Mike Grisko — CFO at Atmosphere on Raising $150M, Becoming a 2x Founder, and the Future of TV for Business

August 3, 2022 by  Chris Erwin

Today we publish our 25th podcast episode featuring Mike Grisko, Co-Founder of Atmosphere. Links to listen and full transcript are below.

We discuss  running an NCAA tourney at age 7, getting laid off during the Great Financial crisis, almost selling the Chive to Playboy, the challenge with professional politeness in UK work culture, raising $150 million in growth capital and quadrupling the team in 5 years, and what he looks forward to next.

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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.

This week’s episode features Mike Grisko, co-founder and CFO of Atmosphere. So Mike was born in the south side of Chicago and was the oldest of five siblings. He then studied at University of Illinois and his early career started in finance and consulting, including Pricewaterhouse Coopers in London and Moelis & Company in Chicago. While at Moelis, he met the founders of The Chive and was recruited for his first C-suite role as CFO. Soon after relocating to Austin, Mike partnered up with The Chive’s leadership team to co-found Atmosphere, where he is helping to grow and scale the leading streaming TV service for businesses offering free audio optional TV. Some highlights of our chat include running an NCAA 20 at age seven, getting laid off during the great financial crisis, almost selling The Chive to Playboy, the challenge with professional politeness in UK work culture, raising 150 million in growth capital and quadrupling the team in five years, and what he looks forward to next. All right, let’s get to it.

Chris Erwin:

Mike, thanks for being on the podcast.

Mike Grisko:

Yes, absolutely. It’s a pleasure to join you on The Come Up. Really looking forward to getting into it.

Chris Erwin:

There’s a lot of stories to tell here. As always, we’re going to rewind a bit and we’re going to talk about where you grew up and your childhood. So I think you’re a Midwest kid. Tell us about that.

Mike Grisko:

I am a Midwest kid. Grew up on the south side of Chicago. 103rd and Pulaski for any local Chicago listeners. Was the oldest five kids. My mother was a ER nurse. My dad worked in engineering sales. It was a great spot to grow up. It was very much a blue collar neighborhood. We lived right across the street from Tally’s Corner, which was famous for just so many cops and firefighters that had to live within the city limits. My mom was one of seven. My dad, one of four. And everybody lived within a couple miles of each other. So just cousins everywhere. So yeah, it’s a fun neighborhood to grow up in. I don’t know what your childhood was like, Chris, but it was very Stranger Things for us. You just go on your bike, you’d be gone all day. You just got to be back before the street lights came on.

Chris Erwin:

Oh, I hear you. I was born in ’82, so I’m an ’80s, ’90s kid. And in the suburbs I was born Rumson, New Jersey, an hour outside the city. And it was about like, you get on your bike and you just travel all around the county and you get into trouble, you find dirt jumps, you go meet up with your friends late night. I remember taking the bikes out at 3:00 AM during sleepovers. It was the best.

Mike Grisko:

It was the best. Was Chicagoan through and through before. Now residing in Austin, Texas.

Chris Erwin:

So, okay. Being the oldest… I have two brothers, I have a twin and then a younger brother who’s six years younger. And so you’re the oldest of five. What was your role? Did you have a patriarch type role amongst the brotherhood?

Mike Grisko:

Absolutely. Especially my dad traveled quite a bit for work. It was definitely more of a patriarchal role took on but still. We were just very tight knit crew. Still are.

Chris Erwin:

Getting into middle school and high school. What were some of your passions back then? What did you like to do?

Mike Grisko:

We were always playing sports. You had the neighborhood crew. You’re playing fast pitch against a parking lot wall. In addition to doing sports, it was also a bit of a nerd. Constantly reading, just super competitive in school. It was less about the learning, it was more just getting better marks than anybody who was around me. But yeah, that stuck with me for quite a while.

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Well, look today, you’re the CFO and co-founder of Atmosphere and you’ve also had a CFO role at Chive. So were you big into the quant side and into mathematics and other science and other similar subject areas?

Mike Grisko:

Yeah, there’s a bit of that. And then I’ve just always been incredibly fascinated by business and markets. Grew up in the ’80s and when I was a… I think it was six or seven, my uncle started calling me Gordon Gekko. I think because I was the only-

Chris Erwin:

It’s a great nickname.

Mike Grisko:

I know. I think it’s because I was like the only seven year old who was running an NCAA tournament and I was doing betting spreads every NFL Sunday going down the line. Yeah. So it definitely makes sense, the career path that I chose, doing finance, doing the investment banking thing and choosing this direction.

Chris Erwin:

Kind of makes sense because you end up going for undergrad to the University of Illinois where you focus on finance and accountancy. So when you went to school, what were you thinking that you were going to do afterwards?

Mike Grisko:

When I got down there I wasn’t really sure. It wasn’t until I actually did study abroad program, which was in Melbourne Australia, which was some of the best months of my life. It was just absolutely incredible. Yeah, the fact that my best friend and I both got full scholarships to go down there was just such a deal. I mean, we got accepted. We just could not believe that they took both our applications.

