Like so many others, Vic Belonogoff’s story begins with an unexpected twist. “My introduction to digital media was as random as it ever comes,” Belonogoff explains.
In 2005 Belonogoff was working at a biotechnology company in Los Angeles when his roommate came home one night with a proposition. The roommate, Eytan Elbaz, a friend from UCLA whose AdSense platform was acquired by Google in 2003, had plans to take over a friend’s domain portfolio and only twenty-four hours to convince his roommates to scrape together enough cash to do so with him. Miraculously, he did.
Within the span of a day, Belonogoff became a one-third owner of a domain portfolio, which he co-managed in his spare time and sold two years later for a decent gain.
After selling the portfolio, Belonogoff and Elbaz turned their attention to the next big thing: online content. At the end of 2010, Eytan’s brother Gil (CEO of Factual) introduced them to Opposing Views, an online structured debate forum that had run out of money. Gil, an investor in the company, suggested they bite–which they did. The rest is history.
Today, Render Media is the nation’s second fastest-growing new media organization and includes four distinct properties covering everything from politics to cooking. Under Belonogoff’s direction as CEO, Render’s flagship property, Opposing Views, transformed into an unbiased news site and shifted growth efforts from SEO to Facebook, building from a modest following of 30,000 to over 30 million monthyl visitors in 2016. Render Media’s latest property is Cooking Panda, a multi-platform online destination for food content, which launched in late 2015 and has since amassed a social following of more than 10 million fans.
“Our success is because we changed our whole concept, and asked ourselves: What does our audience want to watch, what do they want to read? If you do that, you’ll be successful.”
This new model has catapulted Render Media into the digital big leagues, alongside media goliaths Vox, Buzzfeed, and Tastemade, all of which are generously venture-backed.
“I think what makes us kind of unique and special is that we bootstrapped this entire business. We’ve raised less than $4 million since we’ve been around and we’ve never needed a new round. We’re profitable now, because we’re very smart about how we hire people,” Belonogoff says.
Today, the company employs 38 full-time employees, up from 10 in 2014. A lot of these are recent graduates, many of them young creatives snagged from Hollywood production lots, with a keen eye for viral trends. But Render’s content creation is also a deeply data-driven process. Videos, which have become the cornerstone of the Render’s content strategy, are rigorously vetted by analysts and iterated on.
“Branded content, I believe, is going to replace a lot of the ad dollars that went into TV commercials … our audience, they’re all carrying TVs in their pocket all the time.”
Because, arguably, content creation is always changing. And for Belonogoff, piloting ideas can be as cheap as $500 on half a day’s filming. It’s still sink or swim, only learning to swim is fast and the threat of sinking is far less expensive.
“We have an advantage over established media companies that have been around for a very long time just because they don’t move as fast,” Belonogoff reasons.
Right now, Belonogoff is keeping an eye (and an ear) on branded content. “Branded content, I believe, is going to replace a lot of the ad dollars that went into TV commercials,” he explains. “Our audience, they’re all carrying TVs in their pocket all the time.”
In Belonogoff’s estimation, one of his most recent branded video campaigns received more than 10 million views. That’s the same exposure as a spot on a popular television show but for ten times less money.
For Belonogoff, it’s a matter of reeducating brands about meaningful content. “I want to create the content that, if the channel were to disappear, [viewers] would be heartbroken. That’s a huge part of success – more than clickthrough.”