Last week, the place I’ve called my online home for over five years — a site that has been one of the leading tech blogs ever since my friend Om Malik started it in the Starbucks at the corner of Clay and Battery in San Francisco in 2006 — suddenly shut down. Gigaom was always more than just a job for me, and its death has hit me like the loss of a close friend. Like many of my former colleagues, I am still trying to process all of the feelings and thoughts its closure has triggered and understand why and how it happened. I consider this post just part of that process — I’m certainly not claiming to have any definitive answers.
Everyone wants to know why Gigaom failed, and what it says about the online media market. And I feel as though I should know, if only because I was one of the site’s media writers, and I have written so many times about the challenges other online outlets have faced. In fact, I’ve heard from more than one person who sees Gigaom’s death as some kind of karmic retribution for my past criticism of outlets like the New York Times — and perhaps it is. Frankly, it’s as good an explanation as any other.
For me, the business realities and technical aspects of Gigaom are all tied up with my feelings about the place, and about my friend Om Malik, who took a crazy gamble and left his job at Forbes to start a blog, and eventually built what I consider to be one of the best teams of writers and editors I’ve ever worked with. As I have said several times, I have absolutely zero regrets about agreeing to leave a comfy newspaper job and join him in that quest, despite the unfortunate way it ended so abruptly. Was it the best online media business ever? No. But it was a pleasure and a privilege to work there, and I am proud of what we accomplished.
If there’s one thing that bothers me about the site’s sudden closure, it’s that it might jeopardize the careers of or influence how people see my colleagues — excellent writers and editors like Stacey Higginbotham and Katie Fehrenbacher and Janko Roettgers and Laura Owen and Kevin Tofel and Derrick Harris and Kevin Fitchard and David Meyer and Jeff Roberts and Barb Darrow and Kif Leswing and Jonathan Vanian and Biz Carson and Signe Brewster and Carmel DeAmicis. If you haven’t already reached out to hire them, you should. They are rock stars, and they don’t deserve to have their work denigrated in this way, with bank trustees — or their corporate handmaidens — telling them to turn in their laptops and shut off the lights when they leave.
I’ve talked to several media outlets about Gigaom’s death — including Digiday and the Poynter Institute and the Columbia Journalism Review — and that has helped me think through some of the issues around it. Was Gigaom killed by its reliance on outside venture capital, as some have argued? In part, I think it was. As I mentioned in one interview, VC money is a Faustian bargain of the first order: it gives you the freedom to grow quickly, but it also puts pressure on a company to show meteoric growth, and there is a harsh penalty for not doing so — and the media industry isn’t exactly known for meteoric growth of the kind VCs like to see.
One aspect that many people are ignoring, however, is that Gigaom also took on debt, via a financing with several lenders including Silicon Valley Bank, in an attempt to juice its growth even further. In a different kind of market or at a different time, this might have worked — but ultimately the company failed to produce enough cash to service that debt, and that is part of what took it down (Peter Kafka at Re/code has more on that). Creditors are orders of magnitude less accommodating than shareholders or equity investors, and they tend to be a lot more nervous as well. When they want their money, all the happy stories about future growth that startups tell VCs mean less than nothing.
Was Gigaom also killed by the merciless evolution of the online media market? I think to some extent that’s true as well — as I told CJR, when Gigaom started, and even up to a few years ago, having a staff of 50 and 6 million unique visitors a month would have seemed like a huge success. But in a world in which behemoths like BuzzFeed and Vice are the paragons of virtue, with thousands of staff and massive traffic, Gigaom must have looked like a pipsqueak, and that affects everything from advertising to funding.
The other aspect of the business that some media-focused sites aren’t including in their calculations is that Gigaom has never been just an editorial operation that lived and died on advertising. One of the most innovative aspects of the Gigaom model was that it had three legs: ad-funded editorial, events (conferences), and a subscription research arm where analysts wrote reports for corporate clients. I still believe that this model can work, despite what some might argue is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s very similar to the model that a publisher like The Economist uses, for example. Ad-supported editorial helps build a relationship with readers, and events and subscription products eventually monetize that relationship, if everything works properly.
I don’t have — and never did have — access to the in-depth financial aspects of Gigaom’s business (and perhaps I should have, as my former colleague Celeste LeCompte argued in a recent Nieman Lab piece). But my understanding of what happened is that the editorial side of the business was not the problem. Was it hugely profitable? No. But was it doing any worse than plenty of other editorial outlets in terms of revenue or cash flow? No — in fact, quite a bit better than many, as far as I can tell. But ultimately the research arm seems to have failed to generate enough cash to justify the money that investors (and creditors) lent us to build it. Whose fault is that? I honestly have no idea. Was the model flawed, or just the execution of it? Again, I simply don’t know.
Some have argued that Gigaom was guilty of an excess of hubris, and that instead of trying to grow into something so quickly, it should have taken the slower approach of a niche site like Search Engine Land. There is certainly nothing wrong with that idea — sites like Danny Sullivan’s or Jessica Lessin’s The Information, or Mike Masnick’s TechDirt, or even Ben Thompson’s Stratechery are great examples of how small can be good. But that doesn’t mean creating such a site is the only way to go — others would like to reach for the stars, and that desire is a big part of what makes Silicon Valley what it is: an infuriating place filled with hubris and ego, but also a great example of what people can achieve when they push themselves.
Did Gigaom fail in its attempt to reach that goal? Yes. But that doesn’t mean the goal wasn’t worthwhile, or that what we built while striving to reach it was any less great. I would like to thank my friend Om for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I would like to thank all of my colleagues for the pleasure of working with one of the best editorial teams on the planet. I am happy to call you my friends as well as my former co-workers. It was a great ride while it lasted. Onward!