Chris Erwin:

What did you get into? Did you do any surfing while you were out there?

Mike Grisko:

Did do some surfing, played Aussie rules football. We tried to get stuck into everything, just being able to travel and just the people and just such a fun environment. But that’s really when I took a step back and started looking at like, “Okay, when I get back, I got to figure out an internship.” And that’s when chatting with a bunch of folks, really started to lean towards trying to get on an investment banking track. And so it’s amazing. Sometimes you do really need to take a huge step away to start to piece that all together and figure it out. Because I really had no clue probably up until then.

Chris Erwin:

It’s funny. It’s almost a bit of the reverse, but it reflects your personality and your interests. Typical consultants or Fortune 500 executives or bankers will go on a sabbatical and say, “I don’t want to be in these industries anymore. I’m going to go do something different.” But you go to Australia, have the time of your life and you’re like, “I need to go into hardcore finance. That’s the path.” I went in a very similar direction. I was an investment banker right out of undergrad too. All right. So that becomes your focus. What’s your first internship or your first role in school?

Mike Grisko:

So I did an internship for Wells Fargo. Got to see the lending side, their corporate lending group, so did a summer of shadowing the analyst doing underwriting. And it was great. This is in the high times of banking. This was in ’07. So the summer of ’07, everything’s riding high. I remember winning the internship competition. So they flew me out to San Francisco with my brother just for first prize for winning this thing.

Chris Erwin:

He was your plus one? You’re like, “I’m going to bring my bro.”

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. Yeah. And it was a very good learning ground, but I still… There’s a few guys who I was friends with at Illinois who had gotten into the investment banking side. And so I decided to double down and just… Thanks Wells Fargo, but I really wanted to take a dive into the IB side and learn how to do M&A and capital raise and the rest. I’m sure probably similar sort of path as you. Must have been at least 20 to 30 different places I was submitting applications doing interviews with. Just running through the whole process.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, it’s a very intense process. But it’s funny. Hearing from the people that have interviewed on the podcast, I think back to Michael Cohen at the Whistle, which was acquired by Eleven Sports. He started out as a credit analyst at Wells Fargo in Atlanta, before he went into do investment banking. And we actually worked at the same firm and I started out as a credit analyst at Bank of New York, which is now BNY Mellon. And you, you now run a free ad supported streaming platform for businesses. You started as a corporate credit analyst and then went to investment banking. If you’re going to do finance and media, that feels like the path.

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. It’s got to be. It’s tried and true then. You got three examples right there.

Chris Erwin:

So then, okay, you graduate and then you go full time into Lincoln Financial. And you’re an analyst there for about a year. What were those early years like?

Mike Grisko:

It’s a mid-market investment bank, heavy Chicago presence. It was a good shock to the system going from your university environment to full corporate world and pretty intensive as I’m sure you remember from your banking days. So I had started in August of 2008 and so I think it was six to eight weeks before Lehman went under. Things looked like they were riding high and then all of a sudden… I just remember being very new, but then also seeing the senior bankers just going ghost white as deals are just being paused or put on hold or it went from they were closing close to a deal a day, M&A or a debt advisory deal, and then it just completely dries up.

Mike Grisko:

The first deal I ever did, it was automotive wire harness business. I was being spun out of Alcoa. And it was just bleeding money. Went from, if you remember, with all the automotive ODMs just shuttering production, they were like the fifth player in that industry. Basically overnight, they went to negative 80 million [inaudible 00:09:46] and trying to find a partner for that. That was great learning ground. But I ended up getting laid off into that second wave of layoffs they did in March 2009.

Chris Erwin:

Laid off in March of 2009 after the debt crisis hit. Yeah. I have some stories of what happened at my bank and I’m curious to hear yours. So yeah. What happened to you and what was going through your head?

Mike Grisko:

It’s a big shock to the system. It’s a kick in the teeth. It did a couple things. It really hardened me to, “All right, this is the actual professional and corporate world. Nobody’s spots guaranteed.” And I think it even that much more determined and more resolved to like, “Hey, whatever is next. I know I’m going to have to really outwork everybody else around me.”

Chris Erwin:

I hear you. I joined the workforce in 2005. I was at my investment bank when the 2008 credit crisis hit. And I was still a young professional. And I felt like, “Oh, I’m insulated. This is a tough time for everyone. But I’m young. The leadership’s going to take care of all of us.” And I remember getting called into the manager’s office one day. Everyone at the company’s salary was cut drastically.

Chris Erwin:

And I was like, “Whoa.” I felt the impact personally, in a very meaningful way in that day. And I was like, “All right, this is legit. This is the real deal.” And I had to make changes to my lifestyle. I actually negotiated down my rent from my apartment in New York City, down 25%. Something I’m actually still very proud of. I built a nice spreadsheet defending that. But it does gut check you and it questions, “Okay. Is there a job for me here over the next year or two? Is my career derailed?” Is my whole future grand plan that I had sorted out in undergrad have to be completely reset?” But I think it’s helpful for it to build resilience, right?

