We recently had the chance to speak to the CEO of At Will Media, Will Malnati. In this exclusive interview, Malnati shares with us about finding his passion after years of working in the foodservice industry. Below, he shares about the struggles and joys of the journey, and how he eventually found himself at the top of the podcast industry.
Will Malnati’s company, At Will Media, has helped some of the biggest brands in the entertainment industry to find their voices through podcasting. His clients include companies such as Cosmopolitan, Entertainment Weekly, GQ, and others.
But he wasn’t always involved in media.
Malnati began his career in the restaurant industry. But eventually, through the encouragement of his then-girlfriend and the help of some celebrity friends, he made his way to what was, at the time, a brand new digital medium, and his first podcast was born.
His journey to the top was not easy. It involved heartbreak and trial & error — to the point where many would throw in the towel. But Malnati, being an entrepreneur at heart, never lost hope that he would one day become something.
Here’s what Will Malnati had to say to Commyounicate Magazine about his story.
Commyounicate Magazine interviewer, Ryan Mekkes: So I’m really curious about your journey. I know you’re rocking and rolling in the podcast space right now, but I’m really curious as to how you got there. So if we could, could we take a step back in time to the beginning, to when you were just getting your feet wet in entrepreneurship? What were your first steps in business?
Will Malnati: Yeah, absolutely. I went to school for hospitality in upstate New York. It was this very small program that — if you weren’t going there to be an entrepreneur, what were you doing there type of mentality (laughs). Or at least that’s what it seemed like to me. At Cornell, it wasn’t about IF you were going to be an entrepreneur, it was, in which industry or in which sector of hospitality you were going to go into. And so I think that was always the mentality there. And when I left college, I still wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do. But I did know that I was ambitious, and I knew that I was down to get my hands dirty and dive into whatever I could.
CM: So why the restaurant business? Why did you go that route?
Will Malnati: My family is in the restaurant industry. So I was always around it. And so I think it came kind of second nature to me. And then when I studied it, it became even more instilled and engraved in me that this was probably something that I could pursue pretty naturally. And it was something that I enjoyed. I think for me it wasn’t about hotels or even about the finance part of hospitality; I just liked the entrepreneurial/building something/relationship-side that comes with restaurants. I’m not even much of a foodie, to be honest; I don’t really even cook. I think people assume when you’re in the restaurant industry that you love food, but that was never my thing. But since I had grown up around it, and then went to school for it, it was kind of like, alright, it makes sense for me to take a run at it. So when I got out of school and went to New York, I knew I wasn’t fully ready to start my own business, but what I did know is that I wanted to see what it was like for someone else to grow something. And so I got in with these two guys who, at the time, were both about 25 years old. And they had the — I hate this word — but the “hottest” nightclub in New York City, at that time. They were partners in this thing, running it at 25. And I was thinking, woah, these guys are really doing it. And how great it was to have the opportunity to learn from them. They gave me the opportunity to manage that place. I was probably the youngest manager in New York at that point, running something that big. That place was doing around $20 million in and around 2007; which, obviously, that was really good.
CM: That’s a ton of revenue.
Will Malnati: Yeah, it was a lot of money. That was when people were really spending a lot. So I really got to see what it was like to build and expand a small club. This wasn’t one of those mega ones — but soon they started building a restaurant, and then from there, another place, and another place. And so I was really there from the ground up at what grew into being a hospitality company. That was my real-life education. That was like my master’s degree. I was with that company for about five years. And eventually, I had the opportunity to get some partners, and I felt like it was the right time to try and strike out on my own.
CM: So at this point in your story, you’ve gone through managing someone else’s business; and now, you’ve decided to make a path for yourself. Where did you start and what lessons did you learn along the way?
Will Malnati: We had to raise outside capital for my first restaurants — and that was a whole experience in and of itself. Fundraising was really an education. I learned that there’s a certain level of responsibility that comes with utilizing someone else’s cash. I learned that you need to attach to every dollar that you’re given. I learned that that’s no small thing. When I hear these younger aspiring entrepreneurs say things like, oh, I’m just going to go raise 5 million bucks and I’m gonna start this thing — like it’s no big deal — I think to myself, that’s just not how it works. I think that the whole idea of entrepreneurism has become disillusioned with shows like Shark Tank and with these types of things; it’s almost become like, Oh, that’s an easy thing. I’ll just put a business plan together and raise capital. And I don’t think people totally understand what that really entails. When I was in my beginning stages, thinking, wow, how do I get someone to believe in what I’m doing enough to part with their hard-earned money? It was not easy. So I opened my first restaurant when I was in my mid-’20s, and it failed. It closed after two years. Those were where some of my biggest learnings came from. I had broken up with girlfriends before, I’d been broken up with before, I had failed an exam before; I had, at that point, experienced all these monumental things that happen in a young person’s life. But when I closed a business that I, 1, raised money for, and 2, put all my time and energy and focus — blood, sweat, and tears into — it was almost like a part of me died. I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed, and I felt like a failure. And that didn’t go away for a good amount of time.
