If there were a list of Washington’s 21st-century golden companies—companies that launched with pedigree and promise and delivered—Vox Media would rank high. Its first iteration was in 2003 as an upstart internet enterprise dedicated to sports. It was called Athletics Nation, which became Sports Blog Nation. In 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, it got an infusion of first-generation AOL talent when Jim Bankoff, who had been AOL’s programming chief, stepped in as CEO of the young company. A little later he was joined by another AOL expat, Marty Moe. The name became SB Nation, and they raised $40 million through some impressive recession-era funding, changed the name to Vox Media, and grew more brands, including tech-savvy the Verge and gaming-centric Polygon. Echoing its financial ascent, this summer Vox literally moved its offices from street level to sky high—from a cramped last-century townhouse to a window-filled 11th-floor space on Connecticut Avenue that is a new-century aerie, a relaxed, contemporary work environment conducive to creative thinking. There are individual glass-enclosed offices, conference rooms, and open collaborative work areas, as well as spots for eating, lounging and entertainment. It’s not dominated by TVs or computer screens—though, of course, they are everywhere. The company has another suite of offices at Bryant Park in New York City.
Business is good. The company expects this year to “hit break-even profitability,” according to Bankoff, who proclaims “growth is good as long as you have a good business model to support it. Ours is strong.” Vox plans to expand—both brands and staff—over the next year. While Bankoff says they prefer to build their own sites, “there are a few out there that might be interesting to merge.” At the moment Vox has 230 full-time employees, with about 55 of them based in the DC office. “If history is any indication, we’ll grow pretty rapidly,” he says.
We stopped in at Vox Media for a walking and talking tour with Bankoff.
How they journeyed from street level to the 11th floor:
“We started off in Chinatown in about 2008 with a desk, and that one desk expanded to ten people. We went on Craigslist and found a townhouse on N Street. We had two floors and subleased the third floor. We were just SB Nation, a growing sports property. We started sprawling. We kicked out the tenant and took over the third floor. Marty joined, and we started our second company, the Verge. We opened our New York office and expanded in DC to an old carriage house and then another carriage house. We were in three places—a fun kind of environment, but not productive for the type of work we do. We needed more space.”
How they do what they do:
“We have four sites, two principal ones here and in New York. There’s sports (SB Nation), and what we call technology culture (the Verge), because it’s actually grown [to be] less about the actual devices themselves and more about how technology permeates our lives and how it permeates our culture and science and politics. That site has been exploding for us. We launched a third one six months ago called Polygon, which is more about gaming. What you can expect from us in the future is that we’ll be getting into more lifestyle categories. We have a great business model built around advertising.”
The principles on which the company is founded:
“The way we shop. The way we consume entertainment. It’s something we all have in common. That’s what our company is founded on—finding those common things and finding experts to create media around them. We’ve happened to find people who grew up in this medium, which is why you see a lot of younger faces around here mainly—up in New York, too—whether they are designers, engineers, journalists, or essayists. They do it on the internet, and they know how to engage internet audiences because they know how to speak to them and use the tools at their disposal to do so.”
The boom in the sports media market:
“The reason behind [the boom] is because, in part, technology and the media [are] fragmented. There are fewer and fewer cultural touchstones that we all share regardless of our backgrounds, where we live, and what we do. Sports is one of the big ones, no matter your socio-economic background or gender. Combine that with a media landscape where we’re no longer all tuning in to MASH or Friends. Sports is live.”
How sports compares with politics:
“Politics is another thing. It’s polarizing. We live in an environment where it is nastier and nastier—whereas with sports, we might have different teams we root for, but we can have fun with it.”
The workplace and the workweek:
“Marty and our New York office manager, Lorien Olsen, played a big role in the interior design. And an architect here in DC, too, VOA Associates Incorporated.” As we walked he showed us areas designated for business support, content, legal, marketing, coding, and designing. “Every Tuesday [office coordinator] Lauren Williams helps serve up a free lunch for the staff. The company is seven days a week, but you don’t have to come in on weekends. Most of this stuff you can do wherever your laptop is. But during football season our writers are going to come in so they can be together and collaborate.”
What Bankoff is excited about right now:
“We launched our college football preview. It’s doing really well. I’m impressed at how beautiful these [pages] are. We’re getting some aesthetic onto the Web, and that’s helpful. It’s not only beautiful but also engaging.”