Hernan Lopez on How Success Happened at Wondery Meet the visionary who saw the big opportunity In podcasting before most others.
"If you want something in life, you need to go and get it. Don't wait for something magical to happen." Hernan Lopez, founder of the podcast publisher Wondery, says that he looks for that go-getter attitude in every executive he hires. Lopez knows quite well the importance of passion and persistence in launching a new venture and nurturing it along the difficult path to success.
In 2016, Lopez left a comfortable job as the CEO of Fox International Channels to found Wondery – a significant risk. The fledgling podcast industry was seen as unprofitable. In the fourth quarter of 2015, Americans spent only 2% of audio listening time on podcasts and advertisers spent just $34 million on podcast ads.
Leaving Fox was a gamble. Yet, just four years later, Lopez announced an acquisition deal with Amazon reportedly valued at $300 million. For the Argentinian-born immigrant, the acquisition was validation that it was indeed possible to take a leap of faith.
Lopez grew up in Argentina. His parents had instilled in him the value of a rock-solid work ethic. Lopez studied advertising in evening classes while working full time at a radio company. He saw the grueling schedule as an opportunity, as he could apply lessons learned at school to his work. Yet, Lopez wanted something more, and so he stopped waiting for "something magical to happen."
At age 21, Lopez knocked on his boss' door and asked to take charge of the sales team. Much to Lopez's surprise, his boss agreed. Success in life, Lopez said, is being in the right place at the right time – and intentionally positioning yourself in those places.
New trends = potential
In 2016, Lopez decided to position himself for a different type of success. He enjoyed being a CEO, but he saw potential in podcasts and decided it was time to take the biggest risk of his career, despite the naysayers and the difficulty of raising venture capital. The first year was difficult, but Lopez knew his idea was solid. He wanted to introduce Hollywood elements to podcasts, including sound effects and music, creating emotionally immersive storytelling.
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After a year, Wondery had its first big hit – Dirty John. The true story of a woman who had been conned by an imposter made for an enthralling psychological thriller. Upon release, Dirty John exceeded expectations with over two million downloads per episode. The Hollywood-style elements of the show proved irresistible.
Scaling and an exit plan
The success of Dirty John gave Wondery the momentum it needed to scale. Lopez found himself in the enviable position of being able to walk into any venture capitalist's office and ask for funding based solely on the success of that hit show. After a Series A funding round, Lopez got to work scaling the company. He hired Jen Sargent (then COO, now CEO) and the newly expanded executive team began solidifying the vision for the company's growth.
In planning Wondery's growth, Lopez knew it was important to continue to please listeners. They established a methodical release schedule for new shows, expanded the roster of podcasts and backed them with robust marketing budgets. "Even if you make an amazing show, you still need to promote it," Lopez noted. The best show in the world can't sell itself.
Lopez also began planning his exit strategy. Lopez's goal had always been to grow the company to a certain point to attract buyers. Before accepting Amazon's offer, Lopez considered these questions:
- Would Wondery do well within the acquiring company?
- Would his team be valued within the new company?
The answers to both were "Yes."
Applying passion to problems
Building any company is a labor of love. Lopez offered this advice to those who aspire to become entrepreneurs: "Start a business that solves a problem that you're passionate about. Do something that excites you so much that you would do it for free."
But an entrepreneur's journey doesn't stop there. Lopez also believes in the importance of giving back. It's why he co-founded the Podcast Academy, which lifts up independent podcasters. It's also why Lopez stepped away from Wondery to focus on his charitable foundation The Hernan Lopez Family Foundation, which supports diversity in leadership. In the end, it could be said that Lopez didn't find success so much as create it from the ground up by pursuing his vision and his will to give back.