On this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, Ken welcomes Mike Grisko, a former PwC consultant and current CFO and Co-Founder of Atmosphere. Mike joins us to discuss his experience in consulting, the benefits of working in both investment banking and consulting, and how his experience, combined with a media and technology interest led him to Chive Media Group and the eventual launch of Atmosphere.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara.
Ken Kanara: I’m Ken Kanara and this is Beyond Consulting, the only podcast focused on your career, health, wealth and life after consulting. This week we welcome Mike Grisko to the studio. Mike is the Co-Founder and Chief Financial Officer of Atmosphere TV. Mike, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today.
Mike Grisko: Thanks Ken, I appreciate you having me on.
Ken Kanara: Yes, you bet. Mike, can we start by doing a little trip down memory lane? I would love to hear about your background and what has brought you here.
Mike Grisko: Yes —I’m a Chicago native, born on the South Side of Chicago. I’m the oldest of five kids. My mom was an ER nurse in a pretty tough part of town. My dad was an engineer in sales. Growing up we thought it was normal to have, , close to 30 cousins who lived within a mile proximity. That was my upbringing. I ended up a University of Illinois grad, a big-time guy. But while I was there, a couple older folks within my university that had gotten into different investment banking jobs and to me, all of a sudden, by my junior year, that became the target. I love the fact of how much training, how much insight…and deals…deals are pretty cool, as well as the comp was pretty good out of school, as well. I did the “apply to 30 or 40 different banks.” I got rejected by pretty much all but one and started at Lincoln International in August of 2008.
Ken Kanara: Great time to start banking…
Mike Grisko: Yes…that was about a month before Lehman Brothers went under. I ended up working on some pretty tough transactions out of the gate, but just watching the deal volume go from…those guys were clipping off an M&A transaction a day, to it all dried up. I actually was part of I think the second round of layoffs in March of 2009. I still point to that as a huge life lesson for myself and it was a real gut check—thinking you’re doing everything perfectly right and then all of a sudden, circumstances beyond your control will flip everything on its head. I think it’s a timely lesson for everything going on in today’s economy and market with more layoff news coming. I think that really hardened me.
Flash forward, I did a five year stint with PwC helping them start up their middle market investment bank group in the US. I did two years over in the UK for PwC, which was a great experience. I got to work on a lot of corporate carve outs for big, blue chip companies. It was a lot of cross-border M&A. It was a great experience. Living over in London was one of the coolest things my wife and I have ever done, just being able to travel Europe and taking full advantage of the UK’s vacation policy while we were over there for two years.
We came back to the states in 2013 and around that time I had seen a lot of middle market or smaller M&A deals and was looking for more. An opportunity opened up at Moelis & Company and I jumped all over it. It was a chance to really level-up to see that next size of capital market transactions and get to work on big bankruptcy or restructurings, hostile defense, big strategic advisory assignments for large public companies. I ended up doing three years, but that was the nine and change years of my investment banking career before taking my first operating role where I’m at today.
Ken Kanara: Awesome. First of all, I’m seeing two interesting parallels. One, you’re Chicago guy myself and I’m also one of a big family. I’m one of six and actually, my parents met at U of I. Very small world that I didn’t know about.
Mike Grisko: Did they meet at the library or did they meet at Cam’s?
Ken Kanara: Definitely not! My mom was a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority girl and my dad was in vet school, but he was so bored he actually worked doing busboy and waiter shifts at their sorority house to pay for vet school.
Mike Grisko: No way!
Ken Kanara: Yeah, so that’s how they met.
Mike Grisko: The perks of the job…there’s not many to that.
Ken Kanara: Yes, she grew up in River Forest and he grew up in a very different neighborhood, probably yourself.
Mike Grisko: Nice.
Ken Kanara: So, cool…PwC, Moelis, investment banking…then you make a big giant leap to media. Then you went over to Chive, right, as the CFO?
Mike Grisko: Yes. Just to give a little background, Ken, on the business, heavily involved in both Chive Media Group and Atmosphere TV. At the time, Chive Media Group was a men’s lifestyle website focused on humor, hotness and humanity, reaching 25 million uniques on a monthly basis on a website, app, but most of the revenue generation was through e-commerce. If you ever see the Bill Murray T-shirts, out there, we’re the official merchandise partner with Bill Murray. Today we’re selling gold, silver rare coin runs with Bill’s face on it. We’re even launching a legal tender run in the country of Palau with Bill’s face on it today. That business was ripping and it was in the time with all the digital media darlings, everyone from BuzzFeed to Vice, and the rest, were all on the rise. I had a chance to work with the Co-Founders of Chive Media Group, Leo and John Resig back in 2014. It was actually the first deal I got put on when I was at Moelis.
Ken Kanara: Oh, wow!
Mike Grisko: The guys were just coming off of a monster 2013 year and weren’t sure what to do next. The business had grown rapidly and was incredibly profitable. We looked at a lot of different strategic alternatives for them, everything from buying up some smaller competitors, thinking of adjacent websites to doing a levered recap, to even potentially selling. We actually got pretty far down the line with potentially selling the business to Playboy.
Ken Kanara: Oh, interesting.
Mike Grisko: Yes. At the end, Leo and John walked away from the deal. They just couldn’t get comfortable with terms and the management team was there at the time. We went our separate ways after working together pretty closely for 10, 11 months. Flash forward a couple years, in 2017 the prior CFO of Chive Media Group was looking to move on. Leo gave me a call and said, “Hey, we would love to bring you down.” For me, that’s the big thing in being in the investment banking world. I realized pretty quickly that relationships and the ability to build a network with CEOs, founders, executives is the most valuable thing about that profession. I’ve had opportunities in the past to go work for different folks that were clients, but this is the first one where I really jumped at it because it was a chance to work with two great human beings. I just knew there was more that we could do with the business than what was currently being done. It was a chance to come in at a pretty senior role and I was confident in myself— maybe overly confident in myself—and being able to make the switch and being able to take the reins in that top level role.
Ken Kanara: That’s a great point about relationships, especially because I think I must talk about this on every single episode and it comes up time and time again…and it’s funny because when we’re in consulting or banking when we’re young, it gets a little bit , we don’t want to be fake, so we don’t want to be that guy that has to network with everybody. But at the end of the day, it really does make a big impact on your career because, for example, now you’re working with guys that you knew before. That takes a lot of the risk out of things, too, in addition to getting involved with the right people.
Mike Grisko: Yes, and that’s it, right? I was at a stage in my life and career where I just wanted to work with good people.
Ken Kanara: Yeah (laughs).
Mike Grisko: No matter what happened with this business, they were going to do the right thing by myself and my family. I had to move about 1,000 miles south. I had a one year old and my wife was pregnant already with our second. It was a big leap to leave the steady, stable set up in Chicago. I think that personal relationship that you build was absolutely critical for making that an easy decision.
Ken Kanara: I the way you put it… you got to a certain point in your life that you just wanted to work with certain people.
Mike Grisko: Life is too short. I’m guessing the majority of your audience, they’re in a pretty good financial situation…
Ken Kanara: Yes.
Mike Grisko: …Obviously incredibly talented, and that’s always been my advice…man, you spend so much of your waking hours working. You have to do it with good people. It adds so much more to your overall well-being.
Ken Kanara: Absolutely. You’re CFO, right? That sounds great, but most of us don’t even know what the hell the CFO does. We know they’re in charge of the finances of a company, but what does it really mean?
Mike Grisko: It’s one of those jobs that can encompass so much within a company. Especially as we evolve and we have more and more data information, and especially within a tech company that was chasing a lot of different initiatives and verticals. It took a bit to really sink my teeth into all the different areas of the business. When I explain to people what’s in my purview as a CFO, it is everything from capital planning and allocation—that is your financial planning analysis, budgeting…you’re setting the course of that three-year vision. I think of my role very much as an offensive coordinator. Our CEO and leadership team is setting that overarching vision and it is my job to make sure that the playbook is set and everybody’s running plays correctly.
