MEDIA CFO — Episode 009 — Ellen Windemuth talks to Tobias Jaeger about building an entertainment powerhouse, factual television, and selling her company
We sat down with Off The Fence founder Ellen Windemuth to talk about factual television, her company’s dominance in the space, hiring the best people, and ultimately selling the firm she spent more than 20 years building.
Ellen Windemuth started her career nearly 30 years ago in sales of factual television. After working for companies like Atlantis and Fremantle she founded Off The Fence in 1994. Since then she has built the company into the omnipresent global leader with a catalog of several thousand of hours of high-quality factual programming. Ellen and her team have made themselves an attractive target for acquisition and while she resisted the many offers she had gotten over the years, she finally struck a deal with German pubcaster ZDFenterprises in early 2019.
“I don’t believe in half/half. I don’t believe in 70/30. I think you either wanna control your company or you don’t. If you wanna control your company and you’d like an investor, then you sell less than 50%. Or if you need someone to actually come on board as a partner and you actually want to cross-pollinate, then you might as well sell a 100%. So the first thing I said was, “I’ve thought about this for a long time and if I sell, I’d like a partner with whom I can share information but also share strategy. And one plus one makes three, that’s what I’m looking for.”
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Tobias Jaeger: Ellen, welcome to the program.
Ellen Windemuth: Thank you.
TJ: Thank you for making the time.
EW: Thanks so much.
TJ: And I’m very excited to talk to you, ’cause obviously you’ve built something incredible over the years. And maybe we can just start with that.
TJ: Have you talk about Off The Fence a little bit.
TJ: And explain to the world what it is, for those who don’t know what it is.
EW: Yes. Well, Off The Fence is a company that I set up in 1994 and I decided at the time that it was smarter to be a production as well as a distribution company. In those years that was actually not yet done. People hadn’t really heard of a thing like a content company before, but I thought, I think this is a good idea. So I set it up and the other thing is lots of people have asked me why I call it Off The Fence. And the expression Off The Fence comes from the Americans who in the good old days used to say, “Get off the fence,” when it came to making a decision. So don’t dither, but get off the fence. Go right, go left, but go.
TJ: Yes or no, good answer.
EW: Yes or no. So I wanted to inspire people who work with me to make decisions and that I also think it’s very funny, because I told my former boss that I was setting up this company, this is after he fired me at seven months pregnant.
TJ: Oh wow.
EW: And he said, “What are you gonna call your company? And I said I’m gonna call it Off The Fence, and he said, “That’s the worst name I ever heard! “There’s no way you’re gonna have success with this name!” So there you go.
TJ: Doesn’t he look foolish now?
EW: I guess. My first message to all of your podcast listeners is, never listen to people who say that the name you choose for your company means that it’s not gonna be successful.
TJ: As if that was the defining factor.
TJ: That’s crazy also, that at that stage that someone would fire you, in that situation. Is that something you think that gave you extra drive in that moment? I mean, of course, at first probably —
EW: Well, I think in those days, you know we’re talking now 1994. It was really, really normal for women to have to make men look good. That was our main job. It was still very much that way. So, I knew whenever I had male bosses that there was going to be a big, a big part of my job was going to be that. So, I wasn’t terribly surprised. It was normal in media at the time. If you were female and became in any way uncomfortable to employ, people were completely, legally also, entitled to do whatever they needed to do.
TJ: Thank god that’s different now.
EW: It’s different now, yeah. And I’m an employer myself, so, you know, it’s very different now.
TJ: Before we dive into that more, I would love to know more of the beginning of your journey and how you got into the industry at large, but also specifically what you do now.
EW: Okay. I speak to lots of students and I have my oldest son is 23. So, an important thing I think to admit, is I went to college in the States, I went to Brown. And I went all the way through college and I graduated and on my day of graduation I had no clue what I wanted to do. What I did know is, I am a generalist and I love to communicate in as many languages and across as many cultures as possible. I had no idea how that was going to result in a job, even.
TJ: What was your study at the time?
EW: I studied semiotics and history at Brown. Then I went to NYU and I did some cinema studies. And I don’t even think I finished that. I did it for one or two years, and then I thought, “Ugh, gosh!” You know, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I remember we were watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder films, and I thought, “What am I doing here? “I need to something more practical.” So then, I took some courses in editing and writing, and I think it was editing and writing and then it was really time to get a day job and because it was whenever it was, somewhere in the ’80s, the day job was being a secretary. So, imagine you graduate from Brown University and my male mates were earning $80,000 a year. They were wearing pale blue shirts and yellow ties and they were investment bankers hired straight away. And I was a secretary and I was taking my boss’s clothes to the dry cleaners. So it was interesting. I admire my boss at the time, who was female, for hiring me, because I could not type.
TJ: Not that that would be a core skill of someone that’s —
EW: I’m really talking about, you know, the ancient times now. But, under her tutelage I learned how to type really fast. I was a good secretary, a very good assistant and I loved reading her scripts. I worked for American Playhouse at the time. So I learned to read scripts and I really loved assessing scripts and giving her ideas on what to say about the stories.
“So, I left that one job and then I said, “Okay, I’m going to consult for the people I know. “I’m going to be a sales agent in a consulting role.” So that I can just basically live on commissions and whatever money is left. The other thing, I guess, because this podcast speaks to young entrepreneurs, what I said to myself at the time is, “How much money am I willing to lose?” And I said to myself, I have from my past put together all my commissions and all my bonuses. I had $200,000 and I said to myself, “I’m willing to lose all that.” And I’m willing to lose that over three years.”
