Episode 15: How Big Data + Social Media Are Changing Our Relationships with Celebrities

 

Chris : Welcome to the tech lowdown show. Where each episode we talk with thought leaders and a tech space and entrepreneurs from the U.S and around the world. I’m your host Chris Jones. Recently one of the listeners to the show asked me about the future of social media. So I told him hey I’ll bring in a guest who can speak knowledgably on that exact topic quick shout out to Junior for the suggestion. Social media feels like it’s been with us forever. But it’s a still very young industry and what and how it’s being used is still in a state of transformation. Our guest today is Mark Shedlesky, founder and CEO of Vertical Mass based in Las Angeles. Vertical Mass hub celebrity entertainers in the like collect and safely store data on their fans across social media, websites, mobile apps, e-commerce and content streaming services. They raised over 8 million dollars from Blue chip VCs and even got the San Francisco 49ers to kick. A long time entrepreneur and entertainment executive Mark is a hustler in the best sense of the word. It’s a pleasure to have him on the show Shed welcome to the show my man. What’s the lowdown?

 

Mark: Jones, man thank you for having me excited to chat with you today.

 

Chris: Yea much appreciated it, much appreciated. So I want to dive right in, when I look at what you’re doing with Vertical Mass. It feels to me very much like the combination of all the work that you’ve prior to finding Vertical Mass. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to founding Vertical Mass?

 

Mark: Yea I think that is spot on so I don’t know the first not to age myself. But the first 10 years in my career were really spent in traditional media companies. Companies like Universal Pictures and MTV obviously business school were you and I first met. And then really got into the tech scene about 10 years ago and went into a marketing company called Bit torrent which was the largest peer to peer software tool. Where our users were downloading massive files from the internet. Some of them illegally sadly but we were building a consumer facing business on top of that. And then beyond Bit Torrent I then went and started a company called Blue Haze. Which was a mobile apps business and we were a software serviced platform and we licensed our technology to pretty much all of the record labels and number of TV networks and sports team’s musicians and other celebrities. Who used our platform to build mobile apps ultimately to help them have a direct relationship with their fans. And that was what I think pretty early in the app store I think our first app was app number 72 in the store pretty early. So that was early day’s man. And then you know it was like after we sold that business about 6 years ago and moved from barrier down at Las Angeles and we sold it to a company called 19 Entertainment XIX. XIX Entertainment was the new version of it and that was run by a guy Simon Fuller who created American Idol and a number of other TV shows. We had about 30 talents that we worked with. So athletes and musicians and fashion designers and celebrities who we managed and helped manage their career and my job as the head of digital at the company. Was to really help understand how we could one know about who are fans are. 2 make sure we had ways of aggregating that data and communicating with them and then 3 how we could actually put relevant content. Or offerings in front of those fans. Especially as artist who are touring our athletes who are working on collaborations and just making sure that we had a direct relationship with those audiences. So that was in terms of [Inaudible 0:03:51.1]

 

Chris: Yea I know that makes a lot of sense you’ve been playing in and around this social media and entertainment space for a long time now. From a business perspective or from the entertainer celebrity’s perspective how have these areas evolve over the last decade?

 

Mark: You know I think it’s interesting right. So if you think about never mind sort of the evolution of MySpace where it was all about how many plays you got and that was your currency with record labels. Right that was sort of the original how to use some social facing numbers and currency against the number of friends you had plus the number of plays you had on your music. That was sort of a third party validation of who you were right and how popular you were. How relevant you were to certain audiences it kind of moved beyond that to Facebook and Twitter and the each took on a bit of a different. A bit of a different spin for celebrity or a content creator right. The first was Facebook you started to see some massive audiences and that grows the number of fans like your page. Was that same metric right was the same way as saying I’m the tenth most popular athlete in the world.

