394. Scaling to Exit Without Venture Capital, Why VCs Might be Incentivizing the Wrong Type of Company Building, and How GenAI Will Shape the Future of Media Businesses (David Tao)

David Tao of BarBend joins Nate to discuss Scaling to Exit Without Venture Capital, Why VCs Might be Incentivizing the Wrong Type of Company Building, and How GenAI Will Shape the Future of Media Businessess. In this episode, we cover:

  • The Importance of Diversifying Your Revenue Streams.
  • Hiring and Raising Capital for Founders.
  • The Right Time to Sell the Company.
  • Niche is Almost Always Bigger Than We Think.
  • Timeline for Monetizing Content.
  • Is Generative AI Overhyped or Underhyped.

Guest Links:

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Transcribed with AI:
Today’s episode is going to be bit a different than our traditional programming. Rather than featuring a prominent venture investor or founder who has raised venture capital, we are going to explore the alternative, less discussed path that founders take. Today, we’re going to hear from a founder who didn’t raise venture capital and bootstrapped to build and sell a business for 9 figures.
With that, I would like to welcome David Tao to the show. David is the co-founder and former CEO at BarBend, a media business that David built over 7 years with minimal funding prior to a very successful acquisition earlier this year.
David, I’m excited to have you here and welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me,
Nate. It’s
good to be here.
All right, so we’re gonna cover a number of different topics today. But first, I would be curious if you can share a bit about your upbringing, and maybe the one to two minute story of you becoming an entrepreneur?
For sure. Well, thanks for having me. My name is David Thomas Tao was born and raised in Kentucky, which is somewhat relevant in that I grew up around a place where, you know, I don’t think being an entrepreneur was ever really put forward as like an option. I do. Remember when I was young, I learned with the term entrepreneur was and I asked a relative older relative, and they said, Oh, entrepreneurs, what you call yourself when you don’t have a job. And so I think that that that spirit is something that I was attracted to, because I was told that I shouldn’t be right self labeling and self identifying and seemed a little taboo. And where I grew up, people kind of had the one career and they worked at the same company for years in my hometown, they would work at the same distillery for 40 years, and then you retire, right? That was kind of life. And so when I graduated from college, I went into journalism and content, but pretty quickly was attracted to the startup sphere. I was writing for Fortune at the time, I was covering startups. And that was at a time when people were making the transition from print media to digital media. And a lot of the old brands were kind of dragging their feet. So pretty quickly after left that worked for a content startup that was actually in the wellness and health space. For a while I was a competitive strength athlete, myself, not a terribly good one, I want to just remind people, and eventually started looking for ways in my career as I bounced around to different places to combine those two to combine my kind of love for stuff in the fitness industry, with my interest in content. And then in early 2016, had the opportunity to co found the site that I always wished I had, which is now bb n.com. So kind of the online home for all things strength, I was a big weightlifting and strength nerd. And I was like, Wouldn’t it be cool if we could put all that under one roof kind of build the espn.com for people who like lifting weights. And, you know, it started as a bit of a hunch and a bit of a passion project. And now here we are seven years later, we grew it to over 31 million readers a month or sorry, readers a year. We’re not quite there for readers a month. And then we were actually acquired about two months ago by pillar for media, our entire team came over our founding team actually came over not because we have to, but because we want to I can’t imagine working anywhere else. So I’m really glad that they wanted to keep me on. And yeah, I just feel like the luckiest guy in content, because I’m passionate about wellness and strength and what has done for me personally and getting to kind of spread that gospel and share that with an increasingly broad audience. It just makes me feel really, really good that I get to help support a team that writes and records that type of content. That’s the elevator pitch. I hope that’s okay.
No, that’s great. I want to talk about your fundraising journey. Because there aren’t many people at least it seems like it’s a rarity today to essentially bootstrap a business to the exit that you’ve had, which I know you’re being humble about it. But it was a very successful exit the angel investors that the individuals that did come in, are all very happy with the return. So I want to rewind the clock and go back to raising capital, because you built the entire business on $800,000 from non institutional investors. And fast forward seven years later, and you had an exit that most people would be absolutely thrilled with life changing money. But when you initially started the business, did you foresee yourself Raising venture dollars? Because as you said, you worked at Fortune you covered startups. So was that the plan to initially go and raise venture capital? Or what was your initial thinking behind the trajectory of the business and which path to go down?
