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Austin Rief: One Career Path Change Away from Launching Morning Brew

Austin Rief is the COO of Morning Brew a daily newsletter that has earned over 700,000 subscribers.

Key Takeaways:

  1. The unknown may be scary, but oftentimes where you find the most opportunity. It comes to a point where you have to ask yourself, “Do I take this safe “x” job, or do I double down on this idea?” More times than not, the latter is what yields growth.
  2. Do fewer things well. The most important thing is doing fewer things well. It’s always better than doing more things 50-60%.
  3. Make a decision and don’t look back. Spend a day. Think about it. Make a decision. Then don’t second guess yourself. You have to really want it. You have to really work hard. It certainly has not been easy but it all comes back to consistency and focus. 

“You have to really want it. You have to really work hard. It certainly has not been easy but it all comes back to consistency and focus.”

Austin Rief

Transcript:

BRYAN: I’d love to hear about your One Away moment.

AUSTIN: I think, for me, a big moment was opting to not go into investment banking, which is what I interned in after junior year, instead go full-time on Morning Brew. That was a big moment for me; a pivotal moment in my life. It was a very challenging decision at the time. In hindsight, obviously, appears to have been the right decision, but a really big moment in my life. 

BRYAN: Take us back a bit. You went to school at University of Michigan, correct?

AUSTIN: Yes, University of Michigan.

BRYAN: How did you develop your initial interest in finance?

AUSTIN: I was always interested in business and at Michigan, I was in the business school. In the business school, it’s very common to go into finance and specifically in investment banking is everyone’s goal. It seems like every person is interviewing for investment banking jobs, trying to work Goldman Sachs, trying to spend those two years as an analyst. The common discussion at Ross, the business school, is if you spend two years in investment banking, you can “do whatever you’d want after that.” It’s a very common path that people follow. 

I enjoyed accounting. I enjoyed finance. Really accounting more than finance but no one really goes into accounting at Michigan. I interviewed during my sophomore year to work at a bank and I got an internship at Moelis, a boutique investment bank in New York City; actually global, but I worked near to the office. That was how I got started.

BRYAN: When you had that internship and started seeing the opportunities in front of you, did you always envision yourself to kind of be more of a corporate guy or more of an investment banker for the next 10 years? How were you looking at the opportunities then and was that the path you were pretty set on? 

AUSTIN: I don’t think I was set on a path. I was always skeptical of the path but if you asked me before my internship, during junior year, what my most likely path would have been, well not by a lot, I would have probably said spending two years in banking, two years in private equity, like everyone else does after banking, and then maybe going back to business school. Very common path. 

That’s what I would have said sophomore year. As I got into my junior internship, two things happened. I didn’t love the internship. I thought there was a better way to apply myself. While I was learning good skills, I thought I didn’t need those skills and I could have spent those two years in a better way. Simultaneously, Morning Brew was starting to take off. It was a relatively easy out in the fact that I had something else that I could do. I wasn’t going to go back to school and spend my entire senior year re-recruiting. It was going to be more work on Morning Brew. The tradeoff and decision was pretty clear. It went into investment banking or it was work on Morning Brew. 

BRYAN: Austin is the co-founder of Morning Brew. Give us context. How did you meet Alex and get involved with Morning Brew when it was in its infancy? Prior to Morning Brew, did you have any understanding of the media landscape, social, digital? Or was that all pretty foreign to you as well at the time?

AUSTIN: Alex was in my fraternity. I actually didn’t know him. I heard of this guy Alex Lieberman, who was writing this email newsletter. It was actually a PDF attachment attached to an email and it was about the business world. I started reading and thought it was good. I thought it could improve a lot but I thought it was really important at that point in my life when I was planning on going to a finance related job. I certainly was not engaging with the business world on a day-to-day basis like I should have. 

I wasn’t reading The Wall Street Journal like I was told to in information sessions for these jobs. Morning Brew just made it easier to consume business content in a more conversational, witty way. I reached out to Alex. We met up and we started building Morning Brew. 

To answer your second question, at the time, I had zero experience. I hadn’t really thought about media content, news, all these things that I now spend all day and night thinking about. I find the industry so fascinating. Every person becomes a media company. Everyone has a voice. The internet has democratized the distribution of content. Sure, we can complain and many people do about Facebook and Google in their position in the marketplace, but they’ve allowed every single person, including Morning  Brew, to become a publisher. 

It’s a very exciting time for media companies. It’s an interesting time. Obviously, there are lots of news companies that are struggling. Lots of legacy news companies that are really struggling; local news particularly, which is unfortunate. If you want to look at the word media more broadly, you can look at influencers. You can look at YouTube, TikTok. There’s just so much opportunity out there for the passion economy and everyone becoming a media brand in themselves. It’s exciting to see a lot of these journalists go out on their own and start Substack newsletters or start a YouTube series. 

