David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

The AMI Origin Story

Opening up about the company behind Hacker Noon, Extra Newsfeed, ART + marketing, My Student Voices, P.S. I Love You and more publications that you just might have read before.

Just another day in the office. Photo by Kien Dao. Well not really just another day. It’s a Denver AirBnB, and my daughter is impressed by the light of the computer. Isn’t light the best? Even babies get it. Internet gives us choice. What stories should we shine light on?
AMI is a blog network. All in all, it is up to 14,000+ contributing writers, 450,000+ subscribers, and 11,000,000+ monthly minutes reading. Today, I’d like to share the details, milestones and failures of the last 20 months that got AMI here, as well as, a bit about where this business is headed.

Notable Things Before AMI

Summer 2006
First job after high school — moved stacks of newspapers from the printer to the trucks from 10pm to 5 am six days a week. Got paid $5.35/hr. Was my first taste of the sweet, sweet nectar of the story distribution business.
Summer 2010
First job after college — was the last reporter on the payroll. Got the invaluable experience of titling AP advice columns, paginating pages, editing obituaries, processing obituary payments from the bereaved, writing the occasional human interest piece, and waiting for a story to break while the beat writer was busy or out of office. My pay had almost doubled to $10.65/hr. I lived in my parent’s basement like a boss.
January 2015
AMI story began when I left my first job in tech. SmartRecruiters went from 7 to 100+ employees while I was there; from seed funded through Series B. But companies change. People change. Wanted my own thing. I bought my stock and moved on. Much thanks to SmartRecruiters Founder Jerome Ternynck for hiring me and working together the early days of market traction and company development. Additional thanks to my colleague Paul Andre de Vera, who taught me a ton about the evolution of internet marketing, and I was fortunate enough to collaborate on projects with throughout the growth of my own company. The tech startup education on work ethic, weathering storms, creating growth, and strategic thinking was invaluable. A great introduction to the tech industry, and a fun ride.

Founding the Company

February 2015 — May 2015

I started ArtMap Inc. to target the company stage that I had the most fun working as an employee — the early days of high growth startups. I was a bootstrapped early stage startup serving venture backed early stage startups.

We wrote key messaging documents for early stage companies. Led their content strategy, content production and social media. Every customer had similarities and differences. There are some stages all startups must go through — like acquiring your first ten customers, measuring ROI by channel, or simply determining what the crux of their company story is. We structured six month deals with equity components. We were acquiring clients by reputation. I was building a portfolio, working for my equity, and making enough money to hire my writer friend John Marshall. This is picture that we attached to all marketing proposal emails:

Photo credit, Scott Heimerman. Kerouac Alley, North Beach San Francisco CA.

We live in a time when everyone’s got a mouth and no one listens — we thrived on the challenge of elevating startup stories above the noise. These startups went through Y Combinators and Techstars of the world. My main philosophy was to work with the brightest budding entrepreneurs I could, then make their words better and stories bigger.

Our first customer got acquired by KissMetrics. One customer’s company died. Most of them are still chugging. Another raised a $5M Series A. And one got bought by one of tech’s big 5. I’ll write more on this time later, but for now, onto how media became the business…

June 2015

It wasn’t a pivot that happened in one day. When you’re a young business growing by revenue, you have to balance how to pay the bills in the short term with how you envision growth will happen in the long term.

I was waiting awhile for Medium to open publications to the public. I’m the public! And they did! From the first story I read on Medium — back when it was in invite only beta stage for writers — I made the assumption, this is going to be the next blogging platform. The design, the backing, the leadership — and the simply put, the cutting out of the bullshit. So much of the internet is designed to mislead the reader away from the desired story — and that does not have to be the future of digital publishing. No pop-ups, check. No right navigation CTA taking up half the screen, check. Frankly, any ad that gets in the way of the story is stupid — and that’s how this platform treated readers.

I had no special connections, just a taste for curation, getting the best to contribute. It’s how the internet should be — an equalizer of information for the rich and the poor. I started ART + marketing. It started no differently than, this is our company’s blog.

September 2015

craignewmark (as in Craig from Craigslist) contributed an old school nerd story. I thought ‘wow, maybe this is bigger than marketing other startups. My editorial philosophy is the internet will be the internet, but if you can attract the good voices and stories of the internet, you can make quality destinations.

I continued to take on marketing clients because it’s San Francisco and I got bills to pay and mouths to feed. How appealing would it be to tell stories for the sake of the story itself? As a marketing agency, you are marketing their company story. If stories could be the product, the content would apply to a larger community. More truths takes perspective closer to the whole truth. And if the long term business was serving and growing other startups — wouldn’t I be more effective at my job with an owned media arm? That’s what I thought. Amplify what is working.

