Sarah Pappalardo, 31, is the co-founder of Reductress.com, a satirical women's online magazine that now boasts about half a million monthly unique visitors nationally. Though Reductress has become one of the most popular humor sites on the internet — particularly among women — it's still a tiny operation run by a handful of dedicated staff members and stable of contributors. Pappalardo, a writer and comedian, wants to dispel the notion that starting a website is glamorous. But Reductress is evidence, she says, that if you stick with a good idea and refuse to give up on it, good things will start to happen.
Around 13 or 14, I spent two summers being alone and awkward and watching a ton of TV. I think it was right around the time that The Daily Show started, and Upright Citizens Brigade and Strangers With Candy. I guess you could say I became a comedy nerd from that point on. When I was 16, as soon as I got my license, I started taking improv classes down in Boston [about an hour's drive from where I lived in New Hampshire]. I was the editor of the opinion section in my [high] school newspaper and started using that as an outlet.
I went to DePaul University and took [comedy] classes in all the three big theaters [in Chicago]. I was spending most of my nights just performing intensely — between rehearsals and performances, 20 hours a week. It was like a third major. It was the thing my heart was in, while college was just kind of for fun. By the time I was a senior in college, I was burning out performance-wise. At that point, I was doing a children's show, an improvised hip-hop show, an indie team, and none of it was fun.
It's funny, when you just put so much importance on something, especially when you're really young, you can just completely psych yourself out and not have fun with it. And maybe that works if you're literally trying to work for NASA, but if you're not having fun doing comedy, you're doing it wrong.
I finished up grad school [for literature at DePaul University] in a year and moved to New York. I landed in New York right after the market crashed in 2008 and somehow I got a full-time job that actually paid, doing web copywriting for some horrendous number I didn't even know could be a salary in New York. I took it immediately and was like, "I can make it work." I worked a day job and wrote at night. I ended up having a side hustle of blogging for random blogs and doing random consulting and writing work. At that time, I definitely wasn't thinking anything about, "Oh, I care about my career." I was like, "I need to know how to pay the rent, and if the economy gets any worse, I need to stuff money under my mattress." I lived very boringly for a couple of years and built up savings.
I was doing improv for fun at the Magnet Theatre and someone was like, "Hey, we're starting a sketch program here." I started out taking classes there, around 24 or 25, and then started performing a little bit. By the time I was 26, I was just doing exclusively sketch stuff. I met [Reductress co-founder] Beth [Newell] doing sketch.
Beth and I had just finished writing an election show, so it must've been 2012. She emailed me one night, kind of out the blue, and she was like, "I have this idea. I don't know if anyone's done it before. It's kind of dumb," and apologized profusely for this fantastic idea [for Reductress] — as we do as women.
I started looking around the internet like, "Yeah, someone must've made a fake women's magazine before." And it turns out nobody really had, at least in any committed way. We started out really focusing on the fear- and insecurity-based marketing towards women and the way that women's media talked down to women in order to make them buy things. And then also create a space where we could do more women-focused news satire, whereas The Onion was doing a lot of "area man" stuff and wasn't coming from a woman's perspective. Then these first-person essays started becoming all the rage and these listicles about being a 20-something — all this click-bait started happening — and we kind of incorporated that into the Reductress repertoire and had a lot of fun with that. We got a small group of women together and wrote about 50 or 60 articles to have ready for launch. I painstakingly developed the first site myself and I'm not a coder, so it was sheer torture on my part. But in four months, we got a site up. We got a little bit of press three days after launch on April 29, 2013, and that kind of set the ball rolling in a small way.
For the first year, we never really thought, Oh, this is going to be a business. We thought, Oh, this, at best, will be a cool blog that we can have fun with and have something fun to do with other women we know that don't really have a place to do this kind of comedy. We were only posting weekly. We actually just had fake ads on the site for the first year.
