Emily Best of Seed&Spark: “To scale your company is to scale yourself”

The way I entered all of this was as a storyteller and I’ve tried to dedicate the time that I possibly can outside of work and being a mom and a partner to continue to tell stories. I’m producing a feature documentary about the history and present fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in this […]

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The way I entered all of this was as a storyteller and I’ve tried to dedicate the time that I possibly can outside of work and being a mom and a partner to continue to tell stories. I’m producing a feature documentary about the history and present fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in this country which we will release next year.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Best, the founder and CEO of Seed&Spark.

Since 2012, the Seed&Spark platform has helped thousands of creators bring stories to life and to audiences via story-centric crowdfunding, community events, and Film Forward, which delivers films into workplaces for employee training, engagement, and intelligence. Best founded Seed&Spark after her own experience producing a feature film she embarked on specifically to change the representation of women on screen in 2011. Since then, she has grown Seed&Spark into the platform with the highest crowdfunding campaign success rate in the world, and a first-of-its-kind corporate distribution platform.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I really had no idea I would end up in entertainment or as an entrepreneur — certainly not as the CEO of a technology company. 9/11 happened my senior year of college and it was a generation-defining moment. I was no longer thinking “how can I have a nice career?” but rather “how can I go learn about life and do what I love?” I spent the next several years in Spain studying jazz music and attending protests and working odd jobs. I learned a lot about people, organizing and activism, and creativity as a catalyst for change. When I came back to California, I started running restaurants (as I had worked pretty much every job in a restaurant starting at age 16) and thought that was the direction I would go. I got very good at developing training to help new restaurant staff get on their feet and build better consistency in service, (and also in payroll). Then my personal life blew up in 2007, between family health issues, my own divorce, and my dad’s.

I moved to New York in early 2008 to help out with my Dad’s one-person consulting operation. I got involved in theater fairly quickly, first as an actor, and then I discovered producing. It was a huge revelation: there was a place in the creative industry for someone like me who liked both the business and the creative challenges. In 2011, I had a “feminist awakening” while working on a play with an amazing group of women. The lead actress in the play, Caitlin Fitzgerald (now starring in 4 TV shows and an Oscar-nominated film this year) was early in her career and going to big film auditions. Even though she is brilliant, dynamic, and funny, she was exclusively being asked to audition for “pretty girl/pretty girlfriend/hot best friend” roles. It was having that insider look that helped me realize that my women friends, my friendships, and my experience were not being represented in cinema. Our team of women decided to make a movie of our own to shift how women were represented on screen. This started the adventure of producing my first feature film, Like the Water, in 2010 which we hoped would be at least a drop in the bucket toward a more holistic representation of women on the big screen.

In order to change representation, it was clear we weren’t going to be able to go a traditional route. I got told by every sales agent and distributor that there really isn’t an audience for movies about female friendships, a position that billions of dollars in box office for films about female friendships has since disproved. A few weeks left before we were set to shoot, we were still 20,000 dollars short of the cash we needed. So we went directly to our audience. We told them what we wanted this movie to do in the world, and we offered them a chance to get involved through a wedding registry of items we needed for our film. We were able to gather hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, loans, and gifts of locations, goods, and services from nearly 500 contributors across the globe. Then all of a sudden the sales agents and distributors were asking me what I knew about my audience and were curious how I got their email addresses. I realized that power starts with a direct connection to your audience. Then other filmmakers started asking me how I did it. That was the beginning of Seed&Spark.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

So much of the talk in the entertainment industry now is about “representation,” which is really important, but only one part of the innovation we need for that representation to actually matter and drive change in our culture.

Our mission at Seed&Spark is to shift power to communities through creativity. Power comes from representation — surfacing voices that have been historically silenced. But just telling those stories, just creating representative media on its own is not enough. We have to make sure the voices are heard by the people whose minds and hearts need shifting. It has to be delivered where it can have a measurable impact. That’s when storytelling shifts power for communities in the form of real resources: jobs, money, industry, political power.

