We Discuss With Peter Investing In The Knowledge Education Economy of 21st Century
Peter worked at Red Herring magazine from June 1999 to May 2001, first as Associate Editor then as a writer. He was co-founder and Editorial Director of Gizmodo from July 2002 until March 2004, leaving to co-found Engadget. Two months later he also founded the video game blog Joystiq. Both were part of Weblogs Inc., a blog network that was purchased by AOL in 2005.
Along with Josh Deutsch of Downtown Records, Peter launched the online record label RCRD LBL in 2007.
In July 2008 Peter left Engadget to start the consumer electronics social networking site GDGT.The site premiered in 2009 and was co-founded with Ryan Block, Peter’ successor as Engadget editor-in-chief.
In February 2013 GDGT was purchased by AOL.
As of July 2018, he is a partner at Betaworks Ventures.
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Jonathan: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic Show. This is episode 333. We’ve got a great guest with us somebody that I’ve been following for years. I was so excited that he agreed to come on the show and that is Peter Rojas, co-founder of Engadget, really kind of royalty of[00:50] really. Peter, would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the listeners and viewers?
Peter: Sure and thanks for having me on. I’m also honored to be on episode 333. That seems very special in some small way. It’s not a 500. Right now, I work at Venture Capital. I’m a partner at Betaworks Ventures, which is sort of a media-focused seed fund based out of New York and San Franciso. But before that, I worked in media and publishing and blogging. I was a co-founder of Gizmodo and helped start Gawker Media. Then, I left and did Weblogs Inc. where I did Engadget and Joystiq and then we sold that business to AOL. I helped launch a few properties at AOL. Left, started a couple new companies, one of which was a social commerce business which I ended up selling to AOL about 5 and a half years ago and helped run strategy for the media business at AOL and also experimental product development for them before leaving just over 3 years ago to join Betaworks and help them launch a Venture Fund.
Jonathan: That’s great Peter.
Peter: That’s my career in sort of a nutshell.
Jonathan: Oh, superbly done Peter. And I’ve got my great co-host, Cindy Nicholson. Would you like to quickly introduce yourself, Cindy?
Cindy: Sure. Hi everyone. Cindy Nicholson here from TheCourseWhisperer.com. And so, I help entrepreneurs with putting together great online courses.
Jonathan: And I’m the founder of WP-Tonic. We help people that want to set up membership sites, learning management sites, basically, you want to do something with education online. And before we go into the main part of the interview, I just wanted to mention one of our great sponsors and that’s Kinsta Hosting. And Kinsta only specializes in hosting WordPress websites. It uses Google Cloud. I personally think they’re a lot better than WP Engine. They host the WP website and I’ve worked with them on a number of other client websites and their support is just fantastic. They’re big enough to have all the technology that you require, staging site, daily backups, latest version of PHP, but small enough to basically still care. And if that sounds interesting for you or one of your clients, go to the WP-Tonic site. There’s banner adverts all over the site for Kinsta. They are affiliate links. So, if you use one of those, you’ll be helping yourself and also the show. So, into the interview. Peter, I’ve been watching some of your old interviews and one of the things you talk about is building a community that helps you with some of your online properties. It’s a word that’s bounced around a lot on the Internet. A, what do you think it really means? And B, have you got any insights, reflections about how somebody that’s got an online course in the educational space can build community on their own property?
Peter: Yeah. I will say that one of the things that’s kind of exciting and also challenging about communities online is that they’ve changed a lot over the past 25 years when I first on the Internet, even before the Web in the sort of early 90s, like 1990, ’91. We’ve seen, obviously, this evolution over time, but I think for me, what I’ve always really cared about or I hate to say found works because I didn’t do it because it worked, I did it because it felt like the right thing, which is that to have respect for and value the people that you want to be in this community with and sort of see yourself as part of the community, not sort of above the community. My approach from doing Engadget was to treat the audience as being much smarter and sophisticated than myself when it came to the topics I was writing about and that it was my job to try to rise to their level and to make sure that I didn’t disappoint them. And it was a big difference from when I had been a journalist before when there was this assumption of, “Well, you kind of have to write down and assume that the audience doesn’t know very much or even that they’re very interested in the topic that you’re writing about.” And I think that when it comes to building a community, I think having respect for those people that you want to kind of have [05:27] around whatever you’re doing, that’s where you have to start and assume that they are people with their own lives who, if they’re going to spend any of their valuable attention on whatever it is you’re doing or participating or contributing, that you have to make them feel respected for that.
