KatchU was lucky enough to host Patrick Lee, the co-founder and founding CEO of Rotten Tomatoes, a serial entrepreneur who started six start-ups around the globe, an advisor and mentor to numerous programs, a huge anime fan, and many more.
“All six companies I’ve done had at least one co-founder that I knew from freshman year of college.”
Rotten Tomatoes was not Patrick's first start-up. When he was a junior at UC Berkeley, he was impatient to get out there and do something interesting with his friends. His first project was to sell computer systems and components. He and his friends would take orders from their clients in the Bay area, go to tech distributors, build computers and sell them. Looking back, he describes that job as pain in the a**, but there is no doubt that the experience was very essential for him to start learning how to do business. Patrick prioritized his enthusiasm for starting start-ups and kept himself busy outside school so much so that he dropped college and completed his cognitive science degree in twelve years.
His second project, the one before Rotten Tomatoes, was a web design firm that did a lot with the entertainment industry and worked with companies like Disney Channel, ABC, Warner Brothers, MTV, and many more. With their design firm, he and his friends designed a lot of games in 3-4 years including the official game for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"
Transitioning into Rotten Tomatoes happened around the same time that the movie Rush Hour (1998) came out. Patrick’s friend and the creative director at his design firm, Senh, who was also a big Jackie Chan fan, was the one who came up with the idea while looking for some reviews from critics for Rush Hour in libraries.
"Why not put this all on a website, so other people can see it as well?"
Senh developed his initial idea further and wanted to solve the issue of not being able to find accurate reviews about a film before seeing it. As Patrick highlighted, when a newspaper announces a movie coming out, all the quotes on the poster tend to be extremely complimentary, even when the movie is terrible. That’s how Rotten Tomatoes steps in as a solution: Gathering together reviews (good and bad) from many professional critics and putting a score that shows the percentage of critics that recommends seeing the movie. After starting as a fun project, the traffic on the site grew immensely within a year. Realizing the potential of the project, Patrick suggested his friend to join forces and turn it into a real business.
In 2000-01, with the combination of the dot-com bubble and 9/11, the company went through some challenging times, dropping from twenty-five to seven workers. After that point, the company had three main goals: GROW the traffic, GROW the revenue, and GROW the brand. “Certified Fresh” was one of those ideas that could pass this filter; as studios would want to promote the fact that their movie was “certified fresh,” they would buy more ads from Rotten Tomatoes. They would also add the logo onto their DVDs, posters, and trailers, which would contribute to the brand. Not surprisingly, the “certified fresh” concept has become one of the features that Rotten Tomatoes has been best known for. Patrick still remembers seeing the “certified fresh” logo for the first time on the poster of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
Even after they sold the company in 2004, Patrick says that it still makes him happy each time he sees the “certified fresh” logo used as a way of promoting a movie.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Patrick has worked on so many other exciting projects after Rotten Tomatoes, including starting businesses in China and Hong Kong. Something different than what he did before was to build official websites for artists like Jackie Chan (here he comes again), which led him to directly interact with the artists themselves. Eventually, he came back to the Bay area and worked on a mobile game company called Hobo Labs. Currently, he spends most of his time on the collectives that he is a part of, like “Private! Keep Out!”, which is a collective for successful tech founders around the world, and the “Gold House Collective”, which is a platform for Asian and Pacific Islander founders and creative minds to unite and support one another.
When he was asked for one big piece of advice for the Katch interns, he mentioned a 17-minute-long talk of his called “Focus,” and shared the link with us, which I suggest all Katch interns see on their own time.
“The less you do in the beginning, the better chance you can do it well.”