How Rich Miller built a thriving media company focused on the data center industry

If you had to make a list of technologies that are most important to the average person’s day-to-day life, data centers would sit near the top of that list, and yet chances are you know very little about them. There are a few reasons for this. For one, they’re not sexy in the way that an iPhone or a cutting-edge drone is sexy. But also the people and companies who run data centers are fairly secretive, mostly to protect their machines from any sort of attack.

This combination of secrecy and obscurity has made Rich Miller’s expertise very lucrative. He’s spent the last two decades covering data center tech for various news outlets he’s owned. His current site, Data Center Frontier, is a must-read for anyone working in the $60 billion+ industry.

I interviewed Rich about how he accidentally fell into the beat, why he sold his first data center site, and what made him want to start a brand new one from scratch. 

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Rich began covering the data center industry

Rich had a deep background in journalism prior to launching his own media startup. He started out as a sports reporter and then eventually graduated to covering the business sector.  In the 1990s, he developed a side hustle building websites. “My wife signed us up for America Online, which was how most people were experiencing the internet then. I figured out in one of my first sessions that you could create website pages and upload them through AOL. And it was like a light bulb went off over my head that this is a publishing medium that takes all of the costs out of the equation. You don't need a printing press, you don't need a hundred trucks to deliver the news . And I was really intrigued by that. So we started learning how to build web pages, and my wife and I both learned HTML from free courses on the internet and started a small web hosting and web design company where we helped primarily nonprofits to adapt to how to use the internet.”

Rich ran this business during his nights and weekends, and over time he grew frustrated with how slow his newspaper employers were in adopting the internet as a publishing medium. He began thinking about leaving and possibly even launching his own media startup. It was around this time when he grew acquainted with a guy who worked in the data center industry. “He said, ‘look, just go with me, take a look at one of these data centers, and tell me what you think.’ And I walked into small facility near Princeton, and it was filled with rows of cabinets, filled with servers and blinking lights. It was just this amazing world that you have no idea exists when you're just sitting at your desk, looking at your web browser, but it immediately occurred to me as I looked at this that we're going to need these everywhere, because the internet was growing like crazy and infrastructure was going to become a big part of the story.”

At the time, not many outlets were covering this industry, despite its importance. The guy who showed Rich the data center hired him to write about the industry; the website acted as a form of content marketing that generated business leads.

Why Rich left to launch his own site

Eventually, the dot com bubble burst, and suddenly there were a lot fewer companies in need of data centers. The website that employed Rich could no longer afford to keep him on, but rather than simply looking for another job, he started freelancing and thinking about various web publishing business models. “After about a year or so, I noticed that there were suddenly all these data center transactions taking place, including some facilities that were suddenly selling for a lot of money.  It seemed to me that something had changed out there and that this business was picking up. So I just sat down at my laptop and fired up a blog and started publishing stories about the data center industry. It was called Data Center Knowledge, and it wound up becoming one of the largest sites covering the data center industry. It grew pretty rapidly as companies like Google and Microsoft and Amazon started building in the cloud and hosting everybody else's data, which required very large data centers.”

In those early days, Rich monetized the site primarily through Google Adsense. Many of Data Center Knowledge’s visitors were people conducting research in anticipation of purchasing high-priced cloud tech, so the cost-per-click on those ads was relatively high. That provided crucial funding early on, but eventually the site reached sufficient scale as to attract professional ad networks. “I was contacted by a guy who worked for IDG, which was one of the big tech publishing networks; they were looking for blogs to include in a new advertising network where they aggregate a bunch of blogs and then go to larger advertisers and sell ads that would appear across several niche sites. The guy I met and was working with, Kevin Normandeau, wound up becoming my business partner.” IDG eventually pivoted its advertising strategy to focus on gadget blogs, meaning Rich needed to go elsewhere to find sponsors. “Kevin was really interested in my niche, and he proposed that we work together.” He eventually became publisher, allowing Rich to focus entirely on the editorial side. 

The site continued to scale, and in 2015 Rich decided it was time to sell it. “One of the challenges you have when you're building a news organization like this is you have to think about how big you want to be and what your core competency is. In 2011 and 2012, Data Center Knowledge started to gain some really substantial audience, and the question becomes: what's the next phase if you want it to be bigger? How do you do that? Do you want to build out a lot of staff or do you want to look for someone to partner with? Kevin and I were thinking about this when we were approached by an outfit that ran a network of technology sites that were focused on things that were adjacent to data centers, but they didn't have a data center publication. They'd just bought a data center events company, and what you see in the technology business, a lot of times, is that events and news coverage go alongside one another, and they came to us and they said, ‘Hey, we like what you guys do and think it'd be a good fit.’ And it worked out and they acquired Data Center Knowledge. We stayed with the publication for a couple of years and it was a really successful transition.”

Why he launched a new media startup focused on the data center industry

By the time Rich left Data Center Knowledge, he was burnt out. “It had been about eight years at that point that I had been running at full speed in terms of keeping up with the news demands of the industry ... So I just saw that as an opportunity to step out and take a year or two to travel and get some rest and think about what comes next. I kind of figured I would wind up doing something else, I just didn't know at the time that I was going to continue to be in the cloud and data center space.”

Rich dabbled in other beats, like cryptocurrency, but ultimately he decided there was still an opportunity to cover the cloud space. “I kept coming back to data centers because there was so much going on and the industry was changing in ways where I thought there were stories to write that I hadn't been able to tell in the way I wanted to when I was trying to cover the breaking news every day at Data Center Knowledge.”

His new site is called Data Center Frontier, and it focuses on larger trend stories within the industry, pieces that require more sources and a greater breadth of perspectives. “Over time the data center industry has become complex to cover because there are so many elements of it. You need to understand the business drivers on the demand side. You have to understand the buildings themselves and how they operate. And then there are the real estate business models and finance. There's a lot to do there, and so I dove back in.”