Omeda Asks: Nick Giallourakis – Elephants and Tea
Omeda Asks is a new interview series that we launched starting in 2020. The conversations are structured around sitting down with our clients to gain insights on the media industry, topics we’re passionate about, and anything else that comes up. Our March interview is with Nick Giallourakis, Founder and President of the media publication Elephants and Tea. Nick’s journey through the media landscape and how he ended up starting his own company is an incredibly inspiring one. Take a look.
About Nick Giallourakis:
Nick has been in the media world for over 10 years now, originally starting off at Penton Media, which was later bought by Informa. His career has evolved over the years, beginning in the webinar virtual events area of media and then moving into more of the virtual conferencing space. From there he transitioned into a solution specialist role for the agriculture department of Penton Media, focusing on growing the department through larger strategies, digital projects and central marketing services. He then stepped into an opportunity on the brand side of the business, focusing on digital products for the manufacturing brands such as Industry Week. His last role was a larger sales position for Industry Week, covering the West Coast territory. Through all his work and experience, Nick saw an opportunity to develop his own media brand.
Today, Nick is the president and founder of Elephants and Tea, a media brand created for adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients, survivors and caregivers to support them throughout their fight with cancer. Read more about this incredible brand on their website.
Can you give us an overview of Elephants & Tea as a brand and how it began?
Nick: Sure. I’ll start with some backstory to give you an understanding of how the brand started. My brother is currently battling his third and fourth cancer. His first cancer that he was fighting was 14 years ago when he was 15 years old. He’s 29 years old now. Our entire family, my mom especially, really dove in head first from an advocacy side of things. She has been very involved with the adolescent and young adult cancer community, which is what Elephants and Tea is made for.
We’ve always had our ear to the ground as far as servicing that population, if you will. From a different standpoint, we have our family nonprofit that Elephants and Tea now falls under, called the Steven G. AYA Cancer Research Fund. That was mainly developed for research funding in Cleveland, Ohio at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, so all the dollars we brought in went to that. Overtime, it has evolved into more than just that. We’ve started to develop things such as wellness kits and scholarships to conferences that patients and survivors might not be able to afford to go to on their own. We help send them to those things.
With my background in the media side of things, I’ve always wanted to try something new and do something different. My mom and I have always had this conversation of transforming the Steven G. Fund and doing something brand new, but something that’s not already out there.
In looking around, the adolescent young adult cancer community, those patients and survivors, without getting too much in the weeds, they see different types of cancers and have different type of side effects. They’re getting cancer earlier on in their lives and early on in their careers as well. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to experience and basically derails their career path. They’re using all their savings up for their medical bills, on top of college loans and everything else.
Emotionally it is trying, especially as they’re trying to grow up. My brother got a second cancer when he was a freshman in college. He had lost his high school years, then he lost his college years. People going through it at a young age see different issues than adults with cancer, right? So, when exploring from a media side of things, there was nothing specifically for adolescent young adults.
I know you started the brand with your mom. How long were you both conceptualizing doing something like this before you decided to go for it and create the brand?
Nick: Well, we launched in December 2018. Probably around the end of 2017 we just had a good idea. We weren’t really sure when we were actually going to try to do something with it. Then I went to a conference called Cancer Con, which is put on by a group called Stupid Cancer, the largest young adult survivors and patients gathering annually, in April every year. That’s when it really hit me.
My mom and I went out there in 2018, and there was kind of a light bulb moment where we sat down with people that we sent from a scholarship through the Steven G. Fund. We sent about eight people that year, and between them and some other attendees of the conference, we had a discussion with them. We didn’t call it Elephants and Tea at the time. We just told them, “Hey, we want to start this new magazine to help connect people across the country and let them know that they’re not alone in their fight against cancer.” People loved the idea. When you’re 19 years old or 25 years old, you’re usually in treatments with people that are 60 and 70 years old, nobody your own age. We wanted to be able to create this community to bring people together.
That was really the moment where I would say we knew we were on to something, at that conference in April 2018. We realized there was something there that we really wanted to take forward. Yeah, so that’s really where it was conceptualized, if that answers the complete question.
How much of you starting this business would you say was personal experience that you started building from versus research that you had to do? Did you use this group of people to do a focus group of what content they would be interested in?
Nick: That’s exactly what we did. Originally with this idea, we were going to run it like a magazine is typically run – with editors and reporters, doing interviews like this. Then I would write it or someone on our staff would write. That was how we saw ourselves creating the magazine. Then, when we went to Cancer Con and ran a focus group with the patient survivors out there, we were 100% shot down with that idea.
I was kind of taken back, but it also shows you why you talk to your audience, or at least your target audience. And what they said to us was, they wanted to hear directly from someone that’s going through what they’re going through. They didn’t want anything to be sugarcoated. They didn’t want someone to translate the interview that they had with them. They said, “Hey, just let those people write it. Let us write it for each other.”
