I’ve been using war metaphors a lot lately.
I don’t like war. Not at all. But for the past several months, it’s the analogy that has most frequently come to mind when discussing the brand publishing industry—the industry at which my company, Contently, has found itself at the center.
Specifically, I’ve been talking a lot about the emerging arms race among brands that are funneling resources into creating information and entertainment content to compete with both traditional media and each other. In sharp contrast to the SEO content industry we saw thrive—then wither—a few years ago, we’re now witnessing a battle among commercial brands to tell bigger and better editorial stories in order to build relationships with audiences—as media companies have for decades. It’s been fascinating to see this revolution happen so quickly.
I’m pleased to announce that Contently has just received a $9 million investment to escalate a fight against bad content that we’ve been talking about for three years. With this funding, we aim to change the way publishers think about publishing, and to put more power in the hands of talented and ethical storytellers.
We consider Contently a community. Of journalists. Of media businesspeople. Of brand publishers. As such, I want to share with you our plans for this funding and the future of Contently and the space. But first, some context:
In December 2010, my friends Joe Coleman and Dave Goldberg and I quit our lives to launch Contently Inc., at the time a simple marketplace where publishers could offer paid gigs to freelance writers. We saw the challenges that freelance journalists—our friends and colleagues from journalism school and various newspapers and magazines—were facing in a bad economy and worse publishing climate. We thought that we could use the Internet to help them survive. Simultaneously, we were upset by a trend we saw: Content farms were exploiting writers, paying $5 at a time for garbage articles made for Google’s SEO robots. It was sweatshop labor, and no way for writers to make a living, much less for readers to get quality information.
So, we wrote a manifesto. We said that content farms would be short-lived, and that creative people ought to be paid fairly to do quality work.
We declared war. And we proceeded to run out of money.
In the meantime, however, we saw that, while old-school media companies were pinching pennies (offering freelancers rates of $0.10 per word or less for online content), nontraditional publishers like brands were offering better pay for surprisingly interesting gigs. We began to broker such gigs, but money was tight. Investors wouldn’t touch us. More than one told us, verbatim: “Content is a terrible space.”
But one investor believed in us: Eric Paley, Managing Director of Founder Collective. FC gave us enough money to limp by until more investors believed. First came TechStars, and then, as we built more tools to help journalists and sold more publishers on hiring them, Lightbank, Contour Ventures, ffVC, NYC Seed, and amazing angel investors like David Lerner, Lee Ann Daly, Dave McClure, David Kidder, Adam Schwartz, Soraya Darabi, Scott Belsky, and Dharmesh Shah.
Those investments helped us turn Contently into a software company, a publishing project-management system that puts news organizations in the cloud and lets freelancers build free portfolios and get paid quickly. In the next two years, we put off raising more money because the business was working. We hired 25 people, grew to nearly 30,000 journalists and dozens of enterprise brand publishers using our tools. Meanwhile, the content farms petered out as Google changed and people got sick of encountering useless crap on the Internet.
The industry was also evolving. In 2012 and 2013, brands started pumping oceans of cash into publishing. Content marketing became advertising’s big buzzword. So did native advertising (typically, paying for ads that lead to brand content instead of landing pages). Suddenly, we were getting emails every day from friends asking, “Have you heard of this startup that’s doing things for content marketers?” Some of them seemed cool; others were clearly opportunists like the content farms, ready to game another trend.
We had built a reputation, a great team and community, and a great product. And we were in a position to grow a nice business. But we saw the opportunity to grow a huge business. And competition—much of which cared more about marketing and profits than about empowering creative talent and publishing the right way—was soon going to start trying to take that business away from us.
That’s around the time investors started knocking on our door again, eager to place a bet in the space. So we weighed our options and decided we’d rather do something amazing than simply good. That led to the $9 million Series B investment we just raised from Sigma Prime, Sigma West, and our previous investors, which various news outlets reported yesterday. We feel incredibly fortunate to have brought on these great partners, and there’s a reason for each:
Josh Breinlinger, Partner at Sigma West, led the investment from the West Coast and joined our board as the talent marketplace expert. Josh was one of the first employees at oDesk (which he helped grow from $0 to $100 million), and is co-founder of Rev.com (an online marketplace for transcriptionists). Few people have the experience of building and scaling talent marketplaces like he does.