TJ: Was that in a sense, what’s known as script coverage these days?
TJ: What you were doing? Okay.
EW: She was the Director of Development. So I just, I read scripts and whenever I saw something that I thought was interesting, I’d say, “Hey, what about this?” That was fun.
TJ: I can imagine. How did you go, what was the next step from there?
EW: The next step from there is that I became a young sales executive. And I was hired by a man to run his sales and acquisitions. So, it went very quickly from then on, because somehow, he decided to rely on me for sales and acquisitions.
EW: And I started to travel the world when I was 23.
TJ: Wow, wow. That must have been quite an inspiring thing to do.
EW: Well, I was under so much pressure that I didn’t notice.
TJ: Pressure cooker.
EW: Yeah. New York, 38th floor. You know, you had to show up and at the time we had to show up in office gear. That means that you had to take your high heeled shoes and put your sneakers in your bag, and switch them in the office and the whole thing. I mean the whole thing.
TJ: So, from there, you went and dove in the world of sales and acquisitions?
EW: I did.
TJ: Is that where you learned the business?
EW: I did. I learned the business by doing it.
TJ: And then from there, how did you get to the horrible boss that let you go?
EW: Who will remain unnamed? I’ve had so many bosses that nobody’s going to feel particularly offended at the moment. But from this sales and distribution company, I went to another one. And there I had a number of different bosses. And for them I was their sales director, and I did that for a number of years. And then, when I started Off The Fence, I became first a consultant, because of course, I had no money, right. So, I left that one job and then I said, “Okay, I’m going to consult for the people I know. “I’m going to be a sales agent in a consulting role.” So that I can just basically live on commissions and whatever money is left. The other thing, I guess, because this podcast speaks to young entrepreneurs, what I said to myself at the time is, “How much money am I willing to lose?” And I said to myself, I have from my past put together all my commissions and all my bonuses. I had $200,000 and I said to myself, “I’m willing to lose all that.” And I’m willing to lose that over three years.
EW: ’Cause I also had to give myself a time limit. And I’d written myself a little business plan. And then I said, “What am I gonna use this money for?” I need to use this money to attend markets and festivals and to travel. So that’s what I did and I broke even after a year and half,
EW: and I was in profit after two.
TJ: Wow, that’s amazing. I mean that’s hardly the case these days, anymore.
“I hired people who I felt shared my values, or who brought values that I thought were really interesting and that I could learn from. So, if I felt that I was about to hire someone I couldn’t learn anything from, or who couldn’t learn anything from me, I didn’t hire them. So I think hiring first, because hiring and hiring well, sets the tone in the company and sets the values. And from there, you and your team choose the projects.”
EW: It’s much tougher, yeah. But what I did of course, is I started extremely lean. It was just me and an assistant. And I, you know, we both rented a room for 250 Euros a month somewhere, which was our office, so.
TJ: Crazy, and then at the markets you just worked from —
EW: And at the markets, who knows how big your office is? You know, that’s the most fun when you’re 28, 29 or 30 years old. No-one knows how big your office is or what your working circumstances are. No-one knows that you’re sleeping on a mattress on the floor somewhere in Cannes, right? In like a one star, in a half star. And that when you open the door in the evening when you come home you just have to leap onto your bed, because there’s no way of walking around it. But it worked, it was absolutely fine.
TJ: Yeah, yeah. Is the experience you described before that, do you think that was one of the main motivators to start you own company? Or did you feel that there were just opportunities that nobody, you know —
EW: I felt there were opportunities that nobody was realizing. I also felt that if I stayed employed, I would be very frustrated by people who would make me do all the work and then, you know —
TJ: Take the credit.
EW: Take the credit in Variety, which happened frequently.
TJ: So, from, you know, kind of going forward into present day. How does a kind of average day in the life of Ellen look like nowadays?
EW: Well, I have six animals, right. So I have three cats and three dogs, so the first thing I do is I have a very nice ritual where I wake up with them and I feed them. And I have, really half an hour of just quiet time, which I think is very important. And what then happens is I go to the office and I mix my day. I’m very careful about time management, so every hour’s planned for. But I mix my day between meetings and being able to do calls and work on my own. I don’t do well in meetings all day, because it makes me tired. I’m a little bit more introverted than most entrepreneurs. Which means I’m very happy speaking to people, but I do need alone time and I need to digest. I’m also not necessarily, I’m not a big risk taker.
EW: And I think there’s —
TJ: Says the lady who started a company…
EW: Yeah, it’s true. But you know, it was only $200,000, right. And I had them, so I didn’t owe them to anybody. So I think that’s a relatively low risk. I knew I was employable. But because I’m not a big risk taker, I like the concept of don’t move until you’re sure and if you’re not sure, dodge the bullet. Because it is likely a bullet.
EW: I think I built Off The Fence on dodging bullets. I didn’t do what everybody else was running to do. And that was actually, it worked out very well for me.
TJ: Do you have an example of such a situation or a case where you feel that that’s kind of iconic?