 

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Or I’m the third most popular musician in the world is measured by social foot print. And that was important for a long time. I think Twitter became a very personalized messaging tool Facebook became little bit more of a broadcast tool. And I can talk about those in a sec in terms of how I think about them. And they had the evolution of Instagram and Snapchat. Which again were a little more about that public facing number how many people follow me on Instagram on Snapchat it’s very different. And each of those platforms Twitter Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and I’ll add YouTube obviously is a third maybe not a social platform. But certainly is a communication platform. Those 5 platforms today sort sit as the five most relevant ways to reach an audience. Each of them is treated in their own unique way by the different talent. And not to say that they all have a very specific the way they post on Facebook or Instagram or on Snap etc. but on a general level. They each sort of view those as a specific way to reach their audience and to engage with their audience. So I think that’s really been the evolution of the number one being how do measure how many fans we have. And that is a public facing number and important validation of who they are in their industry. And 2 thinking more specifically how I do actually engage properly with my audience and my fans on these platforms and that’s I think really worth the market is today.

 

Chris: That’s interesting so take a bit deeper into Vertical Mass. What is it exactly that you do for your clients why do they see the value in it how you deliver it?

 

Mark: Yea so I mean our company is really simple it’s a data platform. And we’re specific to the entertainment and sports verticals. Which means we only partner with celebrities or musicians or athletes or sports teams and record labels etc. just giving our focus on those verticals. And we help our partners collect and aggregate the data on their fans and so they can actually see those fans across platforms. They can understand whose engaging on the social and visiting their websites and downloading the mobile app. signing up for an email list. buying tickets to a show or to an event. Buying merchandise from the store and historically you had sorts of analytics tools that were available for each of those platforms independently. But not one that really aggregated that data together so that if a fan visited your website and a week later bought a ticket to an event. And 3 weeks later bought a t-shirt from your store. You necessarily know that before. And you know I sort of flip it around and say as a fan I mean I grab from Cansus so I’m hockey. I’m a big music fan; I’m a fan of a number of things. That’s one of the ways that I define myself and as a person. And it upsets me that the artist that I really like or the teams that I follow. Don’t necessarily have consistent way of communicating with; don’t necessarily know who I am. And I want to know when there’s a sale on at the store I want know when there’s tickets available to a show near me. I want to know all those things and so my perspective on it is there’s a very unique way that artist and athletes and companies treat their fans. And they treat them as their most important asset. And we set up in the middle as a data platform to help them do that.

 

Chris: Got it so at its core you’re providing some sort of maybe SDK or plugins that works across platforms to gather this information up. And then provide that data back to the celebrities, is that how you working or.

 

Mark: That’s it so they partner with us they sign up to use our platform. It’s our software across these websites or mobile apps it’s our ability to you know pull data through APIs and social media. Or through email services and all that data gets, sits in our eco system it’s structured and stored. So that we can build a unified to show you who that fan base is. That’s exactly right.

 

Chris: That makes a lot of sense so I know you got to work closely with a number of celebrities when you were in your previous business that you mentioned. Purchased by Simon Fuller so when you were at XIX Entertainment and prior to, what about that experienced has helped you as you thought about creating. And running Vertical Mass.

 

Mark: Yea So I think you’ve got a whole lot of talent who greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve got a direct communication tool with their fans. But there’s some risk with that and there’s a lot of work with that and so there’s a real nuance in understanding how to be effectively communicating across those platform. What I mean by that is you know often times on Facebook you’ll see sometimes first party posting meaning in a first person voice. So you might have a musician go on Facebook and talk in first person. But you also have the record label post on that page by the way new single available for pure order today right.

 

