On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, entrepreneur and investor Mark Ein talks about his recent purchase of the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C. He’s an investor by trade, but the paper is a philanthropic endeavor. “If it turns out that we’re making money,” he said, “we’re just going to hire more people. I’m really passionate about this. I think this is a platform that we can do a lot of good with.”
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone who used to work for the City Paper in Washington, D.C., but in my spare time, I talk about tech. You’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or just visit Recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today, I’m in Washington, D.C., and I’m here with Mark Ein, someone I’ve wanted to talk to for a while, and now I have an excellent reason. He’s an investor and entrepreneur. He’s the CEO of several companies, including Venture House Group and Capital Investment Corporation 4 — is that 4?
Last year, the most interesting part, he bought the alternative newspaper here in Washington, the Washington City Paper where I used to work. It was my first and second job, or something like that. I was very young. He’s working with some of the paper’s other alumni, including Jake Tapper and Ta-Nehisi Coates, to figure out where it goes next and about local news. There’s so much to talk about. Welcome to the show, Mark.
Mark Ein: It’s great to be here.
I ran into you at CES, which was interesting for you to be there. I want to know why you were there, but let’s talk about you, because my listeners are a lot of tech and media people, but talk about what you’ve done, because you’ve done a whole bunch of really interesting entrepreneurial companies.
Yeah. We’ve really run the gamut from investing in early-stage companies, starting companies, to growth capital, to ...
... to SPACs, to buying whole businesses.
That’s a big thing in Silicon Valley.
Yeah. It’s interesting. In sort of the tech boom 1.0 that you were a part of in Washington, D.C., the Washington area was a really booming area.
There was a lot of great companies, AOL, MCI, Nextel. We were involved in a lot of those. As we got to the next phase of the internet, D.C. just wasn’t a hotbed of those kind of opportunities. I had done, as I mentioned, everything from early-stage to late-stage. What I really decided was I wanted to spend my time focusing in on putting more capital and more time into buying whole businesses, but then taking a venture mindset towards them. I just felt like every time I invested in startups, I felt like the day after you invested, they started losing your money the next day.
That’s right. That’s the rules.
I felt like it was literally like a race to fill up the tank before you ran out of gas. If you’re in a market like Silicon Valley or some other places where there’s a lot of terrific companies and entrepreneurs, that works. I think if you’re in other places, traditionally that’s been really hard.
I want to get into it, but let’s get more into your background. How did you get ... You worked at the traditional companies. You worked at ... is it Blackstone?
I worked at Carlisle.
And Goldman before that. Yeah, and I was at Carlisle ...
Explain your background. You went into finance, which is a typical career.
Yeah, I went to Penn and worked at Goldman in the ’80s, but then I went out to the west coast and worked at a firm called Brentwood Associates, which was one of the early venture firms in LA.
Mm-hmm. This is in LA, right.
They were investors in Apple and other companies like that, and I had a great experience.
Why’d you go there?
I really wanted to get to California. I always wanted to live out there, and I loved it. I loved the people there. They were really high-quality people who were focused on being great investors, and I wanted to be. Back then in 1989, there were not many jobs for a 24-year-old kid to get into that side of the business. There were very, very few jobs. I was fortunate to meet them and hit it off. I went out there, and I learned a ton from then. I did go back to business school, and I almost went back to LA, but then Carlisle was five years old. I grew up in this area. I always had a dream of coming back.
Carlisle, explain for people. Huge, powerful, little scary, who knows what they’re up to, investment firm.
I think it is one of the largest private equity firms in the world. They do a lot of stuff. When I was there, there were 30 of us, and we had $100 million fund. It was a very small.
Wow, small. God.
It was the only thing in Washington I could ever imagine doing back then. That was the business I wanted to be in. It was the only game in town, and it was a little bit of a startup. To be honest, up until the first five years when I joined it, it had a sort of mixed track record of some things good and some not. I went there, and I started focusing on growth capital and wireless communications.
We did a lot of stuff.
We sort of hit the wave. It was amazing. The rest of the firm was focusing on buying defense companies, which was what the firm was known for, but we supplemented it with the other. It worked out great. What I learned was that if you rolled up your sleeves and got involved, as I mentioned, in companies, even if you got involved later, you could really make a difference. You could be a catalyst to helping those companies be more valuable.
I thought rather than having a big portfolio and being spread thin, why don’t I be more concentrated in a smaller number of companies with my time and capital? Eventually Carlisle got bigger, and I decided I wanted to go off on my own and do that. I left in ’99 to start my own firm called Venture House.
That was sort of the peak of the internet bubble, and also the decline. There was a whole fallow period in there.
Yeah. I started in ’99, which was kind of still the boom times.
That’s when AOL bought Time Warner.
That was when AOL ... AOL did buy ...
They did buy it. It wasn’t a merger.
They did. Yeah, yeah, the famous picture with Steve in the suit and Levin in the jeans. Yeah, and so it was the ... I raised the money really quickly. People were excited. I had a great track record. For a year, I was everyone’s favorite genius, because everything was going through the roof.
What were you investing in?
Early-stage company, early investors in XM Satellite, a company called Varsity Books. We did some stuff that we seeded ourselves.
I remember Varsity Books.
