When asked how he got started writing about tech, Dan Frommer points to his childhood, his basement, and a stack of VCRs.
“We had a lot of office equipment around the house,” Dan explains. “So we’d spend a lot of time taking apart VCRs, scanners, Xerox machines, all that and making art and projects with them.”
From there he began tinkering with building web pages back at a time when you needed to make sure all the phones in the house were hung up to use the Internet. His fascination with technology and how things work ultimately became the backbone for his career as a writer.
For almost 15 years, Dan Frommer has stood on the vanguard of tech writing. He was one of the first writers for the publication that would become Business Insider. And he has gone on to become the tech editor for Quartz as well as the editor-in-chief for Recode.
Now, he’s onto his latest venture: The New Consumer—a publication that lives in the intersection of consumer brands and business. He’s quick to say that nowadays, the two are inextricably linked, a veritable Gordian knot that ties together modern commerce with its consumers.
“Technology is not an industry,” Dan says. “It's a layer on everything.”
We caught up with him to discuss the state of media, tech, and why he couldn’t help but buy coconut-flavored dental floss.
Technology is not an industry. It’s a layer on everything.
dscout: Between Recode, Quartz, and Business Insider, you have a robust resume in tech journalism. How did you get your start in the industry?
Dan: I moved to New York [after college] and applied to every single media job that existed. I ended up getting a job at Forbes as a technology journalist in my second month.
It was kind of perfect. I never really sought out to be a technology journalist, but it makes a lot of sense in hindsight because I was using technology from such an early age. It was a core part of my life and I was already starting to understand the business terminologies.
At Forbes, I had a really great editor there named Peter Kafka. He was also from the Midwest, a fun guy and really talented journalist. He became a mentor in many ways. I was at Forbes for a little more than a year and a half when we ended up leaving together to help start a new publication. It was risky at the time but I was 25 and didn't mind risks. Risks sounded kind of fun. Startups sounded fun.
At first, it was just three of us there: Peter, myself, and Henry Blodget. The publication was called Silicon Alley Insider and is now known as Business Insider. It started off as a news blog about the New York tech scene. The iPhone had just come out. Tumblr was just launching. There was a lot of excitement about technology in New York.
And Business Insider was really interesting because we were really an internet native publication. We were very voicey. We told it like it was.
And were using Twitter as a journalistic tool before other publications were. In fact, I'm almost positive I was the first reporter to find and publish the photo of Sully's plane in the Hudson because I did a Twitter search for it.
That is a core part of most journalists’ jobs now. So we were definitely on the forefront of a lot of things. It was a really special time and place to be, but it also made me appreciate some things that have kind of been a core part of my belief in where the media is going. The direct connection between the reader and audience. Through Twitter, through other social media, through newsletters, and through email.
Now I would say reporters and journalists are probably too online. They could afford to spend less time on Twitter and the web, and really spend more time learning how industries work and meeting with sources in person. But there is definitely a whole field of journalism and research that takes place online now that the world is better for.
Not all companies are software companies. Not all companies should be valued as software companies. But if you’re not a technology company now you’re in big trouble.
What was the impetus for creating the New Consumer?
I ended up leaving Recode and I had figured out what I was going to focus on, which was this transformation of commerce that has happened because of technology.
These new brands that have popped up that use technology differently were and are really compelling. Some examples are Warby Parker, Away, Harry's, Glossier, and Everlane.
There's a big debate on whether these are technology companies or not, which means a lot of different things in terms of how they're valued in the market. To me, that's actually not that interesting of an argument. Because all companies are technology companies now.
Not all companies are software companies. Not all companies should be valued as software companies. But if you're not a technology company now you're in big trouble.
I saw these new brands and I thought it was really fascinating how they were building communities online, turning their customers into advocates, and using social media for distribution of their product marketing, while also building communities. And people were talking about them a lot. I’ve seen people changing the way that they spend their money based on some of these brands.
In many ways we're in a golden era of e-commerce. Consumers have so much more choice. Technology means that people can make and buy better products than ever before. And they can do so—in theory—at lower prices or at least in ways that are better designed for their specific needs.
So at the end of 2018, I figured this is what I'm going [write about]. The thesis is that technology and commerce are colliding such that the way people spend their time and money has been profoundly changed. And that’s going to be an interesting story for decades to come—if not forever.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen happen in tech and business media since you began more than a decade ago?
I think the biggest change is definitely the relationship between the writer and reader. It can be much more direct now.
There's still a certain level of authority that comes with writing for the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.And there's also new methods of measuring success and accountability that didn't exist before either. Now, you have real-time data of what people are reading, and where they're coming from. You don't really know why they're reading it, but you can make an educated guess based on things like A/B tests.
