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How Not to Launch a Site for Women: An Open Letter to Bustle.com Founder, Bryan Goldberg

Yesterday BleacherReport.com founder Bryan Goldberg announced that he had received $6.5 million in funding for a new women’s site called Bustle.com from a variety of investors including Social+Capital Partnership, Time Warner Investments, Google Ventures, 500 Startups, and Rothenberg Ventures. The announcement was made on PandoDaily (a site I like to think of as PanderDaily, given its seeming determination to be a mouthpiece for industry rather than a news organization that covers industry), and Goldberg’s announcement/press release began with the dubious assertion — now “edited” after much criticism — that there were no major companies going after the women’s market.

He also asserted that he had stumbled upon the heretofore undiscovered fact women have multiple interests, many of which go well beyond 325 Cute Sundresses for Spring! and How to Properly Blow Your Boyfriend So He Won’t Dump You! Apparently they appreciate things like politics and business, too, and no one understands this. No one has tried to make a publication that targets women and covers things that go beyond endless sundresses and blow job how-tos. Sure, there are some “niche” sites. (Niche being online audiences twice the size of Vogue’s print circulation.) Jezebel, the Hairpin, Rookie, etc. — sites that go beyond the narrow scope of traditional women’s magazines. But they’re not going big, and that’s where Bustle comes in. Bustle is gonna be BIG.

Both assertions are, of course, ridiculous. Most general interest sites have a heavy female component, and there are plenty of women’s interest sites that explicitly target women. (The announcement caught my attention in part because it described Gawker.com as a site for men, which, as founding editor of Gawker.com, was news to me.) And while the scope of traditional women’s magazine’s remains fairly narrow, the new players talk about a wide range of issues, many of them general interest.

Goldberg also asserted that his $6.5 million in funding was a function of investor sentiment that the market he’s attacking is underserved and undiscovered and that his solution to the problem is a good one. This, too, is patently ridiculous. Goldberg got $6.5 million in funding because BleacherReport.com is a large, successful site and investors will give entrepreneurs with a track record funding even if their new products are weak. (See Scott Kurnit, AdKeeper, $35 million Series A.) But no investor in his or her right mind thinks that Goldberg is the first person to realize that women are a large consumer market and that they have a variety of different interests. They’re betting on Goldberg, for better or worse, not his unoriginal observation that women are a good — and very big — market.

Naturally, all of these things drew criticism from people who work in women’s publishing now, women generally, and anyone with an IQ over 80 and enough intelligence to know that the interests of women extend beyond fashion, cosmetics, and celebrities and that this is not novel. Goldberg’s initial response was to reiterate that Bustle would be different because it would be BIG — tens of millions of users — and he dismissed much of the criticism on the basis that the critics were simply annoyed that a man had the temerity to step into women’s publishing.

To address the first point, there are very few sites that have tens of millions of users, period, and those that do break down pretty evenly on gender lines. Huffington Post (72.8 MM monthly US uniques) indexes nearly 50/50 male/female and so do most of the big portals like Yahoo (69.2 MM monthly US uniques). These are giant mass-market sites with high volumes of content, and the Huffington Post is a useful example because Goldberg’s company BleacherReport had a similar model in the beginning: take unknown writers, pay them nothing to contribute with the promise of a platform for their amateur sports writing and churn out as much content as you can. Which is a model of sorts for traffic, but not one for quality or consistency.

BleacherReport now pays its writers, but still lives off of high-volume churn. Goldberg says Bustle will pay its writers from the beginning and there’s no mention of user submitted content, but what that means in practice is a $100/day rate for three days a week minimum of work (according to a now-deleted job posting for the site), a gig that would generate $24,000 in annual pre-tax income if the well-educated smart experienced writers Goldberg claims to be hiring work five days a week.

As for Goldberg’s charge that the backlash is a function of the fact that he’s a man addressing a market for women, that’s just stupid. As someone who launched and ran a successful website whose audience was 92% male (Dealbreaker.com), I have no problem with publishers who want to publish for the opposite gender, and some of the best male editors I know cut their teeth at women’s mags.

