The founder of Bleacher Report (200M MAU, 2nd biggest sports website in the US), has a very candid conversation about why he and his co-founders decided to demote themselves & hire an external CEO, why he left his company later on, and why he decided to come back to lead it this year — highlighting the complicated personal arcs entrepreneurs often grapple with.
Dave Finocchio, Founder/CEO at Bleacher Report: It started, it definitely started smaller. We had, on another floor in this building, we had a newsroom that was probably about, about a fifth this size with maybe nine TVs on the wall. And it was like a classic, kind of 20 dudes in one room, smelled terrible. Yeah, just kind of doing their thing. And this is the next iteration.
Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: You’re doing all right. Just like I was reading on your website that you’re doing 60 million uniques, you’re like the second biggest website for sports. It seems like you’re a very established media property in a lot of different ways, right?
Dave: Yeah, so we started out, as you know, as a web publishing business, and it really built our brand off of a website and then created a very successful app that’s the most used sports app in the United States. And yeah, we’ve been the second largest sports website for a long time. A couple of years ago though, we really decided that we, really in the business of building a brand and certainly having a website and having an app are part of our business. But our business is more focused on creating great content and great experiences for sports fans regardless of where they are,. So for example, today we now reach well over 200 million people a month across all platforms. So our website and our app are a good chunk of that, but so is Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and other platforms. And so in a lot of ways, we look at, we look at those platforms as really the new MSOs. They’re the new cable operators whereas you look a DISH or a Comcast or a DirecTV and so on and so forth, our job is really on those platforms to build the next great channels. And so one of the tricky parts is if TBS has a distribution deal with DISH or with Comcast or COX or whoever TBS is, it’s the same on every one of those channels versus kind of the modern platforms. They all have different rules, they all have different audiences as well. So we really treat them as their own magazine, as their own, we are very much trying to build a customized experience just right for that audience. So it’s just the rule of the game and media have changed a lot, but we think we’re on the forefront of a lot of the most important trends as well.
Tim: It’s kind of funny, right? ‘Cause you look at kind of yeah, the kind of challenge you deal with right now, the kind of scale you deal with and you look at like, well, starting from, what was it? You guys got started in 2007 or something like that?
Dave: Yeah, we started working on this part-time in 2005. Full-time in 2007.
Tim: And so it’s kind of like, beyond the narrative of like, oh, look at what they achieved in 10, 11 years, there’s been a lot of different things happening, and different transitions with the company. And the one that I was particularly interested about was I guess the personal transition of what you went through. Being a founder, hiring an external CEO. Leaving the company and very simply coming back as CEO to run Bleacher Report again. And that’s kind of something that goes beyond the, super Disney narrative of like, everything works out and everything, it’s always worked out, and the company was always doing well. And it kind of hits on something I think a lot of startups go through in terms of how do you help your own company, how do you manage your own company and how to navigate that? So that’s something I really wanted to dive into. I don’t know what makes more sense, but I guess you start as founders and at some point you were growing up and you realized you had to grow up a different way. Is that pretty much what lead you to kind of do those different transitions?
Dave: Yeah. Our initial founding team, basically four friends from high school. And I think with most first-time founders, when you start a company you have a vision and you have big hopes and dreams, but you usually have no idea what the hell you’re doing at the same time. And we had some observations about the sports space and about content that ended up being mostly right at some levels. And we hired amazing people along the way and had this incredible journey, but when we were getting going, I don’t think any of us could have told you exactly what we were good at or how each of us independently would grow. You just don’t know who’s going to end up adding value in this area or that area or at all. And so as we got off the ground and stared to figure things out and figured out our model, we did hit a point in time where we realized that we were in the sports media business. And when we got going, we wanted to be in sports but we weren’t quite sure if we were in the media business or if we were in the platform business. We dabbled for a while at creating something, it would have been more like a Tumbler for sports. So we decided we were in the sports media business which is, it’s an entrenched, kind of like old boys network in certain ways. It’s relationship driven, it’s an advertising business. And we realized that we had a lot to learn, and I guess also decided that at some point it was for the three founders that were still involved with the business, that it was kind of better to, the expression is, better to be rich than king. In our case, we just really believed in the value proposition of what we were trying to build and wanted to do everything in our power to raise more money, to invest more money in content and product, and build something that would be lasting and meaningful, and that was why we went the external CEO route. And we hired a great one in Brian Grey, and he was with the company for something like three or three and a half years and lead us through an acquisition. And I personally learned a ton from Brian. And I think overall looking back, it was just a great experience to just put ourselves in a position. My other two co-founders are now CEOs of other media companies where we were just able to maintain kind of a really steep growth and learning curve the entire time.
