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How to start a media company without losing your soul, according to Skift CEO Rafat Ali

Ali’s first company, PaidContent, died after it joined the Guardian. Now he’s staying small.

Courtesy Rafat Ali

Nobody would hire Rafat Ali out of college, so he started blogging. On his first site, PaidContent, started in 2002, he aggregated news stories about the media, added his own commentary and reporting, and people in the media business started reading what he had to say.

"Now I’m reading some of the old stories and realized how naive or how overconfident I was about the things I thought I knew," Ali said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. "At 28, two years into your writing career, you shouldn’t be that opinionated."

In time, PaidContent was scooped up by British newspaper the Guardian, making the third of its several periodic attempts to expand into U.S. media. Ali made money — and lost much of his zeal for the job.

"What happens when you sell your company is a switch goes off in your head," he said. "You cannot control it. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. When it happens, it’s over. Henry Blodget, at some point during zero and ten years, at some point that switch is going to go off and he’s going to leave. Turns out Arianna Huffington has not yet had that switch turned off — or maybe [she] has."

(Editor’s note: Ali was interviewed less than 24 hours before Huffington announced she would leave the Huffington Post.)

After layoffs and an aborted sale, Ali wanted out of the Guardian, leaving four months before an earn-out that would have netted him even more from the acquisition. He launched Skift in 2012, an online trade publication that writes about the travel business, and primarily for the travel business, with occasional stories that go viral with a much larger audience.

Today Skift has 29 employees and isn’t raising money — and it’s profitable. Ali acknowledges it took him some time to become content, but said he’s happy with that arrangement.

"My argument is, there’s another way to build a company," he said. "It doesn’t have to all be about the worship of bigness. Small is beautiful. We are proud to be called a boutique media company."

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