Gateway Blend's
Jeff Sanders — 2016
STL Business Journal CFO Award Recipient

Gateway Blend, the Clayton-based company that owns a portfolio of entertainment and culture websites, brought on Jeff Sanders as its first-ever CFO in January 2015 in order to gain notoriety in the capital markets. The strategy has paid off.

Within six months of joining Gateway Blend, Sanders helped the company close on a $40 million credit facility with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Inc., Fifth Third Bank and Enterprise Bank & Trust that was used to help Gateway grow its portfolio of websites, which reaches more than 120 million people each month.

Sanders, 55, said he used previous business relationships — he was an executive with Charter Communications and Millennium Digital Media during the 1990s — to help drum up interest in Gateway Blend, which at the time was a first-time debt issuer.

“I was fortunate that one of the first groups I spoke with was the guy who runs the SunTrust media practice, who was an old friend,” Sanders said. “The nice thing about going back to the media practice is I have a lot of friends and connections. And they became extremely interested in the business, which really helped put that $40 million facility in place.”

Sanders was one of the first employees with Charter Communications and served as the company’s CFO before leaving in 1996. While there, he helped lead a company that went from no revenue to $500 million in revenue in three years.

Sanders was one of the first employees with Charter Communications and served as the company’s CFO before leaving in 1996. While there, he helped lead a company that went from no revenue to $500 million in revenue in three years.

At Gateway, he’s also overseeing fast growth. The company, led by CEO Gabe Douek, spun out from Answers Corp. in January 2013. By 2014, the company was reporting $47 million in revenue, a figure that grew to $58 million a year later. This year, the company is projecting $74 million.

“Jeff is really the most experienced member of our team,” Douek said. “He’s been extremely instrumental in what we’ve accomplished over the last year or so. He obviously led the debt financing with SunTrust, but he’s also served as the lead on our two acquisitions we’ve made to date.”

In July 2015, Gateway acquired CinemaBlend, a website known for its reviews of movies, TV shows and video games. Then in December, Gateway acquired Tickld.com, a Canadian website that caters to millennials.

Terms for both those deals were not disclosed, though Sanders said the company typically looks for acquisitions in the $5 million range.

Sanders said he and his team — six employees under his direct supervision — reviewed more than 200 potential deals before narrowing in on the two acquisitions. He said integrating those sites and growing them will be critical for Gateway moving forward, and the company continues to look for acquisitions. When prospecting for deals, Sanders said it “starts with having a clear-eyed list of criteria for what you’re looking for. And then, frankly, it’s just a lot of leg work.”

Gateway’s fast growth hasn’t come without pains, and Sanders said finding the right organizational structure and procedures to manage that growth is something the company is dealing with now. In April, the company laid off as many as 20 staff members in a restructuring.

Douek said Sanders was also instrumental in negotiating a new lease for Gateway at The Plaza in Clayton building. Gateway is owned by Tom Hillman of FTL Capital, and David Karandish and Chris Sims of Answers. Brian Feldt covers technology, venture capital, startups, real estate and sports business.

SOURCE: ST. LOUIS BUSINESS JOURNAL

Gateway Blend Acquires Tickld

St. Louis, MO. — Gateway Blend announced today that it has acquired Tickld.com, one of the most viral sites on the Internet. Tickld boasts nearly 60 million visitors per month, reaching millions of social Blend followers each day.

Gabe Douek, CEO of Gateway Blend, said Tickld is a great addition to Gateway Blend, and will expand the reach of the company’s existing sites, as well as help Gateway reach a new and growing audience.

“The Tickld team has built a powerful platform that publishes engaging and viral content, while also letting users generate and publish their own content. We are impressed with the passion and the engagement of the Tickld community and we look forward to building on the Tickld team’s success,” said Douek.

Tickld has a strong community of nearly 2 million social Blend followers and almost 1 million registered users on its site. Based in Toronto, Tickld has a team of 14 full-time staffers, as well as community managers in three countries. The team will remain in Toronto post-acquisition.

