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Bootstrapping the CNN of tech: the story of TWiT

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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 (s TWX) 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 (s CBS) 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.”

39 Responses to “Bootstrapping the CNN of tech: the story of TWiT”

  1. Taylor Trask

    What an incredible achievement. The fact that Leo has (more or less) resurrected the TechTV of old, on his own time and dime, in just 7 years is amazing. I’m loving the new studio!

  2. Nice article, been watching twit for years now and love it. What a talented and diverse bunch Leo has brought together. Great people and shows!

  3. Great article about Leo & TWIT. From a smaller startup to a larger video network. Constantly expanding and growing. Would like to see a greater variety of advertisers but great for all. Doing the TWIT.

  4. I would enjoy reading a future article that goes more into how they bootstrapped the venture. How they are roping in advertisers. How they’re trying to get the word out about themselves. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of TWiT.

  5. I remember being so excited when I got digital cable and TechTV. I watch “The Screen Savers” and “Call for Help” every day. I was saddened when they were sold to G4 but now TWiT and Revision 3 are, in my opinion, even better.
    I’m so proud of what Leo has built and will continue to be a fan for the foreseeable future.

  6. The one issue I have with Twit is that all of the shows (with the exception of Steve Gibson’s show) are basically a giant 2 hour commercial for consumer technology (mostly apple and android products). The hosts come off as incredibly biased in favor of gushing about the latest consumer tech they have been given. Even on the Windows show they mostly discuss apple and android plans. There is really no content appealing to real IT issues or professional tech, the whole network seems like more of a way to build consumer demand for smartphones, not to mention that even the commercials have commercials. I used to listen a lot but the ads and biased content quickly became tiring.

  7. Love TWiT!
    I Watch it live in the browser when I can & each week watch several recorded shows streamed to my WP7 via the TWiT App (Cheers Dimitry!). In fact I very rarely listen to TWiT, electing instead to watch it.

    RE the CNN-esk plans: I would say that that is exactly how I see the TWiT ‘network’ – as my outlet of choice for tech news (more so than watching something like Click on the BBC, for example). But also beyond that as a source of out & out entertainment (e.g., NSFW) & then for more specialist interest viewing for the niche audience (TWiCH) & Windows Weekly (I’m a bit of a self confessed MS-Fanboy).

    Bootstrapping FTW! Loving that things seem to be going in the right direction over in Petaluma!

  8. Jayson

    I as well have been with Leo since the Screensavers and Call for Help on ZDTV and he continues to deliver really quality and entertaining programming. I’ve tuned in to several TWiT Live specials for Apple Keynotes and have been very impresed by being able to SEE live commentary on events as they occur. It’s quite a big improvement over reading simply an account of what’s happening in the presentation room on somebody’s liveblog.

    With that said, I may be one of few listeners that consumes Macbreak Weekly, TWiT, and TNT through audio podcasts. I typically listen at work as the opportunity presents itself and just don’t have the amount of quality time in front of a TV at home as I’d like to sometimes. I really enjoy listening; I even look forward to the commercials! I really hope that this transition to 24×7 video isn’t at the expense of on-demand audio.

    Best wishes to Leo and the Gang for continued success!

  9. Be aware mr laporte and viewers. Verizon announced the end of all unlimited data plans on june 21st,2011.
    I challenge you to be the first to transcode video on the fly at resolutions set by the viewers. Starting at 128×96
    Including pal and ntsc video resolutions.

    You might as well rule the entire mobile market and accomodate as many handsets as possible.

  10. Thanks for the walk-through. Can’t believe the long road from Dvorak on Computers, Screen Savers, the cottage, and now this. A real heartfelt congratulations guys! It’s been a fun journey already & looking forward to see where it goes.

  11. I always wonder where Lisa came from because I had never heard her name mentioned before she came CEO. It is good to know that she has been there from the beginning.

    I still do a mix of audio and video. TWIG, and Windows Weekly I always watch on my TiVo. TSH, MBW, and FW I usually listen to. TWiT it depends. I still don’t do much live but I do on special events like the WWDC Coverage a couple of weeks ago.

  12. The TWiT network’s awesome content always helps me break the 2GB mark on mobile data. I just can’t wait for wifi to get the new episodes. Congrats to them on the new cottage and continued success.

  13. CONTENT IS KING – and The TWIT Network – Leo is the KING. Leo & the gang are such incredible, honest, genuine, straight forward Techy’s . . . I just love everything about TWIT…. wish I was closer because I am dying to be onset for one of your radio shows. Keep up the awesome content…..
    Paul Meyers

  14. Great piece on the twit team,i have been listening to the podcasts and some video from day one.searched on my ipod chose tech news today and managed to pick the best tech show and organisation in the online tech world.keep the great work up.

  15. Benjamin

    If TWIT hired someone like Jeri Ellsworth or Ben Heck to produce a show for them at the new studios, I think that would possibly be the greatest thing to ever happen for tech geeks.

  16. Tom Devey

    I have been following the live broadcasts of TWiT for the past couple of years and have been quite impressed at the capabilities that a small group of people can demonstrate with the media of the internet. To quote Marshall McLuhan, “The media is the message.”

    It is still centred around Leo, and the connections he has made and continues to make in the technology business. TWiT could just as easily be named “Leo and Friends”. The key to making it a long lasting enterprise will be to make it less reliant on Leo, and you can see, with the hiring of Tom Merritt and others that they now have shows which are compelling to watch in their own right.

    Nice article, thanks for posting it.

  17. Hunter

    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!

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

    • TwitFollower

      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.

    • bagofhurt

      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.

  20. nascent

    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.

  21. 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. :)