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After October’s Don’t Pitch Me.. event, I had a brief chat with the founders of tanktop.tv. I spent some time thinking their situation through, all of which ended up turning into this letter*, which is posted here with Liz Rice’s (co-founder) permission….

Hi,

Enjoyed your presentation last week – thanks. I think you have great possibilities. I’ve been thinking about it a little, and thought I would share some thoughts which might be of interest.

You may know of Joel Spolsky, a tech/entrepreneurial blogger (founder of StackOverflow). He gave a talk at another Meetup recently about the need to identify an essential characteristic of a startup, which he identifies as Amazon vs Ben & Jerrys – the nub of which is; land-grab, go-for-broke, market share at all costs, own the territory and worry about earnings later versus steady, organic growth, careful with the money, self-fund, focus on quality. He has it as a blog-post here.

The point is, that I think you need to decide which you are.

Further, my opinion is that you need to be huge.

I think you need to be amazon, not Ben & Jerrys. I can’t see any other way to make good on your great idea, nice implementation and the time and effort you’ve put in. Your service is immediately and obviously both useful and usable, but you don’t seem to have a way to make enough money from each user for it to survive without getting big.

I suggest that what you have achieved so far should be considered as a great ‘proof of concept’ – as the platform for raising some real money and a well funded launch with lots of marketing. This may mean giving away lots of the equity, but that’s the way I’d go, on the basis that 10% of something big is much nicer than 100% of a year’s work that doesn’t make any money.

If you can get to be big, then the fact that only one user in 20 does anything that earns you a penny will cease to matter – you will have all sorts of other opportunities that are only available once you get to a certain scale.

How to get big? I don’t know – but I hope you won’t mind me saying that, at the moment, neither do you seem to. There are, however, lots of people who do that stuff, if you have some money to pay them with.

I do have some thoughts;

1
You were wondering if you could get big when I talked with you afterwards – whether anyone will ever pay for a film in the future. I suggest consciously going for slightly older users. It seems that Radio Times’ average age for readers of the print edition (circulation around 1M, and there are two others that sell more – see Guardian article) is mid 50s, while for the Web site it is late thirties. I suggest ignoring (well, not specifically targeting, at any rate) people below thirty. Older people are less likely to be interested in just seeing the latest release, will be interested to go wider and deeper, will appreciate some engagement that will help them find good things to watch – and have more money than time, as well as being less comfortable about illegal downloads. I remember when home-taping was apparently killing music, so I have confidence that people will still be making movies and somehow earning a living doing it, for some time to come.

1a
Perhaps that’s another service to add to your list – an indie film-makers streaming service? Even if this didn’t make money in the short-term, being at the forefront of how film-makers will still be able to charge for their content sounds like a good long-term business strategy.
bfi-to-launch-bfi-player-on-demand-streaming-service-for-independent-films/
http://online.wsj.com/news
Stiff_competition_draws_filmmakers_to_cyberspace
http://www.fandor.com/

2
What you have built so far is like a VW beetle (the original!) – it does the job well, in a nice package. There isn’t much beyond the functionality, and what extras there are feel as if they were done to a budget (no criticism intended).
There isn’t much reason to be on your site unless you are choosing something to watch – but as an ideal ‘second screen’ site, this is missing important tricks. If I like films enough to use your site, I am probably also a person who would like to read about films, see trailers, interviews with directors etc etc.
So I would suggest adding more features, to take it towards a magazine format, but with caution, so that the focus remains clearly on the selection tool. A two-column site, the ‘mosaic’ taking 70%, with another column of content; news, reviews, comment. What you are doing already in your bar along the top, but with more conviction – the bar is too cramped, it’s not attractive to click on those things because you don’t know what they really are.
I think you want to be a nice, roomy people-carrier with lots of clever, helpful doo-dads that stay out of the way when you don’t need them. Somewhere you can hang about, not just get from A to B in.

