Brendan Gahan — CSO at Mekanism on YouTube in 2005, Selling Epic Signal, and Your First 100 Drafts

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By RockWater Industries and Chris Erwin. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

This interview features Brendan Gahan, Partner and Chief Social Officer at Mekanism. We discuss working with OG YouTubers like Smosh back in 2005, founding Epic Signal and selling it to his former employer, hanging out in El Salvador’s Bitcoin Beach, why it takes him 100 drafts to publish content, the future of the creator economy, and learning how to enjoy what you create.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Erwin:

Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up. A podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.

Brendan Gahan:

I felt like my strengths could be better utilized going off on my own. It was really as simple as, well, I want to do this work the way that I know how to do it and the way I want to do it. And if that takes me going off on my own, then that's what I'm going to do. So I did. In hindsight, it sounds much smarter than it was. It was not smart from like an on paper standpoint, but I just felt like it was the right thing for me to do because I've been doing it longer than most people, I have relationships, I have a sense of what strategically works. I want to do it the way that I want to do it.

Chris Erwin:

This week's episode features Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism. So Brendan was born in Ventura, California, and grew up surfing many local breaks. But although his parents were educators, he entered college without a career focus. But just a few weeks away from graduation, a last minute call from his uncle sparked his entry to media and advertising, and he never looked back. His career started at a creative agency working on some of the first YouTube campaigns with hit creators like Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox's Smosh. With a growing reputation as a social and digital expert, Brendan eventually started his own agency, Epic Signal, which he ended up selling to Mekanism.

Chris Erwin:

Today, Brendan is their chief social officer. On the side he also publishes a wide array of content, making it one of the industry's most well regarded thought leaders. Some highlights of our chat include what it was like to sell his company to his former employer, why he's hanging out in El Salvador's Bitcoin Beach, how it took him 100 videos to post his first TikTok, the future of the creator economy, and learning how to enjoy what you create. All right, let's get to it.

Chris Erwin:

Brendan, thanks for being on The Come Up Podcast.

Brendan Gahan:

Thanks for having me, pumped to be here.

Chris Erwin:

We were just having a little chat about, you got a surf in this morning, if that's right.

Brendan Gahan:

I did. I'm working in El Salvador this week in a little town called Zonte, people may have heard of it referred to as Bitcoin Beach. And there's a nice little right hand point here, so made sure to get out there.

Chris Erwin:

Are you regular foot or goofy foot?

Brendan Gahan:

I'm regular, yeah.

Chris Erwin:

Okay, so you like the right-handers. I'm goofy, I like to go left.

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah, right hand point in particular, it's like my favorite kind of wave. I grew up in Ventura. So grew up surfing C Street, at the point in Ventura. And then every once in a while I would make the trek up to Rincon and stuff.

Chris Erwin:

I'm curious, where exactly did you grow up? Were you in the LA County or were you up north?

Brendan Gahan:

No, I was in Ventura. So there's Ventura County, which encompasses quite a bit of Southern California, but I grew up in the city of Ventura, maybe three quarters of a mile away from the beach, it's like a 15-minute walk or so, and yeah, it was great.

Chris Erwin:

Great. And do you still have family that's in Ventura?

Brendan Gahan:

Parents are still there. I've got some aunts, uncles, cousins in the area. And then my younger sister lives, she's still in Ventura County, but about 30 minutes away from where we grew up.

Chris Erwin:

I often talk about Southern California real estate. And you look at one of the few pockets in SoCal that's near the beach that has been underdeveloped is definitely Ventura. I think that's true for the last 30 years. I think that's finally starting to change, particularly during COVID and remote work. Have you seen that there?

Brendan Gahan:

Oh my gosh, it's crazy. I was just there this past weekend. And there's all these developments going up, like apartment complexes and condos, and yeah, it's sort of interesting. When you look at Ventura on a map, there's sort of like this no man's land between LA and Santa Barbara. And for years, Ventura was just sort of like overlooked. It was like people would pass through Ventura to go to either Santa Barbara or LA, but then more and more Ojai started to become a place, and Ventura has become a bit of a destination and there's now some startups out there. Before the biggest company there was Patagonia. Ventura, growing up was sort of like this blue collar cowboy meets surfer vibe for the most part. And yeah, that's definitely evolving.

Chris Erwin:

I think cowboy meets surfer vibe sounds about as good as it can get, you know?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah, yeah.

Chris Erwin:

I forget who, but when I was at Big Frame almost 10 years ago now, I remember there were some industry friends that had set up shop in Ventura and were commuting to LA, and it was only about like an hour, hour and 15 away, not that crazy if you timed it right. So curious, looking at you being at the nexus of digital media and advertising and all the things, were there any media influences when you were there, when you were younger? Did that come from your parents or anything like that? Or was your upbringing focused on completely different things?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah, definitely not. LA seemed like the furthest thing in the world to me growing up. And it seemed like a city, it may as well have been New York in my mind. Even though it was only like an hour and a half, we would go to LA on a field trip every couple years, or maybe my parents would take us there and we'd visit a museum or something like that. But it was not like a destination that was really on my radar. And from a professional standpoint where my head was at, I sort of had the cliche jobs in mind, it was like, oh, okay, maybe I'll be a teacher or a lawyer. A lot of people I knew growing up, and a number of relatives were like firemen, so my mind was sort of gravitating towards, I thought I'd either be a doctor, a lawyer or a psychologist. So I didn't have much of like a media or a tech influence until later.

Chris Erwin:

What did your parents do?

Brendan Gahan:

They were both in education. So my mom was a teacher's assistant in resource classes. And then my dad initially was like a teacher and then became a principal at a number of the special education schools in Ventura County. And then when he retired, he was the director of special education in Ventura. So education ran deep in the family, I guess.

Chris Erwin:

Yes. No, clearly understood. But I think you mentioned that you had an uncle that was in the media space, right?

