Chris Townsend MacDonald is an environmental scientist and a recovering environmental lawyer. He went from working at the US EPA to becoming a successful entrepreneur founding several successful startups including the IndieFeed Music Podcast Network for independent music which had over 170 million listens, HugeFan, and Libsyn’s Enterprise podcast division where he got to work with companies such as National Geographic, NPR, Fidelity, Pearson, the Joe Rogan Show.
Chris is currently developing a computer vision enhanced soil microbe identification platform that involves making soil smarter, making it draw carbon out of the air and into the ground which will have a huge impact on global warming. He has joint degrees in Law and Environmental Policy from Vermont law school.
Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:
- Chris artistic background and his experience at Phillips Academy Andover
- Why Chris got into Environment Law School
- Why Chris pivoted out of environmental law for a while to work as a web-based automated Litigation Project Manager
- Chris reasons for starting IndieFeed Music Podcast Network and how he got a content licensing deal with Guitar Center
- Chris experience with Libsyn and the creation of its Enterprise Podcast Division
- Chris talks about his involvement with the Association for Downloadable Media
- How Chris started HugeFan and his learning experience on raising venture funds at the Founder Institute
- Why HugeFan didn’t work out as Chris had envisioned
- Chris interest in improving soil and in the emerging cannabis industry
- Who Chris Townsend acknowledges for his achievements
- Smart Business Revolution
- Filament Science
- Chris’ email: [email protected]
- Phillips Academy Andover
- Vermont Law school
- Guitar Center
- Founder Institute
- IndieFeed Music Podcast Network
- Chris Townsend on LinkedIn
Today’s episode is sponsored by Rise25 Media, where our mission is to connect you with your best referral partners, clients, and strategic partners. We do this through our done for you business podcast solution and content marketing.
Along with my business partner Dr. Jeremy Weisz, we have over 18 years of experience with B2B podcasting, which is one of the best things you can do for your business and you personally.
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John Corcoran 00:40
Welcome, everybody. John Corcoran. Here. I’m the host of the smart business revolution podcast where I talk with CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs of companies and organizations like YPO to Activision Blizzard, which is the world’s largest video game company, lending tree, Open Table, x offer and many more. I’m also the co-founder of rice one to five where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. And I’m really excited today because my guest is Chris Townsend McDonald. He’s a recovering lawyer just like me. He went from environmental scientists at the US EPA to becoming a successful entrepreneur and founded or co-founded several successful startups, including the indie feed music Podcast Network for independent music, which had over 170 million listens. And also wallet libsyn, which is one of the largest podcasts hosting platforms out there and one that I’ve used for 10 plus years or so, he founded libsyn Enterprise podcast division, where he worked with companies such as National Geographic, NPR, fidelity, Pearson And the Joe Rogan podcast was made if you have heard of that, and huge fan calm, as well. And now he’s back to his roots, so to speak, developing a computer vision enhanced soil microbe identification platform. That’s a mouthful, he’ll explain what it is.
And he’s most excited about this work because it actually is making soil smarter and drawing carbon out of the air and into the ground which will have a huge impact on global warming. He’s a really smart guy got joint degrees in law and environmental policy from Vermont law school, so I’m really excited to have him but first before we get into that, this podcast is brought to you by rise 25 media which I co-founded with my business partner, Dr. Jeremy Weiss, and our mission is connecting with your best referral partners and customers. We do that through our Dunphy podcast and content marketing solution, I believe firmly is one of the best things I’ve done in my life is starting a podcast. I think everyone just started podcasts and we can only help so many people. But I would like to inspire even those who don’t work with to do it as well, because it’s hands down. One of the best things I’ve done. It’s really like a Swiss Army knife. It’s a tool that accomplishes so much and it can it will lead to great relationships with clients, referral partners, strategic partners, and more. So think about it. If you have any questions go to rise, one five comm You can learn more about how you can do it, too. All right. So Chris, super excited to talk to you here. You’ve got this really diverse background. You’re a scientist. You’re a lawyer, you’re an entrepreneur. Let’s just start by, I want a little bit know a little bit more about you in your background, your upbringing. And you know, do you always kind of this you have these different divisions, your own personality where you’re part scientists, you’re part tinkerer, you’re part entrepreneur, are you have you kind of developed and nurtured those interests over time,
Chris Townsend 03:26
either. Wow, that’s a great introduction, by the way. Thank you, john. So the answer to the question, I there was a pleat in my high school experience, having grown up in the northeast, a place called Manchester minutes where I had to make a decision my mom, rather successful portrait artist. She went to museums school in Boston. I had a lot of can guess you’d call it Right leaning tendencies now as in the theater is into a presentation and I was very into art. I was planning to go to Rhode Island School of Design or Parsons. And it’s a pretty rigorous application to go to art school. But I did really well at school except for one year I just, you know, personal stuff, parents going through a divorce, and tonight my grades suffered. So I did a what you might call finishing here at Phillips Academy in over and I made the decision to go there and cultivate the left side of my brain, I guess you’d call it.
John Corcoran 04:44
Probably a good place to do it.
Chris Townsend 04:46
Yeah, I’ll tell you that. Go to a rigorous place where people are really passionate about what they do and they’re 100 times smarter than you. You kind of wake up to the potential that you have more to offer. Yeah, there’s, there’s, there’s a very specific day I remember where I said I’m going, going to. Maybe I’ll be a lawyer who knows and then ended up going that route that got me a free ride to a really great little school in the Midwest called Denison University right out of Columbus.
John Corcoran 05:22
Before we get into that, can we talk a little bit more about Phillips Academy? What was it like being there because you know, presidents have gone there, you know, really kind of prestigious place what was your experience like? And plus joining your last year in high school, it’s always hard to move in life in high school when everyone else knows each other and you don’t obviously,
Chris Townsend 05:45
it was overwhelming. And it was, there’s no other word for it. It was exhilarating. Confronting to be in the same cohort as Kennedy’s and bushes, that kind of you find a pretty quiet person and having a dad who owns something big. And then on the flip side of that, you have that legacy world of preppy world. You’d have these just incredibly brilliant people from all over the world students and professors, and now they’re not really professors at high school, but sure what it felt like, it stretched me. It was my first time away from living in the North Shore of Boston is a big growth period. And it was weird because I was coming in as kind of a stranger to a group of people who might have been there for four years, often three. But, you know, socially, it was fun. And, and My watch is telling me he’s sorry.
John Corcoran 07:00
So you go on from there to denizen and Okay, and you decide to kind of sounds like it really influenced your career path because then you decide at some point to go to law school.
Chris Townsend 07:15
Yeah, yeah. So I am. I decided to do a political science degree joint degree in developing countries and learned Spanish but particularly wanted to figure out, you know how politics work, and spent a lot of time writing and writing other people’s term papers for cash. At that point in my life, the computer the home computer wasn’t really a super popular object, but I had one and, and I used it to make money. Yeah, I got my first job at Denison as a field rep for half of the state of Rhode Island for US Senate campaign. And that was it. trip. Your name is Claudine Schneider from Rhode Island. Senator didn’t win. And at that point, I really felt I wanted to get to DC, because it seems like we’re a lot of things and policies were being built there. But I applied to law school in the interim, rather than working for another senator. And that’s how it worked. Maybe I got in because she gave me a recommendation. But I’d like to think it’s because I tried.
John Corcoran 08:34
So you go to law school, and then you go the scientists route for a while. So you go and after law school, you go and you work at the USA, EPA, and what were you doing there?
Chris Townsend 08:44
Well, I mean, the most specific way to put it as I went to environmental law school, I really didn’t necessarily want to just be a lawyer. I want to be environmental.
John Corcoran 08:52
Yeah. And Vermont law school for those who don’t know is one of the most prestigious environmental law programs in the country.
Chris Townsend 08:59
Yeah. You know, that was before I knew what environmental law really was about. And that was a great education and eye-opening. And I had a professor at BLS who was an expert in wetland mitigation and air quality. So I ended up doing a lot of work with and through him and was able to lock in a, an externship with the US EPA, Office of air quality planning and standards, working on incentive programs for emissions reductions. So I got to learn real quick, it’s all about the science, it’s all about the measurement. And,
John Corcoran 09:48
and in many ways that the work you’re doing now, which we’ll get to is kind of coming back around to that. So at what point did you know, get kind of pivot out of that you At some point you go and you are working for a CI, a CI, web-based automated litigation project manager, which seems like a little bit of a detour in your career.
