Biz news site Minyanville founder discusses its strategy
by Chris Roush
Todd Harrison, founder and CEO of Minyanville Media Inc., the business and financial news company that celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this week.
In addition to his presence in the media realm, Harrison has spent 22 years on Wall Street. He worked seven years on the worldwide equity derivative desk at Morgan Stanley as vice president, was managing director of derivatives at The Galleon Group, and was president of the $400 million hedge fund Cramer Berkowitz.
He has appeared on FOX, CNBC, CNN, and Bloomberg TV, and in The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, The New York Times, Worth, Fortune, Barron’s, Dow Jones MarketWatch, New York Magazine, and Canada’s National Post.
Harrison has lectured at numerous academic institutions including Harvard University, Syracuse University, New York University, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also been active in research of financial market learning tendencies among college students, and was a contributing author to “Threat, Intimidation, and Student Financial Market Knowledge: An Empirical Study,” published in the Journal of Education for Business.
Harrison was featured in the 20th anniversary documentary of Oliver Stone’s movie “Wall Street” and in 2008, he received an Emmy Award for his role as executive producer of Minyanville’s “World in Review,” the first and only animated business news show, which featured Huffy the Bull and Boo the Bear.
His first book, “The Other Side of Wall Street: In Business, It Pays to Be an Animal; In Life it Pays to Be Yourself,” was published by FT Press in 2011.
How did you get the idea for Minyanville?
It was a bit of serendipity and a sequence of events. I was running a hedge fund, and I was asked by Jim Cramer, who was my partner at the hedge fund, if I would fill in for him on TheStreet.com while he was on vacation in July 2000. I filled in one day, and then they asked me for the rest of the week. At the end of the week, they wanted me to stay on because my page views were off the chart.
I decided to do it because writing synthesized my thoughts. I started using Hoofy the Bull and Boo the Bear as metaphorical references for my thought processes, and I had fun with it.
About six months into it, toward the end of the year, my grandfather was very sick and I would go down every weekend to see him, so I wasn’t writing as much. My readers were getting on to me for slacking off. They had gotten used to me writing. So I wrote about my grandfather, and they liked it. I was creating this bond with people that I had never met. I decided that if these people were going to be so kind then I was going to reciprocate and give them my thoughts on the market.
On Sept. 11, 2001, it was a difficult day. After watching people hold hands and jump off the towers, I asked myself, “What’s it all about?” I decided to start a new venture that could effect positive change. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the genesis of Minyanville.
How was it funded?
Initially I put well into seven figures into the company. I was coming out the hedge fund world, so I spared no expense. At the time, there was no such things as blogs. I developed the characters, Hoofy and Boo, and spared no expense in building a community for them to live.
Unfortunately, it was akin to the Universal Studios tour. It looked good, but if you looked behind it, there was nothing holding it up. It was an expensive lesson into how the Internet works and monetization of content. In the next few years, I kept at it and eventually we raised some money, and that started the journey.
Did you see a void in financial news to fill?
Yes. The way financial media worked was to give someone a symbol and tell them when to buy and sell. People didn’t know a whole lot about the underlying companies. People wanted to take their fare share of the tech bubble but instead, many got caught in the bust.
We never subscribed to that. We were about teaching people how to fish instead of giving them the fish. We talked about what we did and how we did it, with the caveat that this is what we were doing and not necessarily what the reader you should do. They should make decisions appropriate for their own circumstances.
At the time, we were told to take the word education out of the name of our business plan because it was anathema to profitability. But now we’re being approached by Wall Street firms about how to provide brand-safe content.
How did you attract journalists to the startup?
From day one, our editorial mandate was truth and trust. AT the time, this was before blogs and Twitter. There was a bit of an oligopoly in the financial media space. We were committed to doing it the right way. Your name is your word. These are things that are pretty standard, you think, but they were not at the time.
There was no benefit at the time for us to highlight that the banks were technically insolvent in 2006 or 2007. Nobody wants to know that when the screen is green. But we were always honest. It wasn’t just pie in the sky opinion. We backed it up with analysis that was cogent. We tried to stay away from the name calling and the gutter balling that a lot of people fell into.
What was the big breakthrough for Minyanville?
Probably 2008. That was the year that a few things happened, aside from the crisis. You never want to profit from someone’s pain but we laid out the framework for what happened before it happened. It gave us street cred. We had advertisers pulling ads from us three months before because we were too bearish. But we got in front of the crisis and talked about things before they happened. And it was also the year that we won the Emmy Award for New Approaches to Business and Financial Reporting.
What is next for Hoofy and Boo?
That’s a good question. We have conversations a lot about it. The convergence of digital and television and Internet has opened up a lot of channels. We;re in continuous disdcuissions, and when the right situation presents itself, you will see them again. They’re resting now, and getting ready for their big day.
Who are Minyanville’s readers?
Right now it’s a 45-year-old male, college educated. That’s what our surveys tell us.
Our feeling is that financial empowerment is a need, not a want, at this point. And the tougher it gets, the more people are going to assume more responsibility and want to know how things work. We’re here to effect positive change and understanding. We think that is a viable strategy.
Who do you see as your competitors?
There are competitors in different elements of our business. For our financial commentary, you could argue that TheStreet.com is a competitor, although they are pretty linear. Most media properties cut a horizontal swath through the demographic. What we have tried to do is approach finance as a vertical and through literacy. Earnings, spending, investing and giving are the four constants across your life, and we have tried to build a theme brand across those. In terms of the full Monty of the brand, I don’t see anybody else trying to do that right now.
The tone of the site seems more educational than other business news sites. Is that intentional?
Yes. That’s always been our approach that we have strived to achieve. Finance is a very homogeneous and intimidating. There are a lot of people out there who like to talk and sound smart and tell you what to do. We don’t look at the financial landscape as preacher to congregation, or congregation to congregation. There needs to be managed community.
I use the analogy all of the time. There is basic cable, but there is always the desire for HBO or Showtime. Financial media has a competitive advantage over traditional media in that you can charge more for the timeliness of the content or the quality of the content.
We want people to learn and absorb something with a smile on their face. It’s hard out there these days. We have no problem talking about what we have done wrong and how we feel, not that it’s a tree-hugging environment of danishes and powdered sugar. Trust is an element and a dynamic that you build from telling the truth and sharing what you have done wrong as well as what you have done right.
What are your goals for the next 10 years?
We want to adapt, but not conform. We want to build out the brand in a manner that is in the best manner for our investors. We still think we’re in the early innings of penetrating the mainstream mindset. We need to connect the dots between our various efforts — smart market commentary, award winning animation, our gaming engine for kids, our premium services such as the Buzz & Banter — so that people can see the constellation of how it all fits together.