The project had mutated, and had become a self-developed, own-brand sports car, the Furia. Its heart was to be a rotary engine powered by ethanol, through a collaboration with Abengoa, and created with a lot of OEM parts from various automotive groups, to reduce costs. I wanted to create an economical sports car, within the reach of any average pocket, to fight in a niche industry, that of low-volume handcrafted cars, which is generally obsessed with millionaire-priced supercars.
The birth of a project: Weblogs Inc.
Almost at the same time, only a year and a half before, another reality that was going to influence us a lot, was born on the other side of the pond. With Mark Cuban's money (yes, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks), two partners, Jason Calacanis and Brian Alveny, envisioned a new way of publishing information in a professional way, taking advantage of the "blog" format. Weblogs Inc. was born in the same headquarters where Calacanis had been managing "Silicon Alley Reporter" since 1996, a magazine about technology news focused on New York-based companies (not to be confused with California's Silicon Valley).
What nobody expected was that Weblogs Inc. would explode as it did. Within the blog system, similar to what Gawker (Jalopnik, Gizmodo, etc.) would set up those same years and still maintains, publications such as Engadget, Joystiq, Hack a Day and... Autoblog were created. Your Autoblog.
The success of Weblogs Inc. and Gawker, helped by the "blog" explosion in the Internet 2.0 at the beginning of the century made the idea was copied massively. In Spain, Weblogs S.L. was born. (even the name was the same!) from the hand of Julio Alonso, which would end up hosting Motorpasión. As Dani Seijo was telling the other day, by 2005 he and his partner Oscar were setting up what is now Diariomotor.
It was a time of explosion and expansion. The idea worked and the profitability was there. That Google was able to provide traffic through its search engine and income to Weblogs Inc. became key, and by the end of 2004 the company was already billing more than a million euros a year.
It was mid-2005, and Calacanis and part of his team (Alberto Escarlate, Jose Andrade) were starting to think big. Expanding the idea of Weblogs Inc. to more markets, to more languages, was an interesting option. And Spanish was the second language on the Internet, so it was obvious that the next step was to start launching Spanish editions of their already successful publications.
Not to lose sight of the fact that in just three years Autoblog was already the most read car site on the planet. John Neff, who was the editor-in-chief of the English edition of Autoblog, launched a message in mid-2005: Autoblog was going to be published in Spanish and they were looking for editors capable of writing in that language. The first to sign would be Alberto Ballestín, of whom I'm sure you remember, as he was the director of this until 2012.
Autoblog in Spanish is born
That 2005 was extremely important for the industry of motor publications on the Internet in Spain. Suddenly three "professional" blogs (Motorpasión, Diariomotor and Autoblog) entered the scene and began to create problems for other media that until then had lived almost without discussion, with a different operational structure (KM77, SuperMotor, Terra-Autopista).
The big change came at the end of 2005. AOL Inc. sought to expand its business model and separate itself from the sale of Internet connections through normal modems. For about $25 million, AOL acquired Weblogs Inc. Calacanis and his partners went home with a bundle in their pockets and a smile on their faces, while AOL promised to keep Weblogs Inc. completely operationally independent. It would be managed by the same people who had made it work until then, and would not touch editorial content. It would only help it grow by sharing links and content.
The following years were those of reaffirmation. Autoblog grew, and in Spanish language was, along with Motorpasión, with equal monthly page views, the most read car blog on the planet. It was a reference.
The fact of covering news at a devilish pace and attending car shows offering photos at a volume never seen before made it something different.
Going back to my personal vision, in 2006 I was already working with a group of seed investors to try to launch my automotive project. I had to keep an eye on the competition, and Autoblog, along with Motorpasión, was one of my daily references to see what was happening in the sector. Seeing photos of cars like the Artega GT, the KTM X-Bow, the AD Tramontana or the Mazel prototypes under the Hispano Suiza brand kept us up to date.
Little by little, visiting Autoblog became not only a habit, but a sort of permanent vice.
Curiously, the blog still had problems of professionalism in its approach. As in many other companies of very fast initial growth, formed by people who had never worked in the automotive sector, there were things that were done very well, with an open mind, and others that were not so good. Direct dealings with brand managers, for example, or access to press parks, were things that needed to be improved.
In 2007 I already had some dealings with Alberto Ballestín, as I used to send him some mail, especially after starting to cook the launch of our brand and our first sports car. We were weaving the whole strategy of teasers and a national presentation, and having the coverage of Autoblog seemed important to us.
From those early emails I went on to share some technical corrections, and also some spy photos we had managed to get around IDIADA's facilities. In 2008, when we were in a change of third in our project (the Furia project had died, the economic crisis exploded, and we had two motorcycle projects that would meet similar fate, with industrial customers that would leave us in the lurch), Autoblog began looking for a reinforcement in its staff of editors.
Guille joins Autoblog en Español
I offered myself to Alberto then. I did not really believe that this was a serious business well remunerated. After all, I had already been working as an engineer for a few years, and I had opportunities in the same sector. At first, I kept my work as an engineer in parallel with my work as editor of Autoblog, but little by little the time I was absorbed by the publication grew.
I quickly proposed to change things a bit. The two workers who were there, my boss at the time Alberto Ballestin, and Enrique Garcia, put many hours and much effort, and the result in growth and volume was noticeable. But there were aspects that could be improved and professionalized. Taking advantage of my contacts with certain car brands I had worked with before, and with the boss's approval, I started to work on the professionalization of the business. After all, it didn't make sense to pay to rent cars for test drives.
The brands quickly understood that things didn't have to work like that, and we started in 2008 to have press cars and access to presentations.
That step was vital. The brands began to take us seriously, they began to see how Autoblog was more than just a blog for friends. We had to raise the level of editing, the texts, the photos... We had to professionalize everything. So we continued to grow until 2012, when after much work, I ended up being promoted to director.
2012: Expansion of the team, generation of own content
My goal was to professionalize and expand the whole project even more. I started by including new editors, people of recognized name, with many miles of experience. I added Dani Murias to the team, for whom I had written while he was the director of several car magazines for MC Ediciones. Dani was joined by Elías Juarez and Valentí Fradera.
I also added to the team Nacho Villarín, rally genius, Antonio to reinforce the podcasts section and to relieve us on the weekends, Javier Costas when, by fate, Motorpasión decided to do without him. Antonio would be the last to join the team, to support especially in the theme of the weekly "Podcast".
The level of content, from 2012 to today, changed radically. The tests were standardized. The photo system for them took another giant leap. We did more video, more quality reports, more technical content, opinion....
But in 2014 I began to glimpse the problems. As you can imagine, such a diverse and experienced team in the sector costs money. And our only source of income is advertising. The huge expansion of Internet media and Google's play in this business caused advertising prices to fall.
Although Autoblog is profitable, like many Weblogs Inc. publications, the parent company, AOL, decided to end independent management and merge all its departments into one big structure. They wanted to strengthen AOL's brand image, and downplay the importance of the publications generated by its legs, sharing a single purpose, a single sales team and a single working method.
This decision led to other minor decisions that, little by little, caused collateral damage. It was decided, for example, to integrate AOL Autos and Autoblog. That decision had an expensive and complicated toll: The company's priority went from being the original one (to inform and create original and important content about the world of motoring) to a speculative objective (to capture as much traffic as possible in order to sell advertising focused exclusively on a target audience that is in the last six weeks of buying a car).
I'm not going to discover America for you now. There are two ways to create a motoring media outlet. Either you dedicate yourself to writing original, quality, hard-working and targeted media for those who are interested in the world of cars, or you choose to generate content designed by and for those who are about to buy a car.
The knowledgeable geek is looking for a type of reading, and becomes a regular follower of your publication. A loyal friend with whom you share interesting content. The second type of reader lands on your website via Google, looking for information on a particular model that is considering buying. I'm not going to pick on anyone, but nowadays there is a certain biasing media hypocrisy. They sell the idea that eight out of ten readers that swarm a car website are in those six weeks prior to buying a new car. This couldn't be more fallacious. And the better the media (the more highly rated it is in terms of content and reader loyalty, I mean), the more unlikely it is that this figure is real.
The problem with the reality of the internet is that, as in so many other sectors of industry and commerce, globalisation is destroying minority niches. As with cars, you can create a model that is very good for a few, or you can create a model that is "not bad for anyone" and that everyone likes. The problem is "leverage". When a large manufacturer is dedicated to producing millions of "moderately good" cars, it ends up being able to offer prices that those who play "niche" can not match, and therefore pushes the rest of the producers to the same game. So, if Alfa Romeo used to be able to make a compact car like the Alfasud, with a boxer engine and a chassis different from all the established ones, nowadays it can only try to play with shared platforms and economies of scale. And if it plays that game it has to sell a lot. And to sell a lot, instead of creating something that a few people really like, it has to create something that a lot of people don't dislike. And so the wheel turns.
In the parallel world of the Internet this translates into a choice between creating a medium "read by a lot of people" and getting a lot of traffic from Google. The fall in the prices paid for advertising has meant that everyone has to "play the big numbers", to collaborate with Google, which is in charge, because with its volume it can sell advertising to the person who exactly interests the buyer of advertising (focus) and at the price it really wants.
Playing at dedicating yourself to a small niche of readers who really appreciate what you are doing is becoming very complicated, especially if you are not dedicated to a language like English, which allows millions of visits and volumes of traffic that in Spanish we can't even dream of.
It's easy to see this. The one who buys Octane, Evo... The one who reads Speedhunters or knows StanceWorks. The one who travels to the Nordschleife or spends money on scale models... It's not a generic reader who lands through Google on car websites. But he's the person everyone asks when they're going to buy a car. It's "the friend who knows about cars".
The problem is that, selling advertising "at volume", it is less and less interesting (or rather, less profitable) to write "spectacular content for a few", and it is preferred to write "generic content acceptable to many". In fact, some people are already writing directly for Google, to benefit SEO, to hunt for traffic.
Writing for the masses or writing for the niche
About three years ago, a good friend of mine, a composer and DJ for a national radio station, was telling me how this shift, forced by the current trends of advertising sales and commercial interests, was killing his industry. The radio station he worked for was destined to supply music to the masses and respond to commercial and advertising interests, and that changed "its editorial line", the music it could and could not play. All for the sake of "pleasing many" and above all "pleasing those who pay". He didn't want to "let himself be globalized" in that sense, and went his own way setting up his own digital channel (great, Sixto), and the truth is that he is having a hard time, but he has found his space, and it works for him.
Unfortunately, AOL, like so many other big companies, went from believing in the value of signatures and content to believing in the value of money, and nothing else. Ask any ad sales expert and they'll tell you a reality that's hard to swallow. Advertisers only care about pure numbers (how many people see their ads and how many of those people click on them). They are mercenaries who don't care about anything else, and they try to judge everything by those parameters.
The problem is that what we used to know as "brand image generation" is lost. If advertising used to focus on giving value to the brand, on transmitting values, with a medium-term goal of selling you a product, now it is much more focused and results-oriented: Sell the car today or tomorrow, and nothing more. The medium and long term work is left in the hands of the communication team, which is responsible for creating press releases and viral actions that generate love for the brand, and that publications are limited to republish without charging for it.
Faced with all this situation, AOL decided to give an editorial twist to Autoblog. From generating own content, to give value to the differential signatures, went to encourage the creation of viral content, to focus all advertising sales in imminent customers to buy cars, and re-publish press releases.
This led to the departure of many and varied editors from the company. First fell John Neff, the original editor-in-chief of Autoblog USA. Then, one after another, the big editors, with the hardest moment coming when Michael Harley, probably our best international tester, decided to pack up and leave.
We were facing a situation that my good friend Dani defined with a culinary simile really accurate: There are media that are "fast food" and others that are gourmet. On the Internet, many media were born as fast food, Autoblog included, but it was getting gourmet advertising revenue. When everyone started playing the same game, the advertising prices dropped, and became "fast food prices". At that point you have to choose whether you want to serve fast food, or you really want to go for quality content, for signature food, and try to charge more for it.
We don't want to be Fast Food, we want to be a product for motor gourmets.
In all this little whirlwind, Autoblog en Español, we, we find ourselves with a changed step.
Since my arrival at the direction of this division, my goal was to increase the quality of editorial content, and also improve and modernize the visual aspect. After many, many meetings, and a lot of money spent on trips to our UK headquarters, we had a master plan to create content at a level never seen before, with videos, museum visits, tests and differential articles. And it was all going to go in one container, one web design, modern, fresh and different.
But AOL put its hand in the plan, and what at the beginning of 2014 looked like a new, renewed and hopeful project, began to go awry. There was no room for such inventions within the company.
In our parent company things got ugly, and the CEO of the company decided to take a decisive turn: Given the economic situation of the company and the directions that things were taking in the sale of advertising, AOL would reorganize its resources and efforts and focus exclusively on large accounts, in what could give him a lot of money very quickly, leaving the adventures and niches.
This message came to us last October, just a month after my last meeting with the UK team, when we had managed to align goals for our big reinvention.
Since that October, the future of many AOL publications has been sealed. First Joystiq and TUAW died. Then the Canadian edition of Autoblog fell. And now, on the 1st of next month, May, it's the turn of the rest of the international motor blog editions. AOL confirmed it to us in January, but I haven't been able to tell you about it until today.
Pistonudos is born
When they gave us this blow, I sat down with my editorial team. The ideas we had been developing throughout 2014, the contacts and the structure, were there to make readers who have been with us for a long time fall in love with us, and also, why not, new readers and fans. There is a market, there is business and there is a future, but you have to know how to sell it, have time and resources.
So, 12 hours after officially knowing that AOL was going to close us, we had a new project underway, the Pistonudos project.
Pistonudos is everything that AOL has not let us do Autoblog. Pistonudos is a comprehensive multi-platform motor magazine, which will not be limited to the Internet world, and seeks to be, no more and no less, the best motor publication in Spanish on the planet. Because aiming lower would not be fair.
The reality is that setting up a project from the remains of Autoblog was something "relatively easy", especially when looking for investment partners. With the traffic we already have, to mount a medium similar to that of other competitors, dedicating ourselves to retread press releases, write tests "where everything goes well", and limit ourselves to attend events organized by the brands, with no intention of creating differential content, would be something profitable. But it would also be little less than the continuation of the spirit that AOL has now wanted Autoblog to take, and the creation and confirmation of another mediocre product that contributes nothing in a market over-saturated with similar offers.
We have reached a situation where brands control what you read about them, through elaborate events, presentations and press releases. A situation where there are systems in place to generate the content that the media has to publish, without even having to attend a presentation. You get the information from the presentation, you take the data and you put it out. What's the point of that? What's the point of doing the same thing? That turns the media into just another communication channel for brands, where they make and unmake. Where the reader doesn't learn anything, and only reads what the creator of the product is interested in. It doesn't matter if it's written by a robot or a human being.
My philosophy is clear: If I have to create something new, it has to be something better than what there is. At least that's my intention. To create "the best of the best". Then you may or may not get it. That will depend on having the right pieces, the right team players (the editorial team) that allow you to "write more and better than the others" and "offer more and better content".
And then there's the other key to the project: will it be profitable, will it make money to pay decent salaries, or will the editors eventually pack their bags and go and write somewhere else?
These unknowns are the ones we are going to try to solve through experimentation and the risk, economic and personal, of launching this ship to the sea.
Maybe this whole new adventure will be a success. We may be "the new kings". Or we may fail, we may not be able to reach the traffic, or, even if we reach the traffic, we may not be able to make the business profitable.
Either way, this is the tipping point. The point at which a group of professionals in this field, who have been charging for years for putting together letters to entertain and inform you, starts a new journey.
We have come this far thanks to you, my friend. To your loyalty. For something Autoblog is in the Spanish market the car blog that has more repeat readers (Comscore data).
And now we depend on you, that you continue to want to read this team, so we can continue working for you.
Pistonudos will become something different in the Spanish automotive scene. Autoblog already let you see sometimes, with reports of classics, with USPI's, with macro-tests like the 4C and videos like the 131 Abarth, what we are capable of. Now that we are playing by our own rules we can really show you what we want to offer.
With a bit of luck, this risky gamble will have a chance for the future. And you, my friend, will have experienced its birth.