There's been lots of talk lately about why brands should think like, and even become, media companies. But how do you actually build a media company?
This week on The Inbound Success Podcast, Frank Gruber shares the story of how he created Tech Cocktail and eventually transformed it into TechCo, a startup-focused media company that was recently acquired.
From how to develop and grow and events business to the best way to build a robust content engine and strategies for building an audience, Frank covers in detail the strategies and tactics he used to transform TechCo from a scrappy grass roots network of startup founders into a thriving media business.
Listen to the podcast to learn more about Frank's journey with TechCo and what he advised the big brands that he consults with today on when it comes to thinking like a media company.
Frank Gruber (guest): Thank you, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Frank and Kathleen recording this episode
Kathleen: Yeah. For those people who are listening, I have been chasing Frank down for weeks if not months to get him on this podcast-
Kathleen: -because, selfishly ... No, no, no. It's worth the wait. Selfishly, I have been wanting to pick your brain because you are somebody I met several years back in a networking group and in the time since, you grew TechCo quite a bit as a media platform, exited, and now you have a new company.
But the reason I was excited to interview you is that I'm at IMPACT, and really, my main focus is transitioning us from an agency-first brand and business model, to a publisher or media company-first model.
There's so much I want to learn from you and I'm super excited to dig in, but before I do that, tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your background and how you came to be where you are right now.
Frank: Sure. Yeah, sure. I have kind of a product background to begin with.
Years ago, I was doing product development for bigger brands like AOL and Tribune - a lot of it very content driven.
I got into content and was one of the really early bloggers out there and had a site called Somewhat Frank and was a first contributor for Tech Crunch and then started a company called Tech Cocktail.
The whole idea behind Tech Cocktail was to better connect and amplify the local communities that were out there. As you saw a rise of these different communities where there were startups happening and not a lot happening to kind of tell the story.
So more or less, I started doing events, which turned into an online component, where we started TechCo and we grew that audience over the last decade from zero to millions of readers all around the world.
Then, just recently, this last January, it was acquired by an international publisher.
So, it's been quite a journey. A decade "instant success" or whatever you want to call it.
Frank: Along the way there was a lot of ups and downs and, obviously, we learned a ton because we were really pulled into the direction that we went, because it really started as very much a grassroots thing, and side hustle for me, because I was doing product development for AOL and Tribune, at the time.
So yeah, here we are now, and I've kind of transitioned out of TechCo, and that's kind of running, and continuing to grow, and I've got a new company called Established, which is more or less helping brands with innovation slash startup programs. Helping them to better connect and create that innovation which is tough to do internally at big companies, and so we're helping kind of take some of the tools that we learned ... tools, and kind of lessons learned from building a media company, and taking those things, and now putting them onto a bigger stage with some of these larger brands, and helping them along the way, too.
So, that's what we've been up to.
Kathleen: That's great, and what I was particularly struck by, when you and I spoke about doing this interview, was that we're kind of navigating two different sides of the same coin.
So in my case IMPACT has a long history as an agency, and we're trying to build this media company, and now you're really transitioning into an agency model. I think if we met in the middle, we would have the Wonder Twin powers.
Frank: That's so true. And it's funny, I mean it's such a convergence right now, and that's what we started to see when we were at TechCo, we were actually behind the scenes, doing more or less agency type work, for brands.
And some of those clients we were able to continue to work with, with Established, you know, the folks that acquired TechCo wanted to continue to grow that media component, not so much muddy the water with the different components of creating a, more or less a consultancy, plus running and growing a media company.
It's interesting. We're seeing that across the board.
You're seeing agencies acquire, or grow, media arms and vice versa. So I think it's really interesting to see, and now we're trying to help some of those bigger guys, now, with the different tactics we learned along the way.
Kathleen: Yeah, in our case, we were very much inspired by the two Joe Pulizzi books, Content Inc. and Killing Marketing. Joe was the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, and he's written these books and Killing Marketing is about why you should actually start as a media brand, kind of like you did, and build an audience, and then you're audience will essentially tell you what your product should be through the feedback you're getting.
Kathleen: Yeah, and if you create products that come out of that feedback, you're almost guaranteed to succeed. As opposed to the other way around, which is the way most of us do it, where we build the products, and then we're like, "Well geez, now I need to build an audience," so I thought that was pretty interesting.
Frank: No, it's so true, it's more or less ... that's how we believe, too.
So we started by hosting events to showcase startups all around the country. And we, at one point, were doing 100 events.
It's very much a grassroots movement, where we gathered hundreds of thousands of people together, over the course of a year, and more or less we were building this groundswell. And that was our Petri dish of people that we could just send and say, "Okay what is our next thing?"
That's how it kind of turned into a media company, is we started producing content, and going that direction, and so I can totally see that. It's all about building that audience, and once you have an audience, you're able to do a lot. You can build a media company, or you could build a product, or you could offer other services, or whatever it is you're trying to do.
That's the thing. Bottom line, we all had the opportunity to do that. Whether it be through this, or through a podcast, or through an online blog, or whatever.
Kathleen: That's so true, and that's what we're telling all of our clients, is that you need to think like a media company to really be successful at marketing. It's kind of table stakes now.
From Tech Cocktail to TechCo
Kathleen: What I would love to do is rewind the clock back to the very, very early days of Tech Cocktail, and I want to start just by asking how did you get people to these events?
If you're starting with events, the holy grail is butts in seats, whether those are real seats, or virtual seats, or what have you. But, especially because you did events in different cities, how did you get that word out, and what was your grassroots engine?
