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Jim McCarthy, Co-Founder And CEO of Stellar.Live

The pandemic put the entire live entertainment industry at a full halt. Audiences cannot attend concerts, public gatherings, and speaking events in person. This global crisis directly impacted Jim McCarthy's discount ticket site Goldstar, but he chose to be versatile than lay down in defeat. He joins J.R. Lowry to share how pandemic restrictions inspired him to start Stellar.Live, leveraging the power of the virtual world to hold online events. He explains the best live streaming strategies, the importance of audience interaction, and the current trends in pulling off such productions. Jim also shares entrepreneurship lessons from his time being mentored by Noah Alper and getting through a failed start-up experience.

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Jim McCarthy, Co-Founder And CEO of Stellar.Live

On His Two Decades As A Live Entertainment Pioneer And Innovator

In this episode, my guest is Jim McCarthy. Jim has been a live entertainment pioneer and innovator for decades. He is the Cofounder and the CEO of Stellar Live, the only full-service livestream partner for professional live entertainment organizers. He's also the author of Beyond the Back Row: The Breakthrough Potential of Digital Live Entertainment and Arts and an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California. Jim started his career teaching English to Japanese students before returning to the US. He worked for Noah's Bagels for several years and then dove into the dot-com boom with GeoCities, which was acquired by Yahoo.

Not long after that, he co-founded and ran Goldstar Events, a leader in the sale of excess live event ticket inventory. When the pandemic shut down the live entertainment industry, he started Stellar to help generate real revenue with quality virtual shows. Jim is also an active volunteer, having served as a board member over the years for Innovate Pasadena Union Station Homeless Services in The Pasadena Playhouse. He is a Cofounder and organizer of TEDxBroadway and an advisory committee member at Caltech. He earned his Bachelor's degree from Harvard and his MBA from UCLA. He lives in Pasadena, California. Jim, welcome to the show.

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Tell our audience about Stellar Live and what you're up to these days.

Stellar is a platform for professional show creators to be able to do online and hybrid shows, which has become a big thing and part of the future of live entertainment, whether you're talking about theater, music, or performing arts in general.

What inspired you to start Stellar during the pandemic?

The pandemic largely was the inspiration. At the time, I was running a company that I co-founded called Goldstar, which many people will know that sold tickets for many years to live events. In March 2020, our business came to a complete halt. Over the few months after the pandemic, for various twists and turns and different reasons, we green-lit this project to build the platform that we knew that people whom we had been working with for all these years in the professional live entertainment world that they would need in order to be able to adapt to the pandemic world, and also to be able to do the online and hybrid stuff that we knew would happen when in person came back, which that's where we are now.

You talked in the book about the early rough start of people in there in bath robes from their sofas in the early days of COVID and how the online medium has matured since then. What have you seen happen over the last years?

There were a lot of robes in the early days. There was one that I saw where there was a fairly well-known comic who was doing a robe show. She stopped and took a bite of her pizza during the show. I thought to myself like, "What is going on? This is a professional comedian." What's happened is, essentially, the professional creators of live entertainment who have embraced this have looked at it and said, "Simply, how do we make a show that entertains and takes advantage of the online medium?"

Like anything, the screen you're watching when you see an online show is a medium with strengths and weaknesses. What they've done is they've been able to take that and make it into something that's not as either you're pointing a camera at something that's happening for an in person audience, or you're filming it in a way that brings it to life for the at-home audience. That's the direction that it's gone in different ways. It becomes very exciting when you think about what changes when you think of it the second way rather than the first way.

I won't get your terminology right from what you described in the book, but you called it ride-along online events and maturation. Thinking about them, it's almost as an online first with the live audience that's almost secondary in the scheme of things.

It's interesting. It's not an unfamiliar model. If you think about the late-night talk shows, for example, there's the audience there. They're having a great time and are happy to be there, but the real audience is at home. The real audience is scattered all over the world. One of the main differences, in a sense, is not so much that that's new. It's that now, a lot broader group can do that. It would have been hard to do that yourself if you weren't a network before, but now it's much easier.

It's true. You talked about the late-night shows that the interplay is important there. I think about John Oliver, who made a go of doing his show from The Void, as he called it, for the better part of twelve months or maybe even longer. There was something missing there when he didn't have an audience.

It makes you sentimental about having a laugh track because you're like, "It's too quiet." A lot of standup comics who did shows without an audience had the same thing. They're saying hilarious stuff, but nobody's responding. You just feel like, "Where's the energy?" That can be done. Comedy is probably the best example of you should have an audience. It makes a big difference, but some things are not as important. Some things it doesn't seem like it's important, but the life and the energy that the audience brings are very real.

One of the things that we say as advice to people who are producing these events is you're using multiple cameras to do a good online event, 3 or 4 cameras typically. One of those cameras should occasionally be able to show us the audience. There's something about seeing the audience in some way during a live stream that brings the whole thing to life. It's very interesting human psychology.

It sounds like you're targeting mainly professional producers of events, not the individual creator market. Are you targeting both groups?

We're targeting professionals, but I would say there's an ever more fuzzy line between those, especially in this format. There are some so-called content creators that are going to be big innovators in this field because they don't have the barriers to moving into this in the way that some of the professional creators in genres do. They don't have the overhead of an enormous theater that they have to figure out how to film. They're going to be individual creators who are real pioneers here and can make it an enormous success for themselves. We are focused on professional creators, but there's this group of people here that can easily join the ranks of very successful professional creators that maybe this is opening the door for them in a way it's formed. We'd love to see more of that.

Do you have expectations about a minimum level of production quality for events to be hosted on the platform? Are you more open about it than that?

We're pretty open. If you don't want to do decent production quality, you're probably going to just stream on YouTube or something like that. Our platform is about monetizing your shows. It's about building an audience and audience data. That's a lot of work to do. There's no real point in going down that road if the quality isn't at a certain level.

Some people, if they're talking their thoughts into a camera or webcam, they're probably going to stick with Facebook Live, Twitch, Twitter, or something like that. If they're serious about building an audience, monetizing what they're doing, and that kind of thing, they're going to need some of the tools we have, like ticketing, subscriptions, memberships, all that stuff.

What's the state of the business itself now? You started this back in the spring of 2020.

Goldstar was essentially the parent of Stellar. The Goldstar business really wasn't running, so the team that we had was devoted more or less to Stellar. Through the course of '21, we sold Goldstar and spun Stellar off. Stellar has been an independent company for a few years now, since the beginning of 2022. In the business, we have a fully built-out product. We have customers using the product every day and people buying tickets and watching shows every day. We're out there in the world trying to advocate and build a coalition and consensus around the importance of doing this in the live business. We're very much up and running. Lots of shows are happening all the time. Lots of new customers are coming on board, and we are seeing what we can do to help pioneer this new medium.

What are the latest trends you're seeing in terms of how online or hybrid professionally produced events are changing?

That's a great question. The main trend is that some of the producers, especially people who maybe are coming to this with less of a background in traditional forms, are instantly grasping this combination of digital and in-person. It's having two different experiences that happen at the same time. One is for the people that are in the room, and another for people that are watching on screen. We are leaning into both the strengths of both of those forums, using digital tools to enhance the experience of people watching on the screen and delivering a great in-person experience for the people who are in the room. If you think about it, it's fascinating. You're watching the same thing at its core, but you're having two different experiences based on the medium that you're experiencing. It works very well both ways.

The main trend in live entertainment today is combining digital with in-person. This enhances the experience of people watching on screen and of those present in the room. Click To Tweet

It also helps you differentiate between the in-person and the online experience. You can build an audience experience that's unique each way, and you talk a lot about the importance or the opportunity of online in terms of creating scalability for your event. If you add into doing multi-camera, very simple online projection of things and go further into more of that separate experience, I would imagine it opens up a whole new world in terms of what you can do as a producer.