Chris Townsend 10:13
Yeah. So like a lot of people who are really active excited as the internet started to blow up. I remember going up to the US EPA and looking at the first browser and just thinking about what that can be
John Corcoran 10:32
Netscape Navigator, possibly. Yeah,
Chris Townsend 10:35
go to a website and there’s all claims and multimedia corners. So yeah, I was lucky enough to work for some really cool bowtique operations. Using the regulatory reading experience I had down in Research Triangle Park, a couple of companies
Chris Townsend 11:07
And as an earning because of what it needed to be. And so then I started seeing people who were making double the amount of salary triple. So I jumped to a company that did a video email called nerve neuron.
John Corcoran 11:23
They know it’s really early days.
Chris Townsend 11:26
Yeah, this is when, you know, serving material from a server was, you know, ASP that was big that’s the big acronym At any rate, international crashed. I don’t know if you know much about living in a town it’s a I would call it a tertiary town, great town, Raleigh Durham area. But I think I think within like months, a third of all the technical positions were just shut down,
John Corcoran 11:55
wiped out Wow.
Chris Townsend 11:57
As well as our company and wow. I had to hustle. And I took a position in Florida as an executive VP of a streaming media company, they were putting tones out on football fields and telling people you could stream live now you can obviously do that with your phone.
John Corcoran 12:14
Chris Townsend 12:17
You know, fast forward. That company really wasn’t stable either. So it was turned out to be a wind down project over about a year. Hmm. started my own consulting company. I did some good client work. Magnum vision was bought by ocean long and kind of the eyeglass company was are doing Oracle email programming for them. But it wasn’t enough to take care of the home that I bought in North Carolina. So I started crawling back up to a place that I thought might be recession proof. Washington DC and I took a position ultimately at CCI using my law degree. At that point in time, Yucca Mountain was a big deal. They were taking all that potential nuclear waste and burying it in a hole outside of Las Vegas. What could go wrong? Well, everything going wrong. And so what we were doing was managing that pre-litigation that we knew all the agencies and all the states would be participating in. So that was also great. I look, you know, what it turned out to be. I love to build stuff. I love the excitement of it. And when it comes to management, just doesn’t get anything in the same way. Anybody going, but I just don’t have that.
John Corcoran 13:40
snot your thing, like your thing. So, this is interesting. So you go from scientists to you know.com boom heads. And so you know, you find your way around, you got a couple of different positions and then eventually you start in define which becomes the world’s largest music Podcast Network at the time. 170 million listens, which is insane. And talk a little bit about, you know what the goal of that was I know sharing independent music was really kind of your passion around that one.
Chris Townsend 14:16
Yeah. So at that point in time was working a khaki, you know, making decent money. And I heard about this thing called podcasting. And it was just on the kind of chats there were there wasn’t any press about this.
John Corcoran 14:32
We’re talking 2004 here. So we’re recording this in 2020. So 16 years ago.
Chris Townsend 14:38
Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m gay. And I met my new partner. We’ve been together for 15 years since us working at a really cool like, as a barista bartender. venue operator place called warehouse. And that was just in my mind what how can I help pennant musicians. And then it was just kind of one of those Reese’s peanut butter chocolate moments where knowing the regulatory landscape, I knew that major labels couldn’t handle they’re what are called publishing rights. They wouldn’t allow for downloads. But indie bands, we’re probably leveraging that. And so it can seem like a really great opportunity and can model this single song serving delivery with an introduction just quick and then a minute and a half of coffee chatter about the band where they’re, where they’ve been, where they’re going. And then links and just kind of took advantage of the fact that people lost maybe their buddy from high school or, or college, who was turning them on to music and became that analog for them. know anything about independent music? I wasn’t a critic. I was actually on the critic. I didn’t aware that it wasn’t my it might have been my choice to approve a really great song. But it certainly wasn’t my business to start to write it Pitchfork my way through it. You know what I mean
John Corcoran 16:22
it and you made quite a business out of it. You had some big sponsors, Honda, Toyota capital USA networks and even a content licensing deal with Guitar Center, which was quite creative. Do you want to share how that worked?
Chris Townsend 16:35
Sure. Yeah. But this by that point, had gotten to be kind of unknown quantity. I was up on YouTube, iTunes, kind of bubbling up in the podcast under music. And had joined libsyn because when you think about it, we were doing different channels and alternative modern rock channels. We had an indie popular hip hop with a spoken word channel. So we were an enterprise operation in a world where podcasts were singular. Why started to no-hit on them, Lipson to kind of create some really great stuff. And that got me the gig, Andy, and the enterprise kind of directorship. All of that work on the access to ads give me access to presence, being the chairman and the Board of something called the Association of downloadable media. Helps to get my name around. I just got a phone call one day from from from one of the directors over at the Guitar Center. They flew me out to Thousand Oaks, California outside of LA. And what they were trying to do is capture the imagination of the developing artists, not dissimilar to what I was doing. I thought there was a real need Connect. And so since we had gone through all the legal work of getting the rights cleared, we were in a position to stream some of the more I guess optimistic music happy. You could listen in the background, you’d go into the store player guitar and maybe hear a really great band. Hear mine or another DJs voice about where this band was, perhaps imagine could be your promotional opportunity. That was great. It was good money. And it lasted about a good year or so before Bain Capital came in, flew in, looked at all the paper around Guitar Center and said what the heck’s this phone call? Yeah, look at these averages is great opportunities, but they’re, you know, you leverage what you can or that you don’t focus too much if you lose it and podcasting is nothing if not a long history of broken trails of people having high expectations about where they’re going and kind of meeting the rubber of that road. learning that podcast ad units aren’t as valuable as TV and audio ad units. They’re often so exotic that the sales people just throw them in for free. Take that with 1000 points of interest that happened with podcasting. You every podcast owner is a multimedia channel operator with their own audience and their own needs. Imagine the friction So, yeah, no, I felt like I got out of it at the time that it was right for me. I could visualize this kind of new world of long tail just not necessarily becoming the most exciting, sustainable thing and once again, there are a lot of Having built something getting bored.
John Corcoran 20:03
Tell me about when you join libsyn. what that was like that was really early days for Lipson and what was it like working with some of those big companies you worked with National Geographic, NPR, Harvard Business Review.
Chris Townsend 20:17
Great. Well, first of all, I want to just shout out, give the love to all the founders got nothing but just good feelings and vibrations. For all of them. There’s a team of about three of them that were primary, and some other people join and back then it was, you know, guys hanging out in Maryland in Pittsburgh, just hitting the coffee shop and talking about the problems and coming up with solutions was great. By the time that they we negotiated the terms of the acquisition of a cup of tea held company, it was getting real business like we can with a lot of these units. The way that National Geographic geographic came about I was still in DC. Now in Southern California. He used solutions, like NPR, were ongoing are kind of developing new tools for them. But we specified this new enterprise solution. And then we went out to look for customers. And by just a really great stroke of luck, NatGeo was getting ready to burst into the podcasting scene with, you know, their properties like a horse, you know, the dog whisperer and that kind of stuff. And it was a collaboration with that large institutional nonprofit, to figure out how to really deliver the stuff. We already had built out the system, but in a manner of speaking as there was our first client They assume some of that development risk. And once you had one, you know you had the foot in the door to have another
John Corcoran 22:10
right. And tell us about, you know, Joe Rogan today he’s got a huge podcast but when he started it wasn’t huge, although he had a reputation. What was that like?
Chris Townsend 22:20
Well, Joe Rogan, by all the measures was always huge relative to everybody else. So even though he might not have the numbers he might have now but he was a big property. He came along a little later in the process. And I don’t have any personal right relationships stories to share with that. I believe that he was a single source provider who’s costing the company a lot of money, as you might imagine, and bandwidth fees. And then we kind of offered maybe even gave them a really promotion deal into other solutions.
John Corcoran 22:58
But yeah, they
Chris Townsend 23:01
He the analytics on the enterprise side were really a big piece of the selling proposition. So you can find these large, large, larger entities who really wanted to know, some of the deeper information, not just how many downloads.
