Publishing is not the easiest industry to succeed nowadays, but Greg Mason, CEO of Purch, an New York City-based company that publishes technology and science-related titles, may just have the magic touch.
Since Mason took over Purch in 2012, the company’s revenue has quadrupled, going from $25 million when he joined to about $130 million this year. The company has done this while maintaining profitability, becoming one of the top companies in the tech vertical over that period of time, and seeing the number of unique visitors to their sites skyrocket.
Mason spoke with Chief Executive about this growth and his strategies behind it, succeeding in the publishing industry, and how the company has maintained its culture as its grown. Below are excerpts from that interview.
Talk to me about your role as a growth CEO. What in particular have been some of your initiatives to really spur this growth?
Well, I think it starts with a method to the madness from an operating plan perspective. What’s your structure to sort of manage growth and be thoughtful about thinking about the long-term opportunities that you have in light of what’s happening in the broader marketplace? And so we have a relatively formatted approach that we go through on an annualized basis…we do long-range strategic planning and that long-range strategic planning leads into a budgeting and an operating plan cycle. We do very regular check-ins to assure that we’re sort of making progress against the goals that we set out to achieve, making progress against key initiatives, monitoring key KPIs in the business. So, it’s a little bit of what’s the method to the madness with respect to how you manage the development of the business and what’s the sort of cycle you develop that everyone gets accustomed to operating within.
So, that’s one facet of things. Also be very open minded with respect to the classic SWOT analysis of a business and regularly checking in on that and not taking anything for granted with respect to your current strengths, whatever they might be, your current weaknesses, those opportunities that you see in the marketplace and also being very much eyes wide open when it comes to fundamental threats that you might be facing in the market. And so we put a really big effort into the annual strategic planning process to help guide our planning…we’re less prone to what I think a lot of businesses are prone to, which is kind of blowing with the wind of strategy based on very recent events.
In our case, we pick a couple of big themes and we really try to make sure that the business is aligned around the development of itself around those themes. I can provide examples of that if you’d like. And then finally, I would say, and this can sound very much like a cliché, but having a rigorous approach to your customer value proposition I think is hugely important, right? So, recognizing the fact that whatever value you offer today to customers, chances are there’s someone that’s nipping at your heels or maybe even offering a value proposition that is superior to what you’re offering.
Any business needs to be really disciplined about that approach of monitoring value. What is the fundamental value proposition? Why do you have customers? How’s the market changing in such a way that you’re evolving your value proposition? How are you constantly thinking about expanding your value proposition and improving upon that value proposition? That’s one thing in all my experience of, whether it’s in big companies running divisions or running companies within companies or now running Purch. I’ve seen time and time again that in companies, especially when they get bigger, they have a hard time keeping that focus on that underlying value proposition for customers.
What has been your strategy to find success in publishing in 2018 when it’s not as easy to come by?
Strategically, I think our success…the foundation of our success started with observations we had about where the market was headed. The publishing business is a two-sided model, right? You have users that are readers of your brands or services and then you, of course, have your marketing partners. And I would say that from…we thought a lot about how we thought we could differentiate our editorial product in such a way that we could differentiate ourselves from the whole crowd of publishers that are out there just sort of broadly chasing eyeballs and page views and those kinds of things. And we decided that we were going to really focus in on helping people buy smarter, buy products smarter. And so from that standpoint, we’ve really honed in on what we thought would be necessary within the context of our brands to be that place that consumers could make complicated decisions about products that they wanted to do research on and to do that super easily and with trust.
And so that’s one area that we felt that we could differentiate. And that happened to also bridge to the other side of our model, which was aligned with another trend that we felt was really, really important. And that’s this idea that the ad market is forever changed. And we’re in an environment now where for which marketers, they have to see a definitive return on investment from their spending marketing dollars…They have different metrics now that they’re evaluating the return on investment from those expenditures. And so we have very much leaned into the idea that all marketing is performance marketing. And because our content attracts people with purchasing intent, it creates a nice connection towards the business model side of our model, the marketer side of the model, because we’re able to place our marketing partners’ messaging in environments where they have a much stronger likelihood of seeing a sales outcome of some form.
And so in effect, we’re both addressing what we think are fundamental trends in the marketplace while creating a really nice, tight connection between both sides of our business model. Those things that we do to satisfy users combined with those things that we do to satisfy marketers.
Your company has grown so significantly in your time there. How do you manage that growth from a people perspective?
Greg: The efforts we’ve undergone over the years to establish our culture from sort of just a business perspective, there’s more dimensions to culture development than just our operating approach to the marketplace. I mean, that’s a part of our culture. It helps define our culture, but we also have a whole series of values that we foster and that is a part of everything that we do in a company starting with new employee onboarding. We have obviously a program that we put new employees through, a part of which is designed to help them understand what our values are, how that is an important ingredient to our overall DNA as a company and how we really don’t tolerate any deviation whatsoever from the values that we’ve put in place. And our lead value is growth with integrity and that value is not…and sometimes the first reaction to that value is, “Oh, you mean revenue, growth of integrity?”
It’s actually totally focused on growth of our value proposition for our two customer constituencies and that’s where it all starts. And then we have several other values that complement that.
But we also have some anti-values. So, for example, we have a series of very clear statements that we make that we constantly reinforce. As I said, not only just from the onboarding process, but also through ongoing communication, through our regular town halls, our regular meetings. Those kinds of things. Like, so for example, one of those is we have a no asshole rule, right? And we have fun with it. It’s like we just don’t tolerate assholes.
So, there’s a lot of that sort of cultural fabric that we’ve developed. And you’re always trying to build from that. You’re always trying to both reinforce but also build on your culture. And so we’ve been very thoughtful and we’ve worked hard at that over the last several years.
The other thing though I would say is that the great part of managing growth is that it provides a lot of new opportunities for your existing team. So, I like to say a lot that growth is fuel. And if you’ve ever been in a growth environment and you’ve contrasted it with being in a flat or declining environment, you know what I mean by that term. You simply have a lot more opportunity, regardless of your level in the organization if you’re in a growth environment then if you’re in a flat. And chances are if you’re in a flat environment, it’s probably on the cusp of declining.
I mean, that’s also been my experience, and so you just have fewer opportunities. So, that’s the good part of it. That other side of it though that I think is really interesting, and I really noticed this when we started getting closer to 100 million in revenue, was that I think businesses reach natural talent inflection points where you have to start thinking very differently about the kind of count you need to manage…And so from that point, that’s when you have to be… I think as a CEO, there’s a lot of maturities involved and a lot of honesty with yourself, recognizing that you as a CEO probably need a lot more help running the business and the business itself almost assuredly needs a lot more sort of sophistication in different areas to manage the next level of growth.