James Creech — Paladin CEO on Selling to Brandwatch, Influencer SAAS, and Recasting Your Success

June 8, 2022 by  Chris Erwin

Today we publish our 23rd podcast episode with James Creech, SVP Influencer Strategy at Brandwatch and Co-Founder of Paladin. Links to listen and full transcript are below.

We discuss how former GE CEO Jack Welch inspired James to be a number one category leader, using his down payment on a house to start Paladin, his make or break pivot when the creator economy evolved in 2018, working till 3 AM over Christmas to sell his company, why James and I are kindred spirits, and the power of recasting your success.

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Interview Transcript

The interview was lightly edited for clarity.


Chris Erwin:

Hi, I’m Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.


James Creech:

Thomas and Ole and I all put considerable capital into the project. To put that in perspective, at the time, Thomas was getting married. His fiancé, she was amazing to say, “We believe in this dream, and we want to put that money that we would have saved for a big, nice wedding with our family and friends towards investing in this startup.” I had been saving to buy a house, so I took essentially a down payment on what I would do to buy a house and said, “I’m all in on the business.” Every penny to my name and probably even some I didn’t have like went into Paladin. Then, Ole had recently gone out and bought a Tesla. He ended up driving back to the dealership and returning the Tesla, so he could take all of that money and put it into Paladin. So, every single one of us was all in from day one.


Chris Erwin:

This week’s episode features James Creech, SVP influencer strategy at Brandwatch and founder of Paladin. So, James was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in Bakersfield, California with parents who worked in oil and gas. Early on, James was a creative. In high school, he made sketch comedy videos with his friends and thought film and TV was his future. So, he went to USC Film School and ended up running the college TV station, but soon realized that he really enjoyed and was good at the business side of entertainment. His career started at a video advertising startup, where he helped scale the team to over 40 employees, but then moved on to Bent Pixels, which started as an early YouTube MCN.


Chris Erwin:

While there, James took a big bet on launching a technology SaaS product for the early creator economy, which he ended up spinning out and leading as CEO, until its recent sale to Brandwatch just a few months ago. Today, James leads influencer strategy at Brandwatch and stays busy on the side, advising over 10 different companies and publishing content on his podcast and blog. Some highlights of our chat include how former GE CEO Jack Welch inspired James to be a number one category leader, when he used his down payment on a house to start Paladin, his make or break pivot when the creator economy evolved in 2018, working till 3:00 AM over Christmas to sell his company, why James and I are kindred spirits, and the power of recasting your success. All right, let’s get to it. James, thanks for being on The Come Up podcast.


James Creech:

Hey, Chris. Thank you, excited to be here.


Chris Erwin:

This has been a bit of a long time coming. I think I was on your podcast a year or two ago, and I said, “James, I’m going to have to get you on mine someday.” And, we’re finally making it happen. When we were doing the prep, I just got even more excited, because I realized just how cool and exciting your story is. So, excited to share that with the listeners, and as always, let’s rewind a bit. So, we’re going to go back. Tell us about where you grew up, what your household and what your parents were like.


James Creech:

So, I was born in Houston, Texas, but grew up mostly in Bakersfield, California. So, I always tell people, “You could probably guess what my parents did for a living, right?” We worked in oil and gas. So, I spent most of my life, yeah, in Bakersfield, from ages four to 18, essentially. My childhood was great. I have a younger brother and sister. We’re a close family. We had the chance to do a lot of traveling when we were younger, which was fun. I remember soccer practice and tennis and Cub Scouts, mock trial. We were involved in a lot of activities, and our parents were very much a part of those activities and the stuff that we enjoyed as kids.


Chris Erwin:

Quick interjection, how far did you get in Cub Scouts?


James Creech:

To the end of Cub Scouts. Never made it to boy Scouts.


Chris Erwin:

Did you achieve the Webelos badge?


James Creech:

Yeah, I was a Webelos. I think that’s about as far as I made it.


Chris Erwin:

Nice. I did one up you a bit. I got to Eagle Scout with my twin brother.


James Creech:

Congrats. Wow, that’s a huge achievement.


Chris Erwin:

It’s a lot of work. Back to you, so grew up in Bakersfield, had some younger siblings. Early on, what were your passions? What were you into? Was there any glimpse into the career that you have today?


James Creech:

I think when I was a kid, I used to tell people what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be the governor of California. I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know that I have any sort of interest or passion in politics. I think as I got older, I would say I lacked the moral flexibility to pursue a career in that field, but was interested in politics and government early on. Somehow, that morphed into maybe being interested in law and going to law school at a certain point. I was pre-law at USC, so that was certainly a passion. I ended up doing the mock trial, as I mentioned, and then interned at a law firm and realized, hey, a lot of love for the legal profession, a lot of great friends who are lawyers, et cetera, but that probably wasn’t the path for me.


James Creech:

In high school, the thing that really captured my intention was making videos with my friends, essentially comedy shorts. It’s interesting, the timing, right? I was inspired by SNL and all these other amazing sketch comedy programs. Had I been a generation later, let alone maybe even five years later, the videos I made probably would’ve ended up on YouTube and now TikTok. But, because of the timing, I just made videos with my friends, and we made DVDs and shared them with our friends and family. But, it wasn’t any sort of big distribution.


Chris Erwin:

It’s never too late, James. It’s never too late.


James Creech:

Yeah. There’s an archive of a lot of old, embarrassing footage somewhere.


Chris Erwin:

Yeah, IP libraries are in high demand, high valuation. So, there could be something there.


James Creech:

So, that’s what I was doing and figured, okay, well, I’m interested in media and entertainment. I applied and was accepted into the USC Film School and thought, okay, I’m going to go into film production, right? Fast forward a little bit, and I realized in college, well, I’m way more interested in the business side than I am in say the creative or the technical side. The stuff I liked doing in high school with my friends was making videos, which was really more about the experience of being together, less about the filmmaking process. But, yeah, that was kind of the early days.


Chris Erwin:

Yeah. So, I have to ask, what was your role in doing these sketch comedy or sketch segments? Were you a director? Were you a writer? Were you an actor? Was it all the above? And, I also want to hear, if you just have an example of one of the things that you guys did, I’d love to hear about it.


James Creech:

Oh, boy. So, I was an instigator. A ringleader is maybe the right word. We did all sorts of stuff. We were filming on these really small handheld cameras. I would certainly come up with sketch ideas and get my friends involved. We would shoot them. I would edit them. We would share them. There’s plenty of stories that I can tell you, many of which are maybe too embarrassing for the podcast. So, we’ll save that for a beer sometime, but one that definitely stands out is we kind of faked this kidnapping of our friend. He had a new girlfriend. He was really invested in that relationship, not spending as much time with our buddies. So, I said, “Okay, let’s go to his house one afternoon, dressed all in black like ninjas,” and his parents knew. We gave everyone a heads up, but we went in and kidnapped him for the day, which was a lot of fun. So, that’s probably one that stands out.


