Ben Lerer at Thrillist's headquarters in Manhattan
Photo: Christopher Lane for Fortune

The startup's new investors include Axel Springer, which bought Business Insider.

By Daniel Roberts
September 30, 2015

One of the earliest digital media startups is significantly altering its DNA in the wake of a hefty new investment.

Thrillist.com started a decade ago, born out of an e-mail newsletter, and has grown into a network of localized sites covering food and entertainment for a young, male audience. Now Thrillist Media Group is announcing $54 million in new funding. Along with the new funding, TMG, which previously housed Thrillist.com, JackThreads.com, and Supercompressor.com, is splitting its businesses into two separate companies: one for content, one for commerce.

TMG would not break down the amount put in by each investor, nor how much of the total is going to the two sides. Axel Springer will be the lead investor in the media side, Thrillist, while Oak Partners and SBNY (formerly Softbank) are lead investors in the newly independent commerce side, JackThreads. Earlier this week, Axel Springer announced it would take a majority stake in Business Insider for $343 million. Speaking about the Thrillist deal on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Wednesday morning, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Doepfner said, “The main reason why we invested is the founder, Ben Lerer. He has convinced us, and we are very much focused on people when we make decisions.” Business Insider founder Henry Blodget, in an interview with Fortune, praised Axel Springer’s “deep journalistic DNA.”

Earlier this summer, there were reports that Lerer was speaking to big companies like Viacom, looking for a sale. Lerer now tells Fortune, “I think ‘looking around for a sale’ was the wrong way to think about it. We were looking around for new capital partners. As we thought about what the right partners would be, we didn’t know the answer. So it was an exploration.”

MORE: Thrillist: From tale to sale

In the course of that exploration, Lerer met with many investors that were enthusiastic about one part of Thrillist’s business—either the content or the commerce—but not both. “So we thought, you know what, instead of having a really fantastic media investor come along for the ride with a retail business they don’t understand, let’s let them be separate. We were already basically operating this way, and the market is telling us we have many options on either side but are harder pressed to find a partner that is really best-in-class for both, so why don’t we structurally separate the two businesses.”

TMG’s three different media sites all offered editorial content alongside merchandise, though each site had a very different breakdown of content vs. commerce. Now Thrillist will be the sole content business. JackThreads will focus more on being a store, rather than trying to be both store and editorial site. (Lerer lists The Gap and Urban Outfitter as examples of JackThread’s competitors.) The two will be staffed and financed separately.

Lerer, who was previously CEO of both businesses, will serve as CEO of Thrillist and chairman of JackThreads, while Mark Walker, who has retail experience at Gap and Levi’s, will be CEO of JackThreads. Ben Lerer’s father Ken Lerer, a co-founder of the The Huffington Post, will join TMG’s board of directors. None of this constitutes a big change in roles, Lerer says, “except that a few people who had two big jobs, like me, end up having one job. Being the day-to-day CEO of two companies was pretty much impossible. It’s been very funny to watch all this Jack Dorsey news. I’m curious how that will work out for him.”

Ben Lerer’s big talking-point over the past decade was the efficiency of the content-and-commerce model. He insisted—to media outlets; at conferences—that this, not advertising, was the best way for online media companies could make money: sell things to readers who are already there to read things. (By way of example: he recently argued that the New York Times ought to buy Warby Parker.)

Isn’t splitting the businesses a direct contradiction of Thrillist’s entire raison d’être? Lerer says no: “Clearly this doesn’t contradict it, because look at the investment we just got. But I do think it means that a lot of my questions around advertising that existed three or four years ago… well, the market has changed. Just look at the BI deal. And there are more interesting things to do in digital advertising today than three years ago. These two businesses have each grown beyond a point where they need to be together. Thrillist is big enough now where it doesn’t need a commerce appendage to be a viable business.”

Indeed, Thrillist has also decided it doesn’t need a separate tech appendage, either. It was just two years ago that TMG launched Supercompressor, a splashy new web site to cover technology and gadgets. That site will now be folded back under Thrillist, after Lerer says he’s determined the emphasis should be on that brand rather than sub-brands. “I think there was a time when we thought our strategy was going to be multi-brand,” he says, “but as time has gone on and we’ve watched other brands, and we’ve learned about the behaviors of our audience, we think the path forward is to invest really hard into Thrillist, the brand that is known by our consumer base, known by the ad community. So, in entering a category like health, we’re not going to go create a brand called, like, Healthy. It’s going to be Thrillist Health.” (Translation: Don’t expect any more new verticals from Thrillist with separate branding à la Vice channels such as Munchies and Noisey.)

Axel Springer’s investment in the media side won’t just go to new editorial hires, but will also be used for growing Thrillist’s proprietary data platform, Pinnacle, and its new internal branding arm, The CoLab, which creates branded content for clients.

“I still believe that media and commerce have places where they should play together,” Lerer says. “We birthed one successful commerce business out of that belief and I wouldn’t be surprised if we birthed another. But for right now, that isn’t the plan.”

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