Web Masters Episode #63: Peter Rojas


Gizmodo Editor Says She Was Fired After 'Fabricated Allegations' From  Management

Peter Rojas:

I started off in magazine publishing, and when we set up our online version of the magazine, we spent a million dollars on a content management system. A content management system of equal quality a few years later cost $500, and then a couple years after that, say 2003, 2004, was free, and effectively free. It enabled people like me to create content that at least visually presented at the same high quality as anything else that was being published on the internet, and also enabled me to go very deep into what was at the time seen as a very niche area, which was gadgets and consumer electronics, and really build a website that catered to that specific audience, people who are interested in gadgets and really go deep with them in a way that websites really hadn’t before.

Because the cost of overhead and the cost of having big teams and things like that meant that you had to go at least somewhat broad in your coverage to be able to justify the cost of the website and the cost of maintaining the website and the cost of having a whole team of people creating content and editing content. I boiled all that down to basically just myself, at least to begin with, and was a one person self-publishing essentially with a very simple content management system and covering and writing about stuff essentially on my own, at least initially.

Aaron Dinin:

That was Peter Rojas. He’s talking about how new technologies enabled a single person like him to do what used to require entire companies with hundreds of employees and multimillion dollar budgets. A lot of people didn’t believe it was possible at first, and he sure pissed off plenty of them along the way, but in the end, I think he proved his point. Peter is the founder of the wildly popular tech blogs Gizmodo and Engadget. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast that wants to help you become a better entrepreneur and an all-around more knowledgeable person by sharing with you the stories of the internet’s most successful innovators. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University and I’ve spent at least a couple of decades researching how new business opportunities get created by new media technologies, things like the printing press or the telegraph, the venerable fax machine, and yes, of course the internet. On this episode, we’ve got a fantastic example in the form of an equally fantastic conversation with Peter Rojas, the somewhat outspoken founder of both Gizmodo and Engadget. If you have ever searched for a review on a new laptop, or maybe the latest iPhone, you’ve probably come across both of those blogs.

Peter started Gizmodo in 2002, right as blogging was beginning to take off. He built a huge audience for it over the course of a couple years before moving onto Engadget, which became even bigger. We’re going to hear how Peter grew both of these seemingly niche blogs about gadgets into media giants, and we’re going to hear about it right after we hear about this episode’s sponsor.

You’re listening to Web Masters thanks in part to the support of our partner and sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like e-ommerce stores, Amazon FBAs, SaaS apps, domain portfolios, and of course, popular blogs, just like we’re going to discuss on this episode. If you’ve got a profitable online work from anywhere business, and you’re thinking about selling it, be sure to reach out to the team at Latona’s. They’ve been helping entrepreneurs just like you for a long time, and they can help you get your company sold for a great price. Or if you’re interested in buying an already profitable internet business, finding one is as simple as pointing your browser to the Latona’s website, where you’ll find listings for all the businesses they’re currently helping sell. That website is of course latonas.com. L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

If we take a moment to kind of zoom out on the history of publishing and then look at sites like Gizmodo and Engadget, they’re really strange. Ostensibly they’re sites about a very, very, very specific topic, gadgets. This is interesting because historically you just couldn’t publish about something so niche, it was too expensive, but of course the internet changes all of that. Niche topics with presumably small audiences become accessible, and that’s why we’re talking about Gizmodo and Engadget on this episode of Web Masters. They represent a bigger theme about the value of niches in entrepreneurship. In fact, this episode’s guest Peter Rojas explains this phenomenon pretty well, so let’s hear how he talks about it.

Peter Rojas:

The internet works by either going very, very broad or going very, very deep. Being in the middle isn’t a place that you want to be. You want to either have something that resonates really strongly with a core group of people or something that is able to connect across as many people as possible in terms of your product or your service or whatever, right? I think we’re seeing that played out today with influencers and creators and platforms, and the fact that businesses are able to scale to essentially everybody, but that you’re also able to be successful by saying, “I’m not going to try to appeal to everyone. I’m going to go really, really focused into this one niche or this one category and be the expert, or be the trusted source, or be the best at serving this audience,” and you can be really successful at that now. There are enough business models and tools that allow you to be able to do that.

What I was doing with Gizmodo was I think an early version of that. We didn’t have subscriptions and Substacks and things like that at the time. In fact, at the time, nobody thought you could get anyone to pay for content on the web. I think The Wall Street Journal was the one exception to that, and everyone thought that was going to fail eventually. What I figured out with Gizmodo and then with Engadget is that I didn’t have to go and write the same kinds of content that I was writing with Red Herring or for Wired or for The New York Times, which are places that I’ve also written for. What I could do is I could sort of give people this sense that they were in touch with the daily pulse of the gadget world, that I was giving them everything that was interesting that day in a really easy to consume format.

