Company as Iceberg: Why Casual Observers of theSkimm Don’t Realize What’s Below the Surface

Why are some companies judged primarily by the most visible portion and not what’s below the surface? Working with theSkimm for almost four years now, I’ve had the opportunity to see them consistently underestimated by many tech and media pundits. “But it’s just a newsletter,” is the summarily-passed judgment, and when the founders explain their broader footprint as an Audience Company, they frequently get a verbal (and condescending) “that’s nice” pat on the head.


So yeah, the part above the surface for theSkimm is Monday – Friday newsletter with more than five million active readers (waaaaay more). Majority female, professional or aspiring professional, almost all US-based. That’s a reach and engagement that would make them easily a Top 10 daily US news property.

BUT, it’s the brand and trust that’s most amazing to me, and where that’s allowed them to go. The mission of the company has always been to make it easier to be smarter. Here’s what’s below “sea level” that many folks don’t understand:

  • theSkimm app integrates with your calendar and allows you to integrate their recommendations of upcoming events into your schedule. Top Five Grossing News App since the day it was released (more than a year ago) and a healthy seven-figure subscription revenue stream. Just as theSkimm was an early leader in reinvigorating email as a channel, the calendar is also a novel extensible platform. For example, a recent feature inserts timed reminders to schedule dentist and doctor checkups as part of theSkimm’s focus on women’s health (more on that below).

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  • Skimm Studies, an ongoing, community-driven investigation into what matters to millennial women, across a variety of topics. Their most recent study is on health care, tied to the debate around the AHCA. While theSkimm itself is politically nonpartisan, it doesn’t shy away from engaging its community on timely issues.

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  • Skimm’bassadors – the company’s community council, consisting of more than 20,000 enthusiastic individuals who provide feedback to the team, help spread the word about theSkimm, and hold local meetups.
  • Commerce – although theSkimm hasn’t yet rolled out any dedicated commerce products, their book recommendations have been called the “new Oprah’s book club” and routinely rocket their picks up the charts.

In the coming quarters there’s going to be even more coming which will continue expanding the value provided by theSkimm to its audience and take the company in some unexpected directions. Seeing all this from the inside obviously makes me favorably disposed to what’s being built, but a week of reminders as to how much bullshit female founders routinely have to deal with makes theSkimm that much more impressive to me. Rock on.

How YouTube Ended Up On The First iPhone: A Tweet Thread

I periodically delete my tweets so wanted to preserve this story from yesterday since people seemed to appreciate the historical context as the iPhone turns 10. I worked at Google from 2003-2013 and at YouTube 2007-2013.

Apple approached YouTube abt being default app on 1st iPhone. Making it happen ensured the “YouTube of mobile” was YouTube itself….

…YouTube was still operating pretty independently frm GOOG at that time, & our BD team did great job managing Apple & Google interests…

…was actually API deal w some add’l language around functionality, bec Apple built the app itself. They wanted that control…

…i hated the shitty old TV icon they chose but i guess no way they were gonna put the YT logo 🙂 … Apple didn’t like “UGC video”…

…but knew they needed reasons for the masses to buy a smartphone, & likely their 1st data plan. YouTube was mass market….

…besides default footprint on iPhone, placement made all other carriers approach us & want 2b “YouTube enabled” vs us giving them $$$…

…we wanted consumers to ask “does this phone support YouTube” when they were purchasing their 1st smartphone. Carriers marketed us…

…2012 iOS6, time for YouTube to take back control of our app, which was still Apple-created. Made gutsy move to not renew agreement…

…great YouTube/Google mobile teams (eng, product, marketing, BD, etc) all worked together. Risky to be removed from all iOS6 devices!…

….millions & millions of phones – YouTube app disappeared!!! But consumers reinstalled from App Store, promos from other Google apps….

…was one of most interesting & consequential series of product decisions during my time at YouTube. Not w/o controversy internally /fin

Is Your Company a Friend of Mine or a Friend of Ours? Understanding VC Decision Making.

Bijan@Spark is writing again and I’ve enjoyed his return to blogging. One recent post, “Consensus driven,” covered Spark’s decision making process for making an investment. One often hears stories that the VC investments which were ultimately the most valuable for a fund were also the most contentious. That is, some partners wanted to do the deal and others didn’t.

