175: How a Navy Seal-Turned-Entrepreneur Scaled His Company From Zero To 8 Figures
Brandon Webb, CEO, Hurricane Group, Inc
Let’s Get Tactical
Entrepreneur and former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb shows us how learning from adversity, maintaining focus, and tapping into our passions can lead to our biggest entrepreneurial successes.
Brandon Webb is no stranger to adversity. After all, the former Navy SEAL made the cut for one of the world’s most elite special operations forces, managed a team of snipers, and completed four deployments to the Middle East.
But nothing prepared him for his most challenging mission as a civilian: becoming an entrepreneur.
In 2006, after 13 years of service, Webb left the Navy and struck out to start a business. While he managed to raise nearly $4 million for his first venture, a training company in Southern California, within four years, he had lost everything—his business, his life savings, and his marriage.
“I’d, up to that point, had a lot of success in my life, and in the military, and as a SEAL passing one of the toughest selection courses,” Webb says. “It was an extremely humbling experience for me.”
What caused his business’s collapse? According to Webb, a poor choice in partners.
“When you’re choosing partners, it’s a lot like getting into a long-term relationship,” Webb explains. “I see so many young entrepreneurs just jump in straight away to a partnership and realize that there’s, a lot of times, no complementary skill sets, and the chemistry is off—and it’s too late. You’re already in bed with this person.”
At the end of that first venture, having lost it all, Webb found himself sitting in San Diego consulting his lawyer, who gave him this advice: “He said, ‘Look, you just gotta walk away. There’s a difference between failing at something and quitting… Go build another business.’ And it just struck me.”
So Webb took a day job at a defense company in San Diego, rebuilt his life savings, and started blogging.
From Blog to Business: The Making of a Media Mogul
Webb’s foray into the Interwebs was how he spotted his first opportunity. In 2011, he noticed a strong public interest in special operations forces, and while you could get a book, movie, or video game on the subject, there wasn’t a centralized online portal dedicated to the world of special ops.
“There was a few forums out there,” Webb recalls, “but they weren’t very friendly to guys that weren’t from the community. So I launched a special ops-themed website which ended up becoming a news site called SOFREP.com”
SOFREP morphed into a foreign policy, domestic security, and military news site. That one site eventually branched out into other ventures—three websites, a subscription video on demand channel, a few podcasts, and a subscription box—leading Webb to build an entire media empire in the span of five years.
Today, Hurricane Group is an eight-figure business with a core team of 40 full-time staff. Last year, it saw growth of more than 200% and expects similar growth in the next year, too.
Finding Focus: The One Big Mistake New Founders Make
Webb’s latest book, Total Focus, draws upon his experience as a SEAL sniper to teach readers the one skill needed to calm the chaos around you and make strategic decisions as an entrepreneur—yep, you guessed it: focus.
“I see a lot of young [entrepreneurs], constantly, they have a little bit of success, they build a business to, you know, maybe get it over the 7-figure mark, but they’re never able to scale it beyond that because they’re already chasing something else.”
Webb speaks from experience. After losing his first business and taking a day job, so many entrepreneurial opportunities caught his eye for fleeting moments—a protective textiles business, an indoor shooting range franchise; he was even teaching shooting lessons on the side.
And then one day he met Todd Dakarmen, the owner of a Porsche dismantler business in Los Angeles. Dakarmen had hired Webb to teach him how to succeed on the shooting range, but as it turns out, Dakarmen would teach Webb how to succeed in business.
“We were at lunch one day,” Webb recalls, “and he said, ‘You know what? I see a lot of myself in you, and you’re chasing all this stuff.’ And what he passed on to me was his experience chasing nine, 10 plus opportunities, you know, oftentimes all of them end up in failure. And he said when he started focusing on his core business was when he really started to have success. And that really resonated with me.”
As entrepreneurs, we often suffer from “shiny object syndrome,” letting every newfangled idea or product take our attention away from the task at hand.
Webb has a simple solution to this problem: Define short-, mid-, and long-term goals. “When you really have focused concrete goals and a plan in place, it’s easy to see and assess opportunities that come along that either are aligned with your plan or misaligned, and if they’re misaligned, it’s just an easy decline.”
Having those goals and that plan in place first is important. Without it, you can’t assess if an opportunity is a good fit for your business or not, and you risk wandering aimlessly from new venture to new venture.
With Webb’s media company, it may seem as though he’s got his focus on several different things. But Webb points out that each branch of his business is related to its core identity. Even the e-commerce product, Crate Club, is a subscription box aimed directly at his target audience of high-income-earning males interested in tactical gear.
Why Making Sales Should Top Raising Capital
Webb is one of those rare eight-figure business owners who can say he has never raised capital. And he discourages founders in a tight spot from doing so.
To illustrate his point, he shares the rocky start of the e-commerce side of his business. With a lack of customer service and problems with shipments, his customers were furious. “There was no way to even find us to reach out to lodge a complaint,” Webb admits, “which was probably a good thing in the beginning.”
But he knew he had a great product and could make the sales. Rather than shutting down the concept or seeking investors, he focused on making sales until he had the revenue to hire customer service help.
“I see so many young founders that the solution is just raise more money,” Webb says, “and I think that’s total bullshit because sales solve a lot of problems.”
Webb says he doesn’t think raising money is always bad, but it shouldn’t be the first thing young founders consider. “You can sell yourself out of this problem,” he points out, “rather than just go take more money… just to keep the lights on.”
While Webb has never raised money for Hurricane Group—he started this business with $10,000 out of his own pocket—he’s open to a change. “I’m to the point now where… I know that to do what I want to do in this space, I need to go out and sell a portion of the business to raise some money to kind of get us to the next level.”
The ambitious founder wants to take on the major cable networks that are struggling to transition to digital. “We know that world really well,” Webb explains. “But to do that, I need more capacity.” Thus far, Hurricane Group has done well growing organically. “But I want to speed up the growth, and I can only do that with some capital.”
If You Want to Succeed, Know Your Number
Just how much is Webb looking to raise for the next stage of his business? “We’re looking at raising probably close to 40 million,” he says.
In his book, Total Focus, he talks about knowing your number. “I see so many people… they don’t realize how much they need to have, how much capital they need to have invested to produce the kind of lifestyle that they want.”
