Aaron Levant — CEO of NTWRK on Launching 30 Event Brands, Why Ignorance Is Rich, and Shopping at the Speed of Culture

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By RockWater Industries and Chris Erwin. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Aaron Levant is the CEO of NTWRK. He's one of the most exciting builders at the intersection of fashion, culture, events, and media. We discuss launching a profitable car magazine at age 9, pitching Marc Ecko on ComplexCon, raising tens of millions for NTWRK from star investors like Jimmy Iovine and LeBron, being "oppositionally defiant", and how he thinks about his career in thirds.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Erwin:

Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up. A podast that interviews entrerepreneurs and leaders.

Aaron Levant:

This is a common theme in my career, which some people say ignorance is bliss, I like to say ignorance is rich. What I mean by that is it's like every single thing I've done I don't know anything about. And when you know too much about something, you become institutionalized with fear. It's because I knew nothing about putting on an event or a trade show, I wasn't scared of it. I just did it, and didn't think about it that much. It just happened, and it was luckily successful.

Chris Erwin:

This week's episode features Aaron Levant, the CEO and founder of NTWRK. Aaron is one of the most exciting builders at the intersection of fashion, culture, events, and media, and he started super early. At just nine years old, Aaron used picture cutouts and a Xerox machine to launch a car mag, and it was profitable. He sold copies to friends at school and advertising to neighbors. Then in his early 20s, Aaron launched a fashion trade show, which he sold to a major exhibition company. There, Aaron had mastered the biggest experiential businesses of the past decade, like when he pitched Marc Ecko on ComplexCon.

But Aaron's not just a builder, he's also operationally defiant. He doesn't follow norms and believes that lack of experience is major advantage in launching startups. This mindset fuels Aaron's current business, NTWRK, which powers shopping at the speed of culture. NTWRK is hands down one of the hottest players in content and e-commerce and has attracted backers like Jimmy Iovine, LeBron, Drake, Foot Locker and many more.

Now, Aaron's story is remarkable but his character is more impressive. He's unconventional, uplifting, and so grounded. That plus hearing him talk about his future plans for NTWRK and how he thinks about his career in thirds makes for a must-listen.

All right, let's get into it.

Chris Erwin:

Tell me a little bit about growing up in the valley, your household, and what your parents were like.

Aaron Levant:

Valley here in San Fernando Valley in LA is a nice place to grow up. A little bit of suburbia, very, very close to LA. My parents were amazing people who were very creatively inclined. My dad was in the entertainment business and spent a long time as a writer, television shows, and things like that. So I'd say I grew up in a pretty creative household. My mom actually had a little independent clothing label in the '80s, so I had some adjacency to the apparel business that I properly didn't even realize until years later, but my mom was always involved in that. My parents were very into pop art, into pop culture. My dad's a huge toy collector, he has 50,000 toys. So this affinity for pop culture is something I've been growing up around my whole life.

Chris Erwin:

Between your father's toy collection and then also being a writer in the entertainment and your mother in commerce, the whole new shoppable entertainment, starting to get where it comes from pretty early for you. When you were growing up, did you think, "oh, yeah, I want to go into Hollywood. I want to be like my dad or I want to do what my mom does." Was that going through your mind at all?

Aaron Levant:

No, never. I mean, I had no interest in doing anything my dad did. I would say, like most people, probably I wanted to do the opposite of what they did so I never ended... Even though maybe what I'm doing has some connection to the entertainment industry now, I was always going the other way. I would say... I never met him, but my mom's father, my maternal grandfather who I never met, was very entrepreneurial. I felt like I've always had something ingrained in me to be entrepreneurial, which different than what my dad did and being interested in businesses where my dad has no interest in business whatsoever. He almost despises it to a certain extent. So I would say I rebelled against anything my parents did and wanted to do my own thing, for whatever reason.

Chris Erwin:

What type of businesses was your grandfather building back in the day?

Aaron Levant:

He was in real estate, which is something I didn't get involved in either. Again, I hear this all by way of my mom and my grandmother, but he was just very entrepreneurial from a young age, always trying stuff, apparently a very, very smart guy. So, I try to think that's where I get some of smarts from, because my dad is just not a business inclined guy. He's all about being creative.

Chris Erwin:

I think you need both sides of the brain for what you're building right now, so it makes sense.

Aaron Levant:

Definitely.

Chris Erwin:

Your entrepreneurial ambitions, my understanding is that they manifested pretty early. I think you put together a car magazine at eight or nine years old, right? And then you were selling that to some of your school friends?

Aaron Levant:

I still am and was back then interested in cars. Sometime around maybe nine or 10 years old, I had made a car magazine through just, I guess what now be a zine, just cutting up a bunch of other great images of cars from books and going to Kinkos or what was Kinkos now FedEx now, and photocopying it. I went to my next door neighbor who was an Arby's franchisee, and I sold him the back cover advertisement for I don't even remember the price. But I just knew that my magazine wasn't going to be legit unless there was an ad on the back cover. So I guess I tout that as my very first business deal, and then I was selling that magazine at school and at camp. For whatever reason, I just felt like I was always trying to do stuff like that and did various random projects as early on as that all the way till I was 16 when I started doing some form of real business, I guess.

Chris Erwin:

So it felt like in your pretty early on was that you just wanted to do stuff. You wanted to create, you wanted to try things out. There's just this hustler inside, right?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah. I'm not even sure where it came, but it just felt natural to me to try to create and try to monetize out those creations.

Chris Erwin:

I've also heard you describe yourself as you go through your teens years as being, and I think that's persist through today, oppositionally defiant. Is that right?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah, I think that's an actual word from the DSM, which I think is the book that they use in psychology to define what's wrong with you. It's like the dictionary of mental illnesses. I think my mom pointed that out to me very early, which is I had a tendency to go against authority, for good or bad reason, whether that's kicking the principal in the leg at the first of preschool or doing any number of antics I did through my elementary and short high school years. I always felt the need to go the other direction and go against the grain, against authority. And that was, for some reason, instilled in me, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact I just wasn't interested in being in school or be at camp or being anywhere there was authority figures trying to tell you what to do and how to dictate what you do with your time. It was all very boring and mundane for me.

Chris Erwin:

Through that resistance earlier on, did that also attract these types of friends and people that you wanted around you? Were you becoming a leader amongst the peer groups saying, "I'm going to do things differently." And people were like, "Yeah, we're going to follow Aaron?"

Aaron Levant:

I would say, as you know, depends. As I was younger, no, I think most of the kids I was hanging out with were pretty nice and I was the jerk in the group. As I got older, I probably attracted the wrong people, and then I spun out of that when I was 18 years old. But no, I was just always doing wrong for myself, not necessarily with others or for others.

Chris Erwin:

My understanding is that in 10th grade you get out of high school and then you start interning at GAT. Tell us what was GAT, and why was that interesting to you at the time?

Aaron Levant:

Probably one of the second or third business adventures was I was really passionate about design and graffiti art and street art all through the '90s when I was a young teen. And being interested in that design and graffiti art and being interested in business, I was trying to figure out how do you make a living out of doing you're passionate about. And then it dawned on me that all graffiti writers were working at GAT, particularly the main place and many other street wear companies doing the T-shirt designs. If you're a great graffiti artist, you're doing topography, it's a great transition into designing t-shirts and make a living for yourselves, so I said, "Okay." I started to develop an affinity to these companies.

Aaron Levant:

Randomly, a guy I grew up with, Tal Cooperman, introduced me to the owner of that company. Through meeting him a few times, he ended up offering me an internship, and GAT was the definitive late '80s, mid-90s street wear brand in LA. It was such a great opportunity for me not only get close to this company and learn a trade that I was interested in but also be around some of my favorite artists and learn from them and learn a craft which at the time was graphic design for me in the beginning of my career.

