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Full Q&A: Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber explain why they sold Gimlet to Spotify

Blumberg and Lieber spoke with Recode’s Peter Kafka on the latest episode of Recode Media.

Gimlet founders Matt Lieber and Alex Blumberg.
Gimlet founders Matt Lieber, left, and Alex Blumberg
Courtesy of Gimlet

On Friday, Recode broke the news that Spotify was in talks to buy the popular New York-based podcast studio Gimlet Media for more than $200 million. On Wednesday, Spotify said it would buy Gimlet — and the podcasting app Anchor, with hopes of buying more.

On the latest episode of Recode Media With Peter Kafka, Gimlet co-founders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber spoke to Kafka just hours after the sale was officially announced. Lieber said they did consider that, given the success of its hit shows like StartUp and Reply All, Gimlet might be able to “navigate the stormy seas of media” and remain independent. But ultimately, they decided that was a risk, and Spotify had more to offer.

“We looked at the path of joining a large platform with global distribution and, you know, multiple billion dollars of revenue and data and discovery and an amazing technology platform that was invested in audio,” Lieber said. “And for us, that felt like a better path where we could realize our ambitions and our goals. And also, make money back for our investors and provide a healthy return.”

Blumberg, the original host of StartUp who used the warts-and-all podcast to chronicle Gimlet’s early days, was characteristically candid in his reasoning: Yes, he and Lieber are very aware the acquisition will make them personally wealthy. But that’s not the only reason they sold.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the money doesn’t matter, because obviously the money matters,” Blumberg said. “I don’t think you start a company and just be like, ‘I don’t care at all if I will eventually get rich from this company.’ But I can also honestly say that the money was far and away not the driving factor. To me, the driving factor was, will this be better for the work we’re trying to do? And will this be better for the employees that have trusted us to come to the company?”

You can listen to Recode Media wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. The latest episode also features an interview with the CEO of Fortune, Alan Murray, who also sold his company recently — to billionaire Thai businessman Chatchaval Jiaravanon.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Alex and Matt.

Peter Kafka: I’m talking to Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber, who were up all night because they just sold their company to Spotify. Thanks for making a few minutes from you guys. I appreciate it.

Alex Blumberg: Thanks, Peter.

Matt Lieber: Thanks a lot.

Here’s my first question. On Friday, I wrote that you guys were going to sell the company. A few other folks did as well. What was it like between Friday and I guess it’s Wednesday now. What? How was your last few days? Walk us through what happened.

Alex Blumberg: Well, they were a little bit more tense because of what you wrote.

That can’t be true though, because I’ve been on the other side of this. The deal was that far done. I mean this is ... you tell me why it’s more intense. You tell me why that’s the case.

Alex Blumberg: Well, I’ve never been through any kind of deal like this before, and so to me it just feels like, well, at any moment, there’s always the possibility that something could happen and it could fall apart. And so that’s always in the back of your mind.

Because the deal was literally not and hadn’t been inked?

Matt Lieber: No. So you’re talking to us on ... what is this, Wednesday?

Alex Blumberg: Yeah, Wednesday.

Matt Lieber: You’re talking to us on Wednesday. We were up until 4:00 am. I think we signed the deal at 3:30 am. You broke the story on Friday, so good job. The plan was not for the story to come out. We didn’t leak the story. I don’t know who did, but as soon as it was out in the public, it just created more possibility for more people to do unexpected things.

And I think when you’re trying to work on an agreement of this size, there ... our weekend was basically, it was like a double helix of a to-do list that was intertwining in itself across multiple dimensions, and we’re just trying to check boxes off the list. And then around every corner there were little gremlins that would pop out to try to get in our way.

Alex Blumberg: Including a gremlin this very morning, which I didn’t even tell you about, which I think I can share which is that, so we were up ... we finally got the deal signed in the like, whatever, 3:30 in the morning last night. And then we stumbled home, and then Spotify was going to announce this morning. And so we wanted to send the note to our all-staff saying like, “Hey, this happened, and we’re going to have an all-staff today to talk about it.” And we wanted to time it with the announcement on that that Daniel Ek was making.

So I had to get up at six to send this all-staff. And I copied it out of the Google Doc that it was in. And I think Google added this feature where if you copy something out of a Google Doc and you paste it into Google Mail, all of a sudden it’s like the people don’t have the proper permissions to receive this email, because it’s somehow all of a sudden treated it as like a Google Doc. And so I was trying to send this all-staff and like Google had somehow changed this feature. And I was like, oh my God, I can’t send an email! It was maddening. I was panicking. I was like, am I going to have to type this whole thing over? It was just, the last of like … And there’s a million niggling details like that, where every single thing, even the things that seem like they should be easy like sending, cutting and pasting something into an email, is hard.

Ugh. Did you get the email out?

Alex Blumberg: I did.

Good. I’m curious about how you talk to the staff, because I’m assuming that since I heard about it, other folks in the company had heard about it prior to me writing about it. Obviously once it’s out in the press, then ... You’ve got 100-plus employees. How do you talk to them between Friday and Wednesday when they all very rightfully want to know what is going on with the company, will I have a job, am I going to make a bunch of money, bunch of questions like that?

Matt Lieber: Yeah. There was a lot of rumors floating around for the last week and a half, and so our employees were asking about it. And we sent out an email late Friday night saying, “Hey, we saw the news just like you did. There’s not much we can share right now. We hope to be able to tell you more next week.” And throughout last week we had also told people, we’d communicated through the groups of managers at the company that like, “Hey, this is happening right now. We are in conversations with Spotify, but we don’t have it done yet. And it’s really important that for the integrity of the process and what we’re trying to achieve here, we need it to stay inside the company.”

We did tell them that, based on what we’re talking about, this will be a great thing for the company, because really, what everyone here is motivated by is making amazing shows for listeners who crave more. And partnering with Spotify ... sorry, I always hate when people say “partnering” when what they mean is “being acquired by.” Being acquired by Spotify gives us ...

Yes, thank you.

Matt Lieber: … puts us with the world’s largest audio platform that’s reaching more than 200 million people globally. So it’s just a way for our storytelling and our work to have a lot more impact. So generally people are just really excited about it, and we also told them that the entire staff is coming over. And so everyone is...

But you weren’t able to tell them that until Wednesday, right, until today?

Matt Lieber: No, we began telling them that in small groups last week because we’re a pretty transparent place. That’s who we are, that’s who we are, that’s how we started the company, making this podcast startup that told the whole story of starting the company. So we’ve always been pretty open. And this is one of those situations where we couldn’t be open about everything and every detail, but we tried to generally be honest and share with our employees what we could.

So you can remove some of the fear. You’re all gonna have jobs. You can’t tell them what’s going to happen in part because you still literally don’t know, I would imagine. But you can say this is going to be a good outcome, if it happens. You’re all gonna continue to work for us and that relieves some of the pressure, I assume.

Matt Lieber: Yeah. Yeah.

When we talked, I talked to you in May. And you guys seemed pretty confident, but you’re also saying, look, you know, we’ve been running this company for four years. It’s hard. It’s always hard. I’m just looking at the transcript now. You said, “It feels like everything is about to break.” You’re just sort of describing startup life in general. And Alex, you talked about a bunch of really large audio platforms that were standing around the edge of the pool of podcasting. So were you guys talking to Spotify as far back as May? When did that conversation start?

Matt Lieber: I mean, we’ve been talking to Spotify almost since the beginning of the company. Of course, they’ve been one of our most important partners. But Spotify really started getting into podcasts I think around two years ago, and they’ve had a really fast rise. So they went from roughly zero percent of market share two years ago to now approaching 20 percent of market share, and they’re our second-biggest partner and our fastest-growing partner, and we believe they’re the future. We’ve done partnerships with them. We do a show called Mogul, which is a documentary series about hip-hop history that we did in partnership with Spotify, and we’ll be coming back for future seasons later this year. And so we knew them well, and we saw the growth on the platform.

