When the first email newsletter for Thrillist was sent out in 2005, cofounder and CEO Ben Lerer had no idea what he was getting himself into or what the future would hold. Now, Lerer shares the lessons he’s learned from a decade in the men’s lifestyle business.
One of Lerer’s primary goals in starting Thrillist was to circumnavigate the normal 9-to-5 career, but he readily admits to being ill-prepared for the commitment. “A lot of the moves we’ve made in the business that have powered us forward wouldn’t have been possible had we not come into this thing as naively as we did,” says Lerer. “We had nothing to lose, and so I think a lot of our success has been based on us being offensively minded versus defensively minded.”
Lerer believes consumer-facing businesses should always think about the end user and make their company decisions based on the thought “Why are we doing this for our customers?”
As he went further and further into the industry, Lerer realized that the answer to this question lay in Thrillist’s trusted relationship with its audience. “I started getting interested in commerce businesses as an investor at Lerer Hippeau Ventures, which inspired me to want to do commerce here,” he says. “In a digital world, you can go from reading to buying in a click. That idea is something that I think makes a digital media business particularly well positioned to take advantage of commerce and to build transactional relationships with audiences.”
Thrillist harnessed this selling power when it acquired members-only online retailer JackThreads in 2010. “It was opportunistic and serendipitous that we came across JackThreads at a moment when they were trying to figure out how to access larger audiences and create awareness for their brand, and we were trying to figure out where to point our audience to make more money and to more effectively monetize,” says Lerer.
Lerer cautions that each entity of a business must be independently successful before merging. “It forces you to be really honest with yourself about the quality of the product you put out,” says Lerer. “If your retail business can’t go head to head with other retail businesses, something is wrong with your retail. And if your media business can’t go head to head for advertising dollars, something is wrong with your content.”
In the beginning, Lerer was solely focused on building an email list, believing that a bigger list meant more people, which meant more advertising dollars. The turning point came when e-commerce entered the picture. The data gathered helped Thrillist to realize the importance of its audience’s behavior, and propelled it to the next level. “It’s a red thread that runs through everything that we do here, and it’s something that we had no appreciation for four or five years as a business,” says Lerer.
“Enabling everybody here to use data to be better at their jobs has been a culture shift that has made us a much more dangerous company and a more decisive, deliberate, fast-moving beast. I wish I had that appreciation early because we didn’t evolve our content strategy for years. We didn’t evolve our ad product for years. The reason for that was we didn’t know how to tell what we were doing was right or wrong.”
“If something’s not working, hoping it works isn’t going to fix it,” Lerer says. “If you do something pretty well, that’s not good enough. If you try to do something and in your heart of hearts you don’t believe that it’s deserving, it probably won’t happen. Always be honest with yourself about the quality of your product and doing everything and anything you can to always make it better.”
Rakhee Bhatt is a freelance writer and storyteller based in New York City. View her work on her website.