13 Instant Lessons to Learn from 9 Story Media Group’s President and CEO
Insiya Meherally, BBA 20
From a 3,000 square foot basement to operations of over 500 people on both sides of the Atlantic, 9 Story Media Group has established itself as a major player in the animated content industry. The company was founded in 2002 by President and CEO Vince Commisso and Executive Vice President Steven Jarosz. Over the last 14 years, 9 Story has produced over 900 half-hours of award-winning children’s programs and over 2,500 half-hours of animated and live action content that have been viewed and acclaimed internationally. On behalf of The Insider, I was granted an interview with Vince Commisso, a profound man with a wealth of knowledge and insight, resulting from a diverse experience that began at a young age. Over the course of the interview, I found that much of what Mr. Commisso told me could be applied widely, and so, I have compiled my notes into this list of 13 things I learned from talking to 9 Story’s President and CEO, which I hope you’ll find just as fascinating and inspirational as I did!
- You don’t have to start with a business education to end up with a business education.
This touched me in particular, being someone who planned her way through med-school five years before she could even apply to get in. Mr. Commisso’s journey began with an undergraduate degree in English and Political Science, after which he earned his BAS in Finance and continued on to receive his MBA in Marketing and Finance from Schulich, along with what used to be called a Certified General Accountant designation (now a CPA). “When I got to York,” he said, “I decided that I really wanted to get a foundational education in Literature and Political Science, because I wanted to understand more about the construct of the human being and what appealed to that human being, and how institutions were organized around people. And then I thought I would go into business school and figure out how, within that construct, to do well.” About Schulich, he said, “I remember really being challenged to think… You’ll learn the skills if you’ve learned to learn, and Schulich did a very good job of teaching me how to learn.”
There’s no better person to hear this from than a Business student’s idol: a man who has been through what most of us have or will eventually go through and who has succeeded in ways we all dream of for ourselves. I hope you can find comfort in knowing that Schulich will take care of us, and we will turn out just fine.
- University was just as tough back then.
“Undergrad was a lot of work and it felt like it was a lot of things being thrown at you. If you can imagine your brain as being this little core and having all these things thrown at you, kind of landing on it, splattered, in this unformed shape – and I think the idea of that was, later with time, you’ll shape it,” Mr. Commisso said. “And that was what undergrad, both with regards to the BA and the BAS, were like. Then when I got to business school, it felt like, ‘Okay, now you’re going to make your way through this stuff’.” I’ve heard this a lot – students find university to be a draining and demanding experience, with all the MGMT1000 readings and Connect assignments to keep up with, so just know that you’re not alone in having to work hard to earn your degree.
- You can actually enjoy Stats.
I was recently horrified to discover Business Analytics on my timetable after all the painful details I have heard from second-years. But Mr. Commisso saw it differently; “I remember one of my favorite classes was Statistics. My professor really unpacked in a very, very methodical way how Statistics worked and the value. I remember doing very well in that course and that surprised me. I particularly enjoyed that class. It was my second year, and it was Advanced Statistics, and I thought it was great.”
Readers, if you heard the genuine appreciation in Mr. Commisso’s voice as he spoke about the subject, perhaps you, too, would be convinced to give Stats (another?) chance and try to see the integrity in the subject; if not, I’ll let you know how it goes this term!
- You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it, and that’s all you need.
This is one I’m sure you’ve heard before, but here’s a little anecdote to redefine it. “I’m a Certified Professional Accountant,” Mr. Commisso told me. “I got that when I graduated from MBA. I was a few courses away from getting a CGA designation, it was six courses, and when I went to work in Nelvana, interestingly enough I was in the Accounting Department, and they paid for the Accounting costs. And then, when I became a Producer on The Magic School Bus, ironically, the very first show I did, I said, ‘I’m one course away from graduating’, and they said, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay for that. You’re not an Accountant anymore!’ And I said, ‘Well, okay, I will then.’ And I did the last course on it.”
Lesson learnt: don’t let any boundaries define what you can or cannot do – define the boundaries yourself!
- But it’ll last longer if it’s something you love.
“At first I thought I’d be at a financial institution,” he recalled. “I worked at one of the big banks for about 8 months and really didn’t enjoy that. And when I got to Nelvana, I went in on a one month contract to be a Financial Analyst, but soon I, well, fell in love with – I’ve always been a cartoon aficionado; when I was a kid, you couldn’t wake me up Monday to Friday, but Saturday morning… no problem! – and I fell in love with the product, what they were making.” If you’ve followed Mr. Commisso’s background, you’ll see diversity – Accounting, Finance, Marketing and, as I found out later, Commercial Real Estate – and all of this led up to where he is now, heading a company that creates award-winning animated television content. “I love the nuts and bolts of that because you’re dealing with 24 drawings in a second, and you’re delivering about 100 minutes a week.” He went on to tell me, “My first show, Peep and the Big Wide World, out of the gates, won an Emmy. And I didn’t know what I was going to do after that, because I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we started this company two years ago; two years later I won an Emmy. Now what?’ And then we just kept going, and made more shows and did bigger things.”
The company is currently working on growth and expansion, bolder partnerships and of course, continuing to make the amazing cartoons most of us watched growing up with our PJs and Cheerios.
- Your fears change.
“They’re paradoxical,” Mr. Commisso said. “One was, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to make sure there’s work here all the time’, because I took seriously the fact that we started the company with 23 people and now, on both sides of the Atlantic, we have over 500. And there was always this concern – and it’s still a concern to this day – that there’s enough for them to do, that there’s enough work, that we’ve done a good job as managers, creative people and salespeople, bringing in enough raw material that we’ve molded into something that needs to be produced, so that’s a concern. And then, paradoxically, the concern is, ‘Wow, this is not a business where you grow initially anyway, where you grow 5 or 10 or 15 percent a year. You have one show, and then you have two shows, and you’ve grown 100%.’ And managing that growth and scaling, because we went from one show in 2002, and we had 10 shows going on in 2010, and managing that growth and scaling was actually quite challenging. And making sure you did that in a way where the quality of the output is still as high as when you were doing one was challenging.” So, yes, there are bigger things in the world to worry about than not getting that partner’s business card at even though you made a really good impression at that networking event, or forgetting to submit your assignment to Turnitin (okay, maybe you should worry about that one).
- The formula for success is simple.
“I always joke, and it’s not really a joke, that running a business is really simple – you have good people, you maintain good relationships, and you make a good show, a good product,” Mr. Commisso told me. “It is really simple, and you could apply that to any product or service. You could apply that to any company in the world and it’s true. It’s very simple, but it’s just not easy. I think those are the things that separate – how you execute on those and how you make it happen is what distinguishes good companies from bad companies. And should you be innovating, and should you be thinking about things that revolutionize and shape? Yes, but acknowledging that, foundationally, you still need good people, good products, and good relationships.”
Write that down somewhere, folks; it’ll come in handy when we graduate… IF we make it through Stats.
- Innovation isn’t an action, it’s a process.
“When you innovate,” he notes, “there needs to be an acceptance and it’s tougher than people think, because most of what you’re doing when you innovate, you’re doing to discard. And you’re prospecting, you’re digging to uncover something that could revolutionize. And uncovering – that’s what everyone gives you credit for in the outside world – is nowhere near as taxing as making sure you have the discipline, the focus, and the will to keep prospecting before you’ve uncovered it… You have to have a way to measure what you’re doing when so much of what you’re doing is qualitative and therefore, by definition, tough to measure. So, you have to put it up against another qualitative standard that everyone kind of absorbs as a fact in your culture, and you measure it against that”.
