Austin Rief on co-founding popular media publication company Morning Brew
Morning Brew, a media publication company founded by Austin Rief and Alex Lieberman in 2015, started as a single newsletter. Today, with over two million subscribers, this concise, clever, and free daily newsletter has become a popular way for people to easily keep up with everyday business news.
Now joined by several other newsletters including Emerging Tech Brew, Retail Brew, Marketing Brew, and Sidekick (as well as a couple of podcasts), Morning Brew has expanded into multiple fields of interest.
I spoke with Austin Rief about all things Morning Brew and beyond: how it began, how he understands its success, his advice when it comes to monetization in business, and what important philosophies guide him and shape his vision for Morning Brew’s future.
Austin Rief on Morning Brew’s humble beginnings
During his sophomore year of college at the University of Michigan, Austin met Alex. Morning Brew was launched as a side project.
“It was a humble beginning, but Morning Brew always had the same idea at its core, which was to take the left side of the Wall Street Journal and make it more engaging.”– Austin Rief
Before deciding to take a chance on Morning Brew, Austin had an internship at a boutique investment bank in NYC, where he learned he did not, in fact, much enjoy investment banking. Instead, he was more interested in a venture that would require strategic thinking and innovation.
As a result, Austin gave up the security of life as a banker and took a leap of faith with Morning Brew.
Morning Brew’s success: luck and timing
Launched as a side project, Morning Brew had the luxury of growing at its own pace with no pressure or expectation to scale quickly.
With zero media experience between the two of them, Austin and Alex were learning as they went along. Their first revelation: they should probably hire some writers to consistently create the content they envisioned.
“A lot of the Morning Brew story and my story is about luck and timing, which I think is true for so many different business ventures. You can take advantage of luck, but you can’t make your own luck.”– Austin Rief
In its early stages, Morning Brew was only shared with friends and family via a bcc list, and there was no way to sign up. When they started receiving emails from people asking to get on the list, Austin knew they’d created something special.
Their first stroke of luck was picking a valuable product right off the bat. And as they rightly should have, they took advantage of that luck.
Raising capital: going small
In 2017, when Austin graduated college and the partners were ready to jump fully into Morning Brew, media publications weren’t doing so well. Raising tens of millions of dollars of capital looked quite unlikely.
They took the opposite approach and aimed to raise just enough seed money ($750K to be exact) in order to be profitable.
In choosing to raise as little capital as possible to get started, they unknowingly identified what would soon become a new trend in business. Luck and timing, Austin emphasized.
I might take the liberty of adding they also had a fair amount of good instinct.
Choosing content and direction
When it comes to content, Austin sees successful media businesses doing one or more of the following three things:
- They make you (the reader) better or smarter at your job (which is essentially a B2B business)
- They target a passion audience that people care deeply about
- They provide a service for you
Morning Brew aims for numbers one and two.
For number one, they have a B2B business in Retail Brew, which covers the retail industry and targets retail professionals, helping them improve their work. And for number two, targeting passion audiences, which is a current focus for Morning Brew—something they’re doing and planning more of in the form of investment content, productivity content, and personal finance content.
How to monetize
While monetizing is obviously a necessary part of succeeding as a business, being strategic and careful in what you monetize is also important. There’s a lot of talk these days about subscription fatigue, and it’s real. Being smart about how you allow access to your best content is vital.
“I don’t think the vast majority of content should be paid. There are other ways to monetize yourself apart from a paid subscription. In fact, I’d argue it’s really tough to have a paid subscription because you’re putting your best content behind a paywall.” – Austin Rief
How you monetize, Austin urged, should be based on your goals. If your goal is to get a better job by way of your writing, then monetizing a newsletter someone might randomly run across and hire you from might not be the best move.
From picking up consulting gigs for venture capital firms to creating and selling courses to becoming a venture capitalist with a rolling fund (like he is), there are a plethora of opportunities out there. If you get creative, the options to monetize are endless.
Putting creators front and center
By encouraging employees to be active on Twitter and focusing on those passionate audiences through the creation of podcasts and specific kinds of content, Morning Brew is beginning the process of centering their creators.
“We’re starting to put the creator front and center, but the important thing is you need to have the infrastructure to do that, or it’s just a leaky bucket and people come in and then they leave.”– Austin Rief
He shared that empowering creators is a wonderful thing, but as a company, you have to be conscious of the time, energy, and resources you put into content you don’t own. While there are exceptions, in general, it’s a good idea to employ the creators whose content you feature often or rely on heavily.
Otherwise, it’s too big of a risk. Or as Austin said, “The value isn’t there.”
Looking towards the future of Morning Brew
I asked Austin what he imagines for Morning Brew in ten years. His answer was: a lifestyle company for young business professionals, one helping them make big decisions, get better at their jobs, and invest their money wisely.
“I think that comes in the way of content, education, subscription, community, and commerce. So there’ll probably be eight to ten revenue streams we can engage with our audience,” he said.
That vision is getting closer, with the Morning Brew team growing quickly over the last couple of years. They started last year off with twenty-five employees, are currently at seventy-five, and by the end of the year, they’re planning to have one hundred twenty-five.
Guiding personal philosophies
Despite this growth and success, Imposter Syndrome happens to people regardless of the level of success they’ve reached. No matter how good you are at something, mistakes will be made. And that’s okay, Austin said.
“The one thing I come back to time and time again is at the end of the day no one truly knows what they’re doing...every scenario is unique. I have learned to trust myself and the things I believe.”– Austin Rief
Understanding you are not infallible while also maintaining belief in yourself is tricky, but not impossible. It requires a balance of self-awareness, grace, confidence, and honesty.
Building a positive and encouraging work environment
One of Austin’s most central guiding philosophies is around establishing a positive work environment. Communication and decision-making are huge parts of any company, and he wants those processes to be enjoyable and empowering experiences at Morning Brew.
For Austin, it’s a joy to see people leave and start their own companies with the knowledge and experience they gained working at Morning Brew.
“I like to think as much or more about how we work than the work we actually do, like how we communicate with each other and get to decisions at Morning Brew...I want to see Morning Brew become a place where people want to work because it can accelerate and expedite their own careers.”– Austin Rief
All in all, despite the fact Austin jumped into entrepreneurship while still in college without any prior experience, or perhaps because of that, he obviously has it down pat—at least as much as is possible in the fickle world of business.
With a clear vision and a humble, direct, and compassionate approach, I can only imagine what Austin will have in store for us in the future. If you’re interested in staying up-to-date on the Morning Brew’s happenings, sign up for their newsletters on morningbrew.com/daily.
About the Podcast
On the DTC Growth Podcast, we talk with founders and leaders of the most exciting DTC brands. We discuss their visions, how they launched, and how they are growing their brands.