Technical.ly is built around tech startup news in five communities — Philadelphia, where it launched in 2008, and now Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Delaware. With revenue in the $501,000-$1 million range, it is one of the top niche sites in the recently released “Michele’s List” of community-based startups. To find out how it has done so well, I put these questions to the company’s co-founder and business director Brian James Kirk.
How and why did you start Technical.ly?
Chris Wink — who mainly directs editorial at Technical.ly — and I were recent college grads who wanted to work in the news industry, but in 2009, we were surrounded by the financial collapse and huge shifts in how journalism was being produced (and paid for). That environment kept us from landing media jobs, but gave us an opportunity to fill a gap in the market. We recognized that there was a lot of local tech activity not being reported; really exciting, groundbreaking and interesting stuff that we felt could really shape the image of a changing, modern city like Philadelphia (or any of the markets we now cover). We wanted to create jobs for ourselves as journalists, but we’ve grown because we serve a need: local business sections weren’t covering tech and innovation at the pace at which that emerging economy is growing in our cities.
Do you cover all of technology in Philly and your other cities, or just start-ups?
We think technology communities are so much more than entrepreneurism alone. Startups are the white hot center of it, the engine that people relate to or understand (read: people love Shark Tank), but we focus on the economic development possibilities of these growing businesses, the access and opportunity that the web and connectivity has (or hasn’t) created for everyone in our cities — the diversity and reach of technology, how arts and culture and society generally are hanged as a result of technology. We ask how our cities are better because of this community.
Do you have to be a tech nerd to be attracted to your sites?
We write about people that use technology to create change. I think that appeals to a really broad audience. Plus, everyone is a tech nerd now. The oldheads that were on dialup in the ’90s are the cool kids in our community, but everyone is interested in innovation.
Your recent story about how the high-profile company Brand.com disappeared from Philadelphia seems interesting enough to attract a general reader. Is that an exception, or do you run other stories that have general interest?
We write for professionals in cities. Often, they’re interested in startups because it’s a very different, exciting career path than what they were taught in school. Or, they’re interested in finding out about a networking event where they can meet their next client or boss. We try to highlight the stories that will appeal to that group, and it comes across in deeply reported tactical business stories like that one, or in more entertaining bursts, like beautiful aerial photography of a city shot by a drone. That’s what our readers want to see on a lunch break. We try to go after the different dimensions of our professional audience.
From the get-go, you made organizing events a big part of Technical.ly. What’s the secret of making an event successful — for participants and for your digital business?
You can’t expect anyone to show up. The secret to events is knowing they never just happen on their own. They’re an incredible amount of work, but they are richly rewarding for everyone involved if you do them right. The value for attendees and sponsors is massive if you know how to match their expectations, nail the experience, and create something special.
How many events do you put on in a year?
We organize 40-plus events per year and each one is an entirely different business model.
Companies you write about might sponsor your events. How do you handle that ethical question?
By having a very clear departmental separation defined by a transparent ethics policy. Our business team has absolutely lost sponsors because of stories editorial has written. But when we execute flawlessly, our editorial department can challenge one of our clients with a hard story That work is celebrated by the community for being authentic, and likewise understood by the client for being fair and well-reported. We do our best to bring on clients that understand that our editorial team is independent.
While events are your main source of revenue, how big of a percentage of total revenue is advertising?
In 2014, before we really approached advertising, ads were 2% of our revenue; today, they’re 12%. We think they could be 20% next year. Events were working early-on as a revenue driver, and that gave us a chance to bide our time with advertising. We sat and watched the digital ad market mature, and now we’re excited about the opportunities there. Ads can be beautiful and unobtrusive. We know our audience and what to serve them, and we know display ads are not the only answer to growth. That’s why created a smart approach to native advertising that doesn’t suck.
How did you finance your expansion to Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Delaware?
We have no outside investment. We bootstrapped into new markets by reinvesting our profit or finding early launch sponsors in those markets.
Could you go nationwide?
We’ve built a working local/regional model across five markets that are in proximity to one another in the Mid-Atlantic. There’s really exciting connectivity and value we’ve created by connecting those places that we’re really interested in. We think this model could work in other regions around the country, but the real challenge is figuring out how to expand at that scale. We’re always exploring.
You’re in the $501,000-$1 million revenue range on “Michele’s List.” Is that just for Philly or does it include all your cities?
That’s our total revenue across all five cities.
Are you profitable?
We’ve had modest 3 to 5% margin because so much of it has been reinvested in growth. We want a stable margin that can protect from market inconsistencies or quarterly failures. We experiment a lot, so its important for us to still be mindful of creating stability by protecting that margin. We think 10% is a great goal.
You have 150,000 unique visitors monthly. Is that good enough to attract the advertisers you want to reach?
We’ve never tried to compete on pageviews or visitors. From day one, we know that wasn’t going to be how we won. We differentiate with the quality and engagement of our readership.
You say you want to increase your audience, but you stress you’re a niche site. How do you balance what seem like opposites?
That’s our most important audience development hurdle: protecting quality but reaching new people. I don’t think we have an answer yet, but geography certainly limits our need to multiply audience. We need to be relevant to the defined population of our cities. How we do that can be varied.
You have a full-time staff of 11. What’s your model for balancing revenue and staffing to meet your needs and mission?
We are adding staff as quickly as possible to make it a comfortable and exciting environment for our team. Creating company culture has been a priority for us, as opposed to scale of operations alone. We’ve tried our best to create a great place to work. We base a lot of our budgeting and growth plans around the people we think we need next year. That helps push us to figure out how to grow revenues in line with those hiring expectations. That bigger, better team makes it easier to achieve our goals, too. It’s a really exciting time for us.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.