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Ask Russ Leatherman

"Mr. Moviefone," Russ Leatherman, on persuading others to adopt new technology.
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Q How do you convince a staid industry to adopt new technologies?

Adam Lavine
CEO
Funmobility
Pleasanton, California

You can't base your pitch on the fact that you have something new or innovative. People at big companies don't care about that; they care about not being yelled at by their bosses. It's also hard because when you run a start-up, you're usually asking for such small amounts of money that it's not worth anyone's time to meet with you. When we were trying to sign up studios to advertise on Moviefone, which was a new idea at the time, we were talking about hundreds of dollars to people whose budgets were in the millions.

But in every industry there's a maverick--a crazy dude who's willing to take a risk, someone who actually is looking for the next great thing. Ours was John Butkovich, the former VP of media at Columbia Pictures, who was known for putting movie posters in bathroom stalls. But one customer isn't enough. When I would do cold calls, other studio people would say, "Oh. Crazy John Butkovich? Congratulations. You got him."

When no one will take your business seriously, your only option is to make them afraid of ignoring you. That's where having that one maverick in your corner can help. Butkovich created ads where an actor--for instance, Adam Sandler--would be on Moviefone. Eventually, other actors were calling up the studios, saying, "Hey, where's my ad? Why am I listening to Adam Sandler?"

You can also create that fear through marketing: Get your name everywhere and people will feel like they have to listen to you. We decided that we were going to make Moviefone ubiquitous in L.A., where all the studio executives live. We made deals with radio stations and newspapers, where we traded a mention on Moviefone for, say, 50 radio spots a week. We bought billboards and gave out little wallet cards at high schools, so the execs would see us on the way to work and hear about us from their kids over dinner.

This takes nerves of steel, patience, and confidence. By the time we started signing up customers in 1990, I probably had $150,000 in credit card debt. You have to have the ability to be rejected on a daily basis. It's actually a little bit like being a successful actor. You need to say to yourself, "Either this is going to work or I'm going to be living in a box on Santa Monica Boulevard."

Russ Leatherman's company was sold to AOL in 1999 for about $400 million. He is still the voice of Moviefone.




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