That’s how I met Alex at the University of Michigan. From there, we just started growing it. We were the first campus ambassadors, so to speak. We went around the University of Michigan getting people a sign-up, growing it. We grew it on other college campuses. It took off. It certainly wasn’t an overnight success. Newsletters don’t just blow up. A lot of people think, “How’d it blow up? Overnight success.” Well, if you look at the chart, it’s not exponential. It is linear. The curve did certainly increase over time but it was a day-to-day grind to get those first 1,000 and 10,000. Even today, it’s not as if tens of thousands of subscribers pour in every day with no work. There’s no network effects. It’s a grind to continue to grow every single day. 

BRYAN: You didn’t have any industry knowledge of what you’re doing today beyond the content itself in the newsletter around media, around tech, around every person becoming a publisher. You didn’t go to school for that. Yet you kind of dove head-in and saw an opportunity and you said, “Let’s be a part of it.” It sounds like you came to this more pivotal moment where you had to decide, “Do I take this safe banking job or do I double down on the startup?” Talk to us about what that decision was like for you. 

AUSTIN: It was tough. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision by any means. I had two forces working in the same direction; one of which I didn’t like investment banking. I love thinking from a financial lens. It’s a passion of mine but I didn’t love the work I was doing in investment banking. 

The other thing was Morning Brew was taking off. Those two factors made a very challenging decision less challenging. It was still a tough decision. At the time, it seemed very risky. In hindsight, what we see is that most people go out on their own and start companies whether you raise capital, don’t raise capital, bootstrap, whatever. Even if he succeeds, great. You have a company. You sold a company. You start a company. You run one. If it fails, the job you get in three years will still be better than the job you would have gotten if you had taken that traditional path. Now that takes a lot of trust, but I believe it to be true.

At the time, I didn’t know that, but those two factors of Morning Brew doing relatively well compared to the way it was doing before and me liking banking, along with the support of my parents and my sister was very supportive of it. She pushed me to do it. That really helped me make the decision.  

BRYAN: What was next? What’s a snapshot picture of where the company was at when you made that decision? What was the downfall of events that happened after?

AUSTIN: I went full-time after I graduated in May 2017. We probably had 50,000-60,000 subscribers or so. Summer of 2017, we started raising a little bit of money but we knew that, as first-time founders, we had to stay very focused on doing few things very well. Still to this day, I believe focus is the most important thing in any endeavor. Anytime you want to do anything, you have to be focused and the most important thing is doing fewer things well. 

It’s always better than doing more things 50-60%. We called it the three part cycle: Write, Grow, Sell. Write the absolute best content. Grow that email list for more people to read that excellent content. Then create brand partnerships and sell ads to those partners to fuel back into growth and hiring more content people. We hired a writer. Soon it was two writers. Then we hired someone who was tech and growth; more of a jack of all trades. We started building out the team.

We were part-time students from 2015-2017 and then we were full-time half of 2017 and almost all of 2018. For all of that time, all we focused on was Morning Brew. Every single day, we came in and we wrote a newsletter, grew a newsletter, and we sold a newsletter. That’s a really cool time in the lifecycle of a business. You’re a small company sitting around a table focused on one single thing, one goal, one KPI, it’s really cool. 

Now we have a team of 40 and we’re about to have four newsletter franchises and a podcast will be launched, another podcast later this year. It’s incredible to have the impact of covering different industries but it’s a very unique time where everyone is hyper focused on a singular goal. That’s where we were in 2017/2018. Raising a little bit of money and hiring the team. 

BRYAN: From a subscriber standpoint, you graduated, where were you with the list in numbers in 2017? 2018? 2019? 2020? Maybe correlate that with how you made decisions around that three step process and framework. How did reinvesting in those areas create the number to increase more?

AUSTIN: We were hyper focused on the list. We had 100,000 subs to start 2018. We had 850,000 to start 2019. Now we’re well over 2 million. That’s the trajectory we saw in the main newsletter. We have other products as well. It was a very interesting time. I think we’ll look back on those days where there were five people. It was a really cool experience with that level of comradery of working really hard every, single day on a singular focus. 

BRYAN: You graduated in 2017 and dove right in. What are some of the things that you’ve learned about yourself and how you’ve grown, developed, matured on an individual level? You’ve probably matured faster because of the decision that you made when you were a senior to not go the safe route but to take this head on. How has your own trajectory changed personally through this experience?

