Nearly four years ago, Ilya Pozin was trying to entertain his 2-year-old daughter with YouTube videos as he worked at his computer. But the task became a pain as he struggled to find a steady stream of kid-friendly content to capture his daughter’s short attention span.
That experience led him to co-found Pluto TV, an ad-supported streaming platform offering curated channels, in 2014.
The Los Angeles–based startup gained traction, especially among cord-cutters, earlier this year when it was scooped up by media conglomerate Viacom for $340M. The deal gave Pozin a chance to head for the exit door, but instead he remains committed to making Pluto TV a household name.
It’s not the first time Pozin has sold a startup. The serial entrepreneur has co-founded and sold startup development studio Coplex, where he currently serves as an advisor, as well as social greeting and gifting company Open Me and digital marketing agency Ciplex, which he launched at the age of 17.
Pozin’s passion and work ethic stem largely from his parents, who emigrated from Russia to Rockville, Maryland with $5,000 to give a then 8-year-old Pozin and his brother better opportunities.
Here, Pozin shares with his path to success.
Moving from Russia to the U.S. must have been a big adjustment as an 8-year-old. What was that experience like for you?
You come into school—I think I came into second or third grade—and everyone already had all of their friends. I didn’t know a word of English. I had to take ESL and so it was really hard for me to fit in. I’m sure it’s already hard for someone who is American and moves to a new school, but imagine being someone who is foreign. I remember someone donated a computer to my family when I was 12 and at that time I was still learning English, so the computer became my best friend. I became a big computer nerd and played a lot of competitive chess and that was my childhood—chess and computers.
At what point did you realize it was time to start your own company?
I became the go-to computer guy in high school. When I was paged to the principal’s office, everyone knew it wasn’t because I was in trouble, but because something was wrong with their network. In 1999, everyone started going online and people started asking me how to build a website. I didn’t know how to code. I didn’t know how to design, but they asked enough where I saw an opportunity to create my own company and that’s where Ciplex was born. So, I started that when I was 17 and it was almost as a way to respond to the demand. Being a computer guy, I built a company around it and hired a developer who was a friend and we started building websites for different businesses.
How did you juggle being a full-time student with a social life and your own business?
I was always an older soul and kind of very independent and mature for my age and because I wasn’t super social, while everyone was out partying and hanging out with friends, I was more in hustle mode. I think I saw that from my parents. They immigrated here and knew they had to do whatever they could to provide and I found this American dream. It really pushed and motivated me. I always saw different opportunities. I just naturally love to work. I went to Florida State University and I continued to run Ciplex on the side as well as a full-time job at the university, driving a golf cart like Van Wilder, fixing computers and networks around campus.
You sold Ciplex for $1.5M, then launched Open Me, later selling it for $6M. What was one of the lessons you learned during that time period that sticks with you?
If there was an opportunity to grow and scale the business, instead of slowing down and planning it more methodically, we just kind of floored it and grew too fast. If you want to grow and scale a good happy company with a good culture, you have to make sure you’re bringing in the right work that people enjoy and are happy with. If you just focus on more and more and more and being too opportunistic, I think there are repercussions.
Pluto TV approached Viacom for a content deal, but instead walked away with a $340M acquisition offer. What happened?
We went to Viacom for a content deal and were surprised to learn that they were actively exploring creating their own direct-to-consumer platform and other ways to capture what they called white space in the entertainment ecosystem. Pluto TV and our lean back, live, linear approach to streaming was complementary to their iconic, world-renowned brands and content. That, combined with our upward growth trajectory, extensive library of content and partners, all in an ad-supported platform, was very appealing to them. So, they inquired as to whether we would be open to an acquisition and the rest is history. We had been building the company for four and a half years at that point, and we had no intention to sell. We weren’t for sale, but we brought the offer to our board and our shareholders and they agreed that we should explore the opportunity. The timing was right, not just from a financial perspective, but we were getting to a point where, in order to grow bigger, we needed to either raise a lot more capital or find someone to partner with. At a certain level, if you want to keep growing your business and upping the quality of your content, it becomes very expensive. There are companies like Netflix that spend billions on making content and licensing content, and even though we raised $50M, in the content world that’s not a lot of money.
How do you feel after the Viacom deal closed in May?
That was a big moment, but I think mentally it was the first time where I just knew it was a success because as an entrepreneur, it finally felt like I could turn off. You go from having all these employees depending on you and making sure you don’t screw it up because you’ve got all these investors, to now, you’re part of a large corporation. You can sleep at night. There’s a massive opportunity for us to become a household name and I’m extremely motivated to continue what we started. From being an entrepreneur to finally being able to relax, knowing all you’ve worked tirelessly for since you were 16 has finally paid off is an amazing feeling. Now, my parents retired early, and I just moved them here from Maryland, and my brother is here. It’s like the American dream in a way where they brought us here, gave up everything, and now it’s my opportunity to give back.