The Come Up
The Come Up
Nov 18, 2020
Christian Baesler — President of Complex Networks on German Village Life, Being a DJ, Hot Sauce, and ComplexLand
Play • 1 hr 7 min

Christian Baesler is the President of Complex Networks. Christian is a young media savant, who in his 20’s had more media experience than most executives have in a lifetime. We discuss his humble German childhood, how he launched Bauer Media's digital business at just 21 years old, being a touring DJ, and Complex's international growth plans for 2021.  

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Erwin:

Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews, entrepreneurs and leaders.

 

Christian Baesler:

I was there first as the student, still at my program. And I basically took the initiative to say, "Well, you say there is no opportunity here, why don't I just build a case study for you?" And so I programmed a website, plugged in the programmatic ads. And at first, I was also creating some of the content myself. There was, like, celebrity news on In Touch's websites.

 

Chris Erwin:

This week's episode features Christian Baesler, the president of Complex Networks. Christian is a young media savant who in his 20s had more media experience than most executives have in a lifetime. And he's a “get your hands dirty”-type builder. Like when he was tapped to be the head of digital at Bauer Media, right out of college and programmed the company's first website himself. And today Christian runs day to day operations of one of the world's largest digital companies, which includes hot sauces, a sneaker marketplace, live and virtual events, and so much more. And oh yeah, he even finds time to be a performing DJ throughout Europe. So yes, Christian is a rockstar, but as you'll quickly learn is also extremely humble. I'm pumped to tell you his story. All right, let's get into it. 

So Christian, let's jump back a few years. Let's start with where you grew up in Germany.

 

Christian Baesler:

Yeah. Where I grew up in Germany is, even for Germany I would say, not as popular place or as well regarded place, at least back then when I grew up there, it was heart of the GDR, the German democratic Republic or Eastern Germany, that only merged with Western Germany in 1990. And fun fact, I was actually born on the day that the German Wall fell. So November 9, '89. So my mother's always joking that's that one might have caused the other, I don't know which one caused what, but.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, the whole like causality correlation thing.

 

Christian Baesler:

Probably the Wall falling was the cause for her giving birth that day. But I grew up in that area, that in terms of the economic environment had been very depressed. And for the next 10, 20 years after was integrating into Western Germany, but still there weren't that many of the same opportunities like there was in Western Germany. And in addition to that, I grew up most of the time of my childhood in small villages of like a few 100 people. I think the biggest place I lived in was like 1,000 people and everything was very rural. You had a lot of agriculture around and you would have to go 15, 20 minutes to the next nearest town at least, or to see other friends living out of town. So it felt very small and it wasn't the most progressive place, especially with the businesses that were there.

 

Chris Erwin:

And growing up, what was your household like? What did your parents do? Were they in a similar field that you are in now or totally different?

 

Christian Baesler:

Again, they grew up both in the GDR where it was mostly working class in general, in the GDR with the kind of jobs that people had especially living in villages. After the GDR became one Germany, my father, who was a plumber, started his own company doing plumbing. And so he was entrepreneurial, which previously in the GDR, you couldn't have your own business. There was no concept of privatizing where post he started his own local company. And so my mother was for the most part, a secretary in his company. Before that's in the GDR times, she was a waitress in restaurants. And I don't think I've said that in other podcasts or interviews before, my father passed away when I was 12 of cancer and so that was definitely a big moments of just unexpected big change and also something that was definitely a very difficult, but also important experience for me looking like now?

 

Chris Erwin:

Your memories of your father, is it that he was an entrepreneur and he ran his own plumbing business from what you recollect?

 

Christian Baesler:

Yes.

 

Chris Erwin:

Interesting. A lot of people think about entrepreneurship in the US or in the modern economy as go raise a bunch of money from Silicon Valley and have a big technology startup, but entrepreneurship takes many different forms; small businesses, blue collar businesses. Growing up in small communities of like a few 100 people, did that make you very curious of, "Hey, what else is out there? What else could I get into?" Or was there a level of comfort, which is, "This feels right. I could live like this with these type of people for the rest of my life." What was an early feeling, or if there's tension in your life?

 

Christian Baesler:

It was definitely, there must be more than this village life, which was comfortable and people knew each other around the village. So that was nice that sense of community, which I think is somewhat missing today in life in general, that it was more of a feeling of togetherness rather than everyone for themselves. So that was a plus, but I somewhat got lucky in terms of the time I was born on the exposure had early on in my childhood, because that was all pretty much at the development of the internet was just growing and computers were just growing, the personal computers were growing.

