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May 17, 2016, 10:24 a.m.

Millennial-focused local startup Charlotte Agenda is expanding its model to a second city, Raleigh

The North Carolina startup says it’s profitable and is looking to expand its reach — but it’s not seeking outside funding.

More than a year after launching in North Carolina’s largest city, the local news startup Charlotte Agenda said Tuesday that it’s expanding into the state’s next biggest market — Raleigh.

The site, sensibly called Raleigh Agenda, is scheduled to debut July 1, and will be aimed at Raleigh’s growing population of young professionals. It’s an audience the Charlotte site has found some success in reaching, and the latest growth for a small cohort of local sites targeting young people with lifestyle-heavy coverage.

Ted Williams, the Agenda’s cofounder and publisher, said Raleigh was a logical place for the site to expand because the existing staff is familiar with the city and it will also allow the Agenda to pursue statewide advertisers that seek the sites’ young audience.

“There’s a lot of overlap — our team knows Raleigh pretty well,” Williams said. “From the advertiser side, many of the companies we work with are regional…we think there are some opportunities, once we can reach a little more scale, to grow our current advertising base.”

The Raleigh site will initially be staffed by freelancers, but Williams said he hopes to hire a full-time Raleigh-based employee by the fall. In Charlotte, the Agenda has a staff of five full-time employees, three part-timers, and then a network of 25 or so freelancers.

The Charlotte Agenda is profitable, Williams said, and he expects the site to generate between $600,000 and $800,000 in 2016. Roughly 85 percent of the site’s income comes from advertising and sponsorships. The rest of the site’s revenue is split evenly between a job board, events listings, and a membership program. (More than 400 people pay $5 a month for an Agenda membership, which gets them early access to Agenda events, various discounts, and more.) It averages about 250,000 unique visitors per month and has 15,000 newsletter subscribers with an open rate above 50 percent, he said.

The Agenda launched in April 2015 and has been completely self financed. Williams, cofounder and creative director Katie Levans, editor-in-chief Andrew Dunn, and chief operating officer Cristina Wilson collectively contributed $50,000 last year. The site went through that money in 2015, and began making money in January when a series of ad deals kicked in.

At its launch, Raleigh Agenda will be a scaled down version of its Charlotte counterpart, and because the site hasn’t taken any outside investment, Williams said they want to make sure to grow carefully. There are no advertisers signed up yet for the Raleigh site, but Williams said he expects to have sponsors by the time it launches this summer. The Raleigh site will initially publish fewer stories than the Charlotte version and it won’t have other features, such as the job listings or membership program, at launch. The initial goal in Raleigh is to build an audience and attract newsletter subscribers.

“We are okay having little to no revenue in Raleigh for the remainder of the year, but the goal is very similar to what we did in Charlotte: to launch a lean digital operation, offset some of the startup expenses with revenue from day one, and then build that over time,” Williams said.

Editorially, Raleigh Agenda will be similar to the Charlotte site. It’s not looking to replicate the breadth of the local daily newspaper, instead its focusing on stories that help readers live a “smarter, better local life,” Williams said.

Most of the Agenda’s coverage focuses on local business and entertainment and lifestyle stories — though it’s also covered newsier stories, such as the recent controversy over the North Carolina law that requires individuals to use the restroom that corresponds to their sex at birth. (Its homepage on Monday afternoon featured stories such as “13 things to see, do and eat in downtown Mooresville, 45 minutes north of Charlotte,” “How to make more than just ‘going out’ friends in Charlotte,” and “Cash Confessional: A week of spending in Charlotte on a $33,000 salary.”)

Other startups have taken similar approaches. Before starting the Agenda, Williams led a team at The Charlotte Observer that created Charlotte Five, a site that features a similar mix of content aimed at a younger audience.

There’s also the Philadelphia site Billy Penn, run by digital news veteran Jim Brady, which recently announced that it was expanding to Pittsburgh on the heels of an investment from Gannett.

But unlike Spirited Media, Billy Penn’s parent company, the Agenda isn’t looking for outside funding, Williams said, and it has no additional plans for expansion at the moment.

“I don’t think we would be making this bet if we didn’t think we had an applicable model for certain types of metros out there,” Williams said. “We are currently not fundraising, we’re not looking for investors, and we have no additional plans outside of Raleigh. I think 2017 will be a really important year for us to get two properties running at full capacity that have proven out a profitable model.”

Photo by Dave used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 17, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
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