New media on old platforms: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Liza Darwin and Casey Lewis, former teen magazine editors who launched “Clover,” a daily topical newsletter and app for girls ages 13–22, early this year. They discuss their former employers’ struggles adapt to the internet age, the email behavior of today’s teenagers, nostalgia for Google Reader, inadvertently building a community, and sexism in the venture capital world.
Paul Ford: Welcome to Track Changes, the podcast of the Postlight product design studio in New York City. My name is Paul Ford.
Rich Ziade: [small voice] Rich Ziade.
Paul: Yeah, great, good, good intro, thanks.
Rich: Trying to give you….
Rich: Contrast here.
Paul: Trying to make this official. Trying to level it up.
Rich: Looking good.
Paul: Oh well. Whatever. [laughter] Look. You and I are two…old crabby men in the studio, but we’re joined by two real media innovators today.
Rich: Yes. We’re gonna be forward-looking today.
Paul: This is it. It’s not, it’s not gonna be about Ye Olden Internet.
Rich: Yeah. There’s a running joke that the show is sort of like the oldies of tech.
Paul: And people have liberally written in and let us know that that’s a problem with the show.
Rich: Handwritten letters come in. [laughter]
Paul: We really appreciate that feedback. Rich, who’s in the studio today?
Rich: Casey Lewis and Liza Darwin of Clover.
Paul: What is Clover?
Rich: I’m not gonna…I’m not gonna describe it. I’m gonna let them describe it, because I have questions related to what it is and how it came to be. But do you have the one-sentence for what is Clover?
Casey Lewis: Well it’s funny that your calling us “new media,” because you can make the case that email newsletters are kind of old media.
Paul: You know, since there’s two people, introduce yourselves.
Casey: I’m Casey Lewis.
Liza Darwin: And I’m Liza Darwin.
Paul: And you are of Clover.
Casey: Yes, Clover Letter.
Liza: We are indeed.
Paul: Clover Letter. Which I understand, and I think there’s a lot more going on. I get it everyday. I don’t think I’m in your target demographic. Who is your target demographic?
Casey: So our target demographic is a teenage girl, 13–22, so we go a little bit higher, a little bit older, Gen Z, which is interesting, because most people are so focused on millennials these days. But Gen Z is the future.
Rich: Gen Z…
Paul: What’s the difference between Gen Z and millenials.
Liza: So Gen Z is anyone who’s born around 1995 or later. So…
Liza: Very young.
Paul: Sure. OK, so they show up in 1995, and the one thing that they want to get, I’m guessing, is an email newsletter. [laughter]
Casey: That’s exactly it!
Liza: That’s what we’re banking on!
Rich: So wait, just for context, what’s millennial? Does anyone know?
Casey: So we’re millennials.
Rich: Which is..do you know…?
Casey: I know it goes up to 30.
Liza: 35 —
Paul: It’s like ‘82.
Rich: Oh, is it that far back?
Rich: Oh, I thought it was later.
Paul: And then there’s, like, straddle generation, which is between millennial and generation X. I’m straddle. You’re gen X.
Rich: Are you really straddle? [laughter]
Paul: I’m sorry to say, it’s actually true.
Rich: Oh boy. That’s another episode.
Paul: Yeah. So wait. First of all, are generations real? Is this like a real thing?
Casey: I think so.
Liza: But I think in some ways it could just be a state of mind. Like while we target these young people, we’re not excluding anyone, so…
Paul: I like your newsletter. No, because it’s very newsy, it comes across, like every now and then, it’ll be like, oh, I didn’t know that was going on with the Trump campaign. Like, it’s a good, newsy newsletter that happens to be focused on a demographic that most people would consider as completely the opposite of me. But it’s still, like, really good.
Paul: Have you been looking at it lately?
Rich: Yeah, yeah. It’s really good. And it’s of a type of newsletter where it’s just sort of, hey, I’m gonna take care of sort of covering a lot of stuff for you, and putting it into a conversational tone. The idea of having that is huge, because of all the stuff that’s swirling around.
Casey: Yeah. And teens weren’t finding that anywhere else. Like, are they going to go to cnn.com — and cnn.com has all this clickbait now, because they have to get all this traffic. And so it’s like, where does a teen look to be informed about the Trump campaign, or about Planned Parenthood, or about climate change.
Rich: You’re making a particular assumption about teens.
Casey: That they care.
Liza: That they want to know.
Rich: That they care.
Casey: Yeah, yeah.
Rich: I stop by Disney, what’s the older Disney, there’s like Disney, and then there’s Disney for, like, pre-teens, and the shows on there just make me real sad. I have very little kids, and they’re gonna be old to watch these shows. Have you ever seen these things?
Rich: It’s really terrible, actually. But I guess I shouldn’t be making that assumption, because I’m not 10. But it’s a dumbed-down world —
Casey: Painfully dumbed down.
Rich: In a really dramatic way, right?
Rich: So I guess you guys took a leap, to an extent, right? So this sort of gets into how this all came together.
Paul: How did you guys meet, first of all?
Casey: So we met as interns in 2008.
Paul: Where were you working?
Casey: I was at Teen Vogue.
Liza: And I was at Elle Girl. Which is now defunct, unfortunately.
Casey: Like most teen magazines.
Paul: So wait, how did you meet physically, then?
Casey: So we —
Rich: Across the hall from each other?
Liza: We met through mutual friends in New York.
Liza: And all of us became, sort of, intern friends, and then we had stayed in touch over the years.
Paul: And so you’re both working at, actually, giant media companies that are physically fairly close to each other, like less than a mile away.
Paul: For listeners, Elle would be inside of Hearst, and Teen Vogue would be inside of Condé Nast. So these were kind of dream jobby jobs, right?
Paul: How were those? When did you leave, like, that world.
