Emulating Walt Disney in the New Media Age

Earlier this month, a mobile application based on a single Hawaiian took the new media world by storm.

It achieved almost perfect ratings on the Apple Store and Google’s Play Store, as well as top 3 status on the charts multiple times. More than a dozen major media outlets (TechCrunch, CNBC etc.) had extensive coverage on the app days within its launch – and many covered it months before it was even available.

via Ryan Higa's website
via Ryan Higa’s website

That app is the “TeeHee App” – an interactive platform for fans of the wildly popular online celebrity Ryan Higa. Through the application, fans can have access to content curated by Ryan himself, and Ryan can interact directly with fans without the prior restrictions of YouTube, where most of his videos are posted. With his collection of idiosyncratic comedy videos (from badly produced lip sync videos to high quality skits – mostly filmed in his bedroom) reaching over 2.1 billion people and an established fan base of 14 million, Ryan is one of the most popular stars on YouTube – meaning thousands of users can be acquired in a matter of hours for the app at the charismatic star’s bidding.

What’s more: the company behind the TeeHee app – Victorious – already has plans for more than a dozen similar apps that have the same model: offering millions of existing fans exclusive access to their favorite stars’ content, and dozens of stars new ways to capitalize on the increased engagement.

Bing Chen: the Walt Disney for the New Media Age

The creative mind behind this startup is Penn alum Bing Chen, formerly the Global Creator Development Lead of YouTube and current Co-founder of Victorious. Recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient for developing multiple stars into million-dollar franchises during his tenure in YouTube, he now sits on the board of several new media associations. I had the opportunity to talk with Bing – who, like many of the stars he has helped built, is calmly eloquent and humorous – throughout the past year in different occasions. Protein shake in one hand, he told me about his dream to “become the next Walt Disney”.

In fact, the parallels between Bing’s entrepreneurial achievements and those of mass media mogul Walt Disney are somewhat comparable – both focus on character-based entertainment, both develop franchises out of the characters and both of them actually worked in The Walt Disney Company (on as its founder, the other as an intern).

While Walt represented the fictional side of building a media empire (film franchises, dozens of merchandise lines, a 13-billion-dollar theme park and 48.8 billion dollars every year all from a talking mouse), creative types like Bing herald the new wave of entertainment based on real-life personalities like Ryan Higa.

The discrepancies in the two’s pursuits may even grow smaller as stars like Ryan become more popular. YouTube somehow overtook Hollywood celebrities in popularity with their low-budget videos – many of which are also filmed in their bedrooms. The ten best performing of these comedians, musicians, talkers and thinkers make an average of 5 million dollars in profit every year, even after a 45% cut by YouTube. In other words, they are well-paid, well-connected and most of all – well-liked. To Bing, they are the “connected generation’s Oprah Winfrey…and Rupert Murdoch”, and the YouTube empire itself has become the “21st century Disney”.

To every aspiring entrepreneur who shares Bing’s lofty ambitions, there are three main takeaways from his journey so far:

1) Find one industry – not a job – you are passionate about.

In college, Bing’s involvement in a business fraternity and his role in forging international partnerships for The Ivy Council led many (including the Dean) to believe he was a business student. When he finally “revealed” his college major – creative writing – during his keynote speech at a Taiwanese conference, a member of the audience audibly reacted.

“Did you just gasp?” he asked, prompting laughter from the audience.

Bing decided against a business degree initially and pursued an English major because the latter allowed him to “operationalize abstractions” – in other words, turn abstract ideas into actionable goals or narratives – which eventually allowed him to craft the stories needed for his stars to reach a global audience. He sees the entertainment industry as the place for him and advises students to identify an industry they are passionate about (click here to read how).

“You identify an industry and not a job,” Bing explains, “because everyone changes their job at least 3 times. You cannot afford to be too narrow-minded.”

Bing’s intuition was proven right. In what was one of the harshest years in terms of employment, Bing was the only person from Penn accepted in Marissa Mayer’s Accelerated Management Program – as an English creative writing major.

2) You are not an “aspiring” anything. You are or you are not.

As Walt Disney said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

To Bing, exceptional success is more likely to be found in what one has already started doing, which is usually something that one is truly excited about. He also spoke of an aversion to relying on consulting and investment banking as the default career paths for graduating college students – the same aversion that was shared by Peter Thiel (billionaire venture capitalist) and Rich Ross (former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, current President of Discovery Channel) during their recent speeches at Penn.

Instead of dreaming to build a media empire like Walt Disney while following the same career trajectories that most students at Penn did, Bing jumped right into building his own franchises. As a result, his achievements in the media space reflect those of someone many years his senior.

When I mentioned a writer as a personal inspiration, his response was quick, resolute and indicative of the ambition needed to thrive in entrepreneurship:

“I want you to beat him by your junior year in college,”

3) Have an inspiration and/or mentor.

Bing’s childhood ambition was originally to become the President of the United States. After going through his father’s death when he was still young, he became more driven to impact people’s lives emotionally.

“I realized that when people die, they think about certain moments that define them,” he said during an interview with SCENE magazine. He decides to build a career in entertainment, where he envisions himself making the greatest impact by crafting these moments, rather than in politics.

He sets his sights on Walt Disney as a person to emulate – but not to imitate directly. He emphasized the importance of finding an inspiration or a mentor to hold oneself accountable to a direction. The way to find such a person is simple.

“I have never not gotten coffee with someone,” Bing remarks.

In fact, when Rich Ross (in his capacity as the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios) went to Penn for an annual speech, Bing was one of the four students who emailed him afterwards for a follow-up. From then on, Bing interned at Disney and a friendship blossomed.

In short, find your industry, start now and find a mentor.

Several weeks ago, I went to Rich Ross’ annual speech to pinpoint how he has influenced Bing during the latter’s college days. The uniformity in their messages was immediately perceivable:

“My mission every year is to remind you that your dream is under your control, and that you will never be truly successful if you don’t do what you are truly passionate about”.

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(Published on the Wharton Entrepreneurship Blog)

Jason Choi

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