Alex Lieberman – Co-Founder & Executive Chairman of Morning Brew and Host of the Founder’s Journal Podcast
Excited to share my interview with Alex Lieberman on #TheKaraGoldinShow! Alex is the Co-Founder, Former CEO, now Executive Chairman of Morning Brew and Host of the incredible Founder’s Journal Podcast. Listen in as we talk about his journey that started with growing up in a family of finance professionals and of course, the humble beginnings of what has become the hottest daily newsletter for young professionals. He also shares what really grew the Morning Brew and how it has evolved since being acquired by Business Insider. Don’t miss this awesome episode!
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Kara Goldin 0:00
Hi, everyone, its Kara golden from the Kara golden show. And I am so beyond excited for my next guest, Alex Lieberman, who some of you may know who Alex is. And for those of you who don’t know, you have to know this brand that is just on fire. That Well, let me talk a little bit more about who this is, who is the co founder and the former CEO. We’ll talk a little bit more about that as well. But morning brew the hottest, hottest, hottest, daily newsletter that is designed, really for what I was doing the research Alex had said for a young business professionals i know i think you are, like every professional out there is reading morning brew, I think that your audience is is demographically interesting to many, many people, including my college kids read it as well. I mean, it’s just it’s definitely a hot hot thing for so many demographics. And he’s also the host of the founders journal podcast that I was so lucky to be on recently, too. And Alex and his co founder, Austin started morning brew with just a few things that computer the internet and a keen interest in business news and grew it into one of the hottest media companies around recently sold it to Business Insider, and we’re gonna talk a lot more about that too. But welcome, Alex, super excited to have you here.
Alex Lieberman 1:35
Thanks so much for having me pumped to do this.
Kara Goldin 1:38
Absolutely. So Alex, I know that the company is based in New York City, we were joking around did a UFO plop you down in New York City? Or how like, Where? Who is Alex? Little Alex? Like? Yeah, what did you think you wanted to do?
Alex Lieberman 1:52
Yeah, so company is normally based in New York right now we’re based out of probably most countries in the US as most companies are right now. I’m personally working out of my grandparents place in Essex County, New Jersey, currently sitting in my grandma’s closet. Great, great spot for, for good sound when you’re recording a podcast. But um, you know, I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. And I grew up in a finance family. My dad worked in sales and trading for Citi group for 20 years, my mom worked in sales and trading for Nomura, a Japanese bank for 20 years, Grandpa worked in sales and trading for Prudential for 20 plus years. So you’re you’re gathering the pattern. I grew up in a finance family. And, you know, if there were two things I really understood growing up, one was the financial markets and Wall Street, and just the the power of Wall Street. And then the second was the value and power of family. Like, you know, my parents did an incredible job of raising me and instilling me, the value of just there is nothing more important than family family above everything else. And so growing up, my goal was pretty simple. I wanted to be like my mom, and my dad, and my grandpa, I grew up with a whiteboard in my room, always wrote down on my whiteboard, my goals in life, one of the goals that I always had was to be the best trader in the world. So I was probably pretty unique as a 12 year old, having that written on my whiteboard. But it was the type of thing where I knew nothing else. And All I knew is that I loved my parents, and I looked at them as superheroes. And I wanted to be a superhero like them. And, and so that that was kind of my North Star. Growing up, you know, I went to a small private high school, went to the University of Michigan for college, which coming from the high school I went to, was actually pretty unorthodox. I my graduating class in high school was 120 people, a third of my grade, went to an Ivy League school. Another third went to like the Northeast NASDAQ schools, like Middlebury or Colgate. And then the other third was kind of just like the smorgasbord of everything else. I was in that final third. And it’s interesting because going to Michigan for my high school, I was considered to be average, like it was, it was a mediocre choice to go to Michigan from my high school. And I would say in general in high school and growing up as a student, I was an average student. I think I was an average student because I’ve always had a pretty crazy and creative brain. It’s hard for me to sit still. And I think what I realized about education for me and school for me is I work best when there aren’t crazy time constraints where when I can dictate my schedule and the way that works best for me. And you know, in high school growing up where I had classes from 830 to five o’clock, then I would have sports and then I get home at 730. And from 730 to 930, that’s when I had to do homework or had to study for