The ‘Betches’ Got Rich. So What’s Next?

The women’s media company, which started as a raunchy college blog, is a rare financial success story — and on the White House’s radar. Now, it’s wrestling with how to grow up alongside its readers.

Sami Sage, Aleen Dreksler and Jordana Abraham walking down a hallway with a wooden floor.
From left, Sami Sage, Aleen Dreksler and Jordana Abraham, the co-founders of Betches who have known one another since they were fifth graders in the Long Island suburb of Roslyn.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

Sapna Maheshwari

On a cold February morning, Betches Media, the millennial and Gen Z women’s humor company best known for its Instagram memes, was celebrating its 13th birthday, which its three co-founders had gleefully named its “betch mitzvah.”

There would be a toast and cake for its employees — there are 63 full-time — at the company’s Flatiron district office but the occasion was mostly an inside joke, said Sami Sage, its chief creative officer.

“There’s no Torah reading,” Jordana Abraham, the chief comedy officer, deadpanned.

As far as coming-of-age tales go, Betches has an upbeat one in a digital media landscape without many. The company, which was early to the phenomenon of viral content as a foundation for digital media companies, never took on outside investment, unlike most of its peers. Now, it is reaping the benefits of that approach.

Ms. Abraham, 34, Ms. Sage and the chief executive, Aleen Dreksler, both 35, have known one another since they were fifth graders in the well-to-do Long Island suburb of Roslyn. They started an anonymous humor blog, called “Betches Love This Site,” while they were seniors, roommates and sorority sisters at Cornell University in 2011. It satirized their affluent social cohort, going heavy on shock value. (A guide to drinking recommended shots, preferably of vodka, with the aim of blacking out; recommended diets included anorexia.)

That blog, which later dropped “Site” from its name, turned into a book deal, then a website, then eventually a media company anchored by a dozen or so Instagram accounts. The company’s main profile, which has 9.2 million followers, posts funny short-form videos and other jokes from around the web that are intended to be relatable enough to DM to a friend. (Its bio reads: “POV: you’re the funniest friend in your group chat.”) One of the site’s greatest hits is “American Girl Dolls Ranked By Betchiness” and its Instagram account recently received a flurry of coverage when Taylor Swift “liked” a post of a meme ranking her exes.

Christian Tom, director of the White House’s office of digital strategy, recently said @BetchesNews was among the Instagram accounts the White House used to reach millennials. Betches News visited the White House in March for a round table with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Still, the company has remained somewhat under the radar in New York media. The women — who joke that they’re in a “three-way marriage” that their husbands tolerate — fully owned the company, which they have led since inception. But industry watchers took notice last fall when they sold it for $24 million to LBG Media, the publicly traded British media company that owns the Facebook meme sites LADbible and Unilad. (Those sites were criticized for promoting sexist content to teenagers and 20-somethings in their early years, but more recently, largely peddle quirky news stories, videos of “epic fails” and unusual animal encounters.)

Rather than take the money and run — it was a cash transaction — the founders are doubling down on Betches, with the chance to make another $30 million if the company can reach certain revenue and profit targets by 2026.

Ms. Dreksler, grandly, declared the company’s ambition to be “the leading global platform for women’s content and culture.”

Betches is exploring a variety of strategies to grow, from sports and events to a splashy podcast deal with the TikTok news star V Spehar of Under the Desk News. It’s in talks for a partnership with the comedian Ilana Glazer (a gushy fan who described Betches as “if ‘Broad City’” — her cult hit TV show — “were a media company”).

But the company is also contending with the perils of expansion and new ownership, including a spate of core employee exits amid frustration from staff who say they were underpaid and unfairly shut out from the founders’ financial success.

And like any media company, it faces the question of how Betches, now “a grown woman,” as its founders recently quipped, can increase its relevance as its original audience gets older and a new generation enters the life phase that once defined the brand.