Located in St. Louis, Gateway Blend has grown from fewer than 20 employees when it was formed in January 2013 to some 70 full-time employees today. Each month the company’s websites attract over 115 million visitors. In May, Gateway Blend’s Oola.com took home the 2015 Webby Award for Best Food & Drink Website. In June, Gateway Acquired Cinemablend.com, the web's most popular independent entertainment website known for its expert reviews and exhaustive coverage of the film, television and gaming industries. Cinemablend is a Quantcast Top 150 site, and the largest destination in the Gateway Blend portfolio.

Oola.com Wins 2015 Webby Award for Best Food & Drink Site

Hailed as the “Internet’s highest honor” by the New York Times, the Webby Awards, presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS), is the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet. IADAS, which nominates and selects the Webby Award winners, is comprised of digital industry experts, including Tumblr founder, David Karp; Huffington Post founder, Arianna Huffington; Grantland’s Bill Simmons; Lucky Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Eva Chen; Instagram co-founder, Kevin Systrom; Jimmy Kimmel; and creator of the .gif file format, Steve Wilhite.

“Oola.com has set the standard for innovation and creativity on the Internet,” said David-Michel Davies, executive director of the Webby Awards. “This award is a testament to the skill, ingenuity, and vision of its creators.”

Oola.com will be honored at the star-studded Webby Awards ceremony on Monday May 18, 2015 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City, where winners will have an opportunity to deliver one of the Webby Awards’ famous 5-word speeches. Notable 5-word speeches include: Steve Wilhites, “It’s Pronounced ‘Jif’ not ‘Gif’”; Bjork’s “A.E.I.O.U”; and Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti from “House of Cards” for, “The Oscars should do this.”

This year’s ceremony will be hosted by acclaimed stand-up coBlendn, writer and actor, Hannibal Buress. On Tuesday May 19, 2015, fans can watch the show highlights on the Webby Awards’ YouTube channel. A full list of both the Webby Awards winners and Webby People’s Voice winners can be found at webbyawards.com/winners.

Gateway Blend Eyes Further Growth & Expansion

Gateway Blend, an Answers Corp. spinoff that owns a portfolio of entertainment and culture websites, has made two front-office additions as it looks to use 2015 to acquire more viral websites.

Gateway, which reported $45 million in revenue in 2014, added former Charter Communications CFO Jeff Sanders, as its new chief financial officer and Riverfront Times Editor-in-Chief Chad Garrison as its first director of content.

Gateway owns websites such as Swifty (travel); BrainJet (pop-culture); Minq (style); and Oola (dining), which combine to attract more than 60 million unique visitors and 400 million page views per month.

Gateway is owned by Tom Hillman of FTL Capital, and David Karandish and Chris Sims of Answers. Those three retained ownership of the company, which has more than 40 employees at its Clayton office, following Answers' $900 million acquisition by Apax Partners in 2014.

Gabe Douek, CEO of Gateway, said the company will look to acquire more websites in 2015, particularly in the sports vertical, and projects to finish 2015 with more than $60 million in revenue.

"Our focus this year is on growing our viral content that has built up our user base over the last few years," Douek said. "We'll be looking to operate in different verticals and when it comes to consuming content, there is a lot of niches we can explore."

Susan Bidel, a senior analyst for Forrester with a focus on monetization strategies for digital publishers, said websites such as Buzzfeed or any of Gateway's sites, are looking to keep their audience and engagement high to deliver returns for advertisers.

"The very first banner ad that ran in 1994 on HotWire had a 78 percent click through rate and if you look at today's most current research, click through rates for banner ads hover around 0.1 percent," she said. "So publishers that can deliver an audience or market that will click above that low level would be considered a successful publisher."

