This is the age of the email newsletter. Industry Dive, of the US, will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2022 with a 29% increase in revenue to £110m and profit of more than $30m. A B2B superstar.
At a time when most advertising-funded B2B is struggling for growth, the Washington DC-based digital publisher has increased revenue x5 in the past five years and is now generating 30% EBITDA margins. How’s this for revenue growth, with no trace of pandemic:
**Actual revenue in 2020 was $40m. The $60m was pro forma to include the full-year of the acquired NewsCred content marketing studio
Whichever way you look at it, Industry Dive has been a spectacular success right from its $900k bootstrapped launch in 2012, its debut profit two years later, and the majority sale to Falfurrias private equity at end-2019. That sale – believed to be for a valuation of some $70m, at an EBITDA multiple of 10x – has been followed by five acquisitions at a cost of some $80-90m. The total investment in Industry Dive has, therefore, been an estimated $150m in the last 2-3 years (excluding shareholder dividends).
If we assume that next year’s EBITDA will be least $40m on revenue of $130m, the 2023 valuation (10 x EBITDA) may be more than $400m – a nice return in 3-4 years. At that stage, the management team’s estimated remaining 20% shareholding could be worth some $80m – more than double the proceeds from their 50% sold to Falfurrias in 2019.
IndustryDive was launched in 2012 by three longtime digital media colleagues, Sean Griffey, Ryan Willumson, and Eli Dickinson, who developed an appetite for niche audiences at US newsletter publisher Fierce Markets (where Griffey was CEO). They saw an opportunity in the rapid growth of mobile tech for business people and in the way that small niche markets were being abandoned by crumbling B2B magazines.
The company’s first office was a shop in an old grocery market. It was a bit of a change for Griffey who had spent most of his career in fancy offices as a consultant at Kearney and PWC. But, although the business performed better than the founders ever imagined, the startup was never a leap in the dark. Griffey was vocal about “a huge opportunity in B2B to use mobile to capture lead gen budgets. I’m always surprised that I don’t hear more people talking about this. The first ingredient for good lead generation is discovery and the smartphone is an incredibly powerful discovery device. The usage patterns of consumers on Twitter, Facebook, and Buzzfeed easily prove that. Simply put, people look for new content from their phone. If we can make the experience frictionless, we can can convert discovery intentions into leads. The best part is that lead gen budgets are platform agnostic and massive.”
More than anything else, though, the Industry Dive team saw the importance of niche markets to advertisers at a time when so much advertising-dependant B2B media was being shredded by Google. “We really believed in ad markets. What we saw was that audiences were being commoditized and when they become a commodity, the ad market breaks down. If you believe in the model and you’re good at it, you need to find areas where audiences are not commoditized. That is often in very niche and vertical industries. We set up the company to not just own a single market but be able to apply the infrastructure, learnings and technology across all of them. We launched with five industries: construction, electric utility, solid waste and recycling, marketing, and education. It was ambitious to start with that many, but we wanted to prove that our model could scale across different industries. There is no magic bullet to developing an audience. First and foremost, you have to deliver something that adds value to your readers on a daily basis.”
Early on, Griffey & co recognised the power of “push” email newsletters at a time when many publishers were still relying on the “pull” of web sites.
They used trade shows and LinkedIn groups to promote to readers. The best-performing verticals were those that spent the most on technology: “People don’t sell garbage trucks online but they sell software online”. The company also looked for markets defined by large trade shows where every attendee was a potential reader and every exhibitor a potential advertiser.
The core Industry Dive business is the portfolio of daily emails of each industry’s key headlines, linking to relevant articles from around the web, recommended resources and upcoming industry events. They are well-written, easy-to-read newsletters which feature original content and analysis as well as being a one-stop-shop of industry news and comment. The teams are small but they employ experienced journalists – and it shows.
Industry Dive publishes hundreds of stories a day, with loads of bullet points and a real emphasis on quick news. This is good journalism in a neat package with no pretence about the standardisation involved: “The products we sell are the same. It’s the Southwest <airline> model – buy one type of ‘plane and then everyone knows how to work on it.”
The company now has 26 digital publications in 23 verticals, with four new launches planned for 2022. The biggest earners are Retail Dive, BioPharma Dive and HR Dive. But there are plenty of other brands – like Utility Drive and Waste Dive – which are growing rapidly. The incremental cost of a new launch can be as little as the cost of two journalists.
Almost all revenue comes from marketing budgets but, crucially, very little comes from web site banners and none from programmatic ads. Industry Dive’s success is the ability to generate sales leads for companies from niche audiences, and content marketing and sponsorship deals sold directly to clients. It tries to avoid ad agencies. The power of selling across the portfolio is, perhaps, demonstrated by the fact that Salesforce buys space in no fewer than nine of the company’s verticals.
The ancestry of Industry Dive is clear if you consider those early free “controlled circulation” B2B niche magazines with their ‘reader enquiry cards’ generating sales leads. Sean Griffey and his team have gone back to the future in developing a similarly formulaic 21st century B2B company which simply promises advertisers it will:
- Generate leads for your sales team
- Tell your company’s story via content marketing
- Position your company as a leader on key industry topics
- Increase brand recognition through reach and repetition
Even the composition (but not the scale) of staffing is like a traditional B2B magazine company with 130 of its 350 people involved in editorial (2-8 on each vertical), 30 in design/tech and most of the rest in sales-related activity across the portfolio.
From the start, Griffey’s traditional approach was reinforced by the canny way he eschewed venture capital to build a company which became worth $70m in six years : “We launched at a time when everyone was raising massive rounds of venture dollars. Outside of a few hundred thousand in angel funding from local individuals, we were bootstrapped.”
The self-funding made the startup extra-careful about its investment approach, taught the team how to launch publications at low cost – and ensured that the three founders still owned more than 75% of the shares when private equity came calling.
It’s all going great and Sean Griffey momentously describes Industry Dive as “a fast-growing financially stable media company which grew throughout the pandemic with no payoffs, no pay cuts and no furloughs”.
Industry Dive and an increasing range of email newsletters (though mostly in B2C) are an object lesson for media startups at a time of unrivalled choice for readers and advertisers. By providing a neatly-defined package of information for a niche audience, it is spoon-feeding readers with targeted, easily-digestible information at the same time every day; and advertisers by giving them sales leads.
Crucially, they help to meet the needs of people who may find it more difficult to keep up-to-date than in the days when a single daily newspaper and weekly trade magazine did the trick.
Early on, Griffey realised the power of “push” email newsletters – at a time when many traditional publishers were still relying on readers to visit their websites.
As it celebrates its 10th birthday, Industry Dive might yet be able to improve on our forecast of a £400m valuation in its fourth year of private equity ownership. It is now focused on building its roster of webinars and live ‘hosted meetings’ events.
But what could be transformative are Griffey’s thoughts about peer-to-peer networks. He is not the only one to be inspired by World50’s network of CEOs and its Procurement Leaders grouping which capitalise on the way that key executives have more to learn from their counterparts in other companies than from their own colleagues. It can be very high-value networking and fertile ground for all B2B media if they get it right.
Industry Dive could create networks for, say, HR executives across all its 23 verticals. That could produce substantial revenue from events, learning – and even subscriptions. More than that, such peer-to-peer networks could help to build the kind of loyalty and longterm “belonging” traditionally enjoyed by only the very strongest professional associations. Imagine how that might grow the value of America’s B2B superstar. Happy Birthday.