HitRecord is a production company transitioning into a tech platform. We caught up with cofounders Jared Geller and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at Collision 2019 in Toronto last week to understand what HitRecord was, is, and wants to be.

HitRecord is a collaborative media platform that lets anyone work together on creative projects. If a project earns money, contributors are paid based on any work that makes it into the final product. In June, HitRecord will have paid out some $375,000 over the past year, totaling over $3 million contributor payments since 2010. CEO Gordon-Levitt works 20-30 hours per week, while president Geller is full time. The site has 750,000 users interested in collaborating on content together.

Earlier this year, HitRecord raised $6.4 million to pull off its platform evolution. With the cash infusion, the company has grown from 18 employees to 34 employees today.

“It’s like GitHub for creativity,” Gordon-Levitt told VentureBeat. “I got to speak at Open Source Summit and I spoke to Linus, the creator of Linux, and a number of folks from that movement. They’ve been really great to talk to because there really are a lot of parallels between the open source coder culture and what we’re trying to bring to our creativity [platform].”

An informal hobby

Gordon-Levitt started his acting career as a kid. At 19, he quit acting to go to college. When he tried to get back into the industry a couple of years later, he couldn’t get a job. That pain led to a desire to take responsibility for his own creativity.

At that time, in the early mid-2000s, “hit record” was a personal turn of phrase, a mantra. Gordon-Levitt would not wait around to be cast. Instead, he would hit the round red record button himself. His brother helped him set up a tiny website: a single HTML page with a few of his videos, songs, stories, and so on. Eventually, they added a PHP message board, and that’s where the community began.

“HitRecord didn’t start as a startup,” Gordon-Levitt told VentureBeat. “It was a very informal hobby many years ago. It was something I was doing with my brother just for fun. We had a little message board where I was putting up things that I was making, little songs and stories and stuff like that.”

Some people just wanted to see what Gordon-Levitt was creating. But others wanted to use the forum to make things together.

A message board

“We noticed on this message board that what a lot of people wanted to do was not just check out the things I had made, but to make things together,” Gordon-Levitt said. “And we thought ‘Oh, that’s actually new and interesting.’ Just watching a video online isn’t all that different from watching content on existing technologies. But using the internet to collaborate, make something together with other people that you might not have been able to make on your own, that’s legitimately new behavior. And we thought that was really exciting. So we leaned into trying to develop that further. My brother was a coder. At this point, still, it was just something we were doing for fun. But the community kind of kept growing.”

The community was doing something that would have been impossible just a few years earlier — giving rise to new human behavior, enabled by technology. The collaborative phenomenon reminded Gordon-Levitt of the creative joy he had always experienced on film and television sets.

Then, in 2010, Gordon-Levitt teamed up with friend and cofounder Jared Geller to figure out if the collaborative creative process could power something bigger.

A production company

“First we did the due diligence,” Geller explained. “‘OK, if we’re going to ask the world to create together and make a production company, what are the consequences we need to consider?’ In terms of licensing, terms of services, and making sure we can pay people fairly. So we did that, and obviously built a pretty rudimentary product.”

Geller and Gordon-Levitt looked at intellectual property laws. They figured out how people could remix and build off each other’s creations. They considered how they would pay people if productions were monetized. And they set targets.

“We made a list of goals,” Geller noted. “Could we maybe make a short film collaboratively and place it in a film festival? Could we put out a book of writing and illustrations? Could we make music and put out a vinyl record? Could we make a TV show in this collaborative way? And we did all that. We’ve had short film series play at multiple years of Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival. We have a great partnership with Harper Collins and have put out multiple book series. Our television show Hitrecord on TV won an Emmy.”

There were also business wins.

“Along the way, we’ve partnered with brands like LG, Samsung, Sony, the ACLU, National Parks Foundation,” Geller added. “All bringing together people from all over the world to tell stories and making it easier to support various initiatives. Over the years, we hit all those goals, and we thought we could set our sights a little higher.”

A startup

Success brought new challenges. The duo realized HitRecord had hit limits in terms of the collaborative process, as only so many people could get involved. Geller and Gordon-Levitt concluded that better technology was needed if they wanted to let anybody lead a project so an infinite number of people could participate.

