How Did She Do It? A Q&A with Anjali Midha, Co-founder & CEO of Diesel Labs
By Sheila Narayan and Karen Teller, Managing Directors of Golden SeedsOctober 1, 2020
With the ‘streaming wars’ raging and platforms proliferating, it’s clear content is king. But how do the growing ranks of competitors know what their audiences want? As veterans in the media analytics space, Anjali Midha and her partners saw the emerging need for a data-driven approach to managing and optimizing content portfolios in an on demand world. Targeting what they recognized would be an enormous market, they founded Diesel Labs, an audience and media content analytics venture. By measuring “every atom of content” in Anjali’s words, Diesel Labs helps producers figure out what will resonate, and devises winning content strategies for new and target audiences.
Anjali, CEO and co-founder of the four-year-old company, recently spoke with Sheila Narayan and Karen Teller of Golden Seeds about the fast-moving content business and the role Diesel Labs is playing.
SN and KT: Tell us about the origins of your company.
AM: We have been studying the interactivity between content and audience engagement for as long as social media has been around. Our team spearheaded the practice of social TV analytics at Bluefin Labs, an MIT Media Lab spinout company that was acquired by Twitter. Following the acquisition, I spent a few years overseeing media and agency research and analytics for Twitter. When I saw the content landscape being disrupted by the changing behaviors of audiences, I left and started brainstorming with my co-founders Mike Fleischman and Russell Stevens. We knew the world of content was on the cusp of explosive growth, and the industry would need tailored, sophisticated analytics to support it. That’s how we came to create Diesel Labs in 2016.
SN and KT: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this?
AM: As a media content analytics company, we measure engagement with every atom of content, from YouTube videos to TV shows, movies, video games, celebrities, brands and so on. We’re systematically organizing the content ecosystem and mapping the relative relationships between everything. Part of the reason we’re taking this approach is that the lines between different types of content are starting to blur — we’re seeing TV shows based on podcasts, and even movies screened within video games for example. Other firms, such as social listening companies, specialize in understanding engagement volumes and topics of conversation. At Diesel Labs, we deeply profile the audience and, importantly, connect the dots across the entire content landscape. For instance, we can tell you what percentage of those who talked about “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu are also listening to podcasts, playing Animal Crossing, or engaging with the newest Netflix show.
The way we consume media content has changed. In the last 12 months alone we’ve gone from one major streaming platform to nearly ten. It’s extremely challenging and competitive, and the stakes are staggering. Media companies collectively spent over $120 billion on content last year alone.
There are two main metrics that matter: keeping existing viewers or subscribers happy (as measured by churn) and attracting new ones (growth). In order to move these metrics in the right direction, they need the best insights about audience preferences and tastes, emerging trends and reactions to existing content. That’s where Diesel Labs comes into the picture.
Our clients include media and production companies, major TV networks and streaming platforms — pretty much any firm that plays a role in the content lifecycle. We help them figure out which shows to license and even what kind of content they should produce in order to hit their business goals. We tell brands where their audiences spend their time. We offer insights on talent, on music — helping them decide who to cast in a show. And we help clients raise awareness for their products.
SN and KT: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
AM: Figuring out how and where data plugs into the creative, artistic processes of Hollywood is a challenge, especially now that content is being produced at an unprecedented scale. To overcome that, we have to be nimble and fast-moving. Our design and product-building aesthetic is flexible and customizable. We’ve built our data infrastructure to support exploring the unknown. We get harder and harder questions every day given the speed with which the media landscape is evolving, and we have to be ready for anything.
SN and KT: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
AM: Recently, some of our data was published in Variety, the daily ‘required reading’ for everyone who works in media and the content space. That’s a huge step toward making Diesel Labs a household name. Our next milestone will be doubling the size of our team by the end of this year. As a small company, each new person brings something special to the table and can immediately influence who we are as a company and a brand. I’m really enthusiastic about where we are and how the remainder of the year is coming together.
SN and KT: What advice do you have for early stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture or other issues you’ve had to address?
AM: You’ve surely heard this advice before, but assemble the best team you can. I don’t think we’d be where we are now without the day-to-day dedication of our core team. As a founder, it’s common to hear that the highs are incredibly high and the lows are incredibly low. But we don’t really talk about how you often experience both in the same day, even sometimes in the same hour. When you’re dealing with successes and challenges at the same time, a great team is essential to help keep everyone sane and the energy high.
SN and KT: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has our network been helpful to you?
AM: I don’t have the words to express how fortunate we are to have Golden Seeds in our corner. We’ve had the privilege of working with numerous seed-stage firms all over the country, and Golden Seeds stands out among them. Just for starters, the leadership team and the folks who ran the due diligence were extremely thorough, patient and transparent about the process. I genuinely don’t think we would have been as successful in this round without the guidance and advocacy of the Golden Seeds team.
In addition to all the wonderful support from leadership, individual members have been thoughtfully reaching out with everything from warm introductions to timely and relevant news articles. Everyone has been supportive, proactive and helpful. Having worked with so many firms, I know this behavior is unusual – and it’s fantastic!
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