Q&A: Vice Media’s Shane Smith

Co-founder on company’s massive growth, how the key to Vice’s future lies in India and why Canada is boring.

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Vice founder Shane Smith

Vice founder Shane Smith, fresh off the cover of the latest Marketing magazine, was in Toronto on Feb. 23 to talk to Canadian marketers who want to connect with young people.

The 41-year-old Canadian has been making the media rounds lately, since Sir Martin Sorrell’s ad behemoth WPP and a few other investors, including MTV founder Tom Freston, put more than $50 million into the company last year. The little vulgar newsshoprint freebie that started in Montreal back in 1994 now has more than 800 full-time employees in 34 countries making books, films, video, magazines, events and music, all funded through partnerships with some of the globe’s biggest brands. This year, as Forbes put it, Vice is likely worth $1 billion.

I spoke to Smith about this massive growth, why the key to Vice success might lay in India and why he called Canada boring.

Canadian Business: In Forbes recently, you said this country legislates out creativity and that it’s “stultifyingly boring and incredibly hypocritical.” Pretty harsh, but it’s a sentiment often repeated in terms of a certain type of risk-aversion in Canadian business. What did you mean by it?

Shane Smith: There’s a joke. An American fisherman and a Canadian fisherman each are standing there with a big pot of lobsters. The lobsters in the Canadian’s pot are all struggling to get out and the American says, “You better watch those, you’re gonna lose your lobsters there.” And the Canadian doesn’t even look at the pot and says to him, “Don’t worry, they’re Canadian lobsters, their friends will pull them back down.”

America is an ugly culture. But if you want to shoot for the moon, they’ll celebrate you even if you fail. In Canada, shooting for the moon is often seen as arrogant or ego-driven.

When I first went to America, we were the darlings of Canada but when we moved we were considered sell-outs. We’re just trying to build our business. We’re the first Canadian media to go out on the world stage and kill it. We won all these awards, all over the world, and instead of being celebrated back home we were seen as sell-outs for moving to the States. That was a real wake-up for us. We just didn’t get the anti-American thing. There’s such a great celebration of Canadian culture within Canada, but if you go out and kill it in the rest of the world, nobody seems to care.

I love Canada but my problem with it is that lack of widespread aspiration to something greater. Ian MacKaye said it great in our Soft Focus show a while back, when he said, “What is this thing about building a company to sell it? Why don’t you build a company to build a company? It’s your company, you can have fun and make a lot of money. Why would you sell it?” So I think there’s definitely a mentality in America that’s a bit more about building something so it’s big enough to take over the world. Build it to be MTV. Build it to be Facebook. Build it to be Google. It’s just a mentality we don’t have here.

No one ever said, build CTV to be the world’s biggest platform. Or build MuchMusic to take over the world. That’s a good example. MuchMusic just stayed here. Why couldn’t it have competed with MTV in every country around the world?

Speaking of taking over the world, how has all this new investment over the last year affected the company?

I’ve learned a lot from doing business with a variety of partners over the years. Now our partners have a minority interest, we control the board and no one can tell us what to do. We own the vast majority of the company. Their investment is under 20%. So on that end, it hasn’t changed anything. If anything it’s made a lot of things easier because people like Martin Sorrell, Ari Emanuel, and Tom Freston open a lot of doors. So it’s been too good. I’m kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Your company is expanding pretty rapidly in places like China and India. How has that changed how the company is run?

The good news is that making the stuff isn’t the challenge and selling the stuff isn’t the problem. The problem is, sadly, on the business side. When you go to China, you have to know how to deal with the government and how they deal with your business, so now a lot of my time is spent with lawyers and accountants, which I hate. I like to make stuff and sell stuff. So it’s about trying to stay focused. Every company makes something but when you see a level of success and you’re talking to all these money people and all that, you can lose focus on what made you successful in the first place.

So we have to focus on getting better, making better stuff and selling it better. Oh and by the way, any MBA out there who might want to apply to work with us should definitely get in touch. Right now, just on the business management side, because we are growing so rapidly and because there are so many zeroes now, not only do we need better CFOs and COOs, we need them in every country. We don’t just need one, we need 34. So that’s a challenge.

You guys are making a big push into mobile, through your expansion to India. Mobile is a different animal. Just like you can’t directly translate a magazine to the web, the same holds true from web to mobile. What’s your plan?

Well, we suck at mobile. It is a different beast. We believe, when it comes to mobile, as goes India so shall go the world. It’s a lot of young people consuming the majority of their content on mobile devices.

We’re making a bet that India will pay off with great content consumption and massive brands, as well as, informing how we approach mobile in the rest of the world. If we can be a frontrunner in mobile media there, we’ll be a frontrunner in Europe, America and everywhere else.

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