Bryan Goldberg, 33, is the founder of Bustle, a digital-media startup with 55 million monthly readers that covers everything from politics to “The Bachelor.” Its latest valuation puts it on par with Goldberg’s last startup, Bleacher Report, which sold for about $US200 million to Turner Media.
In his 20s, Goldberg cofounded Bleacher Report, a sports website, with three middle school friends. After the sale to Turner, Goldberg did what successful 20-somethings should do to celebrate: He and his cofounders went to party in Las Vegas, and they paid for each of their 160 employees to join them.
“As we know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” Goldberg told Business Insider on the podcast “Success! How I Did It.” “But I would say that on a scale of 1 to 10 — like, OMFG — it’s probably a 10. I don’t know what an 11 would look like. I’m not going into it, except to say we all came back alive.”
Though Goldberg wouldn’t reveal what happened in Vegas, he did share the tips and tricks he’s used to become a successful businessman.
The podcast explores:
- How four middle school friends came up with a startup idea over beers
- How a $US200 million startup acquisition actually goes down
- An “OMFG” party in Las Vegas after the acquisition, in which Bleacher Report’s founders paid out of pocket for all 160 employees to join them
- How playing “Magic The Gathering” made Goldberg a good media CEO
- What to expect in media over the next few years — lots of acquisitions and billion-dollar exits
- Why Bryan tortures friends with videos of him weightlifting Facebook
The “Success! How I Did It” podcast interviews inspiring people about the career paths that took them to the top of their industries. You can listen to the episode with Bryan Goldberg below and subscribe to the podcast on Acast or iTunes.
You can also check out another episode of “Success! How I Did It”: “Tinder cofounder on what it’s really like to build a $US3 billion business in your 20s.”
The following podcast and transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alyson Shontell: Bryan, you’ve been a founder for a decade now.
Bryan Goldberg: Yes, over a decade, which is a long time. In the case of digital media specifically, it’s really for most of digital media’s existence, so I can say this one thing I was early in, and it has changed a lot and it’s continuing to change even more.
As long as I’m in the game here, there’s more to learn and more to build and more to do.
Shontell: For people who don’t know, what is Bustle and where is it now?
Goldberg: Bustle is not only the largest media property in the United States aimed at young women, it’s also a platform for young women. In January, we had 55 million monthly unique visitors coming to read our content in news and entertainment, lifestyle, fashion, and beauty.
Shontell: Is that traffic partly from the Trump bump or was it “The Bachelor” bump?
Goldberg: Both. In January, we had many millions of people coming to the site for both of those topics. I’d say those were the two biggest draws. That dichotomy between really smart, insightful content about news and politics as well as some of the best “Bachelor” coverage you’re ever going to find, is symbolic of who we are, as a site that is really proud of our coverage of what in the past has been viewed as very different types of topics that appeal to, often, the same young woman.
How 4 middle school friends started a company over beers
Shontell: I want to get into all of that, and how the media industry has changed in your decade since you joined it. But first, let’s go back to 2007, to those early days when you and your buddies from middle school decided to start a company. You’d never founded anything before, right?
Goldberg: Yep, and I’m going to take it back even further, to 2005, because we launched Bleacher in earnest in 2007, but the story begins in 2005, right when we graduated from college.
So, 2005: My cofounders and I had just graduated from college and we were all very above average. None of us were remarkable. None of us had gone to Ivy League schools. We had all applied to Ivy League schools; we did not get in.
None of us were remarkable. None of us had gone to Ivy League schools. We had all applied to Ivy League schools; we did not get in.
Back in 2005, if you wanted to go into business, broadly speaking, the game plan was simple. Go to a good college, and then you have two choices: investment banking, with Goldman Sachs being where you wanted to be, or Lehman Brothers, or management consulting, in which Mackenzie or Bain or BCG was the dream.
I started going down the path of management consulting. The plan was to get an MBA, and for most people like me or my cofounders, the first decade of your career — banking, consulting, business school, then back into banking and consulting — was really prescribed.
Shortly after college, we had this idea to start a “dot-com.” That’s what we said in those days. I wanted to launch a website, a dot-com, around sports. People thought this was so stupid. They basically said this was yesterday’s dream. “This is so nostalgic of you to go think you can start a website in the year 2005.” The dot-com disaster was four or five years gone and banking was so hot.
These same people seven years later, by the way, who graduated from Harvard Business School, were quitting their jobs at Goldman to go start a startup. By 2012, it wasn’t too late to start a company but a lot more crowded.
Those few years after 9/11, and before Lehman Brothers collapsed, really were this dead period. There were no venture-capital firms throwing out money.
