Ken Goldstein: From Writer to Disney Executive and More01 Oct 2014, Posted by Advice for Aspiring Producers, Children's Media, Expert Interviews, Game Design, Mobile App Development, Online Games, Philips CD-i, Videogames in
Ken Goldstein has served as Chairman & CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, and VP / Executive Publisher of Entertainment & Education for Broderbund Software. He currently advises start-ups and established companies on brands, creative talent, e-commerce, and digital media strategy. Ken is on the boards of Thrift Books LLC and Good Men Media, Inc. He publishes the blog Corporate Intelligence Radio and his first novel, This Is Rage, was recently published by The Story Plant.
- 1. You have worked in the digital media industry almost from the start. Your earliest gigs involved game design. Can you tell us how you got interested in games and how you broke into the industry?
It was entirely by accident. I was just getting my career as a writer in gear when the WGA strike hit L.A. in 1988. I ran out of money quickly and needed to work, and Starbucks hadn’t been invented yet. Just about the time I finished the last package of Ramen I could bump on a credit card, I met some guys from a company called Cinemaware who were exploring the idea of “interactive movies” (which I soon learned meant computer games). I had just written a spec script called Miniatures about a kid who wanted to turn his fleet of radio-controlled model planes into an air force of drones, and they wanted to do a game about WWI aviation called Wings. We agreed I would help them add an epic Hollywood story to the game and they would teach me about design and programming. The game was a hit, I discovered that unlike traditional media there were no established rules about creativity in the tech world, and I never looked back.
- 2. One of your early industry jobs was at Broderbund. Can you tell us a bit about Broderbund and what you did there? What was your favorite product that you worked on at Broderbund and why?
I had designed a game for you at Philips for CD-I called Zombie Dinos, that made learning about dinosaurs fun. (To my readers, Ken and I worked together at Philips when I was president of a group called Family Home Entertainment. Ken was marvelously creative and a great loss to us when he left to join Broderbund. ) We couldn’t get full motion video working on that platform out of the gate so we used stop motion puppets. The game was inspired by Broderbund’s Carmen Sandiego series, which I loved. The senior team from Broderbund saw Zombie Dinos at an optical platform conference and said, “Ken, if you want to work on Carmen Sandiego, why don’t you come to Broderbund and work on Carmen Sandiego?” Then they showed me their CD-ROM development kit called Mohawk, which about a dozen engineers had created and pretty much blown past the entire rest of the industry in getting CD-ROMs to do anything. So they hired me to help get some new creative stuff going, and when I got there, it became apparent that I could be more helpful to management in overseeing part of the publishing business as we grew. I became Executive Publisher of the Carmen Sandiego line which to this day is still the product, team, brand, and business experience I have most enjoyed in my career.
- 3. From Broderbund you went to Disney Online. Was that an enormous culture jump? How were the two the companies different?
The first time I sat with Michael Eisner (once I stopped pinching myself in full conviction that I was not actually sitting in his office playing computer games with him) I said I didn’t want to move back to Southern California, I didn’t want to work for a multinational conglomerate, and I didn’t want to work for a company that’s first business wasn’t software. So Michael asked me if the following Monday would be a good starting date. He’s a pretty good closer, you know? He said it would be exactly the same as Broderbund, just more resources. They forgot to tell me that my job would involve helping bring over 70 distinct Disney business units onto the internet over the next decade, without any enforceable authority to do so. We also went through the dotcom bubble, a tracking stock that had to be folded back into the corporate parent, a shareholder revolt, 9-11, and an attempted hostile takeover of the company, all in three years.
Yes, it was exactly like Broderbund, where I looked out my window and saw ducks splashing around in the Marin wetlands. Nevertheless, it was an amazing learning experience. I brought the Friday Beer Bash to North Hollywood from Northern Californian and we launched Toontown, the first massively multiplayer games for kids and families. I wouldn’t trade any of that journey for anything. Plus, I don’t pinch myself anymore when I visit with Michael. He became a lifelong mentor to me.
