How an entrepreneur turned his pet food startup into a viral website with more than a million visitors a day
Petflow raised $15 million in venture capital funding from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners. Speiser says Petflow created its Facebook page back in 2011 with the goal of attracting potential customers who might want to buy pet food, sharing a ton of animal-related pictures to the page to drive customer interest.
"We built up a fairly large audience to literally sell pet food between the years of 2010 and 2014," he told Business Insider.
Then, things changed.
"By 2014, we recognized that while e-commerce is great, we have a lot more fun working on digital media and content," Speiser said. "And that fit really well with our audience, which was women over 35 who just loved anything inspiring and feel good. Dog, cat, pet-related, and non-pet feel-good type of articles."
They started creating more and more content for Petflow's blog, and traffic just "took off," Speiser said.
"We recognized very early on in 2014 that what we had here was a much bigger story than just a media side of the business for Petflow. We actually had a media organization, a whole publishing unit," Speiser says.
In September 2014, Speiser and Zhardanovsky decided to leverage their audience for Petflow, spin out the business, and started producing a ton of content for their new venture, called LittleThings.com. The site usually posts adorable videos of animals and other kinds of feel-good, uplifting content: stories and videos of police officers doing good for citizens, underdog stories, and kitchen hacks.
Little Things has grown rapidly since its inception one year ago. In January 2015, the company had one employee. Now, eight months later, it has 50, and the media company is building out a video studio to produce more original content. Speiser proudly says Little Things has been profitable and revenue rich from day one.
When Little Things launched, its traffic was much lower than other viral content properties like Viral Nova, Elite Daily, and Upworthy. But its traffic is spiking now. Little Things' Facebook page is approaching 7 million fans, and its website draws between 35 million and 45 million monthly unique visitors.
"You're going to have a really hard time finding a network as powerful as Facebook"
If you've never heard of Little Things, you're not alone - though you've likely seen someone share one of their stories in your Facebook News Feed.
"We've been calling ourselves the biggest brand nobody's ever heard of," Speiser said. "We command a pretty large amount of eyeballs out there, but brand-wise, we're pretty new to the market. It's an uphill battle getting our name out there, just now because we just started coming out from under the radar."
According to Speiser, Little Things gets about 80-85% of its traffic from the backbone of Facebook.
"Facebook is the biggest firehouse of social traffic out there," he said. "People talk a lot about 'OK, I'm gonna try to diversify, get more traffic on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or Snapchat.' But in reality, you're going to have a really hard time finding a network as powerful as Facebook. It's just a really massive social network that does phenomenally well for feel good content."
In the past year, Facebook has cracked down on viral sites and changed its Newsfeed algorithm to show fewer of their stories. The changes have killed off some competitors in the viral content space. In 2014, Viral Nova founder Scott DeLong tweeted that running a business on Facebook was "like opening a McDonald's on an active volcano."
Standing out in the crowd
It's no secret that there are a number of media properties doing viral content today, though the numbers are thinning as many make their exits. Viral Nova just sold for as much as $100 million. Elite Daily was recently acquired by the Daily Mail for about $50 million; Mic has gone on to raise tens of millions in funding, and Twitter has reportedly offered to buy it. Upworthy and Distractify have largely fallen off the map.
So how does Little Things make a name for itself?
"Because we solely focus on feel-good content, people know it's a safe environment where they can consume content and advertisers can buy ads," Speiser said. "Viral Nova spans a spectrum for all sorts of content. They don't really have a focus. And Upworthy is a lot more political than we'd like to be. We don't just curate - we find and create. We're looking for the pieces of inspiring, uplifting content that have yet to be discovered."
Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and promoting something that everyone else has already promoted, Speiser says, LittleThings wants to find videos or stories with very few views, and amplify those stories - 'diamonds in the rough," he calls them. Curation is 70% of what Little Things does, he says, and 30% is in-house, original work done by the company's growing video team, its illustrators, graphic designers, and editors.
Little Things is trying to figure out the Facebook video game, and to do that, the company is producing a little over 100 videos a month to see what works and what doesn't.
"Video's going to be a huge focus for us," Speiser said. "Facebook is opening up the spigot in terms of monetization of these videos. You need to be producing your own internal, original content, or else you're going to be left out in the cold."
Shunning millennials in favor of Facebook moms
"Every publisher out there is yelling on top of the roof about how many millennials they have," Speiser said.
Instead of doing the same thing, Little Things is going after another audience: women who are 35 and older. These women tend to spend significantly more as consumers, making them attractive to advertisers. And they have more time on their hands than a millennial would, so they're likely to spend more time clicking around the website and sharing stories to Facebook.
Like other digital media properties, Little Things is run mostly by programmatic advertising, meaning its advertising is performance-based and driven. Little Things gets three times the number of clickthroughs on ads that a publication with a millennial-heavy audience would have - its audience clicks on 2.5% to 3.5% on their ads, versus the industry standard of millennials of less than 1%.
"All of our writers have sources, of course," Maia McCann, Little Things's content director, told the Washington Post this year. "But I always tell writers to go on Facebook and, you know - look at their moms."
Speiser says anything wedding-related, birthing announcements, army reunions, videos of police officers doing something good for citizens, and underdog stories are all part of Little Things' formula for success.
"It leaves you feeling good as a viewer, and that's exactly what we're trying to impart on people," he said. "You come to us to leave feeling good, to feel better about your day."