It does. I'll give you an example. There was a show that I thought was a beautiful example of this early this 2022. The show happened in person at The Bourbon Room in Hollywood and also online. There were a few thousand people watching it online, while a couple of hundred people watched it in the room. A big part of the plot revolved around a book. Characters are holding a book. If you're sitting in the audience, you have characters holding a book and saying this and that. The book was key to the plot. If you were watching on the screen, you were looking over the shoulder of the character into the book, which, if you think about it, is fascinating because you could see what was in the book. The character is reading it to the audience.

You couldn't do that. You probably could find some way to do that. The idea of the artistic choices opening up in that way for the online part is fascinating because it's barely been touched. You could be showing people a different experience if you want it. You could concoct a story where the two different audiences came out with a completely different understanding of what happened. You could imagine such a thing. Artistically and commercially, it's fascinating because you could have many times more people watching remotely than in person. It is something that we do at the beginning, which makes it exciting.

It is cool. It's been fascinating to watch how events have changed in the wake of the pandemic and how people are embracing online and hybrid in new and exciting ways. You make the point in the book that this is the early days. I completely agree with you as a non-expert in this space that it feels like there's a lot of innovation yet to come.

You're right. You don't have to be involved in this. You can probably think back to other things that have gone through the same curve, whether you're talking about the adoption of the internet itself. I've been on the internet since '97 and watching people resist the idea of having a website. Companies didn't believe they needed a website in the late '90s for various reasons. Our customers want to deal with this in person, are too old, not technically savvy, or all these different reasons. All of that melted away over the next 3 to 5 years.

By the early 2000s, every company understood that it needed a website. It was not an extra or a side thing. It was part of what they had to do. There are multiple examples you've probably been through thinking about how people adopted smartphones, for example. It took a long time. It was one of these things where it was seen as this nerd tool or unneeded thing, and then all of a sudden, everybody had to have one over time. It's like anything. There are people who see the future and other people who just need to have it shown a little bit more before they get it. We're still somewhere in that growth curve.

CSCL 33 | Live Entertainment

Live Entertainment: In the late 90s, many companies believed they didn't need a website and did business in person instead. Later, they understood that it is not a side thing but really just part of what they had to do.

 

It's interesting too. Mobile is a good analogy for what you're talking about in the event space. First, you had websites built to be seen on a computer. They looked terrible on the phone. We fixed that problem. You then had updated JavaScript that allowed you to build in a way that would be device sensitive, so at least when you looked at it on the phone, it looked okay.

You then started having people think about, "I have a desktop platform that does this. I have a mobile platform that does this. They don't have to be the same." It's akin to what you're talking about with your example of the people in the online audience seeing what's in the book and the people in the in-person audience having to have it read to them.

It is a great example. It's the phase we went through with mobile where, "I'll admit mobile is important, but it's second to the desktop." You probably remember that phase. It's an ancillary thing. It's a companion piece. It's whatever. There weren't too many years before I was like, "No." I used to say like, "Who's Batman? Who's Robin?" For a long time, people thought, "Desktop was Batman, and mobile was Robin." It wasn't too many years after that when it's like, "Mobile is Batman." As you said, it's a good point. You could do different things with them. It always surprises people when those changes happen, even though they're usually long and coming.

You went to Harvard. You majored in English. I can't imagine you were at Harvard, envisioning yourself getting into the online event space. How did you get from graduation to the beginning of Goldstar?

I couldn't have imagined myself in the online event space because the worldwide web didn't exist when I graduated. It's hard to imagine. One of the things that I always say is like, "You just don't know." As a young person, you can't plan too meticulously for your career because you don't know what the world's going to offer when you're in your career years. For me, it's true that I've spent my career working on the web or the internet the whole time, and it barely existed. It was very much a computer science thing when I was in college. It existed but as a computer science thing. I spent some years in Japan teaching English and learning Japanese. It was quite an education on multiple levels.

I came back from Japan thinking. I was impressed by the fact that Japan had become this incredibly prosperous and healthy country over a pretty short period of time because of the power of business. That was the best I could express at the time. People here are doing very well compared to their grandparents. What was so cool about living in Japan in the '90s is Japan was a wealthy country, but you could see not too far back how different it was. It was interesting to see. At that time, older people, like people in their 60s or older, were much shorter than the younger people because they grew up with different nutrition and everything. Somehow that got me in the mindset like, "When I go home, I want to go where innovative businesses are happening."

