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The Small Business Interview: New York Start-Up Delivers 'Daily Game Plan' for the Active Crowd


Jonathan Ages of Blood, Sweat & Cheers tells us how he's making a profit from play-time.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL For all the nine-to-fivers out there who dream of open fields or open bars, the Blood, Sweat & Cheers daily newsletter is more than the perfect procrastination device -- it's the doorway to life beyond the desk. "We're that breath of fresh air in your inbox," says Jonathan Ages, CEO and founder of the start-up.

Jonathan Ages, Blood, Sweat and Cheers Founder
The website launched in New York in April 2011 to almost instantaneous success. Like Groupon (GRPN), the company sends daily emails to its subscribers across the US updating them on local resources and events. Unlike Groupon, the activities recommended by Blood, Sweat & Cheers are rigorously researched and selected by editors -- never influenced by advertisers. Instead staff writers serve up funny stories on quirky sporting events and things to do after work, anything from 100-mile races in the San Juan Mountains, to "Broga" (yoga for men), to reviews of the new Nike Free (NKE) line of running shoes.

Ages' editorial-only policy has worked from Day 1. During the first month of business, email subscriptions grew 15% per week. Considering that the cost of email advertising is about ten times that of web advertisements, the site's dedication to integrity quickly became the company's most tangible asset. Sponsors like Target (TGT) and Red Bull soon followed.

A skier and runner himself, Ages launched Blood, Sweat & Cheers after first writing for more traditional media sites, including ABC News, Forbes Traveler, New York Magazine, and Vibe to name a few. Ages says he founded Blood, Sweat & Cheers to undo the detrimental effects of the driven New Yorker lifestyle, going in search of the new businessperson's nirvana: a place where work and play could meet.

Kathleen Culliton: Tell us about the business and what you do.
Jonathan Ages: Blood, Sweat & Cheers is a free daily email newsletter and basically the idea behind it is this: You may be finished with grade school, but there's no reason to leave recess behind. Every day we find the most fun and active thing to do, write it up in a really entertaining article, and deliver it to your inbox at lunch. So at the end of the day, you have something to look forward to, and it's really, really easy for you to step out of the office and play with your friends.

KC: What role do you play in the company?
JA: I'm the founder; it was originally my idea. Ultimately, what I do on a daily basis is build up whatever new department or new project it is that we're focusing on and get that up and running (or to a crawling or walking pace) and then hire someone on to take that and run with it. Right now, we've got an editorial department and a Web development team, and we just hired a new digital marketing manager.

KC: How influential has your business been in the industry?
JA: There are a lot of different ways to look at influence. I think so far what's been most significant for us is cultural impact, and that influence has been huge. There are lots of people joining kickball leagues and dodgeball leagues and beer-softball leagues. But that's only one day a week for people, and they don't know what to do on the other days of the week. So what we do is make it easier to go out, have fun, and be active every single day. We're ultimately changing the way that people play.

KC: And what has the response been?
JA: We're constantly getting messages from people saying, "I love what you do,"or, "I can't believe that this didn't exist before." Because [Blood, Sweat & Cheers] fits into the lives they're living. We're just making it easier to have more fun. We're basically your outsourced social coordinator. We spend four to six hours every day trying to figure out the single most fun and active thing to do and then deliver it in this really compelling, really sexy article for you to find in your inbox every single day.

KC: What is in the future for the business of Blood, Sweat & Cheers?
JA: Well, there's lots of major companies that we're already partnering with; tomorrow we're sending out an ad for And I expect, in time, to partner with major brands such as Chevy (GM), Jeep, Miller (SAB.L), Michelob, Puma (PP.PA), professional sports teams, and some major dating sites. We also have a series of special mobile landing pages that we plan to unroll next week.

KC: Business first or life first?
JA: I try and find a balance between the two. We're a tech start-up and so we work tech start-up hours. Fortunately my wife is training for the inaugural New York City Ironman so she's always busy exercising, which gives me a little more time to be working at Blood, Sweat & Cheers. That being said, what we do doesn't feel like work. We're finding fun things to do, and on top of that we need to be living and breathing what it is that we cover. I joke that we've institutionalized fun here. We're constantly going out to Simpsons Trivia Nights or an All-You-Can-Drink golf range party. Or we've newly invented an institution here called "Beer o'clock Fridays." So it's a fun way to be working, and it really doesn't feel like work.

KC: What virtues do you admire in a business leader, and who do you admire most?
JA: There are a lot of people that I think are phenomenal business leaders and ultimately what I admire the most is someone who is working on something they believe in. And that the product or the service they are building is something that makes the world just a little bit better. What fuels me every single day, and the whole team here, is that we're working on making the world a little bit more fun for people, and making it easier for people to live a more healthy, fun, enjoyable lifestyle. And of course within that there's definitely some drinking as well. If your product or your service is improving the world in a way similar to that, then you're a business leader that I admire.

KC: What book should every small business owner read this weekend, and why?
JA: I've got two for you, and they're kind of cliche. The first one is Eric Ries' The Lean Start-up. It's just a really, really phenomenal quick read that helps you understand how you cannot waste time building something, but to only really spend time perfecting that what you know has demand. The other one is Brad Feld's [and David Cohen's] book, Do More Faster. It's basically two pages of essentially spoken word analysis on fifty or so businesses: the biggest obstacles they've had to overcome, what they did to overcome those obstacles, or why they were unable to actually succeed.

KC: Where do you get your best ideas?
JA: Talking with people whose opinions I really value and whose intelligence I really respect. Just talking through issues can be phenomenal. I talk to my wife, and Jesse [Brukman, Editor] and Brian [Toomes, Web Manager] are phenomenal sources of amazing ideas. And then one of the other ways that we get a lot of our amazing ideas is standing on the shoulders of others, seeing what other companies have done, other editors have done, other businesses in total other industries have done and what's worked for them and what hasn't worked for them. Sometimes what's innovative is knowing what to pull from different businesses, different aesthetics, and putting that together in a smart way. To me it just seems logical.

KC: If you weren't running your own business, what would you be doing?
JA: I'd probably still be trudging away as a journalist and maybe doing a lot of angry drinking. It's tough work being a journalist.

KC: What has been your greatest success?
JA: This idea of bringing recess back for professionals and that it's been catching on. For me, the greatest success is that I'm building this amazingly talented team and we're going to push forward that culture and make sure that the culture of play becomes even bigger.

KC: What's your chief characteristic as a leader?
JA: I take more pride in what my next project is than in what my last project was. As far as I'm concerned, I'm only as good as what the next project is that I'm working on, so I try to prove myself every single day and learn from what I did yesterday to make what I am doing today even better.

KC: Your idea of small business CEO happiness?
JA: We do a lot of play in our work. For me, what I would love, the sort of ultimate goal, is to build this incredible, successful business, and to have my 14-hour work-day, or whatever I'm working any particular day, revolve around my play-time, whether I'm answering emails from a gondola in Whistler, or taking a short break to go for a jog in Central Park and think through a problem. Anything like that, that allows me to get away from my desk and be active and then come back and be a part of a project I'm really proud of, to me that's happiness.

(See also: The Small Business Interview: What's Next For Online Dating?)
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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