Brendan Gahan:

That's right. Yeah, yeah. So I had an uncle who worked in advertising and he was at Wieden+Kennedy like in the heyday when it was like Bonos, Air Jordan, all that, when it was as big as it could get, and they lived a ways away. But whenever I saw him, I would just like pepper him with a million questions because to me, somebody working in advertising, in particular on like Nike and in that era, it wasn't just ads. It was like shifting culture, like Spike Lee and all that stuff. So I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. And I'd always ask him a million questions about it. But in my mind I never thought that I would end up working in that space. It seemed like this extra terrestrial sort of thing.

Brendan Gahan:

But he was always really cool. And he was like a creative director doing a lot of the Air Jordan spots and that sort of thing. So he always had funny stories he would share. And I just thought it was the coolest thing. I remember being in like elementary school, he'd visit or we'd go visit him, and I'd just pepper him with questions. So it was always sort of like seated in the back of my mind, but at the same time it felt unattainable, but I was really fortunate.

Brendan Gahan:

I don't know if we want to skip ahead too much, but basically he ended up offering me my first internship, totally came out of the blue. I got a phone call one day, I was like two days away from graduating from college. And I was about to go home for summer and work, and yeah, just out of the blue, he's like, "Hey, I got this guy on my team," he had started his own agency at this point, he's like, "And we need some young kid who understands digital," because this is 2005. And so I came up there and I interviewed with this guy he wanted me to intern for-

Chris Erwin:

But you did not go to college for this, if I understand correctly, you went to, is it UC Santa Cruz and you were psychology and history?

Brendan Gahan:

Yep. Yep.

Chris Erwin:

And again, you thought with that you were going to follow in your parents' footsteps, become an educator, or become a lawyer.

Brendan Gahan:

Something like that, yeah, I thought I was zeroing in on like teacher, lawyer or psychologist. I wasn't really sure what I was going to do. And psychology I always thought was fascinating. So I studied that, and then I realized two, three years in, I was like, oh, I've taken a ton of history courses and if I just take a few more, I can get a double major in apparently history, because of all the writing and stuff if I remember correctly, it was like not a bad thing to have if you were looking to get into law school. So it just kind of like was a circuitous path to get where I ended up.

Chris Erwin:

It didn't feel like you were overly passionate about anything at that point. I think you were open minded and you had some, call it nuclear, familial inspirations or influences. But when you got this call from your uncle, you're like, hey, this has been the cool uncle that was part of these massive sociocultural movements, Michael Jordan and Nike, I totally hear you. So when you got that call, were you really pumped up or was it, oh no, this sounds like something interesting and there's some direction and let's just go see what happens.

Brendan Gahan:

I was really pumped. I was also really torn because I was going to go home and work as a teacher's assistant for the summer and do summer school, which I know my parents were sort of excited about on so many different levels, because I'd be home. They would see me. They loved the idea of me getting into education, at least I'm pretty sure that's what they were excited about. And so I was like very torn, but also super excited.

Brendan Gahan:

And I went out and drove up to San Francisco for the interview. And I still remember walking into the ad agency office for the first time just being like, holy shit, this is so fucking cool. This is an office, people work out of here. It was like this creative space. And I remember thinking, especially as a college kid, wow, there's like a beer fridge and your pool table, and all these things. And obviously I knew work was happening, but it seemed like a great environment to get work done. I don't think I ever overdid it on any of the fun things, but it was like this relief to sort of have that there, and it felt really exciting to me.

Chris Erwin:

So then you get the job and you move up north.

Brendan Gahan:

Yep.

Chris Erwin:

What were you focused on in the beginning there? And then, I think from our notes that you did some early work with Smosh, is that right?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah, exactly. So I did an internship and then I eventually got hired, and I was technically like a junior account executive. This was 2005, 2006, 2007, I think, and it was in the early, early days of social media and I was the youngest guy in the office. So people would ask me random questions, like, "What's the deal with MySpace, what happens on that?" Or, like Facebook, nobody else could get on Facebook because you still had to have your college email address. So I sort of found myself being this resource, and at the same time me being flabbergasted by the way advertising was being done.

Brendan Gahan:

I remember the first time I found out how much a billboard cost, and looking at that and being like, this is almost more than, I mean, I can't remember the number right now, but I remember thinking, this is about as much I make in a full year with my salary and being like, I don't think anyone does anything because of the billboard, or certainly not like a normal billboard ad, and seeing this huge disconnect between what drove people to do things and what people were genuinely excited about and where dollars were being allocated.

Brendan Gahan:

So I think I slowly started just embracing that and being like, to me, it was common sense to a certain extent, like, look, I can go on YouTube and I can see how many people watch this video. Why aren't we doing this? This shows millions of people. Once again, like walking down the street, I don't know of anybody who does anything because of a billboard. And so that sort of evolved, and I started just pitching ideas proactively. And I remember I even tried to pitch clients and stuff, and stuff I in hindsight probably didn't have-

Chris Erwin:

Existing clients of the agency, or were you doing some new business development?

Brendan Gahan:

All of the above. I remember reading about it in the ad trades, like, oh, so and so company fired their agency and I'd be like, well, why don't they work with us? And literally come up with ideas and mail them things, and like try and get a response. And I don't know, just like this sort of, we're a creative industry, let's be really creative.

Chris Erwin:

Was that the expectation from your role or was that you just having some gumption of being a self-starter?

Brendan Gahan:

Not to pat myself on the back, but I think it was definitely me sort of having a little bit of gumption. I think I also just didn't know. It was a relatively small loose agency. And so I thought, well, it wasn't like this is exactly how you're supposed to do this job, and this, this and this, I think creativity was really encouraged and so long as work was getting done, anything I wanted to do sort of beyond that was like, all right, yeah, sure, that sounds cool.

