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Venture by design with Josephmark’s Ben Johnston

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Brisbane’s Ben Johnston has taken venture studio Josephmark from the back of a shed in Paddington to the bright lights of Hollywood. In the process, he’s developed a systematic approach to exploring the unknown.

Johnston has spent the past decade and a half developing and launching digital products and identifying market gaps and future trends. Josephmark, formed in Brisbane in 2004, now has offices in Sydney and Los Angeles, and has worked with everyone from Redbull and Myspace to the Commonwealth Bank.

Along the way, Johnston also founded motion design studio Breeder, Indigenous creative agency Gilimbaa and music software start-up We Are Hunted, which was bought by Twitter in 2013. “If you just hang around long enough,” Johnston laughed while taking part in a Town Hall Talk with Queensland Chief Entrepreneur Leanne Kemp, “you can build a story.”

Part creative agency and part venture capital firm, Josephmark has developed a process it calls ‘venture design’. The Josephmark Venture Lab (JM-VL) identifies, builds and scales new ventures, using a replicable methodology to develop good ideas from concept to company. JM-VL’s ventures include upstart video content creation company Clipchamp, stock research software Hash Finance, and music discovery platform Undrtone.

“I think the portfolio’s up to about 30 different early-stage companies that we’ve been meaningfully involved in,” Johnston said. “There are about a thousand different pathways you can take when you’re building a new company, and everywhere you look, someone is willing to give you advice. If you don’t know any better, you can go down a lot of dead ends.

“About five years ago, we started seriously looking at the patterns of these ventures. We just started seeing the efficiency that could be gained from being able to do a couple of key things early on, focused around product-market fit and venture validation… the actual core things that are going to make or break your company, that can so easily get lost in all the other things that you can focus your attention on.

“The whole point of ‘venture methodology’ and what underpins our Venture Lab is this notion of being able to cut straight to the chase and understand whether you should be investing or pursuing a venture or an idea or not.

“It’s an emerging model that is bucking the trend of a traditional pathway… this way, your learnings and your failures can be captured and put back in [to the Venture Lab]. With a traditional start-up, when it fails, that team will usually dissipate, and you lose those learnings.”

Johnston learned some of his most important lessons when Josephmark was tasked with ‘reimagining’ Myspace in 2012.

“Justin Timberlake was the figurehead owner of the new Myspace, so we started to hang out with A-list celebrities and get an entrée into an echelon of Hollywood that a lot of people don’t ever get to experience,” Johnston said.

“It was an incredible experience to be able to work on a platform so big. We were really given the keys. We were charged with going, ‘Okay, what’s next?’, and running with that vision. Along with Justin, there were a couple of megalomaniac owners who were hellbent on saying, ‘We can beat Zucks!’”

One of Johnston’s career highlights came when Timberlake released a ‘sneak peek’ of the revamped Myspace in the form of a video that took the internet by storm, even though development of the new-look site was running behind schedule.

“It’s fun to be able to break the internet, and we broke the internet that day,” Johnston remembered. “It was insane. We were getting press from everywhere with people saying, ‘Watch out, Zuckerberg’, and from there we had the next challenge – Apple and Facebook immediately tried poaching pretty much our whole team.

“We then launched the site, and it was good, but… let’s just say there were a lot of ghosts in the hallways of Myspace. It was an uphill battle, in terms of that cultural transformation, and instilling the belief in themselves that they could do it. We didn’t end up overtaking Facebook, obviously, and Time Inc. came in and bought it.

“The stakeholders were happy with that. Obviously not as happy as they would have been if we’d built a billion dollar company again, but it was still a very handsome deal.”

Johnston still swears by the power of a good hype reel – but, as he learned from his Myspace experience, you have to be ready to back it up.

“The power of a narrative is extremely important,” Johnston said. “Hype reels for digital platforms can be extremely effective, not just as an end output, but because it forces you to refine your pitch. Writing a 60-second script for a hype reel is an amazing process for any early-stage team to go through. We were able to use that pre-launch hype reel, in the Myspace instance, to go and add tens of millions of dollars of ad budget and brand budget. We had Super Bowl ads, the whole thing.

“Would I do that again? From a sales perspective, yes. From a launch perspective, at that scale, I think it’s very effective to be able to show the experience, but you want to be able to launch the site within seven days [of the video dropping], so you can capture that hype cycle. But in terms of an effective tool for showing stakeholders or potential investors your vision, when you’re in the early stages, it’s extremely effective.

“You know, websites are pretty boring. It’s like life – if you can add a soundtrack to life, even just walking down the street is fun. If you can add a soundtrack to your platform, and showcase it in a 60-second overview, then you’ve got someone’s attention and you’ve got a higher likelihood of getting them excited. As long as you can deliver!”

You can watch Leanne Kemp’s entire conversation with Josephmark’s Ben Johnston here.

The full playlist of Town Hall Talks – including Leanne’s conversations with Dom Price (Atlassian), Yasmin Grigaliunas (World's Biggest Garage Sale), Michael Irvine (BMI Group), Laura West (CBRE), Marc Orchard (BDO Australia), Leesa Watego (Iscariot Media), Domm Holland (Fast) and Queensland Small Business Champion Maree Adshead – is viewable here.

The Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur also conducts regular Toolbox Talks with entrepreneurs, founders, startups and innovators across Queensland. That playlist is viewable here.

Follow the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur on Facebook and keep an eye on our upcoming events to join live Town Hall Talks and Toolbox Talks and have your questions answered by Australia’s leading business minds!

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