Rockstar entrepreneurs. That's what Internet startups are made of, and I'm sitting across from one of New York's first, Ben Lerer. Seven years ago, Lerer and his college friend Adam Rich started a men's lifestyle brand, Thrillist, born from an idea and $7 domain name. Fast-forward to today: Thrillist is reaching more than four million subscribers daily. It's an astounding number, especially for a city guide email, and Lerer, current CEO of Thrillist, looks back on the company's infancy with reverence.
You didn't graduate college and want to start a digital company, he says, thinking back to the early days. Everyone I knew was like, 'That's weird. I'm going to get a job on Wall Street.'
Rather than following the beaten path to the banking industry, Lerer took a chance in a shallow market: He and Rich founded Thrillist in late 2005, while the pool of funding was low for tech companies in New York City and the excitement for Internet startups had calmed after several dot-coms crashed and burned at the turn of the century.
In the shallow market, Thrillist thrived. The company quickly grew a following in New York City and expanded rapidly, rolling out city guides to 18 other destinations across the United States. The brand's distinct editorial tone had legions of readers subscribing to the daily email and visiting the website for recommendations on bars, burgers, breweries, pizzerias and more. But as time passed, the internet, as it always has, began shifting, and Thrillist, just like any other seven-year-old startup, has been left navigating a mercurial market.
You have to have your head on a swivel, and it's f---ing scary, says Lerer. I was just speaking at the Business Insider conference this morning, and the number of really, really, smart, aggressive people sitting in that room, who are all trying to eat each other's lunch is incredibly intimidating.
While Silicon Alley, the name given to New York's dot-com industry, is constantly buzzing about the next great brand and business model, Thrillist has remained focused on its roots. The Thrillist offices are just one block away from the company's original home, and the address change hasn't affected Thrillist's corporate environment at all: Tables are still clustered with iMacs, gadgets and toys, and the wide-open studio space is active, loud and rambunctious. It's a fitting scene for a company that's shaping the archetype of a 21st century media company.
It's being made to look too easy and too sexy, says Lerer about the allure of starting an internet company. I think from the outside it looks really glamorous and really exciting, and it is, but you're slogging, you're working your butt off. It's incredibly challenging.
Lerer's commitment to a gruesome gig isn't much different from other young entrepreneurs currently flooding small studio offices around New York City. Dissatisfaction has proven to be a powerful tool for such personalities. Lerer himself admits that Thrillist was created because he wasn't satisfied with any other city guides or his old job at a boutique hotel. The company was a way to alleviate his frustrations, and there was never any doubt that the company would be founded in New York. It's where Lerer grew up. It always made the most sense.
The best and brightest people want to be on the biggest stage, and New York is undeniably the biggest stage, say Lerer. The Valley is obviously a great culture and will always be a hub of innovation and technology... but I think as time goes by, it is now a foregone conclusion that New York will just get stronger.
Thrillist remains dedicated to its daily email, though the company has crept into other markets over time. Thrillist most recently acquired JackThreads, a members only e-commerce platform, which allows the company to bridge the gap between readers and retailers. While JackThreads grows in popularity, the company is always focused on the product that started it all.
Email works. We love it. It's growing. We think it's very powerful, says Lerer about the daily city guide emails Thrillist sends out. We think we're in an email renaissance, where businesses are finally beginning to understand the importance of an email and the significance of it.
Lerer remains relatively unfazed by the success of email alternatives such as Facebook. In fact, he doesn't have a Facebook account. It doesn't bother him much. He says he uses Twitter and occasionally browses Facebook through a pseudonym, but for someone who spends his entire day gathering cool things to introduce to people, Facebook falls flat as a discovery tool.
There's data that suggests that younger generations don't like email, and my response to that is, 'Wait until those younger generations get jobs,' he says. Your boss is not going to give you your next project on Facebook. I believe that email is a fundamental communication tool for this generation, and I don't think it's going anywhere.
While the company remains committed to its daily emails, it's constantly adapting. Thrillist has several arms that allow it to dip into various markets, such as phone applications, e-commerce, and more. The company embraces all forms of communication. Ultimately, Thrillist just wants to introduce men to cool stuff.
We really got lucky when we started Thrillist, at the right time and the right place, says Lerer. Through a sh---y economy, one of the worst recessions ever, we had the opportunity when no one was doing anything.
His description couldn't be more different than what's happening today: New York City's startup scene is booming. There's more funding and competition than ever. Despite the dense market of online companies, Thrillist remains focused on what it does best: pointing young men toward the best gear, goods and grub. Much like the early days, when Thrillist chose New York City before any other startups had, Thrillist blazing a path through uncharted territory, sculpting the new look of a men's lifestyle media company.
Old media, watch out.