EW: I think a very good example is 3D television, remember that? Everybody started to buy equipment, go crazy, and produce 3D television and try to conceive of 3D television channels. And I thought, “I don’t know so well about 3D television.” I can’t really imagine as a social activity that wearing funny glasses and sitting on your sofa and watching 3D TV is gonna work. So that’s a bullet I dodged. Everyone said, “You’re losing such opportunities “by not doing anything about it.” I said, “I’ll just wait.” So we did and I’m glad we did. So there were countless things like that, countless films, countless series. Even countless genres of television that I just decided not to go into, because I thought it’s not really me, I don’t get energy out of working with it or looking at it as projects. So, I’m not gonna do it. If I can’t find myself in it and if I can’t find our values in it, I don’t do it.
“The genres that I like the most are, natural history, history and science. And maybe those are the ones that sell for the lowest money or any kind of thing that people may have to say about that. But I think they’re fascinating because I’ve spent the last 25 years in continued education.”
TJ: Is that something that was important for you, as you were building the company, to focus on the values first? Rather than just a play-by-play handbook to kind of guide whatever new was coming? Or, you know, whether that’s people or products to —
EW: Generally, it was always values first. I hired people who I felt shared my values, or who brought values that I thought were really interesting and that I could learn from. So, if I felt that I was about to hire someone I couldn’t learn anything from, or who couldn’t learn anything from me, I didn’t hire them. So I think hiring first, because hiring and hiring well, sets the tone in the company and sets the values. And from there, you and your team choose the projects. That’s where you become, I think, quite versed at turning down stuff that makes you tired, that doesn’t interest you. I used to be sent television and I watched many, many films and many, many television shows, and to this day there are television programs that make me feel slightly nauseous, even though there’s nothing nauseous about them. But, I feel nauseous at the idea of having to sell them. Just because they’re not quite right for us.
TJ: Yeah, interesting.
EW: Yeah. So I have physical reactions, you know, after watching and watching and watching television. You can watch very quickly how something makes you feel. And when something makes me feel not quite right, we don’t acquire it.
TJ: I was about to ask, how long does it take you now, nowadays, to watch —
EW: Very short, yeah. I mean, I haven’t done acquisitions for Off The Fence in many, many years. We have an excellent Head of Acquisitions, Loren Syer-Willoughby. She’s meticulous but she knows exactly what she’s doing. And I have never seen her acquire something that didn’t exactly reflect who we are and what we like.
TJ: Yeah. How was that transition for you personally? When, obviously, you built everything and you described it, literally from scratch and at a great personal cost or sacrifice.
EW: I ate a lot of pasta, but other than that there wasn’t that much sacrifice.
TJ: To transition from, you know, being the person that does it to letting someone else do it? And obviously, you know, in sales I think a lot of people that are fantastic sales people, they have a problem transitioning to being a sales manager or a manager of sales people. How was that for you and how did you make that happen for you?
EW: It was very easy for me. And I think that’s because of two things. One; because I hired really well. And whenever, I remember when I hired Bo Stehmeier to be our Head of Distribution, it was very easy to hand things to him and basically just spend time together. ’Cause we enjoyed spending time together, so it was a seamless transition. And the other reason is because I have three children. And when you have children, you’re used to passing through information. You’re used to raising children, you’re used to educating and you’re used to having fun sharing knowledge and having fun inspiring children. So if you have fun inspiring children, you should also have lots of fun inspiring sales people, which I do.
TJ: Interesting yeah. I’m a father of a three year-old now, and I understand what you’re saying, that, it’s the — it’s a great process to learn a lot about the world yourself.
EW: And how much fun it is train people, right. You’re training your daughter at life, and it’s great to train your execs at life.
TJ: Yeah, yeah. That’s true. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the actual content and a bit of the economies of factual programming. How would you explain this to someone who’s not in the industry and says, “What’s factual television? “And how does it all work?”
EW: Factual television is television within several different genres. I guess the most desirable one nowadays is the so-called feature documentary which is an 80 to 90-minute film about a big subject, that is theatrically released or it is on Apple or Netflix or maybe soon, Disney. That’s one genre; another genre would be what people call lifestyle programming and that is just everything about cooking, design… A lot of that is sort of reality, and it’s generally female-skewed. Then there’s another genre which is crime. Germany, I guess, loves crime documentaries.
“So the economics and distribution are that if you have a series that, that is what you call a good media property, which means more than three series times 12 or 13 episodes. That’s the quickest way to build a company, if you get one successful series. It’s a very quick way to build a company. One of the companies I used to work for, Alliance Atlantis, got one amazing property and that is they bought the first series ever of CSI.”
TJ: I think the US is huge.
EW: US, not so big anymore, but yeah, I guess.
TJ: It used to be.
EW: Yeah, it used to be huge.
TJ: Forensic Files,
EW: Yeah, Medical Detectives,
TJ: Medical Detectives.
EW: That’s how I made my money, actually. I was an agent for Medical Detectives.
TJ: Oh wow, okay.
EW: And I paid my bills with it, so I know all about medical and crime programming. The genres that I like the most are, natural history, history and science. And maybe those are the ones that sell for the lowest money or any kind of thing that people may have to say about that. But I think they’re fascinating because I’ve spent the last 25 years in continued education.
TJ: Yeah, yeah. I was about to say that in the library that there’s actual knowledge.
EW: It’s super, yeah. It’s super fun.