Shontell: That was the year after Facebook launched, so there was some stuff brewing. But you’re right, it was kind of dead.
Goldberg: You know what’s funny is, if you were to say 2005, 2006, what was the company that got people excited? You think it’s Facebook and you think about the Google IPO. The one that actually got people excited was Digg.
In 2006, there was this picture of Kevin Rose on the cover of Business Week. What’s memorable is Kevin Rose on the cover giving a thumbs-up and how this kid made $US60 million in 18 months.
Really, for people starting companies in that time period, that was sort of the “Oh, my God.” We knew that Facebook was going to be huge. We knew that was once in a decade. Lightning in a bottle.
We knew Google was the same thing a decade earlier, but the thing that was just like, “Hey, you can go do this” — regular guys can go launch a cool Web 2.0 idea — was definitely Digg, around 2005, 2006.
That’s what really made us say to ourselves, “Oh, my God, we have this great idea, let’s go get this off the ground. We have this business plan and this dream.”
Shontell: I love that you had a business plan. That feels like a rookie Silicon Valley startup move.
Goldberg: It was sketched based on the business plans I had learned about. I had taken competitive strategy in college, a sort of pre-MBA course for what was supposed to be a very pre-MBA life. We had a four- or five-page business plan with competitive advantage and differentiation.
I give all the credit in the world to those who pivot, but Bleacher Report’s game plan … if you found that business plan from 2005, 2006, which we cannot find — my mum might have it, so I’ll have to ask. But if you ever found it, you would look at Bleacher Report today in 2017 and say, “You know what? It’s not identical but it’s pretty damn close.” The same thing for Bustle.
Our founding story is a lot like everyone else’s. A group of guys got together with this cool idea. We wanted to go do it. We talked about it over beers, and 99.99% of the time people sober up the next day, forget about it, and then years later at a birthday or bachelor party they go, “Hey, remember that idea we had that we never did?” That was Bleacher Report, except we actually did it.
We talked about it over beers, and 99.99% of the time people sober up the next day, forget about it, and then years later go, ‘Hey, remember that idea we had that we never did?’ That was Bleacher Report, except we actually did it.
Shontell: You’re a first-time founder. All of you stumble into media after this drinks meeting that you then sober up and decide to do. How are you welcomed into the startup community? You didn’t go to Ivies, you have no experience, and VC’s weren’t really investing.
Goldberg: Back in San Francisco around 2007, 2008, it was a pretty small community. People remember it very romantically — “Oh, there weren’t a lot of people, but every idea had a chance. You could be having drinks with the Airbnb guys and drinks with the Twitter guys.” Some of that was true, but we weren’t hanging out with them.
Between 2007 and 2011, you couldn’t go raise money as a media company because no media company had ever been sold for anything valuable.
You had to say, “This is about tech.” You always have to begin every VC pitch by saying, “Oh, we’re not a media company. This isn’t about advertising. This is about technology.” Which was complete bulls—. But you know what? It got the job done, and you have to live one day at a time.
Technology is important to media. It still is, but it wasn’t until about 2010 that we looked in the mirror and said, “Hey, wait a minute. This is a media company. We are a media company.”
Then, when Huffington Post was purchased for hundreds of millions of dollars, we got to be a lot more out about it and say, “Hey, we are a media company. We’re building this.”
Shontell: You were four cofounders. How did you all split up the business, how did you start growing it, and when did you know that you had something on your hands?
Goldberg: It took years until we all had a “role.” We were all critical.
People say to me, “Which cofounder was the most important?” I say to them: “Asking me which cofounder was the most important is as pointless as asking me, ‘Would you rather live without a heart or lungs?'” You’re dead either way. Without my cofounders, this wouldn’t have happened.
We’re all similar guys. We all did different things in the beginning. I was the head of tech. I got the website up. I managed the engineers, which, in hindsight, is preposterous, because I can’t write a line of code. But I was the geekiest. I was, in a very superficial way, the geekiest.
Shontell: Did you have a “Star Wars” poster and they were like, “You are the geekiest”?
Goldberg: Exactly. It was literally like that. I played video games growing up. I was the first one to get an iPod and the first one to get even a pre-iPod MP3 player, so I was the geekiest. We eventually hired a real CTO, but I, for the first year and a half, got the website up and did so competently.
Ultimately, after a couple of years of doing the technology stuff, I started focusing on advertising. Again, we talk about “Why was I the one who became the advertising cofounder?”
Part of it was, I was the single one for a lot of that time, in 2010, 2011, 2012, so I could fly to New York every other weekend and babysit our very smart, very successful 20-something-year-old advertising team. Then we hired a big-name head of sales. I changed hats a lot, probably more than the other guys.
