Ben Trott '99
Vice President for Engineering, Say Media
Democratizing the internet—that’s been a focus of Ben Trott’s work from the time he built the Ethics Center’s original website in 1998 to his current job as vice president for engineering at Say Media, a digital media company.
Trott ’99 was a junior math major with a focus on computer science when then-Ethics Center Director Thomas Shanks recruited him and classmates Dylan Pass ’99 and Scott Butler ’99 to create a website for the Center. With the web in its infancy, there were no commercially available tools to build a high quality site.
Trott, who did all of the programming, had to learn as he went along. “The programming classes I was taking were about basic data structures, which was useful information; it informed how I worked, but it wasn’t very practical,” Trott says. “There wasn’t a platform or system available to build a site like we wanted, so everything was hand-built; the markup was custom; the backend was custom. I even built a search engine. It was no Google, but it was serviceable.” When Trott graduated, he provided the Ethics Center with a binder with 1,200 pages of code for the site.
Trott and his student colleagues relished the opportunity to learn, and not only about programming: “We learned a lot about collaborating. How do you build products? How do you work with stakeholders to find out what they want? How do you translate that into products?”
He also learned about an unfilled need on the new frontier of the internet: a product that would allow people to put their content online, even if they didn’t have programming skills or a big pot of money to hire someone with those skills. Soon after leaving SCU, Trott co-founded the company Six Apart, which made some of the most important early digital publishing and blogging tools, such as Movable Type and Vox.
“The desire to build tools for non-engineers and non-designers has informed my whole career,” Trott says. “I’ve always felt strongly that it’s important to put tools in the hands of your customers.”
It wasn’t long before Trott recognized that blog publishing tools were only the beginning. “The basics of getting content online were solved by the early 2000s,” he says, “but it’s still really hard to grow an audience and build a sustainable business. So we started to say, ‘Let’s solve the next problems: How do you get people to read your content? How do you get them to engage? How do you get content to look great online?’”
He also realized early that users were beginning to access the internet from a variety of devices. “More than half of audiences are reading content on mobile,” he explains. “That’s a big change, and publishers who aren’t being supported by a platform that can adapt to different devices get left behind.”
In 2010, he had an opportunity to address those issues when Six Apart was acquired by VideoEgg, an online advertising network. Together, the two companies became Say Media, where Trott is vice president for engineering.
The combined resources of the two original companies have made it possible for Trott to tackle another problem that has engaged him: how publishers can create a real business from their online content. “Our mission was to take the advertising pieces of VideoEgg and the publishing pieces of Six Apart and give online publishers the tools and services to create content, connect with readers, and ultimately make a living.” The result was a publishing platform called Tempest, which allows independent publishers to build a digital brand across platforms and devices.
That model is working for companies from Rachel Ray to Maxim. The platform helps clients succeed online and even parlay that success into offline products. Cupcakes and Cashmere started out as a blog that grew its audience to 600,000; they’ve since been able to take their brand off line as a clothing and house wares line. Fashionista also started online and now holds offline conferences.
Trott sees the thread that runs all the way from his work at the Ethics Center to his efforts at Say Media: To create the Center’s website, Trott had to teach himself the skills he needed. “There were not a lot of frameworks, so I just start doing it,“ he remembers. “That approach has certainly been something that has benefited me ever since.”