Chris Erwin:

So did that spirit, is that what drove you... Did you work directly with Smosh? What is that story there?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah. So late 2006, this client the agency had had before I was even there, they came to the agency and they were like, "Hey, we want to do an ad campaign. We don't have a big budget." And it was a portable MP3 player. And the partners at the agency were talking about it right behind me. And they were about to turn it down. And it was one of those situations where in hindsight, yes, it was not much money, and they should have turned it down by all means. But I just butted in. I was like, "Hey, what if we pitched them this idea of getting these kids on YouTube to promote it. And we just rather than try and squeeze like a campaign into this budget, let's just do one video."

Brendan Gahan:

And so they were like, "Oh, that sounds kind of cool. Yeah, let's pitch it to the company, to the brand." And they bought it. I think I literally turned around after the partners said it was okay to pitch it to the client and I emailed Ian and Anthony, found their email on MySpace and they emailed me back that afternoon. And I think the next week they came by the office because they were just up in Sacramento area, so it wasn't too far.

Chris Erwin:

They were one of the biggest YouTube channels at the time, right? Just for context, this is 2005, 2006. Facebook had just started in '04. YouTube had just started in '04. Google bought them I think a couple years later. So Ian and Anthony were probably one of the biggest personalities on the platform at that time.

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah. I think they might have been number two. I know they eventually were number one for a couple of years, but I don't think they were quite number one yet. It was sort of like early days and there was a lot of jostling for position and stuff.

Chris Erwin:

So you got their emails from their MySpace page, you hit them up. That definitely wouldn't happen today, not as easy to go direct to the top creators. And then they came by your office, what happened?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah, they came by, by that point we had gotten the thumbs up from the client to like, "Oh yeah, sure, we're down, if you can make it work." They came by the office, we literally got in a room and it was sort of funny. I remember nobody knew what you would charge for something like this, you know? So we were literally just kicking around like, what would you want to charge for this? I don't know, how much do you want to pay for this? Just going back and forth. And then finally, one of the partners was like, "Well, I don't know, would you guys do it for like 15 grand or something?" And they were like, "Probably, why don't we go back to..." I think Anthony's dad was an accountant or something like that.

Brendan Gahan:

And they were going to run it by him. I might have those details wrong, but they were like, it was basically like a, pretty sure that'll work. Let's go talk to our parents. And then they came back and they were like, sure, and so we did it, they made this video called Feet for Hands. I remember when it went live it crashed the client's website, which I thought was so fucking cool. I felt so validated. And then, yeah, it got like millions of views. And I just wanted to do that again and again, and again. And I saw what Mekanism was doing and my first boss at that agency, he'd left for Mekanism, Jason Harris, the president and CEO of Mekanism now. He joined Mekanism, became a partner. And we had a great working relationship.

Brendan Gahan:

I interned for him and stuff. And I showed in that video, I was like, look, look, look at this thing. It's got three million views. I know I can help you guys. I was so envious of the work they were doing. They were doing like early viral video stuff. And this is like 2006, 2007, when a lot of this stuff, people weren't paying attention at all. And so I was just so envious of the projects they were working on. And they brought me in for a few interviews and I literally met the whole agency, which at the time was pretty small, I think like twice. And then they hired me.

Chris Erwin:

Was this East Coast based?

Brendan Gahan:

This is all West Coast. They were in San Francisco, just a few blocks away from the office I was at, at the time, and then got hired, it was like Mekanism was doing a ton of branded content, viral video stuff but oftentimes without any paid media. The platforms, most of them didn't even have paid media as an option. I think at the time you could buy a YouTube homepage banner and that was it. Facebook didn't have it. There was no sort of formal way of promoting that stuff for the most part. So we sort of, myself and a couple other guys, younger guys, we built out a team over time that was the social media team. And we were just constantly coming up with different ways to promote content, doing everything from Reddit seeding to tons and tons of work with creators. We worked with all the big creators in those early days, which was great, because it was a small community. We got to make a lot of deeper relationships at the time.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. And you were probably working with a lot of those creators direct versus now there's tons of representatives, managers and agencies, and sometimes you never even talk to the end talent, but back then probably different.

Brendan Gahan:

Oh, 100%, yeah. We would get pretty elaborate sometimes with these campaigns, we would do like in person summits and kickoffs. We worked with 20th Century Fox on some campaigns, and we would fly like 50 influencers in and a bunch obviously would be in LA, but host these elaborate dinners and events, and sometimes it'd be two, three days long where they're meeting with the execs, meeting with actors, kind of getting a download of the campaign, what the expectations were for them. Then we'd take them out, go partying. So it was cool. Got to spend a lot of face time with people and it was a really fascinating time.

Chris Erwin:

You were there for about five to six years at Mekanism, right?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah.

Chris Erwin:

And then I think you transitioned to full screen after that for a brief stint, but then you started your own agency, Epic Signal. So what was the catalyst for you to leave this kind of the broader corporate support and other people that were helping elevate your career to say, I want to do something differently, I'm going to do it by myself.

Brendan Gahan:

I felt like full screen was exploding at the time. You know this, all the MCNs were blowing up, but I felt like there was a lot of distraction and stuff. And the thing that I was really passionate about at its core was the strategy in collaborating with both brands and creators to create something awesome. And I felt like full screen, it was like they were trying to grow this MCN, this network and make a scalable business. So it was a little bit different from what I was really passionate about. And so I left, I thought I was just going to take my time sort of consulting. But I mean, this was like when influencer marketing was reaching this new fevered pitch because... We talked about it yesterday. Sometime around there, Maker was acquired, all these clients that I'd worked with and people at different agencies that I'd worked with over the years came out of the woodwork and were like, we have to have an influencer strategy.

Brendan Gahan:

We have to have a YouTube strategy. And I'd been the, air quotes, like YouTube guy and influencer guy since 2006. So I was one of a handful of people who had sort of like this deep bench and experience in this niche. So all my old clients started hitting me up. All of a sudden I had more work than I could personally do. And slowly started hiring people just out of necessity, because I didn't want to say no to these awesome opportunities. I was like, oh crap. I get to work with Mountain Dew, hell yeah, let's do it.

