Licensing Career Stories: Steve Fowler, The Licensing Shop

What were the career moves that brought you to the licensing business?
I started my business career as a computer programmer in a large insurance company. I was somewhat lost being one of six hundred coders and uninspired about our resulting products so as a survival mechanism I quickly developed a unique niche as a resource go-to guy. I felt there had to be better ways to develop so much code and that led to researching software coding tools – which was ultimately all about licensing technology to improve programmer performance.

The companies that created these tools were incredibly innovative and inspired which was very appealing to me. I found I could talk to the coding geeks who had solutions to problems but they couldn’t necessarily convey that solution to companies that didn’t know they had problems. Both parties could benefit significantly by these tools and I was the conduit that could connect them – essentially being a sales and support guy. So I moved to Silicon Valley in the early 1980s to work for a start-up company to license coding tools to Fortune 500 companies. After the first 2 start-ups I worked for became publicly traded companies, I wanted to do something a little different than licensing technology to major banks and insurance companies.

The personal element that was missing in my career was my love of music and ability to express creativity in a technology environment. As I was doing a little soul searching, I was approached to join a stealth video game project within a major corporation which wanted to revolutionize home entertainment by licensing its hardware technology to major electronics companies and license its software technology to independent video game companies and studios. This was an opportunity to work with the world’s best technology gurus and amazingly creative individuals. I rose through the ranks and ultimately became President of the International division based in London England while maintaining an Executive VP role of business development in the San Francisco headquarters.

My role included the licensing out of our technology to entertainment companies as well as licensing in musicians, athletes, TV shows, movies and brands. I did that for nearly 10 years and, as it was my 3rd Silicon Valley start-up that went public, it was time to take a breather and do something on my own without having hundreds of employees beneath me and a board of directors and public shareholders above me. I spent some time consulting with entertainment companies and helping them navigate the burgeoning digital technology arena with licenses and shortly thereafter decided to put my own shingle out and started The Licensing Shop Inc. in 2006.

What’s a “typical” day in your current position?
Being a boutique agency, I need to wear several hats but my enjoyment comes from selling something as vague as intellectual property and working it until it becomes a physical product on a shelf or a virtual good online.I make sure that I put calls out to partners and potential licensees every day. My typical day has me on email in the early morning hours for overseas, the phone for the most part of the business day and back on email in the evening. And somewhere in between being on a plane visiting licensors, retailers and licensees. But my typical day changes dramatically 4 times a year when it’s time to collect quarterly royalty statements and payments and turn around payments back to our clients. Although we have a great financial bookkeeping team on the job, it is something that I personally oversee and manage on behalf of our clients.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you address that challenge?
It’s probably very similar for all independent agencies. We just don’t know how our hard work will pan out. Ultimately, you sell licensees, you sell retailers and you try to make sure you have the best possible licensing program at the best possible time but at the end of the day, none of us really know if consumers are going to want it against a very busy competitive environment. For a commissioned agent, that’s tough because you will not see your return on investment of time, energy, travel, sales materials, etc. We address it by having a diverse portfolio of brands and be diligent by not taking on too many properties at a time.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Going to our mail box in early November to see how we did in Q3! I’m known to be skipping to the bank daily from November 1 through 15. But seriously, my favorite part of my job is delivering for our clients.

Ultimately nothing makes me feel better than getting a pat on the back when we help our clients’ to reach their licensing objectives. Most of our clients know how challenging and competitive it is in our industry and for many of them they love to see the tangible results of something they created from a different medium launch into the world of licensed products.

What are the most significant trends or changes that you’ve seen in the business in recent years?
Most significant is the new digital platforms and how they are driving brand awareness and fast-tracking consumer demand. For example, Angry Birds seemed to come out of nowhere and within a matter of weeks kids (my son in particular) were wanting t-shirts, plush, backpacks, etc. The life cycle seems to be much shorter than traditional entertainment-based brands but everyone is embracing that reality and preparing to ramp up fast and get out clean. If you are opportunistic and understand the timelines, there is great potential. Much in line with this idea is the new ‘flash-retail’ concept where product designs are only available online for 24-hours. So while five years ago, a common question used to be, “who’s the TV broadcaster and is it being stripped in a good time slot”, now it’s often about the digital platform and quantitative evidence of online traffic, number of downloads, etc.

What are the biggest challenges facing the licensing business in the next three years?
I don’t really see a lot of new challenges for our business and, in fact, I think we have growth opportunities — from the emerging markets internationally and the fact that we can be more in control of getting our brands in front of consumers through digital platforms. We have a client who is going to bypass TV and fast-track digital shorts for YouTube within a three-month time line from start to finish. We have another client who is developing content for one of the biggest online e-commerce sites in the world. The challenges we had before were about not being in control of our brand at a critical stages of launching a licensing program. We have more control to drive our business through direct means now.

What advice would you give to students or young professionals wanting to pursue a career in licensing?
Licensing is all about patience and perseverance, yet having the ability to be agile and move very quickly. I heartily recommend to try to get experience on all sides of licensing – work for a licensor, work for a licensee, work in an agency. It gives you a much greater appreciation of the other side at the negotiation table.

Any advice for mid-career professionals looking to expand their competencies?
Consider being truly entrepreneurial. While the risks are great, the rewards can be astounding! And get out there and meet people. It can’t always be about email.