We all did different things throughout the history of the company, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve all been able to continue doing big things in media — we all saw all the parts. Media companies are complicated. They are among the most complex companies you can run.
Media companies are complicated. They are among the most complex companies you can run.
You’ve got a creative side, the sales side, and the technology piece, so you’re thinking with all three sections of your brain.
Shontell: You got a lot of criticism as you were growing. People thought it was aggregation. They thought you had contributors you weren’t paying well. So this was pretty new stuff, especially in sports. How did you deal with all the negativity, and how did you decide what to listen to and what not to?
Goldberg: First of all, we have very thick skin. You cannot be in media without having incredibly thick skin. That’s just the rule. Don’t go into banking if you can’t work a lot of hours, don’t go into medicine if you can’t stand the sight of blood, and do not go into media if you do not have very thick skin.
Don’t go into banking if you can’t work a lot of hours, don’t go into medicine if you can’t stand the sight of blood, and do not go into media if you do not have very thick skin.
The fact that people found us in a distributed way — through message boards and search — versus going to www.bleacherreport.com, really irked the establishment.
The term “distributed content” had not yet existed. I give BuzzFeed a lot of credit for putting terminology to some of these concepts, but Bleacher Report was doing it really early on and we got attacked relentlessly for it.
If you were to look at the game plan of what is digital media in the year 2017, no one gets more credit than us for advancing that game plan, making that game plan work. We’re proud of it, but the attacks were relentless and in hindsight undeserved. I guess you can look back, and there’s never such a thing as I told you so, but we feel good about it.
How Turner bought Bleacher Report for $US200 million
Shontell: Let’s talk about that “I told you so” moment. You ended up getting acquired for a very hefty sum, about $US200 million. You were the second-largest media acquisition after Huffington Post at the time. How does an acquisition like that come about?
Goldberg: I want to make a point here because I think it’s really salient now for young founders. Midway through our story, in late 2010, we hired a grown-up CEO, which really was the model until Mark Zuckerberg was such a genius.
His name was Brian Grey. He had run Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports and he lived in San Francisco, which was unusual for a media person. He became available and we said, “Hey, we need this guy to be our CEO because he’s a grown-up” and our investors had been pressuring us. We didn’t have a CEO. We had run it as a three-headed monster for years and years. We were in our mid-20s and people were starting to say to us, “Hey, this thing’s really big. You’ve got 70 employees. You’re making real money. You’re selling to top brands. You guys should have a real grown-up CEO.”
We were very mature about that. The reason I want to highlight this is because so many young founders feel it is just unthinkable. “How dare you make us hire a boss!”
Shontell: I think they see that Mark Zuckerberg never did that and he was fine.
Goldberg: And he’s the model now, but guess what? Prior to that the model was Eric Schmidt and Google — Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and then the grown-up [Schmidt] who came in. Larry and Sergey were Ph.D.s from Stanford, they were in their 30s, and they still hired a grown-up CEO. They made billions of dollars and had nothing to regret.
Frankly, I think Mark Zuckerberg is the exception. Some of these companies should have grown-up CEOs. I think hiring one did help us both grow, and it helped us sell the company, because would a big corporation in New York, like Time Warner, have bought Bleacher Report from three guys in their 20s? Maybe, probably, but certainly not for sure. Brian Grey did make the company better. He brought a lot of experience, and was central to negotiating.
Shontell: But how did Turner find you guys? What was the first conversation? Wasn’t it an eight-month process?
Goldberg: These negotiations take a long time and we had an investment banker, RBC Capital, on the deal.
Shontell: Were you trying to sell yourselves?
Goldberg: They had leaned in. We tried to run a process of getting others interested. There was interest, but it was very clear there was one buyer who frickin’ wanted to own this thing. The banks did what they did. They got us in conversations with — I’m not going say who — but other big sports-media companies.
Shontell: Enough time has passed — you can say!
Goldberg: I’m not going to say anything definitive. Did ESPN kick the tires? Did CBS, NBC kick the tires? There was tire-kicking going on. Maybe now they’re kicking themselves because they should have done the deal, though I don’t think Disney has much to lose sleep over these days. They’re doing terrific.
People kicked it around, but this was a case where there was one buyer who needed us. It was about five months of banter until we could get to a price.
We let the bankers and Brian Grey handle all of the negotiation on price. And look, you should have bankers on any M&A deal. People say don’t. You absolutely should have a banker. It’s not the first time they have negotiated.
