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Episode 91 November 14, 2017 | 41min

A Conversation with Matt Lieber

Paul and Rich talk to the co-founder of the podcasting studio Gimlet Media.

Show Notes

From the front lines of the podcast boom: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Matt Lieber, co-founder of Gimlet Media, one of the most successful podcast studios in the industry. Topics covered include the company’s origin (and the podcast that chronicled its founding), how Gimlet recruits and trains its editors, the trajectory of the medium, why you shouldn’t play favorites amongst your employees, and how Matt has been re-cast as a sleazy door-to-door salesman in an upcoming ABC comedy produced, directed by, and starring Zach Braff.

Paul Ford: Hi, you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford. I am the co-host of Track Changes and the co-founder of Postlight.

Matt Lieber: What is Postlight, Paul?

Paul: [laughter] Aw yes!

Rich Ziade: Damn, he came right in.

Paul: I know. Postlight is a digital product studio. That means that if you’re holding something in your hand, like an app, or you’re looking at a big platform, or doing something, your bank, those are the sorts of things we like to build here at 101 Fifth Avenue.

Rich: Yeah, I just wanna highlight: we don’t play games. We’ve been competing against other shops that build these bullshit WordPress sites. We’re at a next-level type of thing.

Paul: Rich saw some PR that made him angry.

Rich: Ahhh, there’s such nonsense out there. There’s a…I’m not gonna start naming names.

Paul: All right, we’re already off the rails. This is an awkward, um…interview because the person on the other side of the table is a serious podcasting impresario named Matt, or Matthew Lieber, I don’t know which you like for professional purposes.

Matt: Matt’s fine.

Paul: Matt. All right.

Rich: We didn’t finish saying who we are. We build stuff. We build platforms and apps, like full-blown serious apps, design, build, deploy. We kill it.

Matt: Big and beautiful.

Rich: Big and beautiful.

Paul: Aw, that’s good. That’s good.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So, um, we should give a little background as to how we all know each other. Which is that, I think I came in at one point to help out at Gimlet, because somebody was in a pickle, namely “Reply All,” and um…I met you and you are the co-founder, right, of, of Gimlet. Why don’t you tell us what Gimlet is.

Matt: Gimlet’s a podcast company behind shows like “Reply All,” “StartUp,” “Crimetown,” “Homecoming,” and a number of others.

Paul: And it’s, uh, it’s a hot player in the growing podcast space.

Rich: Has anyone ever called you “the Netflix of podcasts”?

Matt: Very early on when we first started the company, someone was like, “Well what you should really become is the Netflix of podcasts.”

Rich: OK.

Matt: Because Netflix is worth, you know…seven bajillion dollars.

Paul: Yeah, it’s, you want that.

Matt: And you want to be that, as opposed to the…

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: The MTV of podcasts, which is not worth seven bajillion dollars.

Rich: Or the Sundance Channel of podcasts, that’s also not what you aim for, Paul.

Paul: So you have a co-founder. What is your co-founder’s name?

Matt: I started the company with Alex Blumberg.

Paul: Right. And so he was making a podcast, right?

Matt: Yes. He made a show called “StartUp,” which is, which was the story of Gimlet. The thing that we did was when we started the company, Alex had the brilliant idea that when you start a company, it’s actually a very dramatic story.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And there, it’s very high-stakes, because for both of us, we’re quitting our jobs, we had families, we had rent to pay, and we were taking the leap into the unknown. And tried to convince, you know, our friends and family that we should, you know, we had this vision for a kind of company that hadn’t existed before, and when you try to convince everyone about your company and how great it’s gonna be, they think you’re insane.

Paul: Right.

Matt: Because it’s not real.

Paul: Well they’re very indulgent, they’re like, “Aw, it’s so great that you have a vision, but — “ And then, when it gets down to brass tacks, it’s not as pleasant.

Matt: Right.

Rich: Well, it’s hard. It’s always hard.

Paul: So we got to hear, in the early days of Gimlet, we got to hear on “StartUp,” things like you negotiating for the stake that you would have in the company with Alex.

Rich: Whoa.

Matt: Yes.

Paul: Oh, it’s, it’s a grisly piece of audio, because I think, he offers you, like, a pittance. It’s not great.

Matt: Yeah, like I think it was…I think he offered me, like, 10% or something. But then he said that someone he had talked to who was a very legitimate startup person, a founder, said that he should offer me 3%, which is why the 10 was actually very generous.

Paul: Yeah, and you weren’t buying it.

Matt: No, I was not buying it. I was not gonna give up my job for 10% of something that didn’t exist. [laughter] But we did, we reco — early in the company, we recorded everything. We recorded our pitches to investors, we recorded our equity negotiation, then we went home to our wives and we recorded those conversations and put that all into this show.

And it turned out that you know, as we went on and star — and it became this kind of juggernaut, so within, you know, a month of launching the company, we had, you know, 10s or 100,000s of people following us in real time as we were, you know, doing things like trying to hire our first employees, trying to name the company, um, launching our first show, and it turned out that the moments in the show that were most, most brutal, most emotionally honest, and actually mortifying, were the things that made people most want to follow us.

Paul: Sure. Of course.

Matt: And believe in us.

Rich: Makes sense.

Paul: And it was also, I think it was a real education, especially, you guys were coming from media. You, a little bit less. What was your background before?

Matt: I, I spent about a decade at National Public Radio, MTV Radio, I was a radio person.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Like, I, I ran my college radio station.

Paul: I can hear it in your voice.

Matt: I grew up listening to, you know, all kinds of…anything I could, honestly.

Paul: But then you went and were like, “I gotta make some money.”

Matt: I realized at some point that yeah, radio wasn’t gonna deliver me to the promised land.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And so I swerved off into business. I did an MBA. Not a very cool degree these days, but I did that, and then I spent a few years as a management consultant.

Paul: See, I love MBAs. I think MBAs are very cool degrees.

Rich: Paul’s a fan.

Paul: Because you can say, like, “Hey can we model this out?” And then the MBA person —

Rich: You don’t even know what that means.

Paul: It doesn’t matter! They’re gonna come back with, the whole point is of course I don’t know what that means.

Rich: Right. They’re gonna do it. That’s what they do.

Paul: And you’re like, “What’s XR57?” And they’re like, “Oh, well that’s obv-blrgh blgh blah blah blah,” and you’re like, “Oh, well, we gotta do it!”

Matt: Yeah.

Rich: Oh, you’re such the creative type, Paul.

Paul: That’s how business works. [laughter]

Matt: Very, very can-do kind of people.

Paul: Exactly. It’s how business works, it’s great.

Rich: Where’d you go to school?

Matt: MIT.

Rich: For MBA?

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: Oh, so —

Rich: That’s interesting.

Paul: Which is Sloane, right?

Matt: MIT Sloane, yes.

Paul: Yeah. Nice program.

Matt: Yeah!

Paul: Good, that’s great. All right —

Rich: So you come out.

Matt: So I came out. I spent a few years at Boston Consulting Group, which is, like, you know, a giant global consultancy.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: Oh yeah, they’re fun. Fun guys.

Matt: Yes. I only spent two years there, which is the perfect amount of time to spend in, like, a high-pressure, high-octane strategy consulting firm where you just, you know, you work a lot.

Paul: All right, so you got out of there, and then what were you doing?

Matt: I didn’t, I mean, I was, like, um…I was coming up on a couple years there. I’d learned a ton, because those are really high-learning learning environments. And then I started telling, I sort of was listening to a lot of podcasts.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: This was three, three and a half years ago.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: I was listening on my commute. I was listening…and I was realizing that there was a new medium that was, like, being born in front of my ears, and so people would be asking me, like, “Oh, you’re coming up on your two years, that’s usually where you, like, decide to double down and give your life to the firm, or you decide to go leave and do something else.”

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And it’s the kind of environment where it’s totally OK to talk about how you’re gonna leave and what you’re gonna do next, because the model at those places is, like, most people leave.

Paul: Yeah. And they’re happy —

Matt: And it’s very open —

Paul: Nice alumni network, right?

Matt: When you leave, you’re an alumni.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: They also kind of churn through you, right?

Matt: Yes, both.

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: And they chur — yes. So people would say, “Well what do you want to do?” And I would say, what I said I really wanted to do was go back to audio, because that was my first love, and now I had all of these business tools that I could somehow bring back to that world, and they’d say, “Oh, do you want to run a radio station?” And I’d be like… [laughter]

Paul: [high-pitched non-committal noise] Eh…..

Matt: [high-pitched non-committal noise] Welllll…… [laughter] Not really that exciting. And so I said, what would be really cool is to start, like, a, to start a new kind of company for this new kind of medium, and I was like, I think there’s really a business you could build here, and I told enough people that that someone was finally like, “Oh, you should meet this other guy, because he’s saying the same thing,” and that was Alex, who then became my partner.

Rich: Oh, so you didn’t know Alex before all of this.

Matt: I did not know — I knew of him.

Rich: This is an introduction.

Matt: Yeah, it was an introduction. I knew of him because I had listened to “This American Life” and “Planet Money.” Alex is, like, you know, he’s a master storyteller. He’s like…I call him the Steven Spielberg of podcasts, because he really is one of the best people in the world at what he does.

Paul: He has that reputation, too, like if you talk to people from the world of public radio, they’re like, “Oh yeah, that guy. He’s one of those…”

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: Like there’s a few, just, master lizard storytellers.

Matt: Yes.

Paul: And so, yeah, in the podcast you can sort of hear it from his point of view, like he discovers you, and he’s like, “Who’s this money guy?” And…it goes from there.

Rich: So that’s a power…power couple. Power couple’s not really what I’m implying here, but…power…I mean, you got the business side. He’s got the content side. Was that the thinking?

Paul: Well, they both have a little of each, right?

Rich: Well, yeah.

Matt: Yeah, but I don’t really play a content role. I am, like, I’m not, that’s not what I’m really good at. But yes, it was, it’s a really good partnership. And it’s unconventional that, I always…whenever someone asks me for advice about, like, “Well, should I start a company?” The first thing I say is, “Don’t do it alone.” Because it’s just too hard.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And it’s too much of an emotional wreckage scene. You kind of need someone else to, like, trudge through the wreckage with you. And the, I think, typically, it’s generally a better idea to start a company with someone you already know, that you’ve been through some experiences with, and you’ve seen how they perform under pressure.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And — but we did not know each other, and we did anyway, and it’s turned out pretty good.

Paul: Well you got along pretty well, early days.

Matt: Yeah. We get along pretty well.

Paul: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we did that. We knew each other for a long time.

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: How’d you guys know each other.

Rich: Introduction.

Paul: Yeah, I was an advisor to one of Rich’s companies, and I think I told you, like, within about 10 minutes of meeting him, I was like, “You’re completely crazy, it’s a bad idea.”

Rich: Yeah. [laughter]

Paul: And, you know, that was, you perked up. You were like, “Oh, all right.”

Rich: Thank you.

Paul: This guy is gonna at least speak his mind, and then four years later we started Postlight. Thereabouts.

Rich: Thereabouts.

