Do you know why WhatTheyThink! has the name WhatTheyThink!? Did you know that WhatTheyThink! was one of the first media in the printing industry that launched a daily newsletter, and that Eric Vessels and Adam Dewitz was literally chasing news every night to get enough content for their newsletter? So many great and amazing stories, and who’s better to tell the story than Eric Vessels who is one of the three owners of WhatTheyThink!
WhatTheyThink! is one of the most recognized media in the printing industry, and we are happy to call them friends – thank you for finally getting in front of the camera Eric!
As with all our ‘Over the Skype’ interviews, quality is limited to bandwidth, web-cams, and ability to literally LIVE mix the conversations. However, it works, and with Over the Skype, we will bring you more than 20 exciting people, and angles on the industry as it is right now.
This is Morten from Inkish tv with yet another episode of Over the Skype. And I’m particularly happy with this one and I know I’ve said that probably a lot of times during the past couple of weeks. But then particularly happy because I have asked so many times to get my good friend Eric Vessels from What They Think in front of the camera. And maybe it’s because he’s in Ohio and he’s so far away from where I am right now that I convinced him to do that. So Eric, welcome to All the Skype.
Thanks, Martin. Appreciate it buddy. You had to pick the quarantine time when my hair’s at its absolute worst. I have no goatee trim. I’ve got hair peeking out of my hat over here. I’ve got to wear a hat. It’s awful. But we’re hanging in there.
So when you’re not wearing the hat and we don’t have a quarantine, what is then your excuse?
I don’t have hair.
That’s great. Eric, the first time I met you and your partner in crime, Adam. Kelly came on later. So the first time I met you guys was at [inaudible 00:01:15] in Berlin two years ago, I think, two and a half years ago. And to-
Yeah, it seems like longer though.
Yeah. And to be honest, I was kind of starstruck when I … and I was when Adam talked to me and asked if we should meet at in Berlin. And I’m still kind of starstruck when I meet you guys because what you have done is, in my opinion, just fantastic. You have built maybe one of the most up to date and most appreciated [inaudible 00:01:41] in the printing industry. So how did you get into that thing?
Yeah. It’s so weird to hear that because the brand is obviously bigger than us. It’s bigger than me personally. And I have that experience a lot. I’ve been on trains before in different countries with Japanese guys coming up recognizing the logo and it feels kind of weird. It was complete accident, honestly.
Yeah. How I got into the industry, I had … So the founder of What They Think is one of my best friends and my college roommate at the University of Louisville, Randy Davidson. And we actually celebrated 20 years this year. We were going to have a big celebration at Drupa. That kind of got-
That’s why I’m a little bit upset with you because you were going to have this 20 years anniversary in a castle in Germany, right?
Well, it was going to actually be at the old stop in Dusseldorf at the Irish pub. SO we’re contemplating maybe still having some kind of a celebration there next year even though it’ll be 21 or whatever. I mean, What They Think will be legal drinking age in the US so, I mean, that’s a good year too.
Let’s celebrate that too.
We’ll figure out a way to celebrate. Our culture is always been around kind of work hard, play hard. But no, it was a pretty much complete accident. Randy and I were good friends. We were kind of divergent at the time. I was working in the automotive industry doing paint defect analysis and technical clean room, a paint shop, clean room type cleaning, managing groups of people to do that.
And just kept communicating with Randy about his business. He was a sales guy in the print industry and he had developed a business where he was getting print buyers and building databases of print buyers and selling it into different cities.
Oh, really, okay. So that was a completely different business at that time basically.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Way back in like late nineties I guess it was called Press On Smiles. And basically the model basically was if you were a printer in Dallas, you would get a database of 800 print buyers in the Dallas area. And you could basically just press on your smile and market to them real easily. So he was working on that business and he was trying to think of things that could sort of improve that and came up with the idea to survey print buyers`.
And that was the foundation for how What They Think got started?
Yeah. So it was a survey that he would fax out questions and consolidate those questions. And then send that information to the printers so they could understand print buyers better. So he was talking to a friend of his at the time who was in sales in the industry and explaining kind of what he was doing with it. And the guy said, “You should call it What They Think.”
