Mike Gaston — President of Stage TEN Studios on Bankruptcy, Founding Cut.com, and the Future of Livestreaming

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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.

Mike Gaston is the President of Stage TEN Studios, and a creative and social provocateur known for "programming between the lines". We discuss launching a profitable poetry press and soon after declaring personal banktuptcy, selling his first music video to MTV, founding viral digital studio Cut.com, and how he’ll shape the future of livestream media.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Erwin:

Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.

Mike Gaston:

This is going to sound insane. And I'm going to share this, but my thought was, is it possible to rob a bank and not go to jail? I'm like 19. Now when I'm thinking this way. And then I thought, yeah, I'll just take out a bunch of money on credit cards and then claim bankruptcy. And so like I took on all these credit cards and then I've just started traveling the world in a way that was just absurd.

Chris Erwin:

This week's episode features Mike Gaston, the President of Stage Ten Studios. Mike is a creative savant, who's known for programming between the lines. He had breakout success when he founded a viral digital studio, cut.com whose first video was about Grandmas Smoking Weed. You see, Mike is the ultimate provocateur, and he's been conducting social experiments since an early age. Like when just 20 years old, Mike launched a profitable poetry mag while apprenticing for an Irish poet. And then intentionally went into personal bankruptcy. Or when he created a music video for a friend's band, just for fun and ended up selling it to MTV. In Mike's current role at Stage Ten, he'll shape the future of live stream media. He talks about his recent work as well as some of his creative side projects at the end of our chat. All right, let's get into it. Mike, thank you for being on The Come Up podcast. So let's talk about where you grew up. What was your household like? What was your parental situation? Tell me.

Mike Gaston:

I grew up in West Seattle and my mom is an immigrant. She's from the Philippines. She didn't become a citizen until two years after I was born. And my whole family actually immigrated from the Philippines. So all my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents, my cousins, they're all here. And so had that very large Filipino side of the family around me. And then my dad, he's a white dude and he had a very small family that the only people I really got to know were my grandparents and then his brother and my cousin. But we weren't terribly close to them. And so the family was interesting. I had a bunch of essentially under five foot tall Filipinos about. So culturally, everything that I perceive was very much from a Filipino-American experience and not from the experience that my dad had. There wasn't a very strong kind of like a family philosophy or perspective from their side. But from my mom's side, my Filipino side, it was very strong. It pretty much informs everything that I think about today.

Chris Erwin:

When you mentioned that there was these the strong Filipino identity and cultural values, what were some of those that you remember growing up.

Mike Gaston:

Family is primary. It's also a very... It's a matriarchal culture. It's funny to say that because you look at authoritarians like Duterte, who actually is leading the country right now. And you're like, Oh, that seems very macho. And that's true. But it's really the women that do things like handle the finances.

Chris Erwin:

Interesting.

Mike Gaston:

And are really leading the family. And it's very common to never move out of the house, to live there forever and then your parents die and then you just take over the home. And so it's a very tight knit family structure, that's one. And then the second thing, which kind of I experienced growing up and then moved out of was this sort of mystical form of Catholicism. In Filipino culture, I felt like my grandmother practiced a magical form of Catholicism where it was like, everything was steeped in sort of miracles and possibility, right? I mean, this is a country where they crucify people, literally crucify people as part of holiday rituals in certain parts of the country. And so it's this sort of magical realism idea when it comes to religion. And that informed a lot of my early childhood.

Chris Erwin:

And when you say it informed a lot of your early childhood, because I'm also thinking to where you are today, which we'll get into, this like visionary in the media space and a point of view of the responsibility of creators. But what seeds was that planting in you at an early age?

Mike Gaston:

Honestly story. So I was fascinated by the stories that my grandparents would tell me and my mother would tell me. It was interesting because my dad converted to Catholicism as part of his wooing of my courtship of my mother. And he was never, I would call him a believer. I kind of think most Catholics are, it's very much like a more bureaucratic than it is like a belief to him. Whereas the Filipinos and my family is very strong believers in that kind of thing. And I remember as I was growing up, we would go to church every Sunday. And then right after church, we would go to the movies. And at some point, I want to say, when I was around eight or nine, I somehow convinced my parents that we should stop going to church and only go to the movies, which is probably why I make videos now. And I'm not a priest.

Mike Gaston:

But it's just something, there's some weird connection that was happening there between this religious communal experience that I was having in church. And then the kind that you have in a dark theater, staring at a screen with a bunch of people experiencing different states of emotional catharsis, right? Somehow I attached a more profound meaning to my experience with movies than I did with my experience in the church.

Chris Erwin:

And as you matured, maybe your sense of, Oh, I have to go to church to have the theater experience. And then you realize, and I think there's some parts of this story that will come out even more later, I don't need the church. I can just go right to the theater. And I think that comes up about you thinking about some of your coursework in school and saying, "Well, some of this coursework is great and some of it is not, I don't need it."

Mike Gaston:

Yeah. That just general sort of obnoxiousness definitely found its way into my schoolwork too.

Chris Erwin:

And so thinking also about your character as you kind of grew up and as a teenager and going to high school before you went off to college, reading some of your blog posts, you described yourself as a scared of everything extrovert. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Mike Gaston:

I've pretty much always been comfortable in social situations. I don't mind meeting new people, although it does have a tendency to impact me energy-wise. But any new scenario that I was in would instantly hit me with a kind of anxiety. There's just sort of a discomfort that comes with suddenly being presented into a new situation. Anytime I had to meet new people, initially, I would be kind of really timid about it. I was sort of in a corner, kind of a bit of a wallflower until I got acclimated to the temperature of the room. And then suddenly I was in the center in some way. And maybe it was certain aspects of my family life or in the early days we moved a bit around. There was so much attention from my mother's side of the family that I felt always like there's a spotlight on me.

Mike Gaston:

And so that made me kind of shrink into myself. So I would be freaked out a lot about different scenarios that I would be put into. But at the same time, once I got again, acclimated to the temperature, it wouldn't be tough for me to perform suddenly. But yeah, initially I would be freaked out by a lot of things, pretty often actually.

Chris Erwin:

Did you feel that people sought your attention or sought to interact with you? Because I look at you now and people seek you out for, they want to hear your point of view. They want to hear you speak, at conferences, at summits and for you to attend their events, but you don't always immediately engage. And so curious, going back, did you feel that social groups were like, "Hey, this is an interesting guy. We want to interact with him." Or did that attention not exist?

Mike Gaston:

So this is strange given it feels like a backdoor brag, but it's not intentional. I was friends growing up, I could be friends with literally anybody, with all the different kids. But I was popular among the popular kids, but I wasn't necessarily a popular kid because I didn't behave like a popular kid. I didn't behave in a way where I was seeing differentiation between me and other kids. So I was friends with a lot of kids. And then for some reason I would end up popular among the popular kids. I think maybe it's, I just knew from very early age, I would ask myself what I wanted. And then I would only just do the things that I wanted. And I think that that creates a gravity that people are attracted to because I think a lot of people don't ask themselves what they want or are uncertain about going after the things that they want. And so it's attractive when you see it in other people.

Chris Erwin:

So what did you want back then? Like in your teenage years.

Mike Gaston:

I wanted you to know why, why we did any of the things that we had to do. So I want to say when I was about 12, I became friends with this kid named Jorge Morales he was a really smart dude. The things that he would read was far beyond what everybody else was reading. He was a multi instrument kind of like musician. And he was unpretentious about all the things that he was really interested in, but he seemed so brilliant. And he was the one who introduced me to philosophical thinking in different types of philosophies. And so as a result of that, I instantly became, over the course of that year of seventh grade, I would say, I became really introspective, really reflective. And then what happens as a result of that is I was just suddenly in a question state where I was just trying to understand what are the things that I wanted?

Mike Gaston:

And I was trying to understand the why's behind the decisions that people were making, especially when you're a child, right? When you're a child, you're subject to what other people want of you, right. You have very little agency over the things that you want.

Chris Erwin:

Yes.

Mike Gaston:

And when you become a teenager is when most of that conflict starts to kind of arise. And it's because you're starting to feel your own agency, it's in a conflict with your parents' and their expectations. Well, that happened way earlier for me, that happened before high school. And that's largely because I was asking those questions all the time of what do I want, why do I need to do any of these things? And that became a lot more a macro sort of philosophical point of view for me going on. Before that, before I had discovered philosophy is more tactical, things would come to me and then I would just question it. I had a natural sort of questioning sort of personality. And again, I think there's a thing that happens with kids where you're told so often, your life is so prescribed to you that you're kind of go on a track. You do the things and you don't even know why you're doing any of the things. You're just doing it because that's the expectation. And I was never like that. I was always asking questions my whole life.

Chris Erwin:

This manifests in a story about your coursework in high school, you rejected one of your courses, tell me about that.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah. This was actually happened in seventh grade. This is actually before high school. But as I was asking those questions, I started thinking about... My mother again is Filipino and there's that cliché, the Asian tiger mom is not a cliche. That's just real to me. So she was very aggressive with my education, well, before I even got into kindergarten. So I was reading at three and I was writing full on essays before I got into kindergarten. And so by the time I was in kindergarten, everything was slow. Everything was crazy slow to me. Because for her, she was always trying to get me ahead. She wanted me to go to the best high schools, go to the best college, have the best job. And I remember around some of, when I was starting to have like a larger sense of myself and a larger sense of applying this questioning sort of personality but to my entire life.

Mike Gaston:

I started asking why I had to do any of these things, why do I have to get A's in all these classes? And so then I just started reshaping my world with experiments. And so I was like, "Okay, well, what if I just got A's in everything except this class that I don't really like." And that class was a religion class. Because I was going to private school. And I was like, I've been studying religion for eight years now. I'm in seventh grade. I had gone to Sunday school before I was even in kindergarten. This all feels really repetitive to me. How about this? I'm just going to do the tests. I got a D in that class. I do great on the test. And then I would just not do any work.

Chris Erwin:

How did that feel to get a D because you probably had excelled in school?

Mike Gaston:

Satisfying.

Chris Erwin:

Satisfying, okay.

Mike Gaston:

It felt liberating to get a D.

Chris Erwin:

Which probably frustrated your parents who were like, "Oh, you should be disappointed." And they're seeing you elated.

Mike Gaston:

Oh, yeah. My mom was very unhappy because she was like, "This is easy. Why are you going to getting a D?" This is the class that everyone gets an A in, why are you getting a D in this class? And I was like, "Well, if everyone gets an A and it's clear that I can get A's, why do I need to do that for this class? Well, what is the purpose of this?" And then she would say things like, "You're jeopardizing your chance again to a good high school." And I was like, "Well, then what happens after that?" If I get into a good high school, then it's about a good college and it's about a good job and then I die. I was literally, I would just go to the end of everything. What is the end effect of literally everything that is to that moment.

Mike Gaston:

And then I was like, "This doesn't seem like a track I want to be on." And my dad, again, because he was more transactional about his relationship with religion. I remember driving with him in the car and he was like, "Yeah. So you got a D." And I go, "Yeah." He's like... He just turned to me, he's like, "Whatever." He's like, "It's not a big deal." And I'm like, "Exactly." It was this moment where I was like, "It isn't a big deal." And so it became a thing where I had started to seek out moments of failure because I wanted to experience it. I wanted to experience what it was like to not meet my own expectations or meet my parents or meet anybody else's. But the way I started to approach it was different. In that instance, it was me not doing things that I knew I had to do in order to achieve something.

Mike Gaston:

And what it became was I started to seek out failure by doing things that were much harder and it felt impossible. And it was like, well, I'm just going to do this thing and then try and then get comfortable with that feeling.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. It feels like you're a provocateur where there's the societal and cultural foundations. And you're like, if I poke at this crack, does that destabilize anything? And if so, does it actually change my life in a meaningful way or not, or change the end state in a meaningful way. And I think it's a very fast way to learn to provoke.

Mike Gaston:

It absolutely is. It was one of those things where I was just trying to find the boundaries to, everyone has a shape to their life. And it's one that they construct for themselves because we're all kind of editing our lives on our own. And I was like, what is the boundaries to this thing? What could it actually look like? What if I just started doing these things and stopped doing these things, or I start doing these things and stop doing these. Do any of these things matter? We invest meaning in so many, of the things that we're doing. And I was kind of in a constant state of questioning that. And just asking why.

Chris Erwin:

From there, there is a traditional path that does take place in the beginning of your career. You go to the University of Washington, and then from there, you end up at Boeing, a big company. So I'm curious to hear, just touching on University of Washington. What were the intentions there?

Mike Gaston:

Actually, out of high school, I didn't want to go to college at all. My plan was to go on a walkabout, but my mom was so disappointed with the idea that she had invested so much of her personal identity into my future success as an academic that I had to go to college, that I actually went to Seattle University for a year. And while I was at Seattle University, my grandfather, my white grandfather, my dad's father, he was in the midst of dying from diabetes and they had no help. So after school and before school, I would go to his house and I would help him. I would help my grandmother, I would help take him to the bathroom. I would help shower him, wipe his ass. He was literally... He couldn't walk, he couldn't... He was blind, had no feeling in the left side of his body.

Mike Gaston:

And he was literally falling apart. And I was the most depressed I'd ever been just like sort of a witnessing this and being a part of it. And I told him one day, I was like, "I got to leave, man. I can't be... I'm not happy in school. Because I don't want to be in school right now. And I can't do this." And he's like, "Yes, you need to leave." And I was like, "I'm just going to leave." So then I just started leaving the country and then I left the country for awhile and I didn't return for a couple of years. And then when I finally returned, that's when I went to UDaB.

Chris Erwin:

So when you were leaving the country, were you enrolled in any academic programs or no?

Mike Gaston:

No. I just left. So I would travel around Europe and I would meet up with friends in Mexico, in different countries. And then I found a mentor and apprenticed with him in Ireland, lived on his farm on the Southwest Peninsula and just study poetry. So I actually met him when I did a study abroad in Ireland. It was like a two week study abroad program. And he was a professor on that program and he was an Irish poet who had been born in Boston. So he had like dual citizenship. And then he would occasionally go and teach at Wesleyan University. And when I was traveling around, I ended up on his doorstep and I was like, "Hey, is it cool if I hang out here for a bit?" And then a bit turned into well over a year.

Chris Erwin:

So you lived on the farm?

Mike Gaston:

I lived on the farm and I was so broke. I would have to fish for food every day on the beach. And he was broke as hell too. Because he was... I mean, he's a poet. There's this thing about John? His name was John O'Leary. He was so broke. I remember when creditors would call him and they would demand he pay for bills. One of the last times I was there, he goes, his response to them was, "Now here's the thing. I'm going to tell you what I tell every creditor, I have a fishbowl and in the fishbowl are all my bills. Every month I put them in there. And then once a month I dip my hand into the fishbowl, I twirled it around and I pull out a bill and that is the bill that I pay for. Now, if you keep calling me, I'm going to put you out of the game." And then he just would hang up on them. He was a total character. He was a total character.

Mike Gaston:

He was such a wonderful weirdo. He looked a little bit like Walt Whitman's corpse on acid, incredibly skinny with crazy wild hair and that kind of thing. And and he was brilliant. He was the type of guy you could start reading from The Unabridged Shakespeare. And then he could just pick up without looking at it.

Chris Erwin:

It must have been, despite living in near poverty, having to fish for food every day, a very special experience, because I believe that you try to start your own poetry, newsletter or business, knowing you having experience of how difficult the business model is. And you did end up in bankruptcy, but you did it anyway. Because you're like this felt right.

Mike Gaston:

I don't know what happened like it. Part of my leaving the country a lot, initially when I was leaving the country a lot, I would do it in that sort of romantic nomadic kind of way that everyone who reads Jack Kerouac on the road kind of does where they go out and they're like, "Okay, I'm going to sleep with homeless people in the Gare de Lyon, and I'm going to eat nothing, but like baguettes because it's cheap and really cheap wine or whatever. And I'm going to try like hop on trades and then get off before anyone tries to get me to buy anything." And that gets real old, real fast. After the first many months of doing that, I kind of cracked, so this is getting to the bankruptcy, but what happened was I had a thought to myself and this is going to sound insane.