Chris Erwin:

Going back to that moment, were you like, "Yeah, this is the logical progression for how I get into my career."? Or were you a little bit shocked as, "Oh, I wasn't expecting to go down this path, but... "?

Aaron Levant:

I don't know if I was thinking in terms of it as a career, I was just so excited. I was such a fan, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I forget the days when I was legitimately just a fan of things. I was just so excited to be there, and again, it just became a career but I kind of stumbled into it. I was just genuinely happy to be there just to be a fly on the wall and be a fan. And then over a series of years of sticking around there interning, having low level positions, I turned around a few years later and I'd worked my way up to being a partner in the company. And then I was like, "Wow, well, I guess I turned this genuine interest or passion into a job."

Chris Erwin:

What do you think helped you rise to become partner so quickly?

Aaron Levant:

I think being willing to do anything, being willing to work for free in the beginning and then almost nothing, minimum wage for years after that. You don't have any baggage, I'm like, "I was this important guy in this company, so I will the trash out, right? I will do literally anything." He's like, "Go drive to Orange County and pick up this sample." I'm like, "Great, I'll great there right now." Whatever I could do. I was waiting for someone to hand me the ball, and I would just run with it. I was so excited. There's a famous Biggie Smalls or Notorious B.I.G line where he's talking about you got to treat every day like you're an intern, like it's your first day on the job, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I think I genuinely carried that through well beyond the time I was an intern. I think that is what propelled me up, that every time there was an opportunity I raised my hand and ran at it enthusiastically where other people may not have.

Chris Erwin:

Passion was there and it feels like you were just having fun. You were like, "This is cool. This is where I want to be. I'll work for whatever, but I'm doing this with cool people, and I'm all in."

Aaron Levant:

At that time, most of my friends were still in high school and then eventually college, and I was well on my way to making my career, doing cool stuff, traveling around the country, so it was exciting.

Chris Erwin:

Fast forward a bit, and let's talk about the Agenda Show, which was a trade show I think that you were a part of for almost around 15 years. Tell us about what that was and how that came to be.

Aaron Levant:

Through my job at GAT, the founder of GAT was pretty much my first mentor, and I have a series of mentors in my life that really help shape my career and my life, we would go with Luis to a lot of trade shows with his clothing brand. First it was this big show in Las Vegas called the Magic Show, which is the biggest fashion trade show in the world at the time. It would get over 100,000 attendees. We would go to the show in San Diego called the ASR Show, Action Sports Retail. These were B2B marketplaces in the fashion industry for different segments. We would go out as an attendee, as an exhibitor if you will. We'd buy a booth, and we'd sell our wares to the retailers traveling from all over the world.

Aaron Levant:

In probably 2001, I had gone to New York to a really small show called To Be Confirmed, which was some guys from London. They had just rented a loft in Soho instead of some huge show at the Javits Center or the Las Vegas Smith Center, they just got a loft and put up some rolling racks and some table and chairs. They had a cool DJ and bar. I said, "This is pretty fucking cool." I looked around, I was thinking, "How hard is this? You rent an empty room and have some people throw ups some rolling racks and you send out a postcard, you invite some buyers and make a cool ambience." I'm like, "I like this."

Aaron Levant:

That was in the back of my mind. At that time, me and Luis were actually throwing some parties in our warehouse in Downtown LA called Agenda: Art, Music, Beer. It was just something we did as a fun thing to promote our clothing companies. And in 2002, in September, after having a bad experience at the ASR Trade Show, I said to Luis, I said, "Let's turn our Agenda parties into a fashion trade show as a competitor to the BIG Action Sport Show in San Diego." And he said, "Yeah." And in January 2003, a few months later, we rented a Thai restaurant across the street from the BIG Show, invited 30 of our friends. We charged $500 a booth. We weren't really doing it to make money, we just thought we didn't have to pay the other guys $5,000 and we could provide a service to our friends and just do something cool. It just organically just happened. But it was this small little B2B fashion trade show for independent brands that I did when I was 18, 19 years old.

Chris Erwin:

When you had that bad experience at ASR, you have the conversations and you're like, "All right, we're going to launch the Agenda Trade show," Were you excited, were you nervous, were you scared or was it like, "No, I got this. Of course, we're going to crush this."? What was going through your head?

Aaron Levant:

This is a common theme in my career, which some people say ignorance is bliss, I like to say ignorance is rich. What I mean by that is it's like every single thing I've done, I don't know anything about. When you know too much about something, you become institutionalized with fear or they say paralysis by analysis, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yes.

Aaron Levant:

Because I knew nothing putting on an event or trade show, I wasn't scared of it, and I didn't know to be corky or to be fearful or have any expectation. I just did it and didn't think about it that much. It just happened, and it was luckily successful, but I'm sure it wasn't perfectly executed or anything that way. But I just run into things head first, run into a lot of problems, and don't really do too much research in front end because when you do you seem to scare yourself or psyche yourself out of doing whatever that said thing you're going to do. And I've done that a few times in my career where I don't know anything about it, and I've been successful than sometimes people who do know something about it because they're institutionalized with fear.

Chris Erwin:

Institutionalized with fear, I really like that. I just wrote down ignorance is rich. I think that's a fantastic phrase. All right, so at Agenda, it seems that you go through a eight to 10 year period of expansion and then realizing, hey, we have to move the venue from San Diego to Long Beach and then into Vegas. You're collaborating but then you're also expanding and some new competition is coming. And there's a lot of details I'll probably skip over here, but along that journey, what are a couple of moments that really stand out to you?

Aaron Levant:

Three key things. One, I did the business completely independently, first with me and Luis and then later with me and my cousin. I still lived in my parent's house. Any business that people think about now in the world that we operate in, they raise capital, they raise seed money, they raise a Series A, they've got a burn rate. All these businesses have a finite amount of time if they're going to make it or not make it before they basically have to shut down operations or become profitable, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I didn't have that. I didn't even understand that as a concept, so I just kept going even when it was going good and not going bad. I carried that forward for so many years, so many times we weren't making money because we didn't really have many employees, I lived at home with my parents until I was 23 or something. It allowed us to push past the point where most businesses would have given up and go, "Oh, the margin isn't growing, or revenues aren't growing at the right rate." We had no analysis of the business. It was an overwhelming theme that allowed us to ever keep pushing forward, probably sillily at some points, to get to a point where we got actually really successful to then where we almost had to shut because the competition got so fierce.

Aaron Levant:

In that moment in 2009 when our business was on the brink of going out of business, I think the defining moment for us was we finally pushed further enough and had this organic growth trajectory over many, many years, almost six years at that point, that I met a guy, Roger Wyett and Paul Gomez from Nike and Hurley, and they offered us an opportunity to stop being the small show across the street from the BIG Show. And this was the big judo business moment for us, which was they said, "Hey, how about you step out of this role you're in as being the parasite... " Or I call it the little sucker fish that swims along on the shark. We're all this little cool thing happening across the street from these big behemoth thing. They said, "Why don't you come with us? You bring Agenda to the US Open of Surfing, which is the biggest action sports consumer event in the world. You should put your trade show in the middle of it, there's a half a million people that will be there."

Aaron Levant:

That was a big departure for us. We were in the verge of going out of business with this one business model we knew, but we were making money finally. And it was like this jump. It was like we had to take this leap off the cliff, and it was either going to work or we were going to be dead in the water. But we're almost going to be dead in the water anyway. So we made this jump and in one year of doing this our business grew 2,000% and we put ASR out of business, which is the company that been in business for 30-something years before that, owned by Nielsen Business Media. It was a huge company, established, respected company by all means. It was this moment where everything changed in our favor and it was almost unprecedented.

