Pete Cashmore has built a great website in Mashable. The front-page design is one of the most practical and innovative that I have seen. The editorial organization is credible, and the social strategy is extremely effective. But there’s one reason why I am not amongst his 3 million Twitter followers…
I have no desire to see Pete Cashmore’s smug face in my Twitter stream, since he has made @mashable all about himself. Considering that he does not write very many of Mashable’s articles, this is completely disingenuous and obnoxious.
Arianna Huffington gets similar plaudits for her contributions to HuffingtonPost. Clearly, she succeeded in bringing Washington DC power-brokers onto the front page, and her credibility was a great counter-balance to a lot of the great SEO tricks that they employed to foster growth. I actually think that HuffPo could have been a great site, had it not all been about Arianna.
Forget the fact that she is the one who pushed for the sell to AOL – that was a financial decision. But think about where the site could have gone if it still had the talents of Jonah Peretti. He has built something incredible at BuzzFeed, a site that could potentially become larger than HuffPo in the years to come. And, let’s face it, I don’t think that AOL has done much to improve HuffPo in the last year. Maybe her magic has worn off?
I understand the temptation to make a website all about the founder.
Millions of people come to Bleacher Report each day, I’m sure that if the website had been named GoldbergReport.com, I’d get invited to a lot more parties.
Perhaps, I would be in Time Magazine like Pete Cashmore (after I spent a few weeks at the gym, found an expensive stylist, and bought an Armani suit). Who knows, maybe I’d rub shoulders with Arianna at Davos or Sun Valley.
But, then again, associating a website with the founder is nothing less than an act of value decimation. Here’s why:
- One of the reasons why “blogs” are under-valued relative to most media properties is because they tend to be inseparable from their creators. This creates potential problems for the acquirers — who worry about retention — and spooks the VCs, who fear a scenario much like the Huffington Post example.
As somebody who knows first-hand how hard it can be to fundraise around a content website, I feel like Drudge, Huffington, Cashmore, and the rest have poisoned the well. Heck, even TechCrunch took a valuation hit because of Mike Arrington. I’m also somebody who knows how large media companies think about acquisitions. I can’t even begin to imagine how many due diligence concerns it would create when the founder and the brand were inseparable. Any VC who is considering an investment in a “founder is the brand”-type of company should immediately think twice about that term sheet.
- Putting a face on a Web publication is a great way to strip it of a unique voice. Consider BuzzFeed as a counter-example to this. It has one of the most vivid and imaginative narrative styles in all of publishing. The world doesn’t need 10 BuzzFeed’s, because the one that exists is so clever in its own way. When I have exactly 15 minutes to kill, it is the first site that I go to. And sometimes it keeps me for an hour.
Now, think about HuffPo. It has a confused identity, jumping between pop culture and real news. Its crummy design needs an update, but that would seem to violate some sort of hazy faux-journalistic creed. Arianna can still bring in big-name contributors, but they don’t do much to give it a true voice. In short, putting a person’s face on a website is a way to strip it of voice and under-nurture those other key facets of its identity.
- Vanity is a great way to tell your employees that you don’t give a crap about them. Considering that editorial professionals make so little money anyhow, one of the best way to limit turnover is to make them like their job and feel good about their mission. Strong leadership is one thing. People like to work for visionary leaders. But when a copy-editor is awake in the office at 11pm and sees Arianna on a red carpet, or learns that she is on a private jet to Stadt, what will that do to their work drive? When a friend from Politico calls, offering them a job, will they consider taking the interview? Most likely.
Bleacher Report had some of the lowest attrition imaginable. We only had two or three employees leave voluntarily during my five years there. But if my co-founders and I had filled our days with self-indulgent press junkets and celebrity mixers, then I’ll bet a lot of them would have taken a hike.
I should probably conclude this article by acknowledging that some people will question how much PandoDaily relies on its founder from a brand standpoint. She did the right thing by not calling it LacyTimes.com or some crap like that. And her public appearances are almost always in support of the Pando message. In my opinion, Sarah has done the right things in terms of juggling her brand with the site’s brand. But getting the latter to out-shine the former will have to be a key goal. In fact, it is probably the largest milestone the company can hit.
It will be fun to see how PandoDaily’s style evolves with time, and to see how long before it can overpower Sarah’s voice. That will be a happy day for her investors.