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The Long Story Behind Gigaom's Sudden Demise

Here's what happened.

Peter Kafka / Recode
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

When Gigaom’s managers announced the tech news publisher was laying off all of its employees on Monday, the news came as a shock to the site’s staff and its many admirers.

But, behind the scenes, Gigaom’s managers and investors had known the company was in serious peril for more than two months. And while they hadn’t discussed it publicly, its backers had been trying to fix the company for at least a year by pouring millions more into the publisher and swapping out executives.

None of that was enough. Last weekend, after failing to sell the company, Gigaom’s investors decided they would stop funding it. But first they needed to make one last investment — a seven-figure check to cover the costs of employees’ severance payouts. They’re still hoping to find a buyer.

Gigaom’s troubles have triggered a round of commentary about the state of news sites on the Web, and whether modestly sized publications can survive. It’s still unclear exactly how Gigaom went from one of the Web’s pioneering tech blogs to a zombie site without a staff. But the state of the company’s finances over the last couple years is clear: They were a mess.

Over the course of eight years, Gigaom, founded by prominent technology journalist Om Malik, had raised around $40 million in equity and debt. Sources said that about $5 million of that came from a 2011 venture debt round led by Western Technology Investment, and in 2014 the company had raised yet more money to help pay that debt down.

But, by the end of last year, Gigaom still had significant debt to service — people familiar with the company said it was spending around $400,000 a month on rent and interest payments.

Last fall, after pushing out longtime CEO Paul Walborsky, Gigaom’s investors, which included True Ventures, Reed Elsevier and Alloy Ventures, made two different bridge loans of $500,000 to keep the company running. They brought on former Dow Jones executive Michael Rolnick to head the company in the beginning of the year and lent the company another $1.5 million.

(Disclosure: Last year, Rolnick consulted briefly for Re/code and its parent company Revere Digital. Revere Digital may also be interested in purchasing some of Gigaom’s assets, or hiring some of its former employees.)

Yet Gigaom needed even more money. Sources said the company wasn’t going to be able to produce an enterprise software conference in New York, which sold tickets for a list price of $1,255.50 and was scheduled for next week, because it didn’t have enough cash to pay vendors to stage the show. That kicked off the last-ditch effort to sell the business.

Malik, who had started blogging on his own in 2001, turned that into a business five years later. In 2014, he announced he was leaving day-to-day operations at the company to become a partner at True Ventures, the site’s original backer. Former Gigaom employees said that Malik hadn’t had an active role in the company’s management for years, having ceded that to Walborsky and a rotating list of editors and managers.

But Malik, who remained on Gigaom’s board, did work to find a replacement for Walborsky, and was helping to shop the company in recent weeks, sources said. Malik declined to comment.

One reason the Gigaom layoffs surprised both its staff and the outside world is that the company didn’t seem to be acting like one that was running out of money. The staff had shrunk from a peak of 85 to about 70, but former employees said there had never been significant layoffs or any other kind of cuts, right up until Monday.

Another reason is that Gigaom seemed to be a Web publisher that had figured out how to thrive by developing multiple revenue streams. In addition to its website, which the company said attracted an audience of 6.5 million people a month, Gigaom also had an events business and a research arm. The company had placed particular emphasis on building up research over the years, pointing to it as proof that readers would pay for high-quality content.

But Gigaom’s research business had actually become a significant drag on the company. While it had started out as a “pro” subscription business charging individuals as much as $299 a year, after a couple of pivots, the company’s research arm was now focused on creating custom white papers and other products, like Webinars, for corporate clients. While that group booked $8 million in business last year, it wasn’t profitable. That was partly due to high sales and product costs and but also because some of that $8 million never materialized as the company didn’t create the work it was supposed to. (Here’s a post from former Gigaom research head Michael Wolf, who says the company raised too much money to fulfill unrealistic growth expectations, and then mismanaged the money it raised).

Gigaom’s investors are still hopeful that the company has value, and are continuing to shop it: The sales pitch is that the site itself still generates traffic and ad revenue, and the company’s events business could still draw attendees and sponsors. Some people affiliated with Gigaom believe that Time Inc., International Data Group and O’Reilly Media are all looking at the property. All three companies declined to comment.

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