Once an English Major, Mike Federle ’81 Now Runs a Major Media Company
The Forbes CEO reflects on how the pandemic has changed the media industry–and where it’s going next
As CEO of Forbes, Mike Federle ’81 gets a front-row seat to stories about the most successful people and companies of our time. Growing up in Waterville as one of nine kids, he never expected to run a $630-million media business from his home in Freeport, Maine.
“I’ve worked on dozens of brands in my career, and Forbes just resonates with so many different people, from luxury and lifestyle to finance and technology. It’s a terrific brand, and I’m pretty lucky to get to see these interesting ideas from people and companies driving innovation around the world,” he said.
When he arrived on campus his junior year as an English major, though, he only knew one thing: He loved to write.
“I literally walked up the street, since I lived on Mayflower Hill,” said Federle. “It gave me a great perspective, and what I loved about Colby was how close you could get to the professors — how caring and interested they were. If you were interested, they were interested.”
From English Major of Media CEO
Federle got his start in media in Maine busing tables at a waterfront restaurant in Camden after graduating from Colby. A few friends suggested he talk to the publishing company down the street, so he knocked on their door and found himself employed by an outdoors magazine.
“A lot of people in the business have that proverbial novel in their bottom drawer they’re working on, and I came very much from that. I wanted to write, I wanted to be creative,” he said. “My first job I spent writing reviews for this small canoe and kayaking magazine, where I’d go camping for a few days with all the equipment.”
When a big-time New York publisher snapped up the publication, Federle thought he’d try his luck in the big city, working his way upward from journalist to executive through Time Inc., Fortune, and Ziff Davis, a major digital media and internet company.
By 2010 Federle itched for something new. With a partner from his days at Fortune, he started a new company called Techonomy, a media business founded on the belief that technology and the economy are inextricably linked.
“It was totally jumping out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I wanted to build something content-driven, and after spending so much time in big companies, try a startup. With that, you have to do everything from scratch, which was a great lesson for me.”
He called it a “life-changing” moment, and one that was self-directed “as opposed to a moment where someone approached me and said, ‘You know, here’s an opportunity.’”
Forbes invested early on, eventually luring him onto their executive team in 2011. He spent the last decade capitalizing on and advancing Forbes’ 100-year history of exceptional journalism, becoming CEO in 2017.
What’s Next for Media?
As it did for many, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Federle to change his business strategy overnight. When it did, the entrepreneurial spirit cultivated from his years as a Colby student and launching his own business served him well.
With the pandemic, he came home to Freeport, embracing remote work and imagining its future for Forbes and other companies. He still travels regularly to New York and elsewhere, but has built a working life in Maine.
“Very early on, I just embraced the notion that this is the largest global social experiment in our lifetimes,” he said. “We proved there is a different way to do business from that centralized office or horrendous commute times. We performed extremely well with a distributed workforce, and it’s exciting to do something different. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to exactly how it was before.”
That’s not the only thing that’s changed in the media industry. Federle’s last decade at Forbes has seen a near-complete overhaul of its business model, along with new technologies and platforms like Netflix, TikTok, Twitch, and more that challenge and expand the definition and notion of media.
“What’s kept me engaged all of these years is that the industry is constantly changing,” he said. “Since the ’90s, we’ve seen the business diverge from content at the heart and soul of the business versus advertising and distribution. Media has become like so many industries, purely technology-driven.”
This emphasis on technology means that running a media company looks very similar to running a technology company—and can be prone to shiny-object syndrome. “People tend to go toward whatever the buzzword of the day is, and right now that’s NFTs and metaverse. Everyone keeps asking me, ‘What’s your NFT strategy?’ You don’t want to get left behind, but it’s equally important not to get caught up in today’s new thing.”
Finding Balance Through the Liberal Arts
Federle believes media should still be story-first, whatever the technology looks like. “I’m a writer at heart, and I’ve always wanted to stay with creating content, story, news, and information,” he said. “You see companies and technology come and go … but content is still the most important thing.”
It’s about balance—and being willing to admit what you don’t know. “I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner,” said Federle. “I think that’s what’s kept me close to wanting to be where content was created, because that’s where the most interesting people are.”
As the future looks more uncertain than ever, Federle urges Colby students to stay open and flexible about where life will take them. Said Federle, “That’s what I took from my liberal arts education—not just the textbook learning, but the ability to learn and stay curious throughout life. If you stay curious, you’re going to be well-equipped to do anything.”
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