7 Robot's Szalavitz: Beyond Campfire Tales

Profitable online video startup is kindergarten storytelling champ's latest chapter
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Very few people have found success in the world of online video. Sarah Szalavitz is one of them.

Passionate about the stories she wanted to tell and how she wanted to tell them, Szalavitz left her position as director of content development at Veoh Networks to launch her own company, 7 Robot.

Szalavitz has been in the stories business since she was old enough to tell them, and 7 Robot is arguably just her latest chapter. “When I was in kindergarten, I won the best-storyteller award,” she says, “so it was sort of what I've been trying to live up to…and I guess the thing that draws all of my experiences together is they are all uniquely about storytelling.”

Szalavitz founded 7 Robot with partner Damien Somerset, both an award-winning filmmaker and expert in digital technology, in July 2007. At launch, Szalavitz and Somerset envisioned 7 Robot as more of a production company. As the co-founder and CEO, Szalavitz now primarily works with brands, networks and platforms to help them develop an engaged community around their content.

“We realized there was not much of a market for selling content yet,” Szalavitz says. Instead, clients were hiring her to help them figure out how to build an audience for their content. “The goal of our company is to transform storytelling into storysharing,” she says.

She is first and foremost an advocate for the digital storytelling space, according to Jordan Levin, one of her clients and founding partner and CEO of production and management studio Generate. “[Sarah's] been largely working with both our production front and our talent side in thinking about the distribution ecosystem, from a macro level of what that strategically looks like to a very granular level of how deals need to be constructed,” Levin says.

Unlike most companies in the arena, at less than two years old 7 Robot is profitable and has never accepted venture capital money. In addition to helping other content companies build audiences, 7 Robot is also developing content franchises they own, using their projects as test subjects with platforms, technology and media. Once fine-tuned, they apply the new practices to building communities for clients.

Among 7 Robot's properties, it produces and owns ZapRoot, a green pop-culture Web series Szalavitz created with Somerset while at Veoh and now distributes through Next New Networks. According to Fred Seibert, Next New's creative director and co-founder, ZapRoot distinguishes itself from the plethora of environmental programming online because Szalavitz has found a way to “activate [the environmental community] and get them involved with the programming itself.” ZapRoot has a viewership 10 to 100 times greater than its competition's, with close to half a million viewers per episode.

Seibert attributes Szalavitz's success to a few key differences between her and other industry players online. “She has taken a lot of the skills that I have seen in television producers and television people, and applied them to the interactive world in a way that most television people or movie people haven't taken the time to learn,” he says. “But more importantly, she has a real on-the-ground understanding of this interactive world and how it's different than the passive media world, which just sort of shoves information at you.”

Szalavitz's success also is due in part to how vocal and genuine she is about what she believes in, Levin says. He describes “seeing her argue with people of great influence and power, and it comes from a place of believing—genuinely believing—in the world view that she espouses.”

That's probably because she sees arguments as stories and stories as arguments, in a way. She has degrees in political science and law, and that's all a matter of telling—and selling—tales as far as she is concerned: “There's very little difference between politics and film and law in that they're all trying to tell a story that motivates people to behave in a particular way or do a particular thing.”

In the traditional media world, positions of leadership and power are designated by letters such as CEO or VP. But those labels are much less meaningful in Szalavitz's new-media world, which she describes as “a new movement of micromedia companies that fill a particular purpose, and are lean and mean and operate in a way that allows people to achieve more but work differently, and hopefully live differently.”

In her world, one is defined more by what one does successfully than by a title, and that's where her rank shines through. (Co-founding a profitable startup company doesn't hurt, either.)

“What interests her is industry building, not in helping herself first and foremost,” Levin says, adding that her approach is rooted in protecting the online world from “being wholly and universally controlled by a relative few voices.”

To that end, in addition to her work at 7 Robot, Szalavitz organizes Delicious Digital, a series of Sunday brunches for people who work in digital storytelling. Participants come from throughout the industry, including studio and ad-agency executives, actors and musicians.

“It was formed to create a place for people who are interested in digital storytelling to get together and share their resources, their experiences and maybe make some deals,” Szalavitz says. “It's not a place where people are coming and giving speeches. Instead, it's brunch where you sit down next to people, chat and play musical chairs.”

Szalavitz takes as much personal satisfaction from the projects that arise out of Delicious Digital as any studio executive would with a money-making property. As she puts it: “Honestly, it's one of the most rewarding things I've done in this space, because a lot comes out of it for other people.”

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