Tuesday, November 18, 2014

SLUSH Tech Conference in Helsinki -- Highlights & The Hottest Start-Ups (Sauna Hot!)

SLUSH -- the preeminent Eurasian tech conference now in full swing in Helsinki, Finland -- remains “under the radar” to most in the U.S. tech industry.  But, that certainly is not the case in the European and Northern Asian tech worlds.  At least not anymore.  Right now, I am in the midst of my first SLUSH -- wearing multiple hats.  As an advisor and connector (“Bridge to Hollywood," “Bridge to U.S. tech” via Manatt Digital Media - a business consulting, connecting, and legal services firm).  Investor (via the Manatt Venture Fund).  And journalist (both this blog and as a regular contributor to leading U.S. digital video publication VideoInk).  These are my observations after my initial 1.5 days (events that began Monday evening -- including one memorable affair I attended that was hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, who happily coaxed several U.S. VCs and me to an authentic Finnish sauna party, complete with our absolutely authentic -- and unforgettable -- immersion into the 35 degree Fahrenheit Baltic Sea (about 2 degrees Celsius).  When I received that invitation, I knew that this was something I just had to do.  Proudly did it.  And have the pictures to prove it!  (see below -- that’s me pictured after my final submersion into the Baltic and then warming up with the others in official U.S. embassy robes).

But, I digress.  First, a little about SLUSH.  The conference began in 2008 with just a few hundred.  Last year, the numbers grew to 7,000.  And, that number exploded 2X this year to 14,000.  So much so, that SLUSH this year has a new home that certainly now feels much larger than that.  Think of SLUSH as IBC’s or CES’s little brother that is growing up fast.  Now delegates from 79 countries attend -- although English is spoken everywhere and by everyone.  That makes communication efficient -- to match the event’s European precision.  (As an aside, it continues to amaze me how excellent everyone’s English is and how, unlike Americans, many Europeans master multiple languages).  One more thing, SLUSH -- as a major tech event -- makes absolute sense here in Helsinki.  26% of all privately-held company exits in Europe flowed from the Nordic regions in the past several years.  Finland and Sweden are homes to major innovation, particularly in the gaming and mobile worlds.  Game start-ups are everywhere.

Some more about SLUSH.  Why that name?  It’s the Finnish sense of humor (shared by Finnish entrepreneurs like the founders of digital media/photo contest company Lovented, pictured on the left).  While U.S. conferences frequently tout un-ending sunshine, SLUSH’s founding fathers here celebrate the cold, as well as that namesake frequent and terribly uncomfortable condition of freezing wet rain (although not this year).  Let’s also not forget Finland’s long dark nights this time of year.  The SLUSH venue mirrors and celebrates that darkness inside -- all windows and skylights are covered.  No light inside here, once we enter the venue beneath a sign -- visible in the photo above -- that reads “This Is Not The Event You’re Looking For” (a sign which is an homage to Star Wars that was lost on me until someone with droid expertise explained it to me).  Inside, we are engulfed by the darkness and overall vibe of a night-club instead, complete with lasers darting here, there, everywhere -- and with full-size and fully-nude pictures of men and women adorning the venue’s restrooms (I am not kidding -- see below the slightly more subtle version outside restroom doors which, I assure you, are followed with no subtlety on the pictures inside those restrooms).  Hey, we’re here in Europe baby!  Loosen up!  This is the birthplace and home of EDM after all!

And, that’s how the event kicked off yesterday.  DJ on stage.  Frenetic video montage behind (just watch this video below).  Steam blasting into the crowd.  This ain’t your father’s CES.

Then, how about this for juxtaposition?  From DJ to the Prime Minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, who welcomed attendees with four themes that he believes define the Finnish people -- and the reason for continuous Finnish entrepreneurial success.  One, the Finnish commitment to dream.  Two, to believe.  Three, to work hard.  And four, the Finn's passion to succeed.  He voiced that his dream for SLUSH -- which is absolutely shared by its ambitious founders -- is to become THE pre-eminent tech start-up event in the world.  From what I have seen thus far, they might just pull it off one day.  750 venture firms now attend.  And, Finland’s geographic location -- although very north and frequently very cold (although no snow this year) -- makes it convenient for most in the world (with the exception of those of us on the U.S. West Coast).

China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang (pictured up top) followed the Prime Minister’s opening words and predictably and dutifully touted his country’s entrepreneurial growth and success.  He reported 3 million new private companies in China in the first 10 months of this year alone -- up 53% from the same time last year.  He further underscored that “China is committed to opening up and learning from other countries” -- and that “Finland is a model of innovation.”

Indeed Finland is.

As I mention above, Finland tech is primarily known for two major areas -- (1) mobile (remember the Nokia of a few years back?), and (2) mobile games and game development (Rovio and Supercell, both of which are very much giants of the here and now -- and the latter of which served as host of night one’s mega-party with a cast of thousands).  And, those themes were evident everywhere.  Digital video and music (two other significant areas of my focus) not so much, although Spotify and SoundCloud put this region front and center outside of the gaming world as well.

Some notable digital media tech start-up companies to watch closely-- based on “insiders” here in Finland (top tech press and godfathers of the tech industry whom I have come to know) include: (1) Small Giant (which has raised well over $4 million dollars and whom some call the “hottest” games company in Finland right now, which is no small feat); (2) Seriously, another mobile game developer that has already attracted significant U.S. West Coast capital; (3) PlayRaven, yet another game developer (including the strategy game Spymaster); (4) Kiosked, an ad-tech company I know well that has raised over $15 million from blue chip investors, including the Chairman of Rovio; and (5) Sharetribe, a company in the “share economy” milieu that facilitates peer-to-peer rentals, among other things.  I met with some of these and many many more throughout the day and night who share the Prime Minister’s dreams (including serial and extremely successful Finn entrepreneur Juhana Kotilainen who teased a new game company that launches soon -- be sure to watch than one closely when it does -- and the "Bulldozer” himself, Pekka Viljikainen, who is a force of nature in his own right).  Exhausting (yes, jet lag kicked in today -- and I write this at 3 am).  But invigorating at the same time.  I am particularly grateful to well-known and highly-esteemed Finnish tech leader Micke Paqvalen for all of his time and introductions during the event -- he is a rock star who knows everybody and made me feel right at home.  Special thanks also to Finnish tech legend Tero Ojanpera who also offered his sage insights.

SLUSH 2014.  I am impressed.  Very.  Speakers are elite.  Event production is top notch.

Let’s just hope that SLUSH’s ambitions of growth do not become fully realized.  While ambition is good.  Size does matter.  And, sometimes smaller is better.  There is no need for another gargantuan CES or IBC-like conference.

SLUSH.  You are just “right.”  

SLUSH.  Glad to have met you.  Glad to see, feel and recognize the global innovation that happens here in the Nordic region -- and is celebrated by investors and attendees from all over the world.

Don’t go changin’ too much ... you have a very good thing going.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Why MITA TechTalks Matter

Remember Corona Beer’s memorable advertising slogan “Change you Latitude?"  Well, it was particularly apt for the MITA TechTalks conference that just concluded in Punta Mita, Mexico.  Leading media, digital media and tech companies – including Samsung, Netflix, PayPal and Cinepolis (more on this global Mexican-based company below) – gathered together for 2.5 days in this beautiful beach resort town.  We too at Manatt (both Manatt Digital Media and our Mexican-focused business strategy arm ManattJones Global Strategies) participated and sponsored the event.  I spoke about the mobile-fueled global transformation of the media and entertainment business (and how Mexico’s demographics are ripe for companies to seize that transformation -- click here to watch the “What Is Digital Media 2014?” video I showcased at the beginning of my talk).

