In this episode, I talk to Ellen Hyslop, Co-Founder of The Gist.
The Gist is a newsletter all about sports, written entirely by women. Ellen and her co-founders have scaled a massive team to 20 people. They’ve grown The Gist to almost 400,000 subscribers, and they’re earning fantastic revenue from it.
Ellen talks about how they grew The Gist in the early days. She also talks about their process of testing, how they launched with a launch party, and a bunch of other things.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How to get subscribers when you’re first starting out
- Why you need to create a style guide for writing your newsletter
- Tips for growing your newsletter to 400K subscribers
- When niching down can lead to more revenue
Links & Resources
Ellen Hyslop’s Links
In the corporate world, and elsewhere, sports are a social currency in society. They have this great ability to connect people regardless of age, race, gender, religion, etc.
We had this light bulb idea of, “Why isn’t there anything out there that’s speaking to non-avid sports fans, that’s speaking to people in a way that’s not gatekeeping and is speaking more like a friend?
We didn’t set out to become entrepreneurs, it was because we were experiencing a pain point.
In this episode, I talk to Ellen Hyslop.
Sometimes you come across a newsletter where they’re breaking a bunch of paradigms. They’re creating really fresh, interesting content from a unique perspective. That’s what Ellen’s done with The Gist.
I came across The Gist and was like, alright, I have to have her on.
The Gist is a newsletter all about sports, written entirely by women. They’ve scaled a massive team to 20 people. They’ve grown the newsletter to almost 400,000 subscribers. They’re driving fantastic revenue from it.
Ellen talks about how they grew in the early days, their process of testing, how they launched with the launch party, and a bunch of other things.
So, enjoy the episode. I loved it. Learned a lot, and I think you will too.
Ellen, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me, Nathan. It’s great to be here.
I’d love to start with what you were thinking when you co-founded The Gist in 2017, and what the original idea was for.
Honestly, Nathan, I don’t think we were thinking much. We first came up with the idea for The Gist—my co-founders and I, so Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty and I all went to college together, and came up with the idea for The Gist—after we had some takeout and white wine together on a regular Thursday night in February with the gals.
The idea for The Gist came out of an organic conversation between the three of us. I am a super avid and very passionate sports fan, and I was very hyped up and riled up about the Toronto Maple Leafs and something that had gone on during that year. Basically the long and short of it was the Leafs were supposed to be in a rebuild year, but the game that night, they ended up winning. That meant they were going to the playoffs. I was very excited about that.
I was giving them the background, and both Jacie and Roslyn grew up playing sports. They were interested in some of the teams in the area. They were interested in the playoffs. They were both kind of like, “Wow, I’ve never enjoyed a sports conversation like this before! I really don’t like going and watching Sports Center. I don’t like scrolling along the websites. I really don’t follow any of those places on social media.”
It’s really hard because in the corporate world or where else sports really are a social currency in society, they have this really great ability to connect people, regardless of age, race, gender, religion, what have you. and so in that moment, we kind of had this light bulb idea, I guess, of like, okay, why isn’t there anything out there that speaking to non avid sports fans that speaking to millennials in a way that’s off cable that speaking to people in a way that’s not gatekeeping and is really just like a, a friend.
And, and that’s speaking to women too, in a different way about sports and that’s where the idea initially came from. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t like we were setting out to become entrepreneurs or do anything like that. It was really just, experiencing a pain point ourselves.
How long was, it from that conversation to sending the first issue?
So we had that conversation in February. We ended up doing some beta testing that September, and then we did a very soft launch with friends and family and just folks in Toronto. So we were only a Toronto based newsletter at that point in December. And looking back on our first, newsletter compared to our newsletter, now I’m like, oh my gosh, it was, if we thought that this was good enough, or we were excited to put this out.
But, Yeah. so, so that was the timeline that first year.
Yeah. In what, like w when you’re doing a beta test and trying to decide, should this be a real thing? Like, what are the tests look like and what were you looking for? You know, it wasn’t just good feedback. Was it, if you put the content together, what was in there?
Yeah, I guess rewinding a little bit, Nathan, after we came up with kind of the idea that’s really, when we first, before doing anything, just positioned the idea to a bunch of friends, family, folks in the industry. What have you just to get their feedback on the idea at a really high level? And once we got feedback on that, we were feeling.
Comfortable that we had the ability to move forward, to get ourselves set up on MailChimp, get a website, going and get logos, all that sort of stuff over the next couple of months, really put together a business case in what all three of our roles would be. and then when it came to the beta testing, we initially started as a once weekly newsletter.
So the newsletter came out on Mondays. So we did a month of beta testing where we were specifically trying out different things. So we were asking about the design of the newsletters and the colors that we were using, how we were dividing up content. We were asking about the length of content. Was it long enough?
Short enough, just right. we were asking about the tone of the content. If it was a little bit too. Texty I guess at that time was probably the word that I would use or to a, in your face or was it okay. and we had really pointed questions within basically just a Google survey. And then even when we launched, we kept surveys within the newsletter for, I want to say six months or something like that after, after we did our soft launch so that we could keep collecting information.
Okay. So that was just at the end of each email or something like that. You included a survey,
Yeah, exactly. We included it at the end of each email and the beta testing group at that point was really just our friends and family that We voluntold. That would be a part of this beta testing group.
Volunteering people is, is such a great way to get early, early customers,
Exactly. Yeah, totally.
So what did, what did it look like to get the first, you know, a hundred subscribers or something that weren’t, you know, the immediate friends and family where you’re like, you are one signing up for this and two giving us feedback on it.
What were the people who were like the first actual like, oh, this is interesting. Let me check it out and have they come across it?
So we initially started off again centered around Toronto, so a Canadian newsletter, but then Toronto newsletter, all of us at that time, I think were 25. So we were definitely in the, social scene of our lives. I guess you could say pre COVID. And we thought what a better way to get subscribers that have a party.
And so we partnered up with Shopify. Actually, they have a beautiful office in Toronto. We knew some folks there. They allowed us to rent out their space for free. We had a couple of friends, cottage Springs, and iconic brewing. If anyone’s familiar with their drinks, they decided to sponsor free alcohol for everyone.
We had partners like Lulu lemon and TFC come on board to do, swag bags for everyone. And basically what we said is. We’re having a party and the max limit is 250 people. your entry into this party, that’s going to have free booze, free food, and is really a social event. We wanted to call it an exciting thing.
Was you had to give us your email. And when people came to that party, they had a great time, but we also gave a presentation about The Gist what it was, why we were doing it. And we asked everyone from that party to share with at least three to five friends. So overnight really, we ended up having 250 subscribers from just who showed up, but then we were able to have 500 to 600 within that first week.
Wow. Okay. This is probably the most official newsletter launch I’ve ever heard of as far as going from like, an idea to then methodically testing it and all of that, most people are just like, I had an idea, I started a newsletter then, like I sent something out and it was okay. And I guess, you know, kind of went from there.
How did you go about, or maybe what was more of your background, your co-founders backgrounds, where you’re looking, you’re coming out, launching with like, almost like lightweight brand partnerships at this point where you have, you know, a brewery, you have drinks provided Shopify is providing space. Like how did that all come to be?
Yes. So the three of us all studied business for undergrads who went to business school. And I think after that, all of us were working in financial services, downtown Toronto. And so we definitely been in the corporate space for a while. And all three of us were very fortunate and lucky enough to be working for corporations that knew how to.
Treat their employees well knew how to grow a team, knew how to execute on different projects. and we had been pretty involved in extracurriculars, both in university, but also outside. And I think we all learned a lot from that of how to engage the community. and that was, that was a part of our growth at the beginning was really saying to these brands was, Hey, we can help you reach your target audience in ways that you just can’t right now through sports.
And we can really act as a gateway for you to authentically engage with a different type of sports fan that wasn’t an avid male sports fan. and a lot of companies were like, wow, this is really interesting. And yes, of course, we’re going to support a women founded startup based out of Toronto.
Yeah. I mean, pulling in that local community and then having a really strong network makes such a huge difference. Were there, like, what were the aspirations for it as a business at that. point? And then were there models that you were looking to have someone already doing a newsletter in this way where you’re like, we could, we could do that.
For sure. I think right from the beginning, they thin we were looking at the scam. All of us were subscribers of the skim at that point. And as young on the go professionals, we were like, wow, this is the best way to consume the news. None of us. Cable, none of us had a paid subscription to any of the big newspapers.
And it was short and sweet and we really liked that. It, it covered everything that we wanted. The only thing was that we felt like it was missing some, some regional stuff and obviously some sports on our end. and we didn’t see them or anyone else covering sports in that type of way. and then also we were subscribers to morning brew.
And morning brew obviously does an awesome job and has expanded to so many different newsletters now. but again, working on the corporate side of things and just wanting to stay up to date on everything that was going on in the business world morning brew was our go-to there. And so, we, we looked at both of those companies for sure at the beginning and saw their success, especially at that time, and, and how they were raising money.
And how would they were monetizing their content.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they’re both phenomenal examples. Was there something in early days of running convert kit, I was thinking about, okay, if we can get to training the number. Well, the very first number was 5,000 a month in recurring revenue, but I was thinking I had in my head like, okay, but 20,000 a month, that would be like, we’ve made it.
Was there an initial number for the newsletter where you’re like, okay, if we get to X number of subscribers, then like this is exceeded everything we had.
I feel like in the early days we were so excited to get to, I think it was 10,000 initially. And really, I think we wanted to get to like 2,500 fully organically. And that was something that we thought would end up putting a flywheel on it somehow. But I feel like that 2,500 was the first initial like, oh, this is, this would show that this could be something more.
Yeah. Oh, that’s interesting. Okay. And then, so how long it was the 2,500 and then how long to 10,000?
Oh, good question. Honestly, I’m not a hundred percent sure from that 2,500 to 10,000 now looking back, especially because at that point we would have just really been focused on the Toronto market and still learning so much about our content. When we first launched, we were definitely still doing it as a, as a side hustle, but then, we were selected to be part of an incubator kind of company.
And we went full time. in may, basically of 2018 is when we went full-time on it. So I feel like probably around may, would have been that 2,500. Cause we would’ve had to have had a decent amount of organic subscribers to at least get accepted into that
Right. Yeah. And then what did the revenue look like early on? Were you doing brand sponsorships and, partnerships and all that from the beginning? or or did that take time to figure out.
It definitely took time to figure out at the beginning, when we were working with brands, we mostly leveraged brands from a gross perspective, actually. So similar to what I was saying beforehand, in terms of getting, you know, the little lemons and TFCs on for the launch party, we would also try to incentivize our adjusters with. Aspects from different brands that we knew that they would love. So we would partner with places like soul cycle or ride cycle, or what have you in Toronto. And we would say to our adjusters, you know, if you email us at least five of your friends emails and sign them up for The Gist you’ll get two free weeks at soul cycle.
And so soul cycle for us was, you know, obviously we were way too small. They weren’t going to pay us anything. We were so early, but they were like, oh, you think that you could get. 50 more women to come to soul cycle a hundred percent. We’re going to be able to give you something free for two weeks. And so that was super beneficial to them.
And also very beneficial to us from the growth side. I think obviously with, with podcasts and with newsletters, there’s different ways to go about it, whether it’s like a super niche community and you monetize off of a small community or your looking more at volume and you’re monetizing from there. I want to say the monetization aspect of it was more so at the beginning of 2019, end of 2018 type of deal.
But, but I want to say more so beginning of 2019, when brands locally were starting to be a little bit more interested in The Gist.
Yeah. Okay. So referrals are like, quite a hot topic in newsletters. If people are wondering how to do it.
You know, either completely just copy morning brew or the scam or someone else, or, or like have having interesting take. And I’m curious, what kind of the range of things that you tried with referrals?
