Big Think’s CEO on how Big Think got built
Building Big Think from little more than an idea to 30 million monthly visitors, co-founder Victoria Rachel Montgomery-Brown knows something about being an entrepreneur. Her idea, together with co-founder Peter Hopkins, was that online video could have a tremendous educational impact as a platform from which experts could share their knowledge. In this interview from Bloomberg News headquarters, Victoria talks about her experiences developing and managing Big Think, and about thriving in business as a woman. Below is an edited transcript of her conversation with Bloomberg’s Marty Schenker.
MS: It’s sort of fitting that we record this little exchange here at a place where we first met when you were working for Charlie Rose.
VB: That’s right.
MS: And I think, to a certain extent, that must have formed some genesis of what later became Big Think.
VB: Absolutely, essentially at the time we started Big Think, YouTube was just coming to the fore. We saw a dearth of thoughtful content on the internet and realized, having looked at what Charlie was doing, that there was an opportunity to get experts to basically share their wisdom in ways that could be compelling on the internet versus just on television, because what he did was extraordinary. But it involved basically a personality. And we figured that people wanted to learn from the experts themselves — and not about necessarily opinion, but actionable knowledge and things that carried into the future. So it wasn’t about a moment in time. So for instance, if we had Larry Summers on, it wouldn’t be about what’s happening in the economy today or tomorrow. It’s about how do you make a difficult decision, something that he has a unique ability to share with you or me that we can put into our own work or life.
MS: And also, it didn’t have the interference of a moderator getting in the way of the information, right?
VB: Exactly, so we film with somebody like you’re doing with me, interviewing. But that person is edited out. And we don’t even capture them on film. We use an Interrotron style, where the interviewee is looking at the interviewer. And the interviewee is being captured on film, but they’re looking directly at the interviewer.
MS: So, not to make this too introspective, but why don’t you tell me where you were born, where you went to school, and how you developed your professional life?
VB: OK, well. I grew up and was born in Toronto. As you know, my dad is American. My mom was Irish. So I grew up in kind of all three places. I went to college at McGill University. I’m skipping my childhood because that part’s kind of boring.
MS: No, that’s OK.
VB: And then I moved to LA and worked in film, on the business side of film, for two years. And then I went to Harvard Business School. And then after business school, I graduated in 2003, I came to work in the same building as you. And two years into working at Charlie Rose, I saw an opportunity with all of this video on the internet popping up to create something that we said would have significance, relevance, and actionability, so not cat videos or what have you.
VB: And we went to try and get investment for it. And the lead investor was a classmate of mine from business school. And he basically said, I need to know that you can actually do this, because it’s all well and good to say that you’ve worked at Charlie Rose. And he can book people. But how do you know that you can? And so the other founder of Big Think and I, Peter Hopkins, identified about five people. And we got them to agree to an interview. We didn’t have any equipment or anything. But in theory, they would do it if we got funded. Some of the five included were Larry Summers, who ended up being an investor in Big Think, Richard Branson, and Robert Thurman.
MS: It’s funny, just to talk about myself for a second, when I was at the Wall Street Journal, we started the Dow Jones Investor Network. We had a similar challenge to get people to come onto this non-existent network. And the first person who agreed to do an interview was this crazy economist at Bear Stearns named Larry Kudlow.
VB: Oh, really?
MS: So it takes out-of-the-mainstream thinkers to agree to do something like that.
VB: It really does. And I think something that has compelled people to be on Big Think is our mission. We’re mission-driven, all about knowledge and education. So it’s not about news or anything like that. I think that’s why people are willing to come on. If we had said to Larry, you’re coming on to talk about the economy or something…
MS: He wouldn’t have done it.
VB: Yeah, “I have Bloomberg. I have many other outlets to do that on.”
MS: Mhmm, so in those early days of Big Think, what were the greatest challenges?
VB: The biggest challenge was figuring out what to do, in what order. And as somebody said to me recently, how did you know what to do? It’s like, you don’t. You just jump in and start and figure it out as you go. But creating a plan is not really what you can do as an entrepreneur, because other things crop up. For me, one of the most difficult early challenges was I’d never been in a management position. And suddenly, I was the CEO. So identifying talent, figuring out how to work with people in a way that I wasn’t the employee being told what to do, essentially. I found that to be the hardest.
And turnover is big because we work with a lot of millennials.
MS: I’ve heard about them.
VB: Yes, [LAUGHS] there’s often a two-year max. And that’s long for them. And so just as people are coming up to speed, they’re out the door.
MS: You lose them, right.
VB: So that’s a big challenge.
MS: Is it a particular challenge to be a woman entrepreneur, do you think?
VB: People ask me that all the time. And I think there are advantages and disadvantages. When I started, it was way before the #MeToo movement, like 12 years ago. And so there might have been a little hesitation from partners. But there was also intrigue because, I think, people are by and large good, and want to give opportunities to people and backgrounds that haven’t heretofore had the same opportunities. So I think it could have been an advantage as well.