Aaron Levant:

So I think that was for me the real lesson there is to take those big risks, to do something that literally was going to sink the company or save the company and has inspired me to continue to do things that throughout my career. But without that moment, I wouldn't be sitting here today. I never would have done probably anything I've done after that.

Chris Erwin:

I think it's a takeaway that I'm definitely hearing, it just goes back to what you said, again, like ignorance is rich, because you weren't looking at the business of saying, "What are the right metrics and all of that?" Where if you were looking at it through lens or had different training up to that point you would have shut it down. But you were building a brand, and you guys were just like, "No, there's something here. There's something here." Sometimes early stage businesses, they just need longevity, like stick around enough because most just shut down within three to five years. But with longevity, other opportunities or other ways of thinking about what you have and how it can work and this duo coming from Nike Hurley and saying, "Hey, guys, here's another approach." And you're like, "That's a great idea, let's do it." And it just happens.

Aaron Levant:

Yeah, that one moment literally defined everything for me professionally, financially. But if we didn't make that far, we never would have had that chance. Even in that moment it was risky, the best risk I ever take.

Chris Erwin:

So it continues to grow and then you eventually sell to Reed Exhibitions in 2012. What was the reason for that?

Aaron Levant:

Up until that point, from 2003 end of 2012, we sold the end of December, the day before Christmas we signed the papers, the businesses was completely built independently, no loans from family, no lines of credit, no investors, no nothing. It was just me and my cousin. We owned 100% of the business. We financed the business. It was starting to get big. We were doing millions and millions of dollars in business, tens of millions and was making real EBITDA, but it was one of those things that it's risky and there's our cashflow that was on the line, right? We had built something that was fairly profitable and weighed the risk of... We had just gotten out of the 2008 financial crisis. We saw a lot of bad stuff happen with that. I lived through seeing what happens during 9/11, right? There's all these things that come in.

Aaron Levant:

We're on this incredible ride, we're making so much money, and we just did the math and said, "Hey, we can continue to do this on our way and carry the risk and something can happen and we can all the value, or we can extrapolate the value now." And I think we did some quick backing up in that. We figured we'd make more money and a lower tax rate than we could in six years if we sold the businesses today, if we kept operating it, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

And there's lots of unknowns in the next six years. Which I'm actually lucky because the business did down trend in the six years following that. It was a calculated financial risk, and I had a bigger vision for the company than my cousin did. He was very risk adverse, also because we owned it independently and it was all our own money and capital on the line. We were just operating four shows when we sold. I took it, after I sold it, to about 30 shows. He didn't want to go along with those things, so ultimately we sold. He exited the business, and I went with Reed and built a whole portfolio of new products, consumer-facing products, conferences, video products. I had a much bigger vision than what we were doing in this small mom-and-pop shop. So I think it really allowed us to take the financial risk off the table and set us up fairly well, but also allowed me to really chase the bigger vision that I had for the company.

Chris Erwin:

Speaking of risk appetite, it seems that there's this constant leveling up or laddering up where it's like, 'I'm going to try something, and then have a bigger win and then a bigger win and then next."

Aaron Levant:

It's called gambling.

Chris Erwin:

Got it.

Aaron Levant:

It's not a healthy-

Chris Erwin:

So yeah, the question is, was your risk appetite growing where you felt like, "Hey, as an entrepreneur, as a business leader, I'm increasingly capable and I want to take bigger bets."?

Aaron Levant:

Absolutely. In every situation in my career, if I had the opportunity to spend 100 I'd spend 100. My cousin would say, "Spend zero." We end up spending 50. It was a good yin yang balance, right? But at a certain point, when your business is hot and you have that moment, there's a reason they say, "Strike while the iron's hot." Right? Every time we had that, that's when I say, "Let's go. Let's double down. Let's quadruple down." He didn't want to go, and I think I've always been in favor of going. I've lost a lot too, don't get me wrong. I've had plenty of horrible ideas but, true believer, you're not going to get anywhere, you're not going to build anything meaningful, anything big by not doing that fairly often, by putting it on the line and rolling the dice on that. I'm a huge proponent of doing that as much as you can without being completely irresponsible, but you have to be slightly irresponsible.

Chris Erwin:

And maybe we'll get into this as you describe how you built the NTWRK executive team, but do you like having people around you that actually push you even harder and saying, "Yeah, that's a good idea, but here's even bigger, Aaron." Or do you like people that pull you back and then have debate about what's the best path forward? How do you like to build leadership around you?

Aaron Levant:

I think you got to mix of both. You've got some really good financial people that are helping me keep an eye on whatever that may be, the margin or the burn rate or things like that to make sure that I'm not completely unchecked and doing completely frivolous things. But, yeah, I mean, I think I love having people around me who are more aggressive, who have bigger goals, who are uninterested in doing small things, especially investors, right? You get that internally from staff, like my partner here Moksha Fitzgibbons who's the president of NTWRK, constantly pushing. I thought I was aggressive, he's more aggressive than I am, constantly pushing the envelope, trying to push us to do bigger, faster, be more aspirational. And then our investors who have done all the billion dollar businesses where they're like, "Yeah, that's cute what you're doing, but this doesn't interest us unless it gets X big."

Aaron Levant:

I love that kind of challenge because it makes me try to think bigger where what may be relative success to me on a scale of my career, to them is a blip on the radar. It aspires me to want to do bigger or to make a bigger impact and create larger brand awareness and to take that bigger Hail Mary pass if you will. I need those people around me constantly.

Chris Erwin:

All right, so at Reed, you sell Agenda to them but you continued to run the Agenda Trade Show. But then you're also responsible for... I think you launched 30 different events while you're there, including ComplexCon. I mean, I know you're always a dappler and doing different things, but it seems like you were all in on Agenda and now you've got a lot of different babies and children to take care of. How was that transition?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah. I mean, look, I had never finished high school, never went to college, getting to Reed was an amazing opportunity for me because I worked inside a publicly-traded company at a very senior level. It was like going to college, really learning to work in a structure. But also to them they're a $7 billion dollar company. It wasn't just interesting to buy this little portfolio for trade shows and sit on it, right? I had bigger aspirations, and we needed to make bigger to move the needle for them at a corporate level, so they encouraged my bold thinking and they had the finances to go after it.

Aaron Levant:

So we acquired a company called Capsule. We got in a joint venture with Complex on ComplexCon, which is super exciting. I launched a educational conference called the Agenda Emerge, which is like Ted Talks for fashion entrepreneurialism and a media brand around that. So all the above, every single way they could they would encourage me to go bigger, faster, think internationally, and really push my ideas to the brink of where they could go.

Chris Erwin:

What a great partnership because sometimes joining a bigger corporate, they want to throttle you. Things are more controlled, more measured. But it seems like for the type of leader you are and your ambitions, it was a great partnership that actually propelled you and gave you experience I think that was really setting you up for your next phase, which is taking a digital business which was Complex, which I know did start back in 2003 as a print magazine, but it became a huge digital business and then your role was like, "All right, how do we create an incredible RoL event for it. So talk about how ComplexCon came to be. I'm just curious, what was in that initial pitch? What were you thinking?

Aaron Levant:

The interesting part about selling my company to Reed is that they own all of the Comicons around the world. They own 500 major events, many of which are consumer facing and they really focus them around passionate fan communities, what they call fandom. So it's like packs for video games, New York Comicon, Star Wars Celebration. I learned about this event format, which is really new to me because I was in B2B, and I said, "I wonder if Agenda could become... " And this is also part of the inspiration for something like the Comicon for sneaker heads.