Mike Grisko:

100%. I thought for sure coming out of school, it was, “Hey, do two years to three years as an analyst. Hop over to PE. Maybe go get an MBA. Just follow the very traditional path.” But I think that moment really drove me in a very different direction.

Chris Erwin:

Tell us about that new direction, because I think you end up going to PriceWaterhouse Coopers in Chicago for a few years before you end up at Moelis.

Mike Grisko:

In that period after getting laid off March ’09, basically bottom tick the market. It was slim pickings out there for jobs. I even looked into potentially doing a program to get into medical school and doing a complete 180, picking up some undergrad science credits so I can apply to med school.

Mike Grisko:

But then by time, two or three months in, I was starting to get some good looks. And I had an analyst role on a corp dev team in Chicago, and then also got offered a position as an analyst at PWC in their corporate finance group, which they were just restarting. And so they had basically shuttered their investment banking practice, but then were bringing it back. And so I was the first analyst they hired in the US and I thought “Here’s an opportunity to get it back on track.” And a lot of corporate carve outs, cross border M&A was their big MO and huge selling point for me was they committed that, “Hey, you do a couple years here and hopefully we can get you over to London or one of our other international offices to do a two year program,” which I ended up doing in 2011.

Chris Erwin:

So you went to London in 2011 for two years working for PWC?

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. It was fantastic. I mean the great, great mid-market M&A group over there. It was one of the coolest experiences of my professional career. Just being able to live and get fully immersed in a culture, especially in a professional culture. Anybody who ever has the opportunity, I highly, highly recommend. Because it really just does stretch you and challenge you in different ways. You knew how to do your job, but it’s almost like the gravity’s just off a bit.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. I like that. I’ve never heard that description, but I’m into it.

Mike Grisko:

All new faces, all new companies, all new lingo, trying to pick that up and then still trying to understand folks who have Manchester accents.

Chris Erwin:

What was one of the biggest cultural differences in doing business over there that you learned?

Mike Grisko:

I’d say the biggest one, you don’t realize, there’s just a professional politeness in the UK. So both with your superior is just not being fully direct with you in feedback. In addition to when you would be delivering direct feedback to analysts. They were offtaken. You might not be getting the full picture. We tend to be a little bit more direct and blunt here in the US than the Brits are.

Chris Erwin:

Something I think about is when I studied abroad in Spain, I met a guy named Tim Slee, who co-founded an ad agency with Steven Murphy. Shout outs to these guys. They’re still very close friends of mine too today. And they would talk about their professional work culture was every day at 5:30 PM, they’re hitting the bars. And they are buying rounds for all their clients and all their team. And they’re like, “That’s just how business is done over here. You drink a lot of pints and that gets revenue in the door.” And I was like, “That’s a lot to sign up for after a full day.” I remember as a banker, I was just running spreadsheets till midnight.

Mike Grisko:

I don’t know how you could socialize or network or do a professional career if you don’t drink over there. I definitely learned how to go to the pub for a pint or two, and then be able to go back to the desk and start banging things out in the evening. It was just an incredible experience. My wife and I, we got engaged over during that two year stint.

Chris Erwin:

You brought your girlfriend who became your fiance on that trip. Okay, got it.

Mike Grisko:

Yes. That’s a story for a different podcast. Having the conversation with her dad about her quitting her job and moving over with me.

Chris Erwin:

You’re like, “I’m choosing her instead of my brother this time. Now I’m going to take my girlfriend on this trip.”

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. And we ended up getting engaged shortly into our trip over there. But in two years, I think we visited close to 45 different cities. We were just so good about travel. It was a lot easier, didn’t have kids then, to be very mobile on the weekends. And the Brits are great about taking time off.

Chris Erwin:

All of Europe is really good at it.

Mike Grisko:

When they said four weeks of vacation and they’re like, “We expect you to use it.” I’m like, “Absolutely will.”

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. Maybe you bring that back to the Atmosphere culture. All right. So look, you spend around five years there. And then before we talk about your rise up at Chive Media Group and Atmosphere, you were at Moelis & Co for around three years. Tell us about your work there.

Mike Grisko:

I was starting to get to the stage I’d done enough smaller middle market deals. Enough corporate divestiture work. Really wanted to start seeing some more higher level capital markets and some larger transactions. And so I started shopping around at some different banks. Opportunity came up at Moelis and I jumped on it. Everything I was looking for just to gain from an experience level, next level on debt and equity capital raise to deals to getting to work on my first restructuring bankruptcy work to working on hostile defense deal with Ken Moelis.

