Nov. 9, 2021

Understanding VC: #4 “Success is a moving target”: Fred Siebert on staying original and out of talent’s way

Understanding VC: #4 “Success is a moving target”: Fred Siebert on staying original and out of talent’s way

In the fourth episode of Understanding VC, we talk to Fred Seibert, a proactive entrepreneur who announced a new company called FredFilms at the age of 69, refusing to give up on work because according to him, while some might work to live, he lives to work. In this episode, Fred shares some of the most candid founding stories one could ever come across, being the creative director of MTV, how his creative evolution was affected by the people around him, and his ingenious perspective towards employing and investing in people which entails not just success but productive relationship-building as a byproduct. 

Unsurprisingly, Fred picked up a knack for work, and enjoyed it even more so, while working at his parents’ pharmacy during his formative years. He developed a work ethic much earlier than most kids start to understand why they need to work in the first place. At the age of twelve, his early kickstart at life was supplemented by the arrival of the Beatles in America, who Fred describes as his generation’s “guides to life.” The iconic band served as a catalyst for fanning Fred’s interest in music which would lead him to the business of record-making, putting into effect a chain of unforeseeable but welcome adventures.

The arrival of the Beatles caused a significant shift in American culture. Fred reminisces that period as being punctuated by a trend of bands proliferating everywhere; he thinks possessing a guitar at that time was as usual as having an instagram account in 2021. Once his interest in music got a nudge in the right direction, Fred started working at his college radio station which was an exhilarating experience for him, “I thought that was the greatest thing in the world.”

Fred’s first media venture was in partnership with a musician friend who formerly owned a record store, but was more interested in making records. Fred’s entrepreneurial spirit, and another acquaintance who was interested in investing in the idea, led them to realize this dream. Although unfortunately, even after 4-5 years of making records, they were piled with only losses. Even at such a juncture, Fred didn’t lose heart. Instead, he started to look for jobs that would aid him in continuing on the path he had chosen.

You enter the industry by knocking on every door you can, or crashing through any door that you can.

Fred started looking for jobs that would allow him to spend his time and resources on making records, and fortunately he landed one in a jazz company in New York. Fred tells us an anecdote about how he technically gatecrashed his first recording session for his own good, disregarding the “No Entry” sign put up on the door. Nobody asked him to leave, and for him, that was a sign to stay and get the best out of his circumstances. He was ready to do all kinds of chores and run any kind of errands which led to a rapid increase in the trust that people at his workplace had in him. And so, eventually he started to get more meaningful work at the company. 

At this point, we couldn’t help but prod further to know how he came to be the creative director at MTV, and what role this initial job played in the process. Fred refocuses on his college days when he thoroughly enjoyed working for the college radio station, his primary role being to create sixty second promotion spots for radio shows and concerts. He recalls how that experience made him understand the value of collaborative effort and respecting your own strengths and weaknesses. At this point, a friend of Fred asked him for some help to pass the audition for a job at a commercial radio station. 

Fred offered him the required help, and the friend even got the job only to realize that he hated the job as well as his boss. One thing led to another, and Fred ended up getting the job instead, and finding his life-long mentor Dale Pon. Soon afterwards, Fred received an offer to do promotions for a movie channel, which he accepted not without some hesitation for it being an alien territory. This actually set off a domino-effect resulting in Fred getting into completely unfamiliar fields throughout his career.

As it were, things came full circle, and Fred plunged headfirst into the operations of the music channel being started by the same company, which would later come to be known as MTV. The key for Fred becoming the creative director was the antinormative logo that he hired his childhood friend, Frank Olensky’s studio to design. The logo was an instant hit for the channel and upped its branding game by several notches. Several years later, while working for MTV as a consultant, Fred was requested to revive Nickelodeon, another one of the same company’s channels, which ended up rising to the number one spot within six months of Fred taking charge along with Alan Goodman. 

That acted as a point of transition for Fred to another uncharted territory: animation. Fred deems cartoons to be the equivalent of rock and roll for kids. As a matter of course, once his interest for cartoons developed as it did for music during his college days, Fred came up with some great ideas which Nickelodeon could utilize to make its own cartoons, but they remained reticent for some obscure reason.

In a collaborative business, it is the chemistry of that collaboration that makes things possible.

