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Thrillist, Instagram: For startups, changing course can be key to success

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Thrillist, Instagram: For startups, changing course can be key to success

Thrillist Media launched in 2005 as a subscription newsletter service, sending New Yorkers tips on hip new restaurants and where to buy fashionable sneakers. Ten years on, it’s grown into a “leading men’s digital lifestyle brand” with a series of sites dedicated to advising millennial guys on everything from where to take their dates in Denver or Honolulu to where to find the best pizza in Berlin.

That shift -- from simple weekly emails to a network of blogs with a retail component -- was a strategic, if subtle, pivot, and a move that’s been critical to the company’s success. It’s also no doubt part of the reason Thrillist Media Group is getting attention -- and money -- from outside investors. Last week German publisher Axel Springer announced that it took a minority stake in Thrillist, part of a larger $54 million round of funding. At the same time, the company said it will split into two distinct entities. JackThreads, Thrillist’s clothing and accessory e-commerce site, will live separately from Thrillist.com, and gadget-centric news site Supercompressor, acquired in 2013, will be folded back into Thrillist proper. 

Today the sites get a combined 13 million unique visitors -- a far cry from the 600 subscribers it started out with. And its main Thrillist.com site, which covers topics like travel, sex and dating and food, saw 500% growth in unique users last year. The email subscription feature is still an option, but Thrillist is now a destination users actively seek out. In a 2009 interview with Mixergy, Lerer acknowledged the possibility of a pivot: “As time goes on, we’re finding that there are probably a bunch of different ways that our guys would want to be consuming the content.” Thrillist now has sites for 38 cities worldwide, showing it can scale far beyond New York City.

A pivot -- in tech startup parlance -- is when a company decides to offer a different product or alter its business model. Many startups launch with one concept, but change course after stumbling on a more lucrative idea or incorporating input from users.

Thrillist is one of many tech success stories that have pivoted from their origins. For example, rating and review site Yelp began as an email-based referral service. YouTube was a video-based dating site when it first launched. And in an even more dramatic turn, cellphone maker Nokia began in 1865 as a Finnish paper mill company.

“The commonly told story of success is a linear one,” Keith Sawyer, author of ”Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity,” says. “The belief is that once you have a flash of insight, you don’t need more creativity.” But this is rarely how a company achieves success.

Refining a vision: from niche boutique guide to global phenomenon 

Women’s fashion and lifestyle site Refinery29 is another example of a pivot that’s paid off. The site launched in 2005 from a kitchen in Brooklyn as a niche guide to New York City’s little-known boutiques. The original website had a floor plan as its primary visual. Co-founder and co-CEO Philippe von Borries told Yahoo Finance that he wanted it to look like “the mall of your dreams -- made up of independent boutique shops.”

To maintain its exclusivity and selectivity, Refinery29 started out featuring 29 stores in each category (i.e., 29 vintage stores, 29 lingerie stores, 29 jewelers).

“Refinery29 was developed when digital and traditional media were at an intersection,” says von Borries. To get the word out about the website, he and co-founder Justin Stefano went door-to-door to introduce themselves to retailers and potential subscribers to their newsletter.

But in search of growth Refinery29 decided to broaden its scope beyond shopping. “We had a smaller mission to build an independent platform. Then we realized that people have interests broader than just style, so we expanded into health, living, the home, and increasingly, culture and news,” von Borries says. Indeed, while the site publishes the latest celebrity baby news and hair trends, it has also been trying more serious fare, including a video series focusing on men’s and women’s reproductive health done in partnership with Planned Parenthood.

Refinery29’s growth, von Borries says, was more natural evolution than pivot. “A pivot is almost like an illusion. I think most people think about a pivot as a quick turnaround,” he says.

Screenshot of Refinery29.com from July 10, 2005
Screenshot of Refinery29.com from October 5, 2015

Refinery29 now has 25 million monthly unique views, according to von Borries. Some of the site’s most popular articles include “Your October horoscope, revealed” and “What you shouldn’t say to someone in mourning.” Though it’s certainly deviated from its hardcore fashion content, von Borries says the central goal of any company should remain constant. “Our vision stays the same -- to inspire and empower women. Our product has been extremely consistent.”

Instagram: Not so instafamous

Launched in October 2010, photo-sharing site Instagram now has 400 million monthly users (compared with Twitter’s 316 million monthly users). And while lifestyle bloggers, politicians and mommies worldwide can’t imagine a world without the ‘gram, it once existed in an alternative form that did not center around photography.

Before it became Instagram, it was Burbn, an app created in the likeness of location sharing app Foursquare. Users could check in, make plans with friends, and post photos. After analyzing user data, founder and CEO Kevin Systrom realized that people weren’t using the check-in features at all, but were really into sharing photos. So it scrapped all the original features except the photo, comment and like capabilities.

Fast forward to April 2012 -- two years and one pivot later: Seeing its potential, Facebook (FB) buys Instagram for $1 billion. Since being acquired, Instagram has added the capability for users to post 15-second videos. Now, with 75% of users outside the U.S., Instagram has become the global social network to beat.

A slight change of scenery

The pivot is by no means exclusive to companies in the digital realm. Brands both on and offline tweak their models regularly. And shifts aren’t always the byproduct of growth, but can be a direct response to user feedback.

Take, for instance, the satirical cartoon “Dilbert.” It didn’t begin as a workplace comic. In fact, Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert,” told Yahoo Finance that when it was first published in 1989, the title character spent most of his time at home with occasional scenes of him at work. Then in 1993 Adams began running his e-mail address in the strip.

“Thousands of people emailed me every day saying they liked the comic when Dilbert was in the office and liked it less when he was at home,” he says. Adams listened, featuring the office more prominently in the cartoon.

Adams says that he was on a “trajectory toward demise” until that point. If he hadn’t responded to consumer feedback, he doesn’t think “Dilbert” would have achieved the level of success it has. Two-and-a-half decades later, Dilbert, Wally and Alice are still around, griping at the office together.

Of course, pivoting to a new business model or product will sometimes be a mistake. “You may end up spending months of not being useful that don’t result in a good product or service -- that happens all the time. But you take the failure and you build off of it to go in a different direction,” says Sawyer.

However, there may be intrinsic reward in the process of building a company.

“By the very nature of creating a company, even if it fails, you’re amassing a skill that you simply didn’t have before,” Adams says. “Suddenly, you are accidentally more valuable from that experience alone."