CEO/Founder, Skift, travel intelligence startup. Founder, paidContent. New Yorker, Global Soul.
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On this blog: travel, startup, life, and such...

This Vertical Life: The Media Models I Admire


Verticals have a particular attraction for me, which may have something to do with my general obsessiveness. Picking a topic you’re willing to spend a good number of years in, going deep into it with everything you have, and build the largest and most influential voice in it, that is what I have built my life and companies around.  

And as a student of verticals in digital media, I learn and get inspired by companies that have the discipline to innovate in these focused verticals whether on the consumer side or the business side.

While the rest of the media writes about the same five so-called-innovative-news/media/content-startups over and over again (check any Carr/Ingram/any-other-media-reporter article about BuzzVoxViceAtavistQuartz538GawkerUpworthyFirstLookInformation & ilk), verticals in digital have been buzzing even before blogs became mainstream, and a lot of them have experimented and thrived beyond just media-as-product.

Arguably, all the debates playing out in mainstream — be it native advertising, paid content, audience targeting, conversion optimization, data-driven media — have been playing out in these verticals long before they came into the larger media consciousness.

Since I have been one very vocal in public forums about the tunnel vision of media and startup commentators talking about the same companies over and over again, I realize I have to follow through and highlight the vertical companies and media models I admire and learn from.

Hence this list.

Below are 17 companies, some well known, some obscure, some around for more than a decade, some are less than a year!

  • Trendhunter/PSFK/Springwise: three of the originals building trend-hunting for agencies/brands into multi-platform media companies.
  • L2 Think Tank: mixing media+data+consulting in great ways to build a large business information company.
  • CBInsights: data company that has pioneered consumption models & creating great media on top of it.
  • Politico: Shock-and-awe hyper-metabolic media strategy to saturate a mature vertical and take it over. And focus on building a slew of revenue streams.
  • Mergermarket: Amazing M&A services media company, native to form that M&A trades in, bought for $623 million!
  • BusinessOfFashion: A great blog-becoming-a-very-influential media company in a highly competitive vertical, by sheer force of design sense and reportage.
  • Monocle: Great brand built by being completely contrarian, through print, radio and stores.
  • MarketingCharts: Tiny but a great example of vertical media service that is really useful.
  • MarketingProfs: great media & services company built by aggressively marketing to aggressive marketers.
  • ApartmentTherapy: Classic blog media model, scaled up using design sense and add retail.
  • TheDodo: Great focused vertical riding on a great macro trend.
  • CoinDesk: Early adopter media, built and scaled quickly.
  • SmartBrief: Email powerhouse, focused on building through associations, and built a huge business out of it.
  • Digiday: Great example of using the power of an opinionated editor and turning a nondescript site into a fresh brand in a busy vertical.
  • ForeignPolicy: An oldschool brand that has transitioned well to online, using a smart mix of vetted contributors & staff, at a time when this kind of analysis is needed to understand the crazy world we’re in.
  • FastCasual: A classic B2B media site, but focused on a great vertical riding the macro trends in the restaurant industry, in a way that could only work online.
  • Brownbook: A print magazine out of a region that no one ever hears good and cool things from, with a mission to make people rethink Middle East, and being really cool while doing it.

Perseverance, above all else. Keep your head down, build stuff, and good things will happen. This world deals a lot in buzz, which can be hugely distracting and your whole existence can get swept up in it.  Avoid scene-sters, and surely avoid becoming one.

The Fear of Other: Muslims in America


This year in 2014, a year of extremes on all fronts, will go down in history as the year in which Extreme Inequality & Fear of the Other, usually in a heady mix of both, ran amok and destroyed our world in so many ways.

In a country I now call my own, America, that has played out in various ways, with one that affects me personally in ways big and small. The Fear of Other, those 1.6 billion Muslims in the planet, of which a few million of us live right here, as American as anyone else’s claims outside of native Americans.

For all the fear of Muslims in America, few have ever met one, and even fewer even know anyone in their daily lives. Numerically, you can see how that happens: estimates of Muslim population in America range from 3 million to 7 million, though likely closer to the lower range, and most of them are concentrated in larger cities.

Then, the only filter most Americans have to understand Muslims, their daily lives, and their religion is not through interpersonal relations and friendships, but through the filter of whatever media — most likely polarized — they most gravitate towards.

And very little of that media ever covers the mundane daily lives and struggles of Muslims worldwide, much less that in our own backyards.

I decided to test some of these hypotheses, starting with the most basic: familiarity with Muslims, and American Muslims in particular. And the results from the two Google Consumer Surveys I did show there is a lot of work to be done, still early stages of understanding the Other.

The first survey results here, the second are here, you can go dig in.

The first survey started with the most basic question: “Have you ever met a Muslim in your life?” Almost 50% of Americans say they haven’t, or aren’t sure if they have.


The second survey question, “Do you know any Muslim in your daily life in America?” has somewhat depressing results: fully 76 percent of Americans say they don’t know anyone, or are not sure if they do.


Few silver linings in both the results: the younger generation, those in 18-34 age range, have met more Muslims or know them personally than any other age range in America.

Also, urban Americans have met and know Muslims more than any other part in America, and if you believe cities are the future of the world and the multiculturalism that results from it helps foster understanding more than anything else, then there is reason to be hopeful.

A related issue: Muslims-talking-among-Muslims, as is wont for a lot of Muslim professionals in America, won’t cut it, the outreach and bridges to the larger American community is desperately needed.

Few years ago, at the height of the “Ground Zero Mosque” hysteria, I registered the domain “LunchWithAMuslim.com” with the idea to start a lunch club of sorts, a platform where regular Americans could meet other regular Muslim Americans and ask questions and clear any misperceptions they had about the religion and ordinary majority of Muslims, in America and worldwide. I never ended up doing that, but perhaps time to revive that idea?…

On Relearning Fearlessness


“Listen—I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator.” Vladimir Nabokov, Gods, 1924

This has been one of the favorite quotes in my life, discovered it back in my early 20s amongst the naive fearlessness of the youth, and now relearning as I am starting my 40s. 


That is one of the thing I am beginning to relearn again, a process that began back when I started my global travels in summer of 2010, and has been a process of fits and starts since. 

It is a process of chipping away all the dependencies I’ve built in my years of living in the media-tech-startup ecosystem, dependencies that lead to cravenness, of saying the things others want to hear, of doing the things that would help you advance within that system.

This is the system — in equal measure media and startup ecosystem — that built its roots railing against the larger system, but is now as establishment as anything can be. Mainstream media and mainstream startupland, each craven in its own ways, each with its own orthodoxies, each with its own Gods, each beholden to the tyranny of silence against the hand that feeds them.

Relearning fearlessness for me has meant being inspired by people who have built their life around it, especially in the media-tech land I inhabit. It is a quality I have come to respect above all else. Among them, Glenn Greenwald, the only completely fearless mainstream-accepted journalist left in media polity; ViceNews, for doing whatever the fuck they want to do and being amazing at it, possibly as a result of their reliance on young reporters and writers; Russell Brand, for being an incredibly passionate and raw writer, building his own media platform on YouTube and slaying sacred cows wherever he finds them; DemocracyNow, for being old school fearless and continuing to be very good at it; Noura Erakat, assistant professor at George Mason University, for being a fierce fighter of human rights; Paul Graham, the founder/VC at YCombinator who broke with the mainstream tech narrative and sided with humanitarians in the latest Israel-Gaza war; Gabe Rivera, for being the fearless droll prince of tech; Greg Mitchell, for being fearless media analyst outside of the confines of mainstream; and many others.

My latest — and permanent — journey towards some semblance of fearlessness started about four months ago, and still in early stages. It is a terrifying thought, but once I overcame it, the process that began led to this slowly building sense of freedom.

Being fearless comes with costs, and some day, I’ll be free enough to write about those too.

Still a long long way to go.

“Today my soul is filled with gladiators, sunlight, the world’s din…”

The act of speaking up

The act of speaking up isn’t an attempt to convince the other side of your rights and their wrongs, that rarely ever happens in parallel insular universes. The purpose of speaking up is to break the dominant narrative on one hand, and the cowardliness of silence on the other, to say: there is another side that won’t be afraid this time, afraid to be ostracized, afraid to be attacked, afraid to choose the right side of history, afraid to answer our future generations when they will ask: why were *you* silent?

This test of hope and belief

With all the death & destruction the world over, this past month was one of the toughest Ramadan months in our living memory. Just when we’re supposed to turn inwards with forgiveness, gratitude, reflection & prayers, external events have been impossible to ignore and be removed from. The test of belief, I suppose. The test of the belief that the world will become a better place for us and the ones yet to come, that the basic humanity of all of us will triumph, that the Fear Of Other, the biggest thing holding us back, will be overcome. That the best human instincts at some point will triumph over the basest of human instincts. That the generations yet to come are a lot smarter and human than us. That’s my hope with our globalized, multicultural future, that’s my hope from the next generation.

35% of Americans Favor Close Relationship With Israel, But Majority Don’t Want To Fund It


As the horrific conflict in Gaza continues, the U.S. public opinion on support for Israel is changing, and not as one sided as earlier thought and portrayed by media, a survey I did recently showed.

And now, a broader survey I did in the last few days shows more nuances to that on two fronts:

One, that more Americans favor a continued close relationship between Israel and our own country than don’t, as it has been historically (though majority of us don’t care, that’s America for you).

Two, a large majority of Americans don’t want to continue to provide funds to Israel for its military yearly as we do now currently.

The two Google Consumer Surveys I did tell a story of not ignoring the special history between the two countries, but not funding its military in the future either at the cost of America’s own needs.

The first survey results here, the second are here, you can go dig in.