In a business school, Webb and his classmates participated in an experiment in which they all had to write down their dream lifestyle and what an ideal year would like. How many homes did they want to own? How many vacations did they want to take in a year? Did they want to put their kids through college?
About 100 people went through this exercise and all reached around $400,000 USD as their target annual income to fund the lifestyle they dreamed of.
“And you can just back into the math,” says Webb. “Say you want to put money in the stock market and expect a certain amount of return, like a passive income return. And you back into the math, and that’s about $10 million. And that’s shocking for many people. And people will go, ‘Well, I don’t need 400,000. I only need half.’ Well, if you half it and then half it again, it’s still two and a half million dollars. It’s a big number.”
Before you start a business, Webb advises that you get clear on your relationship to money.
“There’s some real benefit to really knowing what that is because then you can either grow a business and save to that, or you can realize, ‘Okay, it’s time to sell,’ and then maybe go start something else.”
If You Want to Be Profitable, Know Your Audience
If there’s one thing Webb has truly mastered in business, it’s his ability to understand his audience and monetize it in a way that frees his company from relying solely on ad revenue.
“We have developed a team in-house that knows how to basically monetize our own audience through organic and paid acquisition on social media,” Webb says. “And that paid acquisition on social, it’s amazing… how scarce that skill set is.”
Webb shared a story of a billion-dollar retail company he met with that didn’t know how to do paid acquisition. “And I just was shaking my head, like, ‘Man, if I could access your email list and your audience on Facebook, I could turn that into half a billion dollars pretty quickly.’”
What’s Webb’s secret sauce for monetizing his audience? Knowing what they want, providing them with value, and fostering a relationship with them.
But how do you know what your audience wants? “I’m big on surveys,” Webb says. “We really try and incentivize our audience to survey, but give them something in exchange. Either it’s maybe a… free login, free product, or discounts.”
He cautions to not rely only on surveys, pointing out that if Steve Jobs had listened to what people wanted, the iPhone may never have been invented. “Once you come out with a new product, yeah, then survey, figure out how to make it better, and improve it, but I think…from a founder perspective… you’ve got to take some risks.”
He’s quick to point out, too, that perfect and polished isn’t always better. He and his team split test two Facebook ad videos: One took two weeks to professionally shoot and produce; the other was a shaky iPhone video one of his gear curators shot in his garage. To his surprise, the latter performed way better in Facebook ads than the one that took all that time to script.
“Because it’s engaging content, it doesn’t have to be polished to provide value,” Webb says.
So when in doubt, test it out.
SOFREP TV’s Business Model
Recently Webb and his SOFREP team came up with the idea to launch a Subscription Video On Demand service (SVOD), a model similar to Netflix. The idea came from Webb’s personal life. A big fan of “Game of Thrones,” he realized he only paid for HBO to access that show. Then he realized he only paid for Showtime to access the show “Billions.”
Realizing that SOFREP already had a lot of video content, Webb decided to aggregate it and put it behind and a paywall. Then he asked himself: “What one show can we do that our audience will resonate with that will be that tentpole kind of show like ‘Game of Thrones’ is for HBO? Like ‘Billions’ is for Showtime?”
For Webb, the answer was “Training Cell,” a show that sends former special ops guys around the country as if they were training for overseas missions, from a driving school in Washington to learn off-road driving to the landscape of Hawaii to practice jungle warfare tactics. The show has already been a hit with viewers.
“Training Cell” launched back in December, and Webb says it already has next year paid for from an advertising standpoint. Plus, it’s paying off because it’s growing his subscriber base.
“A lot of the cable companies never really had a relationship with their audience,” Webb says. “To me, the power of digital is being able to have a relationship with your audience, give them value, and monetize your own audience as opposed to just relying on pure ad revenue.”
Prepping for the Year Ahead
Every November, Webb goes away for three or four days to plan the upcoming year, setting specific goals for three categories: business, personal, and family.
“Once you have that in place, it’s very easy to see… a new opportunity comes, and you can just tell right away, ‘Okay this is complementary,’ or ‘It’s a distraction.’ If it’s a distraction, I decline the opportunity and carry on with the plan.”
Additionally, Webb holds a strategy session with his team in October or November each year, presenting a general plan and tasking his teammates with contributing their portion of it. “I feel like that’s important to involve the team and get buy-in.”
He highlights the importance of listening to your team by pointing out that the idea for the subscription box, Crate Club, actually came from a teammate during a meeting. And that’s quickly grown into a big moneymaker for the company.
There’s no doubt Webb has come a long way from the low point of his first failed business; he credits his training as a SEAL for helping to pull himself out of that slump.
“[People] get down and depressed and at a bad place when stuff happens,” Webb explains, “instead of just looking at adversity as ‘Okay, what can I learn from this, and how can I pivot and leverage it to my advantage?’ And once you develop that habit, it’s powerful.”
3 Lessons From a Former Navy SEAL Turned 8-Figure Business Owner
- Embrace the suck. In life and entrepreneurship, tough times are inevitable. Instead of wallowing in misery, leverage that adversity as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow. When Webb lost his first business, he took a day job to save up to start another one.
- Define the mission. Each year, Webb takes stock of his short-, mid-, and long-term goals. Once you know what your goals are, it becomes much easier to make decisions.
- Focus on ONE thing. Remember, at the start, Webb was running in many different directions, chasing after various business opportunities. Once he started to focus on just one business goal, growing an online portal for the special ops community, his business took off.
- Why saying no to some irresistible opportunities can save your business.
- How to figure out the delicate balance between doing too much and doing just enough to move the needle
- Why raising money can sometimes bury you deeper into a hole of failure
- The one thing all young entrepreneurs should know to avoid an insecure financial future
- The single trait an entrepreneur needs to get investors to fork over their money
- Webb’s personal and business goal-setting strategies that have led him to winning in business and life.
Full Transcript of Podcast with Brandon Webb
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast.” My name is Nathan Chan, and I’m the CEO and host of the “Foundr Podcast,” but also the CEO of “Foundr Magazine.” Now, what’s been happening in my world, had a big weekend, to be honest. I don’t really go out and have drinks that much, but during the spring racing season here in Melbourne, so in Melbourne, horse racing is a big thing, and we actually have like a public holiday and stuff for the spring carnival for a special day called Melbourne Cup. And yeah, that’s kind of one of the only times I really go out and have a few drinks and party with my friends and stuff.
And yeah, I lost my voice a little bit, so if my voice sounds a bit croaky, I truly apologize. But you all have to have, you know, a party, let loose every now and then, true to Richard Branson style. Actually on that, guys, we’ve actually just printed our first version of the magazine. Now, I don’t know, some of you guys may or may not be aware, but we used to, you know, run a digital magazine that’s an old started. We’ve been producing this magazine for the past few years only in digital format on the iTunes and the App Store, and also in Google Play, and we get so many requests to print the magazine so we’ve decided to print the Branson issue.
So if you do wanna check that out, you can go to foundr.com/freemagazine, you can get a free printed copy. You just have to cover shipping and handling costs. I think you’ll love it. If you love this podcast, I know you’re gonna love the issue. It’s really, really amazing. So much goal content on how to grow and scale your business.
But let’s not digress. Let’s talk about today’s guest. His name is Brandon Webb. He’s an incredible entrepreneur. He’s built a massive media company. I learned a lot, personally, from this interview. We talk about his passion for content and how he’s using it to grow his business and media company, how he’s getting into video in a very, very big way, but most of all, you know, his discipline and strategy on what it takes to build and grow a successful business. Now, because he did build previous businesses that had failed, and then he used his lessons that he’d learnt as somebody serving in the Army, to apply that to business, so it’s really, really powerful.
He also talks about focus a lot. That’s something that I learnt, actually, when I was on my holiday where, you know what guys, it’s one thing to do a new thing for your business, or a new product line to generate more revenue, but just because you can do that, doesn’t mean you always should, all right? And I learnt this from Brandon, so you’re gonna really love this episode. He’s a very, very smart guy. You’re in for an absolute treat.
If you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, wherever you’re listening. And also please, do tell your friends. All right guys, that’s it from me. Now, let’s jump to the show.
The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?
Brandon: Well, I got my job by losing my first business. I was a Navy SEAL for about 10 years and got out of the Navy in 2006, started a training company and bought a piece of land. It was my concept, but I brought other partners, raised just close to four million dollars for this project in Southern California, and ended up losing everything. You know, I just chose poorly on the partner side. I think, you know, when you’re choosing partners, it’s a lot like getting into a long-term relationship.
I see so many young entrepreneurs just jump in, straight away, to a partnership and realize that there’s a lot of times, no complementary skills sets and the chemistry is off, and it’s too late, you’re already in bed with this person. That was the case with my partners. It was not that they weren’t extremely talented, it’s just, you know, we had misaligned skill sets and no chemistry, and it ultimately contributed to the failure of the business.
So, you know, almost four years later, I had lost everything, including my life savings. I was sitting in San Diego at the time, lost my…I was having a conversation with my lawyer and he said, “Look, you’ve just got to walk away.” There is a difference between failing at something and quitting, it’s like go build another business. It just struck me, you know, because up to that point, I had had a lot of success in my life and in the military. I was SEAL pathing, you know, one of the toughest fortune courses. But it was an extremely humbling experience for me.
So I pulled up my socks and, you know, I took a day job with a big defense company in San Diego, rebuilt my life savings. I started getting into writing and that got me into blogging, and I saw an opportunity, the end of 2011, to launch a special ops focus website which ended up becoming a news site called sofrep.com. It just morphed into a foreign policy, domestic security, military news site, because the guys that I recruited from the special ops community, including even a few SAS guys from Australia, they wanted to write about current events in foreign policies because they were unhappy with the way that the press were reporting things, and not getting it right.
So we launched that website, and five years later, we have three other websites from military aviation to kind of a camping outdoor gear review site. We have another site to cover special ops. We have a TV channel that’s a subscription video on demand channel, so we do what the big cable networks do with their military documentaries and content on TV. We do that on our pay-for-view app.
We have G-podcast, and about a year and a half ago, we decided to, just looking at what the market was doing and kind of reading the world, which I think is an important skill as an entrepreneur, to really pay attention to your environment, we saw the digital advertising industry really getting disrupted by Google and Facebook, and so we decided to launch an e-commerce product called the “Crate Club,” after a military amour crate, to basically monetize on our audience who were already coming to us, asking us for gear and equipment advice.
So we launched a subscription box called the “Crate Club,” about a year and a half ago, that quickly grew into an eight figure that business for us. That’s a very long answer on how I got my job.
Nathan: Yeah. Awesome. Yeah, this is really fascinating. So you’re just about to launch a book, has that gone out yet, “Total Focus?”
Brandon: It has. It came out last week. You know, in fact, I just linked in just excerpt, a portion of, I have a chapter in the book called, “Embrace the Sack.” It’s all about, a little bit about the story I just told you. But really, I think people get, you know, they get down and depressed and in a bad place when stuff happens, and sort of looking at adversity as, “Okay, what can I learn from this? And how can I pivot and leverage it to my advantage?” And once you develop that habit, it’s powerful.
Nathan: Interesting. So, can you tell us the main premise of the book? Is it about focus?
Brandon: It is about focus. So, you know, in the book, I really relate my own personal journey and stories, as well as I feature some of my friends who are entrepreneurs, like Kamal Rova Khan who runs a tech venture capital fund. His brother started Angel List, and the roll.
But the focus comes from my own experience of losing my first business. Yeah, taking a day job, but having all these other opportunities pop up. I was chasing, I had invested in a protective textile business and I sat on the board of that, I was looking at doing a national shooting, like indoor shooting range franchise, building one. I was just chasing all these things all over the place, and I ended up meeting an entrepreneur named Todd Ackerman, who had a Porsche dismantling business in Los Angeles.
Todd would buy wrecked Porsches off insurance companies for thousands of dollars, and park them out for hundreds of thousands. It’s a brilliant business. I also was giving shooting lessons on the side, charging a lot of money, and Todd had hired me. We were at lunch one day and he said, “You know, I see a lot of myself in you, chasing all the stuff.” What he passed on to me was his experience at chasing 9, 10-plus opportunity, you know, oftentimes, all of them end up in failure. He said when he started focusing on his core business, that’s when he really started to have success. And that really resonated with me. I see a lot of that in a lot of young entrepreneurs today.