 

Christian Baesler:

That plus just overall TV getting bigger really gave me a window into what's out there in the world, which if you just live on the village and you read the local newspapers or some magazines, you have no idea what other lifestyles or what other cultures are outside of that bubble. And so I was quite early fascinated with computers in general, but then more importantly the internet, which was just a huge opportunity to learn about different things that otherwise I wouldn't have any exposure to. And that really showed me that there's more outside of this world I live in that I'd like to learn or immerse myself in.

 

Chris Erwin:

I understand that you began programming at a pretty early age, I think in your teens, early teens around 13. But your first exposure to the internet and computers, was it at home where your family purchased a computer for you or there was a shared computer or was it through local library or school? Because what I'm hearing from you is there were simple means growing up, like working class people in the community. So what was that first exposure to internet and technology?

 

Christian Baesler:

Yeah. My family as you mentioned, just in general by the nature of the environment and the jobs they had, they weren't wealthy by any means. So it was definitely not something that was readily available. We didn't have any computers at home, so that was not like an environment that I could benefit from, but I did have an uncle in my family that was very much into computers at the time. He assembled his own computers; buying all the parts and assembling all of them themselves. And so that was the first time I truly had an exposure to computers.

 

Christian Baesler:

And I was very fascinated by this concept of combining different things that if you plug them in, in the right way, it turns out to be this interactive device that then you can manipulate something on a screen with. That was very fascinating. And I would say the curiosity that I developed in this to begin with was probably within computer games. Just the idea that you can play on a device and again, influence what's happening on the screen was what sparked the initial interest and curiosity and computers then allowed me to create something myself that I can interact with manipulate like the games were previously.

 

Chris Erwin:

With the internet, what were you consuming? So games was a big part of that. And then did you start developing your own games as well?

 

Christian Baesler:

I started building games at the time, but what I was more fascinated with was programming languages around the internet itself. Early on, I think the first thing I started playing with, there was no big systems like Squarespace, back then you have to do a lot of the things manual yourself. And so early on, I remember being very interested in message boards, which was like this exchange platform for a lot of the communities and subcultures that might be on Reddit or other places today. But back then message boards were huge. And oftentimes message boards also got recorded by us for how to program. Like if you were stuck figuring out how to solve a specific programming problem, you could ask someone in the message board and this kind community would just take the time and help you.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so early on, for example, I discovered phpBB, I think it was called. It was like one of those WordPress like message board platforms that someone already built and you can create your own message board. But back then you had to host, you have to have your own hosting space and server and then you could style it. And so I took something that was existing like that and figure out how to do the hosting part and then started to manipulate it.

 

Christian Baesler:

And then over time it made me more and more curious to create websites on my own, which ultimately when I was probably 13, I started doing it. I made available as a service for companies and organizations in the local village at first, but then in the area. And so I developed websites for a fee for the local companies as probably the first big income source early on.

 

Chris Erwin:

When people think about the success formula, it's the power of curiosity and wonder coupled with serendipity and the right connections, and that you had this curiosity about you and then with your uncle who also had curiosity and access to the hardware and the software and interesting computers and intention to share that, what a powerful combination that puts you on a unique path.

 

Christian Baesler:

Absolutely.

 

Chris Erwin:

So then what is that transition where, okay, you're in high school, you're working these jobs and then I think there's a transition into interest in journalism before you go to university, tell me about like right before university some of the work that you were doing.

 

Christian Baesler:

Yeah. Some of the other work I did outside of the developing the website was I developed an interest in photography as well. And I bought myself, at least for that time, quite a good, I think it was called DLSR camera, which at the time was taking the best photos you could take. Maybe these days, all you need is an iPhone but back then, that's what you needed. So I was really interested in the idea of creating something in general, either websites or things for people to consume, which also could be images like photography and text. And so after playing around with the camera, I ended up also working for companies and for weddings as a photographer at first. And so some people trust-

 

Chris Erwin:

How old were you when you're doing wedding photography?

