Exclusive: Meg Whitman Talks Quibi, L.A.'s Tech Scene, and Hollywood's Renaissance
Quibi launched this week into a world turned upside down by the novel coronavirus. How do things look on day two? dot.LA caught up with Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman – former boss of eBay and Hewlett-Packard, and one-time California gubernatorial candidate – to discuss.
Whitman shares her reaction to the initial flow of real-time data on Quibi users, what she'll be watching closely over the next few months, and what the well-heeled company's future may hold. She also forecasts how the streaming wars may play out, reflects on lessons learned about the tech world, and reveals her thoughts on the burgeoning innovation ecosystem in Los Angeles.
You've spoken about looking forward to Quibi transitioning from an organization driven by intuition and experience to one driven by data. What is the initial data telling you?
First of all, we're really excited about our day one launch and our day one performance. The fact that we are number three in the App Store and number two in the entertainment segment of the App Store is a remarkable accomplishment. So we're thrilled.
And the social sentiment — we have social listening tools, like everyone else — the social sentiment is 80% positive, which is extraordinary. All the feedback we've been getting from users through our customer support team, they've embraced our innovative approach to what we're doing here. And Turnstyle, our technology: interestingly, the data shows 50% of the viewing was in portrait, 50% was in landscape--which is fascinating. So we're thrilled about that, super excited, and going onto day two here.
Over these next 89 days until the free trial ends and as the launch continues to unfurl, what will you be watching most closely?
Well, because the tech platform is not a legacy platform — it was built for Quibi — we were able to instrument into our data layer just about every piece of data that we could ever imagine we would want. So we can see, not individuals, but what are the trends in how people are watching, what are our top shows, what is our customer support team telling us every single day about what people want? Then we will prioritize those observations and requests into our product roadmap and into the kind of content that we produce. So we're looking for all the signs of how people use this app and what we can learn from it. And then of course we look at the metrics of downloads, trials, net paid subscribers, number of Quibi's (Quick Bites) per day that people watch, hours per day that people watch. We'll be watching all of that data for things that we should be doing, and adapting along the way.
Now that you've launched, can you talk a bit more than you have previously about the path to profitability?
I don't know about more than the past, but Jeffrey (Katzenberg) and I have run businesses for many, many, many years, and ultimately we know that revenues have to be greater than costs. Sometimes, not everyone subscribes to that, but we certainly do. So we've got a very clear path to profitability. The fundraise ($1.75 billion) gives us a nice long runway to get there. But we're very eye-on-the-prize in getting to a self-sustaining business. We've not told people what that number is yet, because we haven't even launched really; we're on day one. Over time, we'll communicate that to our investors and maybe even more broadly. We're very focused on getting to profitability.
When do you expect to be able to communicate the number of subscribers you're shooting for and the timeframe for doing so?
Well, remember we're a private company; certainly our investors have a window into that. But my view is we will take stock at a year. And we'll look back and maybe we'll give a more broad report on how we did in our first year. But we'll see. We're still new at this and it's the unknown unknowns that we're trying to figure out. I can't give you an exact date but I would think after a year; I'm very focused on "where are we after a year?"
To what extent has the coronavirus affected your projections and forecasts, if at all?
It hasn't at all, really. It's affected our launch plans. We had a physical launch event; we moved to a virtual launch event. We were going to do our Daily Essentials (daily news and culture segments) every day from the studios of our content partners; most of those now are being done at home. We were originally going to do a two-week free trial; but we did if you sign up by the end of April, we now have a 90-day free trial. So we made some adjustments, but in terms of our goals and aspirations for net paid subscribers and things like that, unchanged. Because I think we'll get through this. I don't know whether it'll be the beginning of summer, end of the summer, middle of fall, but we'll get through this and I think things will ultimately return to normal. So we didn't think it made sense to change the projections just yet.
Thinking back to when Jeffrey Katzenberg first approached you with this idea, what advice would you give to that past version of Meg, with the benefit of hindsight?
