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Featured Alumni

November 2008

Michael Masnick '97, MBA '98: Creating engaging, insightful conversations online

Michael Masnick '97, MBA '98

Michael Masnick is founder, president, and CEO of Techdirt, an award-winning technology and business analysis blog, and of Floor 64, a company that provides customized business and trend analysis for individual companies, and is run by a world-class team of analysts and technologists (all Cornell graduates, by the way).

Back when blogs were new, the very concept little older than a gleam in the eyes of the most dedicated and imaginative techies, Mike Masnick was riveted by the possibilities such a forum could offer.

"I first saw Slashdot, one of the very first 'blogs,' in 1997, and I thought it was such a fantastic way to communicate and discuss ideas," says Masnick. "I couldn't resist doing something similar, though at the time it was difficult, because (unlike today) there was no easy way to set up a blog. It actually took about six months, and a lot of hard effort to get the blog working properly." And so Techdirt, the blog, was born. It was the logical extension of the e-newsletter Masnick had already started while a student at the Johnson School.

"Online sites that rely on display advertising as their sole source of revenue are going to find that to be much more difficult going forward. ... Advertising budgets can be put to much better use by creating engaging, insightful conversations, rather than just pushing brand marketing."

"The idea [for Techdirt] has changed and evolved quite a bit over time, but the focus has always been on trying to provide business insight in one form or another," Masnick says. "It started as a fun hobby, as an email newsletter that I did in my spare time. And then became a business, but with very different product lines. The history of the company has always been about staying flexible to provide better insight through the use of community and technology."

Providing customized, industry-specific business research and trend analysis to clients was the next logical extension for Techdirt, and the beginning of Floor 64. "As the blog gained attention it became evident there was a growing need for individual companies to have access to the same type of analysis and insight that was being offered for a general market on the Techdirt blog," reads Floor 64's Web site. "Thus the company was born and with an expanded team of analysts began to provide corporate blogs of customized business and trend analysis for individual companies such as Volkswagen, Sprint, SAP and Nuance."

Techdirt's blog has long generated numerous thoughtful and well-considered responses from knowledgeable readers. It made sense to tap into that expertise and share industry-specific insights with clients. So, in 2006, Techdirt established the Insight Community, described on its Web site as "a powerful, new marketplace, that meets the ever-growing demand by companies needing to generate intelligent, relevant content. We added in an assurance of quality conversation by fostering a sense of professional competition and rewarding the most on-target and well-communicated contributions for every case."

Floor 64's clients are wide-ranging, from huge multinational companies including Volkswagen, SAP, American Express, Sprint, Dell, Dow Jones, and Cadbury Schweppes, to smaller firms and even startups like Jajah, MyWaves, Flurry and LetsTalk. "Our target client is basically any company that needs insights," Masnick says. "Our sales efforts are more focused towards larger, Fortune 500 type clients, but we have plenty of options for smaller firms as well. Basically, we think we can help any company that thinks it can more efficiently spend its advertising, marketing, development, or strategy budgets."

Masnick's management team
Masnick's management team, made up entirely of Cornell graduates, has been instrumental in developing Techdirt over the years. Left to right: Michael Ho '97, executive director, research; Michael Costanza '93, MEng '95, executive director, technology; Michael Masnick '97, MBA '98, president and CEO; and Dennis Yang '97, vice president, product development

Below, Masnick talks about the work environment at Floor 64, describes a typical work day, and challenges facing web-based industry.

Q. Tell me about the work culture of Techdirt what's it like, working there?

Masnick: Since we're focused on generating insight from our community, we certainly try to live by the concept of getting everyone at the company to work together. We all have our defined roles, but we do plenty of things as a group (or in subgroups), where we quickly like to get feedback from each other, bouncing ideas off of each other, making a decision, and moving forward. I try to encourage a culture of intellectual curiosity, so even if something isn't your job, I hope that people step up and ask questions if something doesn't make sense or if they have some thoughts and ideas.

While we do have an office space, we encourage everyone to work from where they're comfortable, meaning that many members of the team are likely to work from home most of the time, other than when we have an all-hands meeting in person. So, we're all pretty adept at multimodal communications, jumping back and forth between instant messaging, email, phone and other methods of communication as suits the need.

Q. What is a typical day like for you at Techdirt?

Judging from the times and dates on your posts, it appears that you stay up all night and all day reading and commenting on everything from Germanys Internet copyright law to lie detectors for politicians' debates. Do you ever sleep?

Masnick: In general, my day works as follows: in the morning, I'll check to see if there was any major news that deserves posts to Techdirt. If so, I'll write them up, and submit them for review by our staff for posting to the site. Then I try to focus on actual Floor64/Insight Community business for most of the day. That can mean a variety of things, including attending sales meetings, working with existing customers, working with partners, attending board meetings, reviewing progress on new initiatives, interviewing potential employees, talking to the press, speaking at conferences or attending staff meetings (either one-on-one meetings with employees, or meetings covering sales, product development or our weekly all-hands meeting).

During any free time, I may check the news again to see if anything major broke during the day, and will post a story here or there as time permits, leaving aside other stories to write up later in the day. I then generally use early evening to do some writing. Then after spending the evening with my family, I'll probably do some more writing, catch up on emails at night before going to sleep (the time of which depends on how much I need to catch up on). The fact that I'm sending this at only 11:30 pm suggests I'm actually in pretty good shape tonight.

Q. What keeps you going?

Masnick: What keeps me going is the conversations [the blog] leads to. It's just a fantastic platform for easily expressing ideas and encouraging a conversation.

Q. What's the most compelling aspect of your job? The most frustrating?

Masnick: The most compelling is interacting with some of the smartest people in the world. The most frustrating is that there's not enough time in the day.

Q. What key issues are affecting your industry today? How is it changing?

Masnick: If you want to discuss the overall web-based industry ... our business model is very much based on the fundamental economics we write about (which I learned at Cornell, thank you very much). Online sites that rely on display advertising as their sole source of revenue are going to find that to be much more difficult going forward. We've never been focused on advertising as a revenue stream, but with our latest Insight Community efforts, believe that advertising budgets can be put to much better use by creating engaging, insightful conversations, rather than just pushing brand marketing.