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Posts Tagged ‘StartUp’

STARTING A COMPANY VS. RUNNING A COMPANY

Once his podcast company Gimlet Media was up and running CEO Alex Blumberg realized there was a difference between starting a company and running a company. It’s almost like finishing a marathon and the next day starting an ironman race. Much endurance and stamina is needed.

Running a startup business is not a 9-5 job. The wild success of the Serial podcast developed by Blumberg’s former employer This American Life brought new respect to podcasting and raised the production bar.

Gimlet Media started with two podcasts (StartUp and Reply All) and it became clear listening to season one of the StartUp podcast that all employees were pushing themselves to exhaustion. PJ Vogt, one of the hosts of Reply All, said seriously “I don’t need to have a personal life this year.” His co-host Alex Goldman added, “We cannot keep the pace of going the way we’re going.”

Investors were pushing for growth. More shows, more advertising revenue. More advertising revenue, the more the company was worth. Remember “moderate growth is enemy.” Mistakes are also the enemy of any startup. Part of their small team of people included some who were young and inexperienced. “Mistakes want to get made,” Blumberg said reflecting on an early blunder.

Within the first year of its launch Gimlet Media had viewership 10 times what was projected. They were pioneering native advertising where the advertising looks and feels like the non-advertising content that surrounds it.

But this got Gimlet Media caught it what Blumberg called “the wrong side of native advertising” when the mother of a 9-year-old they interviewed thought her son was being interviewed for This American Life instead of an advertising spot for Squarespace. A Tweetstorm ensued with comments aimed at Gimlet, “When we blur the lines between marketing and journalism to the point of where people are misinformed that’s just lying.”

Gimlet has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and prides itself on transparency. So they owned their mistake and gave a public apology, and it led to a clarification of their native advertising policy which you can find on their website. No one said starting a company with a small group of people was going to be easy. (To see native advertising done correctly see the Open for Business work Gimlet’s creative team did for ebay.)

Related posts:
Power Your Podcasts with Storytelling (Part 1)
Power Your Podcasts with Storytelling (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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Note: This is part two of a look at how radio producer/podcaster Alex Blumberg raised money to start Gimlet Media in 2014. Most of the material in these posts came from listening to the first season of Gimlet Media’s podcast StartUp.

In the episode How Not to Pitch a Billionaire, venture capitalist Chris Sacca tells Alex Blumberg that he’s missing FOMO—Fear of missing out. “Once you have FOMO on your side,” said Sacca, ” you no longer have to ask people for money.”  There comes a point when you are seeking funds where you’re gaining attention from inventors who don’t want to miss out on something that appears to be a big moneymaker. Sometimes at this point investors seek you out rather than you going door knocking.  It’s very clear that when Gimlet started out it lacked FOMO.

The problem was that podcasting had been around since 2004 and no longer felt like the new kid on the block when Blumberg went around pitching his company that he originally called the American Podcasting Corporation. And there didn’t seem to be a public organization that was bringing in major dollars through podcasting.

Sacca explained to Blumberg and Lieber, “It’s difficult to see this as a venture scale business based on what you guys have said. For me to think of this as a venture scale $100 million plus opportunity I would want to see that acquisition model proven out a little bit. Like cost this much to produce a show, X-percent of shows are hits, it’s this much value to listeners, these are the ways to acquire listeners and blended acquisition cost is X, and more or less I know what that looks like and here’s how we scale it in order for me to want to participate.”

Basically what Sacca was saying that he wasn’t interesting in creating a lifestyle business that provided a few people jobs to produce quality shows and perhaps brought him a little return on his investment. Venture capitalists like him want a path to potential earnings that just don’t double their money, but that 10X their investments. Moderate growth in his circle is seen as the enemy.  They want exponential growth. And ideally they like to see that return in 3 or 4 years, not 10 years down the road. And the most likely way for that to happen is for a Disney or a Yahoo! to buy Gimlet Media.

While Blumberg admits that he doesn’t have the drive of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, he’s not quite content with just seeking a lifestyle company. Otherwise he wouldn’t have left a secure producer position at NPR with salary and benefits to set out on his own. A direction full of the unknown. (But I do sense that if Blumberg did sell his company to Disney or Yahoo! in five or ten years that he’d be content to take his millions and create one quality podcast in his basement with a small team of people.)

But in 2014 as he recorded the StartUp podcast, it’s also clear that he had a little fire in his belly to swing for the fences. And fortunately he discovers that not all investors are looking for huge returns. There are other investors in the sea.  Investors that just get on board with your vision, or because podcasting seems like fun in a way that most investments are aren’t. And one investor tells Blumberg that he’ll invest based on his NPR pedigree.

We’ll look at that pedigree in tomorrow’s post.

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m just one guy with a stupid little plan…I don’t know what the F**k I’m doing.”
Alex Blumberg (recording himself at the early stages of starting his company)
CEO, Gimlet Media

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Gimlet Media Founders Matt Lieber & Alex Blumberg

For a guy who admits he didn’t know what he was doing just three years ago, what Alex Blumberg has pulled off is remarkable. And thankfully he’s an audio producer (with an NPR background) so he recorded his journey to share the path he took to becoming a media mogul in the making.

I first listened to the startup podcast StartUp (season 1) when it was released in 2014. I found it interesting, as Blumberg’s podcast was not just about a business startup—but his business startup company.

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After a long career in public radio crafting shows for This American Life and Planet Money, Blumberg decided to launch out on his own.  Because he was reporting on himself it gave a unique perspective on the bold dreams, doubts, and fears that go along with starting any business.

