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Summary:

Many still view TWiT as a podcast network, but Leo Laporte and his CEO Lisa Kentzell have big ambitions for live video streaming. The duo gave us a tour of their new studio and talked about the virtues of bootstrapping and their plans for TWiT.

twit duo

It all started with boredom. Leo Laporte had a few gigs with TV and radio networks back in 2005, but his work schedule left him with nothing to do half of the month. So he started an audio podcast called This Week in Tech, also known as TWiT. He asked listeners for donations, which allowed him to hire production help and add additional shows. And then, one day, he told his then-bookkeeper Lisa Kentzell about his real goal: to become the CNN of tech.

“I said: Okay, let’s do it,” recalled Kentzell when I met her and Laporte in the TwiT cottage in Petaluma, Calif. last week. Kentzell is now the CEO of TWiT, and the company is ready to take the next big step towards its ambitious goal in July with the move into a spacious new studio built with a 24/7 live video operation in mind.

Check out this video of Leo Laporte and Lisa Kentzell showing off their new studio:

The new space is only a couple blocks away from the old studio, but in a way, the two studios are worlds apart. The old TWiT cottage, which has been Laporte’s home base since 2005, looks like your grandma’s small old summer-house taken over by a bunch of geeks. Too many geeks, actually. The 18 staffers are literally bumping into each other all the time. The new studio, on the other hand, will have multiple sets, 40 cameras, state of the art tech and lots of room for future expansion.

The move is also as sign of TWiT doubling down on live video. It’s a ambitious proposition, in part because most of its audience still thinks of TWiT as a podcast network. Kentzell told me TWiT sees about 5 million downloads every month. Live is harder to track, she said, but still much smaller.

“The live audience isn’t here yet,” admitted Laporte. “It’s a big bet on the future.” And live is expensive: TWiT recently had to shut down the live feed of its Roku channel because of exploding bandwidth costs. However, Laporte believes that these things will eventually sort themselves out with bandwidth prices going down.

Taking a step back when things get too expensive is also a part of the TWiT way of doing business. Laporte and Kentzell thought about moving to San Francisco with the new studio, but decided to stay in Petaluma to get more bang for their buck. The company only spends as much as it can afford at any given time, and has been entirely bootstrapped from day one, declining many opportunities for outside funding. “We are very committed to bootstrapping,” said Laporte. Kentzell agreed: “We wanted to have full creative and financial control.”

Speaking of Kentzell, she’s one of the lesser-known folks on the TWiT team, but Laporte couldn’t speak more highly of her. “It really wasn’t a business until Lisa came along,” he told me. Laporte initially hired her to do his books; he soon discovered that she was outsourcing the actual bookkeeping to a whole team she managed. Impressed, he convinced her to bring some of that leadership to TWiT. Laporte credits her for doubling revenue every year in the past few years, up to the tune of $3 million in 2010.

Much of that money comes from advertising these days, which is brought in by an external sales team. Initially, TWiT was entirely donation-based, with listeners shipping in as much as $20,000 per month. The company is relying on some of that loyalty to finish its new studio, which will cost about $850,000, by selling commemorative bricks to fans. “Donations give people a feeling to be part of it,” said Laporte.

So what’s next for TWiT? 24/7 live streaming is one goal; a satellite bureau in New York is also in the cards. Laporte also wants to hire more talent and add more shows after poaching broadcaster Tom Merritt and producer Jason Howell from Cnet last year. But he doesn’t believe in branching out too far. “I’m not trying to get bigger; I’m trying to serve our niche better,” he said, adding that he’s confident to have a good sense of the content that will be popular. “I really understand our audience. I am one of them.”

And as for the ambitions to become the CNN of tech, Laporte says it’s not just a numbers game. He may never reach as many simultaneous viewers as the cable channels, but he believes TWiT can be just as relevant. His team will have succeeded once “a breaking news story happens and people turn to us,” he explained. Getting there may take years, and millions of dollars that Laporte and Kentzell intend to make the old-fashioned way: through bootstrapping. Said Kentzell, “It’s a little risky, but I think it’s worthwhile.”

  1. My last name is spelled with two T’s. But good article!

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    1. Thanks, Tom, we corrected it right away.

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  2. Love Leo and the gang. Watch them on Boxee software whenever I get a chance.

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    1. wish I could see you guys on XBMC

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      1. You can. Grab the twit video plugin.

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  3. I was stupid-happy when Leo got Tom and Jason over to TWiT as I’d been a fan of BoL for a long while. If only Molly would see the light. CNET, imo, has become stayed and dry. It’s sad because they have a great talent pool over there (Molly, BT, Donald Bell, et. al.)

    I’ve also been a TWiT since close to day one and one of the many that have been watching Leo since ZDNET. In fact, TWiT netcasts make up about 80% of my TV viewing.

    Cheers and all success to the TWiT network. :)

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  4. I loved the article. I hope one day soon to visit the new studios. Leo has some awesome shows. Keep up the good work.

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  5. The show sure has come a long ways from the humble beginnings, Leo has always been a pioneer and this is just the next step. Loyal fan since the TechTV days of college, keep it up Laporte!!

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  6. It’s crazy to see how much twit’s expanding. I hope quality of the content stays the focus rather than the quantity of shows. I was a big fan of many of the shows on twit, but slowly stopped keeping up-to-date as the shows would get so long it’d be difficult to make time for everything. Then as I found some of the shows seemed to lose some of their quality I found myself less enthusiastic to catch up.

    Once they’re settled in their new studio I shall have to give them a try again and see how it comes together.

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  7. Leo needs to get new mods for his chat room. If you make one comment criticizing a shoe you are banned. Its like kiss Leo’s feet or get out.

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    1. Show.

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      1. Actually, some of them are so testy, they might boot you for criticizing a shoe!

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    2. Agreed, the chat room is really ridiculous in terms of censorship. Say one thing even remotely critical about anything on twit and you are automatically flamed, called a troll, and quickly banned. I honestly think those mods are keeping his live viewership small because people like me (a longtime Twit fan) get turned off by the aggressive mods and go back to just downloading shows.

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      1. I agree. The shows feel so warm and inviting, often making fun of themselves and embracing constructive criticism but as soon as you go into the chat room it feels like you have to walk on egg shells.

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    3. I completely agree and wish that Dan or some of the other mods understood that a few bad moderators are censoring many for personal reasons or for viewpoints that deviate from their own but do not violate the chat rules/guidelines. this is a growing problem and mods like “Ikon” etc. are slowly poisoning the twit-chat-brain.

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    4. agreed,those mods are real quick to boot anyone they think brings any negative or constructive comments to the room.I for one have felt their wrath many times and am presently banned.

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  8. I’m a convert and a big fan of Leo’s knowledge, humour and down-to-earth attitude. Please keep on fighting for the common man and say what you really feel. More power to you Leo and team!

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  9. Actually, I meant staid not stayed. My bad.

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  10. I have grown up listening to Leo’s podcasts. I found his Tech Guy podcast in the iTunes section when I got my first iPod and it was the very first podcast I listened to. This was about 6 years ago. I am now 19 and listen to many of his podcasts. While I am still audio-only, I think I will be hooking my computer up to my TV once he goes 24/7 video!

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