Aaron Levant:

But I realized that Agenda been building itself in the industry, we didn't have a consumer affinity. So I struggled to say, "How can Agenda do what Comicon's doing?" This light bulb went on in a conversation I was having with another one of my mentors, which is Marc Ecko the founder of Complex Media. We were at this event in LA, and I just said, "Well, why don't we get together and do ComplexCon." Right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I said it almost in jest, and he's like, "Yeah, I like that. I like that." Funny standing there with him was Moksha Fitzgibbons who's now the president at NTWRK, and came over and Marc said, "Hey, tell Moksha what you just told me." I told him, they said, "We like that." And they generally encouraged. And then a week later I was in New York. I scrambled for a week, I put together this pitch deck. I got in the room with Rich Antoniello who was the CEO of Complex and Noah who was editor in chief, Marc, and Moksha, and I pitched them this deck.

Aaron Levant:

It was pretty basic. It just basically took the blueprint of Comic-Con and applied it to the brand of Complex. They all loved it. I was surprised because it was just such a bold, ambitious idea. We worked for two years from that point. That was January of 2015 I pitched them, we signed the contract in November of '15, and we launched in November of '16. The funniest part about that conversation which I'll tell you, which is everyone was around the table very engaged. Moksha was sitting on the coach. At very end of the presentation I thought I'd done a great job but he looks over from this Blackberry and says, "How much money are we going to make?" I go like, "Profit? You guys, Complex?" "Yeah." I said, "I don't think, $1 million." And he goes, "Do we really care about making $1 million?" I was so deflated at that point. I thought it wasn't going to happen because he was the Chief Revenue Officer, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I was like, "If we don't get his buy-in, this thing's never going to happen." But he actually got on board and was the biggest champion of the thing, and it was an amazing experience. But nothing more than saying, "Hey, let's create the Comic-Con, the fan culture, Superbowl, the world's fair for sneaker and street culture."

Chris Erwin:

The Agenda was a B2B trade show, this was targeting consumers. Where you anxious about, "Oh, wow, how am I going to drive the same type of traffic and hype and momentum around this event?"? Or was it, "No, I can do this. I'll figure it out, I've done it before."?

Aaron Levant:

Well, I think that's exactly what I was saying, that's why I didn't just end up doing call it AgendaCon, right? Complex had the consumer reach and the social media reach and the affinity with consumers, and I had the relationship with the brands and the exhibitors and the know-how in event production, so the marriage was beautiful in that sense. It was bringing my offline experience with their online marketing reach and bringing that. Of course, we did a lot more things that neither of us would do, market it ourself almost like a concept promoter, which is new to both of us. But it was the perfect marriage of their audience and our event expertize. That's really why it worked.

Chris Erwin:

Like you said, when you were at Reed, it was like your MBA. You were like the senior executive of a big public company but you were just doing deals, launching new businesses, and learning a lot about business as you went. This was probably a great change to learn of how can you create an event from a digital business but then really market it through all the paid and earned organic channels. Now thinking about where you in your career, that was probably a great learning experience for you.

Aaron Levant:

Absolutely, right? There's so many learnings in ComplexCon. I think the number one learning for me was as successful as the event was, the digital groundswell that the event created, call it organic customer acquisition, the earned media, that was so big that that was such an eye-opening experience for me, how much the physical world could influence the digital community so much more effectively than just trying to market to people digitally. That was really my big takeaway and a lot of the inspiration for wanting to leave and come join NTWRK.

Chris Erwin:

I know at ComplexCon now with $100 ticket prices and incredible curation of products, there are attendees who will spend days waiting in line so that they can get early access to the different product vendors, right? Did you guys see lines out the door in your first year of ComplexCon?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah, there was thousands of kids lined up around the corner at both sides of the convention center. We had a literal, and I mean this in the most literal sense, a stampede of kids pushing past security, knocking down full-grown security guards, extensions, police officers. People literally almost being trampled to death. It was actually scary. The second year we had people who were stowing away, like when people stow away in a ship.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

We had kids who snuck in days before and were hiding in a broom closet so that they can get early access. The level of pandemonium around ComplexCon year one and two and three was just so insane. It was dangerous. There were actually people injured and it was also so amazing to see. I was almost trampled to death in the crowd were people fighting for Pharell sneakers at the Adidas booth. It was pretty insane the level that people go to but also I understand not only the passion and the fandom, but if you can buy a sneaker for let's say $120 and we sell it for 5,000 the next day, then you might be running full speed as well.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. I imagine you seeing that probably flipped a switch inside you being like, "Well, look at this fan energy and the fandom. There has got to different ways that we can build this to be even bigger and then harness it both in online and real world environments." I think that probably leads, I think, in September 2017 you have a conversation with Jimmy Iovine that you're all starting to think through the new NTWRK business plan, so tell me about that moment.

Aaron Levant:

Jimmy and his son Jamie, who's my partner, had had a previous business in LA called Meltdown, which was a classic comic book stores. Out of this comic book store they were doing a YouTube show that was... call it QVC meets Comic-Con. It actually started to get a little energy and there was an article written in Forbes Magazine saying it was an innovative idea. They had put a little money into it and were trying to launch as a business and had some false starts. But the idea was there. I got interested with Jimmy around this idea that he was working on, which was the Meltdown thing. They said, "What are your thoughts on this?" It was a loose introductory meeting just to talk about this Meltdown concept.

Aaron Levant:

I saw it and I inherently understood it. I thought it was a great concept, but I had a little bit of a broader vision around what I thought NTWRK could be. We ultimately changed the name of the company and changed the focus to not just be Comic-Con pop culture focused, it will be a broader youth culture, sneakers, street wear, entertainment, gaming, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

This idea of aggregating the most passionate fan audiences into a platform, procuring the most exclusive drops and having the actual talent who created them present it to you on a daily basis, I thought there was huge merit around it. Ultimately, that night I went home, and I wrote a business plan that ultimately ended up being verbatim what we're doing for NTWRK for Meltdown. I was still working at ReedPop at the time. I felt like over the course of the next few months the conversations I had with Jimmy and with Paul Wachter, who's chairman of our board and runs the investment fund, main seed advisors who funded our seed round, I saw one thing clearly. Not only do I think this was a great business idea but I thought for me I'd done a lot of things in my career, and I think ComplexCon was the pinnacle of my career, but I had the opportunity to come and jump on board and work with a group of people who had a bigger creative vision than I had.

Aaron Levant:

While I was at Reed, I was the crazy, creative one in the room, and in the conversation with Jimmy and these guys I was the one who was thinking small. They're the ones who had the big, crazy, creative vision. I liked that, where it putting me back on my back to level up. They had just sold Beats for three and a half billion or whatever that was, and they really are epitome of people who take passion around creative and brand and push it to that main stream level. I had relative success but not that level, right? I wanted to be in the midst of that type of greatness and learn from that to take my career to the next level.

Chris Erwin:

So this happens in September 2017 and then you raise seed round. When does that seed round close and when do you start being all in and focus on NTWRK?

Aaron Levant:

I quit ReedPop in February of 2018 and then worked on refining the business plan on NTWRK for a few months., and then in May of 2018 raised the seed round, and then we launched in beta in October of '18. From May to October built the team, built the kind of MVP product, and just worked on refining what the business was and what the brand was.

Chris Erwin:

How much did you raise in the seed round.

Aaron Levant:

15.

Chris Erwin:

15 million?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah.

Chris Erwin:

What type of team did you assembly around you? I think that was different because you're building a digital product, you hadn't done that before, right?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah, look, there's three things we do at NTWRK that I have almost no experience with, building technology, becoming a media company, and being a retail company in a way, right? I'd been adjacent to a lot of those things. I'd been on the boards of some companies that have done some of those things, but I had never done it. So that's other part of it, it was super exciting for me. Look, we had to hire a whole new team of people who... I prided myself in the event industry, if you want to hire someone, I knew who all the best people were. This was really easy for me. My Rolodex that was really strong. This was like going in unchartered territory so I had to figure out what I was doing and try to find the right people. I think it was a big challenge for me in a good way and challenged me to spend my network, no pun intended, and go out and find new groups of people to talk to.

