20VC From Leading the BBC to Leading Venture Capitalist, The Biggest Similarities and Differences Between the Best Founders and the Best Actors & The Future of Media; Legacy vs New, The Creator Economy, The Rise of TikTok and more with Danny Cohen

Summary Notes


In this episode of 20 VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews Danny Cohen, former head of the BBC and current President of Access Entertainment. They explore the transition from media to investing, highlighting the importance of talent, teamwork, and emotional intelligence in both fields. Cohen shares insights from his tenure at the BBC, emphasizing the centrality of talent and the challenges posed by audience fragmentation and digital consumption. The conversation delves into the nuances of investing across various entertainment sectors, with Cohen advocating for focus, quality, and flexibility in founders and projects. They discuss the evolving media landscape, the role of AI in content creation, and the potential consolidation of content platforms. Cohen also touches on personal topics, including his marriage to Noreena Hertz and their decision not to have children, maintaining romance, and his views on cultural history and "woke" culture. Throughout, Cohen stresses the value of storytelling in connecting with audiences and the need for adaptability in a rapidly changing industry.

Summary Notes

Founder Qualities for Investment Confidence

  • Danny Cohen emphasizes the importance of both metrics and emotional intelligence when investing in founders.
  • He highlights traits like extreme drive, focus on quality, attention to detail, and flexibility of mind.
  • Founders must be able to adapt to changing conditions and discern what truly matters amidst distractions.
  • These qualities are relevant across different fields, from theater to gaming.

"It's metrics, but it's also a question of emotional intelligence and an ability to read people extreme drive, focus on quality, an ability to separate what really matters from all of the other stuff going on, an attention to detail and flexibility of mind."

The quote summarizes the multifaceted approach Danny takes when assessing potential investment opportunities. He looks beyond just the numbers to the personal qualities of the founders, which are crucial for success in any industry.

The Role of AI and Notion in Workflow Simplification

  • Harry Stebbings introduces Notion as a tool that integrates notes, docs, and projects while leveraging AI.
  • Notion's AI capabilities can automate tasks, summarize notes, and assist in brainstorming.
  • The platform aims to streamline workflows and reduce the need for multiple digital tools.

"Notion combines your notes, docs and projects into one space that's simple and beautifully designed. And you can leverage the power of AI right inside notion across all your notes and docs without jumping between your work and with a separate AI-powered tool."

Harry explains how Notion serves as a comprehensive workspace that integrates AI to simplify and enhance the user's workflow, reducing the need to switch between different tools.

Canva's Mission and Magic Studio

  • Harry talks about Canva's mission to empower design and introduces Magic Studio.
  • Magic Studio uses AI to create custom designs, social posts, presentations, and videos quickly.
  • Magic Edit allows users to edit images with text prompts, enhancing the creative process.

"Magic Studio brings together the best AI-powered tools for you and your team to help you redefine the way you design."

This quote showcases Canva's Magic Studio as a suite of AI-powered tools designed to revolutionize the design process for users and teams, making it more efficient and accessible.

Mercury: A Breath of Fresh Air in Business Banking

  • Users share positive experiences with Mercury, highlighting its ease of use and aesthetic appeal.
  • Mercury is presented as an intuitive banking solution for startups, supported by Choice Financial Group and Evolve Bank & Trust.

"Mercury has been a breath of fresh air. Getting started was maybe one of the most delightful onboarding experiences I've had."

A user's testimonial reflects the positive impact Mercury has on the banking experience for startups, emphasizing its user-friendly platform and pleasant onboarding process.

Danny Cohen's Background and Transition to Investing

  • Danny Cohen shares his transition from leading the BBC to joining Access Entertainment as an investor.
  • He decided to leave the BBC to explore new opportunities and challenges in his career.
  • Len Blavatnik's proposition at Access Entertainment offered a more appealing and diverse career path.

