Business development / Funding / Hiring / Media / Startups

What news pub-bundling startup NICKL learned on a minority-focused trade mission to Europe

And what's next for the Philly-tied company that's raised $5 million and hired 15 people in the last year.

NICKL cofounders Ally Paz (left) and Sumorwuo Zaza. (Courtesy photo)
For news publication services team NICKL, which got its Philly start when it moved here for the 2019 Comcast LIFT Labs Accelerator, going global was always on the product roadmap.

But a recent trip through the United States’ Minority Business Focused Trade Mission realized that vision sooner than its cofounders could have thought.

NICKL company sells bundled news subscription packages to teams and companies in a wide range of sizes through its NICKLpass service (including Comcast, which it snagged through the accelerator). It now works with more than 200 publishers to bring news subscription packages to its users via a Chrome extension, through Microsoft Edge or the Brave browser.

As the company has grown from five employees to 20 in 2022, cofounder and CEO Sumorwuo Zaza told they’d been considering their growth plan. And in a year where news was feeling more essential than ever, that plan began to look global.

NICKL cofounder and Chief Operating Officer Ally Paz said they worked with an org called Black and Global Business Network, which recently introduced them to the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration and this trade mission to southwestern Europe. The goal of the program was to connect with business development contacts in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and create a pipeline for growth after they leave.

The Philly company was one of a dozen selected from around the country. The cofounders’ goal for the trip was to find $1 million in potential business deals, plus create a plan for expanding into those markets. They spent a week in the three countries alongside other tech-enabled, minority-owned businesses — and exceeded their goals, they said. Paz was reminded how valuable the Spanish-language market is, and said she was pleased that the company was able to connect with data and news sources in the markets they visited.

The startup will be looking to hire engineers, product designers and sales people — ideally from Philadelphia.

“The desire for quality journalism is in every market,” Zaza said. “For a lot of publications abroad, we were reminded their digital transformation is actually still behind. We’re giving them an opportunity to get on par with the US.”

The company launched and picked up some traction before the pandemic, but the last two years have “really changed everything for us,” Zaza said. A few years ago, about 30% of publications had paywalls; now it’s about 75%, according to the cofounder. The desire for quality news is there, as is the challenge for newsrooms to gain paying subscribers. Why does their model work? “For publications, it’s hard to get people to buy your product, and packaging as an enterprise can get you thousands of paid users up front.”

The company has raised $5 million, and has used some of the funds to recently expand its team, hiring folks on the business, tech and support teams who can work with the enterprises. And they’re hiring more, too, with a special interest in “hiring from the existing ecosystem” of Philadelphia, Zaza said. (Watch this space.) Of note, they’re looking for engineers, product designers, sales people — and anyone looking to come on board to a “fast-growing startup that will be global.”

The team is in fact fully distributed, representing Philly, San Francisco, Manilla, the Philippines and Lagos. The entryway into the European markets is a natural next step for the company, the cofounders said.

“For us it was an excellent networking opportunity, and helped us remember how valuable in-person was,” Paz said. “It was wonderful to talk to other people, other founders, many of whom are going into an international market as well.”

Companies: NICKL / Comcast

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