October 2015

Got our first office. It was 200 some square feet on the sixth floor of The Flood Building on Market Street. Was great to have a base of operations.

November 2015

Meeting marketing clients, making $$$. Continued chugging along…

December 2015

ART + marketing passed 6,000 subscribers. Revenue was still 100% driven by consulting. Our expertise on corporate blogging was making the rounds, and we did some work for tech unicorn and a public company. It wasn’t exactly what I set out to do, but the order of stories is never known in the beginning. Just like how I think in curating a publication, you don’t know what the story almost is until it’s live. If you build exactly what you set out to build, you didn’t learn from the experiences along the way. Seeing how great young companies grow was very inspirational.

January 2016

I decided it was time to apply our approach to more verticals. I couldn’t afford to build a large team; I teamed up with Jay Zalowitz who hacked together some tech (that’s a whole other story for another day), and we greatly accelerated our recruitment of writers. It was like having a mechanical extension of myself. We launched 15 more publications across many different verticals.

February 2016

We literally recruited and published 1,000 contributors in 9 days. That’s 2.5X the number of blog contributors I published in 3.5 years running the SmartRecruiters blog. Basically all I did 20 hours a day was read, edit, review and publish submissions. The concept was to accelerate our outreach, and see what stuck.

Then, Medium changed their terms and conditions and shut down tech that was helping us to recruit writers within Medium. We can control what we can control. Looking back, this definitely impacted resource allocation — away from technology development and toward community management.

March 2016

Every publication has an interest. We want to be up front with ours. The Trump campaign phenomena also seemed like a realistic possibility because of how effectively he manipulated news cycles. We used our platform to pledge support for Bernie (10 Reasons Why Conservatives Should Start Supporting Bernie Sanders Immediately by Kimball Mortensen) and tried to be transparent about the how of the Trump Phenomena was not just a fad (Pity Porn For Racists: The Media Wants You To Feel Sorry For Trump Supporters. Don’t. by Oliver Willis).

I was very excited to publish lizadonnelly. I love cartoons. And she’s made them for the New Yorker, and just about ever other reputable cartoon publisher. It’s a little known fact that I started a novel loosely based on Tintin’s impact on Catholicism, China, and WWII.

April 2016

AMI had its first month that exceeded one million minutes reading. Upworthy also republished one of our top stories.

We moved our publication URLs off Medium.com, and onto our own domains:

You can probably guess by the colloquialness of the domains above which sites took off. Sometimes success is making it easy for the brand to come out of another’s mouth. Or maybe some stories are just better than others. Ultimately, I wanted to build on my own land — as much as that is possible as a small operation without venture investment.

May 2016

Sold our first sponsored content series: The Mighty Collection. I’m on the fence about the value of sponsored content… Is it really more honest than banner ads or email sponsorships? I want to add value. I want to be sustainable. I want less ads — that are also honest about being ads.

Ads can exist to accredit value created. Is the author thumbnail not an ad for the author? Is the Medium thumbnail in the upper left hand corner not an ad for the blogging platform I use? Is my URL not an ad for AMI?

June 2016

We published Rebounding From Epic Failure, Jason Goldberg’s story from raising $300,000,000 in venture capital to the failure of his company (Fab). I think it’s the best startup failure story on the internet. Makes me think, @AMI could fail, my next company could fail, and the company after that, but someone like me can still overcome and hold their head high. But that’s not me. I’m building the AMI Network. Jason has already built companies. That’s the thing about perspective, yours is also more valuable to you. We also completed a rebrand across the entire family of publications. Designer Tom Snow led this project — and that’s where all the logos you see today originated.

July 2016

Travelled to Vietnam to give a TEDx Talk on the future of media, called “Horizontal Storytelling.”

Found out I was going to be a father 😄

Living wage had to raise ☹

This led to some difficult decisions 😣

I halted customer acquisition marketing services for ArtMap Inc., continued to serve existing marketing service customers, cut back expenditures as much as possible, and accelerated effort into the fastest growing section of my business: the publications.

I realized I had to get rid of my first office — in the Flood Building on 4th & Market Street. Used to really, really love my walk to work from North Beach down Powell Street.

Also, I had to layoff the first person who believed in my company enough to join; much respect and gratitude for all the work John Marshall put into this company. Basically had to force revenue closer to income, and that meant less total income, while doubling down on the high growth areas of the business. I became leaner and more profitable in the short-term.

Employee turnover can be tough. But you’re never the only one battling it. One of top stories of the month was about the end — and intangible value of — Marissa Mayer’s tenure leading Yahoo. And Marissa Mayer tweeted it :-)

August 2016

Our first month with over 2 million minutes reading. A couple of stories that helped us get there: My Student Voices published Harvard University (“Where Are All the Teachers of Color?”) & Extra Newsfeed published Hillary Clinton’s official photographer, Barbara Kinney.

