Q&A: Randall Lane, Chief Content Officer @ Forbes
This week, The Idea caught up with Randall Lane, the Chief Content Officer of Forbes and the creator of Forbes 30 Under 30.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your background, and how you got into this work?
I’ve been doing journalism since I was the editor of my college paper. I was always fascinated by the ability to reach people and create change using media. In college, I interned at the Wall Street Journal and wrote a front page story on the shortage of women in Alaska for a magazine. After that story came out, it was a story on AVT World News Tonight, Oprah did a whole episode on it, Cosmo accepted the story, and I could see as a 20-year old the power of storytelling to get the whole world talking about something. I’ve been hooked ever since.
As for my professional background, I started at Forbes out of college as a fact checker, and got promoted a few times pretty quickly to Washington Bureau Chief when I was 27. I did cover stories on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, I got to brew beer with the Coors family, I got to go to the Olympics with Phil Knight from Nike. But I wanted to try and be an entrepreneur myself, so I spent 15 years co-founding two media startups, so coming back here, it’s been fun to marry the knowledge Forbes gave me, in terms of how it shaped me, but also bringing some entrepreneurial know-how and zeal to an amazing brand.
Take me to when you first thought up the idea for 30 Under 30, what did you envision that it would become when you created it?
In my first startup, the core product was P.O.V. Magazine, a men’s business magazine, in the late nineties, 1999 or 1998. We had the 50 under 35 — the nations’ up and comers — and all sorts of people became big shots like Daymond John. It worked, and I did a roundtable with a whole bunch of them, and that was kind of a test of the idea.
Then on my second startup, I actually honed that idea in a magazine called Trader Monthly. We did a lot of events, and we had 30 Under 30, and that was a big deal in Wall Street. The New York Times did a huge story on it, and we were told it got more traffic than any other story they had done; the idea of young success was very interesting. In Trader Monthly, 50 under 35 and our live events created community, but again it was still small, it was just focused on Wall Street.
With Forbes, the first thing I did when I got back here, the first thing that I put into motion was 30 Under 30. But I said, we’re going to do twenty different categories, we’re gonna bring in some outside judges in the world so it’s not just a bunch of editors coming up with a list: it’s the creme de la creme, the gods of each of these fields, and then we’re gonna take it global, so we’re gonna have a real global community of influencers. So again, the idea had been kind of tested, but to tie it in with a brand, and then with a major execution, was really the Edison moment.
Also then taking it from what was in its original carnation as a sort of static list, into a 365-day community for change, where it lives online, it lives in events around the world, and lives kind of in these vertical professional areas, and then horizontally by region, and then you mix them up, so you’ve got a tech entrepreneur, from China, and you’ve got a social entrepreneur from Texas. They have stuff in common, in that they’re both young and trying to do things to change, so you’re creating this real global community, of people who would otherwise never meet, and it’s creating the kind of community that hopefully will play out over the next 50 years, in terms of these folks that can hopefully solve these problems that right now we seem to be stuck in.
Can you tell me more about the business model of 30 Under 30?
First, when the list comes out, basically twitter melts, and it generates many millions of impressions, and we do that around the world. Then, we have giant magazine print executions, that gets sponsored every year. We have a digital community, and we have these live events, where we are creating and have created what is the definitive get-together for young leaders and game-changers and entrepreneurs in the entire world.
Last year we had more than 9,000 people, and this year in Detroit, we’ll have more than ten thousand, and we’ve had speakers ranging from Malala to Monica Lewinsky, who had her debut at the Under 30 summit. With the idea that this is a group, that if you want to affect future thought as opposed to past thought, this is the right group to do it. We get pretty much anybody we want, because it’s such an amazing audience in terms of future influence, and because we convene this valuable audience in one place.
When you’re talking about monetization, it’s cross-platform but it’s also the line of events gives partners the chance to really touch them, at scale, and intimately. Part of what’s cool about this, is that because we’re very selective in the partners we’ve let in, it has to be a brand that’s consistent with this community. There’s a lot of trust with the brand. There’s a reason some of the brands come back every year, because of the community. We’re validating for these brands, and the community trusts them, so they’re kind of allowed inside the rope, in ways that wouldn’t happen at most events.
Can you tell me a bit about the future of 30 under 30?
This is the first year that we’re gonna have the entire world governed: Europe, Asia, the U.S. a global event, as well as a women’s event, so it’s five major events. It started as a list online and in print, we moved to these live events, and now again evolving to a 365-day community. We’re relaunching an app just for honorees, and we have a full-time team to service them, to again make introductions.
The honorees hire from each other, we’ve seen marriages, opportunities, fundraisers, hiring each other, selling to each other, marrying each other, and so we’re gonna lean into that with this team, to foster that community, and treat it more like an everyday community versus a once-a-year convening. The reason we’re able to convene so effectively is because everyone realizes they’ve had a life-changing experience, that this is one of the first things they did that put them in another stratosphere, and they want to be with other people who have experienced that, and there’s a natural affinity there.
So it’s a community, but it’s also a community where I’ve worked, it’s a community based on meritocracy, a true meritocracy — you know we don’t know what these people look like, we don’t know how they dress, we just know that they’ve accomplished great things, and we’ve put them through a rigorous judging process. We also have due diligence after the judging process, which is something we’ve instituted in the last two years to try to make sure. The integrity of the list is everything, but people value it, because it’s a meritocracy, it’s not who you know, and it’s not because a friend got you in, it’s because you’ve done something amazing at an age where you weren’t supposed to do that.
Can you tell me a little bit more specifics about how this community engages on an everyday basis?
There are groups on most social media platforms — what’s interesting is a lot of them have self-created groups and WhatsApp chats. In about four weeks, we’re gonna re-release an app that will focus on the community on a day-to-day level, because we want them to convene all the time. The idea is to be able to have meet-ups, to be able to post if you’re to hire, if you’re looking to raise money, if you’re looking to put money to work; we’ve seen this work literally hundreds of times, but it’s been more ad-hoc. What we’re gonna do is create a system where people can tap into the community while also being mindful of privacy, and also trying to make sure it remains a very velvet rope exclusive experience.
In terms of the 30 Under 30 franchise as sort of a consumer product, why do you think the list is so popular among readers?
It’s popular in the younger demographic because everybody wants to keep tabs on who in their generation is making change and making things happen, but it’s also popular among people who are a lot older and also a lot younger. If you go onto Twitter and you search #30under30, almost every single day if not multiple times a day, college students are saying “I’m gonna get on Forbes 30 Under 30 or die trying.”
It’s become for college students, or even younger, it’s become that early metric, that first goal. It’s too hard to say when you’re 18 years old that you want to win the Nobel Prize. You might say that, but that’s a pipe dream. So for those that are younger it’s become aspirational, and for those that are older, there’s a jealousy factor here — there’s never a shortage of interest in people who are young, healthy, and successful, and that’s human nature.
If you go back to our very first 30 Under 30, which was eight years ago, we had Kevin Systrom on the list, we had Ronan Farrow, Donald Glover before he was even Childish Gambino, we had Daniel Ek from Spotify, and that’s just the first year, so we were and are surfacing people who become household names before they’ve become household names. A lot of the interest is also, from people who want to know who’s next, and that’s what this list does, it’s the early warning system for every single field in every single major country.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media from an organization other than your own?
I’ve been very impressed by how Time magazine has taken a brand that was kind of dowdy, whose core mission had evaporated, and under Benioff and Edward Felsenthal and that team, have kind of cooled off a brand that wasn’t cool, and also whose core mission, which is to summarize the news of the week, had largely gotten away, and they’ve come up with a lot of interesting ways to do that, with big franchises, cool parties, so I’ve been keeping an eye on that.