Mike Gaston:

And that I'm going to share this, but my thought was, is it possible to rob a bank and not go to jail? So this is, I'm like 19 now when I'm thinking this way. And then I thought, yeah, I'll just take out a bunch of money on credit cards and then claim bankruptcy. And so what I did, that's literally what I did. I took...

Chris Erwin:

Legal robbing, yes.

Mike Gaston:

That was legal robbing. And it was one of those things where I was just like, why not? And so I took out all these credit cards and then I just started traveling the world in a way that was just absurd. I didn't have luggage with me. I just had a Jansport backpack. And then if I needed clothes, I would buy it. I would stay at really nice hotels instead of the hostels that I was sort of surviving in. And then when people asked what I did, I would say things like, have you ever seen Doogie Howser? And they go, "Yeah." And I'm like, "I'm not saying the show is about me." And then I would just let it hang. And then I got to a point where I was broke and that's when I was living with the poet. And I was like, now I have to survive by fishing for food. And I had a little bit left over towards the end of my journey there with John.

Mike Gaston:

I was like, "I'm going to start a poetry press." And that's what I did. And I started this poetry press. And at first, it actually made money. It actually made money. And it's because I would find people like John who actually had a really great following and sell the books at these readings and I would set up tours. And I actually created kind of an independent bookstore distribution.

Chris Erwin:

Is this in the United States or is this in Europe?

Mike Gaston:

Both. Where I would do things in the United States and Europe.

Chris Erwin:

Wow.

Mike Gaston:

So the books would be in Shakespeare and Company in Paris and they would be in City Lights bookstores in San Francisco. And I would get it in all these places.

Chris Erwin:

How old were you?

Mike Gaston:

I was 20. It was kind of crazy because the more I would do things, the more people would buy into it. And so it came to a point where I had professors in all these different institutions hitting me up to publish their work because I was publishing really legit poetry by people that I had met in Europe and different things. And so suddenly they were like, "Well, this guy he's publishing stuff." And so it was very easy for me to find people whose work was actually meaningful within these circles. And I'm 20 and I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm just sort of doing it. And then I started going a little bit too crazy and started publishing people who literally didn't have any audience, but I just really appreciated their work. I want to say the first two books were profitable. The next two books broke even, last four books, it was negative dollars in a big way. And that's when I claimed bankruptcy.

Chris Erwin:

Thinking back to your earlier childhood stories where you wanted to poke the foundation and see what happens when things fail, did you are pushing this business, like how hard can I push this?

Mike Gaston:

Definitely moments where I was like, "Where are the boundaries again in this scenario? Can I continue to publish books and make money here?" So there was some of that, but largely the desire was I just really respected those writers. And I wanted to see that work get created. Even if I knew that the likelihood of making money was low.

Chris Erwin:

Another parallel from your early years is rejecting the certain institutions or coursework, but then going to university and then you start to go in different paths and try different things out and travel and go live on a farm and write poetry and start a poetry business. And then you go to Boeing, more like a traditional path again. So how did you end up there?

Mike Gaston:

Okay. So I claimed bankruptcy and then I decided to go to University of Washington and finish up school. It was one of those instances where I no longer felt like I had to go to school. It was this choice I was making and it was okay. As long as it was a choice I was making. And once I graduated from there, I got into grad school. I was going to go study Shakespeare at St. Andrews in Scotland. My wife now, who was my girlfriend then, got into Cambridge to get her Master's in Philosophy and History. And I was dead broke. I mean, I had claimed bankruptcy a few years before then. I had been paying my way through college. I had taken on two jobs at one point. I would go to UPS very early in the morning, take classes, then work at a sub shop late at night to pay for everything.

Mike Gaston:

And so I was totally broke and she goes, "One of us should probably have a job." Right. And I go, "Well, you got into the better school. You go to Cambridge and then I'll go get a job." And I applied to Boeing as a joke. Both my parents were working at Boeing at the time. And I had told myself my entire life, I would never work there. But they were hiring. And so I showed up and I was the only one, I remember that it was like this mass sort of they were doing tons of interviews and it's because for years, Boeing had been doing layoffs. And so there's this giant gap between where they had a bunch of people who are about to retire and they had no middle career people because they had laid them all off. And so then they were trying to like backfill with a bunch of young people. And I was the only one who kind of didn't want a job there. And the only one not dressed like they were applying to be on the apprentice. And then I got hired.

Chris Erwin:

It's like office space, like the less interested you are, the more appealing of a candidate you become.

Mike Gaston:

So one thing I'll say, here's a little bit of a story when I was offered the job, I was so stunned that they offered me the job because I'm an English major, right. And at the time, I have been told over and over again was that business people get business degrees. And so I didn't think this was going to be a thing. And I remember they called me and they go, "We'd like to hire you for this position. This is their HR department." It was like $42,500 a year to start or something. And this was back in 2004, I think. And that's a lot of money to a person who's been broke, literally his entire life. And so, but my instinct in that moment was to push it and kind of fuck with it. And I go, "Well, that's great. I really appreciate the offer. But I'll be honest with you. When I took the interview, I had a different number in mind."

Mike Gaston:

I'm literally making all this up off the top of my head because I was just stunned they even called me and they're like, "What are you thinking?" I was like, "Well, I was thinking more like 50,000." And then they came back at like 45 or something like that. And I was like, "Okay." And then I took the job, but it was one of those things where I was just sort of making it up as I went along. And then when I met with my boss for the first time I asked him, I was like, "Why did you hire me?" And he goes, "Your poetry press." I was like, "Really? You mean the thing that utterly failed?" And he goes, "Yeah, absolutely." And I go, "Why?"

Mike Gaston:

And he goes, "You actually understand something about business that the majority of your colleagues who are new here don't because you actually ran a business where you actually had to create contracts, negotiate that with artists. And also with universities, you had to create a distribution system for your books. You had to literally create tours for your authors. You created a budget for yourself." It was one of those things where it was a... And I was like, "Dang, you're right." I actually did learn a lot just doing that.

Chris Erwin:

You're at Boeing, but then fast forward, because I want to start setting up the story about you founding Cut and your entertainment drift. You do pull the rip cord at Boeing in a pretty interesting way, that includes pushing the quote unquote red button. Tell us about quitting day and pushing the red button.

Mike Gaston:

So I was at Boeing for a few years and it became a thing where I was just generally unhappy. There was enough novel problems at Boeing that I'd be interested for awhile. But what made me unhappy was that, this leads to me quitting was that I remember my boss came to me one day and he goes, "Mike, we're having some serious problems with this specific type of part that I was responsible for." Right? I was responsible for a contract that was worth millions of dollars. And there was a specific part that was constantly getting damaged in the factory. And that was impacting everything. And I was like, "Well, let me go investigate that." And I didn't know what I was doing. So my instinct was to then go and essentially create, what I learned later was a lean initiative where I would bring in all these different people who were a part of this whole flow, this process flow in the factory and to understand what was happening.

Mike Gaston:

And during that, we discovered that where the damage was occurring, why it was happening and how to fix it. And then we created a proposal for fixing it. I got promoted. I was saving the company lots of money. Fantastic. Three months later, my boss came to me and he's like, "Mike, we have this problem that's happening in the factory." And I was like, "Oh, really weird. So let me go investigate." I went investigated it. And I told him, I go, "Glenn, I literally solved this several months ago." Oh you did? I'm like, "Yeah, dude, you promoted me." And I go, "Here's the proposal." He's like, "Oh, fantastic. This is great." And then he left, I would continue to do different work. And then several months later he came to me. He was like, "Mike, we're having this thing. That's happening in the factory."

