February 15, 2017 – Jason Kilar’s interest in customer service was sparked by a visit to Disney World when he was 10 years old. The wonder he felt as he walked underneath the train station and out onto Main Street stays with him to this day. It was a pivot point for him, even at that young age. Eventually, Kilar would intern at Disney World and walk those same steps each night after his shift ended. “It really influenced who I was as an early manager,” Kilar shared.
His career started with Amazon when it was a relatively small, early-stage private company. While there, Kilar was able to grow from his roots and expand while learning deep lessons about the importance and value of culture and what it means to stay true to the company’s mission over long periods of time. Something, he says, that is required when scaling up to a much bigger company.
From Amazon, to Hulu, and now with Vessel, throughout his career Kilar has found that building teams of people that have spark, are curious and innovative is the key to building a better model. The strength of the teams has been key to his successful business endeavors.
The full transcript is below.
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Jason on what he looks for in employees:
“I’d say the very first thing that I look for, or at least I’m aware of, is a spark. And I don’t mean that in a very flippant way. I mean that in a very meaningful way, which is, does this person care deeply? And can you sense it in terms of, do they lean forward in life? Do they have a natural curiosity?”
Jason on being a founder and CEO of an early-stage startup:
“The highs are higher and the lows are lower. The early-stage life, I think, it is the most exhilarating that you can find in business. But that said, though, the lonely days are quite lonely. And that’s something that a lot of the glorification of start-up life and entrepreneurial adventures, a lot of that is always not covered. And so you really have to want it.”
Jason on the difference between LA and San Francisco:
“And I’d say that the thing that defines the Southern California entrepreneurial market is that all areas of the world tend to be known for one thing and then there’s other diversity beyond that. Southern California is very much a storytelling town, that’s the lead dog.”
Jason on one piece of advice for entrepreneurs:
“The best and most important innovations in human history have yet to happen and it’s the entrepreneurs that are thinking about either moving to Silicon Valley or are here and struggling with how to come up with those ideas. That’s all ahead. It’s not behind, it’s all ahead of us.”
Navin: Welcome back to Chat for Champions. I have the pleasure of hosting Jason Kilar, founder and CEO of Vessel, with me today. Jason previously was a senior executive at Amazon.com and the CEO of Hulu. He was also a board member of DreamWorks Animation and is a current board member of Univision. Jason, welcome to the podcast.
Jason: Thank you very much, Navin.
Navin: So let’s start with your journey at Amazon. You saw Amazon from a relatively small, early-stage, private company through its first eight plus years as a public company. What were some of the key learnings there?
Jason: There were a lot of learnings at the company, for sure. We started off just selling books and trying to become the best possible internet-based bookstore that we could and, along the way, became a very big company. And that journey from a tiny, little company to a much bigger company, it teaches you a lot about scalable mechanisms, it teaches you a lot about the importance and value of culture, it teaches you a lot about how you have to be true to the mission over long periods of time. Tons and tons of lessons.
Navin: And you worked for Jeff Bezos, right? So how was it to work for Jeff as a manager and a leader at the company?
Jason: Probably the best way for me to describe Jeff is that he’s better than advertised. People read about him and see him in various speaking engagements and, obviously, he’s incredibly impressive in those environments. But I can tell you, given that he was my manager for many years, is that he’s actually better in person and better when you actually work with him on very big challenges and tough moments and good moments alike. He’s just a very rare bird. There is no praise high enough for him. He’s got unbelievable judgment, he has principles, and he’s kind. All these things that most of the world typically doesn’t see, given the nature of the role that he has. But I think he will go down as, probably, the most impactful business leader of the last several centuries.
Navin: Well, that’s great that you worked with him so closely. So, Amazon is known for great customer experience and customer service. And all of us who use it just have amazing experience from one of the biggest e-tailers or retailers in the world. But it seems, reading about your interest, it seems like you got interested in customer service which was sparked by a family vacation to Disney World. Can you share that story on how you got that passion around customer service?
