My guest Ali Aydar has a fascinating background. Today he’s the CEO of Sporcle, an online trivia business, but earlier he worked in various venture backed companies playing the finite game and decided to play the infinite game at Sporcle instead. He is the first business owner on the podcast and we talk about operating a business through tough times, the advantages of having permanent capital in a business, and his choice in leaving the finite game.
Ali is a wealth of experience in operating companies and we’ve both been thinking about this episode for a while. If you like our discussion on finite and infinite games, Andy Ellis and I also talked about the concept extensively in an earlier podcast episode I will link to in the description.
Thanks for coming on. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while, since we connected quite a few months ago. Do you want to go over your background really quick and then go into a lot of the work with Sporcle that you’ve been doing now?
So I am a computer scientist by trade. I have a computer science degree from Carnegie Mellon. I started my first business when I was at Carnegie Mellon with a few friends. I could get into that, but I’m just going to quickly summarize. That business didn’t work out. I ended up, after graduation, going to, or a year after graduation, I went to Chicago to work on the interest rate derivatives desk of a large bank as a systems developer. That was helping them get through the whole Y2K thing or preparing for it. I went there because I was obviously very entrepreneurial. At Carnegie Mellon, I did this special two-class track called technology-based entrepreneurship that prepared engineering students to be entrepreneurs, and I was hooked from day one, but after the first business failed, I said to myself, “I need to try working at a large company to see if I like it. I need to give it a year,” and I did not like it. Literally the day after my one year anniversary, I pulled my boss into a conference room and quit.
Part of it was because Silicon Valley was blowing up. It was the dot com boom. This was August of ’99, and I couldn’t believe that here I am with a computer science degree and this amazing interest in entrepreneurship, and I’m sitting here in downtown Chicago when Silicon Valley’s blowing up, and so I needed to get to Silicon Valley as fast as I could. So I got here and I, through a whole bunch of circumstances and coincidences, I became the first non-founding employee of the original Napster. I was initially an engineer at Napster, and then I moved into managing engineering. At the end, I was responsible for creating what was supposed to be the legitimate Napster. We were ready to launch it, but it never launched because the music industry wouldn’t give licenses to something called Napster, and so Napster went under.
So at that point, my journey kind of went on … It forked into three paths. One, I wanted to go to business school. I had realized through my time at Carnegie Mellon that I could be a good computer scientist, but I’d never be a great computer scientist, and I’m much more of a people person than your average technologist, and I felt like my strengths were connecting technology and business. My first three years in Silicon Valley going through the Napster experience helped me see that, yes, there is value in being able to be that bridge between business and technology. I felt through the early Silicon Valley years the business people didn’t really understand what the technology people were doing, and the technology people didn’t really understand the business side, so I felt like I could carve a niche out for myself in that way.
I felt like I needed the business school experience not because I needed an MBA, but because I had made a brand for myself as a technologist and not as a business person, and for me it was more of a personal branding exercise to get out of being pigeonholed as just a technologist. So I decided to apply for full-time MBA programs, and so that was one path. The reason why it was only a path was because I was rejected to everywhere I applied to. I don’t quite 100% know why, but I have some theories. I have some opinions about business school education that we can talk about as well.
But it ended up being a path, because I was rejected to all the full-time, but I got into part-time at Berkeley, and I ended up pursuing the part-time program at the Haas School of Business. Haas gives you seven years to get your MBA at night, and a person doing it normally can do it in three. I did it in five, because I was working on other businesses and what not, and like I said, this was just one path. It wasn’t something I was doing because I thought I needed an MBA. Again, it was because I wanted it for my brand, so I wasn’t in a hurry, so it took me five years instead of three. So that was one path.
The second path, Napster assets went into bankruptcy. It took about five months for the bankruptcy process to sort itself out and the assets to be auctioned off. The auctioned off assets were purchased by a … The winning bidder was a software company by the name of Roxio that was famous back in the early 2000s for making CD burning software. So they won the bidding. They bid $5,000,000 for the assets, and their intention at the time was to purchase another digital music company and put the Napster brand name on it and relaunch Napster as a legitimate music service. So for them, the purchase was for the brand, so simultaneous to bidding on the bankrupt assets to get the brand, they also bid on purchasing another existing digital music business, and unfortunately they got outbid.
