2020 tested even the most battle-hardened business leaders. For the millennial founders of media company Morning Brew, it was like nothing they'd ever experienced before.  

During a Jan. 16 appearance on Motley Fool Live, Morning Brew co-founder Alex Lieberman spoke with Motley Fool Marketing Manager Margaret Powell about how Lieberman and co-founder Austin Rief managed the crisis, including some of the creative ideas they considered to help keep revenue coming in so that employees could be paid.


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Margaret Powell: Obviously, it's been a really unique and challenging landscape, and like the pandemic is playing such a huge role in that. Over the past 12 calendar months in 2020, how did the pandemic change your approach to marketing and selling ad space? There was [inaudible] going on in this past year, and that has definitely affected our approach. What does that look like on your side?

Alex Lieberman: What I will first say is that I think 2020, it was a year, but it was like 10 years in leadership training and management training. I have my own podcasts called Founder's Journal which I'm spending a lot of time building up, and the episode I recorded last night was my lessons in crisis leadership. I thought it was a time no one given obviously everything that happened at the Capitol literally two days ago, just when we thought the craziness of 2020 was gone, it's become the 13-month year. I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about lessons from the last year-and-a-half of even though our first-time founder, that I've had to just understand how to lead a company during crisis and during turmoil. A few examples of crises that have happened with our own business are what happened at the Capitol, the acquisition with Insider because any time an acquisition happens, it's obviously going to cause questions for everyone in the company, to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, and everything around the BLM movement communicating to our organization during that. Honestly, it was a year that made every leader grow up and become better at navigating their company and communicating.

As it relates to our advertising business, we ended up finishing out the year, hitting our exact goal that we wanted to hit, that we stated in December of 2019 prior to knowing about the pandemic. Things ended up working out in a really good way. But to say that we weren't affected by the pandemic will be a lie especially in March or April. March or April was an absolute s--- show in the sense that I had never experienced what panic and fear did to an ad business. There was a period of 72 hours where ad dollars literally just vanished. I vividly remember, it was March 15th was when we left the city, we're all going to go to remote work. At 9:00 PM, the night before a big sponsor who was to do a full takeover on our newsletter, that was probably, I can't remember it was a multi five figure deal, they pulled out, and they pulled out of that deal. That was the first, and then just that was the first shoe to drop. Then these dominoes continue to partners just saying, "We have no idea what's happening in the world right now. We don't know what this coronavirus is, but it's scary. We don't have a choice, but to put our marketing budgets on hold, we're literally doing nothing. We're just freezing everything." There was a period of a week to a week and a half, Austin and I were like, this is wild, what are we going to do? Just make sure we can pay our people. Not because it got that bad, but because the momentum of ad dollars leaving the door, Austin and I were like, "We've never seen momentum like this before." Austin and I were having conversations about every possible way that we can monetize Morning Brew's audience outside of advertising. From starting a Patreon to partnering with universities on selling courses to literally coming out with merchant swag and selling swag, things started to normalize in late April, but between middle of March and middle of April, it definitely aged founders and managers.