- Axios has lost its top three technical executives, all in the past six months.
- They were heads of technology, product, and design, and were key to the company delivering on its selling point of providing news in a reader-friendly way.
- The online media startup has grown rapidly through advertising, which some sources said has led to tensions with the product side.
- Axios’ cofounder said the company is as obsessed with audience as ever and is on track to grow revenue again in 2019.
Axios was founded on the idea of delivering “smart brevity.” In the past six months, all of the technical leadership that’s key to carrying out that mission has left the company.
Those departing had been with the company since its start or early on: Matt Boggie left as CTO in September after two years; Alexis Lloyd, the chief design officer, left in July after two years; and Emma Schwartz, VP of product, left in November after a year and a half.
They reported, variously, to cofounders Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz.
Several design team members also have left, sources said.
Axios was launched in January 2017 by VandeHei, Schwartz and Mike Allen, with a plan to take the rapid-fire media model they built at Politico and apply it more broadly to serve busy professionals with tightly written business and politics newsletters, formatted for mobile devices.
They started it with $10 million in funding led by perennial media VC backer Lerer Hippeau Ventures, along with NBC News, Emerson Collective, Greycroft Partners, and Atlantic Media owners David and Katherine Bradley. Axios’ manifesto listed principles such as “reader first,” “elegant efficiency,” and “smart, always.”
Tensions arose over product, sources said
Product has become an increasingly important function at media companies as people get news and information on more screens and platforms and expect the experience to be user-friendly and uniform regardless of where they access it.
While Axios had a product-focused mission, had product execs from the start, and built its own content management system, tensions arose between people on the technical side and the founders over how that mission would get carried out, three former employees said.
Common refrains were that conversations about product often ended with leaders saying, “What is product?,” or top staff would “bring in people with expertise and be unwilling to listen to it,” the ex-employees said.
VandeHei made waves early on by saying Axios would launch a subscription product costing as much as $10,000 a year. The company has put that offering on hold indefinitely, saying it made sense to chase advertising while it was still plentiful.
Tensions between the ad and product side at ad-driven media companies are inherent. The ad side wants to maximize revenue, which can conflict with the user experience. At Axios, ex-employees said, the lofty goal of serving the reader sometimes ran up against the pursuit of ad dollars.
For one thing, the company has launched multiple newsletters, for a total of 18, which, as some see it, runs the risk of confusing readers. There are three devoted to finance and markets, for example: Axios Edge, Axios Markets, and Pro Rata.
And Axios just bought Kendall Baker’s Sports Internet newsletter and will relaunch it as Axios Sports January 7.
A planned mobile app was another sore point mentioned by some former employees. The goal was to make the app distinct from the website but leaders would add web-like features that would water down the differentiation, people involved said. Months of work later, the app never came out as the project ended up being delayed to this year.
Defenders of the company insist it is just as obsessed with the user experience as ever.
“We are obsessed with being audience first — it’s literally the first tenet of our Axios manifesto and the first thing we discuss when designing a new feature or rolling out a new coverage area,” VandeHei said.
Axios is on track to double revenue in 2019
And by its own accounts, Axios is still in strong growth mode. It has said revenuewould double in 2018, to more than $20 million, and projects doubling revenue yet again in 2019. Axios has 145 employees, up from 35 at launch, and plans to add another 60 in 2019. Original and new investorsput in another $20 millionless than a year after the company’s founding.
The company is looking for heads of tech and product with an emphasis on people who have product experience as it shifts away from design. It’s hired a Silicon Valley search firm to handle the searches.
“Axios has grown and changed in ways that no one could have imagined. We’re grateful for our alumni, and they’ll always be part of our DNA and our creation story. We’re growing and hiring, and actively looking for talent,” VandeHei said.
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