tests that didn’t work for my brain. So all that to say I ended up going to Michigan was considered mediocre in my high school. But I was really excited to get something totally different out of my experience, went to Michigan loved it studied business there studied business because I wanted to be like my parents. And I did the classic finance thing. After freshman year after sophomore year after junior year, I interned in finance internships in New York, got into my senior year at Michigan, and I was lucky enough that I had gotten a full time job to work for Morgan Stanley after graduating from college. And so that was like I was living the dream that was peak for me, right, my whole childhood, my whole young adulthood, built up to this point of getting a job in finance and doing the same thing that my mom and dad did. And that’s exactly what happened, I had this job lined up to go work in trading, trading mortgages, literally the same product my dad traded, and it was lined up for me after school. And so in my senior year, Michigan, didn’t have to worry about re recruiting already had my job for when I graduated, I only had to take three classes my whole senior year. So I had all this free time. And basically, you know, I joke that I needed to find some way to not play Mario Kart or FIFA for you know, 12 hours a day. And so I did that like four hours a day. And then I started spending time helping students prepare for job interviews, because a lot of my peers, were re recruiting for jobs during senior year. And the first question I would always ask students in mock interviews that I’d run them through is, how do you keep up with the business world? What What do you read? And they would always say, The Wall Street Journal? And I would say why? And they would say, you know, I read it, because that’s what my parents told me to do. Because it’s a prerequisite, Sam, well read in business, I said, Do you enjoy and they say, you know, I read it, because I feel like I have to then actually, because I want to. And at some point, I was just like, This is crazy. These, these students are working their asses off to have careers in business, literally from the age of 21, to say, 65, when they retire, they’re gonna spend half of their waking hours more than half their waking hours working in business. And they feel and they read content around the industry, they’re going to be in, because their parents told them they have to, that sounded wild to me. And so I started writing a daily business Roundup. At the time, it was called market corner, I use the Microsoft Word template, put it together every day. This is during my senior year, during first semester, senior year of college in 2014. We put together this newsletter every day, took a picture of a bear in a bull fighting from Google had the watermark going across, which I didn’t realize until after I started writing this thing. And I would convert the template into a PDF, attach it to an email and send it to a listserv of people. So I didn’t have a website. I literally had a listserv that I created through Michigan, who is market [email protected] was what it came from started with 45 people. And that was like, that was the genesis of morning, bro.
Kara Goldin 8:04
That’s amazing. I’m just curious. So did you do this for the school? Or was it just separate? Like it was just part of totally separate?
Yeah. So you weren’t like starting the school, newspaper division, anything like that?
Alex Lieberman 8:17
No, it had nothing to do with the school. And I would say I was doing it part selfishly, part selflessly, selflessly, because the students basically were telling me that they didn’t have content that they resonated with, selfishly because I was like, I need to do something to force myself to stay up to speed with the business world, or I’m not going to be able to use my brain in the right way when I graduate. But it’s interesting that that you asked that question, because, you know, I often say that all the things I got out of school, were not from my classes, like I actually feel like I use two or three of the classes I ever took at school, in actual, like, application to the any of the work I do. But it was the social experience. It was the network, and it was the extracurriculars, and some of my most random extracurricular activities were actually the most. They were the most valuable activities for what I ended up doing. For now the majority of my career, I ended up being an executive director of a magazine on campus. I never had content, experience, design experience anything. So interesting. I just apply I applied to be an executive director of a magazine because I thought it was a good resume builder. And I thought it sounded interesting. And I ended up running this magazine for a year, which I can’t believe like they had me run this thing because I none of the relevant experience, but I basically had to help decide topics and concepts for the magazine, how are we going to storyteller who are going to be the writers that we bring on staff? Who are the design people what is the workflow to actually put out the magazine in physical form? So just crazy that I would say the most random thing I did in school ended up being the most relevant to what I ended up doing when I left Morgan Stanley to do morning brew full time.