“We had never really spent a lot of time or effort on our tech,” Gordon-Levitt admitted. “We had a very small team of developers. We had no product people. We had never raised any money. We had never had to. We were cash flow positive since 2013, doing it as a production company. But we realized if we want to include a lot more people, we’re going to need to provide better tools so that we can take what we’ve learned as a production company and allow other people to do that.”

So they took their pitch to Silicon Valley.

“It probably would have been easier to raise money in Hollywood, but we wanted tech partners because we didn’t want just capital,” Gordon-Levitt said. “We wanted guidance and connections. We found some great partners. Javelin Ventures led the round, Crosslink Capital and Advancit Capital came on after them. We had some great angels: MasterClass cofounder David Rogier, YouTube cofounder Steve Chen, and Twitch cofounder Kevin Lin.”

“We raised six and a half million bucks for our series A, and now we’re heads down and building this platform so that anybody can come and start a project or find a project to get involved with, recruit collaborators, and make something together. Start it, finish it, and celebrate it. Create a different kind of ecosystem for creativity that puts the emphasis more on the creative process and collaboration, as opposed to how much attention it can get and how many followers it has.”

Social media incentives

It’s worth diving into Gordon-Levitt’s thinking here. He strongly believes that social media and tech platforms are screwing up the incentives for creativity. If you’re focused on figuring out how much attention you can get, or what the box office numbers will be, or whether you’re going to get famous, your priorities are twisted. (Gordon-Levitt recommends everyone reads the book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier.)

“If what you’re going for is posting on YouTube, or Instagram, or platforms that monetize through the ad model, where they’re really just going for sheer volume and have the ability to manipulate people through ads, virality is the measure of success,” Gordon-Levitt pointed out. “And I think this is exactly at the heart of what’s interesting to me about doing [HitRecord]. I think if that is your measure of success, you’re going to undermine a lot of what’s actually meaningful and joyful about creativity. And I’m actually concerned for the human race’s creative spirit, because so much of our collective creativity is now destined for these platforms that are monetized by this sort of attention economy model. And it twists one’s understanding of one’s own creativity, and what the value of being creative is.”

Since many social media platforms today emphasize attention-getting, those become the creator’s incentives, Gordon-Levitt explained. What can you get and what are your goals? The user experience says views, likes, and followers. The business model is thus not aligned with monetizing a meaningful creative experience — it’s set up for attention. For the creative process, that’s counterintuitive.

Social incentives

Gordon-Levitt has found that the joy and the flow state occur not when you’re focused on the red carpets, the attention, and the box office, but when you’re immersed in the creative process itself — specifically, the part where you’re making stuff together with other people. HitRecord is a collaborative media platform that de-emphasizes attention and emphasizes the creative experience with other people.

“I’ll use an example from my life. I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve got to be a part of some very popular movies,” Gordon-Levitt acknowledged. “What’s fun about doing those movies is not when they get popular. It’s not when there’s big box office numbers. It’s not walking down the red carpet. It’s none of it. All of that actually is, in my experience, a little odd and sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes, I guess, nice.”

“But the joy, the fulfillment, like the stuff that gets me out of bed in the morning is … the time on set, when we’re actually making something together. And so we’re trying to create our own ecosystem for people to come who have an urge to be creative and say, ‘Hey, let’s reorient the way that we think about what we’re all doing here today.’ And not necessarily go down this path of like, ‘Can I become a star? Can I get more likes? Can I get more followers?’ But rather, think about what’s meaningful and fulfilling about just making something together with other people, whether that’s a song or a short film or documentary.”

That’s a hard message for him to deliver, because he’s “made it.”

“I think on the one hand, I think you’re right, that it is hard for me to deliver that message. Because yeah, well, ‘you’ve gotten to experience it,'” Gordon-Levitt agreed. “On the other hand, I think it takes someone who’s experienced it to be able to say, I have been on that red carpet. I can tell you from firsthand experience, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Those are marketing gimmicks that are designed to look cool and exciting to sell movie tickets. The actual experience of doing it is really not where the joy is.”

A mission

So how does HitRecord measure success?

