SteamFeed: Inside a Growing Social Media Publishing Startup

SteamfeedIf you are a blogger, or planning to start a blog as a business, you are going to love today’s interview. We are talking to DJ Thistle, Daniel Hebert, and Gerry Michaels who launched and operate SteamFeed.

SteamFeed is a multi author site that focuses on “marketing, social media and truth”. But there is more, they also have an online radio show and an online TV show. The site has developed an impressive track record in a very short time.

What makes this very interesting is that SteamFeed was launched and created in a very unusual way…. Let’s dig in.

Full disclosure: I am an author at SteamFeed.

[Marco] Thank you for agreeing to the interview. Can you tell us a little bit about SteamFeed? How did you come up with the idea to launch this startup?

[DJ] Daniel and I met on Triberr and then became good friends on Twitter in August 2012. At that time I was consuming a great deal of incredible content spread across the web. However, I noticed most of these articles that I was enjoying had very little reach in terms of social shares. I thought to myself that if all of these high quality business professionals came under one website, not just as a contributor but an active part of the community, then their reach and influence would increase dramatically. I pitched the idea of creating a multi-author site to Daniel and once he was on board we came up with specific criteria that we wanted all of our authors to have, the most important being having experience in the topics they were writing about. Two months later in September 2012 SteamFeed launched.

[Daniel] After DJ and I met in the summer of 2012, we came up with the initial ideas for SteamFeed. While we had our initial plan ready, and were about to hit the trigger on execution, something strange happened: The social media marketing community really started speaking out against “gurus” and self-proclaimed experts that summer. This is also the summer that Fakers, by Status People came out (a tool that allows you to check if any Twitter account has a significant number of fake followers, usually indicating purchased followers). The industry was buzzing and calling-out anybody and everybody that had hidden the fact that their internet fame was “faked”. We wanted to make sure that our site reflected this growing concern in the industry, which is where our branding came from: Social Media, Marketing and Tech Truth. We’ve also used the term “Real people, real results” as our mission, which is why, as DJ mentioned, we made sure that our writers had a significant amount of experience in the topics that they covered. You can read more about it here.

[Gerry] I was not in on the initial start up, but the history for me goes like this. I met DJ and Daniel as I was one of the original authors, so we knew each other from that standpoint. I was doing a radio show about social media for a few years and approached them about changing the name to SteamFeed radio, which we did. Then things just progressed from there and here I am VP of Marketing and Biz Dev

Editor’s note: You can find great information about their launch in this interview.

[Marco] As far as I know, DJ and Daniel have not met in real life. I believe DJ met Gerry not too long ago. Launching a company with a person who you have only met online is unusual and goes against conventional wisdom. However, you make it work. So, how did you launch the company without ever meeting each other?

[DJ] In this day and age with Google Hangouts and Skype it can be done. Keep in mind that SteamFeed doesn’t currently sell a product but rather we provide content, so upfront costs to launch the site were minimal when compared to most startups. This allowed us the time needed to grow our trust as digital friends and partners that may not have been possible if there was a lot of money on the line. Either one of us could have walked away and the only real loss would have been time. Luckily, the relationship with Daniel and Gerry not only worked out but we’re all really good friends.

[Daniel] Think of how many tech startups outsource their alpha and beta development to IT firms in Asia. They put a lot of faith into development, without actually meeting any of the developers up front. How do you make it work? Communication.

We’re always connected. I have 7 different email accounts, plus Twitter and Facebook all connected to my phone. I’m constantly scanning emails to make sure that if there’s anything that needs my immediate attention, that I will be responsive. Every morning when I wake up I immediately write down my thoughts, and send several emails to DJ and Gerry (my brain goes crazy early morning).

[Gerry] Thanks goodness for Google hangouts, lots of daily emails as well. We communicate daily just as any company would, however we do it through electronic outlets. The biggest challenge is timing, with Daniel and I on EST and DJ PST it can be a job just getting a time to meet down. It works however, remember we are a digital company after all…LOL.

[Marco] Since you have only met online and you live far away from each other, how did you establish a working trust? How did you determine each others strengths and weaknesses?

[DJ] Ha, I love this question. It wasn’t easy because we only knew each other in an online social capacity before this. It becomes much different when you’re relying on each other in a working environment. When we first started we had a hard time defining our roles and then once we settled in a bit everything all fell into place. Every month that goes by we become more efficient as a team and these past couple of months we’ve really started hitting our stride.

[Daniel] Passion. It was clear the first time I met DJ and Gerry that we were all passionate about this industry. And we were all bloggers, and passionate about blogging too. When we floated the idea of creating a website that would get rid of the BS in the industry, we became passionate about that! It wasn’t hard to tell we were all going to work hard on this.

