Failure Was a "Great Experience"

His first internet company tanked. So was Wolff nervous about launching Newser?
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Your first internet company failed. What was that experience like? 

Michael Wolff: It was a great experience, actually. I sort of wandered into this business inadvertently. I was in the book publishing business and I started to publish books about technology and about the Internet. I suppose earlier than most, through this product that really had nothing to do with the Internet or technology, nevertheless being about those subjects, introduced me to this business. And in New York I became sort of very early one of the few people who had any claim on knowing anything about this business; although, I'd like... a footnote that I really knew nothing at all. 

But as this business started to heat up, anybody who had any claim on it was suddenly at center stage, and it was opportunity knocking, venture capital came my way, and I began to build a company, again, having no idea what kind of company I was building or really idea about the business in which I was building this company. 

So this was truly learning on the job. And I can only say in my defense that virtually everybody who was starting Internet businesses at that point in time was also learning on the job. And I learned... not enough, but nobody in those days learned enough and everyone, virtually everyone, went under and I went under as well. I was in the fortunate position to be able to tell the story and I wrote a book called “Burn Rate” and that, which I still think serves as one of the great cautionary tales of the period, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. 

Question: Did you fear the same fate with Newser? 

Michael Wolff: I took certain steps when I started Newser to ensure that I had gotten somewhat older and I didn't think that my system would be able to tolerate the highs and lows of the first experience in the Internet. So I went into Newser with a few safety measures; my partner in Newser is someone who absolutely knows what he's doing, who has started two successful companies on the Internet. He founded Hoovers.com and took that public and then sold it to Dunn & Bradstreet and he started HighBeam which another news database company, which he sold. 

So I feel in remarkably good hands. The editor-in-chief of Newser is also Caroline Miller who was the editor-in-chief of New York magazine; an incredibly, professional, and tenacious and accomplished woman. So in reality, at Newser I do very little. 

Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman