Why a NYT Editor Left Her Job to Start the News Site Kicker

Kicker is a news website that helps you get up to speed easily by making news digestible, engaging, and actionable.

They're one of the women-led startups who came in 3rd place for the Women Startup Challenge Pitch Competition. Holly Ojalvo and Lisa Vehrenkamp, Kicker Cofounders, are the real deal.

Holly Ojalvo and Lisa Vehrenkamp at the Women Startup Challenge Live Pitch

Kicker provides helpful explanations on the most important and compelling news of the day, along with ways to take action so readers don't feel helpless or hopeless while they're getting their news.

They pride themselves on their voice and style without stooping down to clickbait, emotional manipulation, or dumbing down. If you've missed a big news story recently, Kicker's the easiest place on the web to catch up because they write one Big Story (the biggest news of the day) each weekday, and those stories live on their home page for a few days. They also round up 10 other top stories in their Day in 10 feature, which is easily accessible.

My team and I asked Holly at Kicker a few questions that we were curious about...

There are tons of news sites out there, what inspired you to start another one?

I first had the idea for Kicker when I was at The New York Times, as the deputy editor on a blog that helped teachers use The Times for teaching and learning. Before that, I'd been a high school teacher and student journalism adviser. I realized there was little out there that treated young people as a primary audience in their own right, that took them seriously as news consumers. Mainstream news talks to older adults, not to teens and young adults. And it's often delivered via teachers or professors or parents, rather than to young people directly. Why is news often seen as a homework assignment for young people, rather than just part of normal daily life?

Research showed clearly that young people are curious about the world and want to be in the know, but news products were not fulfilling their needs. They often avoid news because they find it overwhelming, confusing, boring, irrelevant, and/or depressing. I decided I wanted to solve those five problems young people were having with news. I got so excited about that mission that I left The Times to found Kicker.

Why the name Kicker?

First and foremost, I wanted the name to subtly evoke news and action, but not sound overtly newsy--so no Times, or Post, or Tribune, or anything like that. In journalism, the kicker is the end of the story, the takeaway. More generally in any kind of story, it's an interesting twist or turn of events ("the kicker is ..."). And of course the word kicker also suggests action. I really liked that combination of meanings because my vision was for news with a twist and an action element.

We asked the Kicker Team which story's gotten the most engagement, and what's been their favorite so far.

Our story that explained why a little bit of snow makes the South totally shut down, written during a relatively minor snowstorm that paralyzed a few Southern states, by a writer from Tennessee, has been viewed over 150,000 times--entirely through viral, organic sharing. That's the power of engagement right there.

It's hard to pick a favorite story out of over 6,000 posts we've published. One of my all-time favorites is the first Kicker post that got traffic in the five figures. We published it just four months after we went live. It was January 2013, and there was a flu epidemic, and there were tons of blaring, alarmist news reports about flu, with little context or service to the reader. So we put up a post called "The No-Nonsense, Non-Alarmist, Essential Guide to the Flu" that calmly put the flu stats in context and told you key, helpful info about the flu and what to do about it if you have it ... and manages to be a fun read, with YouTube clips and amusing photos.

We're living in a society where trustworthy news should matter more than it seems to. As I've been saying, the press should be the immune system of democracy, and needs to fulfill that role again. I asked Kicker, How do you ensure fact checking?

Kicker has two editorial layers--I'm the editor in chief, and my smart and talented associate editors work with Kicker's writers. Together, we work hard to verify and synthesize information, and to put it into helpful context.

It helps that Kicker is more slow news than breaking news, and we cover just the top stories of the day. So we're not in a big rush, and we're not just churning out content at breakneck speeds just for the sake of pageviews. We're genuinely mission-driven. Kicker is your afternoon or evening catch-up on what's been happening today. (Our newsletter comes out in the evening so readers can catch up before their evening social activities instead of waiting til the next morning.) Our schedule buys us a little time to check things and to update a story we started writing in the morning and are editing to publish in the early afternoon. For Kicker readers, that means you get a news story that's fully contained, all in one place, with verified and updated information, instead of having to follow it as it develops in dribs and drabs throughout the day and worrying about missing a critical update.

What kind of traction are you getting with your product? How do you plan to scale?

Kicker will be 3 years old in September 2015. Amazingly, we've grown more than 500% in the past 12 months, on an almost laughably small budget. When we see our numbers soaring or get emails or tweets from happy readers, that really shows us that we're onto something big here with Kicker. There's clearly a hunger for what we're doing--more than a quickie overview, less (and more engaging) than traditional longform.

Beyond pure traffic, we're seeing high levels of engagement--the open and click rates on our email newsletter are way higher than average for media, and readers are spending a long time on our pages, so we know they are really consuming the content.

But, who are these readers consuming Kicker's content?

Our audience is close to 65% millennial--way more than other sites in our space that have millions in funding. I get emails from college students and recent grads who say they feel like we really get them. Just the other day someone wrote to me saying, "Kicker is what my generation deserves." I loved that.

To grow, we're focusing even more on social media, on initiatives like our campus rep program, and on partnering with other organizations. We're eager to keep reaching more and more people who want to get in the know and want to be part of positive change, and find that Kicker is just what they're looking for.

What has been the biggest challenge in founding Kicker?

For the first 18 months, I was a solo, bootstrapping founder. It was exciting, and freeing in a way, but it was incredibly challenging to develop a startup and publish 6 days a week and hire and manage freelancers and grow the company entirely on my own. It's just impossible for one person to have all the skills and the time a startup needs at the top. Joining forces with my business partner, Lisa Vehrenkamp, who I've known for years, was a turning point. She brings deep expertise and experience in managing people and businesses. Plus, she's also really cool and smart and fun.

Now our biggest challenge is having the bandwidth to do everything we want to do. We're ambitious and driven to serve our audience.

What's one of the most entertaining tweets you've gotten at the Kicker office?

Once we produced a quiz called "Who Said What: Vladimir Putin or Perez Hilton?"--and Perez Hilton saw it, and loved it, and tweeted at us (and, very generously, shared it widely). I just thought it was so funny that Perez himself got such a kick out of it. We're still waiting to hear from Putin.

What does a morning in the life of a Kicker founder look like?

Holly, hard at work at Kicker

I confess that I do that thing you're not supposed to do when you first wake up: Check email, social media, and news apps before getting out of bed at 6:30. Then I have a healthy smoothie with my family and take my daughter to school. Often then I go for a run--that helps me feel more energized and focused.

By 9 am, if not before, I'm working on choosing the topic for our Big Story, if I haven't chosen it already. I email the editor and writer with the assignment by 9:30, and we work together on the specific direction and approach. I also get in touch with the Day in 10 editor and writer, and we start filling in the list of what we're covering today by monitoring what's bubbling up. By 11 or so I usually meet up with Lisa to work on pressing non-editorial items like marketing or partnerships, and my day is off and running at a million miles an hour.

How can folks support you in your startup?

Spread the word about Kicker. Right now Kicker is a sleeper hit. Every week we get emails from people who discovered Kicker--usually through social media or a friend--and are so glad they did. We know there are millions of people out there who would love and appreciate Kicker--we just need to reach them. So word of mouth is helpful. When a friend or someone you follow and trust on social media recommends something, you're more likely to check it out. We would also appreciate connections to potential investors and partners in the media space.

Check 'em out, sign up, and follow 'em, folks: