20VC The Future of Subscription Media, Why Startups Need To Stop Blaming Facebook and Google & How Founders Should Think Through Customer Acquisition Channel Dependencies with Alex Mather, Founder & CEO @ The Athletic



In this engaging conversation, host Harry Stebbings interviews Alex Mather, the founder and CEO of The Athletic, a sports media startup that has raised over $139 million. Mather shares his journey from being an engineer to leading a hypergrowth phase at Strava and eventually founding The Athletic to offer in-depth sports stories through a subscription model. He emphasizes the importance of focus, inclusivity, and leveraging subscription models to directly cater to consumers. Mather also discusses the challenges and strategies of scaling rapidly, particularly in the UK, and the evolution of his leadership style to prioritize effective communication within the company. Throughout the discussion, Mather underscores the necessity of adapting to modern media consumption habits and the potential pitfalls of relying on platforms like Facebook and Google for revenue.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Alex Mather

  • Harry Stebbings introduces Alex Mather, founder and CEO of The Athletic.
  • Alex Mather has raised over $139 million for The Athletic from renowned investors.
  • Prior to The Athletic, Alex spent five years at Strava, contributing to its hypergrowth phase.
  • Harry thanks various individuals for their contributions to the episode.

"I'm very excited to welcome Alex Mather, founder and CEO at the Athletic, the startup bringing you in-depth sports stories you won't hear anywhere else. To date, Alex has raised over $139,000,000 with the Athletic from some of the best in the business."

This quote introduces Alex Mather, highlighting his role at The Athletic and his success in fundraising.

Sponsorship and Advertisement

  • Harry Stebbings endorses Carter, a platform for managing equity, cap tables, and valuations.
  • Carter's services include fund administration with real-time data.
  • Digits.com is promoted for its intuitive financial software that analyzes company spending.
  • Terminal.io is mentioned as a resource for connecting with global talent for remote engineering teams.

"Carter Carter simplifies how startups and investors manage equity, track cap tables and get valuations."

This quote explains the purpose of Carter and its relevance to startups and investors.

Alex Mather's Background and The Athletic's Genesis

  • Alex Mather's career began as an engineer, sparked by an interest in programming for a Palm Pilot.
  • His passion for consumer products led him to work at Xfinity TV and eventually to Strava.
  • At Strava, Alex embraced the subscription business model and its consumer focus.
  • Combining his passion for sports and subscription models, Alex saw an opportunity in sports media, leading to the creation of The Athletic.

"I became an engineer through that experience and loved it... Strava felt like such a natural place to work... I'm also a passionate sports fan... I love sports and thought, hey, media is an opportunity."

This quote outlines Alex Mather's journey from engineering to founding The Athletic, driven by his passions for technology, sports, and subscription business models.

Subscription Business Model

  • Harry and Alex discuss the merits of the subscription model, emphasizing accountability and quality.
  • Subscription models require providers to continuously deliver high-quality products to retain customers.

"For me, it's just the accountability that it places on the provider to continuously offer the best products and really having to maintain that quality and standard."

This quote captures the essence of why subscription models are favored for their emphasis on consistent quality and provider accountability.

Lessons from Strava

  • Alex reflects on the importance of focus, avoiding the trap of pursuing too many ideas at once.
  • He learned the value of inclusivity over exclusivity, aiming to cater to a broader audience rather than a niche one.
  • These lessons from Strava were applied to The Athletic, ensuring it appeals to all sports fans.

"What I came back to, as we got better in the company, was focusing as many people in the company on a shorter list of things that have an objective."

This quote emphasizes the lesson Alex learned about focus and setting clear objectives to guide a company's efforts.

Resource Allocation and Expansion

  • Alex discusses the challenge of prioritizing tasks and resources in a startup.
  • Decisions are driven by the company's unique characteristics and potential for differentiation.
  • The Athletic's rapid expansion into the UK exemplifies its ability to move quickly and leverage its capitalization.

"We really felt, hey, one of our biggest advantages as a company is how quickly we move and how well we're capitalized... we had 55 full-time employees in the UK... we're well north of 100,000 paying subscribers in the UK."

This quote illustrates how The Athletic's strategic advantages were utilized to successfully expand into the UK market.## Competitive Advantage

  • The speaker emphasizes the importance of focusing on what makes their company different in order to create a more durable business.
  • They mention having a large, talented newsroom and combining it with their tech and Silicon Valley DNA to create unique experiences.
  • The ability to move quickly and access capital is seen as a key strength, especially when competing with older, established companies.

"That's an example of us saying, hey, this is one of our biggest advantages, knowing that we can move quickly and have all this capital. Let's go and compete with companies that are over 200 years old."

This quote highlights the strategic use of the company's agility and capital as leverage to compete with long-standing companies.

Talent Acquisition Challenges

  • Alex discusses the challenges of scaling up the company's UK team from the US, particularly addressing misconceptions about conservatism in UK professionals.
  • He talks about specific challenges like garden leave and the personal difficulty of frequent travel shortly after having a child.
  • The overall experience of expanding in the UK was described as grueling but rewarding.

"Well, I think the challenges are almost always different as you go into different countries."

Alex is pointing out that each country presents unique challenges when scaling a business internationally.

Leadership Evolution

  • Alex has seen his leadership style evolve over four and a half years, noting that the CEO role changes frequently.
  • He emphasizes the importance of viewing leadership as a craft and committing to continuous improvement through learning and communication.
  • He mentions the shift from hands-on tasks like coding to focusing on communication as the company grew from zero to 550 employees.

"And the biggest shift now, going from zero to 550 employees, is I used to write code and thankfully they don't let me anymore. But now my job is communication."

Alex explains how his role has transitioned from technical work to primarily focusing on communication within the company.

Communication as a Leadership Tool

  • Alex stresses the importance of being natural and authentic in communication, avoiding the pitfalls of trying to be someone you're not.
  • He highlights the value of transparency and keeping staff informed, especially during times of crisis like the pandemic.
  • Alex and his co-founder share a commitment to direct and honest communication with their team.

"So all these things, I think it has to be natural. If you're faking it, if you're trying to be someone you're not, it's just not going to work."

This quote emphasizes the importance of authenticity in leadership communication.

Learning from Mistakes

  • Alex reflects on a mistake made during an interview with the New York Times and its negative fallout.
  • He discusses the importance of managing media relations and recommends investing in skilled communications professionals.
  • The experience led to a commitment to develop a strategic approach to dealing with the press.

"And I said, I'm just going to take this problem on and learn how to interact with the press in a meaningful way."

Alex acknowledges a past mistake and his resolve to improve his interaction with the media.

Parenthood and Leadership

  • Alex shares how having a child has influenced his approach to leadership and decision-making.
  • He expresses a desire to live up to the standards he aspires to for his son, Gabriel, and to never disappoint him.

"And everything I do now, I think about what he would think about me if he knew."

Parenthood has instilled in Alex a sense of responsibility and a standard of conduct that affects his professional life.

Fundraising for a Subscription Media Company

  • Alex discusses the difficulties of raising funds for a subscription media company in 2016, when subscriptions and media were seen as unattractive to investors.
  • He points out that the lack of investor interest created a moat for the company, as they were able to pioneer in a space where others were hesitant to enter.
  • The speaker values being a trailblazer and believes it has given them a significant head start in the media industry.

"And the folks who did, hopefully, were going to make it worth their while."

Alex expresses gratitude towards the investors who believed in their vision, suggesting that their faith will be rewarded.

Securing the First Major Investment

  • Alex recalls the moment when they secured their first lead seed investor who believed in the potential of their company.
  • He highlights the significance of that inflection point in the company's journey.

"Can you remember that moment and what was it?"

Harry is asking Alex to recount the pivotal moment of securing their first major investment, which is a milestone for any startup.## Early Investor Support

  • The first check for Alex Mather's company was from the founder of Strava, followed by Charles Hudson at Precursor.
  • Charles Hudson focused on understanding the founders as people rather than just the business idea.
  • This approach and support from an investor provided a significant confidence boost to the founders.

"Charles is amazing, and he went through a completely different process than anyone we talked to at that stage. And he learned about us as people as opposed to the idea."

