Geek and Sundry: 10 Years Later
TLDR: It was a lot; but a lot to be proud of, too.
(April 1st is the 10 year anniversary of Geek and Sundry, my old digital media company. A tiny bit of this essay appears in my memoir “You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)” but it’s mostly new!)
In the fall of 2011, YouTube decided to invest in fancier videos for their platform, and they were willing to spend one hundred million dollars to make it happen. The deal they offered was unique and revolutionary and suddenly everyone, even people who got lots of free sneakers like Ashton Kutcher, lined up to be a part of the program.
I sat down with my producing partner at the time, Kim Evey (who created The Guild with me), at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and filled her in on what we needed to do to pitch YouTube.
"Here's the low down. Rumor says they’re going to fund one hundred channels in five different areas of content." I leaned over the coffee shop table, super intense, because other people were applying for this thing, too. We had to start being official. Maybe buy power suits. "One of the areas is 'Geek Entertainment', which is good."
"Yes! Who else knows 'geek' better than us? No one!"
We high-fived like we were in some bro-comedy, plotting to save our fraternity, then got serious again.
"Where do we start?"
"I think we need to create a proposal thingie of how we would spend up to five million dollars on a year's worth of content."
Kim coughed up latte. "Wait. Five million?!"
"We’re not gonna get all that. We just need to go in with a plan and they'll figure out how much they're giving us later. Let’s aim high!"
"Wow, even for a little of that, we could make so many videos!"
"Even hire a few people to help!"
Kim and I looked at each other, giddy. After four years of making content on no budget, we might be able to get out of our garages!
We started building a list of shows we wanted to make with the theoretical "definitely not getting it all" money YouTube might give us, including, of course, a season 6 of my web show The Guild (MY BABY). Kim had a show she wanted to do about kids telling ridiculous stories, and I had the idea to host my own weekly show. Because Oprah seemed pretty happy being herself, I could give that a shot?
Then we called up all our friends. Because if we were going to do something wild and scary, might as well hire our friends and do the wild together.
First on my call list: Wil Wheaton. Actor on Star Trek: The Next Generation, internet guru, writer and performer and generally cool dude. I wrote him a part in The Guild as the rival Guild leader, Fawkes, and generally appreciate his existence.
We toured a lot of fan conventions together over the years, and I remembered that he was into role-playing games, which seemed like it could be a cool geeky show idea? I went with it.
"Wil!" He answered the phone and I didn't wait for him to respond, just steamrolled. "Kim and I are pitching a whole slate of shows to YouTube for a web video company. I want you to do a show for us!"
"YouTube? Nah. I don't want to talk to a camera about myself, that's not my thing."
"I was thinking you could do something with D&D? Can we make a show around your being a dungeon master or something?"
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. I thought he was pissed. My heart shrank.
He broke the silence. "Can we not make it just D&D? How about all board games?"
"Uh, you mean, like Monopoly?"
"No, smaller games!"
I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Negative five to 'geek cred', Felicia. "Uh, like what?"
"There are small board game designers who make games that are hugely popular around the world, especially Europe. Most people just don't know about them. We could invite our friends to play a different one each week…Oh! Let's do 'Ticket to Ride' first! That's a great entry-level choice..."
The more Wil talked, the more excited he got. I’m paraphrasing the convo a bit here, and frankly I didn't know what he was going on about for 99% of the convo, but the enthusiasm, the joy…it was a no-brainer.
And that's how the show later named "Tabletop" (destined to be our biggest success at launch), got into our company proposal thingie.
Eventually Kim and I came up with twelve total shows we could make on the theoretical $$$ budget. We even learned Powerpoint so we could stick descriptions of our shows in a deck to present during the Big Meeting (caps necessary). For the record, that program is Satan personified, but when I started thinking about it like scrapbooking, I loved every masochistic second of it.
And as I was wrapping up the presentation, I realized one tiny thing. "Oh. We need a name for the company. preferably with the word "geek" in it.”
Gique so Chic!
After five minutes of brainstorming, I loathed the word with all my heart.
Finally I went to a website with rarely-used words for inspiration, and the word "Sundry" popped out at me. I also liked the word "Parvenue" which is "a woman who, having risen socially or economically, is considered to be an upstart or to lack the appropriate refinement for her new position," but I couldn't think of a cute logo concept for that one. So we settled on "Geek and Sundry".
DONE! Let's sell this thing!
