The Badass CEO

EP 17: Unfiltered Lessons About Entrepreneurship with Big Think CEO and Co-Founder Victoria Montgomery Brown

October 15, 2020 Mimi MacLean
EP 17: Unfiltered Lessons About Entrepreneurship with Big Think CEO and Co-Founder Victoria Montgomery Brown
The Badass CEO
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The Badass CEO
EP 17: Unfiltered Lessons About Entrepreneurship with Big Think CEO and Co-Founder Victoria Montgomery Brown
Oct 15, 2020
Mimi MacLean

Today we have Victoria Montgomery Brown. She's the co-founder and chief executive officer of Big Think it's become the leading digital media knowledge company making people and companies smarter and faster with the world's biggest thinkers and doers. Her new book is Digital Goddess, the unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur. Brown graduated from Montreal McGill University and received her MBA from Harvard Business School.

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Show Notes Transcript

Today we have Victoria Montgomery Brown. She's the co-founder and chief executive officer of Big Think it's become the leading digital media knowledge company making people and companies smarter and faster with the world's biggest thinkers and doers. Her new book is Digital Goddess, the unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur. Brown graduated from Montreal McGill University and received her MBA from Harvard Business School.

To learn more about the Badass CEO Podcast go to: To get the Top 10 Tips every entrepreneur should know go to:

Please subscribe above to be notified of our new episodes. 

I put together a Free Top 10 Checklist for Every Entrepreneur.  Click here to get your copy:

To learn more about our podcast guest, click here:

If you enjoy this podcast, please help support the the podcast by using the link to our sponsors and companies I use for my business.  I receive a small percentage for each sale.  Thank you so much for your support!!

Follow us on Instagram at:

Mimi MacLean  00:01

Welcome to the Badass CEO podcast. This is Mimi MacLean. I'm a mom of five entrepreneur, Columbia Business School grad, CPA and angel investor. And I'm here to share with you my passion for entrepreneurship. Throughout my career I've met many incredible people who have started businesses, disrupted industries persevered and turned opportunity into success. Each episode we will discuss what it takes to become and continue to be a badass CEO directly from the entrepreneurs who have made it happen. If you're new in your career, dreaming about starting your own business or already an entrepreneur, the badass CEO podcast is for you. I want to give you the drive and tools needed to succeed in following your dreams. Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Badass CEO. This is Mimi, and today we have Victoria Montgomery Brown. She's the co founder and chief executive officer of Big Think it's become the leading digital media knowledge company making people and companies smarter and faster with the world's biggest thinkers and doers. Her new book is Digital Goddess, the unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur. Brown graduated from Montreal McGill University and received her MBA from Harvard Business School. Victoria, thank you so much for coming on today. I'm so thrilled to have you and hear your story.

Victoria  01:38

Thank you for having me.

Mimi MacLean  01:40

Yes, yes, I would love to first start off by just telling us about like Big Think and your background and how it came to be?

Victoria  01:47

Sure. So Big Think is an online Knowledge Forum with leading thinkers and influencers. So to be on Big Think we say that you have to be at the top of your field or disrupting it. Everybody from Nobel laureates, to business leaders, actors, essentially people who are changing the way that we work and live. And Peter who is the other founder of Big Think and I in 2006, YouTube had just sort of popped up. And we saw a dearth of thoughtful content on the internet. And so we thought, well, instead of all of this crappy stuff, wouldn't it be great if we could get incredible experts to share their wisdom in ways that you or I might be able to put to use in our own work or life. And we because we had been working at PBS had an understanding of some of the events that I would have not otherwise known globally, like Davos around the world where incredible experts have access to other notable people and regular people, like I have absolutely no access to them at all. And so we pitched the concept to potential investors in 2006, as Davos democratized, so, providing access to the world's top experts, in a way that is accessible is not of the moment. It's not political. It's literally about how we can apply their wisdom in ways to help us. So that was the initial mission. And interestingly enough, we've stuck to that. And that's the mandate is still today, which is to help people get smarter, faster. So we grow a lot. But that's still the same mission.