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The founders said in their first book that “betches” represented women who “want to be strong, confident, not care what people say about them.”Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

A “betch,” for the uninitiated, is a play on the pejorative word that’s a letter away from being largely unprintable in this publication. The founders originally used the term on their blog to mock the preferences of a type of shallow, higher-income, college-educated woman who was probably white (and seemed to resemble, well, them). These included Diet Coke (“water for betches”) and manicured eyebrows (“is it normal to pay upwards of $100 for someone to remove hair from 2 square inches of your body? absolutely”). It jived with other millennial women who felt in on the joke and spread their favorite posts on Facebook walls.

“Betches” and “betchy” provided girls with an equivalent word to guys acting like “bros” and doing “bro-y things,” the founders wrote in their first book, but they also argued that it represented women who “want to be strong, confident, not care what people say about them.”

“It’s a mind-set,” Ms. Abraham said. The company uses the word liberally: a wedding planning newsletter is called “Say Yes to the Betch”; book recommendations are served on “Betch Lit Society”; a podcast that recaps “Bachelor” episodes is called “The Betchelor.” When asked if they ever considered changing the name, the founders instantly shook their heads.

“We had so much advice over the years to change it to make it more brand safe and we always said no,” Ms. Dreksler said. “This is why it’s good, because we speak to women the way they speak to each other.”

It’s also stopped being a liability, they say. “In 2014, you had brands that maybe our ad sales team reached out to and they were like, ‘Oh, we could never work with a company with that name,’” Ms. Abraham said. “Fast-forward five years later, and that’s a big client of ours.”

The company sometimes draws comparisons to The Skimm, which was built on a current events newsletter for millennial women, or Doing Things Media, the company that oversees popular Instagram humor accounts like Overheard New York and Middle Class Fancy. Doing Things told The Times it expects more than $40 million in revenue this year; The Skimm reportedly brought in about $20 million in 2019.

Betches, which disclosed its financial results for the first time with the acquisition, is smaller, with $17.2 million in revenue last year. It posted a $1 million profit, about one-fourth of what it made in 2022, largely based on costs from the deal.

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The company’s offices in New York are filled with cheeky merchandise.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

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Photos of women, including Beyonce and the Mona Lisa, are among the art on the office walls.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

At the company’s headquarters, one wall is covered in gold-framed celebrity mug shots, including of Lindsay Lohan and Khloe Kardashian. The founders’ individual offices are named after places in “The Sopranos”: Ms. Dreksler’s is Bada Bing, Ms. Abraham’s is Vesuvio and Ms. Sage’s is Satriale’s. There’s no return-to-office mandate, and so all three commute in as they wish from Long Island, where they live once more.

The women have wrestled with whether to call Betches a media company. “We always felt like we were a brand and an entertainment company,” Ms. Dreksler said. The distinction seems to be about humor, in their view. That thinking might explain its short-lived forays into canned cocktails (branded “Faux Pas”), a dating app with Match Group and a never-made animated Comedy Central series based on the founders.

In college, they were obsessed with Chelsea Handler, comedies like “Bridesmaids” and the New York magazine “Gossip Girl” recaps, the co-founders said. They weren’t on the school paper or involved in much outside of their sorority. But they were always “coming up with funny ideas,” Ms. Sage said, like a 15-page pilot for a show called “The Apartment.” (HBO’s “‘Girls’ made what we wanted to make,” she said.) And they viewed their writing, which was often expletive-ridden and frank about casual sex, female-friend hierarchies and recreational Xanax use, as a response to the genre of “fratire” exemplified by Tucker Max, the writer who crudely chronicled his drunken sexual exploits at the expense of young women.

The site fueled interest in their 2013 book, “Nice Is Just a Place in France: How to Win at Basically Everything,” then became its own project. The women started writing snarky recaps of “The Real Housewives” series, “The Bachelor,” the Oscars and “Pretty Little Liars.” (For many millennials, Betches is synonymous with Bravo reality TV shows, which Ms. Abraham called “the soap operas of this generation.”)

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The three women, in a 2013 photo, ran the company largely on their own for years, nervous about spending on full-time employees while figuring out the business.Credit…Erin Baiano for The New York Times

They were early to Instagram memes, with an account where they posted silly internet stuff: jokes about Adderall, an illustration of a bra clasped shut with a Rubik’s Cube and the caption, “Good luck, bro.”

Instagram, where brands will pay tens of thousands of dollars for a post, remains the main cash cow for the company, which has also created popular offshoot accounts like @BetchesMoms, @BravoByBetches, @WhensHappyHr and is expanding a Gen Z-focused account called @SendHelp. The company also has a growing TikTok account, with 1.2 million followers. Ads are mixed in with regular posts. A recent Instagram video, for example, poked fun at how Type A and Type B people make plans, as a means of promoting same-day delivery service from Shipt.

“When you think of a meme, like a really good meme that makes you laugh and makes you tag you friends in an Instagram post, it gives you this feeling of, ‘someone understands me,’” Ms. Abraham said. “It’s like a very short story,” Ms. Sage added.

The trio ran the company largely on their own for years, nervous about spending on full-time employees while figuring out the business. They tapped freelancers and agencies to help with ad sales and merchandise (think $44 shirts that said “Drunk Enough For Pizza” and “Mean Girls”-inspired Halloween costumes.) They fielded acquisition offers, but didn’t feel as if any of the suitors understood the connection they were trying to build with other women.

“They saw an audience number and that was it — how could our total numbers add to their total numbers?” Ms. Dreksler said.

Bryan Goldberg, the chief executive of Bustle Digital Group, which has amassed women’s sites like Romper and Scary Mommy, said he met with the founders several times over seven years. (He wrote in an email he would have “LOVED” to buy the company but it would have been too pricey.)

“What’s nice about Betches is it had a demographic focus, which was young women, but also a category focus, which was relatable humor,” Mr. Goldberg said. “That’s a really good place to be if you’re trying to get brand advertisers. I’m not sure that very many digital media companies had clear audience and voice.”

Mr. Goldberg said that the company’s success stands out after implosions at companies like BuzzFeed, Vice and NowThis.

“They never seemed interested in taking capital or playing the V.C. game or going down the path of fund-raising against massive growth expectations — that’s why I think they just got a ton of cash and a lot of other venture-backed companies went to zero,” he said.

The women hesitated when asked if they bought anything fun with their recent payday. Ms. Dreksler said she treated herself to a gold Cartier watch she had always wanted while Ms. Abraham said she refreshed her wardrobe. But that wasn’t their vibe, they said.

“We’ve been running this business with such calculated, careful risks for so long that I think it’s really ingrained in us to not be the crazy, flashy, whatever people,” Ms. Abraham said.

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A quote from the television show “The Office” decorates the Betches office.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

Still, the founders — who made around $8 million each with the sale — have also left some disgruntled employees in their wake. Several former employees said the flip side of the bootstrapping mentality was that many workers at the company were underpaid, with some earning around $50,000 a year in New York while churning out the funny posts that fueled the company. That has rankled them more as the founders’ fortune has grown.”

“When Betches was a smaller organization, we were at a different stage of revenue and scale, which was reflected in compensation packages at all levels of the company,” Michelle Ciciyasvili, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email.

After the October announcement, morale soured among some employees after they did not receive bonuses or equity tied to the acquisition or incentives linked to the founders’ potential $30 million payout. Then came annual bonuses, which shocked several people when they were lower than previous years, according to two former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of professional retribution. LBG told investors that Betches’ revenue grew 17 percent last year. (“Year-end bonuses have historically varied based on a combination of business and individual performance, and in 2023 they were determined similarly,” Ms. Ciciyasvili said. The new ownership will expand Betches, she said, and “in turn provide exciting new opportunities for growth and compensation for our team.”)

Some workers said they felt uncomfortable raising concerns, including about pay, to human resources for years because it was led by Ms. Dreksler’s sister-in-law, who shared the chief executive’s last name for some time, three former employees said. She was the company’s sole HR representative for a period, and left the company shortly after the acquisition. (The company said that she joined “when it was a very small team, and wore many different hats from marketing to recruiting.”)