John Corcoran 23:21
So that was the sound selling point for them and why justified the cost? Yeah, yeah. Yeah. What about your involvement with the Association for downloadable media? You know, some of the members were Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, were you involved in, you know, lobbying legislators at this time? What was that experience? Like?
Chris Townsend 23:41
That’s cool. As a lot of fun. Does everyone see six, which is a type of nonprofit that’s a bit of a trade association? What that means is your members, our organizations, as the enterprise guy, I kind of seem to be a pretty good fit, got voted in as the chairman. was a scrappy little West Coast operation. And it grew out of the convention spaces where we meet everybody and realize that there was a there’s an advantage for everybody to bind together to make agreements and to leverage ads as a large group. And it was also tricky in the sense that, as I mentioned, you just had so many different very varying views of what was appropriate and inappropriate. Yeah, it’s position was that we need to treat podcasting as just a unique beast but as something that had more value than most people really understood out in the wild, right. I’m casting was starting to become kind of this word. It became like the dictionary word of the year. One Time. Hey, remember that? Yeah,
John Corcoran 25:02
yeah, I remember what year it was.
Chris Townsend 25:05
I don’t remember. I’m guessing 7007 eight. Yeah, think of it. Yeah, that was really a lot of fun. met a lot of great people and, and hopefully, we convinced a few folks on how you know, Authenticity, maybe not high production quality mixed with superfans really could leverage your brand and your products right
John Corcoran 25:36
now. You decide to go to learn a little bit more about raising venture funds before you launch a huge fan and you join founder Institute which is like an incubator, helping founders and startups to get started and get venture funding. What was that experience like? And the starting of a huge fan, share a little bit about that experience.
Chris Townsend 26:04
Sure. So I’d say you probably compartmentalize in two different channels. One was that NDP was real. I think the Kotel was really heading towards this notion that the digital product was going to be reducing and valued. We all see it now. And that products that had low marginal cost and a digital scale, we’re heading towards free. And what does that mean to an artist? Well, could be the death knell, you know, I mean, I remember hearing with cake, for example, an alternative band that you probably heard and listened to.
John Corcoran 26:41
Yep. from Sacramento.
Chris Townsend 26:43
Yeah, those guys. They said we’re not going to do another album. It’s just not it’s not cost-effective for us. So in and around this time, I think I was doing a South by Southwest convergence panel on this new technology, and I learned about Kickstarter. Hmm. Oh great. Maybe there’s this really great artist funding methodology. I looked at what Kickstarter was doing this before the $10 million deals and the products that were pre-sold. This is more like, Hey, I’m a band. For $10 you can get my album for $20 you have my super duper album and for 1100 dollars, I’ll drive my Faldo to your house, play your part of your badmouth Bar Mitzvah. And it got really wacky, and I thought, wow, these premiums are nothing but experiences. Why not come up with a way or a platform to sell experiential products. So, this is around the time that science was kind of confirming that we mean like experiences more than we’d like to buy stuff.
John Corcoran 28:03
Chris Townsend 28:04
And so, you know, a market base for experience, it seemed like a really cool idea. And that’s how that leveraged. So now I’m kind of going off on that. And today answer your question. Oh,
John Corcoran 28:18
yeah. Well, so it sounds like a great idea. And there are other companies that have done something similar. Why do you think a huge fan didn’t take off?
Chris Townsend 28:26
tuition was we had to close it down. It didn’t get funded, didn’t get follow on funding because we didn’t have that post hockey puck growth. And I can spend an hour quarterbacking on. Right? Right. But I think if I had to put it in the top two, we launched it in DC with a really good accelerator there. DC you know, you had the Redskins you had. Now you have hockey, politics, yeah. politics but they politics her ugly people,
John Corcoran 29:01
Hollywood. Right. Right.
Chris Townsend 29:03
You know, those experiences? Basically, I don’t know if you could have a have money pass for meeting, you know, a senator, you know, limited pool of assets. Yeah. For what it’s worth when things were kind of not working the way we wanted them to. I shipped out to the west coast to try to figure out how to make deals with William Morris and talent agencies that really were running the show. In retrospect, maybe I should have launched the West Coast.
John Corcoran 29:37
Yeah, good. Yeah. A good way of looking at it, I guess.
