Not Everyone is Failing

The mistake that people make that probably irritates me more than any other is when they fail at something, they widely declare that the whole thing they’ve failed at is dead.

You see people who get touched by a Google update and they start declaring SEO dead or their organic reach on Facebook drops and they declare social media dead.

The hubris and utter disconnect from reality in these people staggers me, but I immediately find it annoying more than anything else.  They just believe that what they have been doing is the pinnacle of quality and if they’ve failed to succeed, then it makes sense that everyone else will inevitably as well.

Just because you can’t work the corkscrew doesn’t mean the entire wine industry is going to go out of business.

The classic example of this today was presented by a chap you’ve almost certainly never heard of named, James Heckman.

James is the CEO of Maven, a collection of sites that target niche news.  They own the sites, “Blue Lives Matter”, “Human Rights Foundation”, “The Resurgent” and “Being Liberal”, among many others.  It’s just a bunch of wildly different opinion sites on every side of the political and social spectrum – it is borderline “fake news” in the truest sense of the word.  The Maven clearly doesn’t have an editorial direction that isn’t about getting clicks and they don’t care what they have to “report” on to get them.

Seriously, they own pages about being transgender and weed as well as hard right sites like “The Resurgent” talking about how religion was right about “the gays”.

We’ll put a hold on that for a second…

James’ company just bought HubPages.

If you’re not familiar with HubPages it was just an old Web 2.0 style multi-site where people wrote spammy crap to rank in Google.  About 13 years ago they took some venture funding but the whole thing fizzled largely as Google kept pushing towards higher quality content and eliminating crappy thin pages.

Their Founder and CEO, Paul Edmondson was a vocal critic of Google’s changing algorithm damaging his business.  Jason Calacanis was also pretty vocal about those changes because his site Mahola felt the same impact.  The truth was, they were crappy sites with terribly thin content and once the hammer dropped they couldn’t recover.

HubPages bought Squidoo in 2014 to double down on rubbish thing content from spammers wanting useless “Web 2.0 pillow links”.

Now, the thing that caught my attention was a quote from James Heckman regarding the sale and future direction:

“Paul and I are aligned because we both agree that mom-and-pop or small publishers no longer have a sustainable business. It’s over.”

Ok, let’s just unpack that a bit.

That’s a whopping case of confirmation bias to start with.  He’s effectively saying that what he’s doing works and people creating niche sites can’t compete with him so they shouldn’t try.

Aside from confirmation bias, it’s also entirely self-serving and drowning in hubris.  His entire network of sites is only getting about 500k unique visitors a month so he’s not exactly crushing it.

Then there’s the fact that his sites are all pretty much ad-supported and his ad spots don’t work or his ad network isn’t able to fill the placements – neither is a great sign.

But the biggest problem of all is that his definition of “sustainable business” is skewed.

I would be willing to bet that The Maven Network loses money.  Heckman would argue that they are “investing” in building a user base and acquiring assets.

His view of a sustainable business is finding VC money, running large operating losses while “managing” their runway before trying to build up enough eyeballs to get an exit.

He wants to build a “media unicorn” and that’s the context of success for him.

The company he just acquired, HubPages took VC money and has struggled to generate a return of any kind for its investors after 12 years – the investors in all likelihood took a massive loss on their investments.

Now, compare that to the person who has built a site that gets 50k unique visitors a month and generates a comfortable six-figure annual return for their owner.  I could name a couple dozen of those off the top of my head.

What’s more sustainable?  Burning through someone else’s cash writing clickbait across political and social issues or building a targeted, high-quality site that produces great content that speaks to a specific audience that you nurture over time which delivers you an annual profit?

So, no, small publishers are not dead.  Not by a mile.  If anything, as Facebook, Google and Twitter crack down on “fake news”, sites like The Maven are going to be first in line to feel the pinch.

I like the future of what I do as a sustainable enterprise, WAAAAY more than what they do, so in the next couple years, we’ll see who’s right… I’m betting on me.

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