Alexis Grant didn’t start her career with the goal of building several media businesses. She simply wanted work as a reporter. After college, she got a job at the Houston Chronicle and then later accepted a role editing the careers section at US News & World Report.
But something about the business of media intrigued her, and while at US News & World Report she launched a side hustle running social media and blogs for corporate clients. Eventually, she drummed up enough business to quit her day job and focus on content marketing full time. In fact, she launched an entire marketing agency that specialized in producing branded content.
One of her clients was a personal finance website called The Penny Hoarder, and she was so successful at growing its audience that the company eventually acquired her agency and installed her as its editor in chief. By the time she left The Penny Hoarder a few years later, it was generating tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
I recently interviewed Alexis about how she helped scale these companies and what she plans to do next.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Why Alexis left her traditional journalism career to launch a content marketing agency
In 2011, Alexis was working as a careers editor at US News & World Report, and she’d begun to take in marketing clients on the side. At first, they hired her to run their social media accounts, but she saw a much larger opportunity to leverage her journalism skills within the corporate world. “When I was younger my dad always bugged me to take business classes and I always refused because I thought it sounded really boring. But when I had my side business, I realized that launching a business is really as simple as finding creative ways to make money, and I actually really enjoyed that part of it. I wanted to be able to experiment and try other things and learn kind of outside of that traditional box that I had been in for journalism.”
Alexis quickly went from doing all the client work herself to running a small content marketing agency. “Typically I'd hire an editor for each of the blogs that we started managing and then I would teach them how to run everything for that particular blog. Sometimes an editor would have two blogs depending on the size of a client. We had a really large network of freelancers that we would call on depending on what type of expertise we needed for each client. So over time I was just kind of growing this database of writers who had different specialties. And whenever we picked up a new client, we'd go to that or we'd go to our broader networks and say, ‘okay, who do we have?’ When a client hired us, typically we’d charge basically one monthly fee and that would include all of the writing of the content and the editing of the content and whatever other add-ons that they wanted in a marketing capacity. We really took it upon ourselves to organize all the freelancers that were writing for the blog so the client didn't really even have to worry about that.”
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Transitioning to The Penny Hoarder
A few years into her new company’s existence, Alexis was hired by a guy named Kyle Taylor. Kyle ran a personal finance blog called The Penny Hoarder that had started to take off, and he needed Alexis to build out an editorial team so he could scale the business. “That was in early 2014 and pretty quickly over a period of six months that blog became one of our biggest clients.” It scaled so quickly, in fact, that Kyle acquired Alexis’s agency so she could run The Penny Hoarder full-time. “It was an acquihire, which means that he did it to bring me and my team and our processes in house at his company. So we let go of the rest of our clients because that wasn't of interest to him, and I and several members of my team then went in house at the Penny Hoarder. He hired me so that he could focus on the business side and have me running and scaling the content side.”
Unlike many of its digital media competitors, The Penny Hoarder was completely bootstrapped and didn’t rely much on display advertising. “We did performance marketing. It's somewhat similar to affiliate marketing. In affiliate marketing, I might have a website and I recommend a product to somebody and if they buy it, I get a cut of what they paid to the producer of the product. Performance marketing is kind of similar to that, but I think what differentiated The Penny Hoarder and what was really cool is that people didn't necessarily have to spend money for The Penny Hoarder to earn money.”
She gave an example. “At one point in time, we had Uber as a client and Uber wants to bring more drivers into their employment, and they relied on The Penny Hoarder to deliver those drivers. So we might interview Uber drivers and say, ‘Hey, what are your tips for making money? Is there any insider knowledge we can share with people who are thinking about doing this?’ And we'd share that information with the readers. And then when someone signed up to be an Uber driver, The Penny Hoarder would get a payment for that. It was kind of a win-win. The Penny Hoarder gets paid, the company gets another driver, and the reader has another way to earn or save money.”
What’s next for Alexis
In 2019, Alexis left the Penny Hoarder and moved with her family back to the suburbs of DC. With her time freed up, she turned some of her attention to The Write Life, a blog geared toward freelance writers that she’d maintained for several years. “The traffic is very SEO driven. It's almost like my place to experiment with stuff. It has a pretty big audience. We see about 350,000 page views a month.”
But she isn’t sure she wants to make running the site her full-time career. “I'm not sure that it's something that I personally want to keep working on. I thought a lot about how to monetize the site in the future and whether I wanted to work on it more. Like what can I learn from it still? And I'm actually thinking about selling it in the next six months or so. The main reason is I want to give myself more bandwidth to start a new project and do something different. A lot of what I did with that site reminds me of who I was like eight years ago, and I'm in a different place now. I'm ready to let go of that. I can have more time to take on some new projects.”
Recently, Alexis has accepted a few content strategy projects. “I’m helping media companies grow their content teams. It's been cool because a lot of the skills that I learned at The Penny Hoarder, I figured maybe I wouldn't get to use them again because I don't envision myself being in-house again at a large company. I like building things that are smaller. So it's been cool to be able to take some of the things that I learned about scaling and hiring and come in as a consultant to some of these other companies that need that and actually be able to use those skills again.”
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