TJ: You mentioned Medical Detectives, just kind of coming back to the economics point. So someone makes the show, a broadcaster pays for it, there’s territories that are unsold and then your job was to sell on —
EW: To take the unsold territories and to maximize revenues by selling as many windows of that series as I could. Yeah. So the economics and distribution are that if you have a series that, that is what you call a good media property, which means more than three series times 12 or 13 episodes. That’s the quickest way to build a company, if you get one successful series. It’s a very quick way to build a company. One of the companies I used to work for, Alliance Atlantis, got one amazing property and that is they bought the first series ever of CSI.
TJ: Oh, wow.
EW: And that’s all they ever had to worry about from then on.
TJ: So is that, you mentioned you only have to have one. Is that because that continues to produce revenues, or because it makes it so much easier to sell the next one?
EW: It’s very fast to sell the next one.
EW: So, you’re not selling film by film, one hour by one hour, but you’re selling 12 and again 12 and again 12. So, television audiences are conservative viewers so they like, look at Game Thrones, right. They are conservative viewers, so they like to have series after series after series of something if it’s good. Same with series like House or, remember the old Discovery series in non-fiction, I’m just thinking one of the best-selling series ever was Mythbusters.
TJ: Oh yeah, of course.
EW: I don’t know how many 100 episodes there are of that. But if you have a property like that, and if as you set up your distribution company, you’re pretty much okay. You know, you can basically take the revenues from that and invest those revenues into acquiring more programming, broadening your library, or into your production business.
TJ: So basically the interesting thing or kind of the leverage you get is once you have one that works, it continues to, you know, be sold and I guess, if you look at linear television now there’s still some channels that have shows from, I don’t know, 10 years ago, people still love.
EW: They do. They still watch Magnum P.I. in Germany, right? We laugh about that so much! Americans can’t get over how funny that is.
TJ: And so, the other thing you mentioned, Netflix. Obviously kind of the rise of the streamers. How did that affect your job? Did it make it easier, harder? How did it change it?
EW: Well it changed my job considerably. First of all, it made it harder, because broadcasters started to cut budgets. They started to get really worried about migrating eyeballs. Audiences were migrating to Netflix, and they were migrating also, of course, to the web. So, broadcasters were very worried about losing advertising revenue, even before they started losing it. They have now definitely started losing it, but even before they started losing it they started to become very cautious. So it became harder to get a commission. They cut budgets. So that was the downside. The upside, however, was wonderful. And that is that Netflix in non-fiction proved to free TV broadcasters that audiences are not as conservative as they think. Audiences want to see conflict. Audience want to see real situations. Audiences don’t just wanna see the same old same old of how stable and fine everything is.
EW: So that was huge for us, it was really liberating. Also goes with the current climate around the world. It does. It does.
TJ: Would you say that whatever you kind of lost, so to say, in traditional broadcasting, you gained more than the loss in streaming revenue?
EW: We did, we did. We gained, I can’t say dollar for dollar, but we’re certainly producing much more interesting projects now for broadcasters as well as for the digitals. And digital revenue per hour is much lower, of course, but you can do more deals in the same territory. It’s not going to make up for the lost television revenues, but it’s slowly gonna get there.
TJ: Has the whole shift in the industry changed what kind of formats, so to say, are out there? Like less big, blue chip feature docs, but more, you know, documentary series?
“I think that it was my team. We became known as the sort of non-fiction company with really nice people in it. So people thought, “Why is it so much fun to talk to these sales people?” And then it’s because, “Well, these sales people sell interesting programs.” And we really enjoy what we do. So I think it was really the people, whenever we were approached. I guess the first I was approached was about 15 years ago, but all those conversation were about, ‘Wow, what a nice feeling the company has.’”
EW: I think it’s going more to series. I think something you’ll find with the pay channels, the pay platforms like National Geographic or Discovery, they find it very hard to come up with the marketing money for a one-hour special. They used to find that really easy. They really don’t like to do that, so they put their marketing dollars behind series. And quite bigger series than they used to. So they actually do more elaborate series. I think that they’ve gone with the trend of more zeitgeist. So, the way to go is either a very glossy, short, limited series, or really having something like, I don’t know if you the know the series, Storage Wars.
TJ: Mhmm, yeah, of course. But if you produce something like Storage Wars it just goes on and on and on and people… And then almost cost nothing to make.
EW: Well, who knows? I’m told that they’re actually not inexpensive.
TJ: Oh, interesting. What do you think is the driver of the cost there? ’Cause I mean, they don’t really have pricey actors.
EW: Well talent, if talent is as big as the talent on Storage Wars, they cost a lot.
TJ: Okay, interesting.
EW: Their agents drive tough bargains, I think. And they’re harder to edit than you think. They take time to edit.
TJ: You need to see, like watch a 100 hours to get down to the one hour.
EW: Well with a show it’s like that, you’ve got a very high shooting ratio, so you have to shoot and shoot and shoot. And then you have to really put it together in the best way possible.
TJ: Interesting. Since we’re talking about successful show, I was wondering, do you have an idea or kind of a recipe of what makes programs successful? Is there a common denominator from all the properties that kind of work, versus shows that don’t? Is there a secret ingredient that they all have, or?
EW: I think you need to show people something that they’ve never seen before, shot in way or with technology that’s never been used before. And if you do that in non-fiction I think you’re already part of the way. But, for us the key has always been a great story. Because especially now with the complete oversaturation we all have with, you know, the ability to consume media anywhere, on any device, I think you need to be moved. I think it needs to somehow speak to your heart. And if it doesn’t it’s hard to stick by a show like that.
TJ: Yeah. So there’s not one single thing that they all have in common. They just need to be delightful or delighting.
