A few months ago, a Facebook friend shared a glowing recommendation for TheSkimm, a daily newsletter delivered to your inbox at 6 am designed to help you get up to speed on the day’s headlines. Their tag line says it all: We read. You Skimm. I checked it out and was hooked immediately, not only because of the content in it, but because of how it was delivered. I felt like I was reading an email about the news from one of my best friends. My very smart, well-informed best friends.
It is fresh, and at times funny, and I can read it while waiting for the toaster oven to ding. And I’m not the only one. Very early on TheSkimm hit 100,000 subscribers. And on Monday, the start-up announced they had raised $1.1 million in seed funding to build their business.
I had the good fortune of catching up with these two women, to get some insight into how and why they launched what some have referred to as the “must-read” newsletter for women…and to gush a bit about how impressed I am with them.
TSR: How long ago did you start The Skimm?
Carly: We launched TheSkimm in July of 2012 – at the end of July.
TSR: There are tons of news sources out there, so what was your reasoning for launching something like this?
Danielle: TheSkimm was really born out of just a personal passion. Just to tell you about Carly and I, we both grew up news junkies, and we loved being storytellers from a young age. We really just had a passion for information. Carly used to watch the Today Show every morning. My family and I would watch 60 minutes, and we love news.
We grew up and were lucky enough to have great media internships, and both went on to work full-time at NBC News and loved what we were doing, but just saw that the media landscape was changing. We weren’t sure what the jobs that we had, or the jobs that we aspired to, would look like five years down the road. But at the same time, we could never really pull ourselves away from news.
As two friends, we would just go back and forth about the role that we found ourselves playing in our friend’s lives – which was really that of an “information concierge.” Our friends who are highly educated, leading in their respective industries, and are super busy, would turn to us and ask what we thought were pretty basic questions, just to catch them up before a party or a job interview.
“The more and more we thought about what we wanted to do next, the more we saw a void in the market place for news that was delivered to this demographic that was really indicative of our girlfriends. We found that our friends weren’t connecting with news in a way that they enjoyed or kept coming back to, or in a way that really fit in with their daily routine.”
The more and more we thought about what we wanted to do next, the more we saw a void in the market place for news that was delivered to this demographic (females 22-34) that was really indicative of our girlfriends. We found that our friends weren’t connecting with news in a way that they enjoyed or kept coming back to, or in a way that really fit in with their daily routine. So we set out to create a voice – the voice of TheSkimm – that answered their questions in a way that fit in with their routine, which is why we started with email. Because what do we do first thing in the morning? Roll over and check our phones.
TSR: So you decide that you want to start a newsletter. Then what?
Carly: For us, we didn’t come from a tech or business background, we knew that there was an opportunity. So we started talking to anybody that would talk to us that has built a brand or built a company. Whether it’s lawyers, accountants, to professional entrepreneurs, really anyone that has ever built a business and just talked to them. In just the last year-and-a-half we have exploded our network of mentors, which is completely the reason we have gotten this far.
TSR: What is the revenue stream for the newsletter? I don’t see any advertising on it.
Danielle: So we are decidedly pre-revenue right now. We wanted to see how far Carly and I as founders could take it before bringing on a team and really focus on just growth. And we found that we created in the last year a huge following of unprecedented engagement.
TSR: The tone of anything you generate is quite entertaining, even though the subject matter is real news. I even find myself laughing out loud while making my toddler waffles and trying to prevent her from eating M&Ms for breakfast. The bar is pretty high bar to get me to laugh at that time of morning…so how did you resolve the conflict between funny and serious that exists in most traditional media outlets?
Carly: Well thank you, but it’s not something we strategized about. From day one, we have known what the voice would be, we each wrote kind of a draft and put it together. All of our readers would write in, really, all of them, and say, “You sound the way I talk, or you sound like my best friend…” and that is kind of the idea, again going back to why we started with email.
We tapped into the behaviors of our readers. When they wake up, the emails that we all look at first are the personal ones, and we wanted it to read like a friend’s email. And you know, sometimes your friends are sarcastic or funny, but it’s not like we are comedians, and we aren’t trying to crack jokes. We just kind of, say it like it is.
TSR: And we love you for that. What’s next for The Skimm?
Danielle: Hiring. We have been inundated with job applications and we say the next year is really about scale…scale in terms of future audience growth – scale in terms of our team.
TSR: As you build your business, how are you going to take what you have learned in your work experience and improve upon it, specifically in regards to work-life balance?
