'We're a Media Company and... Run to it'; Griffey Credits 348% Growth to Commitment to Strong Content

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If you're a fan of niche journalism—and there are close to 300 of those doing everything but wasting away here in Margaritaville at SIIA's 6th annual Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS) in warm and sunny Hollywood, Fla.—then you have to love Industry Dive CEO Sean Griffey.

In a takeaway-studded Q&A with Rush River Media's Meg Hargreaves—who hit on all the right notes—Griffey, time and again, credited his seven-year-old company's tremendous growth to its commitment to good journalism.
One of those content reaffirmations "actually came from this conference a couple years ago," he said. "I was struck that no one said the words 'journalism' and 'content' in a two-day period. Breakout panels talked about lead generation in buyer periods." Every article needed to be infused with someone's purchase intent, Griffey was told. So he just thought that believing "every story should tell something about people's buying habits is a mistake. As an industry we can swing too far and become something we're not. Eight years ago you couldn't come to a conference and not talk about content journalism. I think we have to look at that."

To that end, Industry Dive has loaded up on good journalism, with 80—and counting—editorial people now (many of them mid-career) and 19 verticals from construction and grocery to smart cities and waste. The company has experienced an amazing 348% growth, Hargreaves told us, and their 7 million readers means that they've added about 2,800 new readers a day. They monetize all that with a highly targeted brand of digital advertising.

"A lot of people in media try to run from the term media," Griffey said. "They try to be something else...  So we're a media company and were going to run to it."  
Industry Dive announced in early September that Charlotte-based private equity firm Falfurrias Capital Partners had acquired a majority equity in the company. The partnership combines the unique investment model of Falfurrias with the verticals and audience of Industry Dive. Griffey will continue as CEO.

"We raised $400,000 in the beginning and that was all for seven years," Griffey said. "But then we met Capital Partners. They came to us. We were receptive but weren't looking for investment. Then their slide deck talked about content and journalism" and a bridge was built.

"We're at a time we thought the business deserved more investment," he said. The Washington Post had named Industry Dive one of the best places to work for three years running, and Griffey takes a lot of pride in that.

"Growth is a problem. We're going to hire a lot of people in the next year. Do we become slower in how we do things? That's not what makes people excited. Finding ways to be entrepreneurial as you get bigger is tough. If anyone knows that, please let me know."

The conference started with Anita Zielina, director of news innovation and leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and a former chief product officer of NZZ in Zurich, speaking about product development.

"Over the last 1 or 2 years product has become the topic of conversation for media companies," she said. "The business media building products and developing user-centric products. Actually, it's not that new—connecting the importance of product with business success."

She showed us a Procter & Gamble memo from 1930 which talked about brand teams and people who constantly think about the customer. "Are we building what the customer wants?" Zielina asked. "Are we fulfilling their needs?"

She made an excellent point about the media industry having strived for perfection for so long with their print products and now they must adhere to a culture of failing fast. Which will it be? "Do you want to be first or do you want to be late in the game and see the mistakes that others have made?" Zielina asked.
A few hours later Griffey picked up on that. Asked why he might go into popular verticals rather than more obscure ones, he said, "Crowded spaces means there's money there. I'd rather go where there's money today rather than create a market tomorrow. As Anita said earlier, it's between being first in something or being a fast follower, I'm not in the first one.

"At the end of the day, we like verticals that are impacted by technology or regulation so there's a need to follow the news. I also really like industries that have a strong SaaS component."

Industry Dive also puts a strong emphasis on design. "When you start something new, you look for differentiators. We make money on design. I have more front-end designers than most media companies. It's about the customer experience."
But the main emphasis remains on the journalism. "The struggle in DC is to elevate the newsroom on a par with other newsrooms there," Griffey said. "We had Politico poach journalists from us—can't begrudge that. [But] we go on the offensive too [and have] hired from the Post and Bloomberg and the rest. 

"We have been growing really fast. The promise of the business is to do more.  That's the next step. It's accelerated because we have a partner but expect to see us in more markets next year—adding new capabilities that we haven't done in the past."
BIMS continues through tomorrow. See more at #BIMS19.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…