How a Bootstrapped Startup is Winning the Digital Media Game
Forgoing VC backing and delivering approachable content to a broad audience, the tech review site Digital Trends has achieved profits and growth that stand out in the digital media industry. Learn how the two founders met in a wedding buffet line and went on to build the business.
In the buffet line at a wedding reception in 2001, Ian Bell waited to fill up his plate while “Shout” by the Isley Brothers blared in the background. A tech enthusiast, Bell found himself fascinated by a fellow wedding guest’s Bluetooth-enabled phone–a breakthrough technology at the time. Another guest, technology executive Dan Gaul, quickly joined the conversation. Within minutes, Gaul and Bell were brainstorming over crab cakes and shrimp cocktail about a website that could review tech products in ways that would connect with real people.
Five years later, co-founders Bell (CEO) and Gaul (CTO) brought their idea to life by launching technology review site Design Technica out of a furniture store in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The weekends-and-evenings hobby would later evolve into Digital Trends. Despite a saturated industry, the digital media company’s growth can be explained by the way Bell, Gaul and the whole team dedicate themselves to fresh, fun content that relates to a broad audience. “Tech is the oxygen we all breathe. You don’t have to be obsessed with it, but you have to have it. We are very passionate about the space,” Bell says.
We talked with the Digital Trends founders to learn how they plan to stay true to their business’s culture as they continue to grow the company in a challenging media environment and a dynamic tech world.
You’ve become good friends and business partners since that wedding in 2001. What does the enthusiasm you share mean for your business?
Gaul: One of our core values is fun. We also provide something meaningful to the reader.
Bell: Let’s face it, it’s pretty exciting—AI, virtual reality, AR, smart homes. It’s like Christmas every day when we get a new product and open it up and see what it does.
Other tech review sites load their content down with specs and technical requirements—but you opted to be more consumer-oriented. How are you different?
Gaul: The other sites don’t write with the mainstream audience in mind. We care about the usability aspect and nobody was talking about that. What differentiates us is our voice.
Bell: It’s about user experience and how products create emotion and make life better. It’s not about specifications. It’s not snarky. It’s a welcoming environment and we make content really easy to read.
You’re genuinely excited about what’s new. How do you succeed at getting the word out?
Bell: We follow the audience. In the past, digital media was one-dimensional. Now everyone goes online to learn, research and be entertained. Ecommerce and data are big biz. Consumption skews very high toward mobile. We’re playing the audience game, not the traffic game. It’s quality over quantity and we’d rather cater to our own audience as opposed to trying to be everything to everybody.
Our audience is mainly the HENRY (High Earner Not Rich Yet) millennial. Women make up 45 to 50 percent of Digital Trends visitors, which is unusual for a tech site. Now we’re looking at readership trends to see interests that give us ideas for new content verticals and channels.
Gaul: Our user isn’t just interested in tech. What about clothes and watches? The Manual (the company’s men’s lifestyle site) started as a category on Digital Trends. The Spanish-language site (Digital Trends en Español) is also taking off like crazy. In one year, it’s gotten 3 million users.
Bell: Then there’s Digital Trends Live, which will be streaming five hours per week by the end of the year. And we’re doing live events that draw 1,000 consumers.
What did staying in Portland—outside the tech and media bubbles—do to open up possibilities and help you look differently at the digital media space?
Gaul: We had to learn a lot of things on our own because we didn’t have that influence sphere, networking with others in the space. There’s not a lot of tech or media in Portland. We don’t get too distracted from what we started doing, and what’s true to our audience. It’s easy to get “shiny object syndrome.”
Bell: In Portland, the blinders we put on help us stay focused. We keep a 30,000-foot view to see the industry separately from our business.
You’ve kept the company bootstrapped and chosen to forgo VC backing. Why do you feel that’s the right decision?
Bell: I appreciate the pros and cons to each side. But we own the business. That teaches us how to be real entrepreneurs, make tough decisions, have crucial conversations and build real leaders—because we’re dependent on them.
Gaul: We’re creating content that’s impactful for the reader. We enjoy what we do, because it’s not just for us.
Bell: We run Digital Trends together, take care of our employees and learn from each other. You find out what you’re good at—mentoring, teaching, becoming a leader.
Gaul: We’re getting to the stage where we are bringing on people who can grow the biz in ways we individually couldn’t—because we don’t have every specific expertise. That frees me to be a better partner to Ian, and a mentor and leader to the team. The journey itself is enlightening and humbling. In the beginning, we cleaned the bathrooms ourselves. And because you have to do every component of the business, you learn where you’re really good and where you’re not.
You chose to build a banking relationship with JPMorgan Chase. What was the draw?
Bell: A lot of our partners bank with JPMorgan Chase because the team knows and understands the digital media industry. Our banking team cares about the relationship, they want to see us grow and succeed. They share reports and insights with us. They host valuable events, giving us the opportunity to meet with leaders like Jamie Dimon and connect with other entrepreneurs.
What values do you think Digital Trends and JPMorgan Chase share?
Both: The value of connection. Approachability. Drive. A true belief that goes beyond a quote on the wall. We make long-term investments in our reader, our customer.