 

Christian Baesler:

Probably 15, 16, I would say. And so that made me interested in media, which is basically also creating something that people consume around photos and texts. And there was this local newspaper, which is basically one of those weekly things that you get delivered to your house often times for free and covered by ads, so they can monetize through advertising, but it was like the local newspaper and they had a freelance position at first to basically be a local reporter. I applied for it. And for whatever reason, I don't know why now looking back, my boss there eventually gave me a shot and trusted me to be this local reporter even though I was only 16 at the time.

 

Chris Erwin:

So the youngest reporter of the paper, probably?

 

Christian Baesler:

Probably, Yeah. I mean, I didn't see anyone else there in my age at the time and I wasn't paying too much attention to who the reporters are previous to me, but I would assume so. And basically with that job, I had to go around to different events and two different things happening in the region and interview people undocumented, both with texts, like articles that I wrote, but also with the photos because the budgets were so small, you basically had to do everything yourself as a local reporter.

 

Christian Baesler:

That was a hugely transformative experience for me because outside of just exposing them more to medium previously in my childhood and early teens, I was a very shy person. I wouldn't want to talk to people that I don't know. And it was very difficult for me to make conversations and this job required me. It was part of the job description to get information out of people. And ultimately this further, the desire to find out information with people.

 

Chris Erwin:

A theme that we'll get into later is this notion of subtle or soft power, which I believe that you embody. And so I was curious to where those roots are and hearing about your early age shyness, but clearly you wanted to express yourself, but maybe just differently relative to social norms. So that was the internet expressing yourself in gaming, and programming and building websites. And then as you said this desire to create and you're creating these stories and photography at the paper, a very interesting theme that takes you to where you are today, that we'll touch on a bit more. So you're creating and expressing in unique ways and then it's time to apply to college or university. And I believe that you ended up going to Nordakademie in Hamburg. When you went to university, what did you want to get out of it?

 

Christian Baesler:

Again, coming from a difficult economic environment where my family didn't have a lot of money even going to the government university wasn't as good of an option because they couldn't support me financially to like pay rent and to have the basic income to go through that school. And so there's one other interesting concepts which might be somewhat unique to Germany and it's called an integrated study where after high school, you apply at a company that is partnering with specific private universities and private for the reason that they basically create specific programs with these companies to give you a bachelor degree, you get a salary and you work half the time at the company. So it's a 10 weeks at the partner school, which in my case was Nordakademie. And then you had two to three months at the company where you're basically a trainee rotating them through different parts of the organization from marketing, to sales, to finance, they pay your tuition and pay your salary.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so that to me, as a concept integrated study in general was something that seemed like a solution. Like I could basically get an income and study at the same time. And so I was very focused on finding a place to get an integrated study. And originally I wasn't as singularly focused on media. I applied at Diamler, the car company. I applied at Lufthansa, actually the airline to become a pilot, which was something I was fascinated by early on. So it was different paths that could be going down.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wait, let me pause you right there. You said interest in being a pilot, had you flown, where did that interest come from?

 

Christian Baesler:

It was maybe another symbol of just going places and the freedom that had represented. And so I was always fascinated just by flying and pilots and airplanes in general. And again, growing up I played quite a lot of, I think it was Microsoft Flight Simulator, which I saw they just brought back as a new version the last month, but that was like one of my favorite games. And so I was fascinated by just the art of flying. And so I was seriously considering becoming an airline pilots at the time, applying at Lufthansa.

 

Chris Erwin:

It's Lufthansa and Daimler and you end up at Bauer in their integrated study program. And so how did it feel when you got Bauer? Were you excited?

 

Christian Baesler:

The Bauer one was one of the first that I got confirmation from. So the other ones weren't as quick in the process. And so it was the first option that was available, but then also in the moment thinking through what would it mean to go to the different companies that also felt like the most exciting, because it would allow me to do more of the things that I was already doing, meaning it was in the media industry, which again, as a local reporter had already worked in as a photographer and digital media was still nascent, but the concepts to build websites to then express the content on was something that they were very focused on at the time.

 

Christian Baesler:

So it felt like the best option based on my passion so far, but also they have like 100 magazines or so in Germany and some of them were my favorite from my childhood time. So I also had this excitement about now being at the company that makes the things that I consumed when I grew up.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. You were busy during your university years, you were at school and you were working a part-time job, but on a pretty serious rotation program. What else did you do in between then? We're going to get into your career trajectory very soon, which clearly you started early. What were other things that you were into?