Think of MITA TechTalks as being a cross between Paul Allen’s Sun Valley conference and TED -- but in Mexico instead.   The focus is on Mexico and Latin American business opportunities and investment.  And, although it is early in its life (this is MITA's 4th year), the event delivered and was covered by the likes of Forbes and El Financiero (the Wall Street Journal of Mexico).  And, while the conference’s beautiful surroundings were dampened by the rains throughout (okay, more like drenched ... as one presenter said about a very different topic, “am just sayin’”), those conditions surprisingly achieved the counter-intuitive effect of bringing the 125+ or so attendees even closer.

Yes, the event’s content was great.  Speakers were impressive (it was one of the first event’s I have ever attended where speaker after speaker captured my interest).  But, that was nearly secondary to the bonding that took place amongst participants at this rare event in another land where breakfasts, lunches and dinners were shared for multiple days and with a select number of invitees.  You see, there is no place to hide at smaller events like these – and that is the point.  Those who attend self-select – and that leads to much deeper relationship-building than is possible at virtually any other media and technology conference.  Almost like summer camp.  I met great, talented people.  Was inspired by many.  And, will most definitely do business with several of them.

Then you add the international overlay to the event.  Traveling outside borders.  Outside of the U.S.-centric media and tech industries.  That international perspective alone made it worthwhile.  We too infrequently take the time to make such effort (it means a few days off the grid, after all).  But, it is important – dare I say, critical? – to get other perspectives.  Learn about other lands.  Hear about successful entrepreneurs and innovation that take place elsewhere -- outside of the U.S.  Because those entrepreneurs and that innovation most certainly do. 

Case in point, Cinepolis (the media company I mention above).  Cinepolis is a company that is near and dear to me and my family in San Diego.  It is a luxury theater chain at which we attend most of our movies and that has re-imagined the theater-going experience.  Until last week, I had no idea that Cinepolis was a Mexican-based privately-held company that has been in the game for 42 years and is the 4th largest theater chain in the world.  Now I do.  And, at MITA, I met its energetic and innovative #2 man, Miguel Mier, who laid out the company’s bold and ambitious vision to continue to “change the game” and ensure that movie-going continues to be an “experience” unlike any other that will not become obsolete simply because we increasingly live in a virtual world.

Amen to that!  Yes, I am "that digital guy” who attended MITA.  I absolutely believe in its virtual power and reach.  But, just like Miguel Mier, I believe in the power of the physical/offline “experience” and its continuing (increasingly?) critical place in our fast-evolving digital world.

That’s why I believe in the MITA TechTalks and the role it plays (and the few others out there like it).  There is a need – a time and a place – to gather together as a small tribe.  To sit back and listen.  To discuss relevant issues of the day.  To be confronted live and in-person with different perspectives.  To discuss them face-to-face.  To learn.  And, to give some of that learning back.

This past week, MITA TechTalks 2014 was that time.    

Now, onto the Eurasian perspective of Slush in Helsinki, Finland.  A very different kind of conference in a very different kind of land.  But, important for many of the same reasons.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

SLUSH 2014 - Am Scheduling Press Meetings with Digital Media Companies Now!

I soon travel to Helsinki to attend my first SLUSH tech conference -- at which I will wear multiple hats.  Investor.  Business advisor and connector (“Bridge to Hollywood & Silicon Beach/Valley).  And journalist.  I will file report(s) not only for this blog, but also for leading digital video-focused publication VideoInk.
In that role, I am now scheduling meetings with innovative digital media and entertainment companies who will be attending SLUSH.  

If you want to tell your story -- and reach a U.S.-based digital media/video/tech audience -- reach out to me via LinkedIn (here is my profile) and we can schedule a press briefing.

With New 8-Second Video Startup “Ocho" Rising, Time to Revisit My 1st-Day Review of VINE

Just announced -- startup Vine “Killer” Ocho (as in 8-second videos instead of Vine’s 6-second limit) -- with $1.65 million in fresh capital from Mark Cuban and partnerships with Vice Media and Showtime. Read Variety’s report to get the facts.