It sounds like being in a local market gave you some more options to do there. yeah. So what worked and then maybe also, it’s always interesting to hear if anything, totally flopped where you’re like, I thought this would work and it just didn’t
Yeah, for sure. So I guess some context now, Nathan, our newsletter, it’s free four times a weekly. We have an American newsletter, a Canadian newsletter, and then we have a section within there where you can sign up basically for a local newsletter. So we have 10 different markets where we’re local, New York, LA, DC.
What have you. And so you’ll, if you’re subscribed to those, you’ll receive your American newsletter plus an additional section on like what’s happening in DC. And so. With the referral program. It’s definitely evolved now, right? Like where those were early days, just Toronto. we’re mostly an American centric kind of company and newsletter.
I’d say now, just based off of our subscriber numbers, their referral program in general is still a tough egg that we are trying to crack. We have not found the special sauce yet. I think the biggest thing with referral programs now is that people have seen it. They’ve been around the block. Sometimes it’s not necessarily exciting to them to get a sticker or a crew neck or, or things like that.
Like it’s just different than I feel like what it was initially with morning brew in the Skimm. we’re still trying to figure out, okay, what are the baseline incentives that are gonna get people excited? What are the prizes that are gonna get people excited? Is it a Mac book pro we have a referral, incentivization for January right now.
That’s a Mac book pro, but. You know, would that, would people just want free soul cycle classes and would they refer more like maybe, we have a group on Facebook that is definitely engaged and those are what we call her just fluency. So people who have referred three people or more to The Gist, but Facebook as a place for millennials is kind of dying off, but there’s, we’re having a hard time figuring out where’s the best place to engage a group of thousands of people.
And so, it is a evolving challenge that we’re continuing to figure out. So I, I don’t, I don’t think I necessarily have an answer to that one. So I’ll be listening to your podcast to see what other folks have said works for them.
Yeah, one of my, hobby projects is a local newsletter about Boise. I. it’s called from Boise and it’s just, I think we’re up to 7,500 subscribers. and it’s exactly that of, okay. What, what different things can you do in a local market that you can’t do nationally? How can you partner with individual brands?
How can you build a community around this? And I haven’t spent enough time on it to really think about it, but that’s why I’m like, always asking like, okay, what works for growth there? What, you know? cause it’s just, you know, you want to try things and have fun and also drive results of it. It could keep growing from there.
Yeah. Yeah, totally. The local markets are so interesting to me in the referral program, as part of that is so interesting, but, people obviously want stuff that’s catered to them. So the more specific, I guess, the prize or the more they feel like, it’s for them and that they get jazzed about it feels like there’s something there.
And that’s why we’re, we’re excited about the local stuff too, but we’re still growing those lists and figuring that out.
Yeah. Okay. So I want to talk about The Gist today you covered some of the numbers. did I see somewhere that you’re at over 300,000 subscribers?
Yes. Yes we are. So we are almost at 400,000 now, which is super exciting and definitely it’s, it’s a kind of a country moment from our first son that was to like, I don’t know, a hundred people on that beta test. so yeah, we’re, we’re marching towards 400,000 at the end of the month. And, on our Instagram kind of channels combined, or I guess social combined, we have about 150,000.
So it’s been awesome to see the growth, you know, over, over the newsletter, over the socials and slowly on the, on the podcast, download side, front two.
Yeah. So what what’s been working to drive growth, you know, today of where you’re looking at, or maybe in the last year or the things we were like, okay, we tried all these experiments, but these are the things that actually, work the most to, to grow the newsletter.
Growth is, I feel like so much fun. So Roslyn runs gross and heads up gross for the Jess. And she’s just done such an awesome job at experimenting with different types of growth channels, but also figuring out how to keep the health of our lists at the same time as bringing on a lot of volume. I think first and foremost, and this I feel like is similar to the podcast is just consistent high quality content that people can depend on.
And that’s the number one thing. we have a lot of organic growth, a lot of referral growth, and that stems from the content that we’re creating that people can rely upon. And so that, that’s definitely a key aspect of, of retention and growth. I see. Things have changed over the last couple of years, with respect to Facebook ads, marketing and how expensive they are, how to work with different folks on social media.
Also beforehand, you could slap up an image and say subscribe, but now you have to make like a TikTok style of reel or you have to have an agency to run your Facebook ads and all of that sort of stuff. And so, we’ve been playing around with the paid kind of high quality Facebook ads, Google ads going on different types of podcasts, things like that, which have been running just kind of as is doing well running.
Okay. And bring on a really high quality of subscriber. in the last year we’ve also experimented a lot with, Contesting and code registrations. So those, I would say are kind of low quality channels, but they bring on a high volume of subscribers. And what we kind of did on the backend was actually build something that automatically turned out subscribers that weren’t opening the email, or weren’t taking a desired behavior that we wanted within a certain timeframe.
And so that has made us a little bit happier with the cost per subscriber, but also just the quality of subscriber that we’re able to bring on through there. And, that, that I think is the biggest thing is just like you leveraging those tools that are out there, but keeping the health of your list so that you can maintain good open rates and click-through rates.
Yeah. Can you go into more detail on like an example of the courage station? And then I think people would love to hear about like that funnel that you’ve set up to take, you know, a wide bucket of subscribers. We’re thrilled to have email addresses. Right. But if they, if they signed up, you know, just seeking a, a contest or, you know, some ward like how you filter that down to the actual fans that you want on the list, long-term.
Yeah, so the contest thing side of things is basically just working with other companies that are also open to having contests that we think would have. An audience that would like The Gist. So looking at folks in the wellness, fitness industry, sports industry, literally anyone who we think could be interested in learning more about sports we’ll partner with them on the contest thing, side of things.
And, we will drive subscribers to the contest that they’ll end up getting on the email list of our partners and vice versa. so on the contest side, we are very careful in our very much like, okay, do our juicers actually want to be on this other brands list would, are just, there’s actually want this prize and being, really selective there.