 

Christian Baesler:

During that time, as you mentioned, it wasn't like a normal study where you have a three months summer break or few courses during the day and otherwise not much to do. So the three and a half years then was probably among the most intense time of my life. Maybe for the last few years career wise were more intense, but just up until then, it was the most intense time because it was classes from 9:00 until 6:00 and it was only a 10 week semester, which we had six big exams and there was no break, you had to then go to the company and work for three more months, different departments. And so there wasn't really that normal student life where you just travel the world or you just have this time to pursue other passion projects.

 

Christian Baesler:

But the one other passion project I developed quite early as well, going back to the idea of creating something is music, where I was really fascinated by how music is created and how if arrange sounds in a certain way, it could make people feel something just by nature of how it's arranged. And so pretty early on, I, again, thanks to the internet, found out what the tools are, which at the time already were software based. It wasn't that you had to have this big physical hardware environments. So I was quite early on playing around with different softwares for music creation and went deeper and deeper into that.

 

Chris Erwin:

And did you also perform as a DJ as well?

 

Christian Baesler:

Not in that time during my studies, but afterwards where I did both on the music production side, teach myself how to create my own music, but then I also learned how to be a DJ, which has different meanings. There's like the DJ that's basically just has a playlist of prearranged things like at weddings or other things. They have their purpose and that's definitely one component, but for me it was more the how do I create this experience that shows people music that they've never heard before and it sounds like a two hour long song or track rather than a clear difference actually three to five minutes? And so then I ended up performing multiple times in Germany, which I still did pre-COVID. So I'm still doing it now, if we wouldn't be in the current situation.

 

Chris Erwin:

Another unique form of expression. And I've never seen you perform and I know that your SoundCloud handle maybe as a current mystery, I wonder onstage when you perform, is it a more subdued presence and you let the music speak for itself or do you look at that? Is there a unique release there or maybe you enter a form that's unique to your professional leadership or character?

 

Christian Baesler:

It's definitely highly therapeutic I would say, because it's a different way of expression and also communication with the audience. And again, that the music I play is not like what you would hear in charts. It's for the most part electronic music, mostly techno music which for people that aren't familiar with, it might sound like jazz sounds. For people that don't understand or don't like jazz, it's just like this random sounds that are just being played. But for the audience that does appreciate it and know it, it's this very reflective experience.

 

Christian Baesler:

And for me, I get more instant gratification and joy out of doing this for 90 minutes and seeing the audience react to the music I'm making than doubling revenues or having some other usual measurement of success that feels more indirect. Like you see numbers in spreadsheets, but you don't really know what it means what's happening on the other side. And this is a much more direct feedback loop that is much more rewarding.

 

Chris Erwin:

And to be specific, your identity, your behavior on stage, would you say it's very different from your day-to-day life or is it similar?

 

Christian Baesler:

I would say it's similar. It's very reserved. With the techno music as a category, the DJ is in the backgrounds like the audience is not even meant to realize that there is a person there doing things, which is very different to when you go to festivals and they're all on big stages and have all these big lights. So that's kind of the opposite of what the electronic music culture or the underground electronic music culture would be about. So I'm basically the shaman in the background playing music for people to be in trance. That's kind of the goal of that experience.

 

Chris Erwin:

You're like that master of ceremonies pulling the puppet strings, little do they know that Christian or your DJ name is making that all happen? That's a cool thing.

 

Christian Baesler:

The best example would be just like it's a form of meditation where you can influence the behaviors of a big group of people just by playing certain sounds and everything happens in a synchronized way, which is incredibly fascinating that's possible with music as a human species, you can just align everyone through these quite simple ways.

 

Chris Erwin:

A unique form of leadership in a way. So let's transition now as you go from university and integrated study into full-time at Bauer. So I think this happens around 2008, there's some like various roles in the company. What's your transition into full-time? What does that look like?

 

Christian Baesler:

It was actually 2012 into full-time. So 2008, I started integrated study that went until 2012. And so that study started 2008. I was 18 turning 19. So right after high school, straight into this college integrated study program. And so when I finished in 2012, I was 22 turning 23. Normally you stay within that company for two years after. That's kind of part of the deal, which is great for the student because you have a guaranteed job. And it's great for the company because they get someone at an entry level rate, relatively speaking, that already knows the company for the last three years of having worked there. So it's a great mutual partnership. But usually you're supposed to stay in that location, which for me, was in Germany. I was in Hamburg, which is where the company is headquartered. And so there was kind of a role carved out for me in a certain team or division and everything is kind of pre-planned.

