Neal Schore identifies trends to grow Triton Media Group Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010

Neal Schore sees cool things every day. As founder, president and CEO of Triton Media Group LLC, new trends and technologies often cross his desk.

He heard about a couple of guys, for example, who imagined controlling what came out of the radio via remote. There was also the idea to let radio audiences view a station’s playlist online and instantly download the song they just heard.

Sometimes, cool catches Schore’s attention. Triton Media Group partnered with those guys — who formed a company called Jelli — to give national radio audiences control over content. And one of the many digital products and services Triton supplies to the media industry is a TuneGenie music discovery platform, which lets listeners view play-lists and browse in-depth song information from a station’s homepage.

But Schore doesn’t get carried away by ideas that sound intriguing.

“The transition between cool and engagement with an audience and then monetizing that cool is where we’ve spent a lot of time,” says Schore, who leads about 550 employees. “We don’t get hung up in cool. We get enthusiastic about what works.” With more than 18 years of media experience, Schore has learned how to qualify trends and ideas that catch his attention and validate the business case behind them. He does that at an accelerated pace to keep Triton, which had 2009 revenue of about $225 million, ahead of the curve.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and investment against where we think the market is going, and that’s allowed us to not only be innovative and leaders but also made us very relevant and turnkey to our clients,” Schore says. “So they’ve grown to trust us because we’re effectively delivering against their needs in advance of them understanding their needs themselves.”

Keep the market’s pulse

Innovation starts with an awareness of what’s happening in the marketplace around you, because you’ll pull from that pool of trends and ideas.

Schore stays in touch with the expected sources, such as advisers and media thought leaders. But he also reaches out to people at competing firms.

“I’ve struck a great relationship with a significant network of individuals that provide the ability to share information without sharing confidential information, so it’s more market-driven,” he says. “That helps me keep the pulse.”

To steer clear of confidential information, keep these conversations high level and reserve details for your talks with advisers. Schore doesn’t head in with a list of specific issues he wants to discuss. He approaches competing colleagues with only the broader industry in mind.

“It’s typically more open dialogue as opposed to a particular question or a series of questions,” he says. “Inside the industry, similar companies … have similar ebbs and flows. So we’ll, from time to time, just talk about market conditions and we’ll talk about more macroeconomic trends and variables that specifically affect our industry.”

Of course, your own instinct is a good control for these conversations. If you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing certain information about your company with a competitor, don’t ask the competitor to divulge it, either.

Schore also spends a lot of time talking with customers, both by himself and with his management team.

“Ask them specific questions about how their business is doing and what their needs are,” he says. “It’s a lot of time listening and understanding our customer needs, not just for today but also their growth needs and their expectations for us. … Usually it’s some of the more innovative clients themselves that are asking for things and helping us make sure we’re in front of the market.

“Our customers have come to expect us to be innovators and leaders so we spend time with them monthly to assure we understand the leadership and the innovation that they’re thinking about so we can incorporate it into our ultimate product offerings.”

From observing the marketplace and talking with clients, for example, Schore realized that many of them were looking within streaming audio to server-side targeting for future revenue growth. Triton was already a majority shareholder in StreamTheWorld, a company that provided it. So in June, it acquired the remaining shares.

“Not owning StreamTheWorld (or) being able to integrate all the technology to then provide the turnkey solution … would have offset the opportunity to help our clients enhance their technology and expand their revenue,” Schore says. “And when our clients’ revenue grows, our revenue grows. We are partners in the revenue-expansion opportunity.”

Checking out the marketplace isn’t all conversation. You also have to dig for the data to back up what people say. Where possible, find metrics to illustrate how certain companies or even products are performing. That will help solidify which areas of your industry are thriving, pointing toward your opportunity.

Look inside your company

While you’re examining your market, don’t overlook your internal resources.

Consider the perspectives of your front-line employees. Because they often face customers directly, they can be valuable vehicles for customer feedback.

“Spending time with employees and the individuals on the front lines of what we do is a great resource to hear what’s happening in the marketplace,” Schore says. “As our employee base has grown, it’s harder to spend the same amount of time with the employees. We now have offices in 21 locations so it’s impossible to be in more than one place at a time.”

To compensate, if you can’t physically get in front of your employees, pick up the phone, shoot out an e-mail or set up group meetings when you do visit other locations to compound the feedback.

Schore asks employees what clients have been requesting to learn where needs lie. He also asks what they hear in terms of timing. If a customer needs a future product, for example, Schore wants to know when it is needed to help determine if Triton can meet needs when they arise.