"The proposition he offered was so much more interesting, so much more Runway to have a long career in this, rather than treading around the same turf I had been for the first 25 years of my career, it was just much, much more appealing."

Danny describes the opportunity provided by Len Blavatnik as a significant factor in his decision to move from the entertainment industry to the investment sector, seeking a broader and more dynamic career trajectory.

Talent and Team Management Lessons from the BBC

  • Danny emphasizes the importance of talent and team dynamics in both the media industry and startups.
  • He advises on the necessity of honesty about one's weaknesses and the importance of delegation.
  • Danny suggests that CEOs should focus on tasks that only they can perform.

"It's all about talent, it's all about teams, it's all about being honest about what you're not good at and what you need support from other people at."

This quote underscores the critical role of recognizing and managing talent and team strengths in achieving success, whether in media or in leading a company.

The Value of Operator Experience

  • Danny reflects on the value of management experience and its application in investment decisions.
  • Understanding the complexities of management can provide deeper insights into the challenges businesses face.

"Understand people and also understand. It's hard. I mean, it is hard managing things."

Danny acknowledges the difficulties in management and suggests that this understanding can lead to more empathetic and informed investment strategies.

The Challenge of Audience Fragmentation and Digital Transition

  • Danny identifies audience fragmentation and digital consumption as major challenges for legacy broadcasters.
  • The shift towards digital platforms requires attention to younger audiences as indicators of future trends.
  • High-quality content remains a cornerstone for successful distribution in a fragmented market.

"The biggest challenge, the macro challenge, the most interesting challenges, is about that fragmentation and that digital transition."

Danny points out the overarching challenge faced by traditional broadcasters, which is adapting to the changing landscape of media consumption and audience behavior.

Content Quality and Discovery in a Digital Age

  • Danny discusses the issue of content discovery in an era of abundant digital content.
  • The effectiveness of recommendation algorithms on streaming platforms is questioned.
  • He stresses the importance of producing high-quality content to stand out in a crowded digital space.

"The quality of those algorithms is, I think, slightly overrated."

Danny critiques the reliance on algorithms for content discovery and suggests that they may not always effectively surface content that aligns with user preferences.

The Impact of AI on Content Creation and Discovery

  • Danny predicts that AI will exacerbate the content discovery problem by significantly increasing content supply.
  • He emphasizes the importance of focusing on talent and taking risks to create hits and stars.

"It's going to worsen it. I think you're right."

Danny agrees with the concern that AI will further complicate content discovery due to an increased volume of content.

Legacy Media's Response to the Creator Economy

  • Danny shares insights into how legacy media, like the BBC, view the rise of the creator economy.
  • He believes they are challenged by the new media landscape and are attempting to adapt.
  • The conversation touches on the financial viability of content creation on various platforms.

"I think they're massively challenged by it."

Danny acknowledges the difficulties faced by traditional media entities in responding to the evolving creator economy and the shift towards new forms of content consumption.

Concerns Over Content Fragmentation and Monetization

  • The discussion addresses concerns about the fragmentation of long-form content into short, sensational clips.
  • Danny suggests that content creators should guide audiences from short-form to long-form content.
  • The viability of the creator economy and the monetization of content on different platforms are debated.

"It's the long form content where the money is."

Danny highlights the financial importance of long-form content and the challenges faced by creators in monetizing short-form content on platforms like TikTok.

Attracting Young Audiences to Legacy Media

  • Legacy media attempts to attract younger audiences by focusing on topics of interest to them.
  • Efforts are made to appeal to young people on traditional platforms, despite the challenge of these audiences moving away.
  • There is an existential threat to companies as they struggle to maintain the attention of younger demographics.

"But what they're trying to do by doing that and which other legacy media also have to try and do is track young audience, make those young audiences feel that there are some topics which are particularly focused on them."

This quote highlights the strategic intent of legacy media to engage with younger audiences by tailoring content to their interests.