Yeah, we were in a whole bunch of stuff like that. We seeded a few things ourselves. For a year and a half, everything was going up. I was everyone’s favorite genius around town. Then the bust happened, and I was everyone’s favorite idiot. It was interesting, because through that, I never changed my perception of what we were doing. I felt very comfortable with where we are, but you get buffeted by sort of the headwinds and tailwinds in the world around you.
I kept our head down, and I actually went to our investors, because the one thing we did is we didn’t invest really heavily the way a lot of other people did. We had a lot of capital. I went to people and I said, “Look, do you want us to keep going?” Everyone said, “No, Mark. We believe in you. Let’s keep going.” That’s when we really pivoted and said there’s a lot of companies who are really good that we can buy at the moment for good prices, but that then we can help grow as if we had ...
What were you focusing in on? Because you did a lot of cloud, you did a lot of tech. Everything’s tech, in a lot of ways. Castle, which was the big success, that’s all tech, like how buildings become smart, I guess.
Yeah, so it was tech, media, telecom. One of the companies that we seeded was a company called Matrix. It became the world’s leading RFID company. We sold it to Symbol, which is the world’s leading barcode company. They couldn’t figure out how to get in the RFID business, so they bought us. Then I bought a company, the last company we bought through Venture House was a company called Cybernet that was owned by the CTIA. It was a billing protocol embedded in the billing systems of all the wireless carriers, and a clearinghouse that we bought.
When I saw it, I was like, “This is the greatest platform company I’ve ever seen. This thing has so many moats around it. If we can get ... Left to its own devices inside the CTIA, nothing is going to happen, but if we can spin it out, there’s so much we can do.” We bought it for 35 million and sold it for 210 four years later.
Right. I want to get back eventually to the word “moats,” because I think it’s an important one in investing, like who has them and who doesn’t?
Yeah. This one actually did, because the company was founded by the Wireless Trade ssociation. The carriers let them own the billing protocol that transmitted all the roaming data back and forth. They would have probably not let a third party do that uncontrolled, but because it was owned by the trade association, everyone had faith in it. We acquired that. That was a true, really valuable moat.
Castle, which was the one that probably made you the most money, I’m guessing ...
We still own it.
Yeah, you still own it, and you looked at that because ...
What I decided was after we fully invested in Venture House ...
Explain Castle. Castle is ...
Yeah, so Castle is the world’s leading access ...
When you go in a building ...
Your building, your space. I was very happy to see that.
Yes, I have one. Got one in my pocket.
I was really happy, love to see that. We’re the leading provider of managed access control for commercial real estate. We do your access control, your video, and we do it on a managed service. The founder of the company is a fantastic guy. He started in the mid ’70s. It was security as a service back in the mid ’70s. He was well ahead of his time.
As you know in D.C., it’s an iconic brand. I was looking for a platform company that I could buy, and this opportunity came to me. In Washington and in a few other markets, Castle is to security what Coke is to soft drinks, or Xerox is to copiers. It’s one of those brands that people call it that, even if it’s not your company.
I got introduced to the company, and I came back to the office and I told my assistant, “Come here and bring my calendar.” I said, “Cancel everything for the next month.” She said, “What are you talking about? You’ve never done this.” I said, “Just cancel everything. I’m dropping everything in my life until I see if we can do this.” Three weeks later, we had a deal to buy it.
Why? Explain, because that’s something entrepreneurs ... What was ... Why?
It just was everything you would ever want in the profile of what I was saying.
An amazing platform company. It had a great business model, a great brand, a great embedded ...
Yeah, and so much room to grow. We could go to more geographies. We could go to more verticals. We could introduce more products into our ... There were just so many things we could do when we got it. The founder of the company, who is an absolutely wonderful guy, built a great business, but he was sort of at the point where he was ready to move on and was looking for a caretaker for that company.
I’ve met probably 25, 30 people who said they tried to buy it, but they never hit it off with him. He and I met the first time, and he, an hour later, walked out and he told his No. 2 person, “I’m going to sell the company to that person.” It’s just been a great ride. It’s a great company. It’s a great business, but we also do something important. We protect people and property. The world we live in is not getting safer.
Great. It’s also an interesting area. It reminds me a little bit when Sheryl Sandberg’s late husband, Dave Goldberg, bought a survey company. I was like, “What? What are you doing?” But it had so many elements that were different than you think of a survey company, because it was ... technology would change it. I think yours is one of those.
I think a lot about real estate now, real estate technology quite a bit.
Yeah. It’s an industry that, for a lot of reasons, has not adopted technology as fast as other companies.
Or been global. It’s so local. It’s such a local ...
It’s local in the nature that people, and it’s just not ... There’s a whole bunch of reasons. I’ve thought a lot about this, because even sometimes we’ll introduce amazing new technologies, and it’s hard sometimes to sell new stuff. Now that’s great if you’re the embedded provider, because you’re less likely to get disrupted. It’s a little harder sometimes to get new things introduced, but we’ve done amazing things. We created a system in Washington where building owners can get their video monitored by the police department.