Frank: Right, yeah. So I think to begin with, it started very simply as a local thing.
It was Chicago, and D.C., and then a couple other cities, and that was it, and it was really focused on getting that local word out.
For that, we were leveraging our own networks. This is 2006, 2007 timeframe, so if you think about it, there wasn't the social movement. That was just the beginning, right? Of Web 2.0, and the social movement, so ... haven't heard Web 2.0 in a while.
So more or less, we were leveraging that wave to be able to get the audience to come out, and so, yes it was a lot of little things, like blocking and tackling, or whatever, but also it was the opportunity now, that there were only a few people on Twitter, and there were only a few people using LinkedIn, and there were only a few people using YouTube, and some of those other technologies, and we leveraged those to grow an audience organically.
And so I think that's how we started. Once we started getting into the situation where we were actually doing events all over the country, there weren't those advantages ... 'cause at that time, I think that was an advantage, to use those tools, and obviously time's moved, and things change, and so we had to continue to be flexible, and change as well, and so we started leveraging email as well.
We started a big push towards notifying people via email newsletters and things like that in their local area. So, very hyper local about the next event that's coming to Detroit, or Denver, or whatever.
I think that was a big part of our success as well, was we were able to get to people's inboxes, and I still feel like that's one of the number one places that you connect with people.
Even with all the Snapchats and the Instagrams, or whatever, out there, I think that email's still pretty powerful. And so I think that's what we were able to leverage.
And then also, just connecting with our networks, and being able to do the, "Hey, we're coming to town," every time we did it, and kind of connect with the right people.
I think where it got really difficult was when we started to do back to back to back. We were literally at one point doing events every single week, maybe sometimes in different cities.
Frank: And that got to be tougher, because it's harder to duplicate the efforts, even if you create systems or whatever, you miss things, right? You can't do the same kind of VIP treatment that you would on every single event, and that's where it got really difficult. And we learned from that, so obviously scaled it back, and continued on our efforts on the online side.
But, we also learned that as that was happening, everyone was creating spaces. Like there was now hubs in every market, like the 1871s in the world popping up, and accelerators in every single market, which didn't exist 10 years ago.
And so all these different places were already converging people, and so the point of bringing the events together, and bringing people together was to create that convergence, and create the collisionable moments that happen and there's still a need for certain kind of events that connect people, but it was becoming table stakes, in that there was stuff happening everywhere, so we started to scale back the events, and really push towards the online component, when we saw that happening.
And I think it was the right move for us, and ultimately, we were able to move all our offline events into an online program called Startup of the Year, which we're actually still running, to better showcase startups from all around the country.
Kathleen: Now is that, that's an awards program?
Frank: Yeah, it's a program that tries to find the most interesting companies all over. It's very inclusive.
We look for really diverse startup founders, as well as teams, and geographically diverse as well.
So yeah, it was basically our kind of community slash events program, that we were doing forever as Tech Cocktail, and we rebranded as Startup of the Year, and we're continuing to push ahead with that. It's about a ten month program.
Kathleen: And how do you identify those startups? Do you have a network, or are they applying?
Frank: Yeah, so they're applying. It's a little bit of everything again. So similar tactics, in that we were leveraging emails before, we're still now leveraging emails. We were able to continue the email focus from Startup of the Years past, as well as our personal networks, as well as reaching out to different local community leaders.
We're part of something called the Startup Champions Network, which is basically ecosystem builders in every market, and we partnered with them, as well, and more or less, trying to find those local community leaders that can help spread the word is a big part of it, but also, we're still leveraging social.
There's certain components of social that work really well. Some that we used in the past that worked great don't work as well anymore. It's interesting to see that trend.
We even saw a trend in things like Facebook, which for a long time was driving a significant amount of interest, and whatnot, and engagement, and now it's gone to pay. You can't really get anything found unless you pay, and so that's totally different.
Think about when we first started using Facebook. It wasn't that way. Things bubbled up and you were able to find things.
Now the first thing they offer you is, "Oh, would you like to boost this?" You know? And you're like, "Well, no! I posted it, I thought that was all I needed to do!"
So now you're seeing more people throw more money towards that effort, in a really strategic way, too, there's even companies that do it. I don't know if this is a thing you want to talk about or not, but there are literally companies that are paying for the demographics that they want, by leveraging companies that will get it for them via paid advertising on Facebook.
So, you're a media company, and you wanna connect with the millennials of the world, you can literally pay your XYZ company, I'm not gonna name names, to get that exact traffic, and pay them thirty grand a month to do that.
So, very eye opening.
To me, I started to realize, there is just nothing pure in this world anymore. Literally.
Kathleen: So true.
Frank: Everything's pay, so it's funny to see that, and it was kind of a big lesson for us to learn, 'cause we were very organic in our growth and promotions and everything, and started to realize that, "Wow, there's a lot of people paying for this."
Kathleen: No, we always say marketers ruin everything, and I think it's really true.
So, going back one more time, you mentioned you had all these events in different cities, and you were leveraging your personal network. So did you actually have either team members, or brand ambassadors in these different locations? How did you handle covering all that territory?
Frank: We didn't. We didn't have people in each market At first, we would literally go around the country, almost like touring, to each city, and as before we did, we'd reach out to anybody we knew in that local market, and connect with them ahead of it. And that worked for a while.
Then once we started get the point where we were doing events in a ton of cities, that didn't scale anymore, so we basically created an ambassador network, right? We created a group of people, locally, that were our eyes and ears on the ground, carrying the, at the time, the Tech Cocktail, then TechCo flag, and continued to basically help create the events, get the excitement around them, and get people, obviously, to attend.
