It’s fall, which means I’m already thinking about plans for 2016. The new year is less than 90 days away, and there are a ton of big decisions to make between now and then.
As I think about the state of my four-person team at BuzzFeed, these challenges come to mind for 2016:
-We need to grow our team.
-We need to find a way to train new team members in the way we work — how to launch stuff quickly, mess around with new ideas, and use data to make informed decisions.
-We need to maintain the industrious spirit of a small team while growing into a (slightly) bigger one.
-We need to continue to grow our subscriber base.
-We need to launch new products.
-Some of those products will be launched in other countries.
-And some of them will be launched in languages other than English.
That’s a lot — and the secret is, it’s just the stuff that’s in front of me right now. In three months, we’ll have almost certainly knocked a few things off that list… but a new challenge or two will be added to it. Maybe we’ll add our first team member in a different city. Maybe we’ll be forced to make unexpected cuts to our lineup of newsletter products. Maybe we’ll have challenges implementing new types of advertising into our newsletters, or struggle to communicate with other teams here at the company.
Something new will come up. It always does.
And that’s the truly hard thing about working in a startup like BuzzFeed, I’ve found: There are always new challenges to face. Once you’ve mastered one challenge, another one presents itself. Sometimes, old challenges show up again in new ways!
The hard thing is that there are always more hard things to take on, and you have to be mentally prepared to taken on challenge after challenge. It’s why it’s so important to have those moments during the day to think, and it’s why it’s doubly important to have a great team behind you. The challenges will always keep coming. Make sure you have the time to center yourself, and make sure you have the team to take on what’s next.
About a month ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost a decade: I started reading the print edition of the New York Times every morning.
You read that right: A 28-year-old working in digital media actually re-subscribed to the dead tree edition of the newspaper.
And here’s one more confession: I really, really like it.
I like that the paper helps me follow what’s happening in the world, and thanks to my new habit, I think I’m as curious as ever about all sorts of subjects. I love that I’m sending along more stories to friends (via email, of course — don’t worry, I’m not cutting out and mailing stories to friends), and I love the conversations that are coming out of those shared stories.
But most of all, I love the 20 minutes every morning of absolute quiet. The TV isn’t on. I’m not distracted by email, or a video shared on Facebook, or whatever just showed up on my phone. That 20 minutes in the morning where I’m reading the paper is my chance to read, be quiet, and think.
I’ve turned to various things over the years to find that quiet. When I lived in San Antonio, I practiced yoga. In Missouri, I worked out like it was my job. But right now, it’s the Times.
Everyone should have that time during the day to shut out the rest of the world and find quiet. The rest of our days are so hectic, and so full of everything. It’s wonderful (and maybe even necessary!) to have a tool that lets you find that peace — even if it’s only for a little while. Those are the minutes that help keep you sane.
I never thought that peace would cost $9 a week and show up on my doorstep wrapped in a rubber band every morning, but I’m awfully glad that it does.
This week marks the end of the Jewish High Holidays. I like the High Holidays for a lot of reasons: You get to see family members that you don’t see every day; you get to feel this connection to an incredible, ancient tradition; and you get to eat a ton of lox. (Mostly, I like the lox.) But the holidays mean something else to me: They’re an opportunity to spend time thinking about the year past — and the year ahead.
When I think back, I first think of the big things I did right: Goals accomplished, projects launched, and little victories that made the past year so special. Then I start thinking of the times where I erred: Failures in communication or execution, or wrongs committed. (There are, sadly, always a lot of these.)
And then I look ahead. And no matter what’s come before, I always remind myself: Next year is a new chance to do a little better. I’ll never be perfect, and I’ll never come close. I will certainly make mistakes. But the goal isn’t perfection: The goal is do a little better than before. If I can do 5 percent better this year, and 5 percent better the next, and 5 percent the year after that…. well, over time, all those 5 percents are going to add up to something pretty impressive.
So here’s another year — 5776 on the Jewish calendar, if you’re keeping score — and another chance to do a little better. Here goes.
“So if everybody is essentially doing the same thing, is anybody likely to get ahead?