Thank you for asking that. And the initial plan was to raise venture capital when we started BB and we started very small. We very much bootstrapped and self funded me and my co founders, who are fantastic. I think I got really, really lucky I think that a lot of co founder conflict is the is the death knell for startup. And I got really lucky to go founders where I was really excited to build something with them every day. Once we started gaining traction, the idea was to go raise venture capital. And that’s largely because we saw other media companies doing it back in 2016. BuzzFeed was still on a rapid growth trajectory. Vice media, I think had just IPO there was about to have this ridiculous valuation. And VCs were pouring a lot of money into content startups. And we said, we’re gonna do that. Well, we weren’t able to do that. We pitched a lot of VCs, I actually lost count, but I think what’s in the multiple dozens? And they all said, No, every single one said, No, and I had some really bad meetings. This is back when for fundraising meetings, you would actually pitch people in person. And I remember, I had one meeting where I was getting coffee with someone in downtown Manhattan. And partway through the meeting, they were like, oh, you know, I’m actually just gonna run to the bathroom, I’ll be right back. And it’s like, cool, go for it. And they just walked out of the coffee shop, and never came back. That Wow. That was like the tenor things. Because we were too small. We were too niche. Yeah, a little while I was kind of sitting in a coffee shop, like tearing up. And I think a lot of people thought I had just got dumped, and that someone had just walked out on me in the coffee shop. But But frankly, we were we were too small and people didn’t see the opportunity that could give an outsized returns. Ultimately, I think that was really fortunate for us, because we had to raise from angels, friends, family, strategic investors in the fitness space, and we were able to raise about $800,000. And that was all the money we had, we knew there was no more money coming, we knew we weren’t gonna be able to go to institutions and raise increasingly big series, here’s ABC, etc. So we knew that that was the money, we had to get to profitability. And so we grew much slower. We scaled in a very different way. And we tried to diversify revenue earlier on. And I think a lot of content companies that were able to raise venture capital. And I think that was ultimately very lucky, we didn’t necessarily see that as our strength at the time. But because of that, we built a very different business from content companies that did raise venture capital. And frankly, a lot of those are struggling right now. I think that we’re in a media landscape where we see you know, vice to claim bankruptcy, Buzzfeed, shuttering Buzzfeed News, a lot of these mainstream outlets scaled very quickly, and are having difficulty matching the revenue to the scale, they grew to a lot of layoffs, a lot of downsizing, shuttering, even, you know, I think we all remember mike.com, or at least some of us do. Not really around anymore. And I think that we weren’t a victim of our own growth, it also allowed us to keep control of the company, right, we didn’t have to give up a bunch of board seats. Since we raised from angels, we were able to kind of control our own destiny, and decide how we wanted to grow the company, and how quickly our audience was too small for these VCs. Barbin was never going to give them 1,000x return on their investment based on what we raised. But the cool thing is that the number of people worldwide interested in the stuff we write about strength training, health and fitness, resistance training, strength sports, that audience has actually grown a lot over the past seven years. So we were able to kind of ride that rising tide, or ride that wave. So our timing was also very fortunate. And so yeah, getting nose from a bunch of venture capitalists was actually probably the best thing that ever happened to us as a business. And we can say that, in hindsight, it sure didn’t feel good at the time.
Do you do think it would have influenced your decision to start the company at all, knowing that you wouldn’t be able to raise venture capital?
I think it would have Yeah, I don’t think I would have I can only speak for myself. Not my not necessarily my co founders. Right. So I think it certainly would have lessened my appetite. To take that risk. I think I was at a point to where, you know, I was still in my 20s I didn’t have a family. I think it was a good time for me to take risks. And at something I wanted to do. But yeah, I kind of assumed that if we actually were able to prove traction, we could go out and get institutional money just because so many media companies were doing that. Right. And I was hearing about these these crazy amounts of money that people were raising for their media ideas. Like I said, you know, ultimately, what we didn’t know ended up being something that really helped us.
Yeah. Did it ever affect, you know, your your team’s morale? Did you guys ever get to the point of shoot, we can’t raise venture capital, let’s hang it up? Or how did it affect your psyche? You talked about being in the coffee shop, tears in your eyes, given that an investor just walked out. So I’m imagining this wasn’t an easy thing to come to terms with. I’d be curious, the evolution of your mindset and how you overcame that obstacle to essentially record like redirect the trajectory and the growth of the business.
I think if it had just been me, if I had been a solo founder, that would have been the end of it. I really do. My co founders, Kenny and Joe, that was it. That was the whole team when we started and we were also working on other projects at the time to keep the lights on like Barbin wasn’t making money when we started it, right? It’s an organic content company and takes years to actually get to profitability at least took us years. They were so incredibly supportive. I do remember some some times when my attitude was pretty piss poor Pardon? Pardon my phrasing and they really lifted me up. Barbin was an idea I brought to them. On a bit of a hunch. I had some data to back it up, but you know, it was really just because I, I knew the space and I thought, hey, there are more people like me who really want this content. And yeah, in those times, if it had been just me trying to get this company off the ground, it wouldn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. So that really lifted me up, they really lifted me up and supported me, once we were able to actually raise money and bring on a staff, the tenor, a small staff to start the tenor changes, right, because those people they’re working with you, they’re staking their livelihoods on you. Right, they’re depending on you, as a founder. So what you can signal, it’s very different, you have to, you want to be honest, you want to be transparent, but at the same time, you can’t come in as Debbie Downer every day. And I think that, you know, the two points that were really inflection points for me were, hey, when we weren’t able to raise venture capital, my co founders lifted me up. And I’m thankful for that every single day. And then once we’re able to bring on staff understanding that like I had to come in, and I had to be on. And even if things weren’t going well, I had to bring a level of positivity, I had to bring honesty, right? I wasn’t gonna, I wasn’t gonna lie to folks, or at least try it try not to about things I knew. But I had to be optimistic. Because if I wasn’t optimistic, leading this editorial team, who is going to be excited about writing content for a living, you know, about these kinds of at the time of secure strength sports make, it
makes a lot of sense. I’m curious, from your experience, how do you advise founders that come to you and as David, I’m thinking about raising venture capital, but we’re also thinking about bootstrapping, I mean, how do you advise those founders? In which path to go down?
