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6AM City Co-Founders on Mastering the Science of Growth

Caroline Jennings July 20, 2022

6AM City blazes the trail as a model of supercharged growth as they scale from 8 to 24 markets within one year.

This post is part of The Founder Factor, where we bring you behind the scenes with South Carolina’s most impactful entrepreneurs so that you can discover the strategies, ideas, and mindsets you need to unlock your next business breakthrough.

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“It’s scary,” 6AM City co-founders Ryan Johnston and Ryan Heafy admit when reflecting on the company’s plan to expand from 8 to 24 markets and reach more than a million subscribers by the end of the year.

“Scale is always scary,” Heafy says, “but we’re well-positioned for it.” Johnston and Heafy have taken advantage of the COVID pandemic to refine their business, team, culture, and processes so that expanding to new markets is as simple as clicking copy-paste. “Now, we’re at the point where going from 8 to 24 markets won’t really be that hard to do – it’s just a matter of human capital.”

People in the media landscape have always warned Johnston and Heafy that local media is a tough nut to crack –– especially at scale. Creating hyper-local, high-quality content in a single city is one thing, but doing so across multiple cities, while maintaining a distinctly 6AM City voice, is another matter entirely.

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But Johnston and Heafy have it down to a science. “With a quarter of a million dollars and 60 days, we can launch in any city,” Heafy says. “Everything is coordinated from one big project management platform. When a city goes live, the sales team picks it up. As long as we hit our audience numbers, we’re set.”

In order to maintain the 6AM City voice across the markets they serve, Johnston and Heafy encourage editors to conceptualize 6AM city as a place. “We want our readers to feel like they are at their favorite coffee shop or local watering hole,” Johnston explains. “They should know exactly what to expect when they walk in. And above all, they should feel welcome –– to participate in the conversation or just to sit back and listen to others chat.”  

Johnston and Heafy strive to foster this welcoming environment internally as well. Whenever editors have an idea for a new type of content, they are encouraged to test it out in their local market. If the test is successful, the new content type is rolled out to additional 6AM City markets. “We call it ‘bottom-up innovation’ –– finding the things that work, and then scaling appropriately,” Johnston says. 

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This model is beneficial for another reason as well –– it helps Johnston and Heafy attract top talent in each market. “Editors love the feeling of creating content that is so good that other markets want to replicate it,” Johnston says. “Plus, we can easily measure editors’ performance by seeing whose content is everywhere.”

As 6AM City continues to grow, it is more important than ever for Johnston and Heafy to make sure every employee is fully bought in. “We’re looking for those experienced, motivated, curious, badasses that are going to change the game for our company,” Heafy says. “We can’t afford to hire people who aren’t going to come on board and hustle on day one.”

As with every aspect of their company, Johnston and Heafy have built a variety of systems and processes to keep employees motivated, engaged, and on the same page with each other. These initiatives include a peer mentorship program for new employees, a culture committee, parenting groups, book clubs, remote work perks, and gamified team-building activities, to name a few.

portrait of two app creators

It’s clear that these efforts have paid off. 6AM City has been recognized as one of the “2021 Best and Brightest Companies to Work for in the Nation.” In fact, many 6AM City employees stay with the company through the full lifecycle of growth. “When we see someone start as an intern, run a market as an editor, move to a different city to become an editor there, and then ultimately work for another company that buys ads from us –– it’s just awesome,” Heafy says. “That’s definitely something we’re most proud of.”

As the company continues to grow and expand to new markets, Johnston and Heafy remain laser-focused on the central ambition of the company: creating a media brand where readers have a sense of place. “We’re an extremely biased media source about one thing and one thing only –– your location,” Johnston says.

As content distribution networks become increasingly fragmented and algorithm-driven, there is an ever-growing need for carefully curated, community-oriented media sources.

“We’re building something that we’re figuring out as we go. Local media and the way people consume it, how people advertise locally, what readers want and don’t want to see –– these are all national challenges,” Johnston says. As 6AM City’s dramatic expansion would suggest, they are leading the charge on tackling these challenges. “When you push your business to its limits, that’s when you see the biggest gains and opportunities.”

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Follow Ryan Johnston and Ryan Heafy for more on their journey, or check out 6am City on the web at 6amcity.com

Designli leads clients through the design and development of complex digital products, bringing startups and entrepreneurs from “Vision to Version 1.” Ready to bring an app or web-app to life? We’re here to help.

The Founder Factor is brought to you by Designli (South Carolina’s top app development firm) and Word of Web (your partner in website strategy and design). Follow our content here on the Designli blog, or on YouTube, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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