Surrounding yourself with strong people is arguably the only thing that matters. Luckily, I did figure this out before I started Stardust — and it’s a team made up of some of the greatest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
As As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs. I had the pleasure of interviewing Derek Forbes.
Derek Forbes is founder & CEO of Stardust, the leading social app that connects movie & TV fans around the world. After launching a successful MVP in 2018 with video reactions as its core functionality, Stardust was redesigned in 2019 with a full suite of interactive features to support its rapidly-growing community.
An expert in developing digital products for consumers and enterprise businesses, Derek launched his career in 2000 as a software developer for cinema industry leader, Vista Group. He designed platforms to enable theaters to manage all aspects of business — from ticket & concessions sales, to predictive technology and box-office performance analytics. Derek went on to grow the Vista team in Europe and the United States; lead client software implementation & product management; and develop projects for clients across the globe, including exotic locations like Mumbai & Caracas. Vista Group filed for IPO in 2014, where Derek continues to serve as Chief Operating Officer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was still in college studying computer science in New Zealand, I really needed a part-time job. I found a little 5-person company called Vista which was making ticketing software for movie theatres, and they needed a part-time programmer. I didn’t know it at the time, but that job turned out to be the beginning of a long and exciting journey… Over the next 16 years, I traveled the world to work on projects with Vista customers. I transferred to London for a few years to establish our Europe office, then relocated again to Los Angeles in 2010 to build and manage our US office. Vista is now an 800-person global company, and working on the technology side of the movie industry gave me the inspiration and insight to create Stardust.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are a lot of great stories. We had a worldwide company conference in Cancun, Mexico in 2005 which was hit by a category 5 hurricane (Wilma), and caused massive devastation across the whole Yucatan Peninsula. About 30 of our staff and resellers ended up in a local school building for 3 days, sleeping side-by-side on the floor as windows shattered, rainwater pooled around us, and the building started to shake violently in the wind. While we were not hurt, it sure was an unforgettable experience to go through with my long-time coworkers, and it was humbling to see the devastation that can be wrought by nature.
It has certainly occurred to me that going through hardships together and coming out the other side can be one of the most powerful experiences to build strong, lasting relationships between coworkers, business partners, and customers. I was also incredibly impressed by the organization and compassion of the local people and government in the wake of the hurricane, and how much they cared about the safety of residents and visitors alike.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, the Stardust team is building the ultimate recommendation system to help users figure out which movie or show to watch next. We don’t think anyone is solving this problem particularly well right now, and Stardust has all of the right ingredients to build something truly special. A system that only recommends you titles that you will really love watching. Because there is so much content out there, spread across so many different platforms — and life is too short to waste it watching shows that you don’t love.
How do you think this might change the world?
Not only can Stardust help people enjoy their leisure time more, but we can also connect brilliant niche titles with audiences that love them, who may not ever have discovered them otherwise. At a time where so much of the entertainment narrative is focused on a few big franchise tentpoles, I think this is very important to help support an ecosystem of diverse and original content.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Such a pertinent question. That show is one that attracts a lot of discussion on our app. While I think that many people are starting to become aware of the potential dangers of companies knowing too much about them, I think that what we are doing is fairly harmless and transparent. If we use people’s movie & TV tastes to help advertise to them a new show that they’ll love — I think that is actually useful to them, and maybe exactly what they are hoping for from using the app. Don’t worry, we’re not building any killer robots over here.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
I was, and still am, a massive Game of Thrones fan. I wanted to be able to discuss and debate every episode with other fans, and being that GoT had one of the largest audiences any TV show has ever had, I knew there was no shortage of other superfans to connect with. There just wasn’t a good place to do it. Other social platforms are too generic, with more broad appeal. And even those that have subsets or “groups” within the community didn’t really meet my needs. I wanted to be able to subscribe and follow specific shows, read and share comments on a per-episode or per-season basis. Stardust is a social app for movie & TV fans, built by true movie & TV fans.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We’ve been building the app for a while, and our initial user base loves it. Now, all we need is to spread awareness and get more people using it — that’s the stage we are just now embarking upon.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
All of the usual things — social and email marketing, influencers, events — but one of the more interesting ones is that we recently started partnering with some of the major movie studios to do some co-marketing around their movie releases. They benefit by sharing authentic moviegoer feedback to help create buzz around each new movie, and we benefit from the exposure to the Stardust brand.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The founder of Vista Group — Murray Holdaway — was my boss and mentor for many years as we grew the company on a global scale and I moved into various new roles. He taught me much about business along the way. One of the most memorable moments was a great lesson in never giving up on closing a deal… we were in Bangkok trying to win back a major customer that had dropped us for a lower-priced alternative. After 2 days of minimal progress negotiating in a small windowless room, the executive we were dealing with let us know that the following day was a public holiday in Thailand — and we were due to fly out the following night! Rather than go back home empty-handed, we ended up “happening to be at” the same mall where the executive was spending the day with his family. Upon “randomly bumping into him”, he invited us to join them for some ice cream, and after spending a little social time together in a different setting, we managed to talk business just long enough to work through the main negotiating point and shakes hands on a framework for a deal. For the prior two days, neither Murray nor I thought we would be successful at winning that deal — but he showed me the power of what can happen when you keep trying, despite your doubts, and how building personal relationships is key in all aspects of life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think that goodness in the world starts by being ethical in how you treat the people around you — in business that starts with employees and of course, extends to customers/users, business partners, vendors, and shareholders.
