Joel Holland was a high school sophomore in McLean, Va., in 2002 and “tormented about what I was going to do for a living.”
(I thought I would be the next Perry Mason when I was that age.)
The 16-year-old ignored his career counselor’s advice, whatever that was, and instead launched his own career advice show called “Streaming Futures.” It featured more than 100 interviews with the likes of entrepreneur Elon Musk, movie star and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and media mogul Steve Forbes.
Whoa, you’re thinking, how did a high school student get those people to sit down and talk to him?
He said he was “fortunate.”
But also, “it took a lot of hustle and annoying persistence,” Holland said. “But everyone has a gatekeeper, and you just need to figure out how to get in.”
These days, Holland makes his living with less glamour: He sells B-roll video used by 180,000 customers — filmmakers, broadcasters, journalists (including The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal), just about anyone, really — as founder and executive chairman of Storyblocks, an Arlington-based marketplace for images, sound and video.
(B-roll is supplemental footage — think of an aerial shot of New York City, a desert landscape or the front of the U.S. Capitol — that helps introduce a time, place or theme to a viewer.)
“Think of Storyblocks in a similar way to eBay,” Holland said. “Storyblocks buys videos, photos and music for our library from content creators all around the world. We pay, up front, to own rights to the content. We also pay creators when we sell through our marketplace.”
When ABC’s “Modern Family” had to show shots of the sky, it went to Storyblocks and downloaded B-roll of vultures soaring through the heavens. When “30 Rock” needed to show someone testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, cue Storyblocks for the outside shots of the Capitol. Discovery Channel’s miniseries “Mob Scene” used Storyblocks for a shot of people standing on a subway platform in the Big Apple.
Storyblocks has $30 million in annual revenue and a gross profit margin at a stratospheric 80-plus percent. It will finish this year with about 100 employees. The company plans on hiring another 25 to 30 in 2018. The pay is good: Average salary is around $100,000. Benefits include full health, eye and dental care, unlimited vacation and a 401(k) plan.
The company pays well to get the high-caliber data scientists and software mavens that keep track of its growing trove of 100,000 videos, 400,000 photos and 100,000 music clips.
“We believe in paying top-of-market to recruit the best,” Holland said.
The company is growing. It just moved into 22,000 square feet of office space above the Arlington Court House Metro station.
Holland humbly admits to being a decamillionaire (that means above $10 million to most of us whose day-to-day lexicon doesn’t require its use) after selling a big chunk of the company a few years ago.
Storyblocks’s nearly 200,000 subscribers pay $149 a year for unlimited access to its archives. The company’s biggest competition is publicly held Shutterstock, which is valued at $1.1 billion. Based on that, I estimate Storyblocks is worth somewhere between $120 million and $200 million.
Holland is a Type A personality who answers to no one. (Don’t we all wish for that?)
He is also a nut when it comes to video. When we talked about his life story last month, he phoned me from the back of his 33-foot camper parked in a Walmart lot in Rockfish, Wyo. He was driving cross-country to a meeting in San Francisco, while shooting footage of the Wyoming countryside with his DJI Phantom 4 drone.
“I find driving therapeutic,” he said. “It gives me time to think. I tell people when they start a business and hit a roadblock to go on a road trip. You have so much time to think that you will have a breakthrough.”
He listens to NPR’s podcasts and Audible’s audiobooks.
His mom is retired from her home-construction-and-design business. His father is an attorney. Holland got his first computer in 1997 at age 12. It was a Hewlett-Packard that he bought for $1,100 with money he earned by reselling golf balls.
He pivoted to selling software on eBay. He quickly became a “power seller” at more than $1,000 a month. He socked every penny away and accumulated a $30,000 bank account while still a teenager.
“My parents taught me the value of saving money,” Holland said. “If you spend it now, you might get something you want. But if you save for later, you might actually get something you need.”
He started “Streaming Futures” during high school with help from a D.C. nonprofit.
The idea was to give kids some ideas on what to do with their lives.
It was nothing fancy, he said: “It was this two-camera shoot interviewing Schwarzenegger, but there was no music. No B-roll, no fast cuts.”
That led to Storyblocks (first named Videoblocks).
“I am thinking, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a lot of people like me who want to create productions or documentaries, but they don’t have money to make it high-caliber,’ ” he said. “ ‘So why don’t we start a company and create video and then sell it very inexpensively to lots of people?’ ”
He put off college for a year to develop his idea. Then he hit the road.
From 2003 to 2004, he traveled to 35 U.S. cities with a used Canon GL2 camera that he had bought for $2,500.
Starting in Seattle, “I would get up early and shoot video clips of skylines, the city. Everything I could get. Daytime. Nighttime. I was shooting all this crazy footage,” he said. After shooting all day, he would go back to his hotel room, jump on his Toshiba laptop and edit the footage into smaller pieces.
When a wedding videographer paid $35 for a tape of Seattle, he said, “that got me fired up that there was a business here.”
His parents declined to pick up his costs for college, so he paid for it himself. He attended Babson College in Massachusetts, a business-specialty school from which he graduated in 2008 after studying finance, economics and statistics.
“My parents told me that paying for college myself would make me appreciate my education more,” Holland said. He missed one class in four years and graduated magna cum laude. “I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t go out drinking.” He just worked.
He set up a website and became an expert on Google AdWords.
Instead of customers paying each time they used his videos, Holland decided to charge them only once — like an all-you-can eat restaurant.
He settled on $149 a year, a price point that would deliver a healthy profit margin but would not hinder subscriptions.
“I was the first person to use an unlimited-use model,” Holland said. The money began rolling in. The company was earning $100,000 a year by the time he graduated from Babson.
Holland turned down a $120,000 salary from a Wall Street investment bank so he could keep building the business.
“People said, ‘Take the job, make some money and start the business later,’ ” Holland said. “It was May of 2008, and the economy was crappy. But I knew if I didn’t follow my dream to start a business, the chances were I never would.”
He moved back into his parents’ McLean house, rented temporary office space in Tysons Corner for $300 a month and went to work for 12 hours a day.
He took the business to the next level, selling footage to advertising agencies and documentary filmmakers. The State Department — and its hundreds of embassies around the globe — is one of his biggest clients.
Without the distractions of college, Holland made $1 million in his first year after graduation.
He cleared a $500,000 profit and poured it all back into the business.
He started hitting association lunches, Craigslist and AngelList to find employees. By 2011, he had a staff of 10 employees and $4 million in revenue.
“I saw this as a $100 million company,” Holland said.
To get there, he knew he would need a financial partner. He started talking to venture-capital and private-equity firms. He asked his lawyers at Cooley for suggestions.
Holland found a pair of D.C.-based investors, Updata Partners and QED Investors. “I liked that they were entrepreneurial-friendly,” he said of his business partners.
In March 2012, the firms invested $10.5 million in Storyblocks.
It has grown from $4 million to $32 million in revenue since then, drawing interest from would-be buyers.
Holland still owns a big chunk of the company and pays himself $100,000 a year. His stake is worth a lot of money, most of which is in a savings account because the risk-taking young entrepreneur doesn’t want to take any chances.
“I’ve gambled once just starting this business,” he said. “I don’t want to press my luck by doubling down.”