I think you will appreciate this, given that you are at the intersection of tech and media: these two worlds are very different. I knew that, but the difference between the San Francisco Bay area and L.A. is even bigger than I had thought. Neither is better than the other; they're just different. I took that into account, but I don't think, until I moved to L.A. and really tried to bridge these two worlds, that I understood how different they are.
It is our superpower: putting the engineering team right next to the content team was absolutely the right decision. All the advice I got from my friends in Silicon Valley was I had to put the tech for Quibi in Silicon Valley, or Seattle, or Austin or someplace like that. And I spent about two months trying to figure out whether the bench of tech talent here in L.A. was deep enough to support the launch of Quibi, and I ultimately determined that it was. It was absolutely 100% the right move.
I think we have a huge and wonderfully burgeoning tech community here in L.A., and I hope we can be a part of having that community grow and thrive. Because there's a lot of talent here. Not as deep as in the Bay Area, but a lot of talent, and we're super glad we put the tech team and the content team together. That helped bridge two very different worlds.
To what extent does L.A.'s burgeoning scene represent some of the earlier days that you saw in the Bay Area?
Well first of all, it's a smaller community. L.A. is still probably more of an entertainment-focused city than a tech-focused city. The Bay Area is all tech, all the time. So it's a smaller community here.
What I will say that I think ultimately advantages L.A., is the number of undergraduate institutions in the community. Think about it: it's USC, it's UCLA, it's Harvey Mudd, it's Pitzer, it's Pomona, it's Cal Tech, it's Occidental, it's Loyola-Marymount, and many, many more. So I think the future here is incredibly bright, because you've got all these schools focusing on computer science, focusing on engineering, so I think there will be a huge group of next-gen engineers who went to college here and want to stay. Up in the Bay Area it's just a few schools. It's UC Santa Cruz, it's Stanford, it's Berkeley, Santa Clara University -- fantastic schools, but not as many. And I think that bodes well for the future with the next generation of engineers.
Silicon Valley has been a tech hub since 1939, with the founding of Hewlett Packard; it was founded way back in the day, so there's a lot more history there. But I don't think that means L.A. can't be fantastic in terms of a tech hub.
Keeping your forecasting hat on, as media content and platforms continue to proliferate and improve, what must companies competing in the space do to emerge on the other side among the winners?
I think there's never been a better time to be a creator in Hollywood. There's tremendous demand for writers, directors, producers, actors, actresses, and all the people that surround these productions. It's literally like a renaissance in Hollywood. And I think the eye on the prize is always, is it a great story? Does it tell a new story, tell a story differently? And does it capture people's hearts and, secondarily, their minds? So you've got to keep your focus on the quality and the diversity of content that people want. That sounds a bit motherhood and apple pie, but I think that's always been true here and probably still is.
As an equilibrium eventually emerges in this space, how do you think that might look?
I think it depends on how things unfold. There's always been transitions in entertainment. Movies, to television, to streaming, to what we hope will be content designed and made for your phone, which opens up a whole new way to tell stories. I don't think there will necessarily be winners and losers, I think there will be big winners and good winners. Because there's such a hunger for content.
The other thing I would say is that every business now is a technology business, whether it's the entertainment industry, whether it's agriculture; every single business is a technology business. So I do think companies that focus on what are the trends in technology, what are some of the underlying trends that consumers adopt around technology — that will help them be winners and it will complement their fantastic content.
In your career, particularly with eBay, you had the tall task of getting people to be comfortable with the unfamiliar. You have a similar task here with Quibi. What have you learned about how to do that?
If it's compelling, people do it by themselves. One of the worries about eBay was trust and safety. So we instituted this notion of trust and safety, and the feedback profile was something we did to improve people's confidence buying online. You have to remember, in 1998 people were not buying online. Amazon was a tiny little company and there were just a few ways you could buy online back in the day. Some of it's just time, some of it is features and functionality that you build in that make people feel comfortable. But much of it, often when you're doing something entirely new, it has to get out there, people have to try it, recommend it to their friends, and people have to appreciate what you have to offer. There's no way to make people feel comfortable. It's just giving people the opportunity to try it.