As for skills, we evaluated our experience and education, and started forming roles based on what we were good at. At first, DJ and I did everything, because we didn’t have the help of Gerry until March 2013. This was a bit of a challenge, because there were a wide variety of tasks that required a broad range of skills. But when Gerry started, things became more efficient (not easier, haha).

DJ is an educator, which means he’s good with staying organized, and managing groups. He also set-up a few wordpress sites before we started SteamFeed. This makes him perfect for the day-to-day operations: Managing and recruiting new authors, managing schedules, updating the website, managing flow of communication, etc.

Gerry is a people person. He loves connecting with others. He quickly became a one-man SteamFeed Cheerleading squad, and we took notice. When it was time to add a new person the the management team, Gerry quickly came to mind! We were so busy with managing day-to-day activities that we were lacking in the marketing and biz dev area. Gerry’s personality was a perfect fit for this role, and he has the experience to back it up.

I had recently graduated from a commerce degree, and had a few internships in digital marketing through the previous year. I had my own blog that I ran, and did a lot of guest posting. So at first, I did a lot in author recruiting, and ended up being editor. As time went on, and I started getting much more real-life experience under my belt, my role changed a bit. I’m still editor, but I’m spending a lot more time in the strategy component for SteamFeed nowadays.

[Gerry] Bottom line for me is this, we all know the commitment it takes to keep this thing going, and growing. We all have complete trust in other as we all recognize that we all truly believe in SF, and what it has become, and what we can make it. It is a leap of faith, but it has been one of the best decisions in my life. We all have other jobs, personal lives, etc. We understand what it takes, we have a strict rule that family comes first, and we all recognize that we are all spread thin. We all have the same commitment and understand that things will get done when they get done. We are all doing our best.

[Marco] Based in your own experience, what are there drawbacks of having launched a startup without meeting in person first?

[DJ] At times it was hard to determine how passionate and knowledgeable the others were when it came to certain decisions. When we would be making a decision about something and the email chain starts going off it can be difficult to follow the conversation and the tone of it. Do they like the idea or do they LIKE the idea? If we were making these decisions in person you would be able to read tone and body language much easier. However, with that said, I believe having our own space to think, reflect, and be creative was advantageous as well.

[Daniel] It’s hard to determine personality fit sometimes by just interacting online. We’ve had some clashes on certain decisions, but I don’t think that would have been any different whether we were a 100% virtual company, or we operated in a physical space. Everything is working out so far.

[Gerry] I haven’t had any, in fact I love the challenge. I think it is a testament to all 3 of us to take this on in the spirit of doing business in today’s world. I find it fascinating that we are not only making it work, but providing a model for others on how to not only make it work, but to thrive.

[Marco] Let’s talk a little bit about growth. You launched SteamFeed on September 2012. As far as I can tell, the blog has had an impressive growth curve with over 70K unique visitors per month. Could each of you share one growth technique that worked better than expected? And, could you share one technique that did not go as well as you had hoped?
SteamFeed viva la revolucion

The initial logo used at the launch of the service. The logo is no longer in use

[DJ] Of course it helped that we created a lot of buzz around the launch of SteamFeed. I believe we had 16 original authors and for about a month before launch they were reaching out to their networks letting them know that we were coming. We also focused our original author recruitment on a referral basis, which gave us a lot of high quality people with overlapping networks. The overlapping networks is what put our content in front of the same eyes on a continual basis because the authors were sharing each other’s content. Over time these people began sharing it with their networks and slowly but surely we grew. One strategy that didn’t pan out and was a big learning lesson was the quantity of the content we were publishing. For a couple of months we were syndicating 4-5 articles a day from our authors plus 2 original articles. This was just way too much content for our three man operation and the quality suffered because of it. We’ve since slowed down our publishing to 2-3 articles a day and put out new article guidelines to our authors to ensure that we’re all on the same page as to what is expected.

[Daniel] As DJ mentioned, recruiting writers from referrals in our existing network was one of the top. Every time we brought on a new featured author, they would share it across their networks, and we’d get new readers from it. I wrote an article about this once.

Another great tactic was our strict recruiting and article guidelines. We recruited new writers based on the quality of their experience, and not the quality of their writing. By doing this, all of our authors are able to write unique articles that showcase some of their experience, instead of pumping out regurgitated boring articles that you see on many other social media publication sites. We don’t allow anyone and everyone to write for us – we’re very strategic about it, so the quality stays high.

These two strategies allowed us to grow at a steady pace.