I moved to California and found my way into a company called Noah's Bagels, which, if you live in California, Oregon, or Washington, you probably know Noah's. That was a time when Noah's was the most interesting, fastest-growing restaurant concept. Noah himself was an incredible, awesome guy. I joined the company when it had twelve bakeries. We were about to add 150 more. I got to jump on that and learn a lot in a very short period of time over the next couple of years. I got an education by fire in high-growth businesses, customer service, and all these things all at once. Things changed there. I left there and started business school at UCLA in the fully employed program during that.

That was hard but fun to be in the FEMBA and also work in a demanding job. I left Noah's in the middle of FEMBA. This was in 1997. I looked around and thought, "I have a chance here to pick an industry." It was very early, but the worldwide web had been created, and people were using it. It was still pretty niche, but Amazon and eBay existed, and a few things like that. I started thinking, "There's this thing called eCommerce that no one's talking about yet that is fascinating. I want to get involved." I did a bunch of research. I met everybody in the whole Southern California internet world because that's where I lived and got a job at GeoCities, which some people will remember, which was the first place that ever gave people free homepages, personal websites, and tools to build them out.

It was enormous. I don't even know how to compare it to anything nowadays, but it was the biggest consumer-generated content site in the world at the time. We had millions of people who had websites that they built on GeoCities. All over the world, people were coming to GeoCities' website every day. We were trying to figure out how to add commerce to that, and my first assignment at GeoCities was our brand-new partnership with Amazon. I got to work with Amazon in the days when they were 200 people working there, something like that. It was very small. We're all in one building in Seattle. Bezos had a desk that was just a door. It was a closet door and some cinder blocks in there. That was his desk. It was a door on some cinder blocks.

Getting an inside look at what they were doing was like, "This is the blueprint for eCommerce then and now." I got to fully absorb that in a very direct way because every day, I would call my contact at Amazon and say, "We want to do this and this," and they would go, "No, we need this and this." I'm like, "Explain that to me," and they would. I got a really good education in eCommerce over a short period of time. This is what I always say. In your twenties, it's time to learn. You can worry more about making money in your 30s.

I'm sure you'd agree. You have to use the career years of your twenties to learn stuff. It's the best place to learn, and then you can leverage that a little bit later to make more money. GeoCities was bought by Yahoo in 1999. I went through as a founding employee of another company that was a venture-based dot-com thing. That didn't work out very well. A couple of the guys that were there with me, my friends, and commuting partners to that company, we started Goldstar in 2002. It was Goldstar through to Stellar, and here I am.

Use your career to learn while you are still in your twenties. Afterwards, you can leverage those learnings to make more money. Click To Tweet

I'm going to take you back to days at Noah's. What did you learn at Noah's that helped you in your later career days?

Let's start with Noah. Noah's a real guy. That sounds like it could be the thing that's Ronald McDonald, but Noah Alper was a real guy. He lived in Berkeley, California. The first job I had at Noah's was I ran a store on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. That happened to be Noah's neighborhood store. I saw Noah almost every day, and I would chat with him almost every day. The thing about Noah is that he was a true mensch. We learned all the different Yiddish words in working there. It wasn't just that. At that time, Noah's was a kosher-keeping kitchen. If you were a kosher-keeping Jewish person, you could come to Noah's at that time and rely on the fact that we were a kosher-keeping kitchen.

I learned all the, by no means, Jewish, but sometimes I felt in those days as though I was. We would close for eight days during Passover. We had to get all the leavened bread out of the store for those eight days. It's all these different things. More to the point, it was this whole idea that there was something higher than just the business. Noah would talk about most of the customers that came in weren't kosher keeping, but there were a lot of people, even non-Jews, who thought that if we maintained this standard in terms of the dietary standards of kosher, we must be serious about quality. We actually were. There were always moments when people would suggest things like, "Maybe if you guys had turkey and cheese sandwiches, you'd sell more lunch."