The first time I sat with Michael Eisner (once I stopped pinching myself in full conviction that I was not actually sitting in his office playing computer games with him) I said I didn’t want to move back to Southern California, I didn’t want to work for a multinational conglomerate, and I didn’t want to work for a company that’s first business wasn’t software. So Michael asked me if the following Monday would be a good starting date. He’s a pretty good closer, you know?
- 4. How would you describe the differences between producing packaged products versus online products?
If I hadn’t started my career producing products for floppy disks I think it would have been hard, but it’s like everything old is new again. We shipped Wings on two 3.5 inch floppies. The last Carmen Sandiego sku before CD was on something like 8 floppies. We used to count media assets in Ks, not MBs, or GBs. The way I used to describe online products was to think of a bowling ball we need to get to the other side of the Earth. First we have to crush it into a zillion pieces. Then we need to shoot those pieces through a really long straw. Then we have to glue them all back together again. And we have to do it in a millisecond—so please, bring me the smallest bowling ball you can! Just like floppy, right? Packaged goods got nutty, all the people who sold crates of Fritos and Prell Shampoo started showing up teaching us how to work with Target, CostCo, and Wal-Mart. Then there was a price war and our margins collapsed, and along came the internet to save us, only the internet was based on the premise that all content should be free, which was even tougher than selling software like salty snacks. So we got with the program and learned about advertising, sponsorship, and subscriptions. The veterans among us knew how to produce it from the old days, but making money at it was a lot harder. Good thing the adoption rates were astronomical – elasticity works well with the power of small numbers multiplied by big numbers. Ask Google about that.
- 5. These days you do a lot of consulting for startups. What would you say is the biggest mistake you see startups making? What would you say are their biggest advantages?
The biggest mistake I see is they assume that a clever product will sell itself, and that there is only minimal value to spending a decade working for someone else to learn the hard lessons of business and leadership on their dime. The best startups I see are the ones where the talent spins off from great companies, because the talent has the experience to roll with the punches and appreciate the necessity of serving customers. The advantage is you can have an idea at breakfast, beta test it at lunch, and greenlight or kill it at dinner, without any meetings or anyone telling you that you can’t. The power of being nimble is hard to explain to most people who haven’t experienced it, but it is the kind of power that lets David slay Goliath.
The biggest mistake I see is they assume that a clever product will sell itself, and that there is only minimal value to spending a decade working for someone else to learn the hard lessons of business and leadership on their dime. The best startups I see are the ones where the talent spins off from great companies, because the talent has the experience to roll with the punches and appreciate the necessity of serving customers.
- 6. If a potential client comes to you for consulting services and you feel their idea is doomed to fail or not ready for prime time, what do you do?
I take on very few projects, because my litmus test is LOVE. I don’t use that word lightly. I don’t do anything anymore if I don’t love it, I’m really lucky to be in that position. I work with just seven companies at the moment, and I love all of them—what they do, how they think about creativity, how they think about customers, how they think about talent. They have to eat their own dog food and I have to want to eat their dog food. Someone may have a fantastic project, but if I don’t see it as something I personally can love and evangelize I wish them well, but I don’t get involved. My time is all I have, and I want to spend it on work I find inspirational, where I can add really unique value, or I refer it to someone else who might be a better fit.
- 7. You recently wrote a novel called This Is Rage. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I started life as a writer, I think I put on my first play when I was in the fourth grade, and I will go out of this world as a writer. Now at last I write on my own terms, about subjects that consume me. The intersection of technology, media, finance, and politics consumes me. Tom Wolfe wrote an impossibly definitive novel about the lunacy of the bond market in the 1980s called “Bonfire of the Vanities.” It was a dark comedy, conveyed in the spirit of the New Journalism, fully researched but fully fictitious, a story first but also a slice of life filled with learning. That book was life changing for me, and I wanted someday to write that book about Silicon Valley in the present. So I did. It was hard, way harder than I thought, but I promised my wife I would finish it so I would stop talking about it. The result is now on the shelves, virtual and physical, which is immensely satisfying. I also have the best publisher I could possibly imagine, an independent called The Story Plant, and the most amazing editor who started the company, a bestselling author named Lou Aronica who gives the kind of notes any author could hope to get from an executive that actually makes me work harder and smarter about all my choices.