That quote happens to be about — of all things — the surprisingly high-stakes world of convention center hotel construction. But it could just as easily be about the race to build the biggest car-sharing app (here in New York, I walk past ads for a half-dozen Uber competitors a day) or the biggest social network or the next big whatever. When one company launches a feature, their competitors follow right behind. When someone launches a new app, a thousand spin-offs are sure to come, too.
Everybody is doing the same things. So how do you get in ahead in a world like that?
We live in a world of copycats, but you don’t have to be one of them. Here’s my advice: Don’t follow the leaders.
When others zag, find another path and zig. It’s OK to ignore everyone else — there are thousands of niches out there, and there are opportunities for people who will do stuff that no one else is doing. Let everyone else compete on the same ideas while you compete on yours alone.
I’ve always tried to remind myself: It’s hard to run your own race, but it’s even harder to run someone else’s. So give yourself permission to be different. Your way may work, or it may not — but in the end, at least it’ll be your successes or your failures.
Stand in my shoes for a second. You’re standing on a hill above the Pacific, maybe an hour north of San Francisco. You kayaked here from a bay, across unexpectedly choppy water. Your arms are sore. You set up camp on the beach, and then you start hiking up this hill. You’re not sure how far away the Pacific is, but it’s there, you think, somewhere beyond the ridge. The hill rises straight up out of the bay. You go, up and up. At the top of the ridge is a fence, and you climb that. Beyond is what looks like miles and miles of nothing. Clouds, perhaps?
No, your friends tell you. The Pacific.
You walk closer, across the hill. It’s more clear from here. You look south. You’re so high up, the waves don’t seem to move. They’re frozen, rising but never breaking along the beach. The fog is moving in. You can see the path down the coastline, the hills breaking into cliffs, the cliffs diving into the Pacific. There is a narrow stretch of beach that rolls all the way south. The coast does not end; it fades into the fog. You can see a large, black mass in the distance. You cannot tell what it is, or see it clearly through the fog. But you know whatever it is, it’s there.
Imagine following that path, down the cliffs, down the beach, down to whatever lies beyond that fog. From this vantage point, you could look back, sure, and see the journey already traveled, and you can look forward just a little bit — just a few miles down the coast. Beyond that, the fog, and whatever happens next. There is a path, absolutely, but you don’t know where it leads, or how far it leads you.
Imagine yourself on that path: the Pacific on one side, the cliffs on another, the fog, and the road unknown ahead.
Ask yourself: If you were brave enough to go on that path, who would you bring with you?
I know what I would want: Someone to laugh with on the thousands of steps ahead; someone for support when the steps slowed; someone with the joy and the curiosity to push us onward. I’d bring Sally; I cannot imagine the path without her. She’s the best I know.
But who would you bring? Who would you want with you for the next thousand steps, and beyond? Who would you want for when the path gets strange, when the journey demands everything you can give?
Stand in my shoes for a second, and imagine the first of those steps, and the people you’ll need to get to whatever lies beyond the fog — and whatever lies beyond that. Imagine it. This is the path, and for whatever comes next, you’ll need the best people you have to travel it.
Every year, I write a post called “The Things I Believe.” I wrote the first one when I was 24. This year will mark the fifth installment of the post.
When I wrote the first one, I knew that I was in a period of transition, and I wanted to be able to look back and see what was in my head at the time. What I didn’t realize was that just a few years later, I would look back and wonder why exactly the advice of 24- or 25- or 26-year-old Dan was so different than the advice I’d give myself today.
Which brings me to that video at the top of this post, via the CBC. It’s a wonderful video with all sorts of advice from people to their younger selves: “Just let go already.” “Stay weird.” “It’s never too late to try something new.” And watching it, I can’t help but think of my “The Things I Believe” series. The advice you need at age 6 and 16 and 60 isn’t always the same.
And so here’s a caveat to everything I’ve ever written on this blog, and everything I may write one day: I really believe what I’ve written here. But in 5 years — and almost certainly in 10 or 15 or 25 years — I will look back and wonder: How could I have been so wrong?
For the first time in three years, I wrote an essay today for Stry.us about the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the way we in the media cover disasters.
Five years ago this summer, I was in Biloxi, Miss., talking to anyone who wanted to tell me their Katrina story. The people on the Gulf Coast were weary then of discussing the story; many felt forgotten. And how could you blame them? They had been forgotten. They had stories to tell, and even five years ago, we had stopped listening.
