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3 top executives at Axios, one of the hottest media startups around, have left in quick succession

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3 top executives at Axios, one of the hottest media startups around, have left in quick succession
  • Axios has lost its top three technical executives, all in the past six months.
  • They were heads of technology, product, and design and were key to the company delivering on its selling point of providing news in a reader-friendly way.
  • The online media startup has grown rapidly through advertising, which some sources say has led to tensions with the product side.
  • Axios’ cofounder said the company was as obsessed with audience as ever and was on track to grow revenue again in 2019.

Axios was founded on the idea of delivering “smart brevity.” In the past six months, all of the technical leadership that’s key to carrying out that mission has left the company.

Those departing had been with the company since its start or early on: Matt Boggie left as chief technology officer in September after two years; Alexis Lloyd, the chief design officer, left in July after two years; and Emma Schwartz, the vice president of product, left in November after a year and a half.

They reported, variously, to the cofounders Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz.

Several design team members also have left, sources said.

Read more: People are buzzing about a new media company called ‘Axios’ — here’s everything we know about it

Axios was launched in January 2017 by VandeHei, Schwartz, and Mike Allen with a plan to take the rapid-fire media model they built at Politico and apply it more broadly to serve busy professionals with tightly written business and politics newsletters, formatted for mobile devices.

They started it with $10 million in funding led by the perennial media venture-capital backer Lerer Hippeau Ventures, along with NBC News, Emerson Collective, Greycroft Partners, and the Atlantic Media owners David and Katherine Bradley. Axios’ manifesto listed principles such as “reader first,” “elegant efficiency,” and “smart, always.”

Tensions arose over product, sources said

Product has become an increasingly important function at media companies as people get news and information on more screens and platforms and expect the experience to be user-friendly and uniform regardless of where they access it.

While Axios had a product-focused mission, had product execs from the start, and built its own content-management system, tensions arose between people on the technical side and the founders over how that mission would get carried out, sources close to the situation said.

Common refrains were that conversations about product and technology often ended with leaders saying, “What is product?” or top staff would “bring in people with expertise and be unwilling to listen to it,” the sources said.

VandeHei made waves early on by saying Axios would launch a subscription offering costing as much as $10,000 a year. The company has put that offering on hold indefinitely, saying it made sense to chase advertising while it was still plentiful.

Tensions between the ad and the product/design sides at ad-driven media companies are inherent. The ad side wants to maximize revenue, which can conflict with the user experience. At Axios, former employees said, the lofty goal of serving the reader sometimes ran up against the pursuit of ad dollars.

For one thing, the company has launched multiple newsletters, 18 in total, which, as some see it, runs the risk of confusing readers. Three are devoted to finance and markets, for example: Axios Edge, Axios Markets, and Pro Rata.

And Axios just bought Kendall Baker’s Sports Internet newsletter and will relaunch it as Axios Sports on January 7.

A planned mobile app was another sore point mentioned by some former employees. The goal was to make the app distinct from the website, but leaders would add web-like features that would water down the differentiation, people involved said. Months of work later, the app never came out, as the project ended up being delayed to this year.

Defenders of the company insist it is just as obsessed with the user experience as ever.

“We are obsessed with being audience first — it’s literally the first tenet of our Axios manifesto and the first thing we discuss when designing a new feature or rolling out a new coverage area,” VandeHei said.

Axios is on track to double revenue in 2019

And by its own accounts, Axios is still in strong growth mode. It has said revenue would double in 2018, to more than $20 million, and projects doubling revenue yet again in 2019. Axios has 145 employees, up from 35 at launch, and plans to add another 60 in 2019. Original and new investors put in another $20 million less than a year after the company’s founding.

The company is looking for heads of tech and product with an emphasis on people who have product experience as it shifts away from design. It has hired a Silicon Valley search firm to handle the searches.

“Axios has grown and changed in ways that no one could have imagined,” VandeHei said. “We’re grateful for our alumni, and they’ll always be part of our DNA and our creation story. We’re growing and hiring, and actively looking for talent.”

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