It was like, "We can't. That's not going to work." That was an interesting set of trade-offs. I learned a lot about culture because Noah's had a very strong culture. We were way ahead of the curve in terms of paying people for skill-building and a high starting wage. We retained people. The way that the quick-serve food business works are incredibly high turnover. It's something like 150% to 200% turnover annually through crew level higher. Noah's number was more like 50%, which is still a lot, but it's a lot better in turning over half your crew every year as opposed to turning over your average crew person twice a year. That's just a huge difference.

Part of that is natural. You have students. They come and go and that thing. Part of it is what you pay them, how you take care of them, and how they're treated. A culture that says without a committed group of people working on this, who feel that there's a reciprocal relationship between them and the company they're working for, it doesn't work at all. There's so much to learn from that. The other thing that I learned was the limits of rapid growth. At one point, we were opening one Noah's every week. This wasn't on a base of thousands of stores. It was on the base of 50 or 60 opening a store every week.

You could think of it as an organization that has a tensile strength, more tension on the thing. If you pull too hard, it snaps. That's what happened at Noah's. The strains of growth broke the organization's capacity to do it. There was a growth imperative that got decoupled from a lot of the fundamentals of the business. It broke the thing that made Noah's really special.

This was after Noah had left. Note that. There's the decision about someone's analysis that said, "How about meat and cheese sandwiches?" It came up again some years later after Noah was gone. The decision was like, "Absolutely." The calculation was 7% of the customers are kosher keeping, more than 7% from having these other sandwiches. The spreadsheet says, "Let's do it." If you don't know and have no experience of this thing happening, it's pretty hard to argue against that logic in business. It was the single most destructive decision that that company ever made because of all those years of talking about answering to a higher authority. You demoralize your best customers and employees, and you no longer have a claim to that.

It was a punch in the gut to everyone. Some of the stores that the neighborhoods that did tend to have more kosher-keeping customers, or even halal-keeping customers for that matter, plummeted in sales. That simple math of plus 7%, but over here it's minus 7%, but we get 11% over here, it's the thing that exists in a spreadsheet and a concept. It doesn't necessarily exist in reality. Through that experience, I learned a lot about what it takes to provide structures that lead to quality under high stress and high growth, and also the limits of that. There is a limit to that.

If you think about everything we've seen, you see that again and again where it's about to break, and then it does, whatever you want to pick. There are plenty of examples of it where it broke. I'm trying to think of a recent example of this where it's like, "That's not shocking." There are plenty of examples of this that don't seem sustainable, and then it isn't. There are limits. Limits are good lessons. There are limits in general.

You then go to GeoCities. How did that add to the base of learning that you got in your early career days?

I thought I knew what high growth was before I got to GeoCities, but I did not. This is one where this was internet scale growth, where you didn't have to build a new store to get more customers. They just showed up in greater numbers. The imperative to translate that traffic into revenue and that thing was mad because we were in a business model that no one knew. If you're working in a chain of bakeries, you know how you make money. You sell baked goods and drinks and things, but in this, it was like, "We got to invent how we make money in this world." It was a daily mystery of like, "Let's do this," and like, "That didn't work at all. Let's do this. That worked. Let's do more of it."

It was a frenetic pace of trying to figure out what the internet could do commercially. In large part, what we stumbled onto is something that we all live in now, which is the free but advertising-supported version of the internet, which was far from obvious in the mid-'90s. It was far from obvious that was the way that it would end up. There was a lot of enthusiasm for micropayments and premium content as the driver and stuff like that, which we live now in a world of Facebook, Google, etc., where you and I, as users, use the services free more or less, and somebody that service is charging somebody else to get our attention. That's what we found our way to. There was a lot less friction in getting revenue growth that way than monetizing more directly through users.

It's funny, too, because we've talked in this conversation about the online event space is changing. To me, one of the ironies of the internet is a massively game-changing thing. At the end of the day, one of the biggest business models, maybe still the biggest business model, is the exact same business model that worked in radio and television.

It is. The twist is it started working differently with the advent of social media companies, where there's the ability to personalize and use the algorithm to manipulate you more. I look back on some of the commentaries in the '70s and '80s about TV and how manipulative it was. All they were trying to do was sell you something. They were trying to manipulate you into buying something, but now, the level of manipulation is so much more personal. It's directly you and me individually. It's upping the ante but in a very familiar model.