Chris Townsend 29:41
You know, it. This is great for people who are entrepreneurs next. I really encourage people to think about this. Think about your service your idea. I had a, very well positioned band manager for a lot of big bands. It was done in the conference. I’m not going to tell you the band’s Tell me, I think this is a solution looking for a problem within the area, you know, the band manager didn’t necessarily see the benefit to create a singular platform to do those experiential events that now are just the hallmark of every band. Now you can go to an after-party, you can meet and greet. But bands like to do that free, they felt very bristled about the idea of doing it and kind of subverting for 10 days. Yeah, and this by the way that the programming all went to, to cause no matter what you’re gonna hang out with a Super Bowl, sports legend or a, you know, heavyweight boxer. The money that you put in the ticket was going to their charity. So the leverage point seemed like it would work. It’s just it was hard, hard,
John Corcoran 31:03
hard, hard lesson. Tell us a little bit about what you focus on now because it’s your kind of come back full circle back to your original interests with environmental science and
Chris Townsend 31:17
yeah almost by accident so I was in Southern California closing down huge fan and staying with family friends was introduced to some people who are actually cultivating cannabis. At this point, California was in the legal market but it was really just it was interesting to watch I was scared to death of it. To this day decided that no one ever does anything that’s no illegal. I’m an attorney, who’s my bar, you know, license, but um, I came and started researching the newly regulated cannabis World in California, but I like to say I came for the weed and I stayed for the soil. I was just really attracted to what was going on, particularly the collection of organic material in the form of things like compost, getting things getting really shitty. But then the point is, I saw an opportunity to look and accelerate on a methodology that I thought was absolutely crazy. There are scientists out here who were measuring organic material, through microscopy, and then extrapolating those numbers out to come up with an index of how to quote, healthy your soil is. and healthy soil can do all sorts of things can retain water, water better, it can grow your plants. Better it can show measurably better increases. So that turned into a set of problem solves, and humans are going to be doing this work. You can imagine all the friction around looking at a microscope if you got wrong and a wrong extrapolation gave your client the wrong info. Well, you know, you see a lawsuit, because these are agricultural farmers and folks it hurt in many ways really like low low low margin steaks. So every decision made a difference. Cannabis has been still continues to be even though it’s dropping a higher margin product. So the cannabis industry although most of its hydroponic, and using typical fertilizer products, and slow there’s a very vibrant group of growers that are doing soil-based not just soil-based outside but soil-based inside and highly precision agriculture. So we’ve been targeting on that marketplace, groups of folks that believe in science base growing and debunking the myths of growing and coming up with a really rapid way to look at the soil and say the soil is at this level of strength and giving the recommendations how to improve because the sad reality is most soil is dirt. soil so I was alive dirts dead. You got to get to get this critters back into the soil.
John Corcoran 34:40
Interesting. Interesting. Yeah. Well, I know we’re running short on time here. So we’ll wrap things up. But the question was enjoy asking Chris. This has been really fascinating going through your career and all the different stops along the way, but let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet, much like the Oscars. Are the Emmys and you’re receiving an award for lifetime achievement for everything you’ve done up until this point. And we always thank our family and friends and things like that. But you know who, who else to acknowledge who are the business partners, who are the peers, the mentors, the coaches, the friends who you’d acknowledge for everything that you’ve done up until this point.
Chris Townsend 35:20
There’s one guy that made a big impact on me, a lot of people have but just once I always go back to the end over English literature, teacher, Luke, Bernie airy, he was a radical thinker. He is bright, but he didn’t show it or show it off. And he positioned fiction and American writing in a way that really opened your head. And to this day, I look at critical thinking I look at problem solving, in a way that I think is informed by the impact he had on me early in my life.
John Corcoran 36:04
That’s great. Well, this has been great, Chris. So filament dot science is the current business and anywhere else people can go to learn more about you.
Chris Townsend 36:19
If you want to be about opportunities, Chris at filament dot science works fine.
John Corcoran 36:25
Excellent. All right. Thanks so much, Chris.
Chris Townsend 36:27
Thank you for listening to the smart business revolution podcast with john Corcoran. Find out more at smart business revolution.com. And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the Revolution Revolution Revolution Revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the smart business revolution podcast.