The New Curators (of Content)

How Thrillist, PSFK and start-up iFlow are capitalizing on the accelerating need for content curation. (This article first appeared on
Barring the invention of a “time turner” like the one Hermione Granger sported in 3rd Harry Potter novel, most of us will never have enough time to consume the information we might otherwise want to absorb.  There’s simply too much info and too few waking hours.  Enter the notion of curation, a relatively new term that is not unlike the editor of old, a trusted person or organization that filters information and aggregates it in an organized fashion for others to enjoy.

According to Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation, “curation is the new way of organizing the web going forward.”  And no doubt he’s right.  Curious about why new curators like Thrillist and PSFK were thriving while the traditional publishing world floundered, I spent some time with their respective founders, Ben Lerer and Piers Fawkes.  These conversations plus one with Eric Alterman, the founder of a new curation engine called iFlow, revealed four insights that could help you too capitalize on the curation phenomenon.

You can’t curate for everyone, so be targeted
In Brian Solis’s recent tribute on to Rosenbaum’s book, Solis noted, “the social capital of a curator is earned through qualifying, filtering, and refining relevant content.”  The key words here being filtering and relevance, something that Thrillist with its focus on urban males 22-30 has done exceptionally well.  Explained Lerer, “we’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver.”

Thrillist, for the uninitiated, started in 2005 with a newsletter to 600 New Yorkers and is now in 18 markets with 2.5 million subscribers.  Added Lerer, “our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic.”  Lerer and his fellow curators of newish nightlife have built a highly profitable business during a time when traditional publishing tanked. This was done, according to Lerer, “by zoning in on a small sector of the population and speaking to them in a voice that they trust.”

It’s not curation without a well-defined focus
The New York Times famous line “All the news that’s fit to print,” made sense when newspapers were the primary source of daily information.  Now it seems more like a potential epitaph, as newspaper readership plummets in the face of more focused web-based alternatives. One of the up and coming alternatives is PFSK, which founder Fawkes described as “the go to source for new ideas for creative professionals.”

Founded in 2004, PSFK has grown from a trend-spotting website to a hybrid company that publishes content, creates events and provides consulting services to clients like Nike, Target and BMW.  When asked if PSFK was in the curation business, Fawkes affirmed, “yes, our job is to find new ideas and we present them up to 50 times a day.”  Reflecting on their focused approach, Fawkes added, “every month a million designers, ad folks, digital entrepreneurs and media mavens get inspired by our content.”

If the curation is good enough, it will [almost] market itself
In the new world of curation, “information becomes currency and the ability to repackage something of interest as compelling, consumable and also [as a] sharable social object is an art,” wrote Brian Solis. This perhaps is the fundamental difference between the old world newspaper and the new world of curators.  New world curators can connect and engage with other curators, helping to disseminate information quickly and at little to no cost.

Ben Lerer of Thrillist recalled taking this approach out of necessity since, “one of the stipulations with the money we raised was that we couldn’t spend any of it on marketing.”  “So we focused all our energy on building something that people actually liked and would want to pass along to their friends,” explained Lerer.  By “putting content first and making sure its written for the guy reading it,” Lerer and his team developed a loyal audience that in turn shared the content and or acted upon it demonstrating they too were in the know.

Human curators beat the algorithms
No matter how you many words you type into Google, you’re not going to find a recommendation you trust without clicking deep into another site.  On the other hand, a quick visit to Thrillist and PSFK provides recommendations and ideas that are trustworthy without fail. When discussing the shortcomings of algorithmic curation, serial entrepreneur Eric Alterman explained, “only human curation can deliver real time content… that consumers are actually seeking.”

Seeing an opportunity in the limitations of algorithmic curation combined with the overwhelming flow of content generated via social media, Alterman is just about to launch a new curation platform called iFlow.  Alterman believes that iFlow will address the problem of information overload, enabling “efficient curation into highly contextual aggregate streams [that] include all content types.” Given Alterman’s track record of turning ideas into successful companies like KickApps, his hope “to bring the art of content creation to the widest possible audience,” is anything but a pipe dream.

Final Note:
While admittedly I’m no longer in Thrillist’s demographic, I became a fan in ‘08 when one of my clients wanted to connect with their readers.  Seeing Lerer’s presentation at a recent PSFK event, I was simply blown away by their success in three short years.  It was the quality of the presenters at this conference that got me thinking about curation and led to my conversations with Lerer, Fawkes and Alterman (see their respective interviews on

Insights From a Serial Entrepreneur

Eric Alterman is founder and CEO of Flow Corp, a start-up aiming to capitalize on the burgeoning needed for content curation, the topic of my upcoming post on  Eric is serial entrepreneur, having created companies such as MeshNetworks (acquired by Motorola for $230 million), SkyCross, TeraNex and most recently KickApps, the first “drag and drop widget builder.”

DN: As an serial entrepreneur, how do know when you’re on to something?
When I can’t stop thinking about a new concept for months on end and every morning brings new scribbles in my bedside notebook. Weaker ideas tend to come and go over the course of a few days or weeks.  For better or worse, the ideas that evolve into actual ventures tend to have richer theoretical implications that imply a broad vision with many possibilities.  Ideas loaded with many possibilities can actually be a liability (where do you focus first?), but it’s what holds my interest long enough to begin the heavy lifting required to launch a venture.  I think entrepreneurs need to be intentionally naïve during the conception stages of a venture.  Down the road the skill of listening is essential—at the beginning the skill of not listening matters more.

DN: Do you see any problems with the way content is currently curated via social media?
Social curation represents an undeniable paradigm shift in the realm of content discovery, but it has important limitations.  While the people I subscribe to on Twitter and Facebook fill my stream with content that’s often of general interest, social streams lack contextual relevance to my real-time interests—i.e. the information I need right now.  There’s lots of talk about the real-time nature of Twitter, but outside of breaking news social streams are not capable of delivering what I’m uniquely interested in at a given moment.  Social streams are great for browsing,  but only contextual streams can serve my immediate needs.  My belief is that a platform that enables efficient curation into highly contextual, aggregate (i.e. from multiple sources) streams is one of the next great opportunities, and it includes all content types (from blog articles and videos, to cancer research and cars for sale).

It might be said that traditional search is the solution to discovery of content matching my real-time interests (i.e. what I need to know right now).  But traditional search suffers from a number of different problems.  First, despite recent efforts by Google and others, search is not inherently a real-time solution.  It’s unlikely that a search for theater tickets will provide you a result that includes tickets that became available five minutes earlier, let alone 5 seconds earlier.  Beyond that, search is best at providing links to websites containing content deemed relevant to the three or four words typed into a search box.  Search engines don’t routinely provide content directly, they provide links to other web pages.  Even if a search engine properly disambiguates the pages it crawled days or weeks earlier, it may not have properly disambiguated the search request, itself.  By my own definition, the term curation suggests an explicit, largely human process with a result that is real-time and unambiguous.

DN: Can you give me a preview of your latest venture,
The Flow’s consumer experience (available soon at is all about providing a simple but powerful application that invites media and commerce publishers to directly connect with consumers looking for specific content—real-time streams of precisely what they are looking for.  We call those streams “flows” and every piece of content moving through a flow is called a “drop”.  Flows and drops can be highly structured (multiple required or optional fields—e.g. year, make and model fields of a car being sold) or minimally structured.

Publishers can reach audiences very directly, without the inefficiencies of SEO and social strategies.  Consumers get the benefit of a new, highly contextual content discovery experience that is both radically new and yet very familiar for those already using social media applications.  It brings content out of stovepiped data stores and unstructured social streams, into a common data exchange organized by the intention of both publisher and consumer.

One of the most exciting aspects of the iFlow experience is the way consumers easily “remix” real-time content from many sources into their own highly contextual “flows”.  Those flows can then be shared by their curators (and audience) both privately and publicly with minimal effort. iFlow will provide automated ways for pro-sumer curators to populate flows, but manual, drag-and-drop curation will be the norm for everyday consumers.  My grandmother’s favorite aphorism is very true for curation: “many hands make light work”.  In the end we expect to bring the art of content curation to the widest possible audience.

The same Flow platform that powers will also be available to application developers in a platform-as-a-service model (PaaS). Our intention is to provide mobile and web application developers access to a modern  “data exchange” that allows highly scalable data sharing between many applications.  Our belief is that next generation applications will be curating content from many other applications to provide broader, more data-rich consumer experiences.  Imagine an apartment rental iphone app providing its users lunch coupons in the neighborhood they are exploring, information about local schools and perhaps a free cocktail during happy hour—seamless access to a diversity of real-time data is the enabler.  Consider what Multiple Listing Services (MLS) did to revolutionize the real estate industry with a relatively archaic technology stack—now extend those sharing and interoperability benefits to every industry and every data type using a modern, highly scalable real-time architecture.

DN: Why do you think curation is so important right now?  Talk to me about the benefits of human curation versus algorithmic curation (i.e. Google).
Curation is all about creating context and meaning from the terabytes of largely unstructured data generated every few hours by web, mobile and enterprise applications.  There’s a place for algorithmic curation, especially when users are searching for specific facts or answers to formulaic questions.  But anyone that has searched for something like, “1973 Firebirds for sale in Brooklyn” know that search can never deliver an aggregate real-time list of 1973 Firebirds for sale in Brooklyn from many sources, only a series of websites.  Similarly, only human curation can deliver a list of “funky artist parties in San Francisco tonight” or “the most interesting jobs for javascript programmers in New Jersey”.

DN: Where do you think the time for Flow will come from?  Out of existing social?  Out of other online activities?  Out of offline activities?
Unlike the voyeurism and serendipitous browsing of social media, Flow discovery is a relatively deliberate and intentional process—discovering real-time content that consumers are explicitly seeking.  That kind of activity disrupts a variety of less efficient modes of explicit discovery, from classified and message boards to websites and disaggregated mobile apps.  I  believe people will always make time for social discovery which serves an entirely different sort of emotional need.

Where do you think the revenue opportunities are with better forms of content curation like Flow?
We have a number of models in mind, from “freemium” upgrades to both our consumer and developer applications, to App and data marketplaces.  In the long term it will be hard to avoid “promotional drops” (i.e. advertising) given the very specific contexts the Flow provides relative to social media and even search.