By Jordan TeicherSeptember 28th, 2015
In publishing, quality always means more than quantity. But when a company manages to pull off both, it tends to make a name for itself. Take Condé Nast, which puts out 21 print magazines; Hearst produces 19. Online, Gawker Media has 24 blogs. These impressive outputs all come from traditional media companies, but another publisher from an unlikely industry is taking on the challenge with nine magazines of its own: First Round Capital.
First Round Capital, which focuses solely on seed-stage funding for companies including Uber and Refinery29, was founded in 2004, but it didn’t start publishing until 2013. Initially, it posted sporadically on its blog, First Round Review, recapping events and turning them into articles whenever possible. The firm’s goal was to raise its profile by gathering insights at these events from successful entrepreneurs. The content seemed to resonate with readers, so after a few months, the company known for financing other people’s projects decided to invest in its own publishing efforts.
In the summer of 2013, First Round hired Camille Ricketts, a former journalist who was working as a content strategist at a nonprofit, to run the site. She began as a freelancer, handling all interviews, writing, and ideation by herself. The role gave her tremendous autonomy, but it also led to an unusual situation that shaped the blog’s editorial direction. Since Ricketts, now head of content and marketing at First Round Capital, was the only contributor at the time, she decided not to use a byline to avoid the awkwardness of having her name attached to every article.
“I didn’t want people to feel like there like was a filter standing between them and the subject of the article,” she explained. “I really feel like people need to think they’re hearing directly from the person [being profiled].”
That philosophy has stuck ever since. Most articles on First Round Review are full of quotations and actionable advice from the biggest names in tech—a perfect example being this 4,000-word piece about how Stewart Butterfield used customer feedback to grow Slack into a billion-dollar company.
But with an approach that constantly highlighted other companies, First Round still needed some element that would showcase its own brand and perspective. When the Review was ready for a redesign in February, Ricketts and Brett Berson, the firm’s VP of platform, thought about how to organize all of the articles in a way that would give readers from certain verticals a more comprehensive experience.
“How do people read the Review?” Ricketts said. “They probably don’t just scroll through, because if you’re a sales professional or a designer, there are a lot of stories that aren’t going to be relevant. So how could we make it easier for people to discover one story, and from there, find all the other stories that would really interest them. Tags is the standard way people usually approach that question, but we wanted to do something that was a little bit off the beaten track.”
From that point on, First Round Review turned one blog into nine digital magazinesthat deal with everything from management to fundraising to office culture. There’s even a magazine about women in technology that features in-depth takeaways from top female professionals at companies like Facebook, Google, and Airbnb.
Switching to nine magazines was a clever branding strategy, not a move meant to make Condé Nast look over its shoulder. The site only runs a total of two new stories per week, but the redesign still shows how a publication can use subtle adjustments to stand out in a crowded arena.
In the past few years, venture capitalists have really started to pay more attention to publishing. As Jay Acunzo explained in July, entrepreneurs looking for funding now have more options than ever thanks to the proliferation of smaller VC firms. Investors, therefore, have turned to blogging and social media as a way to show off expertise and thought leadership.
“Because so many talented entrepreneurs are drawn to this idea that if they work with a particular VC they will get all of this awesome service in return, it’s becoming a huge selling point for VCs,” Ricketts said. “If they see that excellent content is coming out of First Round and that we’re really knowledgeable about certain things and we have a lot of connections, they’re much more likely to work with us, frankly.”
But now that content marketing is the new norm for investors, the mere act of publishing may no longer be enough to win new business. Firms still need a specific edge that will appeal to startups. On First Round Review, the biggest distinguishing factor is the way the content focuses on other people, regardless of whether they’re affiliated with First Round or not.
“We admire people who are extremely good at what they do,” Ricketts explained. “Whereas, I think that at a lot of other VC firms, the content that they’re focus on is less about the operator side and more about the actual investors talking about where they see the market and what trends are growing.”
She stressed that no one way is better than another; they’re just different. Investors like Fred Wilson—with his AVC blog—and Marc Andreessen—with tweetstorms to his 400,000 Twitter followers—have had plenty of success and exposure leveraging their own personal insights. But for a site that only publishes twice per week, First Round Review has seen remarkable traffic. Over the last three months, it’s averaged more than 250,000 unique viewers per month, and time on page has hit more than four minutes per reader. According to Ricketts, the content has even started to help close deals (although she declined to name specific companies that were wooed by the articles).
Despite the steady success, Ricketts told me she still struggles with time management since, until recently, she ran an entire editorial operation by herself. In June, First Round hired another editor to help run the site, and as a result, the Review may start to publish three stories per week in the future. But outside of her day-to-day responsibilities, Ricketts wants to focus her attention on landmark pieces of content with long-tail potential.
At the very end of July, First Round unveiled the “10 Year Project,” a data storytelling initiative that revealed VC trends based on a decade’s worth of the firm’s investments. For example, the report found that “companies with a female founder performed 63 percent better than our investments with all-male founding teams.” It’s one of the rare times when the company wrote about its own experiences, and opening up its books paid off—the longform project has racked up almost 7,000 social shares.
And as to whether First Round will add any more magazines, Ricketts believes nine is enough for now. “We want to be a benevolent actor in the technology ecosystem,” she said. “Too many smart people in the industry have a lot that they could share and teach people, but they have no time to do it. So we’ve made our mission lowering the bar so they could share all this wisdom.”