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And the artist doesn’t necessarily want to be seen selling to their fans.  And so the record label will have access and we’ll post to that page as well. And so Facebook you got a bit of a broader audience and it’s a bit more of a promotional platform these days. Twitter for many years, was the original voice of that celebrity or artist or musician right and still is to an extent. And that nobody had access to that account other than the celebrity and what we saw in their was their authentic and there was a very real time environment in which they had to be paying attention. And for some that’s a lot of work, right you’re in the studio and you’re recording you’re on the cords playing it’s a lot a work. And you got to be very careful about making sure that you understand everything that is happening in the world around you. Not just on that social platform and that your voice is sort of speaking appropriately to your audience and not just your fans but to the broader audience on that social platform. You then move into like the media space where you go Instagram for images and videos. And you’ve got Snapchat which is really just like let’s be real right. Again both of the same core attributes of it’s the artist or the celebrity often times themselves being in their first person voice talking to their audience and their fans and so you’ve got a nice little set of tools. That you can use to communicate and if you’re a consumer of you know celebrity content on social media or music content or etc. you know you probably get a different experience. Across all these different way that people communicate on them. And that I think takes a lot of understating not just by the talent themselves. But often times by their assistant or their social media person who’s with them and helping them do these things. And then in general by you know the broader industry because everybody who is related to that music artist. Wants them to use their Facebook to post about that new initiative you’ve got a new album, you’ve have a new tour. You have a new merchandise you’re the face of this brand you are launching your own products and you got to be careful. And everyone realizes you know both sides you got to be careful to not oversaturate your content with promotional or business goals. And there’s a fine line between having a conversation and being organic and real with your audience and at the same time saying, hey listen if I’ve got 50 million 100 million fans engaging with me. They would probably like to know that the fact that I’ve now the tour that’s going on. Or how I feel about tonight’s game and so there’s a bit of a grey area in terms of how much the promotion of products and services is really you know organic to that talent and how much of it is about them sort of leveraging that audience reach that they have. To help grow their revenue stream.

 

Chris: Interesting and walk us through I know you just completed a raise late last year operating in this particular arena. What was it about what you guys were doing that VCs found to be yes this is something I want to back?

 

Mark: Yea I think you know first and for most I think VCs will look at 2 things right. They’ll look at it team and then they’ll look at a market opportunity right. So is there a market that is big enough and if that’s interesting great then let’s go next on the checklist. And is this the right team to get there. And you know we’ve got a phenomenal team that we put together. And I think that can be really interesting big market opportunity. So I think those are 1 in 2. And then beyond that it’s how do you approach the business is the great traction does your product work. And does it well received by the people who sue it. Are you generating revenue what are the economics of the revenue that you generate how much margin do you make? What is your growth look like you know quarter over quarter, month over month? And so then that sort of leveled intricacies what you know investors will look at and you’ve got different investors with different appetites. For us it was really simple right. If there are a lot of data businesses out there that have built really interesting data companies but mostly in other verticals in travel. And auto and CPG and retail where they aggregate data or they help their partners aggregate data in those spaces. And we were really the first movers in the entertainment and sports category. And so our investors like the fact that we had some great traction we work with. About 85 of the top 100 music artist in the world. We work with a lot of the major companies. We now work with you know closer dozen sports teams and so I think that traction was something they looked at to say. Okay there’s a real need for this product here. The company is doing well financially and that’s sort of the first set of steps. And then ultimately you know they do a lot of homework.

 

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They don’t even realize the amount of diligence that goes into it it’s not. You know you see every day to this company raise 3 million by 5 millio,n 20 million, 15 million, 200 million dollars. So it’s a lot of work that goes into finding the right partners for an investment standpoint and you know the amount of homework that those partners do. To make sure they’re putting the money in the right place. And that there’s a responsible team whose going to spend it in the right way.

 

Chris: So hear you there so can you walk us through really specifically. Very early days how you got traction like what exactly did you do to get that early traction?

 

Mark: So I think the first thing that we did was we had a thesis we had a Hypothesis right. And the Hypothesis was it’s really important to understand and aggregate data on your fans. And yet it’s really hard to do that. And so we tested that hypothesis by calling my equivalent at different artist management companies. And just asking them those 2 simple questions right. The first question is how important is it for you to be able to have this aggregated data and this unified view who your fans are. And unanimously the response was yea that’s super important to us we need to know who are fans are. It’s really a top priority for us. And the second question was how are you doing it today and the answer was some analytics on social and that’s about it. And so before we ever had a product we had about 10 partners signed up to work with us who were extraordinarily helpful and actually designing our first version of our product right. So we would sit down with the management teams behind some of the biggest music artist in the world. And say what tools you used today how do those work where are they not working? And me and my Tech co-founder would literally do those we’d had those lunches and sit down and just get some great intel and feedback. And then we went to some of the bigger companies like the Tech and masters in the world. And Spotifies in the world and said, what are the problems that you’re seeing? And so we really started building a product and getting some traction by you know kind of the old fashion way what’s the problem you have and how can we solve it. And if there’s somebody else solving it how can we do it different or better. And that was really the first 9 months of our business and once we had that traction we had that initial product. But we also had a number of folks saying like hey this is your actually solving a problem therefore you’re an important partner to us. That’s how we started raising our first run in capital.

