Shane Smith: ‘How I went from serving pints in the Baggot Inn to building a $400m fortune'

Vice Media chief executive is back in Dublin to speak at the Web Summit

Shane Smith: “I’m very excited to be back in Dublin and want to visit old haunts.”

Shane Smith: “I’m very excited to be back in Dublin and want to visit old haunts.”


Shane Smith used to work in the Baggot Inn in Dublin. Now he is worth $400 million (€290 million), has a pub in London, a loft in New York and a mountain in Costa Rica. During the worst of the downturn, his company spent $250,000 on a Halloween party. But then the mini-conglomerate that started out as a hip magazine covering music and fashion likes to do things differently. So how did a bartender become the chief executive of Vice Media?

The son of Irish parents, Smith set up Vice magazine with two friends in Montreal nearly 20 years ago. “There were no really great magazines in Canada, ” he says. “They effectively outlawed the English language in Quebec. We were a free English paper where English was outlawed. We went national throughout Canada and then started sending the magazine to New York.”

Smith purposely kept circulation low. “When we initially moved to the US we were faced with a choice: go mainstream or only print enough copies for cool kids. We went with the latter and only printed 150,000 copies in the US and 100,000 copies in the UK as we didn’t think there were more cool people than that.”

The move proved a success for the magazine which now has a circulation of 1.2 million, having evolved into a multi-headed beast called Vice Media with more than 800 employees. It now comprises the magazine, a TV station, a record label, an advertising agency with such clients as Vodafone, a film production company and a publishing imprint. It also organises some of the biggest and best parties in the world, he says.

“We closed the Dumbo region in New York for an event, 200,000 people came. In China, the government gave us the largest art collective in Beijing for an event and 250,000 people came. Next we are producing the YouTube music awards.”

Forbes magazine recently named him the “$400 million man”. “Don’t say that to everyone in Ireland. They will all be hitting me up for a pint at the web summit,” he quips.

But Smith is quick to point out that money isn’t everything. “You might be worth a lot but not have the money to buy a coffee. I do have the luxury of not having to worry about money though.”

Vice Media also has that luxury, with revenue close to $200 million a year. Earlier this year, the company sold a 5 per cent stake to Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox for $70 million. That deal valued the digital media company at $1.4 billion, making Smith worth about $400 million.

“We are quite sexy so everyone wants to buy us. I previously said I wanted to be the next CNN, ESPN and MTV rolled up into one. Then I realised CNN sold to Time Warner, ESPN sold to Disney and MTV sold to Viacom. You kind of have to sell your soul to keep going. You need tremendous assets in marketing, sales, advertising etc to be on the global stage.”

His desire to be the next CNN or ESPN faded when he realised he could be bigger than them online. He cites online video network Machinima, which posts gaming videos to YouTube, and gets over a billion views a month, saying networks like that won’t be the next CNN, they’ll be 10 times CNN.

“Our next step is to launch a news network, which is very exciting. We were the first ever to do a live streaming direct from Google Glass [the wearable computers] to online. We broadcast footage from Tahrir Square in Egypt. ”

Smith will be in Dublin this week to speak at the Web Summit. “I lived in Dublin for a year when I was 19. I worked in the Baggot Inn and drank a lot of beer in Kehoe’s. I’m very excited to be coming back and want to revisit all my old haunts.”