Oh Yes, He’s The Great Connector: Jason Hirschhorn’s Expertly Curated World
If you’ve never heard of Jason Hirschhorn—and it’s unlikely that you have, unless you’re deep into the disruptive clash of content and technology—you’ve probably heard of some of the people who hang on his every word.
At the very least, you know the companies that Hirschhorn’s acolytes run and their vast influence over how we live our lives and navigate the popular culture.
His Web-based startup, REDEF, curates what he sees as the best and smartest articles, videos, movies and music across a range of fields, then distributes them to an eager audience of thought leaders. Media and entertainment magnates, to say nothing of tech titans, can’t stop gushing about Hirschhorn.
“Jason is just a brilliant strategist,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “He’s just super-smart about all things digital, he’s a phenomenal sounding board, and he’s one of the best connectors bridging different people and different ideas together in a way that few others can do.”
“He’s just an extraordinary person,” says James Murdoch, co-chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, the $70 billion corporate behemoth founded by his father Rupert. “He’s generous, he’s a great connector of people, he’s got great taste, and he’s really thinking about the world we live in, and this industry and its adjacencies, from a cultural and business perspective. He does have his finger on the pulse.”
“When you’re the CEO, it’s not that easy to get people to tell you the truth,” says Nancy Dubuc, chief executive of A&E Networks, home of the History Channel, Lifetime and, of course, Duck Dynasty. “Sometimes you have an opportunity to go outside to people you trust, to tell you what they think, and I often go to Jason for strategic advice. Every once in a while I’ll get an email from him saying he can’t consume World War II content [from the History Channel Web site], he can’t find it and it’s not authenticated, and what the hell is my problem? So I’m not going to him just for the sugar. I’ll take the vinegar. If anything, the vinegar is more valuable.”
“I don’t think any of us would start up anything without first asking, ‘What would Jason think?’” says longtime cable television executive Judy McGrath, the former head of the MTV Networks including VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and Logo. “He has a gift for keeping people in his orbit. He’s like the Pied Piper.”
So who is this wizard? Most days, you can find Hirschhorn, a chubby 43-year-old with a computer-geek pallor, gazing into a glowing screen in the small office space in Manhattan’s West Village that he recently leased for REDEF, which he calls “the interest remix company.”
The REDEF Group, of which Hirschhorn is the CEO and “Chief Curator”—is an aggregation of multi-media Web verticals encompassing fashion, sports, tech, music and the media and entertainment businesses, all chosen according to the idiosyncratic and possibly visionary tastes of Hirschhorn and a few trusted colleagues.
It’s the outgrowth of a daily newsletter that Hirschhorn, for the better part of decade—as he pocketed multiple millions of dollars from the sales of media and tech startups in which he was an entrepreneurial stake-holder—has been emailing for free to a select group of movers and shakers.
They include reality show mega-producer Ryan Seacrest, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, media executive Susan Lyne and mogul Barry Diller (who is chairman of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company).
The emails almost always include Hirschhorn’s so-called “rantrave,” a series of random, epigrammatic, insidery pronouncements which the recipients tend to treat as oracular (and bitterly complain when it’s absent).
“R.I.P. ELIZABETH PENA,” begins Thursday’s installment. “Too soon at 55. She starred in one of my favorite movies, LONE STAR… RICHARD PLEPLER punches in the HBO GO “launch codes”. I was pretty damn close on timing. Ultimately, the big news in the saga of the cable bundle are the effects of the new lower priced tiers evolving. What channels make it? And of those that don’t, which go OTT [over-the-top via the Internet instead of cable] à la carte or die? It’s slowly beginning…
“I’m not cutting the cord any time soon, but for the love of god, I wish the industry would get portability and on-demand right… When WARNER BROS. Chief KEVIN TSUJIHARA makes an announcement. He comes packing. Wow… #37 on the list of things I won’t ever have…”
Hirschhorn presides in his windowless, claustrophobic, exposed-brick office behind a shut sliding door. The modest digs bely his corporate establishment bona fides—he sits on the board of directors of MGM—and his blue-chip past as the chief digital officer of MTV Networks, and the president of Sling Media (which marketed an ingenious mechanism, the Sling Box, which let users access their home television services from any computer screen or mobile device, anywhere on the planet).
