Tuesday, November 25, 2008


BigThink.com is a new site successfully bringing together high-profile thinkers and everyday users of the Internet. Through videotaped interviews, famous subjects discuss burning questions in every field from news and pop culture to science and religion. Then visitors are invited to log on, post their own videos and text and join message boards, creating an ongoing dialogue on the issues. Their efforts have paid off, with hundreds of thousands of visitors per month and first-rate guests.

Big Think's guests have ranged from John McCain and Bill Richardson to Moby and master chef Jacques Pepin. Their interviews are unique in that the interviewer is absent from the finished video: he or she sits in a separate room during filming, visible to the interviewee only by a screen directly in line with the camera lens. So, guests appears to speak directly to the camera, and with the interviewer neither seen nor heard, the interviews feel like webcam videos. Through this interview method, BigThink's founders hope to give visitors a feeling of intimate connection to their guests.

Former television producers Victoria Brown and Peter Hopkins founded BigThink in Chelsea, and their initial site launched this January. A second updated site opened in the fall.

With a staff of only five, BigThink's managed to become a successful and provocative new player in interactive news media. They've done over 200 interviews and recruited more than 500 experts who chime in via webcam on different topics.

I spoke to co-founder Victoria Brown about how she and Hopkins started the business and on their visions for the future. Both co-founders were producers for the PBS program Charlie Rose before starting BigThink in 2007.

Brown:We went for venture capital but we had difficulty raising money initially, because venture capitalists typically invest in companies where they can forecast explosive growth, usually in technology, not television or film or media content. When venture capitalists invest in media, it’s seen as a media play, a foray into the field, kind of gambling.

We raised our initial funds from a few individuals. Larry Summers, the former Secretary of the Treasury, he was one of the first investors. Peter Thiel, who was the first investor in Facebook- he founded PayPal, and runs a hedge fund...and then our lead investor, a South African classmate of mine from business school, David Frankel. He was voted South Africa's Technology Achiever of the Century. David founded the largest Internet service provider in all of Africa. He's been the most involved of any of the investors in guiding us.

There was of course the question of how we two people were going to get all these people for interviews. There we were saying, “Imagine a website with leading intellectuals from all different pursuits, a website where people will come and participate…” And the venture capitalists couldn’t get beyond how we would get the interviews. Then of course we were building a website which we’d never done before, managing the content and the editing, which is a full-time job in itself. And then managing the website once it’s built, and getting sponsors. How can the two of you do this here before us with a mock-up and nothing else?

Getting the first 5 interviews was really difficult, because people always want to know “Who’s done it before me?” Once we got those, it got a lot easier. We only promised for a launch of 20 interviews. We launched with about 250, because we were serious about it.

We now have around 500 experts that contribute to the site on various topics. We do between 5 and 15 interviews a week. Our hope is that some of our experts will log in and participate on their own via webcam, without even needing our involvement or coming into our studio.

What made you want to start your own business?

Before working in television, I was at business school. I always wanted to have my own sort of endeavor. I came from a very entrepreneurial family. Prior to television, I had worked in film, film finance and production. Wrote scripts on the creative side. I’ve worked in all three mediums now.

The Internet was always clearly where I was headed. I learned a lot from Charlie Rose, but I wanted to be in the Internet and so did Peter. We were both good business people and good at the content side, but we both had to learn the technology. The Internet landscape, the editorial process, how you get an audience to come back to your site. Things I didn’t know like SEO, search engine optimization. I had never even heard that term before 2008.

And the Internet landscape is constantly changing. We started with a site we’d built in April of 2007, and by the time it launched this January, we realized we needed to build a new one. The first was an ok starting point, but as soon as it launched, we got started on the next one.

The new one is an open source platform, much easier to build on. A good lesson if you’re starting a website is to build it in open source platform, because if you build it in closed source, then you’re 100 percent dependent on the people who built it for you to keep changing it. In open source, you have many more options. So there have been lessons in technology we would have not encountered if we had started a television show.

So describe the types of interviews on the site.

We really wanted a site for thinking people from every background. We didn’t want to be just a business site or an arts and culture site. We wanted people interested in many different subjects. That’s not to say that we haven’t found particular topics more popular, and we have to be cognizant of what our sponsors and advertisers are interested in. The most popular tend to also be the most requested by sponsors. Business content, science and medical content, health, education. We’ve been sponsored by the Templeton Foundation to do religious content as well.

The stuff that’s hard to get sponsored is politics and policy. Sponsors don’t want to get involved in things that may be controversial. They don’t want to be seen as potentially endorsing a political point of view. It’s one of the reasons political sites often have a hard time getting sponsors.

What other difficulties have you faced?

There’s always been the question of how we would grow our audience. Facebook can grow without its makers having to do anything. People come in by recommendation, and for each person that comes they bring somebody itself. Whereas with ours, it was based on content.

It seems like most sites that thrive these days are as much about networking and interactivity as they are about content.

We foolishly thought at first that if we created good content, people would come back to us every day. But it’s not a breaking news site, so why would they? If I’m a student, I might come to Big Think if I’m researching a topic, but will I come back after the paper is done? Probably not.

But if I go onto a site like Facebook and see someone interested in philosophy and death, we can start communicating on that topic and having an ongoing conversation. That does give a reason for people to come back. The first site did not have social networking in it, but the second site has started that: we’ve got a message board mechanism where people can post responses on various topics.

What’s the audience like?

It's changing. It started being affluent people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, affluent and engaged. Now that we put transcripts up online –and this has been our hope – a lot of students are coming. If they’re doing an essay, they can use our transcripts and learn on a specific subject area. We’re trying to make our site known to universities, to get more students interested.

On our site, we get about 180,000 visitors per month and about 400,000 page views. We have a high bounce rate though which means people may come only once a month. We need to find ways to make people come back more frequently. Since all of our content is embeddable, we get 6 to 9 million views per month of our content off of the site. We have partnerships with a lot of other media groups, so you’ll see our content on the Washington Post, other blogs, and YouTube.

So what other lessons have you learned in making the site?

A: Well, we were initially successful in making money, unlike many web start-ups which don’t make money for the first couple of years. Because we only raised a little bit of money at first, we were forced to start making money early and test our business model. And our business model worked.

So we started fundraising again in May and naively thought that people would be rapping down our door to come and invest, but no! Because venture capitalists may care that your business model works, but what they really care about is the potential for explosive growth. I think they’re changing their tune now, not just because of the economy, but because they’re realizing that though a company may grow and have tons of users, if it’s not making money, it’s not a business.

Ours actually is proving to be a viable business, as well as something that can grow. I’m glad now that we didn’t raise too much money at the beginning, because it forced us to grow, to go out and make the business work. Imagine if we had raised millions of dollars and realized two years from now that this didn’t work. We were fortunate actually that we had to work hard initially on the business side.

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