And, with this announcement, thought it was the right time to revisit my original first-day review of Vine from “back in the day.”  I liked Vine then.  I like it now.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Lost Art of the Mix Tape

A few days back, my wife and I watched the John Cusack movie “High Fidelity.”  Classic movie for any music lover for many reasons -- not the least of which is that it unleashed hilarious Jack Black to the world.  In the film, Cusack plays the owner of a vintage record shop who is part slacker, part confused by life, part hopeless romantic -- but 100% believer in the power of music (something I wholeheartedly share -- case in point, later today my 14 year old girl, Hunter, and I will drive to LA from San Diego to see indie band “Warpaint” in concert -- a band I have now seen about 5 times -- including most recently at Outside Lands).  Cusack recounts his “top 10” romantic breakups in life -- and essentially sets each one to music.  He is an avid creator of mix tapes (remember those?) -- and agonizes over every single individual track he adds to create the most impactful and meaningful “whole.”  He literally caresses the vinyl -- and plucks out tracks he deems worthy to establish the perfect overall vibe of what he experienced in that particular moment in his life -- and with that particular romantic entanglement.

And, that got me thinking about that old mix tape.  I vividly recall those days when I too spent hours with my vinyl creating that perfect mix tape that was meaningful to me -- and hopefully meaningful to others.  SO much effort was put into this process.  SO much thought.  So much nurturing.  You see, it wasn’t easy to make them.  You needed to manually select the right album -- pull out the vinyl -- select the right tracks -- place the needle down onto the vinyl on the perfect spot -- meld track by track -- fade them in and out to the next one -- write the name of each track on the cassette’s “sleeve” -- and, then, ultimately (and the crescendo to the entire process) come up with the perfect title/name for that mix tape.  That perfect title was particularly critical if your mix tape was intended to be given to someone else, because the goal was to make an impact.  This all was time-consuming both physically -- and frequently emotionally.  You sweat the details.  Why?  Because each individual mix tape mattered.  You couldn’t simply churn them out one after another.  Volumes were low (as in number of tapes, not in the sound itself -- which you frequently cranked to 11).  But, the “love for the game” was high.

And, here’s the thing.  The person to whom you gave your beloved mix tape -- be it a friend, or your girl-friend or boy-friend at the time -- knew it!  They knew how hard it was to make that tape.  They inherently understood all of the steps involved.  All of that care and feeding.  And that’s why it had the potential for such deep impact for them.  It was meaningful.  And, that was the point.

Fast forward to today and to the world of digital that I love -- and have deeply immersed myself both professionally and personally (I write this blog “Digital Media Update” after all).  Yes, digital gives us so much power.  Yes, digital gives us so much access.  So much discovery.  So much control.

But, frequently too much?

Think about today’s digital music playlists that we share.  Yes, we frequently give them some thought.  Perhaps many of you give some of them much thought.  But, the amount of effort -- the amount of expenditure of time -- the amount of care and feeding -- are entirely different.  Digital is easy.  We can simply find and select individual tracks in rapid fire and churn out playlist after playlist -- and share them not only individually, but also with the entire world with one touch of the keyboard or smart phone.  It is precisely that mass volume.  That mass sharing.  And, that physical ease and fractional time commitment that make each less impactful.  Less impactful to you -- as the playlist creator -- and to the person (the world?) with whom you share it.

This “lost art of the playlist” serves as an allegory of life in a sense.  Digital is incredibly powerful.  Sharing your musical tastes with the world is cool -- very cool -- indeed.  But, something also is left behind UNLESS there is pause, reflection, and dedication to seeking out some kind of “soul” to augment that power.