Paul: All right, so how, tell the people about Gimlet today. Gimlet’s a big deal.

Rich: Well how many are you now?

Matt: We now have about 90 people.

Paul: Phew!

Matt: In Brooklyn, which is our headquarters.

Rich: Where are you — when we first visited Gimlet, it was in —

Paul: That’s true, we —

Rich: An abandoned warehouse —

Matt: Yes.

Rich: With rats.

Paul: So wait, let’s actually give some background there. Because like, when we were just getting going, we just sort of called everybody we vaguely knew… [laughter] And I was like, “Oh, you know, I have had some good conversations over at Gimlet.”

Rich: Gimlet needs a platform! [laughter]

Paul: They’re gonna need a platform, let’s go talk to them. So you graciously took a meeting, and you’re —

Rich: Took us to the roof. [laughter]

Paul: In an environment where there’s literally just, like, water pouring down the stairs, like, you were making it work.

Rich: It was unreal.

Matt: That’s right. So we were in an old warehouse. It was an old bank building. And it had evolved from, like, it was a squat, and then it was, like, an artists’ commune, and then, and then we moved in there, but that’s right, there was a hole in the roof, so when it rained, water would come flowing down the walls.

Paul: There was also another thing, which is something with, um, rock tumbling equipment in the office, which is bad in a podcast studio, it’s literally rocks rolling around in, like, a metal tub.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: And they would turn that on from time to time.

Matt: Yeah. Well there was one person who had a desk, because it was kind of a co-working space, so there was a person who had a desk there but never worked there, and when this person wasn’t there, they would tumble rocks. [laughter] Because they weren’t there, so it wasn’t annoying to them.

Paul: You know, I grew up in a mineralogical household, some people might not know, but that’s how you smooth rocks out.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: If you wanna get a nice surface on your minerals, you put some grit in there.

Matt: It’s not a bad metaphor for, for, like, starting a company, actually.

Paul: No, you —

Rich: No, that’s clever.

Paul: Just roll it over and over until everything is smooth. [laughter] And you forget that it was rough and terrible and hurt.

Rich: Well you get to tell that story now, now that you’re sort of turning a corner, you get to talk about how you start, like, nobody wants to start a company in, like, shiny glistening offices.

Matt: No!

Rich: It’s supposed to be kind of shitty.

Matt: That’s what we love — that’s what I always loved about it, was the fact that it —

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: Was so — it was so helter-skelter. It was like going into a yard sale in Maine and looking for the one gem of an object. But that’s the kind of place where creative things can happen. Whereas I always find when I go into WeWork, I find it to be not a kind of place where creative things can get invented, because it’s so regimented and echoey and —

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: You have only a little space, and there’s no room for surprise.

Rich: They’re cookie-cutter, right? There are just more and more WeWork — like, WeWork, to me, dominates the space, not the startups. [laughter] It’s —

Paul: Sure, and they’re not about, it’s not a space around risk, right? It’s around, like, I’m going to get a professional-enough office that I’m gonna be a —

Rich: Take a meeting.

Paul: I can be a professional professional.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: OK, so it was chaos. Now it’s 90. You went and got funding.

Matt: Yup.

Paul: You’ve got money. You’ve got how many podcasts?

Matt: We have about 12 podcasts now.

Paul: Some of them are pretty…pretty big.

Matt: Yeah! Some of them are big, have millions of people listening to them.

Paul: Goodness. What’s your favorite? [laughter]

Rich: Don’t do that. [laughter]

Matt: I don’t have a favorite. I mean, I do love them all. I got, I actually got, I got reprimanded recently because I posted an Instagram photo of one of the teams.

Paul: Oh, really?

Matt: And then someone on my team was like, “Hey, you can’t do that, because then everyone’s gonna think that they’re your favorite, and they’re gonna feel…”

Rich: Left out.

Matt: Left out. And I was like, “No, you’re — “ Oh yeah, sorry, the other thing is, I posted it and it was 10 P.M. and I said, “Hardest working team in podcasts.”

Rich: Oh, that’s strong.

Paul: Ohhhhhhhhhhh.

Matt: Terrible. It was terrible. It was the worst —

Rich: Guy goes to MIT, gets his MBA, and he pulls that off.

Matt: Such a dumbass.

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: And so I was like, “Yeah, that was bad,” and then, and then a month later I was talking to one of the other teams, a show that I love, and they were like, “Yeah, that made us feel really badly.”

Paul: Right! Right! No, no, no, this happens. I, um…I, I have to be careful, I’m learning that irony doesn’t scale at all throughout the organization. We’re not as big as you are, but we have enough people and enough sort of layers here that when I say something, I don’t know, like, you know, if I joke about sales, or something like that, people can take it very seriously. They can be like, “Oh, Paul doesn’t like his job.”

Matt: Correct.

Paul: And you gotta be really careful with that. And it’s a completely sensible thing. People are watching and going, like, “How are things going here?”

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: And they’ll read deeply into any signal, and it’s just, you’re just running around, like, taking pictures with your camera.

Matt: Right.

Rich: Well, you reluctantly own the whole context.

Matt: Yup.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: It’s…that’s it.

Matt: And it becomes harder to be yourself.

Rich: Ohhhhh without a doubt, without a doubt.

Matt: And to be able to relate to people, to use a weird word, in an authentic way, the larger you get.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: So how, how…how are you learning to deal with that?

Matt: Uh…well, Alex and I go to a coach.

Paul: OK.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: What does the coach tell you?

Matt: It’s less about, it’s less telling you and more asking you questions.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: It’s a little bit like…yeah, expertise mixed with therapy.

Paul: Would you recommend that?