Briefly in 2010, he was co-president of MySpace, in a valiant attempt to reverse the Murdoch-owned social media site’s declining fortunes athwart Facebook’s world domination.
Hirschhorn is also a world-class facilitator of thoughtful conversation between the reflexively adversarial camps of content producers and distributors, on one side, and the high-tech innovators and buccaneers who are continually disrupting the old-media business models, and occasionally killing entire industry sectors, while gloating and thumbing their noses.
Along with Samsung executive David Eun and investment banker Quincy Smith, Hirschhorn annually hosts an exclusive dinner at Wynn Hotel—featuring an off-the-record back and forth between young digital startup entrepreneurs and media establishment types like Rupert Murdoch, CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, Judy McGrath, and Netflix head Reed Hastings—that is the hottest ticket at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January. (The usually voluble Hirschhorn declined to discuss the dinner, which is a journalist-free zone and also excludes Wall Street analysts.)
“I saw that all these worlds—arts and entertainment and technology and media and communications and sports—were all merging. They were all blurry,” Hirschhorn tells me about his latest venture. “And taking what I loved about the clubs and the DJ culture and remixing from hip-hop, I thought, could you look at the Internet as sort of like your record crates—and mix tweets and articles and documentaries and things into what we call an ‘interest remix’ and get people to sign up for it?”
So far the preliminary answer is a resounding yes, and Hirschhorn quickly raised $2.25 million in seed money from a first round that includes Bloomberg Beta, Greycroft Partners, Mark Cuban, James Murdoch, Katzenberg, Blake Krikorian, movie director Brett Ratner, MTV cofounder Bob Pittman and other top-tier investors.
“He’s really a mensch,” says Krikorian, a former business partner of Hirschhorn’s in Sling Media—which was sold to EchoStar Communications’ Dish Network for $380 million in 2007—and a major tech investor. “He’s passionate about everything and he loves helping people and contributing. He’s got a pretty wide, dynamic range. And besides, he’s freaking hilarious.”
“He has an extraordinary understanding of the present and the future, and of media and technology, and he sees where all those four groups intersect,” says movie mogul Jim Gianopolus, chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the Avatar, X-Men and Gone Girl studio. “He’s got a unique vision of the evolution taking place in the media ecosystem.”
“He’s very dedicated to this—he’s not a dilettante playing around,” says Greycroft founder Alan Patricof, a legendary venture capitalist who funded the early stages of Apple and AOL. “It is important to Jason that this succeeds on a business basis.”
On a recent October evening, Hirschhorn is getting over a wicked cold and sporting a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. He says the beard, which he ordinarily never wears, is the result of being too lazy to shave amid a punishing marathon of 18-hour days as he and four colleagues toil to fine-tune the REDEF site and get the bugs out of a mobile app in preparation for a soft launch in the next month or so. (Shortly after my visit, Hirschhorn rid himself of his facial hair. Because he is a relentless recommender, he sent me an email advising that I promptly order from Amazon the Philips Norelco NoseTrimmer 5100 complete with “skin-friendly detailer.” Because he is a magnetic personality who generally speaks with conviction and authority, I did as I was told.)
Hirschhorn and his younger sister, Jody, grew up well-connected on Manhattan’s East Side; he attended the tony Horace Mann School with James Murdoch (until he was kicked out junior year by an unsympathetic administrator, ostensibly for poor academic performance and improperly mixing dangerous compounds in chemistry class), and found his calling in the computer room as a senior at Columbia Prep, teaching himself how to design Web sites at the dawn of the digital revolution.
He was business-minded from a tender age, making serious money as a teenage club promoter while immersing himself in the downtown music scene. He became a zealous fan. And he instinctively understood the marketplace—whether of ideas or something more concrete.
After Hirschhorn and his friends celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in a rented space at The Saint, formerly the legendary Fillmore East rock’n’roll venue but by then an exclusive gay men’s club, he approached the club owners with an idea for a non-alcoholic under-21 night, with a $10 cover charge. “We got 7,000 kids at ten bucks a head, and grossed $70,000,” Hirschhorn recalls.
His father, Ronald, was a professional sports gambler who died in 2005. But Hirschhorn credits his mother, Susan, who worked in the garment industry as an executive and later ran a shop, as his most important influence— indeed, she was the inspiration for REDEF, he says.
