Photo by Cathy Pinsky
Before Zohar Yardeni became CEO of The Daily Voice, an online media company of hyper-local news websites, he says he was “not a news guy.” And before he founded two tech startups, he says he wasn’t a techie. And before working as a banker at Lazard Frères & Co. (now Lazard Ltd.), he claims he wasn’t finance-minded. And before double-majoring in philosophy and psychology at Cornell University, Yardeni was more of a math and science person.
“I wish I could say trying new things was part of a deliberate master plan I have been executing,” Yardeni says, “but the reality is that it’s more of a random walk.”
That random walk led Yardeni, now 38, to The Daily Voice—originally named Main Street Connect—which was founded in March 2010 by Carll Tucker, a longtime community newspaper publisher who still serves as The Daily Voice’s board chairman. Whether or not there is a “master plan,” Yardeni’s life and career certainly have prepared him for the role of CEO. He was born in Haifa, Israel, and moved to Connecticut when he was 12 (he speaks English without a trace of an accent).
“Our success is tied to Westchester, and Westchester’s been good to us,” Yardeni says.
Yardeni lives in TriBeCa with his wife, attorney Sarah Heckman Yardeni, and their two children, Rose, 5, and Jack, 2. (They have a country home in Connecticut.) Though he considered pursuing a career in academia after graduating from Cornell in 1995, instead he followed his friends to the big city, jobless. “I moved to New York because that’s where everyone was moving. But it turns out you need a job to pay rent.” Yardeni was hired as a banker at Lazard Frères and loved it.
”The thing I love about business is there’s something objectively pure about it,” he says. “The rules are set up. You can succeed or you can fail.” After three years at Lazard Frères, Yardeni was accepted to Columbia Business School. But he delayed school to move to Lake Tahoe for six months to work as a ski-lift operator. “It was an opportunity to do something different,” says Yardeni, who has been an avid snowboarder since his teens.
After graduating from Columbia, Yardeni and four Business School classmates founded CallStreet, an earnings-conference-call-transcription service, with start-up funding from angel investors. He got the idea when he took a temp job transcribing earnings reports. Two-and-a-half years later, the little start-up was sold to FactSet Research Systems for $6.5 million. He next founded radiusIM, a location-based instant messaging service created to capitalize on smartphone technology. The only problem was that it was 2005, and smartphones hadn’t yet hit mass consumption. Nonetheless, the site’s instant messaging feature proved popular in Central and South America after a few blogs touted it there. RadiusIM had 4.5 million users at its peak. Unfortunately, in 2008, the market collapsed, investors weren’t biting, and the company closed.
Yardeni’s next position was global head of product management at Thomson Reuters, where he was responsible for building a more flexible platform for the company’s many products. He went from heading up a 30-person company to working at a 60,000+ person global conglomerate, where he led teams in five cities around the world. “Trying to get anything done working through different time zones is such a big ship to turn,” he says. “I had a newfound respect for what it takes to get something done at a big company.” But when his friend Nick Veronis, a Main Street Connect board member, told him about the CEO position, he was intrigued. He liked the idea of working at a smaller company. He also liked the commute better. “Going from Manhattan to Armonk is easier than flying to Thomson Reuters in Bangkok.”
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Since Yardeni joined the company in November 2011, web traffic for the 53—and counting—community websites in Westchester (32), Fairfield County (11), and Central Massachusetts (10) has increased by some 50 percent. The sites now get 500,000 unique visitors a month, which The Daily Voice estimates represents about 40 percent of residents in the communities served by local Daily Voice outposts.
“We don’t have a national presence of any kind,” Yardeni says. “If someone outside Chappaqua found a Chappaqua story interesting, that’s great, but the way we make our business sustainable is by reaching people in the community. If we have visitor traffic from outside their town, it wouldn’t be valuable for our advertisers.”
Each of the local websites has its own staff reporter based in town who covers breaking news, schools, sports, businesses, restaurants and retail, politics, police and fire, real estate, and—very popular—deaths.
He likes working with a staff just a little bigger than those of his start-up days. “It’s really nice to get to know not just everyone’s name, but to really know them,” he says. “I like the people side—I like working with passionate, motivated, smart people.”
Employees credit Yardeni for creating a cohesive, dedicated staff, who feel connected to the company and know what they’re doing. “In a short period of time, Zohar has been able to gather more than one hundred employees in three states, most of whom work remotely, and make us feel like a team with a clear mission,” says The Daily Voice Chief Content Officer Karin Annus. “That’s difficult to do with everyone in the same office and virtually impossible when many of the employees haven’t even met each other.”
A Hands-On Boss
Every morning, after being awakened by his children at 5 (“Our weekends revolve around the kids,” he says), Yardeni heads to one of a myriad of offices of The Daily Voice—in Manhattan; Armonk; South Norwalk, Connecticut; and Grafton, Massachusetts, and will bounce from one to the other all day long. “I’m a very involved kind of guy,” he says. “I still get to do coding myself, and actually build things on the sites”—something that his staff admires.
“One moment you’ll see him roll up his sleeves and help our developers debug a technical issue on our websites, and the next he’s outlining a high-level sales strategy tailored to maximizing our revenue opportunity,” says John Londono, the chief operating and technology officer at The Daily Voice. “It gives him a level of credibility across the organization that you don’t normally find in a top executive.”
“Zohar is very focused on the mission at hand and communicates exactly what needs to be done,” Annus says. “He’s probably a good chess player, since he’s always thinking several moves ahead. Plus, he’s the smartest guy in the room.”
Building a Sustainable Business Model
Still, it remains to be seen if Yardeni will be able to turn The Daily Voice into an online local news media juggernaut in a time when the media landscape is rapidly shifting.
This challenge was a major reason Yardeni accepted the position. “It seemed like a big important part of society undergoing change,” he says. While readers have flocked to the Internet, getting enough advertising to pay for content has proven difficult—especially when the advertising pie is shared with the likes of media giant AOL, which owns Patch, another loose confederation of local news websites.
“They’re a competitor,” Yardeni admits. “Anyone who’s covering local news is a competitor. We welcome competition.” To date, The Daily Voice has raised $18 million from investors, and Yardeni freely admits the company isn’t yet profitable. But, he sees that situation as temporary.
“Our business model is simple. First and foremost, cover the news. If we do that right, things will come,” he says. “The content of local news survives. The question is really the business model. I see us cracking that code, and scaling the model in a meaningful way.”
And he doesn’t believe the pundits who say the business of providing local news can’t make money anymore. “Some folks are quick to pronounce things dead, and I won’t do that,” Yardeni says. “People care about all the things that happen in their town. If I didn’t think there was room for professional journalism, I wouldn’t be here.”