Sarah Penna | Big Frame Co-founder

Recently, we were lucky enough to sit down with Big Frame Co-founder and President Sarah Penna at Veggie Grill in Hollywood, California. We learned that mixing flavored teas together creates unique combos (Yum), and also got the inside scoop of what goes on behind the scenes in creating DigiTour. She also told us about her side of the industry and how she got started. We enjoyed picking her brain and dragging her workstation out into the middle of Sunset Blvd. Hope you enjoy hearing what she has to say!

Fun facts

  • What takes up most of your time right now? I have been in meetings all day and everyday. I chose a very boring answer to your question.
  • What are your guilty pleasures? My guilty pleasures are cake. I try to eat very healthy but I love cake and pretty much anything sweet. Game of Thrones. I’m reading it. I’m deep into the fourth book — four of five. They’re each like 2000 pages.
  • Relationship status? Recently married.
  • Weakness? Wiener dogs. I would have a wiener dog army if I could. I think if I saw a baby wiener dog for sale I think I would not be able to say no.
  • What are your pet peeves? I really hate when people don’t know how to reply all to an e-mail. I really don’t like people who can’t spell correctly on Twitter unless it’s to get under 140 characters. I’ll delete a tweet and re-do it. My final pet peeve is when people say they can do something but actually can’t. Just tell me you can’t!
  • Your favorite YouTuber? Well, of course I would have to say MysteryGuitarMan because he’s my husband. He’s my favorite.
  • How many hours a day do you spend on the computer? The first thing I do when I get up at 6:30 is get on my e-mail. Then I’m on e-mail until about 11 o’ clock at night with dinner in between. So, a long time.
  • What’s a fun fact about you? I’m allergic to garlic, so I guess that’s kind of a weird thing.
  • Funner fact? I am from Utah. Half of my family is Jewish and half of my family is Mormon, people think that’s the craziest combination.

Walk us through a typical day in your life.

Sarah Penna: I wake up at 6:30, answer e-mails, play with the dog for awhile, sometimes I exercise if I’m very motivated. I live walking distance from the office so I walk to work around 8:30. Then I answer more e-mails. Usually throughout the day I have a series of phone calls, meetings, and more e-mail answering — it’’s very exciting. At night, Joe and I really get into these TV shows. Right now we’re into :The Wire.” We’ missed the whole original phenomenon of “The Wire,” and we also just finished all five seasons of “Friday Night Lights.” We go to comedy shows a lot at night. Then we have our Settles of Catan night. At the end of the night I finish up answering e-mails. Then I read The Game of Thrones and then go to bed.

How does an English major jump into reality television networks to go into managing talent for online media hosts?

That’s a good question. I was a literature major because that’s what I loved studying. I knew I wasn’t going to go into the field that I was studying but I wanted to be well educated and well read and that was the best major I could think of for that. Plus, I knew a lot of film students, and this is nothing against film students or film schools, but I feel that they could be a little rigid on their thinking and I wanted to kind of just learn on my own. In that kind of stuff, I do much better learning on my own. I used to want to be an editor, but once I started editing and realized what it was, I hated it. I’m really impressed with Joe. It’s not for me — I’m way too impatient. I really took a liking to producing because it’s very fast pace and you have to multi-task, you’re not sitting down all the time. I stumbled into my first internship in a very crazy way.

After college I was working at Whole Foods, bagging groceries and their marketing department. It was a weird setup. We sponsored the LA Film Festival that year in 2006 so I got a VIP sponsored badge so after work or in between work I was going to the festival trying to meet people. I just opened the festival booklet to a random page and read about this film that was somewhat interesting and reached out to the filmmaker and she was like, “Okay, my film screening is tonight and you should come meet me. I actually do need an intern.” She was working at World of Wonder, which is where I wound up interning and they hired me three months later. I was on this track of becoming an executive producer. They told me, “You stay here because you are a hustler and we like how you work and eventually you can pitch your own shows to us.” That was awesome but I just didn’t really want to stay in reality TV and this job opportunity at Current came up. They were going to move me to San Francisco, it was very glamorous, it was start up, and it was TV. Convergence! Al Gore! I couldn’t say no. So I left World of Wonder and went to Current in the Bay Area.

Current shifted strategy and laid my entire department off. They laid of 60 people in a day, I was number one. At the time, it was the most painful thing that had happened me. The morning the lay-offs happened, word had gotten out in the blogs that Current was about to lay off people and I thought, “Oh, I’m totally good.” I just produced five half hour shows and I knew Current was going to half hour show format, they had to keep me. It was at 9 a.m. when the phone rang. “You need to come see the legal department.” I was like, “Oh my.” It was so surreal. It was interesting because it was happening all over the country in mass quantities and to be part of that moment when everybody was getting laid off it was so surreal. I couldn’t believe it happened to me. The rest of the day was horrible. Apparently people were just waiting by their phones for the whole day because it takes a long time to lay somebody off — 60 people! They were really hardcore about it. They shut our computers off while we were in the meeting. I didn’t know but, people after me once the word got out that I got laid off started saving all their contacts. I had no idea. I had no time. They shut my computer and took it away by the time I got to my desk everything was gone. They had security walking people out. There were news crews waiting outside for us. I was very thankful to be the first one because sitting there waiting all day for the axe to fall, everyone was so upset. I just got to leave at 9 a.m. I just went home. It was a crazy experience. I didn’t want to talk to news crews or anything.

One thing I will say Current is good at was hiring people. People I worked with at Current started their own businesses, including myself, they were all really creative people and they all did amazing stuff. I think some good came out of that. I was kind of motivated to say, “You made a mistake laying me off.” Of course, they don’t care what we do. So I moved back to LA three weeks after I got laid off. I thought, okay, Current is not going to be the only one laying people off. The Bay Area was going to be unemployment central, I’m not sticking around here. People who had better skills than me were unemployed so I’m going to get out of here and move back to LA and then I got hired at a company that did scripted web series called MWG. It was self funded by very eccentric women. I basically ran a third of the company.

There were three of us and her so we all ran different parts. I got introduced to the YouTube community that way. We had a director who was pitching us a show and he was also, at the time, directing what would be come Zombies which was the first thing that go uploaded to The Station. It had Shay, Kassem G, Lisa, Shane Dawson wrote it, and Phil DeFranco was a part of it. I knew who Lisa and Phil were but I didn’t know anyone else. I was like, well, why don’t I come on set and see how you are as a director. I wound up being a zombie in the video. It was fun and funny too because they had done a Twitter contest for fans to be zombies in it, so everyone thought I was a Twitter contest fan winner. I was like, “No no! I’m here on business.” I was dripping blood and my face was all messed up with crazy contacts in. My hair was fro’d out. It was really funny. So yeah, I met Phil there and he hired me to produce his video game channel called “Like Totally Awesome.” I did that for a while and I saw business in this space. I wanted to do my own thing and really see what I could do for other YouTubers, not just Phil, so that’s when I started “The Cloud Media.”

It’s been a crazy road. I gave myself six months. When Phil and I parted ways, I sat down with Joe and said, “I want to do this.” He said, “Give yourself six months of just figuring it out.” I did my biggest brand deals the week I left Phil so I was able to start out my company that way and it has been growing since then. Now it’s called “Big Frame.” Over the summer YouTube started opening up the platform a little more to networks by enabling them to sell ads against their inventory. I realized that I needed to bring a team on so I brought on another partner from the network. We now have seven people and we’re expanding. We’re hiring about 11 people next week to work on the production of BAMMO, which is crazy. We pitched YouTube for web money and we got a channel funded.

A lot of the work you do is a lot of administrative stuff which a lot of people probably don’t realize and when they hear about that they don’t think it’s that enjoyable. So, what are the hidden perks?

