David Siteman Garland and The Rise to the Top: An Interview

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This isn’t your grandfather’s business show. And guaranteed: No pleated pants.

With these words, David Siteman Garland introduces another episode of The Rise to the Top. The syndicated show is nearing its second season, and the 20-something Siteman Garland couldn’t be more enthusiastic.

“It’s a talk show on steroids,” he says of the entrepreneur-focused show, which airs both online and on ABC30 St. Louis. The show uses both traditional and new media to reach out to more than 50,000 viewers. Each multi-segment episode features tips, interviews, inspiration, advice, and other fodder for entrepreneurs. To boot, The Rise to the Top hosts community events, such as networking dinners and a summer-themed business event including Anna Kournikova in July.

Almost singlehandedly, Siteman Garland has built an exciting small-business community in St. Louis. Judging by his extraordinary levels of energy and commitment, the Midwest is just the beginning. Business Pundit interviewed Siteman Garland to find out more, so to speak, about how he runs the show.

BP: How’d you get into TV production?

DSG: The story is crazy. After I graduated from college at age 22, I started a professional in-line hockey league in St. Louis. It was like getting an MBA in two years.

I had a knack for doing sponsorships, so I ended up with a radio show talking about in-line hockey on 1380 St. Louis, a major station. While I was still doing that work, I sat down with a friend at a coffee shop and realized something. I said I felt like there was nothing on TV right now that would be designed for forward-thinking entrepreneurs, the young and the young-at-heart. I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it. I think the show will catch on, and we can do good things for the community.”

I had no idea what to do when I started the show, so I found people who did know what was going on. I would ask anyone that would listen to me, I would say “look, I want to do a TV show. I don’t know what I’m doing. If you think it’s a bad idea, tell me now. If you think it’s good idea, and you think someone can help me out with this, I’d appreciate if you could nudge me in right direction.”

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As a result, I got networked into some of the top people who could make this a reality, including one of the top media people in St. Louis. The original plan was just get on cable access and see what happens. Next thing you know, the head of this network station (my46 http://www.my46stl.com/) in St. Louis is nice enough to say “let’s give this a shot and see what happens.” It all happened through networking and relationship-building.

I poured everything I had, including all my savings, to get the show going. I made my own production studio, but that’s another story.

BP: What happened?

DSG: I hired a production company when we first started, but things didn’t go as planned. Costs escalated. Our price per episode was more than $8K, which was a huge amount when we were trying to get started. We had budgeted far less than that.

We were going bankrupt in a hurry. It got to the point where we either had to pack up shop, or try to get a loan or investors. We also didn’t have a lot of time, had 1.5 weeks to shoot the next episode.

I thought: “I just have to take action.” I decided to start a Craigslist competition for video editors (that’s the most important role). I put out an ad on Craigslist. Two days later, I had 98 resumes, from someone with 5 Emmies to some guy who just emailed “Yo, my name’s Jay, I do video.”

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I weeded the candidates down to 50. Then, I interviewed 25 video editors in person in two days in 2 different coffee shops. By the end, we had narrowed it down to five decent editors.

I created a competition where I paid each candidate a small amount to edit an entire episode. I told them the best one would go on TV. Through the contest, I built great relationships with some of the editors. We got high quality content for less, and with the money saved, we were able to purchase our own equipment.

We had no place to shoot, so we transformed my condo into a studio. We created the most extensive studio in condo history! I’m actually looking at a couple set pieces as we speak. It’s sort of like living in a funhouse.

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BP: How many employees do you have?

DSG: We have a team of fewer than ten people. I’m the principal owner of the company. I’ve created a Dream Team of entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and college interns. We have people in internet marketing, graphic design, web development, media planning/buying, video production, and logistics. Our tasks include signing sponsorships; shooting the show; producing, creating, and editing the show; events, and more.

My hands are in a lot of different buckets right now. It can get a little overwhelming in terms of doing everything at once.

BP: Who’s your demographic?

DSG: 62% of viewers meet our target demographic, which covers ages of 25-49. 29% of our demographic is in the 50+ age range, which I didn’t see coming. They’re attracted to our forward-thinking attitude. We’re getting some high-end people who want to know what the “kids” are up to. 9% of viewers are 18-24 years old.

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BP: What has your experience with advertisers been?

DSG: We try to offer a different level of engagement than many advertisers. We like to create an experience where advertisers come to events. We try to keep it different.

We also use social media more. For example, the Sub Zero Vodka Bar in St. Louis spends $0 on advertising every year. We created an off-the-menu sponsored drink called The Rise to the Top. It’s a vodka mojito with 3 secret ingredients. The only way you find out about the drinks is through our show, events, Twitter feed, and other show-related media. It creates a sort of “cool factor.” People feel like they have a secret code when they go to the bar and get the drink. It’s been trackable and highly successful.

The idea was to get brand awareness so that we get people through the door. The key for working with any sponsorship or advertiser is to listen, to pay attention to exactly what the advertiser looking for.

You have to have the ability to say no, to tell them “I think you’re money is better spent elsewhere.” It comes back to you tenfold in the long run, because people know that you’re the person who is paying attention to users. You get a reputation for knowing what kinds of products, etc. users are interested in.

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BP: What keeps you going?

DSG: My strongest personal assets are energy and taking action. I have a ridiculous amount of energy all the time. It scares people. I’m always bringing energy into everything, and I just don’t stop.

Taking action is also a major thing. Being able to pick an idea and being able to do something about it is key. I’m not a super planner, but being able to take action is the number one thing.

Part of this process is that you really have to be able to hustle and get it done in the beginning. The rewards are in the long run.

See David Siteman Garland in action at The Rise to the Top. The second season starts in September 2009, on ABC30 St. Louis and on the Rise to the Top website.