Cross-posted from the Other Valleys:
The best way to communicate ideas is to tell a story. The most interesting storytelling format these days is without doubt the podcast, which was elevated to new heights by the first series of the quite aptly named Serial a couple of years ago.
One of the newest podcasts to hit the waves is Masters of Scale, an audio series with LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partner Reid Hoffman, no stranger to the startup/VC world. In it, he talks to successful entrepreneurs from companies like Facebook, Airbnb, Minted and Walker & Company to test his theories of success. What makes a business a rocketship, or more crucially, one that truly has impact in the world? It is published by WaitWhat, itself a new content company founded by two veterans from TED, June Cohen and Deron Triff – the two were responsible for creating and growing TED.com, the TED Open Translation Project, TED Radio Hour on NPR and TED in Cinema, amongst others.
I had the chance to ask June and Deron a few questions recently, to learn more about Masters of Scale. Here’s what they said – I hope you enjoy reading their responses as much as I did!
Both of you had long careers at TED before setting up WaitWhat. What is WaitWhat’s unique take on content in today’s world – how do you think you can make a difference in the deluge of content out there?
Our approach is really different from most media companies. The first is in the way we target our audience. We don’t tend to think a lot about demographics; instead we focus on how we want people to feel. We want everyone who takes in one of our programs to have a “wait, what?” moment — where they feel lit up and alive, filled with curiosity and wonder and awe. This is the kind of reaction that helps people realize their potential, and it also makes them want to share the content. Curiosity, awe, wonder — these are contagious emotions that make you want to share with other people.
We’re also different in how we think about format. Most media companies specialize in a single format – audio, video, written word — and then work to drive traffic to their own website / app / content. But we’re format and platform agnostic. As a content incubator, we’ll launch numerous media properties over the years ahead, and for each one, we’ll choose the format that’s best suited to the content, and then extend from there. Masters of Scale launched as a podcast, but will extend into other formats (short-form video, live events etc) over time.
Masters of Scale is the first ‘product’, so to speak, from the WaitWhat fold. I love the idea of Reid Hoffman testing his theories of success during the show. You describe it as a ‘music-infused detective story’. How did you come up with the idea of fusing those two genres in one show?
We’re passionate about creating new genres. So in everything we create, we think about how we can extend the formulas that others have created. Here, we wanted to create a program that surprised our listeners. From our days with TED Radio Hour, we became fascinated with the role of sound and music. We wondered what might happen to an ideas program if it were set to an original score, the way an independent documentary might be. Why shouldn’t an audio program surprise and delight you?
One of the things we love most about Masters of Scale is that the music — which is brilliantly composed for each episode by the Holladay brothers — is like a character in the show. A very surprising character!
Among other things, I’m a co-founder of Ada’s List, a global community for women in tech, and I was especially glad to hear that you’ve committed to a 50-50 gender balance for guests on the show. Why do you think that this has not been a big enough issue in American media so far?
We were genuinely shocked to realize that we were the first American media program to publicly commit to a 50/50 gender balance. To us, the benefits of balance are so clear, and the importance of a commitment is too. What we’re finding is that there is absolutely no shortage of extraordinary women business leaders to interview. We have a list 100-women long. They’re simply less recognizable than the male leaders, because they aren’t approached as much, and don’t put themselves out there. If you set a 50/50 commitment, it’s not a problem to fill the spots. But if you DON’T set a 50/50 commitment, your program will just naturally fill up with men, because they’re better known and more often recommended.
What was Reid Hoffman’s reaction when you pitched the show to him? How did that happen?
He loved it because we tailored it exactly to him. Reid is a natural mentor and teacher. He had wanted to become a philosophy professor; he gets great pleasure from sharing knowledge and he is SO DELIGHTFUL when he does it. He devotes a lot of his energy and time to mentoring others, and especially sharing his theories on how companies scale. So the idea of sharing his ideas on scale in a way that could, well, scale — was appealing.
Why did you decide on a podcast series for your first production, compared to other content formats?
We were drawn to audio, because there’s a renaissance happening in podcasting right now. The extraordinary work that’s come out of the public radio world in recent years — This American Life, RadioLab, Ask Me Another, Planet Money — is being pushed in all new directions, now that there are other players — Gimlet, Wondery, Panoply, Audible— innovating in the space. We’re obsessed with podcasts! We love Ponzi Supernova and Where Shall We Begin (which we helped originate) from Audible; we love Reply All and Heavyweight from Gimlet; we loved The Message; we loved Serial and of course S-Town. That just scratches the surface.
If you are plugged into the cultural zeitgeist, you have to be listening to podcasts right now.
What can we expect from the next few episodes of Masters of Scale? How long will it run?
You can expect to hear Netflix’s Reed Hastings reflect on the pillars of building a successful company culture. You can hear the extraordinary Nancy Lublin of Crisis Text Line prove to you that scale leaders aren’t only in for-profit companies (they run not-for-profits too). And you’ll hear Linda Rottenberg of Endeavor muse with Reid over what city in the world just might become the next Silicon Valley.
What’s next for WaitWhat?
We have some exciting projects in the pipeline that are currently in stealth mode… stay tuned!!
The first few episodes of Masters of Scale are now online:
Episode 1: “In order to scale you have to do things that don’t scale.” With Brian Chesky from Airbnb.
Episode 2: “Always raise more money than you think you need.” With Mariam Naficy of Minted
Episode 3: “The best business ideas often seem laughable at first glance.” With Tristan Walker of Walker & Company
Episode 4: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released it too late”. With Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
Episode 5: With Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.