When they got outbid, I got a call from their CEO saying, “Hey. Come in and help me figure out what to do now with these bankrupt assets, because I’ve got my board and shareholders,” they were a public company, “saying, ‘Hey, you just paid $5,000,000 for these bankrupt assets, and you don’t have a plan. What are you going to do with them,” right? Because his other transaction failed, he didn’t know what to do. So I spent about six months there just helping them figure out what to do. They ended up acquiring, at my suggestion, another digital music business and they slapped the Napster name on that. That’s how the current service known as Napster evolved, which still exists. It’s mainly popular in Europe.
Then the third path for me there was the day after Napster filed for bankruptcy, me and one of the founders of Napster and a couple of their early employees got in a room to discuss what we would do next. We came up with a concept of something we would do next. It was related to the music business. At the time, I was like, “Guys, I’m done. I’m moving on. I’m going to business school. I’m not going to do this. Good luck to you guys. See you later.” When I didn’t get into business school and when Roxio was sort of winding down and turning into Napster, I was ready to move on from everything, but those guys called me back. This was six months later, and they asked me to come on board to help them build out that business, and they got some funding and whatnot, and so I decided to join that company as the chief operating officer.
So that company was called SNOCAP. SNOCAP took the next five years of my life. We raised about $30 million to build out infrastructure, to manage rights in digital media. I can get into what that means if it’s relevant, but it kind of worked out and it kind of didn’t, and we ended up selling that business to another company, which I had helped start about six months after I started at SNOCAP. This is where my experience starts to go off into various prongs, and I start to do many things at once. This was sort of the entrepreneurial fervor that I had coming out of the experience I had at Carnegie Mellon where it’s sort of like you just kind of grab on and see what works and what doesn’t work. So about six months after I had started at SNOCAP, I was looking at the social network space, and Facebook didn’t exist at the time.
The only thing that existed back then was something called Friendster, and Friendster was failing. It was falling over itself from a technology perspective, and me and two other guys got together and just casually started talking about, “Hey, we know that there’s going to be a social network. We know that a network is going to win, but what’s it going to look like?” Our perspective on Friendster was it’s failing because it’s got the wrong technology. They brought in an old guard CEO who didn’t know what the internet was like, so that was the other reason why it was failing, so we were like, “There’s got to be an opportunity here.” So we started another business called imeem. They asked me to be the third partner. I couldn’t leave SNOCAP because I had made a commitment, so I just took a board seat at imeem.
imeem ended up blowing up and becoming much bigger than SNOCAP ever could, but also in the end, it ended up utilizing some of the technology we built at SNOCAP. So eventually, at the end of the five years of SNOCAP, imeem bought SNOCAP, and then I became then the chief operating officer of imeem. Then we eventually sold imeem to … And imeem was venture-backed by Sequoia. We’d raised a total of $100 million for imeem, and then we ended up selling imeem to Myspace in late 2009. Then I became the CEO of Sporcle in March of 2010, and I’ve been the CEO of Sporcle ever since.
I know that since COVID, you have had to change your business a lot, so can you go into just a little bit about what Sporcle does and then how its had to evolve itself? It sounds like the evolution’s been fairly successful so far.
Let me start where Sporcle came to be. So Sporcle was started by a close friend of mine who I met at Carnegie Mellon, and initially, it was just a website, Sporcle.com, which just as a summary, is a user-generated quiz platform that allows people to create quizzes and allows people to play quizzes. We have over a million quizzes on the website. They’ve been played over three billion times since inception. So it was just a website. I became CEO in March of 2010. We grew the website of the business to a point where early 2012-ish, it had plateaued. We built some mobile apps around it as well, so we kind of filled that trivia quiz niche if you will.