Matt: Yes.

Paul: Really?

Matt: Yeah.

Rich: We…we talked to a potential coach, and then we sent him home.

Paul: We were a little price-sensitive.

Rich: No, I don’t think that was why. [laughter]

Paul: It was part of it.

Matt: They can be expensive. But if you can make — if you can afford it, and you can make the time, and you find someone who’s a fit, then all you have to believe, really, is that they’ll help you make one or two really, like, do a better job in one or two big decisions or big moments, to believe that they can, that it’s worth it.

Paul: When you talk to the coach, is it about your dynamic with your co-founder, or about your dynamic with the company?

Matt: Both.

Paul: OK.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: It’s…maybe we should do it.

Rich: Let’s call him back.

Paul: Ah, well, we’ll poke around. We’ll think about this for a minute. But yeah, I mean…

Rich: I mean, what the hell do we know, dude?

Paul: [bleak whisper] I don’t know.

Rich: It’s pretty bad.

Paul: All right, so getting to 90 from what were you, like three? Two?

Matt: We were two.

Rich: Well, you’re starting, yeah.

Paul: But two to 90 in four years in —

Matt: Three years.

Paul: Three years, in an incredibly talent-constrained —

Matt: Mmmmm.

Paul: Environment, I think people, this is something I noticed. Somebody once, from one of the larger podcast organizations called me up for a reference, an editor I’d worked with. And I’ve been in and out of this world for a while, and I was like, “Yeah, you wanna get a guy out of print and put him into podcasting — he’s gonna have a hard time. Like, a lot of these guys started, you know, at, men and women, started at, like, NPR 20 years ago, and they’re part of a very specific culture, and if you drop them into Planet Podcast, they’re gonna be very, like, ‘Mrgh.’ You know, they’re gonna be confused.” And they were like, “Yeah, we can’t, we actually, there’s nobody to hire from podcasting anymore. We’ve had to resort to print.” [laughter] Not quite in those words, but maybe that’s how I heard it, as, like, a print person?

But it fascinated me, because there’s this myth of, like, incredible talent glut where you can just go out and get all the editors and writers and producers and people you’d ever need to get anything done. We hear it a lot, because, like, a corporation will be like, “We need content. We can go get editors. They’re free.” Because they’ve heard that media’s in trouble. But the talent’s not there. So what do you do, at this point. You’ve poached, you know, a lot of people come from WNYC, or uh, “This American Life.” How do you build and develop new talent now?

Matt: That’s something, that is….that is a big priority for us. That’s one of the reasons we raised money, was to be able to invest in training and development and build an actual, like, academy, for lack of a better term.

Paul: Are you gonna build podcasting college?

Matt: Well podcasting college doesn’t exist, right? Like if you want to, if you want to make a television commercial, or a film, or even if you want to have someone, like, write for you, there are colleges and universities. There are film schools, and there’s a whole ecosystem of agencies that have existed that do video and TV and all this other — there has never been that for, um, like, narrative audio.

Paul: Right, because you just went to one of — your closest possible NPR affiliate, right? And just got to work.

Matt: Right. Yeah. And then you learned through apprenticeship. So a lot of people —

Paul: And also, culturally, you just never left. Like, if you look at somebody from that world, they might have been there 22 years. It’s very normal to never leave an NPR —

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: That planet. OK.

Matt: And um…so I would say, to date, yeah, we’ve hired from the existing organizations that you mentioned, and we teach people through apprenticeship, and we have, we do have a curriculum of sorts, here’s the things you need to learn. We do something called the radio class, where we bring out, we bring in people from outside the organization who are, you know, really good at what they do. Actually, you came in and did a radio class.

Paul: I did, it was early days —

Matt: It was early.

Paul: I don’t know if it was even called a radio class, it was just like, “People Show Up” was the name of it.

Matt: Right. Yes. But like, you know, Ira Glass came and did a radio class, and John Hodgeman…

Paul: I was —

Matt: Came in and did a radio class.

Paul: I was better than both of them, but OK.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: Let’s say I go to radio class, and I start to get a little better, and I start to learn my stuff. What’s my next step? Am I on a podcast? Can I pitch you a podcast? What do I do?

Matt: Oh, well you’ll be producing on a show. So we’ll, what we’ll try to do is match you with a producer who’s more experienced who you can learn from in an environment where you’re producing the show every, you know, week.

Paul: OK, so I’m coming in every day. What’s a producer do?

Matt: That’s a great question. I think a producer can mean a lot of different things in different environments. It’s a mix of journalism and reporting, editing, stage management, because ultimately you’re putting on a show.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Um…you know, pulling people in, booking them, writing scripts, thinking about what a story should sound and feel like. It’s, it’s, it’s all those things.

Rich: It sounds like, you know, I mean, this makes me think of, as you’re describing it, I’ve seen television shows and they list off literally 11 executive producers and producers. [laughter] It cracks me up.

Matt: Well executive producer, I think, in television, can mean anything, and I know this because I’m now an executive producer on a television show that I have really nothing to do with.

Rich: Really? What show is this?

Matt: Well so one of the things that surprised, that has happened at Gimlet that we did not expect was that because we’re developing characters and worlds and stories that work in audio that can also work in other media, so we now have a couple TV shows that are going forward based on our podcasts, and in fact, there’s one based on “StartUp,” so “StartUp” is gonna become an ABC comedy starring Zach Braff. It’s called “Alex, Inc.”

Paul: OK wait, I heard of this. So Zach is playing Alex?

Matt: Yes.

Paul: Who’s playing you?

Matt: My character is played by —

Rich: Wait! Let us guess. Alexander Skarsgård.