September 2016

Sold our first sponsored letter. Ho hum. I want to sell sponsored newsletters because all news reaches you because more than one source is involved, and I want honest accreditation about how that helps make the AMI network possible. What companies make the Washington Post happen? What companies make AMI happen?

October 2016

We published GIPHY‘s the STATE OF THE GIF 2016, where we distributed the news of the first company to serve a billion GIFs per day. A world with a billion GIFs is a better world!

This high growth month included our top story of the year, “How it feels to learn JavaScript in 2016” by Jose Aguinaga. It’s been translated into dozens of languages, achieved over 16k recommendations, and qualified as 2016 top ten story by Medium.

In other news, Extra Newsfeed garnered tweets from the official accounts of the NYC Mayoral Office & Libertarian Party. Tech & politics led our growth.

November 2016

Trump is elected president, somehow. And we as a nation, were forced — as actor Adrian J Anchondo said— to Own Our Shit. I wrote a short letter about it. And later bought a website. The political humor movement called “TRUTH IN SATIRE” in Extra Newsfeed, led by Allan Ishac, drove what I consider to be a sane response to Trump’s fake news bullshit.

Gave up a small equity stake in my company to start development on a product for brands to sponsor stories with one year long ads. Always great to work with Dane Lyons on a tech product. Its development has actually been stop and go, but will launch soon :-)

That’s what happens when you fund a business with revenue — timelines change and resource limitations are more real.

When I think about the future of ads — I think lower volume and higher alignment. We all have interests, and what we read says something about those interests. I’m not interested in profitably selling ice to eskimos, ketchup popsicles to a woman in white gloves, or pens to people that already have plenty of pens; I’m interested in sustainably promoting products and services that are relevant to our respective communities. I’m looking to partner with companies who understand the value of giving first. Companies who understand the value of our stories and the values of their brand. Companies that give a sh*t about branding what their potential customers are already reading.

December 2016

We published Christine Pelosi’s campaign, asking James Clapper to Release Facts on Outside Interference in U.S. Election. It garnered 85 signatures from Electors of the Electoral College.

Your Friends @ Medium released the top 39 stories of the year, and 6 of them were published by us, so that was cool. We published a super serious article about making the fastest site in the world, and technical lead for AMP Project said, the text is so good it doesn’t even gzip to less bytes.

Got married :-) A $0 wedding 🎉💍👰🏻

January 2017

Trump enters officer office. I can’t confirm or deny whether hell froze over or not. I moved to Colorado. We continued advocating a free internet, publishing big stories about how a free internet is one where people can express their ideas without fear.

In related news, Your Friends @ Medium announced they were “refocusing.” I took this as, we’ve completed phase 1 (serving publishers) and are internally moving the platform towards serving creators and their own revenue. They also laid off 1/3 of their staff, primarily those in editorial & business development roles. Who is left to do the platform’s editorial and business development roles?

February 2017

We sold our first site takeover sponsorship: Hired on Hacker Noon.

Had an Extra Newsfeed story, Why Liberals Are Wrong About Trump, which was tweeted by J.K. Rowling and Seth MacFarlane — the creators of my two favorite series. The post ended up with 5+ million pageviews.

March 2017

AMI Publications achieved 24,666,309 minutes reading in 2017 Q1 — that’s the equivalent of 47 years, 11 months and 5 days. By the end of the month the subscriber base reached a total of 298,087 subscribers, which is approximately equivalent to the population of Cincinnati, Ohio. In other news MIT Media Lab tweeted My Student Voices story and Greenpeace tweeted a Future Travel Today story.

I formed partnership with BuySellAds to function as contingent sales force.

Became a father :-)

While in the hospital I continued to message writers and sponsors. There’s less time working, but really is no “time off” in the traditional sense — not when you’re the only full time person at a small but growing media company.

Hacker Noon surpassed The Ringer in publication followers, which is big deal for me because I’m still waiting to hear back from Bill Simmons about the job application I filled out the week after The Ringer was announced. Also, The Ringer left Medium. I still read it, every now and then when I remember to type in the URL.

As we started to attract attention of organizations like the Case Foundation, I got to thinking about how AMI gives back. IMHO, making positive impact has always been a part of the editorial line — which later manifested itself as LINKS TO CAUSES: positive impact online should create positive impact IRL.

April 2017

We caught the attention of Alexis Ohanian on Hacker Noon, and Rand Fishkin on ART + marketing — which is cool because they’re two minds that I greatly admire. If I can contribute a fraction of how Alexis sees the front page of the internet — or how Rand is able to make sites more effectively communicate with search engines — maybe this business could justify my reality distortion complexes?