Then I started thinking about, “Well, how do we grow this business,” because this is a very high margin business. The website’s a very, very high margin business. I mean, 90 plus percent gross margins, right? Because we’re not creating the content. Users are creating the content, right? We’re not acquiring customers. The customers are all organic, right? So it’s a very, very … When you don’t have to create the product and you don’t have to pay to acquire customers, your margin is insane. So this is a very high gross margin business, and my thought was, “Well, the limiting factor in this business is people knowing about it. How do I get people that might be interested in this to become interested in it? How do I grow the brand?”
And so the thinking around that was, “Well, are there areas on the periphery where we could extend the brand?” One thought we had was, “Well, we know that people do pub trivia shows in bars and restaurants,” and so we thought, “Well, what if we had Sporcle branded shows that are done in bars and restaurants.” We tried to do it on our own. It was comical. We had no clue what we were doing, and nobody showed up to it, et cetera. We ended up, through a bunch of, again, coincidences, acquiring a business that was already doing this. So the business was based in Michigan, and they were doing about 70 shows a week in southeastern Michigan, the metro Detroit area, and in northern Ohio. So we acquired that business in January of 2013, and we rebranded it Sporcle Live.
The intention was to grow this offline business branded Sporcle and use that offline business to drive traffic back to our high margin website. So you’ve got this business that has good margins itself, but traditional. It’s more of a traditional nice maybe 50% gross margin and maybe a 10-20% net instead of a 90% gross margin. But the goal was to take this thing that already is profitable, put the Sporcle brand on it that’s associated with what we do, and then drive people back to the Sporcle website. We ended up growing that business pretty substantially. So like I said, that business was doing 70 shows a week, so basically 70 customers if you will per week in two states, and up to the pandemic, between then and the onset of the pandemic, we grew to about 800 shows a week in 33 U.S. states, so that business ended up doing fantastic. It ended up being a fantastic acquisition. We were looking forward to the returns that that acquisition was going to give us over the next decade or two.
So when the pandemic hit, that business went to zero because bars and restaurants closed, obviously, so we had to pivot very quickly. So we managed to create this product that mimics our pub trivia experience, but it’s done over Zoom. So now we’re running pub trivia shows every day over Zoom, and you can go to our website, Sporcle.com/virtual. It’s doing very well for a business that just started from scratch. We ramped it up very, very quickly. There’s a long way to go before it can be equivalent to a business that we’ve been trying to build for the last eight years, so that’s the challenge of COVID.
I’ll also just add, about four years ago, we decided that, and we can talk about the merits or lack thereof, this decision, but we wanted to perfect our pub trivia product so much that we felt the best way to do that was to own a bar-restaurant ourselves. So an opportunity opened up for us to launch our own bar-restaurant, and we did that. We opened our own bar-restaurant in December 2016. It’s in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s two blocks from central campus. We still own it today. It’s called Haymaker Public House. During the pandemic, it’s only doing takeout and delivery, but that’s given us the opportunity to learn a significant amount about the bar-restaurant business and really understand our customers very well. So that’s the Sporcle story.
So how did you reshape your team to go from the in-person live events to now handling them all over Zoom?
I mean, it wasn’t as hard of a process as you might think. We had to train all of our host employees to use Zoom and to use, and our host employees run the gamut of they don’t use technology at all to they use technology every single day, so that was the big part of getting it ready as a product. We had to rally some things from a gameplay perspective, so our engineering team really pumped out some outstanding work to build out the ticket purchase platform, to build out the gameplay platform, and we did it in a matter of literally days. We conceptualized this and had something up basically within 10 days, but it was because we knew we were in this reality where if we didn’t make this quick shift, it was over and we would have to not lay everyone off, but lay off a lot of people, so it was a when you’re up against the wall, you figure it out. Everyone felt like they were up against a wall, so we figured it out. I’m really proud of my team for being able to make that transition so quickly.
Are your hosts, once everything opens back up again, are they going to do it in-person and the Zoom live events? How do you think about going back to somewhat normal times?
