With Its Recent Acquisition of First Lite, MeatEater's Business Model Comes Into Full View

Following in the footsteps of the successful business model used by GOOP, Huckberry and other lifestyle e-commerce companies, MeatEater makes its biggest move yet.

With Its Recent Acquisition of First Lite, MeatEater's Business Model Comes Into Full View

Steven Rinella, founder of MeatEater, Inc. Photo: MeatEater, Inc. 

The hunting industry is about to get its own version of what the health and wellness industry has in GOOP, the lifestyle commerce brand founded by film star Gwyneth Paltrow. And if you think that’s trivial or some sort of bottom-dwelling celebrity nonsense, you’d be mistaken.

GOOP is a $250-million company that started as a newsletter of curated product recommendations in 2008. Today, it’s considered a pioneer in reinventing what a media company can be if it dedicates itself to selling commerce. But this business model – a careful mix of content and product – usually only works if the media company has groomed a cult-like following.

And that’s what hunter, writer and television host Steven Rinella, founder of the MeatEater brand, has done. 

After all, a tribe follows its chief. And Rinella has been advancing toward chiefdom for his entire adult life. ”

Even more, last October MeatEater picked up The Chernin Group as a principal investor. The Los Angeles-based media-holding company is also an investor in well-known digital brands such as Barstool Sports and The Athletic. Its CEO, Peter Chernin, has a history of leadership in the entertainment industry, including his work at Fox Broadcasting Company and Twentieth Century Fox. According to tech magazine Fast Company, Chernin Group Executive Vice President Jason Bergsman says “outdoor enthusiasts are the kind of deeply engaged, yet relatively underserved, audiences that the company has historically taken an interest in.” 

 Before Rinella began becoming a household name among hunters, he was mostly known as an outdoor writer. But he wasn’t like most outdoor writers who cover hunting, because his work was published by publishing goliaths, making his reach more diverse, broader and nontraditional. His writings about the outdoors and hunting have been featured in The New YorkerGlamourThe New York TimesOprah Magazine and Men’s Health. There were also books — six of them — including the 2018 bestseller The MeatEater Fish and Game CookbookRecipes and Techniques for Every Hunter and Angler. Finally, there’s Rinella’s hit Netflix series, now in its seventh season, and a MeatEater podcast that’s currently ranked No. 24 on iTunes “Top Charts” in its “Sports and Recreation” category, slotting in ahead of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and the popular pod The Hunting Collective

What’s next? Commerce. And here lies a clue into the vision MeatEater must have for its future. It’s also why Gwyneth Paltrow makes for a worthy comparison. All signs point to MeatEater taking a page from the business model used by other lifestyle ecommerce companies like Paltrow’s GOOP and Huckberry, many of which have proven successful.

 All signs point to MeatEater taking a page from the business model used by other lifestyle ecommerce companies like film star Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP and Huckberry, many of which have proven successful. Photo: MeatEater, Georges Biard/Hunting Retailer Illustration
All signs point to MeatEater taking a page from the business model used by other lifestyle ecommerce companies like film star Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP and Huckberry, many of which have proven successful. Photo: MeatEater, Georges Biard/Hunting Retailer Illustration

And, although no one outside of Rinella’s inner circle knows for sure, it wouldn’t be hard to assume First Lite is just the first of many products Rinella’s brand MeatEater is gearing up to offer his audience of hunters and outdoorsmen and women. 

According to a company press release: “The deal marks a major milestone in MeatEater’s plans to expand from content to commerce, and builds on the longstanding relationship between MeatEater founder Steven Rinella and the First Lite team.” 

MeatEater CEO Kevin Sloan will oversee First Lite’s integration into MeatEater. Many in the hunting industry might remember that Sloan was formerly president of successful hunting apparel company SITKA Gear. His experience in hunting apparel will undoubtedly aid in MeatEater’s foray into consumer-direct retail. 

“While apparel and gear brands routinely work with respected influencers to drive awareness and conversion, our situation is unique in that we’re an influencer-led company acquiring a respected, established gear brand,” said Sloan.

Sloan qualifies MeatEater’s venture into hunting apparel by citing the amount of time the company’s team spends in the woods and mountains producing content. “It makes perfect sense,” he said. “We’re in a great position to field test and influence design and development of best-in-class products that help.”

While no one outside of MeatEater's inner circle knows for sure, it wouldn’t be hard to assume First Lite is just the first of many products Steven Rinella (pictured) and company are gearing up to offer his tribe. Photo: MeatEater, Inc.
While no one outside of MeatEater's inner circle knows for sure, it wouldn’t be hard to assume First Lite is just the first of many products Steven Rinella (pictured) and company are gearing up to offer his tribe. Photo: MeatEater, Inc.

But whether it “makes perfect sense” probably won’t matter. That’s because of MeatEater’s following: Rinella’s tribe. It’s the tribe that’s secured seven seasons on Netflix, the tribe that made his latest book a bestseller, and the tribe that’s rocketed his popular podcast into iTunes’ Top Charts. The chronology of MeatEater’s ascent as a media company first is counterintuitive. Wouldn’t a company dedicated to manufacturing and commerce first be better suited to succeed in marketing and selling a tangible product, in this case, First Lite hunting gear? Yet, it’s just the opposite in the current digital landscape. Put another way, it’s the brand relationship and the act of consumers coveting and yearning for a certain lifestyle that often sells products in a service-oriented U.S. economy.