Yeah, I was just about to say that. It makes perfect sense because if that is the story, What They Think and you get the survey and you send that answers to the printers and they get knowledge about what the customer thinks. That is a perfect name.
Yeah. So it fit perfectly. And what’s funny, fast forward a few years when I wear my What They Think shirts in the airport, everyone thinks that we’re a survey company. And we actually contemplated at one time, well maybe we should rebrand and create a survey company or sell it to a survey com … because it’s a great URL.
But I mean what eventually happened as is kind of something that doesn’t really necessarily right off the bat mean something kind of got branded. So over the years, we expanded from that model into … Randy had this larger vision of creating a portal. And portal’s of big nineties word-
Yeah, I remember everybody wanted to have the portals. Yahoos or everything like … Yeah.
So that’s kind of where it evolved. And that’s really when I came into the business in 2002, was mostly doing the behind the scenes work. Randy was doing most of the sales work and business development. I was doing a lot of the behind the scenes work of entering content, publishing content, publishing newsletters and did that. And we grinded on that for several years. I mean many, many, many, many nights until 3:00 in the morning and then get up and do it all again. Just total entrepreneurial grind.
And as it grew and Randy transitioned out of the business. A couple of other people that we had in the operation side, left. One, Corey Smith, still a good friend of mine, was a ultra runner and so he actually now works for ultra running magazine, kind of doing a lot of same stuff that he did at What They Think being … So having a good time doing that.
So then Adam and I basically that’s the stage of the business where Adam and I took control of the company.
And Adam, he has a background from being a printer himself, doesn’t he? I mean …
Yeah, big time. So RIT grad, big technical guy, I mean really, really knows. He’s my lead on guy for like industry. What does this mean? Obviously, I mean I’ve been 18 years now, so I mean I have-
You have picked up a few things.
I’ve picked up a few things about the industry here, but I don’t come from a print background. I don’t have a print education or RIT or any of that kind of stuff.
So Eric, Eric, just the question so when the form that we know What They Think about now is that … Correct me if I’m wrong, but I see this like couple of things that I want to point out. You have the public website, which is probably where you’re most known for. Then you have a subscription model where you have analysis and more in depth articles about things. Then you have magazines. Then you have a very comprehensive films. I think you’ve said to me that you have, is it 5,000 or 10,000 films you have made over the years?
Videos were … We just crossed the 4,000 threshold.
4,000 yeah. And then on top of that, then you also have, you have it like the filming thing you also do for on costumer. That is not What They Think for, but more like testimonial films as a production company. And you also have a paper database and you also have research work. I mean, is there anything in the industry that is not equal to What They Think?
It’s funny that you say that because I am on a … Kind of from leading the business and the company, I’m still not where I want us to be in terms of comprehensiveness. I think there’s a lot of things that we can do. My goal is to, like if anyone in the industry thinks about like I need to know something about the industry, I want What They Think to be the first thing that pops into their head.
And for a lot of people it is, I mean our bread and butter really is that morning newsletter. The Daily, we were the first person to really ever do a daily email newsletter. Thinking about it, in 1999 it was just unheard of.
It started already in ’99 with the daily newsletter?
In 2000 when we started What They Think, a core basis of what it was, was the newsletter. And we really sort of built the content in the site to serve the newsletter. So that’s always … And we followed our customers because almost to a person when I meet someone for the first time, that’s the number one thing that they tell me, “I start my day with What They Think. A cup of coffee and What They Think.”
I remember when we were publishing from a broadcasting, Inkish was broadcasting live from Dallas and I asked if you wanted to have some, some advertising in our spaces in between. You had like two great people that were talking about how they start with the newsletter in the morning and how important it is for the industry to get those newsletters. So I think that it was good and representative those two videos. I think you have even used them in your own media as well, right?
Oh yeah, no, no. I mean testimonials, as you know, are super powerful, especially in the video format. And telling those stories as … You, I think you guys are really setting the standard in leading in terms of the storytelling and the way that video can be used in a really profound way to tell stories. And I think that’s helping everyone to do the same kind of thing. But yeah, we never get tired of hearing that. And it’s one of those things that’s kind of …
It’s funny though, a little background, that was not easy in the early days. Because the industry was not used to producing news about itself every day. It was still on a 30-day trade magazine calendar. So [crosstalk 00:11:51]
Because people have to remember that as you said, the calendar is around a production of a physical printed magazine. And the news was generate-
Just 30 days. So all the PR companies, whether internal or external, auto marketing companies, they were used to putting out press releases and news and valuable content on that kind of calendar. Well when we came out and said, “We’re going to send a daily email newsletter …”
Zeke says hi, that’s my dog.
He loves to get in on the action.
Yeah. Yeah. But that is good. I mean that’s the second dog we have on All the Skype, so that’s fine.
He’ll probably make a ton of noise because he probably has to go out.
Go. One second, let me let them out.
Yeah, that’s okay. No worries. All right, so now Eric is going out with his Zeke dog. And he’s back and he’s back.
I’ll just let him out back to see what’s going on down there. Now, he’ll probably end up barking at ducks or something like that.
But yeah. So the point I was making was the early days, we really had to struggle to find that content, which is one of the reasons I think I mentioned before, we’re up to like 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. That’s just to get a base of like maybe 10 news items. But of course, doing that, we sort of drove that demand for, okay, wow there … We kind of pulled the demand in because we’re going to publish every day. So then we started seeing more and more people push news towards us instead of us going out and having to pull it and find it.
So now everyone sends their press releases to firstname.lastname@example.org and that doesn’t go to an individual person. That’s like a workflow inbox that we use in a very collaborative way. And we use maybe a third of it.
Okay. So you even have, because you get so much that you sometimes even have to evaluate whether it is … I wouldn’t say newsworthy, but maybe more of an interest to the audience because otherwise you get too much of the [inaudible 00:14:04] and all that stuff.
Well, I mean, newsworthy is a good term to use. We want to be comprehensive, but we also want to deliver value to our members that are taking … They’re starting their day with it. They’re gauging kind of how their day and how their week is going to go in their business. So we want to make sure that it’s all relevant, that it’s all good stuff. So the stuff that we not going to typically run is like so-and-so updated their website or …
Yeah, I understand. But I have a question, Eric, because as you said, aggregating news in a daily form back that was new, and you were a front runner in this perspective. But just the fact that having an online media as comprehensive as What They Think, that was new too, wasn’t it?
At least for this industry, I mean.
Online, digitally. Yeah. I mean there was a lot of comprehensive information being published and there still is. I mean now of course there are folks doing it digitally really well and doing it in print really well. But at the time, there wasn’t the level and the frequency of information. And what we found out …
And you know Bill Gates is coined for saying, “Content is King.” The thing that became clear to us and is something that I say all the time is, “Consistency is Queen.” Because you could put out really good content, but then if you stop putting it out, the attention level goes down. So to maintain that attention level in a digital format online at least, what we realized is it’s like a treadmill that once you hit the on switch, it’s on. And there’s no time to get off.
So you’ve got to deliver on that promise day in, day out. We’ve had three days in the history of What They Think where the website went down for some take the crazy-
Take the crazy [inaudible 00:16:21].
That big time, power outages, big time server, bank failures, they happen. I think three times that I know of that were big-
In 20 years.
-we were out the whole day in 20 years.
Yeah. That’s fantastic. I was just about to-
Sorry, I was just about to say, because one of the things that I really like about What They Think as well is that I think that you have maybe some of the best senior writers and senior people. And senior, not in being old, but senior in knowledgeable. People were like [inaudible 00:16:57], like David [inaudible 00:00:16:59], like Frank Romano and a way more people, of course. But was that something that just easily came around or was that something that also had … I mean I guess you spent some time on getting recognized and being reliable and being the source of information before you just got everything up and running with it, isn’t it?
Yeah. That’s really a hard work. That’s a lot of hard work to get that, to assemble those kinds of people because obviously we’re not large enough where we can just go out and drop big salaries on people and say whatever. We got really lucky in the early days, very early on, Frank Romano, Randy reached out to him and he liked the model. He kind of had this buy-in. He kind of liked what the kids were doing, sort of. And then over the years, obviously we gave him an opportunity to kind of do his thing and his videos have been uniquely popular. Carrie [inaudible 00:18:05], early on-
I must say, before you carry on with Carrie, I just say that I love the Friday Frank Romano thing because that is … Most of them are very funny and most of them are very educational at the same time. So I think you’ve got a scoop there.
