NEW YORK, NEW YORK — The team at New York City-based The Awl has some advice for anybody waiting on some seed funding to launch their dream startup: don’t wait. The Awl launched in early 2009 when founders Choire Sicha, Alex Balk, and David Cho set out to start their own site with little-to-no financing beyond their personal savings. It wasn’t much, but “there wasn’t really anywhere else we wanted to work,” says Sicha.
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That wasn’t their only audacious move. In an era when niche sites mark the startup landscape, The Awl’s hallmark is its lack of discernable specialty. Stories published so far in its two-year life include a critique of Sarah Palin’s hunting skills, a guide to wooing hipster girls, and an article arguing Dwyane Wade’s importance to the Miami Heat franchise. For The Awl, the emphasis is community building over specialization. The goal, Sicha says, is to shy away from being another of the topic-oriented sites that mark the web, and instead appeal to “the varied interests of a specific group of people.”
Sicha and Balk, both former editors of Gawker, remain the site’s editors and primary contributors, while publisher David Cho upholds the business end of the operation. The Awl recently hired a managing editor—something Sicha says was “desperately needed”—and has begun setting aside a portion of the site’s revenue to pay freelancers and contributors.
The Awl does not reward contributors for generating high-traffic posts—as was the practice at Gawker. Rather, the site encourages content that is original, sometimes long, and not shaped by popular demand or expectation. And The Awl has shown that the approach can generate traffic. “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Vitamin Soup,” a recent 4,457-word story by freelance writer Richard Morgan, was an unlikely hit across the web. As well as earning revenue through display ads, The Awl uses what Sicha describes as an “old model” of working with brands and companies to sponsor editorial content. They’ve partnered with Gillette for several stories focusing on lifestyle issues.
The Awl seems to give credence to the adage that fun writing makes for fun reading; recent headlines include “Brave Korean Folk-Hero Bear Captured After Nine Days of Freedom” and “Dee Snider Has Paid the Price.” That sense of fun, and The Awl’s dedication to the offbeat and quirky, the original and the diverse, has meant Sicha and Balk have been able to build the community they’d hoped to build.
The day CJR spoke to Sicha, he mused: “Tonight readers are throwing a party for other readers in New York. When you talk to tech startups and people in the PC world, they talk a lot about user engagement and [the] ‘values of our customers.’ What’s a happier version of that than a devoted reader?”
The Awl Data
Name: The Awl
City: New York, N.Y.
Principal Staff: Alex Balk, co-founder and co-editor; Choire Sicha, co-founder and co-editor; David Cho, co-founder and publisher.
CMS: Custom Wordpress