Many music lovers see that.  Feel that.  Thirst for it.  That’s why vinyl is making a comeback.  That’s why vinyl record stores -- both Amoeba Records in LA and remaining labor of love “moms and pops” -- have staged a comeback (small, but growing).  That’s why vinyl is cool again.  Speaking of Amoeba, on my last family vacation to LA, my wife and I took too our music loving 14-year old daughter/musician/music lover and growing music loving 12-year old son to that pilgrimage that THEY had requested.  And, it was impactful -- a highlight of our 10 day trip (which ended in San Francisco at Outside Lands, by the way).  For the first time, they saw the racks of vinyl records -- the mass individual album covers that we spent hours fingering through -- back in the day.  They saw -- and deeply internalized -- how important and impactful album cover art was to showcase the music inside.  And, they “got” it.  In fact, my daughter’s room is now lined with about 20 vinyl albums that she bought on that Amoeba pilgrimage (and others since then from the local vinyl shop).

How cool is that?

It is that thirst for deeper, augmenting “soul” -- that thirst for a deeper sense of engagement of the physical in this frequently virtual digital world -- that also has given rise to the ever-increasing number of music festivals.  You see -- we are physical creatures.  We crave a sense of community.  We want to share our love of music with others.  And we want to see those others -- and “feel” the music and emotion -- when we share (like we did when we handed over that mix tape).  We frequently and increasingly want to do more than put out our music to the anonymous masses.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of digital.  Not at all.  Digital’s power is real.  I respect it.  Generally love it.  Have made it a centerpiece of my career and everyday life (in fact, I am streaming Warpaint as I write this in prep for tonight).

But, for me -- and for my music “experiences” -- digital is just the beginning.  The introduction.  It needs to be augmented with more.  With effort.  With dedication.  With “soul.”  It takes a lot of “work” and commitment to prepare for -- attend -- endure -- and survive a music festival.  But, boy is it worth it!  Those experiences last a life-time.

Vinyl -- and the mix tape -- represent that same kind of dedication.

That’s why you gotta watch (re-watch?) “High Fidelity."  Even if you need to order it digitally ....

(For other more “personal” musings, here is “Sometimes You Just Gotta Take the Time ...” - a homage to looking up, taking a pause.  Here is another one, “Pause & Reflect, the Cause & Effect.”)

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Pay TV Packages, Re-Imagined -- “The Great Unbundling” of Fall 2014

2014 is a transformative year for the media and entertainment business.  We will look back several years from now and fully realize this.

And, it’s not just about MCNs and the continuing litany of massive M&A and strategic investment.  Its about fundamental changes in the underlying forces (including the ascension of millennial mobile video consumption and engagement) that drive consumer behavior. 

Case in point Pay TV bundles.  These remarkable past 6-8 weeks mark THE moment in time at which previously sacred traditional cable/satellite pay TV programming bundles -- and the decades old business models behind them -- came under serious fire by concrete strategic actions by central players amidst this accelerating mobile and OTT video reality (and the consumers -- especially millennials -- behind it).  Yes, there has long been talk of such moves.  But, now major players in the overall ecosystem are taking real transformative action.  (For a great discussion about potential “winners” and “losers” in this great unbundling of pay TV packages, read Todd Spangler’s piece in Variety linked here.)

In October, HBO and CBS each announced in rapid succession that they would offer their own stand-alone over-the-top (OTT) services.  No cable or satellite subscription required.  Competing Starz network later confirmed its own major international-focused strategic initiative to that same end.  And, AT&T – which just recently was integral in the acquisition of leading MCN Fullscreen via its $500 million Otter Media joint venture with The Chernin Group – also just recently entered the unbundling fray.  A few weeks back, AT&T announced a new $39/month U-Verse programming bundle that includes HBO and Amazon Prime video, together with basic cable programming PLUS broadband.  Via this new stripped down efficient package, AT&T smartly targets cord cutters -- and, importantly, the increasing number of “cord nevers” (those, especially young adults, who never subscribed to programming packages in the first place). 

