Derek Flanzraich, CEO & Founder of Greatist
How to Build a Millennial Brand with 10M Monthly Visitors with Derek Flanzraich from Greatist
There’s a common thread in a lot of entrepreneurs’ stories: They were facing a problem, couldn’t find the solution they were looking for, so went ahead and built it themselves.
That’s exactly what Derek Flanzraich did when he started Greatist, a digital media startup that’s all about health and fitness, without all the fluff and in-your-face marketing. As someone who has struggled with his weight his entire life, Flanzraich wanted to find a brand that would talk to him on a personal level and not as another client.
Frustrated by the fact that the world was becoming more health conscious, yet at the time seemed to be more interested in shaming those who wanted to get in shape, Flanzraich set out to stake his own claim in an oversaturated market. The key difference, though, was that instead of making his audience feel bad, he would make them feel welcome.
“It wasn’t actually about the quality of what we’re doing, which we felt that was gonna be best in class or whatever. It was actually the voice that really stuck out,” Flanzraich says.
It was a simple change in language, but its message connected with an underserved audience that would eventually translate into 10 million unique visitors every month.
In an era where it seems like every media company is striving for page views above all else, and pumping out nothing but clickbait articles with little substance in order to attract them, Greatist takes a different approach.
“We don’t think quantity is a metric that matters. Just like I don’t think, increasingly, uniques and page views is a metric that matters. All of these things can be gained and aren’t inherently valuable on their own,” he says.
Greatist is now one of the world’s most trusted brands when it comes to anything about health, fitness, and happiness. It’s commitment to keeping a friendly and personal tone in all of its content has resonated with millennials throughout the world. With such a commitment to quality over quantity over everything else, Flanzraich has built from the ground up the kind of branding and engagement that most companies would kill for.
- Why you’ll never be ready to be an entrepreneur, and why that’s okay
- How to find a voice and tone that resonates with your audience
- How to calculate your long-term brand value
- Flanzraich’s unique approach to content and how it holds up against the SEO-focused practices of others
- What it means to build a powerhouse brand and how to do it
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Derek Flanzraich
Nathan: Hey, guys. Welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan and I am your host. And today you’re in for an absolute treat. We’ve got a super successful entrepreneur, his name is Derek Flanzraich, and he created a company called greatist.com.
And I actually have been following the brand for a very, very long time and was lucky enough to catch up with Derek in NYC. He was really, really cool to meet and what’s really impressive is what he’s done with his company in the past five to six years. They now have 10 million monthly unique visitors. And he understands branding, he understands traffic. And I know a lot of you guys are interested in content marketing and Derek gives a ton of gold around their content strategy. He actually doesn’t even really use SEO, he doesn’t really game the Google Search or anything of the sort.
And, as a media company, I have a lot of respect for what he’s done. And it’s always really humbling to speak to other, you know, media company founders and understanding what they’re doing to grow and what that means. And, you know, I learned a ton from him. This is kind of my own little personal, I guess, brain-picking session where maybe I might get the most out of this one. I hope you guys can get a ton, too.
But that’s it from me, guys. If you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review. Also, please do check out a crowdfunding project that we’re working on. It’s going to be a coffee table book, it’s going to be amazingly designed with the best interviews of the magazine and these podcasts. If you go to foundrmag.com/book, so foundrmag.com/book, you can sign up to found out when this project goes live. It will be happening around November and I’d love your support. Awesome. All right, guys. I’ll speak to you soon, now let’s jump into the show.
So the first question I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Derek: Yeah. You know, I’m not totally sure I call…I would call what I do, say, a job. More like a mission or a calling, maybe. I mean I feel like when you’re the boss, you know, it’s less of a job per se, but maybe that’s just because I’ve only had one experience about it, basically. I mean I started Greatist because I grew up struggling with my weight and felt like there wasn’t a branded business that I trusted and loved and felt like was really on my side. And that blew my mind, it made me mad and upset and frustrated and angry that in a world where people were taking health so much exponentially more seriously, everything seemed to make me feel worse about myself instead of better. And every TV show I turned on, every magazine I opened, every Google search I did felt like, you know, it was telling me I should look a certain way and feel a certain way and it didn’t resonate with me, it felt like it was speaking an entirely different language.
And so I became really obsessed with what does it mean to build a defining healthy-living…you know, healthy living branded business that actually makes people feel better about themselves and actually, like, celebrate and empower them to improve instead of pretending like you’re either a couch potato that doesn’t care or this perfect, flawless athlete who, you know, never messes up. That there’s a whole community and identity for people somewhere in between who are just trying to improve.
So I obsessed with sort of this mission and this vision of feeling, like, you know, I feel blessed and grateful to be able to say that I believe this is my life mission, to help the world think of health in a healthier way. I get to do that every day.
And so in many ways the minute I sort of embraced that and realized that, I had to start this. And I was, at the time, working in another company that had announced it sold to a company called CBS. I worked at Clicker that sold CBS for a very huge amount, you know, reportedly over $100 million. And I had no part in that, but it was a really important experience, it sort of opened my eyes to the opportunity and frankly, I think, taught me a lot about what I could do to ideally build a company that’s even more successful than that one.