That was one of the things that hit me, actually, watching “24.” I was watching “24,” and they’re chasing the bad guy. They’re chasing him on the camera, and they go, “He’s coming out of camera view.” Chloe O’Brien says, “Tunnel into that camera.” They did it and they caught the bad guy. I thought, “That’s the way the world should work, but it doesn’t.” We made it work that way in Washington, actually.
Right, right, but it’s all kinds of these smart buildings. Mark Cuban has talked about it, like moving by. Buildings, to me, there’s certain areas that are going to get bigger, building property is really what ... Home and commercial is done in such an antiquated way. It reminds me of Oracle Database. Why do they do it the way they do it when it can be so much different, given all the cameras everywhere, given all the not just cameras, but ability to set sensors? I just think it’s a really interesting area.
You did that, and then you got into tennis. Why?
Not as a business. As a hobby.
We’re going to get to City Paper.
Not as a business.
No, the tennis has not been a business. That’s been a labor of love and a passion.
You bought it from Billie Jean King.
I bought the franchise in Washington 10 years ago from Billie. Well, Billie owns the league, so I was a franchisee. Then I bought the league from Billie last year. Yeah, just tennis has been a big part of my life. I think that sport in particular is a wonderful sport for kids. It teaches you so much. You’re on the court by yourself. It teaches you discipline, self-reliance, a whole bunch of great things. It’s been helpful in my life.
I wanted to bring that team to D.C. Our mission really was to use it as a community platform to bring people together to help local charitable partners. We’ve done that. Along the way, we ended up winning a lot of championships and having a lot of success in getting the city behind us, but it’s been a very rewarding experience.
Do you think a lot about ... I know I oriented this around tech, but I’ve interviewed Ted Leonsis and others, and Mark Cuban about sports. Tech, tennis really ... Serena Williams is just on the board of SurveyMonkey. There’s little intersections, but not that much, with tennis for sure.
Yeah. The great athletes in tennis are iconic athletes, back to Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, and today’s Serena and Roger Federer are iconic. They’re highly sought after by companies. Serena’s played for our team. She’s been a good friend. She’s always had an eye to business. I always knew she would get more involved in it, but tennis is not as big in the states as, say, basketball is, but the quality of the athletes and human beings in tennis I think is unparalleled in the sports world. The athletes really understand their role in society, and they embrace it and try to be forces for good.
How do you technologize it more? Look, you have the NBA. You have everybody. We just had Adam Silver. That’s all they talk about now is digitization. Obviously with NBC and the Olympics, when you’re a sports owner, how do you look at that, because you’re really a sports owner?
Right. Yeah. We’ve done a bunch of ... WTT has been the innovator in tennis. We were the first ones to do instant replay on line calling, and shot clock, and all kinds of stuff. Last year, we were the first tennis event ever where we mic’d the players during the match. It was amazing. You could hear them talking to each other and hear their strategies during the match. We have a bunch more coming this year. We do think if you want to appeal to millennial audience, you need to have a product both in person and on the screen that’s millennial friendly. We’re doing all kinds of things to attract them.
But you just like tennis.
I love the sport, and I love the people in it.
As I said, we’ve won a lot of championships. We’ve set all kinds of records, but to me, the most meaningful part of that 10-year experience is you look around the stands, and I see families having great times in the summer and helping local charitable partners who get Venus and Serena to teach them tennis. Those are the things that really matter.
Larry Ellis is into tennis, too.
Larry is super into tennis. He is.
He is. He talks about it.
There’s tons of people, tons of people. It’s not a sport that people who ... It was important in their life, they know how to invest in it. If you love basketball, you buy a team. Any of the other, that’s the simple thing to do. Traditionally, tennis hasn’t been that way. It’s a bit harder to figure out how to make a difference. Team Tennis has been one of the great ways to do that. We’re looking for more people who love tennis to come be owners of teams.
Yeah. I played a lot of tennis when I was a kid.
You then bought the City Paper. Explain that. Explain how it happened, and then in the next segment, we’ll talk about local news and where that’s ...
Yeah. Five years ago, the City Paper was sold as part of a portfolio. The editor came to me and ...
Sold several times.
It has sold many times over the years, but it’s an iconic paper. It’s been around since 1981. It’s an important part of the fabric of D.C. It’s been a hotbed of ...
It was with Baltimore originally. That was the original founding.
Baltimore was with it, right. It has an incredible alumni network. You mentioned Jake, and Ta-Nehisi, and Kate Boo, and of course, Kara Swisher at the top of the list, but also an amazing number of people who today write for the Post have passed through the City Paper. Five years ago, I looked at buying it, but got sold as a portfolio. I couldn’t spin it out separately.
Meaning it was what Baltimore ...
Someone has five or six of them.
Yeah, there are.
The seller wanted to sell it as a package.
Chicago Reader I think was involved, wasn’t it?
I think it was Creative Loaf. There was a bunch of other things that got sold with it. The person who bought it, I went to them and said, “Would you spin it off?” They said, “No, we want to keep it together.” That came and went. Then in the fall ...
Why did you want to buy it? Just why?
I think any local community needs strong local journalism. I think local ownership is helpful, having someone who really cares about the community makes a real difference. I’d say my conviction for it only grew dramatically in the last five years, and especially in the last two years. That’s why when I came back in the fall, I jumped at it. I jumped at it ...