Publishing for the opposite gender can easily be done, assuming the publisher fully understands the market, both on the audience side and on the advertising side. And Goldberg also aptly demonstrated that he understands neither.

I do not think this is a function of Goldberg being incapable of understanding; I think he is engaging in what I like to call Lazy Entrepreneur Solipsism. It goes something like this:

I, entrepreneur, have never heard of a product like the one I am producing (largely because I did no research, which I don’t need to do, because if there were such a product, surely I would already know about it!), therefore said product must not exist. And I do not personally know anyone addressing this market, therefore this market must be new and fundamentally under-served!

It should be noted that Lazy Entrepreneur Solipsism is a close cousin to Venture Investor Market Viability Irrationality, which dictates that an investor make a funding decision based on whether his wife or kid likes the product. A sample size of one is fine as long as they’re related to me, and I will then extrapolate an entire market from that very special one-person sample. So I’m guessing someone’s wife or kid liked the idea of Bustle.

As an ex-entrepreneur (and probably future one as well) I find that sort of casual ignorance of audience and market appalling. If you’re going to start a business, it is your job to understand your audience and to understand the economics of that business. And if you don’t understand that Vogue’s audience online is a small as it is because the company does not generate the bulk of its revenue from lower margin digital sales and has little cultural incentive to do so, then you have not done your homework. And if you think that Jezebel’s audience tops out at five million a month and that this is both the owner’s intention and its fate, then you have not done your homework. And if you seriously cannot tell the difference between mascara and eyeliner, then that’s not a homework problem — you’re just an idiot.

But Goldberg’s biggest problem isn’t that he went about his funding announcement in the most boneheaded way possible; it’s that the product isn’t very good. And bad product is a far bigger problem than bad funding announcement.

Looking at Bustle, it’s manifestly clear that Goldberg hasn’t spent any real time digging into the existing publications in the space. It’s duplicative of much of the low-end women’s content and aggregation that’s already out there; there’s no premium on originality and it reads as if it’s written for people with grade school levels of literacy, which directly contradicts Goldberg’s repeated assertions that the site would have smart writing. (Or perhaps Goldberg thinks that a “smart” woman is one with a room-temperature IQ.) Sample headlines: “Here’s Why Your Ex Shows Up In Your Facebook Feed,” “Bachelor Star Gia Reportedly On Life Support,” and — obligatory seriousness — “Israel and Palestine Resume Peace Negotiations.” All aggregation, by the way.

This isn’t surprising because, as Goldberg says himself, he believes it’s not his job to “know the difference between mascara, eyeliner and concealer.” God forbid he understand the things the audience cares about while attempting to produce a publication for that same audience. It says something about his condescension towards women’s media that he thinks he doesn’t have to learn those things. In what other scenario would that be acceptable? Would any entrepreneur be able to get funding for a site about business in China and unequivocally state that he knew nothing about Chinese culture or business regulations in Beijing and still get funding? No. But Goldberg gets funding because these investors figure anyone can start a women’s site, because how hard is it to figure out what women want? Obviously, they want stories about obscure, confusing lady products like mascarliner and eyecealer.

But this doesn’t mean that I think there’s no hope for the thing, even with its terrible name that harkens back to the Victorian era when women were for the most part treated as sub-human half-persons, property of their husbands and fathers. But for fuck’s sake, Goldberg, read some goddamned women’s sites. Talk to some advertisers who actually target women. Talk to some women! Try to produce one piece of content that is original and compelling and doesn’t make me feel like your writer is talking to me like I might have hit my head when I was a kid. And don’t make it about the subtle differences between mascara and eyeliner and think that linking it next to a Cliff Notes version of an AP story about Egypt telegraphs that you understand that women read the news, too.

The only way that will ever work is if you HuffPo the thing and deluge the Internet with a tsunami of mediocre content that is so voluminous that it cannot be ignored, at least by search engines. Which, to be fair, is sort of what you did with Bleacher Report. But it does not make for a smart, engaging women’s site that gives a female audience what they want in a way that is new and innovative and appealing to advertisers.

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