Pando

By raising cash from Obvious and others, John Battelle's "passion project" NewCo is officially a real company

By David Holmes , written on February 18, 2015

From The News Desk

One of the best things about being massively successful -- or so I can only imagine -- is that you can afford to launch passion projects. For digital media mogul John Battelle, who helped found Wired magazine before going on to build the hugely influential online advertising network Federated Media, that labor of love is NewCo.

NewCo is an innovative twist on corporate events, inviting attendees to hang out for one-hour sessions at the headquarters of a wide range of companies, including startups, major tech firms, retail giants, and virtually any other organization willing to open its doors and its culture to the public. Battelle described it to me as an "artist open studio for corporations."

This year's list of participating companies is staggering: There are legendary tech firms like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Adobe, the new blood of the social media economy like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest, not to mention corporate behemoths like WalMart. And NewCo's footprint isn't limited to the states -- 2015's host cities include cosmopolitan locales like Amsterdam, Istanbul, and London.

But as the events' popularity grew -- along with the stature and prestige of the host companies -- Battelle began to wonder how NewCo might evolve if he treated it less like a "project" and more like a "company."

"[At the end of 2014] all the data came in -- who came, what the companies were," Battelle said. "99 percent of the people who went said they wanted to go again."

Battelle knew the market was there. But he needed resources beyond his own savings. Luckily, he had built up a huge network and a ton of good will over his decades-long career in digital media, and in just a few weeks he raised a $1.75 million convertible note, which the company announced today, from a murderer's row of angels and institutional investors. These backers include Evan Williams' Obvious Ventures, True Ventures, Foundry Fund, Path CEO Dave Morin's Slow Ventures,* Andrew Anker,* and many others.

Battelle refers to the group as "a conspiracy of good," and indeed, there's a decidedly "moral" bent to how he describes NewCo's ambitions.

"The mission of the company is to identify, celebrate, and enact positive change in our society," Battelle says with wholehearted sincerity. And that's not all empty talk: NewCo does promote a measure of transparency from companies -- albeit on the firms' own tight terms -- and who knows, its events could help inspire the next Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page.

But those positives aside, will NewCo's open studio model really lead to less awfulness in Big Tech? Or are these companies merely conducting savvy PR by participating in NewCo's events? If Google, for example, invites the public through its doors, the company's probably not going to talk about wage theft and surveillance. It's going to talk about the life-altering promise of self-driving cars and other moonshots. Which is fine and to-be-expected -- I'm just not sure how such an event is a boon to society.

Furthermore, "positive societal change" is a much harder metric to measure than, say, "revenue" or "monthly active users." And even if NewCo does achieve this, how does it balance these more lofty ambitions with the monetary demands of an organization that -- now that it has investors -- is again no longer a "project" but a "company"?

Battelle doesn't pretend to have the answers to these questions -- yet. He does, however, cite instances where NewCo has sparked or furthered dialogue about how to make the world less terrible. For example, Twitter hosted a NewCo event while embroiled in a controversy over a cushy payroll tax break it received from the city of San Francisco. It was here that Twitter revealed its ambitious plan to reinvest in the Tenderloin and Market Street communities -- "the first public dialogue they had about it," says Battelle. This, in turn, presented an opportunity to have and an honest and open conversation about whether or not the corporate philanthropy conducted by companies like Twitter justifies the tax benefits or real estate advantages these firms receive from public officials.

There are no easy answers to these questions. But as was made clear at our Don't Be Awful event, sparking dialogue is always the first step. And if NewCo can make a profitable business out of raising hard questions in the halls of the world's most important companies, then they will have accomplished what many in the tech press have sadly failed to do.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed Dave Morin as an investor in NewCo. The investment was actually made through Morin's angel investor group Slow Ventures.

*Andrew Anker is a personal investor in Pando

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]