Bijan emphasizes that while this might be true of some funds, they instead rely on consensus. Spark has always struck me as a collaborative and well-functioning partnership, but they’re also a sizable team, and I’d always assumed consensus at this scale would create slow, risk averse decisions (which they obviously aren’t).

If I could ask Bijan a follow-up question, which I guess I’m doing here, it would be: does consensus mean that each partner has to independently agree that, if given the chance, they would do the deal, or does it mean, the partnership has to all agree that the sponsoring partner should do the deal?

[Update: Bijan responded]

At Homebrew we also work by consensus because there’s just two of us and we want founders to know they’re taking money from the fund, not Hunter or Satya (even though one of us leans in post-investment as the point person). Additionally, consensus means either one of us would do the deal on our own, not just that the other person should do it. Early on I conjectured that we should do an investment Satya proposed, even if I didn’t think the company itself was as special as he did. He stopped the conversation and said, “no, that’s not how we’re going to work. I appreciate the trust but you need to have conviction too.” This has worked well for us thus far but we certainly keep an eye on our occasional disagreements and try to understand if that’s a sign of a bad investment or just a risky one.

As a founder you should understand your VC’s decision making process, both for navigating the pre-investment phase and also for understanding how the partnership overall feels about your prospects. Don’t necessarily equate “we didn’t all agree” with lack of ongoing support. Some funds can debate vigorously upfront but once an investment is made, pledge 100% support to a founder regardless of how many “Yes” or “No” votes were cast at the decision point.

It all kinda reminds me of that classic Donnie Brasco scene where Pacino tells Depp about the difference between being a ‘friend of mine’ (that means you’re a connected guy) versus a ‘friend of ours’ (which means you’re a made guy, and thus really in the inner circle).



This Week’s Best Podcast: Well Made’s “Getting Back to Basics”

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Giddy. That’s how I feel when I see two Homebrew portfolio companies hit it off and collaborate. Lumi is powering modern retail customer experience by supplying high quality, well-priced packaging. Primary clothes kids in fashionable, functional styles, all under $25. So together, they’re PB&J or chocolate peanut butter cups, or whatever your harmonious pairing of choice might be.

Galyn and Christina, Primary’s founders, recently appeared on Lumi’s podcast Well Made, hosted by their cofounder Stephan. It’s a wonderful listen – such a tribute to their partnership, clarity of vision and incredible execution. Loved it so much that I had a transcript made, in order to share some favorites portions below. Here’s the full doc.

The Importance of Great Cofounder Pairings

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Can Clothing Companies Be Technology Companies?

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There are a ton more gems in this podcast. Thanks to Christina, Galyn and Stephan for sharing it and for asking Homebrew to be part of your respective journeys!

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I Don’t Like Conferences But I Like Experiences. Trying WORLDZ.

INTP. That’s my Myers-Briggs type. The “I” stands for Introvert and it means I rarely enjoy conferences. Well, I enjoy a few hours of them each day but jut don’t find the 24/7 nature of them to be very fulfilling. So the ones which break through my “don’t make me go to this” shell usually have something other than the usual “opening keynote, panel panel panel, lunch, sponsored workshop, closing keynote, drinks” numbness.

My friend Roman Tsunder is not numbing. Quite the opposite, he’s intense, in an “I want you to be happy” type of way. When he throws events they’re never standard fare. From the earliest days of PTTOW I was introduced to people, thoughts and activities that broke from my Silicon Valley echo chamber. Such as when I got to watch Quest Crew really up close in 2009

This summer I’ll be attending WORLDZ, PTTOW’s sister conference. I don’t know exactly what to expect but am sure I’ll leave thinking differently about the world and my business. If you want to hang out there with me, you can register here.


Derek Nelson Emails 25,000 People Each Week With Ways To Resist Trump

Re:act is a weekly newsletter reaching 25,000+ politically engaged recipients. It provides a few important ways to fight back against the Trump administration. And its origin isn’t tied to a well-established grassroots organization or George Soros 🙂 but instead a guy in Chicago who started last November by sending a simple email to a small group of friends. Derek Nelson joined me for Five Questions…


Hunter Walk: re:act was one of the grassroots progressive movements to spring up post Trump election. Can you give us some background on its origin?