And so I sort of dropped every idea I had for any idea that wasn’t something I’d be inspiring and have a vision around five years from when I started. And started building this, you know, what I hope will become the defining healthy-living branded business.
And so I don’t know if that answers your question at all, but that’s sort of my answer.
Nathan: No, it definitely does. So let’s go back. Like, you told us about your why, but how did you start? So this company that you worked for, Clicker, was sold. So you essentially left the company that was sold after it was sold?
Derek: Yeah. So I had really truly nothing to do with the business. I, like, joined in as an employee right out of college and it was literally just, like, you know, I was the kid who showed up and then the company was sold. You know, I wanted to start my own company and, growing up, I had been…I’ve started stuff my whole life. I started, you know, something in middle school and something in high school and something in college that stuck around. And when I left, they got bigger and better than when I was there. And I was so proud of that and felt like maybe this is what I was meant to do, is build brands that impact communities and last long after I’m long.
And so that was, you know, that was really, I think, what prompted me. And then I believed I needed to go have an experience somewhere so I could learn from others. And frankly I think I learned sooner…I think I learned pretty quickly that you’re never ready. And if you’re never ready, then, you know, all this time spent getting ready might not be worth the time.
And so after six months of feeling like, “Oh my god, like, no one really knows what they’re doing. I definitely don’t, but I care an awful lot about something and that’s really important.”
Nathan: So you came up with the idea of Greatist. Exactly how did you start it? Take us back. You know, you started with zero people reading every single day.
Derek: Ain’t that the truth? Yeah. Yeah, so I was a super nerd about this space. I, you know, as I said, was struggling with my weight, felt like I wasn’t getting the answers that I wanted, and so I started reading all these PubMed studies. And PubMed is the national…here in the United States it’s the national repository for peer-reviewed scientific journals.
So I started reading, like, went straight to the source, and started to learn a thing or two. And my friends started to turn to me for advice before I had really figured it out. And I was really struck by this. Why were they coming to me for advice when I barely knew what I was talking about? And definitely didn’t look like I knew what I was talking about. You know? But it turned out that the voice of the role of, like, a friend who is a little further along as opposed to, like, a boring, you know, professor or a sort of snake oil salesman or a boot camp instructor, like, they were resonating with just their buddy and who talked about it in a way that was accessible and friendly. And so that really stuck with me, this idea that the voice really matters and it’s less, maybe, about the actual what you’re saying but how you’re saying it.
And so when I set about to try to build the defining healthy-living branded business, like, who knows how to do that? I, from a very early sense, knew, because I was so living in the space, how little good content there was. So I think today if you were to ask people, “Is there good health and wellness content?” I frankly think people today would probably still say “no.” But it was even worse five years ago, it was really terrible, like really shitty.
Derek: And all the content that was out there, everything you landed on when you searched was done by a content farm and really no one cared. So I felt like that was our way in. I also had had some pretty good experience convincing writers to write for free. It’s a skill I can no longer get away with, but in college and in, you know, in schools I had sort of gotten good at this. And I say “gotten good at this” because I realized that people who are creative, you know, an author and not just looking for compensation… Which, you know, if you can offer compensation, you should. But they’re also looking for other things. They are looking for vision, they’re looking for culture, they’re looking to be a part of something, they’re looking to do something different that hasn’t been done before, they’re looking to be inspired and to try new things.
And so, anyway, what I did was I reached out to all my friends who I thought were great writers. And I made a list of the top 10 people that I had ever worked with or had heard of basically. And I reached out to them and said, “Will you help?” And they recommended some people and I, you know, posted about it to this new, cool thing called social media, and I started to develop, like, a group of people who were actually excited about writing quality content in the space for the first time, like true, science-backed, expert-approved content. Actually since day one at Greatist every scientific study from PubMed, every article has been approved by multiple experts. Every article. So if it needs it, it’s approved by experts, sometimes two. You know, at least two, sometimes, like, six.
Nathan: So really high quality.
Derek: So really high quality. But, like I was saying before, it wasn’t actually about the quality of what we were doing, which we felt was going to be best in class or whatever, but it was actually the voice that really stuck out. And that was, we believed, our innovation. I think everyone should write science-backed, expert-approved content. You know? It’s embarrassing that people don’t. But I think we uniquely write about content in a way that’s honest and authentic, it’s real. It’s just like your friend who’s a little further along.
In the beginning that was sort of my voice because I was editing everything. I threw up a blog. You know, today I wouldn’t call this a blog, but, you know, when you reach 10 million people every single month and have 35-plus employees it’s hard to call it a blog. But in the early days that’s totally what it was, it was, like, a little blog with big ambitions. And I basically, you know, the intention behind it all was to scale threw the voice and the tone and create, you know, like I said, this identity for people.
And so we very quickly thought we would get noticed for the fact that our content is actually high quality. But the most important part for us was that people would recognize and appreciate, like, and resonate with the voice. And that would drive them to share, and then this social media thing had some legs and hopefully, you know, would help people spread this with their friends.