I personally feel really lucky with the talent that I work with. They’re so amazing and I love them. That sounds really cheesy and cliche. I get e-mails from fans and they say, “You’re so lucky!” Sometimes at work I get this tunnel vision and I don’t realize that people would kill to know Shay Carl and I get a lot of tweets about being married to MysteryGuitarMan.

One hidden perk was that I found my husband. A couple more tangible things, when we do brand things they usually hook me up with gear, goodies, swag. I’ve gotten a lot of free stuff. I was getting invited to premieres and everyone tries to get to my talent so they try to suck up to me. That’s fine. I like that. Going to premieres and red carpet stuff. It can be kind of lame but it’s also fun. I try not to be jaded about it because I realized that there’s so many people where going to premieres or going to the AMA’s would be the most amazing thing they’ve ever done so I try not to be like, “Ugh! I have to do this thing?” I try to be appreciative of those things. Another thing would be that owning the business is a lot of work but I also have flexibility. Before when I was working for people I had to get paid time off and accrued hours. Now I know I always have to be working so when I do take time off I can’t disconnect but at the same time I can go visit my family and I don’t have to worry about answering to some boss or not going paid. I can go work from Seattle. I can’t take meetings but that’s what Skype is for.

Since the beginning of YouTube in 2005, online media was “Here’s a low resolution webcam record yourself singing in your bedroom” or a cat video online. Obviously new media is moving away from this. Do you still think the audience would want this low budget DIY feel? For anyone diving into new media now, should they be developing a business objective or plans before engaging?

I think there will always be viral videos and they will always be low quality. Those are the things that make YouTube and online media so special and unique. Something like that would never be seen by somebody on TV or anything. I don’t think the audience is going to YouTube because it’s like TV. I think they’re going to it because it’s exactly the opposite — it doesn’t look like TV. You would never see the Bedroom Intruder song, double rainbow, golden voice guy, and the girl singing Nicki Minaj. You would never see that anywhere except YouTube and different online video sites. I think the audience wants that and they will always want that and YouTube needs to remember that sometimes. At the same time, I think that the stuff that’s rising up is really high quality but it still has that “Internet feel.” Like you watch a Freddie Wong video — it’s amazing! It’s TV quality effects, Hollywood effects, but it has an Internet feel to it. You always see them in an alleyway downtown and you know that it was done for a low budget. They are connecting to their audience and that’s what you’re going to see.

These bigger companies are going to have a hard time figuring out that just putting low quality TV onto the Internet is not what the audience is looking for. The audience is everything. The audience makes these YouTube stars. Why are they popular? They have a huge audience. There’s not a huge marketing campaign putting billboards up so that we will watch Walking Dead on AMC. It’s completely audience driven world. I would recommend people coming into this space to not go into it with a business objective actually because I think that’s what were talking about before, it can kill creativity. If you were like, “I have to get to 100,000 subscribers by the end of the year, how can I game the system, putting catchy titles, stealing content, doing parodies of popular music?” You can do that but I think that if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, the audience will be able to see through that. They are cannily able to see through bullshit. They will call it like that. It’s a very self regulating community which is good and can also be scary. If a video starts getting a lot of dislikes and bad comments, the audience will feed off of that. Vice versa if it’s really good, the audience will feed off of that. It’s very interesting but I would say that if you go into it being like, “I have to do this. I want to make a career. I want to be RayWilliamJohnson or MysteryGuitarMan.” I think you’re going to be unhappy and set yourself up for failure.

How do you go about in determining who’s an undiscovered talent or who’s one hit wonder?

A lot of times there will be one hit wonders. Some people would be like, “I know a guy do you want to talk to him?” Well does he want to make YouTube videos? “Not really. He’s a voice over actor.” Well, for me, the most important thing in signing talent is that they have to want to dedicate their full time into being a video maker on YouTube or online. If I see someone who wants to use it as a platform for their acting career, that’s one way to go about it and you can be successful but that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for people who are with us in the beginning stages of the industry and those who say, “No. This is the industry. This is not a stepping point for another industry.” You’re going to see the term new media go away quickly because this is media now, not new media. At least, that’s my hope and my goal and what I push everybody towards.

