Recently the world of digital entertainment was rocked by a disrupter known for taking the stage wearing almost exclusively black shirts and jeans. This guy is obsessed with details about how his product should look, sound, and feel to consumers, no matter how or where they consume it. He micromanages pricing and insists on making sure every aspect of how people buy his stuff is as frictionless a process as possible. Really, what makes him so good is that he thinks like a consumer, like a user. You might say he thinks different.
He's Louis C.K.
The edgy comedian recently decided to self-produce and -distribute his latest standup special via the web. By building his own online distribution platform and selling the video of his routine for $5 himself, he forwent taking the traditional route of partnering with a major studio. The question now isn't whether the comic has found an innovative new business model for the industry--but whether he might open up his web platform to other aspiring comedians, who could take advantage of the service to create a new source of revenue and promotion.
For C.K., the risk has certainly paid off: His performance at Manhattan's Beacon Theater was a blockbuster, with 50,000 people purchasing access to the video online just hours after it went on sale. Within days, C.K. had sold more than 110,000 copies of the performance, enough to pay off all production costs and earn him a cool $200,000 in profit.
But there's business beyond the one C.K. has made for himself. "The development of the website, which needed to be a very robust, reliable and carefully constructed website, was around $32,000," C.K. wrote on his website, playing the part of lean startup entrepreneur. "We worked for a number of weeks poring over the site to make sure every detail would give buyers a simple, optimal and humane experience for buying the video."
In other words, he's created a new product for video distribution, without the need for middlemen-services such as YouTube or Pivotshare. It's an incredibly simple platform, but one that's been streamlined and heavily publicized by the Louis C.K. brand. "What if I make another special like this one and put it up for $5 again, and it goes gangbusters? It makes, say, $8 million--I don't know that that is even possible," C.K. told Reddit. "I'm trying to find out what the potential is with this one."
His product had a successful launch, now how does he grow it into a business?
First, and most altruistically, C.K. could make the platform entirely open source, letting the $32,000 product he's built help other comedians who are struggling to make ends meet on the standup circuit. Otherwise, he could sell the platform as a kit to his fellow comedians, or possibly license the source code in exchange for a cut of the revenues.
At this point, it's unlikely C.K. will follow any of these routes--he counts his new business venture as research. "I'm learning right this minute a huge amount with this web experiment," he told fans during his "Ask Me Anything" visit to Reddit. "This live at the Beacon thing is like that thing in the movie Twister where they send a bunch of little data collecting balls up into a tornado and just download the lovely results. The whole thing has been like that, from the moment it went online and I saw the results of every decision I made. The last question the web guys asked me before we posted was if I wanted the mail list button defaulted to 'opt in' or 'opt out.' And I said start it at 'opt out.' It's such a tiny thing but I keep hearing about it from people. So so interesting to watch this grow."
According to C.K., early results show the money he's pulled in so far is less than what he would've made from traditional studio distribution. But he believes the good will it's generated among his fans, who will get access to DRM-free content for the low cost of $5 (rather than, say, the $15 or $20 it might cost for a DVD), is worth any losses he's taking. And if he ever decides to open up his platform--or sell it as a packaged kit--it could end up being yet another way the comic is changing the industry for the better.
[Image: Flickr user zokuga]