Digital media startup Odyssey has laid off 55 people, slashing over a third of its full-time, paid staff less than a year after raising $25 million, CEO Evan Burns confirmed to Business Insider.
This is a dramatic change for a company that board member Michael Lazerow described in April as being the most exciting company to him since he invested in BuzzFeed. (Lazerow sold his startup Buddy Media to Salesforce for $800 million.)
Odyssey has raised $32 million in total, and moved into a new New York office in December.
Burns said that the cuts were across all departments and locations, but focused mostly on the editorial side. The reason he gave for the cuts was a need to completely re-make Odyssey’s technology platform in a way that would allow the startup to grow. The tech platform “wasn’t able to scale,” and stalled growth, which was driven by getting more and more contributors, he said. That complete tech overhaul will require resources and time.
Odyssey functions a bit like a college paper on steroids.
The startup has a stable of over 15,000 mostly unpaid writers, typically in the 18-25 age bracket, who produce around one piece a week. The bulk are college students, and Odyssey began as a publication narrowly focused on Greek life. The content Odyssey writers produce spans all sorts of topics, from politics to fashion to sports.
There is no broad editorial mandate, but each Odyssey articles goes through successive layers of editing, first by a “community” editor, who is basically a power user within a geography, and then to the company’s paid staff editors. Those paid editors are where many of the cuts came, Burns said, though some of the product team technical leadership was replaced as well.
The Odyssey idea is to have bright young writers swap their work for being edited and professionally branded, and leverage their networks to have the work spread on social media. This may sound familiar, as the unpaid contributor model initially made Turner-owned sports site Bleacher Report a success, and boosted pageviews for The Huffington Post. (Business Insider has some outside contributors as well.)
Odyssey has been experimenting with different forms of making money, including sponsored content, some of which Odyssey contributors can get paid to write. But right now it’s certainly not a place writers can generally make a significant chunk of cash.
Burns said he is still committed to the underlying business model and structure, but that the tech reboot will take several months to get going at least.
While some Odyssey writers and editors took to social media to vent about the lack of communication from the company about the layoffs, Burns said the issue was simply in the amount of people they had to reach.
When you have 15,000 writers, and 1,000 various community “editor-in-chiefs” it takes time, Burns said. “It was a couple of days of phone calls” to those who wanted an explanation.
Update: An official Odyssey email had pegged the layoff number at 59, but Burns confirmed that the final number, per Odyssey’s HR department, was 55.
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