So that’s, that’s one way, but you do get some low ish quality subscribers from that. Right. the second way, and I think that’s really what you’re asking there. Nathan was the co-registration. This again, you do have to be really selective of the type of websites or companies that you work with, but basically there’s brokers that work with a bunch of different types of websites, where once you let’s say buy something or take an action on another website, a pop-up will come up and say, Hey, because you bought X, Y, Z, you might be interested in The Gist, and we’ll have a little blurb there of why they should subscribe to The Gist.
And if a person clicks it off, their email automatically goes to us. some websites definitely have better audiences than others. And that’s why sometimes they’re a little bit low quality. So that’s, that’s kind of the co-registration and contesting and why they’re high volume and low quality, just because of the way that they work.
In the backend, we definitely have a system and a lot of these, I want to say like brokers or contesting platforms have a system to ensure. For the most part that these subscribers are like real addresses and actual people, sometimes those, so still come through so important to have that kind of like backend tech to make sure that they’re real.
But then the, the backend tech basically that we have is like, if they haven’t opened their first, I want to say like nine to 12 newsletters or something like that. We send them an email that says that it’s from me. And it’s like, oh, not The Gist like what’s going on. What’s up. If you want to unsubscribe, just unsubscribe.
If you don’t like click here instead. And a lot of people do end up clicking and it might just be, you know, different email providers, not tracking that it’s actually an open. but a lot of people too, just never see it, or it’s not delivered or they don’t care that it’s in their unsubscribed. They want to unsubscribe anyway.
And if they still don’t open that, then we’ve completely funneled them off the list and put them into, a holding list basically, where we’ll try to engage them around major points of the year. So for us, that would be the Olympics or the super bowl or started the NFL season. for others could be like an election or something like that, that, they might want to engage if they have a politics newsletter.
So that’s kind of the flow of our backend.
Yeah, that was, it’s so interesting when you’re thinking about, you know, Facebook advertising or the code registrations or anything like that. What are some of the ranges of that you target on a cost per subscriber? that you’d be like one that you’re really excited about. And then when you’re like, oh, we’ll gradually pay this, but I’m not sure it works out for the business.
So this, this is a great question, Nathan, because we’ve actually been trying to change how we’ve been thinking about costs of subscribers. So the CAC, but we obviously are looking at the cost of acquisition, cost per click, but we’re also looking at the cost per, open. And then the costs per, like revenue per open.
And then also the cost like per subscriber, who’s actually engaging with our branded content within the newsletter. So we do monetize our newsletter with branded partners that have native advertising within, every newsletter. And so our, I guess the answer is depending on each channel, each of those are really different.
So the cost to acquire might be. It’s definitely higher on like TikTok and Facebook and comparison to what it is on co-registration. However, the cost per open could be better with TikTok and Facebook, or those are the people who are actually seeing who are engaging with our brand partners or when we’re putting The Gist in other newsletters and we’re paying to be in other newsletters and trying to drive subscribers there.
That’s a really high cost of acquisition, generally, depending on the newsletter. Not always, but it’s higher than what we like to pay, but they’re also engaging with our content way more than anyone else, because they’re already newsletter folks. They’re interested in the ads. It’s like very pinpointed. So, I guess that’s, that’s what I would say is like cost of acquisition is one thing, but cost per desired, action with respect
Is another thing
Yeah. Cause then you’re actually looking a little further down the funnel it’s taking into account quality. and that relationship with this grabber. That makes sense. What about, on the business side, you know, oh, I want to talk about two things next, a business, and then we’ll get an editorial as well.
Cause you’ve built an incredible editorial team around, you know, to make all these different newsletters happen. on the business side, how has that scaled up over time and what sort of team have you had to build out to be able to sell the brand sponsorships and, and, you know, build new relationships and then drive revenue.
So Jacie is our head of revenue and had a partnerships and she’s really been running the show over there and lean the ship and has done just such a kick-ass job with the team. It’s been amazing to see the growth there and how much we’ve learned. We really wanted to get to the 100,000 subscriber mark before we really started pushing on the branded side of things.
We’re getting a lot of feedback from, you know, north American brand partners. That that was a little bit of a magic number that we needed to get to before we could meaningfully start to monetize our content. so that was in about September 20, 20. I want to say, when we reached that subscriber record, maybe it was later, it was at some point in 2020, like Q4 20, 20, I want to say.
And at that point, Jacie was running kind of growth and revenue and she fully came off growth, pass that off to Roslyn. So Roslyn does growth ops finance. so that Jacie could really focus on monetizing. and we brought on a couple of interns initially just to see like, okay, What does this look like with a small team?
How are we able to monetize? How should we set everything up? talk to a lot of folks at the hustle as well to be like, how did they set it up? How do they figure it out? Editorially did all that sort of stuff. So 2020 we initially started back end of 2020. We really like put the pedal to the metal. and then in terms of how it’s been growing, we now have a four person team on the partnership side of things.
So Jacie, a couple of partnerships, associates, so, sellers, and then the account management side of things. And then of course, the editorial side, because we’re writing all of our content We have a few folks that are specifically on branded content creation, as well as branded content kind of operations of everything. and so, I mean, with, with the newsletter, as, as you know, revenue is tied to the content is tied to the growth. So we have to keep that growth fire wheel going as well as the content flywheel going. but 2021 was an amazing year. We, earned over a million dollars in revenue about $1.2 million in revenue and hit all of our targets there, which was just.
So cool to see in our first year of actually like properly monetizing and expanding our lists at the same time. And we’re able to sign on some really great partners like, FanDuel, the NBA Adidas, both performance partners and brand partners. so that was just awesome to see how the team was able to engage in the type of interest that we had on the revenue side of things.
Yeah. I mean, that’s been nominal in your first year of like focusing fully on revenue to cross the million dollar mark.
On the editorial side, like you’ve built out a whole team. If I understand correctly, you’re a 20 person team has that. Right.
