Meet the Digital Hotshots

Youth is wasted on the young, except in the digital space, where you launch new media ventures, exploit bleeding-edge technologies and sometimes get bought by Google.

Unlike traditional media where young execs typically have to climb the ladder before becoming boss, young execs in digital media often start out at the top.

That’s particularly true in emerging sectors like Web video, mobile apps, location-based services and online ad-technology platforms where even grizzled media veterans are often instantly behind the curve.

AdweekMedia certainly had plenty to choose from when compiling a list of five Hotshots: media executives all under the age of 30 who are setting the pace for where digital goes next.

Billy Chasen
CEO, Stickybits

Sure, Billy Chasen has a computer science degree from the University of Michigan, but he’s as comfortable with a paintbrush as he is with code.

Chasen’s art informs his digital work inasmuch as he knows all personal projects are interconnected. After coding at trading platform FactSet, the now 29-year-old had a fast trajectory. He freelanced and dabbling in digital products and then went on to create and build Swarm, a browser extension; Downfly, an app for dead-simple content sharing; Firefly, a real-time chat program for publishers; and Chartbeat, a real-time analytics program that lets publishers know who’s on their site in the here and now.

By that point, Chasen was intrigued by augmented reality. As an art project, he dreamed up Stickybits, an app that attaches digital information to real-world objects. The idea was to “virtually paint” on surfaces with a mobile phone. Together with Seth Goldstein, a collaborator on Downfly, Chasen saw the broader potential to use bar codes to marry text, video and voice with actual objects. Stickybits, launched last March, accomplishes this through stickers and existing bar codes. Scan a can of Coca-Cola, for instance, and you’ll find 59 pieces of content. Campbell’s and Reggie Bush have used the app for scavenger hunts. Version 2.0, out soon, will offer more incentives to use the app, which Chasen says has a “small and dedicated” user base.

“You don’t really know the path of where an idea will take you,” he adds. “You have to be willing to pivot when parts work and don’t work.” —Brian Morrissey

First job: Making bagels
Biggest challenge facing digital media: How many media companies will continue making money

Soraya Darabi
Business development/marketing, Foodspotting

Soraya Darabi is a social network old-timer. A Friendster user at Georgetown University back in 2004, she got an early look at “Thefacebook” when her college became one of the first outside the Ivy League to have access to Mark Zuckerberg’s creation. While Darabi says she’s not always the earliest adopter, she knows the importance of being out in front of social media. “I believe in a beta philosophy,” Darabi says. “If you lightly understand a platform as it emerges, you’ll understand it better when everyone jumps on board.”

In September 2007, Darabi moved to The New York Times as manager of buzz marketing. She was part of a team that led the paper into social media, developing its Facebook, YouTube and Twitter strategies. The NYT today has 2.6 million Twitter followers and 777,000 Facebook fans. Darabi, now 27, became a social media A-lister herself, amassing nearly 500,000 Twitter followers.

Darabi left the NYT last December for a more entrepreneurial position at Drop.io, the private file-sharing startup, where she helped launch PressLift, its product for the PR industry. Along the way, she began advising another startup, Foodspotting, a mobile app that makes restaurant discovery more social and visual by letting people share photos of their favorite dishes. She left Drop.io in July to lead business development at Foodspotting full time after it secured $750,000 in seed money.

Since then, Darabi has been able to score big media partnerships by linking up with both Zagat and The Travel Channel. As part of the latter deal, chef Anthony Bourdain is sharing his 100 favorite meals on the app, and promotional spots for Foodspotting ran on The Travel Channel. Foodspotting has taken a cue from Foursquare by letting people earn badges for sharing their dishes.

“It’s only going to get more micro,” Darabi says of social media’s evolution. —Brian Morrissey

Personal hero: Diane Sawyer. She’s a remarkable journalist and stays true to herself.
Biggest lesson: Giving credit where credit is due

Ricky Van Veen
Co-founder, CollegeHumor.com

Josh Abramson and Ricky Van Veen were 18-year-old college freshmen in 1999 when they started bumping into dot-com entrepreneurs while DJing at various parties and Bar Mitzvahs.

