How Diply topped Deloitte's Fast 50 list and why it's a brand to watch in 2018

We talked to Diply’s co-founder and CEO, Taylor Ablitt, to learn how this London, Ont.-based social publisher for millennials became one of Canada’s fastest growing companies. (Diply)

Now in its twentieth year, Deloitte’s Technology ‘Fast 50’ Program recognizes companies based on “innovation, rapid revenue growth, entrepreneurial spirit, and the world-class achievements of the Canadian technology industry.”  A company’s “fast growth” has been measured over the last four years with revenue being a key factor in its rank. Companies within technology, media and telecommunications are evaluated.

Diply, which reported a 92,881 per cent revenue growth from 2013 to 2016, publishes 1,500 articles and 150 videos monthly that are targeted to North American millennials. The company boasts over 71 million users across its digital platforms with 1.4 billion video views and 5 billion Facebook social impressions each month.  Diply co-founders Taylor Ablitt and Dean Elkholy started with an idea of creating communities online. They set up a few channels on Facebook and within three months had grown to half a million fans, according to Ablitt.

Ablitt, like many entrepreneurs, quit his job as an accountant in London, Ont., and although at first he wasn’t “huge into social” he was looking for the next opportunity so when Elkholy (a friend a few years his junior whom he regularly talked business with) came with an idea that finally stuck, the two went for it, with Elkholy dropping out of his initial career path in dentistry.

“When we first started it was about growing communities on social and it’s now evolved into trying to be a global brand,” Ablitt tells Yahoo Canada Finance. “We try to do that by surrounding ourselves with really smart people, people that have the experience that the initial founding group may not have had.”

Having just passed its four year anniversary, Diply was more of a hobby for the pair “up until about eight or nine months before we launched the site,” says Ablitt. Getting the idea off the ground started with an initial investment from Ablitt’s father. An entrepreneur himself, after an eight hour white board session and a wash of blank stares said, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about, but even if you achieve one tenth of what you’re saying here, that’s success” and invested in the idea.

The initial investment allowed the company to grow to 120 people, and the company was cash flow positive within 30 days and able to pay back Ablitt’s father within a year. “We made a dollar to invest a dollar,” Ablitt says.

Investing in people remains a key strategy of Diply’s too (while also realizing “cash is king”) and Ablitt says the company will continue to push for high-calibre talent moving forward.

“People bring about success and the success of a business,” says Ablitt.

Although Ablitt was raised in an entrepreneurial household with the mentality of “sign your own paycheque, be your own boss,” without the proper team at Diply, the company wouldn’t be a contender in his opinion. Ablitt and Elkholy learned how important it was having the right people on board very early on.

“As an entrepreneur I learned a lot about contracts, investing, how to set up partnerships, and doing that all the wrong way in the beginning. It took us about a year until we realized ‘it was bigger than ourselves at the founder level so let’s surround ourselves with people that’ve done it’. We brought on a CFO early on, a COO and a head of HR,” explains Ablitt.

One major hiccup in the early stages of Diply, even before Diply was named Diply, happened when their site (which they were trying to launch with no money while Elkholy was trying to learn how to code) was hacked.

“I was at my accounting job still [I wasn’t willing to leave at this point] and I went to the site and Turkish music was playing and it read ‘You’ve been hacked by the Turkish army’ or something,” Ablitt says in a grinding tone.

“At that point…well first thing was Dean didn’t know the site was even hacked so that was our first indication that he wasn’t right for being the coder, and second was that we couldn’t even get it back, it took us about six days to get the site back. That’s when we realized we needed help and we brought on a development company where we met the other co-founder, Gary Manning. He’s a very smart guy and understands business and technology greatly so the formation of us three is what really positioned us to get Diply started.”

Diply, which Ablitt says has “layers of executives, leadership, VP’s and directors,” is a team that he’s proud of, particularly the middle tier of leaders that “can be strategic, but also execute” and the company looks at timelines in six-to-twelve month increments. Ablitt himself says he takes time every six months to drop back and scale out his targets, which he always sees as evolving.

“We do strategic planning two, three years out, and lay the groundwork, but at the end of the day, if we do a full year and we haven’t changed from what it was six to 12 months prior, then we’re probably not doing our job right, you have to keep up with trends and the pace.”

In 2016, Diply received additional capital from BDC Ventures, which helped grow the brand and the team is currently debating whether to go for more capital in order to compete with other market big wigs.

“We’re seeing it get more competitive and the opportunities are much bigger now, so if we look at brands that we want to compete with, well, they’ve taken in a lot of money. We’re looking at that opportunity now too,” Ablitt says.  Still, regardless of the constant roar of competition, Ablitt believes the longevity of a company lies in its value.

“Build a good business and the value will come,” he says. “The evaluation will come, and the exit, if that’s what you’re planning on doing, will come. Don’t build your business based off of what you perceive the market will give you for decisions you’re making.”

The most recent Peak comScore (September 2017) shows that Diply received 30.9M unique visitors, is the 57th largest mobile domain in the U.S. and ranks as the 81st largest overall domain in the U.S. It also sits at 12th in the lifestyle category. Although Diply is a Canadian company, only seven per cent of Diply’s fans are located in Canada, the bulk of its users are in the U.S.

The social entertainment arena is highly saturated, and now that video has become more prevalent in steering social conversations, Ablitt and his team have invested in studio space and 30 video producers, who are creating original Diply content. He sees greater growth in video come 2018. The minute-long videos they started with have moved to one-and-a-half minutes and could possibly grow to four or five minutes in 12 to 24 months, which allows more opportunity to hold users for longer.

“Everyone’s making big bets with video, and we’re creating and licensing content from other providers to capitalize. That’s not to say editorial is dead, we’ve been able to make editorial work and we’re investing in those areas and that’s been a bulk of our success to date, but we’ve been able to crack both editorial and video and that’s something that not all publishers have been able to do,” Ablitt notes.

“It’s not about competing with the platforms, it’s about partnering with them,” he adds. “We like to say that ‘they’re building the pipes and we’re at the end of the pipes’ so as long as we grow a presence on all these platforms, we stay legitimate. If there is another Snapchat that pops up out of nowhere, it’s up to us to learn and grow the Diply audience on those platforms.”

Ablitt explains the pool of data they have from their own content is enough for them to make their decisions without interference, and Diply’s metrics monitor what users are doing, when they’re dropping off and what content is relating to them. Engaging an audience so they feel there’s incentive to share with their network, and creating this viral effect, is what everyone is after in digital.

“There’s a core focus on our own stuff, but you have to be watching what others are doing, and you need to make sure you’re on top of the newest techniques and opportunities in digital.”

Buzzfeed, for example is one of the companies Diply is monitoring and competing with, and while many may view Diply’s content as possible “clickbait” Ablitt is quick to explain that the market has and continues to evolve away from that type of material.

“I think the platform on Facebook catered to that format of content say two-plus years ago, but they did a really good job in regards to cutting down on that kind of stuff—captions, wording, phrasing—so if you’re still doing that today, you’re definitely not competing and you’re definitely not in the newsfeed.”

“As Facebook’s platform has evolved and gotten better at what they deliver, I’d argue the viral sites and companies that started online have also evolved.  We have evolved from a past that may have been seen in that market [the clickbait market] and all of us, including Buzzfeed, had that label, but that’s something we’ve been working on really hard to dissolve. We’re elevating our brand and making sure that the content we’re pushing is delivering on the promise. We have a mentality that if you’re not evolving you’re dying.”

Ablitt was also recognized as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2017.

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