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How The Skimm Became Oprah's Must-Read Newsletter

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Photo: The Skimm
Photo: The Skimm

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If you're one of the half million people subscribed to The Skimm, the first thing you do every morning is open your email and pore over the newsletter's concise summary of the day's top headlines.

In July of 2012, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, now both 28, quit their jobs to launch The Skimm with the intention of creating a reliable and comprehensive news source for the working millennial—someone who wants to be informed on current events but doesn't necessarily have the time to seek news out.

Despite their fair share of naysayers, Zakin and Weisberg had their sights set on a very specific product. The Skimm would be a brief recap of the news, but in the voice of your "smart best friend"; "Bye Felicia," "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls," and "Shining, Shimmering, Splendid" are among the cheeky subject lines subscribers get a kick out of. Success has come by way of an enviable open rate and $1.3 million in funding from eight different investors. Even Oprah outed herself as a Skimm fan last month.

Racked caught up with Zakin and Weisberg to talk about launching their own company, how they devour all that news, and why they didn't listen to people who insisted "email is dead."

A photo posted by theSkimm (@theskimm) on

How did you two meet?
Danielle: We met on a study abroad program. I went to Tufts, and Carly went to Penn. We went our separate ways and reconnected after school when we were both working full-time for NBC News.

Tell us The Skimm's origin story.
Danielle: We both loved being in the industry, but at the same time, we were frustrated. We loved news and wanted to stay with it, but also knew that the jobs we aspired to have might not be there in the next five to ten years. We started our careers after graduating in 2008, so we saw jobs disappearing firsthand. At the same time, we had friends who would ask us basic news questions, since we were their friends who got paid to know what was going on in the world. We started talking a lot about the demographic our friends represented: the female millennial, out-earning men in paychecks and degrees, on track to be the next generation's breadwinners, influencing hundreds of millions of dollars each year. We saw that there wasn't a news source that they loved getting information from.

Why start a newsletter, as opposed to a website?
Carly: We thought about what we could create to fit into the routines of our user base, which we're also a part of. It was obvious: The first thing we do every morning is roll over, turn off our alarms, check our phones, check our email.

How did you initially get subscribers?
Danielle: We sent an email to 5,000 of our contacts—we were pretty shameless about who we would reach out to. We each got one or two vetoes if someone was just too awkward, but we sent it to family friends, ex-boyfriends. It was a simple message: We quit our jobs to do this, it launches today, please sign up and tell your friends about The Skimm. We also pitched two articles, one to Forbes and one to Business Insider. Everyone had the same reaction, which was, "How has no one else started this before?" It spiraled from there. The last time we shared our numbers, which was in July, we had over half a million subscribers.

Quitting your job is a real leap of faith. What was that like?
Carly: It was the scariest, hardest thing either of us has ever done and truly the most out-of-body experience. When I talk about it, I feel like I'm talking about someone else! But we did, and it was because we believed in it so strongly.

A photo posted by theSkimm (@theskimm) on

How did you guys have money in the beginning?
Danielle: We saved enough to last us for two months, and we weren't making a lot at the time. We also took a really small amount from angel investors to get us off the ground and allow us to live while we started the company. We launched on the couch and didn't get off the couch until last January, when we raised our first formal investment round of seed funding.

How have you monetized the newsletter?
Danielle: The $1.3 million we raised is purely to grow the newsletter subscriber base. That's all we're focused on. Our mandate from investors is not to think about revenue this year but to get an engaged user base that loves the product. We are one of the fastest growing email newsletters on the market and our open rate crushes industry averages. We have brought in revenue from working with sponsors selectively throughout the year, but that hasn't been our focus.
Carly: We have very selectively had sponsors, like the NBA, Turner Sports, ABC, and Showtime. But right now, we're just focused on growth.

Where do you get most of your news from?
Carly: We get asked that question all the time and the answer is I have no idea what Danielle reads on a daily basis and she has no idea what I read on a daily basis. We really read everything—you talk to anyone in news who consumes information all day and that's the best way to do it. Obviously we read everything mainstream, but also niche and industry blogs, on both sides of the aisle.

A photo posted by theSkimm (@theskimm) on

How do you decide what are the top stories to feature?
Danielle: That is one of the best parts of our day. We have a pitch meeting with our editorial team where we go through what we think are the top stories out there and set the rundown for the next day, though that definitely changes as the day goes on. Having had a background in broadcast news, we kind of have a sixth sense for how stories are going to break and look at it as a science. That just goes to back to how we were trained: understanding stories, when they are going to hit peak interest, and when they are going to die out. If we ever have a question about including something, we go back to a simple thought: "Would you ever talk about this in real life?" We all have a friend that we picture in the back of our minds. It's someone that is busy, smart, on-the-go, and we think, "Would this person need this information?"

What does your team look like now?
Carly: There are eight of us in total. The team is us two, a business developer, two people for editorial, a community marketer, a developer, and a growth strategist.

Do you still do the writing?
Carly: We hired two people to write, but we touch every single word every single day. We've created a recipe for what it takes to put together the voice of The Skimm—it's not my voice, it's not Danielle's voice. It's meant to sound like your very smart, no-BS best friend telling you everything you need to know to start your day.

Did you encounter people who discouraged you from launching?
Carly: We initially talked to a lot of people who told us it was a terrible idea: "Email is dead, don't go after email." But they would tell us that over email, so that was kind of like, point made! Since then, we are seeing that email is the best marketing tool out there. It's the best way to get in front of people.

How do you respond to critics who say The Skimm waters down the news?
Danielle: Our goal is to make people engaged, to enable them to talk about anything to anyone. So if we can make one more person feel confident enough to talk about what's going on in the world that day, we look at it as a public service and honor to be able to do that.

Is there any advice you would give to those contemplating starting a business?
Carly: Take a coding class, even if you're not planning on developing your own site. It's such a key thing I wish we had done that enables you to communicate more intelligently with the tech side of your product.

· The Skimm [Official site]
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· Racked's Ladies Who Launch series