I'm a digital native, I love those tools. I think they're great. But I think they can be abused. And I think if you're only running a publication based on what people are reading the most, then you do not have a long path ahead of you.
But I think it's also true that if you're writing something, you should try to have as big of an impact as possible and get as many people to read it as possible. So there’s a delicate balance there.
For me, it was the opportunity to be able to do that. Which was not brand new, but is better now than ever before. And this direct connection that I have with tens of thousands of readers on Twitter, that kind of led me down that path. But it wasn't so much for me trying to insulate myself from that world as much as I saw this opportunity to do something new and creative and that really inspired me.
Where do you think the state of tech and business media is going or needs to go?
It's going to go into a lot of different places just because the world is big and there are a lot of different needs. There are a few interesting trends, though.
I think this independent publishing thing is here to stay and I think that it's a key part of the equation. I love that my job is to write and analyze directly for some of the most important people in business and marketing. As a reader, I really support this move to hold companies more accountable than ever before. The press was always seen as kind of a watchdog. And that has long been the case, especially in politics and in civic situations. But we've seen what effects the technology tools and businesses have on the world and it's not all positive.
It can be overdone. Like if you're supposed to be a trusted journalist and you're taking personal stabs at people on Twitter, I think that's a bad look. I think you should conduct yourself professionally in all settings and don't write things on Twitter that you wouldn't write in a piece. At least that's how I would encourage my team to conduct themselves.
As a writer about consumer tech and business, what have you noticed about the user experience in those areas that you’d like to call out?
One of the things that's top of mind for me is the user experience of shopping. Because obviously it drives the economy, and it drives the growth of companies and products. And it's going in a couple of interesting directions.
There’s this constant refinement and evolution of online shopping. We're removing friction and it's not perfect. There's still a lot of friction in checkout and in discovery. Little things here and there have helped a lot like advertising on Instagram, where you learn about new brands. For example, I learned about Cocofloss, a coconut-flavored dental floss, on Instagram.
In the old days, if a buyer at CVS hadn't found this Cocofloss and decided to put it on the shelves, maybe I never would have found out about it. But now I found out about it from a tweet from someone who saw it on Instagram ad. I bought it. It was shipped directly to my house.
I think it was $9, which is probably more than I would have spent on floss at CVS. But here it is. And maybe this company gets to be in business and thrive and sell for a lot of money someday because of this new experience of shopping, which I think is really interesting.
Another part of that is using this common platform of Shopify. That’s really interesting because now Shopify has its own payment system that lets you store your credit card number and make it really low friction to shop online.
These tools and paradigms for independent creators, merchants, and vendors and inventors are profoundly different than the tools and workflows that existed even a few years ago.
What does that mean for smaller businesses?
I'm of the belief that technology and innovation is probably going to happen more from small companies than big companies, and the technology can build better tools than before. A lot of other user experience tweaks.
And I think offline is really interesting too, because what is the store going forward? Is it more of an experience? Obviously it's a distribution point and a place to swipe your credit card. But how should a store be conceived and designed going forward when, for the more mundane purchases, you can just buy stuff from Amazon or online?
Is a store more of a place that you go and hang out? Are you there for the community? Are you there for advice? Are you there for education? Are you there to relax? I don't know, and that’s so interesting to me.
There's a toy store here in New York called Camp. When you think of the toy stores of old there's Toys "R" Us, which is this giant store. There are the local toy stores, which always seem like a huge mess. And then there's Camp. They have almost an over-emphasis on user experience. For example, there’s a bookshelf that you have to go through to get to the back of to access half of the store. The store also has its own jungle gym built into it.
These things sound obvious, but when you experience it, it's kind of a radical rethinking of what it means to be a store. When technology has vastly changed some of the underlying mechanics and economics of an industry, how do you use design user experience and appeal to the very visceral human senses of delight and happiness to build a business?
And that's why there's this whole concept of direct-to-consumer brands. What we've learned over the last five years is that direct-to-consumer e-commerce is a tactic and a strategy, but it's not necessarily the business.
So a lot of these brands are finding that they need to be in physical retail to really reach the most customers possible. And that's why you see Warby Parker with physical stores and Casper has their products being wholesaled and in retail stores.
A lot of things that people thought were going to be true 10 years ago have turned out to be a lot different. And that's another reason why I love this idea of publications devoted to this because as we learn in real time you can look back and say, "Oh wow, this is really a profound difference than what people were thinking and saying even a few years ago."
And as people are kind of recalculating their thinking and their strategy in real time, I think that's a valuable place to be.
Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.