Millennial-centric media company theSkimm, best known for its breezily written news digests, is broadening its personal finance offerings. In addition to a weekly Skimm Money newsletter and a dedicated finance vertical on its website (sample headline “Let’s Talk About Why Everyone’s Crazy for Crypto”) the brand recently concluded its first virtual event series, which focused on issues such as budgeting and investing. More than 77,000 people registered. Fast Company recently spoke with theSkimm cofounders and co-CEOs Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg about their efforts to help millennial women navigate money and career, and their own journeys as millennial entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts follow.
Fast Company: What is SkimmU?
Danielle Weisberg: SkimmU was our foray into virtual events. [During] COVID-19 [shutdowns] we took a look at what millennial women were going to get hit with. We didn’t have to wait for the statistics to know that [the economic downturn] was going to be really hard for women. Last April we did a webinar on what the next recession is going to look like, and within 24 hours 10,000 women had signed up for it. So we [realized] unfortunately that this was what was going to resonate.
[The first] SkimmU was a virtual event about the concept of money. And we wanted to make sure that our audience was getting the information they needed in a way that worked for their schedules. The thought of doing another Zoom at 7:30 p.m. or 7:45 p.m. is exhausting, but we knew that was probably going to be the only time this audience could do it, when the kids are asleep and they have a break before they’re organizing for the next day.
Carly Zakin: When we started this, we were thinking, “What do we wish we had learned from our alma maters?” We’ve always been super open in our entrepreneurial journey about the areas where we learned as we went, and finance in particular was an area that we’ve never felt super competent in. And our audience time and time again has told us that they felt the same.
Our generation has now been smacked, not once, but twice, by financial crises: The first time when she graduated college, the second time when she’s becoming a parent or a full-blown adult. She’s smack in the middle of this “she-cession.”
We had our commencement [on April 27] and 77,000 RSVP’d that they were going to come. Think about that: It was on a Thursday night over Zoom, we weren’t giving her free food and drinks, she’s not seeing her friends. What does that say? We all need this right now. I wish we didn’t need it so badly, but we do. That’s where our value proposition as a brand has always been, we make it easier to live smarter and this is the area where we really need to help her in right now.
Had you been thinking about adding even more financial content prior to the pandemic or was this really necessitated and accelerated by the recession?
Weisberg: We started off with news being our bread and butter, and it is how we started the company: timely, at times dense, information, that can be extremely vernacular driven, and really important to know. We very early on saw the same signals when it comes to personal finance decisions. Chase was one of our very first sponsors, and we saw that the content and the programming that we did with them, both at a community level, as well as a branded-content level, resonated. Financial services has been our biggest category as partners throughout the years.
[Our community is] thinking about how is she saving, thinking about how she’s going to be affected by tax changes, thinking about how she’s going afford to have a kid. What are the decisions that you want to make around your fertility choices? How do you save for that? How do you even think about paying for college, either student debt or for the future generation? The audience had come to theSkimm for one thing—information about what’s going on in the world—and very quickly we became a trusted source of information around what’s going on with [their finances].
Zakin: Early on we would get asked all the time, “why women, why this generation?” [The questions had] kind of a negative connotation, like, “you’re thinking small.” And we said: “No, we’re thinking really big.” There are 37 million of her in the U.S. alone. This is the most unique generation that any of us has ever seen because she’s leading in paychecks and in degrees and like actually getting a seat at the table. But she [even] pre-pandemic, she’s been drowning in student debt, she’s still fighting to close the wage gap. And it’s that much worse for women of color. She is making about 30% less proportionally than her parents did at the same age. Our parents are living longer. We’re having kids later. Then you throw in the pandemic. We all know the same headlines. Women have gotten decimated. Women of color have gotten decimated. And it just brought to the forefront that everything we were already thinking about with Skimm Money, we needed to do faster.
theSkimm is going to turn 10 next year. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as entrepreneurs?
Zakin: I really have learned how to think about gut versus data and how to balance it. You can’t just follow your gut. You need to have data to inform you. But you also can’t just follow the data. And when you look at the best entrepreneurs, and the companies that we all revere, they all took risks. They all did something crazy at the time. They all did something that no one else thought made sense. And that’s how you change the world. That’s how you make impact. The best thing we ever did as entrepreneurs, as CEOs, was to really have a strong understanding of what theSkimm’s place in the world is and what our North Star is, which is to make it easier for this generation of women to live smarter. We built our business very differently than a lot of our peers [in media] and it has put us in a really strong position of strength. We focused not just on growing an audience, but actually knowing that audience.
What have you’ve learned editorially over the course of the last 10 years?
Weisberg: The products have evolved, and where we interact with her has changed a lot. We started with the idea of, how do we wake up, and we chose email because it fit into that routine, and that’s still true. We then have made decisions about how to to serve her throughout the day. When we went to subscriptions, what we heard again and again from our audience is that not only did they know what happened because of us, but they wanted to know what’s coming up. So we started to then use the calendar [inside theSkimm app] to program for you what is coming up, and in that way we really were able to contextualize the content that we were serving you.
When we were thinking about how she got information throughout the day, obviously that’s social, But we were thoughtful about what platform [to use], and that’s what led us to focus on Instagram. We thought about the commuting routine, and that’s what led us to podcasts. We have also grown and stretched when it comes to the brand voice that we speak to her in. I think there’s a rearticulation of how we continue to speak with her and not at her. We want to be known as the brand for millennial women throughout the country who are trying to make the best decisions that they can. We’ve captured a very large part of that market, but we by no means are as big as we want to be. And that has really has pushed us to think about how we can be more inclusive, how we can build a more diverse audience.
The Skimm has made being unbiased a real hallmark of your content strategy. How did you navigate the 2020 election and the January 6 attacks on the Capitol?
Zakin: We always said from the beginning that we were nonpartisan. We’re really, really proud of the fact that we’re not a coastal brand. I think a lot of people assume that the millennial audience all votes the same way, and they don’t. They have different backgrounds, different jobs. We have always hit our audience across political lines. I think as the political climate [became filled] with such division, such anger and vitriol, “nonpartisan” became almost like a defunct word. What does that even mean anymore?
We worked with our team to [say]: “We advocate for her. She is our audience. How we can best arm her and support her is by giving her the information she needs and to understand her choices.” What we’re really good at as a company is informing her, curating [information] and getting her to act. And in the same way that we do that with her financial choices and her health choices and her commerce choices, we also do that with her rights.