How We Got Here
This month Stacker will onboard our 20th employee. When we launched the company in 2017 and decided to forgo fundraising and bootstrap the business, we knew we had to be deliberate in our efforts. We were enthusiastic about building a ‘syndication first’ media company that transformed public data into engaging stories. But with a commitment to grow Stacker solely through profits, we realized scaling the business would take time. Almost four years into the endeavor, we’ve hit our stride, with exciting growth across multiple business lines and a quickly growing organization.
New team members often ask some version of the same question:
How did Stacker get here?
We’ve never written about our founding story and aspirations—and as I reflect on the past 20 hires and the many more to come, now seems like the perfect time to lay both out.
In choosing to bootstrap the company, we knew we had to find something that worked, fast. For many media companies that took the fundraising route in the last decade, institutional capital has created outsized expectations. By design, VC dynamics necessitate massive returns, which creates a grow at all cost framework. This mindset has not translated well for the media industry, leading to growth strategies that profitable media companies might have traditionally avoided (think aggressive expansion into video). But the cash was in the bank, and shots had to be taken - often resulting in aggressive strategic misfires and subsequent layoffs.
Having seen this play out in past jobs, we were committed to avoiding forced errors too often associated with outside funding. We would control our own destiny and grow responsibly. Fortunately, after spending years working with dozens of newsrooms across the country, we identified two areas where we could truly differentiate, and create real value for both Stacker and the news industry at large.
Starting a journalism company from scratch is hard. Audience development is a long game, digital monetization has been squeezed, and the core effort of producing high-quality stories that resonate and stand up to the scrutiny of readers is a constant challenge.
But two things became readily apparent over the past decade: People love data, and people love lists.
We recognized a void in the marketplace and dove in head first, combining extensive data analysis with rich editorial insights, all presented in a gallery or slideshow format. The format wasn’t new—publishers ranging from BuzzFeed to the New York Times have long valued it as an intuitive and highly engaging, monetizable format—but our all-in approach focused on elevating the format to be best-in-class journalism was. We strove to take a medium that had largely devolved into clickbait and subjective rankings from best food to the attractiveness of “Game of Thrones” characters and instead approached each piece with strong journalistic grounding that allowed every story to stand up to its counterpart in authoritative, long-form journalism.
We developed a thorough story process that combined data expertise with editorial insights. Starting with our research team, each story undergoes a collaborative review to carve out authoritative data sources and methodology that can drive the story. After building a story framework, we then layer in compelling editorial context and rich imagery to bring to life the core list of facts. In the early days, we targeted the largest audience possible for each piece by picking big topics and gearing every story to a national audience. The result was data-driven comparisons of the best movies or the most extreme temperatures recorded in every state, as well as 8,000 word features covering topics like women’s history and the evolution of advertising. By co-opting the slideshow into a vehicle for research-driven stories, something special happened: we became a trusted partner with the world’s best publishers.
Which led us to our second realization: news outlets are hungry for authoritative, engaging features—and leveraging their audience is a hell of a lot easier than building one from scratch.
To build a sustainable business model, we skipped the arduous process of building a direct audience and sophisticated monetization stack, opting instead to partner with publishers that had it all figured out. First, we syndicated to MSN, one of the world’s largest news sites (and one of the only major tech companies to make a business of paying publishers for their work). Next, we gradually expanded our reach with newspaper groups like Hearst, Lee Enterprises, and Tribune. This only worked if our stories were authoritative enough to stand alongside these outlets’ best original reporting—so we continued to invest in a thorough vetting, research, and editing process - all continuously underscored by partner feedback - to empower us to meet this high bar.
The strategy paid off: through partnerships and our own gradually growing site, within 2 years Stacker was reaching 5+ million readers a month, and driving over 200 million page views for partner sites. We grew our in-house newsroom of research analysts and copy and photo editors to 15 while forging a network of 75+ freelancers with diverse expertise we could flexibly tap to meet our rigorous monthly publishing schedule.
As syndication grew, we identified a new audience opportunity in the local news space. The expanse of data available today lends itself well to producing data-driven stories with insights down to the state, metro, or even zip code-level. But unlike larger national outlets, most local news publishers didn’t have the capacity to pay (or the resources to invest in extensive data journalism themselves). Corporate consolidation, the transition from print to digital, and the fundamental challenges many legacy news outlets face means local newsrooms have seen their staffing slashed while being expected to cover a larger scope of work, all on a limited budget. We sought out to fill that void with compelling storytelling.
By pairing our analysis efforts with automation, we have been able to transform our stories into hyperlocal angles—ultimately delivering data journalism at scale to partners. Just like every publisher doesn't need a D.C. or London Bureau to get political or global news, we're making it possible for local newsrooms to have full access to great data journalism, even if they can’t spare the staffing for it.
So much of our growth has been built on mutually beneficial partnerships, a brilliant team, and mentorship from people throughout the media industry. We are fortunate to have spent 4 years focused on creating great stories, and now we’re growing the team to support an expanded audience for our vision. We recently launched a redesigned site and CMS (moving on from the $50 template we had jerry-rigged into functionality for 3 years), hired a new VP of Distribution, launched a partnership with the largest collective of news sites in the world, and are expanding into new storytelling areas and formats (e.g., data visualizations). Our core mission and vision remain the same, but our scope continues to expand as we reach more readers and tell new stories. Many thanks to all of you who have been involved in our journey so far. We look forward to writing the next chapter in Stacker’s story.