Derek Nelson: After the election, I started writing down a list of things I could get done every week to keep myself accountable. At the same time, there was so much energy already out there, and a lot of people asking “what can I do?” So I decided to share my list, and turned it into a newsletter called re:act. The first edition went out to some friends in mid-November, and it took off from there. It’s gone out every week since.

At its most basic, it’s just a weekly e-mail with a few concrete things we can do every week to fight for those who are under attack by the administration’s policies. It’s an attempt to be as specific and actionable as possible in offering ways to be involved: context on what’s happening, who exactly to call or write (and some tips to do so), what organizations to support, who you can thank.

HW: Was there a particular moment where you realized “this is happening” and you decided to double-down on the time and energy you’d devote to growing the effort?

DN: The response was pretty immediate. I wrote the initial draft to my family and friends, sent out a few tweets, and there were thousands of signups before the next morning. For someone without much a following, it was exciting and bewildering and weird.

The second “moment” was in that very first day that Congress reconvened and the House GOP tried to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. People immediately organized a pushback. They lit up the phones. The party leadership had full control over what happened next, so it was easy to be a fatalist and say that they’d never listen and nothing would change. They backed down the next morning. It was a telling moment, and reinforced the effectiveness of this kind of work.

HW: How has social media played a role in re:act’s spread and are there realizations you now have about its [social media’s] nature that were less obvious to you before?

DN: For sure. I wasn’t too active of a social media user before this, so pursuing re:act has opened up all the positives and negatives of that whole world. Field people like me have a grumpy mindset of “nobody gets registered to vote on twitter. Go knock doors.” I’ve learned that’s overly simplistic. I’ve met thousands of inspiring people that I would have never known otherwise (like you, Hunter, awwww), and real things have happened because of it. It’s no substitute for “real” action, but it can be a big organizing tool and driver of “real” action.

HW: Can you measure “success” or ROI on the effort? Do you get feedback from list members and how has that shaped decisions you’ve made with the newsletter?

DN: Looking through the analytics, the best days are when you get to watch hundreds of people clicking on the donation page of the Southern Poverty Law Center, or actions like that. More anecdotally, there are a lot of cool stories to come out of this. I’ve heard from readers who are now running for local office or Congress, who are writing letters to the editor when they never have before, who are building platforms of their own.

Everybody is so generous with their time, ideas, and feedback. People have pointed out more effective organizations to support or numbers to call, and it’s just been a process of always trying to get better.

HW: Do you have ongoing conversations with other “activists” to share tips, best-practices or just blow off steam? How do you sustain the energy?

DN: I only get to work on this in the dead of night, so the hours aren’t as conducive for collaboration as I’d like, but it still happens. It’s great to be able to turn to smart, experienced people like @Celeste_pewter, @katcalvinLA, @editoremilye or the Indivisible folks when there’s a specific question — “is the Department of the Interior really going to go through these comments?” or whatever. There have been a lot of helpful people with hill experience over email too. The other thing I’d note is that while there are a lot of new organizations popping up, so many organizations have been at this for years, and just need more support from all of us.

What keeps the energy up is that the consequences are too great if we don’t. We owe our best effort to all those who could lose their healthcare, be deported, or otherwise discriminated against. Important times.

Thanks Derek. Subscribe to re:act’s weekly email.

Earlier #Resistance Posts:

#GrabYourWallet Urges Consumers to Vote With Their Dollars, Not Just Their Ballots

I’ve got nothing against non-traditional politicians and realize those who come from the private sector likely have a long list of business ties they need to manage. But I also believe our current administration has done little to separate its private interests from those of the public good. Shannon Coulter began the #GrabYourWallet effort to help Americans vote using their wallets, highlighting brands and retailers who are associated with Trump. Just this week, Farhad Manjoo at the NYTimes cited Shannon as an example of consumers speaking out with urgency and impact. She joins me for Five Questions…

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Hunter Walk: #GrabYourWallet was one of the grassroots progressive movements to spring up post Trump election. Can you give us some background on its origin?

Shannon Coulter: The #GrabYourWallet movement sprung up in the days following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes. I was looking for a constructive way to protest not just Donald Trump’s remarks about grabbing women, but his divisiveness and disrespect in general, plus the tendency of his campaign team to look the other way. I knew from my work in marketing that women drive between 70 to 85 percent of all consumer purchases, so I knew if I could effectively tap into that, we could get some things done.