Aaron Dinin:

The value of targeting a small audience is admittedly a bit counterintuitive. Most people assume if you want to build a big successful company, having as many potential customers as possible would be a good thing, but it turns out the reverse is probably more true. Or, as I like to say, when everyone’s your customer, no one is your customer. By that, I mean the bigger the audience you’re trying to serve, the harder it is for that audience to realize you’re creating something for them. Your messaging gets too broad and as a result, your product doesn’t seem like it fits their use case or needs. Sure, when you go niche, you alienate lots of people, but turns out, that’s okay. The people who do really want what you’re building will see what you’ve created and they’ll know it’s meant for them and their needs or their interests. That’s what Peter was tapping into when he started blogging about tech gadgets. He wasn’t also trying to reach people who liked fashion and cooking and movies. He was targeting people who, well, probably grew up a lot like him.

Peter Rojas:

I was born in 1975, a immigrant family, father’s from South America, was a doctor, but he was always really interested in new technology, and we were the first family in our block to get a VCR. I think that was in 1979, 1980. He bought the first CD player ever sold in the US, the Sony model, I think it was made in 1983. We had a Pong setup in the house. I think I was five years old in 1981, had my tonsils removed and to keep me busy while I stay home, he bought an Atari 2600, which made me very popular in the neighborhood, after I was able to see kids again. But then also he bought an Atari 400 when that came out, an Atari 800. He had started teaching himself BASIC, and I learned a little bit of it myself, sort of the most popular, I’d say, enthusiast programming language at the time, and would drag me along to these sort of like home brew computer club meetings in our town.

I remember at the time you would subscribe to these computer magazines and they would come with pages of programming instructions for you to make games. He would make his games by just copying the lines of code from the magazine into BASIC and then running it, and so that was sort of my earliest exposure to computers and computing. It feels like we always had a computer in the house. Obviously, that’s not true, but from my perspective, it was. We had early Ataris always around, and there were things to play with and experiment with and to learn from.

Aaron Dinin:

When did you first encounter the internet and the web, or judging by the timelines you’ve given, maybe the better question is pre-web type networking services, Usenet, BBSs, things like that?

Peter Rojas:

I don’t remember the exact year that they got on the internet, but we got a computer with a modem. It must have been maybe ’87 or ’88 and then not long after that signed up for an early ISP service called Prodigy. We had to wait for them to get a local number in our area, because we didn’t want to pay long distance. We had a, I think, 2400 baud modem, maybe it had been 1200, and we would dial into Prodigy, and I was just absolutely fascinated by it. At the time I was maybe 13, 14, and really into music and discovered these messaging boards where people were talking about music and bands and things like that, and so we’d learn about music and started talking with people.

In fact, I actually started talking to girls through this messaging board and found that it was a little easier for me to talk with girls on this messaging board over the internet than it was in real life and ended up becoming real life sort of pen pals with some of them, we’re like exchanging letters and getting to know them. Because the funny thing is we had email on Prodigy, but you had number of messages, then you had to pay. Some don’t know this, but it was like after 10 or 20 messages you had to pay 25 cents a message or something like that, and I think at the time a letter was cheaper. It’s kind of funny to go back to being on the internet before the web and then discovering Telnet, MUDs and Usenet and discovering early online communities and being really fascinated by them.

Aaron Dinin:

Is that why you decided to go into the tech industry, as a career, I mean?

Peter Rojas:

Not exactly, because I didn’t feel like I was a hacker or somebody who was really, truly skilled at this stuff or that I wanted to be a computer programmer, more that I was interested in sort of like the cultural and social sides of these things. One of my biggest regrets is that when I was in college in the ’90s, the web had just launched in like ’93, I think, and that’s when I started college, and so was exposed to the internet very early, to the web very early, and seeing what’s going on and sort of I don’t want to say turned away from it exactly, but just didn’t really lean into it in a way that I wish I had done when I was that young and taken computer programming classes or spent more time learning HTML or some of those basic things.

I always had this sort of very ambivalent relationship to technology at that phase where I thought some things were really amazing about it, but also was really into vinyl and vintage guitars and the sort of authenticity of things that were older at the time, which is a very ’90s thing where to really think about authenticity and being real was a very big thing in the ’90s, questions that we don’t care about very much now, or at least not in the same way.

Aaron Dinin:

How’d you wind up coming back to tech and gadgets and whatnot?

Peter Rojas:

Only really kind of threw myself back into the world of technology in 1999 when I ended up as an editor at Red Herring, which was a business of technology magazine based in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. The premise of the magazine at the time was if you want to understand the future of the technology industry, you have to look at what companies’ VCs are investing in. They’re a leading indicator of where the industry is going to go. That seems very obvious to us now, but in the ’90s, people thought of the technology industry as sort of dominated by big companies. It was going to be about Sun and Microsoft and Oracle and IBM and that the future was going to be dictated by these big companies. I mean, there’s certainly like a parallel universe where we don’t have really the internet as we think of it today.

