From a reporter for Time magazine, including stints as Bureau Chief in India and Japan, to helping launch one-time Google competitor Infoseek, to President of Time Inc Interactive, Desmond’s various professional incarnations have lent him a unique perspective on what it takes to make it in digital publishing.
Now Desmond has turned his attention to “charming” Berlin, choosing it as the location for the European debut of TechCrunch Disrupt. We got some time with Ned to find out why TechCrunch chose the German capital over London, the very real threats to online journalism and future plans for the AOL behemoth.
Hi Ned, first of all, why are you here in Berlin? Why did TechCrunch choose to hold its first European Disrupt here?
“Late last year we were studying all the possible venues in Europe. We looked at all the obvious contenders, and actually Berlin wasn’t initially a front-runner… London put in a very strong pitch. But the more we learned about the city, the more we realised it was a great fit for TechCrunch.
“There’s a very international community here, plus we found that many investors were actually asking startups to set up in Berlin because the talent is here, the cost of living is reasonable, it keeps your burn rate down – the kind of things that investors are concerned about.
“It’s also affordable and a lot of fun. Berlin is so fascinating on so many levels – I came here for an extra couple off days to see all the things I wanted to see. It feels like a city that taking shape, unlike Munich or Paris or London, which already have their shape.
“And it’s just a really charming – and relatively unknown – place, at least from an American standpoint. So for all of those reasons it seemed pretty perfect.”
How do you think it compares to a fully formed ecosystem such as Silicon Valley?
“We will do different types of smaller events and meetups with partners in places like Moscow, Rome, Bangalore, Beijing, Tel Aviv. etc. All these markets to some extent share the same characteristics – there’s plenty seed and early-stage money, angel money. The bottleneck comes later stage.
“(There is a shortage) of the right people who have the money and ability to dramatically increase the odds of success for a startup. In Silicon Valley you have that, and in NY and London there are a few… but the numbers come down pretty sharply elsewhere. So I think it’s about the evolution of that class of player in the ecosystem that is the most critical.”
And obviously we have the Researchgate/Bill Gates news…
“Well yes, that obviously made us immediately go after Bill Gates (for TechCrunch Disrupt)!”
Why choose such a notoriously difficult business like online publishing?
“It’s like Churchill said about democracy: ‘It’s a terrible business, but it just happens to be the best that’s available to us’. We’re fortunate… We have a fabulous audience of tech enthusiasts, so we can attract advertisers from mainstream car makers to enterprise software companies. Even though I’m half-joking about online media not being the best in the world, tech media is about as good as it gets…”
Is display advertising a sustainable model for online publications? What are the other options?
“I think it will be with us for while. But it’s changing already as a consequence of mobile. I still think your 728×90 and your 300×250 and certain new types of mobile units will be with us for quite a while. There’s a lot of pressure to allow native advertising but we’re not doing that.
“But for a media entity such as TechCrunch, you can’t sit still and think that the advertising mixed with media is going to be an interesting enough offering. In the long run we know that the ability to control price just keeps slipping away from us. It’s the world that Google has created. The more successful we are, the more we dilute our own pricing possibilities. It’s just one of those cruel realities. It’s not like the old days where you had a magazine with only so many pages.
“Heather (Harde, former CEO of TechCrunch – pictured left)’s great insight was to create an events business. And right out of the gate it was very successful and profitable. One of my concerns is how do we make the most of the TechCrunch brand. Events are a perfect fit for our market. Like your readers, ours love to get together — as long as we do it well and give them something meaningful to think about and talk about and enjoy.”
Why does TechCrunch focus mostly on breaking news rather than long-form articles?
“We are really good at news and the perspective that you build into the news. And this is why so many (people) bring us news first because we understand it, we can filter it and deliver it well to our audience.
“I think everyone on the staff is capable of doing longer-form and they do do it, but the medium demands that you do high-volume news and there’s no way that you can step out of that. There’s nothing that intoxicates me like really great reads that have taken a long time to write, but the internet as a medium has no regard for quality, it only wants volume and news. And that’s what Google has invented for us.”
And what about aggregation, sites such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post?
“Everyone is trying to find their way in online publishing. I think everyone is striving to find a way to build their audience quickly. And sometimes it’s got little to do with the audience and everything to do with Google. If you understand the way that online media works, then you can generate a big audience. But if you examine the second and third stage of those media companies’ lives, they start striving for respectability. They start to hire high-end talent.
“I imagine that nothing has really changed since the early days of newspapers. I suspect that this fundamental process is pretty much the same, but only the medium is wildly different.”
And what about data? CrunchBase was ahead of the “big data curve”. Have you tapped the full potential of this yet?
“That’s our other big project: to dramatically improve CrunchBase’s promise to the community. So on the data side we launched a programme called the CrunchBase Venture Programme and we’ve rolled it out in New York at Disrupt with 11 partners – Greylock, Sequoia, Andreesen-Horowitz agreed to give us feeds of their public portfolio company data so that we can update our data much more quickly. (A month later there are 160 in the programme.)
“There’s a real horse race for data right now on private companies, startups in particular. CrunchBase, in its own sleepy way, made it to the forefront of the whole thing. It’s a testament to the inspiration that Arrington (pictured right) had back in the day.”
You’ve launched and relaunched a few massive digital titles in your time (People, Entertainment Week, InStyle). What are the biggest danger factors?
“There’s so many ways that a relaunch can kill you. They’re really hard. Technically they are really difficult. You have to be super-mindful of the way that Google sees you, and how it’s going to work on phones, how fast its downloading. So the technical aspects are quite tricky.
“Feature creep is the devil. I’m an extreme fundamentalist on relaunches. You don’t do one unless there’s stick in your eye every day that tells you to do one and that it has to happen. Take Occam’s razor to everything. There should be no ‘nice to haves’.
“At Time Inc I learned across a bunch of brands, using different technologies at different stages. We learned that at the end of the day, success came down in looking for the reason for doing something. If you could isolate the reason to one or two things, then the odds of success were far better than if you had a spec that was trying to address ten things.”
So – Disrupt, events, CrunchBase, redesign – anything else up TC’s sleeve?
“We’ll probably take Disrupt to Beijing next year and then there are partner events and localizing what we do too – we’re launching a Chinese edition of TechCrunch, mostly translated articles, and we’re doing that with a partner on China.
“There are a couple of other language markets that we might serve that way… and there are a couple of other coverage markets that we might serve. Our London team does a good job across Europe, but we could do more out of India, we could do more out of China, we could do more out of Israel. And, you know, maybe something out of Brazil and Latin America…”
And will we see any more Disrupts in Berlin?
“Sure, we’ll be in Europe with Disrupt every year for the foreseeable future. We haven’t made our minds up about which cities we’ll be in. We’ll see how it goes in Berlin… but we’re optimistic that it’ll go quite well.”
TechCrunch Disrupt will take place 26-29 Oct in Berlin
Berlin: flickr user Andreas Lehner 2013
Silicon Valley: flickr user Patrick Nouhailler
Please Pay: flick user allaboutgeorge
Heather Harde: via Crunchbase
Desmond and Kaufman: flickr user TechCrunch
Image credit: Flickr user LeWEB2012
FOR RELATED POSTS, CHECK OUT:
- “Facebook for scientists” ResearchGate confirms $35m new funding led by Bill Gates and Tenaya Capital
- Arguing with journalists is “like the Catholic Church debating with Martin Luther” – CrunchFund’s Michael Arrington talks tech, truth and media detractors
- We need to talk… Is the business model for online journalism broken?