No, the Zoom business I think is here to stay, so we’re going to do both. Things have started to open up. We will, I think, run about 50 shows this week. It’s the third week of June. Whether that holds up or not, 50 shows, live shows in bars and restaurants. Whether that holds up or not remains to be seen given where we’re at with coronavirus, but I anticipate that we will be doing both on a go forward basis, because there’s a … What the pandemic has done for us is it has allowed us to see that there is an opportunity here for a different product, but it’s not just trivia in Zoom. There’s going to be things beyond that, and there’s stuff that we’re building on top of it that our engineers are building on top of it that we’re really excited about for the future, so we’ll see where that goes.
How difficult would pivoting like that have been at any of your previous companies where it’s significantly larger, there’s venture capital involved, it’s not just your own business?
That’s a great question. So when venture capital is involved, depending on the situation, it can be easy to pivot. Certainly I’ve been in situations with venture capital where things aren’t going well, and in those cases, it’s very easy to pivot because the incentives are aligned to pivot. But I’ve been in cases with venture capital where management wants to go one way, the board wants to go another way, and of course the board wins, because with venture capital, you’re working at the pleasure of the board. You’re not, at least the situations I was in I should say. There are situations where founders can hold more control. We didn’t have that type of situation in the circumstance that I’m thinking of, and in that case, it’s hard, and it’s one of the reasons why we have shied away from pursuing venture capital.
I mean, look. Sporcle is not a venture fundable business. It does not have a venture return profile. It is great as a bootstrap business, and it is great for the owners who have put in nothing but their time, right? Sporcle didn’t even have money put into it. It’s not like we put our money into it. We just put time into it. That’s it. Part of that and having now operated a business where me and a few people own the whole thing now for a decade, you can be much more nimble, make decisions much faster. You don’t have to go through five levels of board approval, and so yeah, you can make those shifts quickly, but certainly there are situations in venture backed companies where you can pivot very quickly. It kind of depends on the circumstances. COVID-19 certainly is a circumstance where people can and will and should pivot quickly if their businesses are in trouble.
This kind of gets back to a previous conversation we’ve had about finite/infinite games where you’ve been playing your whole career in the finite game, where the end goal is to raise a bunch of money and then sell your company, and now you’ve switched course. Is there a particular learning, or was there a revelation during that time that has made you choose the infinite game? Then building on top of it, you’ve also talked about is one right or wrong? Is there a better way to play between the two?
Let me answer your latter question first. Is there a better one? Were I’m at on that today, and I’ll be honest, my thinking on that evolves, but I believe that the right answer depends on who you are and what your value system is and what your goals are in life in general. I think that the unfortunate thing is that most people are living their business lives or their careers without having answered that question. “Do I want to play an infinite game, or do I want to play a finite game?”
So let’s just be clear first with what I’m even talking about, right? So the finite game is building a company for the intention of selling it, and this is what the entire venture backed industry is predicated on that, and it’s a finite game because it ends at a very finite point. That finite point is when you exit, and the exit could be an IPO. The exit could be an acquisition, or the exit could be it didn’t work out and the business is over. But when you’re venture backed, you have to get to one of those three outcomes sometime in five to seven to 10 years. Somewhere in that window, it has to hit one of those three walls, and that’s the finite end. The infinite game is one where you can build a business or a company that has no end, and it is not being built for an exit. It’s being built for the whole purpose of perpetuating its continued existence, so that’s an infinite game.
The reason why this distinction is so important is because each dictates how you should approach your business. Each dictates a strategy, and each dictates the lifestyle through which you as the owner or as a founder or as a leader is approaching the business and your people. So what do I mean by that? Operating system in venture backed business, one of the things you’re up against, and I don’t care what venture backed business you’re in, one variable that really matters is time. Time matters because it’s part of the return equation. When a venture capitalist is calculating their rate of return, the amount of time it took for them to achieve that return is a variable in that calculation, so their rate of return is higher if they 2X their money in five years versus 2X-ing their money in 10 years, obviously, right?
