The time I met Jeff Bezos, or why you might want to quit your job and vlog

I’ve told this story a bit, but with Jeff Bezos in the news today, it seems as good a time as any to blog it. Back in 2008, at SXSW, I met Bezos briefly, and got a bit of insight into how he stays open to new ideas and opportunities.

(Jeff Bezos at SXSW, as captured by iJustine

That year, I’d put together a panel called “Quit Your Job and Vlog.” It was a pretty sensational title, considering it had only been a couple years since Jason Kottke had been the first to make the leap to blogging full-time, and no one had heard much yet of videoblogging.

I pulled together four of the most inspiring (and only) people I knew who were making a living creating videos on the Internet. There was Lisa Donovan, better known then as Lisa Nova, one of the first YouTube stars, who’d just come off a season on MADtv; Bre Pettis, who’d quit his job as a schoolteacher and was creating MAKE Magazine’s videoblog; Lindsay Campbell, signed to CBS after hosting and co-writing the early web breakout Wallstrip, which CBS acquired; and Zadi Diaz, creator and host of the seminal Epic Fu, one of Next New Networks’ first hits. Yes, that Lisa Donovan, that Bre Pettis, that Lindsay Campbell, and that Zadi Diaz. I confess that I largely put together the panel to hang out all weekend with four people I really admired, a strategy that’s served me well over the years (see also, “It’s not TV, it’s social TV.”)

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(photo by bre)

The title and panelists did the trick, as we found ourselves in one of the larger rooms at the conference, packed front to back with people. The discussion went well, but I was distracted by a familiar-looking man in the front row. He was avidly following along and taking notes, and made eye contact in a way that made me think I must have known him from somewhere – maybe someone I’d worked with from The Washington Post, or Sprint, or any one of a dozen companies. We all found ourselves talking to people for a good twenty minutes or more after it ended, and I noticed after a while that the same man was waiting patiently to introduce himself. His demeanor and dress didn’t scream billionaire genius – if anything, he came across more like Gus Fring (I mean that as a compliment, I love Giancarlo) in El Pollo Loco mode: reserved, composed, and amiable.

Finally he stepped up and put out his hand, and started by saying, “I really enjoyed your panel. It’s been the highlight of my SXSW trip so far.” Flattered, I shook his hand and said, “Wow, thank you very much,” then, as I looked down to his name tag and back up to his face, “…Mr. Bezos.”

For the next several minutes, I stifled my astonishment as he asked a few rounds of questions about distribution for web video content, how people were making money, and what my relatively new company was doing in the space. They were as insightful a set of questions as I’d heard from any investor during our fundraising (and more so than many), as he honed in on the key challenges and opportunities, and drew parallels to Amazon efforts like CreateSpace and S3 (which we used for much of our hosting, on a CMS built by none other than David Karp and Marco Arment) which also were enabling artists and creators to reach audiences directly. He ended the conversation by asking if we were raising money, and if I would send him an email with more details about Next New.

"Of course," I said. “Is your email really… jeff@amazon.com?"

He replied with something like, “That’s the one.”

The story doesn’t go much beyond there. I did write him, he did reply, and we did speak with Amazon’s investment group, though we ended up being too far along in our fundraising to be a good fit. First, of course, I let my co-founders and investors know about the meeting, and spent a good part of that night drafting my email to him, trying to figure out the best way to open it so that whoever might screen that address could tell that I really did meet Jeff Bezos at SXSW and he was expecting my email. I still have the exchange – here’s how it opened:

Jeff,

Thanks so much for coming by our “Quit Your Job and Vlog” panel at SXSW yesterday, and for the encouraging words you had to say afterwards about the new online TV space we’re in. I really appreciated your compliments and insight – it meant a lot to us that we could put together a panel that could be as interesting for you as for some of the just-beginning content creators who also spoke to us afterwards.

I included some information about Next New and our current round, and even invited him and his team to the huge Rock Band party we were throwing with Tumblr that night. His reply came almost right away, and made my day:

Tim, thanks for the follow-up — I’ll get you introduced to the team. Thanks for the party invite too. Unfortunately, I have to head home today.

Your panel was the highlight of my visit!

There you go – a perfect gentleman. And a perfect example that, no matter how much you know, there’s always something new to learn, and people to meet that could open up a new perspective. It’s in part why I meet with anyone who wants to, anytime I can, and why I drop into panels on topics I know nothing about and sit up front, and it’s a quality I’ve seen in lots of successful people over the years.

I’ve got a soft spot for The Washington Post – they were one of the first and longest-running clients of my first company, and I wouldn’t have a career without them – and while I have a lot of respect for the Grahams, it’s really intriguing to think of the Post with someone as intellectually curious as Bezos at the helm.

As for my fellow panelists? Quitting their day jobs worked out just fine for all of them, including the founding of two industry-leading companies with the name “Maker” – and of course, many thousands have followed. I still recommend it.

And per Bre’s advice, I’d still recommend taking care of your teeth.