I know that’s the sexy part. For me, the sexy part was saying, “OK, this thing is going to sell in two or three months. This deal is probably going to happen. It makes sense. When it’s done, I’m going to have money. I’m going to be 30 years old and I need to figure out what I’m doing with the rest of my life.” Which is actually a scary position to be in.
Making a little bit of money doesn’t mean that the next 60 years of your life are just sitting on a beach. That’s not who I am, so I had to figure out, what the hell’s my game plan here?
Making a little bit of money doesn’t mean that the next 60 years of your life are just sitting on a beach. That’s not who I am, so I had to figure out, what the hell’s my game plan here?
What do I do next, being 30 years old, having some money, and knowing that I’m not going to be hanging around Bleacher Report for the next 50 years?
Shontell: Why didn’t you want to hang around?
Goldberg: I had one more thing left to do. I think you know when you have one more startup left in you. Bleacher Report was an amazing experience. The cofounder experience was critical. It wouldn’t have happened without them.
But I wanted to go do my own show, and I had one market I wanted to try out. I wanted to test what I could do on my own. I think that’s very natural after seven years with a band. You want to go solo.
I didn’t want to go start five more media companies. I’d been saying pretty openly that I don’t think I’m going to start another media company after this.
Celebrating in ‘OMFG’ Vegas style
Shontell: Before we go into that, you all sold the company, and you and your cofounders went to Vegas. Tell me about the trip.
Goldberg: Under no circumstances will I talk about the Vegas trip.
Shontell: Oh, come on! You were young and dumb then. It doesn’t matter.
Goldberg: I cannot believe we did that.
Shontell: Why? That’s what everyone should do when they sell, right?
Goldberg: No, it’s not what you should do!
Shontell: Who all went to Vegas?
Goldberg: The whole company.
Shontell: The entire company, all of Bleacher Report?
Goldberg: The entire company.
Shontell: Did you pay for them all?
Goldberg: We did. The founders paid for it. We had sold the company. We had made money, and we said, “Let’s each chip in like X-thousand dollars and fly the company to Vegas.”
Shontell: How many people was it at that point?
Goldberg: At that point it was like 160 people, 170 people. The CEO, Brian Grey, very wisely didn’t go. I think one of the fun things about having a CEO when you’re in your 20s running a company is he can be the grown-up and he can look the other way. He was like, “I’m not going anywhere near this. You pay for it out of pocket. You do it on the weekend. This is not a Bleacher Report event.”
It was so early after the sale that I think Turner hadn’t really put their arms around us, so we had this very narrow window for the founders to pay out of pocket to do a noncompany event on the weekend to go to Vegas.
As we know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I would say that on a scale of 1 to 10 — like, OMFG — it’s probably a 10. I don’t know what an 11 would look like. I’m not going into it, except to say we all came back alive.
As we know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I would say on a scale of 1 to 10 — like OMFG — it’s probably a 10.
Shontell: What does a 10 look like?
Goldberg: You want to know what a 10 looks like? It looks like all the things you think about in a rock-star moment. It helped build the team. It was not forgotten, and that sort of behaviour never again happened, and will never happen again.
Shontell: There’s not going to be some Bustle Cancun trip when you sell?
Goldberg: If we sell Bustle, and I hate to say it — and my team at Bustle is going to hear this podcast and say, “Well, wait a minute. Bleacher Report got to do a Vegas trip — why don’t we?” — and I’m going to say, “You know what, because I was young then and I’m old now, and old, boring, stodgy Bryan in his mid-30s is not going to do a trip to Vegas because it’s just not the right thing to do.”
I’m beet red right now — thank God this is a podcast. Because you just can’t do those sorts of things. Not in the year 2017, 2018, 2019, whatever it turns out to be.
Shontell: Not with social media there to capture it all.
Goldberg: Exactly. I mean, Twitter existed but things were different back then.
How to launch a second media company and scale it to 55 million readers
Shontell: OK, so old, stodgy Bryan has now founded Bustle. You bring 55 million readers to your site, which is pretty incredible, because now everything seems to be distributed. People are reading Facebook as their homepage rather than going to most homepages of publishers.
What have you learned from Bleacher to apply at Bustle, and how was this launch easier than the first?
Goldberg: Every company is tough and every day is tough in media. It’s a lot easier the second time. The core structure, the core game plan of Bustle, has similarities with Bleacher Report, like distributed content.
I was scared when we started Bustle. Not just because I was doing it alone. Not just because there was a lot of pressure to raise all this money. But because sports is very easy to create a taxonomy, to know what you’re going to write about.
For Bleacher, there are four or five mainstream sports and 30-something teams. You know you’re going to cover football. You know you’re going to cover baseball. You know you’re going to write about a certain player. When going into this new world with Bustle, it wasn’t so clearly painted for me. What was even tougher was I’m not in my demographic.