So with that in mind, we didn’t just launch a crowdfunding platform to replicate what we had done with Like the Water. Crowdfunding was not the magic wand for under-resourced creators and communities as it was for folks from well-resourced communities where arts patronage was the norm. We sought to help creators from everywhere leverage the tools of crowdfunding to build a direct and sustainable relationship with their audience, build bridges in their communities, and maintain control and ownership over their IP, building power with every project. We launched a national education program in 2014 to reach creators in places that Hollywood has historically ignored, reaching tens of thousands of creators a year with tools for building sustainable careers right where they are. As a result of this work, we built the #1 crowdfunding platform in the world for diverse motion picture projects — we have the highest campaign success rate, project size and audience per project of any crowdfunding platform in the world with the most demographically and geographically diverse pipeline.

However, there has been massive consolidation in the entertainment industry since the internet because a major part of the business — and contrary to what we were all promised, the “great democratization of distribution” has been sucked up by monopolies like Netflix and Disney. The distribution most widely available to reach the largest audiences today is to market on social media and stream on streaming platforms, both of which are dominated by recommendation algorithms that deliver a creators’ content directly to the people who already look like them and think like them. So in late 2018 our creators came to us and said: how can you help us stop preaching to the choir, and start reaching people whose minds and lives could be changed?

And a shrewd advisor of ours said: the workplace is the most diverse place people are in their lives. If you could deliver films inside corporations at scale, you could reach people no algorithm would ever help you find. We launched a 6-month research project, speaking to hundreds of diversity & inclusion professionals, learning & development experts, and CEOs at companies across all industries and sizes. We learned they needed better tools for employee engagement, training, and intelligence. The body of research that was pouring out of institutions from 2017–2019 was that current solutions to build inclusive workplaces were not working.

We built Film Forward as a monthly DEI education program for organizational adaptability and resilience with the goal of driving meaningful impact for employees and organizations with the thousands of films already in our pipeline.

In the past year, the Seed&Spark team has delivered cinematic learning experiences in gender and racial equity to Planned Parenthood’s Board, anti-racism intensive to Justworks’ entire team, a screening of Critical Thinking to Verizon Media Group, and signed up Western Governors University for a 12-month inclusion journey.

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?

There are so many. There were so many investor meetings I was unprepared for in those early days. I didn’t speak the language at all. I remember at one point getting stumped in investor meetings because they kept asking: “what’s your business model?” And I would offer to share the excel spreadsheet that showed our financial projections. It was only after this happened several times that I finally asked a mentor and he said “They’re just asking you how you make money.” And I thought “then why don’t they just ask that.” I am sure many investors had a good chuckle at my expense.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Just thinking about this question sort of makes me want to cry. So many mentors have had such an incredible impact. The time that Jim Pitkow said to me in 2013, “to scale your company is to scale yourself” and I have thought about that almost every day. The time when a round of funding had just fallen apart and Jacki Zehner and John Strauss each got on the phone with me and helped me pull myself together and make a plan. Every meal I have had with Care3 founder David Williams over the years that have collectively been my MBA. When Robyn Ward took an interest in me in the very early days and would workshop every detail of my decks and pitches. Nathalie Molina Niño has made a zillion powerful connections always at just the right time and been candid with her advice and so sharp in her assessment of people and opportunities along the way. And when Shane Kelly, who I had been talking to for years about Seed&Spark met me for a meal and gave me confidence that this Film Forward idea was an exciting direction to go. (He went on to become first an investor and now our CFO!).

