Q&A: Michael Rothman, CEO & Founder @ Fatherly

This week, The Idea talked to Michael Rothman, the founder of a men’s parenting publication called Fatherly, about building a media company from the ground up, finding whitespace, and building a company based on personal passion and real business need.

Can you tell me a bit about your career path and your trajectory to starting Fatherly?

I am the co-founder and CEO of Fatherly, and everything I’ve done both personally and professionally has probably led up to this point. I was one of the founding employees at Thrillist, a men’s lifestyle guide in cities around the country and the world that focused on helping improve the lives of young, single people. What that generally meant was helping connect them to bars and restaurants and fun in their local markets.

As that audience matured, I along with our founding team also exited the Thrillist life stage and entered a more mature, adult life stage: We saw that our founding team at Thrillist was starting to have families. Our peer group was settling down and having kids, and one thing that was incredibly noticeable for me was that the men that I knew were much more involved in day to day parental decision making and day to day decisions as parent consumers. A lot of what I was observing seemed to dovetail on what broader national trends about parenting increasingly being seen as a shared responsibility, particularly with people in dual income earning households.

Most of the media that was focusing on parents generally fell into two different camps. There was a lot of anachronistic Web 1.0 media, the Baby Centers, the WebMD’s of the world, that catered in tone and packaging and delivery mechanisms (desktop based media) catered to a different generation of parents.

And then you have this vast longtail of –for lack of a better term– “mommy content” or mom blogs, and there wasn’t anything that spoke to men. There also wasn’t a lot of content that blended a journalistic approach to parenting content with more of an emotional sensitivity that these are often very fraught decisions that parents have to make.

On a personal level, I’ve been a mentor to fatherless boys since 1999, I’ve been a big brother since my first week of undergrad. I biked across the country in 2005 to create a scholarship for rising eighth grade kids in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. More recently I’ve been a mentor and a chairman at an organization called Career Gear, which is similar to Dress For Success, but for guys coming out of prison and poverty. I mentor seven different guys coming out of that program. That was this personal trajectory where I felt this obligation and a lifelong mission to help men in need.

Can you speak more to the business need of starting Fatherly?

The mission is to empower men to raise great kids and lead more fulfilling adult lives. We established that a couple years ago and that still holds very powerfully for both me and everyone else in the company. There are these broad shifts in consumption that I noticed empirically, but were also reinforced by Census Bureau data, labor statistics, eMarketer reports, Pew attitudinal surveys, that all suggested that men were much more involved in consumer decisions– not just with big ticket items, like cars and electronic systems, but they were much more involved with day to day consumables.

There wasn’t really any kind of publication that speaks to men at the mostly blindly inquisitive and acquisitive moment of their lives. And as you think about building a media company in this day and age, in an environment that’s particularly turbulent and hostile to ideas that don’t have a clear market fit that aren’t providing value for an actual human being somewhere in the world, it seemed almost glaringly obvious that there is a real white space here.

Initially I wasn’t sure if there was a white space or a graveyard. It almost seemed too obvious, that I thought other people knew something that I didn’t. In fact talking to folks in traditional media at the time, I received a lot of pushback and dismissal. The CEO of Baby Center told me they tried to target men with a “dads and grads” initiative, and it just didn’t really stick. I talked to Conde executives and they said they tried it with a magazine, and it didn’t work.

Initially that was incredibly dispiriting. I thought, “These are seasoned media executives and I’m still kind of a young pup, what do they know that I don’t?” I just started going ahead and putting together an actual test.

I put together an email newsletter as a bit of a proof of concept and saw very quickly that I was gathering not just quantitative data to suggest that people are clicking and opening and engaging with this product, but also more importantly, I got a certain spidey sense that there’s really good content here. No one else is mining this territory, and in an incredibly cluttered media landscape, this legitimately is a white space, and no one is really approaching this content for this audience in this way.

Can you give me a history of Fatherly’s business model?

We started off as an email newsletter just to get proof of concept. And that was an exercise for isolating as many variables as possible. We wanted to keep things as simple as possible, and it ultimately came to the question we wanted to solve for, which was: Can we provide valuable content to a targeted audience of young dads (dads with kids 0–2)?

Rather than just coming up with original content right off the bat, what we noticed is that there wasn’t a deficit of parenting content, there was in fact an incredible glut. So, the initial service that we provided was a curatorial service of finding five of the best nuggets of the vast, longtail reaches of the web, and packaging and delivering it to an audience of young dads.

That was a newsletter that I did on the nights and weekends from a coffee shop in the East Village in New York with one of our Thrillist editors. We did that for about 12 weeks. We thought that was enough time that the friends and family opt-in audience we had would naturally lose interest. If we had been testing this for four weeks, our friends and family would have been too friendly, they would click every email, and reply “great job,” but if we did it over 12 weeks, life intervenes, and if they’re not genuinely interested, they would let us know by not opening, not clicking. It also gave us an opportunity to grow organically.

We had initial benchmarks, that were purely focused on email: clickthrough, organic growth with each send. That gave us enough conviction –after we grew to about 20,000 subscribers and started getting initial advertiser interest– to go and raise money. At that point we were already creating original content, there were needs out in the vast longtail reaches of the parenting ecosystem that weren’t being met, so we went from 100% curation to 100% original content.

Once we had about 350 articles, we realized a lot of this content is fairly evergreen. The next service we provided was a central destination where folks can search for this stuff on their own, because parenting is a perpetually refilling funnel. From there we went from an email to a website.

