Deskside: Alexia Brue & Melisse Gelula
Co-Founders, Well+Good. New York
Welcome to Desksides, The Coveteur series in which we sit down with leaders in various creative fields and figure out how they got there. We guess we could've also named this, "how the hell do I get your cool job," accompanied with a "help me I'm poor" GIF from Bridesmaids, but then realized going the mononymous route was a little more succinct.
Do you guys remember a time before juice bars, ballet barre studios and natural skincare prescriptions? Yeah, we know. It’s difficult to imagine of such a terrible time. But rest assured, such a time existed—just five years ago. Hard to believe, but there were no sweatshirts inscribed with the words K-A-L-E back then. Is it a coincidence that Well+Good, our go-to source for everything breaking in health and fitness, launched five years ago, too? Likely not. But co-founders Alexia Brue and Melisse Gelula most definitely have a sixth sense when it comes to guessing the cultural zeitgeist, because now we can’t stop talking about the latest detox massage and Pilates-spin-dance-cardio combo classes. They knew wellness would become our dinner party conversation and now the site is a national juggernaut—let’s just say that when they’re obsessed with a studio fitness class, we’re obsessed. Herein, they talk about wearing workout clothes to the office, being body-positive and their deep bond as business partners and friends.
ON HOW IT ALL BEGAN:
Alexia Brue: “Melisse and I had known each other for almost a decade, probably. We were in the print magazine world; we actually had very similar biographies in that we had come from book publishing and then went into magazine publishing. We met at a magazine called Luxury SpaFinder. I freelanced there and Melisse was a staffer. We always just really, really liked each other, and then when things were changing so much in 2008 with the financial crisis and so many magazines were closing down, we got together and had the idea for Well+Good. Then, it was much more local, focused on New York City.
We just started it as an experiment in the summer of ’09, where we would each take a turn writing something every day. We weren’t finding journalism on basic wellness—we hadn’t seen it done very much before. BluePrint cleanse had just launched and SoulCycle had one location on the Upper West Side, so there was a lot of wellness excitement percolating, but it hadn’t hit the way it has now. I think we saw it coming and just started writing about it in a way that no one else was. We found that with this little Wordpress blog, traffic and readership was growing in a very organic way and that gave us the confidence in April of 2010 to stop the other work that we were doing and just focus on this. We knew the editorial side very well but then we taught ourselves all of the tech pieces and how you grow subscribers, how you build out an ad sales program, how you do content sharing.”
Melisse Gelula: “I think that what we first started doing was answering questions that we had, personally, and that other New York women had for us. Having been at Luxury SpaFinder and in the health and wellness space, looking at it through an international spa lens, New Yorker’s were [starting to] look at alternative medicine and yoga here at home. People weren’t just jetting off to Thailand and Bali anymore; they were looking for these things closer to home. Answering those questions, really journalistically, in the way that a [food critic] would be able to tell you the difference between one restaurant and another, we just really started doing that on the New York scene.”
ON GOING FROM NEW YORK-BASED TO NATIONAL:
AB: “In the beginning, we were both in New York City. We’re journalists and we didn’t have a five year plan; really, we were just going day-by-day and trying to fill a void where we saw one. We were always looking at analytics and our stories followed the lead of what our readers were interested in. We noticed that 70 percent of our traffic, even from very early on, was coming from outside New York state. We started to cover more of the interesting fitness and wellness visionaries and celebrities across the country. But it was only last year, in 2014, that we launched our ‘Anywhere Edition.’ We also launched an L.A. edition and we purchased WellandGood.com. It took a while to be able to purchase that site from someone else, but even though we were national before then, it really took having WellandGood.com and the Anywhere Edition to be seen in that way.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD PRESS:
AB: “Last year we were on CBS This Morning with Norah O’Donnell and she was introducing our website to the country when we had just launched the WellandGood.com website. That was incredible. That put us on a national stage in the US and coming from CBS This Morning it was really validating. We’ve had different press moments like that that have just really helped us along the way. Before that, Gwyneth Paltrow chose Well+Good as one of her favourite sites—things like that really, really helped in terms of bringing new subscribers and even new advertisers.”
ON FIGURING IT OUT AS YOU GO:
AB: “Mistakes are part of the process. There are lots of things it would have been nice to know, especially from a technical and operational perspective, but figuring out what a growing organization needs in real-time is part of the fun.”
