Why journalist Camila Russo left Bloomberg to found The Defiant, a media startup covering decentralized financeView transcript
In a few short years, cryptocurrency has gone from internet meme to one of the biggest tech and financial phenomenons in modern history. That quick rise has created a vacuum of reliable information on the space. The scant coverage mainstream outlets once devoted to cryptocurrency and decentralized finance gave it the weight of a fad to the uninitiated, and the lack of reliable information meant that bad actors pushing their own coins or internet communities rallying around a flavor of the month filled the vacuum. Today, cryptocurrency has finally reached the mainstream thanks to the skyrocketing price of bitcoin and the NFT craze, and mainstream media is beginning to allocate resources towards covering it. But this coverage can sometimes read like a horse race: Bitcoin goes up, Bitcoin goes down, an NFT sells for $1 million. Viewed under that lens, crypto is just another asset to bet and cash in on. To others, it's the harbinger of a new, decentralized age for finance and industry that deserves serious, vetted reporting.
That's what Camila Russo is trying to do with The Defiant, a media site covering decentralized finance. The name is a portmanteau that contains "DeFi," the shorthand for decentralized finance, but it's more than just wordplay — that defiant spirit is at the core of the site's coverage and Russo's belief that cryptocurrency will outlive and replace the accepted financial institutions of today. Russo spent 12 years as a reporter at Bloomberg where she covered cryptocurrency and finance before eventually going independent in to finish her book The Infinite Machine, which chronicled the origins of Ethereum. At the same time, she launched The Defiant in 2019 as a newsletter covering crypto and decentralized finance. That experience and her belief in a decentralized future cause her to be ahead of the curve in giving serious coverage to cryptocurrency.
Soon enough, the newsletter's following and content became too much to handle as a side project, and Russo found herself going from journalist to entrepreneur as she decided to take on The Defiant full time. In just two years since its first newsletter was mailed out, The Defiant is now a full-fledged media operation spanning newsletters, videos, podcasts and articles providing the sort of credible, sourced reporting on cryptocurrency Russo feels the space deserves. Just last month, Russo announced a $1.4 million funding round that will be used to develop a Bloomberg-like terminal specific to decentralized finance. Russo spoke about the rapid growth of The Defiant, the jump from writer to entrepreneur, and her vision for the media site of the future.
The origins of The Defiant00:00:00
I would love it if you could start out with the elevator pitch of what The Defiant is for anyone who might not be familiar.
The Defiant is the go-to information source for decentralized finance. It's an information platform with a newsletter, a podcast, a YouTube channel and a website with original reporting on DeFi. We're also building a DeFi-specific data platform to complement that information.
And your recent funding round — congratulations, by the way — is that focused on the data platform?
That's right. The reason why I decided to seek funding was that I realized that the opportunity for The Defiant was bigger than just being a content platform. I started thinking about The Defiant as the Bloomberg of DeFi — this one place with very high quality news, but also very reliable and in-depth data. If I had decided to keep The Defiant as just a media operation, I could have probably continued to bootstrap it. But since I wanted to execute this larger vision as a full-fledged information company, I decided that I should seek funding and hire developers, and also just ramp up the entire team. We also hired journalists and video crews with the goal of professionalizing the entire company.
It strikes me as a sort of Bloomberg in reverse — Bloomberg started out with its tools and created the media side to almost advertise them. You sort of have done the opposite where you've started with the content side first, and then developed a platform. Are you trying to branch out beyond your readership, or are they the target audience for this?
I think the core audience for the data platform will be within my readers. I have actually been talking with my readers every day for the past two weeks. I set up a system to schedule feedback from Defiant users, and I've been surprised by the wide variety of people who are reading The Defiant. So it is kind of the hardcore DeFi trader, but it's also newcomers to DeFi. So I am careful to keep a focus on my core user, who will also be a consumer of the data platform. But also, to be sure to not alienate the newcomers. At this point, we're so early in the space that I want to make sure that The Defiant is the place that people can land on and kind of start their journey in DeFi. So yeah, I think I'll start by catering to my core user, but the idea is that as the whole space grows, we will grow and start expanding alongside it.
I want to take a little bit of a step back and talk about the origins of The Defiant. Correct me if I’m wrong — You started The Defiant in 2019. Is that right?
So that seems like a very scary time to start a media organization. There are layoffs happening at all these big publications, a lot of them were closing down, and even the “new media” stuff was struggling. I'm curious about your mindset as you were founding The Defiant — what did you think you could do differently, or what made you confident that you would be able to successfully build this new media site when so many were struggling and failing?
My innovation wasn't on the media side, at the time. It was on the industry. It was simply a matter of seeing where most of the activity and innovation and growth was happening in crypto. And that was DeFi, and also realizing that there was no really high-quality [media] in the space. [We took] a bet on decentralized finance. At the time, DeFi was even smaller and more experimental than it is today. It was just getting started. But I think I had been covering the space long enough, and also researching Ethereum for my book The Infinite Machine, that I felt I had a good sense of what was real and what was not. And to me, it was clear that DeFi was very real and it was here to stay, and it would continue growing.
"At The Defiant, we do actual journalism. We do objective reporting. The fact that I come from this background has created a big difference between us and other people providing information on decentralized finance." — Russo
The innovation that's happening is just extremely revolutionary. I really do believe that it will replace traditional finance. So I just thought, “this is a huge opportunity. I'm the right person to cover this.” I wrote the book on Etherium. I was a market reporter at Bloomberg for eight years — like, I know how to write about this stuff. I just saw that opportunity: This is a really revolutionary market that's just getting started and that will continue to grow. There's nobody covering it, and I know how to cover this stuff. So it just all fit together.
In those early days of The Defiant, how did it first take form? What was the first content focus for you and the project?
I think it’s important to note that at the time, I didn't think that The Defiant could necessarily be my full time job. I left Bloomberg in early 2019 to finish my book with the idea of becoming a freelance journalist. So I thought I'd be kind of writing about tech and finance for different magazines. And when the idea of The Defiant came about, I always thought [of it as] this newsletter that would be like a side project — something I could do kind of easily in my afternoons or something, which would kind of complement my work as a freelancer. So it didn't start out as a business idea. It started out as, like I said, “This is something really interesting. I can cover it. I'll start a newsletter. And maybe if it goes well, I can turn on subscriptions and I can start making some additional income with this.” That was the very initial plan.
Taking a bet on decentralized finance00:00:01
And at what point did the switch flip? When was the moment when you were like, “Okay, this is something that I should go all in on.”
I sent the first newsletter on June 11. I think it was like a combination of things. On the one hand, it was about the amount of work that it required just to put out the newsletter that I wanted to write — something that covered the major developments in the space that was just, accurate, thoroughly reported, and well written that explained all these really complicated concepts and ideas and protocols. So all of that keeping up to date with this really fast-moving, dynamic, crazy world, understanding all this stuff, reaching out for comment whenever I didn't understand stuff, which was very often — all of that was taking a lot of time. And it was while I was still finishing my book, so I was writing my book during the day and then I would spend all evening writing the newsletter. Then I started the paid version of the newsletter in October, testing to see if people were willing to pay for this content.
Then I started getting subscribers. The newsletter itself was growing pretty quickly and I was getting really good feedback. Like, people were really liking it, people were sharing it — it was growing very organically with just my Twitter and people sharing it and subscribing that way. By the end of the year, projects in the space were reaching out asking to sponsor the newsletter. So I saw how quickly it was growing and that I could make real money with it; there was a subscription revenue and potential sponsorship revenue. That, and the backdrop that I did 100% believe that this space would continue growing [helped me decide that] it was worth going full time with The Defiant.
It seems like that was a good investment, because now that space has grown so much. You know, now there's things like NFT's that are the current craze online, and you're starting to see places like Bloomberg or others only just now starting to devote beat writing to that. It seems like The Defiant has gotten pretty far ahead of the curve in that sense.
Yeah, I'm happy to see that. I think more and more news organizations will continue covering it. And I think that’s great, because it will kind of bring more mainstream attention [to decentralized finance]. I think so many people just don't realize that this space exists and think crypto is just about buying the tokens that go up and down. But there's just so much more to the blockchain space now thanks to DeFi. Hopefully, The Defiant can have an important place in providing information to the growing number of people who are interested in this space, because I think Bloomberg and CNBC and mainstream media can be kind of the starting point for most people. But if you really want to stay up to date with what's happening, then the one story they do a month — or even just the one story they might do a week, which I think is too generous — just won't be enough to know what's what's going on.
You started the site in 2019, and it seems that you have expanded very quickly into all these different mediums. It's not just the newsletter, but there's the site, you have video, and now you're launching this new side of the business. So how important was it to you to get to all of those things very quickly?
It's a bit of an overwhelming undertaking, to be honest. I don't know why I do this to myself. It felt very gradual. But then when you look back, it was like, “Oh my God.” All of a sudden I have all this stuff.
But it started as a newsletter, and then I wanted to do like a weekly interview. I was doing the interviews and recording them, and I was like, “You know, this should be easy enough to turn into a podcast, and I can reach a wider audience.” There's so much that gets lost from an in depth interview when it's in writing. Sometimes, you want to hear the person say those quotes. So I thought it was necessary to have a podcast of these interviews that I was doing. So that kind of naturally evolved into the podcast.
