Friday interview with mobile and marketing guru Andy Nulman
I had the pleasure of seeing Andy Nulman speak yesterday at a mobile conference sponsored by Playback magazine. The audience was made up of television producers, carrier execs, marketing professionals, etc. While it isn’t the same as being there, hopefully this week’s interview will give you a sense of how interesting and vibrant Andy is. And how he is living his life to the fullest.
Andy is the President and co-founder of Airborne Entertainment, one of our portfolio companies. A majority of Airborne was acquired in 2005 by Japan-based CYBIRD Co. Ltd. for $110 million, and Airborne won venture capital deal of the year honours from the CVCA as a result.
Prior to Airborne, Andy founded Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival (celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer), and remains involved today. He’s also an excellent blogger, with a great Technorati ranking and hundreds of inbound links from marketing folks worldwide.
Question 1. You and your partner at Airborne Entertainment run Canada’s largest mobile content firm. How did you pull it off?
I wish there was more to it than this, more of a concentrated “plan,” per se, but the recipe for our success blends together the elements of:
Hard Work (we killed ourselves)
Vision (we saw the future, or at least convinced ourselves we did)
Guts (we took a lot of risks)
Naiveté (we believed almost blindly)
Relentlessness (we never gave up, no matter how tough things got)
Nimbleness (we changed direction, and our biz plan, often)
Evangelism (we believed, and had to convince others)
Timing (right place, right time…which leads us to the next one)
And a good degree of Luck
Like a great soup, a little too much here or too little there and the whole texture changes. The ingredients to the story played out perfectly in the end.
Question 2. Airborne’s focus has been on the brand/content as much as the carriers. What’s the likelihood of Airborne being squeezed out of the role of middleman?
I guess anyone is susceptible to extinction these days. Whole industries have been wiped out by the rapid transforming power of technology, so “mobile middlemen” are equally at risk. That said, it doesn’t keep me up at night because we have always rolled with the punches.
And frankly, I never saw Airborne Entertainment as one of those God-awful terms foist upon us by the industry—aggregator, publisher, middleman, what have you. I always felt that we were adaptive specialists, and the combination of both factors make us something to be reckoned with. We’ve always managed to—and will continue to—find a valuable space to occupy.
Truth be told, the carriers may deal direct, but someone needs to create, massage and deliver the content. If this were the case, TV networks would produce all their own shows, and car manufacturers would make all their own parts.
Question 3. A big part of your role is trend-spotting. Tell us what you see on the mobile horizon.
If I knew for sure, I’d be in venture capital, not mobile media. But I think the industry will be shifting from a focus on frivolity (personalization via ringtones, wallpapers and ringbacktones) to one of utility. It may not be sexy, but stuff like weather, stock quotes and sports scores are now the pillars of the industry when it comes to WAP and SMS.
These new “useful” apps will inspire loyalty, which will translate to recurring revenue. Once they’re on your phone, they become part of your personal “operating system,” thus hard to change.
Up until now, the industry has been “inward focused,” meaning take the world and put it on the phone screen. To me, the future lies in being “outward focused,” where the phone is used as a starting point to interact with the world at large. In other words, you won’t play ON your phone, you’ll play WITH your phone; instead of seeing your phone as a mini-desktop, it’s a maxi-mouse for the desktop that is the world.
Our R&D philosophy is “Get off the floor and get out the door.” You can’t create true mobile applications, those whose raison d’etre is to be used out-of-home, in a boardroom or an office. We ask ourselves constantly: “What makes it mobile? Is its DNA outdoors, or is it just a shrunk-down version of something that works better elsewhere?”
Question 4. Has the social networking world already commandeered the handset? Or is that still to come?
It’s here now. I think it’s called “talking” and “texting.” You can’t get more social, or more networked than that. Let’s face it, with everyone in the industry talking about movies on phones, or full-track downloads, we lose sight that cellphones are “communication” devices, pure and simple.
