Brandon Brown validates ideas to grow Zodiac Interactive Featured

5:59am EDT January 6, 2011
Brandon Brown, CEO, Zodiac Interactive Brandon Brown, CEO, Zodiac Interactive

Brandon Brown hates treadmills. So he runs outside, even in the dead of winter — in fact, that is when he snags his best times. When people ask the CEO of Zodiac Interactive how he bears the brutal Long Island cold to clock a few miles, he explains that once he gets started, he has no other choice but to keep going.

“Fear of death is a positive motivator,” Brown jokes. “You just don’t have the luxury of being four miles out and saying, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I liken that to being a privately held company that’s self-funded — I really can’t imagine being in a position where I’ve committed to a large-scale project and, at some point deep in the project where the investment’s already been spent, coming up to the reality that says, ‘We can’t do this.’”

Before completely vesting Zodiac, an Emmy-award-winning developer of software for interactive television, in any opportunity, Brown validates ideas with an elaborate upfront process — and the help of his 135 employees.

Smart Business spoke to Brown about evaluating ideas from conception until fruition.

Validate the coolness. You’re almost like a sponge, and you just try to absorb as much as you can. Then use inductive and deductive reasoning to formulate what you believe is a direction and/or a trend and/or areas that represent uptick in a timeline that fits to what you’re looking to achieve.

You map it to your own business map. In my world, the business map really breaks into two categories: that which we call the tactical, which has no more than a 36-month delivery time for full monetization, and that which we call the strategic, which builds from the tactical and goes out as far as 60 months. Whatever it is you’re hearing, you always try to map it to: Which one of those two buckets does it fit into? That at least gives you a high-level timeline of how you’re going to prioritize this.

Then, of course, you look to common threads: Am I hearing this from more than one source? There, you’re going through a validation sanity check. Something can sound really cool, but if you’re only getting it from one source, you really have to question it.

Build external support. It all inevitably starts out with, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool,’ and then you go from, ‘That sounds cool,’ to, ‘That is cool.’ You make that leap by sitting back and saying, ‘OK, we’ve won it. We’re doing it. Now what do we do with it?’ It’s really the repeatability. How applicable is this to other players in this sector?

Now you go out and open dialogue around it. Have people talking about it, really now pulling information along: What do you think about something like this? Would this have value to you?

If we’ve got something and we believe it’s got legs to it and we believe it fits into a tactical bucket — we obviously focus more on the tactical side, being the size organization that we are — we will then proactively go out and solicit comment. Those sources will range from industry pundits and consultants to users of the technology.

The ideal state is where you’ll find a sponsor for the technology, capability or product that you want to develop. It’s always better to go into a business offering with a sponsor who’s got skin in the game and is prepared to embrace it once it’s available. Sometimes, you can carry that as far as literally getting advanced funding to help support the development of the business offering.

The No. 1 thing you want to try to avoid is what I call the flavor of the month. There are always those things that are very high on the hype cycle but never really go anywhere. Those can be the most dangerous things because everybody’s talking about them, but once you scratch past the surface and it’s no longer the frosting and now you’re into the cake, there’s just not enough substance for it to ever go anywhere. That’s where you really need to rely on your own research and validation. You have to really go into that sponge mode and reach out to the various sources and the various resources you have at your disposal.

Negotiate internal workflow. Once you’ve got the answer that this is cool, now you step back and say, ‘What do I (have to) do to build it?’ It all starts with a high-level sketch, broad brushstrokes to come up with broad brush answers. How much money can I make from it? How much money is it going to cost me to do it? There’s my first broad brush.

If it survives that validation, now you go on to the next: What’s the timeline to go do it? Simultaneously to answering that question, you have to also answer the question: ‘What’s my timeline to bring it to market so that I can make the money that I just said I can get from it?’ There’s your next validation point.

Everything, at the end of the day, is a negotiation process. Sometimes, things are tradeoffs. Oftentimes, time and timelines play into it. Each component feeds the next component. So if this component winds up taking one and a half times longer than it was supposed to, it’s not a case that, well, it’s only one and a half times longer over a two-week cycle, what’s the big deal? It becomes a compounding effect. So it needs to be negotiated down.

It’s not a case of just simply saying, ‘All right, take shortcuts,’ because that’s the last message you want to send your people. It becomes more a process: ‘Look, we really can’t delay. There are market opportunity factors. There are cost factors. There’s a host of factors, which you’ve identified as valid; now we need to negotiate around it. What are our alternatives?’

Keep it simple. The general philosophy here is pretty straightforward: This is all about moving the money from their side of the table to my side of the table. It fundamentally becomes that simple. That’s all it is that we are here to do, and in order to do that, certain things need to be present: I need to deliver value. It needs to be commensurate with the price being charged; it needs to be delivered in a timeline that makes it of value to the consumer, etc.

When you’ve got these types of challenges, it just helps if you keep things that foundationally simple, and it also avoids making it personal. It’s not a case, ‘Well, development screwed up; they’re running four weeks behind.’ It becomes more a case where you’re sitting down with development going, ‘Look guys, these are the timelines associated. This is the overall result set that we’re looking for. If there’s an impact here, it permeates through the rest of the cycle. We’ve got to negotiate through this. How do we work around this? How do we still deliver what I need when I need it so that we can get out of it what we expected to that got us into it to begin with?’

People, I find, respond very well under that structure. Maybe your ideal state is 50 and maybe what you’re being told is possible is 30. When dealt with collaboratively, when everybody understands the necessity, you wind up at 40. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of capacity based on drive and commitment.

Schedule sanity checkpoints. The checkpoints represent concerns that are flushed out. Maybe the concern is around delivery timelines. Maybe the concern is around market adoption rate. You match your checkpoints to the concerns. The most wonderful type of concern is a concern born over nothing more than delivery capability and the cost-associated because those are the most controllable — they’re internal only. The concerns that represent a more challenging domain are concerns that deal with market adoption rates, trends, external factors.

(Checkpoints should be) deliberate, because otherwise things will develop a life cycle of their own. That’s when you can really get into trouble. It’s good for something to live and to breathe and to generate its own momentum, but you want to do it in a managed, controlled way. You always want to have at least some sanity checkpoints, otherwise you just lose perspective.

It’s like that old story we learned as kids in science class. You drop the frog in boiling water; well, the frog immediately jumps out and is just fine. But put the frog into lukewarm water and bring it to a slow boil; he’s cooked before he ever jumped out. That’s what you’ve got to avoid. You just get caught up in something, it’s taken on a life of its own, and before you know it, you’ve been boiled.

How to reach: Zodiac Interactive, (516) 619-3170 or http://www.zodiac.tv/