Many people think Big Idea Productions died because of the lawsuit brought against it by Lyrick Studios over general market distribution rights to VeggieTales home videos.  While it is fair to say that it was the loss of that lawsuit that forced Big Idea into bankruptcy, it certainly wasn’t the only factor causing Big Idea’s downfall.  Others believe the money spent producing and marketing our first movie, Jonah, brought the company down.   Originally I had hoped to produce and release the film for less than $15 million total.  When the final production and marketing costs came in at nearly twice that, our hopes of recouping our investment vanished.   In the end our distributor got all of its marketing investment back, but not a penny made it back to Big Idea to recoup the money we had spent producing the film.   So surely that killed the company, right?   Not exactly.   These two factors were certainly the straws that broke the camel’s back, but the camel was pretty sickly before Jonah even began production, and long before the owner’s of Barney the Dinosaur and Bob the Builder turned a litigious eye toward Bob and Larry.

So what killed Big Idea?   Pour yourself some tea, and I’ll tell you the real story.

We Americans love to be ranked.   People magazine keeps track of our “50 Most Beautiful People.”   Forbes tracks the “400 Wealthiest Americans” and the “200 Highest-Paid Entertainers.”   Not to be outdone, every year Inc. magazine puts out a list of the 500 fastest growing private companies in America.   These companies tend to be on the small side, but for whatever reason, they’re growing like gangbusters.   Inc. tracks and ranks them all, and then the entrepreneurs behind each company can hang the magazine cover in their conference room and beam like proud parents when their friends notice their amazing fast-growing-ness.

If I had put a lot of value on such lists or if Inc. magazine had noticed us, it’s fairly likely Big Idea would have made the list a year or two.   Between 1996 and 1999 our revenue grew by 3300%, from $1.3 million to $44 million.  Pretty impressive by anyone’s standards.  But by early 2000, just as Jonah was headed into production, the company was in serious financial trouble. How could that be, you ask?  Let me tell you.

It’s interesting to note that only one-out-of-three companies that make the Inc. list repeat their appearance the following year.   What happens to the rest?   Many see their growth stall, never to fully recover.   Others simply cease to exist.   Vanish.   You see, when a small company experiences extremely rapid growth, it soon ceases to be a “small company.”   Yet just because it no longer qualifies as “small” doesn’t necessarily mean it is now “big.”   In other words, just because you’re no longer “Tim’s Software Hut” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “Microsoft.”   And somewhere in the middle, many, many companies fail.

Inc. magazine noticed this dynamic and had several business researchers look into it.   What emerged was a picture of a treacherous period in any business’s growth when a company finds itself “too big to be small yet too small to be big.”   The researchers dubbed it “No Man’s Land.”

The year was 1997.   VeggieTales was booming in a big way, and I was taken off guard by the success.   Frankly, I thought 1996 was amazing, yet here was 1997 making 1996 look like… well, 1995!   Every year since 1993 every VeggieTales video had sold more than the year before, and the trend seemed to be continuing.   I could remember the days when Christian publishers wouldn’t return my calls, and now the Wall Street Journal was calling for an interview!

In the midst of this mayhem, I read the book Built to Last, a classic business study of what makes great companies great.   The analysis of the Walt Disney Company struck me as particularly relevant, and I found myself asking the question, “Do I just want to make a few films to leave behind when I’m gone, or do I want to build a company that can keep making great films for the next 100 years?”   The answer seemed obvious.   I wanted to build the next Disney.

By the time I finished the book I had a new vision for Big Idea.   We would attract top artists from all over the country. We would build a culture of biblical values and great storytelling.   And then, the big one: The book said you needed to pick a “Big, Hairy Audacious Goal,” or a “BHAG” in Built to Lastparlance. Golly gosh… what was my “BHAG?”   Hmm. I wasn’t sure.  I had always felt that God wanted me to tell the stories and teach the lessons he laid on my heart, but he hadn’t given me any particular big, hairy audacious goal.  But the book said I needed one to inspire and focus my employees. Okay… deep breath… “We will build a top-four family media brand within 20 years!”   Huh? Where did that come from?   I had no idea.   All I knew was that now I had my “BHAG.” And if it was going to come true, we were going to have to get a lot bigger. What I didn’t know was that my new path would take us right smack through “No Man’s Land.”   (Cue sinister score here.)

Continued in Part 2 >