Mike Gaston:

I was like, "What is going..." And then when I research, I go, "Glenn, several times now I've solved this. This happened probably four times. And I've felt like I was going insane." Finally, my counterpart on the vendor side of it and I were talking and he had originally been at Boeing and now he was working at this supplier and he's been in this industry for like 30 years. And he goes, "Mike, Mike, Mike, here's the thing, buddy. This is a problem within this airplane since it's been created. And it's over a decade now that they've had this problem. And the thing that you came up with is exactly the solution that a handful of us came up with almost a decade ago." I'm like, "Why am I still solving it?" And he was like, "It's the machine. This is like the inertia of a large machine, like a company like this, where people are changing."

Mike Gaston:

There's a lot of heuristic stuff in a company like this. And it's very easy for things to kind of fall through and for stuff to get ignored and he was like what happens is, "Every now and then there'll be a new young guy like you who comes in, who discovers the problem, will fix the problem. And then it doesn't get fixed or it'll be fixed for a little period of time, then it'll get broken again." And that was so insane to me that I had been spending a good, over a year now solving the same problem over and over again and it not being fixed. That was like, I have to get out of here.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

I have to. I feel like I'm in a time loop and I need to leave, but I felt bad. I felt bad because my whole life I've been told that I'm like a quixotic temperamental creative. And that part of me getting a job at Boeing was also sort of like a proof point to Jenny, who's my wife's now family that I wasn't just a crazy romantic artist. I could hold down an actual job that people have. And so I was like, is there a way to get fired? That would be interesting. So I actually tried to get fired, but I made rules for myself for getting fired. I was like one, I have to continue to do my work and I have to do it well, that's one. But two, I can't do anything that would be obvious to get fired. I'm not going to do drugs at work, I'm not going to bring a gun to work. I'm not suddenly going to become like abusive towards people and those types of things. Is it possible to get fired just through non-sequitors?

Mike Gaston:

Just by being strange. So I would do things, I remember again, the vast majority of the workers at the time were these older white men. And I would do this because I would enter into the restroom. I would apply lipstick on my lips just to see how they would respond. I would busk in the hallways, like with a guitar, I would stand on my desk and rock out to Andrew W.K. Don't Stop Living In The Red. Now, mind you, I'm doing my work at the time. I'm still doing it and I'm doing it well. I'm just being strange. I would do things like I would go to different offices and sit in conference rooms and wait. And then people would show up and then I would run the meeting without telling anyone who I was.

Mike Gaston:

So I'd be like, "Okay, let's begin the meeting." And I would go, "Let's go around the room. Everyone tell me who you are, how long you've been at Boeing, what your position is." And then I'd point to people. And then they would tell me, and then I'd write notes and I had to assign action items and then I had to leave and I never see them again.

Chris Erwin:

It seems that you wanted immediate reaction. Because everything you had done in your prior life that you talked about was you do something and there's an immediate result.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah.

Chris Erwin:

You hire writers that are not popular. And then you start bankrupting the company, right. You reject coursework, you get a reaction from your mother. So at Boeing is you solve this problem. You're expecting them to be like, "Okay, great recognition." But more of, okay, things are now going to change. That's not happening. So you're like, okay, at this culture, you have to find ways to actually provoke and get reaction. So did you get the reaction that you wanted?

Mike Gaston:

No, the thing is there would be no reaction. I would do these things and I would get weird stares or things like that. But mostly people were afraid of me or it felt like that. It felt like there was a weird intimidation. And I think part of it is that when you're working in a company like Boeing also, there's a lot of rules. There's rules for literally everything. There's a million rules in they're called PROS, PROS. And there is a PRO for literally every decision that you have to make. And it became a thing where I would say I wanted to get something done and someone would say a PRO about why it couldn't be done. And I became so frustrated by that because I wanted to see things get fixed and changed and I want to see things improve that I just started making a PROS.

Mike Gaston:

So I would say something in a meeting, I'm like, "This is something that we have to do." And then someone goes, "Well, according to PRO5236, we can't do that for these reasons. I'm like, "Well, actually PRO2348 supersedes PRO5236 because it says that we have to do that. And the thing is no one reads the PROS, man. So I could say these things and then people will be like, "Oh, I guess we have to do it." And then I would get shit done. And it was one of those things where I was like, I have to kind of work outside the system to get things done. The way I quit ultimately was where I was like, "Gosh, I seem to keep doing well at my job and I'm not happy here. I'm just going to leave."

Mike Gaston:

And at Boeing, their internal intranet and it's called... I think it's called toll access. I can't remember. But there was a big red button on the intranet and it was a self terminate button where you press that button, you were self terminating. And I wrote one day I just press the button. And then I instantly got a call and it was from HR and they go, "Is this Michael Gaston?" Yes, this is. Okay. Well this is Boeing's HR. And we noticed that, did you press the self terminate button? I go, yep. Oh, do you want to self terminate? And I'm like, "That's why I pressed the button." And then they go, "You do realize that once this goes through, it's very hard to turn this around." And I go, "I don't want to turn around. I want to self terminate."

Mike Gaston:

And then they try to make an argument for why you should stick around. And I just told them that I wasn't interested and this went on for a very long time. And then eventually they got the hand and that's how I fired myself. I literally pressed the eject. Yeah. Right after... So I got married about a year or two years and still working at Boeing. And I was hanging out with a friend of mine who was at my wedding and he used to be in a band called Minus the Bear. And I told him one day I was like, "I got an idea for a music video." And he goes, "Great, but you've never made a music video." And I go, "Well, I'm going to make a music video anyways. And I'm just going to make it. And if you like it, great. And if not, no biggie."

Mike Gaston:

They were touring at the time. So it didn't matter. And then I went, I created a treatment for it and I hooked up with a friend of mine who was in the New York film industry, but then had moved to Seattle. And then he hooked me up with a really great director of photography. And I brought him over and we made this music video and then I gave it to the band and they all dug it and the label dug it and they showed it to MTV and MTV loved it. And they were like, "Yeah."

Chris Erwin:

Was the band in the video? Or was it just the-

Mike Gaston:

No.

Chris Erwin:

-Music and... Okay.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah, no, it was for a song called Throwin' Shapes. And it actually starred my wife and one of my good friends and they play these two kind of opposing basketball players who aren't actually playing basketball. They're fake playing basketball on the street. And then they battle. And then the label like, "Yeah, we want to buy this." And so I sold it to them and then it was on MTV. And I was like, why don't I just do this? Why don't I just make videos? Because the first thing I made went on MTV.

Chris Erwin:

And you had never created any videos prior to this?

Mike Gaston:

No, I'd love movies. I'd love videos. I grew up in a time where it seemed impossible because equipment is expensive and I didn't go to film school and it felt like outside my reach. But in that instant, I was just like, well, whatever, I'm just going to go make one. And I remember talking to my friend who was in the New York film industry and he would tell me all the things I couldn't do. And I was like, "Well, I'm just going to do them anyways." Right. And then we got it done. And he was like, "How did you do that? How did you..." And I was like, "Well, nothing's really impossible, right? You can pretty much do anything." The hardest thing to do is to decide that you're going to do it. And then you just do it.

Chris Erwin:

You just fast forward to an end state that you want. And you don't worry about, what are all the different structures or the normal ways for how people would achieve this. You're like, "I'm going to find a way, I'm creative and I'm going to talk to people and I'm going to get it done." And you did. So this starts what I described as you hit the red exit button and you start the entertainment drift. And you're at a few different companies for pretty short stints of time, like one to three years, CBS, Rogue Scholar, Stripes39 and then SFST. And I think some of these companies are related. So during this period tell me... It seems that you're seeking something out or wanting to learn something. What was going on during those years?

Mike Gaston:

Once I made the decision that I was going to leave Boeing and do videos, the next thing that occurred to me was that I don't know how to do videos, right? I had made a thing and I had sold it, but that... I wasn't suddenly invested with a ton of confidence and about how to do any of these things. And when I was discovering at that moment was actually what my voice was. I'd always wanted to be a writer and tell stories, but I was circling in on the types of stories I wanted to tell and the reasons behind it. But what was still kind of opaque to me was the hows, how to actually get it done. So then my instinct was to just do as many things as possible. I started working for free on a ton of different projects, just to understand how other people ran sets and shoots and then taking jobs at different places.

