How Chris Hardwick Turned His Frustration into a Media Empire
When comedian and television host Chris Hardwick leaped into entrepreneurship several years ago to build what is now geek media company Nerdist Industries, it felt like second nature.
“Inherently, standups are entrepreneurial,” he tells Fortune in a phone interview on a busy Saturday. Much like traditional entrepreneurs, standup comedians interact directly with their audience—the customers—and rely on themselves to achieve success, he explains.
Today, Hardwick, who’s been in the entertainment business for more than two decades and whose resume includes everything from hosting television and radio shows, to standup comedy, is the chief executive officer of his media company, Nerdist Industries. Thanks to a loyal following built over a few years, especially thanks to the Nerdist Podcast, Hardwick sold the company to Legendary Entertainment in 2012.
But the story of Nerdist goes back to 2007, a time during which Hardwick says he was essentially not working and in need of direction for his career and life. According to him, he woke up one morning, and decided he finally wanted to channel his life-long interests in science, technology, and all things geek into his work.
“I had zero career prospects and I was waking up in the middle of the night with the crushing foot of the universe on my chest,” he recalls. “I had been emotionally crapping my pants for a while.”
To get his career back on track, Hardwick told his manager he was only interested in jobs related to science, technology, or otherwise “nerd” topics—areas of interest his parents supported and helped him nourish while he was growing up. First up, was a job hosting a video show for Wired and PBS.
Though his company is best-known for the Nerdist Podcast, which today has almost 800 episodes and garners 6.9 million monthly downloads, the first Nerdist-branded project was actually a reimagining of the professional websites he saw from other entertainers. They usually contained information important to their fans, like tour dates and locations, but Hardwick found them boring and static, and failing to keep fans coming constantly coming back.
At that time, Hardwick had already spent roughly a year in his newfound career as a science and technology video host and writer, and was gaining a growing appreciation and understanding for digital media. So he decided to build a website where he could collect all of his work for other companies about geeky topics, and where his fans could continuously find new content from him.
“Somehow, ‘Nerdist’ was available on all Internet places,” says Hardwick as he remembers his surprise that he could register the brand name on all digital platforms, from the web domain to the Twitter handle.
Two years later came the Nerdist Podcast, his company’s crown jewel, which was born out of a yearning that is all too familiar to most entrepreneurs: to gain control over his professional destiny.
As Hardwick tells it, in 2010 he came once again face-to-face with the lack of control many entertainers have over their careers when they lose out on jobs or projects fall through. Hardwick had been looking forward to taking over the hosting duties of a television show on E!, one he says he was perfect for, but last-minute changes left him without the gig, devastated, and frustrated. To cope, he decided to create his podcast, something he could do himself and that would be entirely under his direction (at the time).
“It’s going to be mine, and no one can tell me what to do with it,” he laughs, recalling how he felt when he decided to start recording his own podcast. “A lot of the things I’ve done are a result of frustration with the business,” he adds.
Even in those years, from 2007 to 2010, content for niche audiences was thought of as limited because it had a small audience. Those potential fans were negligible because there were so few of them, he explains. But Hardwick stuck with his interests—and his fans.
Since then, Hardwick has grown Nerdist into a small media empire, which now includes a variety of podcasts, videos, online articles, and even events, and over the years he’s inked deals with the likes of AMC, among many others. In 2011, Hardwick published The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life), and his company merged with geek newsletter publisher GeekChicDaily. The following year, he struck a deal with Legendary Entertainment and sold the company. He’s since also partnered Puny, an interactive entertainment company, whose series Danger & Eggs was recently picked up by Amazon, and continues to host and produce television shows on major cable networks.
Though Nerdist is quite unique in the topics and interests it covers, a growing number of celebrities and entertainers are using similar approaches when it comes to their own business ventures. Kim Kardashian, for example, has harnessed her fans’ enthusiasm through social media, releasing a video game and mobile app that lets them role play and consume even more content she produces. Another fellow entertainer, Chelsea Handler, recently co-designed a mobile app that lets users set up notifications for fake excuses as part of a documentary she filmed for Netflix. The app her co-creators describe its function as solving “a very Chelsea Handler problem.”
“I used to think that a company had to come along and hire me,” he says of the many years he spent working in entertainment before changing his tune. “To me, success is being happy doing what you’re doing.”
The story has been updated to clarify that Hardwick is not a founder of Puny.
This profile is part of “The Fortune Entrepreneurs” list. See the full package here.