CM: I understand. So would you describe this as your rock bottom?
Will Malnati: Yeah. I was thinking, I don’t know if I ever really want to do that again. But after some time, I thought, you know what, I feel like I need to take that experience and take everything I learned from it and use it to propel me. And I began to use it as a strength rather than as a weakness. And so when I opened a second place, a restaurant called Toro, I was way more confident, and I knew the potential problems that could occur. I knew about culture more and how to build a team. I knew about the financial model of a restaurant and how to increase margins and how not to overspend — all these different things that go into ANY business, by the way. So that whole restaurant part of my life, my twenties, was all about learning how to keep a restaurant really healthy from a cultural perspective, from a team-building perspective, and from a financial perspective. There are obviously other things that go into a thriving business, but if you can get those three things right, you’re on the right track.
CM: So you opened the second restaurant; it does well — at what point did you decide to go in a different direction? What caused your shift in perspective?
Will Malnati: So I’m still one of the owners of the restaurant and still involved in several aspects of the business. We actually just celebrated our six-year anniversary. It’s still busy, and I still smile when I am in there. But a few years ago, I started thinking, I came to New York when I was barely 22. I crushed myself for ten years in the restaurant industry; I worked myself to the bone. Now, I think it’s time for a new chapter in my life. And I met an amazing woman who I married, and I just… I didn’t want to be out at night during that time in my life. I felt differently about it than I used to. And so I started looking at other industries, other things that I was passionate about. Other avenues.
CM: Helming a restaurant takes a huge amount of work and long hours. Did you just feel like, for the season of life you were going into, you didn’t want to sacrifice that amount of time anymore?
Will Malnati: You know what it was — I kept seeing people in hospitality, and in restaurants, and in nightlife, and even in hotels — the kind of people I looked up to when I was younger — and when I got to be the age that they were when I was looking up to them, I was like, wow, they’re still in this?! And also, they’re divorced, or they never got married, and they don’t have any kids, and they’re still at their establishments until late, and they’re drinking — I just didn’t want that for me. I know that there was a point in my dad’s life, when he was building his hospitality company, when he also had that kind of feeling. So I think, without really knowing it, I was kind of having the same thing that I remember him telling me about. I really just wanted to slow it down. I wanted to have more control, I think, over my life and where I was going next. That was right around when I was turning 30. So I also felt like it was a good time to switch paths. Like, okay, I’m 30, I’m going to try something new. And, obviously, when you’re entrepreneurial, you can never shake it. For the most part, if you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re wired that way, you want to always find the next thing to do and the next exciting venture to start learning about. And my now-wife really supported me in making a big life-decision like that. Sometimes it’s hard to make those types of decisions on your own. And so to have someone that was there with me, kind of looking at me, saying, hey, it’s okay for you to want to do your life differently, and I support you in that — to have that type of support from someone is super helpful. And so I credit her for kind of convincing me it was okay to do that.
CM: So you made your decision; you decided to move in a different direction — how did you start getting into podcasting? What did that look like?
Will Malnati: At a certain point, I really pulled way out of the restaurant. I wasn’t going there day to day; I wasn’t working out of there. And someone I knew sent me a link to an article about a guy named Brian Koppelman, who’s the creator of the show Billions. He’s a director and a writer. And he had this podcast called “The Moment.” I had never even heard of podcasts before. This was four-plus years ago. And his podcast was about the moment that you knew you were doing the thing you would do for the rest of your life. Something in that sphere. So I remember hearing this, and I thought to myself, wow, this is kind of like a radio show; this is cool. And then I started really getting interested in this thing that felt relatively nascent — there wasn’t that much going on in the industry. Chris Hardwick was doing Nerdist, and Joe Rogan and Mark Marin had started it early on, but there wasn’t much going on with it when I came across it. So I started really diving into this new medium that I just wasn’t familiar with. I kept asking people, have you guys listened to podcasts? And they always said no. It just wasn’t really a big thing yet.
CM: It seemed like it took a while to catch on.
Will Malnati: Yeah. So as I dug in, I started to think, hold on a sec, that could be a cool thing for me to do. I could host a podcast — I know some people that I bet would be open to it that have big followings on social media. So I bought some microphones and I bought some equipment. I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, but I knew that I could figure it out. And that’s it. I asked a couple friends if they wanted to host podcasts. They had never even listened to podcasts. I said, it’s all good. I’m going to come to you. I’ll come with two microphones and a setup. Let’s figure out who you could talk to. And it kind of started from there.
CM: Wow! What was your first podcast called? The first one you produced?
