Ask a Genius: How Alex Lieberman broke the business news industry

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Ask a Genius: How Alex Lieberman broke the business news industry

In 2015, millennial college graduates entering the business field were faced with a problem: Business news was boring and hard-to-digest, and they didn’t have time to read a newspaper cover to cover.

Enter Alex Lieberman, the 25-year-old entrepreneur who quit his investment banking job to create the Morning Brew, a newsletter covering all things business. And it’s anything but boring.

We sat down with Lieberman, who is now the CEO, to chat about business industry news and why Morning Brew is different.

Our conversation with Alex Lieberman is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

How did the Morning Brew start?

My co-founder Austin Rief and I started the company when we were students at the University of Michigan. I was a senior at the time and Austin was a sophomore, and we were both finance people through and through.

I had a job lined up at Morgan Stanley to work in sales and trading, and only had to take two classes my whole senior year. I was like, I just need to do something to pass the time, my brain is going to combust. I was so bored. So I started helping students in the business school and some friends of mine to prepare for job interviews. I would do mock interviews and the first thing I would always ask them is, "How do you keep up with the business world?"

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What would they say?

Every single student would have the same canned answer, something to the effect of, “I read the Wall Street Journal and I read it because I feel like I have to, because it’s a way of saying ‘I’m well-read in business.’ But it’s dense and it’s dry and I don’t have enough time in my day to read it cover to cover.”

This is crazy! These kids work their asses off to have careers in business, yet they don’t have content that really tells business news in an engaging way. So I started writing a business roundup.

What did the first Morning Brew newsletter look like?

At the time it was called “Market Corner.” It looked like shit. It was a Microsoft Word template that had a bear and bull fighting that I pulled from clip art — it had the watermark going along the picture.

I put it together for four hours every day. It would have the top five business news stories that I thought college students needed to know, and it would be in digestible blurbs. And then there would be an evergreen lifestyle section, with an interview question of the day, riddle of the day, inspirational quote of the day, etc.

I would turn that template into a PDF and attach the PDF to an email. I started by sending it out to 45 people, including the people I was helping prep for job interviews, as well as my friends and family. People would have to literally text me and say, “Hey I heard about your roundup online could you add me to your listserv?”

When did you realize you may have a real idea?

After two to three months of doing that on my own, there was a couple thousand people signed up for it. That’s when I was like OK, clearly there's an appetite for this content. Because the product looks like shit and it’s impossible to sign up for, so there must be something there, something that must be resonating.

So I brought Austin on as my co-founder. He had been a reader and had great insight. He read every newsletter I put out and had actionable feedback, which was so helpful. We took winter break of my senior year to figure things out and launched the core product, the daily newsletter, actually in an email with a website in March 2015.

In the beginning we wrote it ourselves. Then we had other college students help us. We ran it part time for two years. I graduated from Michigan, worked at Morgan Stanley for a year and a half in New York City. After work, I would work on the Brew. Austin was a student at the time and was doing student stuff, and also doing the Brew.

I then quit my job in September 2016 to do this full-time. Austin joined me when he graduated in May 2017. So we’ve been full time for about two and a half years.

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What pushed you to go full time?

I wanted to do something that I was deeply passionate about and mentally stimulating for me. Going home and working on the Morning Brew after work every night felt more mentally stimulating then trading.

I think what holds people up from quitting their jobs is risk aversion, like what if it doesn’t work out? When I look back on my life at age 80, I’m not going to look back at quitting my job at Morgan Stanley. I’ll probably be senile and not even remember working at Morgan Stanley.

I asked myself, what is the worst case scenario? I started walking through these "then what" scenarios. That was the point when I decided that I was early in my career, I’m intellectually curious and feel like I can learn anything along the way. I actually need to give this a shot.

What was the turning point for Morning Brew?

Beginning of 2018 things really started to take off. We did one thing and did it incredibly well. The newsletter was the foundation of the house and was the way to build trust with our readers. We went from 100,000 readers in January 2018 to 1.3 million readers. We now have an eight-figure advertising business. We went from four people to 24 people in our office.

How did you manage money while scaling the business?

I was making good enough money at Morgan Stanley, where I could fund my life for a while even if I was making zero dollars. I also don’t generally spend a lot as a human being. The only thing I really spend money on — and this is very millennial of me — is experiences and my family, that’s probably it. I don’t buy new shoes or order a lot of food. If I forget to meal prep, I’m eating the cold cut turkey that Morning Brew orders through Amazon Prime weekly. I’m also very fortunate in the respect that I come from a background and family that has the financial security to help me.

What are your business goals in 2019?

I think one is people. I don’t think this a cynical view but a realistic view, but very few people are actually all-star workers. I’ve met very few people where I’m blown away by the work that they do. Making bad hires can be detrimental to a business. Every non all-star you hire has trickle-down effect. So hiring is a big thing for us right now.

So is thinking about how our brand scales, answering “What is Morning Brew?” The hope is if you’re walking in New York City and ask a few people, one of them will know what it is. The way people will describe it right now is, "Oh, it’s that business newsletter." Or "It’s theSkimm for guys." Looking ahead, how does the narrative become different? How do we get Morning Brew to be the one-stop shop for the emerging business leader?

There’s a list of criteria that Austin and I want in our lives and careers right now. We want to love coming into work every day. We want to work with incredibly intellectually curious and driven people. We want to do something that gives us access to the best in class. As long as we are checking those boxes, there’s nothing we need to change.

Why should people trust your newsletter?

So the goal of the Morning Brew is to better engage the modern business leader with the business world. So why have readers decided to read our newsletter over incumbents that already exist? I think the reason is the way we write our newsletter — it’s just different than WSJ and NYT.

The WSJ would be like your great uncle at Thanksgiving dinner talking your ear off for two hours. He has no social awareness of when he should end the conversation.

After your Thanksgiving dinner you go out in New York City to Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club and you’re playing with your cool friend, who’s this intellectually curious person only tells you what you need to know. That’s the Brew. The content is the same, but the delivery is totally different.

Who do you consider an inspiration & why?

I would say my dad, just because the things I value so much in life came from him. He believed everything falls below family, which I wholeheartedly believe. He was a relentless worker and never expected praise. He worked his ass off constantly trying to do better and add value to others without asking for anything in return. And worked with integrity. These things are so high level and transcend any career. I use them as a goalpost to try and do better at anything I do.

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Image: Nastia Kobzarenko