And so, when I, a few years later, ended up doing a site called Gadget, GDGT, which was social commerce, actually even directly community driven that Engadget was. The core premise of what we were doing was, “Let’s create a great experience for that power user or core enthusiast around gadgets and consumer electronics. Let’s give them the place that we’ve always wanted where we could go and hang out and talk and share. And so, part of what we did was, we tried to set a high bar for the tone of the community.
It’s funny to see these debates around Facebook and Twitter about what is or isn’t allowed on the platform. We set a very high bar and we said we’re not just going to ban Spam and trolling and things like that. But frankly, if you are contributing in a toxic way, if you are bringing a lot of negative energy to the site, we don’t want you here because the bad people drive out the good and we wanted to have a place where people could be respectful, where they could interact with each other and engage with each other and come away feeling better from the experience than feeling worse. And so, that was to me, the fundamental premise of everything that I’ve tried to do.
Jonathan: Oh, that’s great Peter. Thanks for the answer. Cindy, over to you.
Cindy: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting in terms of how, building a community is about kind of meeting them where they are and having respect and I think with people creating online courses or membership sites, they people like they need to be the expert so that they actually need to be higher than everybody else. So, how would you recommend somebody who is creating a course or has a membership site to kind of foster that community element but still have the know, like and trust factor as part of that community?
Peter: I think that if people just want to find information online themselves, they can always do that. There is always some resource out there that is frankly going to be free or if you just want to dig around, you can always find something. And I think that what people really value is the sense that they’re going to be able to get, frankly, if it’s guidance, it’s guidance that sort of helps them understand what is worth paying attention to and what isn’t. And so, that’s where I think the trust comes into it. I think respect, obviously, respect somebody, what you’re also asking of them is to trust you. And I think that was one of things, like again, with Engadget which was I didn’t put myself forward necessarily as an expert in gadgets, consumer electronics even though I sort of was, but it was that look, I’m asking you to trust me and that I will always be truthful with you about what I know, but also what I don’t know.
And I think that’s ultimately what people want is somebody who they can trust to help them navigate that world. And so, it’s not about saying, “Here’s what I know and you don’t know.” It’s about saying, “Trust me to help you figure out how to find your path.” I mean, it’s a subtle difference, but I think at the end of the day, it is what people care about. Because, again, information is a commodity now. Knowledge, in a way, is a commodity. But I think having a trusted guide to help you navigate all that, I think that’s the part that’s missing and I think that’s the part that ends up being missing, frankly, from a lot of news and social products and things like that today.
Cindy: Yeah. I think that’s an excellent way of putting it because again, you don’t necessarily have to know everything, but also just conveying that you’re human but you’re there to help and support each other is probably more valuable than anything.
Peter: Yeah. And you think you genuinely should have the best interest of your community in mind and I think that if you do that, it will shine through and I think that the people will trust you and they will follow you where you want to take them. That’s a responsibility that you cannot abuse.
Jonathan: One of your other interviews you discussed the importance in your own success and entrepreneurs online and the mobile experience. We see a lot of educational sites, a lot of membership sites that don’t perform that well on mobile even in 2018. How important do you think for somebody that wants a successful course or a successful education or building a successful education platform the mobile experience is for them to have success?
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I think it would be hard to understate now just given how much of people’s time spent is on a mobile device of some kind. And so, I think you are sort of writing off a lot of your potential audience if you don’t have something like that. I’m even seeing sort of chat-based interfaces become even more popular for learning and education where it’s saying, it’s not just about saying, “Go download my mobile app.” It’s saying, “I’m going to meet you where you’re at which is if you’re going to use SMS or Facebook Messenger, that’s how you want to learn and interact, I’m going to offer you something there.” As an investor, I’m seeing pitches of people trying to build businesses there. And like for example, we’re an investor, I’m not going to sit and plug all the companies I’ve invested it. But we’re investing in a company called Shine which is sort of wellness and motivational, almost like lifestyle coaching type content for millennial women and they could have done that as a website. I mean, 10 years ago, it would have been a blog, but in 2018, it’s SMS and Facebook Messenger and it’s recognizing if you are a 24-year-old woman who is just out of College and trying to navigate the workplace world, which can be extremely complicated right now, that this is a resource that you can turn to and kind of help you better understand and feel better about what you’re going through and an audience like that wants to consume in on SMS, for example.
So, I think we’re seeing a little bit of a further fragmentation going from what had just been desktop Web to now there’s video and now there’s mobile and there’s chat, messaging-based and say nothing of like augmented reality, virtual reality and things like that. But I think that at the end of the day, different audiences are going to want to consume and engage in different ways and I think it’s important to recognize that.
Jonathan: Yeah. I think that’s a great point. We’re going to be coming up to our break in a couple of minutes so I’m just going to ask you a quick follow through question. So what you’re really saying is it’s not only mobile, you’ve got to be aware of where your audience is and what way they’re communicating in this kind of target community. You’ve got to be well aware of that now if you want success in 2018.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, it could be if you want to reach, say, those 24-year-old women, you need to be on SMS, but if you want to reach 15-year-old boys, you’ve got to be on Twitch. I think that audiences are migrating to different platforms. I would say actually one of the hardest things to do right now is to get people to download and install a mobile app, but it’s a lot easier to get them to subscribe to SMS or get them to watch your live stream on Twitch. And so, I think that is trickier because I think again, when you see this fragmentation of the audience, it means that you have to go and do different things in different places and it is harder, especially if you’re one person trying to address these different niches. But I think on the other hand, you can say, “Look, I know what my audience is and my audience is here and that’s where I’m going to focus my attention.
So, it could be that you have an audience from desktop Web happen to be just right for them. Maybe it’s an older audience. Maybe it’s a more professional audience that’s going it at work. You know what I mean? I think that taking the time to understand the audience and how they want to consume can obviously pay off big time. Again, when I think about the things that I’ve built, we spend a lot of time trying to understand how do people discover this, how do people want to consume this with the format that works and the lightweightness and flexibility of blogging in the early days 15 years ago was huge because it sort of said people want something that is easier to consume, lightweight, regularly updated and blogging software helped create a new form of media that hadn’t really existed before.
Jonathan: That’s great. We’re going to go for our break folks. We’ll be back with this fascinating interview with somebody that I admire really. That’s Peter Rojas. We’ll be back in a few moments folks.
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Jonathan: We’re coming back. We’ve had a great discussion. Hopefully, Peter agrees with that. Cindy, over to you.
Cindy: So, again, thinking about the business or the industry that you’re working with and how that kind of aligns with the type of people that are listening to this podcast that are creating online courses and membership sites, one of the big things is you create the content, you have the course ready, or membership ready to go, now it’s time to launch it and put it out into the world. So, maybe if you could provide some insight or perspective or advice around the launch idea or the launch process that you think people should go through if they have a product such as a course or membership site to put it out into the world.
Peter: Yeah. I’m a big fan of testing and iterating and trying to understand what your audience is. So, some of that might be research, again, not everyone has the resources or the budget, but I think it actually is not necessarily a bad idea to just spend a little bit of time testing out campaigns on Facebook or on Instagram or wherever you want to go and market your product. You can go and spend a few hundred dollars and see what kinds of course descriptions do people click on. When I describe the course this way, is it something that people click on and maybe sign up for and how many people will give their email address. Again, I can talk to my own experience, we have a company that was testing out, they were sort of pivoting and they were testing out a new business model. And so, what they did was they spent like a few thousand dollars on Facebook and Instagram ads to see how many people could we get to just to sign up for mailing, basically, sign up for the waitlist for this product and they A/B tested different headlines, different topics, different landing pages and they found that they could get a certain number of people to convert. I think they were paying like 80 cents a click, 80 cents per sign up to the waitlist and it’s one way that without having to go through and build out everything.
You can start to see, is there interest for this? Does this resonate people? I think the other thing is then to maybe take people off that waitlist and then interview five of them. Say, “Look, I’ll give you a 50 bucks Amazon gift card if I can just get on the phone with you for half an hour, an hour and walk you through what I’m thinking here.” Discuss price points, discuss the topics and kind of understand what are they looking for. Again, if they sign up for a waitlist or express interest, there’s something that connects it for them. So, I think that it’s important to try to understand what it is you, again, who your audience is, who your customers are, and then, take the time to iterate and experiment. I think it can be hard with an online course to do a ton of experimentation after you’ve already put it out there because people have signed up and subscribed and are expecting a certain product. But I think you do some of that research beforehand to make sure that what it is you’re delivering is hopefully going to connect or resonate with an audience. It’s tough because sometimes you feel like you’re flying blind, but I think every little data you can get will help guide you and the worse thing is when you have no data at all.
