The long road to changing the world
I’m gonna make a GROSS generalization: most entrepreneurs start companies because we do actually want to change the world — usually in big ways at least for some segment of users. Without some core purpose, the uphill battle in building a company is just too onerous. The vast majority of companies don’t scale to be able to make a massive impact in the first few years while we’re toiling with investors, product-market fit and the myriad other challenges that stand in the way of companies and their world-changing mission. Seed&Spark is an entertainment platform for conscious consumers. We’re not just a place to watch great stuff, we’re working to actively increase diversity and inclusion in entertainment — in front of and behind the camera.
In the entertainment industry, the incumbents are more than a century old. No matter how many studies come out on the economic benefit of diversity in entertainment, Hollywood just isn’t built to change quickly. In fact, at the rate Hollywood is hiring diverse writers/directors/producers/actors we will achieve parity in the year 2250. And, uh, that’s not soon enough. But at Seed&Spark we wondered: do we have to be at least the size of the one of studio dinosaurs to make an impact?
We’ve built a technology platform to address the underlying business problems that have led to lack of diversity. And because we’re a startup doing the startup thing, we’ve stayed tightly focused on our business metrics. But recently, we challenged ourselves to scale our impact ahead of all the other KPIs. I want to share with you what led to that decision, the tactics we’ve used over the last six month, and the near-term outcomes. I hope this will be helpful to small companies who want to make an impact and also helpful to companies that aren’t impact focused but have a desire to make an impact — long before, like Lyft, you can just write a seven figure check to a charity of your choice.
On November 9th, 2016 everyone at Seed&Spark took a personal day. It was a lot to process. Our team is made up of people with vaginas, queer people, people of color, children of immigrants and allies. We were stunned and scared.
We are also all independent filmmakers: insanely hard workers with a bizarre mix of big dreams and pragmatism. That’s how you get movies and shows made for little to no money. On Monday after the election, we gathered together and decided that rather than slipping into despair, we would fortify Seed&Spark — and our work together — to facilitate the world in which we would like to live. Together, the team decided we wanted to build a platform that actively works to increase inclusion and representation in entertainment while delighting audiences with a sweet subscription service. I can’t take credit for creating this challenge — the team at Seed&Spark came to this together. Below, I present the methods we used and outcomes we experiences in the last six months.
– Rally our community of filmmakers and audiences
– Make a big impact as a small company
– Continue to scale the business in a difficult climate
Seed&Spark’s survival relies on the unassailable spirit of independent filmmakers to always make new work. Our crowdfunding platform is the engine: bringing new content and new audiences to the platform on a daily basis. Post-election, a common question arose from filmmakers across the country: how can I raise money for my movie when I think people should be giving to the SPLC and the ACLU? (You still should be doing that, BTW.)
In answering this question, it’s important to note that at Seed&Spark, we view our role as a catalyst for independent creators to get their work made and seen: because we believe it’s the independent creators who are building imaginary worlds that better reflect the diversity of the one we actually live in — much more so than Hollywood. We would often send this quote from Toni Morrison:
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”
We knew we would need to provide these creators even greater support than we were offering if they were going to stick their necks out in uncertain times.
We also knew we would have to increase the scope of our reach to draw our creative community out in numbers — and help rally audiences far and wide. We wouldn’t be able to do it alone.
Kt — our head of product marketing — pitched the team on an initiative to counteract what we knew would be a slog of negativity in the first 100 days post-inauguration. What if we launched #100DaysOfDiversity (she nailed the name on the first try) — a 100 day campaign to get more diverse work made and seen. 100 days is a LONG ASS TIME for any initiative — it would need phases to keep it fresh; we would need partners to spread the word.
The whole team rallied around this idea and reached out to more than 40 partners across our industry: The Blacklist, a massively successful platform for getting screenwriters’ work discovered; G-Technology, the maker of the world’s best hard drives; Oculus Story Studio, makers of some of the most mind-blowing VR; the Tribeca Film Institute, one of the major non-profit supporters of diverse creators around the world; and a host of film festivals, film technology tools and platforms, and service providers. They each pitched in one or several “perks” that filmmakers crowdfunding their projects could earn if they launched their campaigns during the 100 days.
Everyone we reached out to said yes — turns out we were only limited in scope by the time we had to reach out to people! (Here is the complete list of #100Days partners.)
The partners agreed to co-promote the campaign throughout the 100 days. We set a schedule to send them new copy for social media promotions throughout the campaign. We made it as easy as possible for them to amplify the messaging.
