Ranker: Navigating and Winning in a New Digital Media WorldAn interview with Ranker CEO Clark Benson
Ranker is a leading digital media company for opinion-based, crowdsourced and curated rankings on just about everything from the greatest rock bands of all time to the top current NBA players.
Wavemaker was fortunate to back Ranker during its seed round in 2010. We recently sat down with Ranker’s Founder and CEO Clark Benson to discuss his founding journey and key insights to Ranker’s success in today’s complex digital media environment.
What are some key insights that led you to launch Ranker?
I love lists, I’ve always been a fan of lists. I was really frustrated only seeing lists and rankings online that ranged from a 23-year-old blogger’s opinion to a more data driven ranking. The void in the marketplace was a proper ranking of almost any topic would be better served by the wisdom of crowds.
As you think back to the early days of Ranker, what were the biggest hurdles you faced and how did you handle the obstacles you weren’t able to overcome?
There were two big hurdles. One was that I had a prior internet startup and an exit, but it wasn’t in LA so I didn’t have a team to pull from and I’m not a technical founder. I definitely had some pitfalls on the engineering side; I went through a few lead engineers. As far as hurdles that we didn’t overcome, I had a very ambitious product vision that frankly was too much and too complicated. It took a couple of years of iteration to hit on something that was both simplified and a lot more scalable.
As you’ve scaled Ranker, what are central traits you targeted in early hires and executives?
The number one trait in early hires was resourcefulness. I can’t say that everyone was a perfect hire for that trait, but I certainly would say that the people who have stuck with the team and grown with the company have shared that trait. Ranker was never heavily funded, so we did not have much more than a couple million dollars to play with at any time to grow. We had to be very buck-conscious and scrappy. If you don’t have resourceful people at that stage, you’re done for.
Staying on the topic of resourcefulness – is that something you see in yourself and value in others, or was it that you were generally resource constrained?
I definitely consider myself to be resourceful. Ranker’s website is not just a simple WordPress blog. It’s got a lot of unique depth to it that gives us valuable data because of how our ranking mechanism works. We were ambitious in the beginning as we scaled some of the loopier ideas; you’ve got to wear a lot of hats when you’ve got a complicated product. You allocate your budget to the more expensive people in product and engineering so you have to a bit on the business side before you can afford to hire senior specialists. You need to be resourceful because you’re wearing 5 or 6 hats at any given time.
Switching gears from Ranker to you personally, how do you stay physically and mentally healthy while building a business?
I exercise every day. It is a good question because it’s very hard to have a work-life balance as an entrepreneur. These days Ranker is doing extremely well and I don’t work 70-80 hour weeks, but I did for years. If I wasn’t really passionate about the company and the product itself, I don’t think I could have put in 3 hour shifts after I tucking my kids in at night and getting up the next day and jump right back in it.
What’s your smartest work-related shortcut or productivity hack that you employ daily?
An underrated productivity tool is dictation (well it was big in the 1950’s and 1960’s). I dictate notes for my assistant and there’s better voice recognition software now than before. Certainly, it’s a lot easier to dictate when you’re not in the office and driving, but even when you’re writing an email, you’ll be surprised by how much faster you can do it just by dictating it than old-school typing. And I’m not a slow typist or anything but dictation is very underrated in today’s business world.
If you were to start a new company tomorrow, what industry would you pick and why?
I don’t know that I have the perfect answer about what industry I would pick, because I’m so heads down in what I’m doing that I don’t follow other industries close enough from the “Oh, that’s a really smart sector to be in right now” perspective. I just don’t pay that much attention to it. I’m working so much that I don’t spend a lot of time reading about other industries, but what I can say is that I would definitely not start a company in ad-based digital media, because everything you read about the duopoly of Facebook and Google taking all of the ad dollars has a lot of validity to it. It’s a tough industry with an awful lot of constant change and I’m thankful that Ranker has gotten to a level where we’re succeeding and thriving, but it would be a tough thing to start fresh.
What advice would you like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
I’ve met a bunch of young entrepreneurs who have great ideas but don’t have any experience at all in the industry they’re trying to do something in. I think that’s a big mistake because business is not as efficient as you think it is until you’re on the inside and sometimes you realize that some things are just done this way in the industry and I’m not going to be able to change that on my own so my biggest piece of advice would be, if you’ve got a great idea, work in that industry for at least a year or two before you really try to go out and do it. You’ll learn a ton more than you thought you could.
- Favorite meal in LA? Sushi at Katan
- Mac or PC? Mac
- What’s in your pocket right now? My device, my wallet and crazy, Japanese eye drops because I have very dry eyes
- One word that best describes how you work. Often
- What’s the quirkiest item on your bucket list. I’m so busy, I don’t have time to think about my bucket list