Other cases in point.  Viacom recently licensed 22 of its live and VOD premium networks to Sony for its new OTT service for PlayStation, Sony TVs and other Sony connected devices.  Verizon joined these others and announced an early 2015 launch for its long-anticipated “virtual” MSO that is so virtual, it is wireless -- specifically designed for mobile.  And, critically, core to its new service, Verizon announced a down-sized “bite-sized” cable-lite programming package that features mobile-friendly MCN AwesomenessTV short form video, in addition to big 4 broadcaster content and NFL games (via its existing exclusive smartphone deal).  When announcing its new service, Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam expressly pronounced what was almost unthinkable not long ago – i.e., that “among cable programmers, there’s been an attitude shift among cable programmers toward accepting a new over-the-top model for delivering pay TV.”

Welcome to “The Great Unbundling” of 2014. Transformative times in the media and entertainment business – particularly in the past few weeks.  

Bundle together these disruptive deals of just the past month or so and you have yourselves a digital media revolution ....

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

GoPro - The Lifestyle, The Media Company

Lifestyle brands.  Right now, they don’t get much bigger (or hotter) than GoPro -- a company whose products seemingly are everywhere -- including underneath submerged in the seas and overhead strapped onto a pelican!).  GoPro’s brand represents something universal -- capturing the most memorable moments in time -- and those aren’t exclusively action-sports focused (as my recent family vacation will attest.)  GoPro captured videos truly represent the full kaleidoscope of life-focused.  And, through those moments are increasingly shared endlessly around the world, which gives GoPro a unique opportunity to enable the sharing of “experiences” -- a connective tissue, if you will, of different worlds, different ways of life, different activities of life.  All “special” in their own personal way.

Perhaps more than any other brand right now, GoPro is a natural fit to become a full-fledged mega lifestyle media company.  In fact, it already is one (check out its GoPro “Channel”) -- although most (yet) don’t think of it in that way. GoPro users already generates massive amounts of video content -- 1 billion+ views on YouTube in the first 3 months of this year alone for videos with “GoPro” in their title.  And, those numbers are only accelerating.  THAT is the opportunity.  To harness that passion.  To organize it.  To channel it.  And, to own it.  To own that lifestyle.

Yesterday, GoPro underscored that clear ambition -- an ambition it first voiced publicly long ago in its IPO filings -- by announcing the hiring of new head of media, Zander Lurie, who  comes with a deep impressive media and entertainment pedigree.  In announcing Lurie’s hire, GoPro president Tony Bates made it abundantly clear that its media ambitions go well beyond a “marketing strategy” -- instead, they  represent a “high-potential business opportunity.”  While Bates further explained that direct monetization of that media is not an immediate priority, he also underscored that, over time, GoPo absolutely plans to “monetize this [media] process using a number of traditional and new media approaches.”  In other words, become a full multi-platform lifestyle media company for our brave new digital world.

Red Bull pioneered this type of lifestyle media transformation, representing the adrenaline-fueled action sports lifestyle.  That transformation has been off-the-charts successful -- so much so that Red Bull operates its own completely separate business, Red Bull Media House, as a separate P&L (meaning that its media machinations are directed toward direct media monetization and ROI and not just media for marketing sake).  Red Bull has become a “poster child” of sorts and inspiration for other major brands who hope to emulate its success and capture a lifestyle.  Marriott Hotels is one such brand, seeking to become the travel-focused media company for mobile-embedded millennials.  Marriott’s goal is to attract them by engaging with them differently.  Authentically.  Which is smart.  Very smart.

My team and I at Manatt Digital Media work with major brands who, like Marriott, think in this way; who are committed to engaging differently; who wish to represent something more than “products”; who are driven to establish an ongoing “relationship” -- a symbiotic relationship that benefits both brand and consumer -- especially millennials.

Here’s GoPro’s power.  GoPro already OWNS those millennials.

Smart.  Very smart, indeed ....