“Our mission is to bring as many people as possible the experience of creativity through collaboration,” Gordon-Levitt said. “What we’ve honed and discovered over the years of doing it as a production company is that doing it with other people is a great way to unlock people’s creativity.”

“Oftentimes people say ‘I know I want to do something, but what do I do?’ Or ‘How do I do it?’ Or ‘Who do I do it with?’ And what we’ve seen over and over again is that when they’re doing it with other people, it gives them inspiration, gives them feedback, gives them motivation. And so the thing we measure is ‘Are we bringing that experience to as many people as we can?'”

The company still looks at metrics like page views and project likes, but it also tracks how consistently users are contributing creative elements to particular projects and how many projects the community conceives of, develops, and finishes.

HitRecord wants to get as many people on the platform as possible, plus ensure they are engaging and collaborating — “not just consuming,” Geller emphasized.

“Not just flipping through and seeing ads, because we’re not putting any,” Gordon-Levitt added. “But how many people are actually having a creative experience with others?”

A community

HitRecord’s users apparently know all this. On HitRecord, it’s calls to contribute, not finished projects, that go viral.

“One of the key insights that we know about our community is that, more than anything that they want to do, they want to be a part of a project that gets finished,” Geller explained. “They want to be a part of a project that they couldn’t do on their own. Finishing anything creative is going to be hard, to just either get motivated or knowing what the next step is. Like Joe said, we’ve been doing this for a really long time. So we understand how we can support a community and provide them with the tools and product necessary — not only to figure out what is the next step in the creative process but also provide them with the community that can be motivating.”

“The emphasis isn’t money,” Geller continued. “That’s not why they’re there. It’s cool when they make something or we make something together and it ends up in a game or on TV. But the reason they’re there is to be creative together and to build upon other people’s work.”

“It’s not a gig economy. It’s not a marketplace for freelancers. That wasn’t necessarily intuitive to us. When we did a survey a couple years ago, we raised questions like, ‘Do you want to do more branded stuff? More video games? More TV? Do you want to do blah, blah, blah?’ And the answer was ‘No, we just want to make stuff.’ And that’s what led our thinking to ‘Oh, we need to create a platform that allows people to start projects, to rally a lot of people to work with them, and then to get them to finish it. And then celebrate that.'”

A tech platform

HitRecord works today, but the cofounders admit that it could function a lot better.

“I would say it’s not an intuitive user experience,” Gordon-Levitt said. “When you go to the website and you go to the mobile app, it’s great work done by a very small team. We were never properly data-driven, we were only ever really tracking two things. One, ‘Are we making art that we like?’ And two, ‘Are we paying the bills?'”

“Up until six months ago, what we were tracking is the art that we’re making as a community — do we feel inspired by it? Does it meet the threshold of excellence that we feel good about? And are we also able to pay our bills and grow? We’re learning about what are the metrics that show our community is strong, shows our community is engaged,” Geller added.

“We’re starting to understand how to track KPIs, how to A/B test, how to iterate, how to make a user experience that can really empower people to do the things that do what we’ve done for all these years,” Gordon-Levitt explained. “The advantage I think that we have is, we’ve done all of these productions for years. We know a lot about what it takes to get an illustrator in one continent and an animator on another continent to be productive together. We’ve seen it so many times. We know where the pitfalls are, we know where the advantages are. And so we have all this knowledge to draw on as we design this new product.”

But it’s not as simple as just slapping on a bunch of new features.

Formats and templates

“There are a couple of elements at play,” Geller explained. “It’s not just the product and technology. This is one thing that our production side is working on. Developing formats, creative formats, that are more conducive to global collaboration. Perhaps not necessarily right off the bat making a 20-minute short-form video. Maybe it’s making a three-minute documentary piece, which is more conducive to collaboration, to start.”

“If our mission is to try to inspire more and more people to be creative together, part of that is a product issue,” Gordon-Levitt noted. “You need to build the UX. But part of it is a creative challenge. If you’re trying to create very elaborate, complex pieces of art, it’s going to be harder to do that, especially at first, than if you’re trying to create simpler pieces of art. Or if you have sort of a template for the kind of art you’re trying to create. So not only are we dedicating resources to building out our product and tech, it’s also our creative team coming up with ways to inspire the kind of creativity, the kind of collaboration that we’re looking to inspire.”

