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Pete Cashmore of Mashable: The Sage of Social Media

The face is unmistakable. At 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, in walks the man who launched the Mashable media empire. Dressed in a long black coat, with a cup of coffee nestled in his hand, he strides into the company’s recently renovated office, breaks into a smile and reaches out to shake my hand. Golden-brown hair dips to his shoulders, artfully framing his steel-blue eyes and the dark stubble that lines his chiseled jaw. It’s easy to see why legions of fans find him so irresistible.

Described alternately in the press as a tech hunk, the Brad Pitt of the blogosphere and the planet’s sexiest geek, Pete Cashmore is a rare bird. You have to remind yourself to stay focused, to listen carefully to what he has to say, because you don’t want to miss a thing. In an era when marketing genius is measured in Facebook likes and Foursquare check-ins, the guy is supremely well-connected. Considered by some to be the most influential voice on Twitter, he counts more than 3 million followers on his Mashable feed. His website draws close to 25 million viewers a month. And when he chooses to appear in public, descending on Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest conference, he arrives on the scene like a rock star.

He may not rival Eric Clapton—at least not yet—but his rise to fame was similarly meteoric. When he started the Mashable blog in 2005, he was just a kid, a 19-year-old rogue holed up in a bedroom in his parents’ home on the north coast of Scotland. A bout with appendicitis had interfered with his studies, delaying his high school diploma for years. Forever absent from class, he spent hour after hour alone with the family computer. The son of a nurse and a microbiologist who helped the government monitor E. coli outbreaks, Cashmore dreamed of launching his own business. He once negotiated with an American toy manufacturer to become the U.K. distributor of a gun that created smoke rings. Suffice it to say, he overestimated its potential. The boxes still sit in his parents’ attic.

He had no interest in going to college. It wasn’t the studying that turned him off, but rather the authority figures. So while he waited for his next flash of inspiration, he decided to start a blog. He enjoyed writing. He loved technology. What better way to educate himself. Before long, he was working crazy hours, waking up at noon to put himself in sync with the titans of Silicon Valley and hustling until dawn. On Friday night he’d crash and sleep straight through Saturday. Eighteen months later he had 2 million readers and his first paid advertisement, a $3,000 deal with a video-chat company called Userplane. Soon thereafter he hired his first contributor sight unseen. And then another. And another. The staff worked together remotely until 2008, when Cashmore moved to San Francisco to put himself closer to the action.

In 2011 he moved the operation to New York City. By then Mashable had shifted from a pure tech blog focused on innovation and startups to a news service committed to helping the “connected generation” stay abreast of social media. Silicon Valley had the programmers and the venture capitalists, but the moguls of media, marketing, advertising, fashion, entertainment and business—the fields most disrupted by Facebook’s breathtaking climb—were headquartered in Manhattan. Not only did Cashmore instantly recognize the cultural significance of social media, but he also had a knack for finding the right stories, whether they involved the commercial applications of YouTube or the endearing appeal of the latest lolcat meme. “He just gets it,” says Mashable’s chief technology officer, Robyn Peterson. “He has this innate sense of what’s going to go viral.”

The industrious CEO now has 100 employees, and the site’s readers have come to depend on them to keep them ahead of the curve. “With technology, especially, there’s a need for translation,” he says. “Twitter is a classic example. When it came out, everyone was like, ‘Why would you want to tweet about your lunch?’ For us, it was a case of explaining, ‘Well, here’s how some people are using it for political action, here’s how some people are using it to market their businesses, here’s how some people are using it to raise money for charity.’ What Mashable does is tell you what the technology can do and how it will help you move forward.”

The change brought by today’s technology is no less sweeping than that produced by the Industrial Revolution, he argues. Much like mass production, digital media has affected the way people work, the way they collaborate, how they live, where they live, what they do for fun. For business owners, that’s a lot of fault lines to address. Even Cashmore struggles to withstand the tremors. “New media companies are being disrupted all the time,” he says. “The speed of change is accelerating. And it’s not going to stop.” What distinguishes him from the average CEO, though, is his uncanny ability to read the shifting landscape. “He has to be good in the moment,” says friend Henry Timms, deputy executive director of the 92nd Street Y cultural and community center in Manhattan. “But Pete always has his eye on the bigger questions. He’s thoughtful about disruption, always thinking about the ramifications of things.”

“He doesn’t want to stand still,” Peterson says. “He constantly wants to reinvent.”

Case in point: In December, Mashable underwent a major redesign, one that fundamentally altered the way the site operates. As decisions go, it was huge, the kind that requires a big leap of faith.

 

On this afternoon in early March, the Mashable newsroom is oddly silent. No ringing telephones. No clacking keyboards. The new carpet on the floor muffles sound, of course. But truth be told, the quiet sense of order has more to do with Cashmore’s workforce. Outfitted in skinny jeans and untucked shirts, the bright-eyed reporters bunkered in the crisp white cubicles have their eyes on their computer screens, scanning the Internet for the latest buzz, which they then translate into plainspoken blog posts and fire out to the Mashable masses. The site is designed to put readers way ahead of the game, and Mashable does that with ruthless efficiency. Instead of flowing downward hour after hour, stories now migrate from left to right across each page, based on the volume of interest they generate. The first column holds the latest news, the middle column features storylines that are heating up, and the last column showcases the things everyone’s talking about. To help facilitate those dialogues, Cashmore’s engineers parsed Mashable’s content into bite-size bits for easy sharing. If a reader wants to repost a photo, a headline or a quote from a story, he can do so with a
single click.