And so for us at this time, we looked at ... our basic idea, the thing that motivates us is that we’re at the second golden age, at the dawn of the second golden age of audio. And there’s just this explosion, this flourishing of new kinds of storytelling, new kinds of programming that’s made possible by on-demand audio. And that’s growing quite fast, just globally. And it’s growing really fast on Spotify.

But the actual size of the industry is still very small. Podcasts are probably a half-a-billion-dollar industry this year. And there’s basically a disconnect between the number of people who are listening and the amount of shows they’re listening to, and the amount of money coming into podcasting. And so one of the reasons this is the right time for us is we feel like for this golden age of audio to truly begin to flourish, there needs to be global scale, there needs to be better discovery, and there needs to be better monetization. And Spotify has all those things.

All that makes sense, and I understand why Spotify would want to buy you guys and why you think that’s a good home. On the other hand, you’re VC-backed. One of the arguments the VCs and their founders always have is, should we sell or should we try to grow even bigger? Eventually, we’ll have an even bigger exit. What were those discussions like? When did Spotify come to you and say, “We want to buy you”? Did you go to them and say, “Would you like to buy us”? And what were your investors saying along this process?

Matt Lieber: We had those conversations. Spotify came to us early in December and said, “Hey, we have a great partnership going. Let’s talk about bringing it to the next level.” And we liked that idea, because for us when we ... we weren’t trying to sell the company. We weren’t running a process. We never hired a banker. The company was going really well.

But we began to think about, well, what would be the things that we would need to see from an acquirer? And it was basically three things. One is, they’d have to help us accelerate our mission to use this medium of audio to create more human connection in the world. Two, they would have to understand what’s special about Gimlet, which is that we are really invested in high-quality, excellent content that strives for more. And three is, the value would have to be right. And all those things just were very clearly evident with Spotify pretty early on. And so we entered serious discussion.

It’s true, Gimlet Media is VC-backed. We’d raised 27-some-odd million dollars over the last five years. There was a path where we would be an independent company where we would get large enough and profitable enough that we could navigate the stormy seas of media and maybe eventually go public or flow so much cash that we could pay out distributions to investors. But increasingly, as we looked at the landscape, that became less and less appealing and frankly, like, less and less realistic.

And so for us, we looked at the path of being independent — and like I said, things were going well for us — but we also know that there’s risks down that path. And then we looked at the path of joining a large platform with global distribution and, you know, multiple billion dollars of revenue and data and discovery and amazing technology platform that was invested in audio. And for us, that felt like a better path where we could realize our ambitions and our goals. And also, make money back for our investors and provide a healthy return.

Alex Blumberg: To me it’s just sort of like, it’s the basic thing. If you look at these two entities, the enormous entity of Spotify and then us, sort of like our independent, growing but still relatively small, certainly to Spotify, empire of Gimlet Media. And you imagine sort of like how those two things go separately. And then you imagine what they could be together and the joining of them makes them greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s just how it felt.

It felt like, well, if you put these two things together with the distribution, with the data, with the expertise in storytelling, and you put all that stuff together, what we could make together far outweighs what we could make separately. That started to feel very compelling.

So you guys started Gimlet Media with this podcast series StartUp, where you, Alex, were talking about founding it, and it’s astoundingly candid and interesting and compelling. So with that in mind, here’s my question for you: How much did the fact that you guys who work really hard for four years were going to see personally a return, how much did that influence your decision in December to go, “Yeah, I think we’re ready to sell the company and actually see profit for ourselves.”

Alex Blumberg: I think ... obviously, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the money doesn’t matter, because obviously the money matters.

Thank you.

