Vinit Bharara was driving to the Jersey City offices of Quidsi, the e-commerce startup he co-founded with Marc Lore and sold to Amazon for $540 million in 2010, when he got a call letting him know that the domain Cafe.com was available for the next 24 hours. A believer in easily recognizable domain names (Quidsi launched Diapers.com, Wag.com, and Soap.com), he bought it.
After a year of reflecting, researching, and bouncing ideas off of Lore and his brother, US attorney Preet Bharara, Cafe.com launched today as a broadly-angled eclectic digital magazine. It will include everything from social science to quick reflections on the news of the day, with a particular focus on the “peculiarities” of everyday life. If that seems broad, it’s intentional. Bharara plans to leave a lot up to his writers, and for the site to change over time. It is launching with a feature on the science of human compassion, for example, and a piece on the problems with American falafel joints.
“We hope to appeal to a person’s full range of thoughts, interests and curiosities, understanding that people might enjoy pop culture just as much as they do philosophy,” Bharara writes in his welcome letter announcing site’s launch.
Bharara says Cafe.com will automatically distinguish itself in the crowded digital media market by “dealing with original ideas.” By veering away from original reporting of news and focusing instead on ideas and voice, he says, each piece is “a unique piece of art.”
The site will have many competitors, including legacy media like The New York Times and digital upstarts such as Mic, Medium, and Buzzfeed, but Bharara argues the digital market is massive enough for many outlets to survive and thrive.
“I don’t think you have to be differentiated, you just have to be good,” Bharara says.
Bharara’s goal is to find great writers, give them autonomy to write about their passions, and equip them with customized tools, including a custom CMS called “Monsoon.”
His strategy is informed by his experience working with Amazon after it acquired Quidsi in 2010 after a price war. Bharara spent the next three years helping run Quidsi for Amazon, before he left last summer.
“Amazon is a big writing culture,” Bharara says. Indeed, Bezos famously has senior executives sit and read through six-page written memos before starting meetings. ”It reinforced the importance of writing, to me—which is clear thinking,” Bharara says. “Bezos will talk about that: It’s easy to sometimes speak your way through gobbledygook, or Power Point your way through it. It’s very difficult to write your way with unclear thinking—it becomes very transparent.”
Cafe’s operating model and technology will also benefit from Bharara’s observations about Amazon’s streamlined processes and infrastructure, he says. The bulk of Cafe.com’s writers will be freelance contributors, aided by 12 staff editors and a support staff. Monsoon will allow real-time editing as a writer works on a piece. The site focuses on repeat contributors instead of one-off pieces, so writers aren’t learning the site’s system and tone from scratch every time, the sort of inefficiency that Bharara learned to dislike in the low-margin e-commerce business. It’s easier to streamline and improve what you do repeatedly.
Cafe will be ad-supported. A key advantage for driving traffic and improving the site over time, Bharara says, will be an analytic approach using a custom platform called Abacus that focuses on a reader’s lifetime value, instead of simply clicks, or how often an article is shared.
“Our whole financial model is going to get built on this—I’ll be really crazy about it, probably a bit of a pain,” Bharara says. “What is the long-term consequences of this act? This kind of story? What would happen over the long haul if we spent this much money on Facebook? Tell me the cumulative effect of that investment.”
Bharara is funding the company himself, with $5 million to start, and plan to raise more capital and start other sites in the future. His former boss, Bezos, made a much larger investment last year to buy The Washington Post. But with today’s launch, the takeover of media by e-commerce appears to be a growing trend.