In the 13-plus years since the original ahead-of-its-time Inside.com launched, it’s been part of a Steve Brill mashup, a dead domain, a planned flagship brand that didn’t happen, and a dormant asset waiting to be exploited. For most of that time, tech publishing entrepreneur Jason Calacanis wanted it. He was finally able to snag it from its most recent owner, Guardian News & Media, popping up a placeholder that stayed up longer than expected. Today, the placeholder came off and Inside came back in a guise few would have predicted: a mobile-first general news app and companion site based on OPJ: Other People’s Journalism.
It’s an evolution for Calacanis, whose own history illustrates the past decade’s shifts in tech journalism and the startup culture. He founded Silicon Alley Reporter, hit the blog wave by cofounding and selling Weblogs Inc. to AOL, founded the startup-centric Launch (conference, subscription newsletter, and podcasts), became an angel investor, bet on SEO-centric Mahalo and lost to Google’s Panda update, and then spent two years trying to figure out how to build a Google-proof business.
The new Inside is his multiple-choice answer to that quandary, his theory about the future of news and a desire to leave a media legacy. Calacanis, never a stranger to ambition, wants nothing less than to build his own CNN, but without journalists — save online news vet Gabriel Snyder, the new editor-in-chief.
It’s built on the corporate frame of Mahalo Inc., keeping the investors and the capital structure, but it is not a relaunch of that site. Mahalo.com and its YouTube channel stay in place, generating about $1 million a year without much effort, according to Calacanis. He asked the investors, which include Mark Cuban, Sequoia, News Corp, Burda, CBS, and Elon Musk, whether they wanted their Mahalo money back. They let it ride on Inside. Calacanis says he has enough runway for three years and enough on hand to run Inside as a free app sans advertising for two years without raising more money.
We spoke at length while he demoed the new Inside during the ramp-up to the launch. Here are some lightly edited highlights from that conversation.
Twitter has the tweet as their atomic unit of content. We have something called an update. This is an editorial format I’ve worked on for the past over a year, actually, at Launch Ticker. It then has about 300 characters, or 40 words, which is just enough to fit on a smartphone screen. About 10 facts is what we shoot for. And we aim to link to the best journalism in the world. We have a team of curators summarizing the top 1,000 stories every day [covering] over one thousand topics. Everything is done in a feed format.
We don’t see ourselves as the destination. We see ourselves as the curator of the best journalism in the world, so we’re very specifically only linking to the original journalist. We’re training our curators to understand The Huffington Post or Business Insider, which might do 70 to 80 percent aggregation of other people’s content and 20 to 30 percent original, and how to know the difference. So if Business Insider pulls a quote from The New York Times story and we find it on Business Insider, we’re actually going to wind up linking to The New York Times. We see ourselves as an antidote to the sort of middleman role and people rewriting other people’s content. We’re going to really actually do the work to figure out who came up with the original story.
So if you’re somebody who just reblogs everything out there, you’re probably not going to wind up on Inside.com. But if you’re someone who does original journalism, we’re going to drive a lot of traffic to you.
We don’t want to have a Techmeme issue — 30 people commenting on a story about Marissa Mayer firing her COO. We want to find out who did the best original coverage of that, and if that’s Kara Swisher, we should be able to discern that with a little bit of work. We’re not going to be able to do that 100 percent of the time. We hope that Gabriel and the team will get it right 95 percent or better of the time, and then when we make a mistake, we hope we get called out in the comments.
That’s why I brought Gabriel on. He’s a much better editor than I would be. I was planning to be editor-in-chief, chief content officer. After showing him as a friend to get his advice, he was really drawn to it and he felt like this was the future of mobile news and that someone needed to build it, get people to the best stuff — as it were, the Pandora of news, the Twitter of topics.
We have 15 full-time people in the company and they’re all technology/product, and we have dozens and dozens of freelance contributors who we call curators.
That will be Gabriel’s function in the company, to round out and polish the source list and make sure we’re covering. Even without the direction of an e-i-c, we’re two-thirds of the way to having what I’ll call perfect coverage — anything perfect or awesome. That last third is going to be Gabriel’s job, to make sure those stories, as they’re bubbling up, we get them quickly.