Mimi MacLean  03:25

That's a great concept. Like what is the difference is to help the listeners to understand the difference between your Big Think and like a TED talk?

Victoria  03:32

Sure. So Ted is also obviously incredible. There are 18 minutes long, they may have switching that up, but at least the norm has been 18 minutes long. And it does not have to be actionable. So as I mentioned, our content we say has to be significant, relevant and actionable. So if, for instance, we had Amy Cuddy on Big Think, who has one of the top TED Talks, which is about personal power and presence. So in her TED Talk, she explains about it. And in our interview with her, we asked, okay, so so what and how can I implement that into my own life as well? So it's more of a like, and so what, I think, for big think, and how do you apply that person's knowledge? Also, ours has here to for really been short form. So while we have our experts in the studio, typically for around an hour or so, we segment them into three to six minute pieces. So people can watch a clip or a lesson and feel like they have something immediately. They don't have to watch the whole hour. Now, I think we might begin to make longer form content as people are becoming more interested in that but the mission at the start was to make it short form so that people would feel like they could just dive in and get something immediate.

Mimi MacLean  04:51

That's great. Okay, so you had this great idea, and you're like Okay, I'm gonna get started to get access to these people to come speak. I imagine that was pretty hard.

Victoria  05:01

Sure, you know what's crazy is that it really wasn't that hard. Now maybe it's because it was 2006. And video on the internet was still somewhat novel, but people like to talk about themselves and be on camera. So that was an immediate plus, we weren't asking them to give us money. We're asking them to just talk really about themselves and their knowledge. And so the first five people we got one of them was Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary who ended up investing in Big Think, and then we guessed no joke, Richard Branson's email, asked him to come on. He came on Bowlby, the singer. And it was basically like a Rolling Stone. So once we had a few people we could say that they had been on and so it was less difficult to convince others. The first five were maybe a bit challenging, but after that, it was pretty easy. And then we started to get pitched people. So the thing that I will say is that for people who are starting businesses, it's really not as difficult as you may think it is. And asking people to do things for you often leads to them actually doing it.

Mimi MacLean  06:10

It's true. I mean, I've kind of found with this podcast, right, like, asking people knock on wood, I have yet to have anybody say outright, no. They may say, I can't do it right now you reach them December or whatever. But no one has actually been like outright, No, I do not want to do this for you. So what was the hardest part then for starting Big Think?

Victoria  06:30

I think the courage to quit my job, you know, I didn't have resources or savings. And I put myself in the shoes of potential investors, we had some somewhat circling, but nobody signed up. And we didn't have the resources ourselves to just start it. So that for me, the hardest part was deciding, I am going to quit my job on this date and not looking backwards. With no, no other plan. I think that was the most daunting, but the thing that I think was essential, what were the other things? I think Kevin graduated from Business School, the concept of not having a traditional business background was somewhat overwhelming or difficult for me, because I realized that if I went down the entrepreneurial path, which I have jumping back into a corporate position might be difficult or impossible, which as I mentioned to you, I'm thinking about now. So those are two things that I contemplated, but I didn't let overwhelm me and just went for it.

Mimi MacLean  07:31

That's great. So once you like, recorded the first couple of videos, did you have trouble getting people to watch them? Or was it kind of like they launched and because of their name, you were able to get people to watch the videos.

Victoria  07:44

Once we had people on the website? Yes, the challenge was initially getting people to come to the site. We were very naive when we started Big Think. And we planned on it being entirely video, not understanding the search engine optimization at that point. And nobody is going to come to a site if they can't find it. So and if you googled, you know, I don't know what video was like back then. But it was very difficult to find. So we ended up having to put a whole bunch of articles alongside stuff. So once we had the traffic and people coming randomly to our site, as they were searching things, it was very sticky. The challenging part, as I said, was building up the audience initially, but once people are on the site, they tend to come back.

