Author Erin Millar, co-founder and CEO of Indiegraf
This case study is part of a social finance case studies series on investment readiness. Through a partnership with Investment Readiness Program (IRP), SI Canada is working with ten entities (SPOs non-profits, co-operatives, for-profit social enterprises) that have achieved investment readiness and provide them with an opportunity to share their journey and profile this work through a case study and a virtual event.
Download the case study here.
Indiegraf is creating a more sustainable and equitable news ecosystem so everyone has access to public information, a voice in policy-making and a storytelling platform to amplify their unique culture.
Indiegraf raised seed capital between January 2020 and June 2021.
How the initiative came about
Indiegraf was conceived by co-founders and sisters Erin Millar and Caitlin Havlak. Having worked together for five years building the independent community news organization The Discourse, Erin and Caitlin identified an opportunity to empower other entrepreneurial journalists to launch similar news outlets and fill local news gaps across Canada and beyond.
In late 2019, Erin and Caitlin tested a hypothesis that small, capacity-strapped news organizations could accelerate their growth by pooling technology, services and capital resources. With a grant from the Inspirit Foundation, The Discourse created a program called the Independent News Challenge, which recruited seven publishers to pilot the approach. The program was a great success, attracting dozens of applications and boasting impressive Net Promoter Scores (NPS) scores and impact outcomes.
With these results, Erin socialized the idea for a new organization to support independent media, which eventually became Indiegraf. Here is the pitch from the initial proposal: “We propose to build an Independent News Network that will pool resources to accelerate revenue growth of independent digital news publishers in Canada. Incubated by The Discourse and in collaboration with several media partners, the Independent News Network will be a collaborative initiative that provides consulting, marketing, sales and technology services to journalist entrepreneurs, early stage digital native news organizations and other small publishers.
Types of financial support sought out
Indiegraf’s first seed funding was secured through corporate sponsorship. Google and Meta both agreed to provide pre-seed funding, as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives related to supporting the news industry. This funding was in the form of services contracts to Indiegraf. These were not investments in the form of debt or equity. Instead, Indiegraf was contracted by Google and Meta to deliver services, and the deliverables happened to be the things needed to be done to launch Indiegraf. It was a creative, nondilutive way to get off the ground without taking on investment.
Based on initial traction generated once the network was established, Indiegraf sought seed capital in the form of equity investment from angel investors and impact investment funds. In November 2020, Indiegraf was selected from among 1,400 applications for funding from New Media Ventures, to fund its expansion into the United States. Indiegraf also won Spring’s Impact Investment Challenge, and was awarded a $100,000 investment. Other investors included Marigold Capital, Social Capital Partners and angel investors Craig Miller (formerly Shopify), Roger McNamee (formerly Elevation Partners) and a network of women investors who were introduced to Indiegraf via the Coralus community (formerly SheEO). The financial structure of this round was convertible debt.
Barriers and Challenges
Indiegraf’s successful seed financing was the result of years of learning and network building at The Discourse. As journalists turned entrepreneurs, the first barrier was accessing expertise about the investment landscape and process. This made raising capital very slow and resource-intensive.
The impact investment space is emergent and the norms are not yet established nor clear to founders. This creates a unique challenge because there is no well-understood standard as to what metrics or traction is required to access funding at different stages of a company’s development. Each impact investment strategy feels customized, which increases the transaction cost and risk of failure.
Accessing value-aligned investors was also a barrier. The Discourse and Indiegraf pitched in many environments that were a bad fit before finally identifying appropriate investors. In order to identify appropriate investors, Indiegraf attended value-aligned workshops and conferences, nurtured an active advisory board through regular communication, requested introductions from advisors, hosted private presentations and events and submitted proposals to open calls for pitches. Accessing those folks is very network-driven, creating barriers for under-represented founders who may not have the same network or experience as others. Pitching the wrong investors is also very discouraging, and raising capital requires managing the fundraisers’ mental health and energy.
The government’s involvement in Indiegraf’s impact investing journey
The government was not involved in Indiegraf’s impact investing journey. Indiegraf has benefited from other government programs such as the Industrial Research Assistance Program and the Youth Digital Skills Internship programs.
How impact was measured and demonstrated to investors
Indiegraf begins discussions about its impact by introducing our impact thesis: “When strong local news media serve underrepresented communities, civic participation increases and polarization decreases — contributing to more equitable and efficient governments, public institutions and policies that create public benefit for all.”
It breaks down its thesis into three underlying assumptions and provided research to support our assumptions:
1. Local news is tied to civic participation (Example research: “The act of reading a newspaper can mobilize as many as 13 percent of non-voters to vote.” The Effect of Newspaper Entry and Exit on Electoral Politics, American Economic Review)
2. Local news decreases polarization
3. Local journalism produces public benefit Once the thesis is established, Indiegraf tracks the following metrics as part of its impact framework.
Strong local news media:
⊲ # of publishers
⊲ # of communities ⊲ community members who can access local news
⊲ % of founders supported who identify as under-represented
Public benefit for all:
⊲ funding generated for journalism
⊲ cost efficiency of distributing journalism
Establishing the credibility of our impact thesis allowed for us to align our business model with our impact, simplifying our impact measurement. In other words, if you accept that journalism is good for democracy, then standard success metrics are aligned with our impact metrics. We report monthly on typical metrics such as revenue, growth, churn and reach.
Incorporating diversity and inclusion into the venture
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is core to our mission. We incorporated this from day one by including equity in our five core values that would inform the development of our organization: equity, test and learn mentality, growth mindset, efficiency, and wellbeing and connection. These values are what we look to when making difficult decisions, when hiring new employees and when onboarding stakeholders to our community. We report weekly on the diversity of the publishers in our network and pipeline. We report back to the team quarterly on our equity and inclusion efforts at the company, and our management empowers the team to hold us accountable to these stated values. We have built these values into our Employee Policies and we invite our team to provide feedback and reflect on their own practice quarterly through our performance review process.
Next steps for the social finance project
Since 2020, Indiegraf has doubled the number of publishers we serve and our revenue annually. We now serve dozens of publishers across North America. We will continue to expand by serving new languages and global markets. In 2023, we are working with pre-seed accelerator program Mucker Labs to build the technology and capital infrastructure to scale our impact more aggressively in the years to come.
Lessons learned from “investment readiness” journey
“Impact investment” isn’t venture capital lite. Impact investors are still looking for a return on capital deployed, and the return is often comparable with other financing options available. If anything, the bar is higher for impact companies because they need to establish the success of both their business and impact in order to access capital. Impact investment opportunities are often more risk averse than other private funding options. That said, finding the right impact investing partners can be a major value-add to the development of an impact company in helping ensure impact is built into the company’s DNA and decision-making.
Hopes for the future with regard to social finance
As the venture capital markets normalize from the bubble of 2018–2020, growth at all costs is no longer viable. Considering the climate, social and economic state of the world, all investments need to be assessed through an impact lens. My hope for social finance in the future is that it becomes the norm and is no longer a special category.