Exceptional entrepreneur: Duncan Greive, The Spinoff
The Spinoff is an online media brand that has made waves in recent years with its outspoken voice and a website that sees an average weekly audience of 240,000. It was also a recent winner on the 2018 Fast 50 index, with a 289% growth rate. We spoke to founder and Managing Editor, Duncan Greive, about his brand’s business success and the key to effectively funding journalism in the digital age.
Can you tell us about The Spinoff and what it does?
The Spinoff is an online magazine and a content creation agency, so we work across text, audio and video to make products for both our audience and on behalf of clients. Those can be served up either through our website and our own media brand, or delivered as white-label products for clients to distribute themselves. Over the past year, we've made two television shows, two print magazines, custom podcasts and created a huge amount of text content.
As the founder, why did you start the brand?
I'm a journalist and editor by trade but I've always been interested in business. Working at multiple magazines and as a freelancer, I’d see outlets that were clearly having their budget cut, and it can't help but make you interested in the business side of the media and publishing industry. I spent a lot of time thinking about how it could be funded. To me, there wasn't a lack of demand for it - people still love reading, listening and watching great things - and there wasn't a lack of talent because people are still really good at writing. It was just about finding a new way to fund it.
With The Spinoff, I started it effectively by accident, just talking to a friend who worked on Lightbox about how content could help them. They got excited and before I knew it, I was launching a website and everything snowballed from there.
Starting a successful media company in today’s digital world can be difficult. Were there any specific challenges that you faced?
It's actually very easy to start something - you or I could sit down and own a domain, and have a nice-looking site to publish from in about half an hour. The more challenging thing is making it work financially and that's why, while The Spinoff has won a number of awards over the past few years for its journalism, the thing I'm proudest of is the business success. The Deloitte Private Fast 50 is the single thing that I'd targeted from very early on, as I knew that to rank there as a media company in this era would be a singular achievement. I was thrilled to make it this year.
Getting funding is the hard part. We've been bootstrapped because I didn't think at the start that I could in good conscience ask for outside investment, but I felt that as long as we stayed lean, we’d keep it going. It's in no way been easy, but we've made a profit every year and moved into new premises with a studio, so I think we've done pretty well.
Do you think that your business model of supporting original journalism with branded content creation is a way for media outlets to transition and improve their returns?
It's probably not the whole solution. There are a whole bunch of challenges for journalism right now and we firmly believe that content is key. We have a group of incredible journalists here and the same people who write the content for the site also write content on behalf of brands. None of us are above it - I write some of branded copy and so does our editor, Toby Manhire.
That's the big difference between us and other organisations who do branded content - often they leave the commercial work to their lower tier writers, and the stories aren’t always very good. At The Spinoff, our sponsored content gets shared and read as much as our normal editorial work.
What work produced by the site are you most proud of?
We did a campaign in 2016 called The War for Auckland, when the Auckland Council elections were happening. The elections felt really pivotal and were centred around the passage of a Unitary Plan. We tried to get sponsorship for it and couldn't, so we went to our audience and crowdfunded. We got $25,000 in 24 hours and it was quite overwhelming to witness the trust that they had in us. I think we repaid that – we did an extraordinary amount of work, putting out beautiful data visualisations, a podcast series, interviews with critical people, and candidate endorsements. A lot of people discovered Spinoff during that period because none of the big media organisations really covered the race with the same fervour.
I’m also proud of the investigative reporting we've done, which at times covers topics that the mainstream media doesn't necessarily value as much. For example, we reported on sexual abuse within the music community and in the media industry. We've looked hard at the influencer movement and the flawed perception that happens there.
To broadly frame it, New Zealand's economy and society has evolved incredibly rapidly in the internet age, and a lot of media institutions haven't evolved to meet that challenge. A real signature of The Spinoff is trying to grapple with reality as we find it, not as it used to be.
Jen Scouler works in the Deloitte clients & marketing team across digital content and social media. She also works closely with Deloitte Private.