By Jason Adams
When Meg Whitman stepped down as CEO of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) in February 2018, few would have predicted that the next move for the Silicon Valley veteran would be to Hollywood.
After a storied career that included helming online auction site eBay from spunky startup to multibillion-dollar juggernaut, and leading Hewlett-Packard (HP) through a turnaround effort that saw it split into two streamlined companies (HP and HPE) better steeled for the future — not to mention executive and board stints at numerous other companies and organizations, and, oh yeah, a run for governor — Whitman joined Hollywood legend Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new entertainment venture that would come to be known as Quibi, a name that refers to the “quick bites” of movie-quality content it’s producing exclusively for mobile.
Two years and nearly $2 billion in funding later, Quibi is set to launch with a slate of shows and programming to rival other entertainment services, only through an app exclusive to mobile devices.
Here, Whitman talks about how (and why) she became the CEO of the new company, what kind of content we can expect when the service goes live on April 6, and how the partnership with T-Mobile to offer Quibi at no extra cost to its customers came to be. Oh, and a few words of indispensable advice from Mitt Romney.
What originally piqued your interest about Quibi, and what was the deciding factor in joining Jeffrey Katzenberg in this new venture?
Jeffery’s been a longtime friend. And when I was stepping down from HPE, he called me and he asked, “Would you ever be willing to be the CEO of this new company?” And I said, “Well, come tell me about it!” I spent a good long time with him, and thought, “This is a really good idea.” Because it is dead-on from a trend perspective, mobile viewing on video has gone through the roof in the last four or five years. This is mobile only, which is such an important thing to capitalize on. And we think we’re going to do something really unique around content completely made for mobile, from the beginning. And we’ve got incredible technology that makes viewing video on mobile distinct.
So, I joined Jeffrey down in Los Angeles in March of 2018, and we spent between March and August of 2018 writing the business plan and the strategy and then, of course, raising our first round of fundraising. And then we began building the company in August of 2018. And we have really put, I think, a terrific team together. The content lineup is extraordinary. And the fundamental technology platform, as well as the marketing and the advertisers that have validated the platform, we think it’s very powerful.
Is there anything in the lineup that you're particularly excited about?
So the first thing is, I love the variety of content. We’re doing, really, three different kinds of content. We’re doing movies in chapters. Then we’re doing what they call in the industry, alternative, unscripted and documentaries. That’s a whole other category. And then we’re doing daily essentials.
And there’s a rationale to this three-tiered content strategy.
One is, we think people come for the movies in chapters, they’re delighted by the unscripted documentaries and alternative, and we think they stay for the daily essentials. If you think of other streaming services, no one has that mix of content. Mostly what they’re doing is movies in chapters and documentaries. No one has the daily essentials, and no one has this mix. There literally is something for everybody. They’re real lighthouses, the movies in chapters, but there’s something that you want to watch every single day.
My favorite in movies in chapters is probably Survive, with Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins. It’s a remarkable story about a woman in difficult circumstances, in a plane crash, and then it turns into a love story. So super excited about that. In the documentary I happen to love I Promise by LeBron James about his school in Akron, Ohio, where he has tried to provide every support system for these children that are facing pretty tough challenges. And, as you probably know, I happen to be chairman of Teach for America, so education is very close to my heart.
And then on the daily essentials, I will be a watcher of the news daily essentials, I’ll be a watcher of the weather daily essentials, I’ll be a watcher of the sports daily essentials.
What have been some of the key learnings and takeaways in building Quibi these past couple of years?
What’s been incredibly valuable is the experience that Jeffrey and I have starting companies and running companies. I mean, both of us have done startups. I’ve done eBay; he’s done DreamWorks. We’ve both run big companies. I ran eBay and then Hewlett-Packard; he ran DreamWorks and was the head of the Walt Disney Studios. And so between the two of us, we have tremendous experience. We also know where things might go wrong.
We decided to lay down the key tenets of the culture just two months into the start of the company. If you don’t lay down that culture, you don’t quite know what you will end up with. And so we were very smart about the culture. We then said, “We want to be nimble and agile and have a startup culture, but we also want to do things thoughtfully, carefully. We want data and analytics. We want a technology platform that is modern and state of the art.”
