The Social Butterfly of Start-ups
If there's such a thing as a socialite in the start-up community, Chris McCann, the co-founder of Startup Digest, would be it.
A little more than a year ago, he arrived in Silicon Valley, fresh out of college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he graduated with an entrepreneurship degree (a degree, of course, that he helped develop). Knowing few people in the Bay Area, McCann started hitting the start-up event circuit and networking with Silicon Valley's finest. Some events were useful. Some, not so much. To keep track of each one, McCann logged his experiences in a journal of sorts, which he emailed to a group of 22 friends back in November.
Since then, what started as an informal email chain has grown into a weekly newsletter with more than 64,000 subscribers in 51 cities, from Houston to Tokyo. Startup Digest, as it's now called, has representatives around the world, who seek out the most important events for entrepreneurs and recommend them to subscribers. Though McCann's a little too busy these days to attend every lecture and meetup in and around Palo Alto, where the company's based, he recently spoke with Inc. reporter Issie Lapowsky about Startup Digest's growth and the crucial need it fills for entrepreneurs.
When did you realize you might be able to turn your networking skills into a service for other people?
I got to know my co-founder Brendan McManus about three years ago when he was working on a start-up called UpDown. I was one of the early users of it. We both independently moved up the Bay Area, and he randomly Facebook messaged me and was like, ‘I'm in Silicon Valley, do you know any place to stay?' Coincidentally, I was being kicked out of the sublet I was in, so we came together to look for a house. What I loved about him was when we moved in together it was like 9 o'clock at night and he was like, ‘Well? What are we going to work on?' I was like this is awesome. So we just tried a whole bunch of ideas out, and Startup Digest was one of those things.
How'd you get the word out about it?
The thing with the Digest is, I was actually going to the events I was featuring. At the event, I'd always ask the organizers if they'd let me talk for a minute afterward to tell people about Startup Digest. So I remember the first time, I gave a little thing about it, and we originally didn't have a website. The only way you could sign up was you had to either email me or Twitter me, and that was the only way I could put you on the list. The first time I said it at an event, I had 20-30 people come up to me asking to be on the list. Silicon Valley's a very small place, so word spread quickly.
Now that you have newsletters going out all over the world, how do you maintain quality control?
We have curators in each city. Most of them are startup entrepreneurs themselves. Some of them are investors in startups, and some of them have cashed out of their startup, but they have to be somewhere along that chain. We pre-screen people, and then they're the ones who pick the events in their city. And it's not like we pick specific cities and try to find someone there. People come to us and say, 'I'm a founder in Seattle, and I heard about you guys. I really want to do it here.' We have a little form where they can apply on the website, then we do a quick call with them to make sure they're doing it for the right reasons and get to know them a little bit, and then we have an internal wiki to set them up.
Were you surprised by anyone who contacted you?
Actually, one of our fastest-growing cities was Capetown, South Africa. This guy has a company called Personera, which is really freaking cool. He heard about us because he had an investor in San Francisco, and he was like, 'Hey we need something like this in Capetown.' He just applied through the online form, just like anybody else, and he went from like 1 to 81 members in a week or two. Now, I think it's at almost 1,000 people signed up.
What's the cost of running a newsletter on this scale?
The start-up costs were basically nothing. We started with Gmail to send the emails and Excell to manage the list. All we had was the website cost, which was, all in all, less than $100. Now the costs to operate are less than $1,000 a month. We're spending $500 a month on emails, then the rest on hosting, travel, events, etc. The biggest cost is Brendan and my living cost. We make the majority of our money through advertorial emails and sponsorship.
Which events get the most attention?
The ones that are always the most popular are private events, the ones you have to apply to get into. We usually feature the event and say, 'Here's how you can get in touch with the people.' Those do really well. Also, launch parties do really well. We feature events from huge conferences all the way down to really small meetups, and you find that the smaller meetups that are usually more technical and skill-focused, actually perform surprisingly well.
You guys host your own events, too, right?
We only do one event, and it's more fun and silly for our subscribers. It's called Startup Waffles. It's free waffles, and whenever we travel, we do one for our subscribers, and we do it once a month in San Francisco.
Do you have anything new in the works?
At least for now, it's all event listings. The Silicon Valley one is still the biggest of all the cities, and we're transitioning that one slowly into more of a daily newsletter, sort of like Daily Candy, because people have been demanding more content from us.
Why do you think Startup Digest has become so popular so quickly?
As much as I use Facebook, Twitter and all that stuff that's out there, there's nothing that's going to replace person-to-person interaction. You go and meet an investor or customer face-to-face, and you're excited about it. You make a stronger connection really quickly. Then it's a lot easier to follow up on these other channels, but that person-to-person feeling can never be replaced.