This is food for thought when you’re planning all-nighters for upcoming assignments – in other words, don’t. Give the process time and effort and it will always be rewarding, unless going to classes on six cups of coffee works for you.
- A diverse experience will take you where you’re headed, and nothing will change that.
When I asked Mr. Commisso how what he learned at Schulich helped him with the company’s creative products, he said, “The real thing I learned was how to problem-solve. Because I had both, on one extreme I had Marketing and on the other I had Finance. The problems that I was exposed to were both right-brain and left-brain problems. Even in Finance, there’s no real right answer; there’s one way to do things and another way to do things and both ways achieve the objective, so there’s no real right answer. And I took a course in Marketing Research, which was really brilliant because it helped you unpack behavior, taught by a terrific Prof whose name I can’t remember, and I was able to figure out what solutions were to things that both attacked our balance sheet and P/L, and creativity within itself is problem-solving. Sometimes creativity is such that you solve a problem you didn’t even know existed; then you’re a visionary. And if you solved a problem you knew existed, then you had to, at some point, apply your creative strengths to do it.” He went on to say, “You know, Marketing Research used quantitative methods to solve problems qualitatively and then in Finance, you actually have quantitative problems that you could apply different kinds of qualitative solutions to. Those two extremes, led by different situations, really positioned me to do it. Plus, Schulich really challenged me to think, and as I told you earlier, I was challenged when I was there and I liked it, so I met the challenge. It unlocked things in me which I liked.”
This is relatable no matter where you are in your academic journey– at some point, lessons from your Acting for Non-Majors elective will help with your public speaking skills; you just have to find a way to make it work.
- Keeping calm in situations of panic is half of the solution.
This was one of my favorite moments in the interview, and I am putting the story down here as it was told to me, word for word, though hearing it from Mr. Commisso himself was an entirely different, enriching experience itself.
“At 9 Story, we had a major financial hiccup in 2007. We started a show and the company that was financing it was private equity-backed, like we are now, all in a good way and the private equity guys pulled the plug on them because they didn’t like what was going on with the leadership. And we were not going to get paid.
“It was very perilous for us at the time because, while we could easily handle that today, back then that was tragic and difficult. It didn’t look like we were going to be able to make payroll – we could make the current payroll but not the one two weeks from then – and I didn’t know what we were going to do because all of the people we were dealing with there had either been let go or, well, we didn’t know what we were going to do.
“I remember, before the private equity firm made it in, I had a meeting with the founder of the company at one of the markets, and then I read that he was brought back in by the private equity firm. I had his business card and I called him, and he answered the phone and I told him the situation and I basically said to him, ‘We’re not getting paid, and the contract says that if you guys pull the plug you have to pay, first of all, whatever’s owing on the production, and then you’re going to accelerate the payments of our fees and overheads.’ And that’s the way the contract is written because you don’t want to put in the pipeline what you could otherwise deploy to partners and those partners just can’t pull the plug. If they pull the plug, even if you’ve made money along the way, that pipeline has value that is projected out to the future, so they have to make up for that value when they decide to pull the plug. And when I got a hold of him, he said, ‘I don’t know anything about this, so I’ll look into it, but I doubt I’ll be able to do anything to help you.’ And we had a long discussion about how they needed to honor their obligation.
“He called me back two or three hours later and said, ‘I looked into it. Vince, you’re right, we did this. I’m going to do the math and tell you how much we owe you.’ And I had already done the math. *chuckles* And I said, ‘Okay, when will you do that?’ And this is a Friday, so that would have been a Monday, and he called me on Monday and said, ‘This is how much we owe you.’ It was within a thousand dollars of the math I had done and his was higher, so I told him, ‘I have a slightly lower number, but we’ll go with yours.’ He laughed and said, ‘I’ll have the money wired to you within three weeks,’ and I said, ‘I can’t do that. You have to have it wired to me within this period of time or we’ll have a payroll issue.’ So you know how you wait for the SWIFT confirmation on wires? I called the bank every day and it was wired to the account just before payroll had to go out on the following Friday. That turned it around and it was a tough time in 2007 and 2008, but we came out and by 2010, we really took off as a company.”