Aaron Levant:

I never hire usually recruiters or people like that, I always do it through referrals. So this was a process, it was 24/7 process of trying to find new amazing people who came from other great amazing organizations.

Chris Erwin:

Who or what most helpful to you during that time? Was it your board, was it Jimmy? As you were being like, "Okay, I need to have a new muscle to hire these new leaders with capabilities that are unfamiliar to me," what was helpful?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah. I mean, look, everyone was helpful, ultimately just me pounding pavement, picking up the phone, and trying to... Spent a lot of time LinkedIn, just cold hitting people up. Sometimes great people come to you in interesting ways. Our CFO, COO who's still here today, Emerson, came from a referral for Guston who was the original owner of Meltdown, the comic bookstore. You wouldn't think the guy that has comic bookstore's going to find you a CFO, but he actually found us the best guy. Referral and just always going out there and telling everyone you know, whether it's your aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, colleagues what you're looking for and asking who they know and getting people to send you great people is honestly the best way.

Aaron Levant:

Everyone was helpful, the board, the internal staff, and me just literally going on LinkedIn like a crazy person and finding people who like they're impressive and just dropping them a cold line. And then I'd have to try and explain to them, "Hey, I want you to come to this company that doesn't exist, that I can't tell you a lot about yet, and it doesn't have anyone else working here. Are you interested?" That's always the fun processes, getting people to leave their careers. It isn't like I'm the founder of some billion dollar tech unicorn and this is my second thing, right? There is some selling involved here.

Chris Erwin:

But I think that you had had an amazing career to date. You had a pretty rockstar board instead of investors, so when most people heard your pitch, where they like, "Yeah, Aaron, this is exciting, I'm in."? If you were to say the biggest trepidation, people who hesitated, what was the number one reason?

Aaron Levant:

I would say every department but technology has been, I wouldn't say easy, but we could recruit people.

Chris Erwin:

Okay.

Aaron Levant:

Technology is by far the hardest thing because if you're an amazing engineer, if you're an amazing CTO, you're an amazing product person, there's nothing but options for you in this world. Everyone has the same pitch, amazing founders with an amazing backstory, who've had success before, amazing board and tons of money in the bank from some of the top VCs and private equity funds. So, in that case, even though we had a lot of those things, we were in no better footing than anyone else. If anything, we were a step backwards. So I feel like that was the hardest thing, and still is. I think we've come over that hump now. We finally recruited an amazing CTO here at NTWRK, which is Marko who previously led engineering at GOAT for the last six years before joining us, which obviously a very impressive business. But that's probably been the thing that took the longest amount of time.

Chris Erwin:

I just interviewed Christian, the president of Complex, and he said that what's unique about his team is that everyone there is a fan, either they like hip hop, they like street wear culture, they like music. Was there also a through line that you were bringing from like, "Hey, as I've built my career today and for the team that I know that's really going to exceed here, people need to love this intersection of pop culture and commerce entertainment."? Was that important to you?

Aaron Levant:

It's always been important to me. I would say it's become, depending on the role, some places more important. We need the foremost experts, authorities, thought leaders, test-makers in those field and people who are picking the merchandise, people who are having a consumer front facing role in our business and has an effect on what you see on screen and what our customer are consuming. Sometimes I would, in the past, I think it was an immature part of my leadership style, is that I would dismiss amazing people who could bring such value. They came from greatness, right? Some organizations have a culture of greatness and excellence, and I would dismiss those people because they weren't into what I was into.

Aaron Levant:

Often in my career until NTWRK I think overlooked some really amazing people that probably could have helped me along the way. So I think that could be a very arrogant thing to dismiss someone if they don't love sneakers. I don't even really love sneakers to be perfectly honest with you. I think it's both, you need a good mix of finding the best people who are the hardest workers, who are the smartest, who are going to challenge you and bring value to the business and finding the people who are going to help you keep on the center of culture, and blend those people together.

Chris Erwin:

Before moving into some specific work that you're actually doing at NTWRK and some of the partnerships and the launches, what did it feel like to go from a hustler entrepreneur to now a steward of capital? You had raised $15 million in the seed round, it's a big seed. I believe all your other businesses were bootstraps, you weren't representing investors. So what was that shift like for you?

Aaron Levant:

Everything I'd done until Reed was completely independently financed by me, and I treated those like real scrappy, scrappy, scrappy businesses, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I was fighting tooth or nail for everything down to what I was paying for an office chair. If someone tried to order a $50 office chair online, I'm like, "You can get it for $38 at Ikea." Those little things, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

My cousin used to call it the million dollar loaf of bread. It's these little things that add up to all of a sudden you've spent a million and you're regretting it. So I was real scrappy in my entrepreneurial days. At Reed, I was scrappy but I definitely learned to be a shepherd of capital in that I was working a publicly-traded company and there's a lot of process there. So I think the two things really set me up well. I understood how to work with large amounts of money at Reed, and I understood how to be a scrappy entrepreneur in my whole previous career. I think I applied both of those things well here. And I went back to trying to be scrappy to the point where even sometimes the board would say, "Aaron, you're being a little too scrappy. You got to spend some money. We gave you all this money, you got to actually buy some Herman Miller chairs." Whatever the analogy is right? It's not all about chairs but I like to use that as the analogy for frivolous spending.

Aaron Levant:

Look, I feel every day utterly responsible for the investors who gave us money and the LPs for the funds that I need to deliver for them. I put that pressure on myself every day to an extreme extent that I need to return. Like, "Oh, this VCs getting money, whatever, it doesn't work out, one in 10, they'll get their money back." I don't think about it like that, and I hope nobody does who's a CEO. But I feel an absolute personal obligation to deliver minimum tenfold for everybody.

Chris Erwin:

For the investors who will listen to this, I think they're going to be very happy to hear that sentiment. What also comes out here is that these new investors like Jimmy and Warner Brothers Digital and LeBron also want speed. For a return on capital, it's like "Aaron, yes, being prudent is great, but just move fast. You're on to something and we're betting on you. If you're going to help build this market, and so speed is a major asset." I think that starts to show its face because then you raised pretty quickly after your seed, you then raise a 10 million series A in September of 2019. So that I think that is led by Live Nation and Foot Locker and Drake's also involved. At this point, what are you now building towards, and what are some of the key build highlights that are now setting you up for what we're going to talk about is where NTWRK going in the future?

Aaron Levant:

What we're really building for is to build the definitive marketplace for youth culture amongst the coolest personalities and pop culture goods, the most sought-after drops and releases across every category that we think is cool, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

And that's a pretty expansive view. I think we aggregating, much like I did at Agenda or ComplexCon, we're finding these passion audiences, we're convincing the most meaningful players in those audiences to create special site specific drops and things for this platform, and now we're just doing in a digital way under much more expansive amount of categories.

Aaron Levant:

We got the proof of concept in 2018 and '19 and now it's just about now it's just about how do we scale that, how do we get more people on the platform, how do we go from one drop a day to 40 drops a day is what our hope is by the end of next year, 40 unique, specific, custom, exclusive things in one day is a lot, right?

Chris Erwin:

And to do it over and over again. It's not like you're just building up towards one single day a few months out, it's like this is a daily thing?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah. And how do we make each one of those not only equal quality, how do we increase the quality over time and how do we take this from a few million people to tens of millions of people, and we become for the overused elevator pitch about our business, the QVC of Gen Z? I think that is exactly what we're trying to do and I don't take objection to that elevator pitch, I actually like it.