Tim: Yeah, and so both for the company and for yourselves, you know, individually. So eventually, you decided to move on, right? And do something else and it’s quite that is, right? Doing your own thing in a different way, right? So what kind of led you to move that, because a lot of people feel like their company, especially their first company, it’s their baby, and that can be really hard. Did you feel like you left too early now that you’re back, or did you feel like you left too late relatively, compared to what you could learn on the outside? Why do you think that was?
Dave: First and foremost, I’ve been very fortunate and the whole experience has been kind of beyond my wildest dreams. When Brian left, I ran the business for maybe a year a half, something like that. And through out that period I was fairly transparent with the company, Time Warner that owns Bleacher Report, that I wanted to take some time off. Throughout, as we all do, throughout the entire experience, as wonderful as it was, I always knew that I wanted to spend some time traveling and I got married at some point along the line. And that was kind of my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I had always wanted to get out there and explore different parts of the world, and just detach a little bit.
Tim: ‘Cause it’s very intense, right? It’s kind of like, when you’re doing a startup, especially the founder, you’re working all the time. And it’s a long time to be working all the time.
Dave: Yeah, no, it was a nine and a half year journey for me until I stepped away for a little while. And yeah, unless you go through it, I think you can never really understand the emotional toll that it takes or how hard we worked for so many years. The wake up at 7am and start working, and you go to bed at one in the morning just because you realize you need to get some sleep to do it again the next day.
Tim: And it’s in your head all the time, too. Even when you’re not working.
Dave: Totally. You never really take a day off. And overall, it’s a great experience, but at some point you have to just recognize that you need to take a step back and clear your head and evaluate what you want to do with your life. So I was able to do that, and I actually started working on another startup project. I raised a little bit of money, and Bleacher Reports’ former CTO and I started working on something totally different from media. And then kind of, about a year into it, Turner decided that they wanted to make a much bigger bet on Bleacher Report. And to be candid, when I left, Bleacher Report was doing extremely well. But I certainly felt that in order to take the business to the next level, it was gonna require a significant capital investment. Content businesses are expensive, the landscape is moving really quickly. And Turner decided that Bleacher Report was a brand that could be a really big part of the future of their business. And so it was just really exciting to me, too. It later came out publicly that Turner invested 100 million dollars in Bleacher Report, which is enough cash for us to go do some really really interesting things. And again, I mentioned the difference between kind of like a website and living in the web world. And now we’re thinking of ourselves as a big media brand, as a brand that has a chance to have a lasting cultural legacy in the United States and perhaps out of it. And that opportunity, certainly for me and for the company, it was too good to be true, and I really wanted to be a part of it.
Tim: But to be clear, it also seemed like it’s not just money, right? To get that kind of footprint and that kind of impact and that kind of renewal in a company like Bleacher Report, you also need the creativity and the passion and the drive, right? It also makes sense that beyond just adding a bunch of cash that Turner would want to add talent and some of the founders’ spirit back into the company.
Dave: Yeah. And I think it’s not just me. There are a number of senior folks here that have been here for a really really long time that have been the drivers and the catalyst of so much of the growth here. I think one of the reasons we’ve been so successful is it’s just a great team. We have really great, I played team sports my entire life. This is the best team I’ve ever played on from a chemistry standpoint. We’re like a family. I could give all sorts of other cliched terms but it just clicks. And there are people here who could probably go elsewhere and start their own companies or get paid more money, but we’re kind of idealists and we like working together. And we think we have a chance to build something in kind of the sports and culture fabric that really will matter, that we’ll be proud of for the rest of our lives. And I think we, there’s nothing I think, when I stepped away I realized there’s nothing I would rather do than be a part of this team, trying to work on that. So it’s pretty cool to come to that conclusion for me personally.
Tim: That makes a lot of sense. And so, do you feel like that time away helped you? Beyond just helping you reset and have some vacation, explore, you were talking about growing and learning curve. Do you feel like taking time away from your baby actually helped you still grow and learn more?
Dave: Yeah, it absolutely did. I think any time you’re able to take a step back, you can see things, maybe not with unbiased eyes. I’m always gonna be very biased to some extent about Bleacher Report and its position in the marketplace, but I was able to see just the overall landscape, I think in a broader way, and just spent more time thinking about bigger picture, issues and where things are going. And you inevitably, if you’re living and breathing all the little details that go into running the company on a day-to-day basis, these things that can seem very very important that maybe aren’t so important to your success over a two or five or 10 year period. Also, I think, getting away sometimes makes it easier to be creative. To be honest, it’s not often that my best creative ideas takes place when I’m in my office.
Tim: Those 12 hour days.
Dave: Yeah, exactly. They could take place in all kinds of walks of life. I think any time you’re inspired in one area of life, even if it has nothing to do with your job, if you’re just feeling inspired and motivated and are just looking at the world in an optimistic way, then I think it gives you an opportunity to maybe come up with something great or that pertains to your job.
Tim: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Yeah, thanks a lot.
Dave: Yeah, thank you.