Want to understand the secret of Vice’s success? Wait and watch


viceMost content startups have two things in common with my three year old:

– They have an incredibly hard time apologizing when they’ve done something bad. (Ok, that’s all startups.)

– They totally underestimate the value of patience. Crazy patience. Watching grass grow kind of patience. Mr. Miyagi killing flies with chopsticks kind of patience.

To a three year old– or most startups– patience is like purgatory. Waiting five seconds for Animal Mechanicals to load on Netflix is the worst punishment Eli can imagine. Ditto, a content company forced to actually organically growing an audience through years of day-after-day production of differentiated work.

Why do that when you can raise millions of dollars and employ every link-bait, social, listicle, SEO trick in the book to grow now?

Nearly every single investor Pando has has asked me how more money or algorithms can scale our company faster. My answer is always: They can’t. It’s just going to take five to ten years of solid work to build the media company we want to build. There is no shortcut.

Further, I’ve been told– again and again– that there is no way to build a huge ad-based business without Huffington Post/BuzzFeed-like page views and scale. I disagree with that one too. And when I say that, people smile like they are taking to a delusional child. They struggle not to pat me on the head. There’s a reason we’ve raised $ 4 million and not $ 50 million.

Every time I have this conversation, I always think of something Marc Andreessen said back in 2007 when people were doubters of the early social media wave: “Ok, just wait. Wait and watch.” He had an enigmatic smile when he said it. This, a man who describes his personal mantra as: “Often wrong but never in doubt.”

This has become my personal mantra: Wait and watch.

I’ll take a break from that zen stance to give you a great reason that I’m right today. In fact, I’ll give you 2.5 billion great reasons: motherfucking Vice. The company most of the media world loves to hate has confirmed reports that it’s raised a whopping $ 500 million at a huge $ 2.5 billion valuation, half from A&E and half from Technology Crossover Ventures. This after its already shocking investment from Fox that valued it at $ 1 billion.

People will give you all kinds of reasons Vice has gotten this price. Its audience of hard to reach young men. Its agency business. Whatever. There is one big reason: Patience. Wait and watch.

When people told CEO and founder Shane Smith young people didn’t care about global news? Wait and watch.

When people said big brands wouldn’t pay to be next to Vice-style content? Wait and watch.

When people said he couldn’t build the new MTV and CNN rolled into one? Wait and watch.

Smith has essentially sat crosslegged with chopsticks for a dozen years, and now he only has to look side-eyed at the juiciest flies for them to fall. Hundreds of millions of dollars for minority stakes, and all from the kind of investors who can syndicate and keep his media empire growing. He has his cake and gets to eat it too: Huge cash and huge independence. All he had to do was keep building, keep evolving and keep being patient.

You know what’s even weirder than the idea of Pando building a huge media company over time? That a one-time government-funded magazine from Canada did it.

Some 15 years into this wave of new media companies using the Web to build new news and information franchises, no one has yet to touch Vice’s valuation. Not Huffington Post, the master of SEO. Not Business Insider, the master of the slideshow. Not BuzzFeed, the master of social.

And this is why some days it seems like Vice is hated by everyone in media except me. Well, me and all the legacy companies who keep paying shit loads of money for tiny stakes in what Smith and his team have painstakingly built brick-by-brick.

Old media hates it because they mix up serious international war reporting with first person accounts of smuggling cocaine in body cavities. Old media hates anything that doesn’t play by old media rules, and Smith makes Michael Arrington look like Don Graham.

Meantime, new media hates Vice for a whole different reason: It doesn’t have outrageously over the top pageviews numbers, and yet it still has that monster valuation. Press reports I’ve seen put it’s reach at about 100 million uniques or so counting different properties and social reach different ways. It’s big, but not obscenely big given the price and age. Put another way: It’s not big for the sake of big. And it’s a property that reaches that audience through myriad  channels not all on a big, long infinitely scrolling home page.

Any younger company can buy and game monster page views. What they can’t buy is deep authenticity with a valuable audience that has taken a decade to build. We can all mock the tattooed war correspondents. We can find Dennis Rodman going to North Korea repugnant. We can jump up and down pointing out that a so-called badass, stick it to the man brand shouldn’t also be able to charge millions of dollars producing videos for Intel.

But it doesn’t matter. Vice has done it.

I interviewed Shane Smith and Tom Freston at the Lerer Hippeau Ventures CEO summit earlier this year. There was a great moment where the two smiled at each other reflecting on the journey and Smith said something to the effect of we’ve re-applied lipstick to this pig about a dozen times over the last dozen years until it finally got big. Investors have been brought in, bought out, and new ones brought in over those years. Vice has been most known as magazine, a YouTube giant, an ad agency, and now potentially a real TV powerhouse. It even owns a bar in London.

Media moguls– real ones — are crazy. They don’t act rationally. They aren’t motivated purely by money, but a mix of ego, power, truth-seeking, legacy, and sticking something to someone, somewhere. Probably someone who once told them they needed to build an algorithm or write a listicle.

Nothing about Vice’s journey makes sense. Nothing about it is a “playbook” that any other media company could actually follow. It’s completely fucking weird and not algorithmic and shouldn’t have worked.

And that’s why, whether it always follows the rules of journalism or not, Vice is a real media company and Upworthy isn’t.



Vice’s Motherboard: New design, same fringe tech



For every website around there’s, quite obviously, a target audience. More so for tech. Vice, which has been around since 1993, is one of those websites whose entire brand was centered around who it was writing for: hip young people. It has remained the go-to source for irreverent stories that always contain a certain je ne sais quoi.

Its tech counterpart, Motherboard, is similar but has attracted a slightly different, more curious type of viewer. Where Vice attracted the person who genuinely wanted to watch a dude take acid at the Westminster Dog Show, Motherboard drew the more academic, liberal arts-y folks who wanted to hear about the bizarre, scary advents that weren’t otherwise publicized.

And, today Motherboard has completely redesigned its front-end website with a new, more stylish, dare I say, hipper feel.

According to Motherboard’s editor-in-chief, Derek Mead, this has been the plan for quite a while now. The website, in its old form, just wasn’t making the cut. Most of this was due to the fact that quite a bit of Motherboard’s content is video-based and its display for YouTube content was annoying. Its mobile experience was similarly frustrating. The most important improvement today is a dynamic design that allows the website scales to however large a screen and doesn’t need a specific URL for mobile devices. It’s the same Motherboard site no matter how you access it.

At the same time, Mead saw that the content his website was hosting, while not changing, was beginning to broaden out. So he decided to come up with a new way for users to browse between topics, better than just clicking the front-page stories. The biggest topics it has found most important — and are thus displayed prominiatently on the top of its homepage are “Machines,” “Discoveries,” “Power,” “Futures,” Culture,” and “Earth.” While slightly oblique, these are the tags Mead though to be most emblematic of his enterprise.

Mead, himself, is a great example of the esoteric nature of his company. While he has worked in tech before, he used to live in Brazil and also worked as a researcher for a blood-testing facility. While he was doing this medical work, he realized that what he wanted to do was write — either for National Geographic or for Vice. Well, after some time he was able to get his wish to come true.

He started in 2011 with only two others at Motherboard, and now the website has grown quite a bit. It has both a larger normal staff and a pool of contributors from which it frequently draws. The “About Me” part of the website declares that Motherboard is dedicated to the “intersection of technology, science and humans.” And that remains to be true.

Now, Motherboard is just starting to get a wider audience. Mead told me this was what necessitated the push for the redesign — the fact that people kept coming back, watching videos, but the old version wasn’t necessarily hospitable for them. “YouTube tells us the completion rate is ridiculously high,” he said to me.

For the website’s videos, it makes sense. This was the website that had one of its staff drink only Soylent for a month. Another video depicted the man who implanted a biochip into his arm. If you go to its YouTube page you see the crazy stories Motherboard has commissioned, and just how popular each story is (the most viewed video story High Country, which of course was about weed, trafficked nearly 2,000,000 views). Additionally, the site’s clicks continue to grow: “Every month has been a new high,” he said.

While the editorial isn’t changing, Mead sees the new website as a somewhat new beginning for Motherboard. The site, as it attracts more viewers and new staff, continues its quest. He wants his staff to focus on honest, true stories, and the website to reflect that. At its most basic, he just believes the homepage should “make everything clear.”

So the hope is that today Motherboard’s homepage will emblemize the direction it sees itself going. It’s sleek, adaptable, and (hopefully) easy to navigate — things Mead has been striving to create for his site. In his opening message blog post for the redesign, he dubbed it “Motherboard 4.0″ We’ll see where the site goes and what 4.0 will bring.

But today, the liege of nerds, hipsters, and all-around astute viewers can rejoice in the fact that Motherboard has finally been brought up to the 21st century.