As far as more macro level efforts… I try to give back through some organizations I believe in… Variety (the Children’s charity), Toastmasters, ACLU, Amnesty International.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Retention is everything (as far as success metrics go). It may seem that the most important thing when it comes to building a large scale social network is about new user acquisition — but the real challenge (and opportunity) is all about keeping those people coming back regularly once they have installed.
2. It’s going to take you about 3 times as long as you think to build. Because once you release your initial feature set and you get data from people actually using the product, you start to find out what you really need to do in order to keep people opening the app. (See number 1)
3. Establishing a new consumer brand is really, really hard.
4. Murphy’s Law is well and truly alive. If you think anything worth having comes easily, think again.
5. Surrounding yourself with strong people is arguably the only thing that matters. Luckily, I did figure this out before I started Stardust — and it’s a team made up of some of the greatest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
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.
I don’t really fancy myself as a messianic leader of a movement. There are plenty of amazing movements out there already that are forces for good in the world. Each of the world’s major religions starts at a basic level with positive messages which, if more people observed day-to-day, could make the world a better place.
I am interested in the 10 principles of Burning Man — as a week-long annual event in the desert, it seems to have generated a uniquely positive and enduring culture in terms of how people relate to each other. I don’t know whether it’s truly possible for that to work on a larger societal scale, or on a permanent basis — or whether the realities of day-to-day life render that impossible. But I think it’s a powerful enough idea that it is at least worth aspiring towards.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Screw it, let’s do it” — Sir Richard Branson
I’m a huge fan of Richard Branson’s style of doing business. His philosophy of looking after your employees foremost, which will, in turn, ensure your customers are happy and it becomes that much easier to achieve the revenue and profit growth your shareholders are looking for.
In terms of the quote… sometimes in business, aversion to risk can become paralyzing and cause big opportunities to be missed because there isn’t data available to provide 100% validation that a decision is the right one. This tends to be more so the case the larger an organization becomes, and the more people are involved in making any given decision — nobody wants to be responsible for the failure of a new initiative.
The most successful organizations are those that empower and encourage multiple levels of leaders to be bold and entrepreneurial — but while recognizing that failing sometimes is a natural possibility and consequence. By starting small and testing the waters, the impact of failing can be greatly mitigated. “Screw it, let’s do it” is a phrase that embodies this type of thinking, and which resonates with me.
Richard Branson’s autobiography (“Losing My “Virginity”) is a fun read full of some great insights about his approach to business and entrepreneurship.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them
My favorite individual VC is Mark Suster of UpFront Ventures. As a former entrepreneur himself (before he turned to the venture capital), he writes some fantastic articles not just about the fund-raising process but on very practical topics for people running businesses.
One thing that I specifically like is that Mark acknowledges the “herd mentality” that can influence some investors when it comes to deciding where to place their capital and trust. That is to say, many investors are wary of investing unless/until another big-name investor is in. Nobody wants to be the first/only investor in a round in case it doesn’t work out and they look foolish. It’s actually not too different from the risk aversion in business that I was talking about in the context of Richard Branson’s quote earlier. I think Mark’s willingness to ignore “the herd” and to trust the data and his instincts is key to much of his success.
Wait, did you say VCs read this? Well, here at Stardust we’re building something massive which will shape the future of the entertainment industry. If that sounds like your cup of tea, please do shoot me an email.
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