20 VC FF 030 Gimlet Media's Matt Lieber on The Future of Podcasting and Life @ Gimlet



In this episode of "20 minutes VC," host Harry Stebings interviews Matt Lieber, co-founder and president of Gimlet Media, a leading podcasting company. Lieber discusses his transition from radio production and management consulting to co-founding Gimlet, driven by the belief in digital transformation of audio media and the potential to create impactful storytelling through podcasts. They delve into Gimlet's content creation philosophy, focusing on narrative, host connection, and listener learning, and address the challenges of scaling editorial processes. Lieber also touches on Gimlet's successful fundraising, emphasizing the importance of finding aligned investors over maximizing valuation, and the company's advertising and potential subscription revenue models. The conversation also highlights Gimlet's commitment to maintaining a strong company culture and the excitement for new show developments, including "Sampler," a podcast about podcasts.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Gimlet Media and Matt Lieber

  • Gimlet Media is known for its supreme storytelling and production of beautiful podcast episodes and narratives.
  • Matt Lieber, co-founder and president of Gimlet Media, has a diverse background in radio production, journalism, and management consulting.
  • Prior to Gimlet, Matt produced radio shows, podcasts, and worked as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group.
  • Matt's vision for Gimlet stemmed from his belief in the digital transformation of radio and his desire to participate in the shift from traditional AM/FM broadcasting to digital platforms.
  • Matt met his co-founder, Alex Blumberg, about a year and a half prior to the interview.

"Gimlet is we're a media company and we make narrative audio. And so another way to say that is we're a podcast network." This quote explains that Gimlet Media operates as a media company focused on creating narrative audio content, essentially functioning as a podcast network.

"I grew up in love with the radio. I would listen to it all day and I would go to sleep to it." Matt Lieber shares his lifelong passion for radio, which led him to a career in radio production and ultimately to the founding of Gimlet Media.

"I thought, that's a big change that's going to come. And I would like to participate in that transformation." Matt Lieber recognized early on the impending shift in how audiences consume media and wanted to be an active participant in the digital transformation of radio.

"And I also felt like the impact I could have would be greater if I understood business and if I hopped over to the business side." Matt believed that understanding business and moving into a business role would allow him to have a greater impact on the media industry.

"I met Alex Bloomberg, who's my co-founder. And that was about a year and a half ago." The quote marks the beginning of Matt's partnership with Alex Blumberg, leading to the creation of Gimlet Media.

The Shift from Radio to Podcasting

  • Matt has a deep history with radio, having been a radio kid who ran his college radio station and later produced radio shows.
  • He foresaw the impact of the web on traditional media and anticipated similar changes for radio due to the rise of digital consumption.
  • Matt's decision to pursue an MBA and work in management consulting was influenced by his desire to understand the business side of media.
  • The challenges of distributing radio content through traditional means led Matt to see podcasting as a more exciting and creative medium.

"I sort of saw in the mid to late two thousand s that what was happening to what the web was doing to newspapers and what iTunes was doing to music. The same thing I felt was going to happen to radio." Matt Lieber explains his prediction that the digital revolution affecting newspapers and music would also transform radio consumption.

"I sort of did do radio shows, but it felt to me like the really exciting thing was happening in podcasting." Matt acknowledges his involvement in radio production but expresses his belief that podcasting was where the most creative and ambitious work was taking place.

The Decision to Co-found Gimlet and Partner with Alex Blumberg

  • Matt and Alex's partnership started about a year and a half before the interview and was pivotal to the success of Gimlet.
  • Matt's decision to leave a secure consulting career for Gimlet was driven by his belief in the podcast market and his trust in Alex as a partner.
  • He recognized Alex Blumberg's talent as a creative visionary and saw the opportunity to build something significant with him.

"I was nervous. But when I met Alex, pretty immediately I recognized that he is a very special person." Matt Lieber admits to feeling nervous about leaving his consulting career but felt reassured after meeting his future business partner, Alex Blumberg, whom he saw as a unique and talented individual.

