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Legacy of the lemonade stand: The Skimm's founders talk creativity, work ethic and sexism

Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin met in college, and later decided to build their own media brand.
CNBC
Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin met in college, and later decided to build their own media brand.

Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, co-founders and co-CEOs of The Skimm, made a gutsy gamble five years ago. They bet that one of the big problems with the news business was the tone. Media outfits took themselves too seriously, and weren't speaking to young people.

The pair's solution? The Daily Skimm, a newsletter targeting millennial women that keeps you up to date on what's happening in the world.

They didn't invent the daily newsletter by a long shot, but Weisberg and Zakin are working the kind of magic with it that should make every media executive in the world sit up and take notice. Here's a little context: The New York Times announced recently that it has 13 million subscriptions to its 50 newsletters. Weisberg and Zakin have 5 million subscribers who open their one newsletter multiple times per week.

I caught up with the pair at The Skimm's headquarters on 23rd Street in Manhattan for the Fortt Knox Podcast. We talked about their journey as business partners and friends, the roots of their entrepreneurial drive, and today's unique challenges for women in the start-up game.

It began with lemonade

Both Weisberg and Zakin had lemonade stands when they were little girls, though one made a lot more money than the other.

"I would set up a lemonade stand at the intersection of where all the tourists were, and would sell lemonade for way too much," Weisberg said. "I think as young women, our moms always told us, 'You have to have your own way of making money.'"

Both women had family members who ran businesses, with varying levels of success. They knew it would be hard, but were confident they should give their idea a chance.

They're thinking big

It's one thing to have a single hit product, but it's another to build a thriving business around it. Zakin and Weisberg are clearly plotting moves far beyond their popular newsletter. They've also launched an app, which syncs important (and fun) events onto a subscriber's calendar. Overall, they're looking to build a lifestyle brand that accomplishes what morning TV did in its heyday.

"What worked, when you deconstruct it is, it was two to three hours of telling you, here's everything you need to know to be a functioning person: This is the news, the latest movie that's out, the book to read, how to cook your Thanksgiving turkey," Zakin says. "Our audience is not watching morning TV in those ways anymore."

Here's the nugget for entrepreneurs: The founders were TV producers before they started the company, and they've found ways to repurpose those skills for an under-served audience.

Forget sugar and spice

The founders have faced their share of doubters in the five years since they launched The Skimm — and some sexism, too.

"We've had people tell us we're being emotional. You don't say that to male founders," Zakin said.

Weisberg said one potential investor's pitch was, "I'd like to buy some [equity] from you, and it will help you pay for your wedding."

They're not hung up on the roadblocks. They're pragmatic about them. And that might just be part of what helps The Skimm connect with its audience.

Fortt Knox is a weekly podcast from CNBC anchor Jon Fortt. Previous episodes of the program can be found here.