SOURCE: BIZJOURNALS.COM

Gateway Blend Quietly Conquering the Internet

If you click on 'creepy' lists, Clayton company may be responsible

Dylan Kickham spends a lot of time figuring out ways to get your attention. Like other staffers at Clayton-based Gateway Blend, he goes to work each day, dreaming of the next big hit. Of going viral.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of their work.

Just recently, one of his co-workers came up with “20 creepy pictures of celebs next to younger versions of themselves.” That one grabbed 13 million page views.

And then there was “22 completely normal moments in Russia,” which attracted some 10 million views.

Today, Kickham is working on a new idea. Or rather an idea that’s shown some promise in the past. It’s a slideshow based on abandoned cars. It was inspired by a similar article by a co-worker who was, in turn, inspired by something similar elsewhere.

Perched in front of his laptop, he’s scrolling through thousands of online pictures showing cars in various stages of decomposition.

“This is the bulk of my job, just sort of looking through Google images,” said Kickham, 24.

Gateway Blend operates eight websites — its most popular are Brainjet.com and Suggest.com — focused on packaging and sharing online content. In a nutshell, staffers try to figure out what people are interested in seeing, and then build slideshows and short articles to satisfy those interests.

It’s “snackable” content — in the words of Gabe Douek, a St. Louis native and chief executive.

Until late last year, Gateway was part of Answers.com, a St. Louis-based heavyweight in the realm of question and answer websites. Gateway was spun off after Answers was acquired in October by U.K.-based private equity firm Apax Partners in a deal reportedly valued at $900 million.

Following the split, Gateway has moved quickly to establish itself in the world of shared content providers.

Already the company is making plans to double its space in the Clayton office tower, where it occupies a third of the 12th floor. It has 42 employees — a mix of software engineers, marketers and writers — and an eye toward growing the number of websites in its portfolio. The company expects to pull in $60 million in revenue this year.

Douek’s goal is to turn Gateway into a dominant player in the world of shared content, a niche that’s grown up around the way we interact online.

A decade ago, Internet users were more focused on Google and other search engines, giving rise to companies such as Answers.com, which built their content around popular searches. People are still asking questions today, but increasingly, they turn to their social networking friends for answers and entertainment.

Gateway’s various sites — along with larger competitors viralnova.com, elitedaily.com and upworthy.com — use those interactions to draw traffic.

“It’s become one of the more pervasive trends in digital over the past two years,” said Andrew Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights for Internet traffic monitor comScore.

Yet despite the traffic these sites generate (they can pull in 20 million or more unique visitors each month, according to comScore’s data), it’s understandable if you’ve never heard of them.

One of the challenges facing the business model is that users generally find their way to these websites by way of referral — and then move on.

“They can generate large audiences, but these aren’t audiences that stick around on the site,” Lipsman said.

It creates a constant need to churn out new slideshows, videos and articles aimed at capturing the attention of Internet denizens. But it’s not enough to get someone to click a link taking them to Minq.com, Odometer.com or Swifty.com. They need the exponential growth that only happens when users suggest the articles to friends through their social networks, particularly Facebook, with its 1.2 billion users.

“It’s not hard to produce good content,” Douek said. “It’s hard to produce content that gets shared by millions of people.”

BUZZWORDS AND MORE

The quest for virality starts on Tuesday mornings when staffers gather around a conference table arrayed with MacBooks.

The room is dominated by 20-somethings clad in jeans, hoodies and T-shirts. They are, in many ways, the very demographic Gateway is chasing.

Leading a recent meeting is Chad Garrison, who recently left his job as editor of the Riverfront Times to become Gateway’s director of content.

His staff is broken into three squads, each with a writer, marketer and intern. During the week, each group will focus its attention on two of the company’s eight websites, producing at least eight articles.

Included in the morning’s discussion is news that the company’s food-centric site, Oola.com, recently won a Webby Award, pitted against the New York Times and National Geographic.

“Let’s pay special attention to that this week,” Garrison says, as they talk about ways to spread the word through their own networks of friends — the winner will be decided by popular vote.