So whether Rinella’s team is qualified to know what works in the hunting apparel space matters less. After all, a tribe follows its chief. And Rinella has been advancing toward chiefdom for his entire adult life. In fact, one might argue that MeatEater’s acquisition of First Lite was telegraphed years before. It’s been clear since digital media consumption overtook print consumption that there was one key problem with the emergence of digital content: companies can’t make money by producing digital content alone. That has left media companies scrambling for alternative ways to make payroll.

 In 2013, the Harvard Business review printed a story about the publishing industry’s revenue problems. “Digital may be the future when it comes to publishing, but the problem today is that online publishing — and advertising specifically — doesn’t make enough money. Newspapers and magazines have spent years trying to find a business model to turn digital dimes into dollars from their web traffic.” Six years later, publishing companies are still trying to figure it out, while many others went bankrupt trying. That means any company in its infancy has an advantage: It knows going in that digital content won’t pay the bills. Media companies must have a duality to survive.

Content and social marketing expert Gary Vynerchuk and Harvard professor Bharat Anand, author of the book “The Content Trap,” agree that every company should behave as a media company. “Whether you like it or not, every person is now a media company,” Vaynerchuk said. “More importantly, producing content is now the baseline for all brands and companies. It literally doesn't matter what business you're in, what industry you operate in, if you’re not producing content, you basically don’t exist.” 

In MeatEater’s case, content came first. Even better. They’ve had years to do what Vaynerchuk touts as essential: focusing solely on content creation, brand cultivation and relationship building. You’ve heard of kingmakers? Well, Rinella and company are tribe makers. They’ve groomed a tribe of consumers built on trust, loyalty, affection and aspiration. 

 You’ve heard of kingmakers? Well, MeatEater is a tribe maker. They’ve groomed a tribe of consumers built on trust, loyalty, affection and aspiration. T-shirts like this one, available on the MeatEater website, sell not because someone needs another t-shirt. They sell because wearing one is a symbol of what one chooses to stand for.
You’ve heard of kingmakers? Well, MeatEater is a tribe maker. They’ve groomed a tribe of consumers built on trust, loyalty, affection and aspiration. T-shirts like this one, available on the MeatEater website, sell not because someone needs another t-shirt. They sell because wearing one is a symbol of what one chooses to stand for.

That loyalty will be particularly important in the hunting and shooting marketplace Rinella lives in, where the gun debate — often fueled by emotions — can sharply divide outdoor camps. The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, published an article by Federalist co-founder Sean Davis in February challenging MeatEater’s stance on guns. In the article, Davis said principal investor Chernin Group and its CEO, Chernin, were cause for concern. “The left-wing, anti-gun political activism of MeatEater’s largest investor, as well as political commentary and activity from some of its key partners and sponsors, complicates the company’s expansion plans, given that such a large percentage of hunters in the United States — who comprise MeatEater’s core audience — staunchly support both gun rights and Republican political candidates,” Davis wrote.

Two days after the Federalist published its article, Rinella responded. He framed his response by first noting MeatEater is often under attack by anti-hunters or animal-rights activists. “So I was pretty damned surprised,” he said, “to find out this week that the exact opposite is happening, and that me and my company MeatEater, Inc. are being attacked from the right … The Chernin Group is a for-profit concern. Their investment model allows companies to build their own teams and operate autonomously. Mr. Chernin has a long career, both operating and owning editorial and media outlets. It’s worth noting that these include Fox News and Barstools Sports where he hasn’t even remotely inserted his opinion. While I may disagree with some of Mr. Chernin’s personal views on policy issues, if you’re looking for an apology from me for making this move, you’re not going to get it."

Given the loyalty of Rinella’s tribe and its trust in him, none of this likely matters. Go back to the GOOP comparison. It’s a textbook example of the lifestyle e-commerce business model. Paltrow’s health-and-wellness content and products, which include health-related recommendations, have not only been questioned by influential and mainstream media, but she also raised the ire of some in the medical community for making recommendations not based in science. But unlike Paltrow, Rinella’s commentaries on gun rights, conservation and wildlife management are informed and substantive, relying on biology, political science, academic knowledge and fact-based science.

Still, Rinella’s brand won’t be for everybody. Groups may challenge the MeatEater brand in the same way GOOP has been challenged. But the trouble for competitors or detractors of companies like GOOP and MeatEater is that each are largely self-contained by its tribe’s commitments. These companies have a Teflon-like resilience: Shots fired don’t stick. Even more, with the acquisition of First Lite and its foray into commerce, MeatEater isn’t as reliant on advertising dollars as traditional hunting publications and other outdoor media companies. That marginalizes influences from the outside.

First Lite’s viability, popularity and reputation as an apparel company depends on a community already established: a tribe MeatEater has amassed over time. Now we watch and observe. How many tribal members will adopt and wear the recognizable mark of First Lite, adding this symbol as a show of meat-eating solidarity? More importantly, how many others will see this symbol of solidarity and aspire to join Rinella’s tribe? 

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