A Slice on James Norman, Founder and CEO of Pilotly
In 1995 while still a teenager, James Norman became an entrepreneur. He sold car audio systems worldwide, which led him to study Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan. While there, he dove deeper into the automotive space and began building cars. Since the majority of his clients were in L.A., he picked up and moved out to the west coast where he was introduced to the entertainment industry. Norman was building cars on the set of Fast and Furious when he began to take notice of the “complexities of creating content.”
After the 2008 recession hit, Norman was looking to change up his career and get out of the automotive industry. With his new insights into the entertainment industry, Norman founded Ubi Video for streaming content. He quickly realized he knew nothing about how to run a tech company. Norman called upon his college friend who was starting Dropbox at the time, who exposed him to Y Combinator. Through this program, he was able to build the company for five years before moving on to his next venture, GroupFlix, a subscription-based a la carte TV service. While doing market research, Norman realized there needed to be a change in how companies, especially content creators, conduct focus groups and receive customer feedback.
“People don’t want to be bothered while they’re in transit. They’re doing multiple things, they’re on social media while they’re walking. The whole dynamic of that approach [asking people to join a focus group] to getting feedback has changed. I wanted this to be online, more targeted, more cost-effective and streamlined. You can talk about doing these focus groups for 30 or 40 shows and start making hundreds of shows a year, you’ll have hundreds of days of focus groups. It’s not impossible to do it asynchronously, so that’s how Pilotly came to be. Today we work with pretty much any content creator you can think of.”
Norman has moved around quite a bit throughout his entrepreneurial journey, from Detroit to L.A., back to Detroit, and now Oakland where he’s been for the past seven years building Pilotly. His takeaways on Silicon Valley? “Silicon Valley favors the young. I may look young, but no, I’ve been around here for a while. They also do not favor media. So the combination of the challenges of raising money as a black founder, in the market that is based in a space where you’re a well-known commodity, it takes away the luster. It’s all about emotion at the earliest stages here, so first impressions are everything. You can show up as a somewhat unknown commodity but everybody thinks it’s hot at the time and you have something that’s interesting and could be really big. That’s the best thing you could be to come out here and raise money in the early stages.” When asked about the competition he faces being in the startup hub of the U.S., Norman simply put, “There is no competition. If you think there’s competition, then you’re in the fray. It’s white noise and you should probably leave. We’re not competing with anybody but ourselves. The better we do, the better we perform.”
Though every entrepreneurial journey is filled with risks, Norman believes he’s “taking the biggest risks right now.” He has built Pilotly for the past seven years with some venture funding in the early years but has bootstrapped it for the past four years. The biggest risk that follows this is hiring people while they grow without “someone pouring in capital.” Other risks he has taken seem minor to him, even “flying across the country sleeping on air mattresses.”
To all young and aspiring entrepreneurs, Norman advises you to “know what you know, and know what you don’t know,” and “don’t become an expert.” He analogizes the latter piece of advice to the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, “People hype them up, but at the core, either that individual or a person with them was good at attracting other people to follow the vision. They can say whatever they want, but truthfully they’ve hired the people who know more than them. Elon Musk can’t land a rocket, he hired people to do that.”
Success to Norman is “superseding expectations of others and your own personal expectations.” Beyond that, “The next level is helping other people be successful. If I can enable others to be successful, then I’m successful. If you can’t enable others, then you’re just existing.” With these definitions, Norman believes he is already successful and looks to continue on this path. Besides Pilotly, Norman is Partner at Transparent Collective, a non-profit that helps underrepresented founders access resources they need to grow. His ultimate goal is to help others attain success through his work at Pilotly and Transparent Collective.
James Norman is a serial entrepreneur who built his first company at the age of 16, an aftermarket automotive e-commerce site called MJH Sound.com. Over the past 7 years in the media and entertainment industry, he has become a thought leader in over-the-top media and consumer video consumption behaviors. His latest venture is Pilotly, a consumer insights platform that enables content creators to get feedback from audiences at scale. Connect with Norman on LinkedIn.