Andy Nulman’s Funny Business

NEW YORK Andy Nulman, co-founder of the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, was in his 15th year as CEO of the laugh fest when he became interested in the nascent world of mobile-media marketing. It was 1999, and ready for something new, he and his business partner, Garner Bornstein, launched Airborne Entertainment.

Today, Nulman, 47, Airborne’s president and CMO, has inked licensing deals for cell phone content delivery with clients such as Maxim, the NHL and Fox’s Family Guy and, over the past few months, Wind-up Records and fashion designer Marc Ecko.

Q: What inspired you to get into mobile entertainment?
A: There was a mobile conference that Garner Bornstein, my partner, went to and, [serendipitously], Bell Mobility called us looking for humor mobile content and asked if we could convert some of the stuff on our Web site [, a humor portal] to wireless. So we did and basically we said, “There’s no revenue model in the Web business right now, and there’s no revenue model in the wireless business right now-but at least there’s a revenue model in [wireless] in Japan and Europe. Hopefully it’s going to come here.” So, one day, we decided to convert our entire Web business to a mobile business. … It was desperation.

Were there a lot of naysayers when you first started Airborne Entertainment?
Even our investors were naysayers. Our investors said to us at the time, “You know guys, we invested in you, not the idea. But you should go ahead and have a backup plan. … Water’s big. Why don’t you guys get into water?” I swear, this is in the minutes of our board.

What work are you most proud of?
It has to do with two brands that we had a tough time selling into carriers. One, Maxim, was a brand they were afraid of. We had to sort of make it palatable for the North American wireless carrier audience. The other was Family Guy. When we first pitched it to the carriers, they had no idea what it was. We had to buy DVD sets, this was a few years ago, and send them out for Christmas presents. Some of the carriers were pretty adventurous.

Why is it adventurous? Aren’t people opting into it so they know what to expect?
The carriers have a responsibility to their customers. It’s very much like network television was a number of years ago. Network television has loosened up a bit because of the ads on cable, but years ago, the envelope didn’t have to get pushed. Now I guess with carriers like Boost and Amp’d sort of moving the needle a little bit, the guys like Verizon and Cingular, AT&T and Sprint are opening up a bit. You’ve got to understand, when a carrier has a reach of 40 million people it is a massive media outlet. People don’t understand that you look at Fox or CBS or Verizon and AT&T and Sprint, and they’re equal. Sometimes the carriers have a much bigger reach and a more personal reach than the networks.

You’ve referred to the mobile phone as being the “remote control for people’s lives.” Can you elaborate on that?
Most companies replicate the desktop or a television [with the phone], but … we see it as a tool to interact with the rest of your world. It’s not just a screen, it’s more like a mouse. We call it the “inside out” approach. … Just watching a television show on it is like getting a computer just to write letters.

How are your experiences at Airborne similar to or different from the ones you had running Just for Laughs?
Actually, there are more similarities than differences. [They’re both] products that people don’t necessarily need. … There’s also the element of always selling. There are a number of gatekeepers before you get to your audience. And you never really know what’s going to work. You’ve got to keep a tight bottom line. People always expect something new. When you go to a carrier or an audience it’s always, “OK, that last time was great, but what do you have new for me now?” I guess [they’re both] standard marketing.

Why is it so complex for mobile content creators or carriers to integrate their systems with the various telecom carriers?
The barrier to entry has sometimes been a hindrance. It separates the kids from the adults in this game. Serious players only need apply. You’re dealing with a barometer for American taste and ideals and morals, you’re dealing with multiple technological levels and different carriers. … Every carrier has a different operating system and some [have multiple systems]. Then you look at the interfaces on each device and the interfaces are different. … You’re dealing with a number of different massive technological conglomerates.

Give me three words to describe yourself.
Animated, surprising and relentless.

How about three words that describe how others perceive you?
Motivating, loud, stylish. … I’m pretty out there in terms of dress and style and all that. You should see me when I go through airport security. I’m not making this up, I have like two pounds of jewelry and there’s eight pieces of jewelry that have to come off.

How do you get past a creative block?
Having that blank sheet of paper or screen in front of you is great inspiration.

If mobile entertainment hadn’t taken off here, what do you think your next career move was?
Either a star of some sort, perhaps a motivational-speaking star, or a really good maitre’ d’ at a good restaurant. This business was real tough. We were just pounding the pavement trying to find anyone to believe in us and listen to us. I would say, “If we go bankrupt tomorrow [because my house was mortgaged up to the hilt and everything I owned was in the business], what job could I do?” In a good restaurant, guys slip you twenties all the time.

Why the motivational speaker?
Because that’s what I’ve been on the side, from time to time, for 10-15 years for Fortune 500 companies.

How did you get into that?
I wrote a book [How to Do the Impossible]. In business everyone has specific roles that they’re good at. Luckily, I’ve always been a front man for any business I’ve been involved in and because of that I’m called on to represent my business in many different places. And because of that, I’ve always found it easy to speak. So, one leads to another. Sometimes, after a while, they don’t necessarily want you to talk about your business per say. They want you to talk about how did you get to this point in your business, how did you develop the [Just for Laughs] festival into the biggest [comedy] event in the world, and how did you bring Airborne from a complete nothingness, a speck of dust, into a pretty respectful player in a growing industry?

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
The thing I always feel guiltiest about is I always see these wonderful stories … where they talk about a person and their mentor-the person who gave them the break and all that. I feel guilty because I never had that person. I think search, search and you’ll find. My father gave me a great piece of advice when I was 16 and I started working for this [newspaper] and wanted to split. He asked me why I wanted to leave and I told him it was filled with a bunch of alcoholics and losers, and he goes, “If they’re such alcoholics and losers you could be running the place in a couple of weeks, so you should stick it out.”

Who has influenced you most creatively?
I get inspired creatively from so many different sources-street artists, the author Don DeLillo, clothing designers, cartoon characters. Popeye has been a great influence. I know it sounds kind of ludicrous, but usually anybody that goes against the grain. When you look at advertising, the greatest advertising is the stuff that goes against the grain. The problem after that is it creates the grain that everyone just tries to jump into and follow, and then you’ve got to go against the grain again.

Name one person with whom you’re dying to work.
I’d love a dual project with Steve Jobs and Guy Laliberte [founder and CEO of Cirque du Soleil].

What would you consider your most recent creative coup?
Basically transitioning our business … to stay on the cutting-edge of mobile. We’ve completely changed our business around. … One of the big pushes is getting involved in mobile promotions and working with consumer brands. [We’re pushing] this business to a new level and making a commitment to the mobile media game, to the mobile promotion, mobile marketing game … to technology.

What’s the last thing you did for fun?
I write my blog, basically. That and collect modern art.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
[Taking] a shot on the unproven.

What’s the dumbest?
Saying no to Deal or No Deal because when it was explained to us, we just didn’t understand. They said, “There’s a bunch of suitcases and there’s a million dollars and you’ve got to pick one,” and we said, “OK, that’s a show?” They didn’t explain the models or the offer of the bank; it was poorly explained, so we passed on it.