I found another woman online who was thinking along the same lines. She and I joined forces without ever having met. We announced on Twitter that we were boycotting companies that do business with the Trump family and got a big, immediate response. When Ivanka returned to the campaign trail in the wake of the Trump tapes, I saw another early surge.

HW: Was there a particular moment where you realized “this is happening” and you decided to double-down on the time and energy you’d devote to growing the effort?

SC: It’s always felt more like an imperative than a choice to devote a lot of time and energy to #GrabYourWallet. I feel a deep sense of urgency and purpose around it. For me, this work has significantly expanded beyond the scope of just the Trump boycott and is now about flexing our consumer power in ways that promote respect and inclusion in general.

I was thrilled, for instance, when the #GrabYourWallet community was credited alongside organizations like Color of Change and Ultraviolet with helping to bring about Bill O’Reilly’s exit from Fox News by focusing on a few key advertisers. That’s exactly the kind of work I want to be doing: work that will help companies and workplace cultures move in a more thoughtful, humanistic direction.

I had no idea how much innate passion I had for that until I started to explore the possibilities. I feel no drop off whatsoever between the levels of energy I felt in the very early days of #GrabYourWallet and what I feel now.

HW: How has social media played a role in #GrabYourWallet’s spread and are there realizations you now have about its [social media’s] nature that were less obvious to you before?

SC: Social media has played an absolutely vital role in the success of #GrabYourWallet and I seriously doubt if 23 companies would have already stopped doing business with the Trump family without the influence of social media. Not only has the #GrabYourWallet hashtag been seen over a billion times (a figure I can’t quite believe myself sometimes) but social media in general works to keep the conversation alive at the brand level for the companies that remain on the list.

Whenever Team Trump does something egregious like withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, I see people reengage with the boycott on social media. They’ll directly ask companies, “How can you do business with people who are doing this?”

As for whether or not I’ve had realizations about social media that were less obvious to me before, I would say that before I had much less understanding of how powerful a lever it can be for gaining rights and power. Social media is so much more than just an amplifier. It’s a game changer. Watching individuals approach large publicly traded companies and affect positive change just dazzles me. I’m constantly telling people not to underestimate the power of their single voice.  

HW: When brands/retailers stocking Trump-related merchandise reach out to you directly, what’s the tenor of the conversation?

SC: It’s almost always extremely respectful. People who participate in #GrabYourWallet genuinely want to return to these retailers as customers as soon as possible and I come from a corporate background, so I tend to approach the companies on the list with a lot of empathy and respect, particularly the communication and marketing teams because I’ve been in their shoes.

For #GrabYourWallet participants, it’s not at all about punishing or shaming companies on the list. Before it dropped Trump brand products, Nordstrom was voted the number one most “boycott-able” company on the list by #GrabYourWallet participants precisely because of how much they missed shopping there.  

HW: Which retailer still on the list bothers you the most?

SC: Without a doubt it’s Amazon. I’ve worked a lot within the tech community so that one just feels more personal to me and I’m just so deeply bothered that Amazon still advertises on Breitbart.

Plus, while there are several retailers that still sell Ivanka’s clothes, Amazon is the only retailer I know of that still sells Donald Trump’s line of suits. Macy’s dropped Donald’s line the moment Trump equated Mexican people with rapists, but Amazon seems to believe it’s somehow exempt from such decisions.

I think that’s not only a big ethical blind spot on Amazon’s part, but a dangerous lie about tech in general—that it’s somehow inherently neutral or ‘just a platform.’ I’m not comfortable with the vacuum of accountability that mindset creates.

It’s particularly worrisome to me when Amazon is so big and dominating so many industries. Now it’s moving into groceries with the Whole Foods acquisition. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Amazon having more of a physical presence in communities across the country helps its leaders be less aloof. I hope it will.

I also fully admit that I also just really want to watch some of Amazon’s original shows, like Jill Soloway’s new one. Amazon is doing great work as a producer of original content and I’m a cord cutter, so I definitely miss having those options.

Thanks Shannon! Support #GrabYourWallet

Earlier #Resistance Posts: