If you follow the various outrages, feuds and Twitter meltdowns of the New York media scene or the Silicon Valley tech scene, you may remember a little blow-up last year over a website called Bustle. Bryan Goldberg, who previously founded the sports site Bleacher Report, introduced his next company, a women’s news site called Bustle, in a tone-deaf way that angered just about any woman with an Internet connection. Goldberg apologized; a month later, a critical New Yorker profile re-opened the wound.
Goldberg has mostly stayed out of the media since then while continuing to build Bustle. Now, a year later, the company is ready to talk again, because it has good news to share. This month Bustle crossed 11 million monthly unique visitors (after hitting 10 million in June), making it the second-youngest site (after Distractify, home to viral lists and cute photos) in Quantcast's top 200. It also means the one-year-old company has leapfrogged rival women-oriented sites like Refinery29, Rookie Magazine, and XOJane in terms of audience. (Gawker's Jezebel remains larger with more than 15 million uniques, according to Quantcast.)
With that milestone, Bustle plans to start selling sponsored content and native ads, Goldberg says. To fund its expansion, he’s raised $5 million more in venture funding from Social+Capital and Time Warner, existing investors, along with R&R Ventures, a fund run by Dick Parsons and Ron Lauder. Most of Bustle's initial $6.5 million funding has yet to be spent, Goldberg says.
You’d think Bustle’s success at attracting an audience would anger Goldberg’s critics. But behind the scenes, Goldberg has diligently worked to win the haters over. And one-by-one, they’ve come around. Rachel Sklar, founder of women's site TheList and one of Goldberg’s most vocal critics at the time of his launch, has even signed on as an advisor to Goldberg. He has gotten to know many of the others and buried the hatchet, Goldberg says.
So how has Bustle grown so quickly? The company’s traffic comes from an even mix of social media, search and direct. It hires young writers out of college and pairs them with experienced editors like Kate Ward and Margaret Wheeler Johnson, who encourage them to chase the stories they’re interested in while schooling them in the ways of news judgement and responsible reporting. That means the site hosts stories on a particular cast member in the latest season of The Bachelorette next to stories about the conflict in Israel, which Ward notes, is important to the young Jewish women who plan to visit that country as part of what's called a birthright trip. “We always want to cover things smartly and responsibly, and we’re not afraid to have some fun,” she says. “We can be silly and talk about how much we love cheese while we’re also talking about world stories and things that are more important, like gun control and Hobby Lobby.”
Some big hits on the site include a story on the way a writer was treated by others when she wore different amounts of makeup, an analysis of the Columbine shootings and why the event remains relevant 15 years later, and interviews with an Egyptian stuck in America and an American living in Egypt.
Bustle has recruited 16 full-time editorial employees and a stable of several dozen freelance writers, who get paid by the shift. (Goldberg would not disclose the site’s pay rates for competitive reasons.) The company receives 500 resumes a week, he says, and will hire 20 to 30 more writers this year.
From a business perspective, Goldberg is anticipating that brands will be eager to reach Bustle’s young audience. “Brands value authenticity more than magazines realize," he says. “They know the voice of aspiration, like in Vogue, that ‘voice from above,’ is not ‘in’ with young people.”
Regarding the site’s launch debacle, Ward says the Bustle team is ready to move past it. “We understood why a lot of the women in the community were upset and we were upset about it, too, of course. There were things in that essay that we would have definitely changed had we taken a look at it.” Still, through the drama, none of the Bustle’s employees wavered in their dedication to the company. (It helped that the top editors own equity stakes.) Ten million readers later, it’s ancient history to them. The team is “over-the-moon thrilled” at its early success, but isn’t stopping there, Ward notes. “We have a long way to go.”
Same for Goldberg. “There is zero victory lap,” he says. “There is going to be a lot of hard work this year, because we have a lot to prove.”