Tag Archives: good things start with action

Make It Work.

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If you don’t have all the money you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the knowledge you need to build something, you can still make it work.

If you don’t have all the time you need to build something, you can still make it work.

It won’t be perfect. It might be far from perfect, to be honest. But find a way to get started. Find a way to make it work.

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That generic desk photo comes via Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash.

A Good Test Starts With A Great Question.

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Perhaps you’ve run an A/B test before. You wanted to see which would result in more clicks: Headline A vs. Headline B. A red “Click Here!” button vs. a blue “Click Here!” button. A photo of a cat vs. a photo of a dog.

What you’ve done is an optimization test. It’s a simple form of testing — you’re tinkering with the variables to try to find the best possible combination of content.

But when I talk about testing, I’m talking about something different. A test is more than just tweaking stuff at the margins.

A good test starts with a great question.

Right now, I’m asking two really big questions at work:

1) How can we build a big, highly engaged audience through email?

2) How can we convert those readers into paying subscribers to our print or digital editions?

These are complicated questions. To get the answers, we’re going to run dozens of experiments over the coming months. We’ll test out new sign-up funnels to grow our audience; build new designs for our existing newsletters; create original content to live in our emails; launch entirely new newsletter products; and test all sorts of calls to action to see how, when, and why a newsletter subscriber might be willing to pay for access to our premium products.

But it all starts when you ask clear questions. Those questions help set the boundaries for your work, and make clear what you should be focusing on, and what you shouldn’t.

And a few months down the road, once we’ve used these tests to build out the framework to answer these questions, that’s when we’ll get into the nitty gritty of optimizing. We’ll run all sorts of little tests — button colors! subject lines! cats and dogs!(1)— to get to that optimal version.

But first, we have to answer these big questions.

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That photo, “Science experiment” by Zyada, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. OK, maybe not this one.

Have You Tried Asking Them What They Think?

Take a second and watch this video. It’s of guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, from the band Dawes, debuting a new song for listeners. And before he starts, he mentions this:

“I’m going to do another new one, and this one I’ve never done before for anybody, so it makes me a little bit nervous. But if it’s no good, make sure to be honest with me, because I need to know how it is.”

If you listen to the song, “A Little Bit Of Everything”, you can understand why he’d be nervous about the new material. The song opens with a verse about a man contemplating suicide — not exactly the material that fans of an indie band like Dawes might expect.

So in this moment, Goldsmith isn’t just playing a song for fans — he’s focus group testing new material. He’s trying to figure out if there’s enough lightness in this song to make it work. And by asking fans to give him feedback, he’s giving the audience permission to react to the material — and readying himself to listen.

This is the thing about making stuff: Making it is only part of the job. You have to be willing to listen to your audience, your readers, or your fans once you put the work out into the world. You have to be willing to pay attention to what they’re saying, and adjust to what they’re telling you.

It’s not always easy to hear what they have to say. Comments can be harsh; surveys can be unkind. But if you’re serious about getting better at your work, you need to listen. If you ask them, you’ll find that your audience has something it wants to tell you.

Don’t Forget To Enjoy The Ride.

A post shared by BuzzFeed Marketing (@buzzfeedx) on

There are days at BuzzFeed when I have to stop to remind myself: Can you believe you’ve been a part of this thing?

We’ve grown so much and we’ve grown so fast — from 30 million unique visitors to more than 200 million, and more than a billion page views per month. I’d argue that we’re one of the most successful media startups ever. And somehow, I ended up with a seat on this insane ride.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work at a place like BuzzFeed again. How many times can you step onto a rocket ship just before it takes off? I’ve been lucky to work with smart, curious, and talented people. I’ve gotten to work with leaders who’ve been able to see what’s around the corner in media just a bit faster than everyone else. I can’t even believe how much I’ve grown in my 4+ years here.

Which is why I have to remind myself to enjoy it. There are days when I get bogged down in work or politics. There are days when I don’t feel the joy of coming to the office. There are days when it’s just another job.

And those are the days when I have to remind myself: Dan, you’re working at one of the most remarkable places in media. You’ve been a part of growing this thing into the company it is today. And who knows if you’ll ever get to be a part of something like this ever again?

So: Enjoy it. Pitch big ideas. Work with people you may never get to work with again. Ask for what you want.

Enjoy it, because the ride will end one day — and you don’t want to look back and wonder if you left something undone.

Everyone Has Ideas.

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I have a lot of ideas. They’re not always good ideas — but I always have ideas.

I wrote about my approach to ideas back in 2012:

“The challenge, it turns out, isn’t coming up with good ideas. It’s deciding which of them is worth pursuing and working on.”

In that same post, I laid out 25 ideas I had. A few were pretty good. Some were ideas that I never actually expected to try out, like this one:

TV Dinners That Were On TV — A website featuring recipes that you saw your favorite characters make on TV. Kevin’s mom on ‘The Wonder Years’ and Betty on ‘The Flintstones’ always seemed to be cooking up awesome dishes, and here, we’d try to figure out how to make them.”

Fast forward five years, and I’m scrolling through my feed when this headline pops up:

binging with babish headline

This guy on YouTube had the same idea — but executed on it so much better than I ever could have. His videos are simple in concept, but produced in a way that’s almost hypnotic. They’re really fun to watch.

I’ll confess: The first few times I saw someone launch an idea that I’d also had, it was maddening. Why didn’t I make that? I’d ask myself. Why wasn’t I first?

