It’s hard to talk to Chuck Reece, editor-in-chief of the Bitter Southerner, and not feel proud of this city. Reece, along with his talented staff and contributor team, has created a voice for a region that often gets undersold and overlooked. As a tech publication in Atlanta, we often see investors dismiss Atlanta because it’s not a “tech hub.” However, innovation has always lived in the South and it’s hustling more than ever these days. Just like Reece.
Since 2013, thousands of folks run to the Bitter Southerner’s site on Tuesdays to read the latest story. The online magazine was conceived in a bar over an old school cocktail in New Orleans out of a need for a better story for the South.
“Southern identity is a weird, ever-changing thing, just like southern culture. Too often the idea of southern identity is associated with certain stereotypes that have always been reinforced by the larger media,” says Reece. “I just tell everybody, between the aristocrats and their verandas on one end and hillbillies and rednecks on the other end, we just try to write about everything that’s going on that’s interesting in between.”
After the cheers, Reece and designer Dave Whitling collaborated on the brand, but as any startup, they set up a Squarespace site and bootstrapped while they validated their idea. “For the first 12 months of its existence it was a zero revenue, zero expenditure operation,” says Reece. Also on board are co-founders Kyle Tibbs Jones and Butler Raines. Photographers, writers or staff weren’t paid during those first few months, but the readers kept asking for more content.
Well, the rest is history. The content startup has a wildly engaged following now on social media with more than 100,000 followers on Facebook, 17,000 on Twitter, countless website clicks and email subscribers. Their brand is recognized everywhere, from their logo to their carefully designed merchandise, thanks to the team’s previous experience in the marketing and design world.
However, despite the countless accolades and love, the team could not figure out a sustainable business model by fall of 2014. “To show you how much or how little for the basic business sense went into this, we planned the whole membership drive and then we were like, ‘We have to have a legal entity to receive the money,'” says Reece.
But it worked out.
After a month, the Bitter Southerner was a for-profit entity and it had a budget with room for innovation. “It allowed us to push the stories a little bit farther, gave us the ability to pay writers’ and photographers’ travel expenses to go places for us and to dive deeper into things,” says Reece. It also allowed the partners (3 out of 4, at least) to get paid small salaries and keep building the brand.
With the membership drive being successful, Reece continued to look for more sustainable capital. However, Atlanta has yet to become a hub for media businesses and after receiving some advice on putting together a presentation for venture capitalists, Reece started running into walls quickly.
“The problem in Atlanta in terms of VC money is that, for the media business, there essentially is none. It’s not like we are known with the exception of CNN’s presence and the growing movie business presence and the whole Turner enterprise. That’s not what happens here. Even with all of that infrastructure here in Atlanta, you’ve never seen lots of little media production ventures pop up the way they do out in LA or in New York.”
Fortunately, e-commerce held its own while they looked for more capital. On the General Store, T-shirts with the word “SOUTH” written across sold out in an hour. Now, after their upcoming site upgrade in October, they will add locally-made homewares, books and tailgating accessories in addition to the clothing.
Reece and the team weren’t willing to compromise the soul of the project in order to raise capital. In the end, after much perseverance, they signed a contract with a local publishing company. “We were willing to explore anything because our goal was to simply keep doing what we’re doing and be able to make a living at it,” says Reece.
That authenticity is what makes the Bitter Southerner brand stand out above all else. “You can’t build it, you just got to be it,” he says and he’s right. The Bitter Southerner explores all facets of the South — from rap and country music to politics, food and history. They are not trying to write for insiders, instead they want to expose new folks to new things. No pretensions, just good storytelling.
The more Reece hears from friends elsewhere in the country saying, “Thank you. I have something that I can show my friends who wonder why I’m proud to be from the South,” the more he wants to keep doing it.
“The one thing I’ve learned more than anything else in over three years of doing this is that everybody in the world wants, in their heart, to feel proud of where they’re from. The South has done lots of amazing thing in all fields and endeavors when its various cultures have been allowed to work together instead of at odds with each other.”
As for the next six months, the Bitter Southerner is moving away from a web advertising revenue plan in favor of making other more effective wheels,”spin faster.” Those revenue wheels include their general store — a place where BS merchandise and curated goods are sold online — and the annual membership drive.
That doesn’t mean the team isn’t ready to take new paths as well. Reece and the crew are gearing up for a website redesign with better UX and teaming up with bigger enterprises to tell their (sponsored) stories. The first on the line is a story on hospital chaplains, part of a 6-month series with Piedmont Healthcare. It’s all about surviving while staying true to your voice, right?
“We’ve got no reason not to take chances on things. It’s great because we can do that now with some business infrastructure and expertise under us, which we’ve not had before this year. I don’t know where it’s going to go. These stories I hear from every southerner who grow up in a small town and had a dad in a auto garage or something like that, it’s just this, ‘Daddy always told me that you take care of a business for five years and it’ll take care of you for 15.’ I’m hoping that was right.”
We do too.
Hypepotamus and the Bitter Southerner are joining forces. In a new column, “Hustle,” Hypepotamus will be sharing stories of southern innovation and entrepreneurship with Bitter Southerner’s readers. The first article hits the web this October.
Feature written by Muriel Vega, associate editor. Interview and development by Kiki Roeder, editor-in-chief. Images provided by Chuck Reece.