I’m a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization, it’s a global organization, and the New York chapter, we have about 300 really talented entrepreneurs. I see a lot of young men constantly, they have a little bit of success, they build the business to, you know, maybe get over the seven-figure mark, but they’re never able to scale up beyond that because they’re already chasing something else. And so that was really what anchored the book, was to focus, and learning how to say no to opportunities.
I was talking to my friend, James Altucher, about his book, “The Power of No,” you know, a few weeks back, and just how you have to say no to opportunities some time. And in the book, also talk about the importance of really having, you know, short, mid and long term goals. When you really have focused, concrete goals and a plan in place, it’s easy to see and assess opportunities that come along that either are aligned with your plan, or misaligned. And if they’re misaligned, it’s just an easy decline.
I think that’s, you know, for the younger entrepreneurs and founders, that it’s a big thing, focus. So, you know, that’s kind of what anchored the book, is a lot of other principles I share on lessons I’ve learned as a founder who lost the business and built up another business from scratch, and also by applying a lot of lessons I learned running the SEAL sniper program and implementing a lot of positive psychology in teaching methods and self-talk, visualization.
The self-talk I get into in the book is, I think, really important for people because we all walk around, you know, with this internal conversation, and so teaching people how to talk better to themselves is also extremely important. But it’s my first foray into this kind of genre, but I’m pretty happy with the way the book turned out.
Nathan: That’s awesome. So look, I took a ton of notes here, man. One thing that strikes me around focus is, I agree, I’ve been lucky enough to… I’m in EO too, I’m in the Melbourne chapter. And yeah, I agree with you around focus. It is so exciting though, to start another business and do all these other things. So what I’m really curious around with the focus piece is how do you truly know when to gauge to say yes or no to things? Like you reeled off under your media company quite a few different products underneath that umbrella, you know, 100% focus. So how did you gauge whether to do those or not? That’s where I’m really curious, because it sounds like you got a lot going on with that, man.
Brandon: Yeah, well it’s…running a media business, it’s, you know, worth… We’re in the content business so as we grow in revenue, you can add, capacity, right? Like you got this much more, you can buy capacity. And so I think as you’re growing your business, you can increase your capacity to act and try different things, but I have, as far digital media goes, I’ve been offered, especially in the product names, like different companies will come to me and say, “We want you to be on the board of this company. We want you to help us make an innovate product,” but that’s not aligned with what I’m doing in media. If it was a, you know, “Hey, let’s start…” For instance, I got approached by a big financial newsletter business. These guys make, you know, the parent company is a billion dollar business, but they sell financial newsletter products.
They were trying to reach a veteran audience, and that was more aligned with what I’m doing with the media space, and so I explored that. I didn’t end up doing anything with the company, but because it was aligned with content creation, and that’s really what’s core to our media business, it’s creating content, whether it’s video or, you know, an article on a website. That was why I explored it.
So for me, as long as I’m in that general lane of expertise that my business is anchored in, then I’m okay with it. The e-commerce product too is directly related to the audience that we’ve built on our platforms. It’s a high income earning, male audience. It was just another way to provide value back to our audience, and really what I think today is a shift in modern media. We had a big media publicly traded media company come and reach out to us a few months back and they were saying, “Look, we own a bunch of traditional newspapers in the U.S. and some other traditional media, and we don’t know how to monetize our own audience.”
We’ve developed a team in-house that knows how to, basically, monetize our own audience through organic and paid acquisition on social media, and that paid acquisition on social, it’s amazing how…what’s the right word I’m looking for? How scarce that skill set is. I sat down with a billion dollar retail company in the U.S., like incredible business. They will for sure, survive retail, because they have a experience base retail outlet. They didn’t know how to do paid acquisitions, and I just was like shaking my head, like, “Man, if I could access your email list and your audience on Facebook, I could turn that into a half a billion dollars pretty quickly.”
But anyway, back to the focus thing is, I think if you have a plan, and I think of it as a swim lane, if opportunities come and they’re aligned with your plan and they’re in your swim lane, then you can explore the opportunity. But until you have that plan, it’s hard to make that move, but once you have it in place, clearly, to me it shows up very quickly if this is something that is aligned with what I’m doing, and is gonna be complimentary or is it gonna be disruptive? And I think that’s a key differentiator as well.
Nathan: Interesting, yeah. Because the reason, one of the reasons I asked this question is I see a lot of similarities with what you’re doing with your digital media company with what we’re doing with Foundr. You know, we’re getting into e-commerce, we’re doing not just magazines, but all sorts of bits and pieces. We’re just pretty much just listening to what our audience is telling us and just going into many different verticals, whether it is video, whether it is premium courses, whether it is physical products, all sorts of things. Sometimes, I actually think to myself, “Wow, maybe I should be focusing. Maybe I’m doing too much.” But it’s all within the same, like around the same niche, around the same market, around the same opportunity. We’re serving the same audience, but different products.
So, yeah, does it ever come to a point because you guys have so much going on, that you feel like you are doing too much? Because it always feel, like for me ever since I’ve started this business, Foundr, it always feels like I’m doing too much.
Brandon: I would say, you know, there’s been times where it has felt like it’s been too much, and then we’ve…I have a good team, I’ve built an amazing team. My COO, Ben Madden, used to, he used to run Maxim Magazine. So Ben and I, there’s been times where like, “You know what? We may be a bit off more than we could chew here,” and we just shut it down right away.
To give you an idea, and you’ll understand and appreciate this, we were, in 2013, 90% of the business was supported by advertising revenue. Today it’s probably, we’ll finish the year at about, maybe 12%, 15%.
Nathan: That’s awesome.
Brandon: Yeah, and we are supported by, the rest of our revenue comes from digital subscriptions and our e-commerce subscription. It’s sustainable, it’s recurring revenue. We control it. So, you know, it’s a really good place to be in the e-commerce business. We had a lot of success, but we fucked up so much in the beginning. Like we had no customer service so people were, they were screaming and pissed off because they weren’t getting their shipments and there was no way to even find us to reach out to lodge a complaint, which is probably a good thing in the beginning.
But we were so many things we did wrong there, but we learned we learned from our own mistakes. I’ll tell you this, revenue solves a lot of fucking problems. When you have a product that’s doing very well, whether it’s video courses, or in our case where it’s selling a lot of these subscription boxes, we’re able to hire help. You know, we got a really good logistics and customer service team members from Jack Threads when Jack Threads went under, and just built it out and solved a lot of problems, fixed all our mistakes.
But I think that, you know, again, the revenue enabled us to hire capacity. And I think that is a key litmus test, right? I see, today I see so many young founders that the solution is just raise more money. I think that’s total bullshit because sales solve a lot of problems and enable you to hire more capacity. I’m not saying raising money is a bad thing in some cases, but I see many young founders get, just that they go right to that as a solution, and go, “Wait a minute, you can sell yourself out of this problem, rather than just go take more money just to keep the lights on.” I raised zero money for this business, the business, myself, I have an employee compensation plan. But I raised zero money. I started this business with $10,000 out of my own pocket.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s amazing man. We have a very similar story. This is so cool. So, I appreciate the way you’ve built your company, I think you’re a bit further ahead than us. You definitely are. But can you tell us the size of your team, like, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but your PR person said that you guys are a nine-figure business digital media company.
Brandon: We’re a solid eight figures. Our valuation puts us over the 100 million mark. Just now we’re, I would say our core team’s at about 40, and we have some guys that are full time, we have some part time content contributors that are 1099, working professionals that write for us. Probably another 20-30 of those, but core team of about 40. Last year we grew over 200%. Next year we anticipate a similar growth.
I’m to the point now where I know that to do what I wanna do in this space I need to go out and sell a portion of the business to raise the money to the kind of get us to the next level, because I wanna take on Discovery, any, these networks that are doing a lot of great content, but they’re struggling managing that transition from cable to digital. We know that world really well, but to do that, I need more capacity.
So I was sitting down in New York a few months ago, and I got to meet the founder of Time Bar and listen to his story. It was resonating, so I’m like, “Okay, I feel like I’ve got the business far enough alone, we could continue to grow organically, but I wanna speed up the growth, and I can only do that with some capital because I need the capacity. We can’t take on too much more ourselves.”
Nathan: That’s interesting. So you own 100% of the business right now? Oh no, you don’t, because you got the ace up, you said. Yeah.
Brandon: No, I have a phantom. I have a phantom e-felt plan. I like the phantom equity because it’s everything. You know, it just does everything that a stock option plan does, but it allows the founder to maintain complete control. That’s probably a result of me losing my first business and having a bunch of decisions that I want to make but couldn’t, because of partners and failed partnerships, lawsuits, whatever. It enables me to kind of run the business how I see fit.
It hasn’t happened to me yet, but even a stock option holder can complicate a transaction, whether it’s a money raise or liquidation through a sale of a business. In America, it’s especially bad because America is so litigious. They can say, “Well, I don’t think my option value is fair enough.” And they can kind of hold you hostage. You know, those firms are specialized, and just say, “Well, we want double, or we’re gonna create problems with the sale of the company.” So I’m really experienced on how to set up compensation plans that avoid that potential conflict in the future.
Nathan: So I’m really curious, man, with the scale that you want to grow, like how much would you be looking to raise? It sounds like in the tens of millions.
Brandon: Yeah. We’re looking at raising probably close to $40 million. Part of that $40 million will be, you know, I’m gonna take some cash off the table.
Nathan: It’s off the table, yeah.
Brandon: Yeah. And it’s something I talk about in my book, “Total Focus,” is knowing your number. I see so many people, even entrepreneurs, that they don’t realize how much they need to have, how much capital they need to have invested to produce the kind of lifestyle that they want. I did this experiment when I was going to a business school. They made us write down our ideal living arrangements, like what an ideal year look like living, not in a Maggie up lifestyle, but do you wanna own two homes, you wanna take some vacations, you wanna eat out so many times, you’re putting kids through college.
You kind of write down your expenses for the year, and you realize that money is finite, just like time is finite. There are so many hours in a day. So, you know, there is over 100 people that did this exercise, and we all got to about 400,000 in change, U.S. dollars a year. And then you can just back into the math and figure out, you know, just looking at it from a traditional, say you wanna put money in the stock market and expect a certain amount of return, like a passive income return, back into the math and that’s about $10,000. That’s shocking, for many people. And people will go, “Well, I don’t need $400,000, I only need half.” Well, if you half it and then half it again, it’s still two and a half million dollars. It’s a big number.
I think knowing your number and getting clear, and your relationship to money is super important. Because, you know, the auto response is, “Well, money isn’t everything,” right? That to me, is total bullshit as well. It’s like, well, if you have children and they get sick and you don’t have money, and this is America, right? I know you guys have better health care in Australia.
Nathan: Yeah, most of our audience are from America though, man. So it’s all good.
Brandon: Yeah. So in the States, people that can’t afford good health care die early, or die young, and that’s a shame. And it’s because they cannot afford the best health care. And so, you know, that’s the fact to the city of life. But I think knowing your numbers, there’s some real benefit to really knowing what that is, so then you can either grow a business and save to that, or you can realize, “Okay, it’s time to sell and then maybe go start something else.”
The reason I mention it is because that’s the reason I wanna take some money off the table, is because, you know, I have kids, young kids, and I just wanna make sure they’re secure if something bad would happen health-wise, or, you know, their college is paid for. They don’t have to go to university in American be saddled with a bunch of debt right after college.
Nathan: Yeah. No, that makes sense. I respect that. I think that strategy is solid. So a ton more questions, man. Talk to me about SOF Rep TV.
Brandon: Yeah. It’s a thorough ware. SOF stands for Special Operations Forces.
Nathan: Gotcha. So tell me about that. Like, how much content are you producing? Are you guys producing it yourself, or you’re licensing the content? You obviously charge a subscription like a Netflix, can you tell me about that more? I’m really curious around that.
Brandon: Sure. So, over the years, we had produced a ton of video content ourselves.
Nathan: What kind of content?