Cindy: Right. Or you have your own opinion as to what you think might work without actually evaluating it by asking anyone.
Peter: I will say that it is really tempting to try to go with your gut on everything. And I will say if you feel very strongly about something, I would never tell somebody don’t do what you feel is best. But I think that sometimes you can be disabused of some of your own ideas when you look at the data. I’ve had to learn those lessons the hard way myself as a product person and as a founder, things have worked and which things haven’t. Sometimes you want so much in your heart something to be a certain way and it’s not and so you have to kind of recognize that.
Cindy: You have to separate the emotion from the logic. Jonathan.
Jonathan: All right Peter. You did your Masters at the University of Sussex. So, reflecting back, what were some of the most obvious cultural differences between British and Americans then Peter?
Peter: Well, so that’s 20 years ago that I graduated.
Jonathan: Time flies, doesn’t it, Pete?
Peter: I know. I would say one of the biggest differences I’ve found was that Americans will become friends quickly and then stop being friends quickly. They sort of come together and then fall apart quickly. Friendships kind of fade away. Whereas in England, if I’m characterizing this incorrectly, please feel free to disagree, but people would become friends slowly but then stay friends forever, even if they stopped liking each other. And so, I would have these friends in England, I lived in Brighton and they would say, “We’re getting together with blah, blah, blah tomorrow. I hate her.” And I was like, “Why are you still friends with her?” It’s like, “We’ve been friends since we were 6. All she does is complain.” I was like, “Well then don’t spend time with her.” It was just such a different thing because like for me, not that you abandon your friends in a time of difficulty, but I’m saying if somebody had become just kind of toxic or negative or just unpleasant, you’re just like, “You know what? We’re not married. We don’t have kids. We can go our separate ways and it’s fine.” And I think that Americans are sort of better at quietly untangling themselves from each other as friends but also become friends very quickly which is on the plus side. I will say that I made some great friends when I was in England and had a great year when I was there and I miss it dearly.
Jonathan: Yeah. I brought it up because I’m actually on holiday in the UK actually Peter. I’m actually broadcasting from my sister’s bedroom. That’s why the lighting is a bit dicey. I look like I’m in citizen protection, don’t I Peter? But that’s the reason. Over to you Cindy.
Cindy: So, just to kind of piggyback that comment about your friendships and everything. You’ve worked with a lot of different partners in the projects that you’ve done. Can you talk maybe a little bit about how to really foster a strong partnership when you’re working with somebody in business?
Peter: Yeah. It’s funny because, I mean there are people that I’ve, I mean, Ryan Block, for example, who I brought into Engadget, I think about 3 months after we started and ended up being Managing Editor and then Editor in Chief. And then, he and I did a Gadget together as co-founders. I’m an investor in his new company personally as an angel and we had lunch together. We talk almost everyday still and I had lunch with him last week. You can find people that you have these kind of very close collaborations with and I do think it kind of goes back to respect and trust. You need to have people who can see you at your worst or have disagreements with and are going to kind of understand and maybe hopefully, get past some of that. Like with Ryan, for example, I put him through a lot as a co-founder because there’s so many ups and downs and highs and lows. So I think it’s good. I will say one of the things that I learned from working with him is that we actually tend to work together so well and we’re so good at kind of finding compromise and learning how to meet each other in the middle of that, it actually started to have a negative impact on our product where rather than having one strong product vision or direction, we were sort of kind of taking the median of the two and so it wasn’t quite this way or that way. It was kind of in this mushy middle and it’s one of the perils you can have when you work with someone and you think, “Oh, we work so well.” Because we didn’t have like a lot of substantial disagreements. It was more like, one of us would want to do this and one wants to do that and then we would always find a way to work together. When it may have been better for the product for one of us to say, “This is how it’s going to be and I’m not going to compromise.” Because you think of a compromise as being always this great thing and it isn’t necessarily always the case. So, I think that’s one of the lessons that I’ve learned. I think one of the other things is long-term, I think reputation matters. I think having loyalty to the people you work with is important. I help start Gawker and then help start Weblogs Inc and so I worked with Nick Denton who is a very big personality in the media blogging world and then Jason Calacanis, obviously another big personality.
