Founder Questions Whether Sites Like Upworthy Are Sustainable Founder Questions Whether Sites Like Upworthy Are Founder Questions Whether Sites Like Upworthy Are Sustainable
In January 2006, corporate lawyer and small-business owner Fred Mwangaguhunga (try to say that five times straight) launched, a blog-style gossip website focused on urban celebrity news. Working with limited resources, the site has grown to be a big media power player with exclusives quoted by BET, MTV, the New York Post, and more.
We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Mwangaguhunga over email. In this discussion, we talk about how he started, what he thinks of sites like Upworthy, and how he’s been able to constantly grow his site apart from the extra noise that is on the internet these days.

Briefly tell us how you came up with your first business idea that led to

“I started a high-end laundry service in NYC in 2005. At the time we didn’t have a big ad budget to promote the service. There were a bunch of new websites that popped up that were popular with our target demographic (our primary customers were women ages 25-40, college educated, and internet savvy). The sites were called BLOGS, so we advertised in all the big blogs at the time- A Socialite Life, Gothamist, etc.

Because of this, I got to see first hand how wildly popular blog sites were becoming, before most other folks. I also saw how fast their advertising was growing.

When I eventually sold the laundry service and was looking for a new venture; I immediately thought of starting a blog. And after a year of hard work, and a series of fortuitous accidents, became one of the biggest urban websites in the world. We’ve continued growing ever since.”

Were there any lessons that you’ve learned from your laundry business that you’ve applied to

“Absolutely. The laundry business is incredibly labor intensive. We were making a lot of money (revenues), but we had such a high head count that we were barely profitable. At one point we had more than 20 employees each shift. I remember sitting around the warehouse watching everyone working and thinking to myself, I’m the lowest paid employee in this place.

So when I started, I swore I’d never be in that position again. The first thing that I did was to streamline it and only bring in people that were absolutely necessary. It’s worked well for us. We have only six full time employees at, and we are very profitable.

I recently went to the offices of a competitor and saw that they had more than 100 employees. First I was thinking, what the heck are all those people doing? Then I thought, geez, imagine what their payroll looks like.”

You’ve never seemed to overhaul the design on your site, even after it’s success. Is there a specific reason why you choose to keep the design the way it is?

“Well we’re actually in the midst of a complete site overhaul, to change the layout and add a bunch of cool features. But I’ve resisted changing the design of the site because readers usually hate redesigns.

Just about every site redesign that you see has nothing to do with improving the reader experience. It’s done because the advertising people ask you to do it. Think about it, when have you ever heard people say – I’m so happy they redesigned this site. Usually people complain, and say – why did you make the site so complicated. But advertisers love it, because every time you redesign a site, the ad click through rate jumps.

At the end of the day, readers want a site to be simple, so that they can consume as much content, as easily as possible. That’s why our site is designed the way that it is. Look at sites like HuffPo, or Drudge- they rarely changed layouts in the 10 or so years they’ve been around. Actually, I don’t think Drudge has changed even once, and they’re two of the most successful sites around.”

Aside from, do you have any interest in starting another business in the near future? If yes, what?

“I’m completely committed to and building the brand. If we judge a brand by its name recognition and consumer loyalty, we are one of, if not the strongest brand among African American media companies – especially those targeted to African American women. I’m working on taking advantage of our brand equity by working on TV and film projects. It’s a really exciting time to be at!”

It’s been about eight years since you’ve started How big is your team currently?

“We have six full time employees plus me. I’m very hands on. In the last few months, I’ve been taking a couple of steps back to focus on some of our other projects, but not completely. The success of the site is partly it’s business model, but also the talent of its writers and reporters, myself included. I really don’t foresee a day where I won’t be an integral piece of the production team.”

What are you thoughts on blogs like Upworthy and Viral Nova, where it’s focused purely on click-baity headlines and content that’s designed to drive virality via Facebook?

“Those sites are doing well now, but I question whether they have a sustainable competitive advantage. If you want to make it the new media world today, I’m convinced that you have to give people a reason to type your site into their browser, and go to the website consistently. If all you’re offering are headlines that people find on Twitter or Facebook, I have a hard time believing that you’ll stand the test of time. But Upworthy and ViralNova are taking advantage of the current landscape where gaining traffic through social media is highly valued, so both companies deserve credit.”

It seems like the internet is getting more and more saturated with blogs. Do you believe that new blogs can still grow and thrive even in today’s market?

“Of course, but its harder. A few years ago, you could hire a bunch of people – ask them to re-blog stories from us, and TMZ, and Radar and a few other places, then hire an SEO and social media team, and a top notch ad team, and you could make a successful business. Those days are gone. Twitter and Facebook have killed that model.

Now, if you want to create a successful blog or website you have to be different and original. And you have to be speaking about things that people actually find interesting. If you can do that you’ll make a successful blog.

For example, despite all the saturation, we have more people logging into MTO than ever. In March, 17 million unique people were on our site, with more than half of those people being women of color. To put that in context, nearly half of the African American women population with access to the internet were on MTO last month. We’re proving that it’s still possible to grow.”

What would your biggest advice be for anyone looking to start a media site?

“Create something new and different. Good content stands the test of time. Focus on growing an audience organically, and always put your audience before your advertisers.”

What’s next for Media Take Out? Do you plan on doing this forever? Has anyone ever offered to buy the site for a good price?

“I plan on working with MTO for the foreseeable future. There are too many opportunities now that I want to fully exploit.

We’ve gotten a bunch of offers, some very tempting, but I’m not interested in selling. As big as is right now, we’re right on the cusp of something huge. I’d never be able to forgive myself forever if I just took the money and ran.”

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