They Did Build That — Twice
Notes from a conversation with Michelle and Jesse Malkin.
December 28, 2013 - 5:05 pm
The sale of Twitchy LLC to Salem Communications announced earlier this month marks the second time Michelle and Jesse Malkin have started up, built and sold a growing business enterprise. Their early 2010 sale of Hot Air LLC, also to Salem, was the first.
Defying the odds against success one time, especially in web publishing, is noteworthy. Doing it twice is remarkable.
I certainly wanted to learn more about the Malkins’ experiences, and believe that businesspeople who are themselves trying to build legitimate value and wealth, regardless of their field of endeavor, can take away important lessons from those who have succeeded.
So I emailed Michelle and asked for an interview. Her “yes” came back in 46 minutes. Michelle, Jesse and I were on the phone just 16 hours later.
Here are the five most important points I took away from our discussion. Note that a couple of them relate to personal qualities completely apart from whatever business skills and smarts entrepreneurs might bring to the table.
1. Know what you want from your people, clearly communicate it, and hold them accountable.
Michelle rattled off exactly what she was looking for in the people who wrote for the couple’s two pioneering web sites even before I asked the question:
We were looking for … a very distinct special combination of people who are reliable, put out clean copy, and are trustworthy. But you also have to have incredible news judgment and a passion and energy for the topics that you’re covering. If that doesn’t come through, who wants to read you?
A couple of extra traits sought out at Twitchy were people who are “savvy about social media, and (have) spirit and snark.” It shows.
Without dwelling on it, they noted that “turnover” was an early issue with Twitchy, which to me indicates that the pair were very careful in their “keeper” selections, and didn’t just “settle.” Getting through that process had to be nerve-wracking at times, but was clearly worth it.
2. Have genuine affection and respect for your people, and let them flourish.
This came through loud and clear. Michelle spoke of how her employees were “gold” to them, and how it’s in “our self-interest to help them.” Shoot, I’d work hard for someone like that just to make sure I didn’t disappoint them.
In “recogniz(ing) the talents of others” and giving them “the opportunity to shine,” Michelle especially escaped a deadly trap into which all too many entrepreneurs fall. Hot Air and Twitchy were not all about her. As a result, they became salable enterprises. That would not have happened if she had tried to do it all or had stayed too heavily involved and visible.
Michelle also emphasized that she wanted to make sure, especially before the Hot Air deal, that Salem wouldn’t try to fix what was already working, and would treat the site’s key employees well. She was less concerned about that in the Twitchy deal because she saw how Salem had kept its promises with Hot Air. She is very proud that Ed Morrissey and Allahpundit are still at Hot Air’s helm almost four years later, and anticipates similar continuity with Twitchy’s key people.
3. Stay technically up to date. Pay attention to how the world is changing.
The Twitchy idea, to become a “Twitter curator” — Twitchy is forever! — came about as a result of Michelle’s ongoing involvement in conservative and Tea Party causes. She saw how activists were using Twitter and social media to organize and support those efforts while also shaping news narratives.
Ultimately, she thought that capturing, presenting, and critiquing “ephemeral tweets” would generate readership, and that her own Twitter feed and Facebook efforts would be great vehicles for moving traffic to the new enterprise.
She was right. In the 18 months since its mid-2012 founding, Twitchy grew “from less than 2 million page views per month to more than 12 million.” It has became the “water cooler” top 20 conservative site intemperate tweeters most fear, and clever ones most enjoy. It was a surprise to me to learn from Jesse that most of the site’s traffic does not come in through its front page.
4. Be willing to recognize and adapt to failure, and accept others’ ideas.
Michelle’s original inspiration for Hot Air was to build it around daily videos, known as “Vents.” Many visitors, including yours truly, enjoyed them. They certainly did a great job of annoying and pressuring politicians in Washington and elsewhere who deserved it. Quite a few Vents are still available on YouTube, and they stand up quite well.
But, as Jesse noted, their viewership level wasn’t sufficient, and they didn’t see a way they could monetize their content. So they reluctantly abandoned the effort.
The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with really smart people who couldn’t let go of their ideas and strategies, even when it’s obvious that they won’t work. By contrast, Michelle and Jessie moved on. They added Hot Air’s “Green Room,” where other reputable writers could submit content. They replaced the blog’s top section, which had been devoted to the Vents, with headlines. They readily gave credit to Allahpundit, one of the site’s two key employees, for both moves. Driven by “Allah’s” special news instincts, the headlines became important as traffic drivers.
All of this went into the value that Salem ended up recognizing — and buying.
5. Keep the back office under control.
It’s way too easy to take this aspect of business for granted. If you let it get away from you, you end up distracting yourself from your core business-building activities. Jesse clearly did a fine job handling this often frustrating arena, and Michelle’s appreciation — and affection; after all, they are married — for all that he did was obvious.
Beyond their business successes, Michelle and Jesse Malkin have been invaluable in keeping conservatism front and center in the social media. Michelle pointed out that Twitchy, with its wide range of coverage encompassing topic areas where conservatives rarely tread, including entertainment and the full range of media, has been “reaching out to non-traditional people and giving (them a conservative) perspective” they might not otherwise ever see.
For that, and as examples of how to ethically build a successful business, we can’t thank them enough.