Chris Erwin:

It’s funny, hearing you tell these stories. So, I just started listening to This Is Important Podcast from the crew of Workaholics. They started just by making different sketch videos. They were filming wrestling matches in their backyard. Just hearing about some of their stories and how they started, and then they talk about, yeah, and then we sold the show to Viacom. How did this happen in Comedy Central?


James Creech:

Yeah, I wish that was the journey, was certainly inspired by Derrick Comedy and some of the other early, early YouTube sketch groups. We didn’t get that far, right? It was fun to run around in our backyard and make videos, and that’s where it ended for us.


Chris Erwin:

Yeah, cool. All right, so you get into USC Film School in 2012. I believe that you end up with a marketing and poli sci focus. But, tell us about you showed up at school. What was your initial focus? And, then it seems like it pivoted as you started to understand that you realized the appeal of the business side of entertainment, versus the creative side.


James Creech:

Yeah, so I went to USC, 2008. So, it was right around the housing crisis, financial crisis, which I don’t know, as an 18 year old, you’re fairly oblivious to. But, I was passionate about filmmaking. I was excited to be in the film program, also in the poli sci school. So, I was kind of running this dual track of, okay, well, I’m earning my political science degree, but I’m also taking these film courses and think that’s what I want to do after I graduate. I got involved at the college TV station, called Trojan Vision, which is the largest TV station in the country. We broadcast to over a million homes, and I just kind of fell into it and fell in love with it. So, I was a producer on a show my freshman year, worked hard, got promoted to senior producer, second semester.


James Creech:

I was like, “Hey, I really like this TV thing. I like being involved at the station, meeting other students,” applied for a staff position the next year and became an executive producer of a show. Okay, my first experience running a show, working in live television, it’s exciting. It’s the adrenaline rush of making something go on the air Monday through Friday. Through that experience, said, “Okay, I like the organization of the show, coming up with new ideas.” We were experimenting with new technologies like HD broadcasts and live remotes and stuff at the time. So, I was like, “Okay, I’m excited about this,” and people kept saying, “Maybe you should take some business classes.” And, I thought to myself as a sophomore, well, hey, no. I’m doing the film path. I’ve got political science. I don’t know what the business thing’s about.


James Creech:

But, luckily USC has a very flexible structure and approach to curriculum. So, you could kind of dabble and take a couple classes. So, I said, “What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll take a business class or two,” found out right away, hey, this is where I should be, and ended up transferring into the business school as a junior. So, I’m taking these intro 101 classes surrounded by freshmen. So, I had a very different mindset, let’s say, going to the business school. I’m really excited to be here. There are certain things I want to learn. I’m finding ways to apply this over at the television station. I had been promoted to the general manager, so I was running the whole station at this point, which is a real budget.


Chris Erwin:

That’s a lot of responsibility at a young age. What you said, it’s one of the largest college broadcast stations in the US, and you’re going … Is there live programming Monday to Friday? That’s a big deal.


James Creech:

Money through Friday, yeah, hours and hours of content. I was working essentially a full time load, basically 40 hours a week while going to school. But, I loved it. I loved every minute of it, creating television, working with students, and making something out of nothing, and putting it on the air every night, sometimes better, sometimes worse. But, I loved it.


Chris Erwin:

Okay, so you start taking these business classes, and right away, you’re like, “This is a good fit.” Then, what are you starting to think about what you want to do when you graduate?


James Creech:

Between my junior and senior year of college, I got an internship at Blizzard Entertainment. I grew up as a gamer. I wasn’t necessarily a desktop gamer. I was more of a console gamer, but loved the opportunity to get exposure to another form of entertainment and work in a bigger company and try to decide what was right for me. So, as I was going through that process, had a great summer internship experience, came back, and had the opportunity to say, “Do I continue as the general manager of the TV station one more year as a senior?” But, kind of realized, maybe it was time to pass on the baton. So, it was hard to say goodbye, but I ended up getting another internship opportunity at this ad tech startup, this company in LA that was helping brands and media agencies promote video content on YouTube.


James Creech:

This was pre TruView, very early days, helping to make videos go viral. I was just, I guess, really interested in social media, but also, a USC alum was the COO. She was hiring. It was close to campus. It paid. I’m interested in this career path, but also it checks a lot of the boxes as a student that I want to make sure it’s a good fit. So, I fell into that internship opportunity and just got hooked right away on the adrenaline rush of working in early stage companies. So, meanwhile, I had been recruiting, trying to figure out what do I want to do after I graduate. I had out law school or becoming a lawyer from my internship opportunity. I realized, okay, I’m more interested in the business side, so I’m gravitating towards that.


James Creech:

I like this startup company I’m working at, but I had always thought of myself as going into corporate America. So, I did recruitment on campus. I was offered a job to do business consulting and move to New York, which was kind of my dream. I was very excited as an almost 22 year old getting ready to graduate, moved to the Big Apple, and have this, what seemed like a really exciting, glamorous job at the time with travel and everything else. But, long story short, fell into working at Channel Factory, this ad tech startup, loved the team and the mission and the opportunity. They convinced me to stick around, so ended up declining the offer to do consulting and stay on the startup trajectory.


Chris Erwin:

I think what I’m starting to see here is you’re on a unique path where you have both the creative know how and understanding, as well as the business savvy. That’s very rare in Hollywood, right? I think of people like Bob Iger at Disney that has both of those sides of the brains, but it’s a pretty rare profile, which probably explains a lot of the success that you’ve had in a very young career to date. Okay, so you go to Channel Factory, and what do you focus on there? Because, it seems like you start at the company when it’s pretty early on, and they’re on a really high growth trajectory. And, you facilitated some incredible wins there. Tell us about that.


James Creech:

Yeah, it was ground floor, right? It was in the founder’s living room, essentially. We were building a business out of thin air, which was enticing to me and kind of felt similar to live TV production. Okay, there’s this excitement. There’s this adrenaline rush. You can have a big impact. So, I was basically the fifth employee, came in as an operator, doing a little bit of everything, strategic projects, built out ad operations group, hiring, training, commercial ops. I ended up working quite a bit coaching and supporting and at some points managing some of the sales team.


Chris Erwin:

This is all in like your young mid-20s, right? Because, you just listed off a lot of different things.


James Creech:

Yeah. We were all young, for the most part at that time. We were early 20s. It was a young company. It was an exciting opportunity in an early stage of the business. We ended up, of course, bringing in some more senior experienced folks, but there was this meritocracy to an extent, this excitement for youth and passion. So, we were all kind of figuring it out as we went along, and I was this person who didn’t know anything going into it, but was just excited about where the company was going and the type of impact that I could have. So, we grew that business to whatever, 40 plus people, and close to or exceeding eight figure revenues. We opened offices in New York and Chicago. It was this wild ride for two and a half years, so learned a lot of lessons, both good and bad.


