Can best friends and roommates succeed in business–and still want to speak to each other?
TheSkimm’s founders, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, met when they were in college and reconnected several years later while working as news producers for NBC. Zakin and Weisberg sent out their first daily newsletter to a small group of their friends, family, and friends of friends on a Tuesday, in July 2012.
For a while, the pair worked on their own to build the startup that quickly became an essential daily news digest for millennial women (and men). Today, the ranks have swelled to over 40 staffers, and the subscriber base is now more than 5 million, boosted by a network of over 20,000 “Skimm’bassadors,” a community of passionate members who regularly join social chats on Facebook and other channels and help test new products and marketing initiatives. Last year, informed by this group, the iOS app Skimm Ahead launched to help members stay in the know about future events.
Here, Zakin and Weisberg share how they started theSkimm, and how they’ve engineered successful growth.
Contrary to some founders’ stories, Weisberg and Zakin maintain that they didn’t have a titular epiphany that sparked the idea for theSkimm. “It probably would be a much simpler story if there was,” Weisberg says. She adds that the foundation was laid well before the concept. “We grew up as news geeks, loved storytelling,” says Weisberg, “and always wanted to work at NBC News.” From there, she says, they were inspired by friends who basically asked the pair of news producers to skim what was going on in the world each day and deliver the highlights.
“At the same time, we were working in an industry trying to strategize ways to get female millennials’ attention,” Weisberg says, “but the way they were going about it didn’t really make sense, given modern news consumption and modern routines.” If anything provided the kindling to fire up the business, it was identifying this void. “We knew we could start something that gave [millennials] information every day in a way they trust, and in a way that fit into their routines.”
Everyone was telling them email was dead, but Weisberg maintains that there was a voice that was always in their heads cautioning them not to overlook the beauty in the simplicity of what could be created using that channel. “It’s something we use every day,” she says, not to mention that it had a low entry barrier. “It wasn’t just a good idea, there was a need for it,” she says. And at a certain point, Weisberg says, her parents got sick of hearing her talk about it and urged her to just give it a shot.
“I think the best thing that ever happened to us is that we were roommates first,” Zakin says. Neither of them were making a lot of money working in media, she admits, but they managed to save about $4,000.
“We did have a lot of conversations about credit card debt and what we were willing to do,” Zakin says. “We pushed each other off the ledge,” Weisberg says. (They tell Fast Company they just paid off their credit card debt, but didn’t say how much was owed.)
Starting theSkimm with a shared vision–from their shared couch–was the ultimate bonding experience. “It’s hard not to put a ton of hours in,” says Weisberg, “with a product that goes out at 6 a.m.” She recalls that for the first six months, they worked around the clock and slept in shifts.
They made a lot of progress during that time, in part because they were “feeding off the other’s enthusiasm and belief,” says Zakin, likening it to an out-of-body experience. It paid off. Previously, Fast Company reported that the startup had hit 100,000 subscribers “very early on” and built additional traction through word of mouth.
The other part was their commitment to what the company could be. “There’s been so much reported about how open we’ve been about all the things we didn’t know [about starting a business],” she continues, “but not about how much we did know. We really knew the audience.”
As for their friendship, Zakin contends that the roller-coaster ride of starting a business served only to cement the bond. “Honestly,” says Zakin, “you become family, your families become family.”
Weisberg is quick to point out that the reason their partnership and friendship could coexist was that they didn’t jump into it; it took years to develop. “We wouldn’t recommend eloping with someone you met the day before,” she says. In business, as in marriage, the two made a contract and a promise to each other, Weisberg says. And if you ask them what accomplishment makes them proudest, Zakin says it’s a tie between building theSkimm’s culture of transparency, authenticity, and “no bullshit,” and their special partnership.
One of the things that surprised the pair was how long it took to hire the first employees. The two did the bulk of the work for the first year and started to bring people on after they raised a seed round of $1 million in 2013. From there, thoughts naturally turned to culture and management. “We asked people what we didn’t know,” says Weisberg, noting they were fortunate to have a great network of founders and people who built brands to tap for management advice. “Our earliest employees helped to shape us into the managers we are today,” says Weisberg.
When theSkimm was ready to add staff, Weisberg says they spent a lot of time and effort on finding people who could communicate clearly. “We are running a business, not a sorority.” Adds Zakin, “We get shit done.” She points out that one of the company values is: “We are confident and humble: Nobody is too senior to do something, nobody is too junior to do something.” The team is very collaborative, she says, and this keeps drama at their office to a minimum.
With that in mind, theSkimm has a chore chart for its staff. “Everyone takes out the trash,” Zakin says. As for hiring, she says potential candidates need to show that they can check their ego at the door. “We like to bring candidates back for repeat visits,” Zakin explains. “We have them sit with as many [employees] as possible, and try to mix it up across teams. It often slows down the hiring process, but we want to make sure we get it right.”
They say they recently hired a head of HR now that the company’s staff has grown. And they’ve implemented something called Skimm’cademy to onboard new staff. The goal is not only to teach new employees the mission and values of the company right away, but also to ensure that everyone knows what others do. For example, they wrote in a Medium post: “Every single person should know what each person actually does at the company. It’s not enough to say ‘sales’ or ‘engineer,’ but actually what they do and how it affects you.”
We know that it can be good for productivity to have BFFs at work. And we also know that it can be a bad idea to be buds with your boss. But what happens when the founders are so close? Says Weisberg, “You don’t have to be best friends with your coworkers, but everyone wants to work in an environment where they feel respected and heard.” That’s especially important in a startup, she says, where it’s rarely just a job, especially not a nine-to-five one.
To ensure that, Weisberg points back to their hiring process and the importance of culture fit. “We also set aside time to bond in social settings,” she says, “whether it’s all 40-plus employees sharing weekly highs and lows at Friday Sip ‘n Skimm [weekly drinks and a catchup], or coming together to celebrate milestones with champagne and Skimm’aoke [team karaoke].” Zakin says the team can sometimes spend too much time at work. “We’re glad they love it here,” she says, but there have been times when someone has been told to take some time off to stave off burnout.
“It took us a while to be able to put intent into work-life balance,” Weisberg admits. But she says it was important to incorporate it for themselves as well as to model for their team. “You have to be a person” outside of work, she says she’s learned. “Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is take time for yourself,” she adds, because it keeps you healthy and keeps the creativity flowing. Zakin notes that Weisberg takes team members to spin class to encourage that healthy balance a bit more.
“We took the biggest risk of our lives and started the company from our couch,” Weisberg muses, recalling the trouble they had raising money initially because they weren’t able to articulate their vision. Indeed, for the first 15 months, they weren’t sure how they were going to keep it up and running. But Weisberg says that what started as a daily newsletter aimed at capturing millennials’ attention first thing in the morning wasn’t the only thing they were hoping to create. “The intention was always to create a much larger company,” she says, “focused on making it easier for (both millennial women and men) to be smarter.” The pair plan to add video this year and are working on some other initiatives that they aren’t yet ready to discuss, but are excited to grow.
But if they’ve got one lesson they want to share with future entrepreneurs now, it’s this: “Go take a vacation before you start your business.” Weisberg says they didn’t take any time between working at NBC and sending out the first Skimm email. “And that was it, we were off to the races.”