Kara Goldin 10:06
It’s so interesting, though I talk, I think you and I talked about this at some point, but my father was the developer, founder of a brand called healthy choice. And, you know, I certainly I was just like, okay, don’t talk to me about salsbury steak anymore. I can’t even you know, talk about this anymore. But I never really thought that I would, I never saw the connection. And you know that the dots, as I always say, eventually connect, right, that it was just the stuff that I was picking up on him and just hearing that you actually had the centrist around, really understanding the markets. I’m sure your parents were talking about it. And I think that the other thing that I, you know, frequently talk about that I think we have wrong, frankly, is that, you know, I get asked this question all the time, how do you like work life balance? And how do you keep your family like separate? I mean, I look, my my kids when they don’t want to hear about him anymore. They’re, they’re like, Can we not talk about this anymore? And I’m like, awesome. I don’t want to talk about your games, either or any of the other, you know, your girlfriend’s your boyfriend’s whatever, I don’t want to, like hear about it, either. So we all like that’s normal, right? Where you’re hearing the stuff, and then you start to crave it later on in life when you’re not actually, I guess, hearing it on a daily basis? I mean, it sounds like that’s what was going on a lot of this that you were getting sort of a, you know, pre intro to, to the stuff just kind of growing up in this house.
Alex Lieberman 11:40
Yeah. And I think it’s interesting. I think, the look, the reason I wanted to go into financial services, actually had nothing. Like, when I was young, I never thought about things like, oh, what gives me energy? What am I really good at? Like, I never had those thoughts. And I don’t think most kids growing up have those thoughts. I the thought in my head was, I don’t know any other job that exists in the world. I love my parents, I think they’re awesome. And I only know that their job exists. So I’m going to do it. And when I realized, like, you know, why did I take an interest in the markets or in business? I honestly think that has less to do with, like, the markets or being super passionate about the markets, like there are people who are way more passionate about the markets than me, like people who love sitting in front of a screen and day trading or analyzing stocks and talking about their portfolio all day long. I’m actually not that person at all. I think what made me interested in it, that I started realizing later on is I just like learning in general, like I am, I love learning new stuff, going down rabbit holes, and being a voracious consumer of content, and context in the world. And I think because that’s what was most that was around me, that at the time was the learning opportunity that I latched on to,
Kara Goldin 13:01
but then going into, you know, running this magazine and learning more about content. So and then obviously, you had this this newsletter, so so then you you leave the university? And and how did you start to think it’s going to be a business? Did you actually say, Oh, wait a minute, I’m not gonna go and do the finance roles. Instead, I’m going to be an entrepreneur, and what was sort of how were you thinking about this?
Alex Lieberman 13:29
Yeah, so we didn’t think about it as a business, I would say for another year after I graduated from Michigan, so kind of the way it started was it really started as just like a hobby. And then, at some point, a few months after publishing market corner for for, you know, let’s call it a couple 100 people, I’d sent out an email set to my readers saying, Hey, I’m looking to make this a little bit more legit. It’s starting to pick up steam, I want to take this to the next level, whatever that meant at the time. And I got emails from people saying, hey, I’d love to help out. One of the emails I got was from this guy, Austin reef, two years younger than me at Michigan, in the same fraternity, but we didn’t know each other who is also in the business school. And ironically, at the time, I wrote him saying, Okay, let’s, let’s sit down in the main area of the business school and let’s, let’s talk about that one to understand if, if you’re fully committed to this, which obviously is hilarious now that he’s been working the business full time for the last, you know, six years, clearly he was committed, but we had a conversation and he, he basically spent the whole time telling me about all the things he thought could be better about my newsletter. And that was like the first learning I had in entrepreneurship. And and it’s funny on the most recent founders journal I had I had Darrin Ravel on and he shared a similar type of thing, which is like, in some scenarios, it’s great to have Yes, people in your life in other scenarios, it’s the worst thing. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs will will say this that like yes, people really are actually a negative around business. Because they all they do is they increase the things you’re blind to, in growing your company versus revealing blind spots and helping to fix blind spots or provided gentle nudges in the right direction. and Austin was one of was the only person out of all of my readers that actually provided constructive feedback for how the product could be better. And, and at the time, I thought to myself, I didn’t think oh, you know, this is my co founder, oh, now we have a business, I just thought to myself, wow, this guy has a really different brain from mine. He’s super linear in thinking he’s super objective. He’s super practical. And he doesn’t beat around the bush, he just is honest about what he thinks can be better. And, and I was just attracted to a totally different way of thinking than was my default brain. And so we ended up started working on stuff together talking about it. Ultimately, I brought him on as a co founder. And I called him a co founder at the time. And like, I called myself a co founder at the time, but we didn’t think of our thing as like, we are co founder of a real business, it was like co founder of a project. And then I graduated from Michigan. When I graduated in June of 2015. I believe we had 10,000 subscribers. And with 10,000 subscribers, no monetization, no real sense of the business plan. I didn’t reject my job offer to work at Morgan Stanley. I was thinking myself, there’s no way I’m going to convince my mom who has wanted me to work in finance for the last, you know, 21 years, I’m going to go tell her Hey, Mom, I’m gonna go work on a newsletter that has a couple 1000 subscribers and turned down this dream job and this salary. So went to Morgan Stanley, I was there from June of 2015, to September of 2016. So just over a year, and September of 2016, right after Labor Day, I quit my job at Morgan Stanley and went full time on the brew. And that decision was made really over the course of eight months. But like the, I would say that the key moment was Austin came to New York City one weekend, I would say in probably august of 2016. And we met up, I’ll never forget it was around union Union Square. It was at Pete’s Tavern on Irving place. And we were grabbing beers. And we were basically talking about like, what are we what are we doing? What are we going to do with the brew, because at the time, I was at Morgan Stanley, I was spending, you know, 10 hours a day working on sales and trading. And then two hours a day working on the brew, Austin was still a student, because he was two years younger than me. So he was a senior at Michigan, he had received a job offer to work in investment banking, and had to decide if he was going to do that. We’re basically saying like, there’s a clear fork in the road, either, we’re going to do this or not gonna do this. And we basically,
on the spot, just said, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna go full time on this. And so that conversation led to me quitting my job. That conversation led to him telling the investment bank that he had committed to that he was actually going to renege on his offer, and not go into investment banking. So he ended up joining me right after graduation, he never even started a job. So he graduated from Michigan, in June of 2017. And two years after me, after I had graduated, and he joined me right when he graduated, he literally went from Ann Arbor, popped back home in Maryland, where he’s from for a week or two, and then moved directly to New York. And so from September of 2016, that’s when I started full time on the brew to about june of 2017. That’s when I was working on my own for a while while he was still in school, juniors, 2017. When he graduated from Michigan, he joined me and we started working full time together,
Kara Goldin 18:45
you know, it’s it, hearing your story, it reminds me when I was in tech prior to deciding to start Hinton it was, when I left America Online, I remember people saying to me, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and and kept interviewing for different tech roles, and everybody wanted me to do AOL 2.0 for them, right that doing the e commerce and shopping partnerships for them and, and basically crush AOL. A few interviewers said that to me, and I thought, why would I want to crush like, Can you imagine somebody saying, Go crush morning brew, right? And you’re just like, Oh, yeah. Eating attack when they when they were talking? Like, it’s just a bizarre thing. They never really heard themselves saying it, but I knew it was just upsetting to me when they would say this. So I just kept like, walking out, say, maybe, I mean, maybe I should do something else. But when people heard that I was launching hint. And it was, you know, not only as as, you know, a new product and a new company, but it was an entirely new category, and people would not really understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. But they said, you know, you shouldn’t do this for very long because you don’t want to stay out In the market, because you look like you’re not focused, you look like you’re Yeah. And and I kept thinking about 15 minutes ago, you were just telling me that I was marketable that I could get any job. And just because I want to go try something, and potentially, I know that I may fail, that I can’t go back. And I kept thinking, I’m fine. I’m actually going to be just fine. But I had more doubters, and people concerned than I was. And I get asked this question a lot, because, and I think it’s the same thing like you knew that you could tell the story of, Okay, here’s what happened. I knew I was supposed to take this job at Morgan Stanley, but I went and decided to do this. I think you get credit, right? If I interview somebody that just wants to go try something, get it out of their system, and then come back. So what I always share with people, whether you’re a college student, or whether you’ve been working in something that you’re not really that bad now, let’s go try it. Yeah, I
Alex Lieberman 21:04
mean, that’s exactly what happened when I was thinking about, you know, I make the decision process sound very clean, but I would say free months, it was like me after work, feeling super stressed, calling my mom being like, what am I doing? I feel like I’m inadequate in my job at Morgan Stanley, because my head and heart are not in it. And then I feel like I’m not totally doing the brooch justice. Because I’m spending two hours a day on it. What do I do? It was basically that conversation for eight months. But in that conversation, where I got clarity was I was like, Okay, I’m gonna have to make a decision. And the first way I thought about the decision is like, what is going to leave me more regret? My gonna be left with more regret. Leaving Morgan Stanley doing the brew, and having a and having a tough time getting a job after that? Or am I gonna be left with more regret staying at Morgan Stanley and seeing someone effectively create exactly what morning brew is because they just decided they were willing to take a little bit of risk and put in the time. And to me, the way I thought about it was an absolute no brainer, I would feel far more regret with that. Second one, if I saw someone build, the thing I was really passionate about simply because they decided to put it to don’t not donate, but to give their time to this thing that they’re passionate about. That’s where I felt more regret. And then once I was like, Okay, I think I want to do this brew thing, because I feel way more regretful giving it up. Then I was like, what’s the worst case scenario? And I thought about the worst case scenario, and I was like, okay, the worst case scenario is, we do the brew, we spend six months on it, we realize it’s not working, realize it’s either not growing, there’s not content market fit, advertisers don’t want to align with the content, whatever it is. And then I was just like, then what, then what happens? And to your point, I went through like five different layers of options. And so the first layer was like, maybe this is a great story about building a business having an entrepreneurial pursuit, managing people raising money. And if I didn’t burn all my bridges at Morgan Stanley, I could go back there and be like, hey, this actually makes me a more well rounded trader, when I go into man, or manage Junior traders or to assess risk or whatever. Then I said, Okay, let’s say hypothetically, that doesn’t work. And I’m wrong about that assumption, then I was like, this is probably a good business school story to end up writing about starting this media company. And then I was like, Okay, let’s say that doesn’t work out. Maybe I’ve made really good connections in the New York City startup scene, where if it doesn’t work out, I could go join another startup or start something new. And I basically got, like, several layers deep of what I thought were realistic options. And I was like, if all of these options don’t work out, I actually think it has nothing to do with morning brew, as my it has to do with my ability to keep options open and storytel the experience. And and so, you know, to your point, I had a very similar experience with that. I think it It always reminds me of this essay by Paul Graham, on thinking for yourself. And he talks about, you know, what does it take to be an independent thinker? And I think, I think he’s exactly right that most, it’s so interesting, because I think as a kid, as a child, most children are independent thinkers, like other than children doing what their parents tell them in terms of like having crazy brains that don’t have constraints on how they think. Children don’t have that much in the way of constraints to be able to think creatively and try random shit that they just find interesting. And I think as we grow as adults, what happens is context adds all these constraints to our brain that really force most people to think within this box. And so I think a lot of people the way they get to independent thinking or independent thought if it’s not just a neat is somehow retraining their brain to think like a child. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs somehow through their through, whether it’s biology, whether it’s how they were brought up, somehow were able to keep this this Creative, independent mindset that mimics how they were as children in their adult years.