EW: Well, I think they need to move the audience, and they only move the audiences if they move you. So I think production is very personal. I think that as a producer you have to know what you stand for, you have to know what you like, and you have to feel passionate about what you’re making. And if you enjoy the images and you enjoy the process of putting together these images into a story, then you have the most… I think the most security possible that what you’re producing is gonna be successful. So it remains a very personal thing.
TJ: Yeah. Do you feel that if you have that, it’s more or less automatically gonna be successful in the market?
EW: No. No, that really depends on how much marketing money is being put behind it. And what slot it gets broadcast in. So I do feel that, you know, if there are, if any young producers are gonna listen to this podcast, nobody should feel dispirited because something wasn’t successful. Even something that was very good. Things can be overlooked, things can be programmed in the wrong way, or they can be programmed across or in competition with some major event that everybody watches, like some sports event. So, I don’t think you should ever take a bad performance of a show as a sign that what you did was bad.
TJ: If only the network executives would know that as well.
EW: Yeah. They have a completely different thing to deal with, and that is they don’t have job security. If you have your own company, you have job security. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. But, you know, if anybody pushes you out of the job, it’s you yourself. But if you’re an acquisitions or a commissions executive, you do not have job security and you’re only as good as your last show. And even if you produce shows that get good ratings, if there is a merger or an acquisition, you can get moved aside very quickly, or out.
TJ: The perfect keyword for the next question I have for you. Speaking of acquisition or a sale in this case. Obviously, congratulations to the deal.
EW: Thank you.
TJ: Tell us a little bit more about how that came about and how the process was for you as a entrepreneur? ’Cause in a way I guess it’s again, you’re letting go of one thing, integrating yourself into something different. Or am I wrong?
EW: True. Well, in the course of running Off The Fence, at one point I think we had eight offices in seven countries. We did all kinds of different forms of acquiring, producing and selling non-fiction television. During all those years, I had several discussions with people who wanted to acquire or merge or, you know, invest. And I didn’t feel that any of them were right, because I felt that the people across the table did not really want the same thing as I did. And I felt, again, you know, talk about dodging bullets. Many people I know made the company merge or sale anyway. And that does never, really doesn’t work out very well, generally. So, I felt in no rush, but I felt that I want to do more production of feature documentaries, and I wanted to start a digital platform. And I was going to really have a job that was no longer doable if I didn’t find a strong partner. ZDF Enterprises and Off The Fence are almost equally old. I think that ZDF Enterprises is only one year older than Off The Fence.
TJ: Interesting, yeah.
EW: So we’ve known each other from day one. We’ve had very similar experiences in the marketplace. Clearly they have had a different life because they are owned by a public broadcaster, so.
TJ: They have parents with deep pockets.
EW: They have parents with deep pockets. They have tremendous job security and a very good, I think a very balanced workspace. At the same time, I was always more of a vigilante, but I was always able to move very fast. And that ZDF Enterprises always saw as a big advantage. I had a trade advantage because I was always out there and all of our people at Off The Fence move very fast. So, we felt that that was complementary. We felt that the long relationship of having worked together, we’ve bought shows from each other, we’ve sold shows to each other, we’ve created slots and worked on slots together, so we’ve done so many things. We’ve done co-productions, we’ve done so many things that we felt really safe. And we know, you know, we know each other. We know who we’re getting involved with. And we share values.
TJ: Yeah, I think if you look at these deals, it’s always interesting to hear how long, actually, something has been going on in the sense of, you know, getting to know the other side or working with them, as you said, for quite a while. So the other investors that you were speaking with, were they more financial investors that were interested in just owning part of the company?
EW: It was really, it’s a wide range of people. Everybody I speak to normally wants something slightly different. And then it’s very good to step back and say, “Well that all sounds very nice, “but what do I want?” And very often, the media world is fast and you very rarely have time to figure out what you want, because you’re just trying to get the next commission, or you’re trying to get, you know, or you’re restructuring or someone’s, you know, having a baby or something else is happening. So you very rarely have time to step back. But this is the time to step back. When someone speaks to you about, “I’d like to invest in your company,” or “I’d like to buy 50% or 70% or 100%.” That’s when you have to step back and think, “What do I want?” It’s all great to hear on the other side.
TJ: It’s like a marriage, so yeah . You may wanna have a think about it beforehand.
EW: Yeah, you have to think very carefully about it beforehand. Is this gonna be good for me, yeah.
“Audiences were migrating to Netflix, and they were migrating also, of course, to the web. So, broadcasters were very worried about losing advertising revenue, even before they started losing it. They have now definitely started losing it, but even before they started losing it they started to become very cautious. So it became harder to get a commission. They cut budgets. So that was the downside. The upside, however, was wonderful. And that is that Netflix in non-fiction proved to free TV broadcasters that audiences are not as conservative as they think. Audiences want to see conflict. Audience want to see real situations. Audiences don’t just wanna see the same old same old of how stable and fine everything is.”
TJ: When did you start getting the first offers or interest? Kind of that point that you start that a company, what were some of the moments that you feel, like looking back now, that that was a trigger for people to approach you? Was it big announcements of shows, or? I mean, ’cause you’re a private company, nobody knows how well you’re doing or not.
TJ: As you said, it’s all a matter of kind of perception at the market, you know. If you have a big stand, “Oh they must be doing well!” But then you hear, like nine months later they’re filing for bankruptcy. So how —
EW: Never trust a big stand!
TJ: Exactly! Or a conference that nobody attends anymore.
TJ: So, what was, what was the trigger you think, for someone to approach you? For investment?
EW: I think that it was my team. We became known as the sort of non-fiction company with really nice people in it. So people thought, “Why is it so much fun to talk to these sales people?” And then it’s because, “Well, these sales people sell interesting programs.” And we really enjoy what we do. So I think it was really the people, whenever we were approached. I guess the first I was approached was about 15 years ago, but all those conversation were about, “Wow, what a nice feeling the company has.”
TJ: When it goes from, “Something must be wrong there, it’s way too much fun,” to “Oh, they’re actually all very fun to be around.”
EW: But not too fun, right! They’re not up til six in the morning. Even though sometimes they are, I’m not. But no, I think that it’s clear that the company has people and we have an ethos, around caring about what we do, caring what is in our films, and caring about what’s happening in the world.
TJ: Yeah. So, for the process of selling the company, when you look back on it now, what are kind of some of the lessons I guess you learned, or things — knowing what you now know, what would you do exactly the same way or what would you do differently?
EW: I think I should’ve. I mean, and this is a very should’ve, could’ve, But, when I was young, I experimented with different genres and different ways of producing and different partners. And I think when I think back, if I’d trusted myself more, I would’ve been able to do the same thing with fewer mistakes.
TJ: And in terms of selling the company? I mean there’s, my background’s in investment banking, so obviously there’s a million technical questions. But, usually one of the things that holds a deal up is talks about valuation, the exact terms, ’cause obviously you’re staying on at least for some time or maybe indefinitely. How was that process for you and obviously, you know, you’re an extremely successful entrepreneur for such a long time, but I’m pretty sure there were things you hadn’t encountered before, or you got outside counsel. How was that process for you and how did you kind of navigate it?
“The process itself took two years, but that’s because ZDF Enterprises needed to learn what was in a 25 year-old company. And while I remember most of the things I’ve done, I don’t remember 25 years of it. So, it took a very, very long time for them to get through all of the information that we had to supply. But luckily, we had it all. And again, when you sign then you also feel very sure that they know everything they need to know about you. And that you’re not going to have some stressful awakening six months after the deal.”
EW: We really spoke about the terms upfront. And something I said upfront is that I don’t believe in half-half. I don’t believe in 70–30. I think you either wanna control your company or you don’t. If you wanna control your company and you’d like an investor, then you sell less than 50%. Or if you need someone to actually come on board as a partner and you actually want to cross-pollinate, then you might as well sell a 100%. So the first thing I said was, “I’ve thought about this for a long time and if I sell, “I’d like a partner with whom I can share “information but also share strategy.” And one plus one makes three, that’s what I’m looking for. And in exchange for that I’d like to sell a 100% of the company. So I was very upfront about that. And, you know, ZDF Enterprises were very upfront about the method they use which is discounted cash flow. This is how we, you know, calculate the value of the company. And I had accountants with whom I discussed this and everybody said, “Well that sounds like a very good way to me, “nothing fancy, no crazy multiples of EBITDA “or very low multiples of EBITDA.” Those things are really not very stable, in my opinion. And I wanted a sale that both parties would be happy with for a very long time.
TJ: So was it almost like a napkin deal, that you quickly came to the terms that you wanted?
EW: I think it kinda was. It’s because we first talked about what we wanted. We spoke about what they wanted and they spoke to me about what I wanted. Once we saw how well matched that was, I don’t think that doing the actual deal was very difficult.
EW: You did have a long process. The process itself took two years, but that’s because ZDF Enterprises needed to learn what was in a 25 year-old company. And while I remember most of the things I’ve done, I don’t remember 25 years of it. So, it took a very, very long time for them to get through all of the information that we had to supply. But luckily, we had it all. And again, when you sign then you also feel very sure that they know everything they need to know about you. And that you’re not going to have some stressful awakening six months after the deal.
TJ: No skeletons.
EW: No skeletons, exactly.
TJ: And due diligence always takes forever.
EW: It does.
TJ: And if you’re not doing it yourself, then people always ask, “Why does this take so long?” And you know, I guess the short answer is ’cause you’re looking for things that might be there, but you know.
EW: And because if the deal was with a German company, you had one accounting company in the Netherlands speaking to another accounting company in Germany, negotiating with the accounting company that was doing the deal for me, which was KPMG. So, there’s a lot of that.
EW: Lots of vacations.
TJ: So, you said it took about two years from initial conversation to closing?
TJ: How did it feel for you afterwards when you signed? Did you feel different, or was there a moment of like, “Ha, this just happened.”
EW: I wasn’t even there at the signing because I already had, I already invited two of my colleagues from ZDF Enterprises to fly to South Africa with me, so. We were working on a big project so my job went straight through. I was so well prepared for the sale that, and I think they were so well prepared for the sale, that it didn’t really make a big difference. And to this day I don’t think it makes a big difference in my day job. I enjoy being able to speak to my colleagues at ZDF Enterprises. That’s something really nice in that when you’re really panicked because you have to make a decision, and you really don’t know what to decide, suddenly there’s someone you can call. To say, “What do you think? “These are the odds, “this is the pro, “this is the con.” What do you, you know, “What would you do?” I think that is a really big plus. And we are, other than that, our reporting is very good so reporting wise it’s not that different. It’s not that different.
TJ: That would’ve been my next question. How does it feel now to have a boss again? Or someone that you need to report to?
EW: Good, good. Because Fred Burcksen is my boss. He’s a very good boss. I also work for Karoline Meichsner-Sertl. She’s the —
TJ: Germans and their long names, huh?
“I like very much being the bridge between what is happening in the field and the eyeballs in front of whatever screen. So that is, that is happening naturally. The other thing that I do is I’m the Chairperson of the Jackson Wild Film Festival. So, that means we are all about awarding people special accolades if they make great films, but we’re also about bringing together organizations, NGOs, with filmmakers to get new films made. To get projects off the ground that are relevant and that are important for people to know about.”
EW: Yeah, but she does a lot of the operational things at ZDF Enterprises. Again, a good person to talk to, to run things by. Complementary skill set so very, very useful. And Ralf Ruckauer is my co-CEO, who also has quite a complementary skill set. So we work together very well. I really enjoy his kind of thinking through the decisions that I’m trying to make, and weighing in on, you know, what he and I should do.
TJ: Yeah. So, obviously it’s a personal question, but with the wealth that you amassed now, what island are you gonna buy?
EW: Well, it changes really nothing and it’s nothing to really, it’s not gonna buy an island, I promise you.
TJ: But is there something you kind of always dreamt of doing and obviously when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re building a company, there’s like, for a lot of people there’s something they’re kind of quietly, secretly working towards, you know, that they wanna do. Was there something for you that kept you going?
EW: Well there’s something that’s been evolving within my work this whole time, and that is, because I’ve been in environmental film making for so long, I’ve been increasing the amount of work I do with NGOs. And I really, really like working more deeply in the field, I like working with scientists. I just got back from a conference at the Vatican, where the progressive part of the Catholic Church met about the violence in the Amazon forests, and what to do to mitigate the violence that is being mounted by Bolsonaro as well as the related industries that are planning to turn the Amazon forest into a savanna. I like very much being involved with these organizations. I like very much helping them communicate.
EW: I like very much being the bridge between what is happening in the field and the eyeballs in front of whatever screen. So that is, that is happening naturally. The other thing that I do is I’m the Chairperson of the Jackson Wild Film Festival. So, that means we are all about awarding people special accolades if they make great films, but we’re also about bringing together organizations, NGOs, with filmmakers to get new films made. To get projects off the ground that are relevant and that are important for people to know about. So, that’s not gonna change, that’s only going to get more so, because of our WaterBear SVOD Network which does the same. So I have my plan, actually the entire rest of my career is sort of already mapped out. That’s really what I love to do. And what you call cross-tribal, I’m enjoying not only speaking to media people, but I’m enjoying speaking to CEOs of large manufacturing companies, heads of you know, churches, heads of large NGOs, people who conserve a certain species, or scientists who are working on the latest nuclear reactors. I find that fascinating.
TJ: Yeah. So how do you, with all these things, how do you, you know, split your time between them or prevent one thing taking over another important thing? How do you balance that?
EW: I think that’s instinct and you’re right to make that point because you need a lot of self discipline not to lose yourself in a project that might never get financed, or a project that, you know, is so heartbreaking that you get involved too deeply in it and you forget to run the business. So, sales first, co-production second, work for the heart third.
TJ: So that’s what you think about every morning when you feed the animals, you go through what do I wanna do today? That’s the, what’s the —
EW: Yeah, I think, “What is important today?” And I also think when I look at my, when I think about urgency. I always ask myself, “Urgent for whom?” Urgent for the person asking me for something or urgent for me? Urgent for the company, when I say me I mean the company, right. I still think me and the company, so I haven’t really recovered from the sale yet. It’s all under me!
TJ: So, what do you then in the evening? What’s your evening ritual to kind of unwind? ’Cause obviously, you know, as an entrepreneur you can work 24/7.
EW: That’s true.
TJ: You can work 25/8/400
EW: That’s true, and I do work very long hours. And I often work 24/7. But I like to walk and I live by the beach on the North Sea. So a very nice thing to do is to go with my animals into the dunes and then walk by the sea. Or do all the social things, because my children and my partner and I, we do lots of family things together, so. A family is and always will be a real fountain for renewal for any entrepreneur. So it gives me a lot of energy to do things with my family.
TJ: How do you focus on them when you’re doing something with them and not let your mind go haywire on like, “Oh, there’s still this and this to do.” How did you solve that for yourself? Have you solved it?
EW: I have solved it. I know the feeling that of being so distracted with work that you may be at home, celebrating Easter with your children, but you’re not really there. You’re just there physically plopped on a chair. I remember that when I was a young mother in my early 30s how hard it was for me to just not feel present. The only recommendation I have for that is meditation. If you learn how to meditate and you really do it, then you understand presence. And then you need to know, “Wherever I am, whatever I do, “I’m here now.” And then you’re able to compartmentalize, then you can say, “Okay, right now I’m painting Easter eggs,” or in Germany you make an Easter nest for your little children. I am going to make this Easter nest.
TJ: Something I have to still learn.
EW: And you have to make the Easter nest with the absolute same amount of energy and conviction as making a deal, developing a script, having a meeting. It has to be the same passion.
TJ: You just mentioned being a young mother. If you had a chance to meet 20 year-old Ellen, what would you tell her?
EW: I would tell her, “You’re a lot more solid than you think. “Trust yourself.”
