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Nic Phillips - CultureMap.com

Nic Phillips

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Our Featured Guest founded CultureMap, but that’s not where his story starts. Nic Phillips was only 11 years old when he began his first career as a theatrical lighting technician. The industry was making strides in the development of new lighting technology and soon he was traveling internationally, working at DisneyLand Hong Kong, in Mexico and in New Zealand. He founded CultureMap to create a completely digital magazine, so first developed a utility software application to support an enterprise class digital publishing organization. So far he has three markets publishing—all totally integrated—with original editorial.

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Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. It's guest time on the show and I have to point out it's serial entrepreneur guest time because with me now I have Nicholas Phillips, the Founder of CultureMap and quite a few other entities; Nic, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.

Nic: Thank you for having me.

Russ: You bet. Well I do want to talk about CultureMap - I want to focus on it - but it's - it's impossible just to start with there given your accomplishments, why don't you fill in our audience from high school to today.

Nic: Sure. Well, you know, when I was eleven years old I wanted to be a lighting designer, there was really nothing else for me. And so I focused on that and, uh, did every show I could do and learned as much about lights and self taught and self taught and when I was sixteen I met one of the biggest lighting designers in the world and he said do you want to come to New York and learn how Broadway shows are done, this is the way you learn this business. And so, uh, my father let me do that and, uh, really got to work with a-and meet a lot of fantastic people at the high level in that - in the lighting business and, uh, spent many years doing shows all over the world.

Russ: Wow, what was it about lighting that appealed to you so much?

Nic: I don't know, I - it really was that, um, I think I liked the integration of the technology (Russ: mmhm) where, you know, we were - it was a really interesting time because we had robotic fixtures coming into the market (Russ: mmhm), there was a lot of rapid development in new technologies (Russ: mmhm), later we got LEDs (Russ: mmhm) and application of LEDs and lighting - the lighting business really is the Formula 1 of - or Theatrical Lighting is the Formula 1 of the lighting business (Russ: okay). So we get the new technologies, we sort of prove them and then they trickle down through the rest of the business.

Russ: Okay, but eleven years old, do you remember what it was that you saw that sparked the interest?

Nic: I do remember my father was working to try and save the Tower Theatre (Russ: oh wow) and we did one show in there to, you know, fundraiser trying to save it and I found a followspot and I dusted it off and I ran the spotlight and so I am known as the youngest and last followspot operator in the Tower Theatre.

Russ: Followspot means you - you're staying on it, all right, all right, all right.

Nic: Yeah, search, you know, like pointing it at the star, the spotlight, the limelight (20:57-Russ: right). Uh, so, um, so I think that's where I really got into it and from there had fantastic opportunities here in Houston with, uh, the American Festival for the Arts and Todd Fraiser found that and it was a high school program and I was eleven or (Russ: okay) twelve and, uh, he let me come over there and I got to work with some really great, um, people from the Julliard School who had come in and, uh, were teaching a theatre program and some of them have won Tony's now and (Russ: wow), so yeah, really just hands on and having an open pallet and a ton of equipment to just play and figure it out. An then, uh, another Houston business, LD Systems, let me come over there and work with them and, uh, that's where I really got my hands-on, serious concert lighting equipment and, uh, figured out how that stuff worked and

Russ: Concert, like rock concerts even?

Nic: Rock concerts, rodeo, you know (Russ: yeah, wow), they do the rodeo every year - the largest rodeo

Russ: So when you'd say they let me come over there and work with - would they pay you?

Nic: I did, when they were legally able to pay me they did pay me.

Russ: Don't want to get anybody into trouble here.

Nic: But it was a great experience, you know, cause I got to work in the shop, I got to repair equipment (Russ: wow), I, you know, I got to move some trucks around, things that you know - experiences that later, when I got into the product side of the business - in developing products and designing products - I had - I had put rivets in aluminum (Russ: wow), I had done all of this, and I'd cleaned lights, I had seen stuff coming back after a rain storm; I knew what the - the guys who are really doing the work in this business were working with (Russ: wow, wow) everyday.

