Entrepreneurs: Ben Lerer, Thrillist Co-Founder

If Maxim is written for a hormone-crazed 18-year-old boys, Thrillist is for the 20-something post-college guys excited to gain "man about town" status. Thrillist provides a daily email dose of what's new, good, and (hopefully) within credit card limits in 19 different cities, and nationally. The writing is always smart, and oftentimes hilarious. The city editors are vigilant in tracking openings and events. And Thrillist knows its audience, and caters to them -- sneaking in the occasional aspirational post about a fractional jet service, but always balancing it out with a subsequent post on a food truck.
Both of the Thrillist founders readily admit that when they started the business, they were more in it for the lifestyle benefits than any notion of financial viability. "I wanted to make a change, and work on my own terms," says co-founder Ben Lerer, who started Thrillist after becoming disillusioned with a post-college job working for hotelier Andre Balasz -- traveling a significant portion of each month, and pulling the late-night/weekend hours required in the hospitality business. "I had an idea I thought was compelling. But I thought Thrillist would be a hobby, and that I was going to go to business school. I thought maybe Thrillist would help me get in."
That desire notwithstanding, the early Thrillist did not follow any business school golden rules. There was no long-term strategy, no marketing plan, and no real attempt to determine their demographic.
"At first, I was just constantly harassing all my friends, asking them to please email it to all their friends," remembers Lerer. "We weren't very sophisticated about how we developed an audience, but we were tireless in creating great content. And that did the work for us, because we were covering New York in a way other people weren't, and we found an audience of people who appreciated it and educated their friends."
The core New York staff all found Thrillist organically through that friend/reader network. "They all had a passion for what we were doing, and all were very entrepreneurial in their own right," describes Lerer. The process of expanding out to other cities -- first Los Angeles, then Chicago, then Las Vegas -- was careful and slow, and excruciating when it came to finding staff that would mesh with the Thrillist core team. Yet many of the very first staffers, including Los Angeles editor Jeff Miller, are still with the company today.
Ironically, Lerer never made it to business school, but together with partner Adam Rich, he's built Thrillist into a company that employs 130 people, reports $30 million in revenue in 2010, and reaches three million subscribers daily. While the easiest description used to be Daily-Candy-for-dudes, the company recently diversified with its launch of Thrillist Rewards (exclusive "city insider" experiences, highly discounted, available to Thrillist members only) and purchase of flash-sale fashion site JackThreads.com. Pilot Group, the private investment firm co-founded by former MTV and AOL CEO Bob Pittman, is Thrillist's only investor, and Lerer describes Pittman as a "close friend and advisor."
The key to Thrillist's success may be that, although its founders have admittedly exceeded every dream they ever had for its success, they have not forgotten why they started -- or who got them there. While other media groups might throw exclusive parties for celebs and VIPs and let their fans look at the pictures on their website, Thrillist lets as many readers as possible in the door. Looking around this year's Hotel Thrillist party -- an annual weekend-long bash for staffers, sponsors, friends and invited readers -- it was impossible to tell who belonged to which group. In swim trunks and flip-flops, with a rum drink in one hand and a pool toy in the other, young-money media moguls and MBA students look pretty much the same.

 
Lena Katz is the senior travel correspondent for JustLuxe, and covers trends, tastemakers, news and more.