And while the podcast was interesting in 2014, it’s even more enjoyable in 2017 now that podcasting in general and Gimlet Media specifically has flourished.

Their website says “Gimlet Media is the award-winning narrative podcasting company that aims to help listeners better understand the world and each other.” Informally they’ve been referred to as “The HBO of podcasting,” but they’re still a relatively small (in the global media market) company finding their way.

Gimlet itself now has 8 shows which average seven million downloads per month from listeners in almost to 200 countries:

Every Little Thing

Reply All

Crimetown (currently #27 on the iTunes chart of US Podcasts)

Startup

Science Vs

Homecoming

Heavyweight

Twice Removed

Undone

But back when Blumberg started his yet to be named company in 2014 it was just himself and no shows.  So to listen how the company started is both entertaining and informative as he, and his eventual partner Matt Lieber, talk about the risks and roadblocks they hit along the way to realizing their vision.

In show one Blumberg talks to venture capitalist (VC) Chris Sacca who was an early investor in Twitter, Uber, and Instagram, but admits that he’s not a perfect investor as he missed out on investing with Airbnb and Drop Box when they were startups.

Sacca asks Blumberg what is his unfair advantage. What does he have that others don’t? Blumberg says, “I knew it was an important question. But one I didn’t know how to answer.” Just listening to Sacca ask questions is a lesson in VC lingo.

Tomorrow in Gimlet Media we’ll look at FOMO—Fear of missing out. But that question—”What’s your unfair advantage?”—is a darn good question to ask in many situations.

P.S. Because this blog is also about a sense of place, one of the things I like about podcasting is they can focus on telling stories/reporting from places often off the media radar. Gimlets’s Crimetown is a look a shady politics and organized crime that once ruled Providence, Rhode Island. And S-Town (which debuted at #1 on the iTunes chart back in March) is a podcast that takes place in the rural south, in and around Woodstock, Alabama.

Scott W. Smith

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“Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”
Audio journalist Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg is a rock star. At least a rock star in finding authentic emotions.

Between Thursday and Sunday night I caught chunks of Blumberg’s live (and then rebroadcast) CreativeLive seminar Power Your Podcast with Storytelling and was enthralled with what he pulled off with the help of his class.

Don’t get caught up in the podcast part of his title if that’s not your thing, but focus on the storytelling aspect. While Blumberg’s background includes producing for NPR’s This American Life and most recently the podcast StartUp, his ability to talk storytelling was not only informative but moving.

In my last post, I covered some of the nuts and blots I took away from the sections of the talks I heard. Today I’ll fill in a little bit why I think it was one of the top creative seminars I’ve ever seen. (It was no surprise when I later found out that it is the same material that Blumberg presents when he teaches at Columbia University.)

While my last post mentioned the pre-interview process Blumberg did (with San Francisco-based artist Ann Rea), over the weekend I caught the full interview 90 minute he did with Rea and it was 100% engaging.

If you can, buy the $99 class just to salute Blumberg’s and Rea’s gamble and boldness. (A heck of a lot cheaper than taking it at Columbia.) I’ll try here to synopsize what made it special. Though this was meant to be a NPR-like radio program, I swear you could at least write a Lifetime movie script as you listen to Rea’s life story unfold.

What made it such a powerful tag team effort was the framework of questions that Blumberg asked and Rea’s honest answers. You could say the structure broke down into four acts. (I’m flying from my notes so some of the actual details may be a little off.)

1) The desire for Rea to paint at a young age, and the early support she got from her artistic talent. She won a scholarship to art school where she was an Industrial Design major. After graduating she moved to Dayton, Ohio and expectations for an artistic career fell away with the reality that student loans needed paid. (Downbeat)

2) But while in Dayton she met a man who would change her life. She met him the day she moved into her apartment and thought, “He’s my neighbor? Nice.” They got married and eventually dreamed about a life beyond the Midwest and agreed on trying the California dream. He landed a job in San Francisco and they took their goldfish and drove west. Life was full of positive expectations. (Upbeat)

3) The San Fran dream faded when his job was actually in Sacramento and they eventually settled in the suburb of Elk Grove where she spent years working various cubicle jobs with no satisfaction or artistic expression. Financial and marital problems followed until she decided for her own physical safety it was time to leave her marriage. She’d be starting over as their savings were depleted. (Double Downbeat)

4)  She started to paint again and as she talked about that process it reminded me of that line in Jerry Maguire where he’s writing his mission statement and says, “Suddenly, I was my father’s son again.” Rea wrote a business plan because she didn’t want to just paint—she wanted to make a living painting. In her first year as a full time painter she made more than she’d ever made before, and continues to grow her business. And now she helps others turn their artistic efforts into profit. (Double Upbeat)

What you don’t get from my overview is the authentic emotions that were tapped into—in real time over the course of the interview. The laughter and joy of their trip west, the pain of finding out her husband was a closet alcoholic, and the tears of rediscovering her artistic talents—of finding new life.

As a bonus at the end of the second day of the workshop, Blumberg played some edited clips from the interview thereby completing the whole creative process of showing pre-production, production, and post-production.

There were many valuable takeaways for any storyteller. Perhaps none more valuable than asking a question and shutting up. Just letting the person you’re interviewing give raw and honest answers as they tell their story. That’s how you capture the magic—how you find authentic emotions.

You can listen to the edited interview here.

And you can follow Blumberg on Twitter @alexblumberg.

P.S. I promise you I don’t make a penny from talking about CreativeLive (or Lynda.com or KelbyOne training) but it turns out Ann Rea has a class on CreativeLive called Make Money Making Art. I have not seen that, but based on her interview with Blumberg it’s worth at least checking out.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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