The best podcasts are based on personal, highly vulnerable stories, and Gimlet Media, a bellwether podcasting company, has taken that insight to an extreme. As its grown to 45 employees in less than two years, the company has been basically naked from the start. After all, the company’s first hit was the ongoing StartUp podcast, a self-referential show about Gimlet itself.
Gimlet wants listeners of their podcasts to feel like they stopped by a friend’s house, said co-founder Matt Lieber, so its tendency to overshare is not an accident. “We’re definitely an unreasonably transparent company,” Lieber told NewCo. “It’s how we got our start, and we found that being transparent and including the ugly parts helped us build our audience. It’s created a community of people who really care about what we’re doing and want to see the company succeed.”
That naked approach led Fast Company to name the Brooklyn-based Gimlet Media one of its top 10 most innovative media companies in 2015. Podcasts are hot: Last year was the best ever for podcasts since the term was invented, but there’s plenty of room for growth: less than one in five Americans listens to a podcast monthly.
In the last eight months, Gimlet has struggled with growth and its own internal culture. Two months ago, around the time the company moved into a bigger office, StartUp podcast host Lisa Chow returned from maternity leave and found that some Gimlet employees didn’t know who their manager was. So the team decided to take a huge risk: It shut the company down for a week, and completely re-organized the staff in a bid to reconnect the company and push its own creative thinking. Called Mix Week, the idea was to make everyone feel comfortable taking risks, Leiber said, even if they go wrong.
“All of our greatest successes as a company, like our shows that are most successful, are where a team broke the model and did something different,” he said.
During Mix Week, the company’s editorial, technical, and ad sales staff broke into randomly selected teams. All other work stopped to explore new ideas for shows and create five pilot episodes. Gimlet’s favorite pilot episode was then shared with people in Gimlet’s membership program, itself a paid subscription experiment in a business dominated by free models. The membership program was created eight months ago, but advertising remains at the center of Gimlet’s business model.
It’s rare that startups focus so transparently on their core culture early in their life. Gimlet Media has raised a $1.5 million seed round and $6 million in a Series A funding round that ended in December 2015, and it faces plenty of uncertainty as it tries to lead a nascent industry still lacking in standards and scale. Some advertisers are reluctant to spend on podcasts because CPM rates are high compared to other media. And ROI is also hard to prove: there’s no standards for insuring listeners actually hear the ads.
It’s a problem Gimlet and the podcast industry are trying to tackle with standardized metrics. Some public radio podcasts decided to make unique downloads their primary unit of sale last month.
“Everybody in this industry, we’re trying to do something new in an ecosystem that hasn’t existed before so there’s not a whole lot of infrastructure,” Lieber said.
Late last year Gimlet and other podcast networks began to work with Slate Magazine-owned Panoply Media. Instead of allowing the same ad to run in each episode forever, Panoply’s software lets Gimlet place new ads in old episodes. That’s important for Gimlet, which has a focus on storytelling over news – its content is more evergreen, so its inventory builds over time.
Despite growing inventory, Gimlet doesn’t want to change the user experience, so all ads will still be made by show hosts – a practice that is hard to scale, but retains Gimlet’s core values of transparency and authenticity. A similar protective attitude is taken as the show carefully considers a step into branded content.
Being radically transparent can be uncomfortable. In a recent episode of StartUp, Chow suggests the company clarify managerial structure and stresses that even though Gimlet is getting bigger, she wants the company to remain intentional about creating a great culture and explicit about communicating that to the team.
She then asks Lieber and founder Alex Blumberg to rate the company’s progress from one to three. Results varied for both men, but Lieber gave Gimlet team dynamics a score of one. Clearly, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“I think there are things we can get better at and one of them is having a stronger feedback culture,” Lieber told NewCo, noting he wants his team to feel comfortable delivering exacting, energizing, constructive feedback when working one-on-one with a manager or with teams. Thanks to Gimlet’s approach to radical transparency, we’ll all get a chance to hear how it’s going.