We've come a long way from splicing a picture of popcorn into a movie preview.

Isn't that so quaint? Trying to sell popcorn is not so bad. That could be worse trying to crash them.

You moved on and did another startup after you were involved in selling GeoCities to Yahoo. What was it like to go through a failed startup experience?

This was in 1999. We raised $10 million in 90 days on a $40 million valuation. We didn't have anything but a deck. That's what 1999 was like. I don't still think we've gotten back to that thing. There's certainly been some little bubbles or semi-bubbles, but at that time, anybody who could say, "I'm doing an internet thing," could raise money. The team that we had was pretty experienced in this area. That was credible, but that was nuts. We got a lot of attention and interest. The thing I took out of that was you have to stay the course on stuff. Getting something off the ground is hard. If you're frequently changing, it's really hard. There's the idea of pivoting, but there's also the idea of constancy.

You have to be committed to something. I find entrepreneurship is this strange balance between not too much of this and not too much of the opposite of that. You can't be ideological about always grow, "Be cautious on hiring people," or the opposite being something like, "If you see great talent, hire them and figure out how to use them later." Those aren't always right or wrong, even though they're opposites. Sometimes if you try to apply a principle of that kind dogmatically, you're going to go wrong some of the time. With that startup, the error that we made was too quick to modify our course because it didn't work right away.

As Bart said to Homer on one episode of The Simpsons, where he started playing the guitar earlier in the episode, Homer said, "What happened to the guitar?" He was like, "I wasn't good at it right away, so I quit." It was like that. You weren't. It's that balance. We didn't do that very well. Despite raising the money and everything, a lot of us who weren't in charge of it started going like, "I don't think I can stick around for this." We peeled off over time, and the three of us created Goldstar.

How did you pick the ticketing space, of all things?

It's a life-changing decision, but a good question. We had seen a few things that were doing a similar thing. There was a lot of ferment happening in that world at the time. Things were going similar direction to Goldstar. This was 2001 when we started thinking about it. Very little of the things that had happened on the internet were touching the live event at that point. Most tickets were still sold on the phone at that time. Ticketmaster did have online ticketing, but it was minor. In terms of marketing, what we saw was there are all these people out there that want to go to shows, and there are all these shows we learned about how shows don't sell out. That's then true now. It felt like we've just spent the last 3 or 4 years learning to mass customize marketing all these different things to all these different people. The internet is the perfect low-cost tool for doing that.

It seemed like one of those industries that needed some tools applied to it. We weren't the only ones. StubHub was created around that time, which invented the secondary market. We invented the third-party sales channel for live entertainment. There was a lot of that kind of thing happening. We started with $1,000. Three of us put in a little bit of money and convinced a few of our friends from GeoCities and other places to help us put the site together.

We started calling venues and saying, "We got this idea. Do you want to do it? It doesn't cost you anything. You might make some money from it." Some of them said, "All right." It was such a novel concept at the time. It took us about nine months or a year to get momentum behind that. It did take a good little while for it to catch on. All of a sudden, we had a nice viral uptake on the more shows we got, the more customers we got. It started building on itself.

It's a classic example of a network-based business that everybody loves nowadays.

That's right. We somehow made it work. It's like jolting the Frankenstein monster to life. You have to figure out how to do that. Once it happens, it's great, but making it happen is hard.

You talk about Ticketmaster selling tickets by phone. I remember living in Boston and trying to get tickets to a U2 show that was on St. Patrick's Day, calling Ticketmaster. I was getting my brother, who lived in Chicago, to call from Chicago because I had figured out that if you called in on a long-distance circuit, you would come into the queue differently. That was how screwed up it was back then. It's come a long way since those days. When you look back on your early days with you and your partners, what were the things you got right? What were the things you got wrong as early entrepreneurs?

