News & Politics

An Inside Look at Vox Media (Photos)

Chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff gives us a walking, talking tour.

The entrance to the Vox Media offices on Connecticut Avenue. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

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
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.”