 

Christian Baesler:

As part of the integrated study, so during those first three, four years, there were two opportunities to go abroad. One was to study a semester abroad, which I ended up doing at Boston University. And then there was the opportunity to work abroad for one of those practical semesters. And I ended up going to the US office of Bauer Media, the company I was working with. And when I got there during the study part of the three, four years. First of all, I was very fascinated by the US studying at BU and the overall energy and culture and approach here seemed very different to everything I grew up.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so it felt very different in a positive way. And then working at the office in New York for Bauer right after, the energy in the office was also totally different. Everyone was much more focused, much more passionate to just do the best work. And more importantly, for my role there specifically, and again, I was still like a 20, 21 year old student at the time, the big opportunity I saw coming here was that there wasn't really a digital business yet that was already built out. There were print magazines and actually at the time, Bauer was the biggest magazine publisher selling at newsstands in the US. So like supermarket checkouts, at airports, all the usual places where you would buy a physical magazine. And so they were the biggest magazine publisher at the time with multiple magazines. The most well-known ones are probably In Touch Weekly, Life & Style Weekly, Woman's World and First for Women.

 

Christian Baesler:

And it wasn't like an oversight that they didn't have a digital strategy or the digital business yet, it was by the nature of their print business model. Traditionally, all the media companies in the US, the magazine media companies in the US are build on discounting subscriptions to lock you in for a period of time as an audience and then they monetize it through advertising. So it's basically getting scale in subscriptions, which often a loss leader to then make money through ads. So when all these other companies expanded to digital in the early 2000s, they followed the same model for the online business which is giving away content for free, which is basically giving away subscriptions or discounting subscriptions and then monetizing the reach through ads.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so Bauer made the majority of its revenues through actually selling a single magazine to the reader. They didn't discount any subscriptions. The ads was a small part of the business. And so that made them very profitable and very successful, but it didn't really lend itself to just be scaled online because people just weren't used to paying for that kind of content online.

 

Chris Erwin:

And a totally new muscle to flex in terms of trying to try a new business model, hire the right team against that new mandate, manage it. So enter Christian, right?

 

Christian Baesler:

Yeah. I got there, again, as a student at first in 2011, it was. And so again, that was kind of the context that were the successful print magazines that make most of their revenue through consumers. And there was no way to make revenue through consumers as easily online. And the usual business model is to get most audience possible and directly to a sales team, sell ads into it, which the company wasn't set up for to do both in terms of the people and the kind of focus that was there, but also it might've disrupted the print business more rapidly if we would have pursued a different approach online. And so the timing there, again, was very unique and very much in my favor, which are really like two things.

 

Christian Baesler:

One, there was not the emergence of more standardized technologies like WordPress for example, and other systems that were already pre-built were more readily available. You didn't have to completely invent everything from scratch. And the other big opportunity at the time that was developing was programmatic advertising, which means you don't need an expensive sales team to have human conversations with potential clients and convinced him that they should not spend this money with you which in our position at the time, we were one of the smallest in terms of online reach and probably not as differentiated to some of our competitors.

 

Christian Baesler:

So it was a lot of upfront risk to spend all this money on the team that might then sell something where with programmatic advertising, every page impression that we generates has a certain amount of ads on them. And they automatically monetize through Google or other partners without question. And so it became very predictable. If we have more traffic, we can make more money without having an upfront risk of hiring a team to sell that space.

 

Chris Erwin:

What I want to understand is when you come in, you rise to transform this company into digital and to lead an innovation of their business model. And you are tapped to do this at a pretty young age. So when you are tapped to lead this initiative, some interesting things happen. One, I believe that you probably to really diverged from your peers in a meaningful way that are the same age and two, you get your hands dirty and in the weeds more than I think, I've heard about a lot of other executives, you're building their digital websites and their tech stack yourself, not hiring another team yourself. So first talk about when you were tapped to lead this, what did that feel like? Were you excited? Were you scared? Was it like, "No, of course I'm going to do this." What was in your head?

 

Christian Baesler:

It sounded surreal at first. And just again, the context at the US company was what I described and so I was there first as a student still on my program and I basically took the initiative to say, "Well, you say there is no opportunity here, why don't I just build a case study for you?" And so I programmed a website, plugged in the programmatic ads. And at first, I was also creating some of the contents myself for the website to be published there.

