Here’s Proof Media Startups Can Succeed Without Venture Capital

May 5, 2016, 1:30 PM UTC
Courtesy Bisnow

Bisnow, a trade publication and events company based in New York City, has been acquired by Wicks Group, a private equity firm. The deal value was not disclosed, but Fortune has learned the price was $50 million.

Started in 2005 by Mark Bisnow and his son Elliott, Bisnow produces newsletters, a website, and local events all focused on the commercial real estate market. The company, which never raised outside capital, makes most of its revenue on sponsorships and tickets to the 300 events it organizes annually.

Bisnow has not disclosed its revenue, but in 2013, it had $13.8 million in sales with a three-year growth rate of 258%, according to Crain’s New York. Mark Bisnow stepped back from his CEO role 2013; Will Friend is now CEO. The company operates in 27 cities in the U.S. and Canada and has 75 employees.

It’s common for trade publications to organize conferences to supplement their income. In technology, digital outlets like TechCrunch, Business Insider, and Recode host conferences, for example, as does Fortune. Ryan Begelman, vice chairman for the company, says Bisnow has grown its events businesses faster than some of the aforementioned publications because it separated its editorial operations from its conference arm.

Many media companies have their journalists wrangle speakers, decide the agenda, and interview speakers on stage. But Begelman says Bisnow found its journalists were too busy to focus on conferences, and they have complex relationships with their sources, making speaking requests awkward. “Decoupling” that role and adding more full-time event producers let Bisnow produce hundreds of events annually.

Furthermore, Bisnow has amassed 500,000 email newsletter subscribers by going hyper-local, a strategy that failed for general news outlets like AOL’s Patch. Begelman says the events made a difference there. “We focus on people — connecting and building a sense of community and networking,” Begelman says. Bisnow is also not afraid to go narrow, even throwing events focused in specific neighborhoods, like New York’s Upper East Side. “Most commercial real estate publications will produce events focused on a whole country or maybe one city,” he says. “A lot of them come from the print world and didn’t understand that, through digital, you could become really hyper-local.” Further, the frequency is important—swooping in with one event per year doesn’t pay off. Bisnow hosts 25 events per year in D.C., for example.

The company also tries to avoid the tediousness of many traditional trade publications—Bisnow’s tagline is “(Almost) Never Boring.” “At the events, we have techno music playing, even though the audience is largely greying real estate executives,” Begelman says.

Bisnow’s decision against getting outside investors is unusual, even as venture money flowed freely at attractive valuations for digital media startups, over the past five years. Now, many of those venture capital-backed media startups are struggling to eek out profitable business models. “I’m just surprised how many people are willing to make that bet – go for the most eyeballs, not knowing if its going to lead to a profitable business model for years,” Begelman says. “That seemed crazy to us.” Not raising venture capital “allowed us to grow very carefully and precisely, and not have to make bad decisions and over-expand too quickly,” he said.

Wicks Group will expand the company, which operates in the U.S. and Canada, to new international geographies, according to CEO Will Friend. Begelman, who co-founded Summit Series, a “transformational festival” company for creative types alongside Elliott Bisnow, will leave the company as part of the transaction.


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