So because time is such a critical component to the return equation, you as somebody who’s responsible for that business on a day to day basis who’s job it is to maximize return for your shareholders, to maximize, you have to try to do it as fast as you can. You want to do it for yourself too. Myself being in that situation three times, yeah, of course I want to get to the exit as fast as I can too, because it’s going to be a life-changing event for me, right? I would rather have that life-changing event when I’m younger than when I’m older, because then I have more time to enjoy the fruits of that life-changing event.
So therefore, when you’re playing the finite game, the lifestyle that you’re living is one which is optimized for the success of that finite game, and if you’re going to live a life that is optimized for the success of that finite game, then there are trade-offs that you have to make. The trade-offs that you make depend on who you are as an individual. Different people will make different trade-offs, and some people will trade off all these things I’m about to say. Some people will trade off some of them. Some people will try to trade off none of them, but you can’t achieve venture returns by trading off none of them. What I’m talking about is you have to trade off your health. You have to trade off relationships. You have to trade off family, like how much time you’re spending with your kids or whether you’re even having kids. You have to trade off hobbies or other interests that you might have. You have to trade off further things you want to educate yourself in or whatever, other things that you might want to pursue outside of the area of the finite game.
So those trade-offs are made in the name of trying to achieve the best possible result in this finite game in that finite period of time in that finite period of time. Now, is that a good or bad versus an infinite game? Again, that’s a value judgment, and everybody has the agency to make that choice themselves. What makes me, I guess, in some ways sad, and I would include myself when I was younger in this, is that most people don’t make that choice. They instead just end up on some kind of career track, and they’re playing whatever game they just ended up on, and not because they’ve made the active choice of saying, “Hey, I want to play this game. I want to play this finite game, or I want to play the infinite game.”
That’s sad because some people might be better suited for the infinite game, or you might have other reasons why you want to play the infinite game, but if you’re not even aware that this dynamic exists, it’s very easy to fall into the finite game trap, if you will. I hesitate to call it a trap, because again, there’s a place for it. It’s okay to play it, but it’s a trap if you’re playing it without knowing you’re playing it. It’s easy to fall into it because capitalism creates all these structures like venture capital that need talent. The whole venture capital industry fails if talented people are not trying to pursue finite games, are not trying to create new companies from scratch to try to generate exponential returns. If talented people don’t want to play that game, then the capital industry doesn’t exist. You need the talent and you need enough talent to play that game, so there are all these structures that exist to get people into playing that game. Again, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you’re going in eyes wide open.
The nice thing about the infinite game is that the infinite game, the only thing that matters about the infinite game is the survival, so all you care is to be able to perpetuate the game in perpetuity. So if you map that onto a company, the point is for a company, a company playing an infinite game, the only thing it cares about is making sure that it survives to the next year and the year after that, so perpetuating itself. So in that case, things like exponential revenue growth don’t matter. Profitability doesn’t even matter. It does. You can’t lose money every year, but you don’t necessarily have to have 20% net income or whatever. You don’t have to hit some arbitrary financial metric or a financial metric that shareholders are trying to get you to meet. You can have a really good year followed by a really bad year, and it’s okay as long as you have enough to perpetuate it year after year.
Part of that means you do have to grow. Like, you can’t perpetuate without growth. Some growth is necessary, because if you don’t have growth, things go stale. So you do have to grow a little bit, it really comes down to how do I keep this thing going, and if I keep this thing going and I’m growing a little bit as I’m going along, eventually over a long period of time, over an infinite period of time, you end up with a pretty substantial business.
So what made you choose the infinite game then? Was it mostly a lifestyle choice for you after having seen the finite one, and then do you have friends who understand that concept as well, and then they choose the opposite? What sorts of things do they say?
Here’s the active choice that I did make. So I did make an active choice, but what I didn’t do was I didn’t make a choice having this framework already. This framework came along later. It came along and provided the vocabulary I needed to describe what was going on and what I was doing. And I made the decision because for me, having been in three venture backed businesses, there’s two things I learned. I mean, learned a thousand things, but two things I learned as it relates to this. The first is that just because you’re playing the venture backed finite game doesn’t mean you’re going to win. In other words, winning means an exit that meaningfully changes your financial life. For me, I played that game in three different instances, and in three different instances, while each of them had their own unique exits, none of them provided the financial exit where it was life-changing.
So one thing is that that life-changing experience is not guaranteed. Number two, the lifestyle you have to live running a venture backed business is on 24/7, and look, you have to do that when you have your own business too, but it’s different. The stakes are a lot higher when you take other people’s money and other people want return on their capital. They want it within a certain period of time, or they need to have it within a certain period of time, and you need to show that you can deliver it within a certain period of time, and you need to show the interim milestones, that you’re on that trajectory. So the life you have to life in order to really achieve the types of returns that venture capital is expecting, for me it was not just consistent with being the type of parent I want to be. I wanted to be somebody who was as present as I possibly could be in my kids’ lives, and so the venture backed finite game was not a lifestyle that was conducive to being a present father in my daughters’ lives.
So that’s how I got to it, so for me, it wasn’t with this vocabulary of finite and infinite games, but it was what I was referring to earlier, which is if you’re going to play the venture backed game, there are inevitably trade-offs you’re going to have to make. For me and the type of parent I wanted to be, it was just not a trade-off I was willing to make anymore at that point in my life, especially after having basically exited without having a positive outcome and having worked as hard as I did to not have that positive outcome.
You said that when you tell people about this framework, that they kind of glaze over or get a little confused at you. What are some of the conversations you’ve had?
When I have conversations with people who are playing the finite game, and who don’t know they’re playing the finite game in that vernacular, they’re in the craziness of their venture backed business, the response I get is the point of business or the point of me being an entrepreneur is so that I can create something and maximize my return in creating something. I know that I can achieve these really large many standard deviations to the right of the mean financial outcome, only if I’m playing this venture backed game. So what they would say is something like, “Isn’t the whole point of business or of one’s career to maximize how much money we make or maximize our return?” Well, the way I can maximize my return, my financial return is to play this venture backed game.
That’s what they say. My answer to that is, well, I have two real strong arguments against that, and they’re kind of related to the two reasons I just stated a moment ago of why I transitioned over to this infinite game. One is that return isn’t guaranteed. You can work your tail off, and it doesn’t work out or some competitor passes you or whatever, and now you’ve just spent all this time on something that didn’t give you the type of return, and then you’re standing at the end of it, and you’ve got no tangible assets. Outside of any money that you’ve made, you have no tangible assets to show for it going forward. The point of an infinite game is that you’re building up assets, and those assets are gaining value over time, so that if any one piece of that doesn’t work out for some reason, at least you have many assets that you’re building up as you go in that infinite game.
So that’s one immediate argument against. The other argument is that perspective is a very financial one, and financial as a measurement of success. I’m not saying … Look, I’m a business person. I want to succeed financially just as any other business person does, but there are other metrics of success in life, and I think that one loses sight of those other metrics when they’re so deep in the venture backed finite game. When you’re so deep in that game, success is only about maximizing that return, and it’s not really about anything else, so things like how do I have a good marriage, do they matter when you’re playing that game? How do I … Again, I don’t want to offend anybody. You can have a good marriage and play the finite game, absolutely, but again, it’s about which trade-offs you’re going to make. Maybe you’re not going to trade off a good marriage, right? But there is something you’re trading off. It’s inevitable.
You’re trading off your health, you’re trading off your relationship with your kids, your parents, the rest of your family, something. Your hobbies, your this, your that. You’re trading off something, and there are other measures of success outside of financial measures. For me, it’s about finding that right balance, and I can’t tell you that I’ve got it perfect, but it’s trying to find that right balance between achieving whatever financial outcome you’re trying to achieve, but in a more measured way so that you can achieve other metrics of success in the short time that you have here on earth.
