In today's current socio-political climate, it's refreshing to talk to a media company focusing efforts on positive content. Let's face it; we can all use a good laugh, cry or story that we can relate to, to take us to a happy place. Being born and raised in LA, I know better than most how easily people can become enamored with the façade of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
I also know that it's an extremely rough road with few success stories and scattered with broken dreams and casting couches. But when I met the team at SoulPancake, I felt like the entertainment industry still had some hope. I sat down with CEO Shabnam Mogharabi to discuss her journey in what I hope will be an evolving and growing market focus.
LM: I read that the mission of SoulPancake is to "Make Stuff That Matters," what does that mean? Why does that matter to you? And, how did you get involved with the company?
SM: Our goal is to create inspiring, uplifting content and tell stories about the universal, timeless human experience. So, when we say "stuff that matters" we are talking about the highs, lows, joys, difficulties, love, hopes, fears, emotions, and messiness of what makes us human. I think we too often get distracted by what's unimportant, so we want to disrupt the distraction and elevate the entertainment that people consume.
I joke that I am a recovering journalist. I was working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., when I heard SoulPancake's founder, actor Rainn Wilson, doing an interview about his new media company on NPR. Listening to him talk about SoulPancake, I felt like he was describing my professional soulmate - I had even written my grad school thesis years earlier about starting a media platform with a very similar mission. So, I reached out to everyone I knew in L.A. at the time until someone put me in touch with one of the other founders, Devon Gundry. I told Devon that I could help with content for the launch of the company, and that was 8 years ago!
LM: You've been at this a while, what are some interesting takeaways you have learned producing positive content for the past few years?
SM: I love being in the positive content space! When we first started out, we had so many companies and agents and reps tell us that they loved our concept but NO ONE would watch. "People love drama," we were told. "You're too feel-good," we often heard. No one else was doing what we wanted to do! Create inspiring, joyful content about the human experience? Crazy talk!
But I'm so proud of us for sticking it out and being one of the first media companies in this space. So many platforms have emerged in the past few years focused on inspirational entertainment, and I think that's awesome! It's a testament to our increasing appetite for positivity as consumers.
I also genuinely believe joy and inspiration are infectious. In our social world, I believe we are all influencers - whether you have 50 friends or 5,000 friends. And we all want to be a positive influence on those we care about. Who doesn't want to be the person who inspires everyone around them?!? That simple premise is what has allowed us to amass over 350 million video views on our content.
LM: How do you balance that positivity with the current political climate? There's a lot of divisiveness in the world right now, how do you see SoulPancake addressing that?
SM: I think the world needs SoulPancake content more than ever. You're absolutely right - the world is very divided right now. But I also believe that a good story, well told, can change the world. We are really proud of the fact that we have been able to tackle gender, race, implicit bias, terminal illness, religion, and other taboo topics in a way that is entertaining, but also inspires people to feel connected to others despite their differences. We have to start with conversation in order to arrive at more unifying solutions.
LM: I loved your "Tell My Story" series - what a great way to approach implicit bias, which is a topic I'm very personally interested in. How did that series come about? What did you all learn from it, and what were you hoping the audience would take away from it?
SM: We are obsessed with implicit bias over here as well! When we were digging into the topic, we knew we had to be able to make it entertaining, and that's how we landed on a dating show format! I mean, who doesn't love a good dating show? What we're hoping is that people come to see whether there is a connection, but at the end, they realize that all the participants were simply projecting their biases onto their partner. And to perhaps wonder if they themselves have biases. To date, more than 26 million people have watched the series, and it's been amazing to see our audience comment about their own bias in watching the show. Mission, accomplished!
LM: To that end, as a video content company, what have you learned about how viewer preferences have changed over the past few years?
SM: We're very much moving to an on-demand consumption world. There's a reason people are leaving cable television in droves. As consumers, we want to watch what we want, when we want, on the screen we want. And audiences don't like having barriers between them and the content. I also think there's an interesting feedback loop that online viewership has created with the content creators and storytellers that never existed before.
LM: Switching gears a bit, we hear a lot about "authenticity" in content, and I know branded content is a source of revenue for SoulPancake. I'm curious how you balance your brand image and integrity - the authenticity that your audience comes to you for - with the wants and needs of brands that want to work with you?
SM: We are very selective about the brand partners we work with, and we have said no to many potential partnerships that didn't feel aligned with our mission. Whenever we work with a brand, we focus less on the specific product or service they are wanting to promote and more on the human insight or observation that they want to celebrate. We do a lot of education to help ensure they understand what it means to create entertainment that also has secondary goals for a brand partner. We have to do the work early on to align on creative goals, but often that is what makes it possible to ensure that the message is authentic.
LM: What advice would you give for other companies struggling with that same challenge?
SM: It's important to diversify your revenue stream, so that you are not entirely reliant on brand and ad revenue. It's hard, but the goal is to earn enough to have the luxury to be able to say no when a project doesn't make sense.
LM: I'm a huge proponent of women's empowerment, and as a female leader, I would love to hear challenges and triumphs you've faced in business, and how being a woman has helped - or hurt - you...
SM: It's a wonderful statement of our times that so many businesses and management styles now espouse the benefits of leading with traditionally "female" qualities like compassion, empathy, and intuition. I think corporate cultures are starting to find a better balance. That being said, there's still a long way to go, even at our company. We are a female-led team, with 5 out of my 6 department heads being women. But that's imbalanced, too. I need more men and more diverse perspectives at our leadership table. I think it's the variety of voices and perspectives that has historically led us to the best, most inclusive, and most effective content.
LM: Who are the women that have mentored or inspired you? And what piece of advice would you give to a woman in business who's just starting out?
SM: Honestly, my mom is my biggest inspiration. She is a teacher's aide for special needs kids, unrelentingly joyful, and the most loving, patient woman I know. I aspire to be the type of leader who can channel my mom's infectious energy on a daily basis to inspire my team.
I've been given a lot of good advice over the years, but one of the worst pieces of advice I ever got was: "don't cry at work." I'm a big advocate of learning to keep your emotions in check and never responding emotionally to difficult situations. But at the end of the day, we're all human. And every once in a while, whether you're hurt or exhausted or crying with joy, there are sometimes tears. It doesn't make you a less effective employee, manager, or leader.
LM: Finally, in this rapidly changing media landscape, what areas do you see SoulPancake expanding to next? What people, publishers, and companies would you like to work with?
SM: We love our sweet spot of social video content. But we also have big plans to expand our library and distribution in the coming years. We have been experimenting recently with VR and mixed-reality content. We have our first feature film in development. And we're actively looking at international opportunities. Basically, we won't stop until our brand of joyful inspiration conquers the world. Or at least your closest screen.
LM: Please take the time to check them out, pump the positivity and share the feel-goodiness that is the ethos of this incredible brand. We need more companies like SoulPancake in the world now more than ever.