David Bennahum is the CEO of Punch, a news and entertainment app that launched last week for the iPad. Pulling up Punch on your iPad brings shelves filled with various items; tapping on these loads miniature in-app apps that feature topical, interactive content. (Want to dress a digital Rick Santorum doll? You came to the right place.) Fast Company spoke with Bennahum about Punch’s antecedents—including the historical British satire publication of the same name—as well as its future; Punch has a grand vision of becoming a publishing platform. Despite the claims made around the 0:45 mark in Punch's self-satirizing promo video (below), the company very much has thought about profitability—perhaps more deeply than most iPad publishers.
The tagline for Punch is "Make Fun." How does that motto inform the core of Punch?
The idea emerged between [Punch founding editor, Radar magazine founder] Maer Roshan and myself about two years ago. Both of us, I think, first of all, appreciate the commercial value of satire and comedy as a way into journalism and the news. Secondly we felt the emergence of the tablet was creating a hunger for topical original content that could only exist on a tablet and nowhere else. We had a sense even back then that it was going to be a huge success as a consumer product, and that there would be a limit to how much aggregation and recycling of existing media the tablet consumer would want to get.
What about tablets creates a hunger for original content?
The tablet is the first multipurpose digital device whose only function is the consumption of digital media. The reason you buy an iPad is to consume digital media. If you think you’re gonna use it to do word processing, you’ll be dissatisfied. Why buy a tablet? To be entertained. The tablet is truly its own medium, and with any new form of media, in the first days people will repurpose existing products: Theater was repurposed in the early days of film, and radio was repurposed in the early days of TV. Within a short period of time, it becomes obvious that there’s a bigger opportunity to create original content for the medium. That’s where we are now: Two years after the first iPad hit the market, we’re at a pivot point where there are enough people with a real appetite for original entertainment.
In one sense, Punch is an app; in another, it’s a platform for other, tiny, in-app apps.
Eight months ago we faced a decision: Would the mini-apps be their own apps, which we’d submit to Apple every time? That might take several weeks to deploy. Our CTO Daniel Wyszynski built this fairly unique piece of technology. We had a problem to solve: How do you create an experience that’s native to the tablet and keeps up with the metabolism of popular culture, without having to code all the time? Dan’s a visionary for understanding that opportunity and for building a platform where you can change content in real time.
You launched with 10 mini-apps, including one game where users try to tell the difference between the names of hedge funds or organic farms, and a paper-dolling game where you get to dress Rick Santorum. How often will you reuse these templates, and how often will you roll out entirely new ones?
We’re figuring out what can be franchised as recurring things. Do you want paper dolls as a recurring template, and if so, what should the frequency be? Maybe only once every couple of months, or six times per year. At the same time, the system is extendable. However, every time you add more capability, you have to do an app update, and you don’t want to push too many updates, because people don’t update apps all the time, and there’d be a disconnect where chunks of the audience can’t consume the new content. We finally have the ability to get feedback now, so we need to listen for the next month or so, talk to our audience, and do some research.
Conceiving of your app as a platform allows you to monetize in ways beyond most publishing ventures. What are all your various potential revenue streams?
There are three in the near-term. The first is revenue from people placing sponsored items on the Culture Shelf [Punch’s home screen]. That’s traditional advertizing, and it’s important. For items to appear on the Culture Shelf, there would be some issue of tone and fit with Punch, like with any magazine. The second is what we call premium upgrades—something where we are able to give a taste of some content, and from there, you can purchase more.
So you would have an in-mini-app purchase?
Exactly. The third revenue stream is in the licensing of the platform, where a publisher would pay us a licensing fee to have the right to use the system, plus some additional revenue based on performance. These would be white-label versions, independent from our own shelves—a turnkey solution for others to release their own apps on the App Store.
And the fourth revenue stream?
The fourth potential revenue stream is the idea that you could subscribe to Punch down the road for some amount of money. That’s a little farther out: We won’t be able to understand the audience’s appetite until we’ve been operating for a little while.
Were you inspired by the legendary British satirical publication, Punch, or is the naming a coincidence?
There’s a reference there. When we had the notion of doing a satirical entertainment app for tablets, the question of naming came up. Appreciating what Punch did in the 19th century in terms of inventing the political cartoon, we thought, "Hey, we’re at the precipice of something equally new, the tablet, and we have to talk about reinventing things like the political cartoon." Our item called "12 Angry Men" [top image] reinvents what a cartoon looks like. So there’s some intentional DNA with the Punch name. Also, "punch" suggests what you do with your hands—striking something. You don’t punch the iPad, but you are hitting it with your finger. So the name evokes a gesture. Other inspirations were the original Spy magazine, and things like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, as well as Mad Magazine.
What’s the main lesson you hope others draw from this venture?
We’re hoping people realize, first, that there’s something called iPad-native media, and Punch is an example. And second, that it’s a problem to produce this stuff—it’s unusually difficult to create topical content on the iPad—and it shouldn’t be. Programming is detail-oriented, and requires a lot of keystrokes. But it’s a problem that’s been solved in other media; on the web, it’s solved by platforms like WordPress, for example. When browsers first came out, people had to hand-stitch everything; there were no platforms. Because we needed to solve a problem internally, we created the nucleus of a fairly extendable platform ourselves.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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[Images: Punch, Wikipedia, Flickr user TheGiantVermin]