Brandon: We would, say, interview the founder of SEAL Team Six, and we would do around… one of our most popular videos that we shoot is we take former special operations guys and we sit them around a table and throw a couple of pints in front of them and cover. Oh, it’s amazing. And you cover 10-12 different topics, and chop those topics up into individual episodes. You get a couple pints in these guys and they start opening up and talking about crazy, funny stories from maybe training, or combat. You get them to show a lot of vulnerability as well.
We call that show “Inside the Team Room.” The team room is kind of the locker room of the military. So we had created like over five years, all this video content, and we put it on this site or that site and it would get linked to and syndicated on the network.
Nathan: So it’s free?
Brandon: Yeah, it was free. And then we decided to basically launch our own SVOD, Subscription Video On Demand, just like the Netflix. When you look at Netflix, Amazon, Showtime, HBO, you know, I subscribe to a few of those, and it’s really because of one to show that I like. I’m a huge “Game of Thrones” geek. I play tons of the dragons with the kids, but that show, just, “Billions,” and “Game of Thrones,” are like my two big shows right now. So I subscribe to HBO just for “Game of Thrones.” I could care less about the other content. Maybe I watch it, maybe I don’t.
Nathan: But you don’t tune.
Brandon: Yeah, I don’t turn it. I just subscribe to that show. And so I said, “You know what, we have a lot of content in the video space, let’s aggregate it all, put it behind a pay roll. And then let’s…what one show can we do that our audience will resonate with that will be that tent pole kind of show, like a “Game of Thrones” is for HBO, or like “Billions,” is for Showtime?” So we launched a show called “Inside the Team,” oh, not “Inside the Team,” it was called “Training Cell.” “Training Cell” follows former special ops guys around the country as if they were training for overseas missions. So they’ll go to Dirtfish, which is a rally racing school in the U.S. on the East Coast, and we go to a school in Colorado, to learn how to repel down skyscrapers, blow the windows and gain access.
Brandon: So all this incredible training. And it’s all reality-based. But, you know, we knew it was gonna resonate with our audience. So we hired an outside production company, but we have a director, a guy named Drew Wallace that used to work for Oakley but came from the military community. So he runs that whole program for us, and it lets us kind of build a base of subscribers.
Now we’re able to, because we’ve done it, we’ve done the show now where we launched it back in December, but we’ve already got next year paid for from the advertising standpoint, but we had to invest in it up front out of pocket. And now, you know, it’s paying off for us through the, we’re growing our digital subscribers, people, the show is resonating with a lot of people in the tactical industry, you know, they wanna advertise and be a part of next season.
And so now we’re like, “Okay, this show is sustainable. Now what additional content can we do?” So we’re actually looking to produce another show ourselves, but also we’re open to, just like any network is taking concepts and ideas from other production companies that wanna sell us, you know, they wanna come to us with a show and say, “Hey, we can do this for you. It’s gonna cost you this much.” So we are turning into our own network, but all digital.
And we have had some people license for content, not that…we haven’t had really big deals on licensing yet. We did an amazing film called “Big Mountain Heroes,” where I took four special ops guys that could ski and snowboard really well, and we took them to the French and Swiss Alps last year, and we shot this amazing footage, ski snowboard footage. But we also did these really in-depth interviews with the guys about how they use the outdoors and the mountains as therapy, and this conversation in America about our Veterans Department and how they like to treat veterans as victims, and they just throw a lot of pain, prescription pain pills.
So our thing was, “Let’s show the veteran community a better way, like how to choose thrills before pills.” So we did this amazing documentary and an outside TV saw our trailer, we did a small Kickstarter campaign as well, so we’re talking to them about potentially having them as a distribution partner. But just now, I think we’re getting people to start taking notice to what we’re doing, which is pretty exciting.
But there’s power, and as you know as like when you really engaging content and you can monetize it yourself, and especially in the, you look at the TV world where these, a lot of the cable companies never really had a relationship with their audience. And that’s to me, the power of digital, is being able to have a relationship with your audience. Give them value and monetize your own audience, as opposed to just, you know, relying on pure ad revenue and kind of not being in charge of your own destiny where the revenue lost.
Nathan: Talk to me about fostering that relationship, because with full transparency with what we’re doing at Foundr, I believe we could do a much better job with it.
Brandon: You know, I’m big on surveys. I say that and I’m rolling my own eyes because I hate surveys, but only because I think when I get surveyed there’s no value exchange. So we’re really trying to sensitize our audience to survey, but give them something in exchange, maybe a free log in, like free log in, free product or discount. Because we value their time.
But we survey, I think it’s important to listen to your audience, but I think there has to be some balance there. Steve Jobs is a huge person I look up to, and I really like when he relates the composition of product. He’s like, “We’re not gonna survey the audience and come up with a better iPhone, I mean well, maybe a better iPhone, but the iPhone wouldn’t been invented by a survey.” And so there’s a balance there between creativity and invention, and once you come out with a new product, yeah, then survey, figure out how to make it better and approve it. But I think there has to be some, from a founder perspective, you’ve got to take some risk and really think, “Okay, what can I do that is new and exciting, and it’s not a “me too,” product? That’s where the passion comes in.
I talk about passion in my book. My Friend Kamal, he invests in startups.
Nathan: We interviewed Kamal in the early days.
Brandon: Yeah. So Kamal is one of my best friends. He said he will walk into a room and if a founder starts out right away telling him how they’re gonna exit the business, he walks out of the room, because there’s, you know, they’re focused just on making a return. He wants to see somebody just, you know, extremely passionate and engaged, wanting to change the world with their ideas. And Kamal is funny, he like, “I’ve met one of these guys Simon, in city.” Kamal is like, “He’s the only investment I made where the guy was so smart and so passionate. I didn’t know what the hell he was gonna do, but I just knew it was gonna be special.” He’s like, “I wrote him a check on the spot.” He had a concept, but he didn’t have it anchored to a business plan. And Kamal is like, “Let me write you a check right now.”
So I think that’s, you know, so passion is important to any type of initiatives. We’re launching a new box, a subscription box, for anti-aging because it’s something I’m passionate about. We have our fulfillment mechanisms set up, and we know how to create a field funnel of pre-paid acquisition on social.
We did a market study, and there’s a couple products that we thought we could enter into the e-commerce, but I took the one that I was passionate about, because I knew that I would put 150% into it, as opposed to, “We could do a fishing box, or a fishing tackle every month.” You know, I’m not really passionate about that one. But we decided to launch a box called “Continue,” which sometimes I don’t mind teasing it out, because I thought we were gonna start advertising against them in September.