Ken Kanara: I that analogy, yeah.
Mike Grisko: It gets easier by the day, right? It used to be, several years ago, it was a coaching staff of one, but now I have so many good people making sure that things are being done, that the receivers are running the right route trees. That, far and away, is objective number one.
Two is the actual external relationships as it relates to your effective investor relations, as it relates to the board, as it relates to external capital sources, as it relates to tracking down efficient, external capital. That’s a huge piece of this—all the other accounting administrative items that fall under the purview, because it is just table stakes that you have good numbers. It is closing the books accurately, closing the books monthly on time, it’s good reporting of data, interaction with business insights on all your major KPIs, keeping folks accountable to those, all in addition to all of the administrative stuff: tax, to benefits, to commercial insurance…I would say from my prior experience, I always had more of a surface-level view on a lot of different pieces, especially on the accounting and administrative side. I was lucky enough to walk into a very good team and…
Ken Kanara: …An existing system and team…
Mike Grisko: …Setup on that front, and then my entire career was spent in the deal world, right? I had the chance to sit in the room. I got to observe and advise a lot of very good exec teams, a lot of bad exec teams… It provided a lot of reps. There were certain elements of it from the capital allocation side, the strategic planning, the budgeting and analysis…that came very quick and naturally. Everything else was seeing for the first time.
Ken Kanara: Sure.
Mike Grisko: It truly does boil down to having good folks that work for you and trusting. You just have to be able to let go a bit to know that you have to rely on other people where their technical experience is just beyond what yours is, and that’s fine. I think that’s where some folks can get hung up, , “I don’t know how to do A through Z that’s under the CFO job…” Yeah, neither did I. The thing is that the training that you get going into investment banking, consulting, etc., right? You learn how to boil things back in the first principles, make it formulaic, and make a quick reactionary decision from it. The peace parts of your decision making make it very easy to step into a roll, see something for the first time, react to it and hopefully execute it the right way.
Ken Kanara: Something we’re observing, at least with middle market and lower middle market, private equity backed companies for sure, and I’d be interested to hear your take in terms of tech and media, but the CFO role is definitely being seen as a lot more strategic over the last five to ten years, and less of an accounting role. It’s almost the accounting and admin piece almost seems to be, you said, “do they have the right people in place and systems in place?” I’m curious to get your thoughts on that.
Mike Grisko: I’m very biased because…
Ken Kanara: Go ahead, gloat. Tell us how wonderful you are, Mike.
Mike Grisko: No, I’m definitely biased because I absolutely skate more to the operating-slash-strategic CFO side. It’s just my background and the skill set, and that’s just it—every organization is different, but if you are a company that is looking to undergo transformative change, bringing in somebody in early—as early as you can afford—to really take on that strategic CFO role will just help execute your vision of going from A to B. For any of those CEO’s out there, that would be my guidance. If it is truly more about optimization of a current, existing business, then absolutely, you don’t need that. You actually probably don’t even want somebody coming in there that’s going to be trying to drive transformative change.
Ken Kanara: …Especially with business and operational KPIs becoming more and more like table stakes as part of the reporting, because now there are direct ties to operational KPIs that relates to financial performance and outcome, right? That seems to be living more in the office of the CFO as opposed to IT right?
Mike Grisko: Yes. I’m very lucky to work with an incredible Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Technology Officer, Eric Spielman and Alen Durbuzovic, and they’re engineers by background. Eric overseas our business insights team. We’ve had a couple of data scientists on staff for years, just domo sequel ninjas with the build out, because we are data rich.
Ken Kanara: Oh I’m sure…every second of every day.
Mike Grisko: The number of pieces of information that we have at our disposal…consolidating that is an incredibly large task. That sits under the purview of CFO’s in certain organizations, but not in ours. I’m pretty blessed that I walked into a situation where those guys had a lot of their systems and structures locked down.
