny or Die to make humorous videos for them. (An example is Steve Carrel's latest movie, "Crazy, Stupid, Love" -- they made a short web video promoting the film.) The other 6 people on stage were all writer/directors. They work at Funny or Die -- the way they described it almost sounded like a startup in terms of how packed in they were in a room -- just rows of desks and people sitting around writing and chatting and talking. They then go produce as much as they can and pull the other people there into their productions either as actors, sound guys, cameramen, editors, or whatever -- and keep getting better and better at their craft. They're all tied together by a love for comedy and an ambition to have a career in entertainment writing, producing, directing, or acting. 

Last Friday, my friends and I shot a new web series which we hope to launch in the next week or two. Depending on whether or not we can get a certain location, we might shoot a short film this weekend. We filmed my first project, "The Consultants" [link], over a year and half ago -- so it's taken a long time to start figuring out how to produce more often (and, consequently, act more often). I'm not saying that I've figured it out on any level -- just that I'm so much more cognizant now of trying to figure out, "Ok -- here's the type of work I want to do and the type of people I'd like to have in my life -- the people I'd like to collaborate with / work with as well as here are my own individual sticking points which are preventing me from accomplishing as much as I want to here." So I'm pushing myself to find or build that ecosystem where I can work more often and my work can keep getting better.

I know a lot of people who are completely contrary to these ideas. Startups that are in Los Angeles, documentary filmmakers in Michigan, actors in San Francisco. A question I get from startups with some frequency -- where should I locate my startup or should I move my startup to Silicon Valley? My answer is always along the lines of, "You don't necessarily have to, but it sure gives you a much better chance at it. If you decide not to, which is totally fine, just know what you're giving up and be comfortable with it." In terms of my own ambitions in acting and entertainment -- I'm certainly looking at that question from a much different place than when I answer tech questions (i.e. I'm looking up, wondering if it will ever happen.) But that response is the same thing I tell myself -- from location to social network to close collaborators -- finding the right alignment will give me a much better chance at success. Though I will say that in my case, I've struggled enough to know precisely what I am giving up if I don't have each of them.

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