Yeah, I mean, I, I will always lean towards bootstrapping, as far as something I will push people toward, if I think it’s possible, to say say like, Hey, like, we bootstrap Barban, for about the first year. Right. And that is coming from a position of privilege, right, because we had revenue from some other projects we were working on that could support BB end. And at the same time, Barban didn’t have a lot of capital costs, like I was kind of a one person editorial team for much of that first year, it kind of ran me ragged, right. But we were able to do that. A lot of companies simply can’t write, there’s more startup capital associated with like a CPG. Company, right? If you’re selling a physical product, then then if your product is digital content, I will always push people toward bootstrapping, because I think it forces you to find that product market fit a little earlier, and to figure out where your revenue streams are actually going to come from. Right. I think that in the content business, diversifying revenue streams is very important these days, right? It’s not enough to just make money from YouTube, or from display ads, or from direct sponsorships, through you know, advertise or through like corporate partners, you want to actually create a pretty diverse set of those revenue streams as early as possible. Because if you’re a content company, you’re at the whim of some algorithm, or a number of algorithms, Google’s algorithms, Facebook’s algorithms, YouTube’s algorithms, beings, algorithms, right? You want to diversify early on and I think bootstrapping often encourages founders across industries, to find several different ways to create sustainable, semi, at least semi predictable and repeatable revenue for their for their businesses. Once you’re able to see where the the veins of gold are, then okay, maybe maybe add some gas to the engine or some fuel to the fire, and really wrap those up and start doubling down on those. But again, I do want to say that coming from the content world, when your product is something you can literally create out of thin air, right, as long as you have time and editorial capacity or video capacity or recording capacity. It is coming from a slightly different position compared to someone who’s selling a physical good.
Yeah. So your contention is venture capital can have an adverse effect then where it could accelerate, you know, the use of resources. And founders may never find product market fit because they’re not focused in deploying in the right areas.
I definitely think that now, this is not me Pooh poohing venture capital. I’m an LP and several venture capital funds, right. I’m an angel investor in a number of companies. And I think venture capital can be great, right? I think that, like I wouldn’t be using a MacBook Pro to talk with you today, if like venture capital weren’t to say, and from Apple’s early like venture capital, I think has an outsized impact on innovation, and technology, and a lot of different industries. But at the same time, I think there are instances where venture capital can push a business in a trajectory that simply isn’t sustainable. I think we’ve seen that several times in the content space. I think there was some very real examples for that. I think we’ve seen it in the CPG space, as well, or the direct or the DTC spaces, as well. So while I think venture capital has a lot of very good impacts, I don’t think that those are the same across industries. I don’t think I don’t think the impact of venture capital is positive and industry agnostic just like across the board. I think there are some some categories like digital content, where venture capital is probably not what I would recommend to a founder. And I think
in in vein with is also the amount of capital raise so when a founder is is ready to go raise and maybe they need two or $3 million to realistically hit their next milestones. And we have a scene internally that constraints breeds creativity. And when a business is over capitalized, you can get to lose focus can diverge, and you end up doing a lot of things not very well. How do you how do you think about, you know, the amount to raise for the founders that you’ve worked with, and not being lured by the shiny object, which is to x more money. And ultimately, the path or trajectory that that can set the business on versus taking the necessary amount of capital required?
We hired extremely slowly. I mean, very, very slowly, we average I think, fewer than one full time hire a year, for the first four years, that BB N existed. And so when it comes to raising, you know, or sorry, when it comes to hiring, we basically after our initial raise, after our initial couple of hires, didn’t hire anyone, until we knew that additional revenue from that position could cover that salary. Right? So we were just kind of like money in money out, right, and the money has to come in first. So we have to see that benefit. I think sometimes it’s more of an art than a science. Right? I think it’s difficult to, at least in content, especially to accurately produce predict revenue when there is seasonality. Right, Barbie in our first few years, it was very clear that we tended to make more money for around Black Friday, Cyber Monday. And we tended to make more money from display ads when our traffic spiked around things like I don’t know, weightlifting at the Olympics, or the CrossFit Games, or world Strongest Man or some of these hallmark events, where we would see traffic spikes, being able to forecast that out and understanding. Okay, not every position you hire for is going to be directly tied to revenue. How do you account for positions that are indirectly tied to revenue? And how do you actually map that to a revenue impact? Right? So for us, it’s pretty easy. A writer has a revenue impact, because the content they produce is going to create is going to create advertising dollars for us from display ads. But if we hired maybe a graphic designer, that was actually more of an indirect impact, right? That was they were producing content, graphics, motion graphics, social graphics, that were making our content better, but they weren’t necessarily writing a new article that was gonna create more room for display ads. Right? So how do we map that to an actual economic or revenue impact? It’s gonna be different for every business. And and, again, sometimes it’s a little bit more of an art than a science. I’m not the best Statistician in the world, right? I’m not the best number cruncher in the world. I come from an editorial background. And that was really the firepower I tried to bring to barbette. early on. But yeah, especially for early stage founders, every person you bring on, they’re going to be tied directly to revenue or indirectly tied to revenue, if they’re indirectly tied to revenue. How many points away? Do you have to connect the dots? And how are you doing that? I think it’s still important.
Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about some of the adverse effects here of either being over capitalized. I’m curious if you could change one thing about the early funding landscape, the early VC landscape, maybe it’s somewhere where venture capitalists are missing the mark, would do any come to mind? Or what are the areas that you see that you’d like to change or see change from an early stage funding perspective?
