The Oral History of Random Nerds
Thank you to Charles Bramesco for sitting through long-winded answers and organizing this for us. We’ll treasure this textual scrap book forever. – Bryce Rudow, Editor-in-Chief
From Humble Beginnings
Joe Corbett, Founder & CEO: I’ve been screwing around with gadgets and electronics my whole life. As a kid, I took apart (read: destroyed) any object that was powered by electricity because I wanted to know how they worked. As I got older though, I quickly realized the power of being more than just computer literate, and everything I did from that moment on centered around technology.
Bryce T. Rudow, Editor-in-Chief: I grew up knowing that I wanted to get paid for coming up with weird ideas, which my parents and teachers told me was marketing. Eventually I realized there was a less economical but more fun version of that called ‘writing for a living.’
JC: I’ve learned almost everything I know about technology by searching the endless oceans of information that are freely available to anyone with access to a computer. In 2012, I came to the realization that I had given nothing back to this pool of knowledge. I wanted to fix that imbalance by starting a nerd blog that could be a place for me and my friends to write about stuff we cared about, and then share it with the world in hopes that other people out there might get some value out of it.
BTR: Thanks to some blind luck, I ended up with a weekly column at Brightest Young Things as my first real writing job, even though I didn’t have a real writing resume per se. I turned that into a few successful freelance gigs, and then eventually got a job at The Daily Banter. I worked my way up to Associate Editor there, only to eventually realize that the media industry was completely broken. Competing outlets were, and still are, drowning each other in hopes of keeping their own head barely above water.
JC: Fast forward to late 2014, and Random Nerds had become essentially just a brand I used to promote gaming events that raised money for a local non-profit that provides access to technology for those without it. It’s good work and Random Nerds will continue to do things like it, too. But RN had become a one-man writing team with a few guest bloggers stepping up from time to time, and our flow of original content began to dry up.
BTR: I dreamt of a site where everything was worth reading. I don’t mean that everything would be of interest to everybody, but that every piece on the site would meet standards for quality. There is nothing worse than when web sites run thoughtful work alongside disposable ‘product’ produced simply to draw clicks. It’s almost an insult to the person who worked hard on that great piece to imply that it has the same worth as the listicle drawn up by some intern.
JC: I still feel that I need to give more back to the interwebs and help young padawan nerds learn how to be functional/hirable nerds. That’s what the Internet did for me; it helped me figure out how to turn some of my hobbies into a career, and so that’s what I’ll continue to do with Random Nerds. The site’s taken on the Quixotic mission to make the Internet a better place, even if it starts in a small way. I’m tired of substandard writing specifically engineered to chase whatever trend might draw the most clicks that day. For a person who has received so much from the internet, I felt duty-bound to prove that a media company can not only survive without becoming a content mill, but that it can thrive. We can run thoughtful, funny and well-written articles, and make money doing it (all without flashing ads in your face).
FORGING A PARTNERSHIP
JC: Bryce was a good friend and former co-worker of mine that I met during my days on the the front lines of the marketing world.
BTR: In 2012, I got a job as a Creative Strategist at a marketing agency where Joe was the COO. We would both go on to leave the company for various, non-human-trafficking-related reasons. That kind of thing bonds two people for life.
JC: Bryce asked me what I was planning to do with Random Nerds, and I told him I had been planning to overhaul it but didn’t really know what the end goal would be. After some discussion and much sketching on cocktail napkins, we agreed that we should build Random Nerds to support its original mission: to run material that people could care about, only we’d cover a few more areas and apply a non-traditional revenue model that would center on getting writers paid what they’re deserved.
BTR: Joe is probably the only person who I felt comfortable working with when it came to trying to launch a site of my own. I knew that in order to do this right I’d need someone who not only knew marketing and strategy (and design and development and operations and…), but someone who understood and believed in the ethos of a site like this.
JC: It was a risk. But I was risking the same things that’re always at stake when you start a new enterprise: losing lots of your own money (not to mention your investors), failing spectacularly in a very public way, dealing with the ebb and flow of your own ego (keeping shit real, as some say), and starting a new thing that once again will measure your worth as an entrepreneur and business leader.
BTR: I only had two concerns about this partnership. One, that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with Joe’s relentless work ethic and he would eventually grow to resent me. And two, that he would make everything on the site Mario-themed, and then nobody would take my thinkpieces on Kanye West seriously.
JC: Having said that, it would be far riskier for me not to do this. I can’t just work; I have to be building something. I have to be exciting people, and in some cases that means riling them up. Random Nerds has the typical pillars that support a media company, but we also have elements that are absolutely unique. If leveraged properly, we can offer ideas and perspectives in a format you won’t be able to find anywhere else.