Chris Erwin:

I do want to clarify, but when you went off on your own, I mean I'm sure look, as the industry is growing, Google original channels program happened in 2011, 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars of funding into digitally native production companies to fuel the overall video ecosystem to help you to recruit more advertisers. And so when you decided to go off on your own to start Epic Signal, why was that? Had you always wanted to be an entrepreneur? Did you think like, hey, I want to be an owner and I'm early in a very nascent industry and so this is scary, but I'm going to get an early foothold and see what happens.

Brendan Gahan:

It honestly wasn't as strategic as that, it was more like, I felt like my strengths could be better utilized going off on my own. And I like being really hands on and strategic. It was really as simple as, well, I want do this work the way that I know how to do it and the way I want to do it. And if that takes me going off on my own, then that's what I'm going to do. So I did. And in hindsight, it sounds much smarter than it was, it was not smart from like an on paper standpoint. I left full screen. I left my equity on the tape because I left just shy of a year, but I just felt like it was the right thing for me to do, because I knew, I'd seen this space grow so fast and I was like, I've been doing it longer than most people. I have relationships, I have a sense of what strategically works. I want to do it the way that I want to do it. And that just made me feel good, and so that's what I did.

Chris Erwin:

Now did you launch Epic Signal in LA or did you move to New York?

Brendan Gahan:

So I was in LA, but very quickly was splitting my time up between LA and New York. I was going back and forth. I'd spend two weeks in LA, two weeks in New York, back, forth, back forth constantly, and then was about to move to New York officially, I ended up having more clients there than anywhere else, more brands I was working with there than anywhere else. And then as I was sort of putting the plan together to do that, I ended up selling it. And then I had to move to New York, so it moved things along.

Chris Erwin:

That happened pretty quickly, right? Because I think you had Epic Signal for, was it a couple years before you sold it to Mekanism?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah, I think it was just shy of two years. It was almost two full years, yeah.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. And when you decided to sell, how big was your team at that point?

Brendan Gahan:

It wasn't big. It was like a half dozen people.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. Why did you decide to sell?

Brendan Gahan:

I found myself in a situation where I was doing so much back office stuff. It was like the very thing that I left to go do was, I wanted to focus on the strategy and deal with that, do the actual work. And then what I found was, when you are an entrepreneur, it's very easy to get sucked into dealing with lawyers and accounts, and payroll, and all this stuff that is not fun, all that back office stuff.

Chris Erwin:

I'm feeling you right now on that. That's where I feel like I'm at with RockWater.

Brendan Gahan:

You try and delegate it, but it's like all these things get this overflow back to you. And so I was back in this situation where I was doing the work that wasn't making me happy. And at the same time, I sort of felt like I have this window of opportunity where it's like, this is a really small team, we're lean and mean. We've got great profit margins. We've also got dope clients. We were working with like ABI. We worked on Bud Light campaigns, Corona. We did work with several PepsiCo brands, a handful of others. So we had a dope roster of clients that we were working with, a handful of whom were on retainer. And I was like, we have this niche where we're focusing on helping brands with YouTube strategy and YouTube creators. And oftentimes, especially the bigger brands, like a Pepsi, Mountain Dew, they had multiple agencies and they would have like a social AOR even.

Brendan Gahan:

And they did have a social AOR, but I was like, it's only going to be a matter of time before I get squeezed out and they start offering this services that I'm sort of in this interesting niche I can offer at this time that they don't have. And so I felt like the cache of the brands that I had, the team in place, people would find it desirable because of the relationships and already booked revenue, and great team. And so I thought I'll try and capitalize on my time and see if I can make a deal happen.

Brendan Gahan:

And then I had a letter of intent on the table and I would call my old boss at Mekanism for advice. "Hey, I'm negotiating with these guys, and this is a deal on the table. Does this make sense? What should I push back on?" So he was aware that things were moving along. And basically I was in New York, I had signed a letter of intent, things were sort of going through due diligence and all that. And he was like, "Let's grab drinks." So I met up with him for a drink. He's like, "Just come back." I was like, "All right, well, I got a deal in hand if you can beat it, I'm down. Like let's do it." I loved working with him.

Chris Erwin:

Hey listeners, this is Chris Erwin. Your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work. And it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it everybody, let's get back to the interview.

Chris Erwin:

I have to ask, did you run a formal sales process where you decided to sell and then you're like, all right, here's the 20 best fit buyers that are out there and I'm going to go call them or I'm going to hire someone to dial for dollars on the company's behalf. And/or were you also just getting unsolicited in bounds that you were like, oh, hey, this is interesting. Maybe with the market timing, things that you were sharing, where there was a lot of brands had big agencies of record, you felt that you were going to get squeezed out. So now is the time to sell, what was that looking like?

Brendan Gahan:

Exactly that, but sort of like the inverse. Initially, I sort of had a hunch and so I sort of informally had some conversations and dinners with people where like, I didn't come right out and say, "Hey, I want to sell," I didn't want to come across as desperate. Because I mean, and I wasn't, I wasn't desperate, but I wanted to sell. But I would sort of just seed the idea, like, "Hey, I'm kicking around the idea of selling, I'd love to do X, Y, and Z. And like'

Chris Erwin:

Just like dating, the classic courting phase, you're just doing the dance.

Brendan Gahan:

Exactly. And then once people started expressing interests, I was like, okay, I'm definitely onto something. This is something I'm way out of my depth on. So I asked around and some buddies recommended some lawyers and I hired them and signed a deal with them. And I was like, all right, let's make this happen. And that was the best decision I could have made. They earned every dime I paid them and then some, because beyond just the relief of handing it over, they definitely got me more money and I didn't ever have to be the bad guy throughout the process, which I'm very bad at saying no to people in negotiations and stuff like that. They were just like, every step of the way they were like, "No, just pass it over to us. We'll take care of it." And then they would hit me up and they're like, "Here's what's on the table, here's what we advise. What do you want to do?" And the process was stressful enough as it is, but having them sort of take the reins just alleviated so much stress.

