“If you have a vision, stay true to that vision. Keep going!” – Co-founder of moviepilot, Ben Kubota
Moviepilot Co-founder Ben Kubota sat down our team to share what makes the influential and international entertainment focused website tick. From its humble beginnings inspired by a DVD collection database to its success in Germany and abroad, Ben Kubota shares his advice on how to break through the mold and what it takes to push further into international markets.
So Ben, let’s hear your elevator pitch?
Moviepilot is an open and public entertainment platform in the form of a website that allows people to write about everything that they are excited about from pop culture, movies, TV shows, and even sports entertainment. We pick the best stories from our creator base, share it across social media and highlight them for a large audience.
What year was moviepilot founded?
That’s a little complicated. The company was founded in 2007, but we started it as a German website, which by the way is the largest entertainment site in Germany, but along the way we decided it would be best to sell the German business and focus on the American market. The new company that you see today was founded in 2012.
Do you have Co-founders?
Tobi Bauckhage, John Handschin, and myself, Ben Kubota, are the founders. We all come from different backgrounds. John was a producer and director in the movie business, Tobi was a traditional business consultant, and I was in product development/coding.
What inspired you to start moviepilot?
What inspired me to start moviepilot was the lack of products available on the internet for a need I had. The actual start was back in 2004 which is when I started my first startup. It was a very trivial thing. Back in the day people collected DVDs. I had a large DVD collection and I wanted to start a website to track which friend was borrowing a DVD from me and which DVD it was. I also wanted to see what DVDs they had watched already. I tried to build it, but I didn’t want to have to do all the metadata work myself. So, I started looking to see if there was a metadata service on the internet, but there wasn’t. IMDb was already in existence, but their data is protected so you can’t use it for your own service. I started to build an alternative to IMDb called TMDb. It is still online and is an open database for movie data. I started this and then I realized that the community couldn’t really talk about the movies on the website. So, in response, we built the part which came to be known as moviepilot. We essentially realized there was something missing in the market and we built it.
It sounds like there was little competition when you started. What about today?
We are in-between being a publisher and tech platform company. We have both aspects and we have an open publishing platform which is the easiest, simplest way to write something on the web. On the other hand, we are a publisher highlighting third party stories, building magazines, and developing an interesting collection of stories of entertainment and pop culture topics for people on various platforms. One such platform is Facebook, where we have a huge following of around 30 million people.
That dichotomy gives us different competitors because we believe writing for the web or being a voice for the web needs to be re-democratized to some extent. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, if you had a blog or something important to say, you ended up in the Yahoo catalog. But, in the last couple of years, the distribution of the content on the internet has been controlled by Facebook, Google, Youtube, etc. So, even though there is the idea that one could go “viral” if you have fantastic content, you actually can’t go viral unless you have good following or someone to back your idea. Otherwise, you will not break through the distribution barrier that exists nowadays.
We believe that in order to fix that, you need to have an open media platform. And, in my opinion, the only competitor we have in that space, who truly “gets it”, is Medium. The main difference between them and us is that they don’t care about distribution, while, on the other hand, we have our own distribution and publishing aspect. We also have millions of followers on the various media channels and we highlight the best pieces.
Basically, we are lending our distribution to younger voices. Also, a part of our company is not only to provide the platform and the publishing, but also everything in-between. We have academies to teach people how to write great online stories. We have one-on-one mentorships with young people where our editors help people from all over the world in order to help them craft their skills. We believe with all the editorial staff being reduced all over the world that there will be a gap in a couple of years where there won’t be enough young people who can express their views and opinions in a way that will be well received in the future. Because of this, we will have a shortage of trained online journalists and this is basically the point we are trying to solve with our service.
What advice would you have for entrepreneurs just starting out in Berlin?
Just keep going. It’s difficult to break through the different layers and the landscape of startups in Berlin and it is only getting more competitive. More money keeps flowing into the city and Techstars and other incubators are trying to figure out how to quickly turn or flip new startups. So, if you have a vision, stay true to that vision. Keep going! Don’t let other people influence you too much in what you do and what you believe in.
You’re based right next to our campus. What’s your favorite spot in the neighborhood?
In my heart, I am more of Kreuzberg guy, but we moved to Mitte because it makes sense to be close to other startups. Our last two offices were in Kreuzberg. In Mitte, I am fond of Ula which is a Japanese restaurant close to Prenzlauer Berg.
Where do you see Berlin 5 years from now? And in 10 years?
If you would have asked me that 5 years ago, I would have predicted the wrong thing. It is becoming more and more international and it’s becoming more of a standard European capital. Everyone complains about the costs rising, but at the end of the day they are really just normalizing. I love the fact that the inner city of Berlin is more international as well. Berlin is becoming the central hub for a lot of industries, not only tech. They are at the forefront of what Berlin will be in the next couple of years. I think a lot of European headquarters will move from London to Berlin. It will be the center of Europe: it’s conveniently located for travel, it has a great atmosphere, and a good mixture of people and entrepreneurs. This is only just the beginning and Berlin’s relevancy will only continue to grow.
What one group/individual/project has been the most influential to you during your time as an entrepreneur in Berlin?
The realization that there is a landscape here where I could build my own thing in Berlin came from the early “user groups”, especially the Ruby user group. Also, some of the early Java Script users were an inspiration. Other examples are the guys at Co-Up, at Amazon, and at TravisCI. These groups and all the people who very early on took Berlin as a serious location and said, “We can build a community for tech and branch off into startups.” That was influential and very helpful.
Can you name one particular moment that has been pivotal during your time in business?
There were two points that were very influential for me to realize that we can and need to break out of the German market. If you started here 10 years ago, you were only focused on the German market. Then you had all the “copycat” startups that were just trying to mimic what was out there and just trying to build a better version of it. We were always opposed to that. We always wanted to do something that was unique. At one point when we started using Facebook as a social publishing distribution channel, we realized early on that we were ahead of the curve, even for US companies. We could build distribution channels in the US without even having a product in America. By being smart and hacking your way through it, you can go from Berlin and expand all over the world.
The second influential point was selling my first startup moviepilot.de a few years ago. That is still very rewarding because the company still exists, is still highly profitable, is still relevant, and is the biggest entertainment website in Germany. It is something that I built that “lasts” and it wasn’t just something that was integrated into another system. That makes me very proud.
Has Berlin’s informal nature and unique history been a positive aspect of your time in the city?
I am not sure if I am the right person to answer that question. I was here when the wall was still up and when there were American soldiers patrolling through my garden. It was surreal, but it became normal for me and change was always a part of growing up here. So, I can’t really answer that. I mean of course it helps me because it’s my nature and it’s a part of the landscape that I enjoy, so I would say that it indeed helps.
Finally, Coffee, Tea, or Club Mate?
Ha, I never understood why Club-Mate has the impact that it does. Coffee first and foremost, but not too often and nothing with sugar in it. So, Club-Mate is definitely out.