Hidden Compass Profile

Hidden Compass logo.

Hidden Compass is a journalism startup aiming to combat the rise of junk food media and clickbait. 

Founder(s): Sivani Babu, Sabine K. Bergmann

Industry: Journalism

Founded in: 2017

Location: Santa Barbara, California

Interview With Sivani Babu

Describe your product or service & the problem it’s solving:

“Hidden Compass is an independent journalism outlet and modern exploration society ending the era of clickbait. 

We live in an era of mass-produced, unhealthy media, where audiences are treated like transactions. By uniting audiences with the humans, causes, and possibilities behind award-winning stories and groundbreaking expeditions, Hidden Compass treats audiences and journalists as valuable partners in a new age of exploration, and is paving the way for a financially sustainable future for journalism.”

How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!

“Co-founders Sivani and Sabine were both freelance journalists before starting Hidden Compass. They had adventures all over the world — escaping political unrest in Bolivia, sailing the most brutal sea on earth to explore Antarctica. One day, they met in a bookstore (no, really), and instantly bonded over their frustrations and hopes for their profession and industry. Eventually, those frustrations and hopes led them to founding the initial iteration of Hidden Compass — a small quarterly magazine. 

In 2018, while walking across Scotland, the two co-founders began talking about what a bigger mission and vision for Hidden Compass could look like. They looked at publications that they had been reading for years, and analyzed how those publications were either struggling or how the quality of what they produced had changed dramatically with the rise of the internet — the rise of clickbait. There had to be a better way. Upon returning stateside, they took inspiration from the food industry, which had seen an analogous transition, and began working to leverage the participatory nature of the internet — looking to patron-supported structures as a viable business model in the journalism and media space.” 

How is your startup funded, and what advice do you have for other founders seeking funding?

“Hidden Compass closed a friends and family round in February 2020. That round, plus the revenue generated by patronage campaigns, events, and The Alliance — membership in Hidden Compass’s modern exploration society — is how Hidden Compass is funded. Ultimately, The Alliance membership model will serve as the financial backbone of the company.”

How big is your team, and what qualities do you look for when hiring new employees?

“The Hidden Compass team is made up of 3 employees and a small army of contractors. We look for people who are “nerdy” about something, and who are also adaptable, flexible and nimble. Most importantly, we look for people who understand the mission and why it’s worthwhile.”

Who is your target market? How did you determine this, and what strategies did you use to reach and engage them?

“The target market for Hidden Compass is people who are curious, cause-driven and concerned about what they’re putting into their brains in the same way people are concerned about the food they consume. Demographically they tend to be over the age of 30 and traditionally educated.”

What’s your primary marketing strategy?

“Hidden Compass relies heavily on de facto brand ambassadors, which they get through the journalists and storytellers they publish. Our patronage campaigns give our writers a financial incentive to introduce people to the company — in addition to what we pay our writers, they receive 50% of campaign proceeds. We also have a robust email marketing strategy that’s about celebrating nerdiness and fostering curiosity. We encourage our readers to interact through the speaker series, where they can hear from experts in various fields in talks that explore the nuance of some of humanity’s greatest challenges and opportunities. And we also get readers involved in the decisions we make through The Alliance and the Pathfinder Prize.”

What has been your most successful marketing campaign, and why do you think it worked so well?

“The most successful marketing campaign has been our patronage campaigns, which turn every journalist we publish into a Hidden Compass brand ambassador.”

What do you consider to be your company’s biggest competitive advantage, and how do you maintain it?

“As a startup, Hidden Compass has the freedom to do things in a way that larger organizations don’t. We are able to be flexible, take inspiration from other industries, and try things without the hindrance and rigidity that comes from decades of expectation and tradition. Many, many people questioned why we would launch a venture in an industry that people believed was dying. In some ways, that’s disheartening, but it’s also incredibly liberating.” 

What were the biggest challenges you faced in the early stages of building your startup, and how did you overcome them?

“The biggest challenge we faced was in trying to explain what Hidden Compass does. We learned quickly that we had to be careful about the words we chose to use — words like travel and crowdfunding were too embedded in the culture and came with too much baggage.”

What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?

“How easy it is to go down paths that steer you away from the focus.”

What is your #1 piece of advice for startup founders?

“Startups are often cast in the disruptor role. But there’s a danger in not truly knowing the industry you’re coming into. If your mission is to make something better, you have to understand what about it is valuable and worth saving. In our space, a great example of detrimental disruption is the “media disruption” that led to the rise of clickbait. In order to restore what has been lost, it is critical to respect and even revere the industry.”

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