There are literally hundreds of people who have some crazy story of how we prevented them from killing themselves. Hundreds. But very recently, a story that I really liked and appreciated was a guy who said that watching VET Tv pulled him out of a dark place and made him feel normal. Prior to that, he had just been in a funk. Those who have dealt with depression on any level know how de-motivating being in a depressed state is. The daily functions of getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, eating healthy foods, exercising, being on time to things, everything, you just don’t care about it as much. He said we pulled him out of his depressed state, he started going back to school and he went from working two jobs to getting a new job with a union and he went from having a job to a career. He said that he would watch our stuff almost every day and that it helped get him through his days.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donny O’Malley. Donny, a native of Queens, New York is the founder and CEO for VET Tv, also known as Veteran Television, a streaming video on demand (SVOD) channel that has often been referred to as the Comedy Central of the military. VET Tv has roughly 41,000 monthly subscribers on a platform that’s available on iTunes and Google Play. To date, they’ve launched 13 original series and one feature film, and just recently completed filming of their 14th. VET Tv’s programming is dark and irreverent humor, but it’s legitimately programming written and produced by vets for vets. O’Malley is a retired Marine Captain who spent nearly six years in the Corps and served as an infantry officer, rifle platoon commander and fire support team leader before doing his final stint in the Marines with the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. The author of a book, Embarrassing Confessions of a Marine Lieutenant, that satirizes his time in the corps, O’Malley also is the founder and a serving board member for the nonprofit foundation Irreverent Warriors, whose mission is to help prevent veteran suicide. Throughout the year, the foundation hosts Silkies Hikes around the country where participants hike long distances carrying military ruck sacks to help support its mission. O’Malley currently resides in Southern California where VET Tv is headquartered.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Absolutely and thank you for having me. In all honesty, it really started with a childhood desire to make people laugh. From that it grew to come up with my own version of Happy Madison Productions. Once I learned about what Adam Sandler had done in bringing his friends and family in to run this company that made films and made people laugh, I thought what better life could I have than to work with my friends and my family to make people laugh. I always thought it would happen after I did the teacher thing and after I’d been a coach. I always thought I’d do the conservative thing and I would then start that company. Obviously, this came to fruition much sooner coming out of the military when I decided I was going to go make my dream come true and that writing was the path to do it. I would write books, and books would build an audience, and then I would make short films about my books, and then longer films and I would have my Happy Madison Productions.
It all happened a lot faster than that though because I kept jumping through doors that opened in front of me. I had decided that I was going to write a book and not only was I going to write it, but I was going to self-publish it too. I didn’t like the idea of asking people for permission to publish my work. There are a lot of people far less qualified than me who are making money selling books right now on Amazon and I thought ‘If they can do this, I can do it too,’ so I decided to self-publish.
I started out by building a blog so I could build an audience post-by-post. This is where I learned my voice, who my audience was, and who I was speaking to. Some of my first blogs were about my grandmother and some military stories. My military stories developed a following of other military guys and these posts were specifically geared to guys who had been to combat. In all honesty, I wasn’t writing to search for my audience, I knew exactly who I was writing those for, and because of that, I developed a following of combat grunts from all over the military, but mostly Marines. One of those was actually in my unit in the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Naval Medical Center San Diego and he said that my writing was the only thing that could make him laugh hysterically. He said it was God’s work and he said ‘don’t ever stop being raw and honest and don’t ever stop being yourself.’ It was a very meaningful message to an aspiring artist. My comedy was meaningful to his life. And then next thing I heard of him is he was dead. He killed himself. At his wake, his mother was leaning over his casket and wailing uncontrollably and screaming ‘why, why, why’ and I thought maybe I could give his mother a reason why and maybe I could tell her one day that he died so that others could live. I had often thought about how to use my inclination to bring people together using laughter to bring combat vets together and for them to have a place to share their very dark and irreverent humor.
