The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How I do it: Austin Rief, Morning Brew

Austin Rief is CEO of Morning Brew, the newsletter-centric media business that aims “to empower the modern business leader with engaging and accessible content”. It is nine years this week since he and Alex Lieberman, fellow students at the University of Michigan, launched the business newsletter targeting people like themselves. It quickly developed a loyal audience among business-minded millennials, first at university then in their professional post-graduate lives.

Lieberman, who had already accepted a job as a trader at Morgan Stanley when he started a campus email recapping the day’s business news as a brief for friends looking for finance jobs, says: “I asked students how they kept up with business news, and they all had the same canned answer. They read the Wall Street Journal but had no time to read it cover to cover. After spending three hours a day preparing friends for interviews and providing companies with my view on the business world, I decided that there had to be a more productive platform to quickly inform business-interested college students.”

That was the 2015 start of a smartly bootstrapped venture which became Morning Brew and only raised its first funding (some $750k from 15 family members and friends) some three years later. The Morning Brew founders carefully kept “comfortable” majority control. By 2018, their fledgling business was profitable with $3mn revenue and 10 full-time employees. One year later, revenue had jumped to $13mn.

In 2020 (with 60 employees) revenue reached $20mn with some $6mn of EBITDA. That was the year Business Insider (which itself had been bought by the €4bn-revenue Axel Springer in 2015) acquired just over 80% of Morning Brew, reportedly valuing it at $75mn – 12x EBITDA. Lieberman (as chair) and CEO Rief retain just under 20%.

The advertising-funded Morning Brew is – with Business Insider and Politico (acquired in 2021) – part of Axel Springer USA which claims to be one of the country’s four largest digital publishers, alongside News Corp, the New York Times and USA Today. But Morning Brew has maintained a high degree of autonomy.

Austin Rief graduated in finance from the University of Michigan.

Here’s our SnapShot estimate of the Morning Brew financials since acquisition by Axel Springer:

Morning Brew Inc
£mn**
SnapShot
20242023202220212020
Revenue7560704620
EBITDA15 910 9 6
Margin20%15%15%20%30%
Headcount20025030023060
**Flashes & Flames estimates
“Mark Zuckerberg chose us because we’re exciting”

What is Morning Brew?

We started out as a daily email newsletter and that was our marquee product for about six of this last nine years. But, if you really look at it, our goal now is to own and operate the most beloved brands in business media. We think that, with all of the changes coming to media, AI, the death of the cookie and all those things, what matters the most is that audiences truly love the content you create and seek you out. We do that on two different sides of the business.

In one half of the business, We have eight industry verticals,  news publications including marketing brew, retail brew, and HR brew that make people better at their job. We send newsletters and we have live and virtual events,, all in the Morning Brew ethos and witty, conversational tone. On the other side of the business, we have this house of brands. We have a bunch of different brands in business news, money, productivity, and work life. Really, it’s just a house of brands looking to create brands people love that help educate them in the business world in a very witty, conversational, engaging tone.

What’s special about it?

We’re talking to people in a different way than legacy media. We’re talking to people in the way they want to be spoken to, in a conversational, witty tone. It is not stuffy like legacy business news, whether publications or TV that is clearly not done for the millennial generation. We’re creating content that’s fun, engaging and that people want to consume.

How were you acquired by Axel Springer?

We’re coming up on almost three and a half years. We were talking to Business Insider about doing some kind of  partnership, and it just evolved over time. They were excited about our business. We had bootstrapped the business and had taken only very little amounts of funding. What we have found exciting about Springer is that they gave us the capital to invest and grow the business. We thought that, okay, a partnership with Insider didn’t necessarily make sense, but an acquisition has made total sense.

How did the sale change things?

It really made very, very little difference for anyone’s day to day, other than we’re just doing more. We’ve grown a ton. We went from a single newsletter to a suite of multimedia properties. And so nothing day-to-day is different. We run very independently from all the other Insider publications, but also we operate independently from Axel Springer itself.

Have you become more ‘corporate’?

I understand why you might think that, and that was one of our big concerns going into this. But Axel Springer has kept up their end of the bargain. They have let us really run independently and do our thing. I think you’re absolutely right in thinking that’s a concern. But we’ve been lucky in the fact that we agreed to stay independent and not to be sucked into a huge corporation. We’ve had a really great relationship doing that.

Where does your revenue come from?

About 95% is from ads. There’s a very large mix in those ads. We have a lot of newsletter ads. About a year ago, we launched the Morning Brew Daily Show, which is our daily podcast and is now the number one business podcast in America. It gets a couple of million downloads every single month, so we have a lot of podcast ads and branded content on social channels and YouTube. We’re looking to grow our ads business. There’s always a desire – as any media company – to have diversified revenues. But, right now, there’s a lot of room to grow and perfect our ads business before we do that.

While we have readers internationally, we’re focused on North America.

What’s the competition?

What I worry about are the independent people, the long tail of TikTok creators, Instagram creators, Substackers who are creating conversational business content. I worry very little, to be honest, about legacy media because I don’t think anyone so far is true competition for our audience. We have all the data that our audience is not reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. There’s very little overlapping consumption. 

I don’t think about the big media players as competition, nearly as much as I think about thousands and thousands of Substackers who, if we don’t do our job right, can start to take off small portions of our audience. These independent media can be really, really powerful. Flashes & Flames is a great example of this. The cost to create content is zero. Everyone is going to try and the vast majority of people aren’t going to succeed. But some of these independent people have more audience and more revenue than some of the largest media companies in the world. They’re the people we watch closely.

Do your B2B verticals have a similar relationship to trade publications as Morning Brew itself has to mainstream business media?

Yes. There are a lot of great trade publications, magazines or websites, but I think most simply don’t deliver content in the way that people want to consume it. We are not trying to replace those publications. For some consumers, we will. For some, we’ll be additional. But what’s interesting is that we’re seeing very senior people at the largest companies in the world, CFOs of Fortune 500 companies, for example, now reading CFO Brew, CMOs of Fortune 50 companies reading CMO Brew. 

When we started Morning Brew, it was very much to capture the college audience and grow with them, and we were very successful with that. But what’s fascinating is that, while we are capturing a younger audience, not college students but people maybe 25 to 34, we’re also attracting a lot of C-suite executives who also enjoy reading our content and especially the delivery of our original reporting.

Will legacy players, ultimately, acquire these independents in order to re-capture millennials?

It’s possible. What we’re doing is not impossible for them. It’s not even complicated. But I think it’s very challenging. It’s totally possible they could. We’ve been saying this for 10 years now and no one’s done it yet. I really can’t think of one legacy business which has succeeded in creating a conversational, engaging business publication. Not one.

What does this mean for your owner which is, after all, Europe’s largest news group?

That’s above my pay grade. I’m just focused just on growing Morning Brew.

In 2022-3 you laid-off up to 100 people. What had gone wrong?

We want to build a sustainable company. We want to build a great business. When we were almost 300 people and the ad market dipped, we weren’t a great business anymore. It made sense for everyone to cut back. Like a lot of other companies, we had grown with the ad market. But media companies are not, unfortunately, like tech companies. They just don’t scale. But we have to scale with the ads growth and, as advertiser demand pulled back, we had a lot of direct response advertisers who weren’t advertising a lot. We were forced to readjust our business and figure out where it was right to invest and where it wasn’t. That was important for us. It was very painful. It was a very rough time. But ,in hindsight, we are a leaner, more efficient, stronger company than we’ve been. We had a lot of middle managers. I think what we get to do now is ensure our younger employees get more interaction with senior executives… there’s fewer layers of management. It’s more democratized, and there’s more opportunity. In hindsight, the change was a really great thing for us. Obviously, very painful to go through, but I just think we’re a more efficient, better company. I think it’s now more enjoyable to work at Morning Brew because of the change.

