Business

Give this rich guy $1 or the onion will disappear forever

There was nothing funny about Jeff Lawson’s manner left Twiliothe startup he co-founded in 2008 and grew into a billion-dollar public company that allows companies to communicate with customers through text messages and phone calls. Activist investors had pushed for management changes and even a sell-off, and Lawson resigned from his CEO post in January. He now describes his role at Twilio as “shareholder.” No wonder he needs a good laugh.

Because he is a rich person, Lawson has the means to get all the laughs he could ever need, with a few belly laughs thrown in too. Last week he bought the legendary if somewhat faded satire factory The Onion. To this end, he founded a company called Global Tetrahedron, inspired by the name of an evil fictional company used as a running gag by Onion writers.

Lawson won’t say what he paid. To run the site, he hired former NBC reporter Ben Collins as CEO, former Bumble and TikTok executive Leila Brillson as chief marketing officer, and former Tumblr product director Danielle Strle as chief product officer. He promised to keep the entire editorial team. Then he immediately did something that was never part of the Twilio business model. He asked The Onion’s customers to give him their money in exchange for “absolutely nothing,” Lawson says. Suggested donation: one dollar.

Remember when The Onion was a major cultural force? Founded in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin—today it’s still based in Chicago, cleverly avoiding both stuffy coasts—it achieved popular status, first on newsprint and then online. Everyone seemed to read it and quote it. Some of his memes still resonate – the headline “‘No way to stop this,’ just says the nation where this happens regularly” will be republished after mass shootings, over 20 times so far, and always causes a stir. But a lot of time has passed since the 1999 book Our stupid century was an absolute bestseller. There was even an Onion movie, even though there wasn’t one animal shelter; Five years after filming, it was released straight to video. Although The Onion’s loyal team of writers has remained snappy and funny in recent years, the site hasn’t been much fun to visit, Lawson says. As Lawson wrote in a tweet, under the traffic-obsessed regime of its owners G/O companies, The Onion “has been choked, along with most of the Internet, by Byzantine cookie dialogs, paywalls, bizarre belly fat ads and clickbait content.”

How will Global Tetrahedron fix this? “The vision is to essentially free The Onion from this very traffic-driven strategy of page views and programmatic ad impressions,” Brillson says. “We want to get out of their way and make them a truly independent space rather than part of a private equity firm.”

This is where the idea of ​​dollar donation comes into play. When I told Lawson that she reminded me of the original dollar-per-year fee that WhatsApp charged in the years before Facebook bought the service for $22 billion, he confirmed that that was indeed the inspiration. WhatsApp was a Twilio customer and Lawson initially didn’t understand the purpose of the fee. One day he asked WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum about it. It was sometime in 2010, and new chat apps were popping up every day. “I asked Jan, ‘Why are you charging $1 – with all these competitors, why would you build this friction into your sign-up process?'” Lawson recalls

Koum replied that the fee was crucial Because Chat apps were a dime a dozen. “Usually you just download a chat app, use it for five minutes and then delete it,” Lawson recalls Koum explaining. “But if you ask someone to deposit $1 and they do, they have a financial investment in it. It’s a symbolic thing. Once you put something into it, it matters more to you.” Not to mention, those dollars turned into real money when hundreds of millions of people signed up for the service.

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