10 shocking (or at least interesting) facts about Techmeme on its 10th birthday
Techmeme launched on September 12, 2005 amid a flurry of blog posts from Robert Scoble, Richard MacManus, and several others. Friends and Techmeme team members have insisted we need to mark this anniversary, so I reluctantly wrote the following listicle, which now that I've finished, I am glad I wrote. Enjoy!
- Techmeme didn't launch with the name "Techmeme", or even its own top level domain. Instead, it launched as tech.memeorandum, the technology offshoot of memeorandum, an automated aggregator of news and commentary mainly around US politics. (memeorandum launched in January 2004 and still lives on today, but could probably use a redesign, rebranding, and editors.) On the day memeorandum's improved automated engine and redesign were announced, its sister site for tech news, tech.memeorandum went live on the subdomain tech.memeorandum.com. After tech.memeorandum quickly eclipsed memeorandum in traffic, it became clear it deserved its own domain, and moved to Techmeme.com the following May.
- Techmeme's original mission statement still holds up nicely today, allowing for a few addendums. The goals outlined here in 2005 (1. Recognize the web as editor, 2. Rapidly uncover new sources, and 3. Relate the conversation) endure even to this day. However, as Techmeme became the first stop for tech news for a growing and influential segment of the tech industry, other goals became imperative too. In particular: strive for comprehensive coverage of the day's most significant tech stories, and post big, breaking news story quickly.
- Although it has almost no direct competition today, Techmeme was reportedly beset by a legion of competitors for years. In the months after it launched, Techmeme was considered to be an exemplar among discovery and search services in the blogging space, a purportedly burgeoning industry. Moreover, its fully automated implementation at the time appeared on the surface to rely on a simple technological process (Step 1: Scan feeds … Step 2. Sort posts by inbound links.) Inevitably, an assortment of Techmeme-like sites was soon competing for attention. While a few sites were clearly imitators, others were, like Techmeme, iterations on ideas bubbling up at the time.
And so we would see TechCrunch comparing Techmeme (née tech.memeorandum) to services with names like Blogniscient, Megite, and Chuquet. Later the phrase "Techmeme Killer" would appear fairly regularly in headlines, most notably when Google itself introduced a would-be "Techmeme Killer". Even after Techmeme survived Google's Techmeme-killer, services like ePlatform and TechFuga would still elicit comparisons to Techmeme, while TechCrunch would later say of Tweetmeme, a Techmeme-like aggregator of tweets "If I were Gabe Rivera, I'd start worrying now".
As you can probably guess, each of the above services mentioned above (Google Blogsearch included) no longer exists.
Today, it's rare for a new service to come along that is considered to be direct competition for Techmeme, for a couple reasons. First, in the proceeding years, Techmeme introduced elements like human editing and rewritten headlines that made cloning more than just a problem of deploying code. Second, most media entrepreneurs now see more potential through other avenues. Unicorn valuations in media today are thought to be won through BuzzFeed-like strategies to attain BuzzFeed-level scale, not building another industry news aggregator.
- Techmeme has lots of indirect competition, including Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. Like all media sites, Techmeme's real competition comes from whatever is best at diverting attention that it might otherwise draw. So foremost among Techmeme's "competitors" are Twitter, Facebook, blogs that function as news aggregators, and, in fact, media of all forms (not to mention sunshine, children, and puppies). A person who is content to gather technology news through what friends share on Facebook, or by scanning thousands of tweets each day, may be less likely to rely on Techmeme. On the other hand, because this competition exists, those that do rely on Techmeme happen to be the most demanding and informed readers, the ones who know they can't stay current on actionable news by merely consuming social media feeds. So while competition may curtail Techmeme's readership somewhat, it has the effect of making our average reader more valuable.
- Lately we've been more about building team and process than technology. While Techmeme's foundation is a suite of technologies that continues to evolve, the bulk of our work in recent years has been directed at hiring and training editors, and perfecting the processes that strengthen our editorial product. In this way, we have more in common with news organizations than, say, Google News or Nuzzel. While it's possible the balance may shift again in the years ahead, our reliance on human editors will not wane (until such time as AI has progressed to the point where robots write hit songs and screenplays.)
