As told to Bobbie Gossage
Dot-commers of yore believed that if you could draw enough traffic to your website, you could make a killing selling banner ads and pop-ups. History, of course, proved otherwise--with a few exceptions. Thirty-one-year-old Dany Levy, a journalist turned entrepreneur, runs a profitable, popular, ad-revenue-based Internet company called DailyCandy, which every morning, via e-mail, feeds its reported 90,000 subscribers their regimen of what's hip at this very moment, including sample sales, boutique and restaurant openings, the latest book, and the hottest trend. Levy's website is all about stylish consumption, and fashionable enough to reportedly draw the investment dollars of MTV founder Bob Pittman. She's always operated her four-year-old company, however, on the basic principles of thrift.
I always had a knack for marketing. That's the reason the Internet fascinated me. It's so different from magazines or newspapers. On the Internet, that Forward button is a built-in marketing tool. Sometimes I'd get the same forwarded e-mail from three different friends in one day, people who didn't even know each other.
I began my career at New York magazine in 1994, and I worked there for four years, moving through the ranks from intern to the Sales & Bargains column, to the Gotham Style page, which I started. I freelanced for a while, then went to Self magazine as beauty editor, and then to the prototype of Lucky. Going from a weekly to a monthly to a prototype was frustrating, because the lead times were getting longer. I was used to quicker deadlines.
I was job-hopping so much that, in late 1999, I decided to go to business school--maybe I wasn't meant to be a journalist. In the process of learning about business and Wall Street, I ended up subscribing to TheStreet.com's newsletter. I looked at their business model and thought, Why has no one done this for lifestyles? Wouldn't it be nice to have one really simple e-mail that every day gave people the heads up on one cool thing: the new hot restaurant, a cool sample sale, the new must-have digital camera? Something that would weed through all the schlock and was short, entertaining, intelligent, and had service at its core. At that time, not much on the Internet was attractive to look at. I decided to make every e-mail look like nice stationery.
The immediacy of the Internet thrilled me, as did the ability to scoop other forms of media. I set up a desk in an office of a friend who ran a tech company and, with the money I was going to use for business school, started my company. I named it DailyCandy, because in print journalism if pages were easily digestible and easy on the eye, we'd call them "eye candy."
To get the word out, I sent e-mails to all of my journalist and nonjournalist friends, asking them to forward them to all of their friends. The e-mail gave them a taste of what DailyCandy was going to be, and it said something like, "Sign up now. Be first. Be in the know." Before I launched, I had 700 subscribers. Knowing people in the magazine industry helped, not really in generating press, but in growing my subscriber list and giving me credibility. Any time you branch out in an industry, it helps to have already made a name for yourself.
I knew I wasn't going to make money in the beginning, so I made it my primary goal to spend as little as possible and to work hard on growing my subscriber base, developing a brand, and building a product people could trust. In my head I set the goal of one year to become profitable. It ended up being a year and a half. We sold our first ad in the fall of 2000, and by the third quarter of 2001 we became profitable.
One reason my company is still here and growing is that I didn't go along with the cash-shredding of that time. I didn't take venture capital, hire 200 people, and spend money like crazy. I had the mentality of, "I don't care if I'm running a lemonade stand or a dot-com, it's the same thing. How much do the lemons cost and how much are people buying? Maybe I'd better find some cheaper lemons or make less lemonade. Maybe I need to improve the quality of my lemonade."
I had my first offer for venture capital very early on, but I really wanted to maintain control of the brand. I did take money from two angels, which I felt was a better route than working with a big VC. Even now, we are a staff of only eight full-time people, with many freelancers and commission-based salespeople. We still keep it very small.
"I didn't go along with the cash- shredding of that time. I didn't take VC money or hire 200 people."
We were gung-ho on launching DailyCandy London, until I realized the toll it would take on our little company to run in three time zones. [The service started in New York City and expanded to Los Angeles.] Also, nobody on my staff knew the international ad sales market. So, while London is a really neat idea, I was doubtful that we could make money. Instead, we launched DailyCandy Everywhere--chic products that can be bought on the Web--which has been one of our most successful services so far, and DailyCandy Kids, which targets parents with kids up to age 12. I felt like that market was completely underserved. Parents are super busy and need someone to tell them what the next cool thing is.
The way we are able to move product is amazing. When we write about a restaurant, it gets flooded. After we wrote about the Silk Day Spa in New York City, it received more than 15,000 hits to its website and nearly 400 bookings in the span of three days. It's a wonderful power, but one to be used very responsibly. Everything that I write about, I have to ask myself, is this quality?
I think it's really important to work with advertisers who are suitable to our demographic--highly consumptive women who like to shop and want to be in the know--and, at times, help them create ads that will get a response. I understand my consumer's point of view, so I'll think, Okay, what would I read from Lancome or Sports Club/LA that would make me want to buy that? Our goal is to make sure that advertisers succeed, whether it's moving product or driving traffic to their websites.