Mike Gaston:

It was part of that same kind of instinct. I read every book, I would take jobs, I was taking in inputs to synthesize my own kind of perspective on how I wanted to make anything. Right.

Chris Erwin:

You always had an output focused mind. So at these companies were you also having an impact?

Mike Gaston:

To some degree, the thing is part of the reason why I would leave was because I wasn't satisfied necessarily with the impact that I was making. I was having an impact, but it always felt too slow to me in some of these places where... Like CBS, one of the places I worked at was at CBS Radio Seattle, where I worked for a show called the Bob Rivers Show, which was a National talk show. And my job as the video production manager. And there was only so much that you can get done as a video guy at a radio show. And so even though I was having an impact, it wasn't super satisfying. And so then once Bob was moving on from his contract with CBS Radio Seattle, it was clear to me that I had to move on too. And that's when I went and started a nonprofit focused on the digital humanities called Rogue Scholar.

Mike Gaston:

And I did that and much like my poetry press, that was a no-profit company, made a significantly negative profit. And after doing that for a little over a year, I needed to make money. Again, and I took a job at Stripes39. And this one was interesting because Stripes39 was a startup in internet marketing. And it was the first place that I worked at where suddenly people would listen to me. The CEO would listen to what I was saying. And it was jarring. It was jarring because I had been so used to being kind of like feeling frustrated because I would point out all the things that need to be fixed and how I would fix it. And no one would listen. And finally, there was a guy who I remember telling him, this isn't how I would run a creative side of your company at all.

Mike Gaston:

And then he was like, "Really?" I go, "Yeah." And then he took me into a room and then spent three hours whiteboarding with me about how I would do it. And then he basically was like, "Go and do that." I was stunned. I was suddenly in an environment where people would listen to me and that changed everything. Number one, it made me a lot more circumspect about the things that I was saying. Suddenly when people are paying attention, you can't get away with the feeling like, "Oh man, I have all these great ideas and no one's listening." Suddenly you have to really examine are these ideas great at all? Because they are listening.

Chris Erwin:

It's like, crutch to ready yourself for dismissal saying, "Oh, I can say all these big ideas, but no one's going to listen to me. So I'll just... Too bad for them. I'm just going to go on to the next thing and throw out some big ideas." And then all of a sudden they're saying, "No, Mike, this is great. Now do it." And so now this is a new muscle of execution responsibility. And you're getting what you wanted, be careful what you wish for.

Mike Gaston:

Absolutely, Boeing was formative because I learned a lot about how to create processes in a place and also to work within a large organization. And as much as I was a total brat, when it comes to things I was trying to get away with, I was still doing my job. I was still doing work. And I learned a lot there about project management and about moving things through something really bureaucratic. When I go to Stripes39, it's the exact opposite of Boeing, right? Boeing makes products that last for 40 plus years and that are heavily regulated. So they have nothing but red tape. Then you go to the internet and you're doing internet marketing. And these are for products that lasts for about 30 seconds, right. And then you have to make an entirely new thing. And then you're doing it in a startup where there's literally no process.

Mike Gaston:

And so one can be paralyzing because of the weight of the amount of buy in that you have to have. And the other one can be paralyzing because all there is, is opportunity with no checks and balances.

Chris Erwin:

It's chaos.

Mike Gaston:

And so it's like... It's chaos. And so there was an instance where I was like, "Whoa, people are paying attention." And then what happens is you level up way faster in a world like that because you have to. You suddenly have to be like, "Okay, the things I do have a real impact. So how do I make sure that I'm doing things that have a real impact and not just be the guy who's readying himself for, you said for dismissal, but the guy who knows, well, they're going to hold me to these things." So I actually have to execute on it.

Chris Erwin:

So you start executing against his vision and what happens?

Mike Gaston:

So the company ended up turning into a startup studio and they would incubate different business models and then invest in them and Salil, the president of the company early on, knew that he wanted to invest in video. And we got to talking and that's kind of where SFST came out of. He knew that you wanted to invest in video, but we didn't have a business model that we were committed to. So SFST was kind of essentially a creative studio. We were doing for other companies, what we had been doing up to that point for Stripes39, which is create content that would help those companies get to number one on Google. My task at the time was to create viral content for brands like InsuranceQuotes.org and Medical Billing and CodingCertification.net, which is like pushups. If you can make something go viral for a company like that, you can pretty much make it for anything.

Chris Erwin:

Say if the product or the company wasn't super appealing to you, did you enjoy the challenge of like, "I'm going to make you a really cool video."

Mike Gaston:

Always. To me, they were just interesting problems to solve. And again, this goes back to this belief that nothing is impossible. So it was fun. It was fun to think of these as exercises. Like, okay, well, how do I get this thing to go viral? How do I make this thing? And then every time we would make something, it would appear on like Gizmodo or some other large site. I feel like I'd won something.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. But then it seems that you want to solve more things, but you need more time, more resources and focus to do that, which then seems to be a precursor to the co-founding of Cut.com. Tell me about that transition.

Mike Gaston:

So Cut was interesting. Because after a year of doing this sort of like creative work for other companies and in that first year we were profitable, but I was not happy. I wasn't happy having to do service work for other companies that I didn't feel really got it. And Salil wasn't happy because he wasn't interested in investing in a production or creative agency. When you're a startup studio, you're investing in products that you're hoping is going to scale to such a degree, that's going to become a billion dollar company. We were at an impasse about what we wanted to make. And I remember having a very specific conversation with him. He was friends with a guy named Matt Inman who created the Oatmeal. And then he created Exploding Kittens and has had massive success in translating his IP into actual products that people want to buy.

Mike Gaston:

And he would talk about Matt all the time. And I told Salil, I was like, "Listen, you would never invest in Matt, in reality. Matt could never do what he is doing now in your system because you have a very rigid perspective on how things get done." Salil is I think he's a very smart person. I think he's one of the most logical rational people that I met in this industry. And he has like a very specific framework for getting things done that make it difficult for, I think, outliers to exist in his world, which is funny for a guy who essentially creates companies that deal in vitality, right.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

And I told him, you would never invest in a Matt, and I think that was a dare to him. Because he was like, "Well, what do you want to make?" I was like, "I think if we want to make a company that's focused on media, then it should be about making things that are premium because ultimately what's the point of doing videos, if you don't want them to be premium and actually have an impact on people." The way everyone is doing videos right now, does it make sense to me? And so I told him, I was like, "If you want predictable sources of revenue, don't make videos. Go be a plumber, go buy a bunch of funeral homes because people are always going to die." But for you doing videos, it doesn't make sense to try to eke out money for views through advertising. It's all diminishing returns.

Mike Gaston:

I'm like, "What you have to do is create content of such supreme intrinsic value to the audience that they end up paying for it or things related to it because it's part of their universe." And he was like, "Okay, go do that." You know, Salil he's a very much a prove it guy. So he was like, "Okay, prove it. I'll give you six months of runway." And at that time I was just like, I doubled down on that. I go, "If I can't make something that's going to go viral, that's going to speak to this editorial vision that I claim to have in a month, I don't need six months. I need a month to do it." Right. And he's like, "Okay." And then within a couple of weeks I made a video called Grandmas Smoking Weed for the first time. And then it seemed like every week after that, me and my co-founders Jason Hakala and Blaine Ludy, we would just keep making formats that would somehow hit the zeitgeists.

Mike Gaston:

And very quickly after that, we got a lot of interest from a bunch of different companies to invest in us or buy us. And then after that Salil largely trusted my vision for what I wanted to create and then gave me the runway for the rest of the year before I went out to go raise money from Comcast Ventures and Compounder and Sky.

Chris Erwin:

How did you feel with this success? Was it validating, was it exciting or was it also in a way, could it be interpreted as frustrating where it's like, Oh, maybe I didn't provoke or think bigger and maybe I got to change that. What was going through your head?