Chris Erwin:

As you think about going from one drop a day to 40 days a day, is there data from the performance of your past drop campaigns of what is selling, what is driving user acquisition that you're using as a data feedback loop and/or is it also a combination of just going gut of like, "This is a cool product, I dig it, we're going to launch with this too."? What is that approach?

Aaron Levant:

I would say it's 50% gut, 50% data at this point. I think over time it'll become more data. In the beginning it was probably 100% gut because we had no data. Obviously, it's taking learnings from the things that are working, the categories, the personalities. There's a lot of learnings in there around how we scale this business and there's also a lot of surprises, right? I think some of the biggest surprises we learn is just because X celebrity has a big audience, it doesn't mean they sell anything or anyone wants to buy anything from them. There are many personalities that have a much smaller audience, maybe just a few 100,000, that can sell 10X any big celebrity, because they have hyper-engaged audience, an organic audience.

Aaron Levant:

I think that's been one of the biggest surprises. I think one of our biggest aha moments was in 2018, Ninja was the biggest esport star in the world. He's still a huge star, right? We were like, "Oh my God, if we could just get Ninja to come on NTWRK and sell some stuff," when he was on the Ellen Show and breaking the internet, "we'll get a million downloads in one day, right?"

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

We go, we do this deal with him, we get him on and he's got an exclusive collection for us for holiday and 50 people came. It was nothing, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

New people. It was ridiculously low and it was like, "Wow, it's like sometimes these people that are so big actually don't move culture in a way that you think they do. They're propped up stars for consumption and click-bait but they're not really able to have a meaningful consumer products business." So sometimes you can't just go off the data of how big their social audience is or what their engagement looks like online, things like that, you have to some gut around, do people actually want to buy products from them? I think there's a lot of example of big celebrities who are very much household names but couldn't sell anything. And then there's some people that can create a brand that does billions of dollars, right?

Chris Erwin:

Wow. Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

So it's a real hit or miss there and that's really part gut. That almost becomes the more important part.

Chris Erwin:

It's interesting hearing about that because at my company, RockWater, we are helping different shoppable entertainment companies think about what their go to market launch is. And so we've been reviewing tens of these different live streaming content products. And we're seeing that some of the platforms actually audit the different types of creators or influencers that are onboarding and saying, "Are you a good fit? Are you not a good fit? If we think that you're going to be a premium creator you'll get more customer service resources and we're going to help prop you up." Has your team built any proprietary tech or methods of how you assess the personalities who are going to do a product collaborations with your team?

Aaron Levant:

I wouldn't say we're assessing them beforehand. We definitely have the post data where we've worked with them. But I would say here's the counterpoint to that even. I'll give you another example, the most successful individual personality on our platform beside Takashi Murakami, is a guy named Ben Baller, who's a celebrity jeweler, podcaster, all around personality. He has a big consumer products business with us. He's been on NTWRK for six months doing multiple things and almost all of them didn't do very well in the beginning. We kept sticking with him against the lack of positive data, right? It wasn't selling through, the audience wasn't engaging. And then eventually we had a breakthrough moment with him. I equate this almost the Agenda thing, you keep pushing forward and we always had a feeling or I had a feeling this guy was working to work and now he's our number two star on the whole platform from a revenue basis.

Chris Erwin:

What was in your gut that kept you sticking with him, similar to when you were at Agenda? Was it the ignorance is rich, like "No, I believe in this guy, I like him," or was there something else going on?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah, I believe in him. He was enthusiastic about the partnership, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

Some people, some celebrities they do these things and it's like an obligation. They go, "I got to show up and do this thing and sell this book." They pretend like they're enthusiastic but really they're not. They do the bare minimum. They're like, "oh, I'm obligated to do one social post, I'm going to do just that and then I'm going to take it down." Those people that are going to fight to make their things work. They're going and doing... like GaryVee, great example, that guy is a salesman of salesmen, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

He gets on and he's going to pitch himself like nobody. DJ Khaled, Ben Baller's one of them. They're enthusiastic and they're going to go above and beyond tenfold. And it knew that eventually it would break through, and it did. There were even people inside our own org who tried to kill the partnership, go, "Hey, this guy's not working. We've got all these other products on him, let's put these on the shelf, right?"

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

"Let's not push forward." I'm like, "No, you got to do it." It wasn't anything other than just seeing his level of enthusiasm towards the partnership. I believe that you can bank on that.

Chris Erwin:

The talent enthusiasm is so key because they have so many opportunities in front of them nowadays of how many different social platforms that they're on, how many different advertisers they can work with, what products can they launch. I remember when I was running Big Frame, the management company under Awesomeness TV, partners would come up to me and ask, "How do I work with your talent? How is this going to be a thriving partnership?" I would always, "You got to sell them on your product and on your vision and not just throw money at them." I would often nix them like, "Hey, if our sales team was pushing too hard," of like this was a big six or seven figure dea where our managers knew that the talent weren't really into it, I'm like, "We shouldn't do this because this is just going to fail and both sides are going to walk away unhappy."

Chris Erwin:

So I like how you described the enthusiasm is so key. Curious to talk about the future vision for NTWRK and some of the things that you're building towards. I've heard you talk about that you want to festivalize marketing and user acquisition. And I think that there's definitely intent to have many more shopping festivals I think in the new year. Tell us a little bit more about what's your thinking there.

Aaron Levant:

One of the things that I was obsessed with from day one, even in the original business plan, was looking at things like Alibaba's Singles' Day, which obviously has become since the last three years much more well known thing here in the US, and they made $75 billion this year, I think. They made a week-long event, previous iterations it was a day long event, they made $35 billion. They really took something that was like Black Friday or Cyber Monday here in the US and they made it look like the MTV Music Awards. It was a video first event, it was live stream, and it was crazy, right? And how they entertanmenize shopping, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I took how you took something like a ComplexCon, something like an Alibaba Singles Day and make a marriage between those two ideas and you launch an online shopping festival. That's really what we're doing with NTWRK. In the coming year we're launching six proprietary shopping festivals, each one around a different audience vertical and two big shopping holidays. These are big ideas for us. We did our first one this year called Transfer in August, which was a design and culture festival in partnership with a creative named Edison Chan from Hong Kong and the artist named Futura 2000, which was an amazing event. We had over two billion media impressions on that event, so we were excited about that. We're launching one just a few weeks here called Beyond the Streets which is an online art fare that's themed around street art and graffiti, which previously was a physical event that now we've brought online. And next year we'll have six. We'll do one called Unboxed in February that's themed around collectables and toys.

Aaron Levant:

We'll do one in March or April called Off Court which is focused basketball culture. Really about packing two days full of content, meaning dozens or almost 50 to 70 exclusive drops in a two-day period, bringing in the talent who created those drops or musicians, athletes, artists to do panel conversations much like we would at some of my physical conventions or festivals in the past, having live music performances, having a gift shop, having physical takeaways we send the people in the mail beforehand, and really entertainminizing and festivalizing this online shopping experience. It's really about taking hundreds of pieces of content that you can usually absorb over the cause of a month and smashing it into a two-day period and creating sensory overload. We're excited about what that does for the businesses on the go forward and how that draws new customers and how that creates excitement, and also stimulates brands and creators who want to work with us, right?

Aaron Levant:

If you just called and said, "Hey, you want to do something on a Wednesday because it's Wednesday." They're like, "Ah." You call them and say, "You want to be a part of this festival and all the top brands and creators in the world will be there?" It's much more motivating value proposition.

Chris Erwin:

Are you building this online experience in tech in-house or you're working with a partner to do it?

Aaron Levant:

It all lives on networks made of IOS and Android platforms, so it's literally sitting right on top of our day-in and day-out platform. It's not a separate experience. And that's the whole point. The whole purpose of this is to draw people into what we do and to utilize the technology and the proprietary native commerce and video technology we build here.