Ken Kanara: What about making the transition? You spent most of your professional life in professional services, basically working on transactions for clients. What was it like switching into an operator role on a day-to-day basis?
Mike Grisko: It definitely was a challenge. Chive Media Group, at the time, was looking to undertake a transformation. Leo and John asked, as I came in, to do a full assessment as an outsider. “Hey, take a look at absolutely everything we’re doing. Dig in and ask questions and then report back.” So I started in September and by early December of 2017, we had a pretty large presentation deck that was given to the C-Suite guys at the time presenting my findings. We recognized that “Hey, we have to make some big structural changes and make some big moves.” All of it was in the guise of, we had some strong core businesses that were cash generative, but we were chasing a lot of different initiatives—we’re talking about eight or nine different things that the business was chasing that were new, upstart things, but we could not do it all. We needed to focus and the big thing that we saw as the opportunity was to build what would become Atmosphere.
Atmosphere TV is a streaming TV platform for business. It has 50 different audio-optional channels and what I mean by that is, it is built for those screens that you see in your everyday life in a gym, in a doctor’s office, in a bar, a restaurant, a laundromat…If there is a TV in those spaces it’s typically not playing audio. We’ve all come across those screens. The content that most venue owners put on those screens today is content that’s designed for in-home. We like to say, “TV for business isn’t broken, it was never right to begin with,” because it just took TV that was designed for in-home with audio consumption. You get a lot of talking heads, you get different dramas or old movies playing on TNT…
Ken Kanara: …or The View and no one wants to watch The View…
Mike Grisko: Yes. You get divisive news and it’s supercharged about an opinion. We provide a platform that is family-friendly, brand safe, engaging content. Most of our channels are viral videos stitched together with a specific theme. Everything from Alpine TV to Beach Bum TV to Happy TV, I mean it’s on the nose. It’s exactly what you would think it is, a team of journalists building our Atmosphere News, Atmosphere Sports, and Atmosphere Entertainment. Just think headline news with no audio….what does sound off Sports Center look like? That’s your content profile. We provide a device and all the content to the venue operators for free and we make our money off of ads, so it is a free ad-supported television service.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. How did you decide to pivot to that model?
Mike Grisko: Yeah, that’s a great question. Chive TV was founded as a channel in the back end of 2014, early 2015. It was coming at the time where Roku was coming into parlance and had actually opened up their App Store. As an audience extension play, Leo, John and the team decided, “Hey, we should really look into building our own TV streaming app because this is the future.” They used 2015-16 to really try to be the proof of concept, to see what sort of content program would work. Eventually they found that, “Hey, we have access to a lot of viral videos.” The Chive, at its core, is one of the best curators of the Internet, so being able to track down a license package of great content has always been in the DNA. They realized that their content format could work incredibly well for the bars and restaurants. They went on The Chive and asked all bar/restaurant owners—anybody that worked in one—if they wanted a Roku stick and that was our initial distribution strategy that the guys came up with. Flash forward to when I joined the company in 2017, we had a viable product that looked like it could be a monster opportunity. We had maybe five or six dedicated employees here and maybe 1500 locations, but tiny…generating next to no money, but you could see that this could be a platform of the future, very similar to Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.
Atmosphere is a completely vertically integrated solution. We own the customer relationship with the venue owner. It is our entire tech stack, our device, our delivery. We power 100% of the content channels that appear on the platform and retain 100% of the ad inventory and control 100% of the ad monetization. It’s very similar, and then some, as far as ad-supported media platforms.
Ken Kanara: And I will say, as a consumer of Chive content, it is captivating. I kid you not, I do my daily stretching while watching Chive at the gym every single day. It’s annoying to stretch, but I know I gotta do it, I’m getting older. But 15-20 minutes just goes by like that. I can watch it literally without even thinking.
Mike Grisko: I was just at my dentist and I was waiting for 15 minutes, but it was just watching Happy TV. It reduces perceived dwell time.
