In the past ten years, the technology industry has evolved from photo sharing websites like Flickr to photo sharing apps like Instagram. And, we suppose, there’s been a few other changes along the way. But one thing that’s remained constant is Techmeme, the must-read site for anyone that wants to know what’s happening in the technology industry.
The tech industry is moving quickly. Two-year-old companies are being bought for billions — think WhatsApp, Oculus Rift, and Nest. Blink and you can miss the next major trend. Techmeme, which is nothing but links to other sites, similar to Drudge Report, or Google News, has made staying on top of the industry easier.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a dedicated reader, Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera tells Business Insider. Techmeme also attracts top-level Google executives and a boatload of venture capitalists.
“I check it multiple times a day,” TechStars founder David Tisch told our sister site Business Insider via email. “It is the easiest way to make sure you haven’t missed anything major that has happened in the industry that day. Skimming the headlines is a great way to get a summary of the days big stories.”
Founded in 2005 with out any outside investors, Techmeme has become the go-to place for anything and everything tech news. Over the years, a bunch of Techmeme “killers” and clones have popped up. But the biggest competition to Techmeme, Rivera says, are blogs and social sites like Twitter.
Our sister site, Business Insider recently caught up with Rivera to learn how he’s attained so much success with Techmeme.
Here’s a slightly edited Q&A with Rivera:
Business Insider: So for starters, how did you go from the world of IT to media?
Gabe Rivera: I’ve been interested in news forever, and then about a decade ago became particularly fascinated by how scoops and commentary pulsed through the early blogosphere. So I saw an opening for a site that provided a Google News-style summary, but shaped by what influential commentators and reporters were discussing in certain blog domains. While Techmeme at first was fully automated, and much more a “technology” product, the product and company surrounding it needed over time acquire a lot of media competence to stay viable. So now I’d say we very much inhabit the media world, while also remaining a very tech-driven company.
BI: And how did you create the must-read site for people in the tech industry?
GR: It happened gradually. At first Techmeme was focused mostly on what early tech bloggers were concerned with. Since these bloggers skewed much more indie and much more Web 2.0-focused, Techmeme skewed that way too, making us a more complimentary read to other must-reads.
But various forms of convergence led to us to court a larger audience. First, a kind of convergence in the blogging arena: many popular indie bloggers became “pro”, while most established media sites became more bloggy. This accompanied a convergence in the products we cover: as hardware success became linked with good software in the age of the iPhone, and as applications became cloud-connected, lines were too blurry for us to address an area any narrower than what we cover now: both hardware and software, both web and native applications, both enterprise and consumer, both people and products, and both commercial aspects and core technologies, in short, the broader tech industry.
Fortunately, our early readers stayed with us as we changed, and helped spread to the word to a wider audience.
BI: Over the years several Techmeme “killers” and clones have popped up. How have you ensured Techmeme remains the site-of-record for the tech industry? What is that Techmeme has that some of these other competitors don’t have? Speaking of competitors, which publication are you most like? Or which publication is trying to copy you the most?
GR: We had our share of clones, especially in the early years, when Techmeme ‘s automation and surface simplicity seduced some developers into thinking a two-week project could reproduce what we do. And indeed, the bar was lower then, as we hadn’t yet mixed in editorial input from a staff of editors. Those clones usually closed shop rather quickly. Either breaking news would take too long to appear on those sites, or they’d miss important stories.
In recent years, the real competition hasn’t come from direct competitors, but from social networks and news blogs, which also can offer a sort of “front page for tech news”. These quasi-competitors have probably snatched some readers we could have otherwise grown into. But there are good reasons why the best and smartest readers visit Techmeme, even with those other options.
Take Twitter for instance. If you follow the right mix of news outlets, you get very fast source of tech news that’s also fairly broad. But you still face the noise problem (too many tweets), and the ranking problem (it’s hard to quickly see what’s the biggest story of the day). Techmeme solves both, because we highlight one link to represent a story, and because we place the biggest stories at the top of the page.
Now consider blogs. Many do a fine job providing broad tech coverage, while usually solving the noise problem I referred to above, and sometimes even partly solving the ranking problem. But Techmeme readers also appreciate the mix of sources we feature. If everyone in tech today is talking about a particular WSJ scoop, a cogent analysis piece hosted on Medium, and an announcement Mark Zuckerberg posted to his Facebook page, our readers want to see those links highlighted, and not rewrites. At the same time, people love us for the particular mix of stories we curate. It’s the result of building a great editorial team for over 5 years, and great news-surfacing technology for over a decade.
BI: You’ve never taken any VC money, why is that? Do you think you’ll ever take VC money? Have VCs ever approached you, looking to invest in Techmeme?
GR: We’ve never taken any VC. Before taking in ad revenues I just lived off some savings, and then once we started getting revenue from sponsors, we’ve been growing on it ever since.
When we first launched, we heard from a lot of VCs. I think they saw what we were doing and imagined a stable of automated news sites that scaled cheaply across scores of viable news topics. But for a number of very good reasons (technical and market-related), nobody has been able to pull that off, certainly not us, and so the inbound introductions from VCs ran their course. We nonetheless hear from a good number of VCs reaffirming interest in our company if we’re ready to scale in a VC-fuelled way, but my inbox is mostly full of other stuff.
Would we ever take VC? I wouldn’t rule it out. While we’re currently self-sufficient, in my view we’re still iterating (even now!) to figure out what our core business model is. If we get to a point where we have a clear idea of what will scale nicely, and where we need to move faster than what we can finance ourselves, we’ll seek VC. But that won’t be happening in the near future.
BI: How profitable is Techmeme?
GR: We’re profitable in the sense that we pay all our people, myself included. But the revenues are nothing to boast about. We’re a fairly lean operation, in part because our only revenues are from advertising, and so far we’ve stubbornly stuck to decidedly classy ads that are harder to sell. Instead of interstitial and giant banners, we’ve only shown sponsor posts, hiring links, and event listings from advertisers who specifically want their content to reach Techmeme’s readers in a respectful and elegant way.
BI: How much of Techmeme is automated and how much is curated by humans?
GR: That’s hard to answer because there’s such a tight feedback loop between our automation and our editors. While top-level headlines on Techmeme and Mediagazer are now always gated by editors (nothing posts that we haven’t first checked), our editors are frequently sifting through posts recommended by the automation before posting. And while second-tier links (the ones after “More:”) are usually automatically placed, editors can change those too.
So I usually just say “fifty-fifty” when someone really wants to hear a number for automation versus human, but it’s actually difficult to quantify.
BI: I’m also curious about which of your media properties have the most traffic after Techmeme.
GR: After Techmeme is Memeorandum, which still runs without human editors, and then Mediagazer. A lot of people consume Mediagazer just through its tweets, so my guess is adding in that following, Mediagazer would be #2.
BI: You mentioned that Techmeme is still iterating. Could you elaborate a bit on how?
GR: Most of our improvements are under the hood: better editorial processes and smarter algorithms that lead to better news. We also make UI improvements and other outward-facing features, but progress there is more gradual. We don’t want to change things too abruptly on readers, nor do we have the resources to do that if we wanted to. One example of a small new thing we’re working on: we’re revamping our leaderboard page in a way that makes it much more useful.
We’ve also iterated on how we can serve companies that want to promote stuff, opening some new ad revenue sources for us, which is what I was referring to in that earlier question. For instance, with more and more companies organising events around their products and platforms, it became clear the world needed a central place to list these, which was a perfect complement for Techmeme, so we built it. We similarly offered companies a place to promote their company-wide hiring efforts.
BI: Also, how many unique monthly visitors does Techmeme have? How has your traffic changed over the years? Is it increasing, decreasing, or staying relatively stable?
GR: Monthly uniques are a particularly bad stat for aggregators like Techmeme. A site with only 10,000 recurring readers but articles shared on Twitter or Facebook with 10 million people in March can report 10 million monthly uniques. (This kind of scenario isn’t too outlandish when you consider Upworthy, Viral Nova, etc.) For aggregators like Techmeme that don’t host articles or comment pages, monthly uniques much more closely track the number of recurring readers, meaning the number of people who actually visit our home page again and again. That number is still under a million, but we prefer not to give it out so people don’t make spurious comparisons to sites that publish article pages (which is almost every other news site).
After rapid growth in the early years, traffic growth is still increasing, but more gradually. And this matches my experience talking to people over six annual D conferences. In the early years, most attendees didn’t know what Techmeme was, suggesting a lot of room for further growth into the industry. But by 2013, almost all the attendees were familiar, with a majority recurring readers, so while there’s now less room to grow, we still have a lot of great readers to win over.
BI: Who are some Silicon Valley big-wigs that read the site?
GR: From many accounts, I know Mark Zuckerberg is a dedicated reader, one sign of which you guys spotted a few years ago, and he continues liking our Facebook posts today. I’ve talked to plenty of Google execs too who are readers, in fact Sundar Pichai mentioned this onstage at Google I/O last year. Various mentions on Twitter indicate a lot of Silicon Valley CEOs are readers, including this complimentary one just today from PayPal’s CEO. I’ll happily take criticism too, like this one from LinkedIn’s CEO. And then here’s an oldie from Twitter’s CEO. And I could go on and on about the VCs as well, but let’s stop here.
BI: How long do you want to do Techmeme for? Do you ever get bored?
GR: I think a lot of fun, interesting, and hard problems related to what and whom we should pay attention to are linked to the kind of work we’re doing at Techmeme. So looking years ahead, I’d expect that expanding the scope of our product could be an endlessly captivating job. As a result, I’d like to be involved with Techmeme as long as possible, and I doubt I’ll ever experience a day of boredom, which hasn’t happened yet.
BI: Have you ever thought about becoming a VC? Would you ever want to be a VC?
GR: When you see plane crash footage, you can’t help but think about dying in a plane crash. And when you have friends who are VCs, you can’t help but think about how you’d do as a VC. But I think I’m happier doing what I do now.
BI: Also, you seem to be pretty sarcastic on Twitter. Have you ever gotten in trouble for tweets?
GR: Yeah, I love sarcasm, which is perhaps Twitter’s most perfect, natural, and basic form of dissent. Sarcasm has always fit my personality, but working in media, it’s a muscle that must be exercised vigorously just to maintain one’s claim to integrity. Take the messages companies and governments broadcast, overlay the distortions of an increasingly polarised and bellicose press, then mix in the social media emissions of public figures, laden with obsequiousness and sanctimony and deceit, and we’re swimming in a sea of radioactive horse crap. A little sarcasm makes it all go down easier.
I’ve received perhaps a few whiny DMs from folks, but have gotten into no major trouble, at least that I’m aware of.