How Thrillist Built An $80 Million Bro Empire

Started as a newsletter. Grew, and grew, and grew. How?

How Thrillist Built An $80 Million Bro Empire
[Image: Flickr user Faungg]

In publishing, there’s something called voice: the parlance of a certain outlet that jibes with its target demographic. Thrillist, the newsletter and ecommerce startup, has nailed its own demographic. For example, slotted under travel:


Spend the weekend watching elk do it: Haven’t you ever wanted to witness the magic that is the elk mating season? Of course you have! More.

Whose elk-sexed vernacular is this? That of the young urban American male, the 20- and 30-year-old dudes that Thrillist was built by and built to serve. And as cofounder Ben Lerer tells Mashable, the path from courting that cohort to actually generating one was a long one.

First, the city guide

Thrillist was founded by two University of Pennsylvania grads back in 2005: the aforementioned Lerer and his brother-in-arms, Adam Rich. They were pining for some sort of city guide for dudes such as themselves: Daily Candy had done something for the softer set, while men’s magazines had the playful yet bullshitless tone that were going after. Their task, then, was to form that bridge.

So they launched in New York, with Lerer and Rich crawling through neighborhoods in search of awesome stuff to do. They sent the list to friends. The list grew. And sure enough, businesses were seeing a bulge when Thrillist featured them. Suddenly, they had a possible business on their hands. So they grew, made their first hire, then, on their one-year anniversary, launched in Los Angeles. Then San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Miami.

The question, then, was how to monetize the thing.

Moving toward revenue

Another part of the story is that Ben Lerer is the son of Huffington Post cofounder Ken Lerer. The two are partners in Lerer Ventures, the venture fund that’s been behind Everlane, NowThisNews, and others.

(In a different interview, the younger Lerer would say that “the reason I think I’ve been successful has actually been . . . through insecurity . . . I don’t want to be some guy that people look at and say, Eh, he works with his dad.”)


That investing gig availed him entry to other hustles, including the growth of JackThreads, a men’s apparel flash-sale site. So the guys at Thrillist acquired them–and could now begin selling directly to their 1.8 million confidants.

That acquisition became the turning point:

“We had built a big audience of guys who trusted us, who took our recommendations to heart and acted upon them,” Lerer explains. “But there was a part of the relationship missing. We’d tell them about a shirt, they’d buy it somewhere else, and they’d leave us–they’d lose the connection to our brand. More important, we didn’t understand any of the data about what was happening out there. We knew we were driving a lot of traffic to retail, but we didn’t know how much we were affecting guys’ behavior. So we recognized we could be both a media business, with brands paying to get access to [our subscribers], and also drive some purchases to ourselves.”

And it works: JackThreads was making $5 million in annual sales three years back. But last year, Mashable reports, it brought in $40 million in revenue.

“We recognized we could be both a media business, with brands paying to get access to [our subscribers],” Lerer says, “and also drive some purchases to ourselves.”

Bottom Line: If you thrill them, they will buy. And then you can scale.

Hat tip: Mashable


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.