How do you envision our phones changing and the way we interact with them?
The question we ask ourselves is: How can this new way to consume very high quality content on your phone continue to help enable storytellers to tell stories in new ways? The way we think about it is, what does your phone have to offer that we could take advantage of? GPS, gyroscope, camera, touchscreen, easy access to every social network. How can we take this remarkable device that has changed everything in the last 13 or 14 years, and enable storytellers to take advantage of it?
We have started with a couple interactive shows. We've got a dating show coming down the road. We've got Steven Spielberg's After Dark coming. What can we do to utilize this camera? We have a show coming in the next month or two where the horizontal view of what's happening is different than the vertical view. It's two views of the same scene, as opposed to the same view of the same scene, just told with the horizontal or vertical position of your phone. So we're really thinking through, how do we help creators do things that take unique advantage of the phone? That's going to be our focus for the next 12-18 months: what is the next Turnstyle, if you will.
Sam Blake covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA
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University of California, Los Angeles economists say the glass is half full for the U.S. economy — at least for now.
The quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast released Wednesday wanly touted a "better-than-expected outcome" for the U.S. economy in the near term, a major upgrade from the last report's forecast of a "depression-like" crisis for the economy. But the new, relatively optimistic assessment is highly reliant on how the pandemic progresses, the authors cautioned.
California's economy is broadly expected to mimic the nation's so long as pandemic-related shutdowns dissipate in 2021. Still, the optimistic outlook doesn't expect a full recovery for California until after the end of 2022, when economists forecast state unemployment will remain close to 6%, compared to just under 5% for the U.S. overall.
Part of the reason for this improved forecast is that the economy opened up earlier than anticipated and there were no new shutdowns, despite multiple states experiencing a surge in cases over the summer. Moreover, consumers and businesses adapted quickly to new technologies and remote working, while the Federal Reserve committed to near 0% interest rates until labor market conditions recover. In fact, borrowing rates are at historic lows, below even the levels reached during the Great Recession.
The economic bounce-back was always expected to be big, as temporarily laid-off workers returned to work. Because the economy reopened earlier than USC analysts predicted, recovery numbers, which had been expected in 2021, came instead in the third quarter, leading to "stronger 2020 growth and weaker 2021 growth," the report said.
GDP is expected to grow 0.3% in the fourth quarter with real GDP declining overall to 4.2% for all of 2020, the authors wrote in an essay entitled "The recovery is losing momentum." For context, that's 50% steeper than the decline of 2.8% from the Great Recession in 2008. But those numbers are far better than the annual 8.6% decline forecast in mid-June. The forecast for 2021 is 3.5% growth and 4% growth for 2022.
"That there's more economic activity than we expected that's good news, but it's not something that you'd say we're out of the woods, because we're not," Jerry Nickelsburg, the director of the forecast, told dot.LA. "The economic outlook depends critically on the trajectory of the pandemic and the public health response to it."
Nickelsberg forecasts that it will take the U.S. until the first quarter of 2022 to achieve the same level of economic activity that it saw in the fourth quarter of 2019.
He expects 2020 fourth quarter growth to be relatively weak, with more bankruptcies and layoffs. And winter will put a damper on economic activity in many parts of the country where it has been moved outdoors, Nickelsberg said.
Unemployment isn't expected to reach pre-pandemic rates until late 2024 at the earliest.
And that's with some rather optimistic assumptions, including that there is widespread availability and usage of an effective vaccine in early 2021 or that the pandemic has a relatively mild impact on economic activity in 2021 and 2022. The report also assumes another, more limited federal fiscal stimulus round before the end of 2020.
"None of these assumptions are assured, and if they do not come to pass, our forecast, presented here, is too optimistic," the authors wrote.
Though employment recovery has been fast as workers returned from temporary layoffs, sectors that rely on more human contact have seen a rise in permanent layoffs. In those sectors, employment "won't fully recover until consumers and businesses return to old habits, which won't be for some time, if ever," the forecast said.
