How I Hacked HULU to get Warner Brothers to Call, With Chris Richmond
I had the pleasure to have a zany and fascinating discussion with Chris Richmond the Founder of Proper Media, and the co-owner of Snopes.com
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I built my first website around 13 years ago which was a search tool for finding domain names. The site made a couple hundred dollars the first month then I told my Dad I was dropping out of college to peruse building my own company. I raced to make it to college by age 16, only to drop out before my 18th birthday but when I realized I could purchase programming books on Amazon I figured I could do it without school. Surprisingly my Dad told me his worst fear was for me to get taken advantage of from working at a big company so he told me to go for it.
My first real success started a couple years later with the start of ShareTV.com. I started the site in a weekend for fun to show people how to download television episode torrents without getting a virus, the wrong episode or a bad quality version. I emailed a few blogs and one of them wrote an article which went viral bringing more than 20,000 users to the site in one day. This was 11 days after I launched it and it was more traffic than my domain site had received in 2 years. I figured I was on to something so I sold domain website for $10K to pay for servers for ShareTV and started ramping it up by asking for volunteers to help build the content on the site. I didn’t have any money to offer them so I offered points and put up a board to show the top members. Surprisingly hundreds of people started spending hours and hours building the site’s content.
The site quickly got the attention of the MPAA who sent a lawsuit saying they were about to file it against me for linking to these torrents. From reading the lawsuit I noticed all the shows they were suing me for were owned by NBC. Why only them I thought. I did some research and found NBC was partnering with other networks to launch a service called HULU. I realized what was happening. They wanted to clear the field for their new service. I tried reaching out to HULU but couldn’t get anyone to talk to me. HULU launched with a few key partners, Yahoo being one of them. I was trying to figure out what to do when I noticed Yahoo was loading HULU videos without refreshing the page. Today that might not sound like a big deal but 9 years ago this was not something you would see normally with something changing on the page with refreshing it. I checked and found they were pulling a network feed from HULU using AJAX. I spent probably 2–3 days guessing variable names until I figured out how to pull a feed of every video on HULU. I removed all the torrents on ShareTV so the MPAA went away and then I placed every HULU video on my site and I put ShareTV in the feed url so they would know I did it. A week later I got a phone call from HULU. Finally.
They told me to take down their videos but then said they liked what I was trying to do so they told me if I help them market some web based series for them they’ll see about making ShareTV an official partner. 6 months later they kept their word and I was in. Soon after WarnerBros got word and called me asking to place their shows on ShareTV as well.
From there I brought on a friend (Drew Schoentrup) who was working as a patent lawyer at the time to help build the business. We started hiring, got an office and were off to the races. A couple years later we leveraged this in order to acquire a large website called TVTropes.org (6M monthly users, 85M monthly pageviews). The television space was getting crowed and we wanted a site where we didn’t have to license the content from someone else. At this point we realized all our money came from banner advertisements on our sites but there was a real problem in the industry. There are dozens of ad networks but who pays the most? Google was clearly the biggest but they didn’t pay the most for every user. Other ad networks could beat Google for some users but not others. What is the answer? We started talking to ad networks and asked them to give us a price before we would display the ad in real-time so we could create an auction. Basically, they said we were too small to put in the effort to build this. So we knew we needed more sites onboard.
The first site we went to was Snopes.com. It was the biggest site we could find on the Internet that wasn’t owned by a major corporation and they needed some serious help. We pitched the idea to take over all their advertising, development, hosting, and help build a team of writers. Once we got that deal we went back to the ad networks and they said we were still too small but if we continue making this much progress they’ll give it a shot. One by one we started getting smaller ad networks to come onboard. And then we started approaching other big sites who we know would know one of our sites. Once we got them the bigger ad networks came on board which we found out they were already working on this feature and called it header bidding. At that point we formed a new company called Proper Media and gave 3 employees equity in it. Each new client we brought on would increase their revenue 20–150%. Word of mouth started spreading. Next thing we knew we were representing more than 100M monthly users across all our client’s sites.
For our next move we decided we should buy more sites and who better than our first client, Snopes.com.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
To be honest I wouldn’t say I’ve brought that much goodness to the world yet but I can say I’ve always brought it to the people closest to me.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1) Quality employees are everything — I spent years as a one-man operation thinking I could make it big with just my brain and hard work and no one else. I thought if I could just work on being the best programmer there is I could build a huge company. I thought I could do every job better than anyone else. It’s amazing the progress you make when you figure out how to find quality people in each area of your business who bring in knowledge and experience you don’t have. Plus as you start training employees an amazing thing happens. You start getting better at each area as well.
2) Networking is a necessity — On the same token I didn’t realize how important it was to meet other business owners. You learn so much by watching and listening to them. You pick up a tip on how to train an employee, where to find an office, who is the best accountant, etc. Plus as you build your network you find out that 2–3 degrees of intro’s and you end up at a contact who becomes client or partner. As you work on being more social it becomes easier to pitch potential lenders, clients, etc.
3) Credit is VERY important if you want to keep your equity — I didn’t get my first credit card until I was 25. I thought it was stupid to purchase things you can’t afford and I should just save up for everything. This was something my business partner really showed me. When he came onboard I said our business is growing exceptionally fast for every dollar we spend on marketing but we’ll have to wait until we get paid next to spend more. He threw down his personal credit card and said throw $40K on that to start and that he’ll call the bank tomorrow to get us more. I couldn’t believe it. My credit card had a $500 limit on it and I could only grow as fast as the profits came in. Within 3 months we had six figures in credit cards and were growing like crazy without giving away any equity. We paid off the bill every month and wouldn’t have grown to the level we are now with it. Not to mention that the 2 multi-million dollar acquisitions were both originally done on credit. To date we don’t have a single investor. Everything has grown through credit and bootstrapping. And neither of us started with any money.
4) Learning to delegate needs to be your focus once you start hiring — I’m sure there are many entrepreneurs who find this as difficult as it was for me. When you bootstrap your first company you have to learn how to do everything (build a website, graphic design, accounting, taxes, customer support, client outreach, business development, … the list goes on). So once I started hiring I found it very difficult to delegate a task. I would end up just doing a task myself rather than giving it to the person I hired to do it. Or they wouldn’t complete something how I wanted so I would just take it over and finish it myself rather than showing them what I wanted. To be honest I still struggle with this today but I’ve made lightyears of progress since I started.
5) Stop innovating or slow down and you die — When my first real business (ShareTV) took off I got complacent. After 14 months of amazing success I started to think the money was going to last forever and I didn’t focus on building the future. What I didn’t see coming was every major media company entering my space increasing the cost to advertise and buying up licenses making it difficult for me to get good TV shows. How do I compete with Netflix, Amazon, Apple and every major television network worth billions? A question I should have asked before it was too late. Thankfully as it started happening and with a lot of pushing by my business partner I agreed to change directions. He had been telling me we needed to innovate and I didn’t listen. He said it’s too late and we need to find a site we can buy where we own the content. I came up with TV Tropes and that acquisition put us back on the map.
Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
Rupert Murdoch — Why? Rupert built a multi-billion dollar media empire. Not only that but he did so by taking huge risks all along the way. I would love to meet him and hear about all the adventures he had to get to where he is.