We have to get to the story quickly, so we’re actually tracking our time to a story versus CNN’s or Gawker’s or Business Insider’s or The New York Times’. We’re looking at these things in terms of how quickly can we get to something. We have a big advantage in that we’re not doing the original reporting, so we don’t have to write the story about the Boston bombing — we just have to know who got to it first and point to the best sources.
But Inside is general news, right? We will get deep into Bitcoin on inside.com/bitcoin — that was part of the reason I coveted the domain name so much and I pursued this domain name for 10 years. It’s a very definitive URL. There are very few chances to have a definitive brand like Inside.
When you think about a topic like Bitcoin — if we did inside.com/bitcoin 18 months ago when it first started coming up, if we had that, we would have had the definitive URL for Bitcoin news. Inside.com/bitcoin would be the place that’s very easy to remember. We also have @inside on Twitter, using the Twitter handle to interact with the audience and again direct people to the best journalism in the world.
We don’t feel there’s a problem with there not being enough good journalism. I personally believe there’s too much bad journalism. If you can get people a view of the best journalism in the world, they’ll have more than enough good stuff to consume. The problem is they have to weed through the five stories on Business Insider or Huffington Post that are kind of slideshows and link-baiting headlines and just plain false headlines to get the one good Nicholas Carlson story.
Nobody’s figured out mobile news. The great thing about mobile it’s going to be a magnitude bigger than the web. Now that we’re in people’s pockets and we’ve learned what they want to do, we’re going to be able to really optimize people’s experience to get them to the great stuff. If they want all of the news, they can go to the all-update feed. If they want news just tailored to them, I think over the next year or two we’re going to really be able to know, hey, Staci really likes media stories and she’s really into The New York Times and she really likes these five entrepreneurs and this is her favorite baseball team — and these are the five or six types of stories she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want Kim Kardashian in her feed, because she’s voted her down twice, so we’ve never going to show it again in my topics.
I would be drawn to it as an investor, but investors generally don’t like content, which is why I’ve structured it as a platform company. We are not doing the original journalism. Again, even though we write these 300-word updates, these are done by a freelance workforce and we have a 15-person company. I’ve modeled it in a way after Instagram or other small product-based platform companies. We are definitely a technology company and we do some content, but it’s done as a large-scale distributed workforce like Mahalo had or just like Weblogs Inc. had. This is my third time building a large-scale distributed workforce.
For people who are interested in the history, Mahalo became the 140th largest site in the United States, it had 50-60 million uniques in the top month, it was doing a $10 million AdSense run rate at the peak. It was pretty significant. The company hit profitability and we had over 100 employees. When the Panda update came, just like Google made Rap Genius disappear, they really took more than 50 percent of our traffic. They wouldn’t give us any relief, so I realized this was not a sustainable business. I went out and tried two or three different businesses.
We still have some traffic and assets. Some Mahalo assets still make $1 million a year, so you can’t just turn them off, but I don’t think building an SEO-driven business works any more. I don’t think you can really rely on Google not to steal your business like they did to Yelp and others. I basically tried to come up with a business idea that was what I will call Google-proof.
To make a Google-proof company, I wanted to have a killer brand that people would remember and come to like — a product so compelling that it has a repeatable effect. The problem at Mahalo or eHow is you use it for two hours to get your baking recipe, then you don’t use it again for two months — then you use it again for putting up curtains. You really rely on people going to Google.
With news, people will go directly to a site, which makes it impervious to Google. And the app ecosystem is also impervious to Google. They can’t control apps even though they have a big footprint in Android, nor have they shown a propensity to control the app ecosystem on Android. I think they would get a revolt on their hands if they did. We’re also adding an email component to this.
So email, social, and apps are three things that Google can’t control. This is very social — people will share. It’s mobile — Google can’t control that. The email function Google moderately can control.
I was a little agitated about that turn of events — I had to lay off 75 full-time writers after that Google update. I took a lot of those lessons. I picked myself up, and the team, and said, “Let’s solve this problem.”
This isn’t an SEO strategy, it’s an app strategy. We think once you have the app on your phone, you’re going to keep going back to it.
People can just buy native ads by topic. If you want to market people who are into Sundance, you can be the second or third card on Sundance.