Matt: [laughter] No.

Paul: I don’t have a guess.

Rich: C’mon.

Paul: I don’t…I…I don’t…

Rich: Val Kilmer.

Paul: Who’s playing you.

Matt: Michael Imperioli.

Paul: Oh, that’s great. That’s good.

Matt: Christopher from The Sopranos.

Paul: Yeah, yeah.

Rich: That’s a good actor.

Matt: But it’s not actually me. So I got re-cast as a sleazy, smarmy —

Paul: Oh really? [laughter]

Matt: Former door-to-door salesman.

Paul: You weren’t dramatic enough? [laughter]

Matt: No, I was too boring.

Rich: OK, so this is loosely based on…type…

Matt: Yeah.

Rich: Of entertainment.

Matt: Yeah.

Rich: That’s really cool. OK, so you, sounds like you sort of leased out the content rather than true exact conversion over to television.

Matt: Yeah, so that one we did, you know, we licensed the intellectual property of that show to become TV, and at that time, our attitude was, we have so much on our hands trying to make this, to make Gimlet work, we don’t want to get distracted by this crazy TV stuff, because it’s never gonna happen anyway, and it’ll just be like a huge, it’ll be like catnip for our attention.

Paul: Right.

Matt: So yeah, sure, we’ll license it, go to town, we don’t want any involvement. So that was in the first, you know, six months, and now we’ve realized that there is a bigger opportunity there, so now we’re more involved. So “Homecoming,” which is a thriller, that was our first scripted series, starring Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac, is now going to television, or going to Amazon, starring Julia Roberts, and that one we’re more involved in.

Rich: Ohhh, gravitational pull is gonna — they’re, they’re out of podcast in five years.

Paul: I don’t know. But the thing with podcasts is that it’s not anywhere near as expensive as television to pull off, so you can play around and learn new things.

Matt: Correct.

Paul: Text is the cheapest, obviously. You can come up with —

Rich: But there’s money, and then you get to be at those round tables at the Golden Globes. [laughter] Do you enjoy it more? Do you enjoy the TV side more than…the podcast side?

Matt: Well I’m not really that involved in it, to be honest.

Paul: Which child do you love the best?

Rich: Oh, OK.

Matt: Yeah.

Rich: So you’ve got a team that’s focusing a little bit on it.

Matt: Yeah, so Eli Horowitz, who created “Homecoming,” who’s a —

Rich: OK.

Matt: You know, a fiction writer and just a brilliant storyteller, created “Homecoming” at Gimlet, and he went with “Homecoming” to television, he’s showrunning it alongside Sam Esmail.

Rich: So there’s a pilot and a pitch and everything, is that how this went down?

Matt: Uh, yes, it was pitched, they didn’t make a pilot, but it was pitched based on the, uh, based on the script.

Paul: Interesting. So the podcast almost serves as a pilot, too, then.

Matt: The podcast becomes, like, a lower-cost piloting process where you can try out ideas and stories and you can be really inventive and experimental, because you’re not spending $100 million on 10 episodes.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Sure.

Matt: And then once you’ve proven the world and the story, then you can, you know, bring it to…you know, higher cost.

Rich: Very cool.

Paul: OK wait, what do you…what do you do all day?

Matt: What do I do all day?

Rich: Depends on the day, Paul.

Paul: That’s the thing, it’s, it’s a 90-person team, that’s different — like, you were running around a lot, the times I saw you a few years ago.

Matt: Right.

Rich: Well let’s preface it: what’s your title?

Matt: I’m the president.

Rich: The president.

Matt: Which is very ambiguous.

Rich: Which is —

Paul: What is…is Alex CEO? Like, what’d you do?

Matt: Alex is CEO. And Alex runs all of the, like, creative —

Paul: Right.

Matt: And editorial, and I run the business, which means sales, ops, finance, HR.

Paul: There’s a certain, we…like, there’s a certain scale you get to where you’re advised to really make that distinction. We’re not there yet, but people have said, like, you know, two co-founders, you kind of get, one’s the president, one’s the CEO.

Rich: Yeah. I mean, the division of labor’s there anyway.

Paul: Right.

Rich: It’s just a matter of whether you formalize it. Like, we focus on different things, and I think that’s generally gonna happen, otherwise you’re gonna kill each other.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm. All right, so you are president.

Matt: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: OK. Come in in the morning.

Matt: Yup.

Paul: Check your emails. Put your pants on, just like any president of a podcasting studio.

Matt: I…spent a bunch of my time for the first half of this year…how do I spend my time? It’s such a good, it’s one of the —

Rich: It’s got to be all over the map.

Matt: Yeah. It —

Rich: It grew fast.

Matt: Right now I’m spending a lot of time recruiting.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: I spent a bunch of time earlier this year raising money.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Now we have the money, so we’re gonna spend it.

Paul: Right.

Matt: So I spend a bunch of my time recruiting, and then spend some of my time in, so if I had to break it down by percentage, I would spend, I would say, right now I probably spend…a third to half of my time recruiting, a quarter of my time on sales, and, you know, dealing with advertisers, and another quarter of my time sort of doing general management. This morning I sent out six emails to other media companies trying to entice them to form a Brooklyn softball league for the year 2018.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Because we started — we started a softball team, and we had, I, we played Brooklyn Brewery last Friday, and it was incredibly fun.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And then I realized we really need to do more of this next year.

Paul: Great. I mean, that’s recruiting, too.

Matt: That’s recruiting.

Rich: And happiness.

Paul: Harper’s Magazine —

Rich: Culture and happiness.

Matt: Oh my God.

