THE DIGITAL TRENDS STORY
They met at a wedding
It was 2001, the year of the flat screen plasma TV, the first PlayStation, and the first iPod. Dan Gaul and Ian Bell were in the buffet line getting food, when a man who worked as a merchandiser at Office Depot, pulled out his then-hot Motorola phone, the first of its kind to have Bluetooth, and they both became intrigued.
Bell, the consummate consumer and lover of gadgets, wanted to know how he could get his hands on devices earlier and opined that he'd love to start a website that reviewed products. On the other side of the buffet line, Dan Gaul, a programmer who worked at Real Networks piped in: he had a private server, and he'd help build the website if Bell would supply the stories. A friendship and business partnership were born over a love of technology.
Soon afterward, Bell and Gaul started Design Technica—which would become Digital Trends—as a hobby, working on it in the evenings and weekends when they weren't working their day jobs. But as their easy-to-understand, snark-free, helpful consumer reviews began to resonate with readers, they were able to focus full time on making the site the web's most comprehensive source of information about consumer electronics and technology.
"We say we like to cover the aspirational and the attainable," says Bell. "We might write about the Ferrari but we realize not all of our readers can afford that, so we get them excited about this new Honda Civic Type R."
While other websites focused on the nitty-gritty tech specs, Digital Trends was aimed at the engaged consumer looking to buy a new gadget who didn't care about tech spec minutia but wanted to know how it actually worked and how it felt to use every day.
"Everybody was focusing on benchmarks," remembers Bell. "Pages and pages of specifications on benchmarks."
"There's a place for that, and we cover a little bit of that," Gaul says, "We really care about design and usability."
In 2006, they set up shop in a small office above a furniture store in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and went to work on Digital Trends. Their early days are a model of old-fashioned hustle. When they wanted to include mobile phone reviews on their site, but didn't have any reviews to convince companies to send them prototypes, they borrowed phones from their friends to test them out and put up a few posts.
When they learned that their only advertiser only needed to run ads a few months a year, they scrambled to come up with new revenue. Bell, armed only with gumption and his marketing background, flew back and forth to New York, pitching companies.
For a while, it seemed like he was in over his head—he'd come back empty-handed, worrying how to pay the mortgage. But one trip proved fruitful and he landed his first big fish: an ad agency took a risk and bought $50,000 worth of ads on behalf of a major electronics client. Bell was thrilled until he realized that it was a monthly, not yearly payment.
"I remember inside screaming, 'How am I going to serve this ad campaign, that is more than what we can handle on the site!" Bell recalls.
But Gaul and Bell did what they did before: they hustled and reached out to their network and made the campaign work. "You just learn the game," he says now.
And as they built up their content, more advertisers, companies—and readers—followed.
By 2009, they'd grown so much they moved to Portland's U.S. Bancorp Tower and expanded their staff to 75. Approached by venture capitalists offering wild sums of cash, they decided to stick with a smaller injection–one that they could manage and didn't undermine their Do It Yourself ethos. They didn't want to fall prey to what Gaul calls, "Shiny Object Syndrome."
Instead of worrying about what competitors are doing, they decided, "We need to just keep our eyes focused, put the blinders on, and do what we know we do well," says Gaul.
It has worked. As the business has grown—now with more than 100 employees in New York, Portland, Chicago, and Los Angeles and 30 million global monthly uniques—Bell and Gaul have perfected the Digital Trends formula: a mix of comprehensive product reviews, important breaking news, and deep dive features. At a time when other websites in the media industry are struggling, they are turning a profit in publishing.
Their success has garnered Bell accolades and honors: he was chosen as a finalist for EY's Entrepreneur of the Year in the Pacific Northwest and named to Portland Business Journal's "40 under 40."
They never imagined in their wildest dreams that Digital Trends would become so successful. "It was just two guys who went, 'We're getting paid to write about stuff we love, gadgets and technology, how is this not the dream job?'" says Bell.
Bell and Gaul have succeeded by learning from those early failures, and growing exponentially each year.
"You are gonna fail, you have to fail, and you gotta learn from those failures, and keep going and not be discouraged by it. You can't let those types of things kill your desire, your motivation, your passion to keep the business going. You have to risk it all," says Gaul.