But it's on theme that the forecast is a little more uncertain, as Nickelsberg said, "there's a higher probability that we are too optimistic than that we are too pessimistic."
California's leisure and hospitality industry have been hurt by the drop off in international tourism. But home sales have bounced back after a precipitous first-quarter drop.
"There is heightened uncertainty now, uncertainty about the pandemic, uncertainty about fiscal policy, another stimulus package or not out of Washington, uncertainty about the election, there's lots of uncertainty in the economy right now," said Nickelseberg.
A Dive into L.A.'s Tech and Gig Economy
The forecast noted that the gig economy in California has been hit harder by the pandemic in terms of overall unemployment.
L.A. County has more than one million gig workers as of 2018 — roughly one gig job for every four traditional jobs — and the numbers are growing faster in this segment than the U.S. overall.
That helps explain why L.A. has seen steeper drops in overall employment during the "pandemic-induced recession," the report states, especially since a greater share of its gig workers are in transportation, arts, entertainment and recreation, which have been hit especially hard.
Many have been buoyed by the unemployment benefits provided by the coronavirus stimulus bill.
That's especially relevant because gig workers tend to make less than their conventional counterparts. Gig workers in the professional, scientific and technical sector in L.A. earn an average of $52,000 annually, compared to their counterparts who earn $142,000.
The forecast examined tech industry jobs, with five large clusters led by the Bay Area and followed by Southern California, then Boston, Seattle, and Manhattan. The report noted that tech jobs increased dramatically in most of those areas from 2005 to 2020, while in Los Angeles there was only a moderate increase of 36,000 tech jobs.
Although L.A. County ranked second out of 20 counties for having the most tech jobs in the U.S., it was 11th on that same list for average pay. Tech workers in L.A. earned an average salary of $142,000, slightly above the national average of $135,000 for the industry. In Santa Clara, tech workers received an average salary of $287,000, while in Manhattan that number is $205,000 and in Seattle $200,000.
Though the tech industry has done well amid the pandemic, the forecast noted that it could be harder to see a near-future increase in tech workers in the Bay Area and New York, with high costs of living, as companies experiment with remote working.
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Gaming is eating the world.
So says a new report issued Tuesday by L.A.-based investment firm MaC Venture Capital.
The report mentions the recent explosion of gaming companies – including Epic Games' $1.78 billion raise that valued it at $17.3 billion, Unity's $1.3 billion IPO that valued the Epic competitor at $13.7 billion and Roblox's $150 million fundraise that valued the kid's gaming "sandbox" at $4 billion — and that was before the pandemic boosted Roblox's user base.
But most of the analysis is devoted to the techniques and tools that gaming has popularized over the years, and that are fast proliferating into areas as diverse as retail, film production, medicine and national defense.
Disney is laying off 28,000 workers at its U.S. theme parks after the pandemic devastated Walt Disney World and kept Anaheim's Disneyland Resort shuttered for six months.
Disney Parks Chairman Josh D'Amaro said Tuesday that 67% of those being laid off from both Disney World and Disneyland are part-time employees.
"As difficult as this decision is today, we believe that the steps we are taking will enable us to emerge a more effective and efficient operation when we return to normal," said D'Amaro in a statement.
Disney World was able to open with a limited capacity in July, but Disneyland has been closed since March. D'Amaro took a jab at Gov. Gavin Newsom suggesting that his hand was forced by California's "unwillingness" to allow for the park to open.
On Tuesday, 19 state legislators pleaded with Newsom following calls from Anaheim's mayor to reopen the Disneyland and theme parks throughout California. They argued that parks can reopen safely but they are left in the dark as to which steps need to be followed for reopening.
The announcing statement also added that they are speaking to unions in order to know what steps are next for union-represented cast members.
Disney's third quarter earnings showed an 85% drop in revenues to $2 billion from the company's parks, experiences and products division compared to the same period last year.
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