Yes. Yes, we are. we’re 21st century. We have a lot of gals who are just like, so who’s so amazing the best team ever. and they’re super passionate about leveling the playing field and being in sports. And a lot of people felt like they didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to get into sports as a woman, or there was a limited amount of seats.
And so it’s just awesome that they’re so, into it and can be a part of The Gist.
Do you know the demographics on your audience, like of subscribers of, like, is it 70% women, 90% women? Do you know? how that plays out?
Yeah. Yeah. So it’s about, 80%. I want to say right now, I haven’t looked in a while though. Nathan, so I can get back to you. Is it 80 or 85%? I think the big thing that we’ve changed, I would say though, in the last year or so, when we’re thinking about our list and marketing and things like that is that it’s less about the demographics and more about the psychographics and like the behavioral side of things and the reason why people really want to be subscribing and how we communicate that.
And so we have seen. You know, everyone of all walks of life, of all levels of sports fandom come to the jest really because, you know, they enjoy the equal coverage. They enjoy, that’s written by women. They enjoy our tone of voice and they honestly don’t have time to stay up to date on everything that’s going on in sports.
There’s a lot going on all the time. And so that’s really, our job is to curate and contextualize for them. So, we’re, we’re continuing to see our demographics change all the time. As more people learn about The Gistin want to subscribe.
Yeah. And do you think that starting with the focus, of being written by women and then, you know, the equal coverage across sports?
I can see a lot of ways where that’s really catapulted your success forward. And given you a unique voice, are there any areas where choose, like choosing a more narrow niche?
It’s not a narrow niche at all, right. When we’re talking about massive forces of the population. But I think a lot of creators are scared of that. They’re like, no, I need to keep it open to everyone. And so I’m wondering more of your thought process there of if there were any conversations as you, as you narrowed down or chose your voice of worrying about narrowing the audience and limiting growth in some way, when the opposite is actually true, but.
No, it’s an interesting one. I feel like early days, Nathan, so we weren’t sure early days like raising money, how we were going to fund the business. And, we thought at one point maybe we would go to the more like traditional VC institutional route. We ended up not going that way and kind of more so going friends and family, strategic angels, that kind of side of things.
But when we were talking to the VCs, they kind of said the same thing. Like you’re cutting off half of the population. Like this is not going to get big enough. And. Of course, we kind of like rolled their eyes because half of the VCs were like, not are talking to market. Didn’t understand it. They were like, well, I’ll go home and ask my wife what she thinks about it.
And we were like, oh my God, this is not the right spot for us. but it was also at the same time, really good to go through those conversations because I also think it opened our mind to like, no, we actually are writing stuff that is from women. For sure. Like, we are women we’re writing the way we like to write we’re writing the way, like everyone could actually be a part of it.
And so the way that we write editorially, like we definitely have. A woman in mind on the other side, because we are women and like our target market, when we think like that. But we have made a concerted effort definitely in the last year, just to be like, this is for, this is for everyone. Like, yes, it’s written by women, but it’s for everyone in the same way that the traditional industry has always been like, yeah, we’re 90% male writers, but this is sports for everyone, even though it necessarily, it isn’t necessarily, you know what I mean?
Like still their target demographic is a male sports fan. and so we’re, we’re changing that story, I think a little bit by, by working on that behavioral side of things, but definitely having like equal coverage on men’s and women’s sports, definitely having that curation context, taking out the gatekeeping and sports.
So all the acronyms and the assumptions that you knew everything was going on and then having it being women founded in women run is definitely something that brands wanna associate themselves with too. Right. Like it’s, it’s a nice play for them when they’re saying, yeah,
I’m supporting a company that’s.
Women in sports and that’s women running operated.
Well, I think it gives you so much more of a unique voice because exactly what you’re getting at of the, the market may be huge, but it’s, it’s crowded with so many of the same voices. And so you coming in and saying like, look, we’re for the general public, but who want to hear this type of voice? And that’s where I think it resonates in such a different way.
And it’s the hardest thing for every creator to do have to say, okay, but how am I going to be at uni? How am I going to focus on one section of the audience? Because you always feel like you’re excluding someone at a time when you’re like, I just want more, like for this to work, I need, I need more attention.
And, and it’s just, I mean, The Gist is such an amazing example of. Like narrowing it, honing that voice and saying, this is who we are and what we stand for. And if you don’t like it, that’s okay. There’s
Like it. And then that being the thing that actually fuels growth.
So I love it.
Totally. I think you nailed it. Like if you want to unsubscribe, you can totally unsubscribe. That is up to you, I think, to, to your point about niche communities too, right? Nathan, like I feel as though, and I feel like we had this in probably our decks as we were raising money is that a lot of people are kind of sick and tired of not feeling like they’re part of a community.
And especially in this COVID world that we live in, people really are searching for authentic and unique voices and something that’s community driven and mission driven. And it’s definitely going to turn out in a smaller audience than if you’re just, you know, wanting everyone to be a part of that audience.
But on the flip side for creators, that might be nervous about it. You are also. you also have access to just a super high quality and sought after group of people and their niche because brands want to reach them, but they don’t necessarily know how to, and that really, I don’t want to overuse the word authentic way, but a really authentic way.
I was talking to another podcast recently and they had, I want to say like 20,000 downloads or something like that per month. And they were mostly trying to reach folks who were coming out of their MBAs and they were able to monetize the shit out of their podcasts because they had such a small, they had a small audience, but it’s such a niche audience.
And there were a few select companies that were like, we desperately need to get in front of these people. And so his revenue is something like a dollar, a download, which is unheard of on the podcast side of things. Right. So I think that is just an example was like, just because it’s small doesn’t mean that it’s not valid.
There’s another community that I think of, in like the finance space called the white coat investor and it’s for specifically for physicians. Right. And so you’ll see the ads that they have in there. It’s like refinance your medical debt. Right. It’s a very, very specific ad. And you’re like, oh, I bet the ROI on that is incredible.