Is there an element where, to play your infinite game in regards to perhaps growth at Sporcle, is there an element where you’re playing off someone’s finite game? So with the acquisitions you’ve made and may make in the future, is that your infinite game is playing in someone’s finite game, because they’re selling your business to you? Although, I guess selling a business isn’t necessarily finite in itself, but is there some element where there’s an interaction?
Certainly. I definitely am taking advantage, if you will, of other people who are playing finite games, to the extent I am buying or making acquisitions. I mean, they could have been playing infinite game. There are plenty of infinite games that ultimately sell, especially for example, good example are people who are retiring and selling their business, or people whose growth is kind of flat. It’s flat lined, and they want to move on. So sure, they’ve decided to bring it to a finite end. Obviously, I’m leveraging the fact they’re doing that, but I am putting it into my infinite system with the intention of leveraging it infinitely.
Just an interesting side question I have for you, I’ve interviewed mostly investors on the podcast but not a whole lot of business owners who own just one business and run that full-time. Say, just for example, if Sporcle was a public company and you had to have conference calls, you submitted quarterly reports, annual reports, filings, what would an investor in your company still not understand about your company with it being private? Because I think of a public company investor just looking through the peephole a company, whereas you’re the one in the apartment. I just find that private versus public company formation dynamic really interesting, so what would someone who’s just looking through the peephole still not be understand?
So things that occur to me off the top of my head, because when you’re looking through that peephole, unless the company is breaking down the different business units, you’re not really going to understand the margin structure of the different business units. So I think one thing that … We see this with public companies, right? A lot of public companies don’t give you the information on a per business unit perspective. Like Amazon’s a good example of this. I think only recently they started breaking out the revenue that AWS was generating. If you were to look through the peephole of Sporcle as a public company investor, unless we were disclosing it, you wouldn’t see, and I mentioned this earlier, how good the website is as a business. So the gross margin of that business versus the gross margin of everything else, it’s night and day. That’s one thing, so definitely it’s one thing that people would miss.
It’s hard for me to know what a public company investor would see with Sporcle, so that’s why I’m hesitating so much, because really it comes down to what would we disclose, right? I don’t know what we would disclose and what we would break out. Another thing that’s occurring to me relating to your question is how did we get here in the first place from a cap structure perspective, right? I talked about how we haven’t put in any money. When you look at, and I’ll give you an example of this. In January, we closed an acquisition. We bought some assets from a public company, and understanding that public company, yep, I can go read their SEC file, their recent SEC filings and look at their financials and whatnot and try to stitch together the narrative, but this company’s been public for over 20 years. In fact, probably over 25, maybe even almost 30 years. I can’t read 30 years worth of SEC filings. That’s not a good use of my time.
I can read maybe the last quarter or two and get a broad brush picture, but what’s missing is how did this business get here? What is the path that it took? What’s the journey that it took to get to where it is today? The reason why that’s so important is it tells us so much about the dynamic of the company, about why things are the way they are. As a result of why they are the way they are, what can we do about it? So there’s all this missing information. Unless I go back and read 30 years worth of SEC filings, there’s no way I can get that full picture, yet I look at this balance sheet, and I see for this particular company, retained earnings on their balance sheet of negative $120 million. That in and of itself is a very interesting story to me, just dissecting how does a company who has a market cap of less than $10 million dollars as a public company, how do you survive with a retained earnings of negative $120 million as a public company? It’s a fascinating …
So I think there’s just so much that as a private business, an outsider looking in can’t know. There really isn’t a lot that you get out of look at that peephole, through that peephole, because the story behind everything is what really gives one an understanding of what’s happening at a company.
If you could teach a class in college about anything you wanted, doesn’t have to be any typical class, what would you teach and why?