First of all, I met the young woman who’s the editor who’s fantastic, Alexa Mills. She came to my office, and with my venture hat on, I thought this is the kind of person I’d want to back. That was it, but then secondly, I think journalists are saving the world, to some extent, right now. I think if you closed your eyes and you imagined a world without a free press, that would be a really scary world at the moment.
A lot of people are imagining it and actually planning for it.
Well, then we need to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s really been something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I didn’t know exactly how to act on it, besides subscribing to a lot of things. Here was a way to do it in a meaningful way, especially at a local level. It’s something I’ve really thought a lot about. I’ve been disturbed by the attacks on the press, the norms, the institutions of our country. I think one of the best ways to combat that is to have a strong, high-quality journalism.
Had you looked at what Bezos had done? You didn’t buy the Washington Post, but it wasn’t actually that expensive, as it turned out.
Yeah, and there was a group of local people that we were talking about potentially doing it, but then Jeff did it.
Doing the Post.
Doing the Post. We were going to do it as a group, but Jeff did it, and I honestly I have been in awe of what he and Fred Ryan and Marty Baron have done. I think it’s extraordinary what they’ve done. Their focus has been to become more national, because they want to be a digital platform, and it makes sense, but what they’ve done has been amazing.
I’ve gone over there, and I’ve sat there. The energy in the newsroom was addictive to me. I thought some of what they did I think is applicable for the City Paper, some isn’t, but the mission is. I think the mission of providing high-quality local journalism and shining light on things that need to see the light of day is one that they share and we share.
All right, we’re here talking with Mark Ein. He’s an investor and entrepreneur. He’s founded lots of companies, been a venture capitalist, but most recently he’s gotten in the news for buying an alternative newspaper here in Washington, D.C., called the Washington City Paper, where I began my career. I was fired from the City Paper, by the way.
I’m sorry. Sorry about that.
That’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s not your fault. I deserved it.
Do you want to come back?
No, thank you. I’m okay.
Okay. We’ll hire you back.
You had a lot of other alumni, Jake Tapper, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kate Boo, and a bunch of others. When we get back, we’re going to talk about local news and what happens in the internet age with Mark Ein.
We’re here with Mark Ein. He’s a Washington, D.C., investor and entrepreneur. He has most recently bought the City Paper, which is a local publication I worked at. A lot of people have, tons and tons of great alumni have come from it. We’re just starting to talk about local news and where it’s going.
I’m especially struck by it in the internet age, because a lot of local news has been bought up. For example, the TV news by Sinclair across the country. Local newspaper is dying. Big newspapers like the Washington Post where I worked also, I focused on local retail when I was here. I covered Heckinger and the end of Woody’s, the end of Garfinkel’s, the end of everything. You know what I mean? It was really interesting.
I really did see the impact of digital technologies on these areas. Local news seemed to suffer absolutely the most, and getting no coverage. City Halls, corruption were things that really needed attention. City Paper has been at the forefront of that for years. Talk about your sort of business idea of how you saved this, because that’s really what you’re charged with doing.
Yeah, so let’s start with what the problem is, which you outlined, is that as new generations aren’t used to looking at print, it’s never become the habit, and so print dies. You have to survive on digital is the common wisdom. It’s hard to sell digital if you’re niche and small, which is why people try to aggregate big audiences. That’s where all the dollars are. That is the problem.
As it relates to the City Paper, I’ve never done anything in my life that I’ve had such an outpouring of support. There’s gratitude, but there’s also heartfelt and meaningful offers of, “How can I help? What can I do?” People around town, people who own businesses, prominent people, everyone has said, “What can I do to help?”
Explain who you got involved.
Yeah, so we had Ted Leonsis got involved, Jose Andres got involved.
Chef Jose Andres. Jeremy Zimmer, who’s not local, but from the west coast, heard about it and said, “I want to help you think through this.” Mark Walsh, who you know.
There’s a whole bunch of more people coming just since it got announced. That was the small group of people who I talked to before we announced it. There’s a whole bunch more. Then on the journalism side, the alumni network of Jake, and Ta-Nehisi, and Kate, and hopefully you. Everyone’s wanted to help. Hopefully in that good will and offers of support, we come up with a model that works.
Can you talk a little bit through that, because I think about this a lot. Journalism isn’t a charity, but it is. It’s sort of become that way. Bezos, I think they’re making a tiny bit of money. It’s not an enormous amount of money. I always bug internet billionaires to invest in the New York Times and things like that. I’m always trying to get one of them to put a billion dollars into something like the New York Times. I’m like, “What would they do with a billion dollars?”
It’s interesting that it’s now internet people that they’re getting the money from or tech people, but that’s where the money is. They’re interested in it, and some of them are guilty for having ruined local journalism essentially, or ruined the business model.
Indirectly. It wasn’t the goal, but yeah, through the things that they founded. I think that’s a really interesting point. It’s something that I’ve given a lot of thought to recently. As people are successful and they try to make a difference in the world, you can be involved philanthropically. You can be involved civically. Some people buy art. Some people buy sports teams. I actually think this is going to be a new category of things that people say, “I can make a huge impact in the world.” People make movies and documentaries.