Jason: Yeah. So I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of six children. My dad worked for Westinghouse, we never had a lot of money. And the reason why I mention this is because our vacations were just drives to nearby YMCA campgrounds and the like. But we did something very special when I was maybe 10 years old. We went down to Walt Disney World. And so we drove from Pittsburgh down to Orlando, Florida. And I remember, to this day, what it was like when we walked underneath the train station onto Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. And it had such a huge impact on me, personally, and on my life and how I thought about the world, professionally, after that, because I had never seen anything like that before.
And what I mean by that is, walking down Main Street for the first time is, for a kid who adores design, for a kid who loves entertainment and technology, all of those things come together in a magical way. When you look at the force perspective of Main Street and how they designed the second storeys of the Main Street stores, and how they have Cinderella’s castle in the distance and it’s a perfect portrait staring you in the face. You won’t find a gum wrapper anywhere in the theme park. All of these things are by design and they all come back to the culture that Walt Disney put in place when he was developing the theme park business. And from that moment, I became fascinated by it. I couldn’t read enough books about it, I couldn’t learn enough about it. I ended up interning at the company. At the end of work each night, I would go and walk those streets inside the Magic Kingdom. It really influenced who I was as an early manager.
Navin: Got it. So you talked about leadership. One of the things we have learned over our 47-year history is people are everything. Because people make products, products don’t make people. So, in your journey, whether it was Amazon, and we’ll get to Hulu and Vessel and being board member of a few companies, what do you look for in people when you hire them, want them to be part of your team, want them to be your co-founders?
Jason: I look for a number of things but I’d say the very first thing that I look for, or at least I’m aware of, is a spark. And I don’t mean that in a very flippant way. I mean that in a very meaningful way, which is, does this person care deeply? And can you sense it in terms of, do they lean forward in life? Do they have a natural curiosity? Do they have energy? Do they have a desire to do important things with their life? That’s what I look for first.
And then there’s other things that I look for. I think a lot about how they think about the world in terms of innovation. The way I define innovation is, “The relentless pursuit of better ways.” And so, there’s some people who are wired that way and others who aren’t. And I tend to look for people who are wired in an innovative way, in terms of how they want to use the time that they have on this planet.
And there’s other things you look at. Like, you try and assess, where do they put their quality bar? That’s a very important thing. How do they think about customers? Are they very high on the stack for them or are they a little bit lower? And clearly, there’s a horsepower thing that I look for as well, in terms of just how high their horsepower is. But for me, it really just starts at, is there that spark? Is there that curiosity and energy and lean-forward aspect to life.
Navin: Spark. That’s a great thing. Every time I do this I learn something new. That’s a great, great thing. So let’s shift gears from Amazon and talk about Hulu. What was the big vision behind it and what were the key learnings you had along the way, working with big media companies?
Jason: A book could be written about this and it would be a good one. When you think about Hulu, the vision behind it was quite simply … and a lot of credit goes to guys like Peter Chernin and Jeff Zucker from, at the time, Fox and NBC, respectively. What the context in 2006, just to roll back the clock, was, Google had recently acquired YouTube and there was a tremendous amount of publicity around that. And there was a lot of nervousness in Hollywood about the fact that, “Wow, there’s this new thing that we hadn’t even heard about before.” And it got acquired for $1.6 billion and a lot of the content that was on there happened to be clips of Saturday Night Live, which NBCU had not uploaded. And so there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty, doubt, concern, anxiety, some of it misinformed, but that was the context.
And so the vision behind Hulu, at the start, was, “Something has to happen. It can’t just be Google. There has to be other innovations out there.” So, give credit to Peter and Jeff for shaking hands and saying, “We should be partners and we should figure this out.” So, I entered the conversation with them soon thereafter. And the three of us, along with a gentlemen named Jonathan Nelson from Providence Equity, basically went off and started this business and grew it. First we had to name it and then we had to really put down on paper exactly what it is we wanted to build for launch in 2007. And then we assembled just a wonderful world-class team, many of which are still there today. And that literally began in earnest in 2007.
Navin: So let’s move forward from Hulu and come to Vessel. What was the vision behind Vessel and where did you see the market opportunity, based on what you learned at Hulu?
Jason: Sure thing. So, Vessel … When we were building Hulu over many years, our focus as a team was exclusively on traditional-format television shows and movies, films. But there was something also happening on the internet at the time, which was a dramatic increase in short-form video. Native web video is the way a lot of people describe it.