Gordon-Levitt gave an example: HitRecord has a series of short films called Life Narrated. They’re animated, but they’re simpler animations because they are built on narrations (no lip sync required). All it takes is an illustration, a little animation of the world, a piece of writing, and some voice acting. The result is a 30-second or 60-second short film. “So this is the kind of work that our creative department is doing — coming up with — format is maybe a misleading word — creative templates for these kinds of collaborations.”

Geller gave another example: podcasts. While doing a podcast series with Medium last year called On Mornings, the team learned to simply get people to talk about their own story. Instead of asking people to write a narrative and have a voiceover artist recite it, ask them to talk about their alarm clock, morning routine, or to tell a story about their medicine cabinet. It’s not just easier, but the results tend to be more engaging. In other words, HitRecord’s creative department is “helping people realize how they can do it, and also making content that’s more engaging.”

“We’re starting to see, even before a lot of the product is built, the community come up with ideas for how to apply the different formats that hopefully inspire them,” Geller shared. “Having them come up with ideas to make the videos, to collaborate together, and then that project be finished. And then watch it back and see the community watch what they all made on their own. And it being good, which is, you know, not necessarily a given. There’s something really special about experiencing that, if you’re somebody even tangentially close or adjacent. I watched a video that the community made on their own the other day. It creates this really wonderful sensation just to say, ‘Oh, wow, the community made this.'”

A business

Some of HitRecord’s projects make money. That’s part of what the staff deals with.

“Historically, in the production company model, when a brand or a distributor comes and says, ‘Hey, we want to make stuff,’ a lot of that creativity comes from us,” Gordon-Levitt noted. “So it’s not like we’re just saying, ‘Hey, creators out there, make something for the brand.’ It comes from people in our office meeting and putting a lot of creative work and direction into leading the collaborative process with people all over the world.”

“So it makes sense that the money that comes in, historically, what we’ve done is any profit gets split in half. Half goes to the company and half goes to the contributing artists. The reason we split it 50/50 is because both sides of that equation — it would be impossible to make it happen without the other. The people who contributed to the campaign that we did for LG. That was one of the more lucrative campaigns we did. It’s not like those people by themselves made that campaign for LG. It was a lot of work on behalf of a good number of people in our office, collaborating with people all over the world to make it work.”

Credit and payment

“If someone’s contributions are generating revenue, that person deserves part of that revenue. If someone gets remixed, they deserve attribution,” Gordon-Levitt said. “These kinds of principles, we’re very committed to protecting. We’ve now been doing this for a number of years and we’ve shown that we’ve been able to protect these principles. If there’s a monetized production, any element that is included in the final deliverable, they get a cut.”

And whether money is allocated or not, if something influenced the final form, it gets credited.

“That’s why the UI that we’ve created for payments is so unique to us and done transparently,” Geller noted. “While we’re not making hundreds of monetized projects, we’re not going to know the entire story, necessarily, of how a song came to be, a song that’s going into a Ubisoft game. We will say ‘Here are all the elements,’ and our community has conversations like, ‘Oh, but didn’t this person inform that and this?'”

“Because that’s usually how the creative process goes. It’s not step one, two, three. It’s circuitous. So when the community sees what we call proposals, they’ll say ‘Oh, you forgot this’ or ‘That remix led to that.’ We’ve done a ton of music projects, where someone took the chorus from this version and the melody from that video and put it together. And then all the people who worked on this for us came together. And those stories come out. We rely on our community to help tell that story for us so that we all know what’s going on.”

This circuitous process has become part of how HitRecord works.

“Every time you post a piece of content to HitRecord, you can cite your resources,” Gordon-Levitt said. “So you give attribution to every different record that you sampled and you incorporated and you built on. On the page of your piece of content, there’s a list of all those resources. There’s also a list of all the remixes of everybody who built on top of you. And so that attribution, it sort of starts to form a family tree of all the resources and all the remixes. That’s a big part of our UI that I’m proud of, and that’s key to that attribution. You’ll see people in the comments of someone’s thing saying like ‘Oh, hey, you forgot to source me.’ And everyone’s happy to do it. It feels good to give other people credit, share that glory with them.”