I started this journey after the Marine Corps with the intent of being a professional writer and that leading to other things, so let me be a professional writer and market my book. I made a video to market my book based on a frustration that I had about the military and that video went viral. I did it again a week or two later and again it went viral. Same thing again like four or five times. All these videos are big hits and now all of a sudden I have this following I never had before on social media, and I’m reading the comments and interacting with people who are watching it and guys started saying ‘no one’s doing this. I would pay for this’ so I thought this is interesting, I don’t have a job right now and I have no money coming in other than my military retirement so I thought, let me see how I can make money selling videos. I knew I couldn’t sell individual videos but rather that it had to be some sort of a subscription service. Once I came to that conclusion, I googled ‘how to start my own Netflix,’ and on the first page I came across this other network called Black and Sexy TV that felt the American black experience wasn’t being accurately portrayed in film and television. They thought BET and Tyler Perry had kind of watered down what they felt was the young black experience in America so they created a network of shows that were supposed to be relatable for African-Americans aged 20 to 40. Young and progressive was their branding. I looked at them and they had like 12,000 people paying $7.99 a month and I thought ‘I think I can beat that,’ so I looked at the platform they used, which is the same one we use today, Vimeo OTT, formerly a company called VHX, and said ‘I can do this.’ The problem was that I didn’t have the money. Some guys, who are now my friends did an Indiegogo campaign and raised $1.2 million for a movie called Range 15, so I thought if they can raise $1.2 million for a movie, I can raise at least a quarter-million for a network. And we did it. We raised $300,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and that money was the seed funding for this business.
We then hired some employees and started laying a foundation of what’s going to be the first show, the second show, the third show and so on, and I had already laid that out in my head during the Kickstarter campaign. I had this vision of all these shows to make that were about the entire military experience. I wanted to get the people who did administration jobs, like driving and maintenance, air wing, medical, all the jobs that Hollywood doesn’t make stuff about because it’s just not sexy, it’s not the big action stuff. But for military people, this experience was the greatest experience of their life and I bet on myself that if we made shows for them, they’d be really, really grateful and they would want to watch them. And if we could make these shows well, they would be the greatest piece of entertainment that this group had ever had. This became our slate of shows and we have made a handful of them to this day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When we started the show, A Grunt’s Life, which is the most-watched show on our network. I didn’t have the money to finish it. I’ve got friends who I had on speed-dial who I could count on if I got really desperate to loan me some money and they were all onboard if I got desperate enough. But I ended up getting another friend to loan me $100,000 and that $100K was enough for us to complete the filming of the series. That I think was interesting because it was just such a scary, scary time and a turning point for the company because I knew that that show had the potential to serve as the foundation for VET Tv. And I knew that if we filmed it as I had envisioned it in my head that it was going to be a hit. I knew it was going to be the favorite thing that an infantryman has ever seen, especially someone who has been to combat. And for a lot of people, that’s exactly what they say.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The whole business model is actually designed to make a social impact. Specifically, what we want to do is to create a piece of entertainment that someone sees and they feel like they relate to it where they see it and think ‘Oh wow, this looks like it was made for me.’ Now they feel special and as they’re watching it, we are re-creating experiences that they’ve had. We’re re-creating people in an office or in a unit that reminds them of people they served with. That’s why authenticity is paramount for our business. They feel connected, not just to the characters, but also to the creators and also to all the other people they know who are watching it, and they get to watch it and feel connected to some community that they have been a part of in the past that they are now a part of again through VET Tv.
And that connection to that community is important. Facilitating community is essentially what we’re doing and the by-product of facilitating community is less suicides, because with community comes more acceptance, more understanding and less social isolation.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
There are literally hundreds of people who have some crazy story of how we prevented them from killing themselves. Hundreds. But very recently, a story that I really liked and appreciated was a guy who said that watching VET Tv pulled him out of a dark place and made him feel normal.
