Zite CEO Mark Johnson: ‘Honestly, The Sooner Zite Goes Away, The Better’

For the last three years, I have gotten most of my news from one primary source: Zite on the iPad. I knew there were other capable and quality newsreaders out there, but Zite always delivered the breadth and serendipity of news that I craved to get a whole perspective on what is happening in the world. Soon, Zite will be no more and will get rolled into social magazine Flipboard, which acquired Zite from CNN on Wednesday.

See also: Inside Look Into How Zite Brings Personalized News to Your iPad

This acquisition is perhaps the best thing that could’ve happened to both Zite and Flipboard.

I have always felt a little guilty about my Zite addiction. Flipboard is the most attractive of the new age mobile newsreaders and has way more users than Zite or any other mobile-based social magazine or news reader applications. But Zite had the technology that put it a class ahead of all the other news apps, even if it didn’t have the users to become a breakout hit like Flipboard.

A Technology Win For Flipboard

If you are not familiar with Zite, it is a personal news reading application that launched on the iPad in 2011. Essentially, Zite was a big recommendation engine that gives you articles based on what you like to read—based on your social feeds like Facebook and Twitter, but also based on your reading history and preferences.

Want to read more mobile news? More ReadWrite? More from a specific author specifically? You could tune your Zite to offer you those articles but also many similar articles. The beauty of Zite was never its user experience—which, to be fair, was always good but never great—but the engine that powered it.

To me, the recommendation engine in Zite was something Flipboard had always been lacking.

Flipboard is basically a magazine—you get feeds from Twitter or Facebook accounts delivered in an interesting and readable way. My favorite aspect of Flipboard has been to turn Twitter feeds (like my own) into personalized magazines for the iPad or Android smartphones and tablets. In the same way in which I consider my own Twitter account to be a resource for my readers—by retweeting other publications, making interesting observations, taking pictures and being goofy—my Twitter feed is just as interesting to read in the context of Flipboard. But when it came to Flipboard, all I really got were the feeds, not the serendipity that came from the recommendation engine of Zite.

Flipboard is now getting exactly the type of engine that it needs to be able to advance its user base and its product. 

Zite is going to die—and soon. According to the parameters of the acquisition, the Zite technology team led by cofounder Mike Klaas will go to Flipboard, while a couple of people not really involved in the building of Zite’s recommendation engine won’t make the jump. One of those individuals is Zite CEO Mark Johnson, who called ReadWrite after the announcement of the acquisition to discuss his thoughts on the future of Zite, its value to Flipboard and his plans for what’s next.

On Watching A Competitor Buy Zite

ReadWrite: Is it bittersweet to see Flipboard buy Zite? These two companies have been mentioned in the same breath for years now.

Mark Johnson: I think that the Zite technology can be really valuable to the Flipboard audience. Flipboard has a massive audience. The problem with Zite … my bosses have always said this, I have always said this, Zite is just not in the hands of enough people. Once people get their hands on Zite they say, wow, I just can’t live without this. Our retention rates are amazing, our engagement is amazing. We never really achieved the breakout success that Flipboard had.

To me, Zite is product that helps peoples lives get better. It finds those articles for people that are potentially life changing. The fact that that technology is going to be in the hands of a lot more people, to me is really exciting. Even if I am not going to going along with it.

Taking A Vacation

RW: What’s next for you personally? 

MJ: There are some entrepreneurs that quit on Friday and start again on Monday. I have a lot of ideas in my head, but my plan is to write, to read, to hike, to sit around, to travel for the next three months. I am actually forcing myself to take a three-month vacation and then figure out what to do after that.

I’m excited about what is ahead but I don’t want to rush it. I don’t think the best ideas come from sitting in front of a white board hoping for the next big idea.

I’ve been through this several times now and there is really nothing more exciting than acquisition day. A lot of people don’t get to experience this. A lot of startups fail. When you get see something that you put your heart and soul into for so long, to have some realization of success like this is really exciting, I am not going to lie.

Flipboard’s Humility

RW: How did the acquisition go down? Who approached whom?

MJ: It was CNN that made the call recently. It was funny because the first meeting that we had with Mike McCue, he said that it wasn’t just last week that he was thinking. He has been a fan of Zite for a long time. We have had a long-standing relationship on Twitter congratulating each other. McCue is an amazing person and he has a ton of respect for what we built. One of the things that really surprised me in the process was Flipboard’s humility. Despite having a breakout success, real humility around what the product is. They really felt like they could make the product so much better. It was really kind of a meeting of the minds when the call was made. It was pretty clear that there would be a good synergy between the two companies. 

“The Sooner Zite Goes Away, The Better”

RW: In my mind, a combination of Zite’s Worio-based recommendation engine and Flipboard’s design is the making of a near perfect news reading app. How are the two going to integrate with each other?

MJ: I agree 100%. Not just because I am CEO, I love Zite. Flipboard also loves Zite and realizes how important it is. I think the process right now is how to integrate some of that technology into Flipboard and it is a good time for them because it allows them to rethink some fundamental aspects of the product.

Right now, Flipboard is a very magazine-based experience. You go and you subscribe to ReadWrite(Web) or something like that. In the future, sure you are going to subscribe to publications also, but you are going to subscribe to technology news or mobile news or what have you. Our end can really help that. I am excited to see where they take the product. Our expertise in building not just the backend, but the UX to support that backend is really going to help Flipboard evolve the product.

RW: Is it sad to see Zite die? 

MJ: It is like a phoenix, right? Zite has been around for nine years. We are a tough dog to kill. More realistically, Flipboard is really serious about this acquisition and really serious about the integration. I am excited to see Zite in Flipboard soon and Zite is not going to just die before functionality is put into Flipboard. The challenge for those teams moving forward is to figure out how to integrate that technology as quickly as possible. 

Quite frankly, the Zite team needs to be focused on just that—integrating with Flipboard. The Zite team shouldn’t be focused on the Zite app, they should be focused on evolving the Flipboard UX to support its own technology. Honestly, the sooner Zite goes away, the better. I am hoping that whatever comes out is even more magical than what I left today.

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