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Ev Williams on Medium’s future, his new venture fund, and listening to his gut

Ev Williams on Medium’s future, his new venture fund, and listening to his gut

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Ev Williams has said that Medium is a platform, not a publisher. Despite its title and apparent initial focus on long features, it’s become increasingly known as a place for writers to post short-form content. It’s also proven popular with companies, as we saw earlier this week when Amazon’s Jay Carney and The New York Times’ Dean Baquet used the platform to attack and defend the paper’s Amazon investigation. Around 20,000 people are creating posts every week, and it gets 25 million unique visitors a month. Now Williams is trying to steer the service toward big brand dollars.

At the Kairos Summit in Los Angeles last week, Williams and his partner James Joaquin pitched their new venture capital fund Obvious Ventures to a room full of fledgling entrepreneurs. Joaquin described his partnership with Williams as "world positive investing," meaning renewable energy, health and wellness, and education. About an hour before, I sat down with Williams to discuss the next phase of his new fund, Medium, and how writers might make money on it.

To do that, Williams says Medium, which has raised $82 million since its 2012 founding, will be a tool for top-tier creatives to get brand deals. He says the next phase of Medium is about linking writers with brands, with Medium acting as the go-between, vetting creators. Meaning, in part, a native advertising hub filled with long-tail content. Here’s Williams on what's next for Medium.

Adam Popescu: You’ve said Obvious Ventures invests in companies you wish existed. What exactly do you wish existed?

Ev Williams: It’s the old William Gibson quote: "The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed." Advances in technology will help fuel the spread of any solution, but there are so many solutions to problems that aren’t to scale yet. We see this huge opportunity, so many examples. If you look at [the company] Tesla, Tesla’s success isn’t based on fundamental scientific breakthrough. It’s great engineering, for sure, and they’ve made advances, but they’ve put so many pieces together to create great deals that helped that company succeed against all odds.

"The web itself wasn’t meeting that need to its full potential."

I started Medium with the intention that there’s a better way to support quality ideas, thinking, stories we don’t yet have on the internet. Social media filled a gap that we didn’t know existed before, and Twitter and its followers so-to-speak have created a layer of real-time information that is extremely powerful. But that doesn’t suffice to help explain our world, or drive deeper understanding and connection. The web itself wasn’t meeting that need to its full potential. That’s why we created Medium. And while I was working on Medium, I was talking with James Joaquin about how do we make more good things happen — so we came up with the plan for Obvious, to help things succeed that we want in the world.

Nine months ago, Medium felt like a place for long form. Then there seemed to be a switch to short form. What’s your vision?

The vision never changed. Think about it like a magazine: a couple feature articles which are pages long, then a one-page column, little blurbs, and all that stuff goes together. That’s the way we always saw Medium. It was always for what we saw as medium- to long-form content. It was always meant to be anything longer than a tweet to go on Medium — as long as it was less ephemeral and had some lasting value.

What happened to get a lot of attention were the longer pieces. It’s also the case that the design didn’t necessarily optimize — if you wanted to write a paragraph, it looked funny on Medium, so those are the changes we made, but it wasn’t a shift in vision. Anyone who has ideas and stories to share with the world. It’s — who publishes to the web? or, who uses blogs? It’s all of the above. That’s who Medium is for. Tons of brands use it.

So, what’s next for Medium?

There’s tons published every day. From nonprofits, to brands, lots of big brands, small brands, individuals obviously. We saw the same thing at Twitter — this is more true of Medium today than it was at Twitter — after a while, people would say Twitter is all tech and startups. The only people on Twitter are Silicon Valley people.

"After a while, people would say Twitter is all tech and startups."

Medium is a little bit in that stage now. It’s early, and there’s a lot of stuff you just don’t see because you’re not connected to it. And we need to do a much better job ourselves of surfacing that. That’s something we’re spending more time on now.

Our first couple years, we were spending time helping to get — helping folks on the creation side — that’s still the driver, but now there’s enough that we need to work a lot more on discovery.

Is Medium a place for writers to make money?

One big thing that’s not there yet that we just announced last week is to help creators monetize if they’re at the more professional level. And we haven’t rolled out exactly — we haven’t rolled out any features around that — but I think the building blocks are there.

Meaning native advertising?

I don’t think there’s one way that monetizing makes sense for all types of content. There’s going to be sponsorships and branded dollars on the platform. Our vision is to connect quality creators with brands who may want to work with them. [It’s] more than for us to necessarily sell ads and give every writer a few pennies.

"Our vision is to connect quality creators with brands."

There’s interesting things we could do around premium content and subscriptions. A number of outlets are seeing success in that, even as stand-alone sites. Something like that is easy to imagine, and [it’s] going to work a lot better on the platform.

Connecting creators with brands — almost an agency model? Medium vetting creators with brands?

It’s too early to say any more details about how that’s going to work. We — because a lot of people are asking, we just put out the news that we’re definitely going to do that, and we’ll be talking about it more as we know more details.

Can you give a time frame?

Later this year, early next year.

Here you are running a major technology company, one of several you’ve had major success. Obviously you made the right moves — can you tell me a mistake you’ve made as an entrepreneur?

Not listening to my gut. And what I’ve tried to do now is, if in doubt, I’d rather be wrong based on what I think the answer is, to any decision, than right, based on other people’s inputs. Not that I won’t take other peoples’ inputs and try to get smarter about a situation.

Young entrepreneurs tend to get in over [their] head very quickly, that’s the nature of starting things. When you’re in over your head, it’s very natural to look around and ask, "What should I do?" That’s why you bring on investors and advisers. And that’s critical. But where the mistakes happen is when lots of well-meaning people who have lots of experience and knowledge give you advice. And you let that override your gut. That’s when you lose that authenticity. The mission. The directive. Or the product veers in a way you wouldn’t if left to your gut.