“We got a taste of that world, so we did what came naturally,” says Van Veen, now 29. They started posting jokes, photos and links—all of the sophomoric variety—on a site they named CollegeHumor.com. “When we weren’t really doing our homework, we were doing this,” says Van Veen. “And that was a lot of the time.” Slacking off started to pay off, first in a big audience, then in cash. Barry Diller’s IAC bought 51 percent of CollegeHumor in 2006.

Since then, the site has shifted from being mostly an aggregator to a hub for popular video content. And Van Veen has done the surprising thing—stick around after being acquired by a media conglomerate. “If it had been someone other than Barry Diller, I probably would have left,” he says. “But I like working for him. If he thinks we have a good idea, he says, ‘Go do it.'”
—Mike Shields

iPad, Kindle or Book?: iPad
First thing you do every day?: Check my e-mail on the iPad next to my bed
Digital media’s biggest challenge: Creating a differentiated product that people will pay for
Personal hero: Larry David
What are you going to be for Halloween? Either a name dropper (a costume made up of “Hello My Name Is” stickers that fall off throughout the night) or Hall & Oates (both at once)

Ben Lerer
Co-founder, Thrillist

When he was 23, Ben Lerer noticed something odd about city guides like Citysearch and Zagat: “My mom and I were supposed to read the same stuff.”

He and college buddy Adam Rich went to work fixing that with Thrillist, a curated city guide with the frat-boy sensibility of Maxim.

Thrillist was born as a new-school digital publishing venture that used the decidedly old-school approach of an e-mail newsletter. The thinking was that e-mail is ubiquitous, and a subscriber is much more valuable than a random passerby on the Web.

There was a handy model for success: DailyCandy, which had blazed the trail with a successful e-mail-driven curated guide for urban woman. “If someone welcomes us into their inbox, it’s a meaningful connection,” Lerer says.

Rich and Lerer, the son of Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer, took a round of financial backing from Bob Pittman’s Pilot Group, also backers of DailyCandy. The 70-person, New York-based Thrillist now publishes versions in 19 cities and has 2.2 million subscribers. Its advertiser base includes marquee brands like Absolut, Tommy Hilfiger and Cadillac.

Thrillist commands CPMs over $20 and is on course to generate $10 million in revenue in 2010. Earlier this year, it made its first acquisition, scooping up flash sales site JackThreads. Thrillist also diversified its distribution with an iPhone app and pending Web site relaunch.

Lerer says there isn’t enough money being spent in the digital space and that “there’s still so much money being spent on print and TV and radio…these deteriorating mediums.” —Brian Morrissey

Biggest mistake: We’d get bogged down and didn’t move as quickly by being perfectionists.
Personal hero: My father
First job: In college I teamed up with a friend at a competing fraternity to organize parties. I ended up making all my spending money.

Nat Turner
Co-founder, Invite Media

Like many college sophomores, once Nat Turner got most of his required courses out of the way, he started to think seriously about his future. For most sophomores, that typically means picking a major. But for Turner, that meant seeking venture capital funding.

Turner had just completed an internship at the rich media firm VideoEgg. Instead of hoping to land a job there down the road, he came away determined to launch his own company in the video ad space. “I had all sorts of ideas,” says Turner, now 24. “I’m very entrepreneurial. It never really seemed weird to me.”

Turner landed an angel investor and set to work. Over the next year, as he and partner Zachary Weinberg continued to tinker with their Web video platform idea, they met with multiple advisors in the industry who opened their eyes to the myriad challenges in the display business — including the need for better technology to manage inventory purchased on ad exchanges.

“They kept saying, ‘Every ad agency needs this,'” Turner says.

After two years of around-the-clock labor, Invite Media was born. The demand side platform is used by every major agency holding company. This past June Google bought the company for $70 million. That summer internship seems to have paid off. —Mike Shields

Blackberry, iPhone or Droid?: Blackberry
First thing you do every day?: Check my Blackberry
Last book you read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Last movie you saw: The Social Network
Hero: Richard Branson