This quote highlights Charles Hudson's unique approach to investing by prioritizing the character and potential of the founders over the initial state of their business idea. It emphasizes the importance of investor belief in the founders for boosting their confidence.

Founders Fund Investment Philosophy

  • Founders Fund believes that founders can drive the biggest returns due to their big ideas.
  • The philosophy suggests that too much meddling from investors can be destructive rather than constructive.
  • Founders Fund trusts founders, holds them accountable, and sets a high bar, offering advice when sought.

"And what's amazing about founders fund is they believe in you as a founder, and they trust you as a founder, but that doesn't mean they just disappear."

This quote explains that while Founders Fund places significant trust in founders, they remain engaged and provide accountability and support, which is critical for the growth and success of the business.

Being an Effective Board Member

  • Board members should demonstrate genuine care for the company, the founders, and the journey.
  • A caring board member is honest yet supportive, aligning incentives and contributing significantly to the founder's motivation.

"And the difference between someone who cares and someone who doesn't is so meaningful to the founder. Because this is our life, right?"

Alex Mather emphasizes the impact of a board member's genuine care on founders, noting that it can be a defining factor in the relationship and the company's trajectory.

Subscription Media Landscape

  • The future of subscription media may consist of mega platforms and niche creators, with the middle ground disappearing.
  • Alex Mather agrees with this binary split and describes their company as an "empire" in this context, focusing on margins and providing a comprehensive sports bundle.
  • The Athletic aims to build a large, profitable business by owning the entire customer experience and capturing all revenue.

"We are the empire as opposed to the rebels, or the Amazon as opposed to the Shopify."

Alex Mather uses this analogy to position his company as a dominant player in the media landscape, akin to an empire, which contrasts with the smaller, independent creators ("rebels").

Margin Business Model

  • The Athletic focuses on capturing the full value from customers by owning the entire experience.
  • This contrasts with platforms like Substack that take a cut from creators' revenue.
  • The Athletic's goal is to build a profitable business based on margins from customers.

"On our side, we own the entire experience. And so we're capturing a lot more of the value of our smaller category."

This quote explains The Athletic's business model, which prioritizes owning the customer experience and revenue, leading to potentially higher margins compared to platforms that operate on a revenue-sharing model.

Competition with Substack

  • Alex Mather does not view Substack as a direct competitor to The Athletic.
  • While individual writers might compete on the margins, The Athletic's bundled offering for sports is seen as more comprehensive.
  • The Athletic may be interested in successful Substack writers, offering them support through its platform's resources.

"I don't see it as a competitive force at all."

Alex Mather dismisses the idea that Substack is a competitive threat, suggesting that The Athletic's broader offering and support infrastructure for writers provide a distinct and non-competitive value proposition.

Media Landscape Concerns

  • Alex Mather criticizes the media industry's tendency to blame Google and Facebook for its challenges.
  • He believes media companies should adapt to the current landscape and make these platforms work for their business.
  • The Athletic is focused on solving problems and thriving in a digital world rather than dwelling on the past.

"If you can't make your business thrive in this world where Facebook and Google exist, that's on you. Stop whining. Like, start figuring it out."

This quote expresses frustration with media companies that refuse to adapt and blame external factors for their struggles. It underscores the importance of proactive problem-solving and innovation in the current media environment.## Reliance on Facebook and Google for Revenue

  • Media companies relying on Facebook and Google for revenue could face long-term issues.
  • Overreliance on these platforms for customer acquisition costs (CACs) is concerning, especially when strategies are predominantly focused on them.
  • Subscription businesses may have different outcomes using these platforms compared to advertising-driven businesses.

"I think that's going to hurt them way down the road. And I think that that could be a big problem in media if folks are counting on Facebook and Google for revenue." "For you, as a media subscription business, does it work from a unit economics perspective to have customer acquisition strategies centrally focused around Facebook?"

These quotes highlight the potential risks associated with media companies depending too heavily on tech giants like Facebook and Google for their revenue streams, particularly through customer acquisition strategies.