We got right with the idea that it was more important to get good at what we did than to get big fast. It's understanding what drove sales for shows, what it took to get customers that were going to buy stuff rather than sign up for something, and laying down an operating system for how to do what we did. We took a long time, and we were very patient with that. It was hard, but it worked. The thing we did wrong was almost a continuation of that, which is we spent too long in that phase. We were too cautious about, "Do we know enough to step on the gas here and use some capital?" that kind of thing. We probably stayed in that phase a little too long.

CSCL 33 | Live Entertainment

Live Entertainment: Live virtual show creators must focus more on getting good at what they do than aiming to get big fast. They must understand what drove their customers to buy instead of simply signing up and doing nothing.

 

Once we had leverage, we should have gone for it more. It took us longer to get the first $5 to $10 million in revenue or whatever than it should have because we were being too cautious. Part of that was we were running a playbook that, for a while, was everything that our previous company did. We put, "Don't," in front of those things, and that would be a pretty good plan. We held onto that a little too long, the cautious part of that, "Don't take $10 million and spend it all in a year," that kind of thing. That's still not a great idea. We were cautious in a prudent way, and then we were too cautious. I give us one point and take one point away.

You teach entrepreneurship at USC as an adjunct professor. What's your approach to teaching your students the ins and outs of entrepreneurship?

I've done this twice. I co-teach with the Head of the Entrepreneurship program, Elissa Grossman, who's a great teacher. She's a great teacher and knows how to help structure it. Our approach is to be as practical as possible. We try to use real-world entrepreneurs and real-world stories. It's a little bit like a case methodology. I have a format that I use called the Mastermind Methodology, where I bring a real entrepreneur who has a real problem or decision. We try to get the students immersed in that problem and the company and everything. They work through questions at a deeper and deeper level. They come to the entrepreneur with actual recommendations on the specific problem, which is super helpful for the entrepreneur. It's interesting because you get a group of people that don't know the problem.

That's why it's called a mastermind because you put 50 or 60 people together. In my case, they're EMBAs. They're mid-career executives. They have knowledge. The things they think of are often big leaps forward for the entrepreneur or an acceleration of the entrepreneur's thinking over the course of a few hours that might have taken months or maybe never because they're just looking at it so differently.

Sometimes they're not great ideas, but sometimes they are great ideas or ideas that open up a door that needs to be opened up for the entrepreneur. One of the methods that work well is the mastermind format. People tend to like it because it's not theoretical. It has a lot of theoretical benefits because there are only 5 or 6problems in entrepreneurship, and they recur in different forms all the time. If you're an entrepreneur sitting in that classroom, you say, "This is exactly my thing," even though you're in a completely different industry. It's fascinating. The main thing is we try to immerse in reality as much as possible.

Come back to Stellar. You talked earlier about culture in Noah's. What's the culture that you try to create within Stellar as the guy running it nowadays?

It's interesting because the challenge now is that you're creating a culture in a distributed team, in which Stellar is 100% distributed. It's harder than if you have everybody in a room or if you have everybody in two rooms, even two offices or something like that. The culture of Stellar is a bit of a continuation of the culture of Goldstar. With the culture of Goldstar, there was a lot about care. We used to talk about the different dimensions of Goldstar's culture. One was this courage and care, the two-sided nature of courage and care that you have to bring courage and care with potentially different amounts to a given situation.

We talked about the spirit of going all out for the stakeholders in the business. Meaning in our case, it was the organizations we worked with and the customers. We wanted them to be successful and easy for them to be successful. It's the spirit of like, "We're going to solve the problems that people have." We talked a lot about working as a single big team. That meant that everybody respected each other's work. In an organization with a bunch of different functions, a lot of times, people forget that everybody's job is very hard. We would do things like give people cross-training or whatever, or create cross-functional teams so that you could be reminded how hard it was to do customer service, be an engineer, or do the venue relations work, that kind of thing.

jim mccarthy | Live Entertainment

Live Entertainment: In an organization with many different functions, people often forget that everybody's job is difficult. Cross-training helps remind them about this undeniable truth.

