How Two Founders With Zero Experience Built a Profitable Media Company with 3,000,000 Monthly Readers in Less Than a Year

We tell you everything we know (and don't know) about building a media company.

July 5, 2016

The other night I was thinking it was about time to give all you readers another update on The Hustle – an inside look at a startup trying to build a big digital media company.

Some of you are building media businesses, some are interested in starting other types of companies, and others are just nosey. Either way, you seem to like when I do these things, and I like doing them.

The beginning

Our fledging little media startup launched 11 months ago. It was 3 of us when we started: I wrote, John did too (as well as (design/tech stuff), and Kera ran Hustle Con, our big annual conference.

While we’re still quite small, some of the hard work is starting to pay off. We’re now a team of 5 (and hiring more), have a few million readers per month, and are making meaningful revenue (and even a little profit – how rare for a startup!).

Our first tiny office aka room.

Our first tiny office (aka room).

But before we release more info, some context.

We’re in the digital media industry. Call it the news, journalism, or content. Whatever you call it, there’s a lot happening right now to an industry that impacts us all (few work in media, but we all consume). And unfortunately, traditional media is facing a lot of setbacks at the moment.

But where there’s turmoil there’s opportunity. And that’s why we launched The Hustle. So while our young, small team has practically zero experience in media, so far we’ve figured out how to build a real business by giving people what they want… in our case, that’s millennial-focused business news told in a conversational and funny way.

100,000 daily readers

We launched The Hustle with one metric we wanted to hit in our first year: 100,000 email subscribers while also maintaining a high open rate. And a few weeks ago we did it.

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We hit 100k subscribers in April, about 7 months after launching.

Combining the readers of our blog and email, that’s about 3 million visitors a month who are getting their business news from The Hustle. And even more impressive is that practically the entire audience is made up of a notoriously fickle but valuable demographic: affluent millennials (and in our case, 75% of them are males).

And while that number is a sliver of what Business Insider (100m), Vice (98m), or BuzzFeed (250m) get, it does give us a solid foundation from which to become massive.

But why email?

And not page views, the metric most media companies care about?

Each morning we send out an email that explains what’s happening in the business world, what it means, and why it matters. We occasionally write articles on our site (like this one), but 95% of our content can be read directly in the email without having to click off.

Email is extremely efficient. And regardless of how often ‘experts’ say it’s dead, our numbers show that it ain’t.

We could’ve played the UpWorthy game: had our tiny team churn out lots of short articles each day in hopes of going viral on Facebook, then profited from the ads on the site. But overnight viral sites are historically a horrible longterm business. One change in Facebook’s algorithm and they’re completely screwed.

Or we could’ve hired a big team and invested a ton of money in lots of great writers, but that’s expensive. And since neither my co-founder or I have any media experience, raising millions of dollars before launching wasn’t possible (but will be soon, which will come in a later announcement).

But email is different. With email, our small, two-person editorial team can reach a relatively large audience every single day. With another person focused on growth, and a fourth focused on sales, a tiny team can grow and monetize our list with ads.

And that brings us to my next announcement…

We’re profitable!

Barely, but profitable nonetheless. While Hustle Con gave us our initial revenue, over the past month we’ve made a handful of deals that made native ads in the email profitable.

Because of our list size and high engagement, we’re able to command an envious ad rate that’s at least 10x traditional banner ads. And while our revenue is still tiny compared to our ambitions (we’ll end our first year with ~$500k in revenue), it is real.

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Thanks to Hustle Con we have been profitable from the beginning and haven’t had to raise a lot of cash and dilute our equity.

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But the best part of Hustle Con is meeting folks in our community. We had 1,700 people attend, with nearly every state represented and folks from 20+ countries.

Back to the team

Now we have 5 full-time people on the team. Two work on editorial, one handles our conference (Hustle Con), and two focus on growth/sales. We had a few more but made the mistake that a lot of startups make: hiring before we knew exactly what we needed… so we had to downsize slightly. However, we’ve since recognized our mistakes and will hopefully triple in headcount in the next year.

To grow the business, we plan to add a few marketers and sales people, then focus on beefing out the editorial team.

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We still have “the room”.

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But now we also have another room with more space.

So what’s next?

Well, at the moment just the same stuff we’ve been doing. But more. We’ve discovered the needle movers that make a difference in our subscriber and revenue growth so now it’s just MOAR. And soon enough we’ll hit our goal of being a $100m a year business that impacts millions of people.

But aside from the fluffy stuff (aka. that last sentence), we’re also doubling down on our minimalist daily email. While we’ll one day be publishing dozens (or even hundreds) of high quality articles a day on the site and not just be an email newsletter, email is easily the best way to build a strong foundation while we’re small.

So, for all of you who’ve been following along, today we’re launching a redesigned email. John will write an entire article dedicated to that process so the design nerds can geek out.

Until then, sign up for The Hustle to stay up to date about what’s going on in the world. Do it up.

And BTW: Wanna help us spread the word? Sign up to become an ambassador. You’ll get a special URL and, when you share it and your buddies sign up, we’ll send you a t-shirt and hoodie. Word-of-mouth from folks like you has easily been our biggest growth channel, so go on and join our tribe.



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