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Jeremy Gutsche was Sunday’s feature profile in the Toronto Star. That meant his smiling face was half of the front page on the Insight section and another half page inside. Feature writer Cathal Kelly interviewed Jeremy and Senior Editor Bianca Bartz for the piece, which juxtaposes Trend Hunter’s inception and culture alongside pieces of Jeremy’s breakout book EXPLOITING CHAOS.
My favorite part? “He’s a trend hunter extraordinaire, a business guru who exhorts employers to `hire freaks,’ a jeans-clad cyclone who helps people in suits free up their minds for the Next Big Thing.”
Here’s the article:
By Cathal Kelly
Jeremy Gutsche, all 160 twitchy pounds of him, is explaining how I should write my Jeremy Gutsche article.
“Now, you’re going to do one article, an in-depth piece,” says Gutsche. He’s not asking. To Gutsche, it’s a sad fact.
“The majority of your traffic comes from search engines. So one article, well, that’s no good. You need to break the story into a Jeremy Gutsche interview, an Exploiting Chaos (Gutsche’s new book) interview, a Trendhunter (Gutsche’s website) interview and maybe a couple of other things.
“In a newspaper, it’d look ridiculous. Online, you’ve created four or five options for the search engines to find. That’s the future, in a nutshell.”
Gutsche, 31, is the founder of Toronto-based website Trendhunter.com, a constantly changing global portal dedicated to identifying the latest big thing. And by “latest” we mean, like, 15 minutes ago.
Lots of people do this in the Web 2.0 world. Gutsche’s talent has been leveraging his cool-hunting expedition into a viable media concern. Gutsche is a pathfinder for the business illiterate and a therapist for the culturally overmatched. He sells people in suits the sense that they’ve got a handle on things. His book reads like Chicken Soup for the Confused Executive’s Soul.
Gutsche is fairly vibrating with pent-up energy. He gasps like a tenor between statements in order to maintain an uninterrupted flow. He’s famous among his employees for his 4 a.m. emails. He travels to give speeches five to 10 times a month. When he’s home, Gutsche puts in a dozen hours at the office, then walks 100 metres to his King St. W. condo and puts in a half-dozen more. In the past, a 30-hour online coding jag wasn’t unusual.
“I live in this sort of work bubble,” says Gutsche, who’s single. “But now that I have a team, they prefer that I shower.”
“He is always on fire,” says Bianca Bartz, Trendhunter’s 23-year-old senior editor and Gutsche’s first hire. For her first few months on the job, Bartz worked out of a Starbucks in Victoria, B.C.
Gutsche is also a westerner. He was raised in Calgary, the hybrid-professional offspring of a venture capitalist and a psychotherapist. He travelled east to study (Queen’s MBA) and went into a management consultancy in his early 20s. Five years later, he was running a billion-dollar luxury credit-card concern for Capital One.
“He was way ahead of his time,” says Stephen King, the Capital One VP who hired Gutsche. “Even now, he’s spoken of around here with a sort of awe.”
While still working a more-than full-time job, Gutsche began building Trendhunter at night. He taught himself how to code and design. He hung in for “one last bonus” at Capital One before heading out on his own three years ago.
Gutsche initially envisioned Trendhunter as a virtual community to discuss business ventures. That way, he hoped to find one for himself. He eventually realized the site was the idea. Today, 28,000 global “trend hunters” contribute ideas – from baby Jacuzzis to pet piercings. They are sifted by the Trendhunter staff, repackaged, resifted and posted – 100 of them each and every day. Recent contributions include Zombified Lingerie, 99 Bizarre Toys and TV Themed High-Tops.
The site led to consultancy work for reality TV producers and a regular spot as a cultural futurist in the mainstream media. Gutsche parlayed that into the book. It’s a colourful, large-print affair, an exercise in sloganeering. King calls it “putting PowerPoint in book format.”
As Gutsche discusses the ideas contained therein, he often holds the book up to the relevant page and runs his finger along the words.
For most business people, those ideas are scary. Gutsche advocates constant change, relentless questioning and an anti-bureaucracy.
“Hire freaks,” Gutsche advises on page 138. “Freaks are the only ones who succeed.”
One can just imagine an HR drone at the Bank of Montreal saying, “I really liked the guy with the sub-dermal implants and dreadlocks.”
Gutsche’s vision may be frightening to big business, but it dovetails with the current vogue for hand-wringing hyper-vigilance.
“The Nikes and Apples are paranoid about finding the next big thing,” Gutsche says. “The more traditional companies are paranoid about reinventing. So now they’re all worried, and they’re desperately listening to the (chaos) message in a way that they weren’t, say, eight years ago.”
Eight years ago, Google was simply a big deal. Today it’s a $150 billion (U.S.) behemoth. Nonetheless, the company’s brain trust reportedly uses a tract very similar to Gutsche’s, a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma, as a guidebook.
