By Stephanie Trotter
It’s 9 a.m., and the 6AM City team is gathering for its morning content meeting. It’s the first and last task the digital media company accomplishes daily resembling a traditional newsroom. Breaking away from old-school print and broadcast norms, the Greenville-based startup (and Community Journals subsidiary) has exploded in less than three years, delivering content to 175,000 subscribers’ inboxes across six cities, from Florida to Tennessee.
“There was a gap in the market,” explains COO Ryan Heafy of launching GVLtoday in 2016. “Curating all that was going on, and delivering that in a conversational tone, in a way that people wanted to see it, we were able to fill that gap and take advantage of the opportunity.”
This week, Heafy and CEO Ryan Johnston will return to NEXT Venture Pitch to collect a check for $200,000 from SC Launch Inc. The duo first appeared at the entrepreneurial event last year, spending four minutes “pitching” 6AM to the sold-out crowd of innovators and investors. “It feels great to have them back so soon,” says NEXT President & CEO John Moore. “What’s cool about 6AM, it proves that all kinds of industries are right for disruptions and innovation.”
Back in 2017, three angel investors (Erwin Creates, Sycamore Investments, and Venture South/Upstate Carolina Angel Network) covered a first-seed round of $700,000. GVLtoday started pushing daily newsletters to email subscribers. COLAtoday in Columbia and CHStoday in Charleston soon followed. The 6AM team totals 24, with headquarters in Greenville and two multimedia journalists in each market, which now includes Asheville, North Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Lakeland, Florida.
Revenues in 2018 topped $1 million dollars and are projected to hit $2.5 million in 2019. “Greenville doesn’t have a Silicon Valley mindset of taking big bets on technology,” Heafy says. “We were able to find the money, the faith, and trust in our business locally, and it’s been very rewarding that they’ve been able to journey along the way with us.”
What’s even more rewarding is that all original investors have come in again for round two, as 6AM seeks to raise $800,000.
The team plans to use the additional $200,000 from SC Launch to drive technology development to increase operational efficiencies. COO Heafy adds, “We are using technology to get smarter about how we cover content and what works in a local market.”
Lee MacIlwinen mentors Heafy and Johnston through South Carolina’s Research Authority. The regional information-technology industry manager says 6AM’s innovative expansion is a primary reason it’s one of a dozen companies receiving SC Launch investment this year. “By the time they get to a city, they already have that revenue model, it’s already completely booked, or partially booked. So, as they scale their company, the revenue scales with it, which is unique,” MacIlwinen says.
SC Launch Executive Director Jill Sorensen elaborates, “We talk about learn, launch, scale, grow. We think 6AM is in that lane. What’s striking is that they’ve got a really interesting balance in system. You can normalize a lot of your operations by standardizing email outreach, but then personalizing city by city, so that community is defined.”
Heafy looks at the SC Launch check as a full-circle opportunity. “They’ve placed a bet on us, and our ability to help influence, support, and impact all of the other companies they’re investing in,” he says. “Our product is naturally giving back to each of them, and elevating brands as a whole in the state of South Carolina.”
Following a hub-and-spoke model, each month 6AM is adding an average of 1.25 full-time, highly skilled employees while experiencing an average 5 percent increase in newsletter subscribers. Part of the team is exploring possible cities for expansion. Others on the team continue to press technology that will maximize the experience for the publisher, advertisers, and consumers.
Meanwhile, Johnston is looking far beyond 2020. “Media will look differently tomorrow,” he predicts. “It’s changing so fast. It’s our job to pay attention to the changing technology … and try to build a brand and understand what that brand represents in our community. The way we have those conversations with where our audience is, whatever that looks like in 20 years, is where we hope the brand will be positioned.”