This is part of our platform dependency, we’re relying on Medium to deliver newsletters. As of publishing this story, we were over 450,000 subscribers receiving our stories either from us via email or from Medium.

May 2017

Worked on a rebrand from ArtMap Inc. to AMI. Much thanks to andreas milles for partnering up, making the transition to @AMI possible. I wanted to overcome challenge of seeming like many small media operation by uniting the brand under authoritative 3 letter acronym; AMI: in French it’s “friend,” and in Hungarian, it’s “which,” and AMI does abbreviate to our corporate entity, ART MAP INC. We also published some of my new favorite cartoons inside the White House, caught the attention of Amazon & Amherst, and were republished by Business Insider.

June 2017

We threw out first in person event, The Inaugural Hacker Noon Party in San Francisco.

This led to Robert Scoble doing the Hacker Dance (who in a small world connection to the company — was actually led on a hot air ballon ride in Montana by John Marshall a few years earlier), Media Mobilize reselling our ad inventory, and it was very rewarding to meet so many contributing writers in person.

July 2017

Can a 1 person company be a “legit” media company? Probably not, lol. I need some help. We’re growing the team.

We had a summer intern, Kah Yee Chiang who worked on developing our Facebook pages, improving contributor communications, and managing stories for My Student Voices, Athena Talks and P.S. I Love You.

Dan Moore partnered as Managing Editor of P.S. I Love You. Great storyteller. He will be raising our story quality and improving our community development. You can read more on his outlook here: Love is Not a Genre.

August 2017

We got our first tweet from Mark Cuban. He put the radio on the internet with Broadcast.com, owns the Dallas Mavericks, kicks ass on Shark Tank, once turned a computer into a radio… and reads Hacker Noon.

We published novelists Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman : AN OPEN LETTER TO OUR FELLOW JEWS. Proud to keep that story atop Extra Newsfeed. Until all the right people step up, may just keep it atop our publication. Lately, as I consider what an actionable reader means, we’re been rotating different causes in the top navigation of Extra Newsfeed, such as Charlotteville Victim Relief Fund, Stop Trump’s Ban on Transgender Military Service, and the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

I brought back Jay Zalowitz who will be working on high growth projects for Hacker Noon, Festival Peak and Keeping Stock. These 3 publications all started in conjunction with Jay’s tech recruiting writers back in early 2016. Bigger picture, we are thinking about how to bring the internet’s best stories into the AMI network.

On the revenue side, we partnered with Artur Kiulian to develop original tech to provide writers with better readers and more paid opportunities.

My wife, Linh Dao will also be joining AMI part-time to develop contributor relationships, execute new revenue opportunities, and simply better my business processes. We’re a family business looking to become something bigger…

Here’s a snapshot of our reading destinations.

2017 Q3-Q4: What’s Next?

I need more partners to make AMI what I think it can be. This means board of advisors, more revenue share agreements, more equity agreements, and selling a portion of the company to investors in order to spend on labor and technology. The reality is that I’m overworked, underpaid, and want to make this a more serious destinations for remarkable stories. I’ve consistently erred on the side of growth, and I’m looking for partners to help turn that growth into a better business.

While the US internet ad industry remains a $1 trillion yearly market, I’m not interested in ad revenue being AMI’s primary source of revenue. It’s not the future experience that’s best for the reader, writer or internet as a whole.

The path to a better internet starts with less ads that are more relevant.

The storyteller and the story distributor must find a more sustainable business model. More tangibly, I will be taking initiatives to drive innovation in digital publishing. The direction of AMI:

  • Build a larger part-time editorial team of experts
  • Innovate on the reading list and how to find your next story
  • Use technology to increase the volume of paid writers
  • Increase AMI time reading
  • Increase paid Medium’s time reading
  • Scale coverage of events and conferences

I hope to close the year with a bigger team and a more clear business model to grow AMI digital publishing in the year ahead.

2018 And Beyond

In an industry driven by headlines, we’re trying to publish better headlines... that are also followed by more substantial stories. By publishing contributing writers who are professionally doing what they’re writing about, I believe we’re able to share more stories that resonate.

No one knows what the future holds, but I do know that these values will drive them:

  • Publish More Remarkable Stories
  • Amplify the Community’s Publish Button
  • Make Partners Smile
  • Serve the Community
  • Add ART Whenever Possible

I want to go against the grain. This world I see today is not the internet we should be reading from. This world — where the story’s profoundness means less, and its surface level value means more — does not have to be the future of reading on the internet.

This story is not trying to be a think piece or a listicle of lessons, it’s simply a monthly business log looking for partners.

David Smooke AMI Contact

Stories@AMIpublications.com. Partners@AMIpublications.com. Tweet.

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