- Techmeme usually has only one editor working at a time. In 2008 we announced we were coupling our algorithmic engine with our first human editor. Since then, we've hired several more editors to provide near-24/7 coverage. Even with those additional editors, we still follow a model in which usually just one editor works on Techmeme at a time. Mediagazer, Techmeme's sister site for media news, employs editors as well, but again, mainly just one at a time. While there are moments throughout the day when a second Techmeme editor assists the first, facilitated by an editing system designed for collaboration, more often than not, it's just one human editor alongside our automation.
- Our editing model leads to a highly distributed and international team, and no offices. Covering news 24/7, but with only one editor working a site at a time leads to an organization built around working from home, so long as those home offices span many time zones. The flexibility that comes with working from home has enabled us to tap talent pools unavailable to other kinds of organizations, particularly stay-at-home parents and full time college students. One result of this is a fairly broad range of ages among our editors, a form of diversity emphasized not very frequently in commentary on inclusion in Techmeme stories, but nonetheless a real asset for many organizations.
- Opting not to host articles profoundly affects the way news can be conveyed for non-obvious reasons. Because Techmeme doesn't host its own stories, we're never tempted to publish more articles than our readers want just to goose traffic. Also, when we do publish new links, we're never tempted to use headlines designed to force you to click to collect very basic details, which would only make our homepage less valuable, and wouldn't improve our stats in any way. The end result is a homepage that's highly informative, scannable, and devoid of gimmicky news, an outcome that runs counter to major trends in media.
- Techmeme has never run interstitials, page takeovers, mouse-over ads, auto-playing anything, or even banners. Arriving at a sustainable ad model for Techmeme was never going to be easy. When you don't host articles, you don't rack up as many page views, and moreover, you don't have very sharable content, the kind that attracts monthly unique visitors (i.e. entices bored people to leave Facebook for a few seconds). In 2015, supporting an online news operation with advertising when your page view and unique visitor numbers aren't massive is always an uphill battle. Media sites in this predicament are often tempted to run ads units that pay more but repel and infuriate readers.
Fortunately what Techmeme does have is the attention of the people who lead the tech industry. (Ask your CEO "where do you get your tech news?") When a news destination is a hub for industry decision-makers, companies will want to reach its readers, making it possible to sell the far more welcome form of "ads" that Techmeme does include. These include posts from sponsors' blogs, catchy taglines from companies that want you to check out their job openings, and events that companies want you to consider attending. While not all companies are used to making these sorts of marketing buys, many are learning how, and Techmeme is here to serve them.
- Techmeme has never taken VC: a lesson for some, but a model for none. I always hoped it would be possible to build and sustain Techmeme without the aid of venture capital or debt. Not so much because of real or perceived issues around independence or autonomy, not because "bootstrapped" is an impressive badge of honor, and not because I disliked investors (some of my best friends are VCs!) But rather because the media business we envisioned by its nature was just not destined to become the "unicorn" VCs always want, at least in its first of several possible iterations. So proving sustainability always seemed necessarily part of the plan. Moreover, in casual conversations with investors over the years most ideas for expansion suggested to me seemed destined to fail in my estimation (a fate borne out in a few cases by actual companies that carried out such plans).
As Techmeme never did raise VC nor even attempted to, my initial hope of course became a reality.
And yet I don't want Techmeme to be any kind of flag-bearer for bootstrapped startups, because the lessons we learned are not so widely applicable, especially in 2015. While there are lessons to learn from what we've built, it's hard to imagine a business starting today for which Techmeme's experience can serve as a direct model. Furthermore, I wouldn't even claim with certainty that forgoing VC was the best decision for Techmeme. Just because most ideas for rapidly expanding Techmeme are flawed doesn't mean all of them are, and as we've found after some consideration, there may be some good ones out there!