When Contently first sought to woo investors in 2011, it was met with a chilly reception. "Every investor told us content is a terrible business, get out while you can," said Shane Snow, Contently's co-founder and chief creative officer.
Times have certainly changed.
Contently is doing a brisk business licensing software to brands to help them manage content-marketing projects and connecting these companies with freelance writers, for which it takes a 15% fee.
Earlier this year, Contently received a $9 million investment, sparking a hiring spree that's seen the company's staff triple to 75. Revenue has climbed from seven figures in 2013 to eight figures this year, according to Mr. Snow, who declined to provide specific numbers. Customers include American Express, General Electric, GM, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Google and Walmart. Many of the articles on American Express OpenForum, an editorial site geared toward small-business owners, are written by Contently's journalists, Mr. Snow said.
"The energy behind Contently has just built and built and built to the point where they're now one of the companies you think of when you think of content marketing," said Kyle Monson, partner at Knock Twice, an agency that works in the content space.
Competitors have crowded into the market, where companies are expected to spend nearly $2 billion on sponsored content in 2014, according to an eMarketer report. There are shops similar to Contently, including Percolate and NewsCred. Creative agencies, media-buying companies and PR firms have all staked a claim as content creators for brands. And publishers from The New York Times to BuzzFeed have in-house teams that write articles and produce videos for advertisers. Contently has partnered with agencies to pitch brands. And publishers often work with Contently.
To attract writers, Contently builds free tools to help freelancers manage their careers, including a portfolio website to collect and showcase work. "That attracts a lot of great folks, most of whom indicate that they're open to freelance work from us," Mr. Snow said. "So even if we don't have work for them, we know all about them, and we always have the exact right writer available for when a brand comes with a specific need."
The company also pays writers when they submit a first draft. If writers worked with brands directly, they might not get paid for months. Contently doesn't discriminate as to who can access its free portfolio of tools, but it does screen them to ensure only professional journalists are allowed to work with clients.
"The basic standard is: Do you have a rich history writing for publications with high editorial standards?" Mr. Snow said. "Your own blog doesn't cut it."
There is a range of writers and prices from which brands can choose. There are, for instance, best-selling authors and Pulitzer Prize nominees, youngsters fresh out of journalism school and a number of others who work for major publications but freelance on the side. Contently's stable includes about 50,000 writers, according to Mr. Snow.
"It's like a supermarket for writers," said Tomas Kellner, managing editor at GE Reports, GE's content-marketing site. "People like me, who need to scale up their operations, can get access to writers for a specific project."
To find freelancers for brands, Contently mines its trove of data on writers, which includes the topics they write about, how well their stuff performs, where they've written and more. Then Contently makes the introduction.
The bulk of Contently's revenue, however, comes from the software it licenses to brands. The software, for instance, allows editors, lawyers and others to review articles before they're published; it also includes contracts, tax forms and legal agreements. "We make no profit from the 15% fee for writers," Mr. Snow said. "The writers become the hook for us to get into these big companies with our platform."
Mr. Snow, who published his first book, "Smartcuts," last month, is benefitting from content marketing, but he's no booster. He calls bullshit as quickly as he praises quality content from brands.
"Brand journalism is a stupid term," said Mr. Snow. "It's information entertainment. It's education."
He has also clashed with Contently's business side about which companies to work with and the fee they charge writers. Contently even has a code of ethics, which says that if a brand changes the copy it must remove the byline or get the writer's permission. Actions like this have made journalists more comfortable writing for brands on the side, several writers said.
"Shane really is a journalist, an intellectual and a voice for why quality content marketing is better for everyone in the content-marketing ecosystem," said Eric Paley, partner at Founder Collective, the first seed investor in Contently. "He's raising the quality bar; he's applying journalistic storytelling to this market."