As the Creative Entrepreneurs community has told us, creative people in particular find hearing from role models more useful than reading business advice or studying theory. Our goal in launching ‘The Founder Files’ was to let them do just that. And Col’s entrepreneurial story couldn’t have been more inspiring and energising in fulfilling that goal.
Guests, who included a delegation from University of the Arts London, Google Campus, MUBI (whose founder Efe Cakarel starred in The Founder Files back in September), and a host of exciting start-ups from across the film, design and fashion and beyond, gathered at Second Home, the creative co-working space from Creative Entrepreneurs ambassador Rohan Silva, to hear Col’s entrepreneurial journey, first hand.
With an infectious enthusiasm, self-confessed movie geek Col kicked-off the evening with a small quiz for the audience, offering a £25 Amazon voucher to the first guest to recall the eighth and final rule of ‘Fight Club’. With the ice firmly broken, and Col’s fun-loving, encyclopedic knowledge of film trivia out in the open, the audience knew they were in for an insightful and fun evening, as they helped themselves to beers and snacks.
As the conversation with Creative Entrepreneurs Founder Carolyn Dailey got started, Col recalled how IMDb started life in 1980 as his personal film diary – a handwritten archive of the films he’d watched, the actors who’d starred in them and the filmmakers who brought them to life. The passion project was never intended to be a business, but the advent of the internet combined with Col’s computer science degree and the open-sharing ethos that characterised early online communities, led Col to take his passion project online, giving massively greater scope for his fellow film enthusiasts around the world to contribute.
This early example of crowd-sourcing allowed the platform to grow exponentially, and it quickly established itself as the most comprehensive film data base online. Before long, advertisers were approaching Col to buy space on the site, and a business model was born. “One of the things that interests me about entrepreneurship is how you can build on what has come immediately before you and take it in a direction you wouldn’t have thought,” Col reflected.
In 1995 Col left his day job as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard in Bristol to focus on IMDb full time – within two weeks it had become the world’s first profitable website! As the data and profits grew, IMDb caught the attention of an emerging online bookseller, Amazon, who eventually bought the platform in 1998. Choosing to stay on as CEO, Col highlighted the importance for founders to consider their future when selling a business, “Always inquire about the number of original founders still involved in their company after sale” he asserted, “…it gives you a hint at what your future will be like.”
Other top tips for starting a creative business shared by Col included not losing sight of family life, the importance of starting a business with others and, likening himself to Jim Carey in ‘Yes Man’, saying yes to as many opportunities as possible, “I often find myself saying yes, and then that leads to some other crazy thing. If I had said no to an offer back in 1990, I would have had this entirely different life”.
At times it was hard to believe Col is often referred to as ‘the most powerful Brit in Hollywood’, given his approachability, unshakable enthusiasm for what he does and unquestionably endearing nature. This was reflected in the rush of questions guests competed to ask him, causing the Q&A session to run nearly an hour overtime. While this meant the after-talk pizza got cold, no one minded, as they devoured it while waiting in the huge queue that formed to speak to Col individually.
Ever the supporter of the next generation of creative entrepreneurs, Col engaged in deep conversation with everyone who waited. With his infectious laugh and enthusiasm, he was the last to leave, saying how thrilled he was to have been with us for the evening. “To me it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. I’m very privileged that someone will give me a salary for something I love”.
Our hosts for the evening were Second Home, the creative co-working space off Brick Lane designed by multi-award winning architectural duo SelgasCano to purposely spark creative collisions and chance encounters. Curved, transparent walls, secret indoor gardens and mismatched, yet perfectly curated furniture make it a delight for the design-conscious eye and a highly productive space for creative business collaboration. As Creative Entrepreneurs founder Carolyn Dailey noted whilst introducing the evening: “This venue couldn’t be more fitting. It’s a workspace for Creative Entrepreneurs which is exactly what’s in our DNA.”
Watch the full conversation HERE.
Top Business Tips From Col Needham at The Founder Files
- Consider what has been innovated before you and build on that
- Don’t start a company with a business idea but a passion – it’s the only way you’ll still love it 26 years on
- Expand as opportunities arise – in 2010 IMDb launches their PRO version for professionals in the industry with an annual fee, due to popular demand
- Don’t be quick to accept investors – Col rejected many investments until he sold to Amazon
- Do not lose sight of your family life- Col made a point of taking his children to school and back despite the long hours
- Be sensible about your outgoings – Col began as the only employee and only took others on when he was confident the business could afford another salary
- When selling some big companies will expect original founders to move on quickly after the sale. Do your research on other original founders still at the acquiring company for a view of how your future there will look
- Always say YES – opportunities come from the most unlikely circumstances
Fun facts you didn’t know about Col Needham
- His favourite director is Alfred Hitchcock
- He has watched his favourite film – ‘Vertigo’ by Alfred Hitchcock – 50 times
- Since his database began he has watched 10,128 films
- His first film memory is of winning a magazine drawing contest based on ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ which he later found out his grandmother had cheated on by finishing his drawing for him
- Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is his biggest business inspiration
- While queuing at the Oscars to meet his idol Steven Spielberg, Spielberg grabbed his arm and effused about how much he loves IMDb, saying it’s changed the way he works and that he’s on it all the time – including during the Oscar ceremony that had just finished!
- It took nine years before the creators of IMDb all met in person, when they eventually did they went to watch the newly released ‘Star Wars: Phantom Menace’
- Col labels himself as his “own service’s biggest fan” and says he uses it all the time
By Alicia Wilson