Chris Erwin:

Selling your company is a very unique work stream that requires a very unique set of skills to execute well. And it can be very emotional for a founder, operator and CEO. This is your baby. You could transform your life through a big liquidity event, but it's also going to impact, you might be selling to another company and working for someone else. So having a partner there to guide you along the way is really important. I mean, I saw this a lot because I was a banker on Wall Street back in the day and sold a variety of different companies and helped shepherd the sale with Big Frame to Awesomeness TV. I just talked about that in the last podcast with Sarah Penna, one of the co-founders of Big Frame, and it's a really big decision.

Chris Erwin:

So I totally get it. I'm curious, who were the buyers that you were talking to? Was it different brand agencies? Was it different brands that wanted to actually just bring you on in house? Was it some of the emerging YouTube MCNs that wanted to build out their influencer sales arm? What was that group looking like?

Brendan Gahan:

I think it was two MCNs and this holding company, I won't name names and stuff, but it was a fascinating process. And to your point about seeing it and it being stressful and all this stuff, if you think about it, it's like, it's an experience that, as an owner or an entrepreneur you're out of your depth, it's a very unique thing that happens. It doesn't happen that often. And so bringing in professionals is so helpful because they actually do these deals. I'm doing totally different types of deals. I have no experience selling an organization.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. You need to create a very compelling story and also urgency, get people excited and the feeling that they're going to miss out. So if you kind of go after the process willy nilly, you can set up a really bad result for your company. And also for your counterparties that are saying, "Hey, we're interested here. We've been in talks for a while. Why is this dragging along? Who else are you talking to?"

Chris Erwin:

So you can really damage, not only all the value that you've created for your business, but it can impact your team, it can impact the ability of you to continue working in the industry thereafter. So got to do it right. But so many say, I was just talking to a banker about this yesterday. Oftentimes, transactions result from long standing relationships and trust that have been built. So the end buyer for Epic Signal was your past boss at Mekanism, that became your eventual home. So after you joined forces with them, was the mandate, "Hey Brendan, come back on board. You're now part of the senior leadership team. The market opportunity is even bigger. Let's go after it with you and your whole team in a bigger way."

Brendan Gahan:

Pretty much, yeah. It was a bit of a plug and play option, they had... Obviously there was a social team when I left, the feeling was like there wasn't... A number of people had left by the time I came back, so I was able to bring my team in, merge it with the existing team. And we started expanding the offerings again. When I was running Epic Signal, I deliberately tried to keep it very narrow in niche, because I couldn't compete with a big social agency, it just wouldn't happen.

Brendan Gahan:

But by having two very key offerings, it streamlined so much of the processes and it gave me a clear point of differentiation. And when I joined back up with Mekanism, it was like full service, social, we're doing everything, community management in the lightweight, social content creation, analytics, reporting, influencer marketing, all this stuff. And so had to scale up the team and integrate with the larger organization as a whole. And it was fun. I think I'm sort of like this entrepreneur at heart or intrapreneur, and I like the process of sort of building and evolving and exploring new opportunities. So it was a really good fit, is a good fit.

Chris Erwin:

Thinking back on all of the brand and influencer campaigns that you've done, there's got to be one or two that stand out in terms of just something crazy went down. I think back to at Big Frame, working with some talent, doing a six figure brand deal, talent deciding literally two hours before something's supposed to go live that they're not going to post it or having a meltdown on the floor of VidCon and sobbing and crying because they're having a personal breakdown, because look, that life is tough and burnout is real in the influencer space. I remember a bunch of stories when we were launching different content verticals and flying in different 40 creators into like a creator house. This is like back in 2013, before there was like the modern creator houses of today. So any stories from the trenches that you remember from your early days?

Brendan Gahan:

Oh my God. Yeah, it's like, working with creators I think is one of those things, when you're in it, you're almost like, I'm never going to do this again. Then afterwards you're like, oh, that wasn't so bad. That was really fun. I think probably one that took the cake as far as stress goes, was we were working with Brisk Iced Tea, which is a PepsiCo brand. And we're about to host a summit because Brisk was relaunching, they had Eminem in the super bowl spot, and they were reviving the Claymation look. They did one with Ozzy Osborne, they did one with Danny Trejo, and we were actually having Danny Trejo fly out to New York, and he was going to meet with all these creators and stuff. And this was during the winter before super bowl. So I don't know if it was like December or January, or maybe early February, but there was a massive snowstorm.

Brendan Gahan:

Flights kept getting canceled and delayed. And I remember being glued to my phone, refreshing constantly, looking at, I think there were a handful of flights that were going to make it out of LA to New York before things were going to get canceled. And I remember, we signed up all these creators, Danny Trejo was going to show and he was going to be the cool, shiny object, and his flight to New York. I remember it kept getting delayed, delayed, delayed, it got canceled. We got him on another flight, delayed, delayed, delayed. And I was just like refreshing my phone and being like, this whole thing is going to fucking fall apart if that flight doesn't take off. It sounds like not that big a deal right now but I remember it was just one of those moments where I was just like, the whole thing was going to fall apart. The world was on my shoulders and I was just freaking out. But I've had a million situations like that, I remember-

Chris Erwin:

Did that work out? Did he get on the flight and did the campaign come together?

Brendan Gahan:

Oh yeah, he ended up [crosstalk 00:34:02].

Chris Erwin:

He's like, I can't leave the audience hanging.

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah. He made it and it was freaking amazing. We thought we had him for like an hour, he was going to do a little talk, kind of talk about... His story's amazing first off. And then his spot with Brisk was super cool. And we thought people were going to get a kick out of that. I think we had like 45 minutes for him booked. He was going to come out and hang out and talk with the creators. I think it was like 20 or so creators. And we thought that was going to be this awesome experience for everyone before we sort of called it a day and then went out. And he was so cool. He came out, told this story, which is insane. And then he was like, "All right, what are we doing next, guys?" And he hung out... We had all these YouTubers there.

