A former University of Pennsylvania frat boy thinks he knows what women want. He's done his research.
Ryan Harwood got his idea for a business from watching his college buddy Ben Lerer. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, (apparently, membership in a fraternity there, which Lerer and Harwood both had, has since been deemed an entrepreneurship indicator of sorts) Harwood was working at an investment bank in Manhattan, and observed from the sidelines as Lerer's start-up Thrillist Media Group grew from scrappy email newsletter into a multi-faceted media and retail company. "For lack of better words, I was jealous," Harwood told a reporter.
He got to know a few of Lerer's investors, including Bob Pittman, the president and CEO of Clear Channel Communications and co-founder of the Pilot Group, a New York City-based private investment firm. Harwood says he floated an idea by Pittman. "I said, 'if I look into the business models [similar to Thrillist] and do market research, and find some white space there, would you be interested?'"
Harwood already had a lead into that "white space." Essentially, it was the biggest demographic hole Thrillist--which caters to young urban men--did not lay a finger on: lifestyle coverage for women. He had grown up with a sister, and his mother's best friend had four daughters. He knew women generally controlled a lot of household decisions, and were the "chief purchasing officer" (his phrasing) for their families.
A little more digging into existing research taught him that women are all-around better consumers than men, and on social media they're a lot more willing to be the person doing the sharing. "Women dominate social media, not only as a user base, but also in terms of engagement and activity," Harwood says. "If they get a great piece of content in email, they are far more willing to forward it to 20 friends or family. For guys, unless it's a crude joke or something, they're very unlikely to share it."
Turns out, Pittman was already invested in that space. He'd invested in the online publication targeted toward savvy, influential (read: older) ladies called wowOwow--that's the super-sized abbreviation of "women on the web"--run by a cohort of media veterans with great name recognition, including Whoopi Goldberg, Lesley Stahl, Candice Bergen, and Lily Tomlin. They agreed that Harwood could run an email newsletter offshoot of the site called PureWow.
Harwood continued with his research. After all, Harwood is a guy. And a guy's guy at that. (For evidence, see his Twitter account's frequency of tweets about the New York Knicks). He held several different focus groups of women of various ages. He asked them what they liked to read about online, what they didn't like--and says he got some intuition-defying answers.
1. Women of all ages are sick of parenting advice. Focus groups seemed to think the mommy-blog space is oversaturated, Harwood says. A lot of the women surveyed were not mothers--but even the parents in the groups were sick of being pigeonholed as only interested in reading about parenting.
2. Women don't necessarily read what's targeted at them. About 25 percent of the women at the focus groups said they were reading magazines and websites for much younger women. Women well into their 20s, for example, were picking up Seventeen. Why? Because whatever Seventeen's flaws, nothing served them better. "These younger publications were very fashion-forward, which they liked, but were targeting, say, a 24-year-old girl," Harwood says. "These women loved fashion, but were also looking for health, wellness, arts, culture, travel, wine, and home décor. Their tastes had evolved."
3. Women don't define themselves by their narrow interests. They said, in Harwood's focus groups, that it's fine for publications to write specifically for women, but they didn't like being categorized any further--because the bucket rarely fits. Harwood says: "The message was, 'When you're targeting me, don't silo me. Don't say I'm a divorcée, a mom, an office worker. We are women at the core, and identify with that, regardless of stage of life."
Harwood shaped these insights into the PureWow the email newsletter. Today, the company is also a stand-alone website of highly sharable news and how-to guides for women, and employs 25 people--all of whom are women, aside from Harwood. The editor in chief of PureWow is Mary Kate McGrath, a former senior editor at RealSimple. McGrath says being surrounded by 20 women is only an issue in that "there are more Chobani yogurts in our work fridge than I've ever seen in my life."
Harwood has clearly been wooed, however--and schooled in a few things--by the women in his office. He admits that when he recently proposed to his fiancée (she said yes), he couldn't resist immediately stopping by the office to tell the women of PureWow his plans. "If I worked in an office with men, I never would have halted everything to stop by and talk about something personal," Harwood says.
PureWow editor in chief Mary Kate McGrath (center) in PureWow's Manhattan office.
Now that PureWow is three years old, Harwood is able to look back at those early focus groups and not only see how they helped shape the site into what it is today, but also see what the women whose opinions he sought were flat-out wrong about.
Remember how in the focus group, one of the areas women said they wanted to read about was wine?
"In the beginning when we wrote about wine, it really bombed," Harwood says. "And no one told me they wanted to read about technology--that ranked really low with them."
Surprise: technology is one of the strongest verticals on PureWow today. The site's most-shared article ever--it was pinned about a quarter of a million times on Pinterest--was about an app that helps you find lost keys. "Any tech article we write is shared a ton," Harwood says. "Never fails."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is senior writer at Inc. @Lagorio