With Six Million Uniques, Upworthy Gets $4M From NEA to Find More Virals That Aren’t Cat Videos
In March, a new start-up called Upworthy launched a site that promised to find viral content on important topics. It seemed an earnest aspiration — it’s like cat videos, but serious! — that was unlikely to work.
Well, early traffic numbers have actually been rather good — Upworthy got six million unique visitors in September — so now investors, including venture capital firm NEA, are ponying up some money for a supersized seed round.
Upworthy told us it has raised $4 million from NEA and a collection of angel investors including BuzzFeed co-founder John Johnson, Facebook co-founder and New Republic owner Chris Hughes and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
Traffic jumped over the past few months, said Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn, who co-founded the site with Peter Koechley, former managing editor of The Onion.
Upworthy went from 2.5 million uniques in July to four million in August to six million in September.
And that wasn’t just because of political content in a big election year. The site’s most significant breakout hit this month, according to Pariser, was a video it found of a news anchor responding to someone calling her fat. That has more than four million views on Upworthy so far.
Other big recent Upworthy hits have been on topics like gay marriage, including Mitt Romney Accidentally Confronts A Gay Veteran; Awesomeness Ensues and If This Video Makes You Uncomfortable, Then You Make Me Uncomfortable. (The site prides itself on its attention-grabby headlines.)
What’s interesting is that so far the major social referrers have been a smaller part of Upworthy than might have been thought. Facebook is starting to be important — Upworthy is now up past 425,000 Facebook fans, with about half of them joining in the past month — but “We haven’t been really good at Twitter as a traffic source,” said Pariser.
So far, Upworthy has found that Twitter is “a great place to interact with a community, but people on Twitter mostly want to talk on Twitter,” he explained.
Even as it figures out the nuances of social sharing, Upworthy seems to be getting the jet boost of network effects that makes today’s sites grow faster than ever. NEA partner Patrick Chung said, “This is growing faster than any media company we’ve seen,” comparing it to the early days of Groupon, which NEA invested in before it got big.
Upworthy isn’t the only new news site that seems to be growing quickly — in tech, The Verge is another — but it’s faster than the growth in recent years of media start-ups like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Mediaite, none of which had six million uniques a year after launch.
For Chung — who said he was brought into the deal by his friend Chris Hughes — his investment in Upworthy has a bit of a moral tinge to it. “The general level of mass discourse in this country is not very impressive,” he told AllThingsD. “When you have a platform as powerful as what we’ve invented (a.k.a. the Internet), it is a crying shame when it’s used for cat videos.”
“If I see another social media photo-sharing site I will scream,” Chung said, “but this is so different. It’s so optimistic; it’s the triumph of quality.”
Chung added that he wasn’t particularly worried about a business model for Upworthy, with multiple options available given the audience it has amassed. NEA is carving out a bit of a new media category along with other investments in BuzzFeed, SAY Media and Punch Media.
So what’s next for Upworthy? The 13-person company, which has a distributed staff of “curators” and product folks, is interested in creating and giving a platform to more original stuff. As Pariser put it, “We’re good at writing good headlines, but that’s a different skill than putting together great longform content.”