And the other thing that was fascinating was that there were some really talented people that were doing this on a regular basis. So, instead of the one-off video that happened to go viral, there were people that were doing weekly or sometimes daily videos that were getting audience sizes that actually rivaled cable programs. And a lot of these creators came to Hulu and said, “Hey, can we put our videos in Hulu?” and it just wasn’t a good fit for Hulu because we were very focused on traditional-format, half-hour programs, and one-hour programs
And so, when Richard, Tom, and I decided to leave Hulu, after six years there, to go off and build another company, we just kept coming back to the fact that these people were out there seeking to build careers and a business for themselves, but yet they didn’t have the economic platform to do so. So the vision behind Vessel from the very start was, could we bring a better model to the internet for people that were developing native web video? And so, we started that three years ago in terms of the founding of the business, launched the business 18 months ago, and we’re up and running now in terms of providing early access, exclusive early access, to native web video.
Navin: And I love it. Basically, I’m a great user and so is my family. So, given the big companies you’ve worked for, how does it feel again to be part of being a founder and CEO of an early-stage startup?
Jason: The way that I would describe it, Navin, and you know this well, is that the highs are higher and the lows are lower. The early-stage life, I think, it is the most exhilarating that you can find in business, at least that I’ve found. But that said, though, the lonely days are quite lonely. And that’s something that a lot of the glorification of start-up life and entrepreneurial adventures, a lot of that is always not covered. And so you really have to want it. And for me, I remember, we had very dark days in the summer of 2007 at Hulu when it was a four or five person company and, boy, the world was not a big fan of what we were building. But you have to have a fortitude and I’d say that goes for any early-stage company. Very rarely is it all double rainbows and sunshine and whatnot. So, I’d say that it’s among the most satisfying and fulfilling thing you could ever do, but it also comes with a fair dose of challenges too.
Navin: So let’s switch gears and talk about locations, primarily LA and the Bay Area. Hulu was based in LA and now Vessel is based in the Bay Area. How does the entrepreneurial environment differ in these two places? What have you learned?
Jason: They’re very different environments and I’ve lived in both, obviously. At Hulu, we chose to place the company in Santa Monica, where it continues to exist today. And I’d say that the thing that defines the Southern California entrepreneurial market is that all areas of the world tend to be known for one thing and then there’s other diversity beyond that. Southern California is very much a storytelling town, that’s the lead dog. And I would say that entrepreneurial endeavors tend to be, at least, as defined by venture capital-backed, etc, tend to be less frequent in the LA market. So we took pride in that. We used it to our advantage at Hulu because, here we were, this entity where everybody had a stake in the company, which is very unusual in traditional companies in Southern California, like the studios and the networks, etc.
But at Hulu everybody had a stake in the company, and so we used that as an advantage, as a magnet for great talent. And we hoovered up a lot of the software developers that were coming out of Southern California and then relocated a lot of people from Northern California and elsewhere. So, I’d say, the main difference is you could argue that both Northern California and Southern California are company towns, it’s just they’re known for different types of companies.
Navin: Got it. So let’s talk about your experiences from being board member. You and I share a board of a private company, Brighter, but then you have been on the board of DreamWorks Animation in the past and now are on the board of Univision. How does being on board of a small company versus a big company differ? And what do you learn?
Jason: I like the notion of two types of boards, just because it’s …
Navin: A barbell.
Jason: It’s a barbell approach and it’s good for my own personal development, and I feel like it keeps you sharp. And I’d say that, for the Brighter board, I love the fact that it’s a small group. I love the fact that it’s you and I and Bill Gurley and a host of others that are just in a small room, regularly, and working with a fantastically talented CEO and founder in Jake. And that’s very fulfilling for me and it’s very fun to really get into it, in a very substantive way, amongst a very small group of real talented folks.
And on the other side, in the context of Univision, that’s a much bigger board and the financing of that company is such that there’s a lot of filings because there’s publicly held debt in the company. And so, it’s much more formal in terms of process board and it’s a much more sizeable board. But that’s interesting too because you have some of the most influential and talented private equity leaders in the country, if not the world, that are sitting around that table. In addition to, obviously, the leadership at Univision and people with fantastic backgrounds. So, it’s just different. And I get a lot out of both and hopefully I’m able to contribute a bit to both.