"Is there a real market here? And is it big enough to spend the rest of my life doing work in? And do I have a partner who I really believe in?" Matt questioned the viability of the podcast market and the potential for a long-term partnership with Alex Blumberg before deciding to co-found Gimlet.

"Alex is one of the best people in the world at what he does. He's one of the greatest editors and he is a creative visionary." Matt praises Alex Blumberg's skills as an editor and his creative vision, which were crucial factors in his decision to partner with him for Gimlet Media.

Alex Blumberg's Unique Qualities

  • Alex Blumberg's brilliance is attributed to his vision, knowledge of storytelling, curiosity, and optimism.
  • Matt admires Alex's persistent drive to improve stories and his ability to take creative risks.

"What do you think makes Alex so brilliant then at that? Is it his vision? Is it his knowledge of what people want in a story?" The question posed to Matt Lieber inquires about the qualities that make Alex Blumberg an exceptional figure in the podcasting industry.

"Yes, and his curiosity and just his boundless optimism for being able to make something better and pushing to make these stories or these sho" Matt Lieber's response highlights Alex Blumberg's curiosity and optimism as key factors in his ability to enhance storytelling and take creative initiatives.

The Importance of Iteration and Improvement

  • Iteration is crucial for turning first drafts into better versions.
  • The belief in continuous improvement is a driving force behind success.
  • Iteration is not limited to writing but applies to various creative and business processes.

"All first drafts suck and it's the second, 3rd, fourth and fifth where you can make them better."

This quote emphasizes the idea that initial attempts at creating something are rarely perfect, and it's through revising and refining that quality improves. It's a reminder that persistence and continuous effort are key to success.

Raising Series A: Constraint and Creativity

  • The Gimlet team had to decide whether to raise a Series A round.
  • Constraint can lead to creative solutions and was a theme in their decision-making process.
  • The team had a successful first year with good revenue, which made the decision to raise funds more complex.

"Constraint breeds creativity."

This quote suggests that limitations can actually foster innovation and original thinking. In the context of raising funds, it indicates that working within certain financial constraints may have contributed to the company's initial creative success.

Revenue vs. User Growth in Startups

  • Gimlet had revenue from the start, which is not always the case with Silicon Valley startups.
  • Some VCs prioritize user growth over immediate revenue generation.
  • Gimlet's advertising model was seen as integral to their product from day one.

"We had revenue from the very beginning because we were selling advertisements on our show."

This quote highlights Gimlet's unconventional approach for a startup by focusing on generating revenue early on through advertising, which contrasts with the common Silicon Valley model of prioritizing rapid user growth.

Self-Funding vs. External Fundraising

  • Gimlet considered self-funding through revenue as an exciting possibility.
  • Self-funding could prevent dilution of equity and maintain control over the company's direction.
  • The dilemma was between self-funding through profits or raising funds to accelerate growth.

"We actually felt like the advertising business model, the ads were part of the product and that it made sense to have them there from day one."

This quote explains Gimlet's rationale for incorporating advertising into their business model from the outset, viewing it as a component of their product rather than an add-on.

The Decision to Raise Funds

  • Raising funds was ultimately decided to support ambitious plans and company growth.
  • The need to build a full company infrastructure was a factor in seeking external capital.
  • Fundraising would allow Gimlet to take creative risks and invest in new show formats.

"The atomic unit at Gimlet is always the show, but we have a company and a set of shared services that can support shows to take all of the things off their plate, that isn't having ideas, going out and executing them, and then feeling the support to do ambitious work."

This quote conveys the vision for Gimlet post-funding: to create an environment where creative teams can focus on ideation and execution, supported by a robust company structure.

Creative Risk and Innovation in Media

  • Taking creative risks is inherent to the media business.
  • Successful media properties often involve doing something novel.
  • Gimlet's show "Mystery Show" and others are cited as examples of successful creative risks.

"The most successful media properties are ones that are trying to do something that hasn't been done before."

The quote underscores the importance of innovation in media and the willingness to take risks to create unique and compelling content that stands out.