It was really fun for me because I had no legacy technology platform — this was all built de novo. We were able to innovate around our Turnstyle technology and how to improve the mobile video experience, not only through the technology platform but also through how we shot and delivered the content. So I think those were real highs. I will say, I was worried about building a technology team in Los Angeles. As everyone would tell you, if you’re going to build a brand-new technology team, you should probably build it in Seattle or in the Bay Area. I said, “But it’s important for us to have that technology team be with content.” And so we took a risk building the technology team here and it’s a risk that’s totally paid off. We have an excellent, excellent technology team that I would put up against any technology team I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. So that’s been a high, that’s been fantastic. And so we’ve just been steady as she goes. We’ve got, I think, operating cadences that are for a more mature company, but we’ve also been able to tap into Hollywood in a way that very few other companies could have who were primarily tech companies. And that’s thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg.
If you think about it, many companies in our space were either content companies that became tech companies or tech companies that tried to become content companies. And we tried to have a content to a media-tech company or a tech-media company on equal footing together from the beginning. And in some ways that’s the grand experiment that we’re pretty confident is going to be successful.
How has the deployment of 5G factored into Quibi's plan for success?
Well, I knew about 5G a number of years ago because I was at Hewlett-Packard and we provided a lot of the infrastructure for the next generation of network. So I understood the power of 5G probably before most people in the entertainment business did. And I thought from the beginning we were a perfect use case for 5G. We know people love to watch video on their mobile; we know their mobile is with them all the time. This notion of mobile viewing, which we think is so essential to Quibi, was only going to be advantaged by 5G. And we also assessed that we thought T-Mobile was going to be first with 5G, which it turned out to be. We liked T-Mobile’s technology.
How has it been working with T-Mobile President and CEO Mike Sievert in creating the Quibi partnership?
I admire Mike a lot. He’s fun to work with, he’s smart. I first met him in the spring of 2018. I went up to T-Mobile [in Bellevue, Wash.] and sat down with Mike and his team. And then came back a couple months later with Jeffrey, and met with Mike and his team again. And from the beginning, the T-Mobile team understood what we were trying to do. And so we began to think through what a partnership might look like. And he was always a champion of Quibi, which we are very grateful for. And, of course, we were a champion of T-Mobile. And then he came to CES and joined me onstage for, really, the broader announcement of what was Quibi. He’s become a good friend, and we admire his leadership.
What have you learned from being a woman leading companies in Silicon Valley, and now Hollywood? And what advice or secrets to success would you impart to other women coming up in business?
Well, first of all, I’ve been at it a long time. I graduated from business school in 1979 when there were many fewer women, across the board, in business. And I think my strategy from the beginning was, Put your head down and deliver the results. So I really focused on results. How do I do the best job that I can do in whatever situation I find myself in? So that was the first thing.
The second thing is, I think it’s always helpful to be a great colleague, to be a great team player, to be fun to work with. My first boss, at Bain & Company — who, by the way, was Mitt Romney — told me, “If you don’t care who gets the credit, it’s amazing how far you can go.” And I really took that on board as a young executive, and I just said, “You know what? I’m just going to contribute.” And he also said, “If you’re always in the neighborhood of good things happening, good things will happen to you.” And so that’s also been a bit of my strategy from the beginning: just do great work, be in the neighborhood, be a great team member, be a great colleague, be fun to work with, be optimistic and enthusiastic. I thought that would be enough. And it has turned out to be.
What can we expect in the next one to five years, in terms of both Quibi and mobile entertainment at large?
So in partnering with T-Mobile, I think we can do something quite unique here. And let me just give you the construct, if you think about filmed narrative entertainment or the narrative of filmed entertainment. First there was movies. Movies were two, two-and-a-half hour pieces of content, designed to be watched in a movie theater in one sitting.
Then in the ‘50s came along TV. TV was designed to be watched in your home. Think about it, you actually have to go buy a piece of furniture to watch TV. But it was not one sitting; it was 13 to 26 episodes — you had a whole season to get to know your characters and fall in love with your show. So it created a whole other industry.
We think, and I think the T-Mobile team thinks, that we can together create the next generation of filmed entertainment, which is incredible, Hollywood-quality entertainment for the small screen. And we think that in the next five years, the smart phone, or the cell phone, will actually become the first screen, not the second screen. Since 2012, mobile viewing has gone from six minutes a day to 80 minutes a day. And if we can accelerate that and create a whole new generation of filmed entertainment, the two of us together have a chance to create a whole new industry.
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