Russ: And so - and that really kind of continued for quite a few years right?

Nic: It did, yeah, and I got to do really big projects from Las Vegas to Hong Kong. I was involved with right at the opening of Hong Kong Disney Land, um, went to Mexico - was invited to go down to Mexico and started doing shows there and did many, many Broadway shows in Mexico. Um, and, uh, then started working with them on their equipment side and - and then got into the product side of it.

Russ: Okay. Well I think I learned in doing research on you that along the way, uh, you decided to just sort of take on education as your own mission and you didn't need to go to any of these universities or business schools or any of those; is that correct?

Nic: That - that's true, you know (Russ: yeah), my parents always use a quote that, uh, you know, they said well don't you want to travel, don't you want to go places and I said yeah, I'll do that when somebody else pays for it and you know what, that worked (Russ: fantastic); these guys are paying me to do shows all over the place and, uh, same thing happened on the education side. I went and looked at a lot of schools, I looked at a lot of schools for lighting because I wanted to do nothing else and they told me that, well you don't know what you want to do. You've got to learn about costumes, you've got to do all this. And I said well I don't want to do that, I know exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it and if I need to go to school I'll go for something completely different (Russ: wow). So maybe that's what I'll consider now, is going back to school, but, uh, I kind of got a - well I got a great education from, you know, people enabling me to go (Russ: right, right) and discover it for myself.

Russ: And it - and as I understand it you stayed in lighting until eventually a company you were playing a major role in was acquired by Phillips.

Nic: I sort of learned Manufacturing, Sales and Distribution from a - a company in New Zealand (Russ: okay) and it really was a situation of, um, meeting the owner of the company and he said, you know, I like you, you got a lot of good ideas, you want to learn how to make stuff? So in the same way I learned the lighting business at a young age from a designer (Russ: right) who was, you know, Tony award winning, I learned from a manufacturer who invented a lot of technology, worked with a lot of advanced materials and they were integrated in that they had their own R & D department (Russ: wow), their own Sales, everything was a closed loop. So I went to New Zealand and worked with them, learned how their, uh, their whole process worked.

Russ: And - and this is lighting manufacturing?

Nic: Lighting manufacturing for, um, you know, theatre lights (Russ: yeah), stage and studio (Russ: right), uh, they made the followspots and - (Russ: yeah) and that sort of thing but their fixtures were really advanced. So they used extruded aluminum, all, uh, engineering plastics and engineering plastics were integrated into the bodies of these fixtures like no one had done before. They used a lot of automotive technologies (Russ: wow), you know, plastics that were used in radiators and that sort of thing; so I really got to learn a lot about the touch and feel of a handle - the design of a handle, testing, that sort of thing and then bringing that stuff back to North America and going and telling the story behind it so (Russ: wow). Uh, ultimately selling the lights but I was never a sales person, it was this is what this was for, this is where I've used it, I was applying the technology in (Russ: right) high profile shows (Russ: right) and the results were fantastic (Russ: right) because the products were so good.

Russ: Boy, you get in deep when you get into something, don't you? I mean - I mean, you - you liked the way it looked, you liked the way to control it, then you liked the way to manufacture it and even spread it throughout the market.

Nic: Exact and you know, it's all about just having your ears open. So, I mean, you talk about the education side, you can tell me you're in the bolts business and I want to know what kind of bolts you make and what are they used for and what are they made out of and - and why do you do that. Um, and so I really had a bit of a consulting career with lighting (Russ: wow) manufacturers, um, and helping them figure out how best to make their products more successful or who, uh, who might be interested in buying something like that (Russ: right) and where they need to apply (Russ: right) to show that it worked for that (Russ: r-right). I got involved in another company in New Zealand called Dream Solutions, I'm still very much a part of, uh, where a guy was writing this software control system and wanted to get into the U.S. markets so he called the guy who owned the lighting company down there and he said well there's this kid in Texas and you - you call him and just trust me it works. He called me and (R interrupts)

Russ: So this is control systems for lighting still, right?