Mike Grisko:

There was a pretty cool experience that really did give that next level of professional training. And I think that’s the one thing like I started to realize being in investment banking, the true value of the relationships that you build, and just being able to sit in the room as well. In the room with the exact team observing and or advising on the actions to take and some of the biggest transactions or moves that they’re going to be making. It’s a great ground to just really absorb a ton.

Mike Grisko:

So in addition to like the financial training, the Excel sheets, and everything that comes with deals and running process, the network that I was able to build, just what I was able to observe and absorb, I think for some very talented professionals, both within the bank, but then the executives I got to work with, incredibly valuable. You just cannot replace that and the level of reps that you get in the career.

Chris Erwin:

I very much agree with that. You think about the 10,000 hours thing and the amount of time I spent creating investor decks and confidential information memorandums, AKA CIMS. And all the financial models, the merger models, the LBO dilution analysis, et cetera, the most rewarding experiences were when we were in meetings or had conference calls with private equity owners or family offices that own these cable, media, and telecom companies. And they’re thinking about how do we drive more enterprise value?

Chris Erwin:

Do we spin this off? Do we go acquire these other companies and do a roll up scenario where there are synergies and thinking about, we have this network of management teams, who do we want to place based on the strategy that we have here? How are we going to finance with debt or equity or some other more alternative vehicles and just to hear the decision making in the rooms. And it was like, where are these men and women? Where are they being slow and calculated? Then where are they trusting their gut and moving really quickly? Just to be a fly in the wall was so valuable for my career.

Chris Erwin:

And I take a lot of that into the work that I did at Big Frame and Awesomeness in thinking about when Big Frame made a decision to sell itself and the work and the advice that we give our clients now. And often days, I wish I still had access to some of those calls every week. I get it through my client work, but just to be a sponge and just be able to just listen as a mid 20 year old. So valuable.

Mike Grisko:

Incredibly valuable. Yeah. That’s well said, Chris. That’s the big thing. And I have so much appreciation for it now. Just having seen both working alongside a lot of incredibly talented professionals in addition to some ones that were making bad decisions.

Chris Erwin:

Can we steer them the right way? TBD.

Mike Grisko:

But honestly, yeah. You’re able to just listen, observe. You’re just kind of building that muscle memory for when things are coming fast, as they really have over the last couple years, in my current role as an operator, it helps you just really break things down into first principles and what are we really trying to drive towards? It’s helped make my decision making very formulaic. I think that’s incredibly valuable. I like to say that… I’m sure we’ll talk about Atmosphere in a second, but operating, whether it’s startup, growth company, et cetera. It is a wicked learning environment. The variables are always changing. The dynamics are always changing. And so you’re constantly going to be seeing new things. And so the ability to read, react, and adjust is super critical, a really valuable skill set that banking taught me.

Chris Erwin:

Well, let’s talk about that transition, Mike. So your role as an advisor, as consultant, as a banker, now you make a decision, as they say, you go to the line. You go to one of the portfolio companies. So in 2017 you transitioned to Chive Media Group. How did that come to be?

Mike Grisko:

Well, it’s twofold. I go back to the point on network and I got an opportunity to… One of the deals I worked on at Moelis back in 2014, 2015 was advising Chive Media Group. John and Leo Resig co-founders of The Chive back in 2008, starting in 2012, 2013, they really started to catch fire. I mean, it was a true social movement. You had folks wearing Bill Murray t-shirts and Keep Calm and Chive On. Folks wearing the shirts everywhere. So they brought Moelis in to take a look at strategic alternatives. And so over an 11 month period, we looked at everything from buying up smaller competitors, to even potentially selling.

Mike Grisko:

And so we actually got pretty far down the path with Playboy, but Leo and John couldn’t get comfortable with the deal and the management team that was there at the time. They decided to pull out. And so that was in mid 2015, but stayed in touch with both Leo and John. And when the prior CFO, who was part of the founding team was looking to move on in 2017, Leo called me up and I jumped at the opportunity. So that’s some of the backstory just on how I came across the opportunity. Leo tells me now, I think I was the only person he reached out to.

Chris Erwin:

He was like, “I think I like this guy, Mike, he was on our deal team. Let’s take a bet on him.”

Mike Grisko:

It’s very tight interview process, but it goes back to the point that building network from that seed in banking is just incredibly valuable. That wasn’t the first time that I was offered a job by a client. You get so close to your clients when you’re working alongside them. But this is the one I jumped at. The biggest thing is if you know Leo and John, they’re just real salt to the earth humans. And that meant a lot to me. To be leaving banking into something that was a lot more unknown.

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. I knew whatever happened with the business, they were going to do the right thing by myself and my family. And I think that was the most critical thing I was looking for is I really wanted to jump into an operational role. I’d spent a little over nine years advising CFOs. There was some that I had incredible respect for. There was some I thought I could do that job better. The opportunity to jump right into this was just too good to pass up. And then there was the personal side of this, which at the time we were making this decision, I had a 11 month old son and then my wife was pregnant with our daughter.

