During one of the final ski weekends of the season, 250 people gathered atop Canada's Whistler Mountain.
They squeezed together while a photographer climbed up on nearby lodge's deck. An attendee waved a black flag with a white diamond key — the symbol of a digital media startup called Maven— while the crowd below cheered.
Maven was literally planting its flag in a battle for the future of the Internet.
Heckman and ad veteran Josh Jacobs are touting Maven as a digital coalition that will bring together hundreds — if not thousands — of independent publishers. The idea is that these media companies will all use the same publishing technology, ad tech and sales operations to create one powerful network.
A big part of their pitch: publishers will no longer have to rely on Facebook. And advertisers will be able to run their messages on a network of clean websites, without worrying about what kind of content they'll be associated with.
Everybody will own a piece of the company, Heckman says.
It's a compelling pitch. The thing is, most advertisers have no idea what Maven is.
So on April 11, Heckman flew the publishers to Whistler to hear Maven's vision.
Maven has been in the works for a few years. But following Facebook's recent decision to tweak it's algorithm to de-prioritize publishers, which hit many in the media industry hard, Heckman sensed an opportunity. He quickly threw together a $350,000 conference in about 90 days — including a mysterious invitation that teased, "You've earned your key."
A Key to What?
Guests were transported on fancy shuttles from the Vancouver airport and given rooms at the Whistler Fairmont and Four Seasons hotels.
Besides multiple panel sessions focused on the media industry, Thursday's itinerary included a 25-minute gondola ride to the top of the mountain, showcasing remnants of the 2010 Olympics. Guests nibbled on boxed lunches of turkey wraps and quinoa salads while they soaked in the views.
Thursday night, attendees gathered for intimate dinners, including one at Heckman's chalet, followed by a late night after party that promised a dance floor and the chance to act like a Whistler local.
On Friday, after the official conference wrapped, guests had the choice to ski, snowboard, enjoy a snowmobile ride, spa day or ziplining — all on Maven's dime.
You've Been Screwed by Facebook. Come join the coalition.
Many of the attendees Business Insider spoke with, who ranged from so-called mommy bloggers to right or left wing activists to marijuana enthusiasts, came to the Maven event with little clue of what the weekend would entail, or even what Heckman's company is.
"I really have no idea," one person said. "But I've never been to Whistler."
Another joked, "I think they might be selling us a timeshare." Others wondered if it was a cult gathering.
But on Wednesday night, during a cocktail hour in the Fairmont's ballroom, the Maven message finally started to take shape.
"A lot of people are confused about the vision," Heckman told the group. "Somebody came up to me and said, 'What's a Maven?' A lot of people are asking me that."
Heckman flattered the audience and told them his team had been scouting them each for years, noticing their journalistic talents and fan followings.
"One thing we are never going to do is build a Silicon Valley open platform," he said. "That's such a dangerous, corruptible..."
Before he could finish, he was interrupted by cheers.
When he continued, he pitched Maven as a cause as well as a business. With his wife and two sons by his side, he spoke about the wreckage Facebook and Google had brought upon independent publishing, destroying the purity of journalism.
Heckman likened the launch of Maven to the launch of Hulu — a project he had personally been involved in — a decade ago by TV companies to counter YouTube.
His speech targeted independent publisher feelings of betrayal over Facebook and "the crushing blow that social media has done to you" as well as "crazy consolidation" in the digital ad industry.
The key, Heckman told his audience, was to work together. He insisted independent publishers could not survive on their own and even paraphrased Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."
"To win means we have to share," Heckman declared. "Use our collective genius to survive ... gather all the villagers together and gain strength as one community."
When he was done, some attendees were puzzled. Others were energized.
"I liked a lot of stuff he was saying there," said one publishing executive.
"I swooned at one point," said another.
The Facebook Aggrieved
For many attendees, the Maven conference served as a self-help group for those who had been spurned by Facebook. They found comfort in sharing their algorithm frustrations.
Homer, who joined Maven in October, is the founder of Kids Activities Blog. She told Business Insider that her six-person business has pulled in $1 million a year for several years.
The site has been so successful that her husband quit his job to help.
But Homer said a recent Facebook change, which limited publishers from posting content with paid product placements, were a big blow.
"That one policy cut my income by 60%," Homer said. "I'm still trying not to cry about it."
Maven, she said, has helped a lot. Kids Activities Blog now outsources its web operations along with its server capacity needs. When the site briefly went down, for example, the Maven team fixed it immediately.
"They are as invested in it as I am," Homer said.
'They pulled a bait and switch'
Chris Berg, a former police officer founded the page a few years ago. He said that the promise of the Maven's tech expertise would save him $50,000 in server costs. "I was dealing with site issues all the time," he said.
More importantly, he's hoping that the collection of Maven partners will eventually start feeding each other new audiences. Since Facebook's recent algorithm change, he's felt a 35% hit in revenue and traffic. "I'm hoping for increased distribution."
Robbie Lockie, who runs Plant Based News, told a similar story about losing nearly 40% of his traffic from Facebook with "no warnings." He flew in from London to see if Maven made sense for his business. "I just spoke to James. he gave me the elevator pitch," he said.
Rachael Herrscher, the founder of Today's Mama, said that Facebook has been gradually pulling back support for publishers for years, even after encouraging them to build up fan bases. "They pulled a bait and switch," she said. "We were reaching 32 million people a week at one point. Now a post will reach 1 to 2 million people.
"We're kind of done caring about Facebook," she said.
"We were naive [about Facebook] until 2014," he said. "Then they started doing things that were just unethical. That's when the idealism went out the window.
Watkins, a former professor at Syracuse University, actually joined Maven a few months , but had to back out after his audience rebelled, worried that he was selling out.
He's hoping to return at some point.
"The idea is beautiful," he said. "Will it work? I believe it in because I like James Heckman. Will they be a replacement for Facebook. I haven't seen that yet."
'The idea is, take the internet back'
Leah Segedie, the founder of the clean living and eating publication Mamavation has been publishing on the web for over a decade. She's being courted by Maven, and one of her good friends is on the startup's board.
"She said, 'you gotta check these guys out," Segedie told Business Insider. "This is kind of competing with Google and Facebook. The idea is, take the internet back.' And I said, 'I'd like to hear about that. And they're gonna send me out to Whistler, and I'm like "I've never been. Let's do it!"
Segedie said she hadn't gotten alot of specifics yet on how Maven will work. She's got questions about how her existing ad sales will be impacted, and how her website's look may have to change.
"I really like the idea of an organization that is about getting content out there," she said.
Isn't This Just An Ad Network?
It's worth noting that companies have been aggregating and selling ads on long lists of websites for decades. There have been more than a few so-called premium ad networks making similar promises.
Several conference attendees asked why Maven isn't just another ad network.
Bill Sornsin, Maven's COO, said that the idea of having a coalition using the same publishing and advertising technology shouldn't be overlooked. For example, instead of working with one ad tech company, another video player company, and another developer, the Maven promise a single seamless platform.
"The integration is the magic," he said. "Having that smooth integration where everything just works. We are thinking of us almost like Intel Inside."
What will advertisers think, especially digital brands accustomed to buying ads all over the web via programmatic software. There's been lots of industry talk of late about big marketers actually looking to pare down the number of sites they work with - moving away from the so-called 'long tail'reported AdExchanger.
Sean Muzzy, Chief Product & Platform Officer at the ad agency Neo World Wide, wasn't at the Maven show. But he said he was intrigued by the concept, as it might fit the needs of the current ad market - where brands are suddenly wary of having their ads end up next to objectionable content on the web following a string of embarrassing incidents.
"It's definitely a big ambition," he said. "As a media buyer we want good quality content that attracts and maintains audience. We want those things. If you think about the past couple of years, there's been so much shadiness in the inventory. There's always trying to over come some game that's happening in the system."
"The question is, is my audience there?"
A group of publishers who the Maven is recruiting had the same question. Even if the Maven's tech and advertising clout works, can anybody replace the audience Facebook once delivered?
"That's the kicker for me," said one publisher as he rode down the mountain on a gondola. "They haven't answered my traffic question."
The Maven is promising lots more answers. The question is, can they deliver? It's a big mountain to climb.