To accommodate the exploding popularity of Instagram and Pinterest, Cashmore’s team reduced the weight of the text and pumped up the site’s pictures, adding way more pixels, because in a world brimming with info, an image can often convey a story with greater ease and impact. Mashable’s readers are eight times more likely to share an image than a link. The group also took pains to make the design more responsive, versatile enough to accommodate an increasingly mobile audience. In October 2012, two months before the new look debuted, the company counted the number of unique devices that accessed the site. In the course of four weeks, the figure came to an astonishing 2,800. “I didn’t even know there were that many,” Cashmore says. And the evolution continues. iPhones beget the Droid RAZR and the Galaxy S. The Kindle Fire and the Nook beget the iPad Mini. As smartphone screens get larger, tablet screens get smaller. “And then there’s phablets,” Cashmore marvels. “Have you seen that? My most hated word of 2013. It’s a phone-slash- tablet. A phablet. I hope this does not become a thing.”

The social media ranking system that shepherds Mashable’s stories from one column to the next, however, was far and away the most radical adjustment. It forced the site’s readers, who were accustomed to scrolling up or down to take in a full day’s news, to make a bold psychological leap. The site now rates stories based on the number of clicks and shares, governed by something called the velocity algorithm. “We use it to gather a lot of intelligence and inform our editors so they can make informed decisions,” Peterson says. If the editors wish to override the data—like, for instance, with a special report or a breaking news story—they can do so. But generally, they just watch and learn. How do their readers respond to pope stories? How much do they care about fashion? International relations? College football? The metric dispenses with page views—the site now features infinite scroll—and measures actual engagement. When readers rush to embrace an unconventional storyline, the editors get right to work on follow-ups.

This new strategy is a nod to the growing supremacy of social media, not simply as a means of communication, but also as an agent of change. Facebook altered the way people consume news, Twitter altered the way editors write headlines, Pinterest and Instagram forced them to think more visually. Social media is so dominant these days that it’s transforming search engine optimization (SEO). “Looking at the number of Facebook shares and tweets and Google Plus shares is actually a better correlator of where something will end up in the rankings,” Cashmore says. “Google is starting to say, ‘If a human votes for something, that’s more valuable than an inbound link.’ ”

So Mashable listens attentively to the opinions of its readers, helping them to sift through the barrage of information and make sense of a rapidly shifting world. When Facebook announced its March redesign, Cashmore’s reporters immediately posted stories explaining how to master the updated news feed, including posts tailored specifically to publishers, marketers and advertising executives. Along the way, the company gathered valuable information about what the influencers in its community like and don’t like—insights coveted by advertisers keen on sidling up to such trendsetters. BMW and Visa are among companies that pay to sponsor series on subjects such as urban innovation and leaders in design. As sponsors, they get no say in the content, but they do get a close-up look at the people who are drawn to the subject matter.

Those who oversaw Mashable’s redesign—including Cashmore—acknowledge that it took some courage to mess with a model that had proved very successful over the years. In the end, the renovation was far more extensive than most tech company CEOs prefer. If you change one variable, it’s easy to measure the reaction, says Cashmore, who clearly inherited his biologist father’s empirical thought process. If you change 100, you have no idea which one was impactful. The CEO had braced himself for a major backlash from readers who were unprepared to shed the familiarity of their old news consumption habits, but in general the response has been favorable. Cashmore now frets that he didn’t push far enough. “If everyone’s cool with it,” he says, “we could have tried so many more things.” And, of course, those things might have put his company on firmer footing the next time the earth shifts beneath it. Welcome to the life of a modern-day maverick.

 

In the fall of 2010, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity partnered with the 92nd Street Y to host a gathering of Nobel laureates. Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Peace Prize, had been coordinating similar conferences for years. His goal: to assemble the smartest people on the planet and set them to work on solving the world’s thorniest problems. This time around, Pete Cashmore scored an invite.

He was living in San Francisco at the time. He flew to New York to join the discussion, a dialogue that had been broadened to include the voices of young business leaders. The participants sat in a circle in 92Y’s auditorium, name cards in front of them, discussing poverty, education, the environment, conflict in the Middle East. “It was one of those moments where you realize you’re way out of your depth,” Cashmore says. “I’m sure they were all saying, ‘Who is this kid? What’s he doing here?’ ”

But Henry Timms, who helped organize the event, recalls the scene differently. Five years into his run at Mashable, his buddy Cashmore was no longer a sleep-deprived blogger. In fact, he barely had time to write. He had given up his role in ad sales, too. He hired people—very smart people—to do those jobs. He spent hours in front of the whiteboard in his office with tech department staffers, picking their brains and mapping out the future of his company. He let others manage the day-to-day while he kept his eye on the horizon.

Far more than an expert on the latest YouTube sensation, Cashmore had become one of the world’s foremost authorities on human communication. He had studied the rise of MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and dozens of other people-powered networks, and he understood like few others what made them weak and what made them strong. And none of that hard-won wisdom had escaped the notice of the Nobel laureates.

“I remember him changing the direction of the conversation,” Timms says, “altering the way people had been thinking about the possibilities of new technology. He used the phrase ‘transactions of value,’ which really stuck with me.”

When you get right down to it, Mashable doesn’t simply report the news; it strives to generate talking points. Yes, every post on the site concludes with a request for reader comments, but the outreach stretches well beyond that. The site’s content—headlines, pictures, quotes—springs up all over Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. A Mashable article is shared on a social network every second; there are 2.5 million shares per month. Technically speaking, you don’t have to visit the site to consume Mashable content. This is what Cashmore means when he talks about value. “That’s what we do,” he says. “We create content that’s sharable.”

That content builds communities. It vests them with purpose and passion. And so, in essence, Cashmore has become the sage of social media. He speaks with greater vision than Mark Zuckerberg about mankind’s need to share the stories of our lives. Not long ago, the young Scot returned to the 92nd Street Y to interview the 83-year-old Wiesel during Mashable’s Social Good Summit, an annual event created in partnership with the United Nations Foundation to engage the world’s leaders in an open dialogue during the week when they assemble in New York to conduct U.N. business. Speakers have included Hillary Clinton, Ted Turner, Deepak Chopra, Geena Davis, Forest Whitaker and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Nick Kristof of The New York Times.

It’s not the star power of the panelists that matters as much as the way in which they engage Mashable’s digital audience. “It welcomes a new generation into the conversation and that’s what Pete’s always been about,” Timms says. “At Mashable, they care about the big issues. They’re always trying to figure out how that audience can play a role in the world’s biggest challenges.”

As Cashmore points out, that role is significant and should not be dismissed lightly. In 2011 we got a good look at the force social media can bring to bear in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. “We start to see power structures being inverted,” Cashmore says, “dictatorships really struggling because if they can’t control these social networks, they’re going to lose control of information flow, which is how you maintain political control.”

Cashmore’s uncommon insight, coupled with his interest in humanitarian issues, is enough to make one wonder what the future holds for the fast-rising CEO. Will he continue to lead Mashable or will he parlay his expertise into a larger role in the social revolution?

In September of 2010, AOL acquired Mashable’s rival Tech Crunch—also founded in 2005—for a reported $25 million. Five months later the email pioneer purchased the Huffington Post website for $315 million. Early in 2012 rumors began that CNN was negotiating to buy Mashable for $200 million. How seriously did Cashmore think about cashing out? He skillfully parries all attempts to answer the question. Asked what he can reveal about the company’s suitors, he looks up at the ceiling, searching for the right words. “We’ve had multiple opportunities,” he says, “some of which have been more public than others. And what we’ve looked at essentially is, ‘Would this opportunity grow us faster?’ That’s the core question. We know where we want to go. Is this partner going to make us get there faster? Are they going to give us the resources we need to get there? And at each juncture, we’ve said, ‘You know what? We think we can keep growing in the direction we’re going in and we think that’s the best thing—for the company to continue on that path.’

“In fact, I’d say the challenge for Mashable right now is too much opportunity.”

Given its global audience, its command of technology and data gathering, the company holds an enviable position in today’s media market. If anything, Mashable’s humble beginnings, the lack of venture capital, the exhausting schedule Cashmore once maintained, may have slowed its progress in the early years. “Mashable pursued a fairly low-risk strategy because we were very resource-constrained,” Cashmore says. “We could only take a few little bets, and if any of our bets went wrong, we could’ve killed the whole company. With regard to mistakes, I almost didn’t make enough of them. In a way, it might have been better to take more risks, make more mistakes and learn faster.”

And yet it’s staggering to think that the 100-man operation started out as a simple WordPress blog. In a moment of reflection, Cashmore thinks back to his first inklings on the scope of the disruption digital technology can foster. “I remember writing this essay about it when I was in school, like 12 or something. It was all about how fridges were going to be connected. Fridges—that’s the thing, you know? You’re going to be able to order your groceries and they’re going to show up in the fridge!” He laughs at the idea now, before looking ahead once again to the world of tomorrow.

As much as he thrills to discovering the latest breakthrough, the repercussions that inevitably follow it are never far from his mind. “We have a lot of devices coming out that might completely change consumption,” he says. “Are we going to be reading news on our Google glasses? Are we going to be reading news on our smart watches? How are we going to be consuming news next?”

Like any thoughtful leader, he’s always bracing for the next big leap. 

When he isn’t writing for SUCCESS, Chris Raymond tweets about media, innovation and the future. You can follow him at @CRay65.

Pete Cashmore is obviously one productive guy. Check out his secrets to productivity on SUCCESS.com.

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