It all started with Pop, which Lisa launched in 2005 while she was still working as a media planner at ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Lisa drew on her husband Brian's tech know-how and her own celebrity gossip magazine obsession, added a friendly, fun female voice, and watched as readers flooded in. "Within six months, Brian said, 'Wow, these numbers are crazy,'" she said. "He had launched J. Crew's Web site and he had launched Bluelight, which is Kmart's Web site, so he'd seen how fast it took for sites to ramp up… And when he saw how fast Pop was taking off, he said, 'Let's turn this into a real business. This is like too good to not do something with.'"
The couple founded Sugar Inc. in 2006, and launched the new company on June 1, just as Lisa went into labor with their daughter, Katie. And as Katie has grown, so has Sugar Inc. Today, the company has about 120 employees, draws 12 million unique visitors per month to 16 different sites, offers e-commerce through ShopStyle (which it acquired in 2007) and lets users take advantage of its technology to start their own blogs with its OnSugar platform. Now, the company is looking to the next frontier: video.
How did you make the transition from advertising and PR to launching PopSugar and the entire Sugar network?
I would say that my background in advertising and media definitely fueled writing [PopSugar]. My favorite part of those jobs was having to know everything about every magazine and every television show and getting to watch pilots and all that stuff I had to know for my clients. I had a friend -- Om Malik who writes a site called GigaOm -- who was a writer, and he knew I would write things here and there. He was over one day and he was like, 'You should really just start writing this and create the next celebrity online thing.' That was back in February/March of 2005. My husband helped me create a site, taught me how to do HTML and code and all that fun stuff. And that's when PopSugar launched, in March of '05. I was actually doing that while I was at Goodby. It was the type of thing where I would be at work and I would take a break and I would go to all the large sites that people knew about then, like Gawker and People and stuff like that, but I would want them to just be updated more and more and more. And I just started writing every day and I started getting addicted to having people comment and looking at my stats and having more people come back. I think at the time when I launched Pop there was a niche in the marketplace. There were a lot of other celebrity blogs that were starting, but having the friendly female point of view was definitely different than what was out there, and people reacted to that.
So it all started with Pop, but how did it evolve into a bigger company with 16 different blogs?
Brian and I started looking at all the other categories that were out there. From my advertising experience, I knew the different genres of magazines and how big they were and how popular they were. No one was doing this online yet. I knew even when I was writing Pop that I wanted to write about a bag that I wanted to have, or I wanted to write about the new must-have beauty thing. And there was really no space for it in Pop. People didn't want to see Britney getting her groceries and then the Jergens self-tanning cream that was all the rage one story after another. It just didn't flow. So we knew we were going to have to launch various sites for everybody and they all wanted more, which was great. So we launched DearSugar, which is now part of TresSugar, which was the advice site with Q&A about love and sex. That was actually the second site. And then TeamSugar [the community site] and FabSugar. Those three came out of Pop all pretty quickly.
|"We like to act as a startup and be bare-bones, so luckily we've been in a great place… If there's an opportunity, we're not hesitant."|
Sugar Inc. was founded in April in '06 and in July we launched those other sites. And in September, we got funding from Sequoia, which was a big deal for us. They've been an amazing partner. And then myself and Krista, the managing editor who was one of the original staffers, went on a hiring binge. We went crazy hiring and training people and launching sites. We launched another four or five before the end of the year, and in '07 we did another batch of site launches. So we kind of did it in two big waves.
That was almost three years ago now. How has it evolved since then?
We as a company realized there are other things besides the content that are really important. So purchasing ShopStyle [in the summer of 2007] was a really, really great investment and something we always thought editorially and as a company was always a really great asset for us. For example, you read a story on Fab and there is a Trend Alert, and I always wanted it to be a lot easier than a magazine. When you read a magazine, they sometimes give you information of a store or a Web site that might have it, but it's actually really difficult to get the item that they highlight. So the beauty of having ShopStyle integrated into our posts is that it made it that much easier. If I'm going to tell you that a one-shoulder dress is in style right now and these are the cobalt blue colors that you have to have, there are 12 options right underneath and all you have to do is click and buy. So that whole concept is making it that much easier for a woman to get what they want, because we all know that the Web is great for instant gratification. That was a big thing.
What is your philosophy behind Sugar?
Our philosophy, and even our corporate culture, is just a very fun, laid-back environment. We want everything to be very approachable, so we don't want our editors to seem standoffish. So that's why our readers can actually get in touch with us, whether it's via comments or email. It's not somebody on the 55th floor in some corner office who is not going to respond to them.
There are so many other blogs that have names on every post, but at Sugar every post has a generic editor byline. What is the reason behind that?
That was something that started when we started the site. It was sort of like the girl in the corner and readers related to that. They would say, 'Hey, Pop whatever,' you know. And they gravitated towards that. I think it's very obvious now that our sites are written by more than one person behind it and there's a team behind it. So even if one person is writing one story and somebody else is writing something else, there are still a lot of people and eyeballs and brainstorming that bounces off of each other, so a lot of stuff is actually written in the collaborative format.
|"The audience wants to read five things -- they don't want to just read one thing any more."|
Were you affected at all by the recession?
Just at the time when the world was seeing some not fun things happen, we had actually just brought our sales staff in-house because we had just gotten big enough that we wanted to represent ourselves. So, for us, we were just ramping up our in-house sales team. Also, as a company, we run things pretty frugally. We like to act as a startup and be bare-bones, so luckily we've been in a great place the whole time. We have great investors and they continue to invest in us, so we're in a good place. We just recently hired a bunch of engineers who are going to launch a game. If there's an opportunity, we're not hesitant. We just bought a company a year ago in May, and they're helping us with the video. I think there's so many ways to go with video, too, whether it's actually on the Internet or actually on TV, we'd love to be producing beyond just online video. We're still pretty young with video, but we're ecstatic with the amount of people who are watching it and watching the whole thing. We think there are a lot of other directions we can go that we haven't tapped into yet.
What advice would you give someone to launch a blog?
I think it's actually easier now than it was years ago. OnSugar is a good example of the fact that anyone can do it. There are a lot of really great original writers, and I think that's one of the great things about this day and age -- everybody's becoming an expert in their own world and they're excited to share what they know. The tools are there and they're easy to use and learn, so it's a lot of do-it-yourself type teaching. For example, if you're a fashion or beauty blogger, one of the things we have with ShopStyle is a thing called ShopSense, where you can make money off your links to ShopStyle, just like a lot of other affiliate programs. Depending on what category you want to write in, I think there are ways to make money. The biggest challenge for the writer is just, you know, getting the word out and consistently writing and challenging themselves to make it fun and exciting and getting people to find their site through networking and marketing on their own. A lot of it is our own editors are doing it on their own, or I did it on my own when I started Pop, just making friends with editors who are out there.
Do you ever look around and say, 'Look at all the other sites we've surpassed and outlived'?
I think it's sad when they aren't still around. I think it's interesting the directions that people take their sites and their visions. There are definitely people who are happy doing one thing and staying in that area and maybe owning that area, and then there are people branching out in a number of different ways. I think there is so much more out there than there was five years ago. But I think that the audience is different. The audience wants to read five things -- they don't want to just read one thing any more.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.