Founders Of The Skimm On How They Got 7 Million Subscribers In 7 Years


Our guests this week are Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, the co-founders of The Skimm, an American media company that provides a subscription-only newsletter targeting how female millennials consume news. 

The past year and a half have been crazy for all of us in different ways, and as business owners, Danielle and Carly have had a lot of tough choices to make. Very early on in 2020 Carly was on vacation and Danielle made the decision to test out remote working with the team at The Skimm to see if it would be possible. And while a lot of people inside the company are moms and they had a lot more on their plates with kids, homeschooling, and other difficult situations, it all worked and the company was able to go fully remote (and it still is today).

As Danielle shares, “I think that that has been the hardest time, is you want to give your team flexibility, you want to be empathetic for what we've all gone through. And at the same time, we want to create stability. We want the company that we've all worked so hard to create, not just to survive, but to thrive. And I think those decisions have been, you know, at the crux of kind of what the past 15 months have been like for us.”

 You can watch the video of our full discussion below or just listen to the audio version as a podcast. If you want more content like this you can subscribe to our Youtube channel.

The mission behind The Skimm and how it came to be

The company is now nine years old and as Carly shares, the mission statement has stayed the same since the first day. The whole purpose behind The Skimm is to make it easier to live smarter and to help, specifically millennial women, clear the weeds and cut through the noise of everything that’s going on in the world. 

Since then they have expanded to not just focus on news, but to also address other categories in life such as how do we make money, how do we think about our health, how do we think about the purchases we need to make, how do we think about our rights, etc…

Carly and Danielle believe that a new way of addressing these issues was needed because there has never before been a generation of women like the one we have now. She’s been leading in paychecks and degrees, she’s out earning her male counterparts, she’s been getting a seat at the table, she is the household decision maker and she holds the purse strings. But she’s also drowning in student debt, isn’t able to afford a first home, is having children later in life, might not have social security--and on top of that we’re going through a pandemic. 

There has never been a more important time for something like The Skimm to address these issues and to help women navigate these things in a more informed way.

The challenges that come from building a company from the ground up 

The Skimm has some very impressive investors including Shonda Rhimes, Tyra Banks, Sara Blakely, and Mariska Hargitay. But as Carly and Danielle share, raising money for the business was the single hardest thing that they have had to do professionally. Neither of them had a business background before starting and they only had $4,000 to their name. 

They were told by people along the way that email is dead and the idea didn’t stand a chance, that women were a niche market, they were told they couldn’t do it unless they had a technical co-founder. They had a lot of obstacles along the way, but they kept pushing and they worked really hard to get great people on board. 

Another big learning curve for Carly and Danielle came with managing a board of directors. They knew that it was important to surround themselves with people who could help them fill in the gaps of the skills they lacked to ensure the success of the business. And while their first board meeting was very casual and they didn’t have a lot to talk about, it has grown into a great resource today. They now have more frequent, planned out meetings where they discuss the business in great detail. 

As Carly shares, “I think part of our philosophy with the board is there shouldn't be any surprises, and we don't think you should hide things. It's about being proactive with the issues you're facing. And last year, you know, we were talking to them every week, because we didn't know what was going to happen. And we were drawing on them, not just for their expertise, but also for the fact that they sit in other boardrooms. And they're seeing these issues, not just at our meeting, but what's going on with their other companies.”

How to grow your email newsletter (and is email dead?)

Carly and Danielle have heard a lot of people say that email is dead over the past 9 years, but they both disagree with that statement. Email isn’t dead, the problem is people mistake email as being something that it’s not. Email is just a platform, it’s one method of communication, and you should consider it as part of your strategy, but it can’t be your only strategy. You shouldn’t be just on email.

When looking at their ideal customer, Carly and Danielle realized email would be part of her routine, so it is part of their strategy, but it’s not the whole thing. They also utilize social media, they have a podcast, they have apps, etc…

When considering whether or not to use email you have to think about what do you want to get out of it, what are you trying to put out there, and what platforms make sense for what you’re trying to do. Where are your customers spending time? If you spend a lot of time and effort creating daily emails, but no one is opening them, that’s not a great use of your resources. 

Carly and Danielle’s advice for entrepreneurs and their message to women 

Whether you are trying to build an email strategy or a physical product Carly says their advice would be to know your audience. Who are you building this product or service for and what problem are you trying to solve? She said if you can answer those things clearer than your own mission statement, then you have something. But knowing your customer is key.

Their message for women is around empathy. Everyone is going through a hard time, especially nowadays, and putting empathy first can be a game changer, it goes a long way. It doesn’t change what you’re going through or the resources you have, but it can be very powerful. 

And as we get to the point where people are returning to work employers need to show empathy to employees who may not want to go back. Carly says, “As we kind of started this conversation we talked about, you know, going back to work, we talked about the idea of the “great return” that everyone keeps talking about. And you know, at The Skimm, you know, Danielle and I are calling it “her turn” the “great her turn”, like we don't want to go back. And part of how we want to go forward to build the workplace that we want and to build the company cultures that we want to work for and to work at is to really ask for what you need. And then on the other side, if you're the employer, to respond with that sense of empathy. And so to me, they actually go hand in hand.”

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