News is a dying industry.
Or at least that’s what we’ve heard for nearly a decade. Reports say as many as 1,400 local newspapers have dried up since 2004 in the US. For a period, even giants like the New York Times were selling off assets and laying off employees.
But right when the world had given up journalism for dead, suddenly all the major newspapers are posting record subscriptions and a huge backlog of articles. But these large publications didn’t suddenly rehire their newsrooms, they started publishing more brand-funded content.
We got on a call with Noah Greenberg, CEO of Stacker – a business sourcing and creating this brand-funded content for thousands of newsrooms across the US.
Stacker compiles data from the far corners of the web and turns it into syndicated articles for major publications to republish. They also work with brands to produce journalism on their behalf and get it published by big names. The business is on track for eight figures in ARR for 2022 and has doubled in revenue every year since its creation.
Here’s the story of how the four cofounders of Stacker gave themselves a six-month timeline to create the new face of journalism in 2022.
Six Months to Get Rich
In 2017, Noah and his three co-founders, Sam Gross, Melanie Holohan, and Tommy Gamba were working for a startup called Graphiq. The emphasis here is on the “were”: Amazon acquired the company that same year.
Graphiq was a tech company that provided AI-generated visualizations of data scraped from the web. It could connect hundreds of data points instantly into over 10 billion complex graphs. Newsrooms loved it and they even landed partnerships with Reuters and The Associated Press. “While at Graphiq, we created a bunch of relationships with newsrooms across the country,” says Noah. “There are so many publications looking for well-researched third-party content right now.”
While the foursome received some equity from Graphiq’s sale, Noah says it was only enough to survive for six months. “I wasn’t buying a flat in New York City or anything,” he jokes.
Noah and his co-founders got together and agreed they would use the time and money to create their own business. “We drew a line in the sand. We said, ‘By this date, we either pay ourselves or try something else.’”
Fortunately, all four had experience launching a startup. They also knew the industry they wanted to target. “We knew there were lots of news aggregators that would pay a revenue share for content,” says Noah. “We started a small newsroom with just us and a bunch of freelancers creating news stories for these aggregators.”
The news aggregators Noah is talking about are sites like MSN or Yahoo! News that source content from all over the web to attract viewers and ad dollars. In exchange for free content, aggregators pay a portion of ad revenue to the authors.
“We knew we needed at least 20 stories a month,” Noah continues. “We hired a team of freelance writers, started syndicating the articles, and put the money back into the business.”
Around the sixth month – January of 2018 to be precise – they’d completed their goal. Stacker had profits, positive cash flow, and by summer of the same year, five interns working out of a WeWork coworking space. By 2020, the team grew to 14 full-time employees.
Noah has difficulty giving a definite number for ARR because Stacker is growing so quickly. He says three months ago, they averaged $6 million in ARR. These past three months, they’re approaching eight figures in ARR.
Stacker’s Three Revenue Streams
Noah describes Stacker as a 21st-century newswire. Newswires are subscription-based services that electronically send up-to-date news leads to publications. They’ve been around for a couple of decades now. Before email, newswires operated through fax or other proprietary systems.
“What Reuters has done for financial content we do for data journalism and evergreen stories,” says Noah. “A lot of newsrooms had to downsize their staff. That means they need more data, journalism, and features from outside sources to engage their audiences. We provide a steady flow of that. We have a 20-plus person newsroom and over 60 freelancers that produce over 150 stories a month for hundreds of news outlets across the country.”
Stacker has three sources of income. One is their original business of syndicating their articles on aggregator sites like MSN. Their second is Stacker Studio which works with marketing teams in brands to get their stories out to aggregators. Finally, they operate stacker.com, an in-house consumer-facing news site with over 2.5 million visitors a month.
For Stacker Studio, Stacker helps create stories for 50 different brands every month to send out to publishers as syndicated content. “Zillow was probably the godfather of this strategy,” Noah says. “Most brands don’t want to build out a full, in-house news operation as a marketing strategy. Instead, they can pay us to research and produce articles for them and we get them out to our partners.”
For example, Stacker will work with a brand like Sunday Citizen that wants to be associated with authoritative journalism. Stacker will write a well-researched news report for the business and then list it on its blog as an article from Sunday Citizen. The team will also put the piece out as licensed content to their thousands of partner publications.
It’s a win-win-win scenario. Brands get exposure, news sites get quality niche content, and Stacker gets paid.
To get data, the Stacker journalism team prides itself on its sources. “There is a plethora of freely available public data today,” says Noah. “We have a bunch of partnerships with several NGOs that help us source everything.”
What’s Going on in News
Noah took a moment to share some of the trends he sees in journalism today and where Stacker fits in.
“I don’t have the silver bullet for solving the media industry, but two fascinating trends are converging,” he says. “Brands increasingly want to produce quality journalism as a form of marketing, and news outlets need great third-party content more than ever. If the content they receive from brands is high quality, most news companies have no problem publishing it.”
Right now, Noah believes there’s a disconnect between what brands think news companies want and what they actually want. “Insurance companies are putting out articles like 5 Tips to Save on Your Insurance and wondering why the Chicago Tribune doesn’t want their article. Brands need to learn the types of content that do well and are valuable.”
On the publication side, Noah thinks the unsustainable VC-funded models for media from yesteryear are dying down in favor of more sustainable ones. “We saw a lot of media businesses like Buzzfeed invest in bad stuff because they needed to be big immediately. At my last company, I was at a meeting where the CEO said we were breaking even. Our investors came back and said, ‘What the hell are you breaking even for? We want you to spend the money we gave you!’
Bootstrapping has allowed us to grow at a responsible pace and make smart moves for the business.
“Bootstrapping has allowed us to grow at a responsible pace and make smart moves for the business. We want to build a sustainable company – not one with a massive valuation but no road to profit. We want to empower sustainable models for journalism.”
Making Friends With Coworkers Without an Office
Noah says Stacker’s goal is to continue doubling revenue year-over-year. He thinks this is extremely doable at their current rate – especially because they aren’t tied down by an office. They have much more money to reinvest in the business.
“We’ve got 34 people in 17 states,” he says. “If we had an office that would probably be half a million in expenses every year. It blows my mind that, until two years ago, everyone had an office as a line item. Imagine if 90 percent of companies with 34 people were paying for an office. That’s an insane amount of money to think about. For a small business, it’s incredible to not have to pay for an office.”
While he loves not having an office, Noah thinks remote businesses need to double down on making their virtual office environments great places to work in its place. “What’s important is creating a familial bond with your team without an office,” he says. “How do we make people friends with their coworkers without their office?”
Fortunately, Noah thinks choosing cofounders he had already worked with was a great move for team chemistry. “I think what’s cool about founding a company with people you’ve worked with before is you accept each other’s shortcomings and strengths. You know on day one who should be doing what task.”
Noah thinks one of the most important things he’d wished he’d known sooner was how much efficiency you can get out of hiring operational staff.
Once you’re over 10 people you get some amazing multipliers by having operational staff.
“We just now are hiring our first operations people,” he says. “I wish someone had told me there are things you shouldn’t be doing after you have at least 15 people. Once you’re over 10 people you get some amazing multipliers by having operational staff.”
The Stacker team’s story is yet another example of why working as an employee before embarking on a journey as a founder is valuable. Joining a cutting-edge startup can give you a deep look into an industry from the safety of a paycheck. It also can give you powerful connections should you choose to venture out on your own.
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