 

We also had a culture of what we called unicorns who don't chase themselves, where in order to achieve big things, you have to very deliberately go and get them. It's always easy to go and catch squirrels or however you want to compare it. We were there long enough that Goldstar's culture got articulated well. Stellar is new. I always feel as a CEO that I cannot sit at my desk and declare what the culture is. I can try to influence it, but if I say, "Our culture is this," and people go like, "Heck, it is," then it's crap. It's not true. Partly with Stellar, we're an emerging culture because we're so new as an independent company. What we try to instill is some of the same respect for each other's work and the same commitment to people's success.

Now, it's the clients of ours that are doing these shows. We want them to be massively successful. We're committed to that part of it. In addition to that, what's new in the Stellar culture is that we're very much innovators in the industry. Our job is to push the live entertainment industry in some directions it needs to go, but not everybody's prepared to. We have to do that gentle pushing and nudging and have good explanations for this. That's part of why I wrote the book. If you want me to explicate what I think should happen, I wrote a book about it. I've given this a lot of organized thought. Part of it is we have to be the innovators. We have to be agitators. We have to respect each other, as always. We also have to be committed to the success of the customers that we have.

I'd like to think that's what our culture is like. It's a new company, and so culture emerges. I used to say that at Goldstar, the stuff we talked about in our culture program was 80% of what we are and 20% of what we want to be. You want to have that aspirational thing, but if you flipped it on its head and said, "It's 20% what we are and 80% what we want to be," people would recognize it as being corporate jib-jab, just hot air. Part of it is like, "Culture is you are what you do." It is what Horowitz said, "You are what you do." It's as it does.

There are a lot of ways for cultures to be successful. I remember reading this years ago. The culture at Philip Morris was people loved smoking. They believed in freedom. They would all walk into any conference room in Philip Morris, and there are cigarettes all over the place, "Smoke up." It's not for me, but on some level, I admire that they're committed to this crazy, terrible thing they do. There's a culture there that, "God, help us," but there are a lot of different ways for culture to have a form and impact. Hopefully, smoking is not one that many companies use as the centerpiece of it.

Probably not anymore.

I hope not. You can't declare culture by fiat, and you can't make culture a wishlist. It has to be based on some reality. Generally speaking, the people who run the company either live it or don't.

You cannot declare culture by fiat or simply create a culture wish list. It has to be based on reality. Click To Tweet

Any final thoughts you want to share? Any advice you want to give before we break?

Read my book if you're interested in learning about how to do online events. That's my first time as a published author, so I'm super excited to get feedback. I hope that there are people out there reading who want to become great online event creators and that my book can help you.

Thanks for making time. It's good to get to know you a bit and what you're doing in your business. I look forward to seeing how the online event continues to unfold.

Thanks, JR. I appreciate it.

Have a good day, Jim.

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It was great having Jim on the show and knowing a little bit about the online event space and how he and his firm are trying to shape it. If you're ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you'd like more regular insights, you can become a PathWise member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for the Pathways newsletter or follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thank you. Have a great day.

 

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About Jim McCarthy

CSCL 33 | Live EntertainmentJim McCarthy has been a live entertainment pioneer and innovator for two decades. He is currently Co-Founder and the CEO of Stellar.live, the only full-service livestream partner for professional live entertainment organizers. He is also the author of Beyond The Back Row: The Breakthrough Potential of Digital Live Entertainment and Arts, and an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California.

Jim started his career teaching English to Japanese students, before returning to the US. He worked for Noah’s Bagels for several years and then dove into the Dot Com boom with GeoCities, which was ultimately acquired by Yahoo. Not long after that, he co-founded and ran Goldstar Events, a leader in the sale of excess live event ticket inventory. At Goldstar he led a team that generated a billion dollars in ticket sales for live venues and producers and helped tens of millions of ticket buyers find and purchase tickets to shows. When the pandemic shut down the live entertainment industry, he started Stellar to help generate real revenue with quality virtual shows.

Jim is also an active volunteer, having served as a board member over the years for Innovate Pasadena, Union Station Homeless Services, and the Pasadena Playhouse. He is also a co-founder and co-organizer of TEDx Broadway and an advisory committee member at Cal Tech.

Jim earned his Bachelors’ degree from Harvard and his MBA from UCLA. He lives in Pasadena, California.

 

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