Chris Erwin:

Can you elaborate on some of those lessons?


James Creech:

I learned a lot about how to treat people, right? I didn’t always agree with the founder and the leadership at Channel Factory. I had some great people that I learned from and supported me. Then, there were certainly some differences of opinion at times. I would say the other thing is it taught me a lot about the type of leader that I wanted to be and the type of business that I wanted to build one day. It’s instructive to learn what not to do sometimes, as it is to learn what to do. But, I got great contacts and relationships. A lot of the people at Channel Factory have also gone on to do some amazing things, many of whom have become very talented entrepreneurs. So, it was this kind of amazing talent pool and this breeding ground for incredible individuals who were passionate about digital video and making an impact on the space, and that’s been exciting to be a part of. There were certainly some things that we did really well, and being a young company, made a lot of mistakes, myself included. And, you learn from that and keep going.


Chris Erwin:

I love what you said. I always repeat this in interviews. It’s very important to learn what not to do or what you don’t like. In the beginning of my career where I was an investment banker, I worked with some incredible people and developed some incredible skills. But, there was also a lot of experiences and things that I was exposed to that I really did not enjoy, I thought were not good influences to the rest of my career. I consider that very valuable. When I talk to young people that are emerging from the undergrad and entering the workforce, it’s this thought of, I have to nail my first few jobs, and that sets up everything for me. The answer, no, I don’t recommend that.


Chris Erwin:

Try new things and experiment, and if it doesn’t go well, that’s totally okay. And, you’re going to learn from that. That was some of the most valuable experiences for me. So, I like what you just said there, James. I think that’s spot on. So, after a few years there, you then end up at Bent Pixels, where you also realized some great wins for the company. So, tell us about some of the work that you were doing there and how this set you up for your first big entrepreneurial venture, which is Paladin.


James Creech:

So, I entered Bent Pixels as an operator. That’s what I had done at Channel Factory. The company at the time was a multichannel network in the heyday of MCNs, right? So, there was this time of excitement around Maker Studios and Fullscreen and Awesomeness TV, and Machinima, this early wave of digital disruptors helping YouTube talent grow their audience, monetize their content, figure out the early stages of influencer marketing, and what now we’ve grown to know as the creator economy. But, this was ground zero, right? You remember. You were there, too. So, this was the very, very early stages of what these future digital businesses were going to look like.


Chris Erwin:

And, tell us exactly, what did Bent Pixels do specifically? Were they a software platform for the early creator economy?


James Creech:

They did three things, right? They were a traditional YouTube multichannel network, so they provided services to YouTube channel owners and creators to help them monetize their content. They offered digital rights management services, so they would help IP rights holders monetize and enforce anti-piracy against their content on YouTube. So, they were using the content ID tools and additional manual services to help manage those content libraries. Then, they did audience development, so they were doing channel management and audience growth for brands that wanted help with their YouTube presence, so not unlike Fullscreen, Maker, many others at the time, right? So, when we came in, Bent Pixels was probably a top 30 global MCN. It was probably in the top five for rights management. I don’t know, hard to say where it fell in the audience development or channel management services business, just because so many people were trying to get into that space.


James Creech:

We were doing all of this and facilitating it through technology, right? So, when I came into the business, I mentioned I started as an operator. And, I looked around, and I said, “This business doesn’t need operators, right? We have a very capable COO, a general manager.” I was looking for ways to do process improvement, cut costs, or optimize systems. There just wasn’t much of that to do. The company was profitable and growing, and it had been fairly well managed, right? Well, what the business needs is growth. That’s completely new to me.


James Creech:

I don’t really know the space I was coming from, I say is the demand side. I was working with brands and media agencies, and all of a sudden, I kind of end up on the supply side, right? Now, I’m working with talent and content creators. This business doesn’t really need all of the skills that I necessarily have historically had. So, we’ve got to figure this out, right? So, I just reached out to as many people as I could in my network and then through LinkedIn and said, “Hey, I’m curious to learn more about this space. Are you up for getting together for coffee or having a conversation?”


Chris Erwin:

This is very interesting. What was your primary networking tool? Were you using LinkedIn back in the day for this?


James Creech:

I was super early to LinkedIn, and I would just reach out to people. I would say, “Hey, I think what you’re doing is really interesting. I think this space is early on. There’s probably a lot we could learn from each other. Are you open to meeting for coffee or jumping on a call?” And, you’d be surprised, so many people said yes, especially all over the world, right? I was meeting people in Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific. It was this amazing opportunity to meet these other entrepreneurs who were like, “Yeah, everyone’s early. We’re all trying to figure this out. What are the things that are working for you? What are the challenges?” So, it was a lot of just connecting and sharing and learning from one another. But, obviously LinkedIn has changed a lot, A, over the years, B, post-Microsoft acquisition. But, in those early days, I was a young, snotty nosed kid, very earnestly trying to meet people and be helpful to the extent that I could. And, people were very kind to share their time and experience with me.


Chris Erwin:

I love that. You and I were actually just talking about this, I think, on LinkedIn. I just started a 30 day LinkedIn challenge. I think LinkedIn is one of the most powerful social networking platforms for professionals, hands down. I’ve been pretty active on it for the past few years, but our team is definitely ramping up our investment in it in terms of the type of content that we’re creating. We’ve been doing a lot of experimenting, as well as the cadence of content as well.


James Creech:

Which is amazing. I can’t wait to follow your content journey. I did something very similar in 2021, where I wrote every weekday, and it was such a stretch goal. I learned a ton from it, which we can talk about at some point, but I love LinkedIn, very supportive of the platform’s evolution into becoming more of a content destination, and like you said, showcasing professional stories and helping people connect. It’s getting back to some of those early roots of what it helped me pursue in my career.


Chris Erwin:

I love that. Well, maybe we’ll have to do a mini series of a podcast about LinkedIn best practices. So, you start reaching out to all these different contacts across the world, focused on how do we share mutual learnings, and how do we grow? So, what did you learn? Then, what did you take from your learnings and apply to Bent Pixels?


James Creech:

So, what I kept hearing was everyone was facing similar challenges, especially as we tried to figure out how to scale. You have to remember at the time, people were focused on initially hundreds of creators. Then, it became thousands of creators. At the highest levels of Maker, Awesomeness, we were managing tens of thousands of creators. Bent Pixels had tens of thousands of YouTube channel partners that they were supporting. This was before YouTube had the infrastructure tools, resources, support to help those creators themselves. So, MCNs were the first line of defense. The demand, the excitement for the space was so dynamic that it was this gold rush mentality, this exciting time of help and enable as many channel creators as possible.


James Creech:

So, we had been building some software internally at Bent Pixels at the time out of necessity to figure out, okay, how do we find the right creators? How do we manage those relationships, pay them accurately and on time? Eventually, that would become, how do we manage branded content projects with them? Everyone else was doing the same thing. They were trying to build tools in house. They were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. How do we take Salesforce and DocuSign and all these other tools off the shelf, stitch them together into this Franken-suite, and hope for the best? And, it was expensive, and it wasn’t working. So, I kept hearing this, and I thought to myself, well, hey, if everyone’s facing the same problems, and we’re building what to me feels like a pretty good software solution for this, that should be the business, right? I was a big acolyte of Jack Welch back in the days. I would read a lot of his books, this legendary CEO and leader of GE.


James Creech:

One of the things that stuck out to me is, if you’re not one or two in a category, you should cut it, right? So, it just occurred to me at every leadership meeting, I was like, “We have an opportunity. There’s this untapped market potential to build software for this new breed of creative companies, and no one’s doing it right. So, we should be first to market. We could be a leader there. It’s great that we have this profitable growing business, but we’re never going to win, right? We’re not going to be one or two in the category. We’re going to be … Maybe we move from 30 to 20 or five to three, right?” So, I was advocating for that. Now, the way it was perceived on the other side is, well, wait a minute. We’ve built this business, at that point I think over five or six years. It is growing. It is profitable.


James Creech:

All these other companies have raised massive VC investment. They have a lot more resources. We’re happy with our business, and we want to keep developing it, but we’re not going to bet the house on James’s crazy idea, right? They were advocating, hey, let’s get into paid media. It’s what a lot of other people are doing at the time. There’s a big opportunity. I had that background from Channel Factory. So, they kept saying, “No, forget about that. Focus on paid media.” I don’t know. I was persistent, probably very annoying, young naivete, saying, “I really believe in this idea. Just give me a shot.” They shut me down a few times and just said, “No, let’s focus on the paid media thing.”


James Creech:

Until, finally one day in some leadership meeting, with the support of our CTO Ole at the time, they said, “You know what?” I think maybe just to shut me up, “Okay, fine, right? You can have two months, 60 days. Give it a shot. Let’s see what happens, right? And, if it doesn’t work,” which they fully expected it wouldn’t, “After the field experiment, we’ll go back to focusing on paid media.” And, I said, “Sounds like a fair deal to me, right? I’ll take that bet.” So, in those next two months, I signed Maker Studios, Defy Media, Me Too, Networks, and 2btube, which would later go on to become the largest Spanish language creator community in the world. So, all of a sudden, they said, “Wait a minute. This is really interesting. We didn’t think you would sign a customer, let alone four of the top players in the space. This is absolutely what we’re focusing on, and you should do this full time.”


Chris Erwin:

Did you have to evolve the technology product to service these clients as well as reposition your services to actually close these prospects? So, you had to do both, because you didn’t have a technology background before this. You hadn’t built tech products. You weren’t a project manager, but you had to become this for this new role, correct?


James Creech:

Yeah. I am passionate about technology, had never been in product, had been adjacent to it, but said, “Yeah, we’ve got to figure this out.” We built a software application that’s meant for internal use. We have to figure out access rights, provisioning, white labeling, to make this an externally consumable tool. We need to figure out how to price it. We have to figure out how to sell this to our essentially competitors, right? We were working with these companies that were also in many respects offering the same services or going after the same talent. So, in some conversations, that was a bit awkward, right?


James Creech:

It said, “Well, how do we know that you’re not going to take this data or use this technology to better your business and not ours, right?” So, that was a tricky thing to dance around and navigate. Huge props due to our technical team, Ole our CTO, [inaudible 00:25:56], a lot of our early engineering design product resources who were making this thing happen behind the scenes. I was out there kind of selling the dream, but they were the ones executing on this. A lot of it was just need finding, listening to the market. What do you need? Does the current tool in some form serve that? How do we adapt it to fit what you need? And, what else should we be building in the future so that we can help you get there?


Chris Erwin:

Hey, listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we’re putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work, and it also really supports what we do here. All right, that’s it, everybody. Let’s get back to the interview. It’s interesting, because just listening to this story, one version would be … And, James builds this incredible business at Bent Pixels, and he does that for the next 10 years of his career. But, the reality is that actually, you’re there for a couple years, and then you found Paladin. So, after this initial two months of success, what actually caused you to say, “Hey, I want to break out and create a different suite of technology tools for the creator economy?”


James Creech:

So, I think in success, we got even more excited and probably a bit persistent on my idea that, okay, this is really working. We’re now signing more and more customers. We’re going to put more resources into this. Now, we are the market leader. We’re first to market. We’re building a name for ourselves in this category. People are rethinking the perception of Bent Pixels as a software company, as a technology vendor, whereas to creators, there’s still this brand identity around being an MCN, being a services business, being a media company. But, I’m kind of casting Bent Pixels in this new light and trying to position or change the branding to be this enterprise software tool. Meanwhile, that business segment is growing. Engineers are expensive, so we’re adding a lot of headcount to service the need and the customers.


James Creech:

It got to a certain point where I’m still advocating, hey, let’s sell off or shut down the other business units, because look around. A number of other acquisitions had happened. Awesomeness was acquired by Dreamworks. Maker Studios sold to Disney. There was all this M&A activity happening. So, I’m like, “Okay, it’s probably a good time to think about what does an exit look like for the media business?” Then, we can focus. We can really double down on this technology play. So, I was advocating for that. The rest of the leadership team said, “It’s very clear that you’re passionate about this. We don’t necessarily all share the same vision or belief in that strategy, but obviously, the way you run a media company and a tech startup, a high growth tech company, require different fundamentals, principles, capital. So, maybe these businesses should live on their own, right?”


James Creech:

So, that’s when the idea was floated that we should spin it out, right? So, it was at the time myself, Ole, our CTO, and I had convinced my good friend and partner in crime, Thomas Kramer, who worked with me back in the Channel Factory days. So, he and I kept in touch. We would catch up and talk about a lot of these challenges. I said, “Would you come over here and lead product for us?” He got excited about that vision and that opportunity, so it was really the three of us advocating for this opportunity. Initially, I was kind of resistant, to be honest. I said, “No, like, I think this is where the business is going. We should focus on this.” Ultimately, saw the light that, yes, okay, we should separate these companies.


James Creech:

For a long time, I wanted the software business to continue to be called Bent Pixels, and that maybe the media company should rebrand as something, Millennial Studios. There were some other ideas that were floated, but after whatever, six months of back and forth and working it out cooperatively as a team, we decided, okay, Thomas and Ole and James will basically buy the software IP and spin out and form a new company, and then will rebrand it, come up with a new name. Bent Pixels will continue as a customer of Paladin, but there will not be any formal relationship between the two businesses. I wanted to be very clear that Paladin is its own company and eliminate that conflict of interest idea. I think Bent Pixels was very happy to say, “Okay, we can offload these expenses from developers and sales people and everything else off our books, focus on our knitting, and get back to the growth of the media business.” We worked that all out to happen April of 2016. So, that was when we took the leap and said, “Okay, we’re going to set out on our own.”


Chris Erwin:

Did you raise outside capital to give you and your two other founders the ability to purchase the software, purchase the IP, and kickstart what you called Paladin in April, 2016?


James Creech:

We didn’t. We thought about it, but the way we originally structured the deal was Thomas and Ole and I all put considerable capital into the project. Then, some of our partners from Bent Pixels also came in as angel investors. They said, “We like you guys. We believe in what you are doing. We want to support you.” So, they were kind enough to give us a little bit of seed capital to help us get through the early days of burn and very kindly help us figure out how to set up our books and transfer the employee leases and all these things that as first time entrepreneurs, you have to figure out. So, they were very helpful and kind and patient with us. But, Thomas and Ole and I were pretty much all in.


James Creech:

So, to put that in perspective, at the time Thomas was getting married, and he had promised his fiance this amazing wedding. She was amazing to say, “We believe in this dream, and as part of starting our life together, we want to put that money that we would have saved for a big nice wedding with our family and friends towards investing in this startup, right?” So, that was Thomas’s contribution. I had been saving to buy a house, so I took essentially a down payment on what I would do to buy a house and said, “I’m all in on the business.”


James Creech:

Every penny to my name and probably even some I didn’t have like went into Paladin. Then, Ole has the best story of all, was living in Norway. He’s Norwegian and had recently gone out and bought a Tesla, right? Because, he loved the sustainability mission. He loved electric cars, this beautiful new vehicle, right when they had first come out, 2016. He ended up driving back to the dealership and returning the Tesla, so he could take all of that money and put it into Paladin. So, every single one of us was all in from day one.


Chris Erwin:

Dude, this is wild, because typically, VC backed founders, if the founders have a new business idea, they will mitigate the risk by saying, “Okay, I’m going to contribute a significant amount of my time, right?” It could be a few years in building out this venture, but they’re not putting in their own capital. They’re going to get capital from third parties, venture funds. Then, that capital is going to be at risk. You are essentially doubly invested with your time and your own savings. But, I think what that means is that you probably had so much belief in what you are building that you wouldn’t have done it otherwise.


Chris Erwin:

I think that belief is clearly very powerful, and for all of you guys to have had that, where you have Thomas contributing his wedding funds, and you have Ole contributing his Tesla funds, and you’re even getting from former Bent Pixel employees, angel investment. I think that shows there’s really something there. It’s almost like with those dynamics, it would’ve been easy to raise venture capital, because they would’ve looked at the founders and said, “Oh, my God, their gumption that this is going to happen is so powerful, we want to be in.” But, probably better for you guys, because I know you will tell the story of how you sold the company. You guys owned the majority of the equity. I had never knew that story, James. I never knew those dynamics around your business. That’s incredible.


James Creech:

Thinking back to the time, imagining how I felt, I remember being 25. Your goals and your priorities at 25 and whatever, early 30s, are very different. But, something inside me just said, “We have to do this, right? We have the right team. It’s the right time. It’s the right opportunity.” You look at the data. Most successful entrepreneurs are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, right? They’ve had-


Chris Erwin:

The average entrepreneur is older than 40.


James Creech:

Right, and they’ve had time to build a network. They’ve had experiences, failures along the way. I had not thought of myself as an entrepreneur up until this point, but something just tugged at me where I was like, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Although I had historically been very risk averse, I was just like, “We can’t miss this, right? We have to do it, and we have to do it now. And, if it means going all in, if that’s what it takes, then yeah, let’s do it. There’s no better time to do it than when we’re young.” So, having that conviction, which I think again is a lot of … We didn’t know any better, right? We were just hoping for the best.


Chris Erwin:

Which, actually I think is a good thing, to be delusional. You have to be delusional as an entrepreneur. The odds are stacked against you.


James Creech:

Big time.


Chris Erwin:

And, you are delusional, but it worked in your favor.


James Creech:

Yeah, exactly.


Chris Erwin:

So, you start the company. All right, you all contribute your capital. Paladin is now a thing. So, what are the first steps? Do you rent an office together? Is it, okay, we’ve got five new hires that we’ve got to make? What did that first year look like for you?


James Creech:

Yeah, terrifying, right? You’ve just jumped off the cliff, and you have to figure out how to build the airplane. Everyone was excited. I don’t know if other people were nervous, but we had engineers. We had sales people. We had product folks who were working with us.


Chris Erwin:

What was the total team size from the beginning?


James Creech:

It was small. I want to say it was eight to 10, right? We had three founders and then the engineering team and then some of the business folks in LA. We had an office. So, we continued to rent the office. Basically, everything that was in Los Angeles became Paladin, and Bent Pixels had historically been based out of Las Vegas, so they just kept their operations. But, yeah, we had the office lease. We had all these salaries and payroll we had to be responsible for. So, all of a sudden, it’s a lot of responsibility overnight to take eight plus people’s livelihoods into account. We were losing money every month, right? We’re looking at the burn. We knew we had to sell like crazy to just get out of the hole. Our reserves were not very high. We’re talking about, we started this business with a few hundred thousand dollars, not any sort of big investment and no VC capital. So, it was all our money and very quickly needed to figure out, okay, how do we make this thing work?


Chris Erwin:

What were some of the early proof points where it was, okay, this thing is going to exist for more than just six months? What were some of those early wins? And, did you ever think about raising venture capital?


James Creech:

So, we sold like crazy in order to get to the break even point, and that was 100% of my time and energy in those early days. I think one of the biggest turning points was closing Awesomeness TV. So, I was working with a lot of your former friends and colleagues, Matt Levin, Parker Jones, Kelly Day, also worked a lot with Jen Robinson, the CTO. This was the first six figure deal that we closed as Paladin. I’m trying to remember if that’s true. Maker Studios, I think also ended up being a six figure deal, but I think the original commitment was smaller. So, when I closed the Awesomeness deal, it was the biggest customer we’d ever signed. It was like, wow, we’re a real business all of a sudden, that this huge venture backed company is going to make a bet on this small startup and offload a lot of its cost. Awesomeness was spending significant sums of money and engineering headcount on these processes at the time.


Chris Erwin:

Awesomeness spent a lot of money back in the day.


James Creech:

And, look, they were managing probably the largest network in the world at a certain point, 90,000 creators. We said, “We want to come in and make that easier for you.” I think in many respects, we could. Jen Robinson and others saw the opportunity and believed in us and worked really closely with us to make that happen. But, that was absolutely a turning point of, okay, we’re signing, as customers, some of the biggest players in the world. They’re making this bet on us, and these are real contracts with real budget behind them. That was certainly a turning point.


Chris Erwin:

This is great to hear, considering the current macro-economy that we’re going into, right? So, we are recording this podcast in the middle of May. We have faced, over the last quarter, the 1.4% decline in GDP in the US. I think there’s a lot of signals of the global macro-economy slowing. Out of China, there’s supply chain issues, rising interest rates, inflation. You name it. I say all of this, because companies are going to need to start thinking about … I think access to venture capital is going to become a lot more challenging.


