If you want to understand where the media is heading, talk to someone with experience — someone like Ken Lerer, who has a lengthy résumé as a New York media mogul.
He helped start MTV, co-created HuffPost with Arianna Huffington, and was an exec at AOL Time Warner during its highest-flying days. On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Lerer explained what he learned in all those roles and how those lessons are still relevant today.
“When you live through something, it’s hard to figure out what’s important,” he said. “But looking back on it now, and I’ve thought about this a lot the last couple years, MTV was always about the brand. It wasn’t about an individual video, it wasn’t about an individual recording act, it was all about the brand.”
And he noted the same could be said today of BuzzFeed, where Lerer is chairman, even though its brand has changed over the years. Responding to recent reports that BuzzFeed is considering an IPO in 2018, he said “it’s too early to predict what happens next year” and declined to draw a direct comparison between BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, which AOL bought for $315 million in 2011.
“Most of the companies I’ve started, I’ve started because of a passion,” he said. “I’ve never sat down and — I’m not smart enough to know where it’s going to go. Most people maybe make believe that they are, but I’m not. You have to pivot, you have to take advantage of the environment, you have to see what your strengths and your weaknesses are, and then you make decisions on the fly.”
Lerer, who sits on the board of MTV owner Viacom, is also a venture capitalist: He’s the managing partner of New York City-based seed fund Lerer Hippeau Ventures. His willingness, in past roles at HuffPost and elsewhere, to identify and fix his own blind spots has served him well as an investor, too, he said.
“I’ve never seen a company at the seed stage — or almost never, I have seen a few — that said I’m going to do ‘x’ and did ‘x,’” he said. “Part of this is the pivot. A founder, if he or she doesn’t have the capacity to pivot, they won’t succeed. And that’s really important, and you won’t know that when you invest initially.”
On the other extreme, he also discussed on the new podcast why he’s more optimistic about AT&T’s pending acquisition of Time Warner than he is about Verizon’s plan to buy Yahoo and AOL.
“It makes a ton of sense,” Lerer said of marrying content with distribution. “Some are going to succeed, some are going to fail. Is the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner going to succeed? I think yes, if they leave it alone. Is the Verizon acquisition of Yahoo and AOL going to work? Maybe not, because neither AOL nor Yahoo are strong brands today, and I think I read they’re changing their name to Oath. Spectacular name, wish I’d thought of that for one of my companies.”
“Name an internet company that had a very weak brand over time and was able to bring it back from near-death,” he added. “You can’t. Could they do it? Sure. But are the odds against them? Yes.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.