August 01, 2011
Entrepreneurship Lessons from VeggieTales
Posted by Christine Hurt

Like a lot of us, I've been traveling a lot this summer and have not been blogging the past few weeks.  My apologies. 

At the beginning of the summer, I read a book I had been wanting to read for a long time:  Me, Myself & Bob:  A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables.  The book tells the story of Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales and Bob, the talking, singing, dancing tomato.  If you had children in the late 1990s, early 2000s, then you probably know of VeggieTales.  In these videos, vegetables appeared in stories that paralleled Old Testament stories or more general morality tales.  I knew that for awhile the videotapes and DVDs of these animated shows were ubiquitous, but I didn't know that in 1998, Big Idea (Vischer's privately-held corporation) sold 7 million VeggieTales videos or that Big Idea made the first 30-minute 3-D animated film.  I also didn't know until this year that Vischer lost Big Idea in bankruptcy, and the business (including Bob the tomato) was bought by Classic Media.  Here is an abbreviated version of the story; the book tells the whole thing.  One could chalk it up to the dot-com boom, but the story has a lot more to it.

The book touches on at least 3 themes, all of which are interesting to me:  (1) how does a company go from being a great small company to a great bigger company; (2) how does a company with a social goal avoid mission drift; and (3) how to discern what God wants you to dow with your professional life.  I'll leave #3 to some time when you catch me in person, but I'll touch on #1 and #2.

So VeggieTales was an amazingly successful small company, but tried to grow to be a bigger company.  Yes, we've all heard the stories of companies growing too big, too fast, but what does that mean?  For Big Idea, it meant that the cost-center parts of its budget grew a lot faster than the profit-centers.  HR went up, payroll went up, marketing went up, production values went up, expenses went up, but sales couldn't grow at the same rate.  Vischer talks about "Things I Learned #1:  Never Lose Sight of the Numbers" and "Things I Learned #2:  Ignore the Voice That Says "I Deserve It."  Vischer characterizes himself as a creative person and acknowledges that he lost sight of the numbers.  In his words, he was a Walt Disney who didn't have a Roy:  someone who could tell him when ideas were too expensive, too unrealistic.  He says good ventures have a Walt and a Roy.  If you read the book, you see the train going off the cliff (new fancy building, plans to have the first full-length 3-D animation movie), and you want to yell "Stop!"

The second point is one that my students and I talk alot about in my seminar Law and Microfinance.  How do pro-social firms maintain profits and even go public without losing sight of its mission or can they?  Vischer created VeggieTales because he wanted to provide children with Biblical entertainment that had one message:  God loves you.  During the rise of Nickelodeon and the Disney channel, Vischer felt called to counter what he saw as disturbing media influences on the youth.  As someone who had been obsessed with filmmaking, puppetry and animation his whole life, he thought he was in a position to change the world.  But, as the company grew and hired employees, he struggled with how to maintain this mission.  Some hires were in tune with the religious mission, but others were merely talented animators who wanted to live in Chicago rather than L.A.  Vischer wanted to keep everyone happy, so eventually none were and the watered-down mission that was left didn't inspire any of them.  Eventually, all of the top executives were against Vischer's original mission.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in animation, entrepreneurship or finding one's calling.  It reads very quickly.  Vischer is very funny.  After all, he did create talking vegetables.  One amusing tidbit:  I had always thought that VeggieTales stuck to the Old Testament to have a wider religious audience.  However, the real truth came from Vischer's mom, who told him that he couldn't do anything from the New Testament.  Jesus could not be a vegetable!

In case you're wondering what became of Phil Vischer, he now owns JellyTelly, which produces the fabulous and hilarious What's in the Bible.

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