Make sure to check out The Rise to the Top and the DSG Agency, and don't forget to follow David on Twitter!
1. Tell me about how you started “The Rise to the Top.”
It all started in a coffee shop. I felt like there was a market need on television for a show designed for forward-thinking young and young-at-heart entrepreneurs, and also room for events and resources to really help people grow their business and get involved with the community. I saw what was out there and honestly thought we could do it better by bringing in extremely interesting guests and delivering helpful content. I went all in, invested everything I had in getting it started and was fortunate to land some early sponsors who believed in me and the concept. The most crucial aspect though was surrounding myself with great people simply by asking for help. I talked to everyone I knew and said "I'm doing a TV show and this is what I want to do but I'm not exactly sure how to do it. If you think it sucks, punch me; however, if you like the concept I would appreciate a nudge in the right direction." A bunch of nudges later I had a solid network of people who had years of experience helping me.
2. How did the concept evolve into a TV show that is viewed by 500,000 people in St. Louis’ ABC local station?
It has been a fascinating journey. As we wrap up our first season, we have had nearly 700,000 viewers between ABC and online ,which has shattered expectations. It has taken tons of blood, sweat and tears to build our audience but we have done it without spending one penny and have grown it through social media, good press, and word-of-mouth. I figured if we created a show REALLY about the audience (meaning entrepreneurs) with their best interests always 100% on our minds and constantly trying to improve and listen to THEIR feedback, it could be something sticky. From communicating on Facebook, visiting and contributing on blogs related to entrepreneurship and becoming a part of the conversation to reaching out and becoming active on Twitter, we have built a positive reputation, and have developed a huge amount of brand advocates who spread the word with their, as I like to say, big mouths. But to really grow something, you have to give first. That is what it is all about.
3. The show has a segment called “Hot Companies”. Which young company would you predict to be the hottest for 2009 and why?
That is always a tough questions because there are so many interesting companies out there. I really like Virtual Nerd which we featured in Episode #6. Besides being really great guys, they have a great concept of online video tutoring for students. It takes away the expense of a tutor and annoyance of calling teachers at 10:30 PM and with online video there is some crazy, cool interactivity with students being able to click on things in the video, ask questions and get sample problems directly from their text book. But more than a cool concept, I think it will be successful because Josh and Leo are bright, resourceful and organized entrepreneurs. They were rewarded after we featured them (wish we could take the credit!) by winning the Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Cup, which is the entrepreneurship competition with a nice amount of money included in the prize.
4. Where do you see the show going in the next few years and what kind of role will social media play in getting there?
Over the next few years, I would like to see the show going international in reach and become the #1 show in the world in entrepreneurship. We want to continue to bring in massive guests and get our audience excited. Next season we have an unbelievable array of guests, from Gary Vaynerchuk to Scott Mednick (Executive Producer 300, Superman, andcame up with original Sega Genesis marketing campaign) and Guy Kawasaki. I love all entrepreneurial resources out there including great magazines such as INC./Fast Company and I would love to form partnerships with them and provide great content for their audience as well. Social media is going to be absolutely huge for every reason. If we do something right and people love it, social media will help spread it. If we do something wrong, same deal. I want to continue to listen to the social media community, stay on the cutting edge and really hope that more people tune in and spread the word. The coolest thing about social media is all of the sudden you could get that one email, message, etc. that is game changer because someone found you using the tools.
5. Web 2.0 and social technologies have received a lot of attention in the last few years. What do you think will be the next phase of internet innovation?
I strongly believe the next phase of internet innovation will be the continued dramatic rise of Internet video and more interactivity. The social web is here to stay even though the tools may change over the next few years. Content producers, including major networks, and big brands are still figuring out this whole social web thing and it will be interesting to see how that all plays out. The bottom line is web has become a place where the users have control of what is hot, what is useful, what brands to buy and what to avoid. I see more collaboration and more communities set up for passionate people. Whether it is the purple dinosaur club or entrepreneurs who love twitter, niche communities will continue to be the future.
6. What do you see as the future of television?
This question gets me really excited. Most content providers are freaking out about the future of TV. They think they won't be able to make money and it is all going online. I see this as an unbelievable opportunity and the best content will always monetize one way or another. The future which has begun of course, is allowing viewers to watch WHEN, WHERE, and HOW they want it. This means viewers can watch TV on their TV on a schedule OR on demand, online 24/7, Internet TV on TV, on their Ipod's, Iphone's Blackberry's, Facebook accounts, etc. The future as I see is TV everywhere in specific niches as opposed to wide appealing shows that try to be everything to everyone which is the broken TV model of the past which worked for years but has changed as power has been given to the user.
For us, we are going to deliver content everywhere. The Rise To The Top Mobile is in beta testing right now and we also have The Rise To The Top Desktop Widget, that will be revolutionary, which is being built by a great company called Widget Realm. You wouldn't believe some of things this widget can do; it will enrich the viewer experience because that is what we are all about. Most importantly, we are launching on Yahoo! TV Widgets worldwide for our second season this September as one of the first six shows on there. New TV's being shipped to America this June will already have Yahoo! TV Widgets built into it and all viewers will need is an Ethernet chord. This means The Rise To The Top will essentially be shipped built into these TV's as well and people will be able to access the shows on their TV via the Internet. They can even Tweet out FROM their TV what they are watching. Cool!
7. You speak to entrepreneurs on a regular basis. What do they say about handling the recession successfully?
The recession is a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs. The biggest hits I've seen are in traditional jobs and I can't count the number of people that have come to me and said: "I was laid off (quit/fired) and now I want to start my own company because I'm always been passionate about (BLANK)." I think that says a lot. I've had several speeches to professionals who are laid off right now and I definitely preach entrepreneurship and many of them have now started their own companies with really nothing to lose. Entrepreneurs that are handling recession successfully seem to have two major traits. One is positivity. I know that sounds corny, but it is true. They have an upbeat attitude and are convinced their companies will continue to change the world. The second is resiliency. Things change rapidly and the best entrepreneurs can adapt quickly even in the face of disaster. Plans always seem go wrong and those who adjust on the fly, win.
8. What do you think is essential for struggling companies of all sizes to stay in the game for years to come?
Adapt to the social web and social media. Understand business is changing. I'm young and I have SO many things to learn, but I do know that the business game is changing and traditional models continue to be in trouble. This doesn't mean abandoning all of the old rules as things like face-to-face networking should never go away and are important. However, understanding where things are going is extremely vital. Companies don't have to be on the bleeding edge, but have to be ready to read and react like a linebacker in football or goalie in hockey when a new technology becomes vital. Example would be Twitter. Let the techies figure out what is cool and then react when the mainstream moves in. Developing a social media strategy, online video strategy, how to respond to disasters (i.e. The Dominoes Situation) are all vital pieces of the puzzle. No longer can companies get away with a crappy product and a lot of advertising money. The best stuff now will be talked about, passed around the web and rise to the top.
9. You have an agency that specializes in sponsorships. How different is it to work with large corporations, compared to working with small businesses and entrepreneurs?
When you are working with sponsorships, only one thing matters no matter what the size of the company: How is this going to help the client with THEIR goals? A critical mistake agencies make is to worry only about their goals and just sell because they need to sell. Instead, the focus has to be on the exact goals of the client and that is where we have been most successful. Oftentimes the goals of large corporations are different. Perhaps they are interested in branding a specific new product such as an energy drink or they want to be associated with a show that has a positive image and is creating good for the community. Entrepreneurs are usually looking for more sales, new clients and branding themselves/their business as the expert in their field. We help people accomplish their goals and that is why our sponsorship numbers continue to rise. It is that simple.
10. I’ve read that your business philosophy is the following: “Money follows passion and not the other way around.” What advice would you give a new/potential entrepreneur about balancing the realities of the bottom-line and the passion required to start something truly remarkable?
The number one thing you have to have to be a successful entrepreneur is passion. It may be a passion for the product or a bigger passion of helping people. Maybe it is something like having a passion to live on an island and your dream lifestyle. The bottom line is passion makes you go above and beyond. You will stay on a task until it is done even if it is Saturday at 10 PM because of your passion drive. You can see that fire in someone's eyes when they talk about their passion and the most successful entrepreneurs can always pinpoint what they love. To me, there is no balancing act with the bottom line. The more passionate you are, the more successful you will be because when everyone else is sleeping you may be be agonizingly working on accounting even though you hate it, because you can feel in your bones that you were meant to do this and even the medial becomes remarkable.