Sarah Harden is the CEO of Hello Sunshine, a media brand anchored in storytelling, with a mission to change the narrative for women. Alongside founder Reese Witherspoon, Harden leads Hello Sunshine's rapid growth as a premium content studio and direct-to-consumer media brand, developing scripted and unscripted television series, films, kids and animation series, short-form storytelling, audio content and more. In 2020 Hello Sunshine productions were nominated for 18 Emmys, and the company was awarded #2 Most Innovative Company in Media by FastCompany. Hello Sunshine is also home to Reese's Book Club - fast-growing in reach & influence - that shines a light on the stories of diverse narratives from a female perspective.
Prior to her time with Hello Sunshine, Harden was President of Otter Media, a privately held joint venture between AT&T and The Chernin Group. She also spent ten years at News Corp/Fox, serving as Group Director at News Corp Asia, where she oversaw growth initiatives in the region based in Hong Kong. Additionally, she served as SVP of Business Development for Fox Networks Group in Los Angeles and was co-founder of Linkscape Software based in San Francisco. In her interview, Harden shares what makes Hello Sunshine such a success.
Can you share a little more about your background and how it led to the role at Hello Sunshine
I mean, it's funny because if you look back, none of it was pre-planned though it seems like a through-line narrative. But I came to the US on an Australian government scholarship to go to business school, and I came out of business school intrigued about the intersection of tech and media. I graduated in 1999 and I've been at that intersection in different ways and working in entrepreneurial kind of environments ever since.
At Otter Media, we worked with founders building brands that held real meaning for their consumers. For example, Crunchyroll, a big subscription global anime brand, is also a male-centric comedy gaming company. We spent a lot of time talking about the female equivalent. There was a white space there. When I met Reese Witherspoon, she also saw that whitespace. She saw these emerging creators, and it was frustrating not to be able to work with them. She wanted to build a company with real mission control. She wanted to work with voices that have been structurally silenced - women, people of color and LGBTQIA.
Conventional (movie industry) wisdom says women-focused stories aren't big business. Knowing what you were up against, how did you go about building a real growth business?
I mean, you just summed it up. One of the things I love about Reese is she knows that conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong. She went out to studio heads who said one movie with a woman at the center was enough. It reflects bias in conventional wisdom. There is a mold that needs to be broken.
Right from the start, we set out to build a media brand with a premium content studio at the center because that's what Reese could get us rolling in quickly and distinctively. Those first choices were really important. We wanted to build for advantage. One of our driving beliefs was that it's not enough to just create content in a crowded landscape, we had to take responsibility for helping the audience show up. That’s when we focused on Reese's Book Club. Our goal was to build a brand, so we spent time developing a brand story that was a curated expression of our mission. Everything we did was a brick in our brand story.
Our goal was to build a brand, so we spent time developing a brand story that was a curated expression of our mission. Everything we did was a brick in our brand story.
What sets Reese apart from the other celebrities that have started production businesses?
She is so clear about the why, and that has set the tone for the company. It's not about her. Hello Sunshine was born of frustration and of the desire to create a company with goals that helped not just her but everyone in our industry. She also wanted to do it in a very open-armed way. She's very collaborative, and she wants to leave this industry better than she found it. The mission drives everything and no one is more important than the mission.
You recently sold Hello Sunshine for $900 million, a record breaking valuation. How did you build up to that in terms of driving value into the business?
We go out there, and we tell our story. Our story is about the type of company we're building and the distinctiveness of how we're building it. Plus, a set of hard-nosed financials. Our business has had a lot of visibility over the last two or three years - our flywheel is working right. We have a very specific story about a category-defining women's media brand with a premium content studio right in its center. Then we talk about our flywheel, which is tentpoling Reese's Book Club reads. Reese picks about 12 books a year, and two or three of those we try to turn into film or television shows.
We only do a few things, so when we do something, we are all in. That means we bring our social shooters to set. We're feeding our social handles. We're feeding our talent's socials. We're bringing brand integrations to offset the budget in some cases. We are bringing all of our company's assets. That positions us as a real partner of choice because not only are we going to bring you a series, we're going to bring you a real qualified audience to the launch of that series.
Which storytelling mediums do you see yourself using in the future?
We love book-to-screen adaptations, so more of that. Also, the promise of unscripted television is exciting. When you are able to link storytelling with consumer engagement, it makes a great show. Take Making the Cut, a fashion competition show. The fact that you can buy the winning look right at the end and then a week later see it on social media is inspiring. It's not about selling clothes; it's about making that whole experience more engaging. We are trying to use that experience to build brand love.
The last thing I'll say is, when we launched the book club we knew we had to be digitally native. The club is so important culturally for women when you look at it. The history of it is also interesting. You're inviting semi-strangers into your home, and what brings you together is the book. With Reese's Club we are deepening the experience of that, and all of our profits from the book club efforts are going into our give-back programs to advance literacy by supporting libraries, independent bookstores and independent authors.
How do you anticipate your business model evolving?
There is more than one model. We are focused on the model in which we have experience. The companies I've built in the past were subscription-based premium monetization models. There are other ways, but this way gave us the biggest advantage.
The real focus is that Reese is a premium storyteller. So the questions were how do we build a brand around her that authentically represents her? And then how do we build a company out around that? Our model is just a particular thesis of a media company that we wanted to build. For us, it's about building a brand that stands for something. One that is mission-led and creates choices around how we work and who we work with.
When you sold, was there anything built into the deal or the ongoing governance that protected the purpose and mission?
I think we have been so intentional about the company we’ve built today. And we're equally intentional about condition setting - from the mission, to the board, governance, cap table, values, operating controls. It's all critical. And it has to be authentically threaded. We have great intentions, but if one of those things is off, we’ll be unable to execute with integrity around the mission.
We thought about that very carefully in the first quarter of the company and we'll think about that equally carefully in the next 5 to 10 years. We have to keep looking ahead and asking ourselves how we condition set for the next phase of this growth. These are the capabilities we’re putting in place to set us up.