Mimi MacLean  08:31

Right. And I'm sure back then, like SEO optimization was even that much more obscure in finding somebody to help you. It's probably hard. 

Victoria  08:39

It really was. And we've had we struggled that over the years and things change all the time, even now. So the first few years, it was really hit and miss. And then each year, it seems there's new tech, new advice on how to do it. So we probably have a new consultant in every year up ending what we were doing before, but yes, it was it was at the beginning, we had no idea.

Mimi MacLean  09:01

Right? You have some impressive investors. So can you talk to that, like how you got them and what that process was like?

Victoria  09:10

Sure, absolutely. So our lead investor was actually a classmate of mine from business school named David Frankel. I didn't know him terribly well at business school, I think we were in one class together. And again, this is the ask and ye shall receive scenario. another classmate of mine I heard was funded by David and so I went out for a coffee with him and asked him for an introduction or reintroduction to David, and he gave it to me so not gonna lie, the connection from Harvard Business School has massively helped me Big Think would probably not exist, if not for that. I don't want to take credit away from Peter and for my but it was a big help. So that was our first investor. And then Larry Summers was somebody who came on early as well. He was in the first five investors. And the way that that happened was Peter I had known him when he was an undergraduate at Harvard and asked for a meeting, just to go and ask about advice. We didn't even have the name Big Think yet but about the concept of what we were thinking of creating. And he went to Harvard, Larry was still president department of Harvard at that time, and met with him and asked for advice. And as the old adage goes, if you ask for advice, you're more likely to get money, and Larry asked to invest. So those were the first two, Tom Scott was the founder of Nantucket Nectars, if you ever had one of those drinks, and I wrote to him in high school, years and years, years ago, and he didn't remember that. But when I was in business school, I wrote him again asking for a job, who knew that he had already sold Nantucket Nectars. So I embarrassed myself, but whatever. And I just kept in touch with him and asked him as we were putting together this initial group of investors to invest and he did. And then Peter teal was another one of our first five investors. And that was through a friendship. Peter Hopkins had. So all of these were lucky in certain ways. But then just asking, and telling people our idea, and then over the last 13 years, we've had a dozen or so more investors, and oftentimes, it's been word of mouth, other investors introducing us to them, or just having a sneaking suspicion that they may be interested in the mission of Big Think. So I will say that a lot of it is luck.

Mimi MacLean  11:33

That's great. You know, it's funny when you were just saying that when I was reading about Big Think, originally, it reminded me a little bit about the Nantucket project, which I've gone to a couple years. And then when you mentioned Moby because Moby was at the Nantucket project last year. And it just kind of reminded me a lot about the Nantucket project, which obviously was started by Tom Scott, I assume that was after Big Think.

Victoria  11:53

It was and So interestingly enough, Big Think programmed the Nantucket project for the first four years for them. Why didn't know that? Yes. So we don't do that anymore. But we did for the first four years. So there was for sure, a quid pro quo. And Tom, in fact, interviewed me last week, and I think he's doing it next week for General Assembly for the book.

Mimi MacLean  12:16

Oh, that's great. That's great. Now, did you have a big team, ultimately,

Victoria  12:19

We never had a big team. I think people are surprised by that. You know, we have been over the years. And I think it's a good thing at certain times resource constrained and it's made us be much more scrappy, and do things with limited resources. That isn't the case now. But we never had a team with more than 20. And sometimes it was as few as four. So I think it kind of goes to show that oftentimes things are as Peter likes to say more larded up than they need to be.

Mimi MacLean  12:49

I agree. So

Victoria  12:51

No, never a big team.

Mimi MacLean  12:53

Well, in this world, so you can outsource a lot, right? You can get a lot of consultants that you don't have to have people full time.

Victoria  12:58

Absolutely. And all of our writers, we probably have 20, freelance writers who write all of our articles. None of them are full time, we've a managing editor who's full time, but the large majority of our contributors are freelancers or consultants.