Jonathan: Only slightly.
Peter: Yeah. Two very big egos. I don’t have that need. Personally, if I had zero public profile, I’d be totally happy with that, like I don’t care. It sometimes feels like a cost to doing business to me frankly.
Peter: Whereas, I think like Nick and Jason, they love it. They ham it up. They love being these sort of notorious characters. I would work with Jason again. I would never work with Nick again. And the difference is that Jason fundamentally is loyal to the people he works with, to the people he does things with and I think he feels that sense of obligation and loyalty and reciprocity to them that Nick never did. Maybe that’s changed. I haven’t worked with him in a long time admittedly, so perhaps that’s changed, but I think that we’re all hopefully going to be in the business for a long time and the way that you treat people matters. I feel like I’ve grown a lot and learned a lot having done this and certainly pissed off a lot of people when I was younger. There’s no way to not have pissed people off from time to time. But I feel like I’ve tried very hard to treat everyone with respect, whether it’s a cold email from the founder or the CEO of a huge company that I can hopefully have a good interaction or engagement with them. And I think the fact that I’ve had so many long-term relationships and partnerships over my career with people that I would work with again or they would work with me again, I think hopefully, speaks to that.
Cindy: Right. Yeah and just important in recognizing how important it actually is to the success of your business.
Peter: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s hardest and actually, from living in New York, I think I learned is that in a way, the best way to be successful is to just be around other successful people. If you lift up the people around you, they’re going to lift you up too. I know this sounds really corny and kind of Oprahish. But my point is that like I think it may be a more LA kind of approach of like, “I’ve got to be a star. I’ve got to win.” Whereas I think oddly in New York, people kind of realize that you see these clusters of people becoming successful. Clusters of writers, clusters of founders and that’s not a coincidence. It’s not like randomly all these super talented people just happen to be in the same at the same time. It’s that like they created sort of a sense of mutualism around their success and helped each other out. And I think being generous with that is not a bad thing. One of the challenges I had, when I was younger, was that you worry about being taken advantage of, that your generosity will be something that people take advantage of or that you’ll be sort of a sucker and I worry about that a lot less now. I was mentoring a teenage girl. I actually ended meeting her in person when she was in town for lunch, but she was just someone who was like, “I love blogging, being a tech blogger. Will you give me some pointers on how to be a tech blogger?” And so, I kind of mentored her over email for, I don’t know, a year, a couple years or something like. That is probably never going to do anything for me, to be honest, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody has gotten where they’ve gotten in life without somebody being generous and helping them when they didn’t have to. to the extent that anybody would care to have my help is a real, you should be honored if anybody would care about your opinion or your time.
Jonathan: That’s great. We’re going to wrap it up for the podcast part of the show. Peter’s been generous and is going to stay on for another 10 minutes and we’ll be asking some more questions. Peter, how can people find out more about you and some of your thoughts and what you’re up?
Peter: Yeah. So, my personal site is roj.as and I do blog there. You can also follow me on Twitter @peterrojas, P – E – T – E -R – R – O – J – A – S. I guess I tend to tweet mainly about tech things, but hopefully, things that are charming or entertaining in some small way. I’m pretty accessible. I will answer any sort of reasonable email sent to me. Let’s put it that way.
Jonathan: That’s true. That’s one of the things about you, Peter. You’re open once you’re treated with respect and you deserve it, Peter.
Peter: Thank you.
Jonathan: Cindy, how can people find out more about you and what you’re up to Cindy?
Cindy: Yeah. So, if people are interested in creating the content for their course, they can find me at TheCourseWhisperer.com.
Jonathan: And if you want to find out more about WP-Tonic, go to our website. It’s got loads of content. We love to help people, entrepreneurs do membership training and we love helping people doing something in the educational field. That’s where we get our buzz from. We’ll be back next week folks where we’re going to have somebody giving you some information to make your online course a real success. We’re giving you insights on marketing or WordPress or technology in general. We’ll see you next week folks. Bye.
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