All of a sudden, our little company initiative had a social footprint in the hundreds of millions.
Additionally, we added a new requirement for all of our filmmakers launching crowdfunding campaigns. They would have to make an “Inclusion Statement” that would be public to their audiences and prominently featured on their crowdfunding page, detailing how their project is actively increasing inclusion in front of and/or behind the camera. We wanted all of our filmmakers to understand that they, too, can participate in addressing an industry-wide problem, no matter the scope of their project. It ties them together as a community, and makes our collective mission clear.
We also wanted to tie in our recently-launched subscription service to #100DaysOfDiversity, to help drive more viewership to diverse movies and shows that already exist. So the programming team had its work cut out to seek out, onboard, and curate slates of content that fit our themes.
We announced the launch of #100DaysOfDiversity at Sundance, with a plan to introduce a new theme every two weeks. The themes were meant to tease out different elements of what it can mean to be an American, and tell stories from a range of perspectives around who you love, how you worship, where you come from.
Every two weeks we released a new curated channel of movies and shows our subscribers could watch, and launched dozens of new crowdfunding campaigns.
Increasing diversity and representation in entertainment is a life’s work and then some, so we knew that this initiative was just the very beginning. That said, we saw meaningful results, and gained essential insights into the work ahead.
Over 100 new movies and shows were successfully funded, raising close to a million dollars in total for shorts, features, and series.
Behind the camera:
82% of the movies and shows have women at the helm as writer, director or producer. Half of those were all female teams. (Here is some context for how impressive that stat is in comparison with Hollywood.)
50% had people of color and LGBT creators at the helm.
In front of the camera:
Close to 70% of projects star or co-star women
48% projects star or co-star people of color
More than 20,000 minutes of diverse movies and shows were streamed by our small but growing subscriber base — which is a lot considering we only had time enough to feature about 35 movies and shows as a part of the initiative.
From a business growth perspective:
We exceeded our quarterly crowdfunding target by 20%
and our quarterly subscriber target by 10%.
Considering that this campaign took place during a news cycle appropriately dominated by executive orders, cabinet drama, protests, we may not have “gone viral”, but we certainly broke through.
WE’RE NOT DECLARING VICTORY
There is still a lot of work to be done.
On our platform:
Only about 11% of the writers of the crowdfunding movies and shows were writers of color.
Only 20% of the directors were directors of color (more women than men, though, which bucks the industry trend.)
Our existing film library — which we started building long before we undertook this initiative — is about 60% white both in front of and behind the camera.
On our team:
We had to stop and take a look at ourselves. We’re a small team, we’re currently fundraising so still several months away from making our next hires. Perhaps by Silicon Valley standards (which should be NOBODY’S STANDARDS), we’re kicking ass:
The team is 75% female
25% people of color
And yeah, there’s no pay gap at Seed&Spark. I mean, unless it’s between our salaries and industry standards. #bootstrapping
But that’s still 75% white — which means we’re missing some key perspectives in understanding all the communities we want to serve.
Our next steps:
Near term, we have to address representation on our team by making sure we engage key stakeholders, and make decisions that are driven by their input and feedback.
We‘ve started a hiring pipeline of new potential candidates for after this round closes, and we believe bringing a diverse perspective to the team is as important as experience and technical skill. That can mean a lot of things, and we will know it when we see it. I think.
We have since knit #100DaysOfDiversity into the fabric of our company: it’s a core component of our offering to filmmakers and audiences from here on out. All our partners have signed on for the rest of this year, and we will continue to report our stats transparently to them and to the community at large.
That means we have to relentlessly pursue expanding inclusivity in every category on the platform:
– We have to engage partners and key stakeholders in organizations and cities across the country to increase the diversity of our writers and producers.
– We must actively acquire movies and shows that offer different perspectives — and that means sometimes turning away from opportunities to acquire projects and content that may bring big audiences but don’t fit our thesis.
– We must examine all the conventional wisdom of recommendation algorithms for our streaming platform. Currently, most recommendation algorithms try to make recommendations based on users who exhibit similar behavior. But that behavior is likely to contain the very inherent bias our platform seeks to address. We cannot rest on “the way things are usually done.” We have to challenge the underlying assumptions even of technology best practices.
We have our work cut out for us, and we’re open to suggestions. (Like, please please send us suggestions.) It was really uncomfortable when our efforts turned the camera around and forced some company-level introspection, but it also alerted us to the work that needed to be done. If you are also working on world-changing problems — even for very specific customers or sectors — we would love to learn from your experiences.