A few things that didn’t work: We tried getting into the hype/news once at the start of 2013. We published an article that got over 25K+ pageviews in 2 days. We were so excited about it! However, the strategy wasn’t sustainable. We would have needed full-time journalists to make it work.

As DJ pointed out, too many articles going out in one day. We couldn’t handle the added time required to edit the articles, so sometimes we’d skip that process and hit publish directly without really digging deep into the articles. We ended up publishing such a high volume, with a huge decrease in our overall quality, that our readers started to take notice (and our authors). We had to take a step back, and focus on publishing 2 times a day, on average, but higher quality pieces.

Another strategy that didn’t pan out was too many guest posts (this was at the same time we had increased the amount of publishing). At a volume of 5-7 articles a day, with only 1-2 being original articles from our featured writers, and the rest being syndicated content and several guest posts, it again diluted the quality of the site overall. Also, it diminished the value for our featured writers, as they had more competition to stand out from on our site. We took a huge cut-back in guest posting after this. We still allow a few guest posts, but we’re very strategic about them. We spend a lot of time vetting their experience, their audience, and also spend a lot of time editing drafts back and forth before we hit publish on guest articles.

Growing pains – everybody has them. It’s what you learn from them that matters.

[Gerry] I personally have used any one single technique, other than consistency. Just keep plugging. Our biggest opportunities are in front of us all the time, as the site and entire project grows, (we now have SteamFeed TV and SteamFeed Radio) we are always looking ahead. Our projects with WVU continues to evolve, and we are working on expanding that program to other Universities. There are always irons in fire… (Added by Daniel: Typical Gerry. Too positive to point out anything that didn’t work 😉 – Dan)

[Marco] In in the article “Finding Readers: From Seed to Sequoia” DJ talks about how to grow a blog. How much of this strategy applies to how you grew SteamFeed? How much does it apply now that you have others writing the vast majority of the content? Lastly, how much of this applies to how you grow the radio show or the TV show?

[DJ]  I think out of all the advice I gave in that post relationships and consistency is where we thrive the most and arguably the most important, especially now with the over 60 authors. Organization, email, images, guest blogging, and marketing ourselves are all things we’re really trying to improve upon this year without sacrificing relationships and consistency. I think they’re all still vital to our success even with others writing the vast majority of the content because if we’re not steering the ship properly then that content will go nowhere and if the authors aren’t getting the reach with their articles that they’re use to then they’ll most likely look elsewhere to fill that need in their business.

[Daniel]  Relationships. Consistency. Organization. Marketing. Those are the three that got us off the ground.

The foundation of SteamFeed was built on tapping into networks. We used our existing relationships to recruit the first few, then asked for these authors to use their network so we could expand. None of it would have happened without building one-on-one relationships. We still rely on relationship building to this day, whether it’s recruiting new authors, or finding guests for SFTV or SFRadio.

From day 1, we published 1-2 articles each day. The only time of year that we take a small break from publishing is around Christmas, as most of us are spending time with friends and family. So you could say we operate 360 days a year. Our readers expect that from us, and we deliver. That has been one strategy from the start, and it’s still going now. Same with SFTV and SFRadio – they both have their different schedules. Consistency.

We were organized from day 1. We have different documents drafter for different purposes. All of our writers signed an author agreement before starting writing with SteamFeed. We each have our roles. We have built-in functionalities in the site that help us stay organized. We’ve gotten better at it over time too, which is a good thing because it’s now more important than ever! We could have never handled this amount of growth if we didn’t have our shit together, that’s for sure!

Marketing: Like any product or service, you need people to know about it in order for them to buy. Our “product” is content. Before we even launched the site, we started promoting our brand vision through social networks and our personal blogs. We started building hype around our brand. When we launched, we had established a small presence within the social sphere, and all of our authors helped promote through their social feeds as well. We joined Triberr, and built out a distribution network. Over time, we grew these networks to a point where it’s now rare that any article will get less than 300 social shares. We’ve grown our email list from the start. We try to do a few guest posts whenever we can. We’ve started to get recognition from others in the industry (earned media). This all piles up! We try to put the SteamFeed brand in front of as many people as we can. Just the other day, Gerry went to a couple conferences wearing his tie-dye SteamFeed T-Shirt, and making connections with people there. Some of them knew exactly who we were (which is always a good feeling), and others were excited to hear about us. We also have a partnership with WVU, which helps put credibility behind our brand. These are all marketing initiatives that we had from early on, that we keep building on today. The only difference now is that we have a presence, people know about us, and people are helping to promote us – at the start we had to hustle more.

[Gerry] We all have pieces of expansion that we are working on, for my part. I am looking forward to moving into new studio space and expanding SFTV and SFRadio into larger productions. Those forms of media and content are ripe for expansion for SF. My goal is have something along the lines of TwiT.TV in place in the next 2 years.

[Marco] Running a blog, a radio program and a TV show is a lot of work. There are only three of you. How do you divide the work?

[DJ] Basically, Daniel is the editor and has final say in what gets published and what doesn’t. I handle a lot of the back-end tech stuff (with help from a friend), signing on new authors, organizing guest posts, and preparing syndicated content. Gerry runs SteamFeed Radio, SteamFeed TV, marketing & sales, and he’s our author community manager.

[Daniel] If you were to lump us into “traditional” roles, I guess you could compare us like this:

DJ is Operations. He handles all of the day-to-day activity, besides editing and publishing. Responding to incoming emails, making sure authors are aware of upcoming posts, recruiting new authors, maintaining the site, etc. That’s DJ’s territory.

I’m Editing and Strategy. I do all of the article reviews, feedback, scheduling, and publishing. I also spend a certain part of my time thinking about the future of SteamFeed: What new revenue sources can we explore? What could make us go from good to great? What can we do that’s never been done before? How can we increase traffic on individual articles without sacrificing overall strategy? What products should we build? Etc.

Gerry is Business Development, Marketing, and Media. He prospects and converts advertising leads. He markets our brand actively at conferences and online. He’s also our internal community manager (for authors). And he handles our media production, including SFTV and SFRadio.

[Gerry] That actually progressed through time, it became obvious that we needed to separate into 3 different divisions if you will, we were all getting completely bogged down with ridiculous amounts of email. We separated out the emails so that they would go only to the appropriate person. Once we did that, that is when our individual roles really started to become defined. That is something that is still and probably always will be in a state of evolution. As we grow and face those growing pains, it gets worked out.

[Marco] Let’s talk a little bit about money. Could you share your business model with us? How do you generate revenues from SteamFeed?

[DJ] Let’s say that there is definitely light at the end of tunnel but I’m not sure if we were prepared for the tunnel to be so long. 🙂

[Daniel] From day 1, we had ads. We wanted to let people know that there would be revenue generated from the site. We have to pay the bills somehow.

You can also tell that we have sponsored stories. Most of them right now come in the form of our Corporate Syndication program, but we do accept the odd advertorial/sponsored story.

We are also testing a multitude of other revenue sources, but it’s too early to conclude whether or not it will be a significant source of revenue. We are also always coming up with new ideas that could turn into a monetized opportunity a couple years from now.

[Gerry] Yes the company is generating revenues, this is our year to focus on monetization, and that is coming along nicely.

[Marco] Most people see SteamFeed as a multi-author blog with a big social media presence. However, you also have launched SteamFeed Radio and SteamFeed TV. To me, this is starting to look more like a media company and less like a blog. Where do you see your efforts leading up to?

Steamfeed-Radio[DJ] SteamFeed is definitely evolving as time goes on. I think the space we’re in it would be crazy not to adjust and make changes where we see a need. We’re in the business of providing high quality, stimulating content that provides value to our readers and exposure for our authors. Launching SteamFeed Radio and SteamFeed TV were steps in that direction that gave us more avenues to reach people. The three outlets feed off of each other. An article might mention or link to the radio or tv show while the radio show may mention a recent article that was published. People consume content in different ways. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to just publishing a blog.

[Daniel] We’re a content company. Content can be delivered in different formats, including audio and visual. People consume content differently, so in order to maximize our audience, we need to diversify our content delivery. We don’t want to become stale.

Are we a media company? Not yet. Could we be in the next 2-3 years? Possibly. We are constantly working and thinking about the evolution of SteamFeed. We have ideas and plans on where we want it to go. Multi-media plays a big role in what we have in mind.

[Gerry] As I stated in an earlier answer. There is more to information and technology, social media, marketing etc than a blog. We at SF are always looking for other ways to connect people with information. Personally I want to expand these media outlets into bigger more viable news and information outlets. I do not see our efforts leading up to and stopping any particular place, rather continuing to evolve, move forward, and explore any and all options that might benefit our authors, as well as our audience. Technology might be the one that dictates where those paths lead and end up.

Gentlemen, thank you for participating in this interview.

The Interviewees

DJ ThistleDaniel HebertGerry

From left to right:

DJ Thistle is a seasoned educator and a co-founder of SteamFeed
Daniel Herbert is the growth manager at /newsrooms and a co-founder of SteamFeed.
Gerry Michaels, better known as GettysburgGerry, is the VP of Business Development at SteamFeed.

Image by permission of Steamfeed.

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