The only way I could think to do it was hire six or seven early editors who are very different from each other, coming from different publications, and listening a lot. Then ultimately bringing in writers and saying to the writers, what’s important to you? What matters to you?
There were certain things we knew we were going to cover, like popular television. I knew we were going cover the news and an election. But there were whole worlds that hadn’t occurred to me. Topics like body positivity, which is really big for us. And tattoos. It never occurred to me that tattoo inspiration was a big thing for teenage girls and young women, but it’s huge for us.
Shontell: But you did have a plan, at least from a distribution standpoint, right? You knew how much traffic you could maybe get from Google versus Pinterest. How did you map that out?
Goldberg: Anyone who tells you they’re getting most of their traffic from anything other than search or social, they’re being dishonest or they have a very small audience. You can build a couple million loyal, type-in-URL, direct visitors. That’s possible over years, but this is the distributed era, so search and social.
We’re very fortunate in women’s media that you can get Facebook traffic and you can get Pinterest traffic. Bleacher Report is never going to get Pinterest traffic. Twitter, in my opinion, has not been a great platform for audience building, really since its inception.
What’s been a big challenge but very rewarding for Bustle versus Bleacher Report is evergreen and long-tail search traffic. This idea that you can write great content on Bustle and two years later it’s still useful. Example: We might be the top result for how to mix curly hair and bangs.
There are some women with curly hair who would like to have bangs, and they’d like celebrity inspiration so they can get ideas of how to make it work. It had never occurred to me that a person with curly hair may not think that bangs fall properly on their forehead. So we create the best article ever on that topic and it’s still useful one year later, two years later, three years later.
That is not the case in sports. Sports content has a shelf life of six days, at most. If it’s Monday and you’re making football predictions for Sunday, you will get six days of juice out of that. It’s useless after. If you look at Bleacher Report’s traffic, they get a lot of traffic but only a small percentage is to stories that were written years ago.
Shontell: Let’s talk about your launch, because it was sort of infamous. I know you’ve talked about it a lot, but there was a PR debacle. You said, “I’m Bryan Goldberg. I’m going to start the first women’s site ever,” to which every other woman in media was like, “What the hell, Bryan?!” Talk about that.
Goldberg: Broadly speaking, in media, you do want to make noise. You do want to be noticed. You do want to be loud. You do want to be provocative. But you want to keep it under control and you don’t want to piss people off. I don’t believe that all attention, all press, is good press.
If everyone’s yelling at you and throwing rocks at you, then you’ve gone too far. You look at the launch, basically I was very loud and I was a man being very loud.
I said, “Hey, this is going to be a feminist website. We’re going to talk about fashion and beauty. We’re also going to talk about what’s going on in Syria, with no apologies about it.”
The tone — I didn’t know a lot of thought leaders in women’s media at the time. I was an unfamiliar face, certainly the wrong face, so sort of this dude, this young, white male who’s made money, talking about rocking the world and changing the world, and talking about women’s media. It wasn’t a great image and wasn’t a great look.
In hindsight, I would have handled it differently and didn’t really want to piss people off. It came from a very sincere place. I really was excited about going to market, raising all this money and launching a feminist publication. That excitement came from the right place, but it pissed everyone off.
My general advice is look, be loud, make a lot of noise. In media you have to be noticed. But there are different ways to do it. The great story, though, in the end is I’m now friends with a lot of the people who were my initial critics, so it was a great way to meet people. It’s not how you should always meet people, but it’s one way to meet people.
Shontell: One other thing that I thought was notable was you did get this money from the sale of Bleacher Report, and yet you decided to raise a big round for Bustle. Why not fund it yourself?
Goldberg: I put a lot of money into Bustle. I made a good amount of money on Bleacher Report, but it wasn’t what you might picture. I owned a very small, single-digit percentage of the company when we sold it for $US200 million.
Shontell: Well, there were four founders and you all raised tens of millions of dollars.
Goldberg: During recessions. I owned a very small slice by the end … I owned a few per cent of the company, we sold it, and so I made money, and I put several hundred thousand dollars of my money, and my family’s as well, in to start these companies.
In my opinion, you do need to raise at least $US20 to $US30 million. Usually you can’t raise that on day one, so you have to go raise $US5 or $US6 million, and then prove that you know what you’re doing and get some traction. Then VCs will follow with a series B or series C check and get you to $US20 to $US30 million.
Media companies require scale. Bustle has “only” raised $US37 million. That’s nothing compared to our peers at BuzzFeed, Vox, or Refinery 29, who have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. So, I knew that when we raised $US6-plus-million in the beginning that that was only the first step, and that we’d have to raise tens of millions more just to have a seat at the table.