I am absolutely nothing without my mentors. And my parents and husband have been so supportive through some really really tough times, too.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

For me, the question is: does the system create a net benefit or net harm? I’m much less interested in “disruption” that is related to how quickly people can make money. That’s not disruptive, it’s just more efficiently capitalist, which is the dominant system. Disruption is essential when they focus on inequality, broken systems that harm people. Disruption that gets co-opted to make the most money possible for shareholders typically will, at some point, tip over into creating harm. Facebook is a perfect example, though I would argue that its origin as “hot or not” maybe could have been a clue that it was only really ever built to benefit a few over many. If you do not interrogate disruption all the way to the ends of its reach, it’s very possible to create more harm than good (you know, like destroy democracy, divide people and create deeply entrenched silos).

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Well, I shared one already: “to scale your company is to scale yourself.” At every stage of our growth, I realize that I have to learn new skills, readjust my boundaries, to get more support of different kinds. When the pandemic hit and decimated our business, I got some really fear-based advice from some “experts” who said I should spin down the company or fire everyone and go into maintenance mode. It felt really wrong to me. I had to scale my conviction in my own gut instinct, and realize there are limits to mentorship.

The second is an adage my dad repeats all the time when facing challenging times or seemingly impossible obstacles: “Just do the next right thing right.” What this asks for is to slow down and reflect: what is the next right thing? How do I know? Where do I really want to go? And inevitably this line of thinking uncovers solutions I hadn’t been considering.

The third is more recent and comes from my friend and advisor Aubrey Blanche. It’s that “budgets are moral documents.” How you allocate your resources (money and time) actually speaks to your true values as a company. That can be really hard for a resource-strapped early-stage startup but has also helped guide us in making major financial decisions about how we support our team members and our community. As we re-shape our business model as we grow as a company we continue to focus on how we can grow without being extractive.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

The way I entered all of this was as a storyteller and I’ve tried to dedicate the time that I possibly can outside of work and being a mom and a partner to continue to tell stories. I’m producing a feature documentary about the history and present fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in this country which we will release next year. It’s essential to me that people everywhere know how far from legal or structural equality we are in this country, and I hope it will inspire them to use their votes to have their voices heard and their rights respected.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Tomes have been written on this by much smarter people than I am. In my experience, my male counterparts seem to be granted credibility just for existing. I watched a young male entrepreneur — 20 years my junior — raise millions in his first few months of starting his company (a hardware company with massive headwinds to succeed) and I don’t think he ever had anyone ask if he and his 21-year-old cofounder really knew enough about the industry to be successful. There is an assumption in our culture that white men either know the answer or will figure it out. This credibility is absolutely race-specific. It does not apply to men of color in the same way. Women entrepreneurs are put through massive hurdles at the beginning of investment and business relationships just to prove they should be in the room.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Cory Doctorow’s book’ Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free’ was a huge catalyst for me to think about how much our systems are entrenched and are very much the product of powerful stories that have been transmitted about how or why things work way they do. He talked a lot about the challenges when the companies delivering our content own not only the means of production but the devices and the pipelines on which they are delivered. I read that book right around the same time we realized that the entertainment industry was rapidly consolidating and helped me understand the extent of the vertical and horizontal consolidation. It was a catalyst for me to push us in our work at Seed&Spark to think creatively about how to reach people with new powerful stories — and that’s in part what led us to the opportunity of Film Forward.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Post-colonial America has never had an economic or value-exchange system that was built with true racial or gender equality. We don’t have a clear collective picture of what that could look like. We have all decided that how good your life is, depends on how hard you work, although we know that’s not the primary factor (it’s where you were born, down to your zip code.) I don’t believe that humans have to work 60 hours a week just to still feel anxiety about getting their basic needs met. I think the more we talk about Universal Basic Income and Reparations, the closer we get to understand what that could look like. I would love to take part in building a socio-economic structure of value exchange that could meet the needs of all humans and not require that we all focus on our labor as our primary human value.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad’s advice: “just do the next right thing right.” It means slowing down and listening to your instincts, your feelings, your team, your friends, your partner. Being considered and considerate in your decision-making so that each step is advancing you towards where you really want to go!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Twitter @emilybest and on LinkedIn. I am also on Instagram, but less for business. I chronicle the exploits of two very special people who inspire me.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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