I’ve covered the Lesbians Who Tech Summit twice now, and each time I got to meet the fabulous Allie Esslinger. Aside from being a generally wonderful and wonderfully nerdy person, she’s also the co-founder and CEO of Section II — a sort of Netflix with just lesbian/queer women’s content. LBTQ. None o’ that “G” up in here. You heard right. It’s an entire website dedicated to films that reflect our bit of the rainbow. If that wasn’t cool enough to catch up with Allie for an interview for Queer Your Tech, then you should also know that her business cards are indie films reworked to include queer lady protagonists. I have a really cute one that’s Garden State, except real gay. She’s awesome, y’all.
Hey Allie! Nice name! Let’s get right down to it — why did you choose to start Section II?
I grew up in Alabama — which is home to the only ABC affiliate that did not air Ellen’s coming out episode in 1997. It took me a long time to understand myself in the context of the larger world because I didn’t have access to it. The time has come that there’s no reason that should be the case for anyone anymore. And the progress of technology and content has created a world where lack of access is something we can fix. Section II of the Motion Picture Production Code outlawed homosexuality on screen until 1968. We are reclaiming our namesake and starting a new narrative for queer women on screen.
Do you have a background in the tech startup industry? If not, how did you find your way into owning a startup?
I come from the content side of things, but I’ve had experience as a producer and an editor working at major content startups like Maker Studios and Major League Gaming. Being a film producer is a lot like being an entrepreneur — a lot of creative thinking and troubleshooting — but the start-up world is new to me. We were lucky to participate in the Dogfish Accelerator program, which is a film accelerator based on the Techstars model. It not only gave us a huge insight into new distribution models and a large network of Industry mentors, but it also gave us a crash course in lean start-up ideas and great basic tech mentalities that have helped us develop the business model quickly and efficiently. Techstars is the most famous accelerator program. Companies apply to the program and, if chosen, go into a 3-month acceleration phase where they meet with mentors that Techstars collaborates with and pairs them with in order to drive progress. TechStars takes an equity stake in the company in exchange for some seed funding to allow the founders to focus 100% on the company throughout the program. Dogfish took this model and tried to apply it to the film world — content creators and innovators looking to advance distribution models or financing options, etc. We received $18,000 in seed financing to incorporate the company, build the beta version of the website and shoot the Julie Goldman special. They receive 8% of our revenue for the first 5 years of operations.
So I hear you talking a little bit about how the tech industry can advance the film world. How can technology put control of our narratives in the hands of queer people?
The advances in technology on the production side have empowered filmmakers with very accessible tools for creating content. It’s cheaper than ever to put together a team and gear and go shoot something. It’s becoming a more agile craft.
Technology has also given distributors, like Section II, a chance to approach content dissemination more creatively. We can make it available throughout the production process. We can stay engaged with fans from crowd-funding through a theatrical release. We can invite people along for the ride as part of the team.
There is a lot of opportunity right now to re-define how people receive and consume content. And technology will continue to play a large role. It will continue to evolve and, as a distribution company, we are tasked with making it the best possible experience for both content creators and content consumers. And that’s what keeps us fired up — with LBTQ content specifically, we have a unique point of view as people who enjoy making and watching this content. It lets us be allies to the producers and the consumers.
What advice do you have for queer women if they want to dive into startup culture?
Start-up culture is odd. There’s a lot that I struggle with — it’s not something particularly designed for anyone who isn’t already privileged. It’s hard to go into it without a safety net. There’s a certain element of romanticizing struggle that is hard to internalize as a woman, a queer woman, and/or a woman of color. But it’s so important to have innovation coming out of all backgrounds and perspectives. Otherwise it doesn’t serve all backgrounds and perspectives.
I give myself epic pep talks every morning because it’s sometimes really hard to deal with all the odds that are not in our favor as a company working at the intersection of two well-defined sectors like tech and content.
But I’ve been lucky to find female mentors and peers that are encouraging and can understand the frustrations and the hurdles. My best advice is to look for confidantes — ask for the help you need and also ask for opinions about the help you need from other people. Be open to feedback. And apply what makes the most sense to your ultimate vision.
About finding female mentors and peers — that’s sometimes hard in an industry where we’re often so invisible. Where have you looked for your mentors? What kind of successes have you had?
