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TheSkimm co-founders Cary Zakin and Danielle Weisberg and moderator MJ Rogers of Chase for Business on stage at Seattle Startup Week. Photo: GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg.

TheSkimm’s secret sauce is cleverly and playfully reframing the daily news in a way that resonates with its target demographic — female young professionals. So it’s fitting that the media company’s origin story is a familiar startup fable, reimagined for the millennial woman.

Instead of two guys in a garage we have two girls in a tiny Manhattan apartment, but the underlying theme is the same: Hustle, grit, and determination can take you from humble beginnings to blockbuster success.

TheSkimm founders, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, shared their story and the “shameless” tactics they used to put their small media company on the map, at Seattle Startup Week Monday.

The year was 2012.

Zakin and Weisberg were living together in New York and working as producers for NBC News. They started to realize “the traditional career path in media no longer existed” and began brainstorming a news product that could fill the need of smart, busy millennials like them.

theskimmTheir answer was theSkimm, a daily email newsletter that boils down the need-to-know and want-to-know news for their target audience in the chatty voice of the founders. They came up with the name and Zakin bought Weisberg a $50 logo for her birthday, but they were still missing an essential piece: Readers.

They had a rich vision, but no real money to execute. They decided to go into credit card debt together, which Zakin says “was kind of like we got married” and put their negative funds toward 22 American Apparel t-shirts with theSkimm’s logo.

“We sent the t-shirts to our friends in New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, and Boston,” Zakin said. “We said please wear these where people will see you.”

They became the ultimate brand ambassadors. They wore head-to-toe Skimm-branded outfits and worked from coffee shops around the West Village where people would be sure to see them. They drove to universities throughout the Northeast, pretending to be co-eds handing out postcards in the quad. When their trendy fitness club, Equinox, accidentally sent an email to all 3,000 members, they considered it “best day in the first three months.”

“We were really good at networking and we had absolutely no shame — because we had no money,” said Zakin, adding later, “we were both just trying to figure out a path. How do you turn a passion into something that can offer more financial independence and stability? I never would have thought of myself as an entrepreneur.”

Their grassroots tactics got the ball rolling but much of the initial legwork came from a small, engaged early following. Zakin and Weisberg had struck up a number of email penpal relationships with their initial readers when an advisor pointed out what a great resource they could be.

They asked their subscribers to share theSkimm with ten friends, then five more, and so on. That was the genesis of the Skimm’bassador program – a marketing initiative that encourages readers to evangelize theSkimm in exchange for a community, connections to SkimmHQ, and swag.

Today, theSkimm has over 16,000 Skimm’bassadors, who have contributed to 19 percent of user growth since the program launched. The Daily Skimm email newsletter has more than 4 million subscribers, the majority of which are millennial women with spending power. The business is profitable thanks to advertising and Skimm Ahead, a for-purchase app with info on upcoming events and milestones.

“I think it’s kind of like, we were journalists by passion; we were entrepreneurs by default,” said Weisberg. “We didn’t know how to turn that passion into something that we could really scale and hit those goals that we had for ourselves, for our future. Once we became entrepreneurs, the only thing we could see is success because that’s the only option you have.”

Previously from Seattle Startup Week: Startup tips for bootstrapping, and why scarce resources can create long-term benefits

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