The 11th-floor headquarters of Vox Media in downtown Washington screams start-up. The home of SB Nation, the Verge, Vox.com and Eater has no carpeting on the concrete floor. Bikes are stacked along a wall. There’s a worn leather couch next to a foosball table. The Texas state flag drapes an office wall. Lunch is day-old Taylor Gourmet sandwiches and Coca-Cola.
Chief executive Jim Bankoff, 45, thrives on the informality.
The man who made a name for himself assembling digital properties for America Online a decade ago — think MapQuest, Moviefone and TMZ — said his first try at building a new media company was stifled due to bigness.
He wants to keep Vox fresh for as long as he can.
“AOL became so big and bureaucratic, it became hard to get things done,” Bankoff said. After AOL famously merged with Time Warner “a lot of the key people who built that culture were gone.”
No stuffiness allowed this time. Bankoff greets me dressed in Nike running shoes, slacks and sweater. To ensure the company sticks to its roots, he has named the meeting rooms for humble surroundings, like Chinatown Hallway and the Chalet, which was a carriage house.
“When I came here, one of principles I had was to make sure we built a culture that is strong and empowers people,” he said. “We hire great people and set them free.”
It ain’t Uber, but something is working.
Vox announced last week that it received a $46.5 million investment led by General Atlantic, a firm based in New York City and Greenwich, Conn. At current multiples for similar digital media companies such as Reddit, BuzzFeed and PopSugar, the investment puts Vox’s worth at around $380 million.
That follows past investments by Accel Partners, Comcast Ventures, Khosla and General Atlantic. Somebody thinks that this new media invention can make big money.
Backing out the math, I came up with a revenue number somewhere north of $50 million. With 360 employees, including some ex-Posties, my educated guess is that Vox is close to being profitable.
Bankoff said he owns a piece of the firm, but declined to comment on finances beyond that.
“I became an entrepreneur later in life,” Bankoff said.
His small office is dominated by a LeRoy Neiman print of legendary New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, who died in pre-millennial 1979 while trying to land his small airplane. The Neiman print is autographed by Yankees such as pitcher Ron Guidry, relievers Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage and second baseman Willie Randoph, all idols of Bankoff when he was growing up in northern New Jersey.
His father, who still owns a jewelry business, liked to brag that he never had to write a résumé. His mother worked as an editor.
He graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and earned an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He gravitated to America Online, where from 1995 to 2006, he worked at a succession of jobs, ultimately helping to integrate AOL.com, AOL Music, Netscape and AOL Instant Messenger services into a more cohesive whole. He won an Emmy for producing a concert that was streamed live online.
“The strategy was to build brands that took advantage of the distinct utility of the Internet,” he said. “We had a lot of successes.”
And also some failures. The decline of dial-up Internet access, which AOL pioneered and which quickly became outmoded, didn’t help. Nor did the merger. Too many people. Too much bureaucracy.
When his briefcase snapped shut for the last time in 2006, “I left thinking there was an opportunity to create a new type of media company that took advantage of changes in technology and audience behavior.”
There was one such company germinating at the other end of the continent. SB Nation, a sports blog site that began in 2004 as Athletics Nation, had been created by former journalist Tyler Bleszinski.
Bleszinski, who was based in California, found an Alexandria, Va., technologist named Trei Brundrett to help expand the blog site. They reached out to Bankoff in 2008 about building it into a business.
“At that point it was less of a company and more of a hobby with momentum,” Bankoff said. Many of the most dedicated bloggers were lawyers.“They like to debate, they are argumentative, good writers and analytic. And they sit in front of a computer all day.”
Bankoff was reluctant at first. Even though he had left AOL, he had gone a bit soft in the corporate world he loathed, with its big staff, parking space, generous salary and stock options.
“I was reluctant,” he said. “I had come from managing 1,600 people. I had all the trappings of an executive life.”
But he decided the second shot at building a new-media company was worth it. The conventional news cycle was breaking down. Generalization was giving way to more topical-driven reporting. It was becoming more social, with consumers sharing content and creating communities.
“I leaned into the Internet,” Bankoff said.
He leaned into the venture capital world, too, raising money for the bloggers and techies who would help boost the content and make SB Nation fun.
He drew on contacts he had made at AOL and at Providence Equity Partners, a private equity firm where he parked himself after leaving AOL.
“I pounded the pavement,” said Bankoff. “Content is not generally a business that technology investors want to invest in.”
Andrew Braccia, an investor and sports junkie at Accel, a prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm, followed the San Francisco Giants and 49ers blog sites on SB Nation.
Accel led a $4 million investment round.
“We were off to the races,” Bankoff said. He grew the platform from 20 sites to 300, for every team and sports topic. They moved from Brundrett’s basement to a hallway in Chinatown. Then to a townhouse on N Street.
In 2011, they decided to make the leap out of sports.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Is what we are good at sports, or is it a new way of creating content and media brands?’ ”
They developed a technology called Chorus, which would help them duplicate the SB Nation publishing model using different subject matter. Comcast Ventures, the venture-capital arm of the Philadelphia-based cable-TV and media giant, helped fund the launch of the Verge in 2011. The Verge, which covers the effects of technology on people’s lives, is one of Vox’s most popular sites.
Vox has since followed the same playbook with real estate (Curbed), food (Eater), games (Polygon) and news (Vox.com).
Not everything works. A Groupon-like deals initiative called Team Pick was abandoned.
Vox Media’s network consists of seven sites that reach 150 million unique visitors a month. SB Nation is responsible for nearly half that traffic.
I know bullish investors who have made several times their money already and still own stock in the privately held company, even after they have been diluted many times.
My guess is that the company eventually goes public.
That’s the culture of venture capitalists.