Izzie Lerer isn’t sure how she came up with the name for her startup.
It’s something her brother, parents, and cousins all take credit for. The one thing she knows is she bought the domain name, thedodo.com, while sitting at the dinner table surrounded by all of them.
Now, a giant 3-foot-tall stone bird stands guard in the office of her 30-person startup. It was a gift from her father Ken, meant to both taunt and congratulate Lerer for launching her first business venture.
Lerer, 30, launched The Dodo in January 2014. The media startup, which writes about animals and animal rights issues, now has 15 million monthly unique visitors and nearly 100 million monthly video views across social platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
The Dodo doesn’t generate much revenue, but its strong early readership helped Lerer raise an $US11.5 million Series B round of financing at a post-money valuation tbetween $US40 and 50 million. Discovery is the lead investor with participation from Softbank, SBNY, Berggruen Holdings, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Greycroft Partners and NBA commissioner David Stern. Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington joined The Dodo as one of its advisors.
“I’ve been a supporter since Day 1 — long before Day 1, actually,” Arianna Huffington told Business Insider in an email. “Izzie’s vision was nothing short of wanting to change the world in the way animals are treated. I was betting on her, and believed she would become an important voice in this country on this issue. That bet has certainly paid off.”
Here’s how Lerer did it.
From a PhD to startup founder
In 2015, Lerer received her PhD in Philosophy from Columbia, with a focus on human/animal relationships and animal ethics. But long before she did her dissertation, she realised she didn’t want to become a professor.
“I wanted to do something connected to my research but that also had real world impact,” Lerer says.
Her family knows a thing or two about building media companies. Izzie’s brother, Ben, is the co-founder of Thrillist, a website, e-commerce shop, and newsletter dedicated to guys and their interests. He recently sold a minority stake to Axel Springer (the parent company of Business Insider) for $US54 million. Her father Ken co-founded The Huffington Post, which was acquired by AOL for $US315 million. He is also the chairman of Buzzfeed and a board member of Business Insider.
Izzie wasn’t always set on being an entrepreneur, but she felt a media company dedicated to her love of animals could both be entertaining and educational.
“I thought, ‘What if we bridge the gap between advocacy and entertainment and create a brand where we’re able to tell these kinds of stories in a way with positive messaging?'” she says.
Animal content, Lerer noticed, also happened to be inherently viral. Sites like LolCats, Buzzfeed, Barkpost, and Little Things all generated tens of millions of monthly pageviews by posting photos of cute animals online and watching them spread across Facebook and Pinterest.
In January 2014, Lerer launched her site. She hired an executive to help oversee the project while she completed her PhD, but he didn’t pan out. The next few months were spent tinkering with content and its distribution.
In May 2014, The Dodo got its first big validation moment.
The 103-year-old orca who drew 7 million readers
A few websites had written about an unusually old orca spotted off the coast of California. The orca was 103 years old — significantly older than most orcas held in captivity. According to The Dodo, Sea World orcas live only four and a half years on average.
Lerer’s team saw an opportunity to take a viral animal story and educate readers about a broader issue. The Dodo published an article titled, “Recently Spotted 103-Year-Old Is Bad News For Sea World.” A few influencers shared the article on Twitter and their Facebook feeds. Soon, The Dodo’s site exploded with readers. The article ended up reaching 7 million people.
“I almost retired,” Lerer jokes of that moment.
Another pivotal moment for the company came in January 2015, when The Dodo hired its first video producer. Joanna Zelman, TheDodo’s executive editor, now heads up all of the company’s video efforts and Lerer says the department has been “transformative.”
Video has become a major focus for publishers and social platforms over the last ten months. That’s because advertisers are now shifting their budgets away from TV (where they have traditionally spent the most money) and into digital with pre- and post-roll placements. Advertisers pay higher CPMs (cost per thousand views) for video placements online than for banner ads. So theoretically, digital platforms and publishers can make much more money running ads on videos than on articles.
Since the beginning of this year, The Dodo’s video views have grown from 0 to 98 million per month. Lerer says the average Dodo video now generates 4 million views and 25,000 Facebook shares. The videos are primarily being watched on Facebook where The Dodo has 1.3 million fans, then on YouTube.
No revenue but lots of distribution
In early 2015, Lerer also noticed that readers were consuming most of The Dodo’s content on other websites. She made a decision to shift her company’s focus away TheDodo.com and optimise content so it could live natively on Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
When The Dodo launched, it had a classic newsroom structure led by traditionally-trained editors and journalists. But over the past year, social has started to rule the newsroom. The Dodo currently has six social media editors and twelve writers. In fact, the leadership of the newsroom is split between one journalist and one social media person.
In terms of traffic and readership, the distributed model is smart — it has helped The Dodo’s video views skyrocket. But from a monetisation standpoint, it’s something The Dodo and many other digital publishers will need to figure out.
Some social platforms offer publishers a revenue split for content viewed on their websites. But often, the revenue share isn’t meaningful and traditionally, publishers have sold their own ads and kept 100% of the revenue.
Someday, The Dodo will have to learn how to pay its own bills. For now, thanks to the $US11.5 million investment, Lerer’s team can continue to focus on building distribution.
“As far as I see it, there are really three reasons we have been able to grow quickly: Timing, our social-first, distributed content model, and our team,” Lerer says.
“We couldn’t have started this company ten years ago and been successful. And if we started it five years from now, I think we would be too late. We’re seizing a moment where animal content is ruling the internet, and the animal welfare movement is gaining a great deal of momentum.”