Danielle: First – our background as producers gave us a great training ground. You have to have a “get it done on deadline” attitude and that is something we deem to be invaluable in running our own business.
Work-life balance is extremely important to us, and also something that is honestly really hard to achieve. When we first launched, we got about six months in, we were at a point that we were exhausted and needed to take a minute and reflect, made changes to our schedule, we became really strict with how many meetings we were going to take a day, so we had a chance to get the right amount of sleep, and see our family and our friends. We definitely believe in order to get a business off the ground, you have to work incredibly hard. But we are also two people that are very aware of the amazing support system that we have from our family and friends, and it’s very important to us that we stay connected to them.
TSR: What does a normal day look like for you?
Carly: It’s a little crazy. There is no normal day, which is kind of the fun and the stress of it. I’d say from about 9am to 4pm, we are running the business side of things. And then at 4pm our editorial hat turns on. We really go into cruise control of really being focused and we have our first editorial meeting, and kind of start putting together a draft, a first version of the The Skimm. Then we take a break for dinner and have a little bit of a life and then we are back at it, writing from about 10:30pm/11pm and updating in shifts until it goes out at 6am. We sleep in shifts.
“Someone recently said, ‘You should invest in people and not a line item,’ and I think that really stuck with me.”
TSR: Who have been your role models, you said you have created this huge network, but if you had to name one or two, who would they be?
Carly: It’s a hard answer, it’s a mix of people we know and people we don’t know. I think people we know, one of the first people we ever told our idea to, is a person named Alex Taub, a really a fantastic person on the start-up scene in New York and he said to us ‘the only way that you are going to fail is by not trying’ and that really gave us the confidence to start. Dany Levi of the Daily Candy has been one of our advisors, given her experience.
Susan Lyne – she used to be at Gilt and is now at AOL – she has just been a true mentor to us through this process and really a business role model to us in every way.
In terms of people we don’t know, we are huge fans of Sara Blakely from Spanx, how she created, really, an empire with 5-thousand dollars and she still owns all of her company.
And honestly people like Maria (Shriver), who are really trailblazers, especially given Maria’s journalism background – she has always been someone we have really looked up to.
TSR: What’s your favorite quote or motto?
Carly: Someone recently said – you should invest in people and not a line item, and I think that really stuck with me.
Danielle: I feel like there are two mottos that stick out. I guess one is a motto and one is something that sticks out in my head right now.
The first is I guess is a tenet to live by, which is, be nice to people, because you never know when you are going to meet them again, which is a business networking way of life that Carly and I have adopted that really comes out of the fact that we met when we were studying abroad in college, not only friends and roommates, but also business partners. It’s also about being open to meeting new people in life.
And I think the one thing that was running through my mind is – get it done. It so easy to get swamped down with to-do lists, I think in order to start your own business have to have a mentality of cutting through what the priorities are and being a person of action.
And that they are. I felt like I could have talked to them for the rest of the afternoon, but we all had a long of list of to-do items to get to, so I ended our conversation enlightened and energized – which is the way I usually feel after skimming The Skimm.
This is a condensed version of ShriverReport.org’s conversation with TheSkimm’s Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin.
Growing up in Chicago, Danielle was exposed to politics at an early age from family dinner table discussions in which she asked questions like, “Why is Bill Clinton in trouble?” In high school, she interned for a few PR firms, which included work for “Oprah” that got her going on a path of delivering information to people (and of possibly becoming a media mogul). While attending Tufts University, Danielle interned for Boston Magazine and MSNBC, which turned her into a full-fledged political junkie. Upon graduating in 2008, Danielle went to work for NBC News in Washington, DC . In 2010, Danielle moved to New York, where she currently resides, to produce for MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” Danielle loves the Chicago Cubs, anything that happens when Kanye West and Jay-Z get together, fundraising for the K.I.N.D. Fund, and watching really horrible new television shows.
Carly became addicted to the Today Show at age 5–not their target demo–and fell in love with the news. She started interning in publishing in high school and knew from day one she wanted to make a living out of storytelling. While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, she began interning for NBC News. After graduating in 2008, she began work for CNBC’s primetime development division and went on to produce MSNBC news documentaries both in New York and DC. She also enjoyed a brief stint producing reality television, where she may or may not have had to spend 8 days with a polygamist family. Not a sister-wife, Carly resides in New York and loves being a mentor with “Streetwise Partners,” has an unnatural obsession with John Stamos, bakes a mean soufflé, and secretly watches marathons of “Golden Girls” and “Frasier.”