“My mom and I were always close,” says Hirschhorn, adding that he was devastated last year when she phoned from her home in Los Angeles to tell him she’d been diagnosed with cancer. She died in February at age 68.
“I would sit with her and talk while she was in chemo at UCLA,” he says. “Now that I’m 43 and can look back, I can see how much she made happen for me. There were snapshots in my head—the first time I went to see a foreign film, Le Cage Aux Folles, at the theater on East 68th Street; the first time I went to a concert; going to see the Degas exhibit. And I was able to tell her how much I appreciated it, and I realized that my interests were not all my invention; that she was a big reason why I started REDEF.”
Not surprisingly, Hirschhorn is the sort of larger-than-life character to which memorable anecdotes attach themselves. For instance, in a story he tells on himself, when he made his first big score in 2000—the multi-million-dollar sale to MTV of Mischief New Media, an online music company he built by himself in his tiny bachelor apartment on East 96th Street—he did two things.
First, he paid all of his mother’s outstanding debts. Second, he photocopied the initial seven-figure check at his lawyer’s office, and dropped it the mail to the private school administrator who had drummed him out of Horace Mann. He scrawled a message over the photocopy: “FUCK YOU.”
“That’s eleven years of carrying a grudge!” Hirschhorn says with perverse pride. “People say I have no rear-view mirror. I’m not that guy.”
Another anecdote is told by former Viacom chief executive and MTV co-founder Tom Freston, whom Hirschhorn considers a mentor and close friend. Freston recalls leading a field trip to Emeryville, Calif., where Steve Jobs met with the Viacom delegation—including Hirschhorn and Interscope-Geffen Records chairman Jimmy Iovine—and led them on a tour of Pixar Studios.
“Jason tried to convince Steve Jobs that Apple should start a streaming music subscription business,” Freston recalls. “He said, ‘You guys really need a music subscription service, not just iTunes.’ Jason told Jobs that music subscription was the future, and Steve jobs basically told him he was crazy. As we were leaving I joked to Jason, ‘Keep your mouth shut at the next meeting.’ He really got under Steve Jobs’s skin.” Hirschhorn remembers the encounter a little differently, with Jobs good-naturedly advising him, “Jason, you seem like a nice guy, but all your ideas are wrong.”
Freston says today: “The funny thing now is it looks like Jason was right.”
Indeed, in May Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who took over after Jobs’s death in 2011, agreed to buy Iovine’s and Dr. Dre’s Beats Music and Beats Electronics—a streaming music subscription service along with a headphone, speaker and audio software company—for $3 billion.
Hirschhorn, meanwhile, insists he’s not particularly interested in money for its own sake, though having a fat bank account (he declines to say how much) has afforded him the freedom to not only to buy a posh Tribeca apartment with seven television screens but also work on only the things he’s passionate about. “The way I grew up, I’m happy to have money,” he says, “but I never had delusions of grandeur.”
At the moment, Hirschhorn is less focused on a profit trajectory for REDEF than on getting it precisely the way he wants it to be. He can foresee generating revenue through paid subscriptions to an elite yet scalable audience, or perhaps offering customized curating to individual companies, or perhaps building a conference business around the REDEF brand. Or even, at some point, selling advertising space.
MTV co-founder John Sykes, for one, is sanguine about Hirschhorn’s odds of success. “He really has become a great curator,” says Sykes, who was Hirschhorn’s boss at MTV Networks, where he recruited to build out the digital operations of VH1. “He’s passionate about pop culture. He’s a fan first and a very good businessman second. You never know what’s going to work. But there is a need. There are just mounds and mounds of digital trees of information falling in the forest. There is a great need for curation.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Lacy, editor in chief of the influential tech site PandoDaily, predicts whatever happens with REDEF, Hirschhorn’s future is bright. “I look at him, and see how thoughtful he is and how smart he is, and I think, that’s someone who’s about to hit an inflection point. He doesn’t think he’s done his Big Thing yet, and he’s really hungry.”
Hirschhorn, for his part, says he’ll be fine if REDEF is ultimately judged a failure. “Failure is just a way of learning something new. You don’t cry in your cereal,” he says. “We’re going to take a shot. If we fail, I’m due for a failure. At least I had a really good time doing it.”