Mike Gaston:

It was validating, I had spent so much time sort of arguing for these things and then as we were doing it, it was like we were proving out exactly what I was saying. And then the attention was validating, but honestly, I wasn't worried about whether or not the vision was big enough. I was more concerned about how were we going to continue to keep executing against it. Right. I had created a model that was completely dependent on the idea that we could always create outliers.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

And we were doing it and it was just a matter of like, okay, now how do I get to the next level? How do we scale this in some way? Another part of the model was this idea of use the internet as a place to kind of rapidly prototype formats, see if there's an audience and then find ways of leveraging that in some way. And that second part, the leveraging it, was a much harder thing to figure out than the first thing. I was kind of blown away at how our instinct for creating things that would spread was kind of on point, just about everything we were making was killing it. And then it was a question of like, Oh, shit, how do we actually exploit any of these things? Because everything that we're making is doing well, how do you prioritize how you want to then turn that into a revenue stream.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

And that took a couple more years.

Chris Erwin:

And did you enjoy thinking through how do we scale this up and spending more time on that part of the business?

Mike Gaston:

At first, at first, yeah, because it's novel problems. The thing is it's really difficult to get bored in a startup because things are changing so fast, things are moving so quickly. And so every new thing was delightful until it stopped being delightful. When it stopped was when I took a step back and I started examining the things I was focused on and it occurred to me that for a couple of years now, I had stopped asking myself what I actually wanted. My whole life, I had been asking, what do I want, why am I doing this? Why is any of these things happening? I become a lot less reflective on that. And I, instead it was more like I was just solving problems. A problem would introduce itself to me and then I would figure it out and it would be novel and interesting. And then a new one would show up and then I would approach it like that.

Mike Gaston:

But then when I kind of like woke up for a minute and I looked at what I was doing and I thought is this even what I want anymore? And then I realized that it wasn't. And then I had been sort of distracting myself with the momentum that comes with a startup.

Chris Erwin:

A startup is all consuming. And then I think with the responsibilities of, I have a team, people that rely on me for employment, investors that are looking to me for return and premium of the capital they've given me, that responsibility you get lost in it. But it is clear that you have this ingrained code in you that is always asking what else or how can this be different? It's interesting to hear that you felt that, Hey, something's missing here. And it's the fact that you're not able to ask yourself these reflective questions. And I think it was when I first met you, I was reaching out to you on behalf of a client we were working with, I got to know you. I saw you at the YouTube summit. You came to some of our events.

Chris Erwin:

And I remember you said, "Chris, my role is changing. I was just a creative and now it's management and fundraising and I'm on this speaking tour." And I sensed that there was this inner turmoil where you weren't sure, you were like, "I guess this is like the path, I'm doing these new things because there's success here. But is this the success that I want? I'm not sure if this is for me."

Mike Gaston:

You're literally articulating exactly what was going on in my head, in terms of suddenly I had found myself on a track. Like the person that I thought I was, the person who was sort of like avoiding tracks, suddenly found himself on one.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

And I'm like looking around being like, "Is this even what I want?" Everyone's telling me, this is what I should want. The company is successful. It's making money, it's profitable. We have all this traction. It seems like opportunity is everywhere. And at the same time, I'm like, "But is this even what I want?" And then I was like, "No, this isn't what I want. There's all these things that I don't like about this. And I don't want to perform this role anymore." It felt like I had solved something and it was no longer interesting to me to continue down the path because I could see where the end point was. There was like real existential crisis happening for more than a year before I eventually left the company.

Mike Gaston:

And people think all the time, they were like, "Well, you're the CEO of a company that you founded, shouldn't you be able to do whatever you want." I'm like, "No, that's not true. That's not true." When you're really the leader of a company, you're actually beholden to a whole lot of people. You're beholden to all the people that work for you, all the people that invest in you. And then all those tangential people who are around you also, who are kind of invested in your success. And so up to this point, my mom didn't know what I did, right. She did not understand anything. But she understands that there's a name of the company that I founded on a building. She understands that there's a lot of people who work there now for me, she understands that everything that I'm making is appearing on the news and various other things.

Mike Gaston:

And so it becomes a thing where everyone's so invested in this idea of success that you're creating. And you're like, "Ah, it's my job to prop this up. It's my job to continue to kind of keep this thing moving." And it felt like a trap.

Chris Erwin:

So I think I got a sense that you did start to act out a bit. Similarly to when you were at Boeing, I remember, I think I may have first met you in person at the YouTube summit in Venice and immediately thought you were a very smart guy, unique point of view, but you felt introverted. And I knew you were about to speak on stage. Wasn't sure if that energy was going to translate, but it definitely did.

Mike Gaston:

Thank you.

Chris Erwin:

And I think I remember you speaking, you approached the topic with a really unique point of view and everyone at the summit was talking about your talk after the fact. And then I think there was another talk that you gave at VidCon. I was not there for that. And I think you had been tasked with just talking about building a content business in the new digital economy. And I think the expectation was just talking about me, and I'm making it very tactical, but you commandeered the reins and you went in a very different direction talking about creator responsibility to the audience, to viewership.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah.

Chris Erwin:

And so it seems like, from these experiences that this inner turmoil was starting to come out of you, is that right? Do you agree with that?

Mike Gaston:

No. That's kind of right. I mean, I think there's a... I can't help it, honestly, I can't help. But yeah. I was telling this to Melinda Lee, who I work with at Stage TEN and I go, the difference between how she operates and how I operate is little, is different and neither is good nor bad. Although, maybe you could say that mine is flawed. Companies can be complicated, incredibly complicated and there could be tons of entanglements that make it difficult to get anything done. She is so effective because she knows how to create a path around and through entanglements to get to the thing that she is trying to get done. And I can do that. I can totally do it and I have done that, but I'm kind of like... It almost feels like a mental health issue.

Mike Gaston:

I can do that for a time, but when I hit a certain entanglement, my instinct isn't to try to find a way around it. My instinct is to literally untie the knots. It's to literally make them untangled. And that is, can be self-defeating, right. Because that's philosophical and foundational and is trying to really get everyone aligned in one way. And so when I would go and have these talks, I wasn't interested in doing the things that I knew, what are the best practices for a talk, right. Okay, I got to speak this quickly and I have to move around the stage and I have to you know, Gary V it up in some way, and I got to put it in very simple terms for people and it's got to be incredibly tactical and practical. And instead when I wanted to do was be more introspective and reflective around the why's and the wants that we all have when we're creating any of the things that we're creating.

Mike Gaston:

And try to give people some kind of framework for developing their own principles around it. That's really all... I was like, "I'm more interested in that." I'm not interested in optimizing this talk in a way that somehow gives me more credibility with this audience. All I'm interested in now is just articulating for them how I perceive things. And then maybe it strikes, or maybe it doesn't. I don't know.

Chris Erwin:

If you want to build a sustainable business model, instead of telling people, "Spend this much money on production, put out these types of videos that are optimized for X, that you can get programmatic and direct sales and also build out some DTC channels." What you're saying is that's just a bunch of tactical knots. And the way that we can really untangle this from the top is, here's how to have a creative vision. Here's the creativity that the world needs today. And if you focus on that, you will find success for yourself, for your team and for your audiences. So start bigger.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah. I literally walked them through the questions that I asked in order to then set out, making a company. Because the point is that if you give people a hundred best practices to deploy, then you actually haven't set them up for success. Because if everyone does those things, then all they're doing is competing with each other, which doesn't give you the traction you think it does, right? Like early days at Cut, I remember Salil who's the president Startup Studio. He wanted me to copy what Buzzfeed and Upworthy was doing. And I remember asking him why. And he goes, "Well, they have all the money. If they have all the money, that means they're hiring the data scientists and the technologists who are essentially creating the tools to help them to predict virality online. Our job is just to draft off their success because you're small and you can do that really quickly."

Mike Gaston:

And I said, "I don't know, in the history of anything where a smaller force has somehow defeated a larger force by copying the strategies and tactics of the larger force." It doesn't make any sense to do that. My point in some of those talks that I gave was to give people a path where they weren't actually competing with each other, they were competing to create relevance for the audience. Because that's the only thing that matters.

