Thrillist’s Restless Founder Ben Lerer

Ben Lerer sounds very reasonable — even responsible — when he makes the following statement. “I never go out on Sundays or Mondays. Never.”

In other words, Lerer goes out five nights a week on average. Maybe six, if you count watching NFL games on Sunday afternoons. Keep in mind the fact that Lerer is married. Yet the 29-year-old promises his wife he’ll be home on Mondays, without fail. Consider how well that promise would go with your wife.
Of course, you don’t work at Thrillist, the men’s lifestyle site Lerer and his college buddy Adam Rich co-founded in 2004. Your career, your livelihood doesn’t depend on you being completely dialed into New York nightlife, and eating, drinking and style trends overall.
Started as a daily email newsletter for accomplished New York 20-somethings looking to know first about the next hot place, Thrillist now publishes in 19 markets. Besides editorial geared for men, the company is in retail (it acquired the guy-apparel site JackThreads last year) and introduced the daily deals Thrillist Rewards in December. Thrillist brought in $15 million last year and should pull in $40 million this year. This is an empire built on such plays as the “Strip and a Strip” deal, which featured a steak and a lap dance at New York City gentlemen’s club Score’s.
One wonders how someone who lives that lifestyle isn’t 300 pounds and an alcoholic. But Lerer is thin and seems under control as he sips a Negroni while sitting at the bar at the Brandy Library in New York. The gym is crucial to survival, says Lerer, as is planning one’s meals carefully. “I eat a really healthy breakfast and lunch everyday, and then a not-so-healthy dinner. And you don’t know that I’m not an alcoholic.”
The surprisingly ego-light Lerer is kidding. But he admits that going out on the town all the time can be a grind. Yet the native Manhattanite also maintains continued enthusiasm for New York and all that it offers.
“Reading New York and London, and reading Thrillist Minneapolis, it’s different,” says Lerer. “In Minneapolis, you’re not reading about three new places every day where you’re like, ‘make me a reservation there!’ There are different paces.”
Lerer’s pace has always been intense, say friends. “One of the things we used to do while going to school [at the University of Pennsylvannia] was to spend a lot of time with blogs and on Citysearch and looking for some of the more off-the-beaten path [places to go],” recalls Rich. “Philadelphia has a lot going on. And we had very aggressive attitude toward being consumers of Philadelphia. We took having fun really seriously.”
Seriously to the point where they saw a business? Depends who you ask. Rich remembers Lerer promoting many a party at school, while Rich developed his writing skills. “That’s where our ven diagrams overlapped,” he said. “That’s the thing that gave us our most direct entree into [Thrillist].”
“Those guys loved the New York nightlife, and I always thought they should start their own business to fuel their passion,” adds friend Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed. “They liked to party.”
Lerer has different memories of that time. “I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur back then,” said Lerer. “I thought I would try it for a while and then go back to business school.”
At first glance, Lerer would seem nearly destined for startup life. His father, Kenneth Lerer, is a founder of The Huffington Post and a former evp at AOL Time Warner. Thrillist itself was following a template created by Dany Levy at Daily Candy. Lerer, however, recalls being uncertain with the entrepreneurial choice — and seemingly scared of failure.
“I was having a blast back then, but it was hard,” he says. “It’s really tough on your ego. People come up to you and say, ‘what do you do?’ And you say, ‘I started this thing called Thrillist.’ ‘Eh?’ They don’t know what it is, and they’re like ‘huh?’ And you’re like ‘I’’m not doing anything.’ You consider me to be doing nothing in fact.’ You have to remember, this isn’t Mark Zuckerberg. There’s no Facebook. Digital Media isn’t hot. Huffington Post is just being founded. Gawker is just being founded. I sounded like a spoiled kid from New York who didn’t have a real job and was starting his own company.”
Then around three years into Thrillist’s growth, things changed. CNN ran a story in 2007 about the company’s growth, and in that piece Daily Candy — an early inspiration for Rich and Lerer — was referred to as a sort of “Thrillist for girls.”
“We’re like Yeaaahhh. We’ve done it,” says Lerer. “We’re synoymous to this girl’s brand we aspired to. It’s a real business, a company.”
“When I met him, he didn’t know anything about the business,” says Peretti. “It’s been amazing to watch him. He’s now almost the perfect businessman. It’s been one of the most remarkable transformations I’ve ever seen.”
His tastes have also improved dramatically over that time, said Rich. “In light of what a foodie he’s become, I remember when he lived on medium Domino’s pizzas and didn’t like seafood. Now he will eat anything put in front of him in a sushi place, and he literally wouldn’t eat a crab cake. There is a parallel to his career. He’s always about improving himself. He’s got a restlessness and a relentlessness.”
Indeed, besides Thrillist, he and his father manage an angel fund, Lerer Ventures. Yet despite his still-hectic nightly schedule, the pace Lerer moves at is far different these days. (He was married last year.) In the beginning, he and his partner Rich wrote every single piece of content and thus visited every single venue Thrillist. Now the company has editors in every market, including multiple younger reporters in New York.
Still, after drinks are over, Lerer heads to a dinner with another media company at a nearby restaurant. He’s looking for ideas on how to make Thrillist more sticky. “I’d love to not have to go out tonight,” he says. “I’m tired.”
Too bad. It’s Thursday, not Monday.

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