And so we had some great brand champions in Albuquerque, and Boise, and all these different, Detroit, all these different cities along the way, and that really helped us a ton.
At this point, to be able to scale to every market, and have people locally, I mean you need ... first off, you need a Groupon or LivingSocial sized sales force, when they were at their peak, right? When they were literally selling locally to be able to host these events to get them to be covered.
And then you also need the other side of it, which is the marketing side, to get people to know about it.
So, I think that wasn't, for us, scalable. We hadn't raised any funding to do that, and we didn't raise funding for quite some time, actually. We boot strapped for six years, and eventually took funding, and that's when we were able to scale it a little bit more, but we felt like that approach of having local people on the ground that were full time people, was just not a scalable thing for us. It's just too capital intensive.
So we started with, okay, we've got a head of marketing slash events that then would manage of an army, more or less, of our ambassador network. And then that's kind of the approach we took.
Some markets worked great, others didn't.
I mentioned some of the high, like shining stars, and already some of the cities that did great work, and some, they did great for a while, then they got kind of pulled in, because of life, and work, and everything else, and so we had to continue to try to find their backups, right? And continue to refresh that network, which ultimately was a full time job, because you were constantly trying to find and refresh, people are changing roles, and having babies, and moving, and doing all these things all the time, and so it was difficult to keep a hold of, unless you had one person, or two people, working on that continuously. More or less community development, right? And continue to manage it.
And how did you structure that brand ambassador program? Because I would imagine that there has to be something in it for them, otherwise you can't really rely on them.
Kathleen: Any advice there?
Frank: No, we tried everything. Every kind of setup you could. Because we didn't know. We were going into it blind, like, "How do we scale this? How do we get people on board, and continue to maintain the heart, right? And in it for the right reasons, right?
So we struggled a little bit, to try to figure that out, and we tried a number of different attempts, and ultimately ones that worked the best were ones that just wanted to do it because of the good of the community or whatever.
It's hard to find those people all the time. Especially in every market. And the ones that were doing that were now ... things started to be created, new things. So all of a sudden there was startup weeks, and there were startup weekends, and there were XYZ, whatever, meetups.
So people that were those doers started to get consumed with all these things, and so we were, in some markets, we were really early, and others we weren't, so more or less we had to figure out, "Okay, what's the carrot that gets these people motivated and want to be a part of it?"
And in many cases, the ones that were our best were just in it for the love of their local community and wanted to do the best thing they could.
We actually started a pay model, where we literally were paying. "Okay, you go raise the money for it, and keep it. We don't care." We just wanted to do the event.
So there was all these different challenges with that program, because we iterated and iterated and iterated, and interestingly, we ultimately, at the end of the day, said, "Okay, do you want to continue to do this kind of thing? We're not doing events anywhere all around the country, like we were, anymore, so if you want to continue to do it, do it, if you don't, that's okay."
And it's funny, the ones that were in it for the love of the game, continued, and the rest were like, "We're done," kind of thing. And that was okay.
We turned everything to an online competition, with a big culmination event at the end of the year, called Innovate Celebrate, which is coming up here in Boston in October. So things change, we had to continue being flexible. We did this for over a decade. So, if you think about what has happened-
Frank: There's no iPhone when we started. Like, think about that. Like ... it's nuts. And so, it wasn't that long ago-
Kathleen: It's amazing. It's amazing how much it's changed.
Frank: Right. Exactly. So-
Frank: This was like, at the beginning, a place of convening people, and then ultimately, that got created by a lot of different things, you know, with the different social networks, and different mobile apps, and everything else. So, we kind of continue to evolve, and we had to as we continue to grow.
Kathleen: Now, let's just talk a little bit about the online media platform because you really built out a publisher site, or at least that's what it looked like from the outside, 'cause I spent some time on the site.
There's a lot of great content on there.
Can you talk me through ... You mentioned how you started. You started recognizing that people were creating spaces online all the way through to what it became.
Frank: We had our own team to begin with, right? To begin with, we were writing all the content. At one point early on, 2010, up to ... we started in '06. So up to 2010, I was even writing up to five articles a day, which ...
That was right when we first started doing it full-time. It took a while to be a full-time thing, and then we started ... remember hiring our first editor because I was like, "I need help managing all this." And then that turned into, "Okay, we need more writers." And at a certain point we had 10 or so writers and editors doing their thing and covering a lot of content and producing a ton.
But then we realized like, in the media space, it's never enough. Even if you're a very niche publication, you still ... We got kind of pulled into from the offline events piece where it was very sponsorship driven, we got pulled into, "Okay. Now how do we generate revenue online?" Right? Because we're now doing most of our stuff online.
And so, yes there's Google advertising, and there's all these different components out there that you can do to kind of generate revenue, affiliate is one of them.
All that stuff is very driven by numbers. You need to have an audience - a huge audience to be able to make it work right. Or a very niche audience that is looking for exactly what you're offering.
And so our content was so spread across startups, and innovation, and across cities, right? So it was very broad as far as that goes, but very much focused on innovation and tech. And there's a lot of that kind of content. And so, we were trying to really differentiate in the local space, and so, in the local space we were trying to continue to cover these things as the heartbeat in a lot of the local communities.
Anyway, long story short, we got pulled into content and content marketing. And so we started to work with different larger brands that we were working on, on the offline stuff in the events, and they were like, "What else do you have? What else can you offer? And how could we reach a bigger audience?"
And so we started working with them on some of our first content-marketing pieces, and didn't even know what it was at first ourselves. We were just like, "Well, we're going to just start writing the content, and it'll be brought to you by you, and it's gonna be similar content, but it'll be about this topic or whatever topic we decide, and we can do a whole series."
And I still remember some of the first meetings with our team like, "What are we gonna do? How much are we charging?"
But we figured it out, right? So we figured out what we should do, what's kind of the going rate, and ultimately, we were able to work with a number of bigger advertisers that we already worked with on events, and continue to extend that relationship online.
And it turned into yearly contracts. In some cases it started as like, "Okay, here's a 10-article series for X amount." And now it's like, "Okay, now we're going to do a full year of content about this." We'll kind of space it out. And at one point, I think we had one that was like 54 articles. I'm like, "Wow. That's amazing. That's a really long deal."
So, it was exciting and that's kind of the direction we ended up and ended up going, and we learned a lot about that along the way. But what we learned also is that, even with that, you're continually under this gun of how do we show metrics? So we had to find a metrics tools that showed not just like page views, engagement, and a lot more ... the answer if you're not CNN.com or something like that, right?
Like we were trying to compete in so much space with them, as well as even some of the social networks are doing similar things than ... Basically, we were competing with everyone for attention, right?
And so, but this was very niche kind of content. So more or less, it was a game where we always had to get bigger and grow and grow and grow, and we leveraged a lot of tools. Facebook was one of them. Twitter was one of them to begin with.
I think one of the hidden gems out there is Flipboard. I don't know if you're familiar with it. If you're doing content, you should be on Flipboard because it can really engage a lot more users that don't even ... you may not even realize they're out there.
Everyone's on their phone all the time and they offer really great interface to flip almost like an RSS reader, but a beautiful interface.
Frank: There's a lot of tools like that, that are out there that we kind of continue had to evolve and find because as you continue to grow, you always are trying to find more eyeballs, more or less, and as you try to compete with the larger folks out there.
Kathleen: So you talked about how you were going to be able to demonstrate value to your sponsors and your advertisers.
Kathleen: And kind of the different metrics that are out there to measure that, and I'm curious, when you would enter into conversations with prospective sponsor advertisers, what did those conversations revolve around in terms of, hey, this will be a successful partnership if what, for them? Is it if we get X number of leads, or was it engagement, or was it page views? What were those companies looking for from you?
Frank: It was a mix, and that's we, we worked kind of backwards. So based on goals.
So a brand may want to just have a great series of content out there about personal branding, right? And they wanted that because it was in line with the campaign that the were doing. Right?
And so we worked backwards, like how do we create great content that fits our audience, that resonates well, is going to get great engagement? And we created a whole content calendar around how that would work.
And then that's what we would present. Like, "Okay. This is what we're gonna do. This is what we think's gonna work. And it's gonna tie back to your campaign which is all about personal branding because that's your latest campaign or whatever." And that's just an example, but you get the idea.
So then in the bottom of it, we would say, "Okay. This is brought to you by XYZ personal branding, blah, blah, blah, and link back if you want more information."
So obviously those links were important to the brands, but at the end of the day in many ways, the minute that they're reading the content, and if there's some way that ... Sometimes we would incorporate the brand that were actually the sponsor of that content, and a lot of times you wouldn't, though. It just felt like we didn't need to, right, because they were already included in this brought-to-you-by kind of capacity.
So, it just depended on what they were trying to do.
We didn't love doing the content marketing that was to drive leads to a lead-gen form kind of thing like that as much. It was harder to do. Harder to measure. The audience that we were getting weren't sure if they were going to do that or not. It depended, you know.
And we didn't want to be held to like, "Okay. We need to get XYZ brand to get this many signups," right? Or whatever. That made my heart race just even talking about it, like, I don't want to.
Because ultimately, the minute we put that out there, we wrote that content for them about that specific thing or about that whatever it was, we already wrote the kind of the advertisement content for them in some ways. It wasn't. I mean, it was great content regardless, but we wrote almost like the advertisement piece if you were looking at it in line with like, "We're going to create a commercial," right? Well, the commercial is the content at this point. And we already created that for them which has value.
So that's where, as a smaller, you know when I say smaller, we still had millions of readers, but smaller compared to the TechCrunches of the world or maybe CNN Money, or I don't know what their traffic is, but ... or Box. That's a good example, right? Verge. But they've also raised millions of dollars, like hundreds of millions of dollars. We did not. We raised two and a half.
And so more or less, we were trying to compete in that same space, and the way to work in that space was more or less to add as much value. So we were trying to create the content, and then offer them the content to use. Like, if they wanted to use the content on their own site, they could feel free. We don't care. It's great.
So we were almost like, in some ways, a content agency for them, and doing that allowed them to then use it in other ways. It tied in with the campaign that they had. They were getting online traffic and awareness from just being out there on Tech.co at the time, and then more or less, it was a better offering than a lot of the other folks were offering.
Kathleen: Now that's really interesting. So, you had these partnerships, and it sounds like what you were selling is you creating the content for them and then publishing it, but also giving it to them to do what they wanted.
Were there cases where you had sponsors or advertisers who came and said, "We want to do a five article series, but we want to create the content and give it to you for publication?"
Frank: We have, and we worked with them on that. And we would actually have obviously final editorial approval on everything on what it would look like, but in that situation, that was even difficult to us, if they were good writers, and had great content. A lot of them did.
Frank: So, the tough part of that was when they didn't have great content. And that-
Kathleen: That's why I'm asking.
