Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin on going viral with the help of Hoda Kotb and why the one thing they want you to do is vote.
When you woke up this morning, what was the first thing you did? The founders of theSkimm, a daily email filled with the previous days most relevant news aimed at millennial women, are betting that the first thing you did was roll over, look at your phone and check your emails and texts. Surprise, surprise, after turning off our blaring alarm (also, on our phone), that’s exactly what we did. We scrolled past the mass of junk mail and press releases that flood our inboxes between the hours of 2 and 6 AM, and we opened theSkimm—for the record, we’re not just saying that. The craziest part? 3.5 million people and counting are right there with us—we’re guessing a fair number of them have the exact same early morning ritual. Which is how Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin (the aforementioned founders), have gone from writing the newsletter on their couch, to running a newsroom out of a glossy Flatiron office, interviewing 12 presidential nominees, and taking responsibility for getting you (yes, you) to vote.
The lightbulb moment:
Danielle: “Carly and I first met while studying abroad in college in Rome. We had a great time, and didn’t talk about real-life things because why would you? Then we graduated and reconnected when we were both working full time for NBC News.
“We grew up with the same passions: we loved journalism, we loved storytelling, we loved telling our friends and family [everything we saw happening]. We played the same kind of role within our friends and family and in our actual jobs. We loved working for NBC News—between the two of us we worked in every news division that they had—it was like growing up and getting to live your dreams. Unfortunately, the economy didn’t really help us with that. We graduated in 2008. Five years later it still wasn’t great. We saw that there was no path forward, no upward trajectory like there used to be 10-15 years ago. The flip side was that we were roommates in a small apartment in the West Village and we would talk about this disconnect between our friends who are smart, educated, on-the-go, but asking us basic questions every day. We knew the answers because it was our job to know what was going on in the world. We were essentially being paid to read and the fact was that they weren’t watching what we were producing for a living. We wanted to start a company that made it easier for this audience to be smart.”
Why it was the right time:
Carly: “We were 25 and 26 and roommates in a really cheap apartment. We had no children, we weren’t married and had really limited financial responsibility. We were making no money, so there wasn’t a lot to lose and there also wasn’t a lot to lean on. It was 2012, the election was in November and that summer, we said, ‘Okay, we have a few months to try something. It’s easier to be happier with no money in the summer’—that was literally our conversation—and we could get freelance jobs if we needed to for the election because every TV network hires up for that.
“We went to one class at Skillshare because we were told it was the thing to do in tech. We looked up a class, went to it and ironically it was the only class we did not need to take. It was called ‘How to Find Your Business Partner’ and that was the only thing we had down. We took the class and met Alex Taub—he’s the godfather of theSkimm. He was the first person we told our idea to—we literally whispered it to him. He helped us create a completely new network of people in the tech and startup space. We started meeting with anyone in anything—not just in tech but in accounting, interior design, law—anyone who knew how to operate a small business. It’s one thing to emotionally start a business, but then the logistics—do you file something somewhere? We knew nothing! We quit [our jobs], which was the hardest thing either of us had ever done, but truly, we sent our first email the next day.”
Why the newsletter fits into your morning routine:
Danielle: “From the very beginning, we always thought about the newsletter as the starting point, the anchor to the brand. In the very beginning, we wanted to differentiate our company. One way was with the voice. We wanted it to be like a friend telling you what you needed to know. The other differentiation was this obsession with daily routines. That’s what we saw was missing. You’re not waking up and turning on morning television, you’re running out the door. I think for most busy people that fit into this age demographic, the alarm is on your phone, it goes off, and you check emails from friends and family first. That’s why we chose the newsletter, because it fit into the morning routines of millennials and this audience.”
A lesson on how to go viral:
Carly: “We grew through a combination of luck and incredible scrappiness. We both have a natural hustle and the benefit of neither of us having a tech background was that we didn’t overthink anything. If you want to grow something, you ask people. It wasn’t like there was some complex marketing plan—it was like, “We’re going to email a lot of people and ask them to sign up for this.” We added every email address we had to the list. Equinox sent out one of those mass emails and forgot to BCC their guest list, so we put them on our list and asked them to subscribe. We had this list of 5,500 people and we said please sign up! Day 1, 700-800 signed up. Our friends started posting on social media and started sharing with their friends. We bought 20 t-shirts from American Apparel, put our logo on it and gave one to 10 friends and family each, asking them to please wear it specifically at Soulcycle, Flywheel and Starbucks. All of a sudden you have 25 people touting this across the country. New York, Chicago and LA were the main focal points. We would walk the Village in the shirts and go coffee shop to coffee shop, sit at Starbucks in the window. All of a sudden the neighborhood knew what theSkimm was.