Chris Erwin:

Oh, wow.

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. So the ability to go into something that had a little bit more flexibility or control over your hours was big for me.

Chris Erwin:

You were moving too. Because you were moving to Austin from Chicago.

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. The full go. And I think it’s that personal relationship with John and Leo, that we’re two feet in. Sold a place in Chicago and moved down to Austin, away from family again.

Chris Erwin:

Your 30 cousins and brothers.

Mike Grisko:

Right. Yeah. And rest is history.

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.

Chris Erwin:

You make the transition. And I hear you on the point of it’s all about relationships. I think I was having a call the other day with Jason Rapp from Whisper Advisors who I’ve just gotten to know. And he had a note that I really liked. He said, “Companies are not sold, they’re bought.” And I think the implication there is it’s about there being a clear strategic fit, but also this notion of there’s relationships developed with strategic and commercial partners over time, and more often than not an investment or an acquisition is made from two companies who have many data points, a trend line of building a rapport and a relationship. And I think that also speaks to how executive hirings and placements, particularly at the C-suite level are done. You weren’t out of the blue, it was long term relationship building where Leo and John had been exposed to your work. So I think that’s important for our listeners to just be mindful of. We always say that. Say start planting the seeds now.

Mike Grisko:

I think that has been incredibly important. Those relationships and the relationships that I quickly developed with the other C-suite members at The Chive who are now at Atmosphere. You want to be working with good people. It is just so difficult to get a startup business into a true growth path and on a true path to success. Being able to do that with folks that you trust and truly enjoy working with is so critical. It starts at the top. If you want your entire company growing in the same direction, it really does start with having a cohesive leadership group.

Chris Erwin:

So let’s talk about when you show up, what are you guys working on? What are the goals in 2017, 2018, fast forward a few years, where do you guys get to? And that’s going to set up the story for how Atmosphere was incubated, but take us back to that.

Mike Grisko:

I walked in at a pretty critical time for the company. There was a lot of different initiatives that Chive Media Group was chasing. It became pretty apparent quickly that we couldn’t do all of them. The business needed an overall guiding direction and overarching focus. And so my first three months on the job, Leo and John asked me to, “Hey, just give us your full assessment as an outsider.” And spent just a ton of time on a listening tour, diving into data. Became pretty clear that we were sitting on something incredibly powerful with Chive TV, which at the time was maybe in a little over 1000 locations and had six or seven dedicated employees to that product line. We knew that we had something incredibly powerful.

Mike Grisko:

We thought we had something incredibly powerful with that business, but we also had just many other initiatives, everything from original content creation with Chive Studios to some large initiatives, both on the digital ad sales side to a lot of different facets that they were chasing on the e-commerce side. So everything was set up for big strategic meeting in December of 2017. Myself, John, Leo, Eric Spielman, our chief strategy officer, and Alen Durbuzovic, our CTO. And we made some very critical decisions to really lay out, “Hey, here’s our vision for the next three years.” It included shuttering some business lines, re-orging some groups. All on the guise of trying to take the Chive TV product line and turn it into a real business.

Chris Erwin:

You start and pretty soon after you start, you’re making some very big decisions at the company, contributing to that to allow you guys to focus on where you think the biggest win is. Atmosphere, I think technically founded in 2018, but Chive TV, you guys were working on this probably well before that, is that right?

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. So Chive TV was the original proof of concept. It was started in late 2014, early 2015 as an audience extension play. As the landscape got more and more competitive competing for eyeballs with Instagram, Facebook, and every other platform, Roku opened up their marketplace for content companies to build apps. And so they decided that technological opening allowed them to build a streaming TV app. And then they also were able to leverage the strong community on The Chive to help get distribution because the content programming, they realized quickly like, “Yeah, this is good for in-home, but this actually works incredibly well in bars and restaurants.” And so that was the initial, “Hey, can we build an app? Can we distribute it? Can we actually make this work?” And that’s where in the early days, I mean, they’re a lot of learnings the guys talk about.

Mike Grisko:

And so it really teed up into 2018 where we had to go from, “Hey, this is a product with potential. How can we actually turn this into a real business?” That was the big mission of 2018 to see how we could really craft the story around Atmosphere as a platform. So Atmosphere, as it exists today, streaming TV platform for businesses. Over 50 different audio optional channels. We like to say we have a channel for every type of venue, whether you’re a pediatric office or gym or a bar restaurant, we got a channel that’s programmed for you. Everything from Chive TV, which is now a channel fully owned by Atmosphere to we have a Happy TV channel. We have Paws TV with cute puppies and kittens. We have partner channels such as America’s Funnies Home Videos, Red Bull TV, and Disney’s X Games. So we have quite a few.

