When viral, feel-good publisher LittleThings shut down in February due to circumstances beyond its owners' control, we watched many digital publishers scramble to ensure they wouldn't be next. Despite their efforts, others, including Render Media, have since shuttered. And they won't be the last. But it doesn't have to be this way.
We founded 9GAG, a digital media startup, nearly 10 years ago, and have been growing at a steady clip ever since. We received only one round of funding early on to get us off the ground, and since then, we have had no outside financial assistance. When we share that fact with our peers, they think we're lying.
Statistically, there are more media startups today than ever before, but many fold before they even get off the ground. Despite the risks, we believe all digital media startups with a loyal community have the ability to succeed as long as they work hard, evolve and stay focused on the correct course.
Below are four insights we've gleaned, based on our experiences, which can serve as a helpful guide for other digital media startups that wish to survive and thrive for the next five years (and beyond) in this ultra-competitive space.
At 9GAG, we have a saying: 'œDon't outgrow your ego.'
No matter how big you get in terms of popularity, you never want to over-engineer your process. For example, we're good at what we do and how we do it, so there's no need to make any dramatic changes. Too many startups make the mistake of immediately hiring more staff or expanding too fast following an initial round of funding, which then necessitates seeking out even more funding.
In reality, more staff isn't always positively correlated to bottom line business results.
We only make a new hire if the person can help us do something we are not currently doing. If a person quits, we don’t immediately find a replacement unless they leave a gaping hole in our operations. We believe a team should be getting more effective and efficient over time, so fewer people can still produce the same results, if not more. We don’t hire to feel good; we hire to kill pain.
This builds off the last point. To make it as a digital media startup, you need people with double-stemmed skill sets. We'd much rather have someone who can juggle multiple competencies within a department than someone who's the best at what they do but can only handle one role.
The needs may be different for an enterprise business, but when it comes to a lean, fledgling operation, the team needs to be nimble and able to multi-task. 9GAG amasses an audience of more than 150 million, but our staff is just 35 people. That's only possible because we all touch multiple parts of the business, and have done so since we started.
Today's consumer has more power than ever. Given this reality, startups in the digital media space often need to evolve to keep their users happy.
For example, according to Digiday, TheSkimm expands the range of products it recommends to readers based on the input of its Skimm'bassadors, a network of hardcore readers that it solicits feedback from regularly. This is a great exhibition of a digital media startup that prioritizes listening to its audience and not getting complacent.
Building a community and having an open dialogue with it to better understand its wants and needs is essential in this day and age.
People consume information in a variety of ways. As such, relying on one method or platform to distribute your content, no matter its effectiveness, misses the opportunity to grow your audience. Just because one group of people is part of one community doesn't mean they can't be found in other social or digital watering holes.
As a digital media startup, it's paramount that you get to know your community more intimately and how they diversify their time across platforms and devices. This will ensure you're focused on the most important destinations to your audience. If Google or Facebook shuts down tomorrow, would your startup cease to exist? If your answer is yes, you need to rethink your distribution approach.
Digital media is evolving at breakneck speeds. That's why it's important to have this bedrock of principles in place to withstand the inevitable changes that lie ahead. Because we all know change will be the only constant of the next five years.
Good luck out there.
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