Nic: Control systems (Russ: yeah, right) for lighting, yeah, and then I was hired by, well Cooper Industries ultimately acquired a U.K. company that made lighting controls (Russ: okay), went over there and, uh, was consulting with them, helping them figure out what to do with that product line and ultimately ended up licensing them the software from New Zealand.

Russ: Oh wow. So, are you still involved in lighting?

Nic: Still involved in lighting, um, take a - sort of, uh, pulled a camera out approached now (Russ: okay) and - and work with people that I like when - when it makes sense and, uh, most of that work is in Mexico where I'm (Russ: okay) a partner in a company that, uh, is really charged with producing spectaculars for clients like the Mexican government and, uh, that sort of thing. So (Russ: right), did the Bicentennial - big Bicentennial show for them in 2010 and G20 Summit this year.

Russ: Now - now wait, w-what does that mean "you did the show?"

Nic: So I'll - what I do is I kind of get pulled in at the last second and I bring a team of people in who, uh, you know, have done this a lot (Russ: right) and we come in and we sort of save the day.

Russ: What were they planning on before they found you at the last second?

Nic: What they've been doing for years (27:24-R laughing: okay) and years and (27:26-Russ: when you get) if you, you know, if you want to improve your standards you have to bring in a high quality team (Russ: okay) and it's the same reason why I went there in the first place with the Broadway shows (Russ: okay). The Broadway producers down there said, you know, we can't - we need those who do this all the time to come (Russ: okay) here and do it for us (Russ: okay) so that we have the same (Russ: cool, cool) level of high production values.

Russ: Cool. Now I also understand your connection and reasons to be in Mexico ultimately led to anther completely diverse business, share that.

Nic: Yes, well I'm completely focused on that now (Russ: yeah) - well, I'm never completely focused on anything but this is, uh, a company called Watts On Power (Russ: okay) because we keep the watts on. And, um, it's, uh, we use dynamic electrical equipment to provide continuous, clean, uh, mission critical power to data centers, hospitals, uh, industrial manufacturing, that sort of thing. It's a Mexican technology, Mexican family, manufacturing and (R interrupts)

Russ: But you're talking about a UPS system - a U.P.S. system.

Nic: U.P.S. system, exactly. So it's a big U.P.S. system without batteries, without (Russ: oh) inverters, so it's…

Russ: So that's the difference right there, yeah, okay.

Nic: That's the difference, truly simple solution and, uh, instant start on this generator (Russ: okay). So you can bring megawatts of power online instantly, um, and, uh it's proven (Russ: okay). This is not a new technology (Russ: yeah), but these guys have been doing it a long time and their clients are pretty high profile.

Russ: Now what in the world was it that triggered you to be interested in that, I mean that's - that's what I find fascinating about you this - but yet...

Nic: That was another "There's a kid in Texas that you call" (Russ: right, right, right). And so I was invited to meet the family,(Russ: yeah), by another family friend down there and, uh, we ended up identifying that I could probably build a distribution business around this and certainly understand the technology and that's - that's what we're doing. So I'll put the team together, I'll put all the right people in place and it's very much like culturemap, you out people in place and it'll take off.

Russ: And that's a - that's a present mission, it's overlapping what other missions you might be in at the same time, right?

Nic: Exactly, exactly.

Russ: Okay, cool, cool. All right, so - so w-what else is there? We - we have Watts On, we have the lighting, we have culturemap, is there more?

Nic: Well I...

Russ: And then we gotta get to culturemap (Nic: yeah).

Nic: Well, kind of a derivative of culturemap is, uh, I do, uh, work in the auto - auto realm with Auto Journalism and (Russ: okay) the Texas Auto Writers Association, kind of help them out, help the manufacturers out - it's a new thing (Russ: okay). So I get to drive a lot of cars and provide feedback on that and show the - the audience on culturemap how we, you know, what's (Russ: oh, okay) out there today, what's high end, what's unexpected in the auto space (Russ: okay). And, um, and then I do a bit of Real Estate with my family.

Russ: Okay, great. All right, so let's get to culturemap, what - what in the world triggered that idea?

Nic: Well, I'll tell you, culturemap came from the - the software side where we wanted to, uh, well I saw that there was a need to develop a software platform for Enterprise Class publishing, and, uh, what was gonna bridge the gap between Legacy Print publishers and the web and making the web successful and, you know, three or four years ago there were just conversations about online advertising, now that is - that's all there is, you know, that's what I was talking about.

Russ: Right. Well, but - but in the media it still seems like there's a lot of pain out there of, uh, Legacy publications trying to make it make sense (Nic: that - that's true) but you just dived straight in right?

Nic: Yeah well - that was - that's the idea though, we went straight in and we removed all of those Legacy barriers (Russ: okay). So being an all-digital format, uh, we're able to invest more in the people (Russ: right). So this is not a blog with people scattered about the country and no home office, when you come to culturemap there is a newsroom (Russ: all right); a physical newsroom with reporters that are seasoned journalists in the market. They really know the city, they live in the city, they love the city that they're reporting on and so they're able to shine a spotlight on the very best of what's going on and have editorial authority behind that, um.

Russ: What was it though that - that made you think wow, I want to do this even though - even though you - even though you saw, you know, the software application?

Nic: Well I'll tell you the - from the editorial side of what made culturemap, the (???) was really young professionals groups. There's was this time in - probably around 2008, 2009 - when arts organizations felt that they had to have young professionals groups (Russ: right) to, you know, build a new audience and just, you know, teach the future (Russ: right) what they needed to - to know about an (Russ: right, right) arts organization. And everyone was fighting to get more members of their young professionals group and they all had the same two hundred and twenty-five people (Russ: right, right) in them, you know, and going to all the parties and everything (Russ: right).

And then there was this movement away from it and - and what I thought was that if you built, uh, you know, a body of content surrounding what those people - what those audiences do everyday - what they do in their community - you could really deliver a lot of utility and trust so that if I said look, you should go to the East end of Downtown and see this really crazy show in a barn and it's safe to park your car there, you'll - you'll go do that because you get your sports coverage from us or (Russ: right) or you get food coverage (Russ: right) and we've sent you to that restaurant and- and that was safe and the arts organizations really focus on what they did. You know, if you're - do ballet we do ballet and we don't do (Russ: right, right) anything other than that, you know? We're a museum and we focus on contemporary art we do (Russ: right, right) contemporary art.

So we take all of their stories and put them all together because they are, you know, the fabric of life (Russ: right) in a community and then we - we deliver, uh, a breadth of content so that people can really find, you know, find those things (Russ: right, right) that they didn't know existed.

Russ: But what about the system, the software system, could make it play such an instrumental role in being able to publish like this, digitally?

Nic: Sure, so the - the system was built in a way that, uh, I really call - it was called Culture Dash - and, uh, and it was the first of its kind and there was a mapazine, and so the idea was to have a platform that delivered utility to both the publishing company and the end user (Russ: right) where we could rapidly scale the development of a site up and build things that, um, you know, that other publishers just weren't able to do in that rapid fashion and have it integrated. So some of the features that we have are the ability - when you're in multiple markets - to write a story for one market and have another editor pick that story up but make it unique to theirs. So if we do the five best Margaritas, you can do this evergreen story about here's what the five best margaritas - here's what makes a great margarita (Russ: right) and then here are the five best in Houston (Russ: right); and then an Austin editor can pick it up and reuse the evergreen (Russ: right) portion but have unique content that is the five in Austin - in Austin.

Russ: And very - very efficiently.