- Leadership is about emotional control.
If the anecdote above wasn’t enough to convince you that emotional control really is half of the solution, here’s what Mr. Commisso had to say about the topic: “By extension, survival is based on emotional control. I can find people that have the skills. Most of the people that work for me have skills that are greater than mine in technical education; there are better Accountants than me, there are better Marketers, there are better people in Finance. My job is not, if I am to succeed in one of the companies, not to be better than them – it’s to ensure that, whatever they feel, they walk in wanting to do the best job that they can, and that is an emotional state to be in. And I have to create an environment, by how I conduct myself and how I interact with them. The simple fallback way to do this is to be hard on them; well, that doesn’t work anymore. Now you have to make them want to do it, and that’s emotional success, that’s having a high EQ.”
- Companies look for more than just technical skills.
At Schulich, we enjoy our bulldog Frosh chants and our UBS pub nights, but eventually, life catches up to us and we find ourselves hunting for internships and jobs before we even graduate. For all of you out there who are already planning your summer internships, I had the chance to ask Mr. Commisso what it was that he sought out in recruits, being on a different side of the desk now.
“You know, I have no doubt that when someone graduates from Schulich, or graduates from a top school, I really look for soft skills. And those soft skills are how well you articulate yourself, how serious are you about things, how determined are you, what are those things that make one successful? And I have no doubt about the educational foundation, smart as a whip, but how willing are you, able are you, to focus all those things mandate or objective-based? Not short term, but long term objectives. Part of that is a function of hidden skills, and part of that is skills you display. I try to, based on the skills that are displayed, create a relation between that and what I think the hidden skills are, because I have no doubt that there are technical skills. So, that’s what I look for, and it’s elusive, it’s hard to find, but you know what the thing is; if everything in Business was right there, it would be easy for everybody, and it’s supposed to be hard.”
- You can aim for CEO but…
“Well, you know, I always joke with my wife that I had to start my own company to become CEO, so I don’t know if I would have done it on any conventional path, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because doing it on a conventional path is kind of contrary to being an entrepreneur. So, I would say two things; one, don’t close yourself off to any possibilities. Whatever they may be, don’t close yourself off to any, be it being CEO of a company or starting and running it and making it a significant company of its own right. And I think I would have had a very difficult time going to an institution that already existed and someone saying to me, ‘Hey, there’s the top, climb the ranks’; that’s just not me. But if other people say, ‘That’s the path I must be on’, for some people it’ll be square peg, round hole. So, open yourself up to who you are, and use your education to foster those opportunities that directly correlate to who you are, verses your education being a means towards a specific end. The education is part of you, and I always tell my children that their education is a unique interpretation for them, so that they can do with it what they will. It’s supposed to enrich your life. Going to school to have one or two specific objectives, you’re precluding the possibility of enriching your life, because it may not be the objective that matches with you. So, that’s one thing I’d say, and the second thing I’d say is, enjoy the journey. Enjoy the journey. Not just the result, but the journey, because if you don’t enjoy it, the result won’t mean much.”
The interview ended and I thanked Mr. Commisso for his time – then I asked him some questions that I had about the company, my own career path and about deciding not to go to med-school. He was kind enough to give me his time and to truly hear me out, and I’ll tell you what I took away from this: that fear comes from awareness and it was better to be scared about an outcome that I controlled, rather than one that was controlled around me, and that I should always follow my heart. His words have become a maxim to live by; “Let me learn, let me dust myself off, and try again”, and I was humbled to share a conversation with Mr. Commisso on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
But above all, I believe that going into 2017, I will take from this conversation a new perspective, hope and optimism, because I know that life is good, we’re in a good place, and we determine what happens next in this exciting journey.