Chris Erwin:

Mike, you have this content network, you have all these different channels that cater to different offices, different business environments, et cetera. And you make a decision as a company that it’s like, “All right, foot on the gas. This is not just going to be an exciting new growth initiative out of Chive. This is its own standalone business that will probably require a separate growth plan, separate capitalization, and more.” So when you guys convene, you, Spielman, the Resigs, and whoever else, what decisions do you make to really amplify the opportunity here?

Mike Grisko:

You summed it up pretty well from you, Chris. It really came down to this business has the ability to be a platform and like an N of 1 platform, the actual network that can tape over this niche of streaming TV for business. That’s a big ambitious plan. So obviously would require risk capital to fund it if we really wanted to chase the velocity that we thought was there. It couldn’t continue to be self-funded by The Chive and really drive to where it needed to be.

Mike Grisko:

Putting together that plan, and it was complications. Spinning the business off all of the shared services that were going to be required to spin it off. The conflict of interest was a big issue for VCs who were concerned if they threw millions of dollars into this new Atmosphere, entity in business, if it wasn’t going well, would the entire founding team just turn around and go back to working at Chive Media Group and say, “Sorry, unfortunately, that didn’t work out.” It was a tough one to sell through. And if you remember in 2018, nobody wanted to touch ad supported startup businesses. Everyone was focused on subscription.

Chris Erwin:

Oh, how the world has changed. Just think of Netflix launching an advertising platform.

Mike Grisko:

Exactly. There was several times we thought about pivoting and driving resources hard into venues paying subscriptions. But luckily we stuck with the plan because we saw how much leverage there was in advertising to this massive underserved market.

Chris Erwin:

All right. So when you think about there’s the big, exciting stuff to do, which is all right, what’s the new growth plan who we hiring for this go raise venture capital, then there’s all the administrative stuff of… All right. Yeah. Like you said, allocating shared services, who works on what, how do we communicate that, how do we set up a dedicated legal entity and put the right resources into that? All these little things that you as a CFO probably had to take care of.

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. And this is also where you and I met. As I’m pulling a lot of this stuff together with the group and bringing on lawyers, getting advisors all set, you and I got connected through Jason Anderson and you guys did an engagement for us both to… Well, number one, be that initial test run before we hit the market just on materials and the story, the model, just the entire thing, which was incredibly helpful and just help us. Like most VC fundraising rounds, it really comes down to the product, the team, and the TAM. And so helping us to find that overall opportunity in isolating our unit economics. There was a lot there because again, it wasn’t just another enterprise SAS software business that was easy to digest and easy for VCs to give seed/Series A funding.

Chris Erwin:

I will say thank you to Jason Anderson for that intro. And it was a delight to meet you and Eric nearly five years ago now and have gotten to know the Resigs a little bit. But really, yeah, Mike, you’re the first point of contact. I remember working arm in arm with you on some of this stuff. I have an image in my head of one of the financial runway slides of “Here’s the traction for what we did last year,” which I don’t even know if it broke a million. “Here’s our five year forecast,” which was maybe at the low tens of millions. And the numbers that you guys are putting up on the board today are much bigger than that.

Chris Erwin:

But you guys were very hopeful, very optimistic. You saw a need in the market, but we also could sense that it wasn’t a guarantee. It was a big swing. Chive was a business that had been around for over 10 years. It was time to find a new growth opportunity. And also, not just from a value creation perspective, but I think just for the team and for the brothers of an exciting new thing to dig into. And there was conviction and excitement, but it was clear that you guys were taking a big risk and there was uncertainty. I’m curious to hear the early days, when did you realize you really had something special here? Because you hit some big headwinds during COVID and maybe even a little bit before that, but things did change. Walk me through that.

Mike Grisko:

So our first headwind that we fought through was we’d agreed to heads of terms with a VC in early 2019 to do our initial funding. And they pulled out. They had internal issues that they had to sort out and they just could not do any fundings. And so we had to go back to our underbidder, who was Charlie Plauche from S3. And Charlie didn’t try to take advantage of the situation. He stood up and honored his initial term sheet for the most part. And S3 ventures, if you don’t know, Austin based VC, and Charlie was willing to roll up his sleeve, all those things we talked about with the conflict of interest, he and the team were willing to do the work because they saw the big potential. And his read on it, not only was this a massive opportunity, but this is a team that’s done it before. And so it’s an advantage that they’ve had The Chive business and been operating successfully for 10 plus years.

Chris Erwin:

Wow. Yeah. He probably had a chance to bend you guys over a barrel. But instead I think he was probably exhibiting the type of partnership behavior of, “Hey, this is how I’m going to act when you guys are in a moment of need and I’m going to be a resource for you guys and positive asset in good times and in bad.” That’s a fantastic move on his part.

Mike Grisko:

And then you flash forward a year, we did a series A extension in bringing on Valor Equity. And we closed that deal on March 6th. And if you remember, I think on March 8th, that was a Sunday that oil tanked 40%. But Jon Shulkin and the team at Valor, they never for a second wavered just on their commitment. And that’s a rocky time to be stepping into a new investment, especially one with its end markets being bars, restaurants, gyms.

Chris Erwin:

Just to be clear, because we glossed over this quickly, when oil had that precipitous drop, that was essentially the week during the massive shutdown for COVID in the US and throughout the world. So the times fundamentally changed.

Mike Grisko:

Our end users of our service are all out of home venues. And so all subject to lockdowns. It was a trying couple months, but great support from our investors. Having a cohesive team to make some moves to change up the cost structure. And we got through it. Very little turnover and an employee base that was just still so bought into the story. And so to your question on inflection point, really then in Q3 of that year, right around mid August, we really started to see things uptick in the dailies. And so the big question on the business back in 2020, great, we’re starting to understand that you can truly build a network in a fairly economic way to get distribution into these B2B customers. Get them signed up, get them to stream. The question was, all right, so if you build all this supply, are advertisers going to come? And that started to be answered in Q3. If you remember, everybody pulled back in the advertising world in Q2 of 2020. As they reassessed, they started to redeploy more and more money into connected TV environments and streaming TV environments.

Mike Grisko:

And we were one of the benefactors of that, especially in the programmatic open exchange. And so we started to see that coming through in the dailies and then the narrative really flipped. And then in October we did an inside up round. So, it’s all of a sudden like now the story was almost flipped with VCs looking to preempt because they saw the traction was starting to build for what we were building.

Chris Erwin:

And then that leads to, I think in January of this year you announce a blowout round. You announce $100 million in new capital. I think 80 million equity and 20 million in debt.

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. You flash forward to 2021, which was just one of the most memorable, positive years in my career. But I’m sure there was others that shared that sentiment, but Valor Equity preempted and led our series B raised 25 million in April. And then Sageview led our series C that we’ve announced in January of 2022, an $80 million round plus a $20 million debt facility with bridge. And so over that three year path, we’ve now been able to raise $145 million worth of capital and really have been able to put that to work incredibly efficiently in building this network where you go back five years, about 1000 venues. We’re now streaming in over 29,000 venues today, reaching close to 40 million people on a monthly basis and generating a lot of ad inventory.

Chris Erwin:

And just to make this exciting for potential venue partners. If you want to grow your network, people listening to this podcast, what is the value that you bring by putting Atmosphere on their walls?

Mike Grisko:

Yeah. I like to sum it up as it’s better, simple, and free. So it’s better content for at least TV. You think TV for business was never broken. It just was never right to begin with. Everything that you see out in bar, restaurant, or gym is content that was built for in-home consumption with audio. It is talking heads. It is entertainment that’s going to require the voiceover. We purpose build everything for that audioless experience.

Mike Grisko:

So it’s fast paced. Our news and sports channels, heavy typography that allows the viewer to really just consume visually. So it’s better content for these screens and it gives you an alternative to live sports because not everybody is a sports fan and there’s not always a relevant game on. And simplicity. There are no monthly contracts. We overnight you a device for free. It is a five minute install process, logging onto your wifi and away you go. And for the venue, it’s free. For a free product, you’re getting better content to entertain your patrons. And depending on the type of venue you are, we have multi TV locations and single TV locations. So if you’re single TV location, such as a waiting room, auto repair shop, you’re a car wash, why are you paying for cable? This gives you a cut the cord option in providing entertainment in the waiting room. And then if you’re a multi TV location, this is just a great alternative for those other moments.

Chris Erwin:

I think that sums it up quite well. I like the notion of “It’s not broken, it was just never right.” So what would you say to wrap up the Atmosphere segment before we go into the rapid fire and we close this out and as a leader, you’re at a company like you were saying that at Chive, I think you guys were around 50 to 75 people. Now Atmosphere, it’s over 400. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned scaling an organization this quickly? How have your responsibilities evolved? What does that look like?

Mike Grisko:

We have this concept internally, like giving up your Legos. Your job description changes every three to six months when you’re going through rapid growth. 18 months ago, we were less than 100 people. Yeah, today we’re close to 450 employees just at Atmosphere. And so that requires you to change your roles. Some of the things that I was doing back in 2018, 19, 20, it’s just not scalable at that level. And so being able to hire great people, reassign tasks and responsibilities is absolutely critical.

Chris Erwin:

And what is something as you think about inspiring your team, inspiring the culture there personally. What is something that maybe you do different today than what you did three to five years ago?

Mike Grisko:

Something our exec team talks about a lot is authenticity. I think if you are just real with people, you show them a bit of yourself, but then also give them an environment that allows them to just come to work as they are. They don’t have to pretend to be someone different in a professional setting than they are outside of the office. You give that to them and it just engenders great environment, creative problem solving, and just people with good energy that want to be part of this mission.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. I think it’s a great mission. I think a lot of people should join the Atmosphere wave. A final note from me, Mike, in the spirit of authenticity to give you some kudos. Something that came across to me when we first met back in 2018 was just, this is a really sharp guy. He’s building something exciting in this business, but he also feels very genuine and very grounded. I have always gravitated towards people from the Midwest. I went to grad school at Kellogg in Chicago, have had a lot of team members at RockWater and some of the other companies I’ve been at from the Midwest. And there’s always just something special about them.