ON HOW THEIR CONTENT AND STORIES MAKE THEM DIFFERENT:
MG: We weren’t really looking at trends or celebrities, or things that people would think were crazy. We felt like that was being done already, ‘Like, oh my God, look at that… eye roll eye roll.’ Or the opposite, with like, ‘This will save your soul!’ or ‘This is a miracle superfood!’ We’re about real journalistic reporting and finding cool things, interesting things that savvy women cared about. They might be a about a fashion brand—uncovering a hot legging company—or it could be, ‘Here is the smoothie goddess of the Lower East Side that you need to know about.’ It was really hooking up New York readers, at the beginning, with those cultural opportunities to engage in the wellness lifestyle at home, in the city. We found that New York women were probably a lot like Angelenos, just starting to talk about this stuff, with each other, at dinner. We used to talk about books and movies and now women are like, ‘Have you been to Y7 Yoga?’ That sort cultural shift really started to happen and it provided a lot of inspiration for article ideas. [That along with] the growth of what it meant to be healthy: it wasn’t about diet, it’s not about fat melting, it’s not about belly fat or ‘bikini body’—none of that.
Well+Good is really all about the best part of your day being when you’re working out and how to fall in love with your juicer in the morning, you know? Just getting your day off to a great start and really taking all of that finger-waving nonsense out of it and just making it part of a cool, chic lifestyle. It’s actually pretty accessible and more people want a part of it now. As businesses evolve, we are the first to report on them and help readers understand the difference between all the studios that came after SoulCycle and FlyWheel. Same with the barre studios and the bootcamp studios.”
ON THE REWARDING NATURE OF DIGITAL PUBLISHING:
AB: “Digital publishing is instantaneous, so we started to like the instant gratification. Once you start doing digital, it’s so addictive because you’re having a conversation with your readers and you’re not trying to guess.”
MG: “You can really see online the difference we make for these businesses when we write about them. We can see the readers engage online and share things, like things or regram it. It also loops us in more as to what people care about. I think it’s really exciting in health and wellness because you start to take the temperature of what people are obsessed with or super curious about. It adds this whole other layer of fun to what we do. There’s something about keeping it alive [online]. I think it’s just tremendous for seeing excitement and pattern in this space.”
ON THEIR FRIENDSHIP AND WORKING DYNAMIC:
AB: “It’s interesting because Melisse and I knew each other as colleagues before this, but we weren’t friends and I think that was good because there wasn’t all that emotional stuff. We had really a professional relationship and that developed into a really sweet friendship over the last five years. We’ve been through marriages together, births of children, the death of a parent; there’s just so many things that we’ve been through together. We have really nice complementary skills. I think our partnership and our friendship has made so much of that possible.”
MG: “If we were doing an interview about ‘How to find a good business partner,’ it would be so hard to pinpoint how to do that because you can’t know how awesome somebody is going to be until you really get in it with them. It’s hard and hours get really long… There’s no way I could’ve predicted how awesome Alexia was because I saw just a fraction of what she was about in our previous print world. In this industry and with a lot of female co-founders, you spend so much time together, you’ve got so many projects together, it brings out all of your skills, all your good stuff, all your bad stuff and like any good relationship, we’re both so focused on it. We love working together and we feel so lucky for that; it’s never been a challenge for us—our professional and personal connection has helped us thrive. People respond to Well+Good so positively because of how connected we are and connected we are to each other and to the site.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERACTING WITH THEIR READERS IRL:
AB: “As we got bigger, we were building out marketing programs and figuring out different ways to work with brands, and coming from the editorial world, we really wanted to have full-service creative solution for brands. They could reach their readers through your banner—all of the traditional things—but then we would also do events for them as well and creative native content series. Because Melisse and I love doing events—beauty events, food events, fitness events—and combining them all with profiles we feature on the site and having opportunities for our readers to talk, it all sort of made sense to grow that part of the business. As an online media company, it’s really good to have an offline component to give it that extra touch point and as a business thing as well.
We do this annual event called the Fitness Biathlon where we work with lots of the studios and readers can take two back-to-back fitness classes and then there’s a party afterwards and it all goes to benefit a charity. It’s just this coming together of studio life and friends. It sold out in seven minutes last year. It’s this moment where we really feel good about the product we put out into the world and that it helps people prioritize their health. It’s a nice feeling to wake up to every day.”
ON THEIR PRO-WOMEN, BODY-POSITIVE EDITORIAL VOICE:
MG: “I think one of the things that we get a lot of positive feedback on is that we are your cool friend. If something’s really new and interesting, we’re just writing about it to our friends. We all have that girlfriend who knows where to eat or where to workout—that’s the kind of woman that we channel. We picture her in our minds; we are writing for her—the woman who cares about wellness in a fun way. We like to say that we are sophisticated, but also very accessible. One thing that we are not is finger-wagging. We are not preachy; we think your body is perfectly fine. We don’t think that you need to know anything. There’s no doing things out of guilt or shame. We don’t like phrases like ‘weight loss.’ We’re all just here enjoying fitness and eating kale salads. If there’s a reason you’re finding it exciting and would do this with your friends, that’s how we’re coming at it. Being motivated in ways other than guilt or self-hatred. I feel like this movement that Well+Good has a part in fostering is really a positive one; it’s not coming from that old guard of weight loss that a lot of women's magazines cling to.”
ON THEIR WORKOUT WEAR OFFICE DRESS CODE:
MG: “We love, love finding new, hot designers in the fitness and fashion space. Every five minutes there are a new pair of leggings that I have to have. I would say that there’s usually something that I’m wearing [at any given moment] that I could sweat in. I think we’re skinny-jeans-and-boots downtown ladies in general, and then we’d have a mesh tank on. The stuff in these pictures are some of our literal favourite things right now that our staff sees us in pretty regularly. We’re always showing up to meetings like, ‘You don’t need to show up in a suit.’ We can meet over a green juice in our leggings and it’s great. I haven’t worn a dress in a really long time.”
AB: “I work more on the publishing side, so there are days I have to take it up a few notches, but overall, you can still be really put together and be wearing clothes that you feel good in or can go workout in after work. It just makes life easier and it’s fun! There’s so much choice now. Anything goes in our office and everyone dresses differently depending on what their meetings are that day. It’s fun. Sometimes people will spin in the morning and come in just in their workout gear; we love that because it’s so hard to make it all happen. We think the workplace could get much healthier if it would just have a more fair approach to what we wear.”
MG: “We can help set a pace for other companies being a little more okay with people dressing, quote unquote ‘more casually,’ if it means they’re living healthier, more balanced lives. Employees who get to workout in the morning are better employees. A lot of times people won’t workout in the morning because they can’t figure out how to make the shower happen and how to get to work in their whole work ensemble. If the work ensemble changes, you don’t have to worry about that as much.”
ON THE BEST ADVICE THEY COULD GIVE SOMEONE INTERESTED IN LAUNCHING THEIR OWN MEDIA SITE:
AB: “Figure out your revenue model and start working away on it from day one; the strategy of growing users and then figuring out revenue has pitfalls. We had an ad sales program even when we only had 2,000 people on the site per day. It's possible!”
MG: “Alexia and I just spend 80 percent of our day or week doing stuff that engages our reader, but they would never even know because it’s not about the article or the words—it’s all the stuff that just makes the engine run. Now there are thirteen of us. We all work out of the same office in the financial district. We never could’ve guessed starting that we would be building a team like this. It’s really amazing.”
ON BEING ACCIDENTAL ENTREPRENEURS:
AB: “We really didn’t start out thinking, ‘We’re going to create a business.’ Neither one of us has any business training; there’s no MBA here. It really just came out of a passion and a feeling that our content was good and that it was needed and we wanted to bring more of it to readers. To do that, we had to build a business around it. The business was the by-product of the mission.
That’s one of the really fun things about being a small, independent company: when Melisse and I want to experiment with something, we can. I think one of the things people love about working here is that we’re really experimental; there aren’t layers of approval; we don’t talk about things for weeks and months—it’s just like, ‘Let’s try it!’”
MG: “There is a strategy in terms of who we’re talking to and the kind of information that we want to give them.”
AB: “You said it. We’ve always had a really good gut instinct on this. We know our reader and we can reach our reader.”
ON THE REWARDS OF BEING PART OF THE INDUSTRY:
AB: “The fitness and wellness community is filled with such incredible and inspiring people. It’s such a supportive community and Melisse and I feel so lucky to get to work with some of these people. That’s been such an incredible part of all of this. In learning about it, we’ve obviously gotten healthier and more mindful about what we’re doing, too.”