Chris Erwin:

You are planning six of those events in 2021.

Aaron Levant:

Six festivals and two shopping days, which is a one-day festival. For example, 10/10 is NTWRK's birthday, so that our annual celebration where we do a huge promotion. We don't want to be a retail company, I think that's a dead asset class, I think it's a boring idea. I think the number one thing for us to do that is we're creating these moments. We'll do some of the standard retail things like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Back To School, whatever, but how we create our own moments and we create our own annualized trend. What if we stacked all of our festivals in the first quarter, which is usually the lightest quarter for retail, what if we could buck that trend by doing all this exciting stuff.

Aaron Levant:

So we're creating our own retail holidays and creating our own trajectory of what we do and when we do it. We don't want to prescribe to what Macy's does per se.

Chris Erwin:

I was going to ask how you gauge success of that. ComplexCon will talk about, "Hey, we drive 20 to 30 million of merchandise sales in Long Beach and we're the number one contributor to that economy." Are the KPIs for you, it's revenue but also how it fuels the rest of the business or ability to attract different artists and personalities to the platform for the new year?

Aaron Levant:

It's all the above. Obviously revenue is an important KPI. Transfer for example was our highest two days of revenue ever during our last festival. Obviously we intend to beat that coming up in the new year. User acquisition, earned media. We had, like I said, two billion media impressions on that. It's also about how many new brands we attract to the platform, new talents, because then those people could have an ongoing relationship with us. Even things like Google Trends data, if you look at the dates around Transfer, some of our highest searches were NTWRK, right? So all of the things are extremely important KPIs or metrics we're going to track, but we want them all. I think that's a great thing about a festival, it solves for every meaningful thing we want to track in the business, the businesses just accelerates that.

Chris Erwin:

Let's also talk about another big initiative for the company which was your April 2020 investment in FaZe Clan, one of the world's largest esports and gaming collectives. If I understand this right, it was a $40 million round for FaZe Clan and you guys were the lead investor, is that accurate?

Aaron Levant:

Yes. Absolutely.

Chris Erwin:

What's the strategy where NTWRK is defining shoppable entertainment and shopping at the speed of culture, and now you're also making a really big investment in esports and gaming company? What is the goal of that?

Aaron Levant:

I think it's a pretty simple idea, which is we want to be at the forefront of what's happening in youth culture. I liken FaZe Clan as the leading brand in what is arguably the fastest growing space in media and entertainment, which is gaming lifestyle, esports, right? The numbers are astronomical, so when we think about attracting new audiences that are passionate about something, to me it's esports is the skateboarding of the day, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

This is the thing that captures the hearts and minds of possibly billions of people, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

Not just millions, it's a much bigger totally addressable audience here and why not partner with the top brand and organization and the largest brand and organization in that space. The analogy I like to use is that Netflix brings disruption to video streaming, Spotify to audio streaming, NTWRK is trying to do for merchandise streaming, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

This is the category that doesn't really exist. So what makes those platforms destinations is the proprietary content that they have. It's not that we make an investment in a great organization, but we also secured a deal to control the global consumer products rights for that company. And so right now if you go on NTWRK and you scroll down through our feed in couple days from now, we're dropping an exclusive FaZe Clan Beats by Dre headphone exclusively on NTWRK. So when you think about us bringing together a collaboration like that, first time Beats has ever been in the gaming space. Obviously, Jimmy, our lead investor was the founder of Beats, bringing together with the top gaming organization in the world and you can only buy that product on NTWRK. Same analogy like you can only watch Game of Thrones on HBO or you can only watch House of Cards on Netflix. Proprietary content drives new audience and drives revenue and drive retention.

Aaron Levant:

So how do we as NTWRK strike multiple exclusive deals with meaningful brands, creators, organizations that you can only buy their things on our platform and that gives us product or content exclusivity, which is going to be the moat around the business as we grow. I think there's many platforms that have "shoppable video" I think we have better shoppable videos than others, but you'll be able to buy stuff on any number of video or social platforms in the future. But if we have things that you cannot buy on Instagram or you cannot buy on YouTube, that you cannot in those places, then you have to come to NTWRK, and that is through a meaningful value proposition and moat that we can offer in the future as video commerce becomes a commoditized proposition.

Chris Erwin:

Are there plans to make other investments like what you did in FaZe Clan going forward?

Aaron Levant:

I don't know if we'll make other investments. I think FaZe Clan is unique. But I think you'll see us making many exclusive distribution deals and signing creators per se. FaZe Clan is unique because they have an organization of dozens of creators, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

So that's in our larger one. But I think it's just making deals with individual creators or individual brands. A necessary is probably an exclusive licensing or exclusive distribution deals.

Chris Erwin:

As you think about where you want the NTWRK experience to go, I have heard you talk about this all about just delight the user, delight the consumer, make the shopping experience fun and sticky in that they want to return and that it's also a valuable form of expression, like their identity. So what are other ways to build towards that, where you're like, We're not here yet, but in three years I really want to have this be part of the experience."

Aaron Levant:

It's a combination of multiple things. Right now I think we've done a good job of getting amazing products. I think we have an area to improve on which is making the content as entertaining as the products are amazing. As you can start to create that marriage of true... people start showing up in the platform just to be entertained and then they also certainly want to buy, I think that becomes one plus one equals 10. I think the festivals are really the first step in heading in that direction where we're creating the term retailtainment, and we can be a true retailtainment company and be at that forefront of that movement, I think that that is probably one of the most things in us continuing to invest and maybe instead of doing six festivals we're doing 10 or 20 because there's so many passionate audiences out there we can cater to.

Aaron Levant:

We did one this week for Japanese anime, which was a highly engaged media genre. But I think it's a combination of having amazing and proprietary products, having an amazing entertainment experience, and doing both of those things at scale and continuing to move into new verticals. In the future we see beauty as a vertical that is just as engaged as, let's say, sneakers. I think there's endless amounts of creators and passionate fan communities that make sense for what we're doing, and we are just scratching the surface. I think people probably look at our business from the outside in and think it's very male, sneaker street wear focused. And honestly, sneakers is less than 8% of our business right now. Things like toys and collectible is by far our largest category and I'm not sure if people would think about it that way. That's everything from a $500 Bare-Brink to a $15 Funko toy. By transition volume and by revenue, by far our largest categories.

Chris Erwin:

Interesting. Just a couple more questions before we get into rapid fire and close this out Erin. I liked what you said about redefining the content experience. I was actually just interviewing Michael Gaston who is the former founder and DCEO of Cut.com and now he's a head of studios at Stage 10, which is a live streaming platform, and they're also making moves into commerce as well with Rosie, which is maybe coming out in the next six months. What I've heard him talk about but also other executives is what are the owned and operated content formats that are really going to propel the live stream shoppable entertainment space forward? Because it's not just like, "Oh, well, what about the formats on YouTube, the inboxings or what's inside. It's like, "No, there's got be new formats that are really unique to the new technology solutions that are coming in the space. And these new formats can be seeded and incubated at all different platforms but they can exist everywhere. That's a win because that'll push the whole industry forward.

Chris Erwin:

I don't know if that's part of maybe your hiring plan for thinking about NTWRK as a content studio and having a real creative to run that, but I like where your heads at there.

