Riding Shotgun Beside a True Media Pioneer
One of the easiest investment decisions I ever made was backing Steve Ellis when he founded WhoSay. A few years ago, Steve sold Pump Audio - where I had led a seed financing - to Getty Images in a deal that generated the first meaningful exit for the firm I had co-founded (and which ultimately evolved into Primary Venture Partners). Over the course of Pump Audio, Steve had proven himself an exceptionally gifted entrepreneur and, equally important, an exceptional human being. When the Pump deal closed, I told him he had a desk and a blank check waiting for him whenever he was ready.
Today, that decision has paid off, with the announcement of WhoSay’s acquisition by Viacom. This is a fascinating deal; the marriage of old and new in the video media worlds, and the culmination of two years of hard work and collaboration by the two companies. Viacom is picking up a superb business - the true leader in the influence marketing space - and a team of over 70 super-talented individuals. It will be fun to watch what that team can achieve now that it’s plugged into such a powerful platform.
A few years after selling Pump, a bit of serendipity led Steve to meet the folks at Creative Artists Agency. Working closely with them, he founded WhoSay to help CAA, other agencies, and talent of all sorts to better manage and control their presence in the burgeoning social media world. The original idea was that WhoSay would both be a platform that helped talent create and manage social media presences in close collaboration with their agents and managers. In doing so, WhoSay would also be able to build an owned-and-operated media property that leveraged its unique access to all of this remarkable talent.
The model worked brilliantly out of the gates, and Steve earned the trust and partnership of some amazing investors including Greylock, Comcast Ventures, and Amazon.
But at its core, WhoSay’s original business model was dependent on becoming an ad-supported digital media company - something that in the last several years has become an exceptionally difficult thing to achieve. Steve, creative and intellectually curious like few people I’ve ever worked with, saw this coming before almost anyone did, and began to move the business in a new direction. He understood that his core asset was the reputation he had built with both celebrities and brands, and moved quickly to reposition the company to take advantage of that. In the end, he essentially invented the notion of the influencer-driven, web-first video ad, and created a remarkably talented team that brilliantly executed on the new strategy.
I vividly remember standing a few years ago on a seawall in Monterrey, CA, phone attached to my ear while on vacation with my family. We were working through a brutally difficult board call, figuring out if we could circle the capital around the table to fund the company through the completion of this pivot. It was a gut-wrenching moment for everyone, but at the end of the day, our collective faith in Steve and his team got it done.
At that point, the company had only ever achieved $200K of revenue for this new model, and there were no guarantees of what was to come. Amazingly, just two years later, Steve and team completed a $20MM revenue year and the company was well on its way.
I couldn’t be happier for this fantastic group. But as always, great venture outcomes are bittersweet. I’ve spent nine of the past 11 years working closely with Steve, serving on the board of one of his companies. I hope I get a third chance down the road (he promises me he’s going to tackle the US healthcare system next!), but for now I’ll miss the regular work with the WhoSay team. It’s been an awfully fun ride.