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Ad Lib: Skift Founder Rafat Ali on the State of Travel--and the Media--in 2018

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Rafat Ali
Rafat Ali Credit: courtesy Skift

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Rafat Ali is co-founder and CEO of the travel site Skift, which covers the business side of the travel industry. In publishing circles, he's also known as an astute and pointed observer of digital media. On this week's Ad Lib podcast, he dons both hats as he takes us on a mini tour of his time at internet 1.0 startups like Inside.com and, his own first company, PaidContent. He explains why he's a believer in the scaled-down pivot to quality—and the power of the email newsletter.

We also touch on his time growing up in India, where he first learned about media and advertising by reading Ad Age, or so he says.

"I came to New York from Indiana. From India to Indiana to New York, just whole different worlds, all three of them really," he says. "I worked at a couple dot-coms, the first iteration of Inside.com. It was like the Variety of the East Coast. I was the lowly intern. Steve Brill hired me full time. That shut down right after 9/11. Then I went to Silicon Alley Reporter, Jason Calacanis's thing ... Really, that's where I learned the power of email newsletters, which have been a thread in my life from my previous company and this company as well."

Ali became an accidental entrepreneur in 2002 when he launched PaidContent—"The worst name," he says—a site that pioneered covering the digital media ecosystem before it became the self-digesting echo chamber it would be in the early 2010s. The site sold to the Guardian in 2007, three months before the economy bottomed out.

It was after traveling for a couple years (a nice gig if you can get it) that Ali locked into the idea of launching what he calls "the Bloomberg of travel," only on a smaller scale. Skift, which launched five years ago, has become the premier media company covering the nuts and bolts business of travel.

As for Skift's audience, Ali says he's looking to talk to the CMOs of the travel industry. "The CMO of Hiatt or Marriott or British Airways, et cetera," he says. "We bet on CMOs and marketing functions becoming center of public facing companies, certainly as digital becomes a big part of it."

He's also betting on building a mini-media empire on his own with discreet verticals that go deep on different topics: Last year Skift acquired Chef Tech for its coverage of the restaurant industry and rebranded it Skift Table.

"We're moving beyond travel into the business of restaurants. Trying to take the lessons from travel, which we think are applicable to the very adjacent vertical of restaurants, and we think has a similar characteristics where we can make a mark," he says.

"If we do a third vertical, I've said publicly I would like to explore luxury retail. We think the trifecta would be very interesting in the long term. This is where the majority of the consumer disposable income is spent—between travel, restaurants and luxury retail. If we could be a business information company that spans all three, it could be a very interesting proposition. But for now that's just a dream."

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