CEO and Cofounder of Morning Brew, Alex Lieberman, opens up about his booming media company. The business provides a daily business email newsletter to nearly 1,000,000 young professionals everyday. Morning Brew is growing by about 40,000 readers per week.
Bobby: Thanks for joining us today Alex. Finally got you on the show. So, who are you and what in the world is the Morning Brew? Why is everyone obsessed with it?
Alex Lieberman: The Morning Brew exists to help our generation to better engage with the business world. Both me and the other founder of Morning Brew were trying to go into finance after college. My senior year, I helped college kids get ready for job interviews because I only had two classes to take the entire year. I didn’t want to lose my mind. I asked every student how he or she would keep up with the business world. All students said they would read part of the Wall Street Journal but they would complain about how long and dry it was. I thought it was crazy that there was no better way for students to read business news.
So I started a little email newsletter called Market Corner. It was crappy, there was no website. It was a PDF attached to an email. I would comb through the top business new sources and include the five top stories with a stock pitch and a quote of the day. It started out being sent to 45 people per day. After that, I started to get emails asking if I could add others to the email list. By the end of my senior year, the entire Michigan business school had signed up for it.
At this point, I took some time to think about taking this little idea to the next level. So, I got Austin Rief onboard as a cofounder. The reason I chose him is because he was one of the early readers of the Market Corner and he would send feedback everyday about the newsletter. He knew it was helpful to me to provide feedback. So we started the actual Morning Brew March 2015. It is a daily email newsletter that gives you all your business news quickly.
Bobby: Awesome. So why email? People are moving away from email and you’re crushing it.
Alex Lieberman: People talk about luck. I think that you make your own luck. This would’ve never happened if I didn’t try out the idea in the first place and experiment. But it was lucky timing in that email has seemingly gotten bigger since we launched. We chose email because we knew that this is a spot that our consumer lives. College students and young professionals are on their emails constantly. Also, email is respectful of one’s time. A third thing is how cheap we could make an email newsletter for.
Bobby: Makes sense. Dive into the early days of the company. I saw you were on Patreon for a little bit trying to get donations?
Alex Lieberman: Yes, so Patreon is a patronage model. People are able to donate money to artists and content providers that they like. We used Patreon to see whether or not people would actually care for us. We wanted to test how engaged our audience was. If consumers donate to Morning Brew to keep us alive, then we know people love our brand.
So, I think there are two ways to gage how in love consumers are with a media company. One, are people willing to pay for your content? Two, will they buy your brand’s swag? If someone will buy something with your company’s brand on it and wear it, they clearly care about you.
Bobby: True. So, how do make sure the Brew keeps a consistent voice in all its emails?
Alex Lieberman: 90% of it is art and 10% is science. The 10% of science is us codifying this voice. At first, we actually turned the Brew into a person. We gave the Brew a personality, name, age, social groups, job, etc. I will not say the name because we legitimately used someone we knew as the profile for how the Brew is ought to communicate with others.
I describe it to people like this: The Morning Brew is that friend who is smart and sociable. That friend gets the joke but is intellectually curious. That friend will go out but will also stay in a couple nights to learn, to read, to listen to podcasts. We created a style guide based on this individual so that writers can refer to it so that we keep a consistent voice.
Bobby: How do you pick your actual content for each newsletter?
Alex Lieberman: It’s understanding our audience. What does our audience—who happens to be someone in their mid-twenties working in finance, tech, marketing—need to read every morning in a short newsletter? What do they care about? They typically care about retail and consumer brands rather than macro trends. They may need to know the macro news but we need to find the special balance of how much of that to give them. We also want to give readers only the news that will be meaningful over the next few days or months or years.
[More discussion on the Morning Brew]
Bobby: So time for the questions we ask all of our guests. This first one is the random one. What was the biggest screw up you’ve made in business?
Alex Lieberman: I had an internship in New York with Morgan Stanley. On the last day, all you have is an exit interview. Mine was at 11:15. You sit down with HR, your boss, and others to see whether or not you got a fulltime offer. I was happy mine wasn’t until 11:15.
I woke up around 8:00am and took my time in the morning. Made eggs, took a really long shower. All of a sudden it was time to go. I took the cab to get there quicker. I got about halfway to Morgan Stanley in the cab, I was about 28 blocks away. We were gridlocked in traffic and it was already 11:00. I got nervous and, with my suit on and backpack on my back, I got out of the cab and sprinted 28 blocks to Morgan Stanley. I made it in time but was drenched in sweat. I get there and start dabbing my sweat with little coffee napkins in the waiting room. The HR lady, as I walk into the interview, tells me that the exit interview wasn’t scheduled until 11:30. My boss and the HR lady, both people I became close with over the internship, started ripping me for my sweat. My boss made someone get a box of tissues so I could wipe off my sweat throughout the interview. I got the job and everything turned out okay.
Bobby: What skills does a young professional need to have out of college?
Alex Lieberman: Deep intellectual curiosity. People think they are experts on something but few actually are. I think asking yourself why and learning more will make you a true expert.
Bobby: What do you have to give up for success?
Alex Lieberman: Your ego. I think you need to learn humility. I think you need confidence to run a company but I also think that over confidence is the main reason why a startup fails. A lot of things that will make a startup fail—poor hires, cofounder conflicts, losing energy in the business—originates from ego problems. In business, you have to be excited to hear people’s no.
Bobby: Last question: What is one life hack that listeners can do this week to become successful?
Alex Lieberman: This is a very simple one. From 9:00 to 5:00 I turn off my phone. I know myself and there are too many distractions on my phone. Too many things are there to distract me. There are similar distractions in the main office, so I will often times work somewhere else that is quiet and away from people. So during the working hours my phone is off. I have my Apple Watch on so that I can still take calls when needed and answer on my AirPods. It will help you become so much more productive.
Some reminders from this podcast:
1. If you aren’t already subscribed to the Morning Brew business newsletter, do it now. Go to morningbrew.com to subscribe.
2. As Alex said, to become successful, you need to sacrifice your ego.
3. THIS WEEK: Everyday, turn off your phone for at least 3 consecutive hours while you are working. You will be amazed with your increase in productivity.