We started with that focus group of patient survivors. Then we took it a step further with what we knew was going to be our secondary audience – the social workers and even family members or caregivers. They 100% agreed with the patient survivors as well. They felt that the people they work with or the family members that they help with their treatments, they don’t want to be told what to do and how to do it by someone that hasn’t lived through what they are fighting cancer. They wanted to hear directly from someone who had.
We took this idea and ran with it. That’s how we ended up laying the groundwork for the content strategy. It was probably the best thing we ever did because I think if we hadn’t done our homework there with our audience, I don’t know where we’d be at this point.
It sounds like that was kind of a surprise when you were starting off. Would you say that there have been a lot of surprises that you’ve been encountering as you’ve been building this business out?
Nick: I think that the next big surprise was how quickly the magazine did catch on. That was one of the coolest things to see, but also one of the challenging things to handle. We realized that we have something here that people absolutely love. At first, I thought it was going to be a steady growth, but at one point it really took off. It was so awesome to have happen, but at the same time, we really had to figure out how to move things a bit faster. I think that’s a good problem to have versus the opposite. Now we have more of a steady growth with our audience, but that was probably one of my bigger surprises – how quickly people caught on to it.
How did you handle the rapid growth and the positive response your audience was giving to the brand?
Nick: Relying on a team of individuals was important. We hired some contractors and let them run with the creation of the brand, such as the design of the magazine or other operational tasks, so I could focus on growing the audience. We also set up processes to make sure our brand and pieces flowed together nicely. One thing we did was implement a set schedule to account for the amount of content that was coming in. Originally, we had been posting as pieces came in. We created that schedule so our readers knew when to expect content. We landed on three new posts/stories a week. Taking it further, we’ve also broken the pieces out into different topics that they fall under to give the brand more structure and organization. Doing these things helped to calm the chaos and get a system in place. Now, we’re scheduled out for almost two months in advance.
All of your content was coming from patients, caregivers, or family members. How did you initially reach out or talk to people to get your brand out there and find contributors?
Nick: The big initial factor was my mom’s relationships that she had built over the past 14 years. She knew a lot of the players from the work that she has done. A main starting point was building off those relationships.
One company that we partnered with that stands out is Lacuna Loft, which is an online resource workshop nonprofit. Their CEO, Mallory Casperson, was very influential. She loved what we wanted to do, so she essentially gave us all her blog content that people were submitting to her because she couldn’t keep up with it. She trusted my mom and trusted what we were doing, and in exchange we told her, “Mallory, whatever you need, we’re here to help work with you.” She helped us populate the website from the start. And then from there, we were able to show people that we were a legitimate media source. That helped us to find additional partners.
Another individual who really stands out is David Victorson from a group named True North Treks. He is another connection that my mom had created over the years. David is a professor at Northwestern in Chicago and also works with adolescent young adult cancer patients from a psychosocial standpoint. He sent an email out to all of his friends in the hospitals across the country saying “Check these guys out, I think you’ll like what they’re doing.” He really helped us to get our foot in the door in terms of audience awareness.
The other aspect for growing an audience and also writers to create content for us was attending in-person events. Going back to Cancer Con, where we had done the brainstorming the year prior, was a great way to gain awareness. We also attended a conference called Young Survivors Coalition Summit (YSC). This one is all breast cancer patients and survivors. Going to the events really helped to get the Elephants and Tea name out there.
How many writers do you have today for Elephants and Tea? Do you have repeatedly featured writers?
Nick: Yes some of them are repeatedly featured. We have over 80 writers right now, in 10 different countries. Which is mind blowing to me. We not only have writers in different countries, we have readers in around 25 different countries as well.
That all began because of our social media outreach. I will say, one of the biggest key things we’ve done is hiring a social media manager that knows what she’s doing. Her sole focus is social media and she completely knocks it out of the park for us. Building our follower presence, our brand and finding new contributors has been something she has really delivered on.
New contributors will find us on social media and reach out. The process is great because then she passes the pieces over to me and I can get them up on our website.
What does that process look like? When your writers submit their stories, do you have editors who still go through and clean up the pieces?
Nick: The process is pretty laid back. It’s essentially me right now. I’m as close to a one-man shop as you can get with a lot of things. When it comes to the website and the content, I only want to confirm that it’s all positive and there’s no mal intent there. We do have a contributing agreement that whatever people are stating is true, but that’s pretty much it. We review the pieces for grammar and spelling and leave as much of the writing as we can. Very rarely have we had to turn somebody away because the piece is completely off base or it looks like a robot submitted something.
For the most part, we really have had writers who are legitimate and are only looking to submit their pieces. The other thing too that we do is give the rights to the people who have contributed any submitted content. That way, if they ever want to use their post elsewhere, we allow them to do so. The only thing we ask them is to give us credit. Something like “This originally ran at elephantsandtea.com. Click here for the link.”
I think this has opened a lot of eyes for people, especially in this market that we’re in, that it’s okay to play nice. People have appreciated that we do this. It has opened the doors for other opportunities and positioned us as one of the leaders in this space.