We have information superhighway built by AT&T, controlled by big telecom companies. I think we came closer to that than maybe people realized. Nothing about where we’re at right now was guaranteed, and so working at Red Herring was very revelatory because it actually made me very interested in technology as something bottoms-up, whereas I’d really perceived it as being very top-down before then. Even though the internet was this sort of like weird fringe thing that was kind of anarchic and maybe was a thing, but you read enough cyberpunk and it kind of feels like outlaw space, but like the real technology world will be sort of governed by of these big technologies, right? That’s sort of a very Gibsonian cyberpunkian kind of way of looking at things, and that’s certainly a little bit of how I thought about things.

Then realizing that no, this can be a place where things grow and emerge and sort of become the new establishment was a big shift in perspective for me and made me realize that I could maybe play in this space, build in this space, and you weren’t sort of consigned to being an outlaw, so to speak, that you could build real things that had big, huge impact on the world and was very interested in how technology was changing the ways that we thought about democratization of expression, the democratization of our ability to connect and communicate, changing the ways that we thought about ourselves in relation to others and the rest of the world.

As someone who had a master’s in critical theory and was reading Baudrillard and Derrida and Foucault and Kristeva and things like that, the idea that technology could really disrupt and destabilize a lot of these ways in which we were organizing and thinking about society and culture was really, really profound for me, and something that lit a fire within me, I guess.

Aaron Dinin:

Fair enough. As someone who’s read a lot of Derrida and Foucault, I can get behind that and I’m kind of happy to see it inspiring gadget blogs. Speaking of which, how did you get started? Gizmodo was first, right, so how did that start?

Peter Rojas:

When I got laid off from Red Herring in 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst, I moved to New York and I ended up starting Gizmodo with Nick Denton in early 2002, and we launched Gizmodo in July of 2002.

Aaron Dinin:

Nick Denton, by the way, is the British internet entrepreneur and journalist noted for founding what would become the controversial blog collective known as Gawker Media. You’ve probably heard of it, as well as some of the legal issues Gawker and Nick ran into over the years by antagonizing people like Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan. Anyway, the Nick Denton Peter is referring to is indeed that Nick Denton. Hopefully one day we’ll get to chat with him here on Web Masters, but for now let’s focus on Peter.

Peter Rojas:

After I lost my job at Red Herring, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d finally found something I liked and was kind of good at, which was writing about technology and almost by accident gotten the job. I mean, I had been working advertising before that and it was terrible. I was like, they were clearly going to fire me and I had to find something new to do, and almost lucked into this job at Red Herring. Because in the late ’90s they were like, “We just need people. We need bodies.” I was like, “I’ve never really done journalism before.” They’re like, “Just fine. Just show up. You’ll be fine.” Turned out I was good at it and was really lucky to have people like Blaise Zerega, who’s the editor of Alta magazine now, Om Malik, who’s a legendary writer and venture capitalist. Those guys were my mentors, and Jason Pontin was the editor-in-chief and he really took me under his wing, and so just had the opportunity to work with just absolutely phenomenal, phenomenal journalists there who just taught me so much.

When I lost the job, I really lost my identity at the same time, and I really just loved being a tech journalist. A friend of mine who was an editor at Wired, he said, “Well, you should keep writing. Why don’t you start a blog?” I said, “Why would I give away my writing when I get paid for it?” That was sort of my first reaction. Why would I give away my precious words when I got paid to write? He said, “Well, one, it’ll kind of keep you sharp. Two, it’ll force you to kind of stay out there, looking for things, and maybe it’ll generate ideas for you to pitch as freelance.” I could see that, I’ll use this as sort of a notepad, so to speak, for my freelance work. I started a blog in I guess maybe like July or August of 2001, and so was a pretty early blogger just on my own.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, so you were writing a personal blog. Was that getting any sort of traction or creating any sort of value for you?

Peter Rojas:

I updated it sort of sporadically, but not that frequently. I was friends with Nick Denton, I’d known him from San Francisco when he was chairman of Moreover, the founder of Moreover, and actually helped convince him to move to New York from San Francisco, because he was trying to debate, “Do I move to LA, New York, or London?” I said, “Ah, just move to New York. You should definitely move here. This is where all the action’s at. This is a really exciting place right now.” In I think it was February of 2002, we were hanging out at a bar called Sweet & Vicious on Spring Street in Nolita, and he asked me, he said, “Why aren’t you updating your blog more frequently?”

I said, “Well, it’s just tough because I’m spending so much time trying to just make a living as a freelancer that it kind of feels like I just should be putting all my energy into that and it’s nice to post things from time to time, but it’s been hard to sort of see exactly how it’s translated into like more freelance work.” He said, “Well, I’ve been kicking around this idea of trying to do a more professional blog. Why don’t we do that together and I’ll just pay you to write it?” I was like, “Well, that’d be interesting.”

Aaron Dinin:

How did you and Nick decide to make gadgets the theme of this new blog?