Chris Erwin:

So, what’s the best form of capital? It’s revenue, and it’s having a business that works. So, you guys, that was your approach in 2016, which is, if we’re going to finance this business, we’re going to create a product that meets the market need, and we’re going to sell it successfully. Then, so you closed some big deals like Awesomeness. So, that early validation must have been very rallying the team, and we got something here, right? So, it seems like that success continues for a bit. But, then there’s a point in your business where you were telling me a pivot had to happen, right? So, kind of tell that journey from that founding. You have some initial success like the deal you just mentioned, and then what is happening until you realize something’s got to change here?


James Creech:

So, first of all, I love putting it in context, because at the time, people would ask us, “Oh, are you venture backed, right?” As if that were a sign of stability, right? We would do info-sec evaluations through Disney, through Viacom for Awesomeness. People wanted to make sure we weren’t going to go out of business tomorrow. I remember thinking to myself, yeah, I would tell people kind of jokingly, “Yeah, we raise money from our customers, and we call it revenue. We have this different model. We’re bootstrapped. It’s very unusual,” and people got a kick out of that. But, to me, it was, okay, we got over the hump. Now, we’re break even, profitable. We’re reinvesting everything back into the business. So, we closed the deal. We hire another engineer. We hire a new salesperson. But, you had asked, did you ever entertain the idea of raising capital?


James Creech:

We did. Probably the most serious thought we had around it was we looked at potentially acquiring Epoxy. I don’t know if you remember those guys back in the day. They had raised a significant sum. They were great entrepreneurs with a good idea that was probably just a few years ahead of their time, backed by some of the biggest VCs here in LA. I think they raised something like $8 million and just were having a tough time figuring out the business model. This was before people thought, well, can we get creators to pay for anything? And, I really liked Juan and Jason, and they introduced us to Mark Suster at Upfront. We spent a lot of time together, saying, “Does it make sense for Paladin to get an additional capital infusion and then acquire the Epoxy asset and turn it into an enterprise product?”


James Creech:

We figured we have relationships. We know how to sell this. For a variety of reasons, we decided not to proceed, and it’s a shame. They ended up selling the business to someone else, but that was the most serious discussion we had around it. The business certainly changed significantly over the years, right? So, in those early days, we were primarily focused on helping multichannel networks and other digital businesses, so talent management companies and agencies, figure out how to manage digital talent. First, it was YouTube. Very quickly, it became a multi-platform world. So, it was Vine for a little bit, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. Then, you have things like Twitch come on the scene, and obviously later in our history, TikTok. So, the business was becoming much more multi-platform. The YouTube MCN business evolved significantly, right?


James Creech:

There were phases or stages to that business, but it became very clear that the 1.0 model of mass aggregation and monetizing off of the passive AdSense revenue was a bit of a dinosaur, and the new business model was focused on branded content and paid media and other incremental ways to build a business around the creative portfolios that these talent were were producing. So, we knew our business needed to change to keep up. The biggest signal was influencer marketing, right? If you looked at, well, how are creators making money, sure, they make millions of dollars a year in YouTube AdSense revenue, but there’s this enormous opportunity from brands in branded content.


James Creech:

Then, of course later on, we’d see e-commerce, but at the time, we said, “Okay, we need to build tools to help our customers and ideal future customers support this activity. So, let’s build better influencer identification and discovery tools. Let’s build a much more robust CRM for not just agencies, but for brands. Let’s think about creating sales materials, because people are spending so much time generating pitch decks, right?” I remember running influencer campaigns, and it was, okay, go ask the influencer for screenshots and put that into a PowerPoint presentation. Email it over to the client, and then they’re going to ask for revisions.


James Creech:

You go back and forth, right? Why don’t we just tap into the social APIs, pull all that data on demand, and create this robust real time reporting around the campaign, so that, A, you deliver better results, and B, you can actually monitor and optimize campaign performance in real time. So, that was really the direction that we started to go, was saying, “Okay, as much as we still want to support these customers and this opportunity, we’re slightly modifying our strategy, and we’re adjusting course to go pursue this influencer marketing opportunity, because it’s brands and agencies figuring out how to work with creative talent in the digital economy.”


Chris Erwin:

Got it. That was a big pivot that happened around what time, James?


James Creech:

Around 2018, 2019.


Chris Erwin:

And, so did that cause some real friction at your company? Did you have to rethink, hey, do we have the right team? Do we have the right sales strategy? Do we have the right relationships? Do we have to rethink how we’re doing coverage? Do we need to build new products and services? And, do we have the right director of engineering to do that? So, what were some of those big key decisions that you had to work through as you pivoted the business?


James Creech:

Well, certainly, changing the identity and the branding of the business a bit, also the product offering, right? So, again, going back to need finding, what do the customers want? How do we build that out? It’s easy to build something for one customer, but how do we build something for hundreds or thousands of customers? And, what is the right team composition that will help us to get there, right? It’s classic innovator’s dilemma of, well, we’re still very dependent on these existing customers and their business needs. And, we want to continue to support that. But, at the same time, we need to be investing in this new direction. And, there were some hard conversations and hard decisions that came about from that, right? Some people on the team were very excited, made the transition easily. Other people said, “Maybe this is my stop on the train, and I’m going to get off and pursue other opportunities.”


James Creech:

Other people were excited about the direction and couldn’t make it work, or performance started to slip as we shifted strategy. So, you have to make some tough calls, but the team worked really hard through that time period to help us change course. It’s not the most dramatic pivot in the world, but it certainly felt like a big shift at the time. It didn’t happen overnight. We’ve got this North Star. We’re going to move towards it over the course of 12, 24 months. And, I remember we got our entire team together in Poland. We’ve historically had a big operations center for engineering in Kraków. We brought the whole team in to Poland and said, “This is our vision. This is what we’re going to build together.” I think that was really energizing, to harness the energy of everyone and say, “We have this shared mission and objective. Here’s why we believe it’s going to drive business value, better opportunity.” And, it wasn’t easy, but certainly was the right choice to start to move in that direction.


Chris Erwin:

I like that a lot. We had a team reflection last week, and we’re realizing that just having run an advisory business for five years that has gone through a rebranding and a transformation in the last couple years, as we’re entering this new macro-economy and just also thinking about who are the clients we work with when we provide certain services? What feels great and is right in our wheelhouse, versus what feels like we’re stretched or doing something different? And, there was a big kumbaya moment where we came together. To better service our clients in the industry, we need to really rethink things. It was some tough conversations, but when you just face it head on, and then you empower your team and be like, “You guys are all here for a reason. What are your ideas for how to fix this? And, how do we all rally behind that?”