What’s your own primary role in the business?

It depends on the time of year and what we’re focused on. But a couple of things. One, I’m looking to grow our ads business. I’m meeting with advertisers and articulating our business to them. I’m understanding what big brands want. I’m then working with our sales team and our revenue org to translate that into products that can make us money. I also have a ton of affinity for the editorial side of the business and also spend time, especially with the newer parts of the editorial business, this multimedia part I was referring to, our investing content we’re launching this year and our newer business news, multimedia content. I’m spending time understanding how we can grow there. But growing revenue and growing audience are the two most important things.

What have been the key milestones since acquisition?

Where do I start? I think the growth of the news to over 6mn subscribers from all newsletters has been really big for us. I think the Daily Podcast becoming the number one business podcast in America, has been really great. We are, if you look at our competitive set, by far the fastest growing business brand on social. Our Instagram is growing incredibly quickly. 

What’s the future?

The platforms change, the media change, but – as Jeff Bezos has said – you have to focus on what doesn’t change.. With Amazon, people want faster delivery and cheaper prices. Those things are never going to change. In content, I think people are always going to want to seek out and consume the things they love. We’re just going to have more content and more different franchises that people love and rely on every day for their entertainment and education. Today, we have eight industry verticals and maybe six to eight different franchises covering business news, money, and productivity. We might have 30, 40, or 50 in a few years. All those audiences are going to grow in size themselves to become a much, much bigger ecosystem of all the content we’re creating.

What about the international prospects?

At some point, maybe. We certainly have readers in every English-speaking part of the world. But, for us, there’s just not enough synergy to expand internationally today. But we just have so much room to grow in North America. We’re just scratching the surface in terms of news. We’re getting into money and maybe personal finance. Our readers are getting older and wealthier, and they want advice not just on the news, but how to invest, save and spend spend their money as well as how to be more productive in their day. I think we have a much bigger opportunity in giving more to people who already love us versus trying to find more people, new people across the globe who might come to love us. 

What are the best lessons you have learned?

I think there’s a few things. Everything is always harder than you think. It’s really, really challenging to scale a media company, especially in the volatile advertising environment. It’s really challenging to do that. You have to be really thoughtful. We didn’t have clarity on that 10 years ago when there was less competition in this newsletter space. We just assumed that, if we just keep doing what we’re doing, people will love us forever. But we’ve really had to spend a lot of time thinking about and evolving all of our products to make sure they are the absolute best thing for our audience. 

That key vision, that aspiration point of owning and operating the publications that people love in business is just so important because it gives you a North Star. Then I think the other thing is just how important it is to get your key hires right. You make a few key hires in building a business, a few key executives as you scale from 30, 40 employees to 200+. Getting your key hires, your chief content officers, and your chief revenue officers right, allows you to take the business to the next level. When you get those wrong, you you take an 18-month step-back. So getting those hires right is really, really important for the success of the business. 

Does it still feel as exciting for you?

Some days, even more so. It just depends. There are downs. And, look, there are huge differences in running a small company where every small thing that happens goes right; the volatility is higher when you’re a small company. 

But we have so much more impact today. Take what happened just a few weeks ago.

If you remember, Mark Zuckerberg had tried Apple’s new $4,500 Vision Pro goggles. He made this video on Instagram about why he thought that the Meta product was better. It went viral. He emailed us the next day inviting us to do the first interview with him live on our podcast. That 45-minute interview was one of the most viewed piece of content we’ve ever created, across both audio and video. 

That never would have even been a hope five years ago. It wouldn’t even have been a question. He would have given the interview to the New York Times, wouldn’t he? He gave it to us because we are relatable. He thinks we’re interesting and exciting. It was great. It was really one of the best moments ever at Morning Brew for me. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Not because we interviewed Mark Zuckerberg, but because we are the type of place that he looks to go to speak to a generation of people. That never would have happened five years ago, and that’s just incredible.

Morning Brew