Navin: Got it. So you’ve been involved with companies that have been big, that have been small. You have founded companies, you’ve worked at Amazon. How important is it to have a set of strong values and culture in a company?
Jason: I think it’s everything. It’s funny you ask the question. People have asked me in the past … I’ll use the Hulu example. A lot of people believed that that was going to be a company that was going to be dead on arrival, and it turned out it wasn’t. And it turned out that the company was able to thrive and continues to thrive. And people have asked me, “Well, why is that? Because the world was against you guys and, usually, the world is right when they’re that much in the majority.” And my answer is always, “Well, the difference is, nobody understood how strong our culture was.” Nobody appreciated the fact that we were very proactive about defining who it is that we wanted to be, from a values and principles perspective before we started hiring people. And when we hired people, we vetted people through those values and principles. And when you do that, it’s a tremendously powerful cocktail.
And I learned that, by the way, from Disney, back in the day when I was a little kid and found myself saying, “How is it that one company nailed these theme parks, whereas everybody else in the amusement park industry are five rungs below on the ladder?” And as I did a lot of work to try and answer that question, I found out it goes back to culture, and Disney University and what Walt did and put in place to really hire the right people with the right values and principles. I learned tremendously from Jeff Bezos to that end as well. And, to this day, Amazon’s principles are out there on the web for everybody to see. I think, if you were to ask him and senior leadership team at Amazon, they’d probably say the number one reason for Amazon’s success is their culture and their values and principles.
Navin: I wholeheartedly agree. It’s the DNA and the backbone of a company, and especially the built-to-last companies. Let’s talk about focus. My belief is startups die of indigestion not starvation. So, as a founder CEO, what do you do when you come up with ideas, your founders come up with ideas, employees come up with ideas, how do you get people focused?
Jason: I agree. There is no doubt that there are so many talented entrepreneurs and founders and leaders of big companies. And I think the best of them come to the realization that ideas … this is going to sound ridiculous for me to say, but ideas can kill a company. Ideas are also critical for the success of a company but you have to know what to focus on. And I’ll use Amazon as an example, which is, for now, every 20-some years, Jeff Bezos has kept hundreds of thousands of people at Amazon focused on a very short list of things. And with regards to retail, it’s, “How do we increase the selection that we offer to customers? How do we lower prices profitably? And how do we deliver those goods and services as quickly and efficiently and accurately as possible?” That’s basically it. There’s a couple of other things but that really is it. And to be able to do that for 22 years, and to keep that focus and to not be distracted, that takes a very special talent. And give credit to the senior leadership team and everyone at Amazon, for keeping that focus.
Navin: Is there one piece of advice you would like to share today with entrepreneurs who are going to listen to this podcast?
Jason: I’d say, the thing that resonated with me a long time ago was that … and, actually I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people here in Silicon Valley have repeated it, which is that when the internet first came on the scene, at least through the Mosaic browser and then, ultimately, Netscape, there were a lot of people in 1996, 1997, 1998, that basically thought they were too late. They basically said, “Well, this is tough. I just wish I would have come out here three years ago because that’s when the real interesting stuff was happening.” And they looked at Amazon and said, “There’s already a bookstore,” they already looked at web browsing and they said, “Well, Netscape exists.”
And it sounds so silly, as I say it today, but make no mistake, people back then thought they were too late and they missed out on all the good innovation. And if you look at today, my guess is there’s a lot of people that are entrepreneurial and are, in some ways, a little defeated because they feel like all the good innovation has happened already. And I guess the thing I’d leave with you is that, the best and most important innovations in human history have yet to happen and it’s the entrepreneurs that are thinking about either moving to Silicon Valley or are here and struggling with how to come up with those ideas. That’s all ahead. It’s not behind, it’s all ahead of us.
Navin: Very well said. I wholeheartedly believe in it that’s why Sand Hill exists, otherwise we wouldn’t be in existence if you didn’t dream that dream. I’m sure our listeners are going to really enjoy the lessons and learnings you have had along the way. So thank you very much for taking the time.
Jason: Thank you very much, Navin. It’s great to be here.