How theSkimm became the go-to news source for millions of millennials

11 October, 2017

Five years after launch, theSkimm’s smart, snappy newsletter attracts 6 million-plus subscribers, eclipsing audiences for each network morning show. Fans include Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey – and huge swaths of a coveted demographic.

Co-founders Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg are ex-NBC News producers, both 31, who saw a divide between their friends, primarily female millennials, and news sources fitting into their time-crunched lives. The two millennials created relatable news takes for millennials, steeped in the voice of millennials. You get the idea.

“Get ready,” the co-founders write, “we’re changing things.”

Zakin and Weisberg recently skimmed through their own story at Microsoft Envision 2017 in Orlando, Florida. Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice president of business development, hosted the fireside chat. On stage, they revealed some key moments in their media disruption:

They define theSkimm not as a media company or a tech company but as an audience company.

Weisberg: Our whole product strategy is based off of this consumer and what she likes, what she needs, what she wants. We’re putting that consumer first and building an audience company.

When we thought about who else had done that well, we thought about Starbucks. They knew exactly what their audience was coming to them for, and they delivered it consistently and evolved that over time. The other brands we looked at were Spanx and Fox News. Their audience goes to them for a specific value proposition and they know what to expect.

Zakin: What we’re building is a company that makes it easier to live a smarter life. What that means is: How do we create product that integrates into the routines of this audience?

If we can be there to provide all the essential information that this audience needs in the routines they have … we are setting the pathway to be the company that provides that information and helps this audience make the big decisions in their lives.

They are their own target audience. They understand millennials.

Zakin: Millennials have come of age in a very interesting time. For the first time, their parents probably made more (at this same age). They are under a tremendous amount of burden with student debt. Not only are their parents living longer but they’re probably going to have to take care of their parents. If their parents are still working, they are probably going to be pushed out of the workforce by technology.

They’re thinking about all of this with the understanding, for the first time, oh, I don’t even have a 401(k) and I don’t think I’ll have social security when I come of age and need it. So all of these pillars of stability that previous generations have had, this generation is being left to fend for itself.

Weisberg: At the end of the day, you want to show up and feel like you’re contributing to something that’s bigger than yourself. Redefining work in those terms is something I see millennials do very well.

They built a work culture in which taking chances – and occasionally failing – are expected and accepted.

Weisberg: We made a “Fail So Hard” hat. One of the challenges we had scaling was failing as a company. That was really tough for us. We had success after success. That actually doesn’t instill a culture where people are trying new things all the time. We really needed to get that across. So every Friday we have lunch together. … We do our highs and lows of the week and somebody has to wear the “Fail So Hard” hat.

Zakin: And talk about what happened. … What did you learn from it? We really tried to set the tone. It’s been a learning process for us because listen, we’re both type A. It’s not fun to not do a good job on something. But we have to set the example.

The media disrupters have a plan to prevent disruption of theSkimm.

Weisberg: Part if it is our product strategy. What we have done is make technologies out there our friend – and think about how we can create (a product that’s) unique because it fits into the day-to-day of our readers. That is something that is unique, that thinking of how can we always be using technology to help our audience be smarter.

Zakin: Never stop talking to your customer. We read and respond to every single user email. There’s never an email that comes in that I don’t see at some point. … It’s so important for us to have that connection to our audience.