Chris Erwin:

I liked that because there's also a sentiment that all of you are special. All of you are very capable. Now find your own way and we can all win.

Mike Gaston:

No, it's absolutely is. I mean, again, this goes back to even raising money. I remember talking to Sam landman at Comcast Ventures. And initially he was like, "Mike, we're not investing in advertising plays." And I go, "This is great because why in God's name would I make a company that orbits something nobody likes." And he's like, "Well, I don't understand what are you making then." I go, "I'm going to make something of such intrinsic value that people are going to pay for it or things related to it." And I go, "I don't need to be Mark Zuckerberg. I don't need to consume the internet in a world where there are billions of people watching videos online every day, I need a million people giving me 10 bucks a month. Can I do that?"

Mike Gaston:

And that's the truth. If you're creating a media company, you don't need billions of views. You only need that, if you're making like 0.001 cent on every view. What you need is a cross section of people who are invested in your success because you are creating something of value for them. And so they were paying for it.

Chris Erwin:

You fire yourself, you write a blog post about it. And I want you to give us the summary. And then we're going to talk about what you're doing at Stage TEN. And we'll close with some rapid fire.

Mike Gaston:

At the end of last year, I became probably the most frustrated with my position. And there had been tension between the things I wanted to do and my board and mind you, my board is actually very... They're probably most flexible and adaptable board you can possibly think of. It's just the things I want to do were not the same as what they wanted. And so it came to a head where I was like, "Yeah, these are things that I need to happen or else maybe I should go." And then out of that, they're like, "Well, what if we did things like this? And could it look like that?" And I'm like, "Nah, I really can't. I got to go." And that was really tough because even though I had been wanting to leave for a while, for well over a year, once that became articulated and out in the world and manifested into an actual deadline for me leaving, I was maybe the most depressed I'd ever been in my entire life.

Mike Gaston:

I spent a good weekend sitting on the couch, staring off into space to the point where my wife goes, "Do I have to hospitalize you?" And it's because there's this tension. And the tension is between the things that you know that you want. And then all those expectations that had been building up over years around me, right? I had created something that existed and manifested itself out into the world and people confused it with me. People would see the company and it was me. And so it's like a weird sort of... It was like killing your ego. It's literally killing yourself to some degree where you're like, "I'm not going to divorce myself from this thing." And having to kind of like get that right in my head was a really difficult thing. As soon as it was announced to the rest of my team, as soon as I announced it to them, I felt more liberated than I ever have.

Chris Erwin:

Like cathartic. Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

Oh my God. Yeah. And it was funny because afterwards a bunch of them came up to me and they were like, "This was maybe the most Cut thing you could possibly do." The fact that you saw what was the end point of all this kind of thing? There is very much, like I was telling you before, there's this sort of archetype for an entrepreneur.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

And it's all builds up into the sort of like a great man mythology and the fact that I had pulled the shoot on that and decided I'm not interested in pursuing those things. What was basically me living my brand that I created up to that point.

Chris Erwin:

It's a beautiful moment.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah. No, absolutely. And then I feel like my life changed after that in a really big way. Suddenly I could see opportunity again, in everything that I was doing. I no longer felt beholden to the stakeholders. There's so many things that I couldn't do as the CEO of the company either because there was an unwritten rule or because there was an actual rule in the agreement of taking on investment that prevented me from kind of stretching myself. I wasn't interested in optimizing the company I had created. I was more interested in kind of seeking out new experiences for myself.

Chris Erwin:

And I remember, I think we spoke like a month or two after you had left Cut. I think we did a Zoom call, wasn't in person. But I sensed, I was like, you feel lighter and you were talking about, I'm excited to... I want to try different things. And it seems like there was intent to play a bit more. I like that. Because I also think about one of the key brands that you created at Cut, which was HiHo and creating empathy through play for this kid's brand. And I was like, "Oh, Mike now gets to play a bit." You just visually and the way that you spoke, it was also very exciting for me to hear. Because I'm like, "I think he's going to go do a bunch of different stuff." And some of it's going to be maybe not so great, but some of it's going to be really incredible.

Chris Erwin:

And so I was closely tracking where's he going to go? And I find it interesting. So you chose to go to Stage TEN. I heard you say that there's very few people that you would bet on, but you would definitely bet on Dave Lazar. So tell me about the decision to join Stage TEN and why Dave is so special to you.

Mike Gaston:

So I met Dave at that YouTube publisher summit that you talk about and he was trying to sell live in a period where people were kind of over it. But he had been doing live and interactive as a thing for years before it was a fad with Facebook. And he's still doing it in a moment where suddenly people are realizing how important it is, right. And the reason why I bought into Dave is because he believes what he's talking about. Right? It's so often I'll meet with people who are very slick and very self produced. They have their story down, they've read what it means to be an entrepreneur. They know the jargon, they know how to make the thing.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

It's rare that I meet people who are so incredibly passionate and believe so much in the vision of the thing that they want to do. And there's a lot of things that I could tell that they could use my help on, but it was one of those moments where I'm like, "He's a dark horse." There's potential here for radical success. And I don't mean that just in terms of money, because that's not that interesting to me. I meant that more in delivering on his vision. And I was like, "Man, I want to hang out with true believers. I want to hang out with people who are going to invest themselves completely in the thing that they're trying to make. And just because it's interesting for them and not because they think that they can just seek out a really easy exit." And that's the thing, that's the thing that ultimately drew me to doing it with him.

Mike Gaston:

And I told him all the things that I would need in order to work in a company like his and he gave it to me. And that included the freedom to work with other people and to create things on my own. And he understood that to continue to energize a creative, you have to give them space. You can't just like lock them in.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. We're going to talk about, you're a man about town doing a few different things with American Public media and your imaginary beings, but quickly you are now the head of studios at Stage TEN. What does that mean? What do you work on? And then what is the bigger vision that you're building towards?

Mike Gaston:

Really the thing that I told Dave was he has this incredible platform that he's created for live and interactive content. The problem is that people in the industry have a low imagination. They can't do things unless they've been shown that it's going to be successful in some ways. So what's often happens is they adopt his technology in order to do the most pedestrian things possible. It's like, we're going to remake broadcasts, but it's going to be on the internet who cares about that? Right? That's not interesting at all, but they'll do it because it's a useful tool, it's convenient right now in COVID, right. So I was brought in to literally make the market show the kind of possibility there is in creating formats that are live and interactive for people and raise the imagination of the industry.

Mike Gaston:

So that means partnering with celebrities and brands and teaching them how to create really radical content that can have a huge impact on their fandom or their audiences. And some of the stuff I'm working on are pretty large. There's a project that I can't actually speak to right now because we're literally in the midst of it. But it's significant. It could be game-changing in terms of who we're trying to partner with and what we're trying to create. I'll share that with you as soon as it goes through. But like I said...

Chris Erwin:

Sorry, listeners, I'll try and bend Mike's arm after the interview see if we can get that out. But no, I'm excited to learn more.

Mike Gaston:

That's what I'm supposed to be doing.

Chris Erwin:

What were some of the projects that you've done to date? Were you part of John Krasinski and some good news? And I think you also did live with Cardi B.

Mike Gaston:

Sp I wasn't actually part of the John Krasinski one, that happened like right before I showed up. There's an incredibly talented director and producer at Stage TEN that as soon as I showed up, I was like, "Okay, you're not just a creative, you're the head of production." So she was the first person that I promoted at the company. And I've been working with her on a lot of the creative, I think she's brilliant. Her name is Sonia and Sonia, she's been integral in creating really incredible shows for Cardi B's launch of her WAP music video.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

Or doing a live and interactive show with Jack Douglas on YouTube for YouTube Originals. I'll say that these are very successful people who everyone recognizes.

Chris Erwin:

I really like what you said about what are the formats that are going to happen in live stream media and commerce and that you Mike, you're going to make the market. It's so topical because this live stream media market is exploding. It's a place where my company is also spending more time writing more about, talking to more clients that want to build. And what we keep hearing is people are saying, "What is the IP that we can create and own that's going to win on." There's going to be like a proliferation of all these different livestream technology platforms outside of big tech incumbents. But if you have the good formats and IP and you partner with great celebrities, you could win everywhere. What does that look like? It's an interesting conversation because it's so wide open.