Nic: And then what we do is we geo locate those five locations (Russ: okay) and so now the story knows where it takes place and the system knows where it takes place and it can create, uh, you know, I call these circular references where more information can be brought in and again we're delivering utility, but all with editorial authority on top. So nobody's bough their way in, you're not sort of generating content from other people's content; we make all of this (Russ: wow), we follow the story through (Russ: wow) and through.

Russ: Now it - it must have caused some change, uh, to be required from a reporting/editing perspective.

Nic: Sure, yeah, we and particularly since we've brought in a team of, uh, you know, in Houston we started with writers who had been writing in print form for (Russ: right, right), you know, twenty-eight years in the city (Russ: right) so they were really, uh, in-ingrained in that (Russ: right), so we had to design the system so that it made sense from a publishing standpoint (Russ: right), and again, now we're a publishing software company that's in the publishing business (Russ: right), so all of the enhancements to the system were done with what they wanted, you know. They wanted to have pull quotes, well we created a way to have pull quotes in a story and - and we're continuing to do that as we bring on new markets and we have more people coming in from the editorial side, they're bringing us a - additional features and look and feel that they want to have in the product (Russ: okay) and we develop that and now our platform is that much more robust and available to other publishers who want to license it from us (Russ: wow, okay) and- and get us to do the

Russ: Very interesting, but I would assume you do have some resistance to change, I mean there are some people who say wow I want to go back to go back to the paper.

Nic: Well yeah I mean I get a question everyday about why don't you print it.

Russ: Right

Nic: Well you can print it. And we do have some fantastic print features on there. But really what we've really done instead of just printing a certain number in a month and being a controlled circulation publication we're delivering that same amount of content if not more every day.

Russ: Right, so along this way you had this vision and I think it took some fundraising to put this thing into business. Correct? So was the vision easy for you to sell.

Nic: Well I'll tell you I partnered up with Lonnie Schiller and he really had a, he had a CultureMap which was a map with dots, and we turned it into something completely different. And he's always been part of the hospitality business, the lifestyle business, in this city for a long time, and so he really crafted the story behind the investment and culture map and razing the money. And we still have a very small group of investors that are passionate about what we're trying to do here, and as we expand and go into other markets fo course we'll be bringing in more.but it's still very much…

Russ: Ok, well I think that expansion seems to fit the model very well. In fact you just recently opened your third market didn't you?

Nic: We did Dallas is our third market and so Houston was November 3, 2009 and brought on Austin sort of mid July 2012, and now Dallas is open September 2012.

Russ: Ok and you don't just show up and try to get some journalism majors recently graduated from college right?

Nic: Of course we provide opportunities for writers of all levels. The editor in cheife and managing editor and all of the sort of key players on the masthead are seasoned professionals that have come from other outlets that have been established over a long period of time. In Houston we just ran some stats that show that the size of the audience that we've reached and the number of the people in the community that we've touched. And the percentages that we've captured in a really short period of time shows that we really are, that content is king and that we really are delivering the content that really touches those people's lives and they continue to come back.

Russ: And you mentioned licensing to your grand vision apparently includes moving CultureMap across the country but also finding other publications, legacy publications that are ready to jump in and

Nic: Yeah and there is at the same time we were developing our platform the Texas Tribune and Bay Area Observer were developing theirs and we ended up getting together and sort of taking a look at what each other was doing and we had really done a lot of the same work. We had a lot of functionality that they didn't have and they had some parts that we didn't have. They were a non-profit and so they were doing this with grant money and that sort of thing. So we weren't the only ones identifying this space. But we are the commercial integrator. So we know how to do it and we know how to generate revenue from those products and can help others do that if they are will to send some revenue our way.

Russ: Ok, well it really is a fascinating story Nic and I really appreciate you sharing it with us.

Nic: Yeah thank you for having me.

Russ: That's Nicholas Phillips the founder of Culture Map and several other entities and this is the BusinessMakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.

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