Between myself and my family members, we put in close to $US1 million. That’s a lot of money for me, that’s a lot of money for my family. We’re not that rich here. It was a lot. It was a big bet, and a pretty gutsy bet. I think that’s one of the reasons investors got excited is because I said, “Look, I’m putting a big percentage of my net worth into this company because I believe in it,” and nothing will bring investors to the table faster than when you put your own money into something.
Frankly, if you don’t it’s a red flag.
‘Magic the Gathering’ can make you a good media CEO
Shontell: This is your first time as CEO. What have you learned?
Goldberg: First of all, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a different capacity than being the founder.
Being a media CEO is a very specific type of CEO. There are a lot of media CEOs who are unsuccessful and very few who are successful. If you want to know how to be a successful media CEO, I will tell you right now.
This framework works every time:
The job of a media CEO is to balance three power bases: your editorial power base, your sales and marketing power base, and your tech and operations power base. If you ever let one of those three gain hegemony over the other, your company will fail. Think of it as a three-legged stool. If one leg gets too long, you will fall off the stool and you will crack your head open.
If you look at most digital-media companies, the CEO came out of one of those three camps. In some media companies it was founded by a techie person and they think that data and AB testing and headline manipulation is the key to success, and they want to see the data, data, data. The editors are saying, “You know, this isn’t just about data.” The sales team’s saying, “Hey, there’s a lot of art and science to this.”
I’ve seen a lot of media companies that are too techie and they fail for that reason.
Shontell: I think you need to have a creative person at the helm and someone who’s analytical.
Goldberg: Exactly. And look, I love to write. I’m not a creative type; I don’t think anyone looks at me and goes, “Oh, Bryan’s an artist,” but I do love to write. The one thing I know I will do one day long down the road is I’m going to be a writer again, because I love it.
But I’m also an economics major. I love data. I’m very business-oriented. I’m very comfortable in financial conversations, but I’m also very at home with editors, talking about writing, editorial, and like I said, there’s a geek part of me.
For example, play “Magic the Gathering.” Every month at Bustle I host “Magic the Gathering” night —
Shontell: Wait, what’s that?
Goldberg: You don’t know what “Magic the Gathering” is?
Goldberg: If there were a studio audience they’d all be laughing, like, “You don’t know what ‘Magic the Gathering’ is?” It is ostensibly the nerdiest thing. It’s like a wizardry card game where you have ogres and goblins and vampires and they’re battling it out.
Shontell: You play this at Bustle?
Goldberg: I play it at my house and all Bustlers are invited to come play it with me. It’s like the nerdiest thing ever. It’s so nerdy that I’ve played it all my life, but when I was in high school I had to stop playing it because I was just embarrassed, because I was a high-schooler and I cared what people thought.
I still play the game now. I’m very open about it, but truly, it’s like the geekiest thing ever, and I love it and I’m proud of it. I go to tournaments. I don’t win — I’m not good at it. To be good at this game you’ve got to play it more than I play it. This is a whole separate conversation, but I do nerdy, geeky things, and I’m not afraid to go party at a club until five in the morning and then the next day over lunch play “Magic the Gathering.” I’d like to think I’m multitasking.
Shontell: You’re at clubs till 5? You told me that it’s old, stodgy Bryan now.
Goldberg: Well, yes, but old, stodgy Bryan in New York City. That’s different than being old, stodgy Bryan in San Francisco, where one goes to bed at 11 and wakes up and hikes.
On the media industry
Shontell: I will save you from yourself and switch the topic. It’s important to cover what the media industry is doing right now. You’ve had 10 years of looking at it and being deep in the weeds, and you’re an ad guy at heart. So what trends are you seeing in advertising right now?
It seems like everyone was thinking, when BuzzFeed was raising $US200 million and Vox was raising $US200 million, that TV dollars were open to them, but now it seems like all of the ad money that’s flowing to digital is really going to Google and Facebook, and publishers aren’t getting the cuts that they had thought about. What are you seeing?
Goldberg: So I’m going to give you a couple of high-level theses that I believe are correct and I have high conviction about. Conviction No. 1 is, dollars are not leaving TV anytime soon. The dollars are just too big to move. You can’t pull deals that measure in the hundreds of millions of dollars out of TV so quickly. Media takes time, because we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in play here, and those are very cumbersome amounts to move around. The dollars are going to stay in TV a long time.
