Under the mantra "don't publish anything boring", Planet Ivy has grown into a site with a network of more than 150 young writers publishing around 80 articles a week between them and reaching up to 400,000 unique users a month.
Six months on and back in at Google Campus, where the three paid employees of Planet Ivy are based, the founder and the editor of the title told Journalism.co.uk about the site's model and how they have received investment from an angel investor and from Ascension Ventures.
The idea for the site, which provides original opinion pieces and features on gaming, tech, film, and 'weird' news, came from founder Vincent Dignan, who had the idea last summer.
Dignan, who has worked as a music journalist, in radio and in sales, gathered the initial writers together "by researching every university in the country that has a journalism course, calling them up and speaking to tutors, student reps, and asking if anyone wanted to write for a brand new magazine that hadn't launched", he explained.
He brought in a "teenage programmer" who designed the site and launched Planet Ivy with an initial cohort of writers gathered from journalism schools.
In September Barney Guiton joined as editor and has expanded the team to a network of 150 writers spread across the country, with a few in the US.
The contributor model is currently similar to The Huffington Post, with journalists, writers and bloggers applying to become part of the network and writing for free. Dignan and Guiton have loose plans to push it towards the Forbes model, rewarding writers financially based on page views and returning visitors.
"It's early days but what we have in mind is a model where we give something back to our contributors," Guiton said.
The team has already formed a relationship with The Huffington Post UK, sending in the best opinion pieces. In return Planet Ivy gets a byline and the author gets a link back to their page on Planet Ivy.
"We have published about 30 articles on Huffington Post so far," Guiton said. "They have taken each one that we've sent them."
Planet Ivy has secured investment from an investment group headed up by Sanjay Wadhwani and Jean de Fougerolles of Ascension Ventures and an 'angel' investor.
The investment is currently funding salaries for Dignan, Guiton and marketing and social media manager Daniel Sobey-Harker. But what about long-term sustainability?
"Our demographic is really sought after by advertisers, the 18 to 25 trend-setters, and we can authentically say we have the tone and voice because 95 per cent of our writers are 18 to 25," Dignan said, explaining that he has spoken to "various ad agencies who are interested in what we do – but we need the volume".
Dignan described Planet Ivy writers as people with a "Gonzo method of being unafraid to break convention". Dignan's view is that because the contributors are young, they are able to create stories such as "creating a future avatar for yourself in 2045", alongside a story on robots replacing the working class, next to "why you are having a quarter-life crisis".
And when Baroness Thatcher died, Guiton's first response was "we must do something tangential that young people are going to be interested in". They reported on the "Thatcher death party".
"Within a few hours it had well over 5,000 page views," Dignan said. The contributor who wrote the story previously was more familiar with an average of 25 page views when writing on his own blog, Dignan added.
"We want to provide a platform for the contributors," Guiton said. "They are writing blogs that not many people are reading. We are providing a reason to write and helping build them as brands."
And Dignan believes that while there are plenty of sites covering niches such as technology, gaming and film, he does not think "the man in the street has heard of Mashable and TechCrunch", he said. "We want to be something anyone can read; we want to be something accessible."
"We specialise in two areas," Guiton said. "The tone and the voice and the ideas coming in from the contributors and making our articles entertaining, and also pushing them out onto the web and social news sites and getting them to go viral."
Writers are encouraged to push content via their own social media accounts, and enter into discussion with commenters, both on social media and in the comments section of Planet Ivy. "We encourage them not to hold back," Guiton said.
"We are very privileged that we live in a time where we don't have to pay for marketing," Dignan added.
Managing the network of writers
"Because we are young and we have had no money and worked for free for six months before we got investment, we had to invent all our own systems," Dignan said. "Barney invented an ecosystem for writers so we could have 150 people potentially writing at once."
That system is based on Google Docs and WordPress and they have just started trialling instant chat software HipChat so the contributors and communicate with one another, much in the same way as Forbes has an online newsroom.
The Planet Ivy team has set a target of reaching 1 million page views a month before pushing forward with a plan to expand into video, something their investor Ascension Ventures is keen to see them do.
They are getting towards the target – and recently had 35,000 site requests in one minute, from an article (on a glitch in Facebook app Bang With Friends) going viral, Dignan explained.
And they have grand ambitions. Asked where the idea for the name Planet Ivy came from, Dignan said: "Maybe we were inspired by the Daily Planet.
"We wanted to create a world news site so that's where the 'planet' came from. And Ivy as in Ivy League, the very best of anything. But also Poison Ivy because once it starts growing it's unstoppable, which is like our viral growth."
Free daily newsletter
- Tool for journalists: Audiogram, for making audio more shareable on social media
- Tip: Remember this advice for pitching video stories
- Tip: Bookmark this guide to filming cinematic shots with your smartphone
- Data, video, sponsored content and more: Survey highlights what publishers will be prioritising in 2017
- Washington Post series on border barriers aims to break the mould of digital storytelling