Frank: Now we had an awkward conversation to have, because you're like, "Well, this isn't gonna necessarily fit for our audience because the ... you know." So you kind of have to be up front and say, "Okay. We're going to have to rework this." And we did, and that was the only way we could get it published on our site 'cause it wouldn't make sense ...
Not to mention, we were really focused on making sure everything that was on Tech.co was very authentic in voice, and didn't rub our audience the wrong way, because our audience was our gold, right? That was what we had, and had to offer.
And so, yes they were paying for the content, but they also were paying for this very engaged audience globally. So it was a mix, right? So they were getting a little bit of, almost like a value-add for being able to leverage the content in other ways as well.
Kathleen: Now did you have, for the non-sponsored content portion of your site, did you have outside contributors who wrote for you, or was it all staff writers?
Frank: Yeah. When we started with a paid staff, we realized that that was really hard to scale faster and grow. We got to the point where like, okay, now we've got to like ... How do we grow from here to here? How do we do that quickly?
And so what we did, we started our contributor network which is similar to our ambassador network, but it was online, and it was writers.
And so, we ... I don't know if you want to call it a mistake or whatever, we opened it up very quickly, and said, okay. We're going to put it out there, and got thousands of people to apply. We had so many writers, we didn't know what to do with them.
And so then we had to reign it back in, and I think at the end of it, they don't have a contributor network anymore at TechCo because this is a lot to manage. Like now you've got a whole group of people that you're managing, and they're constantly asking about, "When is this going to get published," and "How is that going to go?" And you're going back and forth.
So we had a whole team that managed that component of it. We had about a hundred and something writers at the end which were really solid and we could kind of depend on.
And it would also go in spurts, kind of similar to what I was saying with the ambassador program. Some would write for a long time, and then all of a sudden, life happens. You know? And now they're like, "Well. I gotta take a break for a second." But these were all unpaid writers. They were doing it for the love of the game, to have bylines out there, and to be able to contribute. Some were local focused, some were national focused, some were focused on just the thing that they're really good at, and some were even about brand marketing and things like that. It just depended on what they were interested or excited about.
And so, we accept a lot of contributors, but one of the things we had to watch out for is fake people, actually. We had a fake people problem, and I think the Internet does.
It's still, in this day and age there are ... I don't know how many times you get these, but I get some random Facebook friends lately, and they're not real. You can go back and trace it. They're using someone else's picture. We've had people use other peoples' pictures. We've had people ...
You know there was a lot of that kind of stuff happening, and we basically had to really hone that network into, "Okay. We're going to get on a Skype call with you, and find out if you're real." And we're going to have to pass that test, and then work with them to make sure that these are all real. And that was a lesson learned, and obviously we quickly removed any of the content that we found was not real.
Kathleen: Yeah. It's interesting. We're in the early days of creating a contributor program, and definitely learning as we go. We have some contributors who are just rock stars. They're great writers. They're super reliable. And then we have others who are really smart but maybe take more handholding to get their articles to the point where they're ready for publication.
And so, I've been working with my head of editorial content on how do we ... Let's look at the value we're getting vs. the time we're putting in, because in some cases it's just not worth it.
Frank: Right. So the company that acquired TechCo, they did that analysis.
The company's called MVF Global. Great company out in the UK. If you haven't heard of them, they're growing like crazy. And more or less, they were trying to build this media arm, and that's why they acquired TechCo.
But they did that analysis, and they're like, well, it doesn't make sense. Right? We're going to be going in this direction, and we know what direction we're going to go in. It was a staff of people managing that from our side.
We looked at it, as a funded company, and our goal is growth, right? Continued growth. And the best way to do that in the most capital-sensitive way, was to do it this way, right, and have these unpaid contributors that we're managing vs. having ... If we had to pay 100 contributors to write for us, that was just not the move to do. And so, it just made sense.
And so I think, it just depends on your situation. If you have the time and effort, and you want to be able to do that, manage that group, then it makes sense. And if your goals are growth.
But if it's a specific voice ... 'cause you're going to have now a lot of different voices, and a lot of different opinions about what should be going out and what shouldn't. And we even had some that we had to kind of pull back because they were too critical about certain companies we liked, or brands that we ... These are not all op eds.
Now in this day and age, with political stuff, we're like, "Whoa. We can't, we're gonna have to keep an eye on that stuff as well." So it does open up just a Pandora's box of things you need to watch, watch out for, man.
Kathleen: Yeah. Now you mentioned that your kind of North Star was growth, and as a media company, I know I'm not telling you anything you don't know. Obviously growth is synonymous with audience size, subscriber base, like especially owned audience. Can you talk a little bit about what some of the most effective levers were for subscriber growth for you guys?
Frank: Yeah. To begin with events, right? We were able to get folks coming to something and they were super engaged in their local community. They were super engaged with our brand. They were an army of people locally that loved, at the time, Tech Cocktail, and then TechCo, and they would come out anytime we shined the Tech Cocktail symbol up there like the bat symbol, right, whatever, right?
We started offering a number of different things that would grow us that subscriber base. Everything from reports ... We had some of the first ever reports about accelerators, we ranked the startup accelerators out there, and that was kind of first-to-market thing.
Now you'll see like Forbes, and some of these others, already doing that. It's been almost six, seven years now, or maybe even longer since we first put our first one out there. And so you're seeing a lot more folks do that, so that doesn't necessarily make for a great report anymore.
