"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.
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.
Though I couldn't have pinpointed it at the time, it was enormously influential in my thinking of, "OK, sure this is great, but how do I make it bigger? How can I do more faster?" Unfortunately, the question I ignored was, "How did God wire me?" Because He didn't necessarily call me to see how big an organization I could build.
Today when I talk to people, I spend a lot of time trying to get them to consider what is driving them. Why do you want to do what you say you want to do? Do you have peace in your life? Because if you're stressed, if you're worried, if you're anxious, something ain't right. Those aren't the fruits of the Spirit. I wish someone had sat me down at some point and asked me those questions.
How are you applying your experience with Big Idea to your new venture, Jellyfish Labs? My new company is called Jellyfish Labs because jellyfish can't locomote. They can't choose their own course. They can't go from point A to point B. They can only stay in the current and trust the current to carry them where they need to be. Looking back on Big Idea, I was conceiving of myself as a big studly barracuda saying, "All right God, here's what I'm going to do for you. Now you just stand back and bless it and watch me go!"
After the bankruptcy I had kind of a forced sabbatical of three or four months of spending time with God and listening to Him. I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, "Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so," or "Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!" But that isn't Christianity, it's morality.
That realization led me to a quest to say, all right, I need a new vehicle for teaching where I can go in much, much deeper but still in a fun, lighthearted, witty way. For my new series, What's in the Bible, I wanted to create the equivalent of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. It was this groundbreaking miniseries in the '80s that explained the entire world, the entire universe, to families. I want to do that with the Bible, not just for kids but for families. It's not a kids' show, it's a family show.
So I was acting like a big barracuda when in reality I'm a brainless, spineless bag of goo. And I only get my form when I stay in the current of God's will and allow Him to carry me where He wants me to be. And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We're drinking a cocktail that's a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we've intertwined them so completely that we can't tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It's the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I'm not supposed to be pursuing impact, I'm supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.
Is there any place then for long-range ambitions and large goals, for "big ideas"? The goal at Jellyfish is to do no long-range planning, which is a little counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. But the way Paul and Barnabas did a ministry was to walk to a town, and if that town didn't want them they'd shake the dust off their sandals. They wouldn't sit there plotting for 10 years on how to take over the town, they'd just say, "OK, the Holy Spirit is taking us elsewhere." We have this American industrial thing where we want to build the McDonalds and Coca-Colas of evangelism and come up with formulas and systems that are guaranteed to work and it can be highly effective, but I don't know that it's highly Christian.
That sounds pretty radical in the current Christian business culture. I no longer use the word dream as a noun describing a goal. We misinterpret passages from the Bible like, "For lack of vision the people perish." From that we run off and go, "Oh, we've got to have vision, we've got to have dreams!" But it was Henry Blackaby who first pointed out to me that when we interpret that verse to apply to our ambitions, we're completely misinterpreting it. A better, contemporary translation is, "For lack of revelation the people throw off restraint."
We're not called to be a people of vision, we're called to be a people of revelation. God speaks and we follow. We've completely taken this Disney notion of "when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true" and melded that with faith and come up with something completely different. There's something wrong in a culture that preaches nothing is more sacred than your dream. I mean, we walk away from marriages to follow our dreams. We abandon children to follow our dreams. We hurt people in the name of our dreams, which as a Christian is just preposterous.
That doesn't mean I just sit here waiting for God to hand me a Post-it note with tomorrow's agenda. But I brainstorm, I have ideas, I put them on the wall, and I pray about them. Then one of those ideas will start to percolate a bit, start to bubble, and then I chase the bubble to see if that's where God is moving me. But if suddenly God seems to be moving me in a different direction, I let go of that idea, because it's just an idea. If I keep calling it my dream, I'm holding on to it too tightly until it becomes something I can't let go of. And the only thing I can't let go of is God. Everything else should be held with an open hand.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss Phil Vischer's new venture, What's in the Bible, on The World and Everything in It.