Sean Griffey is CEO and co-founder, of B2B newsletter publisher Industry Dive. The Washington DC-based company became majority owned by Falfurrias private equity two years ago. It now publishes advertising-funded newsletters in 22 industry verticals. Industry Dive – which is expected to have revenue of more than $80m in 2021 (4x in four years), 30% EBITDA margins, and 300 employees – celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2022.
Why did you move from consultancy to media? How difficult was it to adapt?
I spent the first part of my career working with Fortune 100 companies for some of the largest consulting firms in the world. It was a tremendous learning experience. I got to see how different business models and company cultures drove decision making. Every project was something entirely different which can be exciting. But, truthfully, I didn’t find it very fulfilling. As consultants, we’d make recommendations and generally leave for the client to implement. We rarely got to see first-hand the impact of our hard work.
I left consulting looking to join an organization where I could have a tangible impact on growth. I wanted to be a builder. I spent months networking with entrepreneurs and investors looking for the right role. I eventually found an ad on Craigslist for a role at a small B2B media company called FierceMarkets. It felt random and I didn’t know anything about email newsletters. My only expectation at the time was that my resume would look different in a year if I took the job. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the media industry when I got there. But I did.
What most surprised you as a newcomer to B2B media?
I was surprised by how much I would enjoy each of the industries we cover. As someone who likes to get wonky on topics, there is an endless amount to learn. There is no such thing as a “boring” industry. There is drama, intrigue, and fascinating characters in them all. From the outside, I’m not sure anyone appreciates how dynamic B2B markets can be. As a media company, we get to be right in the thick of it and can have a real impact in helping our markets grow and thrive.
Who or what inspired the launch of Industry Dive?
We launched in 2012 – a time of incredible disruption in media. Much of the industry was still struggling with making the jump from print to digital…and mobile was coming quickly. Any time there is disruption, there is opportunity. My co-founders and I suspected that large incumbents would be hamstrung by existing products and processes. It’s hard to be nimble in the face of disruption if you aren’t built for it. We knew that someone would take this opportunity to build the next great media company. I didn’t necessarily view myself as an entrepreneur at the time but I didn’t want to comfortably cash paychecks and watch someone else do it.
So we launched with the idea that we could use a focus on niche industries, high quality content, design, and attention to first-party data to differentiate us. It’s worked for us so far.
How soon after launch did you realise your new company would succeed?
I’m motivated by a healthy amount of paranoia, so it takes quite a bit for me to internally admit that something is going to work. We had dozens of employees and millions in revenue and profits before I allowed myself to truly feel like we were successful. But the one moment that really stands out is when our newsroom made an honest mistake covering a large company in one of our markets. Within 30 minutes of publishing, we were fielding calls from executives at the company demanding a retraction. Obviously, we didn’t intend to get the story wrong and quickly corrected it, but what struck me was their reaction. They quickly and vigorously reached out to us. It was that point that I knew our publication was influential and mattered to executives in the industry. I don’t want to repeat the mistake but, at the time, it felt like we were on our way.
What’s so special about Industry Dive?
There are numerous things that make Industry Dive pretty unique – 100% digital, focused on high-quality journalism, scaled across 20+ niche industries, fueled by first-party data, growing rapidly, and highly profitable. I’m not sure who else can say all of those things. But it is the team and culture here that makes us truly special. Media is an execution game. It’s not hard to see what someone else is doing but it can be impossible to recreate it. We’ve been fortunate to assemble a collaborative and focused team that can roll with the punches and still execute. I’m incredibly proud to work with them and to be part of it.
How international will the company become?
We already have offices in London and Dhaka, with clients located all over the world. We are already a bit more international than folks may realize. Going forward, there is an opportunity for geographic-focused publications. It’s on our roadmap but I’m not 100% certain when it will bubble to the top of the list. We’ll certainly be increasingly international in the coming years.
How has private equity changed your company?
For me, it’s only increased our ambitions for the company. We bootstrapped the company for over seven years before bringing on Falfurrias Capital as partners. This forced us to be disciplined which ultimately was very healthy for the business. At the same time, it probably made us too cautious with Industry Dive. In the early days, there were acquisitions and other opportunities we passed on because we were extremely careful with our balance sheet. Quite frankly, the business deserved more which is why we brought on a partner. Today, we have the best of both worlds. We remain comfortably profitable and are still disciplined with our decisions but we now take some bigger swings when opportunity presents itself. From an employee standpoint, I think this increased ambition brings more opportunities. We are growing quickly, launching new products, and entering new markets. I think the growth and opportunity to own big parts of the business has always been attractive to people here. That has only accelerated since we brought in private equity.
What’s your biggest business ambition for 2022?
I try not to think in terms of one year. We are trying to build a scaled media business that withstands the test of time. We’ve laid a foundation that can propel us for decades to come. What excites me most in the coming years is continuing to build on it. We have opportunities to grow in many different directions – adding new markets or new geographies. But what excites me most is the prospect of adding products and services that fit across our existing 20+ markets. We have a large and loyal digital audience which is the basis for any new product launch. Our long-term roadmap includes subscription products, events, and peer-to-peer communities. We won’t get to all of this in 2022 but I’m excited to get started.