When Pete Cashmore set up a rudimentary WordPress blog in July 2005 from his bedroom in his parents’ Banchory home, it was not his intention to become a multi-millionaire. Aged 19, he simply wished to wax lyrical about what caught his interest in the burgeoning online world. One early post, for instance, enthused about Star Wars-branded Adidas trainers (“the coolest shoes ever,” according to the teenager).
Nearly seven years on, Cashmore stands to become one of the richest men in Scotland with a fortune rivalling that of Sir Tom Farmer or Stewart Milne. His interests and inclinations, relayed via Mashable, a leading technology and social media news website, draw over 20 million unique visitors every month, and speculation is rife that media empire, CNN, is in talks with Cashmore to buy the site for £127 million.
That such discussions are even being countenanced is testament to the diligent and astute way the Scot has cultivated Mashable, dividing his time between offices in San Francisco and New York and attending industry events with his girlfriend Lisa Bettany – a photographer, technology writer and model. The mooted deal also provides a resounding confirmation that social media is no longer a niche interest, with the advent of affordable smartphones and tablets igniting interest amongst new demographics as to how apps and social networks can complement everyday life.
“There’s been a real generational shift in the past few years,” reasons Robert Andrews, international editor of paidContent, an influential New York-based digital media news website. “Social media is now mainstream, and Pete and Mashable embody that.”
The buyout is the talk of Silicon Valley and New York media circles, who wonder what the future holds for Cashmore. There is no consensus, but everyone agrees he will not retire at 26. “Pete lives and breathes this stuff,” confided one of his Californian associates. “He works 18-hour days and he’s going to keep covering social media.”
Unsurprisingly, neither Mashable nor CNN have confirmed talks are under way, and Cashmore is politely declining interviews. He reportedly told his staff that the “rumour going around on Twitter that Mashable will be acquired this week” was not true. It was a denial, but only up to a point. As a privately held company, it remains unclear what windfall might come his way, but the firm is not reliant on private investors for financing, meaning its founder and CEO could receive the lion’s share.
Justin Pearse, editor of New Media Age, a magazine which covers the interactive media business, believes Cashmore may strike out anew, even if he is compelled to remain under CNN’s aegis for a time. “In most of these deals, there’s a buyout period where executives have to remain for a certain period,” he explained. “I doubt he’ll stick around for too much longer after the deal if it goes ahead. He’s someone who could work as a consultant, he can do what he wants from now on. But you never know, with these kinds of deals. Often it’s about moving the company on to bigger and better stuff.”
Paul Levinson, professor of communications at New York’s Fordham University and the author of New New Media, and one of the most respected analysts of online media in the US, told Scotland on Sunday: “If history is any guide, people in Cashmore’s position usually start by staying with their company, and then get disillusioned or even pushed out as the company moves in ways they did not intend. Ted Turner’s departure from CNN after its acquisition by Time Warner would be a prime example. Entrepreneuring is very different from being a corporate cog, however highly placed.”
The prospect of a new Cashmore venture should not be discounted. While his eye for social media trends is saluted, his business acumen is seldom afforded sufficient appreciation. Cultivating partnerships with major brands and old media behemoths, he has organised events and conferences with Disney and the United Nations. Some observers believe CNN is interested in the man, not the site. “I think CNN will want to be buying Pete, not just Mashable,” reflected Andrews. “He’s a smart guy who can see how companies like CNN should use new technologies to reach new audiences and reinvent themselves. CNN has its own digital strategies, but it’ll be open to what Pete wants to do.”
Graham Lovelace, a media analyst and former senior editor with the BBC, agreed: “A number of large media conglomerates would open their chequebooks for him, but I think there’s something else going on behind the CNN deal. It’s a broadcaster that’s looking for new advertising opportunities, and Cashmore has an enormous amount to contribute to CNN’s social media strategy. That might appeal to him beyond the Mashable day job. Big established firms like CNN know a generation is growing up immersed in social media, and Pete’s a digital native who could influence the entire corporation.”
Though synergies between the empires of old and new media are rare, others urge Cashmore to take heed of 2010’s £19 million acquisition of TechCrunch – a competitor to Mashable – by AOL. “There was a fairly heated discussion over the identity of TechCrunch and what it should and shouldn’t be doing and several writers left,” recalled Tom Royal, deputy editor of Computer Active Magazine. “CNN has its own editorial policies, and how will that mesh with what Mashable does?” Andrews, however, believes a union would be fruitful: “Sometimes there can be a clash of egos in these deals, and one key person can end up leaving. But Pete doesn’t have an ego, I think he’s kept his nose clean and that’ll stand him in good stead.”
Cashmore is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, a group including Sergey Brin and Larry Page – the founders of Google – which debates how technology can help developing nations. Would a career in politics appeal? “Pete’s far too shy for that,” laughs his Californian associate. “He believes in social media helping people, but he’d rather stay behind the scenes.”
Whatever Cashmore’s next step, those who watched him blossom are pleased. Niall Ritchie, his guidance teacher at Banchory Academy, remembered a “quiet, unassuming, and self-contained” student, adding: “He had real interest in computing at school and developed a business sense in IT from home. He could obviously see the great potential of the internet from a young age.” Mashable, most believe, will not be his only success. “I think the world is now Pete Cashmore’s oyster, to do with as he pleases,” said Levinson. “If the world gets lucky, he will before too long start another important venture.” «