And so, you know, frankly we were pretty right. You know, I e-mailed 100 people, the people who I thought were doing this right. Today you’d probably call that, like, influencer marketing, but back then it was literally just me just, like, guessing at their e-mails and e-mailing them. And before Greatist launched I actually e-mailed truly 100 people and asked them all for help. “I’m trying to launch this thing, will you help?” And they…a surprising amount responded. After, you know, a few, you know, one or two follow-ups, 70% of them had gotten back to me in some shape or form. Some of them I got on the phone with, some of them, you know, met me in person. And almost all of them, when we launched Greatist publically in April of 2011, shared it with their audience.
Nathan: Oh wow.
Derek: And that was huge for us. That, like, put us on the map. And so we’re writing great content, we built a site that… Look, I built the whole site myself. You know, basically I could do most of it myself. I think the only money we really paid for in the early days was a designer. And we, yeah, you know, had a buddy help with some of the, like, tech. But this was not a complicated thing, it was something I really could do on my own and I felt like the brand we were building was the real key and innovation. And I frankly think that today, even with, you know, a full-time dev team, sales team, editorial team, design team. Like, everything we’ve got today, like, I still think what we’re building is a brand first.
Nathan: Yeah, and I think that’s really important. How did you come up with the name “Greatist”? I really like it, it’s a great name.
Derek: Thank. Yeah, so earlier I mentioned that there’s…like, traditional media sort of depicted people as, like, either one way or the other and that there’s not a place in between. So Greatist is my attempt to create a name and identity, a group of people who are just trying to get better. And so, like, an artist works on art, a Greatist works on being great. But they don’t have to be the greatest all the time. So that was the idea behind it. That’s why it’s spelled with an “-ist.” It’s not a misspelling, it’s on purpose.
Nathan: Yeah, I feel you there.
Derek: Yeah, right. I know you do. You don’t like your Es and I don’t either.
Nathan: That’s awesome. So talk to me around what happened next. Because everyone would have aspirations to build a brand, you know, build this massive audience. You know, you said 10 million monthly uniques, and you’ve done it in a reasonably short period of time. It’s very, very impressive. And, you know, I was lucky enough to catch up with you for a little bit when I was in NYC and I took a lot from our conversation. And I’m really curious, you know, what happened next, what did this look like as time went on? So, you know, you convinced your best…like, a lot of friends or the best writers you knew to write for free and you’re bootstrapping.
Derek: Yeah, so I’m bootstrapping. I mean it’s a good question to ask. I mean frankly most people don’t ask this question. They’re like, “Okay, great. And now you’re huge and, like, congrats.” So the next part of Greatist was really hard. So we launched, there was some fanfare, and frankly we got some traffic.
Nathan: Yeah. Can we talk about how much traffic?
Derek: I want to say it was less 100,000 unique visitors a month, but it sure seemed like a lot at the time.
Derek: I mean that’s real traffic.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Derek: Right? Like, maybe 70,000 a month or something like that.
Derek: Hopefully I’m not making that up. But it was enough that it was like, “Oh, this is…”
Nathan: It’s decent, yeah.
Derek: “…not a joke.” Right? This is, like, “Somebody is reading this more than my mom and my brother,” right?
Derek: Like at least one of those clicking a lot of times. So that gave me some confidence and I decided the right thing to do was to double down on this. And two of our top editors, Kate and David, were just about to graduate from college. Right? So they were seniors in college and they were just about to graduate in the Northeast. I was like, “Hey, guys, this is happening. We have…you know, we launched, people love us. You know, it’s just the very beginning, but will you have a crazy summer with me and, like, commit to this? I know you have other jobs you could go do, but come hang out. And I will move to the Northeast, I’ll move and live close to you guys. And I can’t afford to pay you money, but I will pay for where we live.”
And I got an Airbnb. Which existed, believe it or not, five and a half.
Derek: I got an Airbnb, I convinced this woman to lend us her penthouse. Like, it’s literally the nicest place I’ve ever lived in New York City, in retrospect, I didn’t even believe it. But convinced her to rent it out for us for a whole…basically the whole summer of 2011 just for nothing.
Derek: Like, we paid her, but, like, barely. Like I pay more for my rent now for, like…you know, like a joke compared to that space.
Nathan: How did you do that?
Derek: I don’t know. You know, it was, like, early Airbnb, she wasn’t going to live there anyway. Just I got lucky. And so I moved into this apartment with me and these two people. One of whom I never met in person and the other one I didn’t know that well. And they were the two most important people in, you know, Greatist’s very early days. And they instantly hated each other and they worked extremely well together. And it was, like, if somebody could have a reality show, they wouldn’t believe how hilarious this summer was. Like, it’s like it…they would have thought the whole thing was scripted. Like, it was a literal unreal thing. We all lived in the same place, we cooked dinner for each other every night. We, you know, fought and, like, edited and it was just, like, such an insane thing. And, you know, then we went right to bed and woke up the next morning and went at it again.
And then as we were approaching the end of the summer we acknowledged that no…traffic hadn’t changed, basically traffic had plateaued. And this was really disappointing. And I remember sitting around the table and having the first of… So there’s this book, I think we may have talked about it when we met, but this book by Ben Horowitz called The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
Nathan: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Great book.
Derek: It’s a great book. And in it he talks about, I think they’re called, the “we’re fucked, it’s over” conversations.
Derek: And we’ve had many of them. This was probably the…I mean this was at least the first major one. We sat around the table, we’re like, “We’re fucked, it’s over, guys. People aren’t ready for this, society doesn’t need content. Like, maybe society really isn’t prepared to accept that accomplishing and succeeding at health is more than just, like, a miracle pill or a shortcut. Maybe we’re just not there as a people yet. Maybe people…this social media thing, you know, maybe it’s not really the answer. And us producing a very small quantity of content at a really high quality, maybe that’s the wrong approach to take. Because what we really should be doing is spamming Google, which we refuse to do.”
And we sat around this table and slowly said, “Or, you know, maybe we just need to focus. Maybe we need to focus in on the demo.” At the time we thought we were going to be the. “And maybe we need to double down on something that’s starting to grow.”
And so that’s what we did. We decided…looked around the table and said, “Let’s focus on millennials since we’re all millennials and we think we know them relatively well. And where are millennials?” And all of us were recently…had started using this small platform called Pinterest. And we loved it and we thought it was, like, this really exciting, interesting platform.
And so we decided then and there that we were going to focus our demographic, you know, our target demo entirely on millennials and we were going to focus entirely on them on Pinterest. And we basically doubled down, I mean really, like, over-invested in that, decided everything was going to have a visual component, decided we were going to be the most innovative and the biggest…the most innovative people on this platform.
And we picked the right platform, frankly. Picked the right platform and picked the right content for that platform. Because that took us from… You know, Pinterest took off in the end of 2011, it was, like, the hottest thing. And we were there for that ride, I mean we were a part of that ride. We went from, I want to say, you know, 100,000 or less unique visitors a month to, like, 1 million. And, you know, suddenly we were, like, off to the races, a real site. You know, one million, like, and then over the next year so that built into something like two to three. Basically on almost all Pinterest traffic.
Nathan: Wow. And do you still get a lot of traffic from Pinterest now?
Derek: We do, actually. Today Pinterest… You know, at one point Pinterest made up something like, I want to say, 60% of our traffic. You know?
Derek: Maybe 60%, 70% of our traffic. And today it makes up roughly 10%. But, you know, 10% of 10 million is no joke.
Derek: It’s somewhere roughly around one million unique visitors a month.
Derek: So our traffic actually from there hasn’t changed that much, we still get roughly the same amount, despite the growth and saturation and all that stuff of the platform itself.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, interesting. And I’m really curious, these people… Because you’re a solo founder, right?
Derek: Yes, I am. For better or for worse. Mostly for worse though.
Nathan: Yeah, it’s tough, hey? It is so tough.
Derek: It is, yeah.
Nathan: I feel you there. So talk to me. Like, how come these guys didn’t become your cofounders, or what happened to these guys? Are they still with you right now?
Derek: Yeah, both are no longer with us, but both were here for two and a half, three years. So, you know, most… You know, they were here for about as long as anyone has been, besides me. You know, in both cases they were very focused on the editorial and, you know, they were extremely important in shaping what Greatist is today. Without them Greatist wouldn’t exist and without them Greatist would still sound like me and be a total idiot. Like, you know, they helped and were extremely crucial to it. But at these companies, as we’ve grown, you know, every three years or so there’s, like…you kind of level up as an organization and you’re looking for a different kind of person. And some people can make that leap to, like, the next level, but it’s hard for other people.
I think in both cases, in both of their cases, one for personal reasons and one for basically, like, other interest reasons, were drawn elsewhere. They were drawn elsewhere because they felt like this was their first job out of college, it was a crazy experience, but, like, you know, they were no longer leading the charge and involved day to day in the same ownership way. And so, you know, they found their way to other places.
You know, it’s been an interesting thing. At Greatist we actually take a very different approach to professional growth than you might think. I actually don’t think…I think the likelihood that anyone at Greatist will be here 50 years from now is, like, tiny, maybe infinitesimal. Like, who know whether I’ll be here in 50 years? Like, nothing…there’s nothing I would want more than for me to be here 50 years from now still building the business and it’s still scaling in, like, new and exciting ways and I am scaling in new and exciting ways.
And there’s nothing I’d love more than for every person at Greatist who’s here to constantly have the next step in their career perfectly placed and for our needs to exist as an organization for them to move into that role. The reality is that that’s not the way this works. And, in truth, most people, especially millennials… And, you know, our average age today is, like, 30. Slightly over 30, but back then it was, like, 22. You know?
Derek: But millennials tend to be at jobs for two to three years. And so what we do at Greatist is we’ve implemented this thing called tours of duty. And I won’t got on and on about it, but the tours of duty framework basically is about, like, investing in professional development and actually up front creating a conversation around how long is this job going to be for until you’re ready for the next job. And that next job ideally is with us, but it’s okay if it’s not. And we’re going to have that conversation the whole time and support you fully whatever…you know, wherever that ends up.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, interesting. So tell me, what happened next? You know, Pinterest blew up. Is that when you guys raised your seed round?
Derek: Yeah. I mean basically it’s a really, really…we raised in an interesting way. The first $3.5 million that we raised were all through very different tranches, smaller tranches. Maybe five or six of them. And so we didn’t definitively raise… If you put it all together, we call it our seed round, but they were all, like, semi-seed rounds. And so, you know, today that might be slightly more standard, frankly, like, a $3.5 million-dollar seed round, but back then it was sort of just enough money to sort of take us to the next level. And then we really didn’t raise a true institutional round of capital until our A was announced in January.
So we did it a little differently, I would say. And the C, I would say, like, that was around the time which we raised sort of what you would call friends and family.
Derek: Right? We didn’t need much, we just needed a little. And then we continued to raise from then on not from friends and family, but from, like, investors and angels and people we sort of met along the way. And after that we moved into a real office, a tiny one, where we used the, you know, bathroom sink as, like, our kitchen area. It was, like, so disgusting. This tiny, tiny office that we loved, a fourth-floor walk-up. And we were there for a few years. And then by the end of that period we plateaued again, ended up having to replace the entire editorial team.
Nathan: What happened?
Derek: This is another one of these “we’re fucked, it’s over” conversations. We realized, basically, that we had trained people to… Well, so the Internet was changing.
Nathan: And what year was this?
Derek: This was, like, well, 2013, I would say. So the Internet is changing. When we started out in 2011, it was basically good enough that we wrote content that didn’t suck. Like, the fact that we were writing great content in the write voice was enough and people were like, “Wow, great content, go there.” But as we approached 2013, frankly, other people were figuring things out and not writing total shit content. Which is great news, I mean we were thrilled about it. However, it meant that our differentiation was less clear. And Pinterest, which was a huge benefit for us, started to pale in comparison to how well other people were doing on social channels like, oh, Facebook and, you know, other places.
So out team, however, that we built had sort of frankly been, like, a little bit brainwashed. Right? Most of them had come right out of college and they were brainwashed into writing exactly terrifically well what we asked them to do, which is thoughtful, quality-driven pieces without any real sense or ability for any social network besides Pinterest.
Derek: And frankly Pinterest is different from other platforms in that it’s not a social network. And they say this at Pinterest.
Derek: It’s not. Pinterest is the kind of thing that you can almost, like, add onto your content, you just have to really think about it. And the topics of the content you’re writing have to be related to it. So it has to play a part in your strategy, but it’s different than, like, you’re writing for it. That wouldn’t even make sense, really, for Pinterest.
So our team, really terrific, amazing writers who were doing terrific work, couldn’t quite make the leap. And I blame me, not them. Right? Like, I was the one who was leading the charge here, I was the one who couldn’t convince them and train them and teach them to evolve into, like, a next generation version of a journalist. And so in an admission of my, like, failure, ended up having to let them go and replace them with people who actually already had this experience and understood social media packaging and framing in a new way, on top of being great writers and journalists.
And so it was a particularly sad time. But, thanks to the new team we hired, we went from something like two-ish million to five, and then six. And we sort of reached this Holy Grail that I’d heard of of the five million unique visitor mark, and that was huge for us. That helped us, like, you know, really pushed us over the edge, I think, in, like, saying, “Okay, this is a real thing, we’re a real company, people. take us seriously.” And that move is really important. And at the same time we got, I don’t want to say “lucky,” but by sort of a happy accident we ended up starting to do very well in Google Search.
Ironically we had set out to sort of be the anti-search play. We looked at what was in Google Search and we said, “This is the worst stuff ever.” And we said, “People are so sick of this, they’re going to turn to places like Facebook and like Pinterest for their health and wellness information, inspiration, frankly because, like, they’ll trust it more coming from their friends. So we’re going to be the best answer from their friends.”
And that was a good strategy, frankly, and better than I even thought. Because what happened is that Google… You know, we used to call it “skate to where the puck is going.” You still sometimes see that today. And basically, like, we were like, “What should Google be sharing?” And then you know what? Google caught up and Google actually took our stuff that was now being shared on social media and was actually really terrific and started showing it really high in the results organically. And so today, half of our traffic comes from Google Search, organic Google Search. And we don’t have, like, and SEO strategy, we just write great content.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. So you do no keyword research, no, like, link-building, nothing?
Derek: Okay, so I’m going to say we don’t, but you are going to think I’m an idiot for saying that. But it’s true.
Nathan: Yeah, wow.
Derek: In some ways we’ve sort of felt like we don’t want to play with fire. Like, we’re not dumb about the keywords. Like, you know, we know when something is trending, that, like, that’s a hot topic, so we’ll write more content on it. But we’re not, like… You know, we definitely don’t do any active, like, link building, though our content tends to be evergreen resource-driven and tends to get a lot of links. We write our content for sharing, which I think is a very strong signal, obviously, in Google. And we truly set after, like, the best piece of content. And you know what? Like, good for Google. I genuinely believe Greatist is the best answer on any topic you search for, if we’ve written about it.