I’ll tell you a journalism secret: There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule.
When someone asks me what I do, I usually tell them (with a wink, mind you): Oh, I’m the guy who’s been sending you all those emails lately!
But in many cases, that’s actually true! My team at BuzzFeed now sends tens of millions of emails out a month. I’ve personally written about 1,500 newsletters — it could be more, but I lost track somewhere along the way.
Over the past 3 years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about email.
And a lot of people aren’t using email the right way.
Email can be an amazing community tool — when used correctly. Just keep these six rules in mind before you send your next email:
1) Should you even send this email? — Oftentimes, the answer is no! If you need to pass along a lot of information via links or attachments; if you’re looking for the recipient to take specific action; or if you want to pass along a quick, personal note, email is great! Otherwise, have that conversation in person or over the phone. It can be really, really hard to convey tone over email, so having tough conversations IRL is a much better idea.
2) Make your subject line clear — I love to send emails that are super specific. I write a lot of subject lines with questions: “Can you send me _______ by the end of the day?” Or emails that convey the message right up front: “I loved your recent article!” Nobody should open an email and not know what they’re about to read.
3) Take advantage of that “preheader” space — That’s a term we use to refer to the snippet of preview text you’ll see on your phone or in Gmail. Your recipient can read the first 5-10 words of your email — so skip the greetings and the “Hope all is well!”-type messages and get right to the point!
4) Personal emails are the best kind of emails — A personal email is a great way to make people feel like their work is actually important. And when people feel appreciated, they’re more likely to write back, take action, or help! If possible, I try not to send mass emails. I’ve found that an email that goes out to a group of 10+ recipients gets far fewer responses than an email that goes out to only 1-3 people.
5) Use bullets or numbered lists — Remember: More and more people are reading emails on their phone, which means readability matters. If you’re writing emails in a giant block of text, your recipient might skip through the whole thing. Take advantage of bullets and lists that can make your email much easier to read.
6) Make your “ask” as clear as possible — One of the reasons I love email is because it allows you to ask a specific person to take a specific action. But the recipient should know exactly what action they should take, and also how you’ll hold them accountable. When I need to get a specific thing done, I usually ask over email.
If you make your ask very clear — and if you follow these other five rules — you’ll discover what email truly can be: An engine for helping you get a ton of stuff done.
I just finished “The Best Team Money Can Buy,” a really good new read on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ quest to win a World Series. It focuses in on Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ star left-handed pitcher, and one of the most dominant players in the game. (How dominant? He’s won the Cy Young award for pitching three of the last four years. The other year, he finished second.)
And when he’s pitching well, he’s basically unhittable:
What makes Kershaw so good? For one, the book details, Kershaw does an unusual series of things on days when he pitches. He leaves for the ballpark at the same time. He warms up at the same time. He throws the same number of warm-up pitches at the same time. He even eats at a same time. Everything is geared around keeping things exactly the same on game day.
Baseball writers like to use certain words for guys like Kershaw. They call him “superstitious” or “quirky.”
I’d put it another way: Kershaw’s a guy with a very, very specific routine.
Routines are a wonderful thing for people who do complex work. For Kershaw, a routine takes away a lot of the decisions he has to make before pitching. He doesn’t need to think about when he should eat or what kind of stretches to do beforehand. His routine is already fully built, and it allows him to keep his complete focus on the actual work — instead of the other decisions that could distract him during the day.
Here’s another way to think about it: Routines are processes for doing the work, and when your work is hard, it’s even more important that your routine be solid.
Totally unrelated example: I just finished a GQ cover story on Stephen Colbert, where he talks a lot about the process of creating his new late night show. Here’s my favorite part:
And then he talked about the Food Network show Chopped. The reason he loves Chopped is that it’s a show that is wholly about process, about creation within a limited range of possibilities. “This show,” he said, meaning The Late Show, “is Chopped. Late-night shows are Chopped. Who are your guests tonight? Your guests tonight are veal tongue, coffee grounds, and gummy bears. There, make a show.… Make an appetizer that appeals to millions of people. That’s what I like. How could you possibly do it? Oh, you bring in your own flavors. Your own house band is another flavor. You have your own flavor. The audience itself is a base dish, like a rice pilaf or something. And then together it’s ‘Oh shit, that’s an actual meal.’ And that’s what every day is like at one of these shows. Something is one thing in the morning, and then by the end of the day it’s a totally different thing. It’s all process.”
