06/13/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

Wall St West? What You Can Learn From A Financial Services New Media Start-Up In Silicon Valley

Recently, as I sailed along in a cab through New York City, I was scrolling through the comments on one of my own Huffington Post blogs, when I had a tiny little epiphany. As I peered into the blue glow of the iPad, swiping at the screen with my finger, I suddenly realized that it no longer felt novel to be turning virtual pages on a tiny lit up screen, checking out a conversation between people I'd never met about a story I wrote, in real time. "New media," I realized, is already old. So many people who once swore they would never read their news online have come around, and so many of the online publications that launched a revolution in the journalism business, making up the rules as they went along, are now mature businesses. This revelation led me to a question: What has the evolution of the form taught us about what it takes to succeed at new media?

One new media standout worth tracking is RIABiz, a web-only publication covering the booming investment adviser industry. It launched in August of 2009, right in the teeth of what has widely been called the Great Recession. At the time it seemed like a very bold move. Advertisers were pulling their dollars from media outlets in general, splitting what dollars they did allocate between print and online, and paying quite a bit less per ad for the latter.

RIABiz was also entering a crowded market. Trade publication stalwarts such as Investment News, Financial Planning, Financial Advisor and Registered Rep. magazine already dedicated substantial resources to covering the investment adviser industry. And consumer publications like the Wall Street Journal,, CNBC and Barron's were beginning to launch their own dedicated efforts to cover the space.

Five years later, RIABiz boasts three full time and four part-time employees, and gets 60,000 unique visitors a month. The company has maintained its independence, remaining free of corporate or private equity investment. This has allowed it to avoid the kinds of pressures that have driven some online publications to pump out 20-50 pieces of nearly unedited content daily, says RIABiz founder Brooke Southall.

Upon close inspection, RIABiz's success seems to rest on its ability to break the mold in a number of ways that that go beyond the simple online vs. print dichotomy. Perched 20 miles north of Silicon Valley, rather than in the heart of the financial media world in New York City, it has greater access to stories about the kinds of technology that have changed not just the media business, but every other business out there, including the investment adviser niche that it covers. Indeed, the investment adviser industry is centered on the West Coast, and is full of tech-savvy entrepreneurs breaking away from an old-school Wall Street model.

Southall also points out that RIABiz offers not just content, which is practically a commodity in our information-rich Bloomberg-saturated and Google-dominated age. It offers that content with personality and opinion: in other words, what he calls context, and what we might also call social. No story goes up without a little bit of Southall commentary, and that commentary has a very insider feel. It's like he's chatting with a favorite uncle or a neighborhood buddy from down the block.

You can see the influence of Silicon Valley on the firm's organizational structure, too. It's horizontal rather than vertical. Whereas most traditional newsrooms organize reporters into beats, everyone at RIABiz covers a little bit of everything. That means they know where every bit of news fits into the larger industry picture and are better able to provide that context.

I caught up with Southall to learn more about what it took to go from startup to established in today's not-so-new media world. I found our chat enlightening on many levels: His answers offer insights into not just new media, but entrepreneurship, wealth management and more. As a fellow entrepreneur, I can tell you that "the outside" is often "prettier" than the behind the scenes. But I share Brooke's appetite for disruptive ideas, shaking up tradition in financial services. Doing it your own way, breaking the rules, and finding a formula that works can provide immense satisfaction. And that psychic reward more than compensates for all the sweat and stumbling that is a natural part of starting a small business and making it hum.

Q: RIABiz turns five in August. Do you feel it has achieved what you wanted it to? When did you feel as though you were on the right track and that you had hit upon a winning formula?

It really took three years to draw a paycheck and far longer to earn a sustaining income. But one big affirmation is seeing our competitors continuously laying off top talent while we add. There was the fear that Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Forbes, CNBC or Barron's would jump into RIA coverage and squash us. Guess what? Every one of them did hire staff specifically to address financial advisors but our readership, 60,000 unique visitors a month, continues to grow. And most of them have veered toward attracting consumers leaving us with more of the business-to-business market.

Q: You started out wanting to offer a platform that mixed the style and quality of The Economist, the timeliness of a Bloomberg and the personality of everyone's favorite blogger--a kind of hybrid approach. Meanwhile, one of your original contributors, Elizabeth MacBride called you a community newspaper for the RIA business. Do you believe these descriptors still apply?

Yes, I think it remains a hybrid of all those. I typically lead off articles with a little blog-type entry to set the stage for an article, many of which are deeply researched. And I like Elizabeth's description. The RIA business is like a big town that happens to be scattered all over the United States--even the world. We're all nosy neighbors.

Q: What can people learn from your experience about what works in the new media landscape?

Though everyone seems aware that the publishing business is moving from print to online, Frank Noto and I were just as excited to start RIABiz to exploit a less obvious but more important trend in journalism: we have moved from the era of content to the era of context. The publications that are booming today are providing their material with a framing, setting and theme that makes sense to their readers.
One other thing I'd mention is that most publications in our business still exist under old "beat" systems, which are silos of expertise. But because so much of the financial advice business, legacy and new, is converging, morphing, merging or even becoming extinct, it can be tremendously awkward trying to cover any story in its proper context. By definition, beats are context killers. At RIABiz, we all write about everything--albeit with emphases--and it has the side benefit of keeping intellectual morale high and eliminating the turf battles that were endemic at other publications where I worked.

Q: What are the advantages of being based on the West Coast as opposed to New York?

Sitting just outside San Francisco as we do, we are both at the hub of the RIA business and the financial technology business, hence we are able to break stories about both and look at them holistically. It has given us a leg up on New York-based publications, which virtually every financial advice trade publication is BASED, and on Silicon Valley publications like TechCrunch, in covering the emerging category of online advice companies like Wealthfront, Motif Investing, SigFig and Betterment.

Q: What was the hardest thing about the first year of RIABiz and how did you overcome it? Did you ever want to give up?

I have gone through some months of hell but I never wanted to give up. Sometimes we'll have a convergence of people issues, technology issues and business issues on top of the ongoing big-output-from-small-staff issues and it's draining and discouraging. The best advice I have heard is to play to your strengths and manage around your weaknesses and I think that is what we try to do.