Will Malnati: The first one I produced was with Jenna Oskowitz, who was on the show Glee. I had gotten to know her through some friends of mine. She had just written this self-help book, so that was very much a part of her personal brand: self-help and aspirational, inspirational messaging. And we kind of dreamed up this idea of something called — I don’t even think you can find it online anymore — it’s called something like Infinite Positivities.
CM: Ah, that’s cool.
Will Malnati: And, really, it was just us kind of figuring it out together. She took a risk on me. She said, yeah, I’ll let you do it — even though she had somewhere around a million followers, and I didn’t really know my way around it at all — she took a risk on me. I told her, look, if this thing works, hopefully I can make you some money, and then maybe I can build a company out of this. And so it all goes back to her. She did interviews with me and I followed her around with my phone. (laughs) It was silly, but that’s how I started to learn about the industry and about what people were listening to. Soon I began thinking, could I sell ads on her shows? And my biggest thing was, could I make her some money? If I could make her some money out of this industry, then I knew I was onto something. I remember when our first check came in from an affiliate — it was 250 bucks or something — I gave it to her, and I was like, I made you some money! (laughs). Even though she had spent, you know, 40 hours or so of her time on it before she made $250, we knew at that point that something could happen.
CM: Where did it go from there? What steps did you take after that — after you got your 250 bucks? I’m sure that lit a fire under you.
Will Malnati: (laughs) Went right to the bank. From there I told Jen, hey, I want to really do this. I’m going to start my own podcast. I want you to be a part of this with me. Help me figure out some other people that would want to host podcasts and we’ll create a community. And so within about a year or so, we had around nine podcasts. People were hosting them and I was running around. I had a few people kind of helping me run things, but we weren’t breaking even; we were losing money. But I was at least figuring out how to do it. Then, one day, we got a call from Entertainment Weekly. And they said, hey, we heard you guys do podcasts. We want to do podcasts, but we don’t know how. I was like, well, we don’t really do that. I only do it with hosts and stuff like that. And they said, we’ll pay you to help us put it together. I said, okay — how much? (laughs) But it didn’t matter how much they said; I was going to do it. I was thinking, that’s awesome; I don’t have to sell an ad to do this? They’re just going to pay me? So at that point, when those checks started coming in, I thought to myself, wait a second, these nine shows we have going… some of them make money, some of them don’t, some make money sometimes — should I be focusing my energy more on helping companies and helping brands to do it? Because after Entertainment Weekly, someone from there referred me to someone at Cosmopolitan. And by the time Cosmopolitan reached out and asked for help, I was like, absolutely! That’s what I do! (laughs) Like, of course! Tell me what you need! And then when I started helping them, and started receiving those checks, I began to think, okay, I don’t know if I should be focusing on this other model, which was this network model: I wanted to see if I could build the business on working with brands. So then I was able to start hiring people with the money that I made. I hired people full time; and eventually, I just kind of stopped doing all those interview-style celebrity shows and began focusing on brands. And we started to get more clients and more clients and more clients, and we kept growing the business. Eventually, I realized, okay, now this is a real thing. Now we pay health insurance; now we have an office; now we have an attorney. It started becoming more and more real with each person we hired. So brand consulting was where we decided we needed to focus. That’s how we’re still growing our business. We have also recently been able to get a little bit more creative with originals and limited series and IP and all this other cool stuff, but we really grew the company through helping businesses.
CM: Wow. So you just kind of went with the flow. It sounds like you saw a good thing happening and you went with it. And you were rewarded, ultimately.
Will Malnati: Yeah. And listen — I screwed up every single thing along the way. I mean, I was so new to the industry, so I was trying to figure it all out as I went. But I guess, looking back, the one thing I knew is that when you’re growing as a business, and you spot something that could be something bigger, you have to go with your gut on that.
CM: So you basically had to pivot your business model. That’s so interesting. So, what are your thoughts on what the future holds for your company?
Will Malnati: That’s a question that I ask myself every day I wake up: where there are so many opportunities, how do we make sure to prioritize them, you know? And how do we make sure that we’re only doing things that we feel super strongly about and super passionately about? We’re in an amazing, lucky position to be able to start developing our own concepts now. For example, we’re currently talking to a guy in middle America who has this insane story about the last thirty years of his life. We’re figuring out how to partner up with him and tell his story in a narrative series. I also have a friend who’s an amazing comedy writer who developed a scripted podcast for us that we just sold to a big platform. Things like that are amazing. How exciting and how cool is it that we’re able to kind of pave our own path now. And, of course, we are still working with amazing brands and clients, helping them with their strategy and audio. We’ve also been able to come up with amazing new ideas that we want to conquer. There are no rules, and we don’t have any bosses. I feel like we can go in a lot of different directions. Right now, though, we’re building out that originals arm to be as strong as possible.
Make sure to keep up on all the latest from Will Malnati and At Will Media. This company has already seen great days, and has a lot more coming.
Follow Will Malnati on Instagram @willmalnati
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