There’s not a suit or a tie in sight on the 20th floor of Mike Sneesby’s Kent Street headquarters in Sydney. There is clean, barely furnished spaces and sweeping views over Darling Harbour, Western Sydney and to the Blue Mountains beyond.
Dressed in T-shirt and jeans, he sips Italian mineral water as he talks through his role in the revolution that has swept through the Australian television industry and transformed our viewing habits in three short years. Sneesby is about to fly off to LA for the annual screenings, where he will binge watch pilots and first episodes for the US programming that will go global in the coming year.
“You watch TV all day, then you usually go for a nice dinner with that same studio that evening to talk about the potential to acquire some of that content, so it does sound quite nice,” he said. “But it does get to be quite arduous over a full week. You are literally back to back.”
If Mike Sneesby, 44, seems relaxed about life, then he has good reason. Since he planned and launched Stan in January 2015, as a joint venture between Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment, it has seen off major local competitors. The service now has close to one million active users, revenue of more than $100 million a year, and is about to start production of some of the biggest local TV projects ever created, backing up a string of high profile international shows.
“The key driver of the growth in our business is our big first run exclusive television shows. This is what attracts new audiences before they start drilling down into our library,” he said. “They are the programs that subscribers subscribe to the platform for.
“It’s Billions is my guess, or it’s Unreal, or its Younger, Sweetbitter, Vida – that show creates the moment in time when they make that decision.”
While Netflix is the market leader, Sneesby is relaxed about remaining the local player with strong connections to Hollywood studios and the originator of big local productions. There’s room enough for both business models.
His success has not gone unnoticed. He regularly receives calls from the big digital players – major international tech companies – with offers of big jobs with big pay packets. For now, though, he wants to see through what he started and the financial reward for staying put is not insubstantial.
It’s all a long way from his first foray into the television industry, installing TV antennas and booster systems while he studied for his electrical engineering degree at the University of Wollongong.
As with many undergraduate students, there wasn’t a lot of conscious research put into his degree. His family had moved from Manly to Vincentia on the South Coast when Sneesby was four years old, where his father – an electrical engineer working for the Department of Defence – was in charge of testing naval sonar buoys at Jervis Bay.
His passion as a teenager was road cycling, a passion that he took with him to university, where he lived with a fellow cyclist in Market Street, Wollongong, and competed twice at the University Games.
“I was always someone who was quite an individual,” he said. “You see people who move onto campus and quickly form groups. I was very individual, balancing cycling training with university. “It was a great time of life but it was also one of the hardest times. You had enough money to pay your weekly rent, get your groceries, transport to uni, and maybe have a beer at the Unibar once in a while on a Thursday. You weren’t exactly flush.”
By the time he had finished in 1996, the internet (or Internet as it was then known) revolution had started, and he knew his ambition was to become the head of a tech company. He was ambitious, focused, talented and ideally positioned – born at the right time, and with the right skills for that time. He became the third generation of Sneesbys to work for the Department of Defence, before moving to consulting, then heading an Australian software start-up in the US.
In hindsight at least, the career trajectory appears both seamless and inevitable. While he no longer uses the complex mathematics that his degree taught him, he says it set him up perfectly for running a streaming television service – which is at least as much a tech and data company as an entertainment outfit.
And if asked to give a graduation address, what are the lessons the world has taught him?
“Be confident in what you have learned at university. Let your career teach you what you want to do and don’t be constrained by doing what others think you should do.
“Give yourself enough freedom and flexibility to move around in the early part of your career, because you need to do that in order to discover what you will do in the future.
“And you have to be passionate. You have to be passionate about what you do.”
Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical), 1996