Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Value Added: Mark Bisnow’s business is buzz

You don’t read Mark Bisnow’s media publications for a 5,000-word opus on federal monetary policy.

But you will find a photo of comedian Will Ferrell, done up as his movie alter ego Ron Burgundy, schmoozing with a Los Angeles real estate bigwig.

Or you will learn that a Dallas executive fulfilled her dream of flying via a jet pack powered by water.

You might see the item on the priciest apartment complex in D.C., or read about New York-based restaurateur Danny Meyer (Shake Shack, Union Square Cafe) describing his first job as a security guard. Or learn about Chicago’s hippest hotels.

Bisnow Media is an online chatterbox, a goody-bag cross between People magazine, Washington Life and Business Insider.

Think Brangelinas for the commerce class.

“Business news is way too dry,” said Bisnow, 61, a lawyer by training but unapologetic business junky at heart. “People want to read about other people and what they are doing. They want pictures, snappy headlines, conversational prose, humor. When you are getting information online in the middle of a busy day, you want to be entertained as well as informed. So Bisnow Media is a guilty pleasure without the guilt.”

The snappy business model works for him.

In its 10th year, Bisnow’s media empire, which is based in New York and Washington, includes 32 online publications — known as “Bisnows” — covering things such as real estate, technology and associations in various cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Houston and San Francisco. Each Bisnow publishes at least once a week, and some several times a week, and is “pushed” to a target audience through e-mails.

There’s also a lucrative networking and conference business, which is hot space staked out by many traditional media companies, including Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Last year, Bisnow Media grossed nearly $14 million and earned a profit of more than $2 million. The revenue is divided about one-third each to ticket sales to the conferences, event sponsorships for the conferences and advertising in the Bisnows.

The company has 75 full-time employees covering 27 metropolitan markets across the country, including 20 people in Washington. Bisnow Media also has a bunch of stringers. The networking business draws 70,000 attendees to the 250 events it organizes annually.

The not-so-secret sauce powering it all is the 500,000-strong nationwide
e-mail list.

Bisnow swears by the push approach, which he said is “infinitely more effective than a passive blog or Web site.”

Chairman Bisnow said he is preparing the company for life without him. Five years ago, he hired Ryan Begelman, 31, a deal guy with the Carlyle Group, as chief operating officer. Begelman, who owns a piece of the company, is now chief executive. Bisnow and Begelman each collect a $200,000 salary.

“Our company is not the Mark Bisnow show anymore,” said the peripatetic founder, who works the crowd at every event he attends, shamelessly shooting photos like paparazzi. “It’s a real serious company that will continue to move into the future without me.”

Bisnow Media isn’t the workshop for grizzled journalistic veterans in search of Pulitzer Prizes. The average age of employees is younger than 30. Bisnow and Begelman have harnessed that age group’s social media instincts and turned them loose on the business community — minus the snark factor.

The upbeat sites feature photos like Instagram, snappy captions a la Twitter, is hyperlocal like Four Square, includes Facebook-like personal information, and bears a little irreverence like Buzzfeed.

Their motto is “Almost Never Boring.”

And that’s just the online sites. As for the networking business, Bisnow’s team understands that most people don’t go to conferences just to learn stuff. They go armed with a wad of business cards, or the digital version thereof, to hobnob, network, solicit business or get a job.

“We are one of the genuine pioneers now in the media outlet/live events space,” Bisnow said. “We’ve done almost 1,000 events and have tested and created many templates and formulas.”

So how did a Harvard Law School graduate end up running Bloomberg Lite?

The Los Angeles native attended Stanford, then worked a spell on Capitol Hill for senators Hubert Humphrey and John Heinz, and for congressman John Anderson, when Anderson ran for president as an independent in 1980.

Bisnow has always had a hankering for journalism; he wrote a book on Anderson’s campaign called “Diary of a Darkhorse.”

He graduated law school in 1985 and worked as a corporate law associate at Latham & Watkins but itched to be an entrepreneur.

He didn’t become an entrepreneur right away, so he went to work for some. First for Michael Saylor, founder of MicroStrategy, then at WebMethods. He befriended the local entrepreneur crowd. Jonathan Ledecky, the late John Sidgmore of UUnet, Alex Mandl of Teligent, Dan Akerson of Nextel (and later General Motors), Gabe Battista of Network Solutions.

He took senators on bus rides to Northern Virginia, touring AOL with Steve Case. He talked his way into a two-minute business program called “Bisnow on Business,” which were mini-profiles for WTOP. He later grew his radio program into interviews with the local business crowd at restaurants such as the Tower Club and D.C. Coast.

The growing Internet gave him the idea of sending a targeted newsletter to niche audiences such as real estate and technology. He started it in his home in 2003, funding it with about $250,000 he had in retirement savings. He tried his humorous, light approach — pushing the tidbits to thousands each day, hoping it would serve as an online diversion from work.

He tried different approaches in search of that audience, including partnering with political publications such as The Hill.

Still, the business lagged until Bisnow’s son, Elliott, quit the University of Wisconsin and went to work for his dad. Elliott Bisnow started bringing in advertising, and the company started to grow. They added the events business in 2006, and it now comes in all shapes and sizes, starting at $49 to attend a typical breakfast event to several thousands for an invite-only, multi-day, off-the-record Las Vegas confab with real estate bigwigs.

The misfires include a Houston-based energy weekly, which later closed.

The company has been profitable since 2006, and after weathering the Great Recession, the business has grown so rapidly that Bisnow said he expects to gross $17 million this year, on which the company earns a $2 million profit — maybe more.

Bisnow said he is plowing that money into growth, pushing into new markets such as Denver, Seattle, Toronto and Pittsburgh. They are experimenting with new products such as education videos and are working on a new Web site and mobile platform.

Bisnow said the company may be worth more than $25 million.

Now there’s a juicy Bisnow item.

 
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