Pilotly Founder and CEO James Norman aptly describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” From an early age, Norman’s involvement in various projects led him to chart a bold path in the technology space.
Already adept at technology in his teens, the Michigan native and a friend founded MJH Sound, one of the first e-commerce sites for home and audio. Norman leveraged that creation to work with car audio and build cars in his hometown, at the heart of the auto industry. Gaining traction in his understanding of engineering and technology prompted a move to southern California, where he built cars for more high-profile clients in the film industry, such as for the “The Fast and the Furious” film franchise.
Norman moved from business to business using his tremendous insight, talent, and pioneering work to solve relevant problems with unique solutions. His career arc reflected tremendous versatility; he demonstrated a unique ability to pivot from a chosen path and to be resilient when the roads diverged.
After establishing Ubi Videos as an innovative streaming video aggregator and gaining extensive experience that led to an IP acquisition offer, Norman moved to the Bay Area. Building on his associations with network executives and Hollywood luminaries, he decided to create a model for a la carte TV, or select television channel subscription.
Norman pivoted once again, shaping his insight into a learning experience for fellow entrepreneurs. In 2016, he established the Oakland, California-based Transparent Collective, a nonprofit designed to help African American, Latinx, and female founders avoid the pitfalls of entrepreneurship. The nonprofit brings founders to the Bay Area, the source of more than 40 percent of venture capital funding, to undergo rigorous training. The five-day program educates founders about business models, including storytelling, finance, and investment strategies, and connects them with mentors and investors who can help them raise the funds they need to grow. To date, the Transparent Collective has worked with over 40 startups, which have gone on to raise over $30 million in funds for their businesses.
In 2014, Norman developed Pilotly, a consumer insights platform from which content developers can obtain scalable content data. While he admitted that “I had never built a market research platform that explains how people feel about content,” he was reassured when Home Depot paid him to test its branded content. At Pilotly, he found the “sweet spot” between businesses and viewers. He had also solved an age-old problem: obtaining viewer data to optimize content and business outcomes.
Today, Norman describes Pilotly as providing “the best experience for clients and users.
”I want our product to dominate the sector in 2021 and become a household name in Hollywood,” Norman said.
He credits its translation into multiple languages as a critical component of its international presence and a driving force for solidifying global content deals.
Having emerged as a thought leader regarding consumer consumption, media and entertainment, the avant-garde Norman continues to look toward the future. He has a few words of wisdom for young entrepreneurs of color seeking to advance their businesses.
Norman cautions entrepreneurs to adhere to a two-year pivot rule, if momentum does not build as planned. “Don’t get too married to your idea. Decide what piece of that idea remains viable, and move forward with that.”
Creating a Team
He advises founders to focus on creating culture when building a team.
“Our generation will continue to establish what it means to be black in America, and people are excited and enthralled, because no one else is doing that,” Norman said.
He believes those who bring their worldview to the table add a rich perspective, “something intangible that you can’t find on a resume.”
Becoming a Visionary
Norman’s own experience and his work at his nonprofit remind him of just how often minority founders lack the capital to forge ahead with business endeavors. However, he advises new founders to refrain from dedicating their efforts solely to funding.
“As a person of color, you’re likely to be underfunded. But you do yourself a disservice by not being a visionary,” Norman said. “Thinking time is invaluable. Not having funds can take away that mental space, so you have to become intentional about it.”
Norman’s story is an inspiring tale of how alacrity, perseverance, and innovation drive success. Flying high with the continued success of Pilotly, this pilot may just be ready to hit cruise control.