Prior to that, he had just been in a funk. Those who have dealt with depression on any level know how de-motivating being in a depressed state is. The daily functions of getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, eating healthy foods, exercising, being on time to things, everything, you just don’t care about it as much. He said we pulled him out of his depressed state, he started going back to school and he went from working two jobs to getting a new job with a union and he went from having a job to a career. He said that he would watch our stuff almost every day and that it helped get him through his days.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
One of the things they can do is accept the fact that despite the controversial and intense, graphic, racy nature of our stuff, despite that, there are tens of thousands of people right now, almost 42,000, who have been willing to pay to see it. Of all the (programming) out there, ours was good enough that they paid to watch it. I would like outsiders to let that sink in. There are very few people in entertainment who sell directly to the customer. So I’d ask that they accept that, and then ask ‘why’ before you become appalled at some of the (content) that we have created. Ask why are people willing to pay for it and why are they laughing. And use our business as an example of the way to understand the psyche of this community. There’s not enough understanding of our community and that’s part of what adds to the challenge of the transition to civilian life. People in the civilian world have this perception of us that is different than what we really are. I think a lot of civilians think we’re like the commercials and we’re like the posters and that ain’t true, not even a little. Use our business and our shows as an opportunity to understand the American veteran better. And if you can start from a place of mutual understanding and curiosity, then we can engage in a conversation that leads to an even brighter future.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My leadership style has changed quite a bit through failure. A leader assumes responsibility for others. A good leader assumes responsibility and takes care of those people in an organized and disciplined manner. Now it becomes your responsibility to understand those that you just made yourself responsible for.
Here’s an example. Say you’re a guy in Oklahoma and you want to bring veterans together, so you throw out a post in a couple different Facebook groups of ‘Hey, I’m getting the Super Bowl at my house or I’m getting the fight at my house and I’ll pay for it and get some chips and drinks and why don’t you guys just show up.’ Now after the first time these people show up you should have a better understanding of how to serve those people. Next time they come over do they want chips and Coca-Cola, do they want chips and beer, do they want hard liquor, do they want healthy food, or so on. The idea is get to know them and understand what they want and then the next time you come together you’ve served them better.
As a leader it’s a nonstop quest to understand the people you serve and that understanding enables you to serve them better. That’s really all there is to it.
What are your “things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Get a Board of Advisors as soon as possible. Most entrepreneurs have very little experience and if so, your company is likely to be filled with very little experience, so you need someone with experience to help guide your decisions. We have made an unbelievable number of mistakes, and mistakes cost money. There is the potential that we could have made fewer mistakes if we had been guided by a group of advisors who have experience growing businesses before.
I also wish I knew the importance of letting ego go sooner. I had heard it but I didn’t fully embrace it until I had experienced enough pain because that’s the only way that we learn is through pain.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
We’ve created a movement and that movement started with the nonprofit (Irreverent Warriors). The nonprofit has had very little money, no big investments or no big donations and yet over 43,000 veterans have come to our events. That’s insane when you think about it. The Silkies Hike event is a movement and it’s a movement because people are able to start it up in their own city across the country and bring veterans together.
I want to take this movement and make it bigger by getting more veterans involved, getting more influential veterans involved, and bringing more entertainment, basically making a USO Tour out of these nonprofit events that are existing all over the place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have so many and so many cheesy ones but one that comes to mind and I had this in my fraternity house when I was in college is ‘you can do anything you set your mind to.’ I know our guys would roll their eyes if I tried to put that in the office, but I like that because I believe it and I like to think that I’m living proof. And I like to think that every one of the television shows that we make, and movies, is proof that you have the ability to take a dream and make it into reality. And that’s why I think that film-making is the coolest job in the world. Everything you create is proof that if you dream it you can make it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
It’s a toss-up between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and it’s not because they’re incredible film-makers, it’s because they built community and that’s what I want to do. I want to build community. Entertainment is a vehicle with which to do so.
And I would want to pitch them and tell them what my intentions are as an American and then just hear any advice they can give me about how to use entertainment to build community.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
My pleasure. Thank you again for having me!