A document of talking points for senior leadership on the deal, which was viewed by The New York Times, described how to address the lack of payouts “if someone is upset by the news,” and how to respond to the question, “Why am I not getting a cut of the sale?” The answer explained that Betches was self-funded and fully owned by the co-founders, adding, “Most companies that offer equity are usually already invested in (i.e. private equity or VC funding”).

It also described how to respond to the question, “Are we at all concerned that LADbible used to publish sexist and misogynistic content?” (The scripted response said that the 2011 internet was “a wild west” with male-dominated content “that would be deemed highly unacceptable today,” but that the company now had “zero-tolerance” for hate and bigotry.)

Still, Betches’ head of news and activism, its top two leaders in podcasts and the employee who ran the main company account departed in the past few months, though they did not specify why; Ms. Ciciyasvili said that “It’s a natural next step for long-term employees to move on to new roles.”

The company also recently lost one of its most recognizable personalities on Instagram and its director of short-form video content, Nicole Pellegrino, as she aims to become a full-time influencer.

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Some men joined the company’s Valentine’s Day matchmaking mixer, sponsored by its “U Up?” dating podcast.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

One big question for the company is how its content can change as its audience gets older — and how to keep courting women in their 20s. As the founders entered their 30s, they added verticals about weddings and motherhood. Recently, Ms. Abraham started a podcast chronicling her infertility journey. The founders tossed out ideas for Betches Sports and were considering a @BetchesUK. (The brand’s humor can go over better across the pond, Ms. Sage said, because “they’re a little less sensitive.”)

Emily Sundberg, the writer of a daily business newsletter called “Feed Me,” said she doesn’t follow Betches but its posts are “unavoidable” through links from friends and Instagram’s “Explore” page. Ms. Sundberg said the next stage of expansion may be a challenge for Betches, which doesn’t appear to have evolved dramatically in recent years and is now competing in an environment where more people are building individual media companies. “They probably have to onboard some serious existing talent similar to what Alex Cooper is doing,” she said, referring to the “Call Her Daddy” podcast host who recently added the TikTok star Alix Earle to her network.

Betches is hoping events, like its “Betches Night Out” comedy shows and a dating mixer it held in New York in February, might be another lucrative way to build connections with their audience. (The party was hosted by the company’s dating podcast “U Up?” which has a devoted following, with more than 10,000 subscribers who pay $5 per month for a premium tier of material.)

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One of the men at the dating mixer.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

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There to mingle.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

The company has also experimented with news as a promising area — a pet passion of Ms. Sage’s, who is co-writing a book about political action — despite the industry’s challenges with advertising. The Betches News Instagram account, recently rebranded from “Betches Sup” has 625,000 followers. A Skimm-like news and politics newsletter with headlines like “Resting Mitch Face” has more than 80,000 subscribers. Its deal with Mx. Spehar, who has 3.1 million TikTok followers, for the podcast “American Fever Dream” is also part of the effort, though it abruptly added Ms. Sage as a co-host when the head of news departed.

Broadly, its content is unabashedly liberal and concerned with social issues like reproductive rights and gun safety.

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In addition to live events, the company is experimenting with expanding internationally, and testing out news content.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

Still, news is a loose term. When asked about the absence of topics like the Israel-Hamas war on its feeds — where campus protests and former President Donald J. Trump’s trial are also missing — Ms. Sage clarified that the company did not have reporters or “the resources to have a newsroom,” and added that “there are so many places you can go to read reporting on the war and I don’t know that we are the place that you want be seeing those types of images from.”

“If people are really interested in learning more,” she explained, “we see ourselves more as a gateway to that.”

Whatever the next phase, Ms. Sage said that the founders feel that they have “decades” left in them for the site.

“It still feels like you’re doing your dream job,” Ms. Abraham said. “Even though we haven’t had other jobs.”

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