Fresno, Data-Driven Digital Studio Startup, Raises $8 Million in Seed Funding (EXCLUSIVE)

Fresno founder and CEO Rob Goldberg wants to take some heavy data science and put it to work in producing entertainment — and he’s banked $8 million in outside financing to get the digital studio rolling into higher gear.

Fresno, which Goldberg formed in 2015, this summer closed $8 million in seed funding led by investment firm Social Capital. The round includes participation from several angel investors, including Mike Murphy, Facebook’s former VP of global sales; Sky Dayton, founder of EarthLink and Boingo Wireless; and Arwen Elys Dayton, best-selling author of the “Seeker” trilogy of novels.

The company is actually based in Santa Monica, Calif. Goldberg named the venture after the California city farther north — he’s never been to Fresno — because it’s the geographic midpoint between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Fresno will use the capital to continue building out PCH (which stands for “Premium Content Highway”), its patent-pending content-analytics engine. The company uses insights it gleans about programming concepts, based on actual video consumption data, early in the content-development process alongside creative talent. The process, according to Goldberg, mitigates the risk inherent with the way projects have traditionally been greenlit.

“We don’t think an algorithm can create a hit show,” Goldberg said in an interview. “But we know when a show concept is going to resonate with an audience.”

The other piece of Fresno’s strategy is to work with big-name Hollywood names on its original shows. One of its first projects is “Cousin Sal’s Sure Thing,” executive produced by Jimmy Kimmel, which launched on Facebook a year ago. In the show, Sal Iacono — Kimmel’s actual cousin — presents his NFL picks for fantasy-football fans.

According to Goldberg, Fresno has additional scripted and unscripted projects in the works with recognizable talent partners. It’s developing those shows in two ways: by taking existing projects and using PCH to “develop and shape” the ideas, or by developing shows with premises derived from content science.

While Fresno is “platform-agnostic,” Goldberg said, its default platform for distributing content is Facebook. “What Facebook has really built is this massive, algorithmically driven method to reach people by word of mouth,” he said. The company expects to monetize the digital productions, as well as license programming to premium outlets.

Obviously, Fresno isn’t the first player on the block to try to use data science in a deep way to inform production decisions — it’s something Netflix has bragged about for years. But Goldberg has managed to persuade his early backers that Fresno taking a unique tack.

Fresno is building a next-generation content studio that “understands not only what type of video content can thrive on new platforms but, equally importantly, how to package that and distribute it in profitable ways,” Chamath Palihapitiya, founder and CEO of Social Capital, said in a statement. “The result is a very fast-growing company with large revenue scale and a growing library of intellectual property that will grow in value over time.”

Prior to starting Fresno, Goldberg was the GM of Topps Digital Services, a business unit that was created when he sold the digital currency-card redemption company he founded, GMG Entertainment, to sports-trading card company Topps in 2011. Before that, he headed his own independent entertainment marketing firm after leading partnership marketing at Launch Media, which was acquired by Yahoo and formed the basis of Yahoo Music. Launch Media was founded by Dave Goldberg, Rob’s brother and husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg; Dave went on to become CEO of SurveyMonkey before he died in 2015.

Fresno (fresnoinc.com) currently has about 20 full-time employees, and Goldberg said the company expects to grow headcount to 40 by the end of the year.

He’s hoping to start launching more shows on Facebook, and other platforms, in the near future. “The more content we distribute, the more data we get,” he said. “And that makes us smarter.”

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