New Waywire

Remember Waywire?

The video curation startup “founded” by Cory Booker, who only ever seemed to have a figurehead-type role with the company, had a quiet, face-saving exit in October, when it sold to enterprise video firm Magnify for an undisclosed sum. It had raised $1.75 million in seed money, and its investors included Oprah Winfrey, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, and Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter.

Waywire, which always seemed confused about its identity – was it a curation tool, or a TV channel for issues-minded Millennials? – had failed to gain any meaningful traction beyond a few Booker headlines. And even those headlines would ultimately turn negative. Just as Newark Mayor Booker was preparing to run for the Senate, a New York Times story questioned his role in the company and revealed that the 15-year-old son of CNN president Jeff Zucker had been appointed to Waywire’s advisory board.

It looked like a death blow. CEO Nathan Richardson soon left the company to join AOL Video (a position he has since left). Marketing officer Sarah Ross was left to run Waywire alone. Booker distanced himself from the company. On October 13, Waywire announced that it had sold to Magnify. On October 16, Booker was elected Senator for the state of New Jersey.

The next question was, “Who is Magnify?”

Magnify is a bootstrapped company based in New York that provides video curation tools for publishers and other content partners. Although it has kept a low profile, far removed from the startup hype of Silicon Valley, it does actually count a number of big-name clients, including BBC America, New York Magazine, and TEDx Fox, Conde Nast, and NBC News (It turns out that Fox, CN, and NBC are just distribution partners.) And it is profitable. However, it is very much a business-to-business-oriented company. CEO Steve Rosenbaum picked up Waywire, presumably for a bargain, in an attempt to add consumer-facing cachet to the company.

Magnify is now at the midpoint of transforming Waywire into something new. It has dropped the pretension of catering to Millennials, shedded any hint of the socially minded ethos of the first version, and it is now focused squarely on the curation of video playlists. As well as moving Waywire over to its own backend technology and giving it a new lick of paint, it has created a section dedicated to major media providers, all of which get a logo and a link to their own channel. Waywire, which in its first iteration never emerged from alpha, has now been given a “beta” tag.

In a further indication of where Rosenbaum wants to take Waywire, the company has today unveiled a section called “Hot Wires” that highlights video playlists (wires) curated by prominent Internet people. It’s a strange selection of folks, with author and futurist Douglas Rushkoff rubbing shoulders with uber-geek Robert Scoble, NPR host Bob Garfield next to copyright scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig, and Hunch founder Caterina Fake bumping up against Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. The roster skews very white, very middle-age, and very Internet nerdy – which, applied in the most affectionate sense, is a fair way to describe to Rosenbaum himself.

The idea for Hot Wires is to not only leverage the “star”-power and social media followings of the curators, but also to institute an arbitrary frame of constraint on what should constitute a “wire.” Rosenbaum believes that the future of the Web is about “smaller, not bigger.” Taking its cue from Twitter (140 characters), Vine (six-second videos), and Snapchat (photos that disappear), Waywire has instituted a seven-video limit for its playlists. Rosenbaum hopes that the limit will encourage sharp, focused editorial.

Hot Wires, like the site itself, looks very much a work in progress. Unfortunately, apparently convinced of their magnetism, most of the curators seem to have built wires that are centered around videos of themselves rather than compelling content that relates to their particular interests. The question of who is the intended audience is also very unclear. All of a sudden, Waywire seems like it might be a place to go for marketing tips, inspirational talks, and TED-like parades of motivational “insight.” That feeling jars with Waywire’s homepage, which gives prominence to trending videos and topics such as news, travel, food, and fashion.

So far, Magnify’s attempt to play in the consumer space is in its awkward adolescence. Some of the font choices are odd – there’s a lot of bold text that comes across as shouting – and the varying box sizes make the otherwise clean layout look a bit jumbled. At least, however, it has staked out some clear positions and is distancing itself from the identity-confused Waywire of old. Waywire 2.0 still might have little idea about who it’s for, but now it has some clear bets on the table: creativity within constraints; playlists built around brands (both personal and corporate); and a bias towards trending video.

Given the ongoing troubles that video discovery startups must endure, that might not be a perfect spot to be in. But it’s probably better than being a mere discard of a Senator who spent too much political capital on a startup that, try as it might, could not change the world.