 

Chris Erwin:

You were writing what type of content?

 

Christian Baesler:

There was celebrity news on In Touch's websites. After the first few ones, we ended up hiring some freelancers and relied on some additional support. But yes, in the beginning it was basically, let me show you that there's potential opportunity here while I was still a student there. And I was there for three months, and in that three months I could showcase that there's a probable business. We basically build the website and monetize it, and it was profitable just within that trial period of the time I was there as an assignment.

 

Christian Baesler:

At the end of that assignment, when I received the job offer to go back full-time to the US business and join at the time director of new media. And I was still like 21, 22-year-old student in university and I still had one more year to go, I still had to finish my school. And so that was hugely flattering and surprising to be getting that level of trust and also that kind of offer even before I graduated and it was actually frustrating and I still had to basically finish my school for another year before I could take that opportunity.

 

Christian Baesler:

So I did go back to Germany and finish the degree and ended up moving to the US in 2012 for this job. And at first I was very scared and concerned I would say, because there were two differences I would say that I was facing to anyone else coming into this role. One was just, I was highly inexperienced in a traditional sense because I never managed people before and I never had one singular boss before I rotated through the whole company but I wasn't part of a traditional team. So now, having to lead a department or in this case it was just me in the beginning but the agreement or the goal was to build it up. It felt very scary because I hadn't done it before and I didn't see it before.

 

Chris Erwin:

That's a lot of responsibility at a young age. You're already going through a lot of change when you graduate university, and now this is adding in... It's a lot of change that happens in your career in your 20s is now happening to you all at 21.

 

Christian Baesler:

Totally. And also in a different country. While I just had spent six months in the US to study semester here and to work for the company here, it was still now being in a different country with a different culture in a leadership position at relatively young age. And so that was definitely a period of me not feeling sure or confident if I'm ready for this, if I can accomplish the goals that are set or if I'm able to meet the expectations. But in terms of how I felt just about being given the opportunity, it was very, again, flattering.

 

Christian Baesler:

But also, just I was very positively surprised to receive that level of trust that someone took a chance on me so early on in my career, which I would say is a constant theme that goes back to people back then trusting me to build their websites, later to work for the local newspaper at a relatively early age. And so having people that trusted me, was probably the single most important way for me to progress with these opportunities.

 

Chris Erwin:

Well, and putting in the work to be rewarded with that trust. But also just again the serendipity, Bauer a traditional media business that could really be empowered by transforming to digital and with your background and skills it was like right place, right time.

 

Christian Baesler:

Also, it's right place, right time but also I think in general when I talk to other friends about it, it's making sure that you are available for opportunities. You put yourself out there and you put in the hard work, but then when they arise that you go for them. It was definitely a difficult decision for me to say, "Okay. I'm not going to move by myself to the US and take this role and go into this uncertainty." And actually at the time, Bauer in Germany was against me going to the US even though the US part of the company wanted to hire me because they said, "We're educating for the German market and we have this path set out for you here," which was a more traditional progression.

 

Christian Baesler:

It was like, "You're going to be this junior project manager on this thing over here." And so that was ultimately decided against, as in they didn't want me to go to the US. And so I basically advocated and lobbied and showed what the potential benefit is or the risks of me not going for a few months to ultimately convince them otherwise. If I would've given up at the time, I would probably not be here where I am today.

 

Chris Erwin:

As we like to say, you stood in your power. You had a point of view and you put your foot down and said, "There's a major opportunity in the US, it's where I want to be and I'm going to make this a mutual win." And I like how you said, availability for opportunities. When people talk about success, there's luck that comes into it but it's increasing the likelihood of luck. I'm reading a book called, The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel. And he talks about setting up your life, your finances, your health, so that when that opportunity comes along you can pounce and you are in a situation where you very much could and could very much make the case. Look, there is a lot more that we could talk about with Bauer. I know we're probably going to rush through the next five to six years there but I want to make sure we have time to talk about Complex, because there's a lot there too.

 

Christian Baesler:

Of course.

 

Chris Erwin:

A big question that I have is, I look at your next years at Bauer; you're navigating profitability in unprofitable times and you look a lot of digital peers in the US. And I was part of this world, the MCNs and all the digital studios that emerge out of Google original channels program, a lot of companies that did not succeed. And then you end up running two businesses at once, a UK media business and a digital business. I'm curious, high level, how did your leadership evolve during that period of coming in as a newbie leader at 21, 22, to the type of leader you were at the end of this incredible experience? And we'll save another podcast again, to the details there.