Can you talk about how you became one of the industry leaders and what playing nice looks like?
Nick: When we first entered the space, there were some companies that were skeptical of Elephants and Tea. Of course, when there’s someone new entering the space, there are questions of what the brand is and what it’s trying to accomplish. We essentially created all the relationships we did by playing nice – being nice to people. Also, we recently became a non-profit magazine, as part of our 501(c)(3) Steven G. fund and that has helped as well to open doors for new opportunities.
Our staff and board had the mindset right from the start that if an idea is good for the patients, then we have to find a way to do it. With that mentality, we’ve been open to taking responsibility for new initiatives and finding ways to accomplish them. We’ve been asked to participate in a lot of different areas of the AYA cancer patient space, such as to speak at conferences, sit on national strategy calls for that include both non-profits as well as hospitals, host a conference for leaders in the market and more.
The situations that have presented themselves and that continue to unfold are amazing. We try not to keep too much of an agenda for what we have to do, that way we can be open to these opportunities as they come up. That has helped us to collaborate with a lot of different people and organizations and take on a leadership role in the industry.
Being asked to be a leader in the industry must be incredibly rewarding. Do you feel like there are still steps you want to take to solidify that position, being just one year into building out your brand?
Nick: Definitely, I do. I think one important aspect is constantly being an ongoing relationship builder and making sure that you really don’t play favorites. I think it’s so easy to play favorites because your brand is naturally going to align better with some than others. We try to keep everyone on our radar; always keeping the line of communications open for companies big or small.
That, if there’s one thing I learned over my time, whether it’s in media, whether it’s running other nonprofits, whatever the case may be, you always need to make sure that that communication is open and being mindful of everybody, what they’re trying to accomplish. So long story short, it’s yes, you need to continue to work on relationships to be a leader in any industry.
Elephants and Tea was created to help the patients going through cancer treatment and the survivors, which often times isn’t an easy task. How do you keep the mental balance between this being your business and brand while also making it as personal and real as you can?
Nick: Yeah, that’s a great question. Some things are obvious; I make sure I stop working by a certain point in the day and try not to work as much on the weekends. Other aspects are more difficult to have as much control over and navigate.
To be honest with you, six months into starting the brand, I lost a writer. That was an experience where I knew it was going to happen at some point, being in the industry I’m working in. However, that is also the type of situation where you don’t know how something like that is going to affect you until it happens. He was an awesome guy and it happened so quickly. An experience like that is very difficult emotionally, and also, something we have to factor in operationally. I couldn’t get a hold of him and I didn’t know who to reach out to, so I had to Google search his name to find out. He had written an article for us in June, his cancer returned in July, and in September, his bio page was our number one page on Google Analytics. I knew in that moment that he had passed away. That’s something that’s never going to be easy to handle.
Another element is that my brother’s cancer came back recently, when we never anticipated that it would. Of course, that adds a whole other level of emotional tie to everything we are working on now.
Third, I think it is important to have a balance on the personal side and putting my faith in my work, while still being cautious of my role in the brand and the community. I’m not a patient or a survivor. Like we talked about with the focus groups earlier, I’m not in their shoes. While I think people respect who I am and what I do, I’m mindful that our brand doesn’t preach at people about doing certain things. We don’t want to preach to our readers or tell our writers what to create in their content. Elephants and Tea is a brand that was created to be a bridge and connect people in the cancer community and bring them together at a personal level. That’s our main responsibility.
Where do you see the future of Elephants and Tea headed?
Nick: Currently, our plan is to continue to grow the audience, the readership, and the sponsorships.
From a sponsorship standpoint, this is one of the biggest elements for our brand’s future. We have been developing relationships and slowly but surely sponsorships have started to come in. We’ve seen new sponsors come in this year that we didn’t have last year. This is due to the partnerships that we’ve created. Like anything else, we had to build the audience first before sponsors wanted to start getting involved with us.
Equally as important, we want to continue to develop on the audience and revenue side. One initiative we are taking is to develop programs specifically for the patients. We’ve started doing wellness kits with our parent company. Social workers will call us up and say, “Hey, I have five patients that really could use a pick me up.” We then send them free wellness kits. We’ve been doing that in Ohio, and now we’re taking the initiative nationally as well which is great.
A larger scale reach is starting a new facility of some kind in Cleveland, where we are based out of. We have two of the best hospitals in the country when it comes to young adult cancers – the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital. Currently, my office is out of my house, but I would love to develop a location where our office would be as well as social center for young adult patients and survivors. I envision it as a facility where they can hang out together, help support one another through treatment, and just get more of a sense of social normalcy and reality than going to the hospital for a support group.
The last thing I’ll say about this social space is that my mom is also now a yoga instructor for cancer patients. She does wellness and nutrition training. I would love to integrate that in as well so that we can build out a well-rounded wellness community. That’s where I see the future of Elephants and Tea and our parent company, the Steven G. AYA Cancer Research Fund, headed. We are hoping to use the media side of the brand to drive all of these developments.
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