If The Toast were a typical Silicon Valley startup, and not a feminist website that analyzes the lesbian undertones in Grease and imagines texting convos with literary giants, it might position its growth story as something like this: millions of users in one year, massive engagement, and profits. And this week, The Toast announced its first major expansion, hiring Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay to lead its spin-off site, The Butter.
But because The Toast is not a typical Silicon Valley startup–it has no office and its three founders, two of whom are female, reside in three distinct cities–founder and star writer Mallory Ortberg sells her site’s success story with a Twitter joke:
Feminist commentary wrapped in jokes is Ortberg’s signature style, and what draws over a million unique visitors (per Quantcast) to The Toast each month. Only a little over a year old, the site was profitable just after three months. And, as Ortberg and her cofounder Nicole Cliffe (formerly of The Hairpin) like to point out, unlike so many of the high-profile media startups today–Vox, 538, First Look–they succeeded without any financial commitment from men.
Mostly, that is. Cliffe and her husband put in the original investment for the site. (In a previous life, Cliffe worked at a hedge fund.) The third founder, publisher Nicholas Pavich, didn’t put in any money, but did quit his job as a lawyer to work full-time on the site for free for the first few months.
As feminists starting a feminist website, the decision to include dudes in the process did not come lightly. “I wanted to make sure that we really NEEDED a third partner to add meaningful value, and wouldn’t be just shackling ourselves to some dude who would make money off us,” Cliffe told Fast Company. Neither regrets bringing on Pavich, who Ortberg met in person for the first time two months ago. The two had kindled an Internet friendship in the Awl comments, and kept their relationships virtual even as they went into business together. “He has been of immense and incalculable worth to us. We would have been sunk without him,” added Cliffe.
Cliffe, Ortberg, and Pavich each have equal ownership in the company and a distinct role in the site’s success. “He is just there to make us money,” said Ortberg of Pavich, who handles advertising and sponsored content deals. The Toast also accepts donations that often go to specific posts or projects. Ortberg says it’s not a huge part of the monthly income, but it helps bring in stories the site might not otherwise tackle. Although The Toast pays all of its freelancers, the flat fee might not afford more ambitious pieces. Someone donated $1,000 for a history series, for example.
Cliffe, in addition to providingthe initial capital, acts as the site’s editor. “I think a lot of our success has been due to Nicole’s amazing ability as a managing editor to find a great mix of established and new voices,” said Ortberg. “Nicole has such a gift for finding that.”
Another key to The Toast‘s success is Ortberg, who pumps out 3-5 posts a day. Some of her most popular posts have brought in over 50,000 Facebook likes. “It’s always been ‘The Mallory Ortberg Show,’ to me, and it’s her voice and tone that I think of when I think of The Toast,” said Cliffe.
“I promised to bring in $100,000 worth of jokes,” says Ortberg about her initial investment. (The Toast would not share any revenue figures with Fast Company.)
Ortberg has intensely loyal fans, but banking on the Mallory Ortberg show alone presents problems for growth. Even Ortberg recognizes that she might not be able to bring in consistent page views forever. And if The Toast is the Mallory Ortberg show, what is the Toast empire?
As the site grows, Ortberg hopes to get more ambitious, bringing in more voices, more reported stories, and attracting more established journalists. She also sees the site covering more topics, “a general interest site that happens to be run mostly by women,” as she explains her vision (see: the Butter news).
The Butter “will focus on cultural criticism and personal essays that make readers think and feel,” Gay told Capital New York.
“Under Roxane, Mallory, and Nicole, we expect to build out a series of broad niche sites offering advertisers access to specific demographics cultivated by the sites’ editors…The voices that the network curates already carry a lot authority in social media and it’s our belief that advertisers want to be associated with a brand that offers integrity with a social conscience,” Pavich added.
At its current growth rate, The Toast recently added an associate editor. Cliffe says she doesn’t want to take investor money. “Only if they are strange eccentrics who want nothing in return,” she said.
Ortberg confirms that the three have no immediate plans to take any money. But: “I sure feel like I think we deserve lots, ” she says. “We should be fielding lots of offers.”