I would teach a class on managing one’s self. The reason why is when I think about this question, the first thing that occurs to me is a class on managing people. The reason why that, managing people, is because this is something that’s missing in all education and business education. People learn management skills on the job. There is no such thing as somebody who knows how to manage people who hasn’t managed people. That’s too bad, because it’s a skill that you can learn, but the reason why I would teach managing one’s self is because managing one’s self translates into managing people. If you know how to manage yourself, then you will know how to manage people. What I primarily mean by that is do you have the skills to manage the emotional processes around different circumstances that you see in business and in your life? If you know how to manage yourself and how to respond to different situations and different circumstances, then you’ll know how to do that with other people. So that’s the class I would teach.
What’s a belief that you used to hold strongly that you’ve since changed your mind on?
I’ll go to a little bit earlier in my life for this one, and this might have a little bit of a negative connotation. I used to believe, and I think growing up in the 80s, having immigrant parents, everything was about hard work. What was nailed into your head was, “I can achieve anything through hard work.” I no longer believe that. Through hard work, you can achieve a lot, and you can achieve more than you can achieve by not working hard, but you can’t achieve anything through hard work.
I hear people say that and I cringe, because what that does is it puts too much weight on the outcome that anything that you want to achieve is then seen as this panacea, as this destination I want to get to in the absence of anything else. And either you ultimately get to that destination through really hard work but there’s a bunch of collateral damage because you’ve had that singular focus on that one thing, or what you’re trying to achieve is something that isn’t achievable, so you’re pursuing something that isn’t achievable, and there’s a lot of suffering associated with being so focused on that destination. Then if you’re not able to achieve it, that just adds to the suffering. So I really am not about you can achieve anything. You can achieve things within reality.
So is that more of it’s better to work smart perhaps than work hard, or is there something else there?
I think that’s part of it, but I think the other part of it is desire is suffering. It’s more about the journey than it is about reaching the destination, and it’s more about what you learn along the journey. I realize that might be trite and cliche-ish, but cliches are cliches because they do happen. There is truth in them. If you focus too much on that destination, you’re going to miss what you learn in the journey. You’re going to miss the joy in the journey, and you’re going to suffer greatly if and when you don’t reach your desired destination.
What’s the best business you’ve ever come across?
Okay, so this one, this is going to sound like a little bit of a cop out answer because I’m going to pick a big business. But I’m picking this business because, well, first of all, this is what occurs to me when you ask the question. What occurs to me is Google’s ad business. I don’t mean the ads on Google search. What I mean is the way in which Google basically took over and dominated and still dominates today the ad business across the entire web. The truth is there’s no reason why Google should have been the winner. Google was a search engine. It had the interest of monetizing its search results, and that’s it. It didn’t necessarily have to go beyond that, and I don’t know that anyone was thinking beyond that initially.
What made Google so absolutely shrewd and why I just think it’s really the best business ever. Unless you’re in the ad tech business, you don’t really know or think much of this. Google did an acquisition in 2008 of this company called DoubleClick, which was the standard ad server that web publishers were using. Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick was the shrewdest move it could have, like anybody has possibly made in the ad tech business and maybe in any business, because what that allowed them to … It’s the clearest example of an acquisition where the acquiring party is taking someone else’s assets. Everyone always talks about, “Oh, I’m going to acquire a business and find the synergies and leverage the synergies.” That acquisition is the best execution of leveraging synergies in the history of acquisitions, because that acquisition allowed Google to take over the World Wide Web, and when I look at metrics where our ad business comes from, we have tons of ad partners, but when you go underneath the hood, what you find is that most of those ads are still coming somehow from Google.
So Google did this amazing job of taking their existing audience of advertisers who are advertising only on their search engine through the acquisition of DoubleClick, and taking those advertisers and putting them anywhere on the web. It blows my mind that they were able to pull that off. That is why Google is a money printing machine. I mean, you can talk about their search engine all day long, but where it really turned into a money printing machine was that.
I really enjoyed this episode a lot. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while ever since we got to connect a few months ago, so thank you for taking the time to share with us. I really appreciate it.
Thanks for having me, Alex.
My guest Ali Aydar is the CEO of Sporcle, an online trivia business, but earlier worked in various venture backed companies. We talk about operating a business through tough times, the advantages of having permanent capital, and his choice in leaving the finite game.