Peter Rojas:

We’d both become big fans of this site called Wi-Fi Networking News, which was an early blog start by this guy Glenn Fleishman, who I think he’s still writing. I think he was writing for The Economist recently, I’m not sure if he still is, but just an awesome, awesome guy. We loved this website because at the time 2001, 2002 Wi-Fi was very new and it was news that people were getting Wi-Fi cards and Wi-Fi routers, and I remember getting the first Wi-Fi card and router for my apartment in New York and showing my roommates. I was like, “Look, my laptop is connected to the internet and there’s no wire or anything. There’s no cables.”

He started this website that was just about Wi-Fi, about new developments in 802.11b and new devices that were coming out, with the new cards and the routers. It just kind of blew my mind that you could start a trade publication that was that niche, that was that focused. It turns out that because of blogging, you could. It didn’t cost him anything, just his own time and his own interest to write about this stuff, and he became the expert in this emerging industry, which is Wi-Fi, and so it was revelatory for me. It reminded me of that same moment when I was a punk where somebody said, “You don’t have to get signed to a major label to put out a record. You could just pay a factory to make a record.”

I was like, “You could do that? You could just pay someone to make CDs for you?” They’re like, “Yeah.” Which is sort of like mind blowing, you didn’t need somebody else’s permission to be able to do something. As the marginal cost of distribution of content creation drops, you can focus on areas which were too costly to be able to focus a niche on before. That’s essentially what it came down to is Wi-Fi would’ve been a subsection of some general networking trade publication, a column per month in the monthly publication. Now it was a daily publication, and because he was freed from that constraint, he could cover the industry much more comprehensively than sort of saying, “Well, I have one page in the magazine. I got to find two things that matter each month.”

That was my approach with Engadget was I don’t have to be the gadget section of Wired where I get five things to highlight per month. I can pick 500 things that are interesting every month. I don’t have to make the same editorial decisions anymore. The bar for noteworthiness can actually be wherever I want to set it now. These constraints are gone.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, this right here is really cool. Again, from an innovation perspective, if you’re looking for great opportunities to launch new ventures, you want to identify major technological and cultural shifts, and the shift Peter’s describing was one of those. It’s a big part of why Gizmodo and then Engadget were so successful. Previously, prior to the web, creating publications that catered toward niche topics and audiences was incredibly expensive, but free publishing platforms, blogs, basically brought the publishing cost down to zero. When that happened, it opened up enormous new business opportunities around creating content for those previously underserved groups. That’s what Peter brilliantly took advantage of first with Gizmodo and then Engadget.

Peter Rojas:

I hadn’t really thought of it exactly as being a business, but I did love this idea of I could do something that felt very punk rock to me, which was I can publish without a filter. I can publish what I want when I want in the voice that I want. I don’t have an editor. I don’t have somebody telling me to dumb it down or to make it more broadly appealing or that I was aiming at the wrong audience. I could sort of dig into a niche and target a group of readers that I thought was maybe bigger than people realized. I didn’t know how big it was. I think my goal originally with Gizmodo was to get to 100,000 readers a month, which seemed like a lot, especially coming from the magazine world where Red Herring’s circulation at its height I think was maybe like 230,000 or something like that. I was like, well, if I could be half that size, that would be amazing. That’d be like a real success, right? Obviously, got many multiples of that within a relatively short period of time.

Aaron Dinin:

It grew quickly, but it had to start somewhere, right? How did Gizmodo get its initial audience and how did it grow?

Peter Rojas:

We just sent an email to, I don’t know, maybe 500 people that we knew, and other bloggers just linked to it and said, “There’s this new gadget blog, looks pretty cool.” Then people would link to it and so people would find it that way. We had an RSS feed and so people would add it to their RSS feed and they would track and see what we were doing that way. If you’re a blogger and you’re looking for interesting things to write about, we became a way to track the category, and so we ended up getting traffic kind of early word of blog, so to speak. People were just blogging it and linking to it, and it’d be great to get links from other prominent bloggers from time to time, and the search stuff helped. But what we found is that when people discovered the site, a lot of people made it a daily habit, so the stickiness was very, very high.

People would sometimes visit upwards of five to 10 times a day, they would just refresh on it all the time. There wasn’t a magic formula, there wasn’t one thing that really worked. It was just about trying to create content that people liked to read every day. I wish there was more to it than that. We did very little of the growth marketing stuff that people do today. It was a different web, but I also think it was more meritocratic web than we have now. I think that people were very generous in linking, just as we were. I mean, all we were was linking to other people, and so the whole spirit of that era of blogging, that 2003 to 2005 era, was about linking to other people, supporting other people.

Aaron Dinin:

Notice how Peter emphasized the fact that there was no magic formula behind Gizmodo’s success. That’s important. Sometimes I worry people are listening to a show like Web Masters, hoping for magic secrets that are going to help catapult them to entrepreneurial superstardom. I’m really sorry, but those magic secrets don’t exist. Yeah, I know, there are lots of entrepreneurship gurus and advice givers on social media claiming otherwise. If you just work hard enough and buy their latest online course for just $99, you’re going to get all the secrets to startup success and soon you too will be traveling the world in your private jet. You’re never going to hear that kind of garbage from me. To be clear, I might still try to sell you a $99 course. I am after all an entrepreneur, but you’re never going to hear me tell you I’ve got some sort of magic secret to startup success. Startup success comes from a lot of experimentation and a lot of trial and error, which of course is exactly what Peter was doing with Gizmodo.

Peter Rojas:

It was very much an experiment. It was very much about finding my voice and figuring out exactly what the right length is, because a lot of people were still on dialup. We had to have very, very small thumbnail type pictures in the blog posts. There were people that complained that my linking out to them and doing a brief summary of their work was cannibalizing their work. I had sites that asked me to stop linking to them. Half the people were begging for links. The other half were begging me to stop linking. The people that begged me to stop linking are all gone now, and were gone quickly because they’d lost their readership, because they didn’t understand the value of links as the currency of the web then. It’s very obvious to us now, especially as we think about the attention economy, but the web was a very, very different place.

Aaron Dinin:

Could you talk about that a bit more? How was it such a different place back when you were first launching Gizmodo?

Peter Rojas:

The web was very much about Yahoo and Lycos and AOL and getting a link off of the homepage, these portals, and what Google did is it reorganized the web around search and discovery. Blogs, specifically my blogs, were very, very link rich and high quality in their links to and their links from. We discovered that Gizmodo and Engadget started getting a tremendous amount of traffic from search because they were reliable and trustworthy and high quality in terms of what we were writing about and what we were linking to. All these big companies and also big publications didn’t get that at all, weren’t thinking about search, weren’t structuring their pages to be easily discoverable, sometimes were hostile to be indexed, inadvertently, but they were. There were times where if you search for Sony PlayStation or Apple iPod, Engadget ranked higher than Sony and Apple, and we just got a huge amount of traffic.

Aaron Dinin:

Was it really that straightforward or were there things you kind of did behind the scenes to optimize for search and getting search traffic, because I know there were always some whisperings in the industry about let’s call them more nefarious tactics?

Peter Rojas:

I always strongly believed that we would get linked to, or we would rank highly in search, if we did good work and that we did things to obviously help ourselves be discoverable, but there was no weird black hat stuff, no link farming. We didn’t play any of those games because I felt like in the end, those games would always come back to haunt you and the demise of demand media and things like that I think bear that out, that if you try to get too cute about this stuff, the places that feed you traffic will always bite you in the end. My biggest focus was I want most of my traffic to come from people choosing to come to visit us every day. At least while I was there, most of Engadget traffic was direct traffic. It wasn’t search and there was basically no social. We tried to get links on Slashdot and Boing Boing and that was about it. Our traffic, over 50%, was people deciding to visit Engadget every day.

Aaron Dinin:

You must have experienced that transition from the link economy to the search economy firsthand, right? Particularly as you moved from Gizmodo to Engadget, was that part of the reason for the switch, or I guess, could you maybe explain why you left one successful gadget blog in order to start another, which on the surface seems a little odd?

Peter Rojas:

I’ll say one thing is that I think Nick Denton’s reputation precedes him. Gawker launched about six months after Gizmodo and people who are familiar with Gawker know that the tone can be pretty nasty and pretty aggressive and mean-spirited, and that really wasn’t me. That wasn’t really what I was about, and I felt some discomfort around that approach. Nick very often pushed me to be more negative with Gizmodo and to attack people personally, and it wasn’t something that I was comfortable with, I didn’t want to do. He just had a very different vision. He came out of more of a British tabloid kind of tradition. Gizmodo was certainly not afraid to be critical of things, we would dis people’s products and things like that all the time, but I never went after somebody personally. I never went after somebody’s kids, which is something that Nick was very comfortable doing at Gawker and Valleywag. He went after my child, which was pretty disturbing, after I left.

Also, this is sort of lost to history, but he envisioned Gawker as a side project where he’d have a network of part-time bloggers. I mean, he’d pay me a thousand dollars a month. I was definitely working way more than full-time hours. I had to supplement my income with other freelance work to pay my New York rent. His main project was a startup called Kinja, this is the first version of Kinja. Kinja was sort of like a social RSS reader, probably a little bit ahead of its time. It was a pretty interesting project, sort of like how can you make RSS more user friendly and easier for the masses to adopt and also add some lightweight social features to it? That was his main thing and that was what he was focused on.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, so the big media entity that Gawker ultimately became, that wasn’t actually Nick’s original big plan or vision, so to speak?

Peter Rojas:

Gawker was always to him like the “that’s fun, but I don’t think there’s a real business here.” As Kinja started to falter and Gawker and Gizmodo started to become more successful, I said, “Look, I want to focus more full time on this. I think that if we hire and build a team and invest a little bit more in the platform, we could become a world-class media business. We could take on Wired and CNET and whatever, and be something much bigger than all of those.” He said, “No,” that he didn’t want to do that, and he also reneged on his promises to give me equity in the business and basically was like, “Sue me.” When I was approached by Jason Calcanis about doing Weblogs, Inc, he said, “Here’s what you’re going to have. You’re going to have founder equity. You’re going to get all the support you need on the platform technology side. You will get all the support you need in terms of building out team. You’ll have 100% editorial control.” Unlike with Gizmodo where Nick was constantly trying to push me to do things I didn’t want to do.

I’d known Jason by reputation when he was doing Silicon Alley Insider… Or was it Reporter? Trying to remember which one it was. He had done a Silicon Alley magazine. He’s going to kill me that I don’t remember what the name is now. It was a long time ago. We knew about it when I was at Red Herring. I knew who he was and he was become really interested in blogging too, and so when he and Brian Alvie, the third founder, approached me about doing it, I said, “Yeah, this is really interesting.” A conversation with my dad over Christmas in 2003 about what I should do, I remember him saying, “You really like doing this and you should go and do the thing that lets you do more of it.”

I’d been offered a job to be the senior editor for technology at Money magazine earlier that year, and I would’ve made $75,000 a year and been a prestigious Time Inc. editor, which two years earlier would’ve been like a dream, but I would’ve had to stop doing Gizmodo. I realized I like doing this and I think there’s something here. I just want to find a way to not lose money doing it, and so that’s how I ended up helping to do Weblogs, Inc. with Jason and Brian. We created Engadget. There was a network of sites that existed before we started Engadget, but Engadget became sort of the template for what we did going forward, and so we ended up launching 70 or 80 blogs as part of the network over the next couple of years.

Aaron Dinin:

But ultimately Gawker kind of became something very similar, right? Any sort of retrospective thoughts on the direction Gizmodo and Gawker ultimately took and how that related to Engadget and Weblogs, Inc.?

Peter Rojas:

Nick sort of pivoted Gawker to be the same model, which was full-time editors, teams, all that stuff. It’s disappointing to me that he couldn’t see it before me leaving to start a competitor, but it is what it is and I think I ended up working with the right people in the long run and got to build the property that I wanted. Engadget was sort of the fully realized vision of what I wanted to do, whereas Gizmodo kind of was the prototype, so to speak. All the things that I wanted to do, I got to do with Engadget. I mean, Gizmodo, didn’t even have comments. We added comments in Engadget. We added all sorts of new features and got to experiment with different kinds of homepages during CES. I was the first person to cover CES in real time as a blogger. There’s just like a lot of stuff we ended up getting to do that I’m really proud of, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t made the jump, I think, as painful as it was at the time.

Aaron Dinin:

Can you tell us ultimately what happened with Engadget, because you’re obviously not still running it?

Peter Rojas:

Yeah, so Engadget ended up growing to be bigger than Gizmodo. I think it took about five months for us to beat Gizmodo’s traffic. I remember my last month at Gizmodo, I think we hit a million… I can’t remember if it was a million page views or a million unique visitors. Page views was a really important metric at the time, and now we look back were less important, especially with infinite scroll and things like that. But at the time I think it was a million page views was my target and we hit that Gizmodo my last month. Then I was able to exceed Gizmodo’s traffic in about five or six months at Engadget and then ended up growing really quickly. I mean, we were growing 50% to a 100% a month in traffic in those first 18 months.

We’d have months where we double, the growth rate was just phenomenal. The whole business was acquired by AOL in 2005, so by 18 months from launching Engadget to being acquired, and we had grown to, I don’t know, I think we were five or six million monthly readers when we were acquired. You can imagine just the pace of which you’re growing. It was pretty wild. It was exhausting. I was working 100 hours a week, no vacations, managing a growing team, trying to keep up with everything. Lots of new sites were launching so there’s increased competition. At AOL, I was continuing to help manage Weblogs, Inc. as well as Engadget and Joystick and then launching new properties for them. There’s a site called switch.com, which I helped launch, but also just experienced some real burnout, some real mental exhaustion, and also found myself in this sort of trap of arguing with people on the internet about Engadget, and people would complain, “You didn’t link to us.”

You’d sort of get defensive and you’d fight, and just stupid, stupid stuff. I just got really, really exhausted by all of it. I was on the cover of Fortune and then I was on the cover of New York Magazine, and I had always thought of myself as a more private person up to that point. We didn’t put bylines on Gizmodo, because it was just me and I didn’t want people to realize it was just one person. I’ve wanted people to think that it was a big team doing this stuff. Then at Engadget we kind of kept that on because I wanted it to feel like a little bit like The Economist, like whoever was writing it, it was sort of the same voice, the sort of like slightly irreverent, insidery, yet authoritative voice. We never put bylines on anything and I never really comfortable with the spotlight. I always had a complicated relationship with that. We sort of like the attention, but feel really uncomfortable and unsafe from it as well, and so I started to take a little bit of a step back 2006, 2007.

Aaron Dinin:

If we’re talking 2006, 2007, that’s a solid four or five years of running these blogs. Just for context, about how much content were you creating? Can you give us a sense of scope?

Peter Rojas:

Originally my goal was to post four to six blog posts a day for Gizmodo. By the time I moved over to Engadget, I personally was writing anywhere from 25 to 35 blog posts a day. I wrote 5,000 blog posts in my first 15 months at Engadget. What I found was that there was really no upper bound to how much people wanted to read, consume. It was very lightweight. The idea was an Engadget post should either be 100 words or 5,000 words, so we’d either have the, “Hey, Toshiba just announced these new laptops. Here’s what you need to know about it. Here’s a link to if you want to learn more.” Then it’s like a 5,000 word interview with Bill Gates. What I found was that once you’re freed from the constraints of a traditional publishing model, going really short and light and sort of being that running commentary on the world, on the gadget world, works, as people want to come back every hour and see something new that they can go check out or they can just scan through.

But because we weren’t constrained by pages of a magazine, we could go super in depth. We could go 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 words. We could write long reviews of products. We could do live blogs. We helped pioneered live blogging of Apple events. At the time, the way we did it was, CMS wouldn’t work over a phone connection, it was not reliable enough, and so we have one person there sending the updates over instant messenger to a person who would actually paste them into the CMS and update and then a second person taking photos and then editing those and then uploading them, sending them over instant messenger, and then that getting posted into the CMS. Because we were trying to do everything over really early 3G connections, maybe even 2G for the very earliest events we were doing. We didn’t do photos. We just did the text updates. There were these formats that you could create which didn’t really exist before, like a live blog, like this idea of doing 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 updates a day about everything interesting in the gadget world.

Aaron Dinin:

You’re creating all this content and I think that kind of got you and your websites a bit of reputation for being, let’s say, less newsy and more maybe gossipy. What do you say to that? What do you think about that reputation? Is it deserved?

Peter Rojas:

There’s no point in having a blog unless you’re going to be true to yourself and true to your audience. I felt like I was always honest with the audience about what I believed, what my biases were, what I knew and what I didn’t know. I loved being able to say, “I just don’t know, we don’t know this,” or “We think this might be happening, but we’re not sure.” Being able to have that level of ambiguity in your writing is something that you’re really discouraged from having when you’re a proper journalist. They’re like, “Don’t write the article at all.” I remember when CNET said, “You’re just a rumor site.” I said, “Well, no, we just in the industry and we’re saying the things that everybody talks about, but nobody publishes.” That didn’t mean that everything we published turned out to come to fruition, but it was that we were sharing what we were hearing and we were being honest about our level of confidence in those things.

If we’d say, “Hey, we heard from a trusted source that X, Y, and Z is happening. We don’t know exactly whether this all will be launched, but that’s what we’re hearing.” I think being on the reader side in a way that a lot of publications hadn’t been before, where they were not beholden to their advertisers or anything, but I think that there was a sort of sense of you don’t want to anger the industry. I was very comfortable with angering the industry, because I felt like my goal was to be the advocate for people like me, who were just really interested in this stuff and loved gadgets, loved the industry. The thing I always had to tell companies, because I would post stuff they didn’t want me to post, leaks, and I’d help normalize the posting of leaks.

There’s something that we forget, like people posting photos of unreleased phones and things like that, that didn’t happen before. The Wall Street Journal wasn’t going to publish it and then where else was it going to be published? It just wasn’t a thing that a publication did. The thing I always try to remind companies of is people interested in hearing about rumors about your products is a gift because the day they stop caring is the day your business dies. I never gave in once to a threat.

Aaron Dinin:

Any fun examples of that? Any examples of making enemies that you’d maybe care to share?

Peter Rojas:

I remember Olympus. I remember somebody pulled images of unreleased cameras off like an Olympus server and posted them in a forum, and then I found them and posted them. I remember the Olympus PR person, “You’re dead to us. You’re never going to get review units. You’re never going to invited to the events.” I said, “I don’t care. First of all, this is the first time I ever heard from you. I don’t even care about your reviews. Reviews actually are a lot more work for not as much effort.” I did review round ups where I was like, “Here are the six reviews out there, go read these.” That was one-tenth the effort and I still got traffic. I said, “I am well within my rights to do this and I’m doing what I think as a service to the reader.”

Six months later, they were begging me to come to their events, “Aw, cover us.” They just realized that blogs were where their fans were, where their best customers were and that ignoring what we were doing was detrimental their business. To me, it is the precursor to all of the influencer, creator stuff that we have now. I’m not crediting myself in any way, it was going to happen no matter what. My point is that this was the beginning of the time that brands realized that passionate enthusiast communities on the web mattered. We take it all for granted now, and everybody has their influencer marketing budget and their outreach and we forget how hostile that world was to people like us. I don’t even mean just bloggers. I mean just like passionate enthusiasts. Again, I don’t credit myself in any way, but I think at least having been a small part of moving the world towards a greater respect and acceptance of that, of enthusiasts, is something I’m really, really proud of.