And like, here’s this newsletter of, you know, 10, 20,000 people, but 90% of them are physicians or about to be physicians, you know? And so it’s that same thing where it’s just very, very targeted and the brand is like, you know, I couldn’t, I could advertise and reach millions of people and hope that 2% of our physicians, or I could go to you and, you know, 90% of them are.
So it’s exactly what you’re talking about.
Wow. Super smart.
Yeah. Okay, let’s talk about that. Well, let’s talk about other ways to monetize. So is sponsorships, you know, and, and those brand partnerships, I assume that the primary monetization, are there other things that that you do as well?
Yeah, we’re definitely brand partnerships is the main thing we’ve tested out, merge as well. and so we’ve done a few merge drops in collaboration and partnership with, artists, which has been really cool and other female artists. And that’s been fun to see how our community wants it, wants to engage around closing.
I think the future revenue model is still something that we’re learning from our adjusters and asking them about, and also learning from our brand partners about what they want from us. as we’re starting to make a name for ourselves. And as I think brands are starting to catch on how they need to speak with their audiences differently.
There’s a lot of folks who are interested in working with us from a content licensing perspective or from a content creation perspective altogether. Which we’re still up in the air if we want to do or not. Like we don’t necessarily want to become an agency, but for the right partner with the right sports content.
And if there’s some co-branding opportunity, like potentially that we also think there’s a lot of opportunity with some sort of community minded. Subscription potential model with The Gist somewhere as you can tell from my maybe, and the way that I’m saying this, like we have no clue what this would look like.
It could mean like a subscription box plus, you know, behind a wall content plus access to webinars or one-on-ones with mentors. Like we have no clue what that actually looks like, but it feels like there’s something there from what our audiences is telling us. So something with that. And then the last piece I think, would just be gamification in general, in sports, like sports betting is just going wild fantasy. and I’m not saying we want to start our own app or launch that ourselves, but I think, we’re paying really close attention about to our audience and how they engage with fantasy and sports betting and gamification, and paying a lot of attention to what the industry is doing on the whole.
Yeah, it’s wild. How much, all that has grown the, I was going to ask about paid newsletters. So it’s interesting that you’ve approached that, or you’re at least thinking about it as you were talking about what to offer, you know, what, like what’s the additional thing that people get. I wonder if you had a paid subscription that was say $10 a month or a hundred dollars a year that offered nothing.
That was just a like true fan of The Gist and like come support us, you know? And so it’s kind of just like, I don’t even know. It’d be, it’s just like, if you like what we’re doing, support us. maybe there’s bragging rights in there. Somehow.
Maybe there’s some shout outs, like there’s a little bit, but not much. I wonder if that would do better than if you’re like offering this exclusive content, because I think it might play into the side of, people just wanting to support a brand that they really care about and admire.
Totally. It’s, it’s such a question mark, because that, to me kind of is similar to like a Patrion model and what you see a lot of musicians and podcasters use and Patrion for some people is super successful and they’re able to actually continue to create their art and their work. And I think a big thing with more, I guess, niche, community creators, or just creators who aren’t attached to big behemoth, you know, company, is that they still want to have their editorial freedom and say things and call out things and have their opinions.
And I think that’s, that’s also what we love about the idea of something like a Patrion or something like just paying for things so that the editorial can still remain the same. we also struggle. because a huge thing for us is just that we want. sports to be accessible to everyone. And accessible also means that folks who don’t necessarily have the disposable income to spend on getting sports news, have access to it and have access to our content and have the ability to sell, feel a part of the community, even if they don’t even as they can’t like pay for cable or pay to go to these live sporting experiences and things like that.
So it’s a, it’s a struggle. I feel like it’ll be interesting to see what the next couple of years looks like for us, but also with a lot of other creators, as things change.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s good. How’s the, how’s the podcast play into all of this. And then how has it been, you know, growing a new channel with, with a podcast and then realizing as asking that’s a ridiculously broad question, but let’s just start with, how’s the cast been going and what are some of the early, goals for.
Yeah. So, the podcast is hosted by myself and my co-host Steph, SEF, rots, and Steph and I have been friends since grade four. So honestly it is so much fun, like just to be able to shoot the shit with your best girlfriends about sports and things that are going on is amazing. We. I at the beginning didn’t really have much of an intention to launch podcasts.
We were definitely like, okay, let’s keep it on the newsletter side of things. but the more that we grew, our brand and the more that we heard from our subscribers, they were like, you need to have a podcast. We want a podcast. And so we said, okay, if you want a podcast, we’ll make a podcast. And what we learned is that yes, they were interested in kind of the new side of things, but our audience is definitely interested in how sports intersects with pop culture or just culture in general.
And we have a bit of that sprinkled into our newsletter, for sure. Like we talk about some of those hard topics, but it’s hard to do in a newsletter. That’s three to five minute read to give all the nuance and different opinions and the background and the context. And we’ve been able to dive into a lot of stuff in the podcast.
It’s called The Gist of it, and you can listen to it on apple podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen. And we’re able to dive into things like how racism, sexism, homophobia intersects with sports. We’re also able to dive into like the super fun part about sport. So like the Superbowl halftime show, Dell dating, you know, LeBron James is like business partner, the sports business side, having interviews with different folks.
So, it’s, it’s been really fun. And I think the biggest thing with the podcast and when you’re talking about gross and things like that is, I think what I said at the beginning was just that like consistent high quality content, huge part of the podcast, but also recognizing that the audience is different on the podcast and what it is.
And the newsletter I’d say. it’s definitely a little bit more of an avid fan and definitely a jester who cares more about like what’s going on in the world in general. so the audience I would say is even more niche than our already niche audience on the podcast side. but we’re really bullish on it.
It’s super fun, everyone. Like I’ve I have so much fun, like producing it and speaking and doing some editing and we have such a kick-ass team. And, sorry, I shouldn’t say that again. We have a such a great team, but, we’re, we’re looking to expand our podcast network too. So this year we’ll be launching an athlete hosted podcast, which we’re so, so excited about.