Yeah, I would I mean, I’m biased, right. But I’d like to see more community and audience specific investing. I think that there is a, at least in the untapped realm, we saw the appetite for venture capitalists, investing in content. They wanted mainstream, they wanted broad, right, they wanted the BuzzFeed they wanted, they wanted to capture everybody, but you can’t be everybody to everything. Right? And I think we joke, we joke in the digital content space, that the riches are in the niches. But that’s kind of true, right? You know, you are going to want different content than then I will want, maybe we maybe we do have some overlap. And maybe we do form part of a cohort together, or we form part of an audience together. But when it comes to the more specific, the better. And I think that I actually have seen that. And I do some advising for VCs, obviously, I’m an LP, LP and some funds, like I said, and I see a much different appetite these days for audience and community focused investing than seven years ago, seven years ago, I didn’t see that at all, from my perspective. And now I see venture capitalists, like I see it because they’re asking me they’re like, Well, what are some audiences that are being underserved? Right? Where are some audience and community focused opportunities? It could be in content, it could be in other sorts of products or services. And that is really exciting to me. Right? Because it’s easier to build authenticity, right? I don’t think anyone for the rest of my lifetime will become the content company for everybody. Right? I think the closest you have is like the New York Times, right? The people Whatever record for a lot of the English speaking world, or at least in America, I don’t know if anyone’s ever going to be that, right. But I don’t think anyone’s going to eclipse them to become like the newspaper, or the digital home for all of your content for every single person. But I do see opportunities to become the digital home for a self identifying and specific audience, kind of like Barban has been doing, and how we’re continuing to do that, right, we want to be home for strength online, I’d say we’re about halfway there, I think we have a lot of growth, which is why I stuck around and I’m excited to keep writing, you know, keep riding this train, and keep building that. But I think that’s very much doable, I think we can be the home for strength online, people who identify as lifters, people who want to make strength training part of their part of their lives, or weekly routines, and elite athletes, beginners, everyone in between, right? If you self identify as that we want to be where you get your content, or at least the first and primary place where you get your content. That level of specificity is I think something VCs are getting very excited about these days, digital content, and also other spaces. And that brings a smile to my face.
I want to get into the specifics of how to actually go about building a media business because again, you’ve done it on very little capital, you’ve alluded to some of these insights. But prior to proceeding, I wanted to pick your brain on when the right time to sell is like what led up to the acquisition. I you know, take us through your thought process of when you started thinking that it might be the right time when offers started coming in? Have you thought about it strategically? You know, give us the end to end thought process on when might be the right time to say yes to an acquisition offer.
We started getting acquisition offers, I’d say they actually started coming in seriously in 2021. Probably and for context, we sold. Call it two years later, in 2020, you know, April 2023, to pillar four media. And, you know, there were a few issues with the initial offers. That came in one, I think potential buyers were under estimating our size and our growth trajectory. They weren’t necessarily doing their research. And there were also category of inbound offers was pretty clear, people just wanted to scrap the brand for parts, right? They want to just to like, take the site, squeeze it for all it’s worth. And once once they got there, once they got what they could kind of toss it aside or just like redirect it. We had a full time team. At that point. You know, we had people who dependent on us. And it was also my dream job like I’m still at Barbin were my dream job anymore. Right? There was a personal component here. I didn’t think it was the right outcome for me and my co founders and our other exec we didn’t think it was the right outcome for our investors, ourselves, or our employees or our readers. When pillar four came knocking on buddy, we our relationship with my co founders, and I actually knew some of their execs and founders, the CEO, Todd had a very good relationship with him, I have a ton of admiration for him and his team. Like, there’s someone I’d look to for inspiration, when they came knocking, and they said, Hey, we love Barbin. We don’t love just the asset. Like we’d love Barbara. And we’d like the team, we want to learn from you all and we want to add fuel to the fire and give you all more resources that started getting really appealing to us. And I don’t want to say just me because I know decision, even as CEO was making unilaterally, right, that start getting really appealing to us. And by the way, every single team member from BB end, who was on when pillar four acquired us is still at barbette. Right and our team has actually gotten bigger, we’ve able to hire make some really cool strategic hires, that we would have been slower to make had we not been acquired because we have more resources now. And we have more support. Pillar four started using things from the Barbin playbook to help their other properties. We started using things from their playbook to help our properties and there’s been a really cool synthesis and sharing of information. So when this came across the desk, okay, what am I thinking of? I’m thinking of what’s best for the company? What’s best for the investors, what’s best for the employees? What’s best for our user slash readers, and what’s best for the founders. Right. And Pilla, Ford came knocking, and they presented a deal, where all those boxes were checked green flags across the board, right? You know, that was, that was pretty hard to ignore. And so we didn’t ignore it. And we had those conversations, and we got to a place where everyone I think was really, really happy. And when I say I have a lot of gratitude for what we were able to work out with him. I mean, that’s a bit of a long winded and maybe sappy answer to your very, like pithy indirect question, but when everything is green flags, and when everyone can be happy, maybe that’s maybe that’s something you should consider. And it certainly was something that we couldn’t ignore.