But as we started seeing folks do that, we started saying, "Okay, what other resources can we offer?" And so we started really trying to focus on online resources that offered value outside of just the regular articles that we were putting out. And then obviously, we traded the resource for their email address, and grew our audience. So we did a lot.
That was kind of our growth strategy after the events, because the events became really capital intensive and time intensive, and not able to scale. There's only 365 days a year. We can only do 365 events and keep our sanity. Yes, you could do multiple events on multiple days. We did it. It was insane. But I wouldn't recommend that, especially if you only have a core team of ... a smaller core team.
So I just think that, in this day and age, if you do the online kind of resource play and offer something of value, you can actually grow an audience that way.
I would even, today, say with the platforms that are out there, things like Instagram are a great place to start.
In some cases, you don't even need a website. It's crazy these days. You could literally start with an Instagram account with a "subscribe" link in your bio, or something like that, and grow that way. You may not get as much traction. It depends on how good you are at Instagram.
But ultimately ... 'Cause it's not like you're off every photo. You're like, "Oh! That's resource." No, it's not. It's just a picture. So, it may be hard to get people to go back.
So, that's where it's like at the end of the day, if we could create something that was valuable to someone, so the exchange is a one-to-one? You know, information for your email? That's the best way to do it, in my opinion.
Some other things? Events. Obviously, if you can do them in a larger scale. We did some large things in DC with ... I don't know if you remember Digital Capital Week. We did that festival for three years with iStrategy Labs. And that grew ... You know, we had 10,000 attendees.
So, that grew an audience locally of support, that knew about us, and what we were up to, and follow ... Some of them, you know, joined in the file, the content that we were putting out after that? So, that was another kind of strategy.
And then, I think, just in general it was a ... We were focused on doing things that would create a sharable moment, or a way that we could engage somebody later with some kind of a resource. I mean, really, that's what we were focused on at the end. And that the strategy, obviously, I'm not with TechCo anymore. I should mention that early. I've transitioned out. So, their strategy now, I don't know what it is, but it's different. And that's totally fine.
So, more or less, I'm speaking from when I was with TechCo up until we sold the company in December of 2017. So.
From TechCo to Established
Kathleen: Now, you mentioned earlier that these days you might not even need a website to be successful. So, you've sold TechCo. You've now started Established, where you're advising bigger brands on how to leverage this media, or publishing approach, in order to grow.
If you were to try to start this all over again today, in the world we live in right now, which is really different-
Kathleen: ... how would you do it? And like, what do you tell your clients? I'm curious. 'Cause it is, it's a completely different game these days.
Frank: It is! I mean, it's a lot harder, in my opinion. It's harder and easier, if that makes sense.
It's harder because there's ... Back when we started, there wasn't as much noise. Now, there's so much. Like, there is so much content. I mean, not just talking about our kind of content, I'm talking about like you have to choose between Netflix and Amazon, and all these different producers. HBO has ... I mean, there's so much content.
And we only have the ... We have the same amount of time. So, it's just really ... That's, I think, the struggle that we have now is, from 10 to 12 years ago, there wasn't as much. You couldn't get things streamed to your phone. And so, you're competing with everything now. And so, I think, that's the challenge.
The benefit is, from now, is that there are tools that can help. There's a lot more tools that can help you connect with people. Everything from ... Like I mentioned, Instagram's a big one.
I mean, I just started a Podcast as well. It's called, Somewhat Frank. I brought back my old blog, which was called, Somewhat Frank, and repurposed it as now the Podcast, Somewhere Frank, because my name's Frank. And I thought it was clever.
Kathleen: I like it.
Frank: And I can be somewhat Frank on that, right? So, anyway, long story short, you know, without it, I didn't start a site right away. I just started Instagram, starting growing an Instagram account, leveraged that Instagram for a while. And then now, I've got a site. It's kind of that one-two punch after you've got a little bit of an audience.
And then, the other thing is we're working with different groups.
Like we're working with a group down in Tampa that has an innovation hub, and we helped them with a launch recently. And it's called Embarc Collective. And we're helping them with content strategy and growth, and whatnot. And kind of what we started talking about at the beginning is you need an audience.
So, you need to build your own audience, because you can't rely on the local media, or the national media, or whatever, to tell your story for you. You have to tell it yourself.
I mean, that's the whole thing. If you create an audience, you can talk, you don't worry about what The New York Time is covering, right? 'Cause you've got this really engaged audience that is already following along for the journey.
And so, that's what ... You know, that's the approach we kind of take. That's the approach we're taking with Embarc Collective, and we're doing it in a way that's the voice that they wanted to get out there, which is very founder led, versus talking about ourselves, right? So, it's a little bit-
Kathleen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Frank: ... a trickier thing with that kind of a lead. Especially with a new thing, right? When you have a new thing, you kind of need to tell people what it is. I mean, we're doing it in a way that's like through others can be more challenging. So, I think that is the challenge now. It's doing it in the right way, and kind of sharing that message.
Frank: So, to tell ... You know, I guess the bottom line is there's still these great platforms that allow you to grow, and we're continuing to watch that. There are ... I mean, if you really wanted to jumpstart it ...
And I've even heard some of the great marketers out there tell people to do this ... You can buy an audience. It's nothing that we did at TechCo, but you can. You can get a jumpstart with buying ... whether it be Twitter handles, or Instagrams, or Facebook, or even websites, right? 'Cause now you've got an audience that's already going to a website. So, those are other options.
Like I said, TechCo was very organic. We just grew it from the ground up with events, and then online. So, that's where I'm more comfortable with, and understand better.
