A years-long shift within RootsRated Media led to an overhaul of the Chattanooga-born company's business model, new investors and the decision to leave Chattanooga for Atlanta in search of talent.
The company is no longer solely focused on outdoor experiences and destination marketing. It plans to move into other industries in the next two years and double its 40-person staff in the next 18 months. To do that, company leaders felt they had to leave Chattanooga. They wanted more access to talent, capital and connections.
"The decision (to leave) is basically a business decision to put the company in a place where it has more access to the type of talent that really knows how to build the company in this nature," company co-founder and CEO Fynn Glover says. "It's mostly for talent. It's access to people, engineers. There's a more robust software engineering population in Atlanta. And sales and marketing talent that has experience in marketing and building businesses."
The company was one of the first to capitalize on Chattanooga as an outdoor destination, quickly becoming one of the most popular websites for outdoor enthusiasts. The site partnered with local outdoor experts to publish articles and images connecting experiences, trail reviews and outdoors information to consumers. The company's website and mobile app gave detailed overviews to help locals and visitors find where in the United States to hike, mountain bike, ski and more.
"I think anytime a business moves out of Chattanooga, it's a loss for Chattanooga," says Dawson Wheeler, one of the company's original investors and a former board member. "It doesn't matter if it's a startup like RootsRated or a company that has a long-standing history. Chattanooga is built on entrepreneurial spirit, and it's a growing hub inside the outdoor business."
RootsRated stopped creating content for RootsRated.com and its mobile app about two years ago. The app is no longer available for download and the company's popular webpage — which receives millions of visitors annually — hasn't regularly produced new content since 2016. That's when the company began focusing more on monetizing its software, known as Compass. RootsRated Media began utilizing back-end data to help clients grow brands for their own websites, social media profiles and more.
Companies such as Marmot, Visit Utah and Deer Valley Resort didn't have the resources to create content to get their brand in front of potential clients. That's where they needed help. They were looking for a company that had skilled writers, photographers and an ability to get their brands in front of clients. So that's what RootsRated did. They shifted from producing content on their own platforms to creating content for others.
"What our customers wanted was content for their own sites," says company co-founder Mark McKnight, who is no longer with the company. "It became less important to have banner ads that were just being ignored. We had built a ton of software in the background that allowed tens of thousands of articles. We had the software. It was ugly, but it was effective. We became one of the top websites in the outdoors, but [clients] wanted to become publishers, too."
During the shift, McKnight left the company as it moved away from his expertise with the outdoors and toward software content. McKnight took a position across town to head Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. There, he has overseen changes to help the group grow. Others began leaving RootsRated as well. Original investors and former board members Dawson Wheeler and Gordon Seabury also parted ways with the company during the shift.
"Like any company, especially in the startup world, pivots happen," Wheeler says. "In RootsRated's case, there was a pivot made to provide more back-end content, which led to this direction and trajectory they're on today. That's a trajectory that I don't know a whole lot about."
Others filled in the positions. Dave Gould, a general partner at investor TechOperators, is joining the board as the company aims to help companies in new markets simplify content marketing. Fellow co-founder and current CEO Fynn Glover oversaw expansion efforts and a new fundraising campaign over the last several years. RootsRated raised $3 million in capital in 2015 and a second round of investment this year. TechOperators, an Atlanta-based venture fund, put $3.5 million into the company, along with $3 million of additional funds from Fidelis Capital, Alerion Ventures and other investors.
Now, Glover and current company leaders will expand beyond its existing clientele — outdoor apparel companies and destination marketing — in the next two years. They see the company moving into new industries to help get brands in front of people through storytelling and applicable source content. They believe they can use the same principles and skills to grow the company into additional fields.
They'll look to industries looking to sell directly to consumers through experiential storytelling and ones where there are a variety of players and not several major conglomerates
"A great example would be hospitality or transportation, like bicycling and automobiles," Glover says. "Certainly population health is an interesting one."