Aaron Levant:

Content has been at the front of our mind and we've had various different content formats and we continue to have them some scrappy low-fi digital contents, just some stuff that looks like a beautiful docu-series that we've done with Nike, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

I think we'll continue to experiment. We've had great people that continue to work who came from Vice from Complex, some of the best digital content companies in the world and we'll continue to hire more producers and creatives from those companies. I think in terms of formats, I was equally inspired by HQ Trivia as a content format, a truly interactive appointment based, energetic jeopardy for the mobile first generation, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

That has a real tangible UI/UX experience that ties with the content. I think you'll see us doing stuff in that vain in the future. And honestly, when I wrote down in the very beginning it was like QVC and HQ Trivia as a format on screen, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

It's the vertical host and you're asking questions, so I think that's something we're thinking about a lot as much as we're thinking about gleaming insights on content from traditional television. One of the number one things I want to launch on NTWRK over the course of the next year or so is a late night talk show format, which is a Jay Leno, David Letterman style show. What is that show to me? It's celebrities coming on when they have something to sell. They there to sell a book, a movie, an album. They do the interview, it's engaging, that's why the audience there, and then they hold it up, they say, "go buy this book at Amazon," and they cut to commercial. Why do we not give you that meaningful interview experience and we sell you the book and we sell you the toy from the movie that Robert Downey Jr was there. We sell the Avengers story.

Aaron Levant:

I think we're looking at actually a lot of breakdowns of traditional linear formats and I think we'll be successful on a platform like ours where there's a real call to action to purchase.

Chris Erwin:

As you guys continue to invest in that and become more and more a media company, the idea to also syndicate, if this is part of your marketing strategy, to syndicate your content and those experiences to other platforms. I know you did a partnership with TikTok recently. Could you be syndicating to Facebook, to Instagram, to other emerging live stream shopping companies that is not only propelling up the industry but it's building brand awareness for you across a distributed network, but still driving the most activity towards the NTWRK app?

Aaron Levant:

Yeah, you're about to see us launch just series of content, I believe this month if not early next month through Snapchat. We've got a series of shows called the art of the drop that are releasing with Snapchat, doing exactly what you said, working with our stable of creators and exclusive products and releasing them on Snapchat. We see that as largely brand awareness, great ways to get in front of a new eyeballs and hopefully drive people back to our native platform. I think our sole focus though is driving people to our native platform because the trends change. It went from Facebook to Instagram to Vine for a second, back to Instagram, to Snapchat to TikTok. It's an ever-revolving spin. It's like you don't really ever own your audience there, right? So us spending a lot of time, money, or energy in building an audience in any of those platforms is not a high priority for it.

Chris Erwin:

Got it.

Aaron Levant:

Because we are own platform. We have a direct relationship with our consumer and no one can make us pay to get past an algorithm to reach our people, so it's always going to be more valuable for us to build our proprietary audience in our proprietary platform.

Chris Erwin:

Aaron, last question, before we go into the rapid fire. I have heard you talk about your career in thirds. There is intent in your final third to want to give back in a very meaningful way. And so I'm curious when you hear about Supreme selling to VF for $2 billion, what is the plan for NTWRK? How would you describe success over the next five to 10 years for NTWRK, that's not only a win for your investors, the users and your team, but also for you to get into this next third of your career. Like to hear a little bit more about that.

Aaron Levant:

I think that comment is largely driven by, I have no illusion that majority of what I've done in my career while it's been satisfying personally or financially to a certain extent, I've ultimately done a lot of pointless stuff, which is helped a bunch of teenagers buy cool T-shirts and sneakers in various forums. And while I have an affinity for that, I think that I aspire to do something more meaningful with my life on this planet. So I think of what I'm doing with NTWRK and this stage of my professional career as one, I'm still fairly young in the big scheme of things. At 37, I got a lot of life left in front of me. I would like to, at a certain point, exit from this type of professional life and enter full-time doing philanthropy. But I also think that one thing I committed to when helping get NTWRK off the ground was injecting a certain amount of philanthropy or philanthropic projects through this lens.

Aaron Levant:

And I thought, what a great way to raise money, plus just asking people for donations. I could go find me a model selling extremely cool things for charity, right?

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Aaron Levant:

You've seen companies like Ren do a great job of that. We were really lucky earlier this year to work with Japanese artists, Takashi Murakami on a charity project that we raised money for a social justice and Black Lives Matter related causes. And we gave $1.4 million away to charity through the result of that project we did with them, which is a huge actual donation amount. A lot of people raise money, but sometimes the actual donation was a bit smaller after all the costs and things like that. So our goal and aspiration is to raise millions of dollars per year through NTWRK, working with all these cool brands and creators making products that are specifically designed to raise funds for meaningful causes, whether those are environmental causes, various number of things that are important to us here.

Aaron Levant:

And I think this is a great platform to do it. When you think about what you used to see as like the Jerry Lewis telethon, you see these video formats, "Call us now," There's a phone bank of celebrities. What a great platform, we can take your credit card, sell you something cool. And we all started doing direct donation buttons inside the app now. So I think there's a lot you'll see, almost like telethon S things coming to NTWRK that at least makes me feel like a bridge between what I ultimately want to do and what we do now for a job

Chris Erwin:

You're reinventing the fundraising model. And you're setting up your next third concurrently. Aaron, let's get into the rapid fire. All right. So this is around six questions, really short answers, a couple of words or a couple sentences max. You ready for it?

Aaron Levant:

Yep.

Chris Erwin:

Proudest life moment.

Aaron Levant:

I don't know my life moment. Best professional moment would be the launch of the agenda emerge conference.

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do less of in 2021?

Aaron Levant:

Stare at my phone for endless hours a day. And the screen time app is not helping me do that as effectively as I'd like.

Chris Erwin:

I hear that answer quite often. What do you want to do more of in 2021

Aaron Levant:

Spend more meaningful time with people that I care about, friends and family, not looking at my phone.

Chris Erwin:

What one thing drives your success in your opinion?

Aaron Levant:

Insatiable appetite for being competitive and winning.

Chris Erwin:

Advice for media and commerce execs going into 2021.

Aaron Levant:

Don't do boring shit.

Chris Erwin:

I like it. I mean, that's the experience of NTWRK. It's like have fun with it, make something cool. Last two here. Any future specific startup ambition?

Aaron Levant:

Always. I have a book with about 20 ideas in it. We'll never have the time to do, but I have a multiple on my list.

Chris Erwin:

To be clear, always more to come from Aaron Levant all right. Last one, this is an easy one. How can people get in touch with you?

Aaron Levant:

I am not really on social media. I don't really have a public facing profile, but they're more than welcome to email info@thentwrk.com and someone will forward it to me.

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Aaron, this has been a delight and a really fun conversation. Your story is just such a wild adventure. So thanks for spending time with us.

Aaron Levant:

Thanks for having me.

Chris Erwin:

What another fun interview. So after having done a handful of these, what's just so interesting about Aaron is that he was just a hustler and a fan since very early days. And didn't have the traditional academic rooming to be an executive or anything like that, no formal professional training programs. He just tried things at an early age like that car magazine, and then just followed his love for street wear culture, pop culture, music, and started building things. And yeah, he tells a great tale. And it was really fun to dig and better understand how NTWRK came to be dating back just like, I think a little over a couple of years ago.

Those early conversations with Jimmy Iovine and then having to recruit executives that had had different expertise and he had worked with before. And then just what he's working towards in the future. The festivalization, the six shopping festivals coming up in 2021, trying to have Alibaba's Singles' Day meet ComplexCon. And thinking about the new content formats that they're working on, it's syndicating that to Snap and Twitter, just really cool stuff. And it was fun to hear about how he wants to give back in his final career third.

That was awesome. And think that he's going to likely participate in our upcoming live stream media and commerce conference. So more to come on that from us. If you're just in getting involved and want to learn more about it, maybe you want to speak at it, you can reach out to us at tcupod@wearerockwater.com. All right. All that's it. Thanks for listening. (music)

Chris Erwin:

The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend.

You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter. And you can follow us on Twitter @tcupod.

The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant, logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali. And special thanks to Andrew Cohen and Mike Booth from the RockWater team.

13 episodes