 

Christian Baesler:

I would say it evolved from not being sure what it means to be a manager and how to lead people, let alone different culture. When I first started to having to figure out how to do a lot in the weeds with other people in the US part, to then hiring a more senior team that then I was working with on a much higher level being less in the weeds. So in the end of my US time, we actually separated out the digital business into its own company called Bauer Xcel Media with standalone content creation technology, everything you can imagine having in a traditional visual media company. And so we had C-level executives, we had vice presidents, senior presidents for different functions.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so I transitioned from being the person that creates the content or writes the website to managing senior people at all times really, were older than I was. And so figuring out how to motivate and mentor people in their day-to-day work with me having had less work experience, was definitely one challenge. And it was the startup nature I would say in the US, when I ended up going to the UK as well. Where Bauer is the largest magazine company and Europe's largest radio company, it was kind of the opposite situation. There were already hundreds of brands and hundreds of people across all those brands that worked on digital, and I joined to oversee the digital business. And so I inherited an existing business with existing practices and that was mostly I would say big learning on change management, how do I build partnerships throughout the organization of other functions that don't report into me? How do I get alignments as I think about restructuring and making large scale changes of how we work and who was in certain roles?

 

Chris Erwin:

This is interesting. So let me ask you specifically, mentoring people and hiring people that are older than you in senior roles that you're the ultimate leader, what worked well for you to be able to do that?

 

Christian Baesler:

There were two parts, there's making sure I convinced people to join the company I was with from other jobs that were companies maybe they were more established to what we're trying to build. And so at that part, I was worried about what was the vision and can I show enough confidence and enough support to make them feel like they can truly build something here. So that was really the big opportunity to co-create or co-build something, but then in turns out actually working with them is finding the right people and then letting them do their work without interfere. So I was seeing myself more as a mediator or almost like the role of a therapist, of making sure they have the tools to work towards achieving their goals without me necessarily telling them what to do in there functions.

 

Chris Erwin:

I like that a lot. One of the greatest lessons that I learned was from the old founder and CEO of Big Frame, Steve Raymond, who said, "Hire great people and get out of the way and empower them." Beautiful, simple words and it works.

 

Christian Baesler:

Absolutely. And I think that's also what makes people feel like they're trusted and they have the freedom to truly make an impact.

 

Chris Erwin:

So Christian, we just took a break. We were talking about change management at Bauer and one of your proudest moments, why don't you tell us about that moment there?

 

Christian Baesler:

So looking back throughout my career the proudest moment I had is, at first in the US we were able to separate the digital business that I was tasked with creating into its own division, into its own company. The overall company is called Bauer Media Group, it's one of the largest media companies in the world, a couple of billion in revenue and more than 10,000 staff and one in a thousand radio, TV and magazine brands. It actually might be the biggest magazine company globally in terms of circulation. And so it's a huge organization.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so in the US when I was busy, at first the only person doing a digital business in the end we were roughly 50 to 60 people just for the US digital business and spun it off into its own company. The inspiration for me for that was the innovator's dilemma book which is basically, why do big companies that are successful in one industry fail when they're not seeing kind of the innovations around the corner and where things are going? And I thought that in general with print media and specifically at Bauer that was on the horizon and really the only way to solve for it is to create a separate company that in the context of the new market is big relatively speaking, because at Bauer the problem was always printed, so profitable and it's so big, why do we care so much about the small digital dollars? We don't want to cannibalize ourselves.

 

Christian Baesler:

And realizing that it's inevitable that digital would be bigger than prints and if we don't cannibalize ourselves our competitors will cannibalize us. And so ultimately, I got them to spin off in a separate company in the US at first called Bauer Xcel Media, which I then became the president of. And because we have been profitable every year since the beginning and scaled other 50 people and we're still highly profitable, which as you mentioned at this time was unusual with a lot of venture-backed companies raising hundreds of millions. I ultimately convinced the ownership, it's a family owned company in the fourth generation, to roll out that model globally.

 

Chris Erwin:

How did you convince them? Was it you just call up the family owner, the patriarch, and say, "I want to do some change?" Was it scheduled big board meeting? What was that process?