We’re going to be launching a few new verticals of our newsletter and we’re figuring out how audio or webinars and events plays into that part too. and we’re seeing a lot of brands be interested in, in podcasts. There’s something about, do you know, like having a host, read an ad and be.
Genuinely interested in the products that even if it’s, I don’t know, like a hundred listeners, let’s say you have a hundred listeners to your podcast.
Like those 100 listeners, if 90 people then go and buy XYZ ed product, that could be a pretty big deal, depending on, you know, how, how much you’re charging on the podcast side. So it’s totally different than the newsletter, like long and short from a growth perspective. but it’s, it’s really fun. And we’re excited about, you know, growing some IP and creating some contents through the channel.
Yeah, you gives you a whole other set of sponsorships that can come in, but then also like that deeper connection with individual subscribers, I think is pretty important, right? Because, and actually I think my favorite part about it is you’re going from the three to five minute quick read of this is what’s going on.
And then over here on the podcast, you get to deep dive into something and there must be just endless topics where you’re like, oh, I wish I could talk about this more in the newsletter, you know? Or like, can I dedicate the entire newsletter, this one thing?
No, you can’t do that. That’s our, you know, our format is set. You’re like, all right, well, I’m going to go talk about it on the podcast then.
Exactly. And our writers are sometimes like, oh my God, okay. We’ll say in the newsletter, we’ll talk about this on the podcast tomorrow, because like, they know we have to talk about it. If we can’t talk about it in Ignacio them in the newsletter. and so our podcasts, like they’re short, they’re 20 minutes, 25 minutes, you know, so you’re getting that extra layer, but you’re not listening to, you know, a super long podcast.
Right. okay. I’d love to hear a little bit about building out that team of writers. I’ve well, I guess I have two, two different worlds. One is as a solo creator, you know what this podcast and with my newsletter and that kind of thing. And then the other is with ConvertKit where we have a whole brand team.
You know, the marketing department is, is, I don’t know, 15, 12 to 15 people somewhere in there, you know? And so it’s two very different worlds. And I’m curious for you what it looked like we, as you were hiring the first writers and then try to teach them, this is our voice. Like, how did you go about doing that?
And building a team that you know, could really run the newsletter on a weekly basis.
Yeah. So this was hard. I, we had no idea from the beginning what to do. So at the very beginning I was writing all of our content. I was managing our social, doing everything kind of content-related it w eh, yeah. so there was a lot, and Jacie and Rosalyn, and I like, none of us have a writing. background. I did, my undergrad was like, a lot of writing courses, a lot of English courses, philosophy, all that sort of stuff. So I feel very comfortable. And I was always like is a journalism, or is it business? And I decided to go to the business route, but take a lot of journalism, kind of undergrad.
So I felt comfortable, with writing and I felt, I would say more so than comfortable with writing. I felt really comfortable with the. voice of like, where we want it to take it and how we wanted it to sound like your witty sports, obsessed, best friend, like something more punchy and sassy and fun, and just a little bit more relatable than.
Classic journalism. so first started off as myself. and then once we were went, full-time. we had some really great mentors as a part of this incubator program that we were in. And one of our mentors was the head of the journalism department at a school in Toronto. And she was basically like, look, Ellen, this is not sustainable.
It’s not scalable. It’s huge risk. Like if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, the business is done. You need to figure out what you want to be doing. And so the first part that she actually really recommended was the. Setting up a newsletter style guide. And basically just putting out on paper, like the format, the titles, the emoji usage, the dashes usage, how you should write tips and tricks, how to ride branded content versus, you know, organic content.
And so that was a very important exercise that took forever and we update our newsletter style guide. All the time, as I’m sure you do too, Nathan, like you will make a decision on the fly. Like, okay, we’re changing the way our titles look in the newsletter that needs to change. We’re changing our space.
We’re making a space after emoji. Now that needs to change, but it really is your IP. And like your secret sauce at the end of the day is what’s in that newsletter style guide. So I created that first. And then in terms of how we built out our team, this is a very, this is interesting. So, people were pretty passionate about it at the beginning in Toronto, which was really cool.
And, Alexis, Alison who’s still on our team today. She’s the best she emailed us via. You guys need some help, on your Twitter. And I want to come and help out. And I was like, oh my God, please. So I met her for lunch and I was like, Hey, like I w we can’t pay. We literally have no money. We’re not making any money, but like, run for it.
Like, go, go do this. Would love your help. Start off on Twitter. And then we raised around, had some money and she started writing the weekly newsletter, or, sorry, when we went to twice a week, she was writing one night and I was writing one night. And then the nights that we were writing, we were editing each other’s.
And then In 2019, our current, lead editor also also emailed us and was like, you need some help. And so Laura and I went out for coffee and I was like, yeah, Laura, I have no clue what we’re doing. Like we I’m alive. I’m wondering from Alexis, she’s learning from me. But Laura came in and she edited books and sports books for a living and she was super passionate into what we were doing.
And we were like, okay. Yes, hell yeah, come on the team. And we I’ve learned so much from Laura. It’s insane. She’s still our lead editor today. And so Laura came on board and then when we were, we got accepted into tech stars, Comcast accelerator. and so with that accelerator, We basically were going into the U S and so we’re going to have two different newsletters.
And at that point we were like, okay, we need to hire people for real here. And so we had interviews, we had people apply by just like writing a newsletter. And if we liked their newsletter, then they went on to the next round and so on and so forth. and so for a while, our team was really just like all freelance writers who are working in the evenings after their full-time job, we would find them basically all the same way, like had some things on their resume, but mostly did they know sports?
Could they write that mock newsletter? and now some of our. The majority of our newsletter team is actually still part-time. So our editors and our fact checkers, and some of our writers, our regional writers are all part-time. but then now we have two full-time content manager, two are writing kind of the, a lot of sections at, for our regional content or the bulk of the north American slash American content.
But then also like producing the podcast, producing, branded content,
All that sort of stuff.