Yeah, well, congratulations on the exit, especially in 2023 here, right when the macro environment is what it is, you’re not seeing as many acquisitions today as we were, you know, a year or two years ago. So congratulations on all that success and taking it to where it is today. It may seem like we’re jumping around and going out of order here but I did want to touch on the fundraising part because I think founders have very little insight in what it’s like to bootstrap versus going and raising venture and hearing your story, I hope can provide some insight on what they should do and how they should be thinking about things. So anyway, I want to go back to building barbette. Because you’ve had quite a bit of success, millions of readers. I want to talk about, like the very beginning, though, and like how you solved the zero to one problem for a content business, which is very difficult to do. How did you drive your initial followership a BB and,
yeah, so I kind of liken it to this is not something that I came up with, this is something that someone who I was close to who I’m close friends with, said at the time, they said, Well, you didn’t really finesse it, David just kind of ran through the drywall. And that’s what it felt like, you know, I have fantastic co founders. And when we first started, they, they did everything to support the business when it came to like, technically, when it came to making sure we had revenue from other projects that we could, we could still Bootstrap and self fund to support me. But I was pretty much a one person editorial team for much of the first year. And we did not know a lot about paid traffic, we all came from SEO backgrounds, various various capacities, and organic backgrounds. And I decided early on that the thing that was missing the thing I thought was missing from the strength landscape was news news on a met results, World Records what’s happening in strength, sports, powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman, you name it, because that’s what I was interested in. And it got to the point where a few months in I was writing personally about like, not really, not really over estimate to say 30 Plus articles a week, myself seven days a week publishing on everything I could find if I could report on it, and I could report on it accurately I was writing it. And that was not sustainable, by the way, would not recommend it. But it worked for us. And we brute force it. And we wrote so much content, that it was impossible for people who were interested in spring to ignore. People started seeing us in a search results in Google News or Google, Discover or just on social media. And suddenly, they realized there was one place, they could go and get all of the news relevant to their interests, and there was no other place like it online. There were places that were even more niche than us or even broader than us. But we were kind of hitting this band for like the strength nerds. And we’ve obviously diversified content since then you don’t have to be an elite athlete, or only interested in elite athletics to get a lot of department content. These days, we read a lot more now we’re a lot broader. But we just wrote so much people couldn’t ignore us. And I remember the Rio Olympics in 2016, a few months after we’d launched, I was writing event recaps for every weightlifting session, every single session. And I was I remember, I ducked out of a friend’s birthday party and ran like a few blocks home to write a recap, right just because I was like, We got to be the first to publish. And suddenly people started linking to us a lot. We could pedia started linking to us as a primary source. Other sites like, you know, Sports Illustrated, I think, or maybe even ESPN was linked, they were linking to us. Because we were publishing this, and we were providing great context. And we were writing it from the perspective of, we knew we knew our stuff, I had immersed myself in this world, to where, you know, I was, at the time the most prolific writer in strength sports news in the world. So it became impossible to ignore. And when you were searching for these events, event results started popping up. Because we were the first writing about this covering the stuff. And I think we were the best, even though it’s just me, I think we’ve done a lot better, since I’m probably the least talented writer on the barbell team now, but at the time, we were the only place conglomerating all this, and then authenticity. And so the people who were really endemic to the space, they really wanted to share our content, they really wanted to root for us. And so by the time we were actually raising money from angels and individuals, and we were actually able to hire staff, you know, we knew we could double down on that new strategy, at least for a while, and and continue to grow our traffic that way.
Got it? And I, you know, I’m curious what you said prior to the show, that niche is almost always a niche is almost always bigger than you think. Why do you believe that to be true?
Well, I think that people don’t always self identify with their interests. Right? I think the majority of hobbyists are quiet. Right? You know, Nate, I, I spent no time I feel a little bad about this asking you about your interests and hobbies, right? And I’m sure you have an array of them. But it’s not necessarily how you introduce yourself at a party. Right? Even if you are interested in that sort of content. I do a lot of work in the whiskey space, as well. And I don’t always introduce myself as a big whiskey fan, because that actually has some negative connotations, right? So a lot of people I know, who are really interested in content around whiskey, just as one example. They don’t lead with that. There’s not like, Hey, my name is David and I love whiskey, right? Because, whoa, this guy, this guy might have a little bit of a problem, right? And so I think the majority of interest groups and individual how obvious are quiet about it. I think that in strength, people who self identify as strength athletes as lifters, even if they’re not, you know, sending world records, I think that has grown over time. But I think that no matter your niche or niche, and I still don’t know the right way to say it all these years, all these years in, I think no matter what, it’s hard not to underestimate the size of these audiences, because most people are not saying, My name is David. And I like this thing. Right? The exception might be pickleball. These days, by the way, because everyone who plays pickleball, who I know, talks about it, it’s kind of a joke, right? But yeah, I just I think we as humans, in the society we live in, at least in the United States, we’re not quick to self identify with all of our interests. And I think sometimes, that’s out of a desire to keep things private, and keep things personal. And that’s totally cool. Sometimes I think that’s out of a sense of shame, you don’t want to seem like a big nerd, right? I didn’t always identify as a strength nerd. Because I don’t want people to think I was a meathead all these different factors. So that’s why I think these audiences are often underestimated size and scope.
Into go from zero to one, you claim that consistency is key, you talked about how you’re writing 30 articles a week, which is an insane amount, by the way. And I’ve heard other writers say this as well, that you just need to, you need to write like you need to get on a frequent basis of publishing content. And that ultimately can lead to success if you find the right niche. But how do you know when something isn’t working? Like? Is there a general timeline or framework that one should use in order to time box something to say, Okay, we’ve been very consistent, but we’re just not generating the traction in the time that we thought we would. But what is the general timeline that you would recommend someone who is being very consistent where you say, Hey, if you haven’t found it after X number of weeks or months, then it might be time to change it up or do something different?