When Google’s scared, you know everybody’s scared. That’s where Gutsche comes in – with a slap and a tickle. For a small fee, he wants to break your business heart, then wraps his arms around you and says everything’s going to be okay.
Trendhunter operates out of a small, first-floor office in one of the row houses that border Clarence Square at King St. West and Spadina Ave. There are no desks. The dozen employees – half of whom are interns or students working on co-op placements – sit at long tables.
In keeping with one of the principles in his book, there are also no walls. If you stumbled into the office, you’d mistake Gutsche for another student.
For a trend hunter, he doesn’t look the part – scuffed-up sneakers, a printed T-shirt, an oversized Diesel watch. He could be a member of Sigma Chi out on a pub crawl.
The company operates as a testing ground for the workplace-as-creative-hothouse ideals Gutsche advertises. Brainstorming sessions happen at a local Starbucks (“I’m going to have to start paying them rent”). Once a month the staff go on a group outing – next stop, African Lion Safari. For senior editor Bartz’s two-year anniversary, the crew went out to eat at O.Noir, a Yorkville restaurant staffed by the blind that serves meals in complete darkness. Bartz had trendhunted the joint a year earlier.
“If you’re like me, you just end up spilling wine all over yourself,” says Gutsche.
The all-for-one atmosphere translates into enormous fluidity. Trendhunter is undergoing nearly constant tweaking. An entire site redesign is often done in a day. At a major corporation or mainstream news site, that process takes months. The numbers – traffic, single story success – are crunched constantly.
“The average age of the people who work here is 24.5,” says Bartz. “I figured that out a few weeks ago.”
Speed is paramount. Bartz recalls the thrill of being the first to post the news that Paris was green-lighting the only skyscraper development in the city’s history. She found the news on a German site. Yahoo.com quickly picked up the story, generating off-the-chart traffic.
“It turned out to be a hoax,” Bartz says, as an afterthought. “You know, a lot of people don’t trust what we do. We aren’t able to fact-check everything. But other newspapers or Yahoo or whoever are publishing what we find because they don’t want to miss anything.”
As a business test tube, Trendhunter hopes to be a holy grail for moribund corporations trapped in cubicle hell. As a content provider – still its core mission – it sits at the contested intersection of old and new media.
The Trendhunters and Daily Beasts and Gawkers need old media for content. Established news organizations increasingly need the new media aggregators to spread their message. Depending on your perspective, it’s a virtuous or vicious cycle.
“In the long run, this is going to be a good thing for journalists, though many of them can’t appreciate it right now,” says Lisa George, an economist who studies the media at New York’s Hunter College. “Newspapers may or may not exist in the future. But there will be a market for individual content providers. However, this may well be a winner-take-all market. The journalists who are not as well known, the ones who can’t generate traffic – they may not have jobs.”
Traffic driven? That’s a difficult headspace for old-style, salaried hacks to get into.
As an example, Gutsche uses a pair of articles published on the Trendhunter site shortly after Sarah Palin entered the North American conversation. The first article posted was headlined “Female Vice Presidents.” Gutsche gave the short piece a glancing rewrite and posted it again, this time entitled “Hot Vice Presidents.”
“The first article got 30,000 views,” he says. “The one I did got 1.1 million views and was featured on (the websites of) CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press. It’s not the most meaningful thing we’ve ever put on the site, but it proves that if you write things that people are searching for, you will bring in traffic.”
The New York Times is not going to run a story entitled “Hot Vice Presidents.” It did run a Maureen Dowd column entitled “Vice in Go-Go Boots.” Maybe the English language’s most respected paper sees the Huffington Post – which regularly repackages Times stories alongside more titillating repurposed content – nipping at its heels in traffic rankings.
At this point, traffic is the greatest monetizer for Trendhunter. Internet ads bring in enough money that top Trendhunter contributors can earn up to $2,000 a month from their portion, according to Gutsche. Trendhunter also does tailored trend reports for businesses like Microsoft, Holt Renfrew and eBay. The $1500 fee for a single one of these pays a month’s rent on the office.
As for the future, that’s difficult to say. Remember – relentless change. Gutsche has already started a second book on a topic yet to be named.
“Right now, this feels like a hobby,” he says, shrugging. “If it ever gets boring, there’s an opportunity to use Trendhunter as a launching point for some new product.”
It’s not difficult to bask in Gutsche’s relentless, destabilizing positivity. For an old media stiff, it’s narcotic. Gutsche is the happiest guy at the hanging. And no one needs a hug more than the condemned.
“You’re going to be okay,” Gutsche coos to me. “You’ve got 188,000 search engine hits on your name.”
“Sure. You’re easy to find at this point. You’re a legend!”