We’re going to get people enough to get them going, but if you’re really a movie fan and you see that story about Avatar, you’re going to want to click through and get all the details, especially if it’s a high-quality journalism site.
We see ourselves kind of analogous to how Google used to run, which was Google would give you a great overview of places to go on the web and then drive a lot of traffic instead of keeping the traffic for themselves, which is their model now.
We started a year before Circa with the Launch Ticker. I looked at the Yahoo thing and it’s kind of just summaries. I think it’s automated by computers. I’ve tested all the semantic software and it doesn’t work, I don’t believe. I think a human has to read the story, understand the story, and write the summary.
We’ll figure out who the winner of the news space is in two or three years.
Nobody’s come close to figuring it out. Some people, like Circa, have done a great job. I’m a small investor in Circa. Circa’s not going to do 1,000 updates a day. We’ll actually link to their summaries, which are pretty good — which is kind of meta.
This is like the media brand I always wanted to create. At Weblogs Inc., we almost did this, but the bloggers wanted to have their own brand names. They didn’t want to be gadgets.weblogsinc.com. They wanted to be Engadget. The Engadget people really didn’t want to interface with the Joystiq people, with the Autoblog people. They had their own little islands. What I’m trying to build here is one app that unites all content based on topics and that learns what you like over time.
The line between what is industry news and consumer news has blurred. Steve Jobs told me face to face that Engadget was his favorite gadget site and that he read it every day. So we were servicing Steve Jobs and the industry at the same time as the people Steve Jobs was selling to.
We don’t have plans to do conferences, but I do like them, so it’s possible. But I really think we’re going to have our hands full trying to win mobile news on apps, and that’s where 100 percent of our focus will be for the next two years. We just want to be the best starting point for news needs. We want to be the starting point. If you start with us, we’re not going to waste your time and we’re going to get you to the best stuff.
Today, to launch a decent blog, it’s a million-dollar effort. If you don’t spend a million in two-three years, I don’t expect it to reach any level of prominence. It’s a fraction of when I started in the business. You’d have to have 100 people. Now you can build something with 15 people that’s extraordinary, because so much of the infrastructure’s there. You have Business Insider, which is worth $200 million, Huffington Post worth $350 million when they sold.
If you have one million uniques a month, you’re probably worth $5 million to the right person. If you have 10 million in the U.S., you’re probably worth $100 million.
I did okay with my angel portfolio, and I’ve done very well with Weblogs Inc., so I really don’t need the money from this. I’m doing this because I want to build the brand of my career. I’m 43 years old. I’m very proud of the brand I’ve built. But I want to build my own CNN, and I see this as the next CNN. That’s really what I’m optimizing for as an entrepreneur. This is my legacy.
I want to build the brand that is the most beautiful and loved news brand in the world.
This isn’t a quick flip for me. I’ve already had a couple of hits. I don’t need to sell it. I need to build something extraordinary, and that’s what I’m optimizing for.
If you look at what Matthew Keys did during the Boston bombing, he was the best person to follow during that. He made mistakes and he may be a polarizing individual, but he was a really good person to follow during that.
With so much rabid consumer participation in media and a really great foundation of great journalism going on in the world, the person who can curate that and put it into a feed or product that really speaks to a person is actually creating something. I’m a writer myself and a former journalist, so I know that sounds crazy, but I think that’s what the world needs today. Does that mean we’re not ever going to do original reporting? It’s possible we could. If we saw a category where we said nobody’s covering SeaWorld or Bitcoin, it’s possible we could hire a journalist or freelancer to cover that beat for us, sure. The difference between a curator and a journalist is really one of intent.
I think our success will be largely based on our ability to get rid of noise. Can we not have any spam or not have any reblogging, and can we keep people really focused?
Ten years from now, 20 years from now, when artificial intelligence takes a huge jump, fine — but I would rather spend the money on the journalists and have the algorithm do the customization. I think that’s a better combination. The Summly team, they have a different approach. They think that using a computer to summarize is a better choice. At the end of the day we’ll see who has a better product, which one people are going to use more. I think our model is going to be better. I think Circa proves that.
I think there are many chances for us to do additional content [at Inside] if we can get a base of 10,000 to 100,000 daily interactive users.