IMDb veteran, Atom Tickets principal John W. Gibbons backs Podchaser as the ‘IMDb of podcasts’
At Podchaser, we’re working to develop the definitive podcasting platform to give both listeners and hosts more options: better discoverability, stronger organization, and more powerful tools to track your favorite personalities across shows and episodes. We’ve got an extremely talented team working across the globe to transform our vision — with your feedback — into the essential hub for podcast listeners and hosts alike. Today, we’d like to showcase one of the newer members of that team by sharing our interview with Podchaser’s first official advisor.
John W. Gibbons is a media veteran, having spent nearly 20 years innovating and breathing organization into digital media. He’s the principal product manager at Atom Tickets, an LA-based ticketing start-up expected to announce its C series funding shortly; the company has raised over $50 million to date from Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, Steven Spielberg, and others. Before that, he spent years leading monetization and revenue efforts at IMDb and Amazon. Most immediately striking about John are the senses of humility and electric curiosity that permeate his words. Asked why he enjoys podcasts, he explained,
“I’m an audio person…. I owned a television in the early 2000s. My girlfriend at the time — now my wife — always thought it was so funny that I had it on an old tea cart that I’d roll into a closet. I don’t like televisions. I’m from Texas. I’m a porch culture person, which means I enjoy talking to people. [Laughs] What I really love about podcasts is that I can do other things while I’m listening. I have three kids. My Saturday night was basically doing laundry all night… And I listened to four episodes of Reply All… But my problem is, I have a bit of a hard time finding new podcasts. There should be a solution to help find new podcast content.”
Despite his Texan origins, Gibbons has spent much of his career zigzagging between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. “London is a really hard place to be poor, but working in kitchens offset some of that poverty,” he explained, describing his first job out of college. Saving up for grad school — he had been an English literature major — pulled him across the Atlantic from the American West to England. It was there that, amid cooking, he became involved with Amazon via a serendipitous meeting that led to writing customer service templates for the company.
Eventually, Gibbons ended up moving back to the U.S. — this time, to Seattle. As he continued to expand Amazon’s customer service response templates, he befriended the co-founders of IMDb, a recent acquisition for Amazon.
“I don’t think most people know how IMDb gets their data. IMDb is user-generated. All IMDb’s done is figure out ways to adjudicate that data in real time. There are editors, but for many years, we were like a two-pizza team, meaning you could feed the entire team with just two pizzas. But the way it started, the founder was really into directors. He got to the point where he couldn’t remember all the movies he had seen. This was in, like, 1990, before the internet. And then there was another person really into composers, with his own list… And they merged those. And then actresses were third… so it grew organically, and that growth happened over a 30-year period… So it’s not like a start-up that just happened. It’s a lot of grit and tenacity that generated today’s IMDb.”
As his professional responsibilities grew in scope (including building programs to compete with Ebay and expand Amazon’s video content), Gibbons found himself working increasingly in tandem with the IMDb team, devising ways to drive traffic and drive up revenue between the sites. Together, they hashed out how to “talk to movie studios so they would pay you actual cash. This may not seem novel now, but it really was at the time.”
In 2000, Gibbons transitioned to IMDb full-time, where he was effectively responsible for monetization. At the onset of the new millennium, internet funding models were basically without rules or precedent; for John, this wasn’t just a matter of keeping up with IMDb’s Amazon contribution margin, but how to actually generate cash. From that process, he worked to develop IMDb Pro and to dramatically expand the scope of the site’s advertising. The job switch also meant a return trip to London: “Everything from South Korea to Germany to Brazil [was] done out of London. So I was there for three years.”
Thanks in great part to reinvigorated revenue streams, IMDb has exploded, ballooning from 300,000 users a month — an extremely impressive rate to begin with — to over 250 million. The expansion delighted Gibbons: “You had those experts who hung around video stores in the ’80s who knew all of this, and then IMDb came out, and [now] we can all be cinephiles, which is fantastic!” Unsurprisingly, Amazon took notice and began to adopt some of the new advertising strategies. Some seem obvious now but weren’t so at the time; for example, John explained how they broke ground with targeted advertising, for example emailing customers who’d purchased Cars and Cars 2 to notify them that Cars 3 was out in theaters.
So impressed by IMDb’s growth was Amazon that they took the business and formed a new working group to integrate advertising strategies. The company tasked Gibbons with returning to the U.S. to smooth out that merger. “It was challenging because IMDb was always an Amazon company, but we had very different cultures.” Amazon was dealing with a revenue-per-second growth metric, while IMDb functioned on a totally different scale. Gibbons found himself frequently traveling between Europe and the United States, often bogged down in dealing with operational issues. One day, on a flight overseas, he struck up conversation with a stranger next to him. After his co-passenger enthusiastically described a project he was knee-deep in at work, the realization hit Gibbons: “I wasn’t really building anything.” He flew back home and left Amazon and IMDb after more than a decade with the companies.
The decision was difficult, particularly for Gibbons’ wife (also in international digital management, at MySpace), who’d recently given birth to the couple’s first child. He spent the next two years working in ad technology. During the time, YouTube came into its own. The meteoric growth fascinated Gibbons: “My own personal theory is that I think the Recession in 2008… I think it’s partially responsible for what’s happened at YouTube. I think a bunch of really smart people graduated from schools, could not get jobs, and discovered YouTube.”
“Audiences were spending a huge amount of time watching video online, but there was no IMDb for it. There were no solutions.” To that end, Gibbons ended up forming DoneBy, a media site intended to layer a sense of organization on top of YouTube. He raised about $3.5 million and has since transitioned the site into a machine-learning effort. Describing the entire process as “humbling,” he noted how much he’d learned about business formation and management from the experience. Although the company is still running and manages significant clients (plus data-licensing), it’s never exploded into the big business he anticipated.
“So, this year, after not paying myself for over a year and having two more kids and wanting to keep my marriage intact [laughs], there are some people from Amazon who’ve started a company here in LA called Atom Tickets.” Atom Tickets has three major functions: selling movie tickets with modern, social features that people now expect from products; building and maintaining platforms and ticketing systems for third parties such as Regal Cinemas and powering ticketing for IMDb. (There’s also an Atom Insights, a developing business-to-business unit including insights for industry, advertising, and data analytics.)
Atom Tickets is Gibbons’ current project, which he was working on when we reached out to him about joining Podchaser as an advisor this summer. We were thrilled by his reaction. “I mean this in all sincerity: I think it’s a really noble cause… IMDb is a historical compendium of human culture. That’s what it is. I think podcasts are the same thing, but there’s no organization to it.”
“I’m not really a religious person, but I think if God exists, he exists somewhere between math and data.” John’s impressive depth of knowledge and hands-on experience have been critical to Podchaser so far. And his favorite podcasts? Reply All, The Truth, The Moth (“like everyone else”), How I Built This, and, of course, Serial and S-Town. In building a sense of organization around the community, Gibbons was specifically passionate about the prospect of a sort of taxonomy of podcasts:
“It helps makes what’s coming better… [In the film industry,] you get someone like Fritz Lang, who really impacts someone like Darren Aronofsky… and then all of a sudden, we get to go see Mother! on the weekend. Which is amazing… To be able to know what someone did for a podcast five years will certainly help someone who’s doing it ten years from now.”
We’re working day and night to ensure Podchaser enables precisely that--and much more. For the time being, you can look forward to a similar profile of our second official advisor, Letterboxd co-founder Karl von Randow. And remember to check back next week as we give you updates on podcast claiming, discoverability updates, and further progress on the site's People function.
Podchaser is posting this interview today in lieu of our weekly update blog post.