I generally say about a year in content, I think that a year of being very consistent, right? And I don’t mean, like, oh, a month consistently, and then I’ve took a month off. And then you know, I posted for another few weeks that I took a month off, I think a year of consistency is really that the timescale, I would give folks across a lot of different content categories, everyone’s going to be a little bit different. But I think that includes written content, you know, on site content, I think it’s video content. I think that includes podcasting. We gave ourselves we started in mid March 2016. So we actually sold the company almost exactly seven years, after we were founded, I actually really was hoping we could like get it on exactly the day and like sign up final paperwork on exactly the day didn’t quite work out took a little bit longer. That’s okay. We’re gonna get story though, a good tidbit. But we gave ourselves toward to the end of 2016, we started seeing traction about three or four months in. And for us, it was because there were these newsworthy events in the sports we covered world Strongest Man occurred, the Rio Olympics occurred, the CrossFit Games occurred. And we started seeing these traffic spikes. And it wasn’t always consistent, right? Your traffic’s not increasing the same amount every day with every event, we started seeing attraction increase. And so if you’re doing something with an audience, or targeted audience, such that there are specific events or their seasonality, right, or you know, that search tends to spike during a particular time of year, like take that into account. Right. For example, if you’re building a site, this is maybe a bad example. But if you’re building a site about outdoor beach volleyball, right, like, you might not see as much traction during the winter, as the warmer as the warmer months, right? take that into account, try and try and put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Hopefully, you I think some of the best content companies are started by members of those audiences, right? There’s an authenticity there, put yourself in those shoes and expect there might be seasonality or there might be specific events, especially when it comes to content. And you know, what you write in December might not pop then might be more relevant in July. Right? It just depends on your space.
Yep, pick sides. And at this point, your zero to one you have an audience, what is or what was your path monetization at Barbin? Like how early should content media business be thinking about these? How do they build them out?
I mean, it depends on it’s very different for for specific niches, like for example, fitness is monetized differently. Then SAS software, right, like, I think you could, the more specific your niche is sometimes the smaller it can be when you start monetizing, actually, because there’s specific purchase intent with certain industries. For us, the first way we started monetizing was display ads. Right. We started getting a enough traffic to where we could put display and programmatic ads on the site that started creating revenue. Cool. That is an ecosystem that has ebbed and flowed Over the years, right, it’s not the early 2000s, where almost anyone could put up some, some banner ads powered by Google and suddenly like, hey, the checks start rolling in, right, you have to have a certain amount of you have to have the bidding underneath a good bit more traffic these days. And that landscapes gotten much more competitive. The rpms are, are not what they always used to be. Although, you know, we do see year to year sometimes that ebbs sometimes it flows. So that was the first way monetized, started doing sponsored content really early on. So going directly to brands and saying, Hey, we can produce great advertorial content for you and with you, right, we can produce content around disclose a disclaimer such around product launches your picture company is doing. And this is our specific audience. And it was actually very easy for us to figure out the brands we wanted to target because we knew exactly who our audience was, you know, we weren’t just the wellness site. We weren’t just the fitness site, we were the site for strength. So we were going to go to companies that wanted to get in with power lifters and CrossFitters. And weightlifters, right, much more specific, much easier to identify that, by the way, all those markets have grown since we started, right. So we’ve been able to ride that wave up, the number of brands who want to reach that audience has increased, so we’re able to work with more of them now. So direct sponsored content was important for us early on to and remains today. That did a lot during the pandemic, by the way, as brands were pulling back direct advertising dollars, but that started to have promising results again, in the past, like your affiliate revenue is something that’s impactful for us, we didn’t really start that until a little bit later on, we wanted to build a brand around news and evergreen content and training and nutrition content. We didn’t want to just be known as like the review site. Early on, we do produce a good bit of that content now. But we didn’t want to produce that content until we knew we had a great base and a great system for producing news and evergreen. Right? We didn’t want to be like the reviews first site. And then you know, there are other ways to monetize as well. We’ve had our video strategy has ebbed and flowed. I’m actually excited to like, help kickstart that more again this year and do more creative stuff on the video side, podcasting as well. We make revenue from podcasting videos, things like that. So, you know, we have a number of revenue sources, right? Our only product is content, but I just named four or five different revenue sources. And we had identified all those within the first three years of operating.
As you reflect on your journey, building the business, are there any traps that you would tell those building content businesses or medium businesses to look out for? Or maybe maybe the better question is, in hindsight, if you could go back, what would you have done differently?