The Catch-22 of Legacy Media Platforms

  • Legacy media faces a dilemma where young audiences are not present on their platforms, making it difficult to attract them.
  • Despite this, legacy media must continue to try and find ways to draw in these audiences.
  • The existence of clickable content, such as Instagram clips, is an effort to bridge the gap between traditional platforms and the interests of younger users.

"That's a catch 22, isn't it? Because if they're not on that website, you can't get young audiences to the BBC."

This quote illustrates the paradox faced by legacy media in trying to attract an audience that does not typically use their platforms.

The Future of Legacy Media

  • The value of legacy media may increase due to the trustworthiness and verification it provides in contrast to AI-generated content.
  • The challenge for legacy media is maintaining relevance and trust, especially with younger generations who consume news through social media.
  • The future of legacy media is uncertain and requires adaptive leadership, talent, and distribution models.

"It's existential, actually, for those companies."

This quote emphasizes the critical situation legacy media companies are in, as their traditional audience base diminishes.

Legacy Media's Incentive Structure

  • Traditional media houses offer less attractive financial incentives compared to modern media opportunities.
  • The BBC and similar institutions are still places where people take pride in working, despite financial limitations.
  • The desire to work for legacy media fluctuates, with interest in tech giants like Google or Facebook also varying over time.

"The BBC's salary incentive structure is not nearly as attractive as what one can earn in a modern media world."

This quote addresses the disparity in financial incentives between legacy media and newer media platforms.

Valuation of Legacy Media in Five Years

  • It is difficult to predict the future value of legacy media due to the rapid pace of change in the industry.
  • Strategies and the impact of AI on content and distribution models make forecasting particularly challenging.
  • Confidence in predicting the media landscape over a five-year period is often seen as overconfidence.

"They're overconfident."

This quote suggests skepticism towards those who claim to know what will happen in the media industry years in advance.

Business Model of Media and Attention Economy

  • The traditional media business model is changing as audiences shift to on-demand and social media platforms like TikTok.
  • The investment strategy should focus on attention and eyeballs across a range of entertainment experiences, rather than specific formats.
  • The financial value creation is tied to where attention is directed, and this can vary significantly across industries.

"Attention and eyeballs that can be across a wide range of entertainment experiences."

This quote encapsulates the shift in media investment strategy towards capturing audience attention across various platforms and formats.

Upside Maximization and Investment Strategy

  • Different industries have varying potential for value creation, with tech companies potentially achieving higher valuations than theaters.
  • Investment considerations include not just profit maximization but also a passion for the arts and storytelling.
  • The mix of investments at Access Industries reflects a balance between financial goals and appreciation for artistic endeavors.

"There are things we do in the mix at access, which aren't about profit maximization, but are about smaller profits, and also a love of the arts."

This quote reveals the diverse investment approach that balances profit with a passion for the arts.

Downside Scenario Planning in Investments

  • The risk of failure is different across startups and physical event spaces like theaters.
  • Real estate ownership in theaters provides a safety net against total loss.
  • Maximizing profitability in theaters involves attracting big stars and innovative productions.

"It's certainly showing a theater because you own the real estate."

This quote highlights the inherent value in owning theater property, which mitigates investment risk.

Challenges in Cross-Discipline Investing

  • The main challenge is maintaining a high standard across diverse investment opportunities.
  • The investment approach focuses on exciting opportunities and avoids spreading resources too thinly.
  • Understanding one's strengths and relying on others where necessary is crucial for success across various business ventures.

"Keeping the bar high bandwidth, making sure you're focusing on the right things, I think that's the biggest challenge."

This quote addresses the difficulty in maintaining focus and quality when investing across multiple disciplines.

Commonalities Among Talented Individuals

  • Common traits among talented individuals include extreme drive, focus on quality, attention to detail, and flexibility of mind.
  • Emotional intelligence and an ability to read people are important for assessing founders and artists.
  • Founders and artists share many qualities, but artists also face unique risks and vulnerabilities associated with public performance.