Yeah. Yeah. He does a great job with that. And we positioned it on Friday because just, it’s kind of Andy Rooney. It’s kind of fun. It’s kind of a good way to end the week. But how that came about was we’d basically just sent Frank a camera. And he sets it up. And I think we’ve … A couple of times on April fools, we’ve actually showed earlier in the thing before he … Because he literally turns the camera on and then walks all the way around his desk and sits down. And you hardly ever see that walking and sitting down part of it. But that’s how it comes together. But yeah, it’s been a phenomenal series. And Frank’s been a big supporter and a big fan of what we’re doing. And we owe a lot of our reputation for those kinds of people buying in and believing in what we were doing.
And Carrie was another one who we literally reached out to her and she told Randy, “Yeah, I’ll write a few articles.” And here we are 18 years later and she’s literally a core part of what we’ve done over the years and continues to be. But we’re continuing to reach out and find [crosstalk 00:19:28]
I know you are. And that’s why I reached out to you because I wanted to talk to you about your story but also because I … as I mentioned in the beginning, when I met you and Adam in Berlin, first it was like one thing was being starstruck, which I told you about. But the other thing was also that I think a lot of people have an opinion about What They Think. Because you can get everything there basically, you can get the good shit and you can get the bad shit basically. So I think a lot of people have an opinion about What They Think.
But what I experienced getting to know both you and Adam was that you have a really, really passionate love for the printing industry and really wanted to be thriving and growing. And I think that when you know that part of the story as well, everything in my mind comes a little bit more to perspective how great the work that you do is. And I appreciate our friendship, but I also appreciate the work you do because I think it’s truly important to the industry. So I’ll just say that with that story and reaching out to the celebrities like the Romano and Carrie and swaying and all these nice people. You are still a young company with a lot of energy for new things. I mean you never pass an opportunity because …
Is it one and a half year ago or one year ago that you and Adam merged with Kelly and got a magazine under your hood?
Yeah. Towards the end of 2018, a series of just sort of fortunate circumstances. Which I mean, I talk about happy accidents a lot. They happen.
Is it because you basically never do anything and just wait for the right opportunity? I was kidding. I was kidding.
No, I mean, no. I mean you have a point. There are times when it’s like waiting for the right opportunity is the good thing. But there’s also like … I mean, there’s times when we’ve gone after stuff.
Here’s the thing, Martin, Adam and I and the culture of What They Think always has been … Had this entrepreneurial, not scared to try things, attitude. We’re kind of ready, fire aim, kind of an iterative thing. Internally we call it minimum viable products is what we try to develop. And that’s out of a book that’s worth reading by Eric Reese. But yeah, it’s a culture.
So another part of the culture is we’re two things. We’re industry first. We always ask ourselves, does this help the industry? Will this help our members? Will this help printers? And that’s the first question that we answer. And then how can we go about doing it for the maximum benefit?
So one of the things that that culture leads us into is having friendly relationships with people who normally would be seen as a competitor. Part of that’s personality, part of that’s built into the DNA of the company. So we were already friends with Printing News and Kelly and those guys. We know all the [inaudible 00:22:55] folks, we know most all the other publishers that are doing the same thing, fighting for a lot of the same money that’s in the marketplace that we’re fighting for.
But because we always ask the question first, what’s good for the industry? That dissolves a lot of what would be competitive, what would create this divisive stuff. We were always going out having drinks with other publishers or whatever and Kelly and Printing News was one of them. And so we developed a friendship. I mean we were literally friends long before … During the time that we were competitors, we were friends.
And she is very easy to get friends friends with, right? So that was-
She’s nice. She has the same kind of attitude kind of personality that we do. Is just like easy to get along. So when all of the circumstances sort of lined up, we had always wanted to do a print publication. It was one thing that we always kind of got nixed for within the industry. There was a lot of … Oh what’s the right word to use? I guess criticism. There was a lot of people that were saying, “You guys don’t print anything.” And literally, Martin, for the first three years we didn’t have business cards. I mean we printed nothing.
Not even a business card.
Send me an email. So years later we did do a Best of What They Think where we did a perfect bound piece that we took to a trade show and GraphExpo and distributed that. But we did always want to have a print side of what we do so that we can demonstrate how can digital and print best work together. And we’re on that road now. We haven’t solved the puzzle, but that’s one thing that’s super exciting about printing news and the magazine coming into the fold. A, we have a larger team. B, we’ve got more opportunities to reach and help the industry. And C, there’s this puzzle that we always sort of wanted to try to figure out. And that’s how does digital and print play together and how can we demonstrate that? And now we’ve got the tools to do that. So we’re on that path and pretty excited.
One of the things … Because I’m not too frequent a reader of the magazine because yeah, sometimes I forget about that I can read it online. And I don’t get it-
A digital edition? Yeah.
And I don’t get it shipped. But when I read it, I have seen … So for example, one article that was asking about Inkjet and where you were … I think it was Carrie that it was actually talking to different offset vendors in the US asking about the future of offset print. And it was actually a quite positive story as far as I remember. And I think that that is, as you say, where What They Think may be is by most seen as the newsletter and a comprehensive news website with fast and recurring information all the time and lots of videos and interviews with industry people. Then in that magazine, you had the deeper insights in writing an article and analyzing based on a lot of interviews from people.
I think that that in my opinion is where the essence of what you do, because with the printed magazine you can dive into it. And the reason why I mentioned this is particular is because when we started Inkish, I wanted to have that deeper insight in a film format. But I miss the reading format because I love to have the paper and I love to have that tactile thing into that.
So I think that you are definitely on the right path or whatever you will say it is. So I just want to congratulate on that. I think it was a smart move. I hope it goes fine business wise because I think a lot of magazines are going out of business because it’s expensive to do. It takes a … You need to have the advertising to support it. You need to have print costs and designers in a complete different way than doing it online.
Absolutely. That was such a big shock for a digital native to have the monthly costs of printing a magazine. It’s costly. But don’t forget, even if you’re a digital publisher, content is costly to produce.
Good content is costly to produce it. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve leaned a lot on our premium subscribers because they know that we’re going to work hard to produce really good content. And I think we’re going to go more and more in that direction. But one disadvantage that you have as an international digital edition reader, is you can’t feel the awesome coding that we put on the cover. This is amazing coding that it gives the magazine just a totally different feel. And every time it comes in, because I get my advanced copies, I take them out and I’m like, “Oh, it feels so good.”
But yeah. I think you’re right in terms of what can be done in the ma … How someone consumes content in a printed form is for sure different than how they consume it in a digital form. I mean there’s some long format stuff that works digitally. I think there’s some long format video that can work digitally for sure. And you know that.
But it’s different because you’ve got to reach the person in the right moment for the right thing. So what’s not long form? The daily newsletter is not long form though. People used to come up to me and apologize for scanning it and then moving on. I’m like, that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s what that content’s about. But if you go to the website, we can do more. Not even that. Think about how expensive it is to print the paper and the printing costs or whatever. It might be the case that the reverse can be true. Where you read about something and you get turned on, you do a deeper dive digitally.
Yeah. that’s true. Because also if you look at the … Yeah, and if you look at all the trends in relation to augmented reality and to how to use electronic media like films also to emphasize content. So I totally agree on you with that one. I’m just saying that I think that the bridge that you’re talking about, having both the digital and analog is the perfect match basically. And I think that being in a situation where you have both must be mostly great and a little bit challenging. That was what I was trying to say.
It’s challenging and fun. And who knows … But here’s the thing Martin, we don’t care what we find out.
No, no, no, no. That’s-
We don’t care what we find out. We have it in our minds that maybe they work together, but maybe they don’t. Maybe the print experience is completely separate and distinct from the digital experience and we treat it that way. We’ll figure it out. And whatever happens we’re going to figure it out and react because that’s what we’ve always done with the business. When we first thought of doing live events, webinars, long, long, long time ago, we had to learn. When we first started I told you the video story. We didn’t even have lights. We didn’t know what lights were when we started doing video.
Fantastic, isn’t it?
