Animal Planet was so last decade. This San Diego startup takes a millennial spin on nature content


Two wildlife filmmakers are launching a tech startup in San Diego in an attempt to update a Hollywood genre that they say hasn’t kept up with Silicon Valley’s warp speed: nature programming.

The startup, called Mammalz, aims to bring raw nature into our daily lives in a more modern way than television and full-length feature films. Founders Rob Whitehair and Alex Finden — both recent San Diego transplants — are creating an online social hub for seasoned filmmakers and other wildlife content creators. The site will be a social media-like platform where artists can livestream nature content from wild locales, share creative short films, air podcasts or upload tiny snapshots of their adventures.

The web and mobile app serve two big functions: Give wildlife filmmakers a place they can make money, and offer the public a way to re-engage with the natural world around them. Users and content creators can use the platform to form communities around things like birding, diving and other niche topics.

Thanks to the founders’ industry connections, the startup has already signed on roughly 200 wildlife filmmakers, photographers and other natural world content creators.

The company, founded in 2018, recently received $250,000 in seed funding, including an investment from a tech incubator in Washington D.C. called KiwiTech. The incubator partnered with Mammalz, assigning a team of its developers to bring the startup’s product to life.

Whitehair, Mammalz’s co-founder and CEO, said he wants to “democratize the nature media industry,” opening up the gates to creators around the globe.

It’s a radical idea for several reasons, not the least of which is the company’s competition.

Network giants

Nature network giants like Animal Planet and National Geographic have long served as portals to the wild, connecting our living rooms with oceans, deserts and jungles around the globe. But as cable television falls out of style (supplanted by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu), those networks are scrambling to capture the attention of younger generations. They’ve created YouTube channels and other social media accounts, joining the rest of Hollywood online.

Although legacy network giants have amassed millions of followers on these platforms, Whitehair said the money is not coming back to the filmmakers. Whitehair should know, as the 52-year-old filmmaker has been creating films for nature networks for two decades. Whitehair’s camera work appears in productions for National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, PBS, and international broadcasters, as well as many feature documentaries. He’s been the host of a PBS television series about wildlife films and personally created several wildlife documentaries, including “Hollywood Fox” in 2006.

But for career filmmakers like Whitehair, the more lucrative TV contracts have dried up as cord cutting proliferates. As a result, talented videographers are striking out on their own, uploading their work to random platforms and hoping to gain followings as solo creators.

“When I started doing business, it was the golden age of wildlife films,” Whitehair said. “But then (the industry) just started crashing for a variety of reasons. It was clear to me that something had to change.”

Whitehair met his young co-founder, Finden, 27, on a wildlife project in Montana. Equipped with two degrees — one in biology and another in electronic media and film — Finden had struggled to break into the shrinking industry.

A generation apart, Finden and Whitehair decided to start a company together, leveraging Finden’s experience on younger platforms like Twitch and YouTube, while Whitehair brought industry maturity and skill to the table.

The market

Wildlife and nature content is already shared online, of course, through existing platforms like YouTube and Facebook. But these platforms use algorithms to sort and recommend content in a way that Finden thinks is flawed.

“The algorithms you get on generalist platforms like YouTube are not accurate enough to take advantage of niche communities,” Finden said. “And while there are some communities on YouTube around specific creators, you can’t socialize very readily. You have to use other social platforms to create the network.”

The duo thinks nature lovers are abundant enough to warrant their own social network, with the functionality of several popular platforms combined. They point to previous successes like the multi-billion dollar online hub Twitch, whose rise to stardom was built on the mega-population of video gamers who were underserved from older platforms. Finden said he hopes Mammalz can be the “Twitch for nature lovers,” mimicking most of the tech giant’s strategies for community building and monetization. The main ways to make money include taking a cut of tips and donations made directly to creators (the Patreon model), and targeted advertising.

And it turns out that nature enthusiasts are more common than you might think. Over 400 million people worldwide under the age of 45 have identified nature as a top three interest, according to Facebook Analytics and Audience Insights. Birders alone make up a sizable population, counting 60 million among them. And in 2017, a government survey found that 40 percent of Americans aged 16 or older participated in wildlife-related activities the year prior, such as hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching.

The proliferation of technology has intensified the need to reconnect with nature, Finden said, as he believes a gap has started to form between the youth and the natural world.

The co-founders see Mammalz as a platform that could entertain and educate. But the startup has some challenges ahead.

The challenges

Starting a social media platform can be expensive. Even in the days of cloud computing, it will probably cost Mammalz a good chunk of money to support high-quality video streaming for users. And if the app gets tons of traffic, they need to be able to support it — not crash under pressure, which Finden said is the “kiss of death” for a new app.

Finden said this is part of the reason the startup is raising money. It just opened a new fundraising round this month, hoping to attract $1 million from investors.

The other significant cost ahead is building the community of creators and viewers.

“Community building is the challenge for any new marketplace,” said Brian Solis, a tech analyst at San Francisco’s Altimeter Group, which researches trends in social media. “You have to build the community at scale where both sides feel valued.”

Solis happens to know the founders of Twitch and was a close observer to the company’s transformation from early days to it’s $970 million sale to Amazon in 2014.

Like Twitch, he said Mammalz would probably have a tough road ahead when it comes to growing their audience fast enough to be meaningful to both sides. But niche communities are hot right now, he said, as many people are turning away from “broad, all-purpose” social media platforms.

In the end, Solis said he’s not quick to reject startup ideas these days.

“Nothing is impossible,” Solis said. “The best ideas and the worst ideas sound equally ridiculous in the beginning.”

Mammalz’s beta launch is scheduled for later this summer.