Mimi MacLean  13:13

That's great. Now, will you tell us about your exit strategy? Or what just happened this summer?

Victoria  13:17

Yes. So we didn't really have a strategy. fortuitously, an organization called Free Think came to us in the spring, or maybe Yeah, in the spring. And they're a company that are founded by documentary filmmakers. So they've raised quite a lot of money. They have a really interesting group of employees, they have 70 employees. And they're creating exceptional content. And they thought, Marian, Big Think, our brand, our reach of, you know, over 40 million people a month, as well as our extraordinary access to these experts would marry well with their incredible documentary, film, making style. And Big Think, it's been looking to expand into longer form content as well. So it was just really lucky that they knew of us and it was, you know, a nice dance, I was about to say, dirty dance, but it was not what do we call it a meeting done. And it just came to pass and both sides are incredibly lucky and feel blessed by it. And all of Big Think's employees have gone and are now working at Free Think. The big thing brand remains if you go to Big Think's website, it will stay the same Big Think Edge, which is our learning and development content will also remain so it's a really which I know is rare symbiotic acquisition and I'm just delighted by it and obviously want to help Free Think and Big Think as much as I can go forward.

Mimi MacLean  14:45

Well, congratulations. That's amazing and exciting at the same time, right and scary because they need to figure out what you're doing next. I do. Yeah. I just wanted to touch base about this going back to the business model. Was it mostly advertising or did you have subscription? What was your business model?

Victoria  15:01

So at the start, it was entirely sponsorship because we learned the harsh lesson early on that to have any revenue from advertising, you need mega traffic. Even way back in 2006 and 2007. We were one of the I think original adopters are creators of the concept of branded content. So we would work with companies like Intel, shell, Dell, whatever, and create content, sort of like the PBS model where their branding was on it. It was not advertorial, it was content that we would have created anyway, but allowed them to be associated with our brand, our reach in our experts, got dried up in 2009 2010. And we always knew we wanted to get into the learning space and into a subscription business model. And so we created something called Big Think edge, which is designed to help people professionally in the soft skills area, so that content is totally separate from the public facing website and is for subscription in a b2b. So business to business version as well as more recently in the last two years of business to consumer version. So for instance, if we had Chris Voss on who's has one of the top monster classes on negotiation, some of his content we would put on the public side, and then some of it, we would put behind the paywall, so to speak, and it would be much more focused on professional development. So how to implement what his his expertise is into into your own work. And so that has done well. So we actually now have a three to four tiered business model. advertising, because we now have the traffic for it is has become useful to us in the past two years, we still do sponsored content. And now we have two forms of subscription content. And then because of all of our content is licensable. Here there we have universities who license some of our content for schools, that's much less meaningful than those other areas of revenue or business model.

Mimi MacLean  17:07

Right, right. That's great. So now you have something else exciting to announce your book that launched last week, which is so exciting. So can you talk about like how you came up with that idea. And the process.

Victoria  17:18

It actually launched this Monday on the six. But the book publishing process I was new to, it's been finished for a while, but the pub date was the sixth. So anyway, it came to pass, because over the years, Peter, the other founder of Big Think kept saying to me, there aren't that many female entrepreneurs, and CEOs, and especially ones that have your longevity. So I think it might be interesting, especially for women to hear your entrepreneurial story and how you did it. And also for anybody who wants to be an entrepreneur, or who is an entrepreneur. And so it was really through his prodding that I wrote the book. And then in the last few years, I've been receiving letters and emails from particularly women who want to start businesses asking for advice. So I thought, okay, maybe I do have something to say. And so a year ago, I wrote it very quickly, I put together a book proposal, and wrote, I think it was two chapters to see if there was anything there. Because I didn't want to write a whole book if it was going to be, you know, crap. So I put together a proposal submitted to an agent, and he thought that there was something there. So he sent it out to a few publishers and HarperCollins really wanted it. And so I wrote the whole book in about three months. And here it is today. And I'm really proud of it. I think it's funny, I think there are some good lessons in it. But it's not preachy, I think it's a good story, too. 