But you can’t be scared to try. You can’t be scared to have an idea, execute it and figure out how bad you are and get better.
And I think that is the fantastic thing because I think that also when … Because when you talk about the openness and the friendship that you have with even in quotation competitors, I think that the friendship that we have got with each other, I don’t see us as competitors. But as you say, of course we … If we go to one vendor and ask for the money, they only have the same money once. So from that perspective you always competitors. But what I have liked, what I do like about the relationship is that also that I can come and show you a new piece of equipment that I purchased and say, “See this is what we’re doing for this kind of thing.” And you can come say, “See this software, that is what we have acquired.”
And when Yon and I are at the [inaudible 00:31:15] and see all your way better cameras than ours and lighting equipment and thing like that. It’s just like the kind of exchange of ideas and knowledge that that I think it drives us both. I don’t know about you guys but sometimes-
A hundred percent. A hundred percent.
Sometimes I go to What They Think and say, “Hmm, now they starting doing a little bit better light or maybe they have a better color grade on the films.” So I go to Yon and say, “Yon, hey, we have to improve because our friends, they are upping the game so we need to go and do the same.”
No, I mean you hit the nail on the head. The way we view it, there’s a kind of a derived term called coopertition.
Yeah, precisely, yeah.
Instead of a … You’re not exactly a competitor. You’re not exactly cooperating, but it’s somewhere in between. But what we realize is what you guys have done with Inkish, is has been a service to the industry, the types of information, the types of stories you’ve been able to tell through video. The video format has elevated the game and helped the industry. So we’re a fan of that.
If it would be something that would harm me industry or is not good [inaudible 00:32:30] then we’re not going to like that and we’re going to make that known as well.
Yeah. I know that, yeah.
We love it. I mean, we’re out there, we’re in the middle of it and we’re having fun and we meet people like you. And there’s always going to be something new on the scene, but we just keep trying to do our thing and do it better and see what happens.
Yeah. And from time to time, you and I would meet in Barcelona for a good bite of food and have a great time. So that is also an advantage just from time to time that you get to be friends with people that are working in the same industry with the same kind of attitudes towards the printing industry.
Eric, we’ve been talking for half an hour, an hour and I know that we are known for long formats. But everything good comes to an end. Before we completely stop, I just want to ask you one more thing is how is the … I mean of course, the Corona crisis is maybe … The epicenter is maybe right now the US and it influences a lot of people and printing companies and things like that. What do you think will be the situation after the Corona crisis? How will we all get along from there?
Well, I think, I actually looked for a pretty robust and quick rebound after Corona because I think there’s a lot of things that we’re learning that are valuable. We’re learning how to connect when we can’t necessarily be in the same place. Everyone and their brother now has learned Zoom and how to do things virtually how to work at home. Which of course being digital natives and all of us, we’ve never had an office so we always work virtually. We sort of already knew that.
But from a larger industry perspective, I think there’s obviously going to be some CapEx issues that the printers are going to have. I think this whole thing may accelerate the consolidation that was inevitable with some printers that are going to go out of business. The progressive printers who are turning themselves more into multichannel marketing consultants more than just putting ink on paper. But being able to have somebody come in and do whatever you need. You need [inaudible 00:34:59], you need an email campaign, you need this, you need … They can do all that. Those guys are going to continue to succeed and the shakeout may be a little quicker. So in the end it may be better for our industry, in the end. But I think we’ll come back pretty strong and I’m looking, looking forward to it.
And the next time you and I will see each other, we’ll be Printing United, I take?
Or Brand Print America or wherever, right?
Yeah. Yeah. Well, the first thing to actually go down, we’ll be there.
Yeah, that’s right.
Eric, I want to thank you very much for taking time to finally accept my invitation for an interview. And at some point when we meet with your entire team, I want to do something that has a little bit better video quality than All the Skype, because that is limited to a lot of factors.
But it was a pleasure to talk to and it was also really great to hear a little bit about the story on how What They Think started as a research and analysis company. And now it’s probably one of the most recognized media in the global print industry. So thank you very much.
Thanks, Martin. I appreciate it, buddy.
Oh, and the dog.
Zeke’s [inaudible 00:36:10] to say hi.