As a disadvantage, in certain ways… I’m trying to think how it could have been a disadvantage. I would have never heard what they might have said about me. [LAUGHS]
MS: After it’s over.
MS: OK, so in terms of one of the great assets that I think Big Think has is its ability to allow people to impart wisdom in an unfiltered way to an audience that’s interested. Do you think that there is a viable market for that kind of long form, in-depth, intellectually rigorous content that can create a business model that works?
VB: Yes, we do long-form filming. But the release is short-form. So if somebody comes into the studio, we tape them maybe for 45 minutes or an hour. But we get five to seven clips out of them, between three and seven minutes.
MS: Is that a scientifically derived length of time or just instinctive?
VB: We thought about it early on. We started off a little bit longer, but now it’s between three and six minutes, by and large. But yeah, we saw that there was a viable business opportunity. Our audience has grown organically to around 30 million people a month.
MS: That’s a large number. Are there avenues for Big Think content that are outside of what you’re doing now that you think have potential, for instance, in learning?
VB: I do.
MS: How does that work?
VB: So as you know, we have a business model of B2B as well, basically learning and development content — with no overlap on the public side — that we license into organizations on a soft skills-type basis: leadership, purpose, talent, difficult conversations. We have over 1,000 lessons. And so that’s a corporate subscription model. And now we are about to launch our B2C model where we make that content available to individual consumers.
MS: So in terms of what resonates with people who go to Big Think, what are your most popular videos or individuals or subject matters?
VB: As far as subject matter, surprising science, technology. People love that stuff. Even culture and religion, wellness-type content. On the business side, leadership is obviously huge, diversity and inclusion, difficult conversations, negotiation. Things like that are very popular. John Cleese was on about two years ago. He’s one of our most popular people. We’ve had everybody from Elon Musk to Barbara Corcoran. She’s probably very popular here [at Bloomberg].
MS: Oh, she is.
VB: And thousands of others. I forget. Sometimes I’m looking at our library and I forget these people were on.
MS: And do people actually pitch themselves to you now?
VB: They do. So I don’t know the exact number. But I would say at least half of the people we book, probably more, are pitched to us, which is great.
MS: That’s fantastic.
VB: The really difficult people for us to get, like the Oprahs of the world, you have to work hard.
MS: Yeah, do you ever reject people?
VB: Yes, we don’t want people on that we know will only be political. And they have to have the desire to help people be better.
MS: That’s fundamental.
MS: And with the 2020 election coming up, do you think that it will be more difficult to keep that political stuff off?
VB: No, because we did…One of the ways that we got a whole bunch of people before we launched was, in 2007, we went to Roll Call and some of the other major newspapers in key states. And we partnered with them and got people like Mitt Romney. We didn’t exist at that point. But even with him, it was not about the election. It was about what he could teach about…
VB: …leadership, yeah.
MS: So it’s Women’s History Month, and I’m curious whether you have advice for women wanting to start their own business?
VB: I think you have to behave the same as anybody in business. It takes the same challenges. That’s it.
MS: Yeah, but I do think that maybe that’s something you can tell women, you know, don’t think of yourself as a woman.
MS: Just think of yourself as a…
VB: Business person.
MS: …a business person.
VB: And then an entrepreneur, yeah. One of the challenges today, I am understanding, especially in the finance world, is that men are unwilling to spend time alone with women. And that’s a big detriment because…
MS: That’s in the last year, right?
VB: Yes, because women…Everybody requires some type of socializing to advance in their career. And so I think women need to be as professional as possible, but make themselves available for these meetings and things in a non-aggressive way. I certainly wouldn’t sit down with a woman if I were a man if I thought that she was looking for ways to see if I was doing something wrong, or what have you.
MS: Right, but at the same time, I think it’s more the opposite that’s the issue. It’s that men feel that they’ll be perceived as seeking something other than a business relationship by just asking a woman to have a drink.
VB: Exactly, and what I said before, kind of resonates back to the beginning: By and large, people are good. And the sort of bad apples are few and far between. And so women should just operate as though they are one of the norm, not an outlier.
MS: Yeah, I must say, with all the #MeToo controversy, I’ve been in this business for almost 40 years. And it’s nice to be feeling very confident that nothing is going to happen because I’ve conducted myself in a professional manner always. And the vast majority of my colleagues have done that, too. So there is actually a payback for that in this era.
VB: And the fact is, what it’s nice to know is that, to your point, it’s normal. It is…
MS: It’s pretty normal.
VB: …abnormal for the other, yeah.
MS: So why don’t we just wrap up here and just let me ask you, how would you define success for yourself?
VB: Going after the ideas that I want to see realized. I think just having the gumption to go for it and not being held back by fear. Somebody said to me — I now forget what the exact word was — but whenever negative things enter your mind, and I am privy to tons of negative things, say, “Not this.” It’s just getting those negative thoughts out of your mind. So even in the face of hardship, for me, success is going after what I want in a way that is not detrimental to others.
MS: Excellent. Well, Victoria, onward and upward.
VB: Thank you, Marty.