It’s still king. It’s an ageing king, but it’s still king. Thesis No. 2: Yes, Google and Facebook are going to get a lot of the digital dollars. Maybe it’s half, maybe it’s two-thirds, maybe it’s three-quarters. But that duopoly — it’s called a duopoly, but be careful using the term duopoly, because there are a lot of very powerful interests who have a lot reason to make sure that Google and Facebook don’t get a true duopoly.
If you go talk to the CMOs who are spending billions of dollars, they have a true, strategic, existential threat in the idea of a duopoly.
If you are a major CPG company, or a major auto company, and you let your media supplier be only two companies, you are putting yourself in an extremely dangerous position. So the marketing people, who are sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars of marketing and who are going to spend $US80, $US90, $US100 billion on digital spend in the future, they realise that Google and Facebook are terrific avenues for advertising, and they are two of the most efficient, data-driven, outstanding places to spend your marketing money, no doubt about it. But they’re not going to let them get a complete hegemony because that would be a true danger.
Then they would be at risk of losing pricing control, so Facebook and Google are going to get a lot of money, but the traditional media companies, the publishers, are still going to have many billions of dollars at play. What I think we’re going to have to see is more consolidation. I don’t think that your buddy’s blog is going to get a piece of that 30 billion. If Google and Facebook are not getting $US30 billion of those digital ad dollars, your friend’s blog with 300,000 readers, they’re not going to make a play.
You look at telecom, and there are only two dominant players. You look at a lot of industries, you know, airlines, there are only three players right now. Do I think there will be a day, three, four years from now, where there are literally like three media companies, perhaps subsidiaries of giant telcos? Probably, and everything’s going to roll through it, and they will have power.
Shontell: So if you’re a media company right now, what do you do before that three- to four-year period when all the consolidation happens? How do you keep surviving?
Goldberg: You just keep growing and you keep doing your thing. You just keep getting better. As long as the big media companies, the traditional players, are not getting better at digital — and they’re not. In some cases they’re doing absolutely nothing as long as they’re not improving … The Bustles and the Voxes and the BuzzFeeds, we’re getting much better at what we do. Bustle today versus a year ago, you can’t even compare.
I think some of the others would say the same thing. We’re all getting much better at what we do. We’re all getting, in the eyes of big players, more legitimate. We’re growing our revenues. Think about how much flak BuzzFeed has taken on their revenue growth — and their revenue growth is really great. People are like, “Oh, my God, they didn’t triple revenue this year from $US130 million to $US400 million?” You can’t triple revenue every year.
Bustle tripled revenue last year. We tripled revenue. I’m telling you, we’re not tripling revenue every year for the next three years.
Shontell: You did $US30 million last year?
Goldberg: We did close to $US10 million the year before and we did close to $US30 million last year. It’s almost all direct sales.
Shontell: That’s unusual because a lot of people are trying subscriptions, which I haven’t seen you try. Everyone’s trying to dive into video, which you guys aren’t doing much of.
Goldberg: I should probably be talking about it more, because I think part of video is how much do you talk about it. What I will say is yes, direct ad sales is still the model, so when I hear Medium say, “We’re going to figure something else out,” I’m like, give me a break, Medium. I’m not a fan of that particular company’s moves and the announcement that Evan Williams made, because he basically retreated from advertising and said, “This is BS.” No, advertising is a $US200 billion industry — you just gotta be good at it and you gotta offer something to your clients and offer something to your readers.
Subscription can make you money. There are, like, three publishers who I think can make real money: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker, and maybe a couple others here and there — Vogue. Even for them advertising is critical. If New York Times has a terrible year in advertising, it’s really going to hurt them.
Advertising’s a great industry. Anyone who’s like, “Oh, stay away from advertising.” That’s complete BS. That’s just people who don’t know what they’re talking about, frankly. It’s a huge market. Companies like Vox or BuzzFeed should be looking to grow their revenue significantly. No, we’re not going triple it every year, that’s not reasonable, but it will grow significantly. It will grow linearly.
Shontell: If a founder came up to you and they were like, “Bryan, I want to start a media company right now.” Would you recommend it?
Goldberg: It’s hard to start now. It’s hard to start now because of scale. That’s the biggest impediment. If you didn’t start a few years ago, you’re not at scale today; if you’re not at scale today, it’s harder to be in some of these advertising conversations, because at Bustle we can go to an advertiser and say, “Here’s what a million-dollar deal with Bustle looks like.” If you’re an advertiser, a CPG advertiser, you don’t want to write $US50,000 advertising checks.
Shontell: How do you get scale?
Goldberg: You need a lot of money up front.
Shontell: Because you’re buying traffic?
