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Photo by Stephen Vosloo

It's not about the dream

Entertainment | VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer turns to a jellyfish for new inspiration, new ventures, and a new way of doing business

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

"Make no small plans," a 33-year-old Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales and founder of Big Idea Productions, advised a WORLD interviewer in 1998. At the time, the animated vegetables famed for their funny songs, witty banter, and Christian-themed stories were winning fans young and old all across the country. Sales of VeggieTales videos reached 7 million in a single year and company revenues hovered around $40 million. Big distributors came calling, as did Hollywood.

Through it all, Vischer told himself to make no small plans and pursue a "Big Hairy Audacious Goal," a phrase he'd borrowed from the bestselling motivational book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. The goal he finally settled on-he would become the next Walt Disney.

But in the years that followed, Big Idea's fortunes changed drastically. The company brought in executives who began budgeting based on projected future revenues rather than the revenues they actually had. The new leadership instituted massive hiring, often for people the company didn't yet need. When expected sales increases failed to materialize, the company began borrowing heavily, using ownership of its popular characters as collateral. Then a break with their distributor led to a tangled, years-long lawsuit, and Vischer's last hope at saving Big Idea-an expensive, ambitious film called Jonah-didn't pan out.

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In 2003 Big Idea went bankrupt and Vischer lost ownership of Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber, and the rest of the VeggieTales gang. What he gained, he says, was something far more valuable. I sat down with Vischer to ask him about the lessons of Big Idea's downfall and how he's applying them to his latest venture-Jellyfish Labs, whose video productions include a puppet-based children's series aimed at teaching kids Bible literacy that Vischer describes as "the Muppets go to seminary."

Let's start at the beginning: Before VeggieTales became an underground success, did you dream of Hollywood? I was always a shy kid. I grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, and I've always felt a bit on the outside looking in. Whether it was youth group or school, I was not outgoing, I was not on student council. So the feeling of being on the outside kind of naturally led me to think, "I can do this in my basement, I can do this on my own." I thought, "I don't want to move to L.A., that's scary. I don't want to go to New York-that's scary. I'm going to sit in my basement in Muscatine, Iowa, and see if I can make a movie."

And you did. Well, yeah. You know there are those like Steven Spielberg-very outgoing, very gregarious-[who] absolutely wanted to do it through the system. As soon as he was out of high school he was sneaking onto the Universal lot and pretending he worked there. On the flip side there's George Lucas-very introverted, hated the system. I'm much more of a George Lucas.

And these days you can work through the system and influence from the inside out or you can completely ignore it. One of the great advantages of technology today with the internet, Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube, and all those services is that you don't have to use a distributor to find an audience.

You found a huge audience, yet somewhere things went wrong. What happened? Left to my own devices, I will do everything in a garage with 10 bucks and whatever resources I can find. But suddenly we went from having no money to having more money than we knew what to do with. And I went off track. Rather than seeking God and asking Him, "How do you want me to move forward?" I did some spiritual math and said, "OK, how could I have more impact? By just making my films or by building the next Disney?"

And what do you need to build Disney? Well, you need executives. So I started hiring people from major studios, from big companies, and that's when the garage band was officially retired. [Laughing] Nobody else was excited about doing things with 10 bucks and a ball of baling twine. I got so frustrated one night that we seemed to be doing everything in a more expensive way than I thought we needed to that I said to my wife, "I'll show them, I'll just go start my own company!" And she looked at me like I was crazy and reminded me it was my company.

It sounds like idolatry, as though there were a spiritual good to pursuing something bigger. Absolutely. My great-grandfather was one of the first radio preachers in America. He went on the air in 1923 and preached every Sunday until he died in 1963, at which point his show was the longest-running radio show in America. He had more than 100,000 people listening every week.

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