 

Chris: Brilliant, social media seems to be evolving so quickly my listener asked. Where is social media going to be in 25 years and I chuckled. Because I told him well that’s pretty impossible to know since it haven’t even been around that long yet. But where do you see it evolving say in the next 3 to 5 years?

 

Mark: That’s an easier time frame I appreciate that. But 25 years I don’t know where all robots then. I think 3 to 5 you obviously the VR space is incredibly interesting and with Facebook buying Oculus. You know there’s a big play there in terms of social VR. So you know I think it’s both and to an extent so VR being virtual reality right. And I think to an extent you know AR a little bit but to me it’s, I think it’s becoming and staying incredibly visual right. So it’s images and videos probably more so than the written word. I think you’re going to start getting into opportunities where you have more immersive experiences that are greater touch points. I think you’re going to have a new generation of social platform that emerge with a cause at its core. I think you’ve got a millennial audience that’s grown up on these social platforms. And I think that there’s a real sort of fabric around how can we do better and I don’t mean to say each social network. Now what I mean to say like there’s a real reason to be in this social environment and the reason is where helping to solve whatever the cause is. And I think you’re going to see a decent amount of that. You know I think the Snapchat specs to me are really interesting. As a way of saying we’re always on in the visuals that we’re capturing. Let’s all become editors in some way shape or form I mean we had it through Instagram we had it through Snapchat we just do it through our phones. And so how does that movement to other variables. Where all of a sudden we’re capturing all of that you know data or imagery or video and then we sort of spend more of our time editing. That into a story as individuals and I think what we’re all I mean for those who like to tell stories. We all become story tellers even more so than today we’re I think we’re sharing other peoples content a lot. That continues but I think we’ve become stronger story tellers that’s my guest.

 

Chris: That definitely makes a lot of sense and I’m definitely seeing that in AR, VR seeing all over the place. So completely makes sense. Awesome I want to move into what I like to call the real low down segment of the show. This where we kind of rip off the bandage we get real. We get below it a little bit from the outside you appear to be on top of the world. Earlier exit now you got a funded start up doing well would have been a challenge that you personally faced as an entrepreneur.

 

Mark: Okay I mean how much time do we have, do we have 3 days, do we 6 weeks. You know I think it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. I think anybody who’s an entrepreneur in any shape never mind technology in any business right. I think it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. No let me take that back there’s certainly harder jobs there’s people out there risking their lives every day. So but from a business standpoint I think it’s you know you’ve got to deal with every facet of the business. You’ve got to deal with the human components of hiring and managing employees. You got to deal with the financial aspect of the business. You got to deal with the operations aspects of the business and it doesn’t stop there. You cannot ever turn off. It’s just not possible, it’s not healthy right that certainly can’t be healthy and I think people who find a balance are my hero’s. Because I think it’s really tough. I think the biggest challenge for me at least has been work life balance is a most none existent. Right it’s really tough the amount that my kids say to me, hey dad put your phone down. Or my wife will say to me you know you can shut your laptop it’s 12:30 at night time to go to bed.

 

Chris: Never heard that.