Casey: So I was an intern at Teen Vogue, went back to college, graduated, came to the city, worked at Teen Vogue, worked at a few other places in the middle, MTV, went back to Teen Vogue most recently, and left in December. And it was really interesting to see a company like Condé Nast try to evolve as the internet was changing. Because in the last six years — I mean, in the last decade, in the last, you know — it’s changed so much.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: And in not necessarily the best way.
Rich: We see, I mean, we see this all the time.
Rich: We exploit that inability to change quickly enough. [laughter]
Paul: Well I mean, it’s hard, I mean, that’s, their money is being made in ways that the internet does not make money. Instagram is an amazing visual explosion of culture all over the place, and Condé has a specific way of making money from images that doesn’t align at all to the Instagram model, and also they don’t control it, right? So these are really tricky problems for giant publishing companies.
Casey: Yeah, and also to see these giant publishing companies, like, try and jump to Facebook. Like, oh my God, we’ve got to figure out Facebook. And then —
Paul: Get on there. Was that your job, as like, the millennials in the office.
Casey: When I was an intern at Teen Vogue, it was my job to update the Myspace page.
Paul: Oh wow.
Liza: Which really goes back.
Casey: Yeah. But you could see how these publishing companies were jumping on whatever came up, so the Facebooks, the Instagrams, the Snapchats, most recently. Twitter. And just —
Paul: So would, like, an older person run through the hall and be like, “Hey! Get in here. I need to talk to you.” Everyone’s nodding, this is amazing.
Casey: Uh huh.
Paul: So that really happens.
Casey. Yeah. Yeah.
Paul: Wow. So they’d sit down, they’d be like, “OK, kid. Listen. Myspace is big now. We need stuff there.”
Paul: Wow. OK, it was that bad.
Casey: Yes. Yeah.
Rich: OK, so you’re there, and you’re exposed to their agenda and what they think should be put forward to teens and whatnot. Keep going.
Liza: So I was freelancing, and my most recent job was at Hearst helping them launch Sweet, which is their Snapchat Discover channel.
Liza: So that was a totally different scenario than Casey, because I was trying to launch this new media platform for, like, and older company.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Liza: So we basically were just at a bar one night in Brooklyn, discussing our days at work, and basically sort of talking about the state of the internet and how there’s got to be a better way to get this information to teens that is so clearly lacking.
Casey: Because we were hitting them over the head with, you know, these celebrities like Kylie Jenner, and I feel like we always reference Kylie Jenner, it’s sort of unfair to Kylie, but…
Liza: No offense, Kylie.
Casey: But, but —
Paul: I don’t think she’s listening. [laughter]
Rich: She’s not tuned in.
Casey: She has other things to do.
Rich: We’ve been trying, but fairly certain.
Casey: Maybe the next show. But just hitting these teen girls over the head with this very specific kind of content, and kind of force-feeding it, and these meaningful stories that we grew up reading in the millions of teen magazines that used to be on newsstands, that we could keep those issues and kind of refer back to them, they weren’t anywhere.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: They had just kind of disappeared from the internet. Teen People, in 2000, they were reporting on the election, and politics, and real issues.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: And it’s just nowhere now.
Paul: So you had this very clear sense, as teenagers yourselves, you had learned about the larger world from the magazines that you were reading.
Rich: It’s interesting to hear that Teen People even did that. I would not have guessed that they even did that. I’ve never opened a Teen People, but I had assumed it would just be gossip and boy bands.
Paul: It was always in there.
Rich: I didn’t, see, I wouldn’t have even guessed, but that’s interesting to know, because then you see how it’s devolved to today.
Casey: Totally, yeah.
Paul: But isn’t that everything, too?
Paul: I mean all, that whole category went — like everybody talks about the Kardashians as sort of like an evil thing, but — well, not everybody, like most people don’t, most people love them — but like that whole, Kardashians, the whole Kardashian industrial complex strikes me as more symptomatic as where everything has been headed for about 10 or 15 years.
Rich: I think that’s right.
Liza: And it used to be such a special experience, as a girl, going to your mailbox and getting that teen magazine and being like, what’s going to be in this issue? Ripping out the pages — I kept all of mine, basically. Like, old issues of Teen Vogue.
Liza: The girls today don’t really have that experience.
Paul: It felt like adulthood. Like, was that sort of what it was about?
Paul: This is how I”m gonna grow up.
Casey: Yeah, I remember, like, being 13 and convincing my mom to let me buy an issue of Seventeen.
Casey: And you always kind of read up? But I’m from a small town in Missouri, and that’s kind of, it was really my ticket to, like, the outside world, as cheesy as that sounds, because the internet wasn’t the inter — you know, it…
Paul: No, your small town —
Casey: And that’s how I learned everything, was from magazines. I didn’t have a sister.
Paul: You were like, I’m gonna go be an intern at a magazine.
Paul: You did it. You did the thing. Now where did you grow up?
Liza: I’m from Nashville.
Paul: OK, wow.
Liza: And so I mean, there’s a reason why we both ended up in New York doing this magazine thing. It’s because we grew up obsessed. So…
Paul: Oh my goodness.
Paul: So you’re getting this portrait of, like, this very grown-up sophisticated — still like, teenage girl, but sophisticated — world. And you come to the city, you actually get to participate, you meet each other, and then along the way, you decide to do something new together.
Liza: Yes. And we had always had very similar career paths, like I was at Nylon, then MTV, then back to Nylon, then freelance, and Casey — we both spent time at MTV. And so we had sort of gotten to experience these words and see what works, what doesn’t work.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Liza: And we’d always wanted to do something together, and we knew that it wasn’t going to be a website, so.
Paul: Why not a website.
Casey: Traffic. The traffic chase.
Paul: This is good for the audience to hear.
Casey: Yeah. So we, I mean, there’s a direct correlation between the pressure that you get from the top.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: And the quality of the content.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: And also the pace of the content, and just kind of throwing up as much as you possibly can. You know, say that you’re doing 15 stories, and then suddenly you need to do 40 stories a day, and then you have to do 70, just to keep those numbers growing. But inevitably something is gonna fall.