Paul Flanagan, Managing Director at Sigma Prime, led the investment from the East Coast and joined our board as the enterprise software and business scaling expert. Paul has helped build several public companies, and his sweet spot is in taking startups from product-market fit to self-sustaining, post-IPO juggernauts.
Which brings me back to war.
We started Contently to wage a war against bad content and bad treatment of journalists. We now have a war chest to help us fight an even bigger battle in today’s crazy publishing climate.
We’re going to use it on two fronts:
Good stories are told by humans. They’re edited by humans. Their photos and videos and illustrations are crafted by humans. At the end of the day, every great story you consume was made by a creative person—often many. We see creative talent as the lifeblood of the publishing industry, not to mention our business. So the first thing Contently is going to do with its funding is build more for our talent community.
Today, we’re launching an upgraded version of our journalist portfolios, and in the coming weeks, we’re going to be releasing more features to foster community and help freelancers with their careers. Whether they work for our clients or not, we want to help storytellers do what they love. That’s important to us, and now we have more resources to do it. If publishing is an arms race, journalists are its nuclear engineers.
Secondly, Contently will be expanding its platform to become, as Forbes put it last year, “The technological plumbing that underlies all great brand publishing.” We have already built some of the best tools for publishing workflow and collaboration out there (Content Marketing Institute called our platform “The best for premium publishing”). Look for more great features, vertical expansion, and integrations with other adjacent technologies very soon.
Most importantly on that front: we’re consciously designing our solutions for ease and quality instead of copying everyone else’s giant checklists of features. We aim to be the Apple iPod of brand publishing, not the Windows Vista of content marketing. This, it turns out, is a harder challenge than building everything and the kitchen sink, and we’ll be hiring designers and developers to supercharge our tech while simplifying the experience.
This one sounds melodramatic, but it’s important.
Brand publishing is blowing up. Companies are going to spend a lot of money with native advertising this year, and that means there will be temptation for both brands and traditional media to cheat. When we realized in 2011 that most of our clients were going to be brands, we created a code of ethics in order to hold us and our partners to a higher standard—one that focuses on keeping the reader’s trust at all costs. We decided that if brand publishing was going to happen, someone needed to make sure it was done the right way. We wanted to be part of, if not lead, that discussion.
But not everyone will prioritize ethics and the consumers over business goals. So we’re going to be spending a lot of resources to combat them. We’ll be publishing a lot of our own content on the subject, and we’ll be working on gathering consensus among the conscious players in the industry regarding standards for making branded content sustainable for the talent, the consumer, and the publisher.
(Also, stealing other companies’ content is a garbage move. So we’re going to be talking a lot about that.)
At the end of the day, good stories should stand on their own. The publishers of such stories shouldn’t be afraid to show their faces; indeed, they should be proud to brand their content. And if publishers are clear about their intentions and tell original, compelling, true stories, it won’t matter if they are individuals, corporations, nonprofits, or ad-supported news organizations. At Contently, we are committed to making sure those who don’t do the right things get called out.
In reality, the content arms race is actually a race to build, not destroy. The smart players are racing to give more, which is an incredibly positive sign. So perhaps war isn’t the right analogy. I think recent business bestsellers like Give and Take (one of my recent favorites) and Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook are leading indicators of a collective shift in business mentality that’s increasingly focused on helping people as a strategy for success. That, in fact, is what great publishing is all about.
We’re about to see a lot of movement in the publishing space—both from brands and traditional news orgs. There’s soon going to need to be much more emphasis on tying publishing results to business results and doing so ethically. There’s also going to be a lot more storytelling, which means more competition among brands for eyeballs. Attention is continually scarce, and that will equal good things economically for those who can attract eyeballs. There will be debates about standards and ethics. There will be a lot of startups launching or pivoting into the brand-publishing space. And a lot of big companies will smell money and jump in, too.
We aim to build the architecture that will support the brand publishing industry as it moves forward, to be the arms dealer that supplies publishers with the tools and talent to tell great stories that people consume and share. That’s because we believe that business shouldn’t be just about business, and content shouldn’t just be about business, either.
Meanwhile, we’ll be putting on our war paint.
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