As for the migration of web-based social networking apps like Facebook (damn you for hooking me on this newest digital crack, by the way!), MySpace and those to come, given my explanation above, it’s almost redundant. Failure lies in wait for those who try to shrink the web experience to mobile!
However, I do believe that those apps have their place in mobile as an adjunct to their web presence. They are the satellite of the mothership. The goal is not to replicate the experience, but to facilitate its continuation as you’re out in the world.
Question 5. Tell me about your speeches as part of the Tony Robbins tour. I saw you did Ottawa and Vancouver. How did you get roped into that world?
“Roped into”? You make it sound like I’m some sort of calf at a rodeo, or been kidnapped into a cult, Mark! Actually, I’ve been speaking for close to thirty years, to everyone from community groups to Fortune 500 companies like GM, Eveready and 3M.
Even when I was 18, in my first job as Entertainment Editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, I was the forward-face of the company. Same went when I ran Just For Laughs; I represented the company in the media and at conferences. After a while, because I was kinda glib and fairly comfortable, I was asked to give “talks” about how we built the Festival, and the motivational speeches evolved from that.
The “How To Do The Impossible” speech I gave in Ottawa and Vancouver is actually over 10 years old, and the impetus for me meeting Garner. I had just finished writing the book of the same name, and wanted to put together a website for it (a radical concept at the time). My wife went to camp with Garner, and recommended his web biz to me…and the rest is history.
Ironically, on stage is perhaps the most comfortable place on earth for me. I know that public speaking is human fear #1, but it’s where I feel most at ease. I am much more comfortable speaking in front of 10,000 than, let’s say, singing the national anthem as part of a crowd of 10,000. Go figure…
And as for the Power Within series, here’s how it happened. I actually bought 13 tickets for Airborne staffers when it came to Montreal with Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong in March of 2006. Garner and I sat front row. I watched a couple of speakers and said to myself “Christ, I could do this! They’re not that much better than me!” So I got in touch with Salim Khoja, who runs Power Within, and he gave me a shot. I think I did pretty well, because I’m booked for a big Toronto show coming up in the Fall. You better be there!
Question 6. Speaking of counter cultures, you started blogging last Fall and quickly picked up a great Technorati ranking and over 300 inbound blog links. What has amazed you most about the blogosphere?
What still amazes me about it to this day is the camaraderie. Bloggers are a TRUE community; they help each other out in a phenomenally selfless and generous fashion, with tips, links, communal projects. It’s like the ‘60s all over again, but “link love” instead of “free love.” Oh well…
This reminds me of a lesson I learned from Garner when we first started Airborne. I had come from the dog-eat-dog world of showbiz, where someone else’s success was my failure. So in our early days, to me, every competitor was the enemy. Garner taught me about “co-opetition,” and how to trust others who are outside your company walls. This is the spirit I get every day in the blog world.
What I like best about it though, is it relaxes me. I do the bulk of my work on the weekends. I sit at the kitchen table, with a couple of espressos, and for a couple of hours or so, I am focused on my laptop and on spinning some great stories and opinion. Honestly, I don’t care if anyone reads it. I’m doing it for me. It’s a better hobby than knitting or cigar-rolling, I suppose.
Question 7. What’s on your iPod?
Oy. Way, way too much. I am a music junkie. I have over 2,000 CDs, over 4,000 albums (down from 10,000), 700 cassettes, another 1,000 45s (and a working Wurlitzer ’59 jukebox to play ‘em on), even some 78s (yup, with a working gramophone) and some Edison cylinders.
So my iPod has everything in my digital collection that can fit…which is about one-third of my digital collection. I have everything. An insane variety. Al Jolson. The Beatles. A four-CD punk collection. Movie and Broadway soundtracks. My Chemical Romance. Green Day. Andrew WK. Snoop Dogg. Crosby, Stills & Nash. Oh yeah…and recordings of my speeches. Just in case I need inspiration.
Thanks Andy, you are always so generous with your time.