I think this is going to be a category that people really focus on. I’ve seen it myself, the amount of people that are interested. Then there’s actual real foundations who you can raise money from to get grants to do journalism, of which we’re going to tap into. But ultimately what we’ve said is we’re going to stand this up and give it a long runway and a lot of resources. Ultimately, it does need to stand on its own. At some point, it needs to. We do think we can, through a combination of ... there are grants, events, which is a big thing, the way people use these platforms. Then we’re going to see what happens.
There is, I believe, an audience for print that gets given to people on street corners. There is, if you look in our paper and you look at the Kennedy Center, the 930 Club, the Anthem, there is no single better way to see every show that’s coming in town in those venues and picking up the back page of the City Paper. It’s the best. There’s no digital equivalent.
Actually, we used to paste those down. One would come up, and you’d lose it on the floor. Then you’d paste it down.
I have memories of that kind of stuff.
Yeah, but it still is ... That’s why they give us the money they do, because it actually does sell tickets to events.
Let’s talk about the business models of these things, because most of these as I recall when I was there, it was selling ads to 930 Club. I know Seth Hurwitz is involved.
It was club things, it was beer. There was a lot of liquor. That was the City Paper, and the Washington Post of course had Heckinger’s and Woody’s and things like that, which soon died, and classifieds was a very important part of the City Paper.
Now Craigslist decimated everybody, essentially, and more other technologies like that. I think probably Craigslist did more to decimate local news, because that was ... The fact of the matter is, classifieds weren’t good. They were expensive. They didn’t work. They were static. The people on the other end were rude. All kinds of problems with their businesses that they never fixed or addressed. When you’re thinking about that business plan, advertising is the No. 1, correct?
Advertising is the vast majority, print advertising.
Then digital, and then some amount of events.
Right. How do you then rethink that? Because I sit around, and there’s almost no way out of it that is easy.
I think, just like I’ve done with the other companies that we’ve bought where you find a really good company you can make better, I think we can execute a lot better. The company’s lost money for five years but it hasn’t lost so much money. Incremental things make a huge difference for us. I think we can execute on the sales side in a big way. If we just tap into the people who believe in what we’re doing, that will make a gigantic difference. That’s one.
I think we can have a much better digital footprint. We’re going to transfer the platform to something that’s a lot more user friendly and better for serving ads. I think we can do better there.
Events is a gigantic opportunity for us. You asked about the ads. The ads are the local entertainment. It’s arts is what it is for us. There’s a way, I think, to curate interesting events with them and partnership with them and increase our events business, as you well know. At Recode, you’re a big believer in events.
I’m way behind. It’s 15 years later. I was catching up.
Look, I’ll give you another just interesting thing that we thought about is, the arts organizations in town are the ones who really provide 80 percent of our advertising. They sell about two and a half million tickets a year in Washington. If you add up the sports teams in town, they sell six million tickets. We get not a dollar from them, but we’re the best way to reach the millennial audience. We’re actually going to start a sports section. We’re not going to cover, since we’re weekly, we’re not going to cover games and standings, but we’re going to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the athletes and the teams. They’re fantastic stories, the same stories we tell about everyone else in town. We believe that the sports organizations will then want to be supporters of ours. All of these things, any one of these could tilt us over to ...
All right, one of the issues around City Paper, as I remember, is always bite the hand that feeds you, essentially. It was way before snark and the internet, which now it seems tame in comparison, City Paper was always really holding feet to the fire of power, including people like the 930 Club, all your advertisers. It was always an issue when I was there. It was that, and it was quite tense. Now it’s, I would assume, even more weaponized, essentially.
I actually think it’s become a little less. I think that was they had to stake out their role in the community. When the Post was doing what it was doing, that was the right role. I think now that the Post has become somewhat more nationally focused, that we can be a little less known for just doing that. I think we are the ones who hold people’s feet to the fire. We do hold people accountable, especially local politicians. It’s funny, when I was thinking of buying this ...
What was that column? What was the column?
Loose Lips. Right.
When I was thinking of buying it, a very prominent person in town came over to me and said, “I heard you’re thinking of buying the City Paper.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Come on.” Then I said, “Well, I’m thinking about it.” They said, “Well then, are you going to kill Loose Lips?” I said, “Well, now that you’ve said that, I’m definitely not killing it.” I said, “First of all, I’m not making editorial decisions, but we’re not.” It is known for that.
I’m not a believer in snark. Alexa isn’t either. I don’t think snark for the sake of that is a tone that really is attractive to a wide audience. I think there’s a way to be responsible both positively when there’s good stories to tell and negatively when there’s negative stories to tell.
How do you do that in this age? Because I have to say, media has gotten utterly nasty. Jake Tapper is pretty tough on Twitter, or anybody is.
Yeah, but if you read the cover story about Trayon White, the new council member, it’s an amazing story. He’s a 32-year-old up-and-coming guy, just got elected. It’s really a positive story about a guy who’s a positive guy. You know what? I actually believe readers want to read those. I think there’s a role. I think people want to hear good because of what you’ve said. Everything else gears so negative. It can’t be Pollyanna-ish, but I think if there’s good stuff happening and you can write about those things, I think there’s a lot of desire for people to read that.
When you are with your editor, she was part of finding an owner. I know that. You do want to find a good owner. When I was looking for money, I was definitely very wary of venture capitalists, for example. I just didn’t want to talk to them. I didn’t want them to have any control over me, and so I picked NBC and Terry Semel, who are both media people — you know what I mean? — that really did understand those things.
Even then, it’s hard. Even then, there’s often ... every now and then, even when I was working at the Journal, there was always sort of — I wouldn’t say meddling, because it never really got to that, but it was definitely a constant worry. How do you look at the new ... When you look at that, what do you think about as being the owner, because you got to be ... Pierre Omidyar got in trouble at the Intercept. All good intentions, by the way. Pierre has a lot of astonishingly good intentions. Bezos has managed rather well to stay out of the news on being a meddling owner, but how do you look at that?
You’re not a meddling owner. You don’t go there. I’ve literally been to the office twice, once when I was thinking about buying it and once with a bottle of champagne when we did it. I haven’t been back.
Right, but you’ve got to be thinking about how it goes, because ...
When people say, “Why would you buy this?” what would be the reason?
Because I believe that it’s important to support high-quality journalism. I didn’t want it to go away, and I didn’t want it to be minimized. I wanted it to be everything it can be. That was it. Period. Full stop. That was the reason I did it. I think we’re living in a time where it’s more important than ever.
We can do that. I don’t need to go there, and you just say, “I’m not getting involved in editorial one way or the other.” You walk the walk and you prove that, and you have that separation. That’s what we’ve done, and it’s what we’re going to do.
But then ...
That goes, by the way, for everyone else who was involved around it, all the advisers and everyone else. They all play by the same rules.
Right, that they can’t be irritated or annoyed and stuff like that.
Nope, and everyone knows that that’s part of what comes with the territory. I know that I’m going to have uncomfortable moments. I already had. I had someone call me last week, “I haven’t seen you in a while. Could I come see you? I hear the paper is doing something, writing something.” I just said, “I’m not getting involved in those things.” I just think mostly everything you do in life that’s positive has some negative. On this one, I’ll take a little bit of negative for all the good we’ll be able to do.
Right. We’re going to talk more with Mark Ein. He’s here. He’s an investor and entrepreneur in Washington. He has recently bought the Washington City Paper, getting involved in digital journalism and regular journalism. When we get back, we’re going to talk more about where he’s going next with his various investments.
We’re here with Mark Ein. He’s an investor and entrepreneur here in Washington, D.C. You talked at the beginning about this idea of Washington losing its step in a technology sense. Now, I was here for the Washington Post. I wrote about the first internet companies. Mark Pincus started his first company from Zynga. Obviously Steve Case and Ted Leonsis were here with AOL, which sort of ran into a wall eventually. Now it’s called Oath. I just interviewed Tim Armstrong onstage, but that company’s sort of a shadow of what it was. All of the original internet companies were here, MCI, PSI Net.
All of them, because the internet hub was here. May East I think was here. There were obviously defense department things, but it was a very ... In the early stages, it was a hub of activity. I think we could pretty much say AOL was the most critical at that time. How do you look at the scene here when you look around the technology scene? What happened?
Yeah, so I’ve been a big champion in trying to be supportive. It is.
It’s important for the local.
Yeah, it is. In 1999 when everyone was going out to northern Virginia, I planted a flag on 7th Street downtown in a loft to say this is where it’s going to go. I think the first internet wave was about building the pipes and the infrastructure, and this community was perfect for that for all the reasons we said. It was the perfect place for that, and that’s what we did.
The second wave was much more about the creative economy and the creative class. That just has not been a strength of Washington relative to other places. There have been some good companies, Blackboard and others. LivingSocial was a big hope at one point here. There’s some that people aren’t ... There’s a lot of genomics and stuff out of NIH that’s good, but it has not been nearly what the first wave is. It’s frustrating to a lot of people. There’s still a lot of activity and a lot of hope, but the results speak for themselves. We keep trying and keep hoping. It really only takes one of those kind of ... The center ...
Right. No, it doesn’t actually. There’s always one. I think of Los Angeles, Demand Media, then not. Snapchat’s obviously struggling. Myspace was in LA, and then it didn’t. Austin had a whole bunch of them. It’s never been replicated outside of Silicon Valley on a massive scale, except maybe New York a little bit, but still not.
Yeah, but when you get those sort of suns that are centers of the solar system, look at what the spinouts ... Look, we’re sitting in Vox’s office, which came out of AOL. There’s a whole bunch. Ted came out of AOL. There’s a lot of stuff that came out of AOL. Entrepreneurs, venture capital, a lot of good things.
A company and talent that doesn’t get a lot of attention is MicroStrategy, actually. A company ... Appian just went public. Clarabridge, Alarm.com. It was actually a little bit like the smaller version of that. You need those. You need the ones that break away that become worth a lot of money and were magnets of talent. We just haven’t had one of those in a long time. We keep trying, but it hasn’t been as good. That’s one of the reasons I also pivoted to looking to buying companies outside of this area, but ones, again, where we could be a catalyst to help them grow.
How do you create those? Here you are trying to create sort of reinvigoration of media that was popular, and then saw some really hard times. How do you do that as an entrepreneur, thinking about it? I’m thinking local is a really good idea. The LA Times just got bought by a billionaire there who’s a local billionaire. I think it’s better than the Tronc billionaires, that guy from Chicago.
When you’re looking at all this, a really interesting thing of how you ... Steve Case talks about this. How do you create economies elsewhere? Because that’s what’s going on right now around jobs elsewhere in this country.
Yeah. I think that the local journalism, it’s interesting, literally in the three months I’ve been looking at this, I feel like we just found ourselves on the path of progress. Facebook just hired Campbell Brown to focus on local news. Google is focused on it. The World Economic Forum, everyone feels like this is something they’ve got to crack the code on. I think obviously with the election, people are realizing the issue of not having real news, and people are realizing there’s some amount of effort on the national level, but local is really important.
I feel like we’re in the path of progress. How it all comes together and manifests itself into something sustainable, we’ll see. Again, this is something I’m passionate about, but it isn’t my day job. My job is to help and be a catalyst, bring the talent and capital and relationships, but this isn’t what I’m doing day in and day out.
But when you think about it, when you look at the Facebooks of the world as a media owner, they’re in a lot of trouble lately of how they’ve behaved. Campbell was just on our stages and caused a lot of controversy. She said, “I’m not here to help publishers make money,” which I’m like, “You kind of are. That’s really kind of your job, but okay.” The point she was making is it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’re not the be-all and end-all, and yet everything’s moved to Facebook, or people’s new distribution has happened there.
I think they’re at the beginning of their journey. We’ll see where it goes.
At the beginning of their journey?
I was as surprised as you were to hear that. I think ultimately it’s not a sustainable ecosystem where people produce content and someone else monetizes it. That’s not going to work in the long term. Something’s got to give. I think hopefully there’s models that are good for them and also good for local publishers who can invest in the content.
One thing, Kara, I mentioned one area, sports, that we’re looking at a job, we just put someone new in locally. The editor Alexa tells me, she says, “Mark, every time we post a job,” she goes, “I’m embarrassed by the amount of high-quality people we get who want to work here. There are so many journalists looking for a platform, really high-quality journalists.” There’s way more content that should be written than is being funded right now.
I’ve said with this, if we ever make money, it’s all going back in. I have to assume whatever money I’ve put in, I’m never getting out. My dream would be to grow our revenues so that we can hire more of those journalists and a couple more things.
What are your revenues? Are you going to tell me? You’re not going to tell me.
No, but it’s not huge.
What did you buy it for?
It wasn’t a huge amount of money.
No. That number I saw in ...
Yeah, that wasn’t right, because it came with a lot of liabilities and losses and stuff. You can never judge it by that.
Right, and how much you’re going to ... No, of course, how much you’re going to lose a year.
You can’t, but it’s going to be a meaningful investment over the next couple of years. It’s not going to turn around, but it’s something that I’m enthusiastic about doing.
All right. Let’s finish up talking about where you think the next wave is going in business. What are you looking at? You’re not doing as much investing. You’re sticking with these companies, but you obviously have an itchy attitude towards new things.
Yeah. What I decided to do is to not do a ton of things, but every year to find a company that I could buy, which — not the City Paper. That is not the investment part of my life. That’s the philanthropic.
Right. It’s tennis. Tennis and City Paper.
Yeah, those are like the philanthropic parts of my life. The real business part of my life is every year or two finding a great company we can buy and help be a catalyst to grow it. I’ve used these public vehicles called SPACs. That’s what capital investment’s for.
We go out and we raise ... The last one we raised $400 million. It’s a public company.
Chamath just did that.
Chamath did do that. Yeah, we’ve been doing it for 10 years. We’ve done three successful, really successful deals with it. We just raised our fourth one in August.
You have $450 million just burning a hole in your pocket.
Yeah, 400. We’re looking for the right company to invest in. Our thing is is that we’re really long-term investors. This is what I was doing with my own capital, and this is the way to do it at bigger scale. I think we’re really good partners to management teams, the three that we’re ...
This is just for people who don’t know, you buy a company and then it instantly becomes public, because the SPAC is public.
Yeah, because we’re public. We’re public with cash. Then you find a private company. Then they get our cash in the public vehicle, and they get us and the things that we can bring.
Some people are talking about internet companies doing this so they can go public very quickly without the whole rigamarole that happens.
Yeah, there’s a lot of advantages of going public this way. I believe we’ve proven it. It has to be the right situation. It’s not right for every company, but it’s right for a lot of companies. Every one of the ones that we’ve done, the companies were effusive about the experience. Our investors made money, and it’s been great. We’re looking for No. 4.
The company that we did out of the second one I love, a company called Lindblad Expeditions. It’s a company that takes people in partnership with National Geographic, Arctic, Antarctic, Galapagos. The basic thesis there two or three years ago was ...
Capital constraint, huge returns on capital, great brand, entrepreneur built the business, never had a partner. We met him, we gave him capital to grow, but it was basically the theory that people in the world want experiences, not stuff.
That is true.
We take people to ... It’s interesting. I thought about the arc of my own career. When I started on Wall Street, it was what tie you wore and suit you wore. Move to LA, it’s what car you drove. D.C. was the size of your office in some building here.
Is that it?
That’s what it was. Today, your brand is who you are on Instagram, right, and Facebook. We take people to the Arctic to take pictures with the polar bears, and Antarctic with the penguins, and the blue-footed boobies in Galapagos. There’s an insatiable desire for people to do that.
The Airbnb experience is unriveted too. No one else is paying attention to them, but I ...
To their experiences.
Their experiences they’re adding to their business, I find them really interesting. I’ve done a whole bunch.
Yeah. I’m a huge believer in this, and I also think as we get more urbanized and more heads-down in our phones, just the need and the opportunity to take people away and to nature and see the world and get away and unplug for a little bit of time is something that’s just going to be a really, really important, profound trend for a long time. Lindblad’s one of the great leaders in that.
So the anti-tech addiction thing.
It is. I think it’s an antidote to that and a tonic to that.
Except you bring your Instagram.
We want you to post #lindblad when you’re there so people see how good it is, but you’re not when you’re on the iceberg so much.
I don’t think there’s an experience anyone can have anymore that they don’t chronicle. My goal is at some point to become a hermit where I just don’t speak to anyone, just go off of everything, and I’ll be gone kind of thing.
I think the detox idea is a good one.
It is, but we love that, and I think finding other things like that that center around experiences is a really interesting trend that we’re interested in.
What else are you looking at?
In the third one, we actually bought an enterprise software for the PR communications industry called Scission. We own PR Newswire amongst other stuff.
Our mission there is really interesting. This was a large company built by GTCR, a private equity firm in Chicago, and it’s enterprise software in the cloud for that industry. Our mission there is to make earned media measurable the way that paid media is. We got the guy from Oracle. Obviously a bunch of Silicon Valley has made paid media measurable, and we’re trying to do the same for earned media. We own PR Newswire and a bunch of other assets.
For those who don’t know, PR Newswire is where everybody puts their ...
You put your press releases.
Press release on.
Right. I’m a huge believer too in earned media. Obviously you look at the presidential election, the power of earned media is proven, but it’s hard to measure. People don’t know how much to spend, how much to invest. If we can take this gigantic platform we have, we’re the biggest company in the world by a factor of three and actually make it measurable, we think we can prove the efficacy of it, and people invest more in. Yeah.
I’m curious what you think Donald Trump’s tweets are. Are they earned or paid media?
I stay away from that.
All right, stay away from that.
We love that company, and we’re seeing a lot of really interesting things for capital investment for. There are a lot of companies doing really interesting things that with a little bit of capital and some help, can become great long-term world-class companies.
All right. Last couple questions. Being in D.C., what is it like here now with this mood of the country? What’s going to solve it? It must be exhausting. It’s exhausting being in California.
Yeah. It is a little harder to get away. It’s interesting. It is a company town, but I don’t work for the company, so you’re a little bit removed from it day in and day out, but you’re close to it. By proximity, you can’t ignore it. Yeah, I think it’s disorienting. It’s disorienting for all of us, no matter where you live, but it is interesting when you are in Washington, as you know, because you lived here, because you get a disproportionate amount of attention.
I’ll tell you this, that when I bought the City Paper, the Washington Post wrote an article.
I saw it.
I got a note from the president congratulating me.
What did he say?
Oh wow. Huh.
That’s a little anecdote about ...
Does he know you own Katharine Graham’s house?
No, he doesn’t, but it’s an interesting anecdote about what it means to live in Washington, as you know, that you just have a greater spotlight. Whenever I travel, people are amazed at how senators and congressmen and presidents, but it’s a small community here. It’s a little ... That’s actually one of the reasons I love living here. I really love this place, because people are interesting and they’re doing interesting things. They care about the world. It’s tricky at times, but it’s a place where people are making a difference, but at the same time, it’s kind of a small town.
Absolutely. Then one question I ask everybody. You’re an entrepreneur. We give entrepreneurial advice to people. Either pick something you did really well or something not so well, and what you learned or didn’t learn, or did well that you think, “That was really great?”
My best advice is just you just have to follow your internal compass and follow your true north. I’ve just seen so many times where people take a shortcut, because they think that it’s going to get them where they want to go, and it ends up being the thing that kills them. In the end, you oftentimes have to do ... I just think if you take a long-term view ... I’ve always thought it’s a long life in a small world. Treat people well, and that’ll ... Best advice you can take.
I just think you just follow your internal compass. Always try to follow your true north. It’ll serve you well, even in the moment if it sometimes feels like it’s not the most expedient thing to do, just know that long term it’ll pay off.
In the day after, you said when your investment strategy feels like they’re just losing you money the next day, how do you feel about owning a local news organization?
Again, this is the different ...
You feel better about it.
It’s different, because it’s in the philanthropic part of my life. We’ve gone in with the expectation it’s different. Look, I really believe that we can drive more revenues. As I’ve said, if that turns out that we’re making money, we’re just going to hire more people. I’m really passionate about this. I think this is a platform that we can do a lot of good with.
Okay. Mark Ein. Oh, by the way, congratulations to Mark Ein. He’s here. He just had a child today, or last night.
Eight hours ago.
Are you tired? Good luck with that.
Thanks Kara, it’s good to see you.
Congratulations. Mark, thank you for talking to us today, especially today.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.