Impact Theory: A Wondercon ’19 Interview With Tom Bilyeu

Tom Bilyeu is the co-founder of Quest Nutrition and co-founder of Impact Theory, a for-profit media company designed to “leverage the self-sustaining power of commerce to radically influence global culture.” Impact Theory releases a long-form interview talk show, hosted by Bilyeu, with guests including Levar Burton, Tony Hawk, and Wyclef Jean.

2019 saw Bilyeu venturing into the world of comic publishing with his first release Neon Future, co-created with DJ Steve Aoki. I chatted with Bilyeu at Wondercon about the publisher and his plans for world domination.

Tim Midura: So can you explain your background with comics and why you wanted to get into comics.

Tom Bilyeu: It is a very weird explanation that I will give it to you. So I went to film school as my background. I’ve been collecting comics since I was 16. Love, love, love the art form and I wrote a screenplay that got turned into a movie I was very unhappy with how it came out. I had met these two entrepreneurs and they told me, “Look man if you come into the world with your hand out you want to control the art, you have to control the resources.” So they said Why don’t you come with us to get rich. We’re entrepreneurs. We’ll teach you how to do this. We’re starting this new company and we need some people. And so I thought, “This is amazing I’m gonna be rich and that’s so cool.” And it didn’t quite work out like that.

But it actually did work.. So instead of taking 18 months it took 15 years. We founded multiple companies together and the final one that we did, which was Quest Nutrition, went from not existing to being valued at over a billion dollars in five years.

And so two and half years ago, I exited that company and finally had the capital to start this properly. And here we are and launched it and it’s our first book.

TM: So, now that you’re in control and you can actually control the resources how is that going for you?

TB: Amazing. Yeah I have to say. Control is everything that I’ve told you. It’s been incredible finding, you know, amazing writers and artists that I believe in and being able to you know make sure that the vision stays true to what I had in my head has just been really, really incredible.

TM: So what sets Impact Theory apart from other independent publishers?

TB: So the biggest thing is that we really have a focus on empowerment. So our whole thing from top to bottom, every story we ever tell at the end of that story you’re going to feel as a reader like you’re capable of more than you did at the beginning. So I can’t always promise our characters will win. I can’t always promise they’ll succeed at their goal. But I can always promise that you will go on a journey with them and realize what the human animal is truly capable of.

TM: What other projects do you have lined up?

TB: We have three in development right now.. Our next book is more or less about two identical twins. One of them meets an alien and gets these superpowers and basically becomes like Superman. We focus on the twin brother who now feels like a piece of shit and like he’s totally worthless. And he’s got to claw his way out of depression but ultimately realizes he’s like Batman did. You can do anything you set your mind to, but you can have to work your ass off.

And so that’s that one and then behind that we have women of Impact which is actually about real women but telling their stories in a very visual way. Well it’s cool.

TM: So can you explain how you partnered with Steve Aoki?

TB: Yeah. So I have an interview show where I bring on some of the world’s most successful people it’s called Impact Theory. He was a guest on that show. We really hit it off and, I realized in doing research, that he actually planned to be cryogenically frozen when he dies. And I said that was so cool. As somebody who does not ever want to die, I’m a big fan of somebody who’s fighting to actually overcome death. And I thought that would be actually really interesting if somebody with his compassion actually had the ability to bring people back from the dead. And so I pitched him that idea and he loved it. And so we got together to brainstorm and turned it into a real story creating real characters and all that. Then we brought in Jim Krueger to help us turn it into a real script and whatnot. That was the genesis of that.

TM: How did you get Jim Krueger onboard? He’s worked on some big books like Justice and Project Superpowers.

TB: So I have a philosophy in life. I always tell people what you’re doing. Never worry about people stealing your ideas or looking like a fool. So I just kept telling people how I’m trying to build the next Disney and I’m starting in comics and I don’t know anybody. Literally no one. And I told this one guy and he was like, “Oh I actually know an Eisner Award winning writer who used to be creative director of Marvel. Would that be useful?” I was like, “Yes.”.