Splitting the other 50%

“We have a system by which we allocate how much each contributing artist gets,” Gordon-Levitt explained. “It’s something we’ve been doing and honing and refining for years that I’m really proud of. A lot of it is by hand. We don’t do this at high volume. We do this for particular, monetized productions. It’ll start by the community team going through a list of all the different contributing artists whose work is included in the final deliverables and making a post saying we’re allocating ‘this much for this person, this much for this person, this much for this person.’ If someone is the lead singer, for example, they’re going to get more than if someone is shaking a tambourine. Those are human judgment calls.”

“But first it’s just a proposal,” Gordon-Levitt continued. “We post those proposals publicly and then have a two-week window for feedback. Anybody can write a comment on any of those line items. Our team responds to all of the comments, and gives reasoning for why the proposal was made how it was. If there are suggestions for changes, oftentimes, they’ll make those changes. But if they decide not to, they always explain why.”

“There’s a real transparent conversation that goes on about how these amounts are allocated. Once the two-week window for feedback is up, then we finalize the splits and we distribute the money. So we find that by doing it in this transparent way, things end up really fair because no one wants to post something unfair out in the open. If something is unfair that we unintentionally missed, it’ll get brought to our attention and we’ll be able to correct it. We’ve been doing it this way since 2010. We’ve paid out almost $3 million and we’ve never had any problems.”

Brands

“On top of this production company that we’ve been running successfully for all these years, we’re now building a larger ecosystem to facilitate things that are not just projects led by us, but are empowering anybody to come into the room,” Gordon-Levitt said.

But that doesn’t mean brands can simply show up and make requests.

“We’re not providing that opportunity to brands,” Geller clarified. “If brands want to work with the community, then they start a dialogue with us. We’ve never done outbound sales. Brands that we work with, and that we’ve been fortunate to work with, there’s a lot of trust involved. We make sure, do the brand’s values align with our values and what we believe our community’s values to be? Because the community is making art, so we have to make sure that the brand is doing good in the world. We tend to be very careful so it’s not a free-for-all.”

Creating your own projects

How will monetization work when someone other than HitRecord starts and finishes a project?

“Right now, the notion isn’t to necessarily monetize the project,” Geller explained. “That’s really not going to be the focus — just the act of being creative. The production company will continue to exist. And there might be instances where we pull in projects that people are starting on their own. But really, the focus is just figuring out ways to get people to be able to create projects on their own, rally the community, and finish on their own. That’s what we’re focused on. It’s not really about the monetization of projects.”

“That said, though, eventually is there a world where these projects that anybody can come start, could one, or any number of them, end up becoming monetized productions? Yeah, I think that could eventually happen,” Gordon-Levitt added. “And if that were to happen, would we be open to figuring out what’s the fair way to compensate people for this? Yes. That’s really been how we’ve always done it for all these years. It’s been an open conversation. And that’s why I think we haven’t had any problems. Because we’ve made it a dialogue. As long as we’re saying, ‘Hey, is everybody feeling OK about this? Please tell us any issues, let’s talk about it,’ we’ve been able to find fair ways of doing it.”

Feedback loop

Like many successful internet ventures, HitRecord wants to keep its users happy.

“To some degree, we’re figuring this out as we go,” Gordon-Levitt noted. “HitRecord has always been a feedback loop with our community. As new ways of doing things arise, we will figure out what’s a right, fair way to compensate people. What we’re not willing to move on is the basic principle, which is if someone contributes something that generates revenue, they deserve a fair piece of that revenue. Which is, by the way, quite different than how most media tech platforms work right now. Because nowadays on, I don’t know … Instagram, people’s content that they contribute is generating revenue for Instagram, and no one’s seeing any of that revenue. That’s part of why these platforms are so lucrative.”

HitRecord started as a hobby, turned into a production company, and now wants to become a tech platform. But the company had to raise money to do so, and that means it has to figure out how to give its investors a return. Our conversation kept coming back to social media platforms, because Gordon-Levitt wanted to make it absolutely clear he’s not interested in following their business model. While the cofounders know exactly what they don’t want to do, they still need to figure out how to sustainably not do it.