Frank: Another example would be ... Here, I'm in Las Vegas. It looks like I'm in a locker room. I'm not. I have little lockers here with our secret things. No, we don't have anything over here.
Kathleen: I know I'm dying to know what's in those lockers now.
Frank: Yeah. So, basically, it's just where we put like things we used to do at events and stuff. But that's not really locker. Anyway, yeah.
In Las Vegas, there ... we moved out here because of the Downtown Project. And so, one of the things that we start working on with them, Downtown Project, was this project by the CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh. He started this 40-million-dollar project, Invest in Downtown.
And, more or less, we started bringing people out every month. And it was more or less like a little summit. And we'd bring people out, and show them around, as the backdrop being downtown, but the ultimate payoff was that you were actually meeting great people.
And so, as an opportunity to kind of connect, but that turned into, well, you also learned about the downtown.
So, that is one kind of ... If you're doing things locally, and you're trying to get people excited about what's happening in your local area, that's one example of the way to do it. It's expensive and very timely, or time intensive.
Frank: Yeah, consuming. Consuming because you're now doing, you know, you're doing VIP kind of treatment for a lot of different folks that are coming in from all over, and you're the tie touch. So, I wouldn't recommend that to everyone, unless you ... Or they wanna do a lot of that.
So, I think it just depends on what your goals are, and what you're trying to do. But I do think ... I guess you asked me would I start a media company today? I don't think so.
There's just so much right now. I think there's so many other things you could do that would ultimately have to do similar things to a media company, and you'd still get that ... But you actually have a little bit different product, right? So, I love media. I've been doing it for a long time. I used to build the media sites at Tribune, so I've got a huge background in media, and as well at AOL, personalized news, and whatnot.
So, I love media and news. I just think it's ... There's so much of it right now, I think that it's hard ... It's a lot harder to break in.
Kathleen: Yeah. Well, so many interesting insights, and I feel like you've been in the media industry during a fascinating time, because it really has changed so much over these years. You know, here on this podcast, we talk a lot about inbound marketing, which at its heart is really just about using content to organically draw your audience in, which is kind of what you talked about in the beginning between events and some of the original content you were creating.
Kathleen's Two Questions
Kathleen: As somebody who's been in the space for a while, I'm curious ... Company or individual, I always like to ask this question: Who do you think is doing inbound marketing really well right now?
Frank: Yeah. And I ... While you were saying that, I was thinking about other media brands that have done it really well recently. So, I'm gonna answer that question, and then I'm gonna answer your question.
So, one of the brands that has done an amazing job, and has gotten a lot of traction through influencers, and is doing content marketing well, is Cheddar? So, if you're familiar with Cheddar. They went kind of a online component, but now they're on like Sling and other places.
So they worked on distribution. And I think that's still really ... Any company, whether it be a start-up in the media space or any space, distribution is still like the most under-appreciated/thought of thing. Really. I mean, distribution is such a big deal.
And so, the founder came from kind of a background of HuffPost and some others ... media sites, and had relationships. So, built great relationships, and leveraged them to build, what is now Cheddar.
I think a lot of folks look at that and like, "Wow! That's just magic." It's not. It's relationships. At the end of the day, everything we do is relationship-based, and so I think a lot of that, he's done a really great job with platform, and then ultimately turned to relations.
So, they're doing a great job, and they're on your television set, they're on your phone, they're on all the different social channels, and they're able to leverage media.
So, if I was to start a media company, I'd wanna start something more like what he did, which is video-based, and then like growing it versus typing content and all that kind of thing.
So, that's that whole answer to that question. But to your question about who's doing a good job? I may get a lot of newsletters. Obviously, Gary Vee is a leader in the space. I'm a big fan of his, for a long time. Brian Solis. I like his stuff as well.
But, ultimately, I think I only ... I mean, everybody gets so many newsletters. One of the newsletters that I say and believe continuously is this Fortune Term Sheet? I just couldn't think of the name of it recently. I was like, "What's the name of that? The Fortune one." It's basically startup news and updates about investments, things that are ... I'm kind of looking towards, "Okay, how do I continue to invest in startups? How do I continue to grow our investor community to grow into our startup of the year stuff that we're doing to continue to invest in those great companies all over?
'Cause there are great companies all over the country and world, that aren't finding the funding that they need. So, because of that, I'm more focused on that kind of content lately. And so, I've been really focused on this Fortune Term Sheet email that goes around every day, actually. So it's a daily email which, I mean, we all get a lot of emails. That's the one that I continue to read continuously?
Kathleen: And what makes it so great? What is it about that that you like?
Frank: It takes time. It's got a great roundup. It used to be ... It's kind of a space that, like a TechCrunch, Crunchbase should be in, or I don't know if they do have a newsletter. I should probably look.
But it's that, more or less, updates about things that have happened in the space. So like, "This company just got funded by this," or, "This just happened here," or that, you know, so it's kind of that quick rundown, and it's bulleted, so it's not like I have to read like a ton. And it saves me time about everything that's happened in the kind of venture space. And, in some ways, not just venture space, 'cause it is Fortune. They're looking at bigger companies as well.
So, see. So, that's one that I read a lot. I'm trying to think if there's any others that do a really good job. Mine are so focused more on startup piece stuff. Oh, one of-
Kathleen: Yeah, but that's great. I love hearing about examples outside of marketing.
Frank: Well, here's one that's not. And it's kind of just my own ... Like I guess it would be called like just ... I don't consider myself an auto enthusiast. I just like looking at cool things.