And so he put me in touch with Jim who happened to live very close to me and we went out for coffee. He was the nicest human being on the planet, knows everything about comics,and is ungodly talented. And so I was like, “Hey I have this idea but we need a writer.” And he was like, “That idea sounds amazing.” And so he came on and helped us flesh it out to make sure that we never lost sight of the characters even though we have a very expansive cyberpunk world. Just really kept our eye on the prize and wrote the shit out of it and he’s just amazing.

TM: So with your partnership with Steve Aoki, are you planning on bringing more celebrities into the fold?

TB: Very much so, yeah. So when humanly possible we want all of our projects to have a celebrity attached. Because it just opens so many doors.

TM: So you said you’d written a script and you weren’t happy with how it was produced. A lot of publishers are kind of moving into the film world. Is Impact Theory moving in that direction?

TB: Very much so.

TM: That’s a big loss of control.

TB: Yeah it will be in the beginning, but ultimately the goal would be to prove a track record of creating IP that really pops off and has a big cultural impact. And if we’re able to do that and we’re able to create a thriving enterprise ourselves, then over time we’ll be able to get more and more the rights. I look at this as a 17 year plan.

TM: So you’re going to live forever.

TB: Well I’m serious. I do want to live forever and I am taking as many steps to that, but right now I’m on a one way collision course with death. I’m well aware of that but I think that given my lifestyle, I’ve got 50 years of my own life. So I’ve got 50 years to build out something that will last beyond me.

And there’s a guy named Irwin Winkler who is one of the most prolific producers ever. He did Raging Bull. Most recently he did… Oh God. The Scorsese. I can’t believe I’m blanking on you. Like his resumé is just absolutely well. God. So this guy’s done like, I don’t know, 60 films. He’s got three on Empire’s one hundred best film list. I mean just just an extraordinary guy. And he’s 87 and just sold it on Netflix’s biggest acquisition, the Irishman again with Martin Scorsese. So it’s like to be 87 and doing some of the most relevant films on the most forward thinking platform. It just shows me that you can really be relevant well into your 80s. I’ve got about 50 years on my timeline here. So I think we can do some real damage.

TM: I think at first you have to partner with studios but they’re doing everything in-house at some point.

TB: Yeah most definitely. Yeah. We’re really trying to build Disney so it’s like if you look at where Disney started, you find your area of strength, you build upon that and you move to your next area of strength you build upon that. And as long as you’re not trying to exit in seven years. Yeah it’s like you can actually build something and because you know my last company was so successful I have the capital to see this through.

TM: So I know Fred [Paik], on behalf of Impact Theory, had kind of emailed artist alley. How’s that been going?

TB: Amazingly well but it tastes consistency. So the fact that starting in Seattle you’ve got three weekends in a row with the same people. It’s really extraordinary. And learning to network, which is not my strength, has been just invaluable. And so anybody listening to this and wants to build something, I get it. I started super flatfooted. I mean if you go back to when I started in New York, I was really flatfooted. And now getting into comics. Nobody took me seriously. My last brand was a nutrition company. People were like, “The nutrition guy getting into comics doesn’t make any sense. Fuck that guy. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

But when you put out the book and it’s fucking rock quality, there’s nothing left to say. Read the book either you think it’s awesome or you don’t. I mean so I don’t need anybody to do anything other than turn the pages and be like whoa this speaks for itself. So getting good. Getting so good you can’t be ignored is always the answer. And so that’s been my strategy. And then to your point about you know reaching out to artists. Being there weekend after weekend letting them get to know you. Letting them see the quality that you put out letting them see your face over and over and over supporting their work. Being a champion for what they do. Showing them that you really understand who they are as a creator and that you like what they do it’s like. Man. Just be consistent. You’ll be shocked.

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