Mimi MacLean  18:50

That's great. That's great. And what would you say the takeaways are, as far as like advice that you're giving an entrepreneur in the book?

Victoria  18:56

The number one piece of advice that I start the book with is transparency at all costs. So for me, it's been really important to deliver the bad news as quickly and as harshly as possible because these people, your investors, especially have invested in you. And if you lose their confidence or trust, I would say it's virtually impossible to get it back. So that has been my motto the entire time of running big thing. Sometimes I think Peter would say that I'm a little bit too much of a Debbie Downer, but I don't want anybody to ever say that I exaggerated how good things were going, and then to have them be shocked. That is my number one lesson I would say for other entrepreneurs is that tell the bad news quickly and as harshly as you can. And I like to think of it in recent days like the anti Elizabeth Holmes, as I wrote in the book, because look where she is now and it's a slippery slope. You tell one false hood and you continue to having to say others. So that was what I talked about. The other thing is that you don't have to do everything. Initially starting the business, we were doing most stuff. But asking people for help, and realizing that you are not the expert in everything, I think is something that entrepreneurs need to learn if they're going to be successful quickly. There are many other lessons, but I think those are two that I have found most fundamental to me.

Mimi MacLean  20:28

Right, right. So I have found talking to other entrepreneurs, like they realize that they're not the experts, and they want to go find help. Sometimes it's hard to find help or be able to trust the help, because I feel like especially in today's world, everyone does everything, right, you can hire anybody to do anything. But how do you know you're hiring the right person? Or that you're going to get the results for the amount of money because some of this stuff is really expensive, like the SEO work or, you know, digital marketing? And so it's like, finding that balance of Is there a way or a tool that you use to be able to divide out that work? Well,

Victoria  21:03

I have to say that I have been abysmal over the years in hiring, I think I've learned but early on, I made so many mistakes. And the old adage is true hire slowly fire bas, because I kept people that were toxic to the organization for way too long, because I was worried what them leaving would do. And at least in my instance, if I've had a bad feeling about somebody, it's time to ask even if the data isn't there. And that's probably not what other business people would say. And in terms of hiring, I looked early on to people's resumes way too much. And I think that I made so many mistakes there, because Ivy League education does not mean that this person is actually going to be a fit for your organization, or even do good work. So I've changed the way that I hire and it's much more conversational now. And I also do a lot more reference checks. I never did any reference checks before. And you'd be surprised, like, I've been surprised how forthcoming people or they may not say directly that you shouldn't hire person, but they will give you clues. And they're pretty hard to miss. So those things I think I've learned, I would say also, that's, at least for me to recognize that I am not a great judge of people. In terms of initial hiring, I think I am once I've worked with them for a while but to get help and find somebody who is a good person to hire people.

Mimi MacLean  22:35

Right, right, that's good. And then being an entrepreneur and having your own business is super time consuming. And there's never an off button. It's not nine to five. So keeping your life sane. Do you have like a morning routine? Everyone loves morning routines and hearing about what people do? Do you have anything specific that you do in the morning, to get yourself going and ready for taking the day?

Victoria  22:56

Well, before this, you know, crazy time, I used to get up really early and go and work out do yoga or something like that. So it was discipline. I also tried meditation, and I would like to get back into that it is it is very useful. But I am somebody who, unfortunately and it's the truth is driven by anxiety. So my routine, my morning routine is wake up and think about what should I be anxious about? And that drives me and compels me to start moving. So that is not advice that I would suggest. That is my routine.

Mimi MacLean  23:35

That's that's a good routine. That's a good routine. No, but it's true. I'm definitely like the type a type person to that I get motivated and driven by anxiety or not even like just think like things that I need to do or like thinking big like, what can I do with something the idea or business that I'm working on? And it just kind of propels you and keeps you moving? Now are you a paper person or a digital person when it comes to like organizing your life?

