13 Leadership Lessons with Wondery Founder and CEO Hernan Lopez
How this former TV executive founded the world's largest independent podcast publisher -- then sold it to Amazon.
My ongoing series in partnership with Entrepreneur, If I Knew Then: Leadership Lessons, gives me the unique opportunity to host virtual fireside chats with high-profile CEOs of major brands, from Indeed and Blue Apron to Nextdoor and Warby Parker. During these information-packed sessions, I ask prodigious leaders to share relatable and practical advice. These insights from major movers and shakers in the business world are accessible as a resource for current and future entrepreneurs and are not to be missed.
For the latest episode, I had the privilege of sitting down with Wondery founder and CEO Hernan Lopez, who grew his company to be the most extensive and far-reaching independent podcast publisher in play. Launched in 2016, Wondery became the fastest network to join the Top 10 ranker by Podtrac. Its secret sauce is the ability to produce shows that captivate audiences with emotional, immersive Hollywood-style storytelling, from shows like Dr. Death, Business Wars, American History Storytellers and the highly successful Dirty John. Since its release in 2017, the six-part series about a con man named John Meehan has been downloaded more than 26 million times. All 30 of Wondery’s shows have reached No. 1 on Apple Podcasts, with many currently being turned into must-see TV shows. With $15 million in VC funding from high-profile backers, the company is projected to surpass $40 million in revenue by the end of 2020, reflecting a 75 percent growth from 2019.
Some might say it was written in the stars that the stellar leader behind all of this success began his career trajectory at the age of 19 in radio and broadcast. By the age of 26, Lopez worked at Fox in Latin America and eventually took a chance by moving to the U.S. with very little English skills and big dreams. In my conversation with Lopez, he graciously shares the most important management lessons he has learned over his 20-plus-year career, from his tenure as president and CEO of Fox International Channels — a $3 billion division of Fox (now Disney) — to the founding of Wondery. These are 13 essential lessons from this incredible entrepreneur:
1. Your idea needs to be something you’re so passionate about that you would do the work for free
Lopez says that if you’re an entrepreneur launching a new product or starting a new service, you should be a fanatical consumer yourself. Hugely intrigued by the potential for the podcast format, he noticed that they were rarely included in the statistics on audio listening. He asked himself, Is this a supply problem or a demand problem? He soon realized that cable television had gone through the same “new medium” process when it split from network television, and that he had a real opportunity to make a big impact in this niche industry.
2. Mentorship can help you navigate sensitive areas as you progress
As a 27-year-old transplant from Argentina, Lopez had a heavy accent. His boss' boss suggested taking an accent reduction class. Lopez points out that today such a suggestion would be perceived as racially insensitive and might not be given at all. “But that boss was right,” Lopez admits. Six sessions later, his accent was significantly reduced, and his career took off. He looks at that advice he was given as a gift and considers it to be one of the best investments he ever made.
3. Trying times can often be the catalyst for positive change
Lopez believes that his early academic and social struggles growing up gay and being kicked out of high school drove his independence and success in business and life.
4. How you accept your “no” is one of the greatest tests as an entrepreneur
The number of times Lopez had to hear someone tell him “no” in his first year as an entrepreneur was astounding. But you need to be comfortable with rejection and learn how to accept and separate criticisms into piles for “constructive” and “otherwise.”
5. Raising money is part of the journey that every entrepreneur has to take
Lopez suggests a beloved book to anyone starting a business, Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis’ Get Backed. It details how to prepare for fundraising.
6. Find another successful business you can model yourself on
You need to find your reason to be and how your product or service stands out. Wondery wanted to produce emotionally immersive shows that would be uniquely representative of its brand, from the script to the music selection. It used the example of Pixar Animation: The beloved studio’s feature animation work is almost always identifiable as a Pixar, thanks to special components that the company makes sure it bakes into each movie.
7. Get out if you have a toxic manager
Unfortunately, bad bosses can’t be changed. Find another job while you are still employed and be careful not to badmouth your current boss. Lopez recommends looking at these three traits as red flags for a toxic boss:
They deflect blame and never take responsibility.
They do not show personal interest in you.
They don’t respect boundaries.
8. In your 20s, realize that just doing your job is not enough
A lot of talented and hard-working people believe that if they just do their job, everything will take care of itself. You need to have goals and actively communicate them to your boss. People will not automatically notice your hard work and promote you, so it’s up to you to show in every possible way why you have the skill set it takes to be a manager or a leader. “It’s important to self-promote and advocate for yourself,” Lopez says. “But always be humble, never overdo it and never ever take credit for someone else’s work.”
9. Thinking that the grass is always greener can lead to unhappiness
When Lopez reflects on his 30s, they were a happy time for him. But despite his success, he was always comparing himself to others, and that stole his joy. Realize that in life the grass is always going to look greener. Accept that the grass you’re standing on is actually more important to that moment in your life.
10. Have a consistent routine that keeps you mentally and physically grounded improves your productivity
Lopez touts reading (some of his business favorites: An Intelligent Life by Australian psychologist Dr. Julian Short or Jim Collins’ Good to Great), therapy and the meditation stories on the Wondery app as important pieces to keeping him emotionally and mentally grounded. He also credits his productivity and success with getting a healthy amount of sleep and having a consistent exercise routine. “Sleep is important and underrated, which is why I always go to bed by 9:30 p.m. and wake up at 5:30 a.m.,” Lopez says. “I also exercise five times a week in the morning. I believe that things that don’t require thinking are best to do early in the day.”
11. Have one foot on the creative side and the other foot on the business side
In media, any person who can navigate both worlds will most likely have more success. On the business side, Lopez notes that it is important for meetings to start in a timely manner, because it shows respect for everyone’s time. He also adds, “Have an agenda. It shows what you want to get out of the meeting and can be used to steer the conversation back when it goes off-topic.”
12. Interviewing is the most important thing any executive can do
Anytime you are interviewing and vetting, think of it as an investment. “The amount of time a company takes getting rid of bad hires is staggering,” Lopez says. “Netflix came up with 'the keeper test': If someone who works for you told you they are being recruited by a competitor, would you fight to keep them? If the answer is no, you should probably part ways.”
13. If you are in a specific role, do something outside of the box to reach your potential
For example, in the sales world it is hard to be perceived by your bosses as anything other than a great salesperson who has the potential to one day be the head of sales. If you have bigger ambitions, do something that puts you in a different box. Lopez shares that he did just that: He attended business school at night while working and received his MBA. That change made his bosses realize he had ambition and was willing to put in the effort on his own time. It wasn’t long until there was a larger role for him to fill that ignited his career and brought him to where he is today.
We all could use more authentic and transparent leaders like Hernan Lopez in the world. Watch the full webinar to hear more pieces of wisdom from this incredible CEO.
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