In 2015, I understood Facebook as being a great upper funnel awareness driver, but never necessarily as a platform unto itself. I was always incredibly skeptical of completely distancing yourself from your audience. Facebook was a great way to get as many eyeballs on Fatherly content as possible, but the very bottom of the funnel was still getting people to sign up for our email newsletter.

At one point we had 100 million video views a month, and that number didn’t even mean anything anymore, it was so ridiculously high. We had videos getting 75–80 million views, so we almost questioned the veracity of that data. With each video or article we released, we were getting Superbowl-size audiences aware of Fatherly. That was a great way for a young, insurgent brand to grow awareness, but we also knew that this party would be over soon.

We focused a lot on audience diversification, particularly in the last 24 months, in building syndication relationships: business media for of our work-life balance content, women’s publications for our relationship content, and men’s lifestyle publications for our Fatherly gear review. We found sufficiently diverse syndication partners, our email newsletter product continued to grow, and more importantly, we really focused on building out our search proposition and doing all of the blocking and tackling the infrastructure and unsexy stuff that you need to build a sizable search audience.

Now we’re publishing 25 articles a day. Much of that content is very evergreen, and it’s worthy to be found by parents who increasingly look to Google to get answers to their everyday parenting questions, as opposed to just posting questions into listservs or blasting out to their Instagram followers or Facebook friends. A lot of these parenting questions are deeply personal or somewhat embarrassing, and the content that we’re building out is designed to intercept the intent around a lot of those questions.

Can you tell me a bit more about Fatherly’s e-commerce strategy?

We start with trust. We ultimately look at Fatherly as the leading lifestyle brand for the next generation of parents that initially expresses itself as a media company. Media is a terrific and capital efficient way to build awareness and trust. We’re starting off a relationship with the consumer where we’re not asking for a credit card. We’re delivering value for free to them and doing that consistently over time.

Whether that’s three or six months of answering questions that they have explicitly through search, answering questions that they didn’t know they had through the surprise and delight factor of a daily email that’s increasingly personalized to their interests, that’s a fundamental way to build trust with the audience, and for us that’s been paramount.

To build a trust, you need to create consistency and build a reputation with your readers for doing something incredibly well, and only then can you think about revenue extensions beyond serving relevant advertising adjacent to that trusted content. I think that’s where we are right now. 99% of our revenue is still coming largely from advertising, sponsor relationships, from commercial marketers, foundations, and government agencies.

In the same way that we focused on audience diversification 24 months ago, we are now looking to plant seeds around revenue diversification, of which commerce is very much a part. The thinking behind that is: we’re writing up all of these helpful product recommendations that are leading parents who are in the market for baby products, we know how old their kid is, we anticipate certain product needs that they have, leading them to a path of purchase.

There’s an opportunity for us to profit from the service that we’re providing both the reader and the product manufacturer. Right now, that consists of an affiliate commerce program, we’re currently looking for an ecommerce editor, someone who would work with our audience development and editorial teams, understand what the audience is looking for, coming up with the right product recommendations that can lead them to the path of purchase.

One of the biggest things we’ve done as a company is the Fatherly Playroom, which kicked off the beginning of December. It was a 4 day indoor play experience in Tribeca, New York, and that created the template for launching other “IRL” play experiences for kids. That was also a platform for us to showcase The 100 Best Toys of 2018. Kids had a chance to play with all the toys, there were activities for kids, and ultimately an opportunity for parents to purchase the toys through QR codes we had set up.

As we mature that program, the path to purchase for all the products that are on display will be even more seamless. There’s a chance that we can start taking a bit of inventory, managing that risk, even working directly with product manufacturers to at least have the transactions go through us through a drop ship relationship. These are all things that we’re exploring. We’re also exploring online courses that cater to parents, selling tickets to some of these events, especially as we build them out in terms of size, the amount of capacity in each market, building out the frequency with which we put together these play experiences for kids.

What other revenue sources are you looking into?

Merchandise, gifting opportunities that are specific to parenting, paid courses, expanding events and figuring out different ways to monetize the event platform. We have a skunkworks team internally called Fatherly labs that’s testing a whole bunch of these ideas at once. Giving us a 24 month berth allows us to do this in a more deliberate fashion and not just pivot to AR, or pivot to something quickly and aggressively because of some faint promise that it’s going to deliver revenue.

ike everything else we’ve done with the company, we’re doing this very intentionally, but with the understanding that looking at media history, every successful media company has had more than more than one revenue line. Even if it’s just a portfolio of smaller revenue activities that collectively adds up to something as or more meaningful than advertising and sponsorship, that’s all stuff that we’re pursuing.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media recently from an organization other than your own?

There’s a general trend toward verticality and specificity as audiences become commoditized. I think in the B2B and B2C space, vertical media is increasingly interesting to me. You interviewed Rafat, I think the business that he’s built with Skift serves as a really great model for other media entrepreneurs in the future. You’re finding a very specific audience, we’re super serving them with the best content you possibly can, and you’re servicing this reader not just as a reader but as someone who’s looking for business information or valuable lifestyle information that’s valuable enough that they have a price that they’re willing to pay for it as opposed to suffering through advertising.

I’m less bullish on general interest media. Out of the digital native native companies that have launched in the last few years, I think the big ones are experiencing some level of turbulence, and I’m much more bullish on verticals.