Alex Blumberg: I don’t think you start a company and just be like, “I don’t care at all if I will eventually get rich from this company.” But I can also honestly say that the money was far and away not the driving factor. To me the driving factor was, will this be better for the work we’re trying to do? And will this be better for the employees that have trusted us to come to the company?

And then in the back of that there is this like, and if we don’t do this, there is that fear of it could all go up in smoke, and all the work will be for naught. That is always, I’m not going to lie, that’s always at the back of your mind. Worst-case scenario, we’ll spend seven years or eight years or 10 years, and then we’ll have nothing to show for it. I never got that completely out of the back of my mind, but it was a very, very small part of the total equation for me.

Thank you for your candor. I appreciate it. One other money question. Someone was asking this on Twitter. You guys did a Kickstarter earlier in your career?

Matt Lieber: We did not do a Kickstarter. We did a couple of rounds of crowdfunding where listeners of Startup were able to put money into the seed round and then the series A.

Alex Blumberg: That’s been fun, to write back...

So there you go. Don’t trust Twitter. So if you put money into the seed fund through crowdfunding, will you see return on that money?

Matt Lieber: Yes, you will. We gotta close the deal, which is two weeks away. It’s a technicality that people often forget about. But yes, if you put money in that special purpose vehicle, you’re going to get paid back, and you’re going to make a handsome return. And so, we got to send out an email this morning to … I think about 80 people who had put in between $1,000 and $10,000, lo those four years ago. And it is, it is really special and satisfying to be able to tell them that.

Alex Blumberg: It’s exciting.

Could you tell them how much they’re going to make?

Matt Lieber: The responses that we’ve gotten today ... we haven’t been able to tell them that yet, because we just weren’t able to. But, the emails that we’ve gotten, that they’ve sent back, were so heartwarming and soulful, because they felt like they were part of something that actually made a positive impact on the world and they felt so, I don’t know, happy about that. It’s really … What’s the word? I’m sorry, I’m on two hours of sleep, so I’m not doing great right now.

Alex Blumberg: I don’t know!

I was going to say, it sounds very cool. But, good for you. I want to leave it there on an up note, but I did have one last business question for you. Exclusives. What’s your sense of what happens, again, with content I was going to say going forward? Spotify clearly wants to own some of this stuff for itself. But on the other hand, I think the way podcasting generally works is, it works better if there’s a big audience. So how are you and Spotify going to figure out what’s a Spotify exclusive? What’s going to be distributed widely?

Alex Blumberg: Yeah, I mean, well, Spotify said themselves this morning on the earning call that they have no intention of taking the shows that are out there that Gimlet produces and putting them behind a paywall. So those will continue to be freely distributed.

Matt Lieber: Or make an exclusivity to Spotify, the existing shows.

Alex Blumberg: Yeah. Yes. The existing shows will not be made exclusive to Spotify. They will continue ... you’ll continue to get them where you get them now. And yeah, going forward, I think it’s going to be a mix. This is a new world, and we’re trying to figure out how it works. And so it’ll be a mix of exclusive things that we make exclusively for Spotify, like we’re doing right now with Mogul or things that are windowed or things that are a mix of the two. I think there’s gonna be a lot of experimentation.

And will this be a Reply All episode, I’m assuming? I’m sorry, a StartUp episode?

Alex Blumberg: Can’t comment on that right now. I hope so.

Oh, it’s gotta be. It’s going to be great. All right, I’m assuming it is. I will let you guys get some sleep and celebrate however you want to celebrate.

Matt Lieber: I will say, Alex has been recording all week.

Alex Blumberg: I have been recording.

Matt Lieber: Including through the night. So I sure hope ...

Alex Blumberg: And I might hit you up for like, to use parts of this, possibly, at some point in the future.

Yeah, yeah. It’s free content. It’s all yours. Thanks, guys. Take care.

Alex Blumberg: Thanks, Peter.

Matt Lieber: Thanks, Peter.

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