“I think it was honestly a slow news week when we launched because people started posting about it and writing articles about it. Some people liked us and some didn’t—the people that didn’t wrote an article and the people that did responded to that article and it became a viral press story. We also emailed every NBC talent with the subject ‘Former NBC’ers, please sign up.’ Most of them didn’t respond because we didn’t work with most of them. Hoda Kotb was on one of those emails—we had never worked with her, but she wrote back being like, ‘Congrats girls, I’ll check it out!’ We followed up twice with no response, but the fourth day she named us her new favorite thing [on the Today show]. That changed our life. It gave us our geographic spread—all of a sudden we had these huge pockets in the South and Midwest.”
The responsibility they have to their 3.5 million readers, especially during the election:
Carly: “Now we reach well over 3.5 million! It’s a huge responsibility. Some of the misinformed feedback we got when we first started was whether we were just dumbing down the news. Would you rather people who might not seek out the news not be informed at all? We are total news geeks, that’s why we became friends. Our dream is that all of our friends love the news and love to talk about every piece of wire news as much as we do. I think it’s funny, but we never realized they didn’t until we were 25 or 26. As Danielle said, we have different types of readers, but if you are in that bucket where theSkimm is your only news source, we need to make sure that you or anyone can read it and go to any work or a social event and talk to anyone about anything. There are certain stories that don’t make our filter because you would never talk about them. You don’t talk about every jobs report release; you don’t talk about every Homeland Security update.
“A huge differentiator for us, especially with the election, is that we’re not partisan. We don’t care who you vote for, but truly, you have to vote. It’s not just a right, it is a privilege and a major responsibility. We are in a unique position that we have such a direct line of communication to a really sought after demographic. That is one of the things we are most proud of: our election coverage. We’ve interviewed 12 of the candidates, we were able to change people’s minds about candidates and inform them and bring to light other candidates. If you just went by theSkimm and read the reactions our readers had to these candidates, we would have different front runners today. Our audience loved Lincoln Chafee and George Pataki; they didn’t respond to Bernie Sanders. We haven’t interviewed Donald Trump yet. They didn’t respond to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. For us, we don’t care who you are voting for. But the fact that we can highlight and maybe pause and show what the candidates care about, that is a huge honor.”
From newsletter to real life results:
Danielle: “We want our readers to register and then vote. That is the goal. The mission is to be non-partisan and to get people excited about making a choice and feeling informed about the choice they’re making. We want people to get curious, we want people to feel comfortable, to feel like the news is for them if they haven’t felt that way before—to feel like there is one topic that really sparks their interest and dive further. But really, just get involved. Realize that this choice that you make can affect you in a lot of ways. You should know what the choices are.”
Danielle: “Our job has never been the same every day, so it hasn’t changed from that. It’s never been that we used to write all day and now we run the business. We were always doing both. The only thing is that now we have to make more time for is managing. We went from two of us with no managing experience to a team of 21 people. We have an amazing team; we’ve worked really hard to build a culture. So I think that has been a shift in our day-to-day.”
Carly: “We learned how to become managers. We became businesswomen. We raised a lot of money, we presented at boards, we’ve done keynotes and become managers. We always had the vision, but we weren’t businesswomen when we started. We had to ask advice from so many people. Looking back, it’s weird that the election has, in a way, been a bookend. Four years ago we watched it in a bar with two of our friends in the West Village wearing Skimm t-shirts. This year we have a whole team focusing on the elections; we’ve been invited to the conventions; we’ve interviewed 12 of the candidates. That’s crazy to me, not just from an editorial perspective but from a business perspective.”
Why theSkimm isn’t trying to change you:
Carly: “We’re not going to try to change habits. The only company that really comes to mind that changes habits is Uber—it’s a once in a blue moon kind of company. theSkimm is a huge company, but it isn’t Uber. Our goal is to integrate into existing habits. That’s the key for us. What’s changed in every industry is that this generation and everyone today, no matter how old you are, is more protective of their time. We’re all busier than ever, multitasking on all these devices and doing many things at once, so the key for us is integrating into the routines we already have. We try to do with email and Skimm Ahead, as well as other products in the pipeline. That for us is the key in why theSkimm will be successful.”
Skimm Ahead, their newest product, is the secret to being a productive person:
Danielle: “Skimm Ahead came to be because the one thing we heard our readers say over and over again was this: ‘The Daily Skimm is great, I can’t wait to read it, but it tells me what I need to know for that day and I’m busy, on-the-go and I need to be able to plan out my time around things coming up.” So we we really thought of Skimm Ahead as making it easier to be smart about the future. The idea is that it’s curating the events you really need to know and when they’re happening; what you really need to buy and when—it’s syncing with your daily routine. Everyone is obsessed with their phones, but we wanted to go a step further than just creating another app. What we created is a service that has the ability to integrate with your calendar.”
When theSkimm is everywhere:
Carly: “What we want to have happen is literally every single time you go like that [taps iPhone home button], theSkimm is a part of that. Every time you look down at your phone, whether you’re waking up and checking your email or you’re finding out where your next meeting is in your calendar, or you’re going to the bathroom at a certain time of the day to look at your phone…whatever it is, we want to make that routine smarter. We want to own that—and by doing that we are truly changing the way information is integrated into our audience’s life.”