Six years ago today, a company was born. Called Federated Media Publishing, Inc., it was my fourth or fifth startup, depending on how you count (I’d wager Web 2, now on its eighth year, does count). But FM was the first company that I built from scratch – no initial corporate parent (as I had with The Industry Standard), no initial set of partners (as I had with Wired or Web 2), just an idea and equal measures of optimism and trepidation.
FM began with an idea, to be sure, but it also started with some key people. Jennifer Charette answered my call for a partner to help set up the office, she has been with me since the start, and is now our Chief of Staff, in charge of all staff and administration. Chas Edwards left a high paying and secure job at Cnet to be my VP of Sales, after four years of killing it with FM, he’s now the CRO of a hot image-based startup. And Andre Torrez, my first VP Technology, also moved on to early startup glory. After more than four years at FM, he’s now shaking things up at mlkshk, his own creation that I am certain is going to take off just as FM did.
The four of us worked in the garage (admittedly, it was a pretty nice one) owned by one of my best friends, Martin Shore, whose support for nearly every ridiculous idea I’ve had is unflagging.
I remember explaining the idea of FM on a whiteboard to Andre in that garage. I said something to the effect of this: “The web is changing. Publishing is changing. How people are consuming media is changing. The economic model of how all this gets supported is changing. A new breed of creator is ascendant, an author of sorts, one who brings together a community with his or her voice and point of view. FM needs to be the platform that supports that talent, and … well…. federates them in a way that helps marketers reach both the talent and the audience that talent attracts.”
As I drew on the white board, Andre was silent. Chas and I looked at him – we needed a platform that could deliver marketing messages across a pastiche of blogs, community sites, and emerging new services. And it had to be set up in a way that didn’t suck – the publishers had to have control – they had to be able to say “yes or no” to any advertising FM might bring them. Could it be done?
And Andre stared at the white board for a while, and then he said “Yeah, I think I can do that.”
And he did.
We delivered our first campaigns to FM partners in late 2005, and we’ve never really looked back. From our early start – about 20 sites, mostly tech, comprising about 2 million uniques and 20 million pageviews – we’ve grown to one of the largest Internet media companies in the world – with more than 75 million worldwide uniques and billions of pageviews across a multitude of categories, including food, parenting, lifestyle, and of course technology and business.
Along the way, FM became synonymous with innovation in media and marketing. I’m bragging like a proud papa here, but given where I sit at the moment (no longer CEO, but a very active Founder/Chairman reflecting on six years of sleepless commitment), I hope you’ll indulge me. We’ve worked with some of the best brands in what we’ve come to call “the Independent Web” – that part of the media world that isn’t Facebook (though we’ve worked with them, of course), or Google, or Yahoo, or AOL for that matter. Early on, I called this the “rest of the world,” and it’s a very vibrant and deeply passionate place.
FM was the first company to bring Fortune 500 brands to blogs, at scale. The first to identify and bring a business model to community driven news sites like Digg. The first to bring brands into the Facebook platform through partnerships with innovators like Graffiti. The first to evangelize “conversational marketing,” and the first to deliver actual ad units which allowed marketers to bring their own voice, in real time, into the real estate previously considered a wasteland. In fact, we were honored in 2006 with a Webby for our RSS-driven ad units, where a marketer’s own messaging (or the content of those authors they supported, now celebrated as “content marketing”) was updated as the conversation changed across the web. Now, of course, the idea that a brand might drive a conversation, and that this conversation should be central to a brand’s marketing efforts, is the axis around which Facebook, as one example, drives its current business. We didn’t start FM to be Facebook, (the Independent Web is pretty much the ying to Facebook’s yang) but it’s nice to know our ideas have not only gained currency, they’ve become the de facto currency of digital marketing.
When Twitter took off in 2008, FM was there, creating the first brand integration, with our partner Microsoft. And when the world’s largest publishing platform, WordPress – long a friend to the company – was ready to explore monetization, FM again was the partner of choice.
As we grew, more amazing people joined FM. Jonathan, Jason, Eric, Stacey, James, Pete, Josh, Alexis, Neil, and on and on (I’d like to list you all, but time and space prevents it). And of course, our many publishing partners joined, made their name, and some then moved on. Techcrunch, Mashable, Celebrity Baby Blog, Ars Technica, Business Insider, Sports Blog Nation, Revision 3 – the list is again too long to complete. And of course, there’s our first and still our most treasured site: Boing Boing (yes, I’m a partner). I’ve always believed in the independent voice, the independent publisher, the value of great content and great audiences. FM stands for all that, and more.
Then there are our marketing partners, who I failed to credit in the first draft of this post. From our pioneering and continuing work with American Express, HP, Microsoft, GM, Intel, BMW, Dell, AT&T and many others to our current partnerships with Verizon, GE, Clorox, L’Oreal, Google, Unilever, P&G, and scores more, it’s been our marketing partners who have understood and embraced the idea of joining and supporting the Independent Web. We’d be nowhere without them.
Over the past three decades, I’ve been at the center of a few amazing companies – two of which have passed 500 employees in girth. Wired, which still lives on, was the first. The Industry Standard, which lives on in a few markets outside the US, was the other. But FM is my proudest and most cherished accomplishment – with just 175 or so extraordinary employees, we’ve managed to deliver more than $100 million back to the creators of the Independent Web over the past six years. That means that thousands of independent voices have rung out true, in part because FM and its partners were there to help them pay the bills.
I can’t really put in words how proud that makes me feel.
And honestly, while it sounds like a careworn phrase, we are really just getting started.
Last year FM purchased three companies (FoodBuzz, TextDigger, and BigTent), and invested in one other (CleverGirls). This year we are on the brink of announcing similar moves. We’ve grown to more than five offices across the country, we’re flirting with a $100 million revenue run rate, we’ve been profitable for nearly two years, and we have a strategy in place that I am certain will bring the company to even greater success in the coming years.
I didn’t plan on writing this post. I’m on the first real vacation I’ve had in quite a while – thanks almost entirely to the tireless work of our recently promoted CEO, Deanna Brown, who has brought the company we started six years ago to a level I dared not dream of back in 2005. But here we are. Six years in, and just getting started. My thanks go out to our investors, from the New York Times to Pierre Omidyar and Mitch Kapor at the start, to Chris Albinson and Panorama for backing us when we were young, and to Oak for fueling our incredible growth over the past three years.
It’s been one amazing journey. And as I said, while I wasn’t planning on writing this post, I am a creature of habit. I have my phone here in Greece, and up popped a reminder put on my calendar by my amazing assistant Sarah: “John’s Six Year FM anniversary.” For each year anniversary of FM employees, I write a card thanking them and congratulating them on another year of helping grow the Independent Web. I guess this is my card to myself. And to all the partners, staff, and friends who have made this journey possible. Thank you.