"All of those things are some of those things. And they're as true of someone acting on the stage at a 300 year old theater as they are of a gaming company."

This quote draws parallels between the attributes of successful individuals in various fields, from gaming to theater.

Unusual Hobbies and Entrepreneurial Grit

  • Successful founders often have unique hobbies that demonstrate deep engagement and understanding of complex systems.
  • Unusual interests can reveal a person's entrepreneurial spirit and approach to problem-solving.
  • Differences between actors and founders include the personal risks and insecurities associated with performing arts.

"Akin, he will absolutely master the shit out of online chess and he will get so deep in it and understanding every possible optionality tree of moves."

This quote exemplifies the intense focus and dedication that successful founders may have towards their hobbies, reflecting their entrepreneurial mindset.

Recognizing and Managing Talent

  • Investing in talent requires understanding their strengths, concerns, and the risks they take.
  • Managing people effectively involves recognizing your own strengths and complementing them with the skills of others.
  • The secret to success lies in self-awareness and building a team that complements one's abilities.

"Secret of success is surrounding yourself with brilliant people who can fill in the bits that you're not as good at."

This quote encapsulates the importance of teamwork and leveraging the strengths of others for collective success.

Acknowledging Mistakes in Judging Talent

  • Even experienced investors can misjudge talent, and learning from these mistakes is important.
  • Behavioral flags, such as discretion and respect for others, can be indicators of potential issues with an investment.
  • Understanding foundational stories and past behaviors can provide insights into an individual's character and potential for success.

"Sometimes the flags are around things which are not necessarily about, okay, here's our business plan. But the behavioral things around the way they talk to you and what it might tell about how they might run."

This quote suggests that behavioral cues can be as telling as business plans when assessing the potential of founders and their ventures.

Giving Hard Feedback

  • Being generally good to people makes direct feedback more impactful.
  • A supportive and helpful demeanor enhances the effectiveness of tough feedback.
  • Directness should be signaled and framed as helpful.

"If you are generally good to people, when you say something directly, they really notice one is the product of the other."

This quote emphasizes that consistently positive interactions with others make instances of direct feedback more noticeable and significant.

Cutting the Cord

  • Act sooner rather than later when you know a situation isn't working.
  • Delaying the inevitable decision often leads to regret.

"When you know, you know and you have to act because it's very, very rare that you go further down the line and you're wrong on that."

Danny Cohen stresses the importance of trusting your instincts and taking action when you realize a situation is not working, as hesitation usually leads to wasted time and missed opportunities.

Trust and Confidence

  • Initial investment or empowerment of a CEO signals confidence.
  • Trust must be validated and verified over time through results.

"You give that initial vote of confidence, but then you've got to help me, show me I was right."

Danny Cohen conveys that while initial confidence is given to leaders, they must subsequently prove themselves through their performance and results.

Experiencing Broken Trust

  • Broken trust makes one cautious about future collaborations with the same individuals.
  • It's challenging to rebuild trust once it has been significantly damaged.

"If your trust is badly broken, it's very hard to go back."

Danny Cohen reflects on the difficulty of re-establishing trust after it has been severely compromised.

Loving What You Do

  • Enjoying work becomes more important as one gets older.
  • Recognizing the privilege of loving one's job is essential.

"I think as you get a little bit older, you do. You think I want to use my time in the most valuable way possible, and therefore I want to enjoy what I'm doing."

Danny Cohen discusses the growing desire to enjoy work as one ages, suggesting that time becomes a more precious commodity.

Decision Making in Investments

  • The process varies based on the size of the investment.
  • Larger investments involve collaboration and pressure-testing ideas across teams with diverse industry experience.

"We try and pressure test ideas together when we meet every week."

Danny Cohen explains that investment decisions, especially large ones, are made through collective discussion and evaluation within a team of experts.

