In April 2014, Evan Beard and Kendall Dabaghi launched a website, A Plus, in Ashton Kutcher’s living room. They worked from the actor’s Los Angeles pad for the next six months tirelessly, building a media site they hoped could become the next BuzzFeed.
Beard and Dabaghi moved to New York City and now their site has has 50 million monthly readers. It just raised a $US3.5 million convertible note at a $US30 million valuation, sources with knowledge of the deal tell Business Insider.
The founders confirmed the fundraise to Business Insider but declined to comment on the valuation. Investors include Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, A-list celebrities (who sources says are getting offered a lower valuation of ~ $US20 million), SV Angel, Axelspringer*, Gary Vaynerchuck, Venture 51, Richard Chen of Ceyuan Ventures, Social Starts, Norwest Venture Partners’ Jared Hyatt, and Babble co-founder Rufus Griscom.
We hear rappers Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne are being asked to invest and that they’re already part of the A Plus network.
A Plus (A riff on Kutcher’s initials A+K) ended the year with $US2 million in revenue, up from $US0 eleven months prior, a source says, adding that the founders hope to eclipse BuzzFeed’s 215 million monthly uniques by May.
Despite its soft launch in April, the site has actually been around for a bit more than a year. According to Business Insider’s Rob Price, who did a deep dive into Kutcher’s viral site, A Plus was originally a product discovery service that launched in 2013 but failed to gain traction. It pivoted to become an editorial shop in early 2014.
Beard met Kutcher when he was the founder of Etacts, a startup that went through Y Combinator’s accelerator program in Silicon Valley and was acquired by Salesforce. Kutcher attended the demo day where Beard presented.
Beard and Dabaghi then co-founded Gridtech, a company that helped analyse large sets of data. Gridtech was acquired by Spirent Communications.
The software engineers teamed up with Kutcher and plotted ways to combine their technical backgrounds with Kutcher’s extensive social reach. The result was A Plus, a viral, socially-concious media company that uses celebrity influencers to boost stories farther across the Internet. Beard is CEO, Dabaghi is president, and Kutcher is chairman of the board.
“We built technology to source content from around the web before it goes viral,” Beard says. “It can predict the performance of different pieces of content and we use it to reach as many people as possible. We combined that with the social reach of Ashton and we were able to reach tens of millions of people in first few months.”
Beard and Dabaghi wouldn’t say exactly how their algorithm works, but it involves crawling lots of sites, such as news publications, YouTube and Tumblr, and determining which new posts are starting to gain traction. They hired a machine learning specialist to help analyse the data.
Links are then kicked to A Plus’ 20-person newsroom, which curates the content and pings relevant celebrity partners to blast the stories to their social media followings. Beard and Dabaghi say celebrities see more engagement in their social streams when they share A Plus’ content. Kutcher, they say, saw his own engagement increase 10X.
The long-term vision is to partner with all sorts of influencers across many verticals, like pro athletes for a sports section.
When asked if the celebrities are paid to partner with A Plus, Beard replied: “There are a lot of reasons they work with us.”
Beard and Dabaghi plan to announce the celebrity partners sometime in the next few weeks.
*Axelspringer is a Business Insider investor