Ken Kanara: Yes!
Mike Grisko: While you’re waiting for your service, it’s just melting the time away because it’s incredibly engaging and it’s designed to be. Our generation, then even the one behind…folks are very used to consuming short form video.
Ken Kanara: Yeah!
Mike Grisko: Our attention spans are where they’re at…
Ken Kanara: Yes, it’s kind of like modern day magazines at the dentist’s office. I love what you guys are doing. That’s great. To bring the conversation back to your career a bit, Mike, if you think about some of the things that have been critical to your success as CFO, is there anything you’d like to share?
Mike Grisko: Yes, and I’ll even relate it back to early in my career. Getting laid off gave me the mantra, I even had a sticky note that I stuck on my laptop, and it was “work harder than the guy next to you.” I’ve always considered myself a hustler. The same thing applies whether you’re in consulting, investment banking, or making a move to an operating role. Where this business has really stretched me is on leadership and being a leader. I think the biggest lesson I’ve gotten from that is authenticity. Just be authentic with people. Really be willing to listen and then just let people be themselves. That’s the best thing about our culture within Atmosphere today, and Chive Media Group, is that we let people come as they are. The person you are outside of the walls is the same person you are here. You don’t have to pretend. I did plenty of that on Wall Street.
Ken Kanara: It’s exhausting, right?
Mike Grisko: Yeah, shiny black shoes, pitch books, and the rest of it. The other thing as well is bring good energy. That’s critical. Then, with any tough decision because you’re going to get a bunch, do it with conviction. I’ve learned that employees want leaders to lead and not waffle. Just be clearly defined in your conviction and communicate it.
Ken Kanara: Love it. Hustle, bring good energy, be authentic and make decisions and stand behind them. I think these are four really great points. Excellent. Mike I wanted to wrap it up with, we’re all former nerdy consultants and bankers, in terms of our listeners, do you have any book recommendations that you’ve read or listened to that have had an impact on your life?
Mike Grisko: I’m a big Audible consumer and actually, during COVID when we were not able to get everybody together in the office, I started a book club distribution list, so I have plenty for you.
Ken Kanara: Alright, let’s hear it.
Mike Grisko: One of my favorites I recommend, especially for anybody who’s interested in the venture capital growth space, Zero to One by Peter Thiel is a fantastic read if you just want a full view of what makes these vc-backed businesses special. Greenlights has to be in there with McConaughey. It’s a great listen, even if only a fraction of it is true. I think it’s just a great philosophical book of our time. Never Split the Difference with Chris Voss, a former lead negotiator for the FBI. Man, so many great lessons…tactical empathy. It has so many things and little details that really improve your negotiation skills and deal making. I mean it’s a great read. I gave you three.
Ken Kanara: Those are three good ones. On the second one, when I listen to McConaughey, even if he sounds cheesy, I can’t help but feel energized. I almost get mad at myself.
Mike Grisko: It’s like the podcast version of Top Gun 2.
Ken Kanara: That is the greatest analogy and endorsement for that book ever. Well good stuff, Mike. Thanks so much for joining us. If our listeners want to learn more about either Chive or yourself or Atmosphere, where should they go? What should they look up? I definitely recommend going to atmosphere.tv, they can find and follow any of our social handles and they can always reach out to me on LinkedIn.
Ken Kanara: If I’m not mistaken, they’ll need to scroll down to the bottom of the page and there’s a “Careers” link, is that right?
Mike Grisko: Correct
Ken Kanara: Okay, awesome. For those of you joining for the first time, make sure to subscribe either on Spotify, Apple or Amazon and if you want to look up past episodes and get the full transcripts, check out beyondconsulting.info. Then, last but not least, at least I hope, if you want to get in touch with me or anybody else at ECA Partners, it’s going to be eca-partners.com and until next week, we look forward to hosting our next wonderful guest. Mike, thanks so much for joining us this week.
Mike Grisko: Yes, I appreciate it. Thanks, Ken.