Looking inside your company can also point back to market trends. You can’t always get information on revenue — especially by product line — from your competitors, but you can see which offerings are successful for you. So it’s important to monitor internal trends, as well.

Also, any time you acquire a company, you bring on a new group of experts and a set of different marketplace perspectives. For example, Triton acquired Dial Global, a large network radio player, in November 2007. After spending time with its management team and learning more about that segment of the industry, Schore recognized the growth potential there.

He began seeking another network radio company to bolster Triton’s position in the field, leading to the acquisition of Jones Media Group in June 2008. Ultimately, he merged the two additions to form Triton Radio Networks.

Talking with your employees is not only an avenue for their ideas; it’s also a way to stay aware of the everyday duties they face. That can reveal their capability for handling new opportunities you may pursue.

“It’s always a delicate balance of not wanting to push our company too hard and too fast with very ambitious and very specific growth goals, while at the same time always leading and innovating,” Schore says. “So our management team does a great job of collaborating on expectations to be forward thinking while managing the expectations of the current day-to-day needs of the business.”

The easiest way to maintain that balance is to separate your work force into day-to-day operations and teams tuned to the future.

“We have a team of people that’s just focused on that growth,” he says. “Their job is to look at trends, to look at new opportunities and different emerging technology. … It’s then their job to bubble up the parts that they think would add value to Triton.”

To help them define that value — and to keep their suggestions aligned with the overall direction of the company — Schore requires those employees to do their homework. That consists of three questions: Will it work? How will it work? And what is the revenue model?

“We have the courage to be entrepreneurial while we have the discipline to be good operators,” Schore says. “That’s the balance.”

Turn to the future

It takes more than three simple questions to determine whether an idea becomes reality at Triton.

“We’re a company built on forward thinking,” Schore says. “When we sit as a management team and forecast where the market is moving, … I use information that I gather as some data points that help us consider how to continue leading the way forward.”

In those meetings, the key is to keep your eyes turned toward the future.

“Instead of using tunnel vision for our industry, we really put on our forward-looking goggles,” Schore says. “If we can project technology trends and the needs of our clients, then it assures that our content, our technology, our resources and our employees are focused not just on the blocking and tackling of the day-to-day needs but also on the future needs of our clients.”

That projection involves determining an idea’s relevance and revenue opportunity for clients. When you do that, you’ll also narrow the field of opportunities to pursue, because you can’t be everything to everyone. Of the several hundred opportunities Triton investigates annually, it acts upon about a dozen.

“We tell clients no when we don’t believe that there’s a monetization opportunity for what it is they’re asking for,” Schore says. “If what they’re thinking is a good idea or growth opportunity, if we don’t believe that that will actually recognize the revenue or the growth that they’re projecting, we will share with them why we don’t believe so.”

To evaluate the revenue potential, run the idea by other clients to gauge the appeal across a larger audience.

If wide adoption seems likely, thanks to the support Triton receives as a portfolio company of Oaktree Capital Management LP and Black Canyon Capital, Schore has access to the resources necessary to provide the service. That may mean hiring more people or acquiring another company. But he’ll only do things that keep Triton ahead of the pack.

“If the revenue opportunity is starting to really take off and we’re not in that particular space or vertical, then chances are we weren’t in front of it,” he says. “If the marketplace maturity is in advance of our launching, then chances are we’re not going to launch it or acquire it. So we’re very focused on making sure we’re bringing technology and services to the marketplace that are ahead of the curve.”

That’s why it’s so important to stay in constant touch with the marketplace. If you realize a competitor releases that next best thing you were considering, it may not be worth your effort to recreate it only to compete for a market. Instead, focus on the next thing in your pipeline.

“We use the revenue stream or the marketplace needs as an indicator,” Schore says. “What we want to have happen is in advance of (clients) asking for it or when they do ask for it, we need to be able to have the solution to deploy.”

In the end, you’re always taking a risk when you pursue new opportunities, especially when you’re trying to stay ahead of trends. The better you can balance an understanding of both your business and the marketplace you operate in, the better your odds for success.

“There’s always risk in anything you do,” Schore says. “The most well-established business can launch a new product line and that product line could fail. But if they don’t try, then they’ll be stymied by lack of courage or lack of innovation.

“We are not renegade. We’re very calculated and we’re very deliberate, but we’re calculated and deliberate in a very fast-moving way against a set of data that we often get: great information or feedback from our clients and employees.”

How to reach: Triton Media Group LLC, (818) 528-8860 or www.tritonmedianetworks.com