That’s the power of routines. They get you to a place where you can create the results expected of you — and then allow you to show up the next day and do the work all over again.
There’s a video going around the internet this week about Kmart. If you’re reading this, you probably haven’t thought about Kmart in a long time, and you probably haven’t shopped at a Kmart in even longer. (Confession: I actually have shopped at one in the past year. There was one in my old neighborhood here in New York. It was open late, and when you needed something random at 10 on a Tuesday, it was often the only place to go. I called it the Kmart Of Last Resort — nobody wanted to be there, but hey, you needed a new shower rod in the middle of the night, so there you were!)
Anyway, the video itself isn’t even 20 years old, but at first glance, it seems hopelessly outdated. Here was their big idea: You could shop online with Kmart, but to do that, you first had to physically be at a Kmart. Ads touted it as a “store within a store.”
Looking back at videos from the ‘90s, it’s easy to wonder how people could be so clueless about the internet. (Here’s looking at you, The Today Show!) Hindsight can be a cruel thing.
But this is what’s really interesting about Kmart: At the time, they didn’t seem clueless at all. In 2000, CNN wrote that Kmart had managed “to position its Web site among the gazelles of the Internet.” And they weren’t alone in their praise. Here’s my personal favorite quote: “Kmart probably has more influence over the way that people shop online than Amazon does.” Kmart wasn’t backwards or behind the times; to the contrary, they were an innovator in the space!
Looking back, Kmart’s strategy made a lot of sense:
1) They recognized the internet as part of the future of their business — In 1998, they started running those ads touting an internet-like store that you could shop from within a brick-and-mortar Kmart. (It even used touch-screen computers!) Their customers were just starting to use the internet, and online shopping was a brand new experience. So Kmart tried to get shoppers accustomed to the convenience and safety of online shopping by introducing it in stores.
2) But they realized that many customers still weren’t online — Their customers couldn’t shop online if they weren’t on the internet yet. So Kmart invested millions into BlueLight, a company that gave out free internet access via CDs handed out inside stores. BlueLight launched in 1999; by 2000, BusinessWeek reported that “more than 4.9 million people have signed up for the online service — placing it among the top three Net-access providers,” and that 40 percent of those new subscribers had never used the internet before. At least in the short term, BlueLight actually succeeded in getting Kmart shoppers online! But the last step was the hardest one.
3) They tried to make online shopping a habit — Bluelight users were automatically taken to Bluelight.com, a spinoff of Kmart.com. From there, Kmart offered exclusive deals for online shopping. The deals changed on a regular basis. If the idea worked, customers would get into the habit of coming online every day to check for new deals and shop. The early returns were promising: During the holiday season in 2000, BlueLight.com saw “a 1,000% jump in sales and 823% increase in traffic” from the previous year. During the holiday season in 2001, 9 million unique visitors shopped on the site. Customers were getting online thanks to Kmart, and turning that loyalty into dollars spent on Bluelight.com.
I think a lot about that part: The strategy made sense; the execution was lacking. We’re 15 years removed from Kmart’s BlueLight failures. 15 years from now, when we’re looking back at this age of the internet, how will we remember networks like Facebook or Twitter, or an organization like BuzzFeed, or even products like the iPhone or iWatch?
There is a line between smart, and not; visionary, and not — but it only gets revealed with time. Right now, there are a lot of bright leaders out there working out the strategies to keep their businesses growing. Some of those businesses will become an Amazon or a Walmart, and some will become a Kmart. The difference could be execution, or it could be mere luck.
Just remember, though: In 2000, Kmart was an innovator on the internet. They were ahead of the curve. Now look at them. Hindsight reveals all.
I'm Dan Oshinsky. I’m the Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed, and I lead a team that’s building cool new stuff for email. On this blog, I'm here to share what I know about creating awesome things. Come on in. Let's build stuff people love.