Brendan Gahan:

We had like Nice Peter and Mike Diva, and Tim DeLaGhetto, all those guys. And he made himself available to do cameos and their vlogs or any content they were making.

Chris Erwin:

Wow.

Brendan Gahan:

People would be like, "Hey, can you pretend to choke me out and beat me up for my video?" And he'd be like, "Oh sure." He just was there hanging out all day. And then we were going to take all the creators out to a dinner, take them to [inaudible 00:35:10] or one of those, where drinking and bowling and stuff. And he's like, "Oh, could I come along?" He doesn't drink. So he didn't drink. But he was hanging with the whole crew, all of us until, I don't know, like one in the morning or something. He was the nicest guy, and so it was this amazing sort of transition from like the day before, one of the most stressful experiences of my life. I don't think I slept that night to everything went off better than I could have possibly hoped for.

Chris Erwin:

I just want to call that out. I think that's one of the beautiful things about working with digitally native creators and being in the advertising business, is meeting all these incredible personalities. So I think Danny Trejo, tell me if I'm wrong, but I think he's LA born, Latin, very tatted up, I think had a pretty rough upbringing, but made his way into American movies and TV series. And he often plays like the bad guy or the thug and maybe those roles have been evolving, but what you see on screen-

Brendan Gahan:

It's pretty spot on.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, what you see on screen is clearly very different than who his actual personality is, and were it not for what you're doing, Brendan, you would never have gotten to meet him, and you probably have hundreds of stories like that, that's a pretty beautiful thing.

Brendan Gahan:

We did one campaign with Virgin Mobile, they were sponsoring Lady Gaga's tour at the time, we got to go hang out with Lady Gaga after one of her shows like, it was wild. I bring up celebrities, but I think honestly hanging out with the creators was my favorite thing, because especially back then, there was a lot of uncertainty in terms of like, how am I going to turn this into a job? Or this is my job, but I'm just kind of scraping by. And it was an interesting mix of sort of a lot of belief in what they were doing, which I found super admirable, and I was almost envious of the fact that they took that leap as well as this sort of insecurity and doubt that they had.

Brendan Gahan:

There's so much pressure to keep making content and to power through, but at the same time, not knowing exactly where it was headed. You think back then, like the daily vloggers, that was a big thing in that era, those guys, we would spend all day with them doing stuff for the brand. And then when other people would go have dinner and drinks late into the night, they would have to go edit and they'd be editing until like three in the morning, running on [crosstalk 00:37:21] of sleep. Yeah.

Chris Erwin:

You ask what kids want to be nowadays, they want to be a creator, but whether it's a daily vlogger, or you're creating content, you're managing a fandom that is always on, and that's a lot to take on and that's why there's burnout. And I hear you, some of those early creators, they were probably just racing because they're like, hey, I have put all my resources into this, all my focus. Maybe this goes away in a couple years because the fans' interests and the passions are going to change or the algorithms are going to change and maybe this is not going to be here. So it was like a money land grab.

Chris Erwin:

But Brendan, when you say that you would look at creators and say, oh, I was jealous how they took the leap, maybe I want to take the leap as well. You took that leap during COVID and you started really building out your own personal audience and thought leadership. And that speaks to that you like to do things on the side. I think you have a strong entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial spirit as you described. And I don't think it just started over the past couple years. I think when we were talking in advance of this interview, you were investing back in the day as well. And I think that you were an early investor in Big Frame, is that right?

Brendan Gahan:

So I did invest in Big Frame, but via Mekanism because I knew Sarah from back in the day when she was working for Phil DeFranco. And so when she was starting it, I was like, oh my gosh, can we get in? So yeah, we made this small investment and I just sort of wanted to be a part of all that. I definitely had like a serious case of FOMO.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. I think that was really cool. I think Sarah and Steve, we actually had a bunch of different creators and I think peer business partners in our cap table, a way of giving them ownership as a thank you, helping us build this together. And so when we sold, all those creators that were in our cap table got some money. Was it life changing money? No, but it was something. And I think they really represented a pretty special ethos from the top.

Brendan Gahan:

That's awesome. That's so cool.

Chris Erwin:

But yeah, and you are also early on and I think you still are, you're an advisor to the VidCon board, is that right?

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah. So I sit on the advisory board for the industry track specifically. So I mean, I've been to all the US VidCons, a bunch of the international ones. So I was always deep in that space. And I've known Jim since the Revision3 days, he was, Jim Louderback the CEO was the CEO of Revision3, which was one of the big early MCNs. And I'm not sure exactly to be honest how that came about other than... But I think what prompted it was as part of the acquisition of Viacom for VidCon, Jim came on board and I think it was a way to make sure that, I think he put together a few advisory boards to make sure that he was getting a lot of input from multiple points, because for so long the community was relatively insular, and its expanded so much so quickly.

Chris Erwin:

I first met you, I think via an introduction from Chas, Chas Lacaillade who I think was an early interview on this podcast. You guys overlapped at full screen back in 2013 and then have both built your own businesses after that, pretty funny track. And first met you in New York. And I remember a conversation a year and a half ago or a couple years ago, I was asking, what are you focused on? What are you doing? You're a dabbler in so many things, you're at Mekanism, but I'm seeing that you're doing all this incredible thought leadership on LinkedIn, all these incredible posts and you're really consistent about it.

Chris Erwin:

They were really high quality. And you said, "Hey Chris, I'm really focused on building an audience. And I think audience in the modern creator economy is one of the most valuable currencies that you can have." And you weren't completely clear what you wanted to do with that audience, but you're like, I'm going to build and now's a great time to do it. So I am curious to hear that story of how that came to be and what you're working on today.

