We were in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Hawaii looking to swim with wild spinner dolphins. I was on the upper deck when Jessica yelled for me to hurry down. I figured she had spotted the dolphins. Nope. She was looking at her phone with a smile on her face from ear to ear! “Guess who just messaged us on Instagram!?”
?!? REESE WITHERSPOON !?!
We couldn’t believe that the big Hollywood actress was directly messaging us about our little cartoon!! First we screamed. Then we danced. Next we debated for waaay too long the perfect response to Mrs Witherspoon. Finally, we hit send!
LESSON 1 : The journey is better when you have someone to share, struggle, dance, and hit SEND with.
Since we conceived and committed to the idea of creating our family cartoon, we began openly sharing it on social media. Sharing your ideas is a key step for success. “But what if somebody steals your idea??” The idea is the easy part. Execution and bringing that idea to life is the difficult part. But that difficult process is made way easier if more people know your idea, know what you are working on, and can help you along the way.
10 years ago I sold my iPhone app to Snapchat for $54 million. I was only able to build that app because I teamed up with the 2 best coders on campus. I didn’t find those coders, they found me, because everyone on campus knew who I was but more importantly, what my idea was. I would openly pitch my idea every chance I got and let people know, “I have designed and prototyped my idea and now I’m looking for coders who want to team up with me.” I found them and they found me, and together we changed our lives forever.
Could they have taken my idea and “Zuckerberg-ed” me? Definitely. But please believe me, getting Zuckerberged is the minority. Execution is so difficult that most ventures fail no matter how good the idea is. So I decided very early on to give myself the best chance for success possible by over sharing and choosing to trust the good in people.
I believe that I should only dedicate my precious time in life to projects that I’m truly passionate about to such an extreme level, that it’s as if I’m the only person on the planet that can execute properly on this project. With that mindset, I would welcome anyone else to try to steal my idea. If they can execute better than I can, then they should.
Elon Musk has some great thoughts on this matter. He shocked the world when he made his Tesla patents open to the public. He explained that his goal to make transportation more eco friendly and efficient will be better achieved if we work together. He also publicly said that if somebody else can build a better electric vehicle, then they deserve too build it.
If you’re going to pursue an idea, be confident enough in yourself that you can do it best, no matter the competition!
LESSON 2 : Ideas are easy. Execution is difficult. The best chance of success comes when you share your ideas and needs with everyone so they can help you.
But sharing your hopes and dreams is vulnerable and can be very embarrassing. Never before has this been more true than in today’s social media world where so many people seek popularity and fame, but aren’t willing to endure the embarrassing days of getting started and “being the new kid at school”.
I remember meeting with a real estate agent in Oregon a few years back and everywhere we drove I saw real estate signs for a different agent. When I asked about it our agent explained, “Yea he basically runs the town. But when he first started he would literally go door to door asking people if they would be interested in selling their home and hiring him to help. Talk about embarrassing right?!” I remember thinking to myself, “If you are not willing to endure the embarrassing stages then you are not worthy to receive the success that ONLY COMES AFTERWARDS!”
There’s actually many benefits to being the “embarrassing new kid at schooL.” I’ve been that kid many times now. Being vulnerable sucks but do it enough and eventually, like all (dis)comfort zones, you’ll thrive in it. We felt vulnerable when we started The Bucket List Family and all our close friends and family saw our brand new account with big goals, but small followers.
Big companies like Apple, Disney, and Snapchat especially like to keep their projects confidential and hush hush until they launch. I think they miss out on so much opportunity when they do things that way. They’re unable to receive feedback along the way, grow community, and especially build excitement!
I call this, THE BIEBER EFFECT. Justin Bieber didn’t wait until he was a superstar to start sharing videos on YouTube. Rather, he began sharing homemade videos of him from the very beginning. As a result, his fan base grew together with him. More importantly, they felt as though they discovered him, they helped him, THEY MADE HIM! Flashforward to today, and those loyal fans will forever stick with him because they were there from the very beginning, BEFORE he was famous.
LESSON 3 : Let others be a part of your journey, even from the humble (and embarrassing) beginnings.
The week we began openly sharing our idea for family cartoon idea on social media we received so many supportive messages from our Bucket List community including direct messages from Reese Witherspoon, someone from Sony Animation, someone from HBOMax, and a few others offering their help or wanting to meet with us and hear more! This led to us booking a trip to Hollywood for our first ever pitch meetings with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and also Disney+.
I didn’t really know how to prepare for these meetings because I HAVE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!! But when I created my iPhone app and pitched investors, that was my first time as well and if there is anything I learned from that process it was to be genuine in my lack of experience. The professionals see through any facade. But the best ones can also see any sliver of potential that might be worth investing in.
LESSON 4 : Don’t fake it til you make it. Embrace the rookie in you. People like a good Cinderella story.
My first pitch meeting was with Disney+. Someone named Karen. Remember that name. She plays a key role in this story. One of her first questions to me was, “Do you have a sizzle I can watch?"
I stumbled over my words for a bit while my brain scrambled to come up with some excuse as to why I did not have a sizzle for her to watch but finally I reminded myself, the best answer is the real answer. So I responded to Karen, “I’m so sorry but I don’t know what that is. Can you explain to me what a sizzle is?” I’ll always remember her endearing smile at me. I think in that exact moment she realized just how rookie I was, how much I needed her help, and how much she wanted to help me. Perhaps my sincere honesty was more powerful in that moment than even a sizzle could have been?
She explained that most pitches come with a presentation of slides along with a short video called a sizzle that shares your vision in the best way possible. “Ah yea that makes sense how that would be super helpful!” We scheduled a follow up meeting for the very next week and I promised her to return WITH A SIZZLE!
Sometimes the cosmic stars of creativity align and sometimes they do not. Creatives out there know the struggle is real because this magical alignment can’t be forced or predicted or timed. Sometimes it takes weeks or even years. BUT sometimes you’re Dolly Parton and write the masterpiece I Will Always Love You for Whitney Houston in 45 minutes!
Well, on my travels back home I was feeling extra Dolly Parton ;) and had an immediate clear vision for the type of sizzle video I wanted to create, even the song I was going to use (maaaybe the most important part) and the person I needed help from to bring it to life: Brian Clayton.
LESSON 5 : Work with people smarter and more talented than yourself.
I met Brian Clayton when he attended our focus group at The Beverly Hills Hotel (mentioned in Chapter 2). He had messaged me and asked if we could meet for dinner before the focus group. I declined, explaining that dinner would be served at the focus group and we will have a good opportunity to chat then. He pushed back and explained that he had traveled from Oregon to participate in this focus group. WHAT?!? When we posted about the focus group and called for people to participate we asked for locals. On the one hand I was confused as to why he traveled so far to be here, but on the other hand it was totally something I myself would do and game respects game so I answered "yea, let’s get dinner before dinner" :)
That chat with Brian went really well. He is so brilliant and so creative but above all, Brain is a good guy. Again, he is insanely smart and talented so when I say above all, that just tells you how good of a guy Brian Clayton really is. So it was a month or so later and I found myself reaching out to Brian and explaining the Disney+ sizzle video situation and asking him if he could help me bring my vision to life by intertwining animation throughout the video.
Brian: I would love to. When do you need it by?
Me: Next Monday.
Brian: Oh... that’s super short notice. Can you send me the video so I can see where I’d be doing the animations?
Me: I haven’t created the video yet but I can have it to you in 24 hours.
Brian: Well this will be tough but we can give it a try!
Me: MY KIND OF GUY!
LESSON 6: Give it a try. Be THAT GUY.
We agreed on an hourly rate and a rough game plan and got to work. Like I said, I was fully “Dolly mode” and things were just clicking. I worked at our kitchen table for 24 hours straight while Jessica brought me meals or snacks here and there and friends that were staying at our house shuffled in and out. I wrote a script and Jessica did the voiceover just AMAZINGLY. The song fit our footage and the vibe I was hoping for perfectly, as I knew it would, and at the 24 hour mark I sent it off to Brian giving him 4 days to add his animations.
When Brian sent us the final video 4 days later (I think he maybe slept less than 4 hours those 4 days) there wasn’t time for us to make edits so we just had to take it back to Disney+ as it was. No need for edits. Brian’s work was MAGIC.
I remember watching it with Jessica and Dorothy and Dorothy’s friend from school. I wish I was filming but honestly I didn’t expect what was about to happen. The moment in the video when Dorothy jumped into the ocean and transformed into a cartoon with the whales, we all jumped back and started screaming with excitement!! Dorothy’s friend yelled out, “THAT’S AMAZING!!” It was such a special moment. I was ready to show this newly created sizzle reel to Disney, and everyone else who would meet with me.
On my way back to Disney+ I did my best to make the most of the trip by setting up meetings with Disney+ but also Disney Animation, Sony Animation, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Chromosphere, and HBOMax.
I walked into these meetings with 3 important tools:
1) PASSION for my vision and the confidence that I’m the best person on this planet to bring it to life.
2) SIZZLE VIDEO that might not look like the end product, but more importantly helps viewers experience what our show will FEEL like.
3) And finally I was going to continue to wear my ROOKIE CARD loud and proud and let these big networks know that I might be new to this industry, but I’m here to stay ;)
Bonus point: It helped that I was walking into these meetings with a brand new Instagram account for The Bucket List Cartoon that had zero posts but exactly 100K followers! When we announced to the Bucket List community our vision we invited them to follow our new page and goodness did the community come through! This community is like 1 big fam. The support they have shown us from day 1 is our fuel to keep going and someday I’ll be able to premier episode 1 of our cartoon, and show them how we made the most of their support and what we created TOGETHER.
I’m so glad these meetings all took place in person. I would arrive early so I could assure the conference room lighting was right and the volume was turned up loud. I needed them to see the video, hear the music, and FEEL our message. I’ll never forget their reactions. Disney+, Amazon, HBOMax, they all cried tears. They felt our vision. Every single one of them responded positively saying they would be interested to work with us and wanted to schedule additional meetings. Everyone EXCEPT HBOMax. They did NOT ask for additional meetings. Instead, they just made us an offer!!
I remember stepping outside my final meeting where Jessica picked me up curbside. We went directly to the LA International Airport and boarded a flight to Panama. We arrived to Islas Secas, Panama and it was during our first dinner that we received an email from HBOMax.
They wrote us saying, “..we would love to buy The Bucket List Cartoon and develop it with you guys! It’s such a heartwarming show idea and as you know you guys have a lot of fans in this building! We see the series potential so clearly and would love to be your partners on this. I know you had other meetings and that you may have other suitors, but we would consider ourselves so lucky to get to work with you guys and bring this show to life together..”
First we screamed.
Then we danced.
Next we debated for way too long (41 minutes) how to respond.