DriveTribe Has Lost $16 Million in Two Years. Has it Also Lost its Way?

Missed opportunities, zombie tribes, and an overdose of Clarkson, Hammond, and May—this is DriveTribe today.

byKyle Cheromcha|
DriveTribe Has Lost $16 Million in Two Years. Has it Also Lost its Way?

Say you're a Lotus fan. What's the best place to find your fellow obsessives online and truly nerd out over every conceivable aspect of your favorite British roadsters? A little under two years ago, the answer could very well have been DriveTribe, the hybrid car forum/social network that the ex-Top Gear trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May founded after leaving the BBC in 2015. Caught up in the endless hype, you would have hopped on the first day, eagerly typed in the L-word, and discovered a group called The Lotus Condition. "You don't need to own a Lotus to join, you just need to love driving. That's The Lotus Condition. Welcome."

But you can't go back in time, and today, The Lotus Condition is dead. The page itself still exists, mind you—counted along with its 1,800 ghostly members as metrics in DriveTribe's story of expansion—but it's one of an untold number of zombie tribes that now litter the platform. Its demise roughly parallels the website's financial struggles, recently revealed in a fiscal report filed in the United Kingdom. 

DriveTribe lost over $16 million between the ramp-up to its launch in November of 2016 and the beginning of this year. Is the site just another ambitious, messy, and ultimately empty effort destined for the online dustbin? Or has the money been well spent on building something big?

James Martin, founder and erstwhile tribe leader of The Lotus Condition, is firmly in the former camp. The aspiring automotive personality who penned that optimistic greeting above was so infuriated by his experience that he posted a video titled "Why DRIVETRIBE FAILED" to his 20,000-subscriber YouTube channel earlier this year. "It’s kind of heartbreaking, to be honest, because you just see this kind of wonderful opportunity that’s just been squandered," he told The Drive. "I was just really, really annoyed."

Martin ticked off a laundry list of reasons why the DriveTribe ultimately drove him off—from the chaotic free-for-all atmosphere to lack of monetization for creators to the site always burying everyone in a blizzard of Clarkson, Hammond, and May—while other tribe leaders and DriveTribe sources defended their ongoing efforts to correct these problems and put the company back in the black. Martin may no longer care if the site lives or dies, but there are still plenty of people who do.

How DriveTribe Got Here

Let's start with a quick recap of the financial documents that prompted the latest round of headlines clucking about the demise of DriveTribe. The company's annual financial statements covering its first two years were uploaded to the United Kingdom's Companies House website at the end of August, showing a loss of nearly $5.5 million in 2016 and over $10 million in 2017. The vast majority of the money spent is grouped under "Administrative Expenses."

Companies House UK

DriveTribe went from 24 employees in its first year to 44 in its second, but a staffing increase alone can't explain those huge outlays. Starting up any big online venture takes a lot of cash, so the question here isn't where exactly it went. And don't forget, DriveTribe raised over $11 million in startup capital before it launched. Payroll, servers, content creation, office space, marketing, audience development—all these things are expensive. The real question is whether any of it will actually help the site survive.

The first time anyone heard the phrase "DriveTribe" was the middle of 2016, more than a year after the three iconic presenters left their longtime roles at Top Gear and before the launch of The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. Fans were both surprised and excited to hear them promising a new gathering place for gearheads online. Former Top Gear producer Andy Wilman and tech CEO Ernesto Schmitt (who has since left the company) were tapped to be the adults in the room.

A group interview with Gizmodo UK provides the best window into how and why they made this move toward media mogul-dom; with James May saying "various digital guru type people" encouraged them to "do something," Richard Hammond excitedly listing all the communities DriveTribe could nurture, and Jeremy Clarkson admitting that he doesn't know "anything about business. I literally know nothing... My role, as far as this is concerned, is to try and ensure that it's fun."

The site was often described as "Facebook for cars," a community where you'd make a profile, join tribes that interest you, and connect with other enthusiasts. To be a tribe leader, though, you had to fill out an official-looking application that seemed designed to vet the best candidates and keep things organized. This appealed to small-time creators like Martin, who submitted video clips and freelance articles he'd written and hoped to join what felt like a "perfect platform" to him. It also caught the eye of people like Jason Fenske, host of the wildly popular Engineering Explained series on YouTube.

