co-founders of theskimm

When Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin started theSkimm newsletter in 2012, they had signed up a few hundred people among friends, family and colleagues. Today, the newsletter — which focuses on informing millennial women with the most important news — reaches more than 7 million subscribers and innovates to serve its audience better.

In a discussion that covered a variety of topics, Weisberg and Zakin spoke with "Twin Cities Live" co-host Steve Patterson during The Big Week for Small Business about how they grew their business, what they did to balance friendship and business and changes they’ve made in 2020.

Here are highlights from the conversation.

Focusing on growth instead of monetization

One of the most critical things Weisberg and Zakin decided to do in the early days of theSkimm was delay monetizing in favor of growth, they revealed.

“The biggest thing that we learned in the beginning was that you can’t do everything well at once,” Weisberg said. “One of the best pieces of advice we got from our investors was that you can either focus on growth or monetization ... We were able to raise a little bit of seed funding and so we made the choice to focus on user growth. What that did was make us hyper-focused on growth and engagement. … Who is signing up? Are they referring us to their friends? Do they like us? Are they clicking on things? As people who were growing into CEO titles at the time, that gave us a crash course into strategic decisions. We had to say no to things.”

Adapting theSkimm to 2020

Like many other businesses, theSkimm has evolved to cater to people living in the time of COVID-19. Recently, Weisberg and Zakin launched Skimm Money and Skimm Well, new content verticals that are focused on finance and physical and mental health.

“All of the reasons to not launch something are apparent during the pandemic, but all of the reasons why we need to give this audience information in these categories are all the more important because we are in a pandemic,” Zakin said. “We talk about being obsessed with our audience and this generation of women. There’s never been a generation like her before. She is out-earning her male counterparts, she actually is getting a seat at the table, she actually is becoming our legislators. But pre-pandemic, she was buried in student debt, couldn’t afford her first home and delaying milestones. Now we are in a pandemic and so much of her progress has gone away overnight. What we wanted to do is say, ‘We are not holding back’ and it’s more important than ever to inform her.”

One of the keys to our success has been staying focused — knowing who we are talking to and clearing out the noise.

Carly Zakin, co-founder and co-CEO, theSkimm

 screen shot of theskimm co-founders during the big week for small business event
TheSkimm co-founders Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg talk with emcee Steve Patterson about their business's growth since its start in 2012. — Ian Wagreich/U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Navigating business and friendship

Weisberg and Zakin were close friends before starting theSkimm and remain close friends today. They noted that their relationship and how they’ve grown the company is akin to a family business. Zakin said they were especially careful to separate “friend time” and “work time,” with Weisberg going into detail on how they were able to spend so much time together.

“I think it’s crazy that it’s worked,” Weisberg said. “We always say it’s not something we recommend to people. Go find someone you think you like enough to not only be a roommate and business partner but also have a co-CEO model. It’s worked for us because we’ve worked at it over the years and we had the same values and fundamentals when we started. Over time, we’ve become family to each other. It takes work, it takes communication and it evolves over time. We’ve been able to grow up together and grow closer together because no one else has experienced this insane ride that we’re on.”

Serving an audience of 7 million

As theSkimm has grown substantially over the years, the core audience of the publication remains millennial women. But it naturally has been challenging to serve the needs of millions.

“I remember when we were just writing the newsletter by ourselves before we had a team and watching the numbers go up, the numbers reached a certain level and I was like, ‘Maybe I should read this one more time’ because it’s going to a lot of people,” Zakin said. “One of the keys to our success has been staying focused — knowing who we are talking to and clearing out the noise. One of the challenges for any business is to grow with your audience and understand how your audience’s behaviors change over time. It’s one of our greatest challenges but also one of the most fun parts of our job.”

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Published October 19, 2020