Paul: Harper’s Magazine had a softball team and we just used to just get the crap kicked out of us.

Rich: It sounds trivial; this stuff’s important.

Matt: Well that’s what — I actually left that, so we had this game, and we had, like, you know, 25 people from Gimlet turn out, and we had a good solid victory over a team that we weren’t sure we were gonna beat.

Paul: I mean, Brooklyn Brewery, I would imagine, would be pretty serious.

Matt: They, this was their first game, to their credit. [laughter] But yeah, but it really, like, tied people together, and it made them feel like they were on the same team, and it was fun and good camaraderie, and that stuff really matters.

Paul: All right, so out of the 90 people, how many are making podcasts? Going into studios, producing, doing that stuff.

Matt: Uh…I think it’s about 55 to 60.

Paul: OK.

Matt: Are editorial. So either producers, hosts, editors, engineers…

Paul: And then what’s, what are the other ones doing.

Matt: They are doing operations, sales, finance, human resources.

Paul: And the way things make money are ads in the podcasts for Squarespace, let’s say, MailChimp, products like that. And then there’s, there’s some that you do with companies, right? Or is that, did I get that right?

Matt: Yes.

Paul: OK.

Matt: So we also have an agency inside, uh, Gimlet, called Gimlet Creative.

Paul: OK.

Matt: It’s a creative services unit, which means we make, they make all the ads that appear on our shows, because all of our ads are native.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Um, made by us, and then they also make original podcasts for brands, so we make a show for Gatorade featuring the world’s best athletes talking about their failures. We make a —

Rich: Sponsored content.

Matt: Yes. Or branded content.

Rich: Oh, they changed the name?

Matt: Yes. I don’t know. Is there a difference, Paul?

Paul: You know, you go down that path… [laughter] Um…no, it just depends, people…I’ve noticed, in the world, that there are people who do things and people who name things, and you can be successful either way. Naming is the shortest path, right? So somebody was like, “no no, it’s not ‘native’ anymore. It’s not ‘sponsored.’ It’s ‘branded’.”

Rich: It’s a big deal. I think sponsored and branded content…I feel like it took a bit for the comfort level to rise for a lot of these brands, because you don’t want to look like you’re compromising your brand.

Matt: Yeah, that’s right.

Rich: And the font used to be really, really small. [laughter]

Paul: Yeah, everybody got really confused.

Rich: The sponsored content font used to be tiny and kind of grey.

Paul: They were ashamed.

Rich: And it’s gotten a little bigger.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: They were ashamed.

Rich: The comfort level is, I think, coming around. [laughter]

Paul: It’s, you know, “with our partners at X…”

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: “We’re happy to present this…” You know, I mean, TV has locked that down years and years ago, right, “Texaco brings you…”

Rich: Yeah, that used to be the case, right?

Matt: Right.

Paul: All right, so that’s the organization.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: And then, how do, what do I do if I wanna get a podcast on the digital air? Do I come to you? Do I send you an email and go, “Hey Matt, I got this great idea.”

Matt: You mean, if you, you want to pitch a podcast for Gimlet, or you want to pay Gimlet to make a podcast for Postlight.

Paul: I’m assuming if I wanted to pay Gimlet, I’d be like, “Hey I have some money, I’d like to pay you, Matt.”

Rich: “Get over here now.” [laughter]

Paul: “Can we have a call?”

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: And you would send someone nice to help me talk about that, right?

Matt: Yes. Exactly.

Paul: OK, so but what if I want to get my big idea into the world? What do I do?

Matt: You can pitch us.

Paul: OK.

Matt: So we have a whole new show development team, and a, and a…development process that we go through, and typically it is pilot-based, so we will start with, you know, a person with an idea and if we decide to greenlight a pilot, we’ll greenlight a couple episodes. We used to just greenlight one episode.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And then we realized that you can actually make one episode of anything be really great, but that doesn’t say anything about its, its…

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: Ability to be great at episode 10 —

Rich: It’s a special.

Matt: Or episode 100.

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: And so we’ll, we’ll pilot a couple episodes, and we have a team of producers and editors and engineers in-house, sound designers, who will, you know, go through that process.

Paul: So how many would you say — like, how many are, like, currently being developed now.

Matt: We’ve just put a number of them in the world, so the pipeline is, right now, in refill mode. So we have, we have probably…uh…we probably have four to five shows in various stages of development right now.

Rich: So they’re not just — you’re not just throwing stuff against the wall.

Matt: But not all of those will come to life.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Sure.

Matt: Um…no, we don’t throw stuff against the wall. So we, we’re one of the smallest podcast networks, in terms of the number of shows we have, and we are one of the largest in terms of the audience, and that was always the idea, right? The idea was can we make the HBO of podcasts. A brand that signals quality, and that means doing a few things really well, as opposed to, like, trying to roll up the long tail or the middle tail and sell ads against it.

Paul: Sure. Well, and there aren’t too many, like, “a couple people talking in a room,” which is what this podcast is.

Matt: Yes.

Paul: But that’s not what you do.

Matt: We don’t do podcasts like this.

Paul: Yeah. That’s right.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: We made a very, I come out of an edit background, and I thought hard about that, when we started this, I’m like, how, you know, how deep should this corporate podcast go. And then I realized, like, we would lose our minds and become a podcast production company that happened to have a product studio attached to it unless we did this format. Like, this is just — we can come talk to you, send it to our lovely editor Tom, and be on our way.

Matt: Yes. And I’m a huge fan of this podcast, by the way. As you guys know.

Rich: Whoa!

Matt: I’ve listened to every single episode of the show.

Rich: No way!

Matt: Yes!

Paul: [self-critical sigh] There have been —

Rich: That blows our mind.

Paul: There have been some ups and downs, Matt.

Matt: I feel like I know both of your guys, and your relationship. [laughter] Um…I…

Rich: Do you have any sponsored content that you think doesn’t think Gimlet? [laughter]

Paul: Yeah, that’s right. Send it over.

Rich: Glad to…

Paul: We’ll yell at somebody.

Rich: Yeah. Talk about their…well thank you, that’s very nice to hear.

Paul: OK, that’s nice, but what should we be doing better?

Rich: Oh God.

Matt: Uh…no, I’m happy with the podcast.

Paul: OK.

Matt: I think people listen to podcasts for a lot of different reasons.

Paul: Yes, yes.

Matt: And one reason that you listen to a podcast is to learn something, so from this I always learn new things about, like, products and technology and design. And then the other is companionship, and so I like to hang out with you guys, and that’s why I listen.

Paul: No, I think that’s real — I mean, in some level, our world is a little bit of a mirror image of yours, I mean, it’s sort of, like, two guys of a certain age with families starting a company.

Matt: Yes.

Paul: And no, I mean, I think we do, we consciously try to make it educational and informative about product.

Rich: It’s also how we talk when we’re drinking beer.

Matt: Right.

Rich: It’s really…I had a friend give me a piece of advice, he’s like, “Stop interrupting each other.” Which made me feel obnoxious and rude, but I realized if we’re too conscious about how…I like interrupting, Paul just goes on and on, and I like interrupting him, because we have to get on with the conversation, so I didn’t want to change it. Like, it just consciously didn’t feel…right.

Paul: We changed the pace a little bit based on some of the feedback.

Rich: Like, slightly.

Paul: We try not to just stumble all — for a while, we were just yelling at each other nonstop. [laughter] And so we’ve paced it a little bit. So there’s, but, yeah, I mean, in general we just don’t have time to make it what I would called a true media thing, like, it’s just us talking in the room, doing the best we can —

Rich: You don’t have to — I don’t think you need to apologize for it. I think we have a lot of fans —

Paul: No, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it was just, like, it just keeps it a certain —

Matt: As soon as you start to make it something more —

Paul: We’re screwed.

Matt: There’s a large chasm that you have to cross. [laughter]

Rich: That’s a great, great point.

Matt: To get to the — to get to the next hill of quality.

Paul: No, I’m very aware of that. Today, we can kind of, like, there’s about a day of human effort that goes into each podcast, max, in terms of planning and research and editing and transcripts and so on. It just adds up to one day of everybody’s time, split up among a bunch of people, and the next step feels like five days. Like, it’s just sort of, there’s one, there’s no easy path —

Matt: Yes.

Paul: To —

Matt: So that’s where Gimlet lives. We live in the chasm.

Paul: No, I’ve seen it. And you hired obsessives.

Rich: That was your M.O., though, from the get-go, it sounds like it.

Paul: Well that’s how you scale, right? You just have this huge audience.

Matt: That’s the idea.

Rich: I want to ask about the general state of podcasts. Now, I’m not, I’m not a podcast scholar. But it felt like, at one point, that it was a fad that would be in slow decline, and more or less go away. I feel like if you charted it, it’s kind of this weird…rise and then plateau…

Paul: When is this? Because 2003, you’ve got podcasts starting. So when are you talking?

Rich: I’m talking about podcasts in, what’s it called, Twitter before Twitter startup.

Paul: Odeo.

Rich: Odeo made a bet that podcasts would take over the world. And…

Paul: Well no, it didn’t, it did Twitter instead.

Rich: Well, I think the driver there was Apple just did podcasts, like, some, like, two engineers…on a weekend decided to add podcasts to iTunes.

Paul: Right. The iPod seems to have been the enabling technology.

Matt: Yes.

Paul: OK.

Matt: In fact, I heard, sometimes people get upset when you said, when you say “two engineers at Apple,” because there were people doing RSS-based audio distribution before the iPod. [laughter] And they really —

Paul: People get upset —

Matt: Are not happy —

Rich: RSS upsets a lot of people. [laughter]

Matt: But actually, I heard this, I heard this story, I was at Apple one time and one of the, now he’s one of the top engineers who runs the, like, app store.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: And he said, “I was there when we made the decision to put, include podcasts in the iPod.” And he’s like, “Do you wanna know what motivated it?” And I’m like, “Duh.”

Rich: You do!

Matt: “Yes. I would!” [laughter] And he was like, “Steve Jobs was a huge fan, and he was, like, I’m listening to these radio-type broadcasts, and I’m getting, I’ve set up an RSS reader, and I’m getting MP3s. We gotta include this in the iPod.” And he, like, he was the one —

Rich: No kidding.

Matt: Yeah.

Rich: That’s fascinating.

Paul: Now fast forward: is this, is Apple the, your primary point of distribution?

Matt: Apple is our largest distributor, yeah.

Paul: OK.

Matt: The majority of our listeners today listen through Apple, an Apple platform, one or another. Most of them are in Apple Podcasts on their smartphones.

Paul: OK. Now you see that sort of, is that continuing, or are things changing? I don’t know.

Matt: Yeah, it’s changing — so you know, it’s interesting, Rich, there was like a, there was an attention spike in, like, whenever it was, 2006, 2008, and —

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: The attention kind of plateaued until three years ago, when a bunch of things happened, like, we launched Gimlet and then “Serial” came along —

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: You know, Malcolm Gladwell started a podcast, and it kind of reinvigorated the form, and there’s been this creative renaissance over the last three years.

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: But podcasting never really went away. There was never a, a dip in listening. There was never a dip in the number of people who are listening. It just wasn’t cool, and then it became cool again.

Paul: So it wasn’t in — it wasn’t being covered, it wasn’t being written about.

Matt: Right. And so now it’s in this, you know, it’s this second golden age of audio. And I would say, as an industry, it’s still in toddler phase, right? So now we’ve got, you know, we have a quarter of Americans listen to podcasts every month. Uh, that’s —

Rich: Is that true?

Matt: 70 million Americans listen to podcasts every month.

Rich: That’s incredible.

Matt: And what you find is when they start listening, they listen to a lot of podcasts.

Rich: Yeah.

Matt: On average they’ll listen to, you know, five or six.

Paul: What are the beasts? Like, you guys are a certain kind of quality, you’re getting a lot of listeners. But what are the huge ones out there, aside from Gimlet?

Matt: You have a couple different flavors. NPR is the 800-pound gorilla.

Paul: Oh, OK.

Matt: Which is pretty awesome, right? That NPR —

Paul: It’s kind of hilarious.

Matt: It’s kind of great that, like, the nice NPR is the monster in this space.

Rich: It’s just such an educated, well-read gorilla. [laughter]

Paul: Yeah. It’s a nice gorilla. It’ll still stomp the hell out of you.

Matt: So, uh, and then, what we saw is the shows that were performing really well were and continue to be shows that tell you a story, so narrative.

Paul: Hmmm.

Matt: So, you know, “Serial,” “S-Town,” “This American Life,” the “Radiolabs” of the world. And then you have in the last year, like, new formats. So Crooked Media has come in with the sort of, like, like, lefty political talk. “Pod Save America.” “Pod Save the World.”

Paul: Right.

Matt: That’s become wildly popular. I mean, it’s a whole different community. And so it still, it still, it’s a corner of media that feels like people are still really trying things out and invest — inventing new formats.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Which I think makes it pretty fun.

Paul: No, that’s exciting. That’s not happening in a lot of other corners of media.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: All right, so you said you’re recruiting.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: So what, uh, for listeners, some of whom are in technology, many of whom are in media.

Matt: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: What do you need out there in the world?

Matt: We’re hiring a VP of marketing right now to head our marketing efforts, because we got to where we are today with no, no one has “marketing” in their title. [laughter]

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: We don’t have a marketer, we’ve never had a marketing budget, but we realized that what we’ve done to get us this far is not gonna get us to the next level.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: So we’re hiring someone to build, really, build a marketing practice. We’re hiring a director of legal affairs to be our first, uh, attorney, so that we don’t…make mistakes that put the business in jeopardy. And someone to make deals.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: We’re always hiring editors. Like you said, there’s this real need for editors, people who can structure stories and shape narratives and that is, like, really the thing that makes our shows different.

Paul: Well and the key, and fast, right, like that’s the tricky thing, they have to be able to do it quickly and in a repeatable way.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: OK, so that’s, that’s, all right, those are good hires.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: Legal affairs. That’s good. That’s a grown-up media organization.

Matt: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah. Liability insurance, do you have to pay liability insurance?

Matt: We have, yeah, we have liability insurance—

Rich: For what?

Paul: Oh people, you don’t—

Rich: I drove my car—

Matt: Well liability is just like slip and fall. Well you guys, if you don’t have liability insurance, you should get it, because you definitely have signed contracts saying that you have it. [laughter]

Rich: Oh, no no no—

Paul: I’m thinking about—but there’s—

Rich: I was thinking, “I was listening to this podcast and I smashed into a dog.”

Paul: No—

Matt: That’s—

Paul: No, there’s like media liability insurance, too. [laughter] OK. You know, I couldn’t tell.

Matt: Errors and omissions.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah, that’s our favorite.

Matt: Directors and officers—

Rich: One of our favorite expense is “errors and omissions.” [laughter]

Paul: OK, so where are you going now?

Matt: Where are we going?

Paul: Like, after this podcast? Are you headed back—

Rich: What kind of question is that?

Paul: Are you headed back to the office?

Matt: Well I work in Brook—so you guys are here at 101 Fifth Avenue.

Paul: Thank you. It’s a beautiful, beautiful building.

Matt: Storied building. As I know from listening to the podcast. [laughter]

Paul: Thank you.

Matt: Uh…and…

Paul: Tenth floor.

Matt: I am going to, so I live and work in Brooklyn, so I live in, I live, like, six blocks away from the office, so I basically never come to Manhattan, and when I do come to Manhattan, I like to, you know, stock up on my Manhattan things.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Matt: Like I need to go, I need to get a raincoat, so I’m gonna probably go to Paragon on my way home, which is the great, like, raincoat store. [laughter]

Paul: Right, right. That’s true, I wouldn’t even know where to go for a raincoat.

Rich: Where are you in Brooklyn?

Matt: We’re in Gowanus.

Rich: Oh!

Matt: Next to the canal.

Rich: Very cool.

Matt: Yeah, Superfund site.

Paul: All right, well, Matt, do you wanna see us out. [laughter]

Rich: Yeah, you said you listen to every episode.

Paul: I mean, can you—

Rich: This has been…go!

Matt: This has been Track Changes. I’m Matt Lieber.

Paul: This is great, this is uh…I’m Paul Ford, the other co-founder of Gimlet, and Rich Ziade.

Rich: Yup. Editorial and Gimlet. [laughter]

Paul: If you need anything, [email protected] and uh, that’s it. Let’s just call it there. That was great. Rich, you ready to get back to work.

Rich: Let’s go.

Paul: All right.

Rich: Have a great week.

Paul: Bye.