Ev Williams, founder and CEO of Medium, joined Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode, for a talk today at Collision Conference in Toronto discussing "Life After Twitter." The below is an overview of their conversation: I wasn't able to capture the last question, but it was a fastpaced discussion between the two covering a wide variety of subjects! Kara is prefaced by a K: Evan by an E.
K: This talk is called “Life after twitter” - and you left the board this year, can you talk a little bit about why you did that?
E: I stayed on the board as long as I thought I could be helpful mostly. And this company’s in a really good place now, compared to some of the time it was before, and I thought I wanted to spend my time and energy on other things.
K: Was it overwhelming as it relates to issues around hate or President Trump?
E: I’ll always be associated with the company, I’ll always be rooting for it, I’m still a shareholder… I’ve been focusing my time on other things for a long time.
K: Where you do you think social media is right now? I’m assuming you won’t write a Chris Hughes type document for the NYTimes.
E: It’s in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go. I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say social media is terrible and forget all the great things about it, which I believe are true, and all the bad things are true, because social media is humanity. And it amplifies some bad things about humanity, and it’s powerful with connecting people with bad ideas and making them seem like they’re good ideas, but on the other hand, it does the opposite. I think there’s a better version of social media to be invented, and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s a lot of smart people at these companies, or with new ideas and paradigms that come along. I think people’s relationship and the novelty that brought us to it is wearing off, like a sugar high.
K: Let’s get to new companies. You’r not investing in that space, why is that?
E: At obvious ventures, we focus on what we call “world positive investing” - things that address big systemic problems we face as a society. We don’t do very many internet or media things. We do a little bit, but more health, wellness, sustainability.
K: “World-positive" - that’s a very tech word. What does that mean?’
E: We’re not an impact investor that doesn’t compromise on financial returns, but we’re focused on big ideas, big solutions.
K: Why don’t you want to call it impact investing?
E: it can be great, but the view historically is to take a lesser financial return to have impact. There’s investments that make sense for it, but our view is the biggest companies that scale the most will have big returns. So rather than saying compromising returns, we’re saying it has to be great. One of our companies is Beyond Meat, which has done phenomenally, It’s very profitable and addresses this massive need of lowering our carbon foot print when it comes to meat.”
K: Beyond Meat is doing phenomenally, and Uber, Lyft are tanking. There’s a lot of food tech investing.
E: It was one of the first investments we did. My longtime partner Biz is a longtime vegan. Kleiner-Perkins, I think because he was a vegan, shared it with him. We’re very excited about it, I’ve been vegan, pescatarian for a long time, but I haven’t eaten a land animal for a very long time, I enjoy the products. I draw the line at fish! And Ethan brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, is a wonderful human.
K: At the time you did it, there weren’t a lot of people interested in that sector…what did you hope, why did you go public with it, and what did you hope for it?
E: The goal with it, and the company’s been around for a few years, the goal was always to penetrate the meat market. I mean that in the grocery store sense. That’s a massive, trillion-dollar market we thought there was a better alternative to. Ethan and his team had the plan for it, and it’s going well so far!
K: So “world-positive” - have you had any pushback from meat companies? Just like milk companies don’t want oat milk to be called milk?
E: I think some of them see it as an opportunity, some of them see it as a threat… the response to Beyond Meat’s IPO is people are paying attention to this plant protein company that most people wouldn’t have predicted making such a big blip.
K: What are your theories about investing? How do you distinguish yourself?
E: We play a different game than most Silicon Valley investors. It’s our lens, filtering out a lot of things that could be great investments, but if we don’t think they’ll address a need for society, we’ll say there are a lot of others we’ll focus on. This eliminates most enterprise software. And we’re mission aligned. We’ll support an entrepreneur that is mission-focused. People come to us because they like to hear that: you’re aligned with your investors in terms of wanting to get really big, but you may be misaligned on purpose… we do a lot of stuff in sustainability from solar, solar power. An electric bus company. Another exit we just had was Ale, a supplement company. We tend to do things that are outside of the traditional Silicon Valley world that I know. Not a lot of software or media.
K: When you think about venture, I just interviewed Marc Cuban and Steve Case, they talked about trying to go all around the world to find talent. Right now 80% of venture capital goes to 3 states, continues to be all white, all male, not very geographically diverse or globally diverse. Why does that continue, from your perspective?
E: I think it’s habit. It’s definitely not the lack of viable investments that are outside the geography or demographics of that traditional set. We aren’t internationally focused. And one thing is so much of the money is in Silicon Valley, the firms are there, it’s historic. It’s hard to invest in other places, there’s a time in the day problem. We have a few investments in Europe, in New York. I certainly celebrate expanding the ethos to other places, but it’s pretty massive and it’s a perpetuating cycle, people come out and then. Start investing in their friends.