AUSTIN: When I graduated, it was a weird feeling. If I had gone to work in investment banking, my job would be so defined. Everything I would do would have been so predetermined by a boss or bosses. Work on this deal. Do this. But when you work for yourself, you wake up and you can do quite literally whatever you want. Creating that focus and understanding what makes sense to how I should structure my days, how I should spend my time, and how that changes every month, every three months, every six months… It changes all the time especially early on when the company is evolving so quickly. Every couple months, you’d take a step back and say, “Am I spending my time as effectively as I could or should I change my job description?” 

A question I get a lot is work/life balance or things like that. I think when you start something, you get so passionate not just about the company itself but the industry and the area that to me, it’s become a huge part of my life. I believe it was Bill Gates who said, “We overestimate what we can learn in a year, but underestimate what we can learn in a decade.” That’s so incredibly true. I certainly have not been doing this for a decade but just through every, single day thinking about content, thinking about consumer products, thinking about talking to customers, direct to consumer, you just learn so much. 

I think I’ve learned an incredible amount that I wouldn’t have learned if I wasn’t as autonomous. You become so autonomous at running your own company and that’s not just in your working life but also in your personal life. You don’t rely on other people for certain things. If you can dictate the future company for 41 people, to me, it helps put perspective on my own personal life. Other people disagree though. There’s a lot of other people who can run a 10,000 person company but struggle to run their own life. That’s pretty common. For me, it really has helped a lot. It’s consistent. It’s every, single day; reading, learning, focusing. 

BRYAN: If you’re talking to yourself three years ago or to the person who wants to be the next Austin Rief in Y Industry, what’s the thing that you’re leaving that person with about making decisions, staying focused, and how to organize their own schedule and calendar to really see the results on a consistent basis? 

AUSTIN: One thing I like to do for myself and I tell other people is pick a goal, whether this is business or personal, set a date, spend some time thinking about it. Let’s say you’re trying to make a decision. Do I want to take Path A or Path B? Spend a day. Think about it. Make a decision. Then don’t second guess yourself. Don’t look back until your predetermined date. Let’s say I think Option A could be good. I think Option B could be good. I don’t know what one to choose. Spend some time, make a decision, and then set a date three months in the future and come back to that. 

People think things just happen overnight and they don’t. It takes time to think through things and focus on things. Whenever we have gone wrong, it’s because we’ve lacked day-to-day focus or we’ve come apart. Whether it’s me personally or everyone in the company, we’re all very aligned. Everyone is very close together. Every day that we don’t realign and don’t focus again, we come further and further apart from each other.

That’s why at Morning Brew, we do quarterly offsites for the leadership team. It’s just consistency. You have to want it. You can’t kind of want it and start your own thing. You certainly can’t do that if you’re going to raise little capital. If you want to raise little capital and therefore, you’re playing multiple hats; therefore, you are part-time finance person, part-time operations, this, that, the other. 

You have to really want it. You have to really work hard. It certainly has not been easy but it all comes back to consistency and focus. 

BRYAN: What’s the future? You’ve talked a lot about how you wake up every day thinking about media, content, products within the space, your own company, your own brand. What are you thinking about in the next 2-3 years as it pertains to the Brew and to the industry as a whole with the insight you’ve had from the last 3-5 years?

AUSTIN: For us, I think it’s just day one. Day one of a media company is just building the audience and building the trust. Now the question is what do you do with that audience and do with that trust? How do you increase that trust and leverage it in different ways? We built a big audience and we monetize it in one way right now through advertising. Yes, we built new audiences which is really great. We built Retail. We built Emerging Tech. 

Those are absolutely incredible. We’re launching Marketing in a few weeks. We’re getting into audio. Those are all going to build the ad-based business and that’s great. For me, the question is, how do we monetize in other ways? How do we build deeper relationships with our readers beyond just five minutes in the morning or 40 minutes on a podcast? Can we get them to join virtual events we put on or in-person events? Can we get them to pay us money for educating them deeper within the Morning Brew franchise?

You can view this as it’s been hard. It’s been five years. We’ve just gotten to phase two. We built the audience. We monetized the audience. We built a very profitable business. The question is now – how do we continue to monetize these people further? We’re committed to building multi-revenue streams that can thrive in any economic environment, that can make money in multiple ways, and can just generally add more value to our readers. We want to create something of value that our readers pay for; not because they like us but because they want to consume, or whatever it may be, that piece of content or we’re creating. We want people to pay us not out of their admiration for us but of their own self interest in bettering their own lives. That’s something we’re working on. 

BRYAN: Where can we follow and connect with you?

AUSTIN: I’m on Twitter @austin_rief.

One Away Podcast
Catherine Kushan

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