3
Thinking about the ‘collections’ idea, and talking to a couple of people, the current implementations of these things seem weak – even amazon don’t seem to be able to make them better than marginal ( the epitome of a dull format). Reading a stark list of what an unknown person chose just isn’t very engaging – some innovation in this area is surely possible. My first thought is to give the collection some personality – giving some idea of who has put it together, what their selection is about, perhaps some simple customisation options so the lists don’t all look the same, links to any other collections they have made/liked – give the thing some context; plus of course, ‘like’ buttons, ratings, rankings, comments etc.
This would all make it easier to decide whether to trust the list-maker. It would also encourage the list maker – give them a little space to let their personality shine. Maybe you also give them some click-through revenue when they get enough for it to add up to more than 5p – they might actually prefer kudos and exposure. You will be able to feature popular/interesting/new lists, etc in your content area.

3a
Could you offer a ‘home’ for movie bloggers? – so that their blog lives in your site, or as part of its family/network. You would cherry pick their best content to feature on your front page – perhaps paying them a little for the privilege. Of course, established popular bloggers won’t come, but people just starting out might (perhaps people who have made collection lists might graduate if they find they like the experience) – particularly if you can offer them something like a custom theme and a little help setting it up once they’ve achieved some milestone (10 posts with more than 3 likes…). And perhaps some click-through revenue, help with affinity deals or advertising. Some of them will be good, and you can grow together.

3b
If you raise any serious money, I would pay some notable film writers/directors to put collections together. People like Alex Cox, for instance. These people aren’t just list makers – they are curators. (okay, so I’m too upmarket – celebrities might be the thing. yuck.)

4
Lots of the above is pointing towards your site becoming more social (how original of me!). Perhaps another tack might be to talk to people who have social sites focussed on film/TV. Is some sort of partnership/sharing/merger possible? There seem to be too many (I’d never heard of any of these before googling):
http://www.filmbuffet.com/
http://www.seenth.at/
http://www.flickchart.com
http://www.criticker.com/
http://letterboxd.com/
http://www.filmburner.com/
None of them seem to have a UK focus – something you would be strong on – particularly as you strengthen your TV side. Does this offer an angle?

5
Which last question leads me  wonder: could you (in future, given enough money to hire people, etc etc) go international, but with country/language/culture specific sites/content? Bollywood? Nollywood? The moslem world? (and thinking of cultural sensitivities reminds me that you could do with some age-appropriate filter settings).

6.
Investors. You need money to do any of these ideas. Lots of money for most of them, perhaps. But you don’t need to do them now. In my view, what you have done is already enough to give you serious credibility. I would be thinking very hard about raising money at this point – with whatever ideas you have (even if none of the ones above do it for you) – talking to people who have been through that process, thinking about structures, getting realistic and unapologetic about how much money you need to get big, fast; being clear about it being the amazon route.
Now is not the time to be adding features, for worrying about whether to make an app or not (IMHO yes, of course you need an app – but not now – what you need now is confidence that you have a route to making this great thing you have done truly viable and sustainable). What all the features, all the ideas are for, is to map out future road maps (yes, more than one, so that you cover some of the more likely possibilities of aspects of the plan failing). These road maps are to demonstrate to investors that you understand the concept of Fire and Motion – which I get from another very useful Joel Spolsky post (he doesn’t get to the point until half-way through…) – the idea that to succeed in the low-friction, fluid world of the web, you always have to be pushing new features out, always developing your service, so that you are on the front foot, and the competition is always playing catch-up. To show investors that you can think big enough to be big.

Well, that’s more than enough. Hopefully not much too much more than enough….

Just in case it might seem slightly creepy that I have written quite so much, let me explain. I’m currently spending time attending events like last night’s, listening, learning and thinking as I plan my escape from the construction industry into the tech world. As I have no track record, experience or qualifications in this area, I decided that one thing I could do was to try to develop a reputation for being helpful.

I hope I have been. If not, then please do excuse me as an over-enthusiastic neophyte!

On the other hand, if anything here is interesting, I’d be very happy to take conversations further with you (just to be clear, with no expectations at all beyond the experience).

*strictly, the communication was an email, but I am betting on the time-worn word ‘letter’ retaining one of its meanings – a considered written communication – long after the term email has become archaic (hopefully this will occur rather soon!).