Around this time, Fred met Ted Turner, the to-be founder of Cartoon Network, and ended up telling him about his Nickelodeon story, unaware of Ted’s plans or the events that were to follow. He got hired by Cartoon Network which soon acquired Hannah Barbera studio. Fred moved to Los Angeles, and became the president of the new acquisition, which also rose to popularity under Fred’s presidency after almost a decade of dormancy. 

But like any other human being, Fred also faced struggles in a field which was exciting, but still completely new to him. After his astounding success at bringing Hannah Barbera back to life with landmark series like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory, he was appointed to revive the cartoon Johnny Quest. But as fate would have it, he made a mistake while hiring the people for this project; he hired them on recommendation without conducting his template interview. It ended up being a team which consisted of people who couldn’t work together in harmony, and Johnny Quest could not work out. Fred acknowledged his mistake, resigned, and moved on to start a company with Viacom.

Stay original, always.

Fred’s journey so far had been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. But figuring out his driving force wasn’t much of an effort. It’s quite simple for him, “I would rather fail trying something new than fail trying to copy somebody.” As Fred sees it, any professional venture can go two ways: either you can implement a modification of something that someone else has already done or you can come up with something entirely new and unprecedented. He chooses the latter on any given day. 

The influence of the Beatles over his mind during his earlier days resounds in the perspective that Fred holds towards the world even in his late 60s. The Beatles made him realize that it was possible to sell millions of records and create great art at the same time. This realization led to a reconciliation of sorts for Fred, “I realized that being special and being successful weren’t mutually exclusive.”

We went on to ask him about his transition into an investor with a startup as successful as Tumblr being his first. Like most of his origin stories, this too had roots in his personal life. As it turns out, the founder of Tumblr, David Carp’s mother used to teach Fred’s children, and once requested him to let David try his hand at the computers in Fred’s office since their school had very limited availability of computers and David was a born geek. Fred, not thinking much of it, conceded to fulfill a child’s wish which sowed the seed for the phenomenon that Tumblr has been. 

David conceived of Tumblr working on a rented desk in Fred’s office, and for the first eighteen months, it was only a two-person team including David himself and his chief engineer, Marco Arment. From Fred’s investing experience of investing in Tumblr, we learned something really important that all entrepreneurs need to know. 

There was a rift in the goals of David and all of his board members except Fred, who could empathize with David because he himself had been a business operator while the others were professional investors since the beginning of their careers. While the investors’ priority was quick growth and returns, David always prioritized his customers, and did not even want to expand the company’s size for a considerable period of time. Fred recalls, “Instead of trusting just his board members, he trusted his users most,” and perhaps that was the key to Tumblr’s overnight success.

Find talented people who are worth supporting and get out of their way

Fred could identify the talent that David possessed, and did his best to nurture it. As to how he does that professionally on a regular basis, he answered by explaining his interviewing process. Fred has a set template which he uses during all his interviews so that he has a static reference point to gauge the capabilities of the interviewees. All he has to do in order to spot an unusually talented person is to look for an unusual answer amongst the hordes of commonplace answers that he hears from hundreds of people. 

His experience in the animation business has come in handy for Fred in developing this interviewing strategy. While auditioning, he asks the interviewees to pitch their idea by actually presenting it in storyboard form. “I don’t want to hear about the idea of the song, I want to hear the song,” he says.

As the conversation steered towards pitching, we enquired which, according to Fred, are the toughest questions that VCs could ask founders. In his opinion, they can be summed up as: “How fast can you grow? Do people like your product?” Something that VCs usually disregard, and Fred attributes immense importance to are the people who have come up with the idea of the concerned startup. “The best venture people that I’ve worked with are looking for me as a person, because they are going into business with me,” he explains, “If a venture capitalist is only interested in the product and not in the person creating the product, it’s not going to be a good match.”

Towards the end of our conversation, we asked Fred a couple of questions about the emerging creative economy, and where it is headed in the opinion of an outstanding creative like himself. Fred thinks that the creative market is proliferating at an exponential rate, predominantly because of the numerous online modes through which creatives can today find the right audience for themselves. It could be YouTube that makes the cut for one creator, but another’s goal might be Netflix. In 2021, building an audience has become completely independent of demographic limitations, and it is a really exciting time to create art which does not follow any norms.