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While many businesses were badly hit by the covid-19 pandemic, UK publisher GRV Media recorded its most successful quarter (July to September 2020) revenue-wise in its 18-year history. It also expanded its team with 11 new hires and started a new website that now reaches nearly 1 million monthly page views.

The beginning of lockdown, however, was no different for the organisation that owns around 60 news sites focusing mainly on sports and entertainment: the advertising revenue plummeted and uncertainty was making everyone anxious.

By following a hunch rather than a polished business plan, it managed to prepare for the event that no one could have seen coming and re-emerged stronger than before.

Over-communicate and be transparent

At the beginning of the pandemic, GRV Media surveyed its team to understand what support they needed during these trying times. Communication came up as the most important issue.

Vic Daniels, co-founder and executive chairman, embraced the call for complete honesty, even about the company’s financial forecast, to give worried staff reassurance of how the business was faring.

"I decided to be totally transparent about money. We never divulged figures before but we did so now, especially at the start of the pandemic," he says.

When the lockdown brought the UK economy to a halt, the publisher furloughed about 20 per cent of its writers and decided straightaway to top up the financial support from the government so employees would receive their full salary. By July, most of the furloughed employees were back and in August, the entire team was again working at full capacity thanks to the positive financial situation.

Another way to keep the morale up during lockdown was the daily publication of ‘success stories’ which highlighted people - both employees and freelancers - who have done well the day before. Daniels said he took extra care to make the 20 freelancers feel as recognised and valued as his 51 employees on payroll to foster a sense of togetherness within the ranks.

Best quarter ever

"Part of me still wonders how we achieved that," says Daniels about the company’s revenue growth.

The success was partly due to a fortunate decision the business took about 18 months ago to start moving away from football-related content amid fears of pigeon-holing the company. To diversify, it started to invest into covering entertainment and gaming.

This decision could not have come at a better time. One of the consequences of the lockdown was that people were not able to go out and the gaming section grew about 10 times in a short space of time, and the new audience became loyal.

Demand for advertising that fell in April and May began to come back very quickly. One of the reasons for that was that most of the GRV Media advertising is programmatic so it is cheaper than direct deals. Better still, the advertising revenue is expected to grow in the run-up to Christmas, although the company is bracing itself for a potential new year slump.

The lockdown also proved beneficial for the growth of entertainment content. Before lockdown, entertainment would amass some 1.5 million views a month. This now grew to more than 12 million page views a month and counting. Reality TV content racks up some 2 million page views a month.

Another fortunate coincidence was the redesign of the flagship website HITC that went live in May, which also offered better advertising opportunities.

"Could we plan all this? No," says Daniels. "It just happened and it helped us capitalise on what was hopefully a once in a lifetime event."

However, he remains sober about success. “You can wake up tomorrow and your publication is no more relevant because tech changes so fast.

"I am more concerned about the business now because I have so much more to lose."

Say 'yes' and figure it out later

With the publishing industry struggling and many journalists finding themselves furloughed in spring this year, Daniels and his team decided to launch a new website that gave journalists the opportunity to keep on writing whilst at home. The Focus had two main missions: helping furloughed journalists remain sane and giving any advertising revenue to charity.

"It was a good experience but come June, people were back to work or been made redundant and found something else," explains Daniels, adding that the website’s original goals were no more relevant.

So the team reassessed its missions and created the Writers’ Academy that trains junior writers, trying to make up for some of the losses of industry internships and training opportunities due to covid-19.

In practice, this means that 10 young journalists can do shifts, working with the editorial team to improve their writing while earning money, with articles also published on The Focus.

Although it was first managed purely by volunteers, the website now has a dedicated managing editor, who is a former freelancer whose work dried up because of the pandemic. Six months since starting the site, The Focus is set to hit 1 million page views in October.

"If you’ve got an idea and the time seems right, do it," says Daniels. "You’ll think about the ins and outs later. Too many people spend too much time thinking about a business idea and they never get it done."

"That’s what we did with The Focus. We launched it, publicised it and now we are employing and paying people. It’s something I’m very proud of."

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