Paul: You know so, in an interesting way is what you’re describing here is the same thing that happened to the whole category of teen magazines over 15 years happens in an accelerated fashion with websites for big magazine brands, where it’s like, we need more velocity to hit our numbers, do more Kardashian, do more whatever is going to get people to click.
Rich: Which results in a dilution of what you’re producing every hour, or every half hour, or whatever it may be.
Paul: Well it’s a brutal cycle, right? It’s why everybody eventually goes, and there’s a reset, and…Josh Topolsky is a friend of ours, and he’s doing a thing called The Outline, that’s supposed to be for, like, essentially a smarter publication online, right?
Paul: And it’s going to obviously have to set smaller audience goals than a national magazine will.
Rich: A big part of the, I was just reading recently, Ev Williams talking about the vision behind Medium, and a big part of the Medium vision was to not measure against really those two metrics, of visits and unique visitors, but actually to measure against impact on the network, which is a very different metric to pull off, and one that actually, a piece can heat up three months later.
Casey: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: Because someone picks it up, or responds to it, or whatever it may be.
Paul: That’s very abstract, though, right, that’s hard for advertisers to understand.
Paul: Like, Hearst and Condé and nobody, nobody can really be like —
Rich: Oh, absolutely.
Paul: Hey guys, network effect is really strong today. You might wanna get in with some good ads.
Rich: Yeah, I mean, the only reason Medium’s able to do it is because they have the resources and the energy to take their time and actually explore this new way of measuring what success is.
Paul: Well you know, the tough part there too is all the media companies actually have that sense, and they try to do these efforts. I’m sure you guys have been around them too, where it’s just like, the big, we’re gonna do it right this time, and then like six months in, they’re like, actually, we have to do it completely wrong.
Casey: Because you have to make money!
Rich: It’s interesting that you made this call right out of the gate. You didn’t even fumble into the web and say, wow, this isn’t working, let’s try something — you just didn’t even give it a — you had already seen the pain.
Liza: We were very much like, we are going to side-step this traffic pressure, and how are we going to do it? We don’t know. And then that’s when we…I mean, we both are fans of TheSkimm and Lenny, Ann Friedman’s newsletter, which is targeted to more of like a slightly older demo?
Casey: And Daily —
Liza: DailyCandy was like the original. And so we sort of looked at each other and were like, why isn’t any of this for teens?
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: And then everyone said, because teens don’t read email.
Casey: And so…
Rich: This was my next question, I have this down right here.
Rich: I have heard, and again, this is through cousins who have friends who are younger, or nephews and nieces, saying, I don’t have an email address.
Casey: Well you have to have an email address in order to have Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter or any of these.
Casey: So we knew that. And also —
Rich: Well let me push back.
Rich: They have that.
Rich: Because they needed to get on Facebook and Snapchat. But they’re not checking their email.
Casey: They are now. [laughter]
Rich: They are — so this is, I wanna be corrected on this.
Rich: Are they using email?
Liza: They are. But they’re using it in way that is different than the way we’re using it. Like, we’re so used to being bombarded with a million emails a day. That’s just how life is. And for these teens, they’re not used to seeing it in that way. They’re not gonna respond to their dad via email, or whoever. But if it’s a brand or if it’s a publication, that’s what they’re gonna respond to.
Liza: that’s what we found with our readers.
Paul: It’s a publishing medium for them.
Liza: Mmmm hmmm. It’s like a content platform, as opposed to purely communication or something.
Rich: And they’re opening it? They’re going in and seeing their daily coupons from something, or tips for something else, that’s what they’re seeing in email?
Casey: Yeah, and we’re also trying to change their behavior, and have them opening it every day at 7 AM, right? Like —
Paul: Yeah, because it is always right there.
Casey: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: It’s good.
Liza: And I mean, they are. It’s an extremely loyal audience right now.
Casey: But we had this idea, and before we quit our jobs to try this idea, we realized that we would have to make sure that they were opening email, and so we direct messaged, DMed, hundreds and hundreds of girls on Instagram. We’ve just found teen girls, sent them direct messages saying, hey we’re these editors, we wanna start this thing, email us if you’re interested, email us if you think this sounds cool. And we had this insane response.
Liza: They didn’t think it was creepy or anything. [laughter] Which is what we were worried about.
Paul: Of course, of course.
Rich: I’m surprised you were allowed to do that.
Casey: DM? I mean, we live and die by Instagram DMs. That’s how we get…
Rich: Maybe we should note this as a marketing tactic for Postlight, by the way. [laughter]
Paul: Listen —
Rich: DMing people and saying to them…
Casey: Check us out!
Paul: I kind of wanna like, I almost want to stop the interview and just go away and think for a minute. [laughter] I learned, like, five new things in the last two seconds.
Rich: Oh, it’s so true.
Paul: OK, so you guys were doing this, you’re getting this good feedback, you’re like, OK, I think we have a business here. What was the threshold where you were both like, we’re gonna quit our jobs?
Casey: There was no threshold.
Liza: It was very shortly after, like, we didn’t even have a conversation about, like, how much money do you have saved up or anything, we were just like, all right, we’re out, like right before Christmas break.
Liza: We were just like, OK, we filed for an LLC before we went out of town.
Casey: Yeah. And then came back after the holidays. But one thing, it’s not as brave as you would think, because we’ve we’ve done freelance in the past. So we knew that we sort of had this thing to fall back on —
Casey: It’s not like we had nothing to lose…
Paul: But you had experience, and connections…
Paul: You’ve both worked at lots of — like, you’re pretty senior at this point.
Casey: Yeah, yeah.
Rich: You could go get work.
Rich: The point was, if this doesn’t pan out…
Rich: We could go get work.
Casey: Well —
Rich: That’s how I rationalized everything.
