Stop trying to win every argument. Ask yourself what you really want out of the exchange, and then do whatever it takes to get that result.

 

Michael Gaston is the CEO and founder of Cut, a studio that produces short-form videos that drive fandom and deep engagement. With more than 10 million subscribers across YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat driving more than 250 million views a month, Cut’s work challenges and determines the zeitgeist for digital short-form video.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

Several years before Cut, I started a nonprofit that attempted to create new communities through projects that could be described as exercises in the digital humanities. This included an interactive curation along public transit routes, a multimedia project centered around the first Filipino-American novel, and a series on the displacement of low-income residents in favor of the development of mixed-income units at the first nonsegregated public housing in the U.S. In general, I dealt with subjects no one seemed to care about (except for me and my founders). After a year or so of doing this and making no money or real headway on our mission, I decided to go back to freelancing so I could afford groceries.

I ended up taking a three-month contract with a digital marketing company in Seattle that used techniques of “predictive virality” and SEO to drive lead generation for a portfolio of websites. In the beginning, concepts like making something “go viral” seemed absurd — they are called outliers for a reason. Yet there are certain principles that create an opportunity for that kind of exponential spread.

Once I learned how to make things people would see, I had an epiphany: I could take the same features that caused content to spread and combine them with the same subjects and themes I explored in my nonprofit. Those three months turned into two years, and the marketing company evolved into a startup studio. We became one of its first investments.

Cut is what happens when you take a small group of guys who spent years studying and creating viral content and combine it with an editorial vision intended to promote understanding and empathy.Several years before Cut, I started a nonprofit that attempted to create new communities through projects that could be described as exercises in the digital humanities. This included an interactive curation along public transit routes, a multimedia project centered around the first Filipino-American novel, and a series on the displacement of low-income residents in favor of the development of mixed-income units at the first nonsegregated public housing in the U.S. In general, I dealt with subjects no one seemed to care about (except for me and my founders). After a year or so of doing this and making no money or real headway on our mission, I decided to go back to freelancing so I could afford groceries.

I ended up taking a three-month contract with a digital marketing company in Seattle that used techniques of “predictive virality” and SEO to drive lead generation for a portfolio of websites. In the beginning, concepts like making something “go viral” seemed absurd — they are called outliers for a reason. Yet there are certain principles that create an opportunity for that kind of exponential spread.

Once I learned how to make things people would see, I had an epiphany: I could take the same features that caused content to spread and combine them with the same subjects and themes I explored in my nonprofit. Those three months turned into two years, and the marketing company evolved into a startup studio. We became one of its first investments.

Cut is what happens when you take a small group of guys who spent years studying and creating viral content and combine it with an editorial vision intended to promote understanding and empathy.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Being a CEO in a startup means there are no typical days. We might have naked people in the office one day and a petting zoo the next. You never know what’s going to happen.

With an environment so dynamic and potentially distracting, I used to think I had to hide from everyone to get work done. I now understand that my real work is engaging with everyone as much as possible. Today, I like to set up shop in different corners of the office so I get a chance to touch base with as many people as I can.

How do you bring ideas to life?

– Hire brilliant people.
– Set impossible expectations.
– Tell them everything they need to be successful in the job.
– Give them everything they need to do it.
– Help them when they ask for help.
– Give them the credit when it works.
– Accept the blame when it doesn’t.

What’s one trend that excites you?

One of my co-founders likes to say that we aren’t living in peak content — we’re in peak platform. While most of these platforms provide significant value to shareholders, it’s unclear how many provide value to an audience. Regardless, every platform has its own overhead. Audience members are constantly negotiating with themselves whether that overhead is “worth it.”

At some point, people will get annoyed with having to remember which app they have to use to watch a certain show — though some say it’s already happening. Instead of a typical cycle of unbundling to bundling, however, we’re experiencing a constant back-and-forth between these two states.

