A startup that just raised $25 million is like a college newspaper on steroids — and it’s racking up 30 million uniques a month

Apr27, 2016

evan burnsThere is a graveyard full of startups that have said they want to “democratize” the media business, Odyssey CEO Evan Burns says.

The winning model seems so tantalizingly within reach: Build a big platform that allows a lot of fresh voices to contribute. No more gatekeepers, anyone who wants to write can.

But startups, like temporarily shut-down Slant News, have found that building that idea into a business that can scale, or make any money, isn’t always easy.

Even so, Odyssey seems to have hit upon one formula for distributed growth in media, and the startup has come out of nowhere to top 30 million monthly uniques using a business model that sits somewhere between a conglomerate of college newspapers and a social network.

Odyssey recently raised $25 million in a round led by Michael Lazerow, who sold his startup Buddy Media to Salesforce for $800 million, and Columbus Nova’s Jason Epstein. Both will be joining Odyssey’s board. Odyssey’s total funding sits at $32 million.

Lazerow tells Business Insider he hasn’t been this enthusiastic about a startup since Jonah Peretti pitched him BuzzFeed (which he invested in).

So what exactly is Odyssey?

Odyssey is a bit like a college paper on steroids. The startup has a stable of over 10,000 writers, aged 18-28, who produce around one piece a week. Odyssey then relies on the social networks of the individual writers to push out the content to the masses.

Each writer has to apply, and the main criteria for acceptance, Burns explains, is having a unique perspective — and being able to turn in an article once a week. These writers are not paid.

Sound familiar? This mass collection of unpaid contributors is the model that initially made Turner-owned sports site Bleacher Report a success. The Huffington Post used a similar contributor model to boost its pageviews, as does Forbes (Business Insider has some outside contributors as well).

The concept sounds like a blogging platform at first, but what separates Odyssey is human editors. Each Odyssey article goes through three layers of editing:

  • First, a “community editor” looks at it, who is basically just a power user within a particular geography. This isn’t a paid position.
  • Second, the article is copyedited by an outsourced (but paid) person.
  • Third, the article goes to one of Odyssey’s 70 full-time, paid editors.

Odyssey

The question remains as to how much time the 70 full-timers can actually devote to each piece. If Odyssey is producing ~10,000 articles per week, that means each editor is checking out over 140 per week. That is not an easy feat under any circumstances.

But beyond editing, Burns says the writers see an increased engagement for posts over self-published ones (2 to 4.5 times), and often reputational boost they get from their friends (who see they are being published by a branded outlet).

This business model seems built for college, where bright young writers are willing to swap their work for being edited and professionally branded (Odyssey’s initial incarnation was narrowly focused on Greek life). And indeed Lazerow says the majority of the writers are in college, though Burns stresses that they are expanding in other segments of the population as well.

Lazerow actually created a similar business when he was in college at Northwestern called University Wire. University Wire is a network of college papers that’s now owned by CBS.

The content Odyssey produces spans all sorts of topics, from politics to fashion to sports, and is about 20-25% focused on purely local issues, according to Burns. The local contributor model has been tried before without much luck. AOL poured a lot of time and money into Patch, a local news site with articles published by an army of contributors, but it struggled (though it has rebounded of late). Odyssey has no overarching editorial mandate. It’s up to the writer.

Odyssey launched out of beta in 2014, but recently has begun to pick up steam, climbing from 20 million monthly uniques in November to 30 million in February. This type of performance doesn’t seem so crazy when you realize how much content 10,000 writers are pumping out (Odyssey published 400 articles on the terrorist attacks in Brussels alone). At the current numbers, each writer is only individually accountable for around 3,000 uniques per month.

A tech company

Burns stresses that Odyssey isn’t a media company, it’s a tech company. That may be a way to woo investors, but it also makes the business proposition for writers easier to understand. If you look at Odyssey like an advanced blogging platform with added features (like human editing and advice on structure), it makes more sense that 10,000 writers have chosen to jump on it.

Burns says that legally the startup is also set up as a social network, which could help insulate it in the event of any libel or copyright claims against its writers.

But even with the emphasis on being a tech company, it’s still hard to shake that nagging feeling that writers should get paid for their work if advertising is being sold against it, especially if it ends up going viral (perhaps I’m biased). Burns says part of what this $25 million investment is for is to build out the monetization of Odyssey, both for the company itself and for writers. He wants to build a YouTube-like model of paying writers, starting with the platform’s stars.

And how will Odyssey make money? Besides advertising, Burns says that the huge amount of data the company is amassing is valuable, particularly insights about how content spreads on the internet. Odyssey is also readying the launch of video on its platform (like many media companies), a move Burns thinks will increase the startup’s ability to make money from ads, and amp up its reach.

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