A GRAND DESIGN
JC: Friendly Design Co. came highly recommended from many of my colleagues in the creative agency world, so that’s why we approached them before anyone else. From the very first meeting, I knew they were the right team for two reasons…
BTR: We went with Friendly because Joe said that we should, and when it comes to design shops, Joe is a connoisseur. I don’t think I even asked him why he liked them when he first brought them up. It was more of an, “Ok cool. What’s next?” kind of thing.
JC: The chemistry was there. I knew we liked each other and respected each other as professionals. This is massively important on a creative project like this because it’s not uncommon for an agency to start dictating to the client or to have the client treat the agency like a low-level employee, which negatively impacts the project.
Friendly Design Co.: Our vision was to strike a balance between interactive functionality and good readability. Many blogs and news sites you see these days fall heavily in one camp or another. They’re great at displaying lots of posts and rich media but terrible when you want to actually read something, or they’re great for reading but are impossible to use and navigate.
JC: They get us. Friendly Design Co is staffed full of nerds that have a variety of passions and interests which mirror the variety we expect the new site will have. Simply put, we told them to design and build something they would be happy to interact with on a daily basis.
BTR: I wanted the site to look like a book that you’d gotten second-hand. The actual body copy would be formal and have some gravitas to it, but I wanted to still have some space to be our informal, snarky selves. That’s a pretty tall, weird order, yet somehow Friendly knew exactly what I was trying to convey and executed it beautifully.
Friendly: We conducted a pretty thorough review of Random Nerds’ competitors; various popular (and unpopular) blogs and news sites, and even some completely unrelated sites that simply had good bits of functionality. All told, we probably walked through around fifty different sites, but kept coming back to the same five-to-ten to see how they handled certain issues. We picked out our favorite pieces of each and used them to construct something all our own. We’ve drawn inspiration from everything from the Harvard Law Review (really! It’s a nice site) to Polygon to the New York Times to Quartz. The tricky part was thinking about which sites we really liked to read, and to try to analyze what we we subconsciously thought of their reading experiences.
We also looked at a lot of other sites and interactive experiences from around the Internet to see how we wanted the site to interact. We’ve been using Slack in the office for communication a lot lately, so that was something on our mind as well. Slack feels so good to use, and we wanted to figure out we could apply that confidence in the experience to Random Nerds.
JC: The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was balancing our expectations for what Version 1.0 of Random Nerds should be with what would be better saved for v1.5 or v2.0. I’ve seen plenty of companies that never really launched because they were obsessed with making things “perfect,” and that’s an unhealthy practice; you need to put something out in the world that is great (not perfect), rather than keeping it hidden forever. Then, you let your users validate or invalidate your decisions and inform your road map moving forward. Random Nerds will never be perfect, and it will never be completed. It will evolve and respond to what we know about our readers’ preferences, and it’ll always offer new ways to support the mission.
Friendly: We didn’t really get into any creative squabbles with Joe and Bryce. We all looked forward to working on this project together because at every turn, they reiterated that they wanted to make something great and didn’t want their decisions to get in the way of it. That being said, they found that some decisions were harder to make than others. (Pause for dramatic effect.) The biggest issue in this regard was the visual aesthetic. In our initial meetings with them, we thought they wanted something that mimicked the personalities of the guys we met with. Fun, big, and energetic, something that encapsulated their own particular brand of nerdiness. But when you’re trying to cover such a vast swath of nerd-culture, there’s really no one style that applies to everyone. In the end, we opted for a clean, almost classical style partially because of how well it contrasts with the whimsical nature of a lot of RN’s content.
THE FUTURE OF RANDOM NERDS
JC: I’ve been doing my best to be a good entrepreneur and mock up revenue projections and plan out what happens to the business from quarter to quarter and year to year. But to be honest, I have no idea what’s going to happen. We have a very conservative cash burn rate and what we estimate is a nearly limitless revenue potential from various channels (which we continue to discover more of each week).
BTR: I don’t even want to think about what Random Nerds could become because it seems like every day Joe and I are cooking up some other crazy thing we want to do. But my major goal for this experiment we’re calling Random Nerds is to get ‘the people in charge’ to realize that this Patronizing model is the only thing that really makes sense when it comes to financing pure content creation. Once something hits the internet, someone’s going to find a way to get it for free (I have a digital copy of Taylor Swift’s 1989, if anybody’s interested!), so the kindness of strangers is really all we have left.
JC: Bryce and I set out to make something that delivers content that people will value in a setting that will let them know we also value their valuing it. If that’s the best we do, I can live with that. We’re fully aware that part of our fleet is in a red ocean home to some real juggernauts, but we’re setting a course for uncharted waters and I think we’re going to thrive there.
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