Bustle Digital Group — owner of Bustle, Inverse, Input, Mic and other titles — could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).
During an interview about the state of BDG and the digital media industry at the end of 2020, founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg laid out ambitious goals for the next few years.
“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.
He added that those goals connect, because by going public, BDG can raise “hundreds of millions dollars,” which Goldberg wants to use to “buy a lot of media companies.”
That might seem like bluster after a year in which many digital media companies (including BDG) had to make serious cuts. But Goldberg said that the company would be profitable in 2020, with revenue that’s “a little bit under $100 million.” And it won’t be the first digital media company to take a similar route — Group Nine created a SPAC that went public last week.
“I want to prove that we can be highly profitable,” he said. “A lot of startups don’t have that goal. A lot of VCs tell their startups: Don’t worry about profits, don’t worry about losing money. I don’t believe in that.”
In addition to his plans to go public, Goldberg also discussed how acquisitions have helped Bustle’s business, his joint venture to purchase W Magazine and digital media’s “overcapitalization” problem. You can read our full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.
TechCrunch: The last time I caught up with someone at BDG, it was with [the company’s president Jason Wagenheim] and that was when you guys were dealing with the initial fallout [from the pandemic]. Now we’re a lot further into whatever this new world is, so what is your sense of where BDG is now, versus where it was in the early days of the pandemic?
Bryan Goldberg: It might be the craziest, most eventful six months for many of us in our lives. And certainly, for those of us in this industry, the difference between April and October, it’s really hard to fathom, it’s complete night and day. April was a very frightening time for everyone, personally and professionally across the country, across the world.
From an advertising standpoint, it was a really scary time, because we have clients across every industry, and every industry was impacted differently. We have clients who were greatly impacted — theme parks, car makers, hotel companies, airlines — and then we had clients who were not as badly affected, such as a lot of CPG clients, who everybody depended upon so much during the pandemic.
There was a huge pause in our business in in March, April and May. For a lot of clients, tossing advertising was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sudden shock of COVID, and so we saw a huge negative impact in our second quarter. What we started to see in the third quarter, and especially now in the fourth quarter, is now that the shock of COVID is behind us, the macro trends that were catalyzed by COVID are now moving into the forefront.
The story of media is no longer about the shock of COVID. The story of media is now about all of the changes to our world, and changes to our industry that were brought about as a consequence of COVID.
The good news for our company, and the good news for other digital media companies, is it looks like the future is being accelerated. It looks like people are watching less television, and so advertisers are moving their budgets into digital faster than they would have had it not been for COVID. Even things like live sports, [their] TV ratings are way down. And a lot of advertisers are saying, “Is there efficacy anymore in cable television or broadcast television?” And the magazine industry was heavily impaired, simply because magazines are a physical medium, and people didn’t want to pass around magazines or read magazines at the dentist’s office, so we probably saw some print budget move into digital as well.
Industry analysts now are going to take up their estimates of what digital revenue is going to look like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. I also think we’ve seen a world in which a lot of brand advertisers are starting to think about what happens when they start to spend beyond Facebook and Google. For most of the last three years, there’s been so much talk about the duopoly, the idea that Facebook and Google are going to eat almost every last dollar of advertising. What we’ve seen in the last three months is advertisers saying that this needs to be the moment in which they learn how to deploy advertising spend digitally beyond Facebook or Google.
No, it doesn’t mean they’re all pulling out of Facebook — Facebook and Google are doing just fine. But there are still tens of billions of dollars that need to be deployed outside of Facebook and Google. And you’re seeing winners such as Snapchat, Pinterest. Both had incredibly strong earnings. They’re benefiting from the same thing that benefits Bustle Digital Group and a lot of other digital media players who aren’t Facebook and Google, which is you’re seeing big ad spenders finally deciding that now’s the time to find other ways to deploy advertising spend.
I think those are the two big trends: Dollars moving to digital out of TV faster than we thought, and major advertisers using now as a time to find other channels beyond Facebook and Google.
So when you look at how that is impacting Bustle’s business, has it returned to pre-COVID levels?
For us, when we reflect upon the year 2020, we see that we had a great first quarter, we see that we’re having an incredible fourth quarter, and we have a big, epic crater in the second and third quarters. So when we look at the year, we basically have to say to ourselves, if it were not for that crater in the second and third quarters, what would this year have looked like? We would have had revenue well in excess of $100 million. Now, we’re gonna have revenue a little bit under $100 million.
But when we think about how we prepare for 2021 and set goals for 2021, we have to set goals for 2021 as though COVID had never happened, we have to set goals for 2021 without using Q2 and Q3 as a sort of excuse for lowering expectations. Because the fourth quarter, the quarter we’re currently in, has exceeded our wildest expectations.
People sort of sat up and took notice of the company because you had a pretty aggressive acquisition strategy. I imagine that strategy had to change a little bit in 2020. To what extent do you feel that ambition is something that you can pick up again?
So to be clear, not only do we feel great about our strategy, our strategy was critical in helping our company survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of the virus. You know, we made two acquisitions [in 2019] — in the science and technology category, we bought Inverse, which is a science and technology publication, and then Josh Topolsky launched a tech-and-gadget publication for us called Input Magazine that’s growing very quickly.
It’s critical that we had that strategy, because no single advertiser category has performed better for us in 2020 than tech — we more than tripled our revenue from technology clients this year, because technology has thrived through COVID. Had we not had an acquisition strategy, had we not diversified into tech media publishing, we certainly would not have had the outcome we had in 2020. That’s just the reality.
Categories like beauty, fashion, retail were very hard hit. Those have traditionally been our bread and butter, and they’re going to be great again, in 2021. But this spring, beauty companies weren’t doing so well, because people weren’t leaving the house. So the strategy worked, in part, because we diversified the categories in which we created content, which allowed us to diversify the advertiser base. And we’re gonna continue full speed ahead in 2021.
Now, you know, we did six acquisitions in 2019. I don’t know if we’ll do six acquisitions in 2021. But I want to do a lot more than one acquisition in 2021.