Peter Kafka

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Exclusive: PaidContent Founder Ali to Depart Pioneering Digital News Site

PaidContent’s Rafat Ali, who turned a one-man Web site into a must-read hub for digital media news, is leaving the company he founded eight years ago.

Sources said Ali has told co-workers he will leave the company in early July, which will be two years after he sold ContentNext, PaidContent’s parent company, to the London-based Guardian Media group.

That deal was potentially worth up to $30 million, based on various earn-out goals. But Ali and his investors took home only a portion of that. My best guess is something closer to $12 million.

Ali didn’t tell staff what he intends to do next, sources said, but he recently moved from Los Angeles to New York.

It is not clear who will take over leadership at the sites; the main one had 137,000 unique monthly visitors in April, up from 63,000 in July of 2009, according to comScore (SCOR).

UPDATE: The Guardian confirmed the move, as did Ali in a paidContent post, both of which are below:

Guardian Statement on Rafat’s Departure

Dear Readers,

Our founder, a digital warrior and friend to many of you, Rafat Ali, is stepping down after eight years building and growing ContentNext. As many of you know, Guardian News & Media acquired ContentNext, and Rafat has decided this is a good time for him to take a break and think about the next chapter. This is the statement the Guardian released today.

Caroline Little
CEO, ContentNext
CEO, Guardian North America

Guardian News & Media and ContentNext today announced that ContentNext Founder and Editor Rafat Ali will be leaving the company at the beginning of July. Rafat Ali started paidContent as a blog in 2002, and later added three other sites, paidContent.uk, mocoNews and contentSutra, before the business was purchased by Guardian News & Media in 2008. ContentNext now has some 600,000 unique users and its websites, with their blend of news and analysis, are a must read for senior executives in the media, entertainment, publishing, advertising, mobile, marketing and technology sectors.

Tim Brooks, Managing Director of Guardian News & Media, said: “As anyone who follows the company and reads our sites knows, Rafat has done an amazing job of building ContentNext from the ground up and we wish him every success in the future.”

Ernie Sander, who has been the managing editor at ContentNext for the past 18 months, will assume a wider strategic role. Co-editor Staci Kramer, Rafat’s first hire at the company, will continue to be a thought leader on and off the site.

On to Life 2.0

In the end, all things do come to an end. The good and bad part is, it is never a definite marker, but all part of a process. And so it has been for me. After pouring exactly eight years of my life and a lifetime into this, I am leaving ContentNext and paidContent in early July. I will continue to advise the company for the rest of the year.

For most of you who know me, this isn’t coming as a huge surprise. I have been wrestling with this for months now, and the two-year mark under the Guardian and the eight-year mark since I launched the first site, seems appropriate enough as a closure point.

The last two years under Guardian have been illuminating, to say the least. Being part of a big company brings its own level of complexities; during a huge financial crisis, it makes for a roller-coaster ride. The high of the sale dissipated quickly, and pulling back and hunkering down isn’t fun, much less entrepreneurial. To Guardian’s credit, amidst the mothership’s own perfect storm, they stood by us, and we have survived, though much smaller.

I am leaving the company while the editorial is still at the peak of its reputation, even though we are half the team we used to be. It really is a miracle. And the edit leadership under our ME Ernie Sander and my longtime partner-in-crime and co-editor Staci D. Kramer gets the full credit for it, as do our scrappy group of talented journalists. The business side is a rebuild-in-process that I hope Guardian continues to support in kind and spirit.

paidContent and the company has given me a lot: it saved my life, literally (subject of a book someday); it gave me an existence, purpose and sustenance, in that order. It gave me way more chances in life than I probably deserved. I burned the candle on both ends, and then in the middle. And to think that I entered this country little over a decade ago, and in that time, got a degree, worked at two dotcoms, started one, sold it, lived in Bloomington, Ind., NYC, London, Los Angeles and back in NYC, and am now moving on to the next phase of my career. Next phase of my life.

As for my future, the honest answer is, I am in the middle of figuring it out. The good part is I have lots of choices; the bad part is that I have lots of choices. Very likely it will be another startup, in a larger media and marketing space. But in the immediate future, you will see my head pop up in places like Iceland, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Socotra Island (Google it!) and other parts of Central Asia. That’s the head-clearing trip of a lifetime, for the summer months after I finish here.

At the end, I really have to thank my family, friends, colleagues and readers, who cared enough to care. You all gave me and a bunch of us outliers a chance to do something magical for a long time. Please continue reading and supporting paidContent and ContentNext; I merely started the story.

Finally, here’s a video BoomTown’s Kara Swisher did with Ali in 2007 at ContentNext’s then-office in Santa Monica, Calif., and another in Manhattan right after the sale to Guardian Media:


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— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus