Boy Genius, Now Under Jay Penske's Wing, Aims to Grow Up

Redesign Is One Step, but Can One-Man Shows Still Grow Into Big, Sustainable Businesses Online?

By Published on .

Most Popular

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Can a one-man, one-woman or even a one-boy show still grow into a broader media business on the web?

BGR website before (top) and after (bottom) the redesign.
BGR website before (top) and after (bottom) the redesign.
Jonathan Geller, who was 19 when he founded Boy Genius Report in 2006, wants to prove that they can. Last weekend the mobile and gadget site introduced its first redesign since Mr. Geller sold it to Jay Penske's MMC in a multimillion-dollar deal last April, adding new elements such as product buyer guides as part of an effort to go much bigger with readers and advertisers.

The sale has enabled Boy Genius Report to name two full-time associate editors, a full-time weekend editor and two ad sales people to complement the efforts of MMC's corporate team. Next on the agenda is hiring "some really established, big-name people" to write for the site, Mr. Geller said, as it expands its coverage to areas beyond its core.

The site has also brought in some important new advertisers since entering new ownership, such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Palm. And Mr. Geller is aiming to triple revenue or better, from $2.5 million in the 12 months before the acquisition to $7 million to $10 million in the 12 months that follow.

Boy Genius Report, or BGR, has been attracting attention from people who are passionate about mobile devices for a long time now. It has broken big news in that space, revealing, for example, early details on new BlackBerry phones. "Here's a site that has the foundations of a successful gadget site," said Dan Frommer, senior staff writer at Business Insider and someone who's followed the site for years. "They have really good sourcing, they understand the industry, they write for the audience."

Risks come with change
Now Mr. Geller's challenge is trying to appeal to a broader audience. "Can he change the tone of the site without losing the most dedicated readers?" Mr. Frommer asked. "Can he develop the same quality of sourcing in other areas?"

The site is still competing, of course, for readers and advertisers against bigger competitors such as AOL's Engadget, where Mr. Geller once wrote as "Boy Genius"; TechCrunch, which reportedly fetched more than $25 million when AOL agreed to buy it in September; Gawker Media's Gizmodo; and then Mashable. All of those sites themselves started much smaller, some as one-man operations. But their sum effect today is to take up oxygen and make life more difficult for any contenders that follow.

From Mr. Geller's perspective, of course, $2.5 million in revenue was already significant business for a site with one full-time employee: himself. But he wanted it to become something more. Now Mr. Penske is around to help.

Jonathan Geller
Jonathan Geller
"I had this really profitable business that was growing, doing really well, and I wanted to take it to the next level, so I had to do something," Mr. Geller said.

A choice to make
"It was just me and two part-time writers," he recalled. "I was doing everything from RFPs for ad sales to making sure the servers were up to making sure the content was on the site. For four years straight, without really taking a day off, I don't think I took a vacation, working 20 hours a day, just to make sure our content was competing with some of the established players in the industry."

"Did I really want to hire people I'd have to manage -- a CFO, a head of ad sales -- and get an office? Or was something Jay was talking about a little more attractive?"

Mr. Penske is at least as motivated as Mr. Geller to prove that a site fueled by one person can still carve out a big business. Backed by a $35 million round of financing led by Quadrangle Capital Partners two years ago, Mr. Penske bought Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood in June 2009.

Penske's portfolio
MMC, which was called Mail.com Media until it sold Mail.com last month, also owns Hollywood Life, where Mr. Penske named former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller the editorial director last year; the pop culture site Movieline; HollyBaby, about parenting and celebrities' kids; and OnCars, an auto site. In the works: Fan.com, a sports site, and TVLine, a forthcoming site about TV led by former Entertainment Weekly columnist Michael Ausiello and scheduled for a January debut.

Deadline.com is the biggest in the MMC portfolio, followed by Hollywood Life, Movieline and now Boy Genius Report, which attracted 160,000 unique visitors using home or work computers in the U.S. last month, according to Nielsen. The AOL bruiser Engadget, by comparison, attracted 2.3 million, Nielsen said.

Of course traffic figures, like most around the web, look different to different observers. Omniture and Google Analytics put the site's visitors at 1.8 million last month, according to Mr. Geller. Quantcast said the site gets 711,000 visitors in the U.S. each month, while ComScore said Boy Genius Report got 539,000 in September.

The site could keep competing at its current traffic level, however you quantify it, and win, Mr. Penske said, citing its No. 4 ranking on Technorati's list of influential tech blogs and its No. 2 ranking for gadget blogs -- and the marketers that pay to associate with that influence. But Mr. Penske fully expects the site to grow.

"My interest in BGR peaked when I met this exceptional guy Jonathan, who by his 23rd birthday had singlehandedly built the most influential mobile/wireless site online, in an incredibly competitive category," Mr. Penske said in an e-mail. "I believed by investing in this property and hiring some key journalists, while leveraging our infrastructure and team, we could take BGR to the next level and achieve even greater success."

Follow Nat Ives on Twitter.

In this article: