Written by Dianne Molvig Thursday, September 08 2011
Snapshot: Bettina Bennett, chief maverick, WhichBox Media
Bettina Bennett readily admits she’s not technologically savvy. “I don’t have a technology background,” she says, “and I don’t know how to write HTML or anything like that.”
This may seem surprising coming from someone who’s the CEO and designated “chief maverick” of a Dallas-based company chosen as an “OnMedia Top 100” winner in 2010 for “leadership amongst its peers and game-changing approaches and technologies likely to disrupt existing markets and entrenched players.” Previous winners of this award have included the likes of Facebook and Shutterfly.
Bennett’s company, co-founded with Jennie Currier in 2008, is WhichBox Media, the maker of an online publishing platform called Whichbox, which is trademarked. Bennett began her career in 1983 in her native Germany, working for one of the country’s most prominent publishing houses. Five years later she launched her own company, Media Rights Management (MRM).
Just two months after MRM opened its doors, a world-renowned talent and literary agency, International Creative Management, asked Bennett to become a strategic partner. In that role, she structured joint U.S.-European ventures and coproduction deals for Universal Pictures, United Artists International, the Discovery Channel, and many others, working out of her offices in Munich and Los Angeles. Bennett also holds master’s degrees in law and literature.
Womenetics: Why did you start WhichBox Media?
Bettina Bennett: After I left the entertainment industry to follow my husband to Texas, I needed to figure out what to do. I’m a natural-born tree hugger. So I thought I would create the ultimate publication on the web, covering ecology, sustainability, and the green movement. In that publication, I wanted to marry the experience of television with that of the web with that of print. I thought that would be easy. I was blissfully ignorant because I don’t have a technical background.
As I was marching down the path of creating this publication, I realized that all these different types of media and content were handled by different technology applications. So in order to achieve what I wanted to do, I would have to marry somewhere between 12 and 20-plus different technology applications. I realized that was the hurdle I faced in creating a new kind of compelling online environment.
I also went on a road trip across the United States and met with publishers, media companies, nonprofits, and so on and found out they faced this same hurdle. To do what they wanted, they’d have to spend millions to develop a custom technology.
So that’s when I had my light-bulb moment. I said, “I’m not going to start a publication. I’m going to launch a technology company that makes tools for organizations to create great, engaging online content – and that doesn’t require the user to have any kind of technical knowledge.”
Womenetics: The key to your company’s technology approach is what you call “organic storytelling,” which you have trademarked. Why do you see a need for this new technology?
Bennett: Take, for instance, when I come back from a trip to India or some place around the world. I have videos, photos, and my travel journal. I’ve collected recipes. If I want to share all this with friends, I have to go to YouTube to upload the video. I have to put my photos on Flickr or Photobucket. I put my travel journal into my WordPress blog that I manage to crash on a regular basis because I’m not technically inclined. I don’t have a good place to put the recipes. Worse, when I want to share all this with friends, I have to send them several links to multiple locations. They’ll get the bits and pieces of what I think should be one singular story.
As a user and a publisher, that approach makes no sense to me. There shouldn’t have to be these silos of content. In my ideal scenario, I should be able to create a single story that would have a cooking video with a recipe. It might have pictures and a back story on how my grandmother taught me to make the dish. It would have a downloadable shopping list and a recording of my favorite song that I listened to with my grandmother when I was a little girl. And I should be able to create that content without knowing anything about technology. That’s what we’re doing with the Whichbox platform. It’s the ultimate organic storytelling tool.
Womenetics: Can you give me an example of how a client is using Whichbox?
Bennett: One of our early clients is an online news community called TownSquareBuzz in McKinney, Texas. They came to us because they had a successful online newspaper, but they wanted to be a news community. They wanted people in their city to be active participants, to share their stories. They needed a tool that was easy to use so their readers could become an extension of their reporting staff.
They changed to our platform in January. One of the interesting side effects is that since then they have grown their audience by more than 50 percent, without doing any search engine optimization or Google ads. They just have rich content that contains video, audio, photos, and text, all in a single story. They’re running their newspaper, which has a readership now of about 60,000, without a single technology person on staff.
Womenetics: How did you come to name your company WhichBox Media?
Bennett: Back in 1988 when I began partnering with International Creative Management, the CEO there introduced me to my new colleagues. He said, “This is Bettina, and the reason we’re partnering with her is that she’s one of those people who constantly thinks outside the box.” I looked at him and said, “Which box?”
In my mind, there is no box to think inside or outside of because that means limitations right from the get-go. As far as I’m concerned, there are no limitations. Everything is interconnected. So how can there be a box? When we were looking for a name for the company, we thought WhichBox was appropriate. Our logo is made up of a question mark and an exclamation point.
Womenetics: Why do you include “chief maverick” in your job title?
Bennett: I believe somebody has to be the pusher of the envelope, and I figure it may as well be me. I can set the tone. If I have a title that gives me the right to question and push, then automatically everybody in the organization has the same right. They can come up with new ideas without being concerned that they’re too far out. That has allowed us to do incredible things.
Womenetics: Your company has a team of three outside advisers. How did you choose them?
Bennett: I picked them based on their different strengths and input they can give us. Sanjiv Sidhu is the founder of i2 Technologies, a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Larry Kopald comes out of the advertising and media industry. And Jerry Bowerman is a successful serial entrepreneur. They’re not employees; they don’t get paid for this.
Womenetics: A lot of people might think a new company couldn’t get that kind of help.
Bennett: You can. All you have to do is ask. I have a mantra: I can always ask because the worst-case scenario is that I’ll be exactly where I was before I asked. I have nothing to lose and all to gain. That’s the maverick approach.
More on online storytellers, marketers and even gamers bringing their businesses to the World Wide Web:
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Dianne Molvig is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer who writes regularly about business management, financial services, law practice, consumer education, and other topics.