Betches Create Marketing Hub for Female Millennial Brands
In 2011, Jordana Abraham, Samantha Fishbein and Aleen Kuperman, were seniors at Cornell University when they set up Betches as a WordPress blog. From the beginning, Betches published content catering to women ages 18 to 24 who are “edgy,” who speak their minds, and who are unapologetic about their beliefs and opinions. They each invested $1,500 in 2011, and the company has been bootstrapped ever since.
Today, the founders, now all 28-years old, have built a humor and entertainment site that last year saw 200% year-over-year growth in unique visitors. Forbes estimates that in 2017, Betches pulled in more than $5 million in revenue. Kuperman, Fishbein and Abraham still own 100% of the company and have never sought investors. According to the founders, their company has been profitable since 2014.
Initially, the blog strived to deliver a female counterpunch to “fratire” humor, which at the time was popular among young males. The subgenre managed to both deprecate and glorify “bro culture,” with references to binge drinking and misogyny. The Betches humor spoke to the “anti-alphamale,” but also jabbed at the “nicegirl” through its commentary on celebrities, fashion and relationship advice. Today, it also publishes beauty, lifestyle and political news for female Millennials in a snappy and sarcastic tone. With recent articles covering DACA and cryptocurrencies and a column titled “Please Don’t Invite Me To Your Gender Reveal Party,” its voice has remained consistent.
Their early blogs went viral, catching a book agent’s attention. They spent their first year after college writing Nice Is Just a Place in France for Simon & Schuster, which in 2013 would become their first of two New York Times best-sellers on the paperback and humor lists. Still, they concede that for the first two years, while they were all still living in their parents’ homes, they didn’t have a real business plan. “It was easy to continue working on it after college, we would just come over each other’s houses,” says Jordana Abraham, chief content officer. “We just concentrated on growing our output of content.”
While they lacked backgrounds in business, each cofounder had relatives who specialized in technology, law or business. “We had this small bubble of a family network and they mentored us,” says Aleen Kuperman, CEO, “but most of it had to do with trial and error and learning from our own mistakes. We decided that if we really want to do this as our full-time job, we need to go 100% all in. But first, we needed to figure out a substantial revenue driver.”
With the few thousand they invested, they hired an ad buyer who informed them that clients were less interested in their website and more interested in their Instagram, which today boasts 6 million followers. The birth of Betches coincided with the launch of Instagram in late 2010, when social media advertising was unchartered territory. They first experimented with eager small-scale jewelry and fashion companies but these one-off deals were time-consuming and did not yield major returns. In 2015, Betches, a publisher of dating columns, found its first true match in Bumble, the fast-growing dating app, which purchased a package of Instagram ads. Bumble also sponsored the launch party for the second Betches book, which happened to be a guide to dating.
“We saw the quality in that type of advertisement and aligning ourselves with a bigger company rather than doing one-offs,” says Kuperman. In 2017, 75% of Betches’ revenue came from brand partnerships, which saw a 70% growth in revenue from year prior.
The cofounders plan to prioritize more IRL (in real life) events when inking brand partnership deals.
The Bumble deal taught them the importance of seeking brand alignment, rather than merely responding to what the market offers. These partnerships have evolved into 360-degree campaigns that include Web ads, articles, podcasts, newsletters, live events, and custom memes for Instagram.
Today, the founders count dating app Hinge, MTV and Netflix as clients. A team-up with Netflix, for instance, involves show recaps on their podcast and articles, or simply posting an entire trailer on Instagram. “We started selling on our social platforms, which became a huge source of revenue, and we leveraged that revenue to build the other branches of our business,” says Abraham.
In 2013 they launched an e-commerce site. “We met tech partners who suggested they handle all the operations, and we thought, ‘Great, we know nothing about this so we’ll put this all in your hands,'” recalls Kuperman. “The end-product was completely off-brand. We closed it because we didn’t oversee any of the Web designs, marketing or operations.”
They gave shopbetches.com another shot in 2014, and e-tail currently accounts for 20% of revenue. Another 5% of revenue comes from events like comedy tours and performances. An upcoming event with brand partner Focus Films will host a screening party for Thoroughbreds, a dark thriller about two teenage girls.
While Betches isn’t a VC-infused juggernaut like PopSugar ($46 million in funding) or Refinery29 ($125 million), the founders are glad they took the sole-owner route. “Because we bootstrapped for seven years,” Fishbein says, “we had less resources which led us to build it out in a very different way. We have been extremely risk-averse in terms of hires.” They currently have 13 full-time employees and 20 freelancers, half of which were hired only last year.
Their office was a WeWork location until August, when they opened their first headquarters in Manhattan. “The office is a big investment as an event space to host happy hours and live performances,” says Samantha Fishbein, COO. “We’re trying to create a physical marketing hub for female Millennial brands.”
But they knew it would take more than a glitzy open office with neon-lit signs and gold-framed memes to prove themselves. “Everyone knew us just as an Instagram account,” says Kuperman, “and we were seeing that in pitch meetings with potential big clients. We had to position ourselves to show the world that we are this media brand growing many different verticals.”
While some media houses, like Tasty and Beautycon, have dialed up their direct-to-platform strategies by publishing content straight to social media, with no links to the company’s website, Betches is building a bigger and better site, part of a brand overhaul that kicked off today. “We’re investing in our website because we believe we really have a unique perspective on pop culture, style and more,” says Kuperman. “That's why people are returning to our site.”
Similarly, Los Angeles-based StyleHaul is also trying to reach beyond its social platform beginnings. It launched in 2011 as a multi-channel network that lived on YouTube and managed a community of beauty influencers. European broadcast giant RTL Group acquired it in 2014 for $107 million, and StyleHaul is launching its first website blog this month.
“Social media has limitations in the amount of information you can give if your followers need to learn more,” says Stephanie Horbaczewski, co-founder of StyleHaul, which has about 100 employees. “A Web presence creates a more immersive experience.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Harwood, founder of NYC-based PureWow, a lifestyle site for female Millennials in their late twenties to thirties, is investing in a 50/50 approach. “We do a significant amount of social videos but we originally grew through newsletters, so why abandon the written word,” says Harwood. “We’re certainly not a fully distributed model but we understand the power of the platform.”
VaynerX, Gary Vaynerchuk’s media holdings company, acquired PureWowlast year when it was making $20 million in annual revenue. Harwood says the parent company hasn’t pushed PureWow toward the direct-to-platform model. He says distribution models may be cheaper and offer a wider audience, but it’s difficult to scale because startups and platforms must share revenue. “While the audience lives on social media, we monetize better on the owned-and-operated model.”
While Betches will continue publishing 200 pieces of social posts a week, their 2018 goal is to create Betches.com as a hub for its media properties, including podcasts, video, e-commerce and more. Previously, these assets were scattered throughout iTunes, social media and different websites.
The revamp will also include touch-ups to brand aesthetics, with a bolder logo and a cleaner Web motif accented by a softer Millennial pink. The co-founders say they wanted something fresher and more mature. They’re also launching verticals, including Sup, a politics newsletter that takes on theSkimm, a wildly popular news app for young women.
“We want to invest in something we own and operate,” says Kuperman. “While it’s great to drive traffic to YouTube, and we’ve invested in a video suite in our new office, we make more money driving to our website. At the end of the day, we control and own that content 100%.”