Chris Erwin:

It also makes it, for someone like me, who's not nearly as creative as you it's like, "Oh wait, where do I start?" Because I like looking for inspiration and frameworks, but for you that chaos and messiness, it just seems you have this incredible cauldron that you're going to drum up. So I just say this is, I'm very excited for what you're going to do and I will be tracking it closely and probably helping my clients better understand it.

Mike Gaston:

Oh dude, I'll send you some decks. I've been working on to kind of explain what I'm thinking internally at the company, because I'm not precious about any of that. I feel like it's a little bit like if you're going to open up a bar, you want to do it on a street with other bars. You don't want to do it in the middle of nowhere, right. I'm actually happy to talk about how we're thinking about it with everybody. Because the more people who are invested in live and interactive, the more potential it has to grow rapidly. So I'm happy to share that thinking after this.

Chris Erwin:

Well, I love that. And also as a great leader, it's that your process is special. So it's not like, Oh, you create one thing and then, Oh, I got to protect it. It's like, no, I'm going to create a bajillian different, amazing thing. So if I give you this, sure, I'm already onto the next.

Mike Gaston:

Yes. I mean, that's how I think all the time. I remember talking to Wolfgang Hammer, who's a friend of mine. He was the CEO of Super Deluxe. And now I think he's a head of movie development at Miramax and early days he was really trying to convince me to sell Cut to him or just to join him over at Super Deluxe. I remember asking him why. And he goes, "Well, Mike, everyone's copying your formats. And that means it's diminishing your brand because they're doing shitty jobs of it. And so you want to be..." And I was like, "Well, yeah, that would be a problem. If I thought the thing I give away for free was my product." And he was like, "What do you mean by that?" I go, the problem is in the digital media industry, people give away things for free and they think that's their product.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

That's what they're good at. The thing is, this is just one thing. This is all just top of funnel marketing for me. The goal is to get an audience, to then buy into the thing that I'm going to charge them for. And that's going to be premium. And I'm like, "So all I have are endless ideas."

Chris Erwin:

Very well put. All right. So we'll close on this question before getting into rapid fire, we're actually going to move this rapid-fire question up. Typically, ask people any new startup ambitions are in front of you. You have the creative freedom to work on a few different things. And I think it includes also some work with Tom DiNapoli, who's a good mutual friend. And I think he's the reason why I first reached out to you. Tell me about some of the other projects you've got going on.

Mike Gaston:

After I left Cut my instinct was just to make all the things I wanted to make. There are games that I want to make, there are podcasts that I want to make, there are movies and videos and all that kind of stuff. And I was like, "I need a house for this stuff." And the more I thought about it, the more I'm like, "No, there is actually a company in here and it's one that's invested in innovation." Because I was like, in this moment, what's important is not to create, like you said, IP that you just fiercely defend all the time, because it's not possible in this moment. It's really about how do you create a process where you can innovate constantly. So I'm a big fan of this author named Jorge Luis Borges. And one of the things I'm really attracted to is one of the themes in his writing, which is the idea of artists and intellectuals essentially reshaping the world around them.

Mike Gaston:

He has this short story called Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. And in it, he has a fictional version of self, discovers a reference to a country called Uqbar. And he's trying to understand where it's coming from. And more he learns that he discovers that Uqbar is a country on a planet called Tlön and that he learns that there is essentially a secret society of people who are essentially reshaping the world by referencing this fictional place in the world. And I thought there was something really beautiful about it. And another book he has is called Imaginary Beings. And in it, it's kind of like an encyclopedia of imaginary creatures. And I was like, I'm going to create a company called Imaginary Beings. And I'm going to invite all these really brilliant people that I know out in the world who are incredible creators and media professionals. And then we're going to do all the things that we're passionate about and believe in, without any of the anchors that weigh us down in this industry. And so that's the thing that I've been working on, on the side.

Chris Erwin:

It's interesting to hear how you answer these questions, because something... As I did some research, people were like get at what drives Mike's vision and purpose. And as you just always referenced like, Oh, well, this happened to me or read this. And so this now caused me to launch this. It just naturally comes out. And I think that you have so many different inputs and inspirations in everything that you do. It's like you're a polymath, someone who just has like poly interests all over the place. And can actually handle them and manage them and then kind of navigate them into some really interesting output. All right, let's get into the rapid fire. We'll close this out. In our rapid fire, can I have around six questions and short answers could just be one or two words or even just one to two sentences. You are empowered to be brief and concise.

Mike Gaston:

Okay. I'll try.

Chris Erwin:

I think constraints help you, proudest life moment.

Mike Gaston:

I'm not really a pride guy. I mean, it sounds not real, but I'm just not. I think the idea of finding a lot of deep pleasure and achievement is difficult for me because it's already over.

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do less of in 2021?

Mike Gaston:

Doom scroll TikTok.

Chris Erwin:

Wait, what does doom scroll mean?

Mike Gaston:

It's where you're obsessed with sort of consuming all the negative news that's out there. You can't help it. And I just need to stop doom scrolling TikTok.

Chris Erwin:

Got it. What do you want to do more of in 2021?

Mike Gaston:

Write. And I don't mean long formal writing, which I've been doing, but my wife is very disciplined at journaling and I want to do that because I think it'll help me process this moment we're all living in a lot better.

Chris Erwin:

What would you do you say is one to two things that drive your success?

Mike Gaston:

Oh boy. Okay.

Chris Erwin:

Short answer.

Mike Gaston:

Nothing is impossible, right? So knowing that... One of the things I told my team early on was if Elon Musk who knew nothing about rockets could create a rocket company, then there's virtually nothing that's... Especially in videos, we can do whatever we want.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah.

Mike Gaston:

And so acknowledging that, realizing it, and then just pursuing things like that. That's one. And then the other one is saying yes to things. We're so interested in saying no, because it helps us optimize our world. But really it's just saying yes to things has created so much opportunity for me.

Chris Erwin:

Cool. Advice for media professionals going into 2021?

Mike Gaston:

Well one, no, the need state of your audience. I think that's a huge one. I think people ignore that all the time. All they think about are cool things they could do. But literally every media technology affords a new kind of participation from its audience and it transforms us in the process. Right? So print produces the reader. Then the bildungsroman then produces a reader who imagines their own life as an unfolding biography and the radio producer is the curator who deejays their life soundtrack. And cinema produces the captive audience, that television turns into the couch potato that the internet then optimizes in the binge-watcher. So what I would say to any media person is what kind of audience are you creating with the thing that you are trying to make happen?

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Lastly, how can people get in contact with you?

Mike Gaston:

On Instagram, hit me up at @antisocialtheory. On Twitter I am @beyoncefan206 and or just email me at MikeGaston@gmail.com.

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. Mike, what a great interview. Thank you for your time.

Mike Gaston:

Yeah, thank you, man. Appreciate it.

Chris Erwin:

Ever since I first met Mike, I've always believed that he was a very unique mind and that behind that was a very unique backstory. And on this interview, he totally delivered. I think Mike is a really special person. I learn a lot just from observing him and how his mind thinks. And it was a real delight having him on the show.

All right. So real quick, a reminder that we have our upcoming live stream media and commerce conference, we're targeting March, but the dates are moving a little bit based on speaker avails. So it'll be a day of virtual programming and we're partnering up with a really great partner to make that day a bit more interactive than your typical Zoom webinar.

So we'll have panels that will talk about live sports, live stream e-commerce, panels from the creator and investor point of view and more. And then we're actually going to do a live demo showcase where there will be live live streams happening to the audience and where we also get a little bit of a behind the scenes on how they're going down. Should be a lot of fun and a great learning opportunity too. And then we'll do maybe just a couple of keynotes. RockWater will do a state of the industry and maybe one or two more. All right, that's it everybody. Thanks for listening.

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 Sean Diep from the RockWater team.

11 episodes