For a company like ours, this is a great time. In a world overrun with content platforms and a rapidly growing audience that requires more and more sophisticated content, we’re the only studio that has proven an aptitude for organically creating premium video formats — with massive spread — for radically divergent verticals.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I try to go for a hike every day in a park close to where I live. Going for a walk is how good ideas find you.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Stop trying to win every argument. Ask yourself what you really want out of the exchange, and then do whatever it takes to get that result.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Data actually isn’t very good for getting answers about what to do with your content. Focusing on data for content creation is like exercising your calf muscles to get better at dancing. Strong calves might be helpful on the dance floor, but the strongest calf muscles in the world won’t magically turn you into Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Don’t use data for answers. Use data to come up with better questions to help you develop your content.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Read books that have nothing to do with your industry.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Early on, there was a debate about how we should approach our work. There was pressure from investors to follow the models of other media companies. The argument was that they had the resources to afford the data scientists who were creating the best practices for the internet.

I decided that we would never experience radical success by trying to copy our competition. Lacking the resources to compete with them in the way they conducted business meant we could take a different path by focusing on the value I believed we could bring to our audience.

One way to see that in practice is within the context of video thumbnails. Everyone seems to follow a few “best practices”: vibrant colors, crazy mashed-up images, and huge text. It was an eyesore. We cut through that noise by using desaturated colors that were almost pastel with just one hero image and no text. This was instantly successful, and larger companies soon began to follow our lead. That contrarian approach to industry trends is a strategic principle within Cut.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Our startup faced every cliche you can imagine. I used to refuse to watch “Silicon Valley” because I didn’t find it funny — it was like watching a documentary. The worst part was that we had anticipated the potential for all those things to happen. We were aware of the pitfalls, but we still fell into the pits.

I realized we had been forecasting these scenarios as unrelated possible disasters. When we found ourselves in a crisis, it was usually because we made a common mistake over and over again. In most cases, we wandered away from doing the things that were actually creating value for us and the company we wanted to make.

No matter the problem you face, ask yourself one question: Is my decision really creating value for my organization?

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’d love to see a Rotten Tomatoes for everything — bone broth, security cameras, credit cards, etc. It would be a great way to capture and algorithmically adjudicate expert sentiment from across the internet for all products. Emphasis would be on “expert sentiment.”

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I’m not a massage person, but my shoulders were so knotted up that I gave in and ordered one on Soothe. I’m now a massage person.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

If my phone only had one app, it’d be Notes. It’s utilitarian and convenient, but I use it to jot down any thought that pops into my head. I used to carry a notebook around with me so I could reify my ideas with the tactile ritual of placing pen to paper. These days, I use Notes, which means I have all these ideas on me all the time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race.” I could go on and on about this one, but I’ll leave it to the National Review of Books: “This book is much-needed and timely. It is more than a primer on racism. It is a comprehensive conversation guide.”

What is your favorite quote?

“Effort is only effort when it begins to hurt.” — José Ortega y Gasset

Key learnings:

  • If you’re a CEO, being productive means engaging with the people in your company rather than hiding away to focus on work you’d rather be doing.
  • The easiest way to bring ideas to life is to hire brilliant people, set impossible expectations, and then either give them the credit when they succeed or accept the blame when they fail.
  • Data is overrated and often used incorrectly. Use data to construct better questions instead of telling you what you should do next.
  • Your biggest competition is yourself. Focus on providing value to your audience and not on beating external competition.
  • Read Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race.” Now’s the perfect time.

Connect:

https://www.cut.com/

Michael Gaston on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelwgaston

Cut on YouTube: http://youtube.com/cut

Cut on Facebook: http://facebook.com/watchcut

Cut on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/storiesbycut/

Cut on Twitter: http://twitter.com/cut

Cut on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/cut-media-llc/

The 100 Best Books For Entrepreneurs

Sign up for our emails and we'll send you a list of the 100 best books for entrepreneurs, which we compiled by analyzing over 3,000 interviews.

Powered by ConvertKit