- 8. You are a Board Member and Advisor to the Good Men Project, which describes itself as “a glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century.” Can you tell what motivated you to get involved with the site? What do the women in your life think of the site?
Good Men Project caught my attention when I discovered that it was ostensibly about “men,” but half the readers are women, and half the writers are women. I worked closely on the brand positioning with our CEO, Lisa Hickey (note the name, Lisa), and we landed on “The Conversation No One Else Is Having.” We don’t see this happening anywhere else, largely civil dialogue between men and woman about what it means for a man to be good. We never say from a masthead declaration what we think it means for a man to be good. We don’t have a GMP Man of the Year Award. We are a place where people can talk about touchy issues like fatherhood, being a good husband, being a good date, being a male manager worried about saying or doing something wrong, liking sports, not liking sports, being afraid of showing vulnerability, playing roles, playing against stereotype, all that kind of stuff. We found that the majority of men either don’t want to talk about this aloud or can’t find a place to talk about their feelings safely, but let them write or comment about it and they can fill the web with ideas and passion. My wife gets the newsletter and may only read a few stories each week depending on the headlines, but she will surprise me and say, “Hey, did you see that story about how many people quietly empathize with Robin Williams? That was eye-opening!” That’s how I know what we are doing is working. It’s inclusive by design. I don’t agree with all the editorial, but I am very passionate about the breadth and scope we cover!
- 9. What product or service have you seen lately that really excites you?
I’ll be contrarian here and tell you what doesn’t excite me—our nation is woefully behind on providing ubiquitous wireless broadband. We all should have super cheap, fully distributed, wide pipe connectivity anywhere and everywhere we go. Mobile smart phones should work 100% of the time flawlessly. If we don’t get there soon, we aren’t going to stay the world’s leading economy. It excites me that some company is likely to solve that problem in our lifetime, but we are so late and our service is so bad it’s pathetic. We should be embarrassed.
I’ll be contrarian here and tell you what doesn’t excite me—our nation is woefully behind on providing ubiquitous wireless broadband. We all should have super cheap, fully distributed, wide pipe connectivity anywhere and everywhere we go.
- 10. What are you most proud of in terms of career accomplishment?
That Shelley and I have been together for almost 25 years
(I met her when I set up the office for you, she was our property manager at Philips POV, remember?). We are still in love, we are each other’s best friend, and we are each other’s muse. I have seen too many of my colleagues destroy their marriages in the name of being more successful, and we didn’t go that route. I wouldn’t trade anything for that, because honestly, the day I met her is when my career really started to takeoff, and hers as well. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I wrote a blog entry years ago noting that the most important career decision you make is the person with whom you choose to spend your life. Get that right and you’ll be surprised how many challenges you can overcome together.
- 11. What is the most surprising result you experienced in your career? For example is there a product that you thought was a sure winner that did not perform as well as you hoped? What did you learn from this experience?
My next book is about this topic, due out in late 2015. It’s called “Dodging the Greatest Hits Graveyard” and it’s all about surrounding yourself with the tools for ongoing success rather than one-off success. I wrote a blog entry about this a while back and then expanded that into a business parable. I sent the first chapter to Lou and he said, yeah, write that book, about repeatability and recovery. Every product surprises you. You never know what’s going to stick. Good marketing makes mediocre products fail faster, and all you can do is commit yourself to doing your very best work every single minute of every day. No one does their best work every single minute of every single day, but if you commit to trying, you are more likely to produce stuff that is less mediocre. People, Products, Profits, in that order. It’ll be in the book, and it’s a story, not a memoir. You have my promise.