Impostor Syndrome and Learning

  • Feeling nervous about a new role can be a positive, intentional choice.
  • Learning about finance and investment was a significant challenge.

"I knew I had a lot to learn. I felt really nervous, which is what I wanted to feel."

Danny Cohen acknowledges the value of stepping out of one's comfort zone and embracing the learning curve associated with new opportunities.

Market Rationality

  • Markets do not always behave rationally.
  • Understanding market trends and focusing on fundamentals is crucial.

"The hardest thing to learn, in a way, is how strange the way the markets behave is because I don't find it always entirely rational."

Danny Cohen expresses his surprise at the often irrational behavior of markets, highlighting the importance of adapting to trends while staying grounded in fundamental beliefs.

Agility and Lack of Bureaucracy

  • Moving to a smaller, more agile organization was liberating.
  • Access to capital and flexibility in investment were positive changes.

"Lack of bureaucracy. The agility of a place like access."

Danny Cohen appreciates the reduced bureaucracy and increased agility he experienced after transitioning from a large organization to a smaller one.

Insecurities and Team Support

  • Ensuring the right team support is in place is a common concern.
  • Specific investments may cause insecurity, leading to reflections on investment strategies.

"Am I got the right people around me to help me?"

Danny Cohen discusses the importance of having a capable team to complement one's own skills and address areas of uncertainty.

Investment Myths and Lessons

  • Investing in multiple ventures within a believed thesis is beneficial.
  • Learning from missed opportunities can lead to more strategic investment decisions.

"If you believe in something, it's okay to double down. It's okay to take more than one risk in an area."

Danny Cohen shares a lesson learned from his investment experience, advocating for diversification within areas of strong conviction.

Success and Humility

  • Success should not lead to complacency or ego inflation.
  • Focusing on execution keeps individuals grounded.

"Don't get carried away. It's hard. Lots of things can happen still in the future."

Danny Cohen advises maintaining humility and a long-term perspective even in the face of success.

Marriage and Partnership

  • Marrying someone smarter can be enriching and interesting.
  • Supporting and cherishing one's partner is key to a happy marriage.

"Support your partner, enable them, liberate them, cherish them."

Danny Cohen reflects on the importance of mutual support and empowerment in maintaining a fulfilling marital relationship.

Decision Not to Have Children

  • Choosing not to have children can be a deliberate decision for personal happiness.
  • It is important to respect different lifestyle choices and the dynamics they create.

"We didn't want to change anything because it feels pretty perfect."

Danny Cohen explains his and his partner's decision to remain childless, emphasizing their contentment with their life together.

Retaining Romance Over Time

  • Cherishing one's partner and making them feel special is crucial.
  • Daily treatment of each other is more important than occasional grand gestures.

"It's about the way you treat each other every day."

Danny Cohen highlights the significance of consistent, everyday actions in keeping a long-term relationship romantic and meaningful.

Loneliness Pandemic

  • Loneliness is a significant issue affecting both young and old.
  • Digital culture and social media contribute to the loneliness epidemic.

"It's a huge, huge issue for young people as much as old people."

Danny Cohen acknowledges the widespread problem of loneliness across different age groups and its exacerbation by modern technology.

Loneliness Economy

  • There is a diverse range of solutions addressing loneliness, termed the "loneliness economy."
  • Physical and digital initiatives are both important in combating loneliness.

"The range and diversity of the loneliness economy is huge. I think it's going to keep growing."

Danny Cohen discusses the various approaches to addressing loneliness and anticipates the expansion of this sector.

Storytelling as a Revenue Source

  • Belief in the profitability of storytelling in media despite trends towards shorter formats.
  • High-quality, long-form storytelling can still be lucrative.

"I believe fundamentally, if you find the right things, you can't make a lot of money in that area."

Danny Cohen expresses his conviction that storytelling through traditional media forms can remain a profitable venture.

Cinema and Market Disruptions

  • The cinema industry faces challenges due to labor disputes and content supply issues.
  • Moments of success are often accompanied by frustration due to external factors.

