A year or so after the bankruptcy I was speaking to a group of students at a Christian university. I told them stories of Big Idea’s rise and fall, and the lessons I had learned from the experience. I gave my thoughts on the state of Christian media and the exciting opportunities I saw for them in the future. Afterwards, a young man said he needed to talk to me. As he walked with me towards my rental car, he said, “I know some guys who used to work at Big Idea.” Long pause. “They’re still really mad at you.” I fumbled vainly for an appropriate response. “I heard you speak last night,” he continued, “You didn’t apologize for what happened. Whenever you speak, you should apologize.” I sat in my car for a few minutes, mulling over his words.
A dream is a powerful thing. There is little more thrilling than seeing a dream come to life. And little more heartbreaking than watching it die.
Shortly after Jonah hit theaters, I got a letter from a fan in the Midwest with a two-page critique of the film. It hadn’t done as well as it could have, he explained, because of serious flaws in its story structure. He went on to explain Jonah’s flaws at great length. While some of his points were certainly well taken, what struck me more about the letter was the emotion behind it. He was angry. Really angry. He closed with the interesting statement that if I didn’t respond to his criticism, he would send his letter to major Christian magazines and “expose” our creative shortcomings to the entire Christian world.
A dream is a powerful thing. Letters like his made me realize just how much emotion people had invested in my dream. Not just the artists, designers and business people who had moved their families across the country to actively join the effort, but also the fans. This fellow, like many others, was so excited about my dream of a “Christian Disney” that my failure to deliver on that dream struck him much more deeply than you would expect. Big Idea had become his dream, too, and now that his dream was failing, he was angry.
When we lose something, be it a job, a relationship, or a dream, we want to know why. Whose fault was it? Who should I be mad at, because I really want to be mad at someone! So it was with Big Idea.
If you’ve read this entire account, it’s probably clear that multiple factors brought down Big Idea Productions. The Lyrick lawsuit certainly sealed the deal, but it’s unlikely that lawsuit would have happened if our dire cash need hadn’t forced us to switch distributors in search of new advances. So Jonah is to blame! Well, maybe a little – but certainly not entirely. True, if Jonah hadn’t been put into production the cash need would have been less. But what if we’d had the production management in place to produce the film for my $7 million goal, and the discipline to see that it was marketed for $7 million as well? And remember, as of April of 2000, the company needed $20 million to survive through the Jonah production even though Jonah was at that point only a $7 million film. The rest of the money was needed to cover our gross over-hiring in areas like marketing, human resources and design. And what led to the over-hiring? The wild enthusiasm of 1998 and 1999, inspired partly by exponential sales growth up to that point, partly by the general “irrational exuberance” of that era in business history (think “dot-com”), and partly by the misreading of the VeggieTales business as a packaged goods business, rather than an entertainment business.
So the members of that first executive team are the villains! You could probably come to that conclusion, but I don’t think so. I mean, can I really blame packaged goods executives for attempting to use packaged goods marketing techniques to sell films that ultimately show up on store shelves as – packaged goods? And VeggieTales success itself had become a huge challenge. Whenever you have an unprecedented hit, future planning becomes extraordinarily difficult simply because there are no precedents. There were no comparables for VeggieTales. Our sales had skyrocketed 3300% in four years! Against that backdrop, how do you project the future? More skyrocketing? Was our growth almost done, or just getting started? Look at another example: Between Christmas 2003 and Christmas 2004, sales of Apple’s iPod increased by a staggering 500%. A huge success, but also a huge challenge. How many iPods do you make for Christmas 2005? 500% more than 2004? 100% more? 10% less? Unprecedented success is extremely difficult to manage simply because it is unprecedented. Every year is a big ol’ guess. Guess wrong one way and you’ll choke your success by running out of product or not having enough man-power to support the demand. Guess wrong the other way, and you could crash and burn right in the midst of your success. As wrong as the forecasts my team made in 1999 ended up being, I honestly believe they did the best they could with the information and the experience they had.
Ultimately, of course, I could have overruled them at any point. I could have stopped the hiring. Cut staff. Decreased the forecasts. Redirected the strategies. As controlling shareholder, CEO and sole boardmember (building a board of directors was something we often discussed but never got around to actually doing), I had the final word on everything. So who is ultimately to blame for the collapse of Big Idea. Well, me, of course. Sure, I could blame the guy who engineered the distribution moves that sparked the lawsuit, but he wouldn’t have had to do that if I hadn’t allowed the company to become so huge and indebted. I could blame our production management for not sticking to my original plan for Jonah, but then I have to remind myself that when the film went into production, wehad no production management. And I could blame the first executive team for making the company so huge, but then I have to remember that one of the things that attracted them to Big Idea in the first place was a line I put into our mission statement way back in 1997 – something about building “a top 4 family media brand within 20 years.” A statement that sounded an awful lot like we were supposed to get really big. A statement that, even at the time, I was pretty sure had emanated suspiciously from my own noggin in response to a business book exercise, as opposed to from God after much prayer and reflection.
So there you have it. The real culprit is Jim Collins, author of the book Built to Last. Oh, if only it were that easy. I have seen the enemy, and he is me. My strengths built Big Idea, and my weaknesses brought it down. Throughout Big Idea’s history, my business instincts were generally quite good. But I had no experience managing people or leading teams to accomplish goals. I had, after all, spent my high school years in the basement experimenting with film cameras and computers. I was a shy kid who would rather read Starlog Magazine or build a rudimentary optical printer out of cannibalized 8mm projectors than show up at the prom or run for student government. As VeggieTales took off, I became terrified that my business inexperience and lack of people skills would result in Big Idea’s failure. So, in a panic, I brought in others to help, often spending far too little time getting to know them before or after the hire. I then backed down from my own convictions, assuming that an executive with an impressive resume surely knew better than a Bible college dropout. And I launched projects like Jonah before we were really ready to handle them, assuming we’d figure things out on the fly as I had done in the basement and with the very first VeggieTales episode. The result was some amazingly rabid fans, and absolute organizational chaos. The result was the rise – and fall – of Big Idea.
For the record, I’m sorry. A lot of wonderful people brought their dreams to Big Idea. And almost all of them were deeply affected both by the persistent organizational chaos and by the trauma of the slow, painful collapse. The ultimate responsibility for both lie with me. And I’m really, really sorry. Just as Big Idea really wasn’t ready to tackle the production challenge of Jonah, I really wasn’t ready to tackle the management challenge of Big Idea.
There. Now I’ve said it.
That’s the story of the fall of Big Idea. I’m sure there are a few more questions you’d like to ask, like, “So what did you learn, Phil?” and the big one, “Why do you think God allowed all that to happen?” This series of posts became the basis for my book, Me, Myself & Bob, which you can now find in many bookstores and, if all else fails, at Amazon. I’d put the whole book up here on my site, but my publisher might get a little cranky with me. To hear the rest of the story – how VeggieTales came to life in the first place and what God taught me through the entire crazy experience, check out the book! You can buy it now by clicking the button below.