And so Google’s algorithm, as it started to weed out the content farms and started to take down bad content, started to reward us better and better. Every time they do an algorithm change at Google we end up…our traffic ends up growing.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s incredible. So talk to me around volume of content. You told me that you put out four articles a day now. How has that kind of just organically progressed? When you first started, how much were you putting out? As time went on, you know, how you said that you had your first offers, how much were you putting out? I’m really curious around volume and how you’re managing it.
Derek: Yeah, something like 20 a week now. It’s like, depending on whether you count the weekends, somewhere before three to five a day.
Nathan: Yeah, wow.
Derek: We were, like, very weird about this. Like a pretty, I think… People don’t believe me about this either. We genuinely won’t produce content if we don’t think it’s great, and we don’t play any games. So we’ve had this quality over quantity angle for so long. And, by the way, I think that’s a big part of why we do so well in Google and a big part of why people… You know, if you click on an article on Greatist, and then any other article you click on is great, it changes your relationship with the brand adds to…you know, builds engagement, I think, that is very different from other places.
And so, anyway, we’re, like, very adamant about this. By the way, we don’t have a small editorial team, we’ve got, like, 10 people. You know, so what are they doing all day? And the answer is they’re writing great content. And we don’t push them or rush them in terms of, like, you have a quota of content you need to put out. And if they don’t put out great content, we fired them.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. So no quota for your editorial team? They don’t have to produce two pieces a week, three pieces? There’s no minimum, maximum?
Derek: There’s none. We have, like, general senses of how much each of our, you know, categories is going to produce every week, but we’re not, like, counting it. You know, we just have a general sense. We don’t think quantity is a metric that matters, just like I don’t think increasingly uniques and page views is a metric that matters. All these things can be gained and are not inherently valuable on their own. If you’re not trying to spam Google or spam Facebook, why are you writing 50 or 500 articles a day? Like, literally why? Nobody needs that, nobody can read that, users don’t appreciate that.
So we sort of take what everyone is doing because that’s what people do and we basically, like, flip it and we ask, “Why?” You know? And then we try to do things the right way. That doesn’t mean we don’t write content that is, you know, packaged and framed thoughtfully for Facebook. It doesn’t mean the fact that we’re starting, recently going to start writing some native, you know, native-driven articles on Facebook, where it literally just lives on Facebook. You know, we’re constantly experimenting with every one of these social platforms. We’re not, like, purists for the sake of purity, we don’t not care about our content performing, don’t get me wrong. Our belief, actually, is just the opposite. It’s that if you produce amazing content and you package it and frame it the right way, that it will heavily outperform, you know, what everyone else is doing. And sometimes we say sort of like, you know, if you had got four and five shots on goal, better make them good ones. And we take really good shots.
Nathan: When it comes to your whole content play, yeah, that’s really surprising. Because, you know, you guys do produce a lot of content. You know, 15 to 20 a week is a lot. You do want to produce more content, but it has to be of an extremely high quality.
Derek: Yeah. And I will say, you know, it’s worth saying that in my world, right? In the world of, like, online publishers most of them are producing 20, like, an hour.
Nathan: Twenty an hour?
Derek: Yeah. Oh, totally. Like, most of our peers, people you would think or I sometimes think of as our peers, you know, they’re writing… The New York Times writes 1,000… I mean I’m not saying The New York Times is a peer of ours, but The New York Times writes 1,000 articles a day.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s crazy.
Derek: You know, Refinery29, Mic, Bustle. You know, all these companies that raise a lot of money but we think of as peers, right? In the sense that they’re, like, you know, millennial-focused, relatively new companies. They produce something between 50 and 150 articles a day.
Nathan: Wow. That’s crazy.
Derek: It’s crazy.
Nathan: Yeah. So let’s take it back.
Derek: I mean it sounds crazy, but it makes some sense. That’s a lot of shots on goal.
Nathan: Yeah. So let’s take it back. How can people, you know, early stage start-ups and founders getting started, how can they use what you know to get started utilizing content? And not, you know, as a traffic play or as, you know, a great way to connect with your, like, perspective audience that you’re going after to connect people up with your product or your service.
Derek: Yeah, okay, so I think a couple things. I think first, my first advice always is a little exercise I call the Little John. Do you know that story about, like, Robin Hood?
Nathan: Yeah, of course.
Derek: You know who Robin Hood is? All right, so I’m, like, a weird, like, fantasy person, so I like that bizarre stuff. Anyway, so the Little John exercise basically starts with you with asking people, first, who is their audience, and second, what do you want them to do? And people will often answer something like, “It’s women and I want them to buy my necklace.” Right? Or let’s say, “Buy my online course.”
And so then what we do with the Little John is we first say, “Take who you think your audience is and make them as small as humanly possible.” So this is the “little” part. Like, literally so small you feel uncomfortable. And if you come out with something like, “We are for suburban mothers between 35 and 40 with one to three kids who are middle class and love the movie Must Love Dogs, love romcoms, they’ve got a dog, they’ve been thinking about getting a cat. They, you know, think a lot about spending more money on the gym. They think they need to go back to the gym, but they never really show up there.” And on and on and on. You create this, like, really powerfully specific psychographic and demographic profile.
And then you take the second thing that you’re saying, this is the “what do you want your audience to do,” and you broaden that as much as humanly possible. Oh, you thought they were buying a course? Actually they’re buying a new way to think about who they are in society and their place within it. Oh, you think they’re buying a course? Actually they’re buying something that will give them the confidence they’ve been missing since graduating high school a valedictorian. Oh, you think they’re buying a course? They’re actually learning to save so that they can go on the dream vacation they’ve always wanted.
And so you change sort of and broaden… You know, it depends, of course, on what the course is, because that won’t apply to every course. But basically the Little John takes what you’re thinking and tries to narrow and specify your audience as much as possible. Because I believe that if you’re not really relevant to someone, you’re not relevant enough to anyone. And it takes whatever you’re trying to accomplish, which is sort of… And most people, “What do you want them to do?” and most people answer that with, like, what you’re doing and it takes you to the why. Nice. This is like Simon Sinek’s Start with Why.
Derek: I don’t particularly… Okay. I have mixed feelings about Simon Sinek. But I think that the ultimate message of the why is really important. You know, it translates in a really big way.
So why do I say all that? The Little John exercise, which I think is…I’ve been saying it that way now for maybe four or five years. It’s because then the answer becomes, “What kind of content do I create? What kind of product do I build? What do I tweet?” And it just becomes so much easier. You’re creating such powerful constraints around, you know, who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to aspire them, inspire them to do. That then you can kind of create a voice that resonates with them, you can speak to them where they’re at. Right? So, you know, that’s a big part of, “All right. Well, then where are they? Where is this audience? Where is the audience that you specified very, very, very, very, in very focused way. And where are they looking for that message overall that you decided you’re bringing them?”
And so that’s literally how I approach…I would call this, you know, step one to sort of, like, marketing, much less content marketing. But I think that’s…you know, what we’ve done, I think, really well, maybe the only things we’ve done really great… And, look, I think we’ve done a lot of things very well, I think we’ve done a lot of things poorly. Like, no one is more critical, hypercritical, than I am about, like, what we can improve on. But we have done one thing really well, and that is over time increasingly narrowed who our audience target was and increasingly gotten better at communicating, like, what the mission is and what community, what identity, what ultimately, like, is our approach to what they’re taking?
Nathan: Awesome. That was gold, man. All right, so, look, we have to work towards wrapping up. I’d love to talk to you about the business model of a media company. And this is something that a lot of people, you know, say, you know, “You can’t make money,” all these kinds of things, “Publishing’s dead.” All these kinds of things. You know, at Foundr, you know, we’re profitable. You know, we’re bootstrapped and we’re growing. Definitely not as fast as you guys, but I’m really curious around your thoughts and what’s next for Greatist and how you plan to weave in your business model.
Derek: Yeah. Which is obviously an important question. Making money is apparently important. You know, we struggled with this in the early days. Basically my bet in the first three-ish years of Greatist was that we weren’t going to make any money and that I need to find an alternative way to fund it. And part of that was keeping things really, really fucking cheap. And, you know, his, like, classic kind of bootstrapping mentality. You know, we didn’t bootstrap, we raised $3.5 million the first, like, three, four years. But we really didn’t raise that much nor spend that much. You know, if you really think about it, $3.5 million over 4.5 years is not very much money for… I mean it’s a lot of money, like, in general, but it’s a small amount of money for a start-up.
Derek: And the reason for that was because I believed in the early days there was no way for us to monetize the site without compromising on our values, integrity, and long-term brand value. So everything in Greatist is long-term brand value first.
Derek: Everything. We refuse to take any short-term compromises at the cost of long-term, like, you know, brand trust. And this is really hard. Like, yeah, we would all probably agree in general that seems like it made sense. But when I got an e-cig company e-mailing me saying, “We’ll write you whatever you want. Like, whatever money you want, we’ll send it to you if you advertise us.” You know, you sit there and you’re like, “Well, I mean they’re e-cigs.” You know? Like you sit there and wonder. And it’s a hard, big, big challenge, you know, for me, not the least of which my whole team, right?
And so I will say that I think part of this, like, “we’re going to do things right” allowed us for three years just to, like, sort of breathe a big sigh of relief. And then we spent about a year trying to figure out how to monetize, and frankly did it relatively poorly. I made mistakes around the people that I hired to help me accomplish it. You know, we probably too early or the wrong way. But then around last year, you know, early last year, so over the last, let’s say, year and a half, we started to kind of figure it out.
And with the help of people who actually knew what they were doing, we started to sell what we call brand partnerships. So basically it’s a fancy form of advertising. I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t that. But it is better than that, or at least it’s, like, kind of what advertising should be. We work with a very small, select group of brands, brands that we know our audience will love and resonate with. We help them come up with a campaign, and a campaign that, you know, usually involves quite a bit of content, but isn’t just content, right?
Derek: It’s content-driven, but it can include events and, you know, social media and newsletter promotion. And can include display ads, which we try to avoid. It can involve videos. It can involve a lot of different things, but it really acts sort of like a mini ad agency creating a campaign that we know will activate and engage millennials best. You know, our pitch is like, “Look, we know 20 and 30-years-olds are trying to get healthier better than anyone on the planet.” And I believe that to be true. And then we say, “Oh, by the way, we’ve also got the largest audience and the fastest growing of them across all these platforms, too.” And so this stat becomes much more compelling when you’ve got 5, you know, now 10 million unique visitors a month. And it’s especially compelling when you have salespeople who actually know what they’re doing.
And so that’s been, you know, over the last year and a half, last year where we were profitable, mostly profitable for most of the year. This year we are not profitable, but we should be getting back to not too far from there this year. And then next year we should be profitable again. And, you know, we’re now making a not insignificant amount of money. I mean we’re a big, big business with 40 full-time people, so you can kind of do the math. I mean we are…we would never have grown if we didn’t believe that we can get back to profitability. And that’s really important to me as a mission, heart-driven founder, is to retain control. And, you know, I think it’s really hard if you’re a media company…it’s almost easy to end up spinning out of control, and then your options really dry up.
Nathan: Have you…do you guys do many events?
Derek: We don’t really. That’s something we know a lot of media companies monetize quite well off of. But because we’re a national…we’re a national site, right? I mean really international. We have a million unique visitors in the UK. I think we have something like 300,000 or 400,000 unique visitors a month in Australia, which I believe is, like, all of Australia.
Nathan: Come one.
Derek: Yeah, I’m just kidding. But it’s pretty big audience.
Derek: But ultimately we are a…you know, ultimately we’re, like, English-speaking, but really U.S.-based.
Derek: And it’s a national site. The problem with the national site thing is that that means we’re all in New York City. And so it actually tends to be hard for us to just rally New York City people. And we find that our core audience… Remember, which are really 20 and 30-year-olds who are just trying to get better, who haven’t figured it all out. We tend to find that they don’t love when we do things in New York. And it’s not that they don’t like or don’t want to be involved, it’s just they feel like it’s a little out of touch, they feel like it’s different from their lives.
So we’ve been very sort of, I would say, thoughtful about our approach there. But, yeah, we’ve done events and, you know, we’re going to be doing lots more events. But the way we want to do events is across the country, you know, and do them, like, in a big, big scale.
Nathan: And have you guys considered building some software or having some sort of, maybe not necessarily a gym membership, but some sort of recurring model or continuity for, like, premium content, like more premium content than what you’re already producing?
Derek: Oh, what an interesting idea. It sounds an awful lot like a business I’ve heard of called Foundr. No. So we will not charge for content. We tend to believe that this is, like, service journalism and that everybody should have access to science-backed, expert approved health and wellness content that’s actually fun to read and nonjudgmental and actionable and empowering.
So that’s, like, you know, it’s a mission part of our business.
Derek: We wouldn’t charge for that. But absolutely the long-term vision for Greatist has never been to be a media company. We believe media is the stepping stone to ultimately unlocking the value of our audience and we ask a lot, “What is the monthly service or subscription that people in our audience want to spend on that will actually help them get healthier?” And if I knew what the answer to that was, I would just tell you because we’d be building it and it would be very exciting. But we’re not there yet. However, it is what we’ve sort of built the business…what I’ve always envisioned the business becoming.
And, you know, in the early days of, or maybe even today we talk a lot about, like, you know, what we’re building is basically, like, the Weight Watchers of the future, not publisher, you know, of the future. And, you know, that vision is…I would say it’s a vision that has been very clear in the sense that we know we want get there, but very unclear in terms of what it might actually look like.
And so, you know, I also tend to think of businesses as build them step by step.
Derek: And we are at probably like…we’re between step three and four, out of, like, unlimited steps. It’s a very big ladder or something, I don’t know.
Nathan: Okay, awesome. So, look, we’ll wrap…work toward wrapping there, Derek, but just final words? Anything you’d like to say and also where’s the best place people can find you and Greatist?
Derek: Final things, I would say, is that, you know, I’ve got this naive belief that if you find things that are good for you that you actually enjoy doing, you keep doing them. It’s very simple, but I believe that to be the secret, if there’s any secret, to long-term health success. It is about not what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. And it’s not about being healthy, but about having a healthy attitude. Because the mindset is what’s going to keep you going and keep you committed. If you think health and wellness is something that’s gross or you don’t like, you’re probably just doing the wrong things and I encourage you to go seek out others.
In terms of where you can find more information on that, it would be at greatist.com, spelled with an “-ist.” We’re also on every social channel you could possibly imagine and we’re very easily accessible because it’s just literally spelled that way everywhere. And I am also relatively easily accessible. I do some tweeting and I am T-H-E-derek on twitter, thederek.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, look, thank you so much for your time, Derek, I really appreciate it.
Derek: Yeah. No, thank you. Thanks for your time.
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