“Continuum,” it’s life optimized, so it’s content around anti-aging, and curation, right? There’s so many different products out there, people don’t know what to use, you know, whether it’s a nutra-ceutical, or skin care cream. Where is it made? How has it been tested? What’s the science behind it? I’m excited to launch that, but I chose that as a passion project. And I think it’s gonna do really well.
Nathan: Yeah. No. And it sounds like you’re very, very good at putting your ear to the floor listening to what your audience are asking for, and also looking for trends. I think it’s very, very smart, the different verticals that you’re moving into. Like the way that you build your media company is very, very similar to what we’re doing.
I believe that the traditional ad model of selling banners is broken. You need to have a multifaceted platform which goes through physical, digital products, private buy will based content, and then you can do the ad stuff as well. Then you have to have a strong, you know, a strong side of recurring revenue to actually minimize risk. So, no, I think it’s really, really smart. And even using tools like Kickstarter, we used Kickstarter as well, to crowd fund a book, so I think that’s very, very smart because that’s a great way to involve your community.
I love what you’re doing with the video stuff. We haven’t done much with video yet but I’m really, really excited to get into that too. My question around video is, I have concerns around cost, man. I think it could get really expensive really fast.
Nathan: Especially if you wanna do it at the level of what you’re doing.
Brandon: I’ll send you a link to that documentary we did.
Nathan: We’ll put it in the show notes.
Brandon: Yeah. We produced that entire project. We did a Kickstarter campaign against it, but we put it out of pocket, up front cost, we paid for it all. That documentary is probably gonna come in between 25 and 30 minutes, like raw content, edited, polished content. We produced that entire documentary, travel, ski passes, hiring a helicopter, all the, you know, pre and post production, will be in it for probably $25,000.
Brandon: And so you can produce really, you know, good content for not so much money. The other lesson I learned, this is a polished film, but I also learned that when we’re do… we do a lot of video advertising on Facebook and we spend six figures a month on Facebook ads. We found that a polished video that takes us maybe two weeks to shoot and do the post production and get it out there, what was performing better was we would have one of our gear curators in his garage, shoot a iPhone video on landscape mode. You know, a shaky iPhone video of him talking about the latest product and how excited he is about it. That video would crush this polished video concept that we’ve spent all this time scripting. Because it’s engaging content, it doesn’t have to be polished to provide value, I guess, is my point.
So sometimes we’ll sacrifice some of that kind of polished content because we just, we were like, “Look, we have an opportunity maybe with, just to grab some really good content. Who cares if it’s high quality? Let’s just get it and use it for something, because we have an opportunity.” It would be like this, right? You’re sitting on a plane next to Richard Branson and then you’re like, “Hey, can I shoot this conversation with this, that we’re having right now?” and you put that video that’s on your phone up on YouTube, it’s gonna get a ton of views, because it’s, you know. So when those opportunities come up. It’s more about the content.
Nathan: It’s real.
Brandon: Quality of content doesn’t mean quality production. It’s just real and engaging, and vulnerable. But I pride myself on shooting, you know, for thousands of dollars what big cable networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars producing, because it can be done for less. The equipment, the technology, the talent is out there, to kind of build a small in-house team, which we have, and produce content very quickly for not that much money. Like those episodes of “Training Cell,” we have a budget of $25,000 an episode. I mean, we sent a team to Hawaii to do jungle warfare and we shot the whole episode for 25 grand.
Brandon: If you’re on a traditional shoot budget, that’s probably half a million dollars, at least, that’s what a company is gonna spend on that, because they’ve catering and they’re flying. They’re not paying attention to cutting costs, because we spend that on Facebook, we use it against credit card and get points and so we use the points for company travel. I built the culture around always paying attention with saving, how you can save the company money because it make the company healthier, and we’re able to do fun things, like have a big annual holiday party, have a strategy meeting where I can hire them speakers. And if you save $100, $1,000 here, $100 there, and you add it up hundreds of times throughout the year, it’s some massive saving.
So building that culture of doing things for less, paying attention to not spending in excess, which I see so many big companies do, right? They’re just throwing money away.
Nathan: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Brandon: Yeah. And so I, you know, I am really proud of what the guys on our internal media production team have been able to do to really keep the cost, because it can be done for a lot less, I guess, is my point.
Nathan: Yeah. No. I love that, man. A few last questions before we work towards wrapping up, just around the content piece. It sounds like you’re much like me, in the sense that you can just get lost in just the art and the craft of the content, and you wanted to do something that’s so cool. How do you put stop gaps in place to make sure that you actually get a return, or don’t waste money? Because I find, personally, that we can do some crazy stuff with content just like yeah, it’s also for the craft, but it’s not gonna do much that they can be kind of measured. I’m really curious, because it sounds like you got recently frugal around stuff. So, yeah.
Brandon: Yeah. I would say, you know, and I allow myself one passion project a year. That documentary called “Big Mountain Heroes,” that I explained earlier, that was definitely a passion project. For me, it’s important to get that content out there, the message, and so I really didn’t care if we made money on that or not. Like, look, this is important to me. It’s something that, you know, I love to ski. This is, the messaging is there.
It was a learning experience too, because it was the first documentary I ever made. We could, fortunately, we were in a position cashflow-wise, to make that investment. But most, I would say, most content investments we make, we make sure it passes make money test. We say, “We know we’re gonna be able to put ads against this on Facebook to drive more subscribers. We know the content is gonna be shared is gonna be really good and provide value to our existing subscribers.”
Sometimes we’re willing to gamble on, because we do a lot of video ads, and right now I challenged my own team, and we hired a few outside production folks to come up with a really funny viral campaign for our gear box, the “Crate Club.” I said, “Go crazy with it.”
But I do, everything I do, Ben and I, really make sure that we’re confident that we’re able to monetize it in some form, and our first preference is our audience. Are we gonna be able to make money off of our existing audience? Because you know very well that advertising is great when you can get it, but you can be with a massive…yeah, you can be with a…
For instance a big lesson I learned, we started breaking news with our new site, you know, the first couple of years we were in, we landed this massive sponsor called, it was a military credit union, USAA. Massive in the U.S. We had a seven figure ad campaign: video, display. We broke the story of, we’d been sitting on a piece around this Navy SEAL that was out of the military but gonna come out publicly with, you know, Chris was now Kristen Beck. So it was the first really openly transgender SEAL.
So we broke that story, and we helped CNN do a documentary on it. The story broke and the advertiser, I don’t know if it was the internal team or the agency, but they pulled all their ads for a week. They got scared, stopped everything.
Brandon: And it scared the hell out of me, because at the time we were, you know, a relatively small business. I was like, “Wow, this is crazy.” The agency was saying, “Well, you know, it’s because of this content, it’s too edgy.” And so I’m like, “This is news.” But it’s, you know, it’s a very conservative, credit union, from a management perspective. I said, “You know what, I don’t want this to happen to us again.” So that really nudged us into the paid subscription model, to not let advertisers put pressure on us to do certain kinds of content.
It also taught me the volatility of, and how fickle that world can be, right? Unless you’ve got a really strong relationship with the brand directly, you could have some, you know, some person at a digital agency, and a lot of the agencies, the digital teams are young and inexperienced because the senior executives at the advertising agencies are print and television, that’s where they come from, and they don’t understand what a tech to TV ratio is, or picture rate.
I just got away. I’m like, “Look, I love advertising revenue, it’s gravy, but I’m not gonna be, you know, our media company was not gonna be relying on ad revenue, it’s too fickle.”
Nathan: I think that’s smart. Just switching gears, just talking about “Total Focus,” and certainly, you mentioned there, I have notes for as well, which I think would be valuable to our audiences. You talked about short to mid to long term goals, how far out in advance do you plan your long terms? Can you walk us through what a typical, you know, year looks like, kind of the scaling up with the painted picture? Like I’m just really curious, like with your goal setting, let’s say it’s January 2018, how are you gonna plan it?
Brandon: So every November, I go away for three-four days, and I plan out my year. I set specific and actionable goals. So I set very specific goals under three categories what I wanna accomplish with business, my personal, kind of self-development, and then family. I’ll put “Visit grandparents,” my grandparents on my father’s side are from Canada. So they’re in their 90s, and last year it was important that I get out there and see them. So I put, “Visit grandparents. Buy ticket by Feb 1st.”So that produces a very clear, you know, actionable goal.
So I have these, you know, business, personal, family, and I write everything underneath there that I wanna accomplish, and then I put something specific that can be measurable, like it’s an actionable item. Like this year I had on my list, on the personal level, I’m a pilot, I love to fly planes, It’s a passion of mine, I wanted to either get my multi-engine rating, or my float plane rating. So I put in “Multi-engine, float plane. Book training by this date.” So when that date rolled around, like, “Oh shit, I’ve got to do something here.” So I ended up redoing the search and I decided to get my float plane rating in Lake Como, Italy. On September 4th I start a week-long class to get trained on that.
So it’s listing all the goals down, but overall, I would say my business, I have my long term business goals which I put five years out. I think five years for me is enough to… Things are always gonna change and you’re gonna have to adapt your goals, but a five-year plan is kind of my stretch plan. But every year, I plan, you know, what the next year ahead look like. And there’s very specific financial goals, like revenue numbers that we wanna hit, how are we gonna hit them, what new initiatives are we gonna put in place? Once you have that goal, your yearly plan, is like I said about focus and distractions. Once you have that in place, it’s very easy to see something. A new opportunity comes and you can just tell right away, “Okay, this is complimentary, or it’s a distraction. Distraction, I decline the opportunity and carry on with the plan.”
So that’s just what I do, personally. I also, my team comes together in, you know, October, November, I have a strategy session. And they have homework beforehand, and we show up and we create, you know, I come up with the general, “Hey, this is where we’re going in 2018,” but they’re participating in developing their portion of it. I feel like that’s important to involve the team and get buy in, because to be honest, that e-commerce product, it was not my idea, it was one of our team members. They said, “Why don’t we do a subscription box? Our audience is asking us all this advice on equipment and gear because we have all these special ops. Guys, let’s do a box.”
And we were like, everybody said, “Duh, yeah, let’s do them.” So we did. So I think it’s important to get input from the team that way because, you know, the founder and a business leader, I think that’s something we have to be, right? We can’t come up with all the good ideas, but we can see one and go, “Okay, that’s a good one. I’m gonna take that and execute against it.” But that’s how I run my process.
Even on the personal stuff, I have, you know, like I said, I know my number. There’s things that I wanna do, like I’m saving up to buy a beachfront property in the Caribbean right now, because that’s important to me to have a place that my friends and family can visit and travel quickly from New York without a passport in, you know, 15 minutes off the plane you’re swimming in the ocean. Like, that to me is something that I thought long about, and what I want my life. I hope that answers your questions.
Nathan: Yeah, 100%. Last question, with the offshore strategy, you do the offshore strategy for 2008 with your team in November, not in January.
Brandon: I do it, actually this year it’s gonna be in October.
Nathan: Oh, wow.
Brandon: It’s just kind of the way our business cycle is too. January they’re pretty slow. The holidays for us, with the sales that we get on social media, it’s so hectic that this year we decided to push it before the main holiday period, so we could just be ready to rock. But yeah, we do it, you know, October/November because come January, we’re rocking and rolling for that year.
Nathan: That makes sense. Awesome. Well look, dude, this was a really, really great conversation. I really appreciate your time, Brandon. So where is the best place people can go to find out more about your work, and also grab a copy of “Total Focus?”
Brandon: Sure. The book, just my author website, brandontylerweb.com. The buy links are up there in Amazon. They can get at Amazon as well, but everything is on my author page, and all my social media. My Instagram, Twitter, is @BrandonTWeb. All that’s on the website. And then the business page is hurricane.media. The .media is like a .com extension.
Nathan: Fantastic. Look, thank you so much for your time, Brandon. I really appreciate it, man.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Brandon Webb
- Learn more about Brandon Webb
- Checkout Hurricane Group, Inc
- Follow Brandon Webb on Twitter
- Follow Brandon Webb on Instagram
- Like Brandon Webb on Facebook
- Checkout Brandon Webb’s Books