Media Subscription Business Model

  • Success has been found using platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Google for user acquisition.
  • Content is used to grow the business, with a focus on mastering the platforms to control destiny.
  • Data-driven strategies involve monitoring article performance, paywall clicks, subscriber engagement, and plan page visits.
  • Automation is used to quickly determine the worth of investing in content promotion on platforms.
  • A dedicated team manages this process, which is crucial for growth in an environment where platforms dominate customer attention.
  • Unit economics work for subscription businesses as revenue is generated off subscribers, making the CACs workable.

"We have had an incredible amount of success using platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Google to acquire users." "And the cool thing that we're doing, and I think that this is where hopefully more companies will go, which is how do you use your content to grow your business?"

These quotes emphasize the effectiveness of using major platforms for customer acquisition in a subscription business model and the importance of leveraging content to drive growth.

Data-Driven Content Promotion

  • Real-time data analysis is used to assess the performance of content.
  • Automated systems post content to platforms like Facebook and determine its success rapidly.
  • An entire team is dedicated to this data-driven approach, which is necessary for survival and growth.

"So within minutes of an article being out, we can learn, is it worth putting money behind? And then it's automatically posted to Facebook."

This quote explains the process of using data analytics to make informed decisions on content promotion, highlighting the speed and automation involved in the strategy.

Nonviolent Resistance Literature

  • Alex Mather is currently re-reading "The Kingdom of God Is Within You" by Leo Tolstoy.
  • The book discusses nonviolent resistance and has influenced historical figures like Gandhi and the civil rights movement.
  • The book is relevant to current events in the U.S. and provides thoughtful insights.

"The kingdom of God is within you by Leo Tolstoy. And I remember reading it a decade or so ago and being fascinated by it."

This quote shares Alex Mather's current reading interest, pointing to the timeless relevance of Tolstoy's work on nonviolent resistance and its impact on his thinking.

Personal Leadership Qualities

  • Alex Mather identifies his passion as both his biggest strength and weakness.
  • His passion drives him forward and makes him a good leader but can also lead to trouble.

"It's my passion. It is absolutely what drives me forward. It's what makes me a good leader. It's what also gets me into trouble 99% of the time."

This quote reveals the dual nature of passion in leadership, serving as a source of strength and potential difficulty.

Tech Industry and Pragmatism

  • Alex Mather wishes to see more pragmatism over principles in the tech industry.
  • He advocates for adding nuance to discussions, avoiding bifurcation, and solving problems collaboratively.

"Thought is becoming too much of a religion right now. And I really love just we talk to our newsroom about this a lot, like, add nuance, don't take nuance away."

The quote calls for a more nuanced and pragmatic approach in the tech industry, moving away from polarized thinking and towards cooperative problem-solving.

Beliefs About People

  • Alex Mather believes that most people are inherently good.
  • This optimistic view contrasts with common skepticism.

"That most people are good and mean?"

This quote succinctly expresses Alex Mather's belief in the fundamental goodness of people, showcasing his optimistic outlook.

Scaling Challenges

  • Communicating effectively as a company scales is a major challenge.
  • As an antisocial person by nature, Alex finds the repetitive nature of communication especially difficult.
  • He is learning the importance of providing context and clear communication to a growing team.

"It's committing to the job of communicating all day long."

This quote highlights the critical role of communication in scaling a business and the personal challenge it poses for leaders like Alex who are more introverted.


  • Michael Horbath, founder and CEO of Strava, is a significant mentor to Alex Mather.
  • The key lesson learned is to care deeply for all aspects of the business, including the people and customers.

"And it's caring for the business you're creating, caring for the people you hire, caring for your customers, caring for every part of the thing that you're giving to the world and really, really making that a priority."

This quote encapsulates the central takeaway from Alex Mather's mentorship experience, emphasizing the importance of care in all facets of business.

Future of The Athletic

  • The Athletic plans to expand globally, leveraging sports as a unifier.
  • There is a focus on innovating how people consume news, moving away from current platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
  • Investment in the newsroom has been significant, with future plans to reveal new ways of news consumption.

"We're a company that is committed to innovating on how people consume news."

The quote outlines The Athletic's ambition to revolutionize news consumption and to expand its global footprint in the sports journalism industry.

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