Rich: We can always go get jobs. [laughter]
Casey: But we believed in it so much, it was like, we have to try this. Like, we believe that teen girls want to know this stuff. We believe that they deserve more. And it’s sort of like, everyone thinks that teen girls just care about Snapchat, or just care about, like, taking selfies of themselves. And we had this theory that that just wasn’t true, and we wanted to prove it.
Liza: And it felt like the right time, like, it’s an election year, big things are happening in the world, people should know about them.
Paul: That’s true, and also, I mean, if this election year in particular, like, young women are, like, their future is kind of on the table, so it’s…if they’re at all aware, they’re gonna want more information.
Rich: OK, so, for those that don’t know what Clover Letter is, we started the show asking that question, and then we sort of went into this world… [laughter] What is it? What is in that newsletter, like, what drives it?
Casey: So each day we pick five news stories.
Casey: And we have an insane feedly that we just kind of go through. We put all the stories we think would impact a teen girl.
Paul: Tell people what feedly is.
Casey: Aw, it’s the, it’s —
Rich: feedly is awesome.
Casey: Yeah, but —
Rich: Let’s plug feedly for moment.
Casey: I still miss Google Reader.
Paul: We all do.
Rich: We all do.
Casey: But feedly is a good alternative. But it’s like, just, the greatest RSS reader out there.
Casey: RSS…is it reader? Or…
Casey: Yeah. But so we, we put all these stories —
Rich: You just warmed — I’m just gonna interrupt you — you just warmed our hearts —
Rich: By saying that’s the best RSS — we thought, wow, that’s the death of the telegraph when Google Reader went away, and no one else would ever be interested in RSS readers, especially under the age of 30. [laughter]
Paul: No, I know.
Rich: You know?
Paul: Let’s get — let’s get Clover defined. Hold on.
Casey: So we… [laughter]
Paul: We’re not allowed to talk —
Paul: RSS —
Rich: Five —
Paul: We’ll talk about that on the next —
Rich: Get a hold of yourself, Paul.
Paul: On the next two-hour segment, we’ll talk about RSS. [laughter]
Rich: We’ll talk about feedly. So you pick five stories that…
Casey: Yes. So it’s gotta be a news story that has some sort of direct impact on a teenage girl. I mean, that could be something as big as ISIS, because a girl needs to be informed about ISIS.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: Girls are joining ISIS in America, like, it’s happening.
Casey: That’s sort of our, like, test, does this affect her, is this something that she needs to be informed about? So we narrow it down to those five stories. So we write about them in less than 100 words.
Liza: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: And it’s just conversational, and we throw in pop culture references, but don’t dumb it down.
Paul: It’s not light.
Paul: I mean, it’s actually, like, it’s, it’s not, like, frolics and silliness.
Paul: It’s written very directly, yeah.
Casey: And we, at one point, we were kind of like, are we going too hard on this news, so we did like a reader survey, and everyone was like, no this is perfect, this is what we need. So we were like, OK, well… But so, it’s, it’s this news, and then we also do a feature each day. It could be anything from, today was an interview with this amazing sports doctor/female NFL coach.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: About the importance of sports, basically, and the impact that it has on your self-confidence and just, you know…but so, it’s something that necessarily wouldn’t be the clickiest on Facebook.
Casey: Or, you know, if it was on Buzzfeed, like, people aren’t gonna be clicking that in droves, but —
Paul: Well, we’re back to the issue of velocity, right, like —
Paul: There’s just so much stuff.
Paul: So this is very much like my daily Clover.
Casey: Yes. And we do poetry, girls submit poetry, they submit essays. It’s really, like, a YM issue from 1990. Like…
Paul: And your sort of above-the-fold art tends to be Instagram shots, right?
Liza: Exactly. Yes. So it’s a mix of social media, hard news, and features. So we incorporate Instagram in our art, every day we feature a girl as like our Daily Clover, and then we tell her that she’s gonna be featured, as her permission, she’ll re-promote us, we’ll tag people at the bottom. So it sort of helped us build, like, this grassroots, organic effort.
Paul: I love it because it’s all kinds of girls, all kinds of bodies. You know, occasionally I’m like, wow, teens are doing goth! That’s crazy, like, I’m always like, whoa! Goth survives. [laughter] And then there’s also a thing I want to ask you guys, which is you have a very strong emoji game in your subjects. Does that, is that, like, strategic?
Casey: It is…?
Paul: So I should clarify for the listener: there is an emoji in, like, every subject line, and it really pops out of the subject listing in the email.
Liza: We think very closely about what emojis to use, actually. [laughter] But when we first realized that MailChimp could do emojis, we were like, OK, this is a game-changer. [laughter] And so we started doing it.
Casey: Yeah, but it’s funny because I have an iPhone and Liza has an Android so we have to make sure the emojis look right on both of our phones.
Paul: Oh wow, OK.
Casey: Yeah. Gotta appeal to both.
Paul: So you guys aren’t perfectly in accord on everything. [laughter] There’s a little…
Liza: Oh no.
Rich: Is it just the two of you, by the way?
Liza: It is.
Rich: You’re not getting any help yet?
Paul: OK, so MailChimp is your core kind of platform, right? So you compile this stuff in, like, a Google doc, or write in MailChimp? What do you do?
Liza: We write the news in a Google doc.
Liza: And then we put it into MailChimp.
Paul: OK, so that’s your collaborative tool. You’re kind of living in Google docs all day while you’re doing it.
Casey: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And this is pretty much what you do all day, right?
Liza: Yes, yes.
Casey: And then we also have an app component now.
Paul: That’s right.
Casey: So a couple weeks ago we launched an app with this company Download.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: It’s very much like Squarespace for apps. We just throw our content in there. We talked to app developers, we talked to you guys…
Paul: Yeah, no, that’s how we met you guys.
Paul: You came in to talk about that.