Kara Goldin 25:06
Yeah, no, I think I think that’s absolutely right. And or they’ve come to a point where, you know, maybe in school, they were kind of rejected, right. They were, you know, considered, you know, not kind of conforming to the way Are they or, you know, they were smart enough to realize that it wasn’t just this right. And I know, frankly, I, I’m the mom of four Gen Z ers. And I think there’s a lot of them coming, right, exactly what you’re describing. And they’re, they’re saying that it’s not just the cookie cutter that maybe we were told to sort of be a certain way, but instead, what they value is contributors.
Alex Lieberman 25:45
Yeah, I think I think it’s really interesting, I think, for my generation, or your generation, where maybe the model like, like, the model we we looked at wasn’t necessarily entrepreneurs, right. I think there’s this this renaissance in entrepreneurship, where CEOs are celebrities, and I don’t think that’s always been that way. And, and so what I mean by that is, I think, if your reference point is independent thought and going against the grain, it’s easier to do that, I think, for people in my generation, or your generation that grew up where we didn’t have that. I think something else had to drive most people to somehow think independently. I think for someone like me, it was, you know, trauma from losing my dad at a young age. And that very quickly flipped a switch where I kind of, I didn’t give a shit about doing a job for the sake of doing a job anymore, because I kind of instantly changed. Like, my mental chemistry being like, why does this actually matter? Like I could go any day? Why don’t I do something that gives me energy. And the downside is always going to be like the worst case. Basically, what happened is it changed my worst case scenario where my worst case scenario of having trouble finding a job well as as a 20 year old kid, who had lost his dad, who was his best friend, the worst case scenario couldn’t get worse than that. So to me, everything seemed like like cake. And, and so I think some people get to independent thought, through trauma. Hopefully, people don’t have to go through that. But I think, inevitably, some people experience the past independent thought through that, I think, I think some people experience it through just a, I would say, an innate aversion to authority. So like, I was talking to the CEO of network, the other day, and he like growing up, didn’t graduate from high school, didn’t graduate from college had a run in with the law, being a graffiti artist in LA, he was constantly going against authority, I think that’s what kept him to be independent thought. And there are other things as well. But I think there, there are the specific things that happen, or, or part of the coming of age, that let people be independent thinkers, from my generation, or your generation, I think, to your point, for younger generations, they’re growing up in an age where it’s not just not only are they growing up with the internet, they’re growing up, were sitting on top of the internet are platforms that enable individuals to have the same opportunity, as brands is company and companies more than ever before. And also now, they’re on top of just platforms. They’re tools that allow builders to be great individual builders, make their livelihood from that and have incredible leverage because of software and tools on the internet, where they don’t have to join a company. And to your point, when you’re seeing that all day long, when you’re seeing tick talkers. We’re building up audiences and building businesses on their own, when you’re seeing individuals start entire software companies with just them and maybe one other person, not all this overhead, I think it makes the leap feel way less like a leap and more like a step.
Kara Goldin 28:55
Yeah, no, I think that’s absolutely right. I think that the other thing that I’ve been really conscious of is that I feel like for the last 10 years, in particular, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, right. And I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just my kids viewpoint, but i’ve you know, talked to many other people in that generation of Gen Z years as well, where being a supporter, right, and, and actually recognizing that it’s that, as I say, to want to be entrepreneurs, it’s ideas are a dime a dozen, right? You got to have a great idea and a great solve for a problem. But then it’s the people right that you throw in there the supporters that actually make this thing grow. And so I think that the Gen Z or whether you’re talking about you know, being an influencer on Tick Tock or a software or whatever, they understand what lives underneath the pretty stuff, right? That that is what is going to really grow like what are all those pieces. And yeah, and I think that that is the piece that so many people have missed anyway, I just I think it’s interesting. So on that note, morning brew, what do you think was the was the key thing that really beyond the content got you guys to grow the way that you grew?