"Utterly disastrous. I mean, Barbie and Oppenheimer were a wonderful moment, but it actually became quite a frustrating moment because it was the biggest moment since the pandemic."

Danny Cohen comments on the difficulties faced by the cinema industry, illustrating the complex interplay between success and market disruptions.

Dislocation in Content Supply

  • The writers' strike in LA caused frustration and a potential halt in content production.
  • A prolonged industry pause could lead to a scarcity of content in the following year to 18 months.

"But, yeah, there will be a point, a pinch point in the next year to 18 months, where there's probably a bit less content around than before."

This quote highlights the concern that a prolonged strike in the entertainment industry could lead to a shortage of content in the near future.

Broadway vs. West End Costs

  • The cost of producing plays and musicals in New York's Broadway is significantly higher than in London's West End.
  • Union costs contribute to higher production expenses in New York.
  • High investment risks may deter investors and impact Broadway's future.

"The cost of financing a play or a musical in London's West End can be four times less than financing on Broadway."

This quote emphasizes the stark difference in production costs between Broadway and the West End, which affects investment decisions.

Success and Value in Broadway Shows

  • The success rate of Broadway shows varies, with only some achieving profitability.
  • Investing in successful shows like Hamilton can lead to rights in productions worldwide.
  • The value is not solely in IP but also in consistent sell-outs and global rights.

"You earn that right by taking that risk to invest in a successful production as it moves around the world."

This quote explains that investing in a successful Broadway show can provide opportunities for profit from productions in various locations.

Lessons from Len Blavatnik

  • Danny Cohen has learned the importance of focusing on fewer, larger projects.
  • Len Blavatnik's advice is to "do big things" and maximize one's bandwidth effectively.
  • Stories and patterns from Len's experiences provide valuable business insights.

"He always says, do big things, do less and do big think."

This quote encapsulates the business philosophy of doing fewer things but with greater impact, as advised by Len Blavatnik.

Storytelling in Business and Entertainment

  • Storytelling is crucial in both the entertainment industry and in business pitches.
  • Founders often assume too much knowledge on the part of investors.
  • Effective storytelling requires simplicity, structure, and the ability to captivate the audience.

"And storytelling needs thought. It needs structure. It needs a shape, it needs highlights."

This quote highlights the essential elements of storytelling that are necessary for engaging and successful communication.

Learning to Storytell

  • Storytelling is a skill that can be learned and improved upon.
  • It involves understanding the fundamentals, such as having a clear beginning, middle, and end.

"Fundamental storytelling is a beginning, middle, and end."

This quote reinforces the basic structure of storytelling which is applicable across different mediums and contexts.

Brand Storytelling and Consistency

  • Brands like Ikea and Chanel excel in storytelling and maintaining a consistent image.
  • Successful brands maintain clarity and consistency in their messaging.
  • Overcomplication can hinder a brand's connection with its audience.

"A brand is hallmark of something you like and maybe quality, but it's also a feeling a brand gives you."

This quote captures the essence of branding, which is the emotional connection and recognition that a brand establishes with its consumers.

Cultural History and Woke Culture

  • Concerns about the extremes of woke culture and the lack of subtlety in public discourse.
  • The importance of maintaining cultural history and not editing classic literature.
  • The need for nuance when discussing the separation of art from the artist.

"I don't think anyone should be changing Roald Dahl or Charles Dickens."

This quote reflects Danny Cohen's stance on preserving the integrity of classic literature and cultural history.

Future of Media and Content Distribution

  • A desire for less confusing content distribution and consolidation of platforms.
  • The importance of live experiences alongside digital consumption.
  • The hope for a reduction in smartphone dependency for a more fulfilling life.

"Less distribution, less confusing distribution structure. Easier for people to navigate."

This quote expresses the wish for a more streamlined and user-friendly content distribution landscape in the future.

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