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Nicklaus: Digital media CEO's life-changing year leads to a company makeover

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Kasey Grelle of Quillt

Kasey Grelle, chief executive of Clayton-based digital media company Quillt.

David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The year Kasey Grelle became a CEO was the same year she lost both parents to cancer, cared for her husband after a serious car accident and had a baby.

Those life-altering experiences in 2016 changed how she thought about her business, a Clayton digital media company then called Gateway Blend. The company’s websites, spun off from the old Answers Corp., were reaching as many as 100 million people a month but they weren’t satisfying Grelle’s personal or business goals.

“The business model we inherited was broken and there wasn’t a lot of strategic thinking around what we were building and why,” she said. “When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t feel like we were making anybody’s lives better.”

Grelle, now 37, learned a couple of things while running the company from hospital rooms. Instead of serving up short, attention-grabbing content for mass consumption, she wanted to engage more deeply with an audience. She also learned that caregiving was a huge need.

The transformation started with focusing the company’s travel site, Travel Awaits, on people over age 50. It’s a demographic with time and money, and one whose needs aren’t always met by mass-market travel publications.

The site’s readers often commented that they had to plan their travel around the responsibility of caring for aging parents or other family members. Based on that feedback and Grelle’s own experience, Gateway acquired a site focused on caregivers and relaunched it last month as Seniors Matter.

As part of the repositioning, the company sold its most popular site, the movie- and TV-obsessed CinemaBlend.

Last week, Gateway Blend renamed itself Quillt, explaining that the name reflects “a place where diverse content and people are stitched together to generate authentic conversations.”

The company’s new strategy also required a culture change. Grelle strived to transform her predecessor’s command-and-control culture into one that put her 45 employees’ needs first.

That included allowing people to work from home, which left the firm well prepared when the coronavirus pandemic hit. When the lease in Clayton expires next year, Grelle said she may look for something that’s less of a traditional office and more of a drop-in gathering space.

The next step in Quillt’s niche-focused evolution will be a September relaunch of Gossip Cop, its celebrity gossip site. While the new version will still feature stars’ vacation photos and Harry-and-Meghan updates, it will add a lifestyle section with cooking and home improvement advice for the 50-plus crowd.

Down the road, a personal finance site for older women is on Grelle’s to-do list.

Perry Drake, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Missouri St. Louis, said the targeted approach sounds smart. Advertisers increasingly look beyond simple numbers, such as page views, and want to know about time spent on site or other measures of engagement.

“If you have a website offering content that’s not very deep, advertisers are not going to look on it favorably,” Drake said. “It’s easy to get people there with clickbait … but the harder thing to do is to keep them on site.”

The strategy seems to be working. Quillt, owned by venture capitalist Tom Hillman, is profitable and has repaid a $40 million debt that came with the 2015 spinoff from Answers.

More importantly, Grelle said, her team has a sense of purpose that’s deeper than numbers. “Gone are the days when we wanted 100 million people to visit,” she said. “We just want the right people to come to our sites and interact in a meaningful way.”

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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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