Chris Erwin:

And, it was a very powerful moment. I’m saying that, because it feels like when you had this conversation with your engineering team in Poland, you have to face this stuff head on. There’s certain people, like you said, this is their stop on the train, and they’re going to get off. But, for those that it’s the right fit, keep going forward. That’s best for everybody. I particularly feel very reinvigorated after this conversation, and I see this incredible potential for success going forward. I have a much smaller business than what you have. Did you feel coming out of that, you’re invigorated, you’re excited? And, did you have that same feeling when you first founded Paladin of, we got this, we’re going to crush this? There’s no doubt in the world. Were you feeling that?


James Creech:

I wish I could say yes, but I don’t think so. Founding a business and running a business is an emotional journey. I’m so privileged to have two amazing co-founders, because sometimes you have a bad day, or you lose sight of what you’re building towards. They can help lift you up, and vice versa. But, there were some tough times around 2018, 2019, where we were making this change, because the environment, the business conditions around us had changed. We realized we needed to do something to continue to grow and to survive. Again, I started the business with youthful idealism and ambition. Sometimes, we set really high goals for ourselves, and we don’t always live up to them. I’m still very proud of what we built and how we had done it, but it’s easy to move the goal post on yourself.


James Creech:

So, looking at that time in our journey, I remember we were committed to figuring it out and moving forward. But, I have to tell you honestly, there were some very tough times in those years of … Are we doing the right thing? Are we making the right choice? And, are we going to get through it? Because, it was really challenging. Once it started to work, absolutely, it felt amazing, right? Things really started to click in 2020, and I had more passion and enthusiasm for the business than I had back in 2016. It re-lit this fire in us of, okay, we got through the hard work, the two years of making this change. We see where it’s going. We’re rebuilding in this new direction, and it’s fun. We’re hitting our stride. Everything’s growing really quickly. We’re bringing on new customers, new team members. We’re winning, and that’s the exciting part. But, in the slog of making that transition, it wasn’t always fun. That’s for sure.


Chris Erwin:

I hear that, but I think you’re right. There’s just something as an entrepreneur and a founder and a CEO. You have to trust your gut. Are we having fun? Does this feel right? You can have all the KPI dashboards in the world and follow all the numbers, but there’s just some intuition that’s really important. As I reflect in my career, there’s moments where I can specifically say I felt differently about a business decision, and I didn’t listen to my gut, and it was a major miss. So, as a business owner, now I’m listening to my gut more. I want to be a database decision maker, but I think instincts are very, very valuable when you have to pivot and move quickly and also really energize your team. I hear that.


James Creech:

You need both.


Chris Erwin:

You end up selling the company to Brandwatch, which I think was just announced over the past month. So, I’m curious to hear the story to exit right after this success, the 2019 pivot to now. How did you end up selling to Brandwatch?


James Creech:

We were evaluating, what is the next step for us in 2021? As I mentioned, the business started to really hit its stride in 2020. We were looking around at the overall market landscape, and look, influencer marketing is a crowded, competitive space. It’s great. It keeps us sharp, but we realized if we want to continue to grow and compete in this space, then we need to either raise money and start to double down on sales and marketing or execute on a broader roll up strategy. Or, we can find someone who shares our vision and our passion for this category, but has more resources and can help accelerate our growth, right? So, the calculus for us at the time was … You look at our well known, well funded competitors. Do we go out and raise money? It’s certainly a path. That’s an option.


James Creech:

Paladin had customers in over 35 countries, across five or six continents. So, we were competing against different people in Germany, than we were in Singapore, than we were in Dubai. So, it was different by market, but we recognized that, okay, we need to raise capital to help accelerate, or we need to find an exit. So, thinking about the fundraising process, as I mentioned, we’re bootstrapped. A lot of us had good, favorable positions on the cap table. If we raise money, you dilute the ownership, and you kick out the goal post, I don’t know, two plus years, let’s say. And, the other thing I was cognizant of is, well, it seems to be this interesting moment in time where things are happening at such a rate, people want to get into this space. It’s probably the right time for us to find a partner. We had had a lot of inbound interest, so we said, “Let’s test the waters and see what the reception is. If we don’t find anyone we like, we can always fall back on our current plan of just keep growing, or we can look at the fundraising alternative.”


Chris Erwin:

So, you were getting inbounds from companies that were interested in kicking the tires around you potentially in an acquisition?


James Creech:

Yeah. We have throughout the history of the business, but it became especially acute interest in, let’s say Q1, Q2 of 2021. So, I reached out to my banker friend, Jason Rapp at Whisper and said, “It seems like there’s some interest here. We should probably run a process. How should we handle these conversations?” So, he came on to help us with that, very quickly had some phenomenal conversations with great people that I think saw what we were building and wanted to help add fuel to the fire. But, I was fortunate to meet Giles Palmer, the original founder of Brandwatch, who now works at Cision, the parent company. We just hit it off. He said, “Can you spend some time with our product team?” We met the product and engineering team. It was like magic from the first call.


James Creech:

They loved the product. They saw what we were doing. It fit very neatly into their thesis and what Brandwatch has been building in and around consumer intelligence and being a leader in social listening. They have been merging with Falcon.io, which is an amazing social media management tool. Influencer marketing was very clearly just the third leg of the stool. So, we got excited about that. They said, “Hey, can we talk tomorrow? Can we talk Monday after that?” And, very quickly, it escalated where they made an offer, and it was the right offer and the right time. We said, “Yeah, let’s go into diligence.” So, we ran diligence over the holidays. So, I was at Christmas with my family, Christmas 2021, hanging out with family during the day, and then working until about 3:00 AM every night, because A, I had a lot of work to do.


James Creech:

And, B, I had these colleagues in Europe who were also burning the midnight oil on their holidays. So, going through all of DD, and then we kind of finished that in early to mid-February. At the same time, we were running a parallel path on the purchase agreement documents with legal, reached an agreement on that in end of February. Then, we had to do a 30 day hold for DOJ approvals, announced in March, and then finally closed the acquisition at end of March. So, long process, but a lot of learnings and an exhilarating outcome. So, it’s been amazing to see it all the way through.


Chris Erwin:

Wow.


James Creech:

It is such a process, right? It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. People tell at the end, “Oh, congratulations. We’re so excited for you.” And, that’s amazing, right? You experience all the emotions of joy, excitement, elation, but at the same time, strangely, at least I also experienced this feeling of loss, which I think is natural. It’s kind of closing of one chapter and beginning of another, where you’re saying goodbye to this thing that you’ve built and you’ve poured so much of your energy and time and money and everything else into. It’s like a kid maybe growing up and going to college.


James Creech:

It’s exciting. It’s the next evolution, but it’s also saying goodbye to the thing that I knew in its past form. Then, honestly, there’s this just overwhelming sense of relief, because a lot of it feels like deliverables and juggling so many plates and keeping everyone happy. Every different constituency has something else they want from this outcome. So, if you’re able to get to a point where everyone’s satisfied, or as much as you can, you just get it done. It’s this amazing feeling of, whew, right? We did it, and that relief is also very comforting and satisfying, I suppose.