Brendan Gahan:

You probably said that so much more articulate than I did. I'm going to have to remember that, but yeah. That was definitely the insight. I think the way it came about was sort of like, I was legitimately beating myself up over the fact that I had probably hundreds of pages of writing and thoughts in Google Drive that I'd never published as a blog post. And I would just like constantly beat myself up over this. I'd have what I thought was a great idea. I'd work on a blog post and then it would just sort of get longer and longer and longer and longer. And then eventually it became this daunting task to like push it out, because I had a blog for a while and I would sort of fall into this pattern and then not publish for like a long, long time.

Brendan Gahan:

And the thing I sort of found was the hardest part was to press publish really. And so I was like, okay, well what's the easiest way I can get myself to kind of overcome that, because I did want an audience. I felt like I had thoughts that I wanted to get out of my own head. And so basically I was like, all right, what is sort of the easiest way to do this and inoculate myself to this idea that this fear of pressing publish. And so I started small and basically I was like, all right, well, I'm going to start posting one thing a day on LinkedIn. It doesn't matter if it's simply sharing an article, just writing cool or writing a whole blog post if I feel like it. And that made it very approachable.

Brendan Gahan:

In the early days, I would literally just sit there and press a timer, 20 minutes and write. When it was done, I'd give it a once over and then press publish. And that really helped me sort of start to overcome this fear, and did that for all of, what was that 2020 I believe. And then at some point towards the end of 2020, I was like... We'd already done multiple TikTok campaigns and I'd seen the power of TikTok, and like early days, you can still get in there and you can have an impact.

Brendan Gahan:

It's a softer landing than it will be later. So after seeing all the successful campaigns, I was encouraging my fiance to get on there and do it. And then every time she would post something, it would blow up. Because she had a decent sized YouTube channel and Instagram but it wasn't massive. And I was like, just get on TikTok, trust me. So I found myself sort of giving this advice to everyone, but not taking it myself. And I was like, all right, I should just... These opportunities they only come by every few years if you're lucky, and I was like, I need to just take my own advice. And so in the same way I had to get over writing and sharing my thoughts, I had to get over that with TikTok.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, putting yourself on video, that's a big difference than writing and text base expression on LinkedIn.

Brendan Gahan:

It was so hard. It was so hard. She used to laugh at me because I would put the camera on me and then I would just try and say something, and I would be like, "Fuck, fuck," and then try and say a word and I'd stutter. And I would sit there for like 20 minutes trying to spit out two sentences.

Chris Erwin:

Brendan, I got to say, I feel you on that because Kevin Gould at Kombo Ventures, he would do these job rec videos on LinkedIn where he'd just be like, call it one or two minutes. "Hey, we're Kombo Ventures, I'm Kevin, we're looking to hire someone, this is what we're doing. And here's who we're looking for." I record these and this is like an inner tip on me. I'll record that like 15 times, it's a one minute video, but I'll say no, I skipped up, I said something I didn't want to say. I don't like how I look. I don't like the lighting, and people think like, oh yeah, you just put it up and that'll be like my one thing I need to get done in the morning, and it'll take me 15 tries to do it. Then you just go to think about, okay, if you're a professional creator doing that for a living, I really feel it then, it's a pretty good glimpse into it.

Brendan Gahan:

100%. And I think one thing I saw Roberto Blake, maybe, I think I saw a video or saw him tweet, you've got to make 100 bad videos to get to your first good one, or maybe it was Mr. Beast. And I was like, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that's very true. And that sort of made me embrace the fact that the first ones are going to be awful, and I tried to not focus on like each one, but more building the habit because that would, I don't know how else to say it, but sort of inoculate yourself to that feeling of just sheer fear and anxiety of getting in front of the camera.

Chris Erwin:

On the outside looking in, I look at, we're a big content marketing machine at RockWater to drive awareness and legitimacy for the services that we do as the self-described McKinsey of the creator economy, right? Market research, strategy advisory, capital raising, and all of that. We look at what you're doing, Brendan, from your LinkedIn posts to your blog, to now almost I think over 100,000 followers on TikTok. It's very, very impressive. A lot of people in the industry say the same thing, right? Like, oh, do you see Brendan's path and what he's posting? It's incredible. I look at the TikTok videos. They're very well edited. Are you doing that yourself? Do you have a team helping you?

Brendan Gahan:

I'm not editing them myself anymore. I was up until late last year. So I hired an editor out of the Philippines actually who works full time on my TikTok. Then he does design for my blog posts and a bunch of different things basically, he helps me out with a bunch of stuff and that's been a huge relief because now I feel like I'm trying to transition to... There's almost sort of like, as a creator and this is something I observe, but I'm having trouble implementing it, sort of like people find you because of your topic is interesting or maybe you've got a helpful bit of information, but then they stick around and embrace you because of kind of the personality piece.

Brendan Gahan:

And I'm really trying to sort of evolve it into creating something that provides more insight into me at the same time. And hopefully people feel like there's a connection to me rather than like, "Hey, here are just some interesting stats or an interesting strategy." So that's sort of like where my head is at in terms of where I want to take it. I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to do that. But I think similar to just the same way I got started before, I'm just trying to throw things out there and see what sticks.

Chris Erwin:

Loudly from the RockWater team, keep doing what you're doing. We love it.

Brendan Gahan:

Oh, thanks. I appreciate that.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. A closing theme before we get into some rapid fire questions and close out the interview. What's next for Brendan and Mekanism? And maybe that's a theme of talking about, what do you think is most exciting in the creator economy and how do you want to support it? You've been writing about Web 3 and X to earn models. Is that something that you're thinking a lot about lately?

Brendan Gahan:

In terms of Mekanism, I really enjoy that. And so long as I get to work with great brands and great people and do great work I'm content. In terms of the creator economy and stuff, I love everything that's happening there. And I do a little bit of investing and advising, and I love nothing more than sort of brainstorming with people who are building, it's so exciting. And I think the aspect of the creator economy that I'm really fascinated by is sort of... Rather than, most of the VCs coming in are like, oh, we're going to build this scalable product for creators. And that's interesting, but I think the thing that's more interesting is sort of the creators building their own brands, and I think right now production and productization, that's sort of the commodity piece. The development of a brand and cultivation of an audience is becoming the differentiator and the most valuable asset.