Victoria  24:01

Oh my gosh, well, a bit of both. I mean, right here My book is like a notepad. But I write in all over and different pages. And so I don't really know that I keep track of it. But I feel like if I'm writing it down, I'm at least acknowledging that it's something I have to do. I do use Google for calendar. But I managed my own calendar. I do not like people to have access to my calendar at all, like suddenly meetings appear. So I manage all of that myself on Google. And I'm trying to think if I yeah, I think I think I'm much more digital. But I do have notebooks. 

Mimi MacLean  24:37

What advice would you give to either a woman right now who just graduated from college or you know, is maybe coming back into the workforce? Do you feel like you need to have a ton of experience or should they just dive right in and like they just graduated? It's hard to find a job right now but they have a business idea. Like how important is it to have the experience versus just going for it?

Victoria  24:59

I could be wrong. But I think it's not important at all, I think that you should just go for it. And I like him, you know, to my own self, if I had gone on what I thought I should have done was go and say work at Goldman Sachs or something like that. They would never hire me anyway. But had I got a job like that I might still be there. So just going for it, I think is is the way to go. If you have a business idea.

Mimi MacLean  25:25

What does it take to be an entrepreneur? Do you think in your mind?

Victoria  25:28

To be a successful entrepreneur? I think it takes a great idea, the understanding that you that there's a market for it, that you've researched, that is differentiated, that you are and your partners or whoever, it's just you are uniquely positioned to build the business and going for it, I just think it's mostly about chutzpah and taking the leap.

Mimi MacLean  25:52

True, and knowing that it's going to take twice as much time and twice as much money than you ever imagined or budgeted or forecasted. Right.

Victoria  26:01

That is totally right. Here I am 13 years later, I am now an old lady. So

Mimi MacLean  26:07

No, this has been amazing. I'm so thankful. And I'm so appreciative of your time, and I'm so impressed with everything you've done. I mean, it's been a big fall for you with between selling your company and launching your book. And I wish you the best and deciding whatever you want to do after this, and I guess you can't even do a book tour or anything right? Or is it?

Victoria  26:28

I'm doing things like this yesterday. Interestingly, there was a virtual event naztech I didn't know how many people were attending was it five was a 500. And so things like that, but it's mostly right here at this desk or on the phone where the book tourists is being held. I know this is

Mimi MacLean  26:47

So weird, right? This whole world it's like, but it's probably helped big thing, being home and having everybody now open to looking at videos and be more entrepreneurial.

Victoria  26:57

Right. So and you know, what's interesting is that I tend to be a bit of a loner when it comes to work. I like to be somewhat alone and all of these forest video polls, I think, has been very beneficial to me to force me to be much more social with people.

Mimi MacLean  27:15

No, it's true. It's true. It's a great way to connect with people. I've actually connected more with people now than I have before. COVID like people I haven't talked to in years, you know, it's like bussiness school. You know, we had a good business school zoom call, and I haven't talked to any of those people and so long, so it was kind of fun to kind of reconnect with people, people are more open to having a zoom call. And


I find the exact same actually. 

Mimi MacLean  27:36

Right, right. So I just want to remind everybody to go on Amazon and pick up digital goddess. I'm sure you're gonna love it. I usually like to read the books before I have the podcast. Unfortunately, I didn't because we booked this so last minute, which I was grateful for, but I didn't do the research I normally like to do so I'm excited to download it and read it over the weekend.

Victoria  27:55

Oh, good. Well, I'd love to hear your thoughts once you have.

Mimi MacLean  27:58

Yes, definitely. Well, thank you again.


Thank you so much. This has been super!

Mimi MacLean  28:02

Thank you for joining me on the badass CEO podcast. If you enjoyed today's episode, please leave a review and see you next time. Thank you!