 

Christian Baesler:

I only really learned about what board meetings are after joining Complex now, because back then in a family owned business the board is the owner and so in this case is one person that owns more than 90% of the company. And so we would have monthly or quarterly check-ins with her and some of the other management team she has, just talking about business progress. And at the time they were super fascinated that we were able to build such a profitable business with no investment upfront and relatively little resources. And so they were really curious how we did it and why we were succeeding. And the business grew even more and was even more profitable after we spun off to be a separate business. Ultimately, it led to a conversation of, why are we not doing this in every country?

 

Chris Erwin:

When you have management saying, "Why are we not doing more of this?" That's a great place for you to be.

 

Christian Baesler:

Exactly. And ultimately, they rolled out Bauer Xcel Media as a concept of separating the digital business from the traditional magazine or radio business in every other major markets. And ultimately, the goal was to have one global platform. So one content management system, one ad tech stack, all the things you would imagine having locally and that's what enabled me then to also take on the UK business operationally to basically do the same business expansion there.

 

Chris Erwin:

Last question on Bauer, Christian, did you say that you came up with the name Xcel Media, the digital unit?

 

Christian Baesler:

Yes.

 

Chris Erwin:

What was the inspiration for that? And was that a proud moment to say, "This is my name, my stamp on the company."

 

Christian Baesler:

It was definitely the proudest moment and I think they still even use it now, every company and every country now that does digital is still called Bauer Xcel Media. So it's kind of my legacy now within the company that they're still adopting my name and the logo we created and everything. The name, it's difficult to find a good name in general and it doesn't always have to be super prescriptive of what it is that you're making, best example the Apple that sells computers. The name I think is completely arbitrary just to make sure it's not something negative.

 

Christian Baesler:

Traditionally, any kind of digital team within the company was called 'New Media,' which was my title actually. Director of New Media, which what does that mean in the context of everything or 'Digital Media,' which eventually everything will be digital at some point. And so we wanted to find something that wasn't so limiting in what it could mean or it would be out of date a few years later. And Excel just as a name, like the spreadsheet software, just thinking of doing something better and that's more progressive than what we've done so far was the inspiration. I think we just decided to leave out the E like the software, it's spelled X-C-E-L just to make it sound a bit more fancy. But that was the goal to find something lasting that sounds more inspiring.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yet another creative fingerprint from Christian that touches audiences, people in society in a unique way. All right. So speaking of interesting names, we now transition to the Complex part of the story. So you're at Bauer for about 10 years, a decade, maybe you're on the path to be the CEO, but something causes you to rethink where you want to be. And I'm curious, were you seeking out change or did change come to you or a mix of both?

 

Christian Baesler:

Actually, the change I was seeking at the time after 10 years at Bauer was a break and time to reflect. My plan was to take at least a year off and do a world trip in a way that I think was only possible at that time and maybe still now, meaning I didn't want to plan anything upfront. If I wanted to stay a certain place I like it, I might stay longer or not. Where I feel like you can take a vacation or even a sabbatical you're still at work, you're still thinking about work, you're still checking emails.

 

Christian Baesler:

And so I truly wanted to be completely disconnected from everything and if I hate it, then I can stop after two months and if not I would go longer and so that was my goal. And after 10 years in Bauer and the end of it living between London and New York, which was fun but also very tiring as we would fly every week or every two weeks between the two cities; I slept like four hours a night, I felt like I needed a break. So I resigned actually my roles at Bauer for that reason. So I wasn't actually planning to work again right after this.

 

Chris Erwin:

How much time was there? Did you get a reprieve? Did you get a vacation? What was the gap before you went to Complex?

 

Christian Baesler:

Probably a month I would say.

 

Chris Erwin:

A month, okay.

 

Christian Baesler:

Not what I had hoped for.

 

Chris Erwin:

I was thinking about this notion of sabbatical or time off recently. And I think it is one of the healthiest things that you can do, but I also feel that young up and comers feel well, "I'm going to get out of my groove. I got relationships, people like my work," and they don't want to change that. But I actually think spaces' transformative. So what was the special moment? Was it a conversation with Rich that made you change this whole big plan that you had been formulating for a while?

 

Christian Baesler:

Exactly. So Rich and I reached the founder and CEO of Complex, we've known each other since I think 2014. We met at a Digiday conference that we were both speaking at and we stayed in touch, maybe every three months or so we w…

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