Multifaceted • Entrepreneurial • Visionary
Photos by Tim Porter
This month when we celebrate ghouls and goblins, Ross-based John Battelle, media innovator and father of three, battles his own specters. They come to him in the middle of the night not as ghosts from the past, but as ideas he has to work through for the future. His solution: he sleeps with a notepad by the bed. Such nocturnal stirrings might leave most of us groggy and unable to function by day, but they’ve clearly stirred Battelle in a successful direction.
His first entrepreneurial home run was the cofounding of Wired magazine, where he and staffers demystified the cultural importance of code and taught us Java wasn’t just for drinking. He then founded The Industry Standard, a seminal dot-com weekly and website, and is now founder, CEO and chairman of Federated Media, an Internet media company. This fall Battelle hosts his seventh annual Web 2.0 Summit, an industry insider conference in San Francisco, where the speaker lineup includes big hitters like Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, Mark Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com, and scores of others discussing the future of the web.
Tech topics aside, Battelle is perhaps best known as a writer and creative thinker on the role of media, communication and journalism in our lives. He taught the topic at alma mater UC Berkeley for three years as he wrote The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, an international best seller published in 26 languages. He continues to write about the ins and outs of technology on his blogs at battellemedia.com and federatedmedia.net/signal. “The process of writing is how I make sense of everything,” he says.
Locally, he’s served on the board of Marin Primary and Middle School, his children’s school for the past nine years; cofounded Marin Internet Entrepreneurs, a networking group of like-minded folks who meet every couple of months to discuss industry chatter; and can be found riding his bike on Mount Tam as often as work allows. The day we caught up with him, he had already practiced yoga in his own studio, run a few meetings, scheduled a bike ride and planned to go to San Francisco that evening with his wife, Michelle, to catch the Broken Bells concert at the Regency Ballroom. All on a typical Friday.
The theme of the upcoming Web 2.0 Summit is “The Battle for the Network Economy”. Why? Each year at the Web 2 Summit, Tim and I try to focus our program on an overarching theme that we believe best sums up the year ahead. This year I feel better than I ever have about our focus, because it’s a return to our roots, as it were. If you know my work, you know I’m fascinated by the interplay between the entrepreneurial culture of our industry and the giants that have emerged from within it — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, to name a few — as well as those who have joined it from other industries — Comcast, GE, and NewsCorp come to mind.
Where do you get your confidence as an entrepreneur? A lot of it comes from my wife, Michelle, who is my closest partner in work and in life. She’s my sounding board, my coach, and my reality check. She runs the family, and with three kids at three different schools, that’s not easy (not to mention she also goes to school herself). And wow, when she walks in a room, it just lights up. You have to have a lot of confidence to keep up with her! My parents have a lot to do with it too. They put me through Polytechnic, a private school in Pasadena, and they really stretched themselves to do it. My mom, an English literature teacher, worked at the school, so we got the family discount. The school had a huge impact on me. When you are in an environment with 60 super-smart high achievers, you have to find your own talent. I wasn’t the concert pianist, the math whiz or the science geek—I was the kind of kid who got along with everyone and understood how everyone got along. I found out that this was a talent that allowed me to lead through ideas. This gave me the courage to work with start-ups. I’ve had a couple jobs, with the Los Angeles Times and a short stint in the U.S. Navy, for example, but those didn’t work. I think I might mellow into working for a big company in the future…if it were on my terms. Of course, I’m not sure a large company would want me on my terms!
Do you use your anthropology degree in business? Yes, directly. In fact, I’m afraid at some point the people who run the academic circles of anthropology are going to send me a letter stating that I am misrepresenting myself as an anthropologist, because I only have an undergraduate degree. Anthropology translates to the work I get to do right now with brands. Marketers are in this amazing cultural transition right now, where their customers can talk back to them in real time—it’s changing everything. From an anthropological point of view we can look at it in terms of how society is engaging with itself using new digital tools. What does this shift mean for a business? This is where the theories of anthropology can be put into practice.
