Building A Digital Media Company: Elite Daily, Mashable, Mogul, Spoon University

Four important players in the content publishing world were present at Tech Press Meetup’s event, Building A Modern Media Business: Elite Daily, Mashable, Mogul, Spoon University this Wednesday, February 17, 2016.


The guest speakers:

Moderated by J.J. Colao of Haymaker, the event began with the guests explaining how they started their company; that is, how they were able to come up with the idea of even starting one, let alone go through the motions of funding it and generate revenue.

Miguel Burger-Calderon of Elite Daily was the first to tackle the question. According to Burger-Calderon, Elite Daily started around February 2012. He explained that traditional publishers were moving to digital, but none were addressing millennials.

“There were digital publications that did cater to millennials,” Burger-Calderon said. “But they were very niche.” Millennials, from what Burger-Calderon said, treasure their individuality above all else, so they set out to build a content platform that would be able to corral that and be different from the pack.

Miguel Burger-Calderon
Miguel Burger-Calderon

“In the beginning, we were very male-focused,” Burger-Calderon admitted. “We called ourselves ‘The Voice Of Gen-Y’ and we were only targeting men. That’s when we started expanding to include more women. We have more female writers — our traffic is mostly female. We’ve found them to be more engaging and more active in sharing.” Building up Elite Daily, Burger-Calderon was able to fill a gap between “traditional journalism” and millennial-focused content with “authenticity.”

It started with a promise. Tiffany Pham, the founder of MOGUL, which now sees 18 million visitors a week, promised her grandmother that she would carry on her legacy of her role as a publisher for people who needed it the most: the needy, the impoverished, the undereducated. Pham quickly rose through ranks in the digital media world, eventually becoming the right-hand (wo)man at CBS, where she was able to co-found new ventures with partners, and learn more about the industry as a whole.

Tiffany Pham
Tiffany Pham

Pham caught the attention of many when she made it to Forbes 30 Under 30. “That’s when everything blew up,” she said. “Girls asked me how they could develop a path to success like I had. I answered as many as I could every night, then I realized, why not develop a platform where I could address their questions on a bigger scale?” That’s when Pham took to learning Ruby on Rails at 3AM in the morning, after her day job to come up with MOGUL’s publishing platform. MOGUL launched to one million users, which to Pham, “was completely unexpected.”

To Pham, MOGUL accomplished three things: it removed switching back and forth between websites like Cosmo and Glamour — in other words, MOGUL was the all-in-one content platform for dating advice, career advice, how-tos, and the like. Two, it was all about product. And three, it focused her on the mission: enabling women to connect to one another.

Sarah Adler started Spoon University when she attended Northwestern University. “We realized we really needed to learn how to cook when we lived in our first off-campus house,” she joked. “My co-founder Mackenzie and I were barely-functioning adults, and we burned our first meal. We found out a lot of our friends had similar experiences.”

Sarah Adler

Spoon University came to fruition first in the form of a print magazine. “We printed recipes and got restaurants together so students could sample their dishes; we even held a guacamole competition between 30 of our friends. The operation involved about 100 people. Then we were contacted by other universities. NYU was one of the first. Now we have over 120 chapters all across the United States.”

The conversation shifted to business models as moderator Colao asked the panelists how media companies operate as a business, specifically with their content models and production of content.

“There’s a big difference between traditional publishers and digital publishers,” Heidi Moore of Mashable said. “Capturing audience is the primary challenge right now for all publishers. In traditional journalism, editors were the ones with ‘the intuition.’ They were the ones that ‘knew’ what story would do well and what wouldn’t. With social media these days, people will just tell you what they thought about your story.”

“Publications are chasing millennials. If you’re not reaching people, then what are you doing?”

She explained that journalism has to evolve differently. “Publications are chasing millennials,” she said. “If you’re not reaching people, then what are you doing?” Moore added that regular practice of observing data analytics and social metrics should be kept. “You should be checking your social verticals and making sure you have your eyes on what goes up. Human curation matters,” she said.

“The best thing about digital is that you’re fitting content into what’s appropriate. The Internet is a visual medium and we need to engage that whether in .GIF form, videos, or pictures.”


Moderator Colao took the opportunity to shift gears to talk about content growth. According to him, Forbes switched to the contributor model to generate inexpensive content. “How are your companies reacting to that?” he asked.

“We see our system as different,” Adler said. “Well, it’s structured differently, but it’s a lot like Medium in that it looks beautiful and you can create a space where you can publish next to famous people. You’re able to express your thoughts and that’s the best way.”

Spoon University is about cultivating content about food. Adler knows food is a social experience, so she helps spread articles about the latest and best food. “We help build systems — we call it our ‘secret sauce.’ It’s like a Code Academy in that you learn how to work the platform and build and cultivate communities.”

Pham sees content being everywhere. “We see proliferation of content from everyone. Brands will become media companies. And it’s really about having an authentic voice and being able to engage with the audience.” She also believes that personalization plays a large role in helping to develop the brand and further differentiate yourself from the pack. “The information you put into our system gets filtered and your feed is personalized to your identity.”

As for Elite Daily, Burger-Calderon revealed that they have over 12,000 contributors along with a couple of full-time in-house writers. “We raised around $2 million before getting acquired. That wasn’t a bad thing. We wanted to build it from the ground up with some cash flow. We used the contributor model because we wanted to have people passionate about the brand come aboard. The first people published on Elite Daily were our family and friends. We also did a lot of recruiting in Syracuse, then we eventually spread it to other college campuses. We now have college club programs, which are accredited.”

In regards to the content themselves, Burger-Calderon had this to say. “You can trick people into clicking, but you can’t trick them into sharing. It’s all about engagement. We have this thing that we say: ART — authentic, raw, transparent.” He also explained that Elite Daily writers and editors are data informed, not data driven. He went on to say that their writers are not only writing for themselves, but also for the brand — after all, quality is evident in articles written just for traffic hits vs. articles written based on passion.

Heidi Moore
Heidi Moore

To Moore, quality is important — especially the quality of clicks and engagement time. “If you’re doing something good, it should be growing,” she said. “We have an algorithm-based homepage on Mashable. It puts the onus on us to publish quality articles that people want to read. It’s a core part of what journalists should be doing.” She quickly went on to explain how Mashable monetizes from content. “We use branded content and advertising. I will say that Internet advertising is broken. No one is going to wait for it to be fixed. You just have to keep changing with it.”

With that, the conversation moved towards finding other advertising models optimized for the Internet.

“The way Elite Daily does it,” Burger-Calderon said, “well, we did programmatic for a while. We never did pre-roll. Everyone hates it, and bad user experience means no traffic.” He explained that the team wanted to create something they were proud of, something that would reach a high number of millennials because it was unique. “Right now, branded content speaks to us. We do this through native articles and we think about this as attribution vs. thematical.”


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