Fred Armisen wants you to be serious for 30 seconds. Here are the rules:

“Upload your video to your channel and include “Be Serious for 30 Seconds” in the title and we’ll find it. And feel free to post it as a response to this video. Then we’ll post some of our favorites to youtube.com/beseriousfor30.”

Rule 1: It has to be serious.
Rule 2: It has to be 30 seconds or less
Rule 3: No more than 2 people in it
Rule 4: At least 1 5 second dramatic pause
Rule 5: At least 1 cutaway to an object
Rule 6: Do your best acting
Rule 7: It needs to have a door slamming

the next lab is hiring!

We’ve got a bunch of great positions open in the Next Lab and Audience Development groups that have come out of Next New’s acquisition by YouTube — as you can see, we’re expanding and will be doing more than ever to help creators build great channels and audiences.

It’s an amazing group to work with, and an amazing time to be at YouTube. Please spread the word, and if you think one of these jobs might be a match for you, don’t be shy — the link to apply is at the bottom of each listing.

Lots more YouTube positions posted here.

three days in sf (drinking from the fire hose)

Hanging with Kenyatta at Blue Bottle Coffee this morning.

Hanging with Kenyatta at Blue Bottle this morning (Get the cafe au lait + the French toast)

I’m just flying back to NYC now after a couple great days in San Francisco, where a bunch of us had a few days’ back-to-back meetings at YouTube, our first trip out as members of the team, as opposed to the many trips we’ve made as partners over the years. Honestly, the weirdest thing was having a working badge, and not worrying about how to get back into the building from the cafeteria courtyard if I lingered too long catching up on email at a table outside, which has happened to me plenty of times before. 

As the Web 2.0 Expo was also going on, also ran into a lot of friends for the first time since the new job, and answered a lot of the same questions — “it’s going really well, we’re having fun,” “staying in the 21st street office, we have the whole floor now,” “yes, there are lots of snacks” — but didn’t see much of the conference, as we had a really packed schedule. 

The past three weeks have been basically drinking from the fire hose — asking every question we’ve ever wanted to, and meeting tons of people we’ll be working with now. I’ve spent more time in London, San Bruno, Austin, and planes in between than I have in our office (or my apartment) in New York, and I’m not complaining, save for a bit of a sore throat that pretty much everyone on our team has. It’s been fun. And today, our first project with the YouTube Europe team went live: a five-city roadshow across Europe presenting, among other things, Next New’s best practices for independent creators to succeed on YouTube, and some cool new international creator video spotlights from Justin, debuting earlier today at ECAM in Madrid to about 200 filmmakers and students. 

Personal highlights from the trip, though, were finally getting to meet Mills Baker, one of my favorite people to follow on Tumblr (and, as it turns out, an old student of Jonah’s), and watching the original Know Your Meme creative team, including Jamie, Kenyatta and Ellie, deliver their triumphant Web 2.0 keynote a week after the site became part of the Cheezburger network. I got to watch it with Jamie’s lovely wife Irene and their totally adorable three-month old daughter Poppy, and just like my first meeting with Mills, I totally forgot to take a picture with her.  So I’m putting up this picture of breakfast with Kenyatta, pretty much the only time I remembered to use the camera in three days.

Brett Domino: Hip-Hop Medley - Stylophone Beatbox

This video’s a good year and a half old, but just saw it for the first time not because of friends on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or browsing around YouTube, but thanks to Boing Boing TV, curated by Xeni Jardin and friends, which runs on channel 10 on Virgin America flights, and is always an oasis of interesting stuff among the generic satellite and cable news channels in the lineup. 

There’s something to that.

nextnewblog

Andre is fantastic, and exactly the kind of producer we started Next New to work with. I’m loving his Awkward Talks with Girls series, especially the one with Zadi

nextnewblog:

Andre is a man of mystery - a hybrid that defies stereotypes. Though he shifts between on-screen roles as “Random Frat Boy” and “Drug Dealer #2,” when he enters the sacred halls of his Los Angeles apartment, he dons his dark-rimmed glasses, flips on his camera, and becomes … The Black Nerd.

“Some people think of black people as what they see on TV, or in music and stuff, so when they see me, it’s like - ‘you don’t make sense’ … and if I ever hang out with the cool black people they’re like - ‘you don’t make sense.’” Andre pauses, and laughs. “So I don’t make sense anywhere … EXCEPT on YouTube!”

I had been excited to meet Andre for a while, since seeing his awesome music video for our Key of Awesome music video competition. Though it wasn’t the slickest, it was one of the most hilarious and clever entries.

Time and time again we see the Darwinian ecosystem of the internet supporting not the  hulking, big-budget videos - but the small, the nimble, the clever of the bunch. What Andre does fills a special and unique niche - he provides for more than just fans of pop culture, or music videos, or video games - he is creating a home for people who didn’t have a home before … a great army of nerds (black, and otherwise), Wii controllers in hand, ready to take their rightful place in the halls of YouTube.

More Creator Spotlights:
Kevin Nalty - “Nalts”
Alan Kaufman - “Ultra Fur”
Grace Randolph - “Beyond the Trailer”