K: Most people just talk about it, nothing happens. Perpetuating something like this is not an excuse for doing that.
E: I agree I don’t see an excuse for doing it. I try very hard, I don’t know the data off the top of my head in our portfolio. But it’s something we talk about in every conversation I’m in, we try to hire women, underrepresented backgrounds, and we work on that daily.
K: Do you think Silicon Valley has changed in attitude, given this tech lash that is happening?
E: I think so, yes. The intensity and focus on diversity and inclusion in the past 5 years is dramatically higher. It’s changed how we invest, how we hire. But we have a long way to go.
K: When you think about where the biggest, most interesting innovations are happening, where do you tend towards right now? Obviously food tech, mobility, but what do you think the high is, and the worst place?
E: I don’t spend most of my time on investing - I spend most of my time on Medium - but I think AI is infiltrating everything we do. There’s an overlap of AI and material / molecule discovery. I’ll probably butcher this if I try to explain it, one of our companies is designerGen, discovering new materials and chemicals through AI. That’s a field I barely understand, and every time I learn more about it, I learn wonderful things.
K: What’s happening with Medium now? How do you look at it now? You’ve changed it 63 times since we last talked.
E: We haven’t changed that many things about Medium! It’s been around for 7 years, and the entire time it’s an open publishing platform that’s grown that entire time. 2 years ago we added a subscription business on top of that, and it’s been going very well. For the past 2 years we’ve been building a premium subscription business for consumers… we pay thousands of writers all over the world every week, that’s a growing amount, and we have a professional editorial team.
K: You’ve pushed off the traditional writers, and moved towards?
E: Everything's growing. The bulk of medium is self-published authors, and we have a partner program. Most people who write on Medium don’t get paid, they want to find an audience. We also have a growing editorial team, the latest thing we’ve ben doing is building mini-magazines around a variety of topics, both in house and with a variety of partners, like Rozane Gay. So all of that is working, the combination of things that are working. It’s very clear to me that pure advertising for publishing, for quality information, people still want good things to read and to inform their view of the world, and every publisher is putting up paywalls, and people won’t subscribe to dozens of sites, the way they won’t subscribe to every TV show they watch or musician. They want to look for a lot of content under one sites.
K: Well, they’re trying to do that in podcasts.
E: We’re much further along than podcasts. You could call us a network, Medium’s always been a network. We’ve always been a network, and we’re a bundle of authors, writers, in one place. Some of which is licensed from third party publishers like NYTimes, Financial Times, a few stories are in there. Our goal is to build th best content subscription product that there is.
K: Do you think of buying big media companies? Like Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, and others, are purchasing things. There was a rumor you were looking at NYMag?
E: It’s true there was a rumor. I love NYmag. I think they dod a great job. It’s something I’ve thought about, because I think Teresa a lot of those organizations that do great work, and I think a lot fhtem will be fine, but a lot are going through difficult times. The difference between myself and those other people I mentioned is that it would plug into the business I’m building.
K: What does a modern media company look like? You could go and buy old media companies?
E: I think a modern media company, I think the idea of being open to some degree, is important. This is where we’re trying to capture what you get, the best of what you get from the internet and social media, a lot of people get a chance to be heard, but you don’t let algorithms and machines fight it out to be heard.
K: So not twitter.
E: We serve a very different purpose. If you’re building a publisher today, given the internet, I think it would be crazy to limit yourself to the people in the building or that you know. So we have the good fortune to have tens of thousands of people sharing, and then we edit it, curate it, and we also get the benefit of working with people who are well-established. I think a modern media company taps the world’s brain. A big part of what we do, our philosophy, is blending people and machines. We’ve seen the pure open platform, what that gives us in terms of content, and we’ve seen the traditional work and how that can be limited in terms of scale and efficiency. So the next version will blend those things.
K: Are you worried about media in general?
E: I’m very optimistic. It’s interesting that the written word and publishing is kind of the last - there was a time when it would be the death of the music industry, but there was a time when reality TV dominated, and that’s what we thought the future was, and both those are better as businesses and consumer products. And I think the same thing can happen with what we read and non-fiction content as well.
K: So you have game of thrones for example, which I’m not sure what we’ll do after it. You’re still positive that media can morph into this, in this noisy angry world?
E: The reason it sucks is because of advertising. Attention wins - which is the same reason reality tv sucked. To me, people talk about “saving publishing” or “saving news” - how about we create something that’s way better, by changing the incentive structure?
K: So that would make Twitter and Facebook the equivalent of reality TV?
E: I think Facebook and Twitter are distribution systems more than anything. I’m talking about publishing, and even when people are talking about where they get their news and information - most people get their information on sites that are ad-driven.