I quit my job at the agency I was working at in June 2013, and that was a big move. I had wanted to quit my day job for a long time, and this was just the legitimate excuse to take the leap. Eventually, a friend of a friend was like, "You should do a Kickstarter and take this more seriously." So about nine months in, we did a Kickstarter to raise a little money to redesign the site.Most of that first two years, I would freelance when I could. I was living with a roommate. I had no experience in how ads work or how websites even make money. We started out just me and [Beth], and then contributors — usually 30 people at a time who are pitching, not necessarily actively writing. We hired our first part-time employee a year and a half in, Anna Drezen, who has been the most amazing person to our company that we ever brought on. She just got hired by SNL. I can't imagine a better home for her. That first year, we didn't have an office. It wasn't a business in any way. Beth and I were meeting once a week with an intern and choosing assignments, editing pieces. We were posting about eight pieces a week. We were just trying to hone in on what the voice of the site really was. We relaunched it exactly a year after our initial launch.
In 2015, we started getting attention from larger businesses that wanted to work with us on creative projects. Other organizations started to want to co-produce shows, so we started to do events. In January, we started writing a book proposal. We got a book deal by April. We were kind of fawning over this idea that women's media had just discovered feminism in late 2014. So we wanted to write kind of a terrible how-to manual on how to be a feminist. Our book is called How to Win at Feminism and it has a series of how-tos and features, graphics and things like that that are all on how to be the best feminist you can possibly be, but from the point of view of the women's magazine. It may not be the best advice to take seriously.
We're two full-time people and three part-time staff, [all female]. We have plenty of male contributors outside the office. But within our office, we have diversity across race, life background, sexual identity, and that's what we try to support. Experience being inundated with women's media is kind of crucial to the job. The premise of Reductress is to not get the man's side of things, because we've been getting the man's side of things our entire lives. You wouldn't believe how many pitches we get from men that are like, "So, how about a column from the man's point of view?"
We talked about doing [themed] homepage takeovers for various reasons for a couple of years. I think it was over a weekend [in August 2016] that we all found out about [a comedian being accused of] having raped at least one woman, and then a lot of people realized that he had [allegedly] done some horrible things to other women too. Everyone just came in on Monday feeling like shit. Nobody could work, nobody could get past it.
People were just saying terrible things, questioning the validity of this person's accusation, questioning the words of several women. We were all just kind of like, this feels like the most genuine time to do [a homepage takeover]. I think probably the only time we got this many pitches on one topic was when the Brock Turner thing came out. There were literally so many pitches that we couldn't choose just one.
We really wanted to talk about rape from a variety of different angles and not just make one overarching statement. I think we decided that around 2 p.m., had a couple of our outside contributors involved, but everyone in-house was here writing. We had everything mostly ready to go by the end of the day and finished up a few things in the morning. And weirdly enough, it kind of started to go viral before any of us had posted anything about it on social media by morning.I wouldn't say that any of the pieces made me laugh out loud in a way that a typical Reductress piece would, but I think we really did a good job at finding the finer, more nuanced absurdities about rape culture, about how men react to when women openly discuss what happened to them. There hasn't been enough comedy about [that] because, again, it's hard. And there's no guarantee that you're going to do it right. We just do the best we can and we hope that it doesn't, you know, trigger someone and that it sends the right message that we intend to.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. I was expecting a lot more trolls to have something to say about it, but I can't even remember a negative response to it. A lot of women came out and just said thank you. If anyone thinks it's a glamorous lifestyle, I assure them, it's not. It all sounds like awesome now, but there were just so many months where traffic was never what we wanted it to be, revenue was never what we wanted it to be. We're still not taking a salary in a traditional sense. It's still a bit of a hand-to-mouth situation in terms of paying our own expenses, but Beth and I make money through things like a book advance, speaking fees, and workshops. Being a small, independent publisher, we're certainly not rolling in any dough based on ad revenue right now.
But it has opened up a lot of doors that we didn't have open before we had launched Reductress. A major theater company that I used to work with reached out and wants to co-produce a show. Our book is coming out in October. And we have launched a podcast and are pitching lots of things to lots of people. It's definitely not a straight path like they say, but I would really encourage everyone, if they think they have a clear idea that they think is good and truly unique, to keep plugging away at it. Even if you fail, you will learn so, so much that will lead to the next good idea. And the only way you're going to move forward is to move forward, so just keep doing it.Get That Life is a weekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now. Check back each Monday for the latest interview.Follow Prachi on Twitter.