TJ: Interesting. Why do you think, so the funny thing is that from everyone I’ve spoken to so far, that is usually the number one answer. You know, trust yourself more. Why do you think that, is that just something that comes with experience, that you kind of intrinsically trust yourself more ’cause you have more proof? ’Cause as a young person you’d be so much more effective if you just —
EW: You would if you trusted yourself! If you said, my father was German, my mother’s American. I grew up between two cultures, I was never quite sure where I belonged. And so I always had trouble trusting myself, because I thought, “Is this appropriate? “Is this the right way to go?” And I think people that are more grounded, that come from one place and that are very, very grounded in that one place, I came from many places. But if you came from one place then it’s easier to be grounded and I think it’s easier to trust yourself more. But if you’re curious like me and you’re multi-cultural and you’ve traveled all over the world and you’ve lived everywhere, then you suddenly realize when you’re very young, anything’s possible. And I realized that when I was about 16 or 17. And from then on, you have to kind of wade through the dust of all that confusion to say, “Well, you know, “you don’t really need a place to ground you. “You just need you to ground you.” So it just took me time to get to know myself well enough. To trust myself.
TJ: Is there something else you would tell her?
EW: Don’t worry so much! That’s probably your number two answer as well from everybody.
TJ: That’s, yeah, you’re right. That’s the number two answer.
EW: Don’t worry so much. I lost so much sleep. And young entrepreneurs lose so much sleep because they’re so worried that what they’re doing is not going to pan out.
TJ: On the other hand you can make the argument, if you hadn’t worried about it so much, maybe then some of the results would be different.
EW: I think that, again, if you pace your worrying, I think you should pace your worrying. You can say, “I’m gonna take, I’m looking at my watch, “I’m gonna take an hour “and I’m gonna really worry. “I’m gonna write down all the things I’m worried about.” And then, I’m going to go build an Easter nest for my daughter. That would’ve worked a lot better for me.
TJ: You just mentioned the multi-cultural background. Obviously you studied in the US. Now we’re here in Amsterdam where you’ve been for quite a while. I think my question is two-fold; one is how come you settled here? And then other would be do you feel that there is some sort of advantage of being in Amsterdam? Or being in the Netherlands? What’s your take on that?
EW: There’s two reasons. I settled here because I had a job that took me here. But once I settled, I realized that it is this perfect place to live if you’re close to the UK, close to the US and close to Germany in culture. Somehow all three cultures are present in this Dutch culture and I would say, when I mean Dutch culture, I’d say Amsterdam is a different atmosphere from the rest of the Netherlands. So I found myself to be —
TJ: I lived seven years in the south.
EW: Oh, okay. Different, different. But Amsterdam is, it’ll remind you a little bit of Greenwich Village, it’s a little bit like Venice in L.A. It reminds you a bit of Cape Town and it’s definitely a bit like Berlin.
TJ: It’s a bit of Mayfair here and there.
EW: May be, well, yeah but you know, I’d say Camden. So parts of London or Holland Park. So you see how familiar that all is and then you’ve got it all rolled up into this Amsterdam. And then you think, “This is actually very pleasant.” So that’s one reason, there is this incredible recognition, you know, this sort of, “Oh, I recognize so much.” That’s a really nice thing. I also feel held by a city with lots of history. I was in Rome last week and I feel really held when I’m in Rome. I feel so relaxed and happy, because so many buildings just tell you so much about what’s already happened there, and Amsterdam does that too. So I like it very much for that. Economic reasons are wonderful regulation about withholding tax. That makes it a lot easier for you to cash flow your distribution company. And a very good tax incentive for employees. You can get, it used to be, I think it’s only five years now, but you used to get your first 10 years of wages, you used to get the first 30% tax free. So it was a wonderful tax regulation to attract good people. And that’s again where, that’s why there are lots of good people here.
TJ: Yeah, yeah. Well perfect, I think that’s a perfect place to wrap it up. Again, thank you so much for your time and the insights.
EW: Super, thank you.
TJ: And I’m looking forward to speaking with you next time.
EW: Wonderful, thank you.
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Special thanks to everyone at Off The Fence, especially Diana Ketelaars and Loren Syer-Willoughby, for helping to make this conversation happen.
Special thanks for their creative review go to Anouk van Ghemen, Frederik Jaeger, and Philipp Hoffmann.
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ABOUT MEDIA CFO
Media CFO focuses on the finance, strategy, business affairs, and legal side of the global media & entertainment industry. The guests on the podcast range from veteran studio executives to new, disruptive market entrants.
MEDIA CFO takes a look under the hood of the global entertainment industry and talks to the unsung heroes: dealmakers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, financiers, service providers, bankers, investors, and agents. The podcast offers unique insights into the daily work and life of those, who run and build this industry by visiting them on location and having in-depth, in-person conversations.
ABOUT TOBIAS JAEGER
Tobias started his first own firm during his studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and has lived, worked, visited, and studied in over 43 countries on 4 continents. Tobias loves to connect people from around the World to make great things happen. Previously, he has done so at Business Associates Europe, SAP AG, StrategosPoker, Aramark, and entrepreneur academy. Today he is a Managing Partner of AXIOM Venture Capital, a family office focussed on the media & entertainment industry and Tobias serves as the Chief Financial Officer of London-based television and content studio Colibri Studios.
The conversation was originally recorded in Amsterdam in May 2019.
© 2019, Colibri Studios of London