NDG's got MOJO!



A graduate of the John Molson School of Business, Ashkan Karbasfrooshan has worked at three of the most successful new media startups to originate from Montreal. Today he is the CEO of WatchMojo, a leading producer of premium video content. As Canada's largest YouTube channel, WatchMojo has over 6 million subscribers who spend 900 million minutes on the channel watching over 150 million videos each month. Additionally, WatchMojo provides videos to Yahoo, MSN, Huffington Post, the Montreal Gazette and many more websites. Since 2006, WatchMojo has generated 3 billion views.

Throughout his career, Ashkan has interviewed the likes of Joe Montana and Hugh Hefner, has been quoted in Forbes and Business Week, and has been interviewed on the BBC and CBC. He has published two books, Course To Success: Everything You Need to Succeed Beyond School and The Confessions of Alexander the Great: 33 Lessons in Greatness. When he's not on an airplane returning from New York City, he lives in NDG with his wife and two daughters. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashkan on the secret to WatchMojo's success, on what goes into the production and planning of their wildly popular videos, and on what Mojoholics can look forward to in the months and years ahead.

Q: Ash, thank you to you and your wife Christine for welcoming me into your beautiful home! How long have you been living in NDG and what drew you to the neighbourhood?

Ashkan: So we've been in NDG since December 2012. Basically, I grew up in Snowdon, lived in NDG throughout college, and then when I started my career I moved to the Plateau; the area had gentrified and it was close to my office. When it came time for my wife and I to buy a house though, moving back to NDG was always one of our preferred picks, but we knew how expensive it can be to buy here. Luckily, we found a fixer-upper and bought the house. We are very lucky, we love the house, the neighborhood; we just love it here.

Q: It is always wonderful to learn more about our home-grown success stories, can you tell me a little bit about WatchMojo and how the company was started?

Ashkan: Sure. So the idea behind WatchMojo is just to inform and entertain people through video, and the way that we do that is basically to have a video on every topic imaginable. Obviously in the 21st century, media has changed. Its moved to all digital, all online; but even within that, it has changed and progressed from articles, to images and galleries, and now increasingly to video. Even when you think about the delivery, it has gone a lot from desktop, to mobile, and to tablets. So given those major trends, I started WatchMojo in 2006 - after my last company was acquired - to kind of persue that opportunity. Over the years we have produced a lot of different content like How-To clips, interviews, biographies, and now we've kind of evolved - just in order to keep things fresh - to Top-10 lists on pop culture and entertainment, and we've really found our calling. We have become YouTube's largest Canadian channel, we rank among their top 10 global channels, and our videos are everywhere. On top of YouTube, our videos are also on other portals like AOL, Yahoo, and MSN; and a lot of the Canadian publishers and portals also carry them, like the Montreal Gazette's website has a lot of our videos, so that has basically been the evolution.

Q: WatchMojo is boasting some pretty impressive stats - over 6 million YouTube subscribers and well over 2 billion views and counting! What's the secret behind WatchMojo's phenomenal success?

Ashkan: To be perfectly honest, I think the number one thing is persistence, determination, and just not giving up. We have been quite successful right from the get go - not so much because of our vision - but just by creating videos that reflect the changing times. We were a little bit ahead of the curve, so we essentially just focused on making videos and we didn't try to also create articles or try to do 1001 things. Although people thought that we were quite diverse in terms of what we covered, we have just always been very focused in terms of being a producer of video content. And then we just executed by focusing on that gap and the opportunity in the marketplace, but really it was the persistence. You know, from 2006-2009 we went through an economic meltdown where a lot of our competitors just didn't really have staying power. And then in 2010 and 2011 we saw a lot of other trends come and go, and I would say that we maintained just a nice small little business through 2011-2012, but it wasn't really until like 2013 - after almost 8 years of being around - that things finally blew up in a good way. And now 2014 has been even better. But really it just boils down to focusing on video and the persistence to plug away and just not give up.

Q: WatchMojo has become famous for its entertaining - and highly addictive - Top 10 videos; what goes into the planning and production of the videos and how do topics get selected?

Ashkan: Fantastic question. So historically, we had just based our production on the editorial calendar. Like if Halloween was just around the corner, we would just produce videos for Halloween, and we did that for many years. Then in 2013, we noticed that we were getting a lot of suggestions from our viewers on YouTube and on social media, so we actually built a Suggestion Tool whereby a user can come, suggest an idea, and then other members of the community can upload or download that idea. Then if it's a Top-10 list, others can come and even suggest possible entries, and again, other members of the community can upload of download that possible entry. So what we've done is, we've basically married the hoodlum and the crowd, but not in a raw, user-generated content format. We still then produce the video and put in a lot of research, a lot of fact-checking. So I would say that the foundation of the house is definitely the community and the Suggestion Tool, but then there is all these other things like the researching, fact-checking, and bringing in objectivity which has made our lists very popular. Let's face it, not everyone is going to agree on our Top-10 lists; by its very nature, there are only 10 items so not everything is going to make the list, but I think that everyone appreciates the effort as well as the time, energy, and professionalism that goes into each video.

Q: Do you ever have fans trying to send their own videos in to WatchMojo?

Ashkan: We actually receive very few videos; maybe because a lot of work has to go into putting one together, but there is over 100,000 people that use our Suggestion Tool, so we absolutely do get a lot of people who are sending us lists all the time. We definitely look at the good in everything; and a lot of what we do, and a lot of the momentum that we have is because of the community. The suggestions we receive are for things that they are very big fans of and really love, so we have a very customer-service oriented outlook where we put the community at the center of everything we do and that helps explain a large part of our success.

Q: Are there any particular Top-10 categories that are consistently the most popular?

Ashkan: Actually, YouTube is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that if you produce a lot of "something", that same "something" will become popular because there is such a large audience; not if it sucks, I guess, but you know what I mean. Whether or not that becomes a self-sufficient business or an expensive hobby is another question. In our case, I think that over the years we've had a lot of How-To videos, and a lot of different things; but I think what really made our site blow up was just the overall pop culture and entertainment content. Movies, video games, and music always do very well, but again its normal because those are categories that are also very popular on YouTube. It's a true cult phenomenon; one is, we identify what the top categories are and what audiences are eating up to try to create content for those categories, but there is such a big audience on YouTube that even if you really wanted to go niche, or try something that seems a bit off-the-wall, if you just stick with it and are persistent you should eventually be able to build a large enough audience.

Q: Are you ever surprised by the popularity of a particular video or category?

Ashkan: There is always surprises with some videos, but the truth is that after being in the business for so long you start to know which videos are going to do really well. Still, if you compare our website to a museum for example, we think that we should have showcases that are diverse. To run a successful museum, you don't need 100 Mona Lisas, you need variety. We look at videos in the same way. There are videos that we know may generate a fraction of the interest of some of the more popular ones, but we still think that it is important to keep a variety of content and we love that.

Q: Other than Top-10 videos, is WatchMojo still producing any other content?

Ashkan: So back in the day we were producing How-To's, biographies, and profiles, but now, 90% of what we produce is our Top-10's. We do still have some other things like "the origins of popular characters", or occasionally we will do a "versus" where for example, we pit Superman against Batman - then as you can imagine the fans go crazy regardless of who we pick; but the Top-10's are really the most popular. The reality is that we will never really run out of ideas because we can either go really general with our list or we can go really niche. Each Top-10 really lends itself to another handful of Top-10's. I would say that in our full catalog of 8000 videos, Top-10's represent about half of our current content. In any given month though, we are producing about 150 videos and 140 of those will be Top-10's.

Q: What's next for WatchMojo?

Ashkan: Well, we will continue to focus on our core audience which are young millennial males - yup, there's a lot of guys out there who like our content and who may not even know about us. But at the same time, now that we are a little bit bigger and a bit more successful, we are looking out a bit more. Some ideas that we have considered launching is a WatchMojo game show because our audience is pop culture and everything around the site is based on trivia at the end of the day. We also have television companies and radio stations that are asking us how we can take those things that are making WatchMojo so successful and unique and apply it to other things; so maybe a WatchMojo TV show, possibly a radio show. We are also considering WatchMojo books, because don't forget that attached to every list is a script that is researched, fact checked, and ready to go as a printed product. So like I said, we want to focus on the core without getting too distracted, but we realize that there are like a million peripheral opportunities, and eventually local versions, global versions, as well as other mediums. So really for now, it's just good that we can breathe and focus now on what's going to happen in a year or two from now instead of thinking about this week's payroll and things like that.

Q: Last question Ash, what is your favourite WatchMojo video?

Ashkan: You know we produce so many so it really always changes, but for me, it's really anything that's iconic and that takes people back to things they liked when they were young and growing up. Maybe it's the nostalgia factor that I appreciate and like quite a bit. I would say about new lists, they usually fall under two types: things that take you back to your childhood or things that you are really passionate about today. Like, maybe a Top-10 Game of Thrones Characters - which is a current thing, or it could be Top-10 80's sitcoms. I have always liked that. I like history, I like pop culture, and I've been fascinated by lists, and success, and successful people; so for me, anything that you kind of look at and just go down memory lane. Things like Top-10 Ozzy Osborne Songs, or Top-10 Songs of the 80s, or Top-10 Decade Defining Movies (for anything over the last 50 years) - those are definitely the things that I would click on for sure.

Montréalitiés: Perfect, thank you very much!

Ashkan: My pleasure! Thank you!

Visit the WatchMojo website at www.watchmojo.com or subscribe on YouTube.com/WatchMojo

Follow Ashkan and WatchMojo on Twitter @ashkan and @watchmojo

Visit the WatchMojo Facebook page at facebook.com/watchmojo

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