Chris Erwin:

I think you 100% fall into that category. I think of the days where you had so much conviction early on, but you were willing to work so hard to manifest this future that you guys had thought about. And I remember getting late night and early morning emails from you being like, “All right, I’ve been refining our business model. I think I have a new idea for the TAM. Let’s talk through it.” You were burning the candle at both ends to really will this thing to life. And it’s awesome to see now looking back what you’ve accomplished for your career. And you guys haven’t even had your big exit yet. So I think there’s so much opportunity ahead of you and you deserve a special shoutout.

Mike Grisko:

Thanks, Chris. As amazing as this whole run has been. Yeah. I don’t know if I’d want to redo 2017 through early 2019 again. A lot of decisions that we made back then in building this thing out that seem obvious now were not obvious then. It was a lot of rigor and work to really position this thing to set it on the right path to where we’re at today. But it’s great to see the traction and how far we’ve come as a team.

Chris Erwin:

It’s amazing. So we’re going to move into the final segment, Mike. It’s called the rapid fire round. Here are the rules. I’m going to ask you six questions. Your responses are to be brief. They can be one sentence or maybe just a couple words. Do you understand the rules?

Mike Grisko:

Yep.

Chris Erwin:

All right, here we go.

Mike Grisko:

I’m in.

Chris Erwin:

Proudest life moment?

Mike Grisko:

Outside of my family and kids being born, I would have to say the proudest professional moment was our last all hands and seeing how big this company has gotten and the number of folks that are now underneath the Atmosphere umbrella is pretty incredible.

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do less of in 2022?

Mike Grisko:

I’m really trying to do less time on my phone at home. The less screen time at home, more time present with the kiddos.

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do more of? Well, I guess you just answered that. More time with the kiddos.

Mike Grisko:

More time with the kiddos and also more sleep. That’s been a big thing this year. So far, so good.

Chris Erwin:

What one to two things drive your success?

Mike Grisko:

I go back to, after getting laid off, I laid out two rules for myself and it was “Always work harder than the guy next to you” and “Do things the right way.” It’s pretty basic, but that’s always how I attack everything.

Chris Erwin:

This is one I actually just want to expand on for a second. When you say “do things the right way,” just give us a little bit more context there.

Mike Grisko:

It’s treat others how you want to be treated. It’s be fair. Work with integrity. That will always get you much further in the end.

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Well said. All right, last couple here. Any future startup ambitions?

Mike Grisko:

I actually helped co-found a business last year. Project Bankman. It’s a crypto services business that is building solutions for brands on the blockchain. And so we were looking for a solution for Chive Media Group for effectively a branded social token that could replace our loyalty points. Wasn’t really one out there. And so we partnered with a gentleman, Gavin Gillis, who is a ton of experience in the crypto space. And we put together a business plan. We’re able to raise seed funding and that business is doing incredibly well in signing up new clients, including The Chive and some other financial institutions and airlines just to build them solutions on the blockchain.

Chris Erwin:

That’s awesome. All right. Last one, Mike, this is very easy. How can people get in contact with you?

Mike Grisko:

LinkedIn.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. Hit up Mike on LinkedIn. All right, Mike. That is it. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Mike Grisko:

Chris. This was awesome. Thank you very much. Incredible host. Thanks for making me look good.

Chris Erwin:

Of course.

Chris Erwin:

All right. That was a really fun interview with Mike. That has been a long time coming and I’m very glad that we finally were able to make that happen. All right. Quick heads up that our company has a new service offering. We just introduce RockWater Plus, which is for companies who want an ongoing consulting partner at a low monthly retainer, yet also need a partner who can flex up for bigger projects when they arise.

Chris Erwin:

So who is this for? Well, three main stakeholders. One, operators who seek growth and better run operations. Two, investors who need help with custom industry research and diligence. And three, leadership who wants a bolt on strategy team and thought partner. So what is included with RockWater Plus? We do weekly calls to review KPIs or any ad hoc operational needs. We create KPI dashboards to do monthly performance tracking. We do ad hoc research ranging from customer surveys to case studies, to whitespace analysis. Financial modeling, where we can understand your addressable market size, do P&L forecast. ROI analyses, even cash runway projections.

Chris Erwin:

We also do monthly trend reports to track new co launches, M&A activity, partnership activity in the space. And lastly, we make strategic introductions to new hires, investors for fundraising, and then also potential commercial strategic partnerships. So if any of this sounds appealing or you want to learn more, reach out to us at hello@wearerockwater.com. We can set a call with our leadership. All right. Lastly, we love to hear from our listeners. If you have any feedback on the show or 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. And 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 Zazzali. 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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