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John Hendricks: The ‘Discovery’ Man

Gloria McDonough-Taub
Off the Cuff

John Hendricks is a curious man whose lifelong pursuit for answers led him from being a history major to making history.

Hendricks is the founder and Executive Chairman of Discovery Communications, the world's number one nonfiction media company seen in more than 220 countries and territories with more than two billion cumulative subscribers.

Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, the cable giant encompasses 190 networks including Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Science, Investigation Discovery and the Oprah Winfrey Network, and has a market value of roughly $28 billion.

But as with any discovery, there were some obstacles along the way.

“We all make mistakes and one of the ones that I made was to push our company into retail.”

Hendricks pushed his media company to buy the Nature Stores, a national retail chain based in Berkeley, California and in more than 160 malls across the country. It was a big investment and a big risk. And it failed.

“Ultimately we decided that bricks and mortar wasn't going to be our path to commerce. So we closed the stores down.” Hendricks says the company learned a lot from that failure. "All the products, the merchandising that people told us they wanted through their store purchases, Discovery put on its new online stores.”

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Venturing into the unknown is risky business often wrought with setbacks and failures.

“We kind of even celebrate failures. We're convinced as an organization if you don't take risk, if you don't take the big swings, you're not going have any successes.”

Hendricks took a big swing when he pushed the company to launch a new network with only one stream of revenue.

“I was so enthusiastic about the potential for advertising for Health Channel, that we launched that channel with just the advertising revenue as a potential, but not the license fee support and that was a critical mistake.”

Two years later, Hendricks said he knew the business plan wasn’t working and he had to admit to that mistake.

That mistake gave way to another opportunity; a partnership with the queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey.

In 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Network made its debut in 77 million homes on what had been the Health Channel. It was a bumpy start. The talk show queen’s loyal audience didn’t follow her and the network didn’t turn a profit as quickly as hoped, but in 2013, OWN finally turned a profit and its ratings have been steadily climbing.

“I've always been convinced that if an organization has two, three or four major successes, it means they've gone through and learned from five, seven or eight failures. So we think failures are a sign of a good risk-taking organization.”

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Now at 61, Hendricks has just written a book, “A Curious Discovery: An Entrepreneur’s Story,” in which he details his journey. Looking back he can see the mistakes he has made and the mistakes he sees too often in other entrepreneurs.

“Some entrepreneurs hang on too long and they don't have the skillset to manage a large enterprise.”

Hendricks advice, “every entrepreneur to be successful has to learn to trust.” He says trusting allows an entrepreneur to attract quality people who can carry out the mission of the organization and all the operational details to help make a stronger company – one that’s better prepared to grow.

Ever the curious one, Hendricks likes dreaming about new frontiers especially those in the world of media. Looking into the future he sees a “television revolution” where the viewer is in total control of whatever screen he or she is watching.

So what does this curious man watch?

“I love the big budget nature extravaganzas that we've done, like Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and we've just recently completed and aired North America. They're so difficult. They're long, five years in the making and very expensive. But, when you pull it off and you show people things they've never seen, they feel a kind of gratitude towards your brand. I think that's what happens for people around the world, they kind of thank us as they're watching it.”

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