Early Cracks Start to Show

With almost two million subscribers, Fenske is one of the more visible automotive personalities on YouTube. His in-depth, explanatory tech videos are often written up at sites like Road & Track,

Jalopnik, and, yes, The Drive. Fenske didn't really need to join DriveTribe, but like many he was drawn in by the names at the top of the masthead and thought it seemed like an interesting idea. 

"I thought it may be a way to help grow my audience," he told The Drive. "Honestly my plan wasn’t to invest too much time into it, but to simply use it as a posting location where my content could be found." He applied.

Both Fenske and Martin were accepted as tribe leaders before DriveTribe went live in November 2016. And as the buzz and excitement of the first day wore off, both realized their first serious issue with the site: it didn't allow users to embed YouTube videos in their posts. Instead, it wanted people to upload their original content to its proprietary in-house video player. Embeds didn't come until months later after complaints poured in. So did DriveTribe's own YouTube channel.

This didn't bother Fenske too much, who decided to write articles and link to his videos in the meantime, but Martin was furious. He explained that he lives in a rural part of England with very slow internet; uploading a 4K YouTube video can take days, making it unworkable to double upload on DriveTribe. Then there was the fact that DriveTribe offered no viewer or reader metrics, or a way for its creators to make money.

But by far the biggest frustration for Martin was how DriveTribe opened the floodgates for anyone to create a tribe without being vetted immediately after launching, thereby grenading the guided and organized environment that the first tribe leaders thought they were forming. He describes watching, "hand on forehead," as a second Lotus tribe popped up within a day, then a third, then twenty, and now 48 different tribes that all proclaim to be the home for various shades of Lotus lovers. Like The Lotus Condition, most are empty shells now. It's not clear how many of the estimated 30,000 other tribes are as well.

"There aren’t a lot of Lotus cars or people. On a site like DriveTribe, the minute you start dividing up communities like that—it’s like trying to feed 5,000 with one M&M," Martin said. "It’s just not going to work. It’s fundamentally broken."

It didn't help that every time Martin loaded the homepage, he kept seeing the same three faces rather than the promised variety of highlighted content from tribes near and far. Somehow throwaway pictures or one-liners from Clarkson, Hammond, and May seemed always to be at the top, as did the polished content from DriveTribe's small in-house video team. Why keep toiling away for free when you'll never beat the house?

Tribe Leaders Call it Quits

Martin lasted around two months on DriveTribe before throwing in the towel and focusing on YouTube. A non-scientific survey of random tribes shows he's not the only one who barely made it to 2017, with large numbers of both tribes and user profiles showing little to no activity in the last 12 months. Yet a Digiday article from November of last year detailing the site's first foray into advertising proudly mentions it reaching the magical mark of 1 million user accounts. How many are dormant like Martin's, we can't say. The company's claim of its registered users each interacting with at least one piece of DriveTribe content per day clearly can't be taken at face value.

No one at DriveTribe would comment on the record for this story, but a source within the company told The Drive that the site has pulled in an average of 10 million unique visitors per month this year and now reaches about 300 million people worldwide. Very respectable numbers—if they're true. The source also pointed to the headline-grabbing money losses as essential for building the site's audience into a place where they can start real paid partnerships with companies and actually make money. It appears to be working for now, with the first extended campaign with Audi currently underway. It's also got 4 million followers on its Facebook page (presumably the result of organic growth), and a much smaller Twitter presence.

It does make us wonder how it took DriveTribe so long to start selling ads against the presence of Clarkson, Hammond, and May—you know, the former hosts of what was at one point the most popular show in the world, full stop—who had the eyes of enthusiasts everywhere fixed on them for much of 2016. Most major online startups don't immediately start printing money, but DriveTribe had everything going for it at launch: an interesting idea, a built-in user base in the trio's fans, and precious, invaluable buzz. What it didn't have, it seems, is a real plan to capitalize on any of that—not uncommon in the world of celebrity-backed outfits.

Even though we don't have access to direct traffic numbers or user data, there are still a couple circumstantial points to consider here. Unlike Martin, Fenske has maintained his Engineering Explained tribe and actually done some freelance work directly for DriveTribe; when you go to the "Discover" page to find new tribes, his is one of the first under the "Tribes We Love" section at the top. Seems like it worked out for everyone? Well...

"I went to my YouTube analytics to see how much of an effect all of this has really had. Turns out, over the time of posting on DriveTribe I’ve seen 860,000 views on my YouTube videos from it," Fenske said. That's 860,000 over two years—sounds okay, until you consider that his videos from this summer alone have combined for over five million views on YouTube in the last two months.

The screen that greets you when you finally find the "Start a Tribe" button., DriveTribe

Another point is that DriveTribe itself has admitted that it has too many tribes, announcing a plan last month to start culling the herd a bit and folding inactive ones. It's also reinstated the application process for new tribes and made the link to it surprisingly hard to find. Amusingly, you now have to click past two warnings about not cluttering the place up with duplicate or otherwise useless ideas before you can fill it out.

Fixing DriveTribe

To be sure, DriveTribe hasn't just spun its wheels for two years. Using a whole lot of money, it seems the company has addressed nearly every single issue that sent people like Martin packing. Embedded videos are allowed. A strong tech team has rolled out a slick new content editing and posting interface called Studio and added a much-desired direct message functionality to user profiles, which is a huge boost for the site's social goals. A new organizational structure groups tribes into themed verticals that make it easier than ever to find interesting stuff. An "Ambassador" program provides a needed level of community moderators above tribe leaders to help curate the chaos. Crucially, DriveTribe announced a monetization feature for creators called Moneybox earlier this summer, though specific details have yet to emerge.

These are all good things that might encourage active users to post more. But are they enough to bring wanderers like Martin back into the tent? He doesn't think so.

"It’s not going to work. It’s too late. It’s like trying to bail out the Titanic," he said. "Someone would have to hit the reset button entirely. The tragedy is there might actually be some very good thriving communities on there."

And On That Bombshell...

Sixteen-year-old Omri Dayan would agree—on the last part, at least. A high-schooler in Colorado who's just starting out on his lifelong addiction to cars, and another one of DriveTribe's earliest tribe leaders, Dayan told us the site has indeed lived up to its promise to connect him to worlds he never knew existed. 

Back in 2016, Dayan realized he was falling head over heels for automobiles. Like Martin and Fenske, he was drawn to DriveTribe by its ties to "the boys," and he applied to lead a tribe called Vintage Nuts out of sheer curiosity. To his surprise, his idea was accepted, and he describes it as a "totally positive" experience since then. Unlike those two though, Dayan was and still is all-in on the community aspect. It didn't bother him that he couldn't upload YouTube videos at first, that the editorial guidance was opaque at best, and that there was no way to make money. He just wanted to find other people who knew things about cars that he didn't and learn from them. 

"It’s really helped knit together an international community of car lovers, which is a great thing to be a part of," he said. "And seeing the site when it first launched and seeing it now, it’s very clear that it’s in much, much better shape. It's a positive evolution."

Dayan isn't concerned about the money losses because he thinks all the effort and expense has put DriveTribe in a position to really thrive. Call him a true believer, call him a false prophet, but know that he's one of many ardently loyal supporters who still use the site daily.  

To its critics, DriveTribe has never been able to justify itself when sites and services like Facebook or Reddit or Instagram or YouTube—not to mention real car forums—offer similar and more established spaces to create and connect. It seems obvious that Clarkson, Hammond, May, and the anonymous team behind them severely underestimated how hard it is to launch an entirely new social network, even it if is focused on cars and tied to three of the biggest names in the industry. It's less obvious whether mistakes have been corrected quick enough to stop the bleeding in time.

This year and the next will be a crucial test. Having burned through the equivalent of all its startup cash, DriveTribe will have to stand on its nascent paid partnerships to fund operations soon enough, or head back out for another round of investments. Would venture capitalists like what they see this time around? In the words of James May: Oh, cock.