Aaron Dinin:

And, in my mind at least, it’s something Peter really should be proud of. As he said, Peter Rojas doesn’t get all the credit for creating a world in which the perspectives and opinions of consumers became more powerful, but he certainly deserves his share of that credit. To be fair, I guess you could argue whether or not consumer communities deserve to have such powerful voices, particularly in relation to businesses and their products. But the reality is the internet fundamentally changed the way consumers and businesses interacted. Whether you loved them or hated them as a business creating tech products, websites like Gizmodo and Engadget were the manifestation of an important shift toward consumer empowerment. To be clear, the shift wasn’t easy. In fact, getting to the point we’re currently at where consumers have a powerful voice in the products they use, well, that took quite a lot of fighting from Peter and a lot of people around him.

Peter Rojas:

I think one of the moments that really sticks out for me is in 2005, the first time Engadget covered CES and we brought a team of people. It was really a rag-tag bunch. At the time, it was hard to get people to write for blogs. I had very little budget to pay for people. I remember just sort of convincing people to come to Vegas with me to cover CES, and I’m like, “Look, it’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be exhausting. We’re going to work all day every day, but we are going to beat everybody else. We are going to be the site everybody reads at CES, we’re going to do 100 stories a day, every conference, every product announcement, we’re going to own it.” We had like five people. I printed out maps at the convention center, I was like, “You’re going here. You’re going here.” This whole thing.

We had brought with us this guy who’d been our copy editor, just like a fan of the site, and he’s like, “Hey, I’ll copy. I’m bored at work. I’ll be your copy editor.” I was like, “Cool.” I’m like, “You know what? I just need somebody to come to CES and just write. I know that you don’t have a ton of experience blogging, but just come, I just need bodies. I just need people.” This guy, he did not sleep for like five days. I just remember we’d be in the press room, we’re all fighting for space, jostling for space. I remember he showed up and he had this crate of Mountain Dew or Red Bull or something. He’s chugging Red Bulls.

His eyes were bloodshot. He’s just so clearly exhausted. Somebody, like some other reporter trying to find a spot, kind of like jostled him with his ear bag or something, and the guy from my team just flipped out, just started screaming, “What? Don’t touch me, don’t touch me.” You know, freaked out. He went home from CES and we never heard from him again, he just disappeared. Didn’t answer calls, emails, texts. We broke him, and I felt so bad about that, but it was just one of those things where it all seems silly in retrospect, but it really felt like we were going to battle every day, like we were just in the trenches and we’re all here. The relationships that you forged at that time, it was really special. We were working really hard. We were not respected. We were the underdogs and the relationships, except for this guy who disappeared, I still in touch with all those people and we were reminisce about the war, like the good old days.

Aaron Dinin:

When did you first realize you were, I guess, winning that war?

Peter Rojas:

I remember we had our first Engadget reader meetup in New York and I was like, I don’t know, maybe 20 people show up. I think we had like 200 people show up, people that were just passionate readers of a gadget blog. I just remember in that moment, it told me that something had really changed in the world and that we had stumbled upon something really special with what we were doing. One of my proudest moments in life was a few months before my dad died, he died unexpectedly in 2007, but I hosted an Engadget reader meetup in San Francisco that he was able to attend.

He was a gadget guy himself. He brought his fancy DSLR and he was taking pictures, and people were like, “Oh my God, you’re Peter’s dad,” all this stuff. I was just really proud for him to see tangibly what we had accomplished with Engadget, to see the energy of the community, the line of hundreds of people waiting to get into the event. You always worry when you’re growing up about like my parents are going to be proud of me. My dad was a doctor, and since I didn’t become a doctor, it was always like am I a huge disappointment to him that I didn’t become like a doctor and a lawyer or something like that? I became a writer, and so it was like really nice for him to be able to see something like that and him to feel part of something that I had been experiencing.

Aaron Dinin:

What a great story. Peter developed a love of gadgets from his dad as a child and he went on to build some of the largest and most prominent gadget communities in the world. He even got an opportunity to share that success with his father. Along the way, he helped usher in an enormous transition in consumer and media culture that we’re still trying to figure out today, a culture where a niche community can represent just as interesting and viable an entrepreneurial opportunity as a huge community. I guess you could say something like this podcast is a manifestation of that transition. Well, thanks for spearheading the shift, Peter, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us here on Web Masters and for sharing your story. If you’re interested in seeing more of what Peter is up to these days, he publishes a lot less often, but you can find him on Twitter. He’s @peterrojas.

Of course, this podcast is on Twitter too. We are @webmasters pod. I’m also on Twitter @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N, D-I-N-I-N. Be sure to check out my website for lots of articles and other entrepreneurship content. That website is aarondinin.com.

Thank you to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for his help pulling together this episode.

And thank you to our sponsor Latona’s for their support. If you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, don’t forget to check out latonas.com.

Finally, a big thanks to all of you for listening and you can keep doing it. Just make you’re subscribe to Web Masters on your favorite podcasting app. You’ll get our next episode as soon as it’s released in just a few days. Until then, well, I guess it’s time for me to sign off.