Chris Erwin:

One last quick question before we get into rapid fire is, what’s next for James? You’re going to stay on at Brandwatch for a while. Are you going to go start your next company? What are you thinking?


James Creech:

So, I have come on to Brandwatch as the SVP of influencer strategy. So, I get to work with the global leadership team to help think through how do we inject influencer and creator economy strategy into the entire business, which is so exciting, right? I’ve spent too much time and energy on this to walk away for now, so I’m very excited to be in this new phase of the business, doubling down on what we’ve built, adding more resources, combining that with the amazing product suite that Brandwatch has. So, I’m still all in, excited about what we’re doing. As you mentioned earlier, I’m still involved in a lot of advisory engagements, and it’s fun for me to get to give back and support other early stage entrepreneurs. So, still a big passion for me and something I make time for, but in terms of my day to day focus, yeah, it’s 100% all in on Brandwatch.


Chris Erwin:

Before rapid fire, James, I just want to give you some kudos. I have known you for a while in the industry. I think our LinkedIn posts have crossed paths for at least over five to seven years. I think our relationship, we’ve gotten to know one another better, I think over the past couple. I was on your podcast. Now, you’re on mine. I think there could be a fun future ahead where we collaborate on different things. That’s a separate convo, but I just want to say, as I’ve gotten to know you, learning about just how thoughtful that you’ve been in building your business, how thoughtful, how you are in building for the creator economy, I think one of the things that got me excited when I entered the whole YouTube MCN space back in 2012 was this positive sum mindset.


Chris Erwin:

We can all grow together. There’s incredible opportunity. I think that you embody that feeling incredibly well. You just put out a lot of positive, good juju into the world. You’re very supportive of so many people. I think it has a really big impact, and I think it’s a great inspiration for so many others. So, massive kudos, and I hear you on this notion of loss, loss and relief. You had this baby. You took a huge bet on it. It’s worked out incredibly well for you and your team and your co-founders, but James, you’re a young guy with a very bright future ahead. You have many, many more exciting wins that lie ahead in your future. Just have faith and the trust that we are lucky that you have the time to go and do that work.


James Creech:

Well, thank you. Thank you for all of that. It’s very kind. I’m flattered, and I’ve felt for a long time that you and I are maybe kindred spirits in a sense, right? Oh, I’ve got to spend more time with this Chris guy, because you’re very obviously very intelligent, well connected, thoughtful in the content that you share, the communities that you curate through your events and dinner series, and things like that. Also, I just think we have a lot of personal interests, like your real estate investing and everything else. So, any chance, any excuse I have to get more Chris Erwin in my life, I will take it. So, just putting that out there, because very much excited about that. And, one other note, maybe just to kind of close things out is, as I mentioned, started the business in my mid-20s. I’m now in my early 30s.


James Creech:

As you go through this process, I think the most impactful thing that I’ve learned is recasting what defines success. For a lot of people, it’s, oh, you sold the business. It’s this very rewarding financial and career milestone. But, I don’t think that’s what it’s all about. As much as I’m trying to be present and enjoy this moment and celebrate the win with our team who helped us build this business over the years, the way I think about success now didn’t happen on March 31st, right?


James Creech:

Success is measured a year or two, five years from now, if it works. Can we integrate this product successfully into the overall Brandwatch suite and offering? Can we continue to create great career opportunities for our team? Do we continue to provide an excellent product and support level for our customers? Are we meaningfully advancing the creator economy and supporting this industry and its future evolution? So, maybe that’s me moving the goal post on myself again, but I’m trying to tell myself, well, what matters is not just check the box. You sold the business. What matters is that it works and that the thesis we all had going into this is successful. At least, we’re going to all put our energy into making it as successful as it can be.


Chris Erwin:

I love that, James, beautifully said. So, now rapid fire, all right?


James Creech:

Bring it on.


Chris Erwin:

The rules are, we have six questions. They must be answered in short form, so could be one sentence, or it could just be one to two words. Do you understand the rules, James?


James Creech:

I am notoriously loquacious, but I accept your challenge, yes.


Chris Erwin:

All right, first one, proudest life moment?


James Creech:

Personal, getting engaged to my fiance. Professional, selling Paladin.


Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do less of in the remainder of 2022?


James Creech:

I’d like to spend less time in some of the operational aspects of the business, A, because I don’t think I’m necessarily best suited to do that, so handing that off, and worrying. I think I can repurpose my energies.


Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do more of the rest of the year?


James Creech:

Oh, boy, rock climbing, pickleball, time with friends and family, vacation, and pursuing alternative investments.


Chris Erwin:

I like that. What one to two things drive your success?


James Creech:

Servant leadership, which kind of goes back to my childhood, huge examples from both my parents. Tenacity and going out of my way to be helpful to other people in my network, so paying it forward, I guess.


Chris Erwin:

Advice for creator economy execs going into the remainder of this year?


James Creech:

Watch the macroeconomic conditions, because things are changing quickly. Experiment and don’t be afraid to change direction.


Chris Erwin:

Got it. Any future startup ambitions?


James Creech:

100%, yeah. Not right at this moment. I’m definitely involved in a lot of early stage companies and supporting other entrepreneurs. So, startups will always be near and dear to my heart, but also excited to drive innovation and entrepreneurship within brand watch.


Chris Erwin:

All right, last one, James. This one’s pretty easy. How can people get in contact with you?


James Creech:

LinkedIn is the best way. Find me on LinkedIn, James Creech. You can follow my content there. I haven’t been posting as regularly as I should have, but a lot of people are motivating me to get back in. So, certainly that and always happy to chat. So, feel free to reach out.


Chris Erwin:

James, this was a total delight. Thanks for being on the podcast.


James Creech:

Thank you, Chris.


Chris Erwin:

Wow, that was such a fun interview. James is just simply a very delightful human. All right, a few quick things before we wrap here. Our RockWater team is likely going to be at VidCon on Friday, June 24th, so hope to see some of you there. In addition, as a reminder that earlier this year we published our 2022 investment theses where we make predictions and talk about trends across a variety of our coverage areas, including Web3, the creator economy, podcasting and audio, sports media, and so much more. So, if you have interest in checking out that deck, shoot us an email at Hello@WeAreRockWater.com. In addition, on Thursday, November 3rd, we’re hosting another executive event in New York City. It’ll be for founders, investors, and operators within media and commerce and with a particular focus on sports. If you’d like to attend, just shoot us a note, and we can get you an invite. Lastly, we love to hear from our listeners. So, if you have any feedback on the show, if you have any ideas for guests, shoot us a note at TCUPod@WeAreRockWater.com. All right, that’s it, everybody. Thanks for listening.


Chris Erwin:

The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. If you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at WeAreRockWater.com/Newsletter. And, you could follow us on Twitter @TCUPod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zizali. And, special thanks to Alex Zirin and Eric Kenigsberg from the RockWater team.

Ping us anytime at hello@wearerockwater.com. We love to hear from our readers.

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