Dealing with Failed Show Concepts

  • Gimlet has a new show development team dedicated to creating new shows.
  • They use a prototyping methodology to test show concepts.
  • Some show ideas are abandoned if they don't work or aren't exciting enough.

"We've certainly made episodes of show concepts that we felt like either they weren't working or it was going to take so much luck for it to work repeatedly, or it was working well enough, but it didn't feel exciting enough and we didn't pursue them further."

This quote reveals Gimlet's approach to innovation, which includes acknowledging when a concept isn't viable and making the tough decision not to proceed with it.

Maintaining Company Culture During Growth

  • Gimlet aims to preserve its small company culture despite rapid growth.
  • The culture is strong but has not been explicitly communicated.
  • Leadership behavior and deliberate communication strategies are key to maintaining culture.

"Gimla does have a culture. I think it's a fairly strong culture, although we haven't been that explicitly about communicating it and what it is."

This quote acknowledges the presence of a distinctive company culture at Gimlet, which may require more explicit communication as the company grows to ensure it is maintained.

Gimlet Guides and Company Culture

  • Gimlet Media has formalized its onboarding process with the introduction of Gimlet Guides.
  • Gimlet Guides are selected based on their understanding of the company culture and their empathetic and mentoring abilities.
  • The role of a Gimlet Guide is to help new employees understand the company's values, working methods, and cultural norms.

So we started something recently called Gimlet Guides, which is every new employee who starts at the company now. It's something we started just a few months ago.

This quote explains the recent implementation of the Gimlet Guides program, aimed at integrating new employees into the company's culture.

Mentorship Duration and Structure

  • The mentorship provided by Gimlet Guides is indefinite.
  • Gimlet Guides meet with their mentees for lunch once a month and serve as a resource for questions ranging from basic company logistics to career advice.
  • Gimlet Guides are not co-founders or direct managers to avoid conflicts and to encourage inter-team connections.

Indefinite. And so your gimbal guide takes you out to lunch once a month.

The quote indicates the ongoing nature of the mentorship and the regular personal interaction involved in the Gimlet Guides program.

Connecting Teams Within the Company

  • Gimlet Media aims to create a cohesive network among different shows.
  • The Gimlet Guides program also serves to connect employees from different teams, fostering a sense of unity across the company.

So one of the things we found is, because the atomic unit here is the show shows aren't always as connected to each other as we kind of want.

This quote highlights the challenge of creating interconnectivity between different production teams within Gimlet Media.

Fundraising and Investment Philosophy

  • When raising their Series A, Gimlet Media prioritized finding an investor aligned with their vision over seeking the highest valuation.
  • They sought an investor with experience in media rather than technology due to the unique dynamics and timelines of media investments.
  • Maintaining control of the company and having a small board were crucial for the founders.

What was more important to us is that we could have a partner that really understood us and that was aligned on the vision and had experience investing in media.

This quote emphasizes the importance Gimlet Media placed on finding an investor who understood and shared their vision for the company.

Podcasting as an Investable Market

  • Matt Lieber believes in the investability of podcasting despite skepticism from many venture capitalists.
  • He argues that there is a significant market potential for podcasting, drawing parallels with the radio advertising market and the mobile media advertising market.
  • The shift to mobile consumption, where traditional advertising is less effective, presents an opportunity for podcasting, which is inherently mobile and has an audience that appreciates the advertising model.

Because there's a sea change in how people are. Like how a whole generation of people are going to consume audio.

This quote captures the belief in a fundamental shift in audio consumption patterns, which supports the case for podcasting as a viable market.

The Potential for Monetization

  • Lieber is confident in the ability of podcasting to monetize at scale.
  • He references the size of the radio advertising market and the mobile media advertising market as indicators of potential revenue for podcasting.
  • The company's focus on mobile consumption and brand advertising is seen as an advantage in the evolving media landscape.

Radio does, I don't know, 17, $18 billion a year in advertising in the US market alone.

This quote provides a benchmark for the potential size of the podcast advertising market by comparing it to the established radio market.

Personal Mission and Vision for Growth

  • Lieber and his co-founder, Alex, have a long history in radio and believe in the power of storytelling to create connectivity and empathy.
  • Gimlet Media's goal is to scale up their operations to increase their positive impact on the world.

And we're doing that currently at like a moderate scale. And we're really interested in doing it at a much larger scale, because if you're doing something good, it's better to do it in a big way than a small way.

This quote conveys the ambition to expand Gimlet Media's reach and influence, with the belief that a larger scale will amplify their positive contributions.

Decision Making for New Shows

  • Gimlet Media considers both existing audience overlap and demographic expansion when creating new shows.
  • The recent show "Surprisingly Awesome" caters to an audience interested in learning while being entertained.
  • Three criteria for show creation: educational value, relatable host, and compelling narrative.

The most recent show we launched is called surprisingly awesome. And we saw a segment in the market of people who are listening, really, because they want to learn something.

This quote explains the rationale behind launching "Surprisingly Awesome," emphasizing the educational aspect that appeals to the target audience.

There are three things that we need to see, and one is that element of learning, our listeners going to hear this and come away with it with some greater understanding or some greater angle of empathy on the world.

The quote outlines the first of three key criteria for creating a new show, which is the potential for listeners to gain knowledge or empathy.

Two is, do we have a host who listeners can connect to? Like, are they companionable?

This quote highlights the importance of a relatable and engaging host as the second criterion for a successful show.

And then three, is narrative, like, is there a story here?

The third criterion mentioned in the quote is the presence of a strong narrative to captivate the audience.

Show Popularity and Metrics

  • "Mystery Show" has the highest downloads per episode, with "Reply All" and "Startup" close behind.
  • Popularity is measured by downloads per episode.

They're all kind of in the range. I mean, if you look at downloads per episode, mystery show is the biggest.

This quote provides insight into the relative popularity of Gimlet Media's shows based on download metrics.

Personal Preferences and Influences

  • Matt Lieber's favorite book is "Great Plains" by Ian Frazier.
  • He does not emulate any specific founder but strives for authenticity with his co-founder, Alex Blumberg.
  • Steve Jobs is mentioned as a revolutionary figure by the host.

My favorite book. Great plans by Ian Frazier.

Matt Lieber shares his favorite book, providing a glimpse into his personal tastes.

I think the thing we try to model ourselves after is ourselves.

This quote reflects Matt Lieber's philosophy of authenticity and not modeling oneself strictly after other founders.

Challenges and Growth

  • Scaling editorial capabilities is the most challenging aspect of growing Gimlet Media.
  • Chris Sacca as an investor is both fun and challenging, pushing the company to grow.

Scaling editorial. Creating a system to grow and teach editorial capabilities in this medium.

The quote identifies the primary challenge faced by Gimlet Media as it expands.

It is fun and challenging.

Matt Lieber describes his experience with investor Chris Sacca, acknowledging both the positive and difficult aspects.

Monetization and Future Potential

  • Gimlet Media is not likely to become a software company.
  • Advertising and future subscription services are seen as the most promising revenue streams.
  • The next show, "Sampler," a podcast about podcasts, is a source of excitement.

I think the advertising business, and then down the road, the subscription business has the biggest potential together.

The quote indicates Matt Lieber's belief in the combined potential of advertising and subscription models for monetization.

The thing I'm always most excited about is the next one.

This quote reflects Matt Lieber's forward-looking enthusiasm for upcoming projects, specifically mentioning the launch of "Sampler."

Personal Advice and Closing Remarks

  • The best advice Matt Lieber has received is to "be nice."
  • Expressions of gratitude are exchanged as the interview concludes.

Be nice.

This succinct quote captures the essence of the best advice Matt Lieber has been given, emphasizing the importance of kindness.

Thanks Harry. It's been a pleasure. It's been fun.

Matt Lieber concludes the interview with Harry Stebbings, expressing his enjoyment of the conversation.

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