So we made this is this is a very specific example I’ll give when we started, we thought we were not going to leave right on events, we thought we were going to start live streaming events. And we spent too much money and way too much time trying to build systems to livestream events and partnering with events like going physically setting up cameras, hiring crews, doing the production. When I started, we thought we could be the espn.com for strength, but then the ESPN for strength and like actually air all this stuff. It was not what we were best at. We were not good at it. That wasn’t what my co founders and I were really built for. It’s not what really got us out of bed in the morning. And we had some early success. Like we had some like promising signs. But it took a real come like a real heart to heart series of heart heart moments with our founding team, you might co founders to be like, Hey, I don’t think this is where our core competency lies. Can we really scale this? Are we the best people to scale this? What if we took all that effort, more importantly, for the money, and just put it toward content production that wasn’t live streaming these events? And that’s what we decided to do. But we did waste a lot of time, the first year trying to livestream events, right. And the fact that they had some success is really scary. Because I think that if we had actually stuck with it, I don’t think the company would done that well, we would have been to split our energies would have been split our goals would have been split. A lot of folks ask us why we don’t sell like apparel, and equipment, we work with a lot of great advertising and affiliate partner so that end, but you’re not gonna find a BB end branded barbell. But we actually did sell apparel for a little while we sold the sleeves, we sold weightlifting belts, and those did okay. But frankly, we realized we were hitting bottlenecks when it came to fulfillment and logistics on that, because that’s not what we were best at. The advice I would give to founders through the lens of those examples is if you have a little bit of success with something, but you know, it’s not what your team is built for. Don’t be afraid to kill it. That’s what I would say, right? You have shiny object syndrome. And as a startup founder, you have to try different things. You have to kind of throw a bunch of the walls, see what sticks. But even if something sticks a little bit, but you’re like, wow, we’re really bad at this. Right? Maybe you find someone else to partner with on that. Right. And like you’re not the one actually doing it. But you have an organizational partner or a company partner that does it. I don’t know.
Yeah, I think you guys have more awareness and most on that front. So kudos to you guys for staying focused. Prior to wrapping up for the day. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about this. And you probably know it was coming but that’s around generative AI so for someone that is doing embedded in media and content, I have to ask, is generative AI overhyped or under hyped when it comes to content production and creation?
Well, it certainly hyped that much we can all agree on. Here’s what I’ll say, I’m gonna give a really hope this isn’t a terrible answer. One reason that I’m so excited to be part of the pillar for right now. And then one reason I’m so excited be a part of BB end with a bigger me, the company behind it is because when it was when Barbara was just its own independent entity, if you had said, Hey, David, why don’t you put together a task force to figure out the impact of generative AI? On your content ecosystem? I would have said, How the heck are we going to do that? With what money and resources? Are we going to do that? What a taskforce like what are you talking about? As part of pillar four now, they’re working on that there are people at pillar four who are waking up and thinking about the impact of generative AI on content across the pillar poor portfolio and the general content lit content landscapes that pillar four operates it and their brands operate it? That’s awesome. And I think it’s important to think about, I think that my guess is the impact will be slower than a lot of the current acolytes will claim. But at the same time, I think it’s very scary for small and independent media companies, who don’t necessarily have the resources to dedicate to figure out how it’s going to impact them, how to take advantage of it, or how to hedge against it. Right. It’s another reason that I really glad we got acquired when we did, because just having more smart brains thinking about that, that impact on BB end, helps me sleep a little bit better at night.
So what is your recommendation for media companies that are looking to integrate generative AI? And like what is? Is there a playbook in your mind? Or how do you best see these companies adopting it, test test
test, the best thing about being a digital content company, I don’t care if you’re a newsletter, if you’re on site content, if your social content or if your mix of all of these, you have a lot of data, you have so much data, there is no reason to dive headfirst and change your entire content production process for any one thing until you try it in a smaller form factor or a more gradual way. And you test and you see the results. Right? There’s I don’t think there’s any reason that a founder of a content company today should switch their entire editorial process over to incorporate generative AI, without seeing how a few pieces of content perform and how it impacts their content in some small way, or some controlled, measurable way. Every piece of content you produce can be an experiment. Right? You can, and you can see it pretty quickly. I was on a podcast earlier this week. And they talked about they talked about instant gratification. Well, in the digital content sphere, you can get instant gratification. And you can also get instantaneous disappointment, right? You can see what’s working and what’s not working. And one hit and one mist doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, you have to try it a few different times, you have to start putting enough shots on goal to actually see the trends, right. But you can do that. And you can do that quicker than almost any other industry. So leverage the fact that we have near to real time analytics, no matter the medium it’s going out on that’s a real benefit. If you’re doing anything in digital content, don’t be afraid to use it.
Have you seen it working at all, like whether it’s in polar form? Maybe you can’t share the details. But I’d be curious if you’ve actually seen it integrated into the editorial process with real results and either equal or better results? I’m, you know, from someone on the front lines, is it working today? And is it affecting real workflows? Or is it still a ways out?
I won’t speak to specific things that pinafore is doing internally on this end, besides saying that, like Hey, everyone, it’s on. I’m not gonna I’m not gonna say it’s not on people’s minds that pillar for because I think it’s on everyone’s minds. If you work in content, right, it’s impossible to ignore. I haven’t seen a ton of examples of it being really successful for endemic content brands right now. That much I’ll say,
fair enough. The last question I had for you is just as you surveyed the media landscape today, whether it’s generative, whether it’s something else, like where do you see the biggest opportunities or the biggest gaps? I mean,
I see them any suddenly I see them in small niche audiences, because I think people’s hobbies, people’s interests, they drive purchasing intent. I think that no matter how specific, you think your audience is, ask yourself, can you get more specific? Right? And is that more specific audience going to be more engaged? I kind of think of it like this. Would you rather have 500,000 people on an email list at a 20% open rate? That’s 100,000 people opening your email or would you rather have 400,000 people on the email list and have a 50%? Open Rate? That’s 200,000 people opening your email, right? I think most people would want the latter. Sometimes getting smaller, creates a bigger audience. I know that seems really weird, right? But if you even if you’re writing, even if the raw addressable number seems smaller, if you’re able to capture a larger percentage of that audience as engaged, there might be more business potential in that, because ultimately, you’re getting more users.
Make sense? Well, David, to wrap up if we could feature anyone on the show, who should we interview? And what topic would you like to hear him speak about?
Oh, wow, I was not prepared for this. This is a this is a really? Oh, dear, this is a really good question. Okay. You know what I’m gonna say, I’m gonna say this a shout out. He’s, I’ll say he’s a close personal friend. So I’m going to show my bias there. There was a man named Phil Andrews, who I’ve worked with a number of times over the years, Phil is British by birth, as now a citizen and lives in Colorado. Phil was CEO of USA weightlifting, and I think very much was impactful in turning that organization into a real competitor on the world stage. At a time when weightlifting the United States was not necessarily internationally competitive. Now, he’s the CEO of USA fencing. This is a man who literally His job is to go from he goes to into niche sports. And he says, How can we completely rethink how we address this audience? How we compete on the world stage, how we get donors and corporate partners? How do we completely rethink this model for these very niche sports in the United States, and weightlifting, and fencing are very different. And he’s done a great job in both. It’s like the CEOs, their job is to come in and like turn around a company and they’re almost industry agnostic. And you’re like, how did they do this? For industries that are like, completely different from each other, feels kind of like that, when it comes to sports, or at least the Olympic sports in the United States. He’s actually the one who was the driving force behind Barbin, becoming a media partner of USA weightlifting, which was like kind of an unthinkable thing that hadn’t really been explored, before we started working together. And I just love the way Phil approaches, sports, like a business, but with a lot of humanity and respect for the athletes and the fact that people dedicate their lives to these. And I don’t think enough people know his name as someone who’s doing something, unlike anyone else, in sports, in sports today. So the way he sees sports as business and the way he sees audience and community building around those, I couldn’t recommend him highly enough to come on and give his perspective on the world. Because I think it’s it’s,
yeah, incredibly interesting. I can’t say that we’ve had a guest anywhere close to that skill set. So appreciate you sharing which book article or video, would you recommend to our listeners, ideally, something in recent memory that you’ve either found particularly informative or inspiring,
I’ll give a self plug. I wrote a medium article about the chronology of our event. And if people want to read that, I would recommend it but actually a real, real real talk. Let’s see here. It’s a little cliche. But James clear as atomic habits was really impactful for me, I read it at a time kind of during the height of the pandemic, I feel when I was really struggling to kind of find my stride and my confidence as a as a CEO. And if you’re healthy and things like that, it was probably when I applied those principles to how it was working in the business world, it really changed things. For me, it was a confidence booster, it was routine booster, and I don’t think I would have been impactful as impactful as I was a CEO of Barbin, if I hadn’t read that, at the right time. So you’ve probably heard people say it before, but atomic habits would would really recommend that
you do incorporate any habitual changes to your daily routine. Are there any tactics, techniques that you’d classify as a secret weapon?
Yeah, I made communication a habit. Right? I think as CEO, you’re a focal point. And you’re taking in information and you have to synthesize it to make decisions on to often make yes or no decisions, or at least contribute to yes and no decisions. And for me, making that communication habitual, and unrealized during doing that made me realize that there were people on our team and aspects of our company that I just was not in touch with on a regular. So, you know, James clear gives the example of like smoking cessation, right? How do you stop smoking? Well, you know, you build habits that lead you away from you. Try lead yourself away from the bad habits and try and incorporate the good habits. But I think you can apply that to how you interact with the world. I think you can apply that to how you communicate with people and make it something that you self identify as, before I read that book. I never thought of myself as a communicator. I never thought of myself as someone who reaches out to people to communicate and initiate conversations. I was always reactive Right, I would never say that I was gregarious or extroverted when it came to communication, but now I self identify as an initiator of conversations. And that just completely changes my framework. So the first thing I do every morning now is I forgot who I’m gonna talk to that today, who am I going to initiate conversations with that date in the business world in my personal life, and my hobbies, and my extended social network, etc.
And then David, what’s the best way for listeners to connect with you?
Sure. I’m on Instagram at David Thomas Tao, I’m on Twitter at D underscore tau. That’s D underscore t a, oh, I still host the Barbin podcast which they still let me do which I get a big kick out of so look at look up the barbell podcast that you know, anywhere you find great podcasts, like this one. And then if you want to email me, David at BB n.com, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.
Awesome. Well, David, really appreciate you doing this and in for your perspectives. Again, it’s I can’t say that we’ve ever had a guest on who’s bootstrapped a company to the level of success that you have. So thanks again for doing this. And I hope that the audience was able to glean some valuable lessons.
Thanks so much for having me had a really good time. Awesome.
All right, that’ll wrap up today’s interview. If you enjoyed the episode or a previous one, let the guests know about it. Share your thoughts on social or shoot them an email, let them know what particularly resonated with you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Some of the smartest folks in venture are willing to take the time and share their insights with us. If you feel the same accomplishment goes a long way. Okay, that’s a wrap for today. Until next time, remember to over prepare, choose carefully and invest confidently thanks so much for listening
Transcribed by https://otter.ai