What started as a casual basement-based blog celebrating the city of Vancouver has turned into a go-to source for locals and tourists alike. The numbers speak for themselves: Vancity Buzz enjoys seven million plus page views a month. “We’re the largest digital-only publication in western Canada,” says co-founder Manny Bahia, TEDxSFU speaker and BC Business’s 30 Under 30 in 2015. “We get more local traffic than the legacy brands, so it’s been quite the ride.”
The digital sphere captured Manny’s imagination when he was only 10. “I remember going to the school computer lab at lunchtime and learning how to code, doing HTML, and making websites on my own. So I’ve always been fascinated with the web and how to monetize that space,” he says. Manny and his childhood friend, Karm Sumal, grew up just a house apart from each other. Every week, they would meet at Karm’s parents’ basement to play video games together. And that’s what they were doing one day in 2008 when they decided to start a blog. Disappointed by the dearth of positive news and tired of hearing the “no fun city” complaint, Manny and Karm decided to try to change Vancouver’s reputation.
Manny and Karm set up the site in minutes and started publishing their first stories. Neither had the benefit of a background in journalism –Manny was pursuing a career in real estate and Karm was working at Blenz Coffee – but that didn’t prevent them from sharing their views on issues that mattered to them and their peers. “Our first articles were pretty opinion-based. We talked about politics – we prefer these policies over others – real estate, development, and about sports. We had Mats Sundin [on the Canucks] at the time and we had some opinions about that,” says Manny, laughing.
Running the blog out of Karm’s basement, their start-up cost was zero. Within the first six months, Vancity Buzz secured their first advertisement – a banner for a bachelor party planning service – for $75 a month. Shortly after, Blenz Coffee came on board, and business has since grown to include Concord, Telus, the Whitecaps, and Blueprint, to name only a few. “We’ve never had any investors,” says Manny. “It’s just been profits funding the growth.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Vancity Buzz had their share of naysayers. “During the first couple of months, people in the blogosphere were like, ‘oh these guys are not going to be around for long,’” says Manny. “We were the new kids on the block, and journalists weren’t taking too positively to what we were doing either.”
As the city went full tilt for the 2010 Winter Olympics, so did Manny and Karm. With no press passes available to them, the duo pulled all-nighters, creatively repurposing content from the VANOC website to develop their own guides to the experience and churning out realtime highlights on Facebook and Twitter. It paid off: their page views skyrocketed. “We engaged with everybody, it didn’t matter who they were, didn’t matter if they only had a dozen followers or thousands. And I think that’s just been one of the keys to success for us – we don’t think we’re better than everybody,” says Manny. “Now, we have such a great following built organically – our readership love sending us tips all the time.”
In 2013, Vancity Buzz was the first to break the news that the Kanye West concert was going to be cancelled. “People were calling us out on social media, saying ‘no way’, other publications were calling us out, celebrities in Vancouver were calling us out,” Manny says. Even within the Vancity Buzz team, doubt began to percolate. “But we were like, ‘no, we have to stick to our source –we’re sure.’ And low and behold, a few hours later, the tour came out with the official statement: the concert had been cancelled. So that was a pivotal moment for us in cementing our credibility.”
Building credibility was one of Vancity Buzz’s earliest challenges. “It’s just something we’ve had to persevere through,” says Manny. “In the beginning, it was simple things like cleaning up our grammar and making sure we didn’t have typos. We hired people that were smarter than us and better than us at journalism to improve the quality of our content. But the advantage is that we’ve always been lean and nimble – we don’t have to go through multiple processes to pump news out and so we were able to publish news quickly and in a concise and compelling manner.”
On the topic of breaking news, Vancity Buzz has, as of June 1, officially launched their expansion into Toronto and Montreal with fresh branding and a sleek new website design as dailyhive.com. It’s an exciting time for Manny and Karm, who now lead a team of 25 full-time staff.
Manny and Karm joined Terminal City Club last year. “Vancouver gets a really bad rap for being cliquey and people not being friendly or cold, but when you walk into TCC, it’s the complete opposite,” Manny says. “There’s a lot of opportunity here in terms of meeting new people and networking, and it’s just so friendly.” Today, Manny and Karm still play video games once a week at the basement where it all began. “We do that to keep that perspective, to keep that humbleness, and remind ourselves where we came from because we’re as happy now as we were then.”
Amanda Jun, Club Relations Manager