Brendan Gahan:

We were talking about that at the beginning, an audience is leverage. And so as we see sort of this transition from like Web 2 to Web 3, where everybody sort of breaks it down, Web 1 was read, Web 2 is read, write, Web 3 is read, write, own. If the creators of platforms and communities within Web 3 are the users and owners, it makes sense that they would be less likely to embrace traditional methods of advertising. There are some stats out there, like 96% of people hate ads. Yeah, nobody likes most advertising. There are great ads, but by and large people don't want advertising. So those who are sort of able to understand how to embrace communities and build communities, they're going to have a leg up as we sort of transition to Web 3. And we're already seeing the ripple effects of this.

Brendan Gahan:

I mean like iOS 14 impacted the ability to advertise, do targeted advertising. Creators are launching big brands now faster than ever, partnering with creators is the easiest way to have an impact because they've maintained that direct line of communication to their audience. And so I think creators building and owning brands is really exciting. And also, people are like, oh, like creators think it's in this nascent state. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, it is. But there are already multi billion dollar creator brands. It's so funny, I mean, you probably know him, but Richard Ryan, he was a YouTuber back in the day. I used to do a ton of work with him. He and this other YouTuber, Matt Best, they partnered with some other guys a few years back. They were the guys that launched Black Rifle Coffee, which I didn't realize how big that brand was until they IPOed, and like-

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, they just went public, right?

Brendan Gahan:

They went public. I actually was in Austin two weeks ago, I hung out with Richard. It was so wild. It's like, that was built, the platform for that initially was YouTubers. So it's really fascinating. And we're seeing all these other great brands, Logan Paul and KSI, their Gatorade competitor, et cetera. I think that aspect of the business, it just shows how powerful these creators are, which I think is really, really exciting.

Chris Erwin:

The Black Rifle Coffee, we were doing some research into that company a year ago to understand how some of these creator led brands and particularly CPG brands are incubated and looking at their story, and look, I don't want to undersell what they have done, but I think the quality of their coffee is good, but that's not their specialty. It's that they have these personalities behind it. And this ethos founded by former members of the military, pride in country. And they've built an incredible business doing that. And they've gotten a lot of other ambassadors that have helped them build their business along the way. And I think, yeah, it was funny, Chas was telling me about this. I guess you guys maybe hung out with Richard together. I would love to interview Richard on the podcast. So if he's listening, I'm going to be reaching out soon.

Brendan Gahan:

Richard's a really, really good dude.

Chris Erwin:

All right. So Brendan, we're going to enter the last segment of this interview. We're going to do a rapid fire, six questions, and the rules are as follows. With these questions, looking for short answers. So one sentence, or maybe even just one to two words, do you understand the rules?

Brendan Gahan:

Yes.

Chris Erwin:

Let's get into it. Proudest life moment?

Brendan Gahan:

Still ahead of me.

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do less of in 2022?

Brendan Gahan:

Emails and late night work sessions.

Chris Erwin:

What do you want to do more of?

Brendan Gahan:

IRL time with friends and family.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. Maybe more time in Bitcoin Beach, down in El Salvador.

Brendan Gahan:

Yeah. Serious.

Chris Erwin:

What one to two things drive your success?

Brendan Gahan:

I'll keep this one short, crippling insecurity.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. I dig it. Advice for media execs going into 2022?

Brendan Gahan:

Get your hands dirty.

Chris Erwin:

Any future startup ambitions?

Brendan Gahan:

TBD.

Chris Erwin:

To elaborate on that, that could be some intrapreneurship at Mekanism or other things you're doing on the sides. I think my prediction is, this audience that you're building particularly on TikTok, I think something's going to come out of that in a pretty unique way.

Brendan Gahan:

So long as I can think and strategize, I'm very content.

Chris Erwin:

Here's the last one, Brendan, pretty easy. How can people get in contact with you?

Brendan Gahan:

Just Google my name, Brendan, B-R-E-N-D-A-N, Gahan, G-A-H-A-N. I'm on all the socials. So whatever your platform of choice is, you'll be able to find me.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. And his website is great, lots of content there. Brendangahan.com. All right, cool. Brendan, thanks for being on the show. This was a delight.

Brendan Gahan:

Thank you. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate you having me on and I love all the content you guys put out, so I'm really stoked to have made the cut and be on this.

Chris Erwin:

Very welcome, an easy decision.

Chris Erwin:

Wow. That was a super fun interview. And I really learned a lot. I think that Brendan and I are kindred spirits in a couple ways. One, our mutual love for surfing in Southern California, and two, just the vulnerabilities of putting yourself out there as a content creator. So that was really fun. Quick note, we just hosted our first executive event of 2022 just this past Thursday in LA. We did a media and commerce executive dinner at Chilena. It was awesome. We had an incredible array of guests. I think over 50 people came out and I also hosted a panel about the future of livestream commerce. So we had the head of operations of Popshop Live there, and the founder and CEO of both Verb, which is the parent company of Market.live and also StageTEN, just an awesome chat. It was a lot of fun, really great energy, and we're pumped to do more.

Chris Erwin:

So I think we're planning a dinner for investors in media and commerce coming up in the fall in New York City. And then also, we want to put another one together for sports media. So if you'd like to get involved as a sponsor, as a guest, or you want to be on a panel that I will moderate, reach out, you can hit us up at hello@wearerockwater.com. And then as always for all you listeners out there of our podcasts, we love to hear from you. If you have any ideas for guests or any feedback on the show, just shoot us a note, TCUpod@wearerockwater.com. All right, that's it everybody. Thanks for listening.

Chris Erwin:

The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts and remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter, and you could follow us on Twitter @TCUpod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck, music is by Devon Bryant, logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali, and special thanks to Alex Zirin and Eric Kenigsberg from the RockWater team.

27 episodes