How do you handle social media with your kids? Talk with them about it and, with Facebook, insist on full access. But don’t abuse that access. At the end of the day the stuff we are trying to re-create online with social media is very similar to the stuff that we already do when we interact with each other. However, what we haven’t figured out is how to read the nuance of electronic interactions. In a face-to-face situation, if we feel like we can’t figure someone out, or they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes, we can sense it, and then we don’t trust them. I often say in speeches that there are millions and millions of years of biological and cultural intertwined evolution that have gotten us to the point where we can have social interaction. We have this very nuanced ability to read a social situation. Some people are better at it than others, but everyone has a certain competence or we would just fail (collectively) as humans. So in regards to a young developing brain, and improper or inappropriate things being shown online, say, between girls and boys, this can get confusing. Specifically, it’s very hard for an 11-year-old girl to understand what it means if a boy sends an e-mail with “cc.” At 11, does she understand the nuance that we do, as professionals, of the “cc” vs. “directly to”? Was the person thinking of her when he sent it, or of the entire group of friends? This makes a difference, right?
Contrary to the fears adults have about kids overexposing themselves, I believe they do know how to monitor their privacy. Perhaps I’m an optimist. I posted on my Signal (Federated Media) blog a while back, “Oh hey, guess what: kids really do care about their privacy.” I was referring to a new Pew study that shows that kids are very aware of this stuff and constantly manicuring their online image, and considering the impacts of their actions. I think that that is not just a good sign, but what I would totally expect as we all learn to live online. It’s evolution.
Do you and Michelle have technology or television rules? We do, but they are a bit more draconian, I suppose. No TV on the weekdays, unless it’s baseball or something Michelle wants the kids to see and discuss (a piece on 60 Minutes she’s Tivo’ed, or Planet Earth). As for tech, that’s very complicated, with three kids at three stages of development.
Do you think there is a certain personality type that points toward success as a blogger? For some people blogging is an acquired taste and for others (it feels) completely inherent. I am in the acquired taste camp. I don’t naturally want to be the person who is always living publicly. When I post or tweet (@johnbattelle on Twitter), I craft what I write very deliberately to be public. But I don’t post on everything in my life. Then there are people who just want to be public and take it to the extremes, and some are well-liked personalities and that works for them. I started blogging back in 2002 because I wanted to connect to a community to support me in something I had never done before, which was to write a book. I found that with my opening up and being a little vulnerable, people responded with positive feedback and encouragement.
Why Federated Media? I started Federated Media to solve a problem I and many others in my field had—large audiences for our sites, but no business model. It’s evolved from essentially “a record label for bloggers” to a full-service media company with an emphasis on weaving together the best of the independent web, including platforms like Twitter and Facebook, with the best in brand marketing. I’m very proud of our investors, of how it’s grown—we have 125 employees across four offices in two countries—and that it’s profitable in a tough market.
Journalism is evolving daily, it seems. Would you change anything you taught to your students back in 2004? The fundamentals haven’t changed. I would still emphasize three key points. One, if you are going to be a journalist you have to understand the media business, because journalism must live inside that business, which is changing radically. If you understand the business you will be way ahead of the others.
Two, you need to have a point of view. Traditional journalism programs try to drill into you the concept of objectivity. Understanding and respecting objectivity is important, but the ability to have a point of view is something you build on after you understand objectivity (not before). In order to establish yourself, you have to come from somewhere, and having a point of view means that you are a leader. For instance, the point of view of Marin Magazine is that Marin f–ing rocks—it doesn’t have to be complex. But it has to be compelling.
And three, you have to have a conversation with your readers. Treat your readers as your sources, because you have amazing conversations with your sources. Early on at Wired, the editors resisted engaging with readers. Their approach was, “My job is to write stuff; they should be lucky that we’ve deigned to write a piece for them to read.” Thankfully, that attitude has changed.
Describe Marin’s version of the entrepreneur. There is a lot of passion here. In the Silicon Valley, one of the venture guys I know has a quote about mercenaries versus missionaries. Meaning there are people who start companies because they see a rich opportunity and just drive at it like a mercenary. They are really good at making money and making their investors money, but could care less about what they are creating. Missionaries, on the other hand, are passionate about what they make because they believe in it from their core. Money, while important, is secondary. I’ve never been a mercenary, and I think entrepreneurs in Marin are definitely more the missionary type.