Pete Cashmore is CEO and founder of Mashable.com, which has firmly established itself as one of the world’s biggest tech blogs.
We caught up with Pete to find out more about the progress of his publishing and events business, as well as his thoughts on social media in general.
The rise of Mashable has been rapid, and has mirrored the rise of social media over the past few years. Can you take us back to the start and outline why you launched it, and your aims for the site back in the day?
I launched the site in Fall 2004, basically because I was thinking about what would be big in my lifetime, and the web seemed to be the thing. I come from a small town in Scotland, and part of the reason for starting the blog was that I wanted to get involved and start writing about the web to understand what it all means, and to find out how it works.
I did think about starting a web business, but it turned out to be a good time to start a blog, and eventually the blog took over. It was a time when monetisation was questionable, and people doubted that you could make money from blogging. Soon after though, companies started to buy advertising on blogs.
I blogged seven posts a day, and about a year in, I started getting ads on the blog. When I got a deal for $3,000 a month to put ads on the bog, it was massive for me, and allowed me to hire another writer to help out.
As it grew I added a third person, and now we have about eight of us working full time, and several others contributing to the site.
Was the US focus of the blog a deliberate strategy?
Actually, it didn’t occur to me to start a UK blog, and really, your location shouldn’t have any bearing on the content of the blog.
A lot of it was down to what was happening at the time, and the location of the blog’s readers. The US was our main audience, and the greater this US audience grew, the more likely we were to cover stories from there.
And back to the present, how are things going for you? Mashable was recently said to have usurped Techcrunch as the number one tech blog. What are your official figures these days?
We are really competing against ourselves, we have no control over how other people perform. What I look at is: are we doing a better job then last year / six months ago? I think we have progressed and I’m pleased by the way it has gone. This month we were 20% up on last month, and Blippr has also increased by 70%.
What does the Mashable team look like these days? What tools do you use to manage your virtual office, given that you have a distributed team of contributors?
We have an editor in chief in Virginia, three team members in New York, one in Long Island… the East Coast is a big focal point for us. Then we have a couple on the West Coast: one in San Diego and one in Mountain View, so we can cover what’s happening in both areas.
As for tools, we use project management tools from 37 Signals such as Campfire for chatting internally, and we also use IM a great deal, along with lots of emails.
Is Mashable profitable? Do most of your revenues come from the site or the events that you run?
We have never taken funding, so we have always had to at least break even. The funding for our staff comes from our ad sales and events. This has worked well for us as a company, and the more we have earned, the more we have grown, which has made it easy to scale.
The main area of income comes from the site – ad revenues and sponsorships – and as such our main focus is on content.
The events seem to have really helped bond the Mashable community above and beyond the internet channel. How important has this been in getting closer to your audience, and to your bottom line?
It’s hard to measure ROI on events, and a lot of the benefits from running events has been in terms of greater visibility for Mashable as a brand. I would say that the marketing value has been greater than the cash value. We are connecting our audience to other members of the tech community, and people are going away and talking about Mashable.
You’ve got about 100 million Twitter followers… certainly you seem to practice a lot of what you preach, and have done very well in the social media space. How have the likes of Twitter and Facebook helped you grow?
Twitter is incredibly powerful for getting interest around stories and keeping the dialogue going around them. The Twitter demographic is very engaged.
We promoted Twitter heavily from the start, wrote a lot of posts about it, said it was going to be big, and encouraged our audience to get onto Twitter and get involved.
Twitter delivers more engaged traffic than other social networks, and the key effect is the way they get involved on the blog, talking about issues and commenting on posts to a greater extent.
We get more comments and more dialogue on the site, and that is very valuable. Blogs often get a lot of passive traffic, but Twitter seems to create or pull in a more obsessive audience.
We have encouraged this by adding various plugins to pull in comment from Twitter, Digg and other sites, and we are happy for users to be discussing our posts on Twitter and elsewhere, not just on our site. We have added a sign in option so that people can cross-post comments on Mashable, Twitter and Facebook.
Mashable acquired micro-review platform Blippr recently. How has that been working out for you, and what plans do you have for it?
In shorthand, Blippr is Twitter for reviews. It’s also a recommendation engine for music, movies web applications people have used, and more.
You can review something you have read or heard recently, and then get recommendations back based on this. There’s also a plugin on Mashable, so you can a review a new site or app you have read about on the blog and go to Blippr to rate it.
It can also link in to services like Last.fm, and there is a monetisation model there as well, in providing recommendations and sending people to Amazon to buy DVDs.
Are the Blippr founders still involved in the project?
Yes, we’ve kept the two founders on board, and they are continuing their work on the site. Our role is to bring in a bigger audience for the site and provide guidance. The technology is secondary. We have brought in the Mashable community and allowed it to gain that critical mass.
Tell us about The Summer of Social Good. What is it, and why is it important?
It’s a three-month campaign around using social media for charity, involving the WWF, Oxfam, The Humane Society, and LiveStrong.
We see a lot of power in social media and we want to inspire our audience to contribute something to society, as well as setting an example by using social media and our influence for good. It has a few precursors, such as Twestival and Social Media Smackdown, which raised $35,000 through Twitter, MySpace and Facebook.
There is also a case to be made for social media. People have criticised it as being narcissistic or trivial but we think it can be used for good causes and be a force for good in general.
I’ve found that charities and fundraising groups are pretty well tuned into the web, but what can they be doing better?
It’s an evolving space, and it hasn’t yet become clear what the best is. Charities need to optimise for what users of Twitter and Facebook want, such as running events and competitions. I think that charities have done a better job with social media than, say, government agencies.
You’re launching a Twitter Chat application soon, right? What’s the big idea there?
We’re testing it at the moment. It will essentially be like a chatroom that integrates with Twitter, so people will be using their profiles from the site and can tweet about what is going on.
We’ll be using video chat, having curated discussions, and can do screen shares, so we can go through product reviews. Last night, for instance, we were using it to look at a Google Wave demo, but we are still trying to figure out the uses for it.
We will probably use it at certain times of the day, or link it to particular events, not have it going all the time. We have worked on live streaming ideas for a while but haven’t been able to get an immediate audience together. Twitter and Facebook are both more immediate then blog posts, so now we have much more ability to get people engaged instantly via those platforms.
With Twitter Chat and Blippr it seems that Mashable is broadening its focus, beyond a publisher and events company. Is this a sign of things to come, and what can we expect from you in the future?
I mainly think in terms of demographics, and what our audience wants. Whatever we are doing is always going to be around tech content.
We have an audience which is a distinct demographic. We are the 20% of people who voraciously share everything and get involved, rather than the 80% who just consume. A lot of what we do now and will do in future is about enabling the community to contribute content, so things like Blippr and Twitter Chat are not necessarily a diversification.
We will continue to ramp up the blogging in future, as quality content and the added value is what got us where we are now and what makes people share it.
What’s the exit route for Mashable? Any plans to cash in and bail out? ; )
We’ve never been at a point where we have sought acquisition. At the moment we are still growing and I have plans I want to execute on. I want to see how far we can take this, and that is what we are focused on, so it would take a substantial offer to even consider that right now. We wouldn’t want to cash in too early.
There is always potential for partnership and to explore how we could work with established media companies. We have had offers, but nothing that would tempt us, and I’m not really motivated by money.
We are leaders in the social media space. It is bigger than us and we can be part of that moment, we still have lots of work to do. It’s a social good that is bringing value to society, breaking down traditional media barriers. It’s a movement towards democratisation and empowerment of everyone in society.
[Image by Wendy Piersall on Flickr, various rights reserved]