I used to love Jetsetter. So, I used to love the newsletter they sent out? 'Cause it was like a vacation. You'd like see this amazing resort, and the pictures. And it was in this beautiful place, and you could take a second, look at that. And I would save those.
It's just changed to a different model, slightly. They don't have the same beautiful emails anymore. And they were, I think, acquired as well, right? So, they kind of changed a little bit.
But they, for a long time, were like, "Wow! This is my daily vacation from whatever I'm doing. I'm gonna look at this Jetsetter email, and think about, "Wow! Wouldn't it be great if I went to this, you know, Bora Bora-
Frank: ... this beautiful place?""
Kathleen: If I was sitting on the beach with a piña colada right there, right now.
Frank: Right, right. And they were offering affordable ways to do that, right? They were selling the dream.
Frank: One that's similar to that, and I'm not a car enthusiast, but I get this new one called, Bring a Trailer. And it's basically an auction site for automobiles. Like I love looking at old like FJ Cruisers, which are like the Toyota big trucks and whatever. And like they have Porches. You know, like they have tons of stuff on there. It's my daily escape from everything that's like the chaos that's happening in my world. And I just take a look at those pretty daily to see what's going on.
Frank: So, those are the ... I don't-
Kathleen: Oh, I'm gonna have to tell my husband about that, because he loves looking for old Willys Jeep, and-
Frank: There you go!
Kathleen: ... old, like classic pick-up trucks.
Frank: Right, yeah. So, you could find that on that site. You can set a little alert, and they'll send you an email when that happens. So, it's a little bit more on the product side but, at the same time, it's kind of a guilty pleasure, if I have one.
Kathleen: Yeah, yeah.
Frank: So, you know, you're living in Las Vegas-
Kathleen: No, that's great.
Frank: You really can't have any vices if you live here, so that's mine. I look at, I guess they'd be auto porn. I don't know what that is, but I get right into it. Yeah. Yeah.
Kathleen: That's awesome. Well, I'm definitely gonna check that out.
Kathleen: Now, the second question is, you know, you're somebody who's in the world of marketing. With digital changing so much all the time, how do you stay up-to-date? How do you educate yourself?
Frank: Yeah. Well, I read a ton. So, I mentioned Flipboard. I have that on my phone, and I'm on there a lot. And to the point of like ... I mean you're just ... Like I just flip, flip, flip, and try to keep up with everything. And I have different channels set up about different components of marketing or technology, or business, or whatever. And sports even, 'cause I'm the biggest sports fan. Go, Cubs.
But the other thing I do is I've a friend that worked in ... to try to keep up to speed there as well. I used to attend a lot of events. Once I started hosting a ton of events, you started finding yourself not going to as many events. But then you become like, "Well, I'm disconnected from all the events. Why is that?"
So, I started more recently going to more things. Like we were in our group together. Mindshare, right? So, that was me getting out and trying to do more event-related things to meet other folks in the industry, or we would never connect like this, if I hadn't been in that.
So, I think that's my new approach for that. There's other events that are kind of more intimate that I've been trying to kind of get to. But again, I'm not doing as much of that, and so it's more or less, you know ... Daily, it's just like keeping up with the updates that are happening. And, obviously, the more high-test stuff is actually getting out and connecting with people.
Kathleen: Yeah. It's definitely like drinking from a fire hose, right?
Frank: It is, but like you know HubSpot does their big conference INBOUND every year. It just happened a little bit ago. That's a great opportunity for trying to connect with folks that are doing it, doing inbound marketing, and things like that. There's others, right?
And there's niches too. So like, I just came back from Denver Startup Week. I gave a fireside chat with somebody out there, but also there was a summit for this group we're part of called, The Startup Champion Network, so SCN. And so, they kind of piggy-backed on each other, and that was an opportunity to connect with more people that were there, and vice versa.
So, I try to make those kind of more strategic opportunities, right, that make sense. And you can continue to really refresh and re-up what your learnings are from those different opportunities.
Kathleen: Well, I have like a million more questions I could ask, but I know you have a life, and so I'll let you get back to it. But if somebody wants to learn more about what you're doing, or has a question about what you talked about here today, what's the best place for them to find you online?
Frank: Yeah, sure. I'm just at Frank Gruber. So, Frank rhymes ... Or Gruber rhymes with Uber, dot me. And you can actually just ... I think it has my email on there, but frank@ ... Can I say that on this? Or is this gonna get-
Kathleen: Sure, yeah. Go for it.
Frank: All right. So, yeah, just ... My email address is pretty easy. It's firstname.lastname@example.org so-
Kathleen: E-S-T dot us?
Frank: Yeah. US.
Kathleen: Okay, great. I'll put-
Frank: You're gonna get E-S-T dot us.
Kathleen: ... all those things in the show notes.
Frank: Yeah, that's great. So, yeah. I'm just gonna get a flood of emails now, right?
Kathleen: Awesome. Well, you'll probably get a few from me, asking all the other questions-
Kathleen: ... I didn't get a chanced to ask today.
Kathleen: But no, this was great, and really informative, and-
Kathleen: ... I think for any brand that's thinking of becoming a media company, there were so many good tidbits in there about, you know, good ways to grow, and maybe not such good ways to grow?
Kathleen: So, I really appreciate the time you spent.
Frank: Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Kathleen: Yeah. And if you're listening, and you found value in this interview, please, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or the platform of your choice.
Kathleen: And if you know somebody who's doing kick-ass inbound marketing, tweet me at WorkMommyWork because I would love to interview them.
Frank: Great. Thanks so much, Kathleen.
Kathleen: That's it for this week. Thanks, Frank.
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