Casey: And we thought, OK, we can’t put all of this money into this without knowing, you know, what if 200 people download it, and we put $200,000 into this. So Download is like, the price of…
Liza: It’s like $30 a month.
Liza: Maybe less.
Casey: Yeah. And we launched it three we three weeks ago and somehow the app store featured us.
Paul: Aw, that’s great.
Rich: That’s awesome.
Casey: It was like a fairy godmother put it there, and it helped downloads —
Rich: That’s often how people describe the app store. [laughter] The lord above.
Liza: And the app was like, it started out as just an experiment, because, I mean, again, it’s a risky move, when there are so many apps in the app store, but now that we know that people actually are responding to it and sharing it and downloading it, and we have a discussion board on the app that blows up all day.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: This is great.
Paul: That’s the way we all met, is you guys came by to have a conversation about us building something, and we were basically, the way I remember it, you may remember it differently, is were were just like, yeah, we’re gonna be too complicated and too expensive. Like, we just do a different kind of thing. But you guys should just go out and find, like, the cheapest, simplest solution.
Paul: And other people had been coming to you and saying, like, you need, like, machine learning and to do all this crazy stuff, and it just struck me as completely ridiculous. You needed a way to just put your…
Rich: Get out there.
Paul: Newsletter into an app.
Casey: Mmmm hmmm. Exactly.
Paul: So Download was the right tool?
Casey: Yes. Yes.
Paul: OK. And you’d recommend that for people who want to sort of try this kind of thing?
Casey: Yeah, I think it’s good to test it out.
Casey: Yeah. It was a good experiment. It is a good experiment.
Paul: So this is the alpha version of your app, essentially.
Liza: It basically confirmed that we want to perhaps build out a bigger app, especially playing on this whole community aspect of Clover.
Rich: OK, so has the app eclipsed email?
Rich: Wow, and that’s, what, two weeks ago?
Liza: About three weeks.
Rich: Three weeks ago. And you’d been out on as a newsletter for how long?
Casey: Since February, so five, six months.
Rich: Wow. That tells the story, doesn’t it?
Casey: Yeah, and it’s interesting because everyone’s like, the death of apps.
Paul: Well —
Rich: Well the fairy godmother showed up for you guys. [laughter]
Paul: There’s two things that, I mean, what I love here, actually, is that these are all these — every medium that everyone has pointed to and said, that’s over, this is the future.
Rich: Yeah. There’s a lot of dying in our industry, generally.
Rich: Things die, and…resurrect all the time.
Casey: Well, like, podcasts!
Paul: Right. Right.
Rich: Podcasts are supposed to be dead.
Paul: It’s true, they had a 10-year death, and now…now you can’t be without.
Rich: Are you on Android?
Liza: Uh…coming soon.
Rich: OK. Does Download the service have Android support?
Liza: They do, it’s just a bit delayed.
Rich: I see.
Liza: But in terms of — our newsletter is still growing. Our newsletter is still growing, our open rate is still great, and so it just sort of gives another option for people.
Rich: Got it.
Casey: But also we’ve been strictly word-of-mouth for this six months, and now we’re fundraising, so.
Paul: How…how big is this platform? I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about numbers.
Casey: So we have 30,000.
Paul: OK, so 30,000 readers after about six months.
Paul: And then talk a little bit about engagement, like how do people react to the platform, how do the teenage girls get involved.
Casey: So the beauty of email is they hit reply and we get the email directly. It’s founders@cloverletter. So these girls are emailing us every day.
Paul: And they’ll send you like —
Casey: All day.
Paul: They’ll send you poems, and they’ll send you stuff…
Casey: They’ll send us questions, they’ll send us lots of stuff.
Liza: Just random feedback.
Casey: Yeah, they want our advice.
Liza: A lot of feedback.
Casey: Yeah, it’s a real ongoing dialogue.
Rich: Good or bad?
Liza: Good, it’s good.
Casey: But it’s just, it’s almost like a full-time job.
Paul: It’s a lot.
Paul: And teenagers in general are just, like, ready to reach out, like…
Casey: Yeah, but it shapes our content, you know? They’ll ask us a question and we’ll turn it into a piece, or they’ll, you know, submit essays, really smart essays. So it really has shaped our content in a way we didn’t really foresee.
Liza: And no one wants to be more involved than a teen girl.
Paul: Right. Right.
Liza: They just want to be involved in everything, so that’s how we had to start an ambassador program, was that these girls would be like, can I help you with this, can I help you with this, like, let me know what I can do. And we decided to finally formalize it, so now we have about 300 ambassadors who basically are our free mouthpieces. They shape the brand. They shape the content.
Rich: That’s cool.
Paul: Well, and they get a sense of what it’s like to really do this work.
Paul: I remember this with my niece, she was told she wasn’t allowed to start anymore clubs. She was like 17 or 16, and it was like, no more. You have to, like…this is a way to capture that energy and let them be part of something.
Casey: And we also have a private Facebook group for all of these girls that’s sort of like a safe space where they just talk all day, and you know, like, I’m starting school in a couple weeks and I’m really nervous about it, and then these girls will just, like, friend each other and, like, chime in. They’ll also follow each other on Instagram. It’s really turned into a community that we also didn’t foresee happening.
Paul: Do you think they know each other in person, in, like, their high schools, or are they…
Casey: They’re all over America and the world, really.
Liza: We have readers in South Korea, we have readers in, like, Scotland. Everywhere. Some girl has been living on a boat with her family for the last five years, and she found out about Clover.
Rich: That’s really cool.
Liza: We were like, how did that happen via Instagram?
Liza: So it’s crazy.
Rich: Do you push the stories out onto Facebook as discreet units?
Paul: Just the newsletter.
Rich: Interesting. Do you put anything anywhere else? Twitter — do you tweet clips of the story?
Casey: We do, we lightly tweet, but we’ve found that Twitter mostly is important for media or, like, our friends, and less so for teens. Teens aren’t super active on Twitter anymore. It’s mostly Instagram.
Rich: So why not — again, don’t, I’m not framing this as a, as a ‘why don’t you do this go do this?’ — but one of your five stories a day goes out on Facebook as a way to sort of, like, promote the platform.
Casey: Do you mean like as a Facebook Instant Article, or just…a link?
Rich: Just a post.
Casey: Yeah. So we…
Paul: Because there’s no real website for Clover content, right?
Liza: It’s just the app and the newsletter. I mean, our thinking was mostly that we want these articles to just be a resource and make them super searchable and we have this private Facebook group, but we tested out a couple of different platforms. We’ve posted them on Instagram, on Tumblr, on Medium, and we decided, we did a poll with all of our readers, and they wanted an app, so…
Rich: They wanted an app.
Paul: It’s interesting how often direct feedback comes into your strategy. That seems to just be the baseline for you to make decisions, is you go and you get data.
Casey: Yeah, and that’s one of the things is like, when we worked at these big publishing houses, you didn’t have that direct dialogue. Teens didn’t feel comfortable just like, emailng me whne I was an editor at Teen Vogue and saying, can I write about this thing? You know?
Paul: Yeah. No, it totally…
Rich: What is that even…
Rich: It’s the ether, right?
Paul: People in big media orgs are very territorial about data, right, and direct access, and want to, like, spread it around. So how has your understanding of the global young woman teenager changed since you started this?
Casey: Oh my God.
Liza: Well it’s basically reaffirmed everything that we had hoped.
Liza: Which is that, I mean, teen girls are passionate, they want to be informed, they’re smart, and they care about stuff other than the clickbait that they see on Facebook all day. And they’re also very supportive of each other. So as opposed to, like, we promote a girl, and we try to empower her by putting her on Clover, and then people are like, this is amazing, she’s so cool, I wanna follower her, as opposed to being like, oh, that dress is from last year, or whatever.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Liza: And so I think it’s just been entirely faith-restoring for us.
Paul: How do you deal with the emotional stress of 30,000 teenagers looking to you for —
Rich: The barrage.
Paul: For leadership.
Casey: Well when you put it like that… [laughter]
Paul: I know!
Casey: I don’t think we have time — we haven’t had time to, like, sit back and reflect on that.
Paul: Just keep making the newsletter.
Casey: Yeah. Yeah.
Rich: Is it seven days a week?
Casey: It’s five.
Liza: Five days a week.
Paul: Give them a break! My God. [laughter]
Liza: And I mean, because there are two of us, we say all the time, we could not have done this alone, because the emotional, just, stress of it all…your highest days are so high and your lowest days are very low, because you’re so tied up in what you’re doing.
Casey: And also when you’re covering things like Trump and Planned Parenthood and some of these touchier issues, you get some emails that are just really terrible feedback, from people who love Trump, you know?
Paul: Right, right.
Casey: And it’s really hard for us to, like, kind of take those emails to heart without really letting them, you know, bring us down, or like —
Paul: No, it’s —
Casey: Change our views.
Paul: It’s tough. It’s very tough.
Casey: So it’s good that we have each other for that. Because we’re not thick-skinned yet.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm. So this is a business.
Paul: How does money come into all of this?
Liza: So we, we wanted to focus on building our brand first, before we even talked about advertising or anything like that, monetizing it. But our first month, we did team up with a brand, Dove. They approached us and they were our first advertiser, and we basically wanted to do it because we agreed with their message.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Liza: And it was about body confidence tied to spring break, and that was something that we had already planned on doing, so…we’re trying to incorporate branded editorial content in smart ways that is not obvious…I don’t know. We both have worked at bad places that do it in not the best way…
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Liza: And I think that there’s a way to do it that’s smart and creative.
Paul: So what did Dove give you? Not in terms of money, first, but in terms of, like, they sent you a banner, or they sent you some copy, or what did they send you?
Casey: So they did, like, a study tied to body confidence tied to this campaign. We talked to one of their experts for a story about self-esteem. It was a week-long series. We did, like, an essay from a plus-sized model. We did something about…
Liza: A history of a bikini, how it’s for everyone.
Casey: Yeah. Yeah. But so, just at the very bottom, it said, this was brought to you by our pals at Dove. No…
Paul: OK, so deep — but very relevant…
Paul: And very relevant to your audience and your goals.
Casey: Yes. They did not write it, they didn’t have any say.
Paul: Oh, OK.
Paul: OK, so they just gave you, like, here’s some stuff…
Casey: Yeah. Because these brands really want to talk to teens, and teens have adblockers. They’re blind to those ads.
Paul: Teens don’t care about brands.
Paul: Interesting. What brands do they care about?
Casey: Well they don’t care about advertisement.
Casey: I think they do deeply care about brands that have good messages.
Rich: It’s just how the brand insinuates itself to what can appear to be the more authentic conversation, right?
Rich: Whether it be a celebrity wearing a particular shoe, or a story…
Casey: A story, yeah.
Rich: I saw recently a 20-minute VICE piece and it was about a rock climber, and very subtly, I found out, like, 18 minutes in, that North Face was involved.
Casey: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: And there was no ad, like, he wore the jacket, but that was about it. You couldn’t really tell that North Face was really behind it. But it’s quite subtle, but meaningful. The association is very powerful, coming out of it, so…
Casey: Yeah, and it’s almost like brands are realizing that they can do these more elevated approaches to…
Rich: Yeah, yeah.
Casey: And I think the Buzzfeeds of the world kind of helped in some ways.
Rich: Innovate on…
Paul: Well and they set up the idea that there could be a partnership that was meaningful but that you’d trust the content provider. They’d clearly flag it as branded editorial.
Paul: At the same time that they’d might have a better sense of the audience than you would just putting a banner ad on the page, as a brand, as a big ad agency or media buyer.
Liza: And it’s less about the particular product and more about the messaging that they want to get across.
Paul: OK, but that’s currently the business model for Clover, is that…
Casey: But then there’s a lot of different avenues that we are thinking about. So we had that deal with Dove, and then we did another one with Penguin Books. They are sponsoring this monthly book club that we’re doing, which is actually really great, and…
Paul: You’d be interested in that anyway.
Casey: Yeah. I mean, YA is so huge —
Liza: We were planning it.
Casey: Yeah. But so we sort of backed off of talking to brands, both because we haven’t had time with doing fundraising on top of that, because that’s almost like a full-time job. It’s really hard to go to investor meeting for half the day and then be like, oh, we actually have to write this entire newsletter.
Casey: So we, yeah, we kind of scaled back a bit.
Paul: So you’re going, you’re planning to grow, I’m assuming, which is why you’re talking to investors.
Liza: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: So we wanna grow before the election.
Casey: Yeah. So that’s why we’re do — I mean, we could do this slow and steady, organic word-of-mouth for years.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Casey: But with the election it’s kind of…
Rich: So if you don’t mind us asking, how is the fundraising going? And talk about the experience a little bit.
Casey: So it’s been…
Liza: It’s been a learning experience. [laughter] This is our first company, of course, and we tried to be as informed as we possibly can. We ask everyone’s advice, almost to a fault, I would say, just because we take it such to heart, and it got to the point where it almost felt like we had whiplash, because one person would be like, go to VCs, get all the money you can, and then someone else would be like, whatever you do, don’t go to VCs. [laughter] And we read everything and we listened to everything and we finally tried going the VC route and decided quickly that wasn’t for us right now. We haven’t spent any money really, at this point, so it seems a bit —
Liza: Too early, yeah. We’re just going with a couple of strategic angels.
Rich: Got it.
Casey: And we’re going to close probably by the end of the month. So…
Paul: That’s great.
Rich: So simpler, more straightforward early investment.
Liza: To see what we can do with it.
Rich: Got it.
Casey: But, I mean, so meeting with some of these VCs and going to these meetings with these finance guys who don’t know media or the teen audience at all was not great.
Casey: And like, us walking into some of these meetings, you know, we’re, like, bubbly media girls who like…
Rich: And then the finance guys or whatever. [laughter]
Casey: Yeah, yeah. But they’re, like, teens don’t care about anything.
Paul: Oh God.
Rich: They had their —
Casey: We had some people —
Paul: Well plus you don’t have 10 million readers, you have 30,000.
Casey: Yes, yeah, yeah. And we had some people, like, tell us straight-up that they don’t like investing in female-founded companies.
Rich: Just outright?
Paul: We had a guest, Julia Pimsleur, who is, she wrote a book about that. She tried to do, what was her, her number was like 4% of VC-funded companies are run by women.
Rich: Run by women.
Paul: It’s just a very…
Paul: Sexist, screwed up space.
Rich: It’s called the Million Dollar Women. What she focuses on wasn’t really just the funding, it was to even raise that much, like, people were giving out seed rounds of a couple hundred grand, but then it was the next leap.
Paul: To get to the million, to scale out.
Rich: Yeah. Which was just this steep, steep hill.
Paul: And the irony here is that you guys have an incredibly data-driven, focused approach that’s quite disciplined and you have a very strategic way of engaging with brands and thinking through all that, so in terms of your average media pitch, you’re quite further along than most people I talk to. But I guess, so that, that didn’t work.
Rich: Have you thought about going back to the big media companies for funding?
Casey and Liza: [dramatic pause]
Liza: Not right now.
Casey: Yes. [laughter]
Rich: Whoa. That was a heavy pause.
Paul: Yeah, that was like a whole indie film, just played out in their eye contact. [laughter] This are, I mean, this is worth discussing, right, like, we’re putting you on the spot. These are very complex relationships that you have over the course of your career, and like, you get, you get an internalized version of the media industry, and you kind of sit there and you’re like, they’re gonna be angry if I do that, they’re gonna, like…
Casey: Yeah, and you also see some of these companies…I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but you see companies like HelloGiggles, who TIME Inc. buys, and then they change it completely, and it’s sort of, like, I don’t know, it’s like, depending on the moves you make, we would have to succumb to the clickbait, right? Like…
Paul: So you have something that you feel is, like, successful on its own terms right now, and you want to grow it on those terms?
Liza: Exactly. And we, I mean, we’re only two people, so we’re super nimble. If we want to change something, we’re like, all right, let’s change it, let’s try it, and if we go to a big media company, we know that the first thing they’re gonna do is give us a website.
Rich: Yeah. Inject their own vision of…
Casey: And not —
Rich: What you should be.
Paul: And you’re gonna have a series of lengthy sales meetings about the strategies for the next 18 months.
Liza: And websites aren’t the worst, but it’s just not what we wanna focus on.
Paul: No, fair.
Casey: No, and also there’s no direct traffic to teen websites anymore. No direct traffic. It’s just Facebook.
Paul: This makes, I mean, this is like the old story about the Buzzfeed homepage —
Paul: Which is nobody’s seen it.
Paul: Right, like it’s just, they publish to the web so that it can flow through social.
Liza: Exactly. And it dilutes brand loyalty, to a degree that, I mean, you don’t even know what site you’re reading now.
Paul: So you have a good open rate. Young women open this thing up every morning. Do they read it in the morning, when it comes.
Casey: They do, and we were actually really nervous in May, like, thinking about school ending, summer, summer camp, what’s gonna happen, but we didn’t see any really impact.
Casey: But we’re hoping for a push back to school time.
Paul: The September boost?
Liza: Yeah. It was very reassuring to know that not only do teens read email, they read it every day, which has been hugely helpful.
Paul: And what are you going — when you, you’re getting some money in the door, and you have some planned, like, what’s gonna grow.
Casey: So one of our big things that we want to do is events. Because these girls have really formed a community, and we want to be on the ground with them. And no one is doing events for teens in a cool way. You could do, like, a lame school event, but you know, it’s clubs, or you know, extracurriculars. So we want to do that.
Liza: We want to maybe expand into video in the future. We’re sort of thinking lightly now, but you don’t even have to spend tons of money, but these girls have such cool stories and they’re from all over the world, and we wanna put a camera in front of some of their faces and see what happens.
Casey: They’re real girls, and it’s good for other girls to see these real girls who are not on a reality show or who aren’t Instagram celebrities, you know?
Liza: Like filtering a billion times or something.
Paul: So let me ask you the hardest question possible, which is that, how will that scale? This community seems like it can…everyone can talk to each other. How will you scale that out?
Casey: So there’s 34,000,000 Gen Z girls.
Casey: And we feel like we’re sort of the every girl. So we just want to get in front of all of them, and go from, you know, email newsletter, app, we want to be everywhere they are. They’re not on websites.
Liza: Which is on their phone, basically.
Paul: So you’re building a platform for them, you just want to say hi, basically, and it sounds like you’ve almost let them find each other.
Paul: You’re gonna trust them.
Casey: We’re giving them a platform, yeah.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm. So you build something, trust them to take it from there.
Liza: They write for us, they give us feedback, and just having a say, I think that is so special for them.
Liza: To be like, oh I can actually do what I want on this cool thing.
Paul: So if people want to get in touch with you, what should they do?
Casey: They should email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul: They’ll get you both… [laughter] And are you looking for people to help you, to hire, or are you looking for…
Casey: So right now in terms of funding, we’re aware of what we need. So we need…we’re looking for strategic investors because we are not tech people, and we aren’t business people. So we’re wanting to make sure that we can bring on people…we’re not just looking for any money, we want money that…you know, we want expertise behind it. And then beyond that, we will need tech help, likely, in the form of an app, and you know, if we do these videos, and if we do different things like that.
Paul: Because you want to build out this platform as, like, a single experience.
Casey: Exactly. And currently our moms still copyedit every day. [laughter]
Liza: It would be nice to have…
Liza: Another one.
Casey: It would be nice for them as well.
Paul: That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.
Rich: It’s the single best excuse to raise money.
Casey: Yeah. Exactly.
Paul: Yeah, that actually is.
Casey: Yeah. Our poor moms.
Liza: I know. They say they like it, but…
Rich: That’s funny.
Casey: But we don’t need to hire, you know, another writer. We don’t need to hire many people. We just need, like, another person on deck.
Paul: Well, to build the business.
Casey: To help us, yes.
Paul: You need to build the business. OK.
Paul: Well I have to go away and think all of this through, Rich.
Rich: You need time. You need a lot of time.
Paul: This is a great framing. Here are the things that I’m taking away from this: first of all, Clover is great. It’s really fun and it’s really lively. The fact that it’s driven by data and audience feedback should, like, give everyone in publishing a pause, because that’s the great fear of every journalist and editor, that data and audience feedback will ruin your product.
Rich: Yeah —
Paul: This is — this is a materially better product than, like, any young woman’s publication out there right now.
Rich: Yeah, I mean what’s impressive here is that there was a basic premise that you guys believed in, and you come from more or less the content side of things, but you’ve become product people. And you’re building product.
Paul: And platform people.
Rich: And platform people. And the fact that there isn’t sort of this wall between the content side and the product side is what I think, that’s sort of the secret sauce, for this and any other effort, where a lot of times you have to walk over to the product guy with the clipboard who’s gonna take some notes about what you think should happen, and then they’re gonna tell you what they can’t do, because of limitations and whatnot, and you guys, it’s pretty organic, the way it’s come together, and it’s impressive. So it’s really cool.
Paul: Well it’s also, the example I see here is like, you came to us, you were like, hey we need to build an app. We were like, we’re gonna be expensive. Those other people seem to be kind of giving you a lot of stuff that you don’t need. And you were like, all right, we’re gonna spend $30 a month. [laughter] We’re gonna get this done. So people should subscribe to the Clover Letter.
Paul: I feel that that’s a baseline. And we really appreciate you coming in and talking to us. This was great.
Rich: Let’s end it with a yes/no question: do teenage boys need this?
Rich: Whoa. There you go.
Paul: You’re nodding. You’re nodding.
Liza: We have, yes. We have been asked that question a lot, and people have asked us if we will make one. But not right now.
Rich: OK, cool. Well thank you, guys. This was great.
Liza: Thank you.
Casey: Thank you guys so much.
Paul: We appreciate it. Well Rich, I like seeing people who have a plan.
Rich: Not only do they have a plan, they have instinct.
Rich: That’s the difference. In my head, I would’ve, like, filed away 12 bullets of, like, wow, that was wrong.
Paul: Oh, I know.
Rich: And this was wrong, and that was wrong, but they’re doing it right, and they’re asking a lot of questions…
Paul: Well if you’d come to me and said, I’m gonna build my platform on top of an email newsletter, I would’ve been like, hmmmm.
Rich: No, I mean, they learned a lot, and they took what they learned, and they’re product people. that’s hte impressive part of it.
Paul: Yeah, they’re editors who —
Rich: They came out of it as product people.
Paul: They’re editors who are considering an overall platform, and the products that they’re going to ship on top of it.
Paul: So, Casey Lewis and Liza Darwin from Clover, we’re very grateful you came in, thank you. And we are, I’m Paul Ford.
Rich: Rich Ziade.
Paul: And we’re the co-founders of Postlight,which is a product studio in New York City. We build your apps and your websites and your platforms and all that stuff. Before we leave, if you want to give us a good rating on iTunes, that’s good. If you wanna sent us an email, email@example.com. And really anything you need, just let us know.
Rich: Thanks, guys!
Paul: Bye, everybody!