First Round Review is a pioneer in VC publishing.
Launched in 2013, the publication from VC firm First Round bills itself the HBR for Startups, and aims to connect its community of founders, execs and entrepreneurs with a plethora of service-oriented articles that feature advice, how-tos and best practices. It dips into its vast network to interview founders, and publishes expertise gleaned from its own staff – particularly from its experience helping companies grow.
We spoke with First Round Review’s editor, Jessi Craige Shikman, about how she structures a lean team, how it consistently generates high-quality content ideas, and how it tries to set its content apart from the competition.
Who is First Round Review’s target audience? How did you figure out who it was?
When First Round Review was launched there was this insight that a lot of content in the venture capital space was partner-driven, meaning the investors themselves were writing it. And they were maybe sharing a little bit more about sort of their thesis on where the market was going, or specific industries and verticals. There was less founder-driven content at the time, meaning interviewing founders and operators and sharing the company-building advice they would need to build better companies. The key insight was: Who does our target audience want to go have a coffee chat with? And can we go interview those people and scale those coffee chats?
So our audience, we think about them in three buckets. The first are the founders that one might invest in. And they want advice on a huge range of topics from hiring their first marketer to what they should do about performance management to should they raise another round. The second bucket are operators. The folks who are working in startups. They could be an early marketer at a company or an early engineer, and they’re looking for advice on how to progress their career. Maybe they’re looking for more specific advice on performance marketing, as opposed to just marketing in general. And then the third bucket is newer, and one that we’ve kind of been focusing on more in recent years, and that’s aspiring founders. There is kind of a gap we’ve seen in that there’s not a lot of advice on how to start a company.
How are you structured in order to create a consistent stream of content?
It’s pretty lean. For pretty much the entire time, it’s been two people. So the structure has always been an editor and a writer. And so that’s still what we’re at. We are going to be hiring two more people now, to expand. We try to publish only one story a week, and we also have a podcast, In Depth, which comes out once a week. So we do one Review story, one podcast episode a week. Our archive is like 500-plus articles now at this point, and so there’s just a lot of content we’ve produced.
Where do you get your story ideas?
We start with a person who we know and think is really interesting and would have great advice to share. And then we do a brainstorm call with them to kind of figure out what from their career would be most interesting to our audience. What they’ve done that’s maybe unconventional or unexpected? We send them interview questions in advance, and then we do an hour-long conversation, where we record it, and we use the transcript of that to write the piece.
In a way you’re taking the thoughts out of people’s heads and adding narrative to it?
Exactly. It’s sort of like ghostwriting, for these individuals, like they have a lot of sort of unstructured advice and thoughts in their head, but they just they’re so busy, they don’t have time to kind of do a lot of writing. We probably have like 20-30 stories in various stages of that going at once. We also came up with a different format where we have one topic and we interview a bunch of people on it and we call those compilations. So: What’s your favorite interview question? What’s your piece of advice for managing up? We also do accept pitches, or if we see someone on Twitter posting something interesting, we’ll DM them and ask them to talk.
What makes it a “Review” piece?
Our guiding light is we want a piece to be really actionable, we want it to be a kind of piece where you’re jotting down notes or adding it to a bookmark tag, because you want to come back to it later. That’s our test. Another is if it’s something new and fresh. And another is if the person we’re speaking to is an authority in this area.
How does the editorial product connect to the firm’s goals?
It is a little bit different than something like a SaaS startup with a product and a funnel they’re trying to move you through. At our firm, at least, we’re really focused on just helping the companies that we invest in tackle all of their firsts. So making their first hires, building their first product, getting their first customers, you know, raising their first few rounds of fundraising. We see content as a resource for our founders. It’s a brand awareness play, obviously, but the more people know about First Round and have positive associations of us as a helpful firm with great content.
What metrics do you track closely?
We have a good sense of how pieces perform in terms of weekly traffic because we are a long running publication. We also look at time on page because we do longer-form content. We also have a lot of organic traffic, and you know, have built up some keywords over the years. And so looking at organic traffic. Then there’s more qualitative things like social sharing, so we do a lot of social monitoring, to just kind of see how people are sharing and interacting with our content. We also do microsurveys, each embedded in our newsletter, so we get a score on each one. We look at open rates closely, but those become less important the bigger we get.
What’s the one thing more brand publishers need to be cognizant of?
There’s so many people doing content, there’s so many brands and companies getting into it, but often, they all kind of sound the same, you know, they’re all using the same sort of jargon or the same sort of format, or they’re talking about the same kind of topics. Often being an outsider and not being a tech content marketer can really be an asset, because you’re not, thinking with that jargon, corporate speak. Ultimately, people want to be spoken to as humans. And that might not necessarily relate to your product directly, or your service directly. Often it means not talking about yourself and talking about other people or interviewing other people. And that can feel weird, or counterproductive. But I think you build credibility that way. And also, it’s not a marketing campaign. So it’s not something where in the first three months, you’re gonna see killer results. You have to keep going. You have to be really consistent.