Toronto sports startup The GIST launched less than two years ago with $100,000 in funding from Ryerson’s The DMZ. Now, the business founded by three friends in their 20s, is in its pre-seed raise, expanding into new Canadian markets, and exploring how content can retain subscribers and gain new readers. The team continues to operate on its original funding, so YouInc wanted to find out how.
We sat down with Co-founder Ellen Hyslop to discuss how to survive and thrive on minimal funding, grow from a minimal viable product, and market your business using organic outreach. She breaks down the business in her own words:
WHAT I DO
I'm in charge of our content strategy and human resources. Creating content has been new to me: writing the newsletter, what’s on the website, managing the social media, figuring out what our plans are for video and audio, as well as how we're going to expand geographically.
A lot of the success we've seen with The GIST is having experience growing up talking to so many of my friends in the same way that we write The GIST. We also listen to our audience, get feedback, and implement as fast as we can so we’re providing content they’re looking for.
WE’RE A LEAN MACHINE
We received $100,000 in non-dilutive funding from Facebook as well as $50,000 in Facebook advertising credits. Our co-founders haven’t taken salaries. We recently received funding from the Ontario government, and we’re in our pre-seed raise right now.
We didn't receive the full $100,000 right away. We received $20,000 at the beginning of the program. It was a five-to-six months program. Then we received $20,000 as we hit our milestones. That was a good setup because it made us spend and use the $20,000 toward a specific goal. It also made us pointed and efficient with our money. Being new entrepreneurs and fresh to what we’re doing, we learned a lot from our audience and gathered data. We talked to a lot of people and mentors about how they started their business, what they would recommend, and how to make The GIST better - we spent our money from there.
At the beginning it was spent on need-to-haves and how we could make the newsletter and our product better, because at the beginning it was a minimal viable product. We overhauled our website. We overhauled our newsletter. We launched our GIST referral program. We bought merchandise. Then we started working on marketing and how we could get The GIST out to more people, so we could continue to receive feedback and see if there was a market.
ACQUIRING NEW SUBSCRIBERS CAME NATURALLY
At the beginning and even now, the majority of our growth comes from organic. People hear about the GIST from people forwarding newsletters as well as our referral program. This program has accounted for more than 50 per cent of our growth. We retain more than 97 per cent of our subscribers per month.
People invite friends through our referral program and get rewarded for it, if they share with one friend and that person signs up. Then they get discounts to sports games in Toronto or Ottawa. If they get to five friends, then they get a GIST webcam blocker and so on. It’s about incentivizing people to share. Otherwise, we’ve worked on paid social media through our $50,000 in Facebook and Instagram advertising credits. We've also been lucky to be featured in the press, which has been helpful to acquire subscribers.
SOME OF OUR SPEND WASN’T WORTH IT
At the beginning we quickly made a summer intern hire. All three of us grew up in companies that had summer interns and it was helpful to have those people. But for us being new and figuring out exactly what we needed to do, it wasn’t the right time to bring on a summer intern.
Then we hosted Facebook and Instagram advertising campaigns. It was more of a contest, and it didn't bring on the highest-quality subscribers. We probably brought on too many subscribers. So that affected our engagement rates. It’s fine to acquire through contests, but we need to limit the amount of subscribers that come in that way. We’ve learned how to onboard differently, how to interact in the future, and how to churn out audience members that came in through the contest that were maybe less interested in The GIST and more interested in potentially winning something.
WHY YOU STILL NEED TO CREATE A HUMAN CONNECTION
Creating one-on-one relationships with our users and building an authentic community has been a key driver of our organic growth, referral growth, and content connection. People are so tied to social media, people are so tied to their phones, and so focused on what’s happening next in our lives, that at the end of the day people are looking for human connection.
Unlike anything in the world, sports are one thing that can unite people and make people feel something together - sad, mad, or happy, sports are one of those last things. There’s no reason why women can't be a part of having that incredible feeling and having that opportunity to connect with each other over sports.
We're seeing testimonials all the time like, "hey, I was able to join the conversation today with my boss. She's a massive Leafs fan, and I was able to connect with her over William Nylander finally singing for the Leafs," or, "hey, I was able to connect with my son today, who is a massive tennis fan, and I was able to connect with him over Bianca's win," or whatever it may be. But it's both in the office setting as well as in the personal setting with people's loved ones, too.
HOW WE’RE GROWING OUR COMMUNITY
At the beginning we wrote the newsletter in the way we speak for younger millennial woman - the way we text and talk. But, we learned that women of all ages are interested in the Gist. They’re looking for something that's in their inbox that's professional. Because that’s where they’re getting business email. We’ve tried to keep our tone lighthearted and fun, but we’ve refined our tone a lot and the way we add things about pop culture and jokes. We wanted to ensure that anyone, no matter their position in a company, can feel comfortable forwarding our email to other women within their organizations.
We learned quickly that students aren't opening email as much as they used to be when we were in school. We had signed on a bunch of students when we did a big student marketing push - we spoke at conferences and hosted workshops. They told us that they get their news in the morning from Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. So, for us, that's been a big flag of, “okay, let's not market to this age group, until we have a product for them that we know they're really going to like and enjoy through video.” Now, we’re working on delivering this content.
We always respond to Instagram and Facebook comments. We respond to direct messages and emails as fast as we can. Sometimes we're not the best at responding, but we try our best, ask our audience for help, and get people’s opinions. Sometimes, even on our Instagram stories, if we have an idea, we’ll post it and get people to say, “yes” or “no,” and then implementing the idea right away based on feedback. Events have also been a great way to meet our audience and connect one-on-one.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT MYSELF
There are two things I’ve always lived by - they come from my family and playing sports.
The first thing is try your best. It’s easy to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses or comparing yourself to everyone. But as long as you try your best, you have to be happy with yourself; you have to be proud of what you did. It's only when you don't try your best, and you get down on yourself, that you have to tell yourself to get up.
The second one is never give up. Always try to do your part and be ready and put your head down and work. Don't quit, keep going.
There are a lot of incredible women and people in my personal life who I look up to. I have an amazing group of friends from my hometown, but also from university who are all amazing women and do different things. They're inspiring to me, as much as they might not the CEO of a company. Some of them are travelling. Some of them are managers of companies. Some of them are working in film and plays. I get energy from my local girl gang. I feel lucky to be surrounded by the group of girls that I am.
WE’VE COME A LONG WAY
I'm proud of how far we've come. The GIST was a side hustle that we would work on every Sunday. Now we actually work on this company full-time and we’re growing a community of women around sports.
Our goal is to level the playing field in the sports industry, whether that's through conversations or through industry supporting female athletes more.
Our vision of the GIST is to be the go-to source for sports for women. We want to provide a platform where women can consume the GIST how she wants and when she wants.