Goldberg: No, well, you’re buying a lot of salaries. You’re hiring a lot of people. I was just walking around Business Insider’s newsroom and — I don’t know — it looked like there were a hundred people in the room. You draw big audiences; you do have to create a lot of content. No one wants to admit you have to create a lot of content, but look, how much content does Time Inc. put out every day? Hundreds of stories a day. It’s across dozens of properties, but Time Inc., in their giant office downtown, is doing hundreds of stories a day.
You need scale, and the scale begins with, like, the scale of a newsroom with 50, 60, 100 people in it, or more. A thousand people, in the case of The Journal and The New York Times. If you’re going to go higher, a hundred employees, you need millions and millions of dollars, because you’re going to burn a lot of cash, and I burned a lot of cash in the beginning of Bustle. Now we’re making good money, but when I was burning a lot of cash in the beginning my investors were scared.
They felt like we were driving full speed toward a cliff. We burned an eight-figure amount of money in 2015, and we burned very little and much less in 2016. We’re not going to burn anything in 2017, hoping to have a good profit line, but those first years where you burn cash before you can recover and grow your sales, those are painful years. That’s a scary PNL.
If you’re a CEO and you’ve got to go to investors and say, “Guess what! We’re going to burn $US12 million next year, but I promise you revenue is coming later” — that’s a scary statement to make. And I’m very lucky. I have very supportive investors who understand media, and so they were with me on the ride, and we’re driving 80 miles an hour toward a cliff, and they’re totally cool with it and get a little nervous, but I’m like, “Don’t worry. The revenue is going to come in a year.”
You gotta have people that do that, and unfortunately if you’re a first-time founder in media, knowing how to do that, knowing how to drive 80 miles an hour toward a cliff, when to throw on the brakes, when to speed up, how to jump over that cliff and land on the other side — very hard to do if you haven’t done it before. You’ll probably screw it up.
That’s the hesitation for young founders going into media. I hate to be the guy who’s like, “Oh, I got in the door but now it’s closed,” but it is a different world, because when I and my cofounders started in 2005, it was a new world and there was no one to say, “I’ve done this before.” It really was sort of fresh powder. It’s not anymore, and so I do mentor and invest and support a lot of young, really talented media founders, and I give them all this important advice I can give them, and some of them are going to make it.
Shontell: OK, so there is some positivity out there, but it’s getting harder. That’s the bottom line.
Goldberg: It’s getting harder. There’ll be fewer winners, but the ones who win are going to win big. I mean, there are not a lot of venture-backed sectors where there are going to be many, many multibillion-dollar exits.
Shontell: You think that’s the case here in media?
Goldberg: Yes, yes. They are perfect growth-stage investments. There’s a reason why firms like Fidelity have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into these media bets. It’s because they’re going to make a great return, but they’re only pouring money into a select few because there are going to be a half-dozen winners. There are not going to be 30 or 40 winners. But there will be multibillion-dollar exits.
On torturing friends with weightlifting videos
Shontell: How much can you lift these days? I see your Facebook and Instagram videos all the time with you and your trainer.
Goldberg: People say to me, “Don’t write editorial, don’t write politics on Facebook, because no one wants to hear what you have to say.” So it’s like, great, you know what? You’ll get weightlifting videos.
Shontell: Yes, you have a lot of them.
Goldberg: The text messages I get from my closest friends, the people I should be listening to, say, “Bryan, don’t you ever upload another weightlifting video or I will unfollow you and never talk to you again.”
I’m like, “Well, guess what! That is the one thing you can do to make me upload more weightlifting videos!”
At some point last year I said, I want to be able to bench press a lot. There’s no particular reason; I just want to be able to do it, so I’ve been working out three times a week.
For anyone who’s a sports fan, if you’re a fan of the NFL and how things work in the NFL, it’s not about how much you can bench press; it’s how many repetitions of 225 pounds you can do. You know what the combine is, the NFL combine, where the college players kind of show off their strength and ability to the pros? The great test in the NFL combine is, how many times can you lift 225 pounds? In a bench press, that’s two plates on each side of the bell.
I think the record in the NFL is like 30-something. If you can do 10, even in the NFL at certain positions, 10 means you’re in the conversation. I can almost do 10. I will never get to 20. I will probably never get to 15, but my goal before I’m done is to be able to do 14 repetitions of 225.
If I can do it, it will be filmed. It will be streamed on Facebook Live. You can all watch it.
Shontell: Just what I want to see.
Goldberg: Every few weeks I really go for it and I’m like, “This is going to be the day.” I set up the little Facebook Live and I try to do it, and that’s when I always fail. And once I can do 14 reps of 225 you will never see it again. Then I’ll gain all the weight back.
This story was originally published by bleacher report.
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