During the past 30 days, I spent three weeks abroad in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Stockholm, and London. Many people are wondering why and now I can tell you.
I turned 41 last year and realized that my Internet career was getting stale. I was a little bored. This shocked me. For most of the previous 10 years, I was remarkably engaged by the sea change going on around those of us in the Internet industry. Life has been a roller coaster. I’ve sold three companies, parts of two others, and witnessed two bankruptcies. I’ve had unbelievable highs and terrible lows. Often, I would tell people that the Internet roller coaster was not necessarily month to month, or week to week, but day to day and sometimes hour by hour. Exhilirating? Yes. Anxiety-provoking? You bet. Boring? Never.
Aaron before Cafe Grumpy stop this morning
So as MenuPages was sold to New York Magazine last summer, I wondered what I would do next and I struggled to envision that work. Yaron Samid and I spent some significant time trying to form an Israeli Y-Combinator. We started the day Lehman collapsed so our timing was less than ideal. Having lived through a q4 like the one we just experienced (panic, closed capital markets, doom and gloom) in the aftermath of 9/11 I was prepared this time and I decided to shut down my Internet work and pursue a dream.
That dream is now well underway at TheAaronCohens.com a film about 100 Aaron Cohens and their mothers. Some people understandably doubt my commitment to the project –“Aaron, everybody wants to make a movie.” Fair enough, but I’m really doing it and you will see new content throughout the Spring on our site.
Still, when January rolled around, I got a few phone calls from recruiters and realized that I wanted to explore companies again, but I knew that things would have to change for me to stay reinvigorated. I did not want to run a business that would be solely dependent on advertising for its revenue. This ad-only business model did not excite me and, candidly, felt a bit soulless. At the same time, I needed to be close to the consumer. I love people and I love to design products/services or places that make them happy. The world is a big place and I had spent most of my Internet career focused on American projects. I wanted that to change. I wanted to run a company with markets/employees elsewhere . Perhaps Israel, India, or somewhere in Europe.
So when a few companies with incredibly cool software designed to enhance the video that plays on the web came calling, it was hard for me to muster enthusiasm during the interview process. I don’t really want to sell software to Fox or NBC. I know how to, but couldn’t get excited. To their credit, they detected this and nothing materialized.
Then one of the grandest, oldest brands of Silicon Alley called me – Nerve.com. I have known Nerve’s founder Rufus Griscom for 10 years. I really wanted to work with Nerve, a small, but nevertheless committed creative company with diverse revenue (subscriptions, advertising, book sales, singles ads) and a big international audience. So I had breakfast with Nate Westheimer to discuss Nerve among other things. Nate is a highly connected man-about-Silicon Alley. He had never heard of Nerve. I thought this was both very bad news, but also a great opportunity.
Rufus kept telling me that the fastest way to grow the business was to sell more advertising and I just couldn’t bring myself to fight for the job. Rufus wanted me to like it more and I wanted to, but in the end he decided I was the wrong guy. And he was right. BTW, I think this is a great job, but I would warn whoever takes it that he or she will face bias against the company simply because it is old. One of the dumbest things about our Internet culture is that we do not value the old, slow growth companies. We think it’s cooler to be , say Outside.In instead of Nerve. Nerve may not be revolutionary but it could be a very solid company. Rufus and Nerve have survived two economic downturns with only a couple million in capital ever. It’s an impressive story.
I ended up interviewing in a real way with a half dozen companies and spending probably 100 hours trying to understand a few of them that focused on making money from consumers. I have always loved retail. After all, my Mother (it’s always about mothers!) founded and owns one of the best bookstores in the world Politics and Prose.
I focused in on a handful of Israeli startups and one fascinating New York startup. I got close to a couple, before settling on a company called PopTok. My friends at betaworks invest in companies that structure unstructured data as an investing theme. Poptok has a chance to be a major player in the entertainment business. The company serves consumers who wish to remember and share great moments in entertainment and sports. We are talking about clips, scenes, plays — the micro moments etched in our brains. They are emotional, visceral memories. Founded by Erel Margalit, Mickey Schulhof, and Illy Edry, PopTok has three core values.
1. Provide us with iconic moments in entertainment and sports history.
2. Enable us to watch and share these moments with anybody, anywhere on any platform
3. Ensure that the owners of these moment are appropriately and fairly compensated for the creation of these moments.
The people-driven, consumer-centric, transparent Internet revolution clashes with the centuries old tradition of intellectual property ownership and an even longer history of patronage and cultivation of arts and culture. The Internet industry was and continues to be the vehicle for my own creative and intellectual revolution. It has sustained and nourished my development as a professional and a person. It has given me so much more than I could ever hope to give back.
However much I bleed net neutrality and social media, I care equally for our creative class. These are my values and the mesh with our mandate at PT: Connect audiences to the iconic entertainment moments of their lives and ensure that the people who have created everything from Apocalyspe Now to The Wire get paid for what they gave us.
I have gotten so much out of my travels through Europe and Israel. I have rediscovered my creativity and my passion for startups. And if you don’t have that, I think you have no chance. It’s hard enough when you’re gung ho about your business. If you are just punching the clock, your company is dead and you’re dying inside.
It feels good to be alive.
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