Yeah, that’s amazing. I love the example of having. like do the job, you know, and it’s not a proxy for it of like, oh, can you write some other thing? How well do you think you would translate over? It’s just like, okay, write us a newsletter, you know? And then you get to see that.
Exactly. I think there’s a lot of times, this is where in my world of software, I love hiring designers so much more than hiring, engineers, because designers, I can look and be like, oh, that’s good design and engineering.
I’m like, I don’t come from that world. So I look at it. I’m like, I don’t know if that’s good code, you know, but at the same
Know newsletters very well. And I know our newsletter very well and like, I would be proud to send that out and there’s no way in hell. I’m sending that one.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. And we’re, you know, I’m still super involved. I do all of the developmental edits and bring kind of everyone up to speed, but it’s, it makes me so proud to see how our team has grown in the content that they put out and what, like how they’ve grown as writers too, and how our steam has also gone on from The Gist to work for like bigger organizations and writing.
And so working for us on, on the side too, which is pretty cool to see, as well. So it’s, it’s nice to have this, team of, of women full-time and part-time, which
Yeah, that’s amazing. Okay. Last question. I want to talk about fundraising a little bit. what was the path to make you go that you wanted to do the, the accelerator and then, you know, go down the path of, it looks like April of last year, you raised a million dollars. and, and so what, what’s the thinking there and how has that process.
Oh, my gosh, this was like a zigzag process, like a frickin pinball machine from day one. so the F the initial incubator that I’m talking about, it was actually through the Facebook journalism project that we were in. And that was the one that had us leave our jobs. And with that, it’s pretty unheard of, I guess, in the startup space, but we received a hundred K in non-dilutive funding, which was incredible, 50 K in Facebook ad credits, free office space for six months, access to mentors.
It was, it was unbelievable, for what you normally get. And so that time, when we were first going full-time, it was really just like, What are we, we have no freaking clue what we’re doing and what does our day to day look like, but it gave us that 100, $100,000. and then from there, I think we also got like a $30,000 government grant or something like that for just being startup female entrepreneurs.
Like that type of thing. We raise a very small friends and family round in 2019. we also had a few angels come in on that and it was really just, through connections of connections that we met, this one guy, who connected us to so many other folks which was great and who bet on us early. And that was just before we actually went into Techstars.
So Techstars of course, gives funding in part of being part of their program. It was in Techstars again, where we were like, Oh, my God. Do we want to go the VC route we had had like not great, not a great time in Toronto, based off the conversation that we were talking about earlier. but Techstars definitely kind of like pushes you that way. and has a lot of VC connections. So we talked to a lot of folks who were being pushed to, to raise a bunch of money. And we were like, no, this just doesn’t feel right. Like there was just something that wasn’t sitting right for us. We weren’t comfortable with the valuation and how much of the company we’d be giving away.
So instead we just kind of said like, we’ll open like a small safe, and whoever approaches us that wants in, they can come in, but we’re not going to be doing like a big. Round or raise them because we wanted to grow our company a lot more. so that was at the end of 20, 19 20 20. Obviously COVID change a lot of different things, changed our expenses, change how much we were growing, especially sports.
We’re not a thing for five months. So slowed down a little bit there, put a pause to a lot of contracts, for writers until it came back. And then, at the end of 2020, really Nathan, we just saw all those brands at the end of 2020 being interested in us, even though we felt like we had a small audience.
So we were like, okay, if they’re interested in us now we got to grow this thing because there’s clearly an opportunity here. And that’s when we decided to raise a round, we initially were just going to raise like 400 K. but then we had a lot of interest and we were like, oh shit, I guess we can raise it that a million.
And so that was great. And obviously it was, it was still work, but it was like, wait, Easier than any of us anticipated. And I think it’s because of all the traction that we had, but also the momentum and the sports space and women’s sports face and everything that we’ve talked about today with newsletters as well and how people are realizing email is not dead.
And it will never read that as a mode of communication. so, so yeah, so that’s, that’s the last round that we raised and, transparently where we’re doing well, revenue wise. Right. And hopefully we might not necessarily have to raise again. And that, that would kind of be the plan is that we don’t have to.
So going a little bit more of like the morning brew model of raising versus the Skimm kind of VC side of phrasing.
Yeah. It’s nice to have the different blueprints and examples out there of like, okay, it’s not because you, you run into one person. They’re like, oh, this is the way you have to do it.
Do you mean that’s the way that you did it, and now you’re telling everyone else? Or is that the way that you’re financially incentivized to convince everyone they have to do it?
So, having these different paths to say, okay, I can do it, whichever flavor we want. I think that’s perfect. It can work. It’s a bootstrap company, no outside capital, but I’m not dogmatic about it.
So many people think it has to be this way or that way, and I’m like, no, if you can raise small amounts, don’t dilute the company too much, and then get real traction, you have so many options ahead of you. I think that’s brilliant. I love what you’ve done.
Yeah. For sure. That’s great. That’s so cool that you’ve bootstrapped, too. It’s awesome to see those examples, because I think in the media, raising VC is really sexy and it gets a lot of clicks, and it’s in the big newspapers and communications.
You get so tempted by it, too. It all comes back to being authentic to yourself, and being authentic to how you want to grow the business. If you want to maintain ownership and be flexible, or change the type of content that you’re doing, or feel like you’re not having to report to someone, especially as creators.
It’s nice not to have to report back up to a VC or anyone above you.
Yep. I love that.
Okay. We should leave it here.
I think what you built is brilliant. I’m so excited to see you growing from here. Where should people go to subscribe? Also, to follow you personally, listen to the podcasts, or any of that.
Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Nathan. It’s been so much fun to chat with you and see what you’ve built.
People can subscribe to The Gist of It, our free weekly newsletter at, TheGistSports.com. That’s T H E G I S T at TheGistSports.com. You can also listen to our podcast. It’s called The Gist of It, wherever you listen to podcasts.
Sounds good. Thanks so much for coming on.
Awesome. Thanks Nathan.