- 12 . What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career? Did it pay off? How and why or why not? What are some of the things you’ve learned?
After writing eight spec screenplays and working in support roles on several TV series I walked away from Hollywood and turned my sights on technology. It was far and away the hardest decision I ever made in my career, and people looked at me like I had lost my mind, leaving the glamour of showbiz to go off and produce silly computer games. I actually convinced myself we were making Interactive Movies, when there was no such thing! Best decision I ever made, no question in hindsight. Very simple reason. I went from being just another guy trying to do what a lot of other super talented people were doing, to being a guy who had just enough of a leap on experience to create scarcity in my skill set and world view. I didn’t know everything, but I knew well with a critical time advantage what very few others understood. I committed to staying in the position of having rare knowledge no matter what I was pursuing, and no matter how disorienting it was to jolt myself out of my comfort zone. That’s what I tell people, no matter what you do, don’t let yourself be one of many, somehow find a way to be one of one, and you will always have opportunities. Don’t compete for what others want, select what you alone can best accomplish.
That’s what I tell people, no matter what you do, don’t let yourself be one of many, somehow find a way to be one of one, and you will always have opportunities. Don’t compete for what others want, select what you alone can best accomplish.
- 13. We call this blog, Influences and Influencers, who are the people who have influenced you? Have you ever had a mentor? Can you tell us about him or her? Whose work or input has impacted you the most in your career and how?
I mentioned Michael, of course he is always The One. I wrote a bit in the Acknowledgments of This Is Rage about a high school teacher of mine, Dr. Berit Mexia, who taught me how to read philosophy and how it can matter beyond the endless pages of dense text, that has stayed with me a lifetime. But there is another guy I don’t talk about as often who really changed my life, a boss I had at Broderbund named Harry Wilker. He said he was a Zen business guy, and believed it was possible to be both a good capitalist and a caring human being. He taught me to worry less about what I could produce, and worry more about what I could inspire others to produce—that there was exponential leverage in rallying a team rather than doing something on your own. He also taught me it was okay to be a perfectionist, but to figure out each day what I didn’t have to do to make it perfect and let someone else make it perfect, reserving my private time for the touches where my focus really did matter in the big picture result, not the claim of credit. He taught me how to hold on while letting go, to quietly demand outstanding results from people around me by intellectually challenging them to do their best, not with fear, but with self-assurance and pride. Harry taught me you could win it all without crushing people if your definition of achievement was reasonable and not greedy, and part of winning was relishing other people’s success more than your own. He was a super guy. I only worked for him a few years, but I wouldn’t be the subject of your interview without him.
- 14. If an aspiring digital media producer or writer came to you for career advice, what would you tell him/her in terms of building a career?
Life is a series of tradeoffs. Be very clear about your values and what matters to you. You aren’t going to get it all. You aren’t going to get the perfect gig in the perfect place at the perfect salary with the perfect boss, no one does. And if you get a perfect anything it is unlikely to last more than a nanosecond. Getting over that hill today which is the only thing that probably matters to you, guess what, there’s another hill (if you figure that out around the 100th hill, you’re doing better than most). Figure out what really matters to you and get that in perspective, because if you don’t, the bad guys are going to come for your soul, and there are no refunds on that. Know what you’re playing for, and understand that as corny as it sounds, the journey is the reward.
- 15. If you could start all over again, what career would you pursue?
I say this all the time, I feel like I was born at the exact best time in all of history. I got to see the world on a black and white TV with three networks, I got to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon, and now I have more horsepower in my smartphone than Apollo 11 had onboard and I can publish anything I want on my blog for the globe to see without any constraints on distribution. I have no regrets, and maybe 2 or 3 decades left to make a million more mistakes. I’m not yet complete, but I’m good for the moment.