As a part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ashkan Karbasfrooshan.
Over the past 20 years, Ashkan Karbasfrooshan has helped build two of the most successful content brands in the consumer web industry: first AskMen and now WatchMojo. As a seasoned writer, Ash has authored over a thousand articles on subjects including management, business, relationships, history, sports, pop culture & entertainment, and has interviewed hundreds of newsmakers and celebrities. Following News Corp./IGN’s acquisition of AskMen, Ash founded WatchMojo and helped it turn into the most successful media brand built on YouTube, surpassing deeper-funded competitors who futilely burned through tens of millions of venture capital. Today, WatchMojo remains one of the 25 largest YouTube channels of all time. Serving as Chief Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief, Ash’s vision and execution translated into a pop culture phenomenon that commands an audience of over 30 million subscribers & 150 million unique monthly viewers who spend 2 billion minutes watching over 300 million videos each month. In 2015, Ernst & Young recognized the company’s successes by awarding Ashkan Karbasfrooshan the top award in the Media & Entertainment category.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I graduated from finance in 1999… the 2000 dot com crash & NASDAQ crash made landing a job on Wall Street hard. So I moved into media, as I was always drawn to storytelling. I also realized quickly that my personality wasn’t really as welcomed in corporate settings as in startups. Corporations have more politics and mind games… startups back then were simpler. If you hustled and added value, you were more welcome.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
9/11 made all prospects — media or finance — challenging, since not that many NY-based companies were rushing to hire Muslim, Iranian-born Canadians named Ashkan Karbasfrooshan. I laugh about it, but it was just one in many events that led me to being an outsider and underdog — and that creates a lot of entrepreneurs. We have a chip on our shoulder.
By the mid 2000s, I was disillusioned working for others, who didn’t share my principles and moral compass, so I decided to go for it and walk to the beat of my own drums!
In 2005, I left my last job to start WatchMojo, and within months, my former employer sued me alleging I was violating my non-competition agreement… so I faced a trial out of the gates. We ran out of money shortly afterwards, no one would invest in us as a result of the lawsuit. The next year my wife (one of my co-founders) had a miscarriage. It was hard on every level. But I had to stay strong and positive.
Entrepreneurs, we’re not really driven by things like fame, money, power but are indeed focused on achieving success, being respected, and so on. All humans are driven by insecurities, and starting my career in finance and media post 9/11 meant a series of rejections at best and being ignored at worse. I sat on those feelings, but the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements — during a pandemic when we were locked inside — made a lot of those feelings rise to the surface. I realize I am very lucky, however, in that I channeled that prejudice and those transgressions into a successful professional and personal career.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
You don’t have a choice. You’re in the trenches, alone. You’re being fired at. If you don’t avoid the fire or fire back, you die. It’s similar at a startup where you have to keep plugging away, but you hit walls all the time so you have to find ways out of the maze. I will add that today, capital is abundant for entrepreneurs and the venture capital class is of interest to investors… so entrepreneurs have a ton of options which simply didn’t exist then. Success for an entrepreneur equals:
Vision + Ambition + Execution + Persistence + Luck + Timing + Focus + Resilience.
These are required ingredients for success.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Despite recently tearing my ACL playing at a soccer tournament in Dubai representing Canada… things are great. My problems are really manifestations of my great privilege and good fortune. Grit, resilience are critical because the more success you have, the more problems you have to solve for and on a personal level, you almost can’t complain. It’s what I call the hidden cost of success. I had this superpower where I became stronger in the face of attacks and adversity… hopefully I maintain that as a I get older. I will turn 44 in March!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
So many. There was a funny story with a PR agency, from my 3rd book on the early years.
Something else went awfully wrong, to tragically comical levels. I used to issue press releases for milestones, partnerships, and other notable events. I’d mentioned at the onset to Thought Equity and the Digitas reps that we wanted to issue a press release, and would naturally send it along through the chain of command (meaning from WatchMojo to Thought Equity, from Thought Equity to Digitas, from Digitas to Guthy-Renker, and vice versa).
I drafted the press release and sent it through. Over the years, I would leave something like “[insert quote here]” where I would have wanted the executive at the other company we were partnering with to insert their quote. As people trusted my instincts and respected that I wrote for the kinds of publications who’d ideally pick up the news, invariably people would ask me to suggest some quotes for them. It was flattering and, over time, to help streamline the steps I would just go ahead and include a quote by way of example to illustrate the points I thought we should hit. Doing so with an executive that you’ve built a relationship is one thing, but in this case I’d never met or spoken with anyone at Guthy-Renker. Our communication ended at Digitas.
I started off with the seemingly benign, “Proactiv has been a leader in acne prevention and treatment for more than 15 years,” but then added, “WatchMojo represents the kind of best-of-breed content creator that we wanted to partner with on this ground-breaking initiative,” and attributed it to none other than Guthy-Renker’s VP of Marketing, Seth Radwell. At best, it was bold and audacious, at worst it was a tad presumptuous and arrogant… had the press release actually followed the intended chain of command.
