Unplugg’d pivots brand strategy, wins pitch competition at The Garage


Peter Warren/The Daily Northwestern

From left, Karim Noorani, Nathan Graber-Lipperman and Owen Guetschow pose with their $4,000 check in The Garage.

Stephen Council, Reporter

Wildfire 2019’s Demo Day was fast approaching, and Nathan Graber-Lipperman hadn’t really worked on a pitch all summer. The Medill junior’s company, Unplugg’d, had a shot at thousands in prize money. Moving fast, he created a pitch video in three days, memorized the accompanying script and, on Demo Day in late August, presented his company to a board of six judges.

Later that day, The Garage handed Graber-Lipperman a $4,000 check.

Unplugg’d beat out the eight other teams in this year’s Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program, a paid, summer-long opportunity for student founders to work on their startups with guidance at The Garage. At Demo Day, $11,000 in prize money was distributed among four of the teams. The judges’ favorite, Unplugg’d, had pivoted its strategy during the summer, trimming down its offerings and turning to new revenue streams.

Unplugg’d came into the summer as the flagship website of Powder Blue Media, Graber-Lipperman’s LLC. By Demo Day, Unplugg’d was more of a lifestyle brand than a media outlet, focused on content, clothing, events and the mental health of Generation Z.

“It’s interesting, a lot of people congratulating me after seeing I got first it was like, ‘Wow, you must have worked hard all summer,’” Graber-Lipperman said. “But it was like, regardless if I had won or not, we did work hard and we figured out what we wanted to do. And that was what was most important to us.”

Founded in 2017, Unplugg’d started as Graber-Lipperman’s space to publish longform sports and pop culture stories by young people — his “answer to clickbait.” The site then added podcasts, fitting into Graber-Lipperman’s plan to create as much content as possible. Last April, he founded Powder Blue Media as an LLC, with Unplugg’d, a podcast network, a video production studio and a community submission forum all under the umbrella.

But this August, after spending July interviewing customers and launching a podcast on the student-athlete lifestyle, the Unplugg’d team honed in on the brand’s prospective plan. Graber-Lipperman ended up naming Patreon crowd-funding, events, podcast sponsorships and merchandise sales as revenue sources in his pitch, adding to over $20,000 in projected revenue by December 2020. Unplugg’d is now both a company brand and a website for the team’s content.

At least 10 percent of the merchandise proceeds will go to mental health organizations, the founder said. But there’s also an emphasis on the authentic conversations Graber-Lipperman heard about in his interviews with customers — he said those in-person connections are missing in modern media consumption. The events are a key here — Unplugg’d is planning to run panel discussions, live podcasts and meetups called Unpluggs.

Andrew Parkinson, an entrepreneur-in-residence at The Garage this summer, became a mentor to the Unplugg’d team. He said he knew people were not taking the time to digest long-form media, or even have conversations with one another.

“When I met Nate, it all kind of clicked for me that he was doing something that was really important and innovative,” Parkinson said. “And he had two great team members as well.”

Karim Noorani, a Medill sophomore and former Daily staffer, and Owen Guetschow, a Medill junior, made up the rest of the Unplugg’d full-time Wildfire team.

Noorani said this summer’s transition felt natural for the team’s skill sets and interests.

“We want to be something that’s very different in the media sphere, because everything just feels like intense emotions and back and forth bickering and there really isn’t any great conversation,” Noorani said. “That’s the sphere we want to fill.”

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Twitter: @stephencouncil