 

Mark: I mean 3 times a day right and that’s I mean c’mon is that fair no. of course not to them not to anybody so that’s easily the biggest challenge and it doesn’t get easier it doesn’t matter how much you grow how much money you raise. There’s always that challenge. No matter how successful a story might appear depending on who the company or what they’re doing there’s a ton of hard work that goes into it. And there’s also in a lot of luck right. That’s I mean you and I both know this well there is entrepreneurs who work their butts off who’ve got great ideas. Whose build great teams who’ve build great products and whatever reason the timing isn’t right the market’s not right. The investor appetite isn’t there because you know they invest in herds and the mentality gone to shift to something else. And there’s really interesting business that don’t get off the ground and some cases there’s businesses that probably shouldn’t get the proper investment that they get off the ground. And you know the nature of it and you got to be okay with the fact that there’s going to be a lot of things outside your control. And you got to be able to role with those punches because they come you know fast and furious every day, every day.

 

Chris: Absolutely.

 

Mark: My favorite quote was a guy named Jason Hershorm who runs a platform called media Redaff. And is just a great creator of content. And Jason his analogy is that the open scene to running company it’s like the opening scene of saving Private Ryan. Where you land on the beach and there’s alarms going off around you and there’s bullets wising by your head and all you’re trying to do is like make it up that beach and not get killed out there. And it’s ground hog day. You wake up every day and that’s what it’s sort of its like. And I think it’s just like such an appropriate analogy for what it’s like behind the scene.

 

Chris: Spot on and absolutely we’ll finish up on this. You’ve been able to navigate your way in a notoriously fickle industry. What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to break into this space?

 

Mark: That’s a good one and I think you know there’s a lot of people who have a lot of passion around music and sports. Right tend to be one of the reasons start companies in this space right. They really passionate about it and one of the things that I’ve heard from lots of entrepreneurs. And I wanted to do this myself with my previous company is just because your passion about music or passion about sports. Doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the right place to start a business and it’s actually pretty quick. Most entrepreneurs will tell you this in their space there’s no quicker way to lose your passion than to work in that industry. So what I would say you got to love what you do every day that’s for sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that like because you’re a huge music fan you’ve got be running or working in the music space. You know and think tangentially right. So how to brands think about music how to you know all sorts of companies that are really interesting content companies etc. where there’s a tangential component to it. Where there’s either a technology piece that’s big or sport’s piece that’s big. And you know that gets you really excited about it.

 

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But it doesn’t mean that you got to go start business that sells to sports teams. Or you got to start a business that works directly with musicians they’re really hard. And so my, if you found a real problem and you’re solving them there’s lots of them around phenomenal. If it’s because you’re really excited about something passionate about it. I think that’s great but you got to really gut check yourself on like is this a hobby business. Or is this thing scale and is there some real you know real problems that we’re solving. And that’s the most important thing.

 

Chris: I used when we were at school people who were coming in who were in sports. Or wanted to get into sports used to always come up to me because I worked in sports. My advice to them would be look every job that you do in sports and entertainment they’re someone who would do it for cheaper. They may not be as good as you, they may not be as smart as you but they’ll do it for cheaper. And that’s is definitely one of the challenges.

 

Mark: And you’re on man you know this too there’s a ton of smart people that work inside of our industry. Who are really passionate about what they do and I think you’ve got a lot established companies who are trying to be a lot more entrepreneurial and to me like. I’ve given them advice a few times to people who are saying I’m really coming out of school. I’m coming out of business school and I’m thinking about this business or just left my job I’m thinking about what’s next and you know they tend to have an entrepreneurial spirit. And I say there’s so many companies that are looking to get a whole lot smarter that are you know really being aggressive in hiring people who want to you know not be status quo and how they think about things. And that those to me are really interesting opportunities. So like an entrepreneur and helping build businesses from the inside.

 

Chris: Sweet Shed I want to thoroughly thank you. I have enjoyed this immensely can you please tell our listeners how they can find out more about you and vertical mass.

 

Mark: Yes we’re just Verticalmass.com and I’m mark[at]verticalmass.com. Jones man thanks for having me dude. It’s always fun catching up with you.

 

Chris: Folks if you like the show please download all of our episodes and leave us a 5 star review on iTunes. Of course you can find show notes at techlowdownshow.com and follow me on Twitter at Cjones2002.

 

 

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