The YouTube channel came about because Robin Schmidt, who now is my head of video — he is just an extremely talented video producer — had interviewed me for a documentary he had done before. He was working at a blockchain project called Harmony, and they wanted to reach the DeFi audience. So he offered to do a sponsored content deal where he would produce content for The Defiant’s YouTube channel in exchange for placing the Harmony logo there. So I thought that was pretty sweet. We started the YouTube channel that way. So he was producing all of The Defiant’s YouTube content part-time. So that’s how the YouTube channel started. And then the website just came from having all these separate platforms — the newsletter, the podcasts, the YouTube channel — and I wanted them all to be in like one place.
That's when I saw that The Defiant was becoming a media company with all these different media properties. I decided that it needed a home, so I made the website. I just had so much content. But the newsletter was becoming unwieldy. It was hard to read. So I decided it would be nice to have a website where some of these articles could live. That’s kind of how each piece unfolded.
It sounds like you almost reverse engineered the concept of a media website.
I guess. Yeah. It's like I started with each separate piece, and then kind of put them all together on the website.
You come from a long-time journalism background. How did that inform who to hire who to partner with? Do you think that gave you a leg up on knowing what you would need?
My journalism background has had benefits and downsides. The pro is that I have a very clear vision of the kind of content we should be producing. There's like, something that's wired to how I think that just makes me completely against any sort of paid content — any sort of shill, any sort of pumping any coin. I can't stand it. And that's very, very different from most of the content that is being put out in crypto. So I think that's The Defiant’s brand and mark in the space, and that is driven by my journalism background, which I tried to instill in everyone in the company: At The Defiant, we do actual journalism. We do objective reporting. We seek out comments from both sides. We back our articles with actual data. We are not invested in anything and we're not promoting our investments. We're not taking payments for our content. So the fact that I come from this background has [created] a big difference between us and other people providing information on DeFi.
I think it has also given me a good eye to know who is a good writer. So with my contributors and the writers I've hired, I think I’ve made good choices. None of them were very well-known writers in the space, but from the blog posts they were writing or their tweets or just how they were thinking about things, I was able to kind of tell, “Okay, there's potential here.” So so far on the writing side, I’ve made really good hires.
"I want readers to have ownership — a voice in the company or a way to produce or have a say on some of the content. And it will be a huge experiment, because that's really something that nobody has done so far. I'm really excited to open the door to this new age of media." — Russo
But the downside [of my journalism background] is that I didn't have any business experience. It's something that I'm still learning. I’m learning how to manage teams and how to organize my time. Not having technical experience also means that while I know exactly how I want, for example, the data terminal to look and work because I was a Bloomberg terminal user for eight years, I can't really go in and check my developer’s code. So I'll need a CTO at some point. There's definitely limitations to being a journalist founding a business with no business experience or anything. But I think learning by doing is what I'm trying to do here.
The decentralized future of media00:00:02
I mentioned earlier that The Defiant seemed to be very ahead of the curve with covering decentralized finance. So I want to ask about what you see as the next “big thing” to get ahead of is now. Maybe the new platform that you're developing feeds into this — I think this idea that a media publication should offer tools and resources aside from just offering a wide variety of content is really interesting and not something you see many websites do. I would love it if you could talk about that and what the next target for The Defiant is.
The data terminal is a huge next target. But I don't think that's something very new or innovative that I'm doing — that's literally what Bloomberg’s model and Reuters’ model is, and it works great. So that’s why I want to do it. It’s just something that's missing in decentralized finance that is so needed.
But the next kind of big thing that I want to work on and implement is... you know, like I said, like, I really am a believer in “Web 3” and that the future is decentralized. Like, I really believe that will be the case, because it's just better. So I think decentralized protocols won't just take over finances as a sector, but they'll take over many different areas of life, including media. So that's what I'm working towards. I want to be a part of the sector that I'm covering, so I'm working towards making The Defiant a more decentralized organization in a way that users and readers can become owners and more active participants in The Defiant itself. So that's what's next.
So you want to give the readers and users of The Defiant a stake in the company more or less? When you say you want it to be a decentralized organization, that's what you mean by that?
Yeah. In a very broad sense, I want them to have ownership — a voice in the company or a way to produce or have a say on some of the content and get rewarded for their engagement. I think that's kind of the next big step. And it will be a huge experiment, because that's really something that nobody has done so far. I'm really excited to open the door to this new age of media. Like I said, every industry will interact with their users in a different way in Web 3, and I think the media will also be a victim. So media companies will also have to join this new age, and we’ll see how that works.