Arianna Huffington on how to take your company global

On the fifth anniversary of Huffington Post Canada, co-founder Arianna Huffington explains how to build a global brand, one outpost at a time

Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington, co-founder, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post (Huffington Post)

When New York-headquartered Huffington Post decided to expand into international markets, it chose Canada as its first international outpost, culminating in the launch of Huffington Post Canada on May 26, 2011. In the five years since, the brand has become a significant player on the Canadian media landscape, serving as a digital platform for content that, in the words of Huffington Post CEO Jared Grusd, represents “the marriage of professional journalism and local voices from non-professional, ordinary people.”

Along the way, Huffington Post Canada has become something of a guinea pig for the parent company. The Canada office has been an early adopter of several processes and technologies later embraced by the corporation as a whole, including, most recently, the use of 360-degree video in coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire. “We’re a much much smaller team in Canada versus HuffingtonPost.com in the U.S. but because of that we’re able to be more nimble,” explains Huffington Post Canada general manager Rashida Jeeva, who has been with the brand since its Canadian launch. “We are constantly innovating.”

That spirit of constant experimentation is what excites Huffington Post co-founder, president and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington the most about her company’s Canadian outpost. In fact, she sees Canada as playing a key role in the company as it continues its aggressive international expansion. We spoke to Huffington about what drew her company to Canada, what makes the market unique and what it takes to build a global brand.

Let’s go back five years. Then, as now, scores of Canadians were already reading U.S.-produced content via HuffingtonPost.com. What was behind your decision to open an office here to start producing local content for the Canadian market?

Once we decided that HuffPost was going to grow internationally, Canada was the natural first addition. AOL [which purchased Huffington Post in 2011, right before the launch of Huffington Post Canada] had a great office there already. And a lot of Canadians knew the Huffington Post. But we were clear that we wanted it to be an edition entirely dedicated to Canada. We wanted it to be completely different than coming to the Huffington Post to read news about America.

What do you feel makes Huffington Post Canada stand out in the company as a whole?

It has been truly an amazing success story for us. We now reach 8.9 million unique views [per month] across desktop, video and mobile. Canada has also been an innovator in terms of mobile. Mobile traffic surpassed desktop for us in 2013. We’ve seen incredible growth in video. We now also have great original reporting, most recently with our 360-degree video coverage of the Alberta wildfires. We’ve had success with things like our town hall with Prime Minister Trudeau. We’ve had success with a series about veterans with PTSD.

And to what do you attribute those successes?

The most important decision I’ve had to make is about the team: who was going to be the editorial director, who was going to be the editor in chief, who was going to be managing HuffPost in the country. Ultimately, a site can only be as good as its leadership. As we’ve grown now in 15 countries that we’ve had such a great leadership team around the world, but I want to single out our Canada leadership team: Rashida Jeeva, [AOL Canada managing director] Brad Cressman, [AOL and Huffington Post Canada managing editor] Kenny Yum and [Le Huffington Post Québec managing editor] Patrick White. It’s so critical to not only get a great team in place, but also to work closely with them.

You’ve certainly had to do a lot of it as you’ve expanded around the world. Did you always envision Huffington Post as a global media empire?

Oh, yes. That was always the plan. When we launched in Canada I was already in conversations with Le Monde to launch in France. And we had plans to launch in the U.K. and Spain.

What advice would you have for other business leaders hoping to expand into foreign markets as aggressively as you have?

In all countries, with the exception of Canada and the U.K., we went in as partners with major media players. In every other country we have a joint venture or a commercial partnership. In Spain it’s with El País, in Japan it’s with Asahi Shimbun, in Australia it’s with the Fairfax Media Group, etc. I’m a big believer in partnerships. It makes it much easier to grow fast. We’ve been able to use our partners’ offices, their HR teams, their sales teams. And it makes it easier to make global advertising deals as well.

In any venture, having a first-mover advantage is really important. Now other media companies are trying to expand internationally, but being there first has given us a big advantage.