Stand Up NY Labs co-founders explain how they transformed New York's famous comedy club into a podcast, branded content, and ad tech business.
Dani Zoldan is an accidental podcaster. The entrepreneur and former telecom exec owns Stand Up NY, one of New York's best-known comedy clubs. "We didn't set out to make a podcasting company," Zoldan said, "but podcasting has been one of the smartest business decisions I've ever made."
Zoldan is an entrepreneur, and comedy late-comer. He smiled and looked reflective as he moved a microphone to one side and stretched across a recording console in Stand Up NY Labs new podcast studio. "Voila is a communications company. We resold cell data and minutes," he said. "[At Voila] I learned a lot about how to run a lean enterprise, and about the communication industry. But I also learned that I wanted to focus my energy on something fun."
Stand Up NY Labs is perched in a theatre space above the comedy club on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The club's low-slung stage is framed by a narrow bar and cozy performance space. It's easy to understand why Stand Up NY has a reputation for fostering an intimate relationship between comedians and audience members. "[Stand Up NY] is fun, but it's a pretty small venue," laughed Zoldan. "People feel like they know the comedians because they're literally feet away from each other. So we tried to make content that's as intimate as the club."
For years Zoldan and his Lab co-founder Jonathan Fatigate used social media services like Soundcloud, Instagram, and Facebook to promote appearances by the comedy club's talented performers. "We've had everyone from ambitious but unknown performers, to stars like Amy Schumer and Chris Rock on stage," Zoldan said. "Comedy as a community embraced social media, and especially podcasting, early. It just seemed natural to build a company around comedy, something people are passionate about, and new social media platforms."
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"We used the club as a springboard to build a media company," Fatigate said. "Podcasting is kind of native to the comedy community, I think, because [social media] was a natural anchor for us. Podcasts worked for us, because podcasting is an intimate medium.It wasn't our first [business] idea. But after hanging out at the club and asking people about what they love and care about podcasting seemed like a natural extension of what we were already doing."
Fatigate spoke with TechRepublic about how his team turned an analogue business, stand up comedy, into a fast-growing digital media company.
Podcasting sometimes catches some flack for being difficult to monetize. How did you identify the medium as a linchpin to grow your digital business?
The concept behind Stand Up NY Labs was that comedians should have a way to circumvent the roadblocks and barriers usually imposed by the traditional radio and television industry. We live in an age of DIY media production. So why wait for [executive] decision-makers, removed from the real comedy scene, to choose [who succeeds]? Our assets are talent, and entrepreneurship. With Dani owning the comedy club, and my background in [media] production, we were the perfect team to start something unique.
Podcasting was something that comedians used less as a business, and more as a way to connect with their audience at a deeper level. Our goal was to build a tech platform that could really do both of those things - business, and passion.
When you work with comedians, you ride a fine line between creating monetary value at the company and keeping the artists happy and their integrity and authenticity secure. Podcasting is a nice business because it feels indie, even when it's not necessarily.
How can business benefit from podcasting?
You can make money with ad sales. But you should expect to invest in the business long-term. You won't see exponential growth, but you will see nice long, slow linear growth. Maybe some startups want viral hits, but we like to see consistent growth tied to a loyal audience.
Businesses can benefit from podcasting by creating a deeper connection with their consumers. Web culture is full of of rapid headlines, tweets, hot takes, and other stuff that erodes intimacy. Content is forgotten almost as fast as it is consumed. Podcasting is a medium that lets us breathe and focus. We produce several shows, and we let the hosts into our ears, we trust them, and we feel a connection with them. It's a very interesting dynamic, unique to audio. I believe that connecting [intimately] with consumers is extremely powerful, and helps our business.
How do you scale the company to reach a larger audience?
We have an advertising and digital distribution partnership with DGital Media. They are a startup formed by former radio people and they know how to sell audio media. At first, we sold spots ourselves, but having DGital Media as a partner lets us focus on our product, and lets them focus on the monetization. What's worked really well for us is having a host read a sponsorship and use affiliate codes. In some ways our business is pretty traditional. Focusing on the product is really what helps grow the company. We're also looking into branded content, and maybe video. But right now we're focused on what we do best. That's the key. Do what you do well, and look for opportunities to innovate.
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What advice do you have for traditional businesses that are exploring digital media?
Be adaptable. [The media environment] is changing faster than any of us can keep up with. One of the big mistakes I see is people trying to duplicate what's been successful in quickly changing industries and mediums. It's so hard to pinpoint exactly what works, in terms of catching eyes or ears in new media, that people try to copy what's already been done. First focus on what you do well. We've seen with podcasting that it's so hard to predict what people will listen to. We've taken a lot of shots, and had some unexpected hits while sure things fail. You learn fast that anyone who can guarantee audience either already has one, or doesn't know what they're talking about.