The short meeting also includes a bit of brainstorming and a postmortem on articles that did well the previous week, as well some that didn’t.

Garrison is particularly interested in analyzing why a seemingly timely feature “21 fascinating ‘Mad Men’ facts to prepare you for the final episodes” failed to gain traction.

“That was a good post,” Garrison said. “The problem was we launched it on Friday.”

As in two days before the premiere of the second half of the hit show’s final season. A better strategy, he suggests, would have been to publish the article earlier.

It’s a swing and miss illustrating the challenge faced by Garrison and his staffers. They know what people are interested in and what they’re talking about. They see it on sites such as Reddit and Buzzsumo, which offer real-time snapshots of what’s trending on social networks.

“That’s where analytics come in,” said Scott Steinberg, a St. Louis-based technology consultant with TechSavvy. “You can see what people are searching for, and you work backwards. It’s almost like the story has pre-written itself.”

And yet there are no guarantees that any article will touch a collective public nerve. Particularly not when there are droves competing for the Internet spotlight.

“It’s still a challenge to figure it out,” said Kickham, who’s been with Gateway for a little over a year.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some tricks to the trade.

Part of the job is finding buzzwords and other devices that can snag the attention of Web surfers.

It’s long been known, for example, that lists are hard to resist. Someone claims to have photos of the 19 scariest places on Earth, and you almost have to take a peek.

But there’s more.

Things in parentheses work (like, really well). As do buzzwords such as “hacks” and “ever.”

“‘Creepy’ is big right now,” said Kickham, who joined Gateway shortly after graduating from Notre Dame.

For the St. Louis native, this is a far cry from the future he once envisioned. There was a time when he dreamed of working for a magazine such as Rolling Stone. This job — with its need for a quick production pace — is about as far from magazine writing as you can get.

Not that he cares.

“The main thing I wanted to do with magazines was to write about pop culture,” he said. “So I still get to do that.”

SOURCE: STLTODAY.COM

Odometer.com Revs Up with 76% March Traffic Boost

March Data is Now Live – March Madness, Apartments.com, and More

April 23 Update: March 2015 data is now live for free users of Compete.com as well! To get priority early access to data each month, start your Compete PRO subscription today!

March data is now live and available in Compete PRO! Diving right into our Monthly Fast Movers, it’s clear that March Madness was the star of the month in terms of online performance. Traffic to NCAA.com increased by a whopping 1147% month over month (MoM). March 2015 was their best traffic month by far in the last two years, with unique visitors over 40% higher in March 2015 than March 2014. The traffic patterns are clearly driven by the college basketball tournament, which is evident in Compete PRO search referral data. Nearly 29% of all search referrals to NCAA.com over the last 90 days have been related to March Madness. Like last year, CBSSports.com sent a lot of traffic to NCAA.com and actually sent twice as many visits as last year (over 1 million in 2014 and over 2.6 million this year).

NCAA.com wasn’t the only beneficiary of the annual March Madness traffic boost. Daily fantasy site DraftKings.com saw a huge MoM unique visitor gain of 124% in March. Looking at their incoming traffic in Compete PRO, we can see that NCAA.com was the 45th highest domain in terms of sending traffic to DraftKings.com.

Outside of sports, Apartments.com saw a big increase in traffic in March as well. Since being acquired by CoStar Group last year, the apartment listing site has been making big moves, including last month’s multi-million dollar marketing campaign featuring actor Jeff Goldblum. What they’re doing seems to be working. The site saw a MoM unique visitor increase of over 76% between February and March, and 62% growth over March 2014. Loyalty and engagement metrics like average stay, visits per person, and pages per visit are also up dramatically (+23%, +7%, and +73% respectively). The good news continues when using Compete PRO to run a keyword destination report on “apartments” as the site is the third most-visited destination from the term, commanding over 6% of total search traffic volume for the keyword in a crowded industry. This will be an interesting site to watch in the coming months to see if their upward trajectory continues.

SOURCE: COMPETE.COM