Alex Lieberman 30:20
I think the first thing was that we found content market fit meaning great content for a great audience who was looking for that great content, right. So we, the great content was originally a daily business read, for millennials by millennials, that is better than any other business read for this audience. The audience was the modern business leader was the the Alex Lieberman, you know, multiplied by millions of people, intellectually curious, really motivated professional, who is upwardly mobile, and who can’t, who looked at their, their brain as a library and wanted to fill it in with knowledge. And and I think that was a big thing. I think another big thing is that we played into a clear incentive, like people are driven by incentives. And I think we played into a clear incentive for our audience moreso than most people, like most people, one of their big incentives is fear aversion, right, not being embarrassed or not losing. And I think especially for the the business professional, the young business professional, one of the biggest ways you can be embarrassed is being caught off guard in a conversation with your peers, with your boss, where you look stupid, because you don’t know something. And so if morning brew was the insurance policy to do that, and it was a free insurance policy, the value prop was pretty, pretty compelling. Because most insurance policies you have to pay up for that you didn’t have to pay for anything, you have to pay with your email address, you have to pay with your time and attention. And then I think the other thing was, we married that great content, with the really leaning into giving a shit about our community, like in our newsletter, calling out readers doing giveaways, creating a referral program where you could have swag, and you could show off that swag. When you got it as a form of social status for being a part of the brew community. I think that was a huge thing as well. So it’s like we created this great content, people already loved the content, but then we made them feel a part of this thing, where it, they weren’t just a part of the content, they were part of this brand, beyond just the content. And then I think what accelerated kind of just this really good formula of content, and organic growth was pouring fuel on the fire with paid acquisition, where we ramped up paid marketing and what that allowed us to do, once we knew we had great content, once we knew we had the right audience, and the audience was staying engaged with the content is I always get the year wrong, I think it was 2018 to 2019, we grew from 100,000 to a million subscribers. By doing all the things we’re doing well, starting to spend a fair bit of money on paid acquisition. And then that got the flywheel going, where by spending on paid marketing, we’re able to grow our audience to read this newsletter. As we had a larger audience, we could go to more brands and convince brands, hey, pay us x 10s of hundreds or hundreds of 1000s of dollars for us to storytel you in front of our audience in our newsletter, that money then either got reinvested into people to create great content, to grow the audience or to sell big brands, or got put into paid marketing to grow the audience. And so we just reinvested every dollar back into the business and kept this three step flywheel of great content, great growth strategies, and selling the biggest brands on the world and on getting in front of this obsessive audience. And we did that. And I think the key to all of this is we did that three step process thanklessly and relentlessly for three years without doing anything else, you know, today we are, you know, seven product multi-platform Media brand. But from 2015 to 2019. We had one product, like no one thought morning brew is sexy. For the first three years we’re doing it, we’re just putting out a newsletter, and the newsletter Renaissance like substack. And all these other newsletters are coming up. It wasn’t talked about at all people didn’t even realize you could make a lot of money on a newsletter. Because anyone who either people were like, they’d heard the narrative that newsletter was dead, or they heard the narrative of like daily candy, which built a big business then sold and was a dumpster fire and like that was the reference point for anyone. Or if they didn’t have a reference point. They were just like, emails kind of like stuffy and dead.
Kara Goldin 34:35
Super, super interesting. So you sold to Business Insider, and how will the business change?
Alex Lieberman 34:42
Yeah, so the way I would describe it, I can describe what the experience has been so far. The business has changed. It has not changed as a function of insider thus far. So when Austin I we’re not looking to sell the company. We had a relationship with with Someone had an insider for a few years prior to us being approached about a deal, we were approached about a deal in, basically January of 2020, or even December of 2019. We said, you know, unless the the prices right, unless and unless it’s the right type of partnership, we’re not interested, ended up having a price that was right. And the date, you know, what the partnership, what what we were looking for in the partnership was a partner who truly understood that we wanted to be able to Captain our own ship. And if it felt like we were losing our entrepreneurial freedom, it was not going to work. And it wouldn’t work for anyone, it wouldn’t work for us, but it also wouldn’t work for our partner, because they’d be sitting on this asset, that then they’d be like, what are we doing with this thing? And they they committed to that and, and we were confident in their commitment to that, because one Insider, we started by Henry Blodgett, Henry Blodgett is like just the purest version of an entrepreneur. So he gets it. And Axel Springer, the company that owns insider has made, I want to say a couple 100 acquisitions acquisitions over the last 10 years, they’re very acquisitive company. And their whole thing is like, we need to make our founders happy. Because if we don’t make our founders happy, what are we going to do with all these businesses that are being run by founders. And, and so that made us feel really confident about and the other thing we were really excited about was insiders started as a newsletter, and then grew into this massive media brand, that you know, now gets hundreds of millions of page views on their website, they have a massive social presence, all these things, but they went through this full evolution of going from newsletter, to website to brand. And we saw a ton of opportunity to learn from them and their ability to do that, while also complementing the stuff they didn’t have, which was a newsletter business and a podcast business. When I say that the business has changed, the business has changed as a function of us just getting a lot bigger, really quickly. Right like today, morning brew has seven products, across newsletter, website, events, podcast, social, we have a full senior leadership team of people like that combined combined years of experience on our leadership team is probably like 100 years other than Austin, I have a combined like eight years of media experience. We have 100 people now. And we’ve also just like a full structure for like planning for setting goals, executing on goals settling, setting quarterly goals that map up to annual and five year plans like this was never even a thought in our mind. Over a year ago, a year ago, we had three products, we weren’t doing anything but newsletter and we had one podcast with 30 people, we didn’t have a leadership team. And so to me, that’s why the business has changed so much we look fundamentally different, because of the number of people the composition of people and all the things we’re doing.
Kara Goldin 38:01
I love it. So it’s just amazing. And I mean, what you’ve accomplished it you should be really, really proud. And I’m sure your dad’s looking down on you and and incredibly proud. So it’s really, really super great. So if you guys have not checked out Alex’s founders journal, and of course, I was one of his guests and and it was so much great episode. Yeah, it was a lots and lots of fun. And actually, you just talked about what’s the worst that can happen. That was something that my dad used to say to me all the time and, you know, always figure out what’s the risk. And you and I in that episode talked about, you know, what can you do when you’re in when you’re in a tough situation? I mean, what can you do is the other thing that I still say, whenever I feel like I’m, you know, up against the wall, even if it’s a tiny thing, or a big thing. I mean, it’s just so many things that are thinking about
Alex Lieberman 38:59
Yeah, the reason I also love that episode is because I think there’s two camps of like, of business content and storytelling in the world. There’s super specific in the weeds content, where people are talking about the revenue growth and EBITDA and PDE of a tech company when earnings come out. And then you have what what people call like fortune cookie, Twitter, which is like, you know, live your best life and very high level aspirational things. And I think what you did a great job of in this episode and I try to accomplish with founders journal is how do you marry both? How do you make make everything a case study where everything is a story that has specificity, but then it’s actionable with a higher level lesson that you don’t need to be in the business that hit water is in to actually understand what it means. And so to me that like that’s why it’s such a great episode, as you told this story that people can latch on to but also the Get out of there not a CPG business or an e commerce or beverage brand, how they can still use that information.
Kara Goldin 39:57
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Alex, this was an ad Absolute awesome episode everybody. Please give it five stars and definitely subscribe if you’re not already subscribing to the Kara golden show, podcast. We’re here every Monday and Wednesday and I’m on social channels at Kara golden with an AI. And finally, if you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy of my book on donot overcoming doubts and doubters, it’s Wall Street Journal and Amazon bestseller would so appreciate it and we’d love to hear from you as well. And goodbye, Alex. Thank you. How where can people find you? By the way?
Alex Lieberman 40:33
Check out founders journal would love for you to listen, definitely listen to the episode with Kara where she was the guest journaler. And you can follow me on twitter at at business barista.
Kara Goldin 40:44
Yeah, I love your Twitter account so much every day. I’m following you and watching what you’re doing. So All right, thanks, everyone. before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the book calm and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara golden and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara golden golden thanks for listening
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