We also look for premium content. We try to work with brand friendly channels. We have a couple outliers in that scenario. We try to work with people who are very positive and very talented in what they do. A lot of people are like, “Oh, you’ll never sign me because I only have 15,000 subscribers.” Well, no, that’s not true because actually if I see that you have talent and I can see a path for your career then I’m happy to sign that channel. If I don’t see immediately a path for their career, I have a hard time signing. I will not sign a channel if I feel like I can’t do anything for them because I’ve never been in the numbers game. Numbers are important. We live in a post com score world. But, to me, it is talent first. If I sign a talent and I can’t do anything for them, that talent is going to be unhappy. If you have unhappy talent, they are going to be talking to your other talent and it’s just not worth it for anybody.

I’m very honest with channels. I will be like, “Maybe grow yourself as an artist first and then we’ll talk. I don’t want to start taking percentages and your views when you haven’t really found your voice. I’m happy to work with you as you’re doing that without taking a percentage. Then when you get to a place where you’ll need someones help and doing all that administrative work of reading contracts and invoices and all of the stuff that I do then that might be a better time.” It can be kind of challenging because this world moves so fast. Some people would ask me why I would sign a certain channel and why am I doing this. Well, my vision for the long term is this.

It appears that there’s a lot of self teaching going on in your business. Did you have any mentors along the way and how did you ever adapt to this ever evolving industry?

I wish I had more mentors. I would say that my parents, I know it sounds like, “Who’s your heroes?” “My parents!” They own a business, it’s very different, they own a construction business in Salt Lake. They are known as the most premium construction company. They’re small and there are those big guys that do all the major work for corporate clients and my parents have always stayed very boutique. They’ve struggled for a long time because of that but at the end they were very successful because they’ve always put quality over quantity. They didn’t cut corners. They are more expensive to work with than big construction companies but the work is better.

They get to do historical renovations because they are so skilled. I really have been talking to them a lot. Even though it’s a completely different industry, our approach is very similar. They have been really helping me in some of the challenges I’ve been having in the last couple of years. They’re small business owners so I ask them questions about pay roll and stuff. How do I adapt? I just know everybody. I hope this doesn’t sound egotistical or arrogant. I’m around everyone all the time so I hear everything. If I hear a lot of one type of thing, and that’s how I started in business, if I hear a lot of one type of thing then I’ll fill that need. I’ll say, Okay, people are freaking out about the new YouTube layout. Let’s get a document together that outlines the pros and cons and let’s get that out to our talent so they can calm down and focus on being creative. Or okay, this network thing. I’m hearing a lot about networks, let me explore that now. I need to do that now. So it’s really about paying attention to the chatter that is going on. Thank god for Twitter. People are very emotional on Twitter so I can gage where people are.

On top of all this, you are also the producer of the DigiTour. Can you tell us what goes on in creating this feat?

I also have two other partners because I definitely cannot do it alone. We came up with this idea two years ago and wanted to put YouTubers on the road. We tried to be as different from VidCon as possible. It’s really a music tour. It was a lot of learning in that particular experience because I’ve obviously have never put on a tour before. There are things that are involved in tour that you don’t even remotely think about. Like down to detail, for example how are you going to get all these people to live in buses for six weeks without killing each other. YouTube sponsored the tour so it was great that we had their support. We did a live stream at Google and we were able to get Dave Days, Dave Storm, Gregory Brothers, Star Kid, and Joe to play a bunch of days. It was really fun. We’re doing it again in March and we have an amazing website designer, Keebs. Last year, because it was our first time doing this, we had a routing agent. He had to go out and sell this. We had to educate him what YouTube was and then he had to go out and educate the buyers for the clubs. Some of them showed and we had no idea what was going on like, who are you people? I’ve never heard of you. Because we had such a long education process, we couldn’t put tickets on sale until right before. Whereas VidCon, they sell their own tickets while we sell club tickets.

VidCon sells their own tickets so they can put them on sale whenever they want. We have to wait for the club promoters, club owner, and Ticketmaster to agree. It’s this whole layer of processes. We had some really awesome venues and some really challenging venues. We just pushed through it and somehow made it home alive. I was on the bus actually. One of the funny things is that computer cords kept disappearing. If you see my computer cord now it has lime green tape on it that says, “Sarah’s cord. Sarah’s cord. Do not touch!” You also don’t think about sleeping on a bus in a little coffin sized thing. It’s scary too because you have to sleep in a certain direction because if the bus slams on the brakes you can hit your head and break your neck. They were going through the rules on how you sleep on the bus. They were like, you have to sleep with your feet toward the front or you can break your neck. It was weird though because when I got home I couldn’t sleep in my regular bed because it wasn’t an enclosed space or rocking and making noises. I was like, I miss the bus!

YouTube has announced that it’s launching 100 new channels. In a past interview you said that what the top online talent has is very unique and a special personal trust with their audience. What are your general thoughts on the new media movement and do you think the personal trust factor can stand up against the networks and big productions.

That is the big question of the day. I hope so because that will be good for the industry. We want to see them succeed because if they fail and all the attention is on them, then it’s going to make our lives difficult. I think that they are going to be surprised by how much goes into a YouTube channel. There’s still a misconception that you can do it in your pajamas in your studio. You can but it’s not like you can film a video and have the rest of the week off. You film it, edit it, it has to look amazing, you have to annotate it, you have to comment on people for the week after until you put a new one, you have to tweet it out, answer questions on Twitter and Facebook, you have to post about your life, you have to be a personality, you have to answer questions on Formspring, you have to go live. It’s also going to be interesting to see who they have as their personalities.

Recently Ashton Kutcher turned his Twitter over to his production. Can you imagine when that happens to YouTubers? That person is going to go down in flames, I feel. Unless it’s unknown, people are going to be upset. I think it’s okay for a traditional celebrity, I don’t like it, but it’s okay for them to do that in an audience’s mind. For a YouTuber, it’s like, no, you’re one of us. That’s what’s so exciting. I think the whole part of that is that YouTubers encourage their audience to copy them quite frankly. They teach them how to copy them. There are whole channels dedicated to teaching the audience how to do tutorials about what they do, like “you can copy me.” I think big companies are going to struggle with that. Maybe they won’t, I hope not, but they have historically.

Give us the latest scoop on Big Frame and what can we anticipate?

We are growing our team, like I said. We are going to get into more production and marketing type stuff. We are still working to build the network into being more than just an ad network but also a promotional network. Hopefully we have more new channels. Our newest channel is called BAMMO. Hopefully we have more channels that are more than just BAMMO, but that is our newest big project.

Any words of wisdom for self-starters?

Be impulsive. If you over think things too much you won’t do them. Every time things get really hard, I just think in my head, there are no consequences. Even if there are consequences and my company falls apart, which its not going to, but even if it does you have to be okay with that. If you get scared or freaked out and want to close down your company and become an employee again, then maybe being an entrepreneur is not for you. Businesses fail everyday and businesses succeed everyday. You’re going to be in one of those buckets. Push hard enough and don’t live in fear of failure. It’s really the hardest thing because I have to remind myself everyday that don’t live in fear because that will undo you more than anything else.

How can we stalk you?

Twitter: @BigFrameCo and @severshed
Big Frame: http://bigfra.me
Digitour: http://thedigitour.com/

Photography By: Melly Lee

Header By: Ashley Brown

Interview By: Melly Lee

Special Thanks To: Andrea Chiong

Special thanks to Big Frame for making this feature possible.

Big Frame is a media company that specializes in audience development, brand integration and production.