After weeks of preparation (Yes, we bought power suits) Kim and I went into the YouTube offices and presented a thirty-five page company proposal. I won't lie, I felt INSANELY out of my element. But as soon as we started presenting our proposal….not to brag, we were amazing!
"Coming from an entirely grassroots place, we want to continue our audience development in a scalable way. Your financial investment would contribute to our growing infrastructure…" HOW WERE THESE SMART WORDS COMING FROM MY MOUTH HOLE?! I felt out of my body. I felt…confident. What was my secret?!
I swear it was playing secretaries in commercials and television shows for so many years. In an exact reverse of how it usually works (real life experience helping you act better), being hired to act in office-based situations helped me be authoritative in an actual office. I could project "paperwork reliability" on a dime!
After a few questions, we shook hands and escaped. I think we went to a trampoline gym afterwards to celebrate. And a few weeks later, guess what? Out of five thousand pitches, Geek and Sundry was one of the channels YouTube picked to fund. One out of a hundred. They loved our Powerpoint so much that they used our file to show other people how to prepare for their meetings. (It's all about crafting, guys, my whole career. That and an undiagnosed anxiety disorder.)
YouTube hired us to make around half the shows we presented, which was good, because we were able to drop a few we made up the day before the meeting. But we were going to be able to make the shows we cared about, and that's what counted! We were going to have a COMPANY!
Well, that was something else. Basically, we had five months to make literally one hundred videos. And we didn't have time to start small and scale up: We had to SCALE INSTANTLY. It was like standing at the base of a sheer glass wall, and looking up. "Well, we gotta get to the top. Let's start climbing, because that wall looks frikkin' slippery and…the ground is turning to lava. CLIMB!!!"
Basically, I had a good excuse for not going to friends' birthday parties for a while.
But on Sunday April 1, 2012, we launched Geek and Sundry with a day-long livestream Subscribathon! on a “new” platform: GOOGLE PLUS. (LOLZ) We invited guests, held virtual panels, giveaways, dance competitions, you name it, we did anything we could to fill twelve hours. I hosted the entire time, and at one point, in hour eight, I was so loopy I punched a unicorn in the face. Thank goodness the unicorn didn't sue.
With that event, we were able to start Geek and Sundry's first birthday on April 2nd with a LOT of subscribers. And because of our success, we immediately had offers to be bought out by larger companies, but I refused. I was “working-outside-Hollywood-indie-girl!” I needed to roll the dice on this life experiment to see what would happen next.
And then “next” happened.
The first thing I learned about a business, is that it NEVER ENDS. When producing one show like I did with The Guild, the workload was heavy for about three quarters of the year, but then I got a month or so off to creatively recharge. (I mean, brilliant gamer jokes don’t just HAPPEN spontaneously, you gotta raid for that gold, yo!) But after launching a start-up video company, as the months rolled on, I realized, Holy crap. This thing doesn't have an end point. Making content. Constantly. And we couldn’t pause. It went on and on. Like a European friend of a friend who crashes on your couch and won't leave WAY past their "use by" date.
Yes, it was fun constantly MAKING, but also exhausting. I mean, we produced over 420 videos in 2012 alone. Over sixty-two HOURS of content in a year. To put it in perspective, The Guild released one and a half hours of content in the same amount of time. And a “real” television show releases ten to twenty-two hours a season. With a crew of hundreds to help.
We had eight full-time people. Total.
So the scale was…different.
Between the first and second years of Geek and Sundry we had to renegotiate our contract, and I came very close to pulling the plug. Verrrry close. I was creatively tapped out and it became increasingly hard for me to see shows that I loved not succeed on the platform for one reason or another. Like, we’d spend two months making a really intricate video, then one of a baby panda snoring would beat us by four million views! Sigh.
I took a vacation in Jamaica (rum punches will forever be associated with existential angst) and stared at the sunset until my brain felt like my own again. And then I thought, "What should I do?"
And the only thing I could figure out was that I couldn't quit. We were making cool stuff! People loved it! We were representing things in the geek world people hadn’t represented before. That was important! And, point of pride: The idea of giving up killed me. I never gave up on video games, I spent two hundred hours in a video game named Skyrim once, just to finish every single quest and fill my house with potatoes as a joke. I couldn't give up on this.
When I got home, I said “Yeah. Let’s keep going.” Out of the one hundred funded channels in the original YouTube initiative, we were one of only a handful that got re-investment in 2013. Thank you, YouTube.
We had to do things differently though, like the demographic of some of the shows weren’t ideal for the platform. i.e. Anyone over 30, which included myself in the demographic, ironically. So I had to cancel several shows in order to try new things. Calling one of my dear friends, Veronica Belmont, up and cancelling her Sci-Fi video book club show, a project I really believed in, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. I cried in my car for an hour. Way longer than after any relationship breakup, sorry guys. (Also in retrospect, that video series got more views than scripted shows on streaming platforms get now so…nyah?) It was tough, but we put one foot in front of the other and kept going.
Most importantly for me, personally, I got to slow down on being "Felicia Day: YouTube personality", a not-that-great fit. If you’re over thirty years old and think you can become a vlogging superstar, I also have a bridge on Mars I can sell you. The average viewer on YouTube is like fourteen. When I was fourteen I thought someone my age was already a corpse. Kids are not gonna want to watch a corpse talk about their life. I mean, if it was a REAL corpse, they’d watch, sure. Hell, I’d watch. That just seems improbable.
Overall, I re-focused on the creative side of the business and over our second year, we were able to make some great new shows. A highlight was a Magic: The Gathering show, Spellslingers, because it allowed me to play a lot of Magic: The Gathering. Hehe.
And I got philosophy-ish and made a relaunch video called "State of the Sundry" in order to articulate what I thought the concept of "Geekdom" was. I needed to restate why I was there: For my audience AND for me.
I did a lot of growing up over that second year, and I got bangs which looks weird now but maybe I might want them again? (Why do I always get bangs amnesia? UGH). Anyway it was difficult, but rewarding. And exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
In December of 2013, YouTube informed us that the company wouldn't be investing in any original content channels anymore. I felt a lot of emotions I don’t need to get into. But basically, I felt ALL OF THEM. Then I went home and wrote down the top things I'd learned the previous two years of my life, going from ignorant enthusiast, to world-weary start-up lady. I'd like to share them here:
LUCKILY Geek and Sundry did not stop making videos. I mean, we’d accumulated millions of video views in two years. Give up? Nah. So we launched a crowd-funding campaign to continue our biggest show Tabletop while we looked for a new home. We asked our fans to help us raise $500k for a season and we made that in only a week. Because of fan support, we were approached by many people who wanted to acquire our company. And in July of 2014, I sold my company to Legendary Entertainment.
I spent four more years at the company with great people, creating content. Some things were way easier than before. Some, more difficult. Like anything in life, really. But we got to throw kick-ass Comicon parties that were open to all fans, something I miss to this day, so, that got me through a lot! :D Creating web content was what we were supposed to do though, and we got to do it a LOT there. Launching the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel was a specific passion project for me that I spearheaded before leaving the company in 2018. (Four of you just said to yourself, “Wait, she LEFT? When did that happen?!” See year above.)
I left G&S for a lot of reasons. I will share one reason, to lend support those out there with fertility issues, that several years of IVF not working (and partially working, which is even more heartbreaking) was a big factor. I realized that I had to put my mental and physical health first and sadly that meant more hard choices. I put my heart and soul into Geek and Sundry. But I ended up leaving one baby for another in the form of my now 5-year-old Calliope. And she’s the best thing I’ll ever invest my time and stress and creativity in, that’s for sure.
Ten years after creating Geek and Sundry, I do have a bit of FOMO watching other people creating things, and I miss having a great staff of people around me doing things I can’t alone, and celebrating with them when the audience responds to the content we make together. (Also throwing Comicon parties: REALLY miss that.) But I still write, act, and produce things, and I do it on a scale that is manageable solo. Do I regret those years of struggle and stress and hardship building a business from nothing and creating cool content while messing up over and over again? No, because I’m a different and BETTER person now. How do we discover our own limits unless we try and try again?
I’m so proud of all the shows we made at Geek and Sundry. I’m proud of the diversity of the staff in front of and behind the camera. I’m proud of helping to mainstream geeky things that were considered on the fringe before. I’m proud launching careers. And I’m proud of the shows that were made after I left, by the crew that hung on, believing in the vision of the company. Most of all I’m so grateful that you, the audience, helped prove all the execs wrong when they told me over and over again, “That’s not a good idea, no one will watch that.”
They. Were. Wrong.
There are too many people to thank in building G&S to list them individually. Too many people who worked on shows, in front of and behind the camera, as well. But, especially to that beginning crew that helped us start the company, you guys struggled and CARED and THANK YOU so much for helping make something that impacted so many people.
I’ll see all of you online. <3
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