The first survey question: Should United States-Israel close relationship continue in the future? The result, in the chart below: Majority don’t care, but out of Americans who do, majority want to continue having the close relationship.


The second question I asked: Should United States continue to provide its $3 billion annual funding to Israel? And the results, below: a majority 41% of Americans don’t want to provide the continuing $3 billion a year aid to Israel, while 25% still want to do that. A large 35% of Americans don’t care one way or the other.


Digging further into the second question, interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, the young favor not continue the funding, while the older American demographic (65+) do. 


So there you have it. Lesson: always keep betting on the next generation & against established orthodoxies.

The full picture on U.S. annual funding to Israel is explained in this short video below, from AJ+:

The two single-question survey were administered to the U.S. internet population from July 30-Aug, through Google Consumer Surveys, with 500 responses each. The methodology is explained here

Beautiful. Eid Mubarak! “Let your life be a mirror of this feast, joy and sadness mixed in search of silence and inner peace, with the courage of free speech for justice and peace for all.”

U.S. Public Opinion on Israel-Palestine Isn’t As One Sided As You Think

The U.S. public opinion on support for Israel’s military actions against Gaza is not as one sided as media always portrays it to be.

I decided to test the American public, using Google Consumer Surveys, a very reliable online polling tool from Google, and focused on two questions that CNN asked in its survey. CNN has touted these results as overwhelming support for Israel, though the winds are changing, and “favorable opinions of Israel have edged down since earlier this year,” as it says.

But the Google Consumer Survey results tell a different story, and are eye-opening, to say the least.

The first survey results here, the second are here, you can go dig in.

One: most Americans don’t care one way or the other, or don’t know enough about it, which if you know anything about the history of American world literacy, is not surprising.

Second: Of the people who do care, there is a virtual dead heat between Americans who think Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified vs those who think it is unjustified, in response to the question: “Do you think current Israeli action in Gaza is justified?”


Third: The biggest finding: Millennials overwhelmingly think the actions are unjustified, see below:


Fourth: One the second question, about the amount of military force Israel has used in Gaza, majority of Americans who have an opinion about it think it is too much.


Fifth: The younger American generation again think the force is too much.


So there you go, American public is changing, is anyone listening?

The two single-question survey were administered to the U.S. internet population from July 21-23 and July 24-25 respectively, through Google Consumer Surveys, with 1096 responses (weighted down to 666) and 500 responses respectively. The methodology is explained here

Why I Chose to Speak Up


There are few times in life where you feel so absolutely completely helpless that when something external gives a voice to it, you give in, break down, and realize that the world moves in its own ways, beyond the control of mere mortals like us, and all we can do is hope we can make small dents along the way to make things better.

I can remember four such instance in my life, imprinted on the synapses of my brain forever, and where videos, images and music gave it the meaning it deserved:

  • The first was post Sep-11, when Mary Chapin Carpenter sang “10,000 Miles” at “Concert for America" about the New Yorkers who died on that day and their families who knew there were never coming back. I was there, I lived in New York then as I do now, and went through the pain all of the city went through. Every time I have heard that song since, I have cried. I wish I could find a recording of that live performance online, but alas…
  • The second, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, a song I discovered in 2008 while watching “Love Actually” (yes, really) and the utter helplessness you feel when a relationship is dying. Every time I hear that song, the sheer sadness of it washes over me.
  • The third time is a photo that will always haunt me till I die, the image of a Burmese Rohingya man, part of the world’s most persecuted minority, begging for his family to stay in Bangladesh. It is a photo that can change a life, make you drop everything, leave everything behind and go and figure out a way to help these people. (AP pic by Anurup Titu)image
  • The fourth one, happened three weeks ago right before the current war, and I have been having nightmares since: a great Aljazeera documentary about Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, about his lifelong efforts to exposing the inhumanity of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In this hour long doc, there is a short 3 minute segment about halfway in, on this young girl severely paralyzed from neck down after an Israeli air strike, a strike in which her mother, brother and grandmother died on the spot. Now her father is taking care of her almost vegetative life. There is a moment when she starts crying, the cry to capture all the frustration of every person who has ever lived, suffered and died in any occupation anywhere in the world, ever. Her dad tries to console her: “What can we do? I know it is difficult but there is nothing we can do. This is our fate, we must accept it.” The injustice of it all makes you seethe, this is the stuff which makes madmen out of mortals, out of sheer rage, and yet her father accepts it as it is, as fate, and the hope that it will get better some day. He recites a verse of Quran, one the most glorious verses of all, “Hasbi Allahu Wa Nimal Wakeel”, which translates into “God (Alone) is Sufficient for us, and He is the Best Disposer of affairs (for us).” The essence of Belief.

If not now, then when? 

The only question we’ll be asked by the future generations: you had the platform, you were influential, you were free & you *chose* to remain silent?

You chose to remain silent.

Not in our name, not with our money, not with our bombs, not with our media. Enough.

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