I have found women with experience in both film and tech who have taken meetings from cold calls, offered advice over coffee, and helped shape my pitch and my documents. Emily Best, CEO of Seed&Spark has been especially helpful — her entire team has been a network of support and encouragement. She is about 2 years ahead of us as a company, and having someone with similar experiences to bounce ideas off of is invaluable.
The biggest thing is know who you admire and figure out how to get on her radar. Ask for what you need. It’s the only way to expect someone to know how to help. I’m a firm believer in cold calls and persistent follow-up. Until you get a no, just put yourself out there and ask for help.
What does the idea of more startups being owned by queer women/lesbians mean for women in technology?
I hope that as we are able to start new companies and increase our numbers within the overall community, we will realize that there’s no harm in helping each other. Right now, I think we live in a world where there’s fear of a certain allotment of slots for women, for queer women. And that we’re competing with each other all the time to be the ultimate queer woman in tech. But that’s outdated. We can always make new spots for people, and that’s what we should be doing.
How is Section II working toward ending the gender gap in tech startup culture?
Section II is probably the only company where it’s progressive to hire straight white guys as part of the culture of diversity. And my partner Matt is of that category.
But we are so excited to be working with such talented content creators from across the LBTQ spectrum and applying their outlook and their skill sets to our model and our company culture. We are thrilled to have so many talented women on our team and benefit from the alchemy of all these different perspectives plotting towards #BetterRepresentation of LBTQ women in pop culture.
A Benefit Corporation is a new business model that is a for-profit company with a Public Benefit Mandate written into its bylaws. Our mandate is for #BetterRepresentation of LBTQ women in pop culture. We’re a double-bottom line company. Our focus is on revenue but we aren’t willing to sacrifice the founding principles — like increased quantity and quality of content — to achieve our goals.
We are not a nonprofit and it makes it very hard to raise money for content and for the start-up itself. But I think it’s important for there to be LGBT/LBTQ companies — for-profit and for good. We can’t assume that we only deserve charity within our community.
So speaking of raising money, tell me about this non-kickstarter you’re doing on this new platform?
We are fundraising on a new crowd funding platform called Seed&Spark. It’s a platform that allows us to break down our budget so that people can donate based on the items on our wish list or based on the incentives that we’ve compiled as tokens of our appreciation. We are raising money in order to upgrade our website and begin creating original content. Our beta site is live now, and you can go rent or buy features, shorts, and series right now. But we want to transition to a subscription model, which will allow our customers to watch as much content as they’d like and allow us to begin building out our slate of originals with content creators seeking funding.
We are so close to realizing our dreams of facilitating content creation and distribution. Things are changing in the entertainment industry, and we have the chance, as the LBTQ community, to lead the charge and create models that can be replicated throughout the indie film industry. We are a loyal, engaged market. And we can improve content systems across the spectrum. Right now is the time for technology and content to merge together and foster creativity as the next step in the fight for equality.
What are your eventual goals for Section II?
We have the opportunity to create content at a pace that’s never been attempted and deliver to an audience that’s never had the chance to consume its fair share. We want to build a destination platform for filmmakers and film lovers that showcases and contextualizes LBTQ content from throughout history. We want to set off across the country for a series of conversations at LGBT Centers and Museums around the country so that we can meet as many people as possible and understand exactly what they want out of the next wave of queer content. We want to create content in this first year across genres and formats that we can release on SectionII.com and build an audience that will allow us to begin financing features by 2015. We want to apply supply-and-demand to our underserved niche market so that production financing becomes easier for filmmakers and so that we can acquire content from festivals and filmmakers and make it available online and theatrically. We want to be a “Netflix for LBTQ Content” with original content as exciting and compelling as Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. And we’re so close.
Allie Esslinger has a couple of cool things for y’all Autostraddle readers — the first is that you can watch Julie Goldman’s comedy special, Lady Gentleman, for totally free. Just click here and use the PromoCode ItJustGotBetter. And over on their Seed&Spark page, Allie also made Autostraddle readers a very special incentive — a buy-one-get-one-free month of their Spotlight Series for $15 (delivered in August and September). Head on over and help Section II realize the very worthy goal of original queer women’s content! I know I am.
This has been the eighty-fifth installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to favorite to any other fun shit we can do with technology.Header by Rory Midhani