When I followed up with my contacts at Thought Equity and was told that some edits were made, I took that to mean “edits were made by Digitas and/or Guthy-Renker,” only it wasn’t. It was edited solely by Thought Equity, and there wasn’t any mention of who had yet to review and approve it. If I hadn’t had administrative, editorial, business, legal, and financial tasks to tend to, I’d probably have double checked it. But due to the multi-tasking, survival mode I was operating in at the time, I didn’t.
To paraphrase Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, you have no idea how many handjobs I felt I needed to give to make amends.
Suffice to say, no one was pleased. While I did my best to explain the misunderstanding, I’m pretty sure that Thought Equity and Digitas threw me under the bus. I took the blows to my reputation, character, and integrity but did send an email to Guthy-Reenker’s CEO while copying the VP of Marketing, apologizing nonetheless. At the very least, their response seemed to indicate that they realized it was an honest, but regrettable mistake.
We didn’t do anything with Guthy-Renker afterwards.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Well, we are the same 5 co-founders 15 years after launch — still working together, and one of them is my spouse. Show me one company in the world who can claim that!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Honestly, put in the work early on because your opportunity cost is lower, you are a sponge and you increase the chances of finding that fit between your personal strengths and opportunities in the industry. You want to find that kind of fit ASAP. It’s fine if you take a while to find it, but ideally, you connect with your calling sooner… and that leads to fulfilment.
Once you hit your groove, remember why they say it’s a marathon and not a race. Balance is a journey to a destination you never arrive to, it’s an ongoing process. You don’t master it, you keep working at it.
Empathy isn’t just putting yourself in people’s shoes, but actually asking yourself how others feel about a situation…
Communicate upwards and downwards, meaning you have to speak to your supervisor/boss but also to your team and reports. Don’t assume that people understand your intentions…
The difference between your intentions and perception are your actions, behavior and words. If you feel constantly like you are being misunderstood, look at your own actions, behavior and words.
Finally, your work doesn’t really define you… the sooner you realize there are more important things — and people — in life, the more fulfilling your life will be.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Of course. A few folks come to mind.
My older brother Hooman. He was always ahead of the trends and curves… and while in college, I definitely stocked up on my business lessons following his footsteps.
Marc Cormier in 1998. He was a classmate at Concordia. Most of my classmates were buddies but when it came to opening up their networks, they were less than forthright. His mom was an HR manager at RBC VISA, and he referred me there and that job helped me get on the right track.
Simon Aznavour in 2000. Former CFO at Mamma who gave me a job at a time when so many people would interview me and say wonderful things, but then would be somewhat intimidated by my crazy drive… he wasn’t. Mind you, when I was 21, he was 52 and confident in his own skin.
Ric Poupada in 2000. He gave me a job at AskMen which really set me on the path I ended up on. We didn’t agree on everything and I don’t love the fact that he pursued a frivolous lawsuit against me once we sold to IGN and in turn IGN sold to News Corp., but the fact remains, that job he gave me explains partially why I am where I am today.
Christine Voulieris in 2005 when she said “I do.” My wife and business partner, I would not be here without her.
The whole team at WatchMojo, notably Raphael, Derek and Kev, whom I have worked with since 2006.
Bruce Eatroff and Jon Barnes in 2020. Two investors who invested in WatchMojo in 2020, during a pandemic, while never meeting me in person. I think that spoke of my reputation and what we built at WatchMojo.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Well… our vision was “to inform and entertain” and from the onset, we really balanced educational with escapism benefits. No one produced content for emerging platforms where younger audiences were… but over time as you get bigger, people then assume you do things for short-term gain… even if your mantra is (at best) being long-term greedy!
We then do things like MojoGives, which has great intentions but again, we live in an ever-more cynical world so I have learned to be more tempered in my idealism.
For me, today, giving back is helping entrepreneurs figure out entrepreneurship. If I can help them stay sane, create jobs while being good spouses and parents… mission accomplished.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- People don’t share your values and principles. Don’t set yourself up to disappoint.
- Patience/persistence is key: Things that scale overnight are not necessarily sustainable, and things that are sustainable take time to scale. Everything will take longer, cost more… and generate less revenue at a slower pace — and that’s ok.
- No sacred cows: Don’t get emotionally attached to anything.
- It’s not about you. People have their own challenges and demons, and when bad things happen, it’s easy to internalize it and think you are the target or cause of things, generally, you are not.
- Best ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Find something else to do, for me, it was soccer.
Communicate. I write. You need an outlet. Don’t keep it all in.
Have fun. Relax. Enjoy. Breathe.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
You only live one life, find out what you are good at, where the demand vs supply dynamic supports you earning a good living… and then stay committed to that because if you figure out your course to success, you will have a fulfilling life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Linkedin for more serious, Twitter for deep thoughts and more irreverent musings.