But as I get older, I realize that what I wrote back in 2012 is still true: The challenge with ideas is deciding which ones to build or produce. As I wrote back then: “Ideas are only worth so much. Execution’s really what matters.”

You can’t make everything. But it is fun to see someone else turn a weird idea into something so fantastic. I’m adding “Binging with Babish” to my YouTube subscriptions — I hope he’ll be cooking up one of those “Flintstones” brontosaurus ribs soon.

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The day after I published this post, Animal Planet announced that another one of the ideas from that 2012 blog post — a weight loss show for pets — was becoming a reality, too. (These things come in threes, so if someone launches the I’m On Dayquil Gmail plugin next week, please let me know.)

You Don’t Need Permission To Do The Best Things In Life.

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You don’t need permission to call someone you care about just to say hi.

You don’t need permission to send a kind email to a friend.

You don’t need permission to take a long run in the park.

You don’t need permission to learn something new.

You don’t need permission to try a recipe you really want to cook, or to listen to a band you love.

You don’t need permission to share a secret with someone, or a story.

You don’t need permission to do something nice for someone else.

You don’t need permission to stay up all night to write, or to read, or to talk.

You don’t need permission to sing in the shower.

You don’t need permission to treat yourself to that thing you always wanted.

You don’t need permission to go on an adventure, and you don’t need permission to get lost.

Sometimes, you have to remind yourself: You don’t have to wait for the things that matter most to you in life. Those things are always there, waiting for you, whenever you decide to start.

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That photo comes via Unsplash and photographer Saksham Gangwar.

Do It For The Story.

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A buddy of mine from college got married last weekend. We went to Chicago to celebrate him and his new bride, and to toast good times. We told all of our favorite stories for the thousandth time, and we laughed until the wee hours.

And one phrase of ours from college kept coming up again and again:

“Do it for the story.”

Do it for the story was something we said when we needed a push to try something we knew was going to be hard.

Do it for the story was the motivation to be courageous, even when the odds were long.

Do it for the story was a reason to go for it, just because.

We were a pretty grounded group of guys back in college. 95 percent of the time, we did the reasonable thing.

But there was the 5 percent of us that was a little bit crazy, that was willing to try something maybe that shouldn’t be tried. It was the wild card in each of us, and you never knew when it might come out and make one of us try something unexpected. That 5 percent is the reason I ended up in China covering the Olympics, and the reason I ended up in Biloxi in 2012. It’s the 5 percent that — to quote the immortal words of “Risky Business” — made you say, “What the fuck.”

It’s good to be unreasonable. It’s good to push yourself to do crazy things. When you grow up, you learn that it’s so easy to get caught behind walls of your own design. Sometimes, you need to force yourself outside of your day-to-day and do something big, even if you’re not quite sure why you’re doing it in the first place.

So try something crazy. Do something you’re not supposed to do.

Do it for the story.

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That photo of skydivers taking the leap comes via a Creative Commons license and Flickr user Laura Hadden.

Shit Happens.

The work never goes like you want it to.

Oh, you had big plans? Shit happens.

Oh, you had goals/ambitions/dreams? Shit happens.

Oh, things were supposed to go a certain way? Yeah… shit happens.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t make plans — you should! It’s good to anticipate problems, and to try to get ahead of the work. But the work always gets weird along the way. You learn that something can’t work a certain way, or should actually work a completely different way. Your team takes a hit. Something breaks.

Things always go wrong. It’s just the way it goes.

So are you willing to push through it? Are you willing to keep working, even when things suck?

The best don’t use those bad breaks as an excuse. They find a way to get the work done anyway.

Good luck. Keep doing the work.

The Window Is Open.

When I was about 3 years old, I used to walk around my house pretending to play guitar on this red plastic pan. By middle school, I’d walk around school breaking into occasional air guitar. By high school, family friends would grab my mom and ask, “Why doesn’t Dan actually take guitar lessons?” And she never had a good answer for them.

When I got to college, though, I had this realization: If there was ever a time to learn to play guitar, it was right then. My freshman year, I made friends with a guy on my floor who played. He needed roommates for the next semester. I agreed to move into his place under one condition: He teach me how to play.

College happened to be an amazing time to learn a new skill.  I had a LOT of free time, and I spent much of it the next 3 years learning how to play. It was just a matter of recognizing that the moment was right to learn a brand new skill — and then putting in a ton of work to learn that skill.

The same thing happened when I realized that I was ready to start Stry.us. The same thing happened when I realized that I was ready to move to New York. I recognized that the window of opportunity was opening, and I had to have the guts to go ahead and take my chance before the window closed.

There are ways to know when the window is opening for you. Sometimes it’ll be obvious: a friend will extend an invitation to do something, and you’ll recognize that you’ve got a chance to do something special right now. Sometimes, it opens when you’re frustrated with what you’re working on, or when an idea nags at you for weeks. Sometimes, there’s no sign — you just know.

But if the window opens, take your shot. It doesn’t always stay open very long.

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That photo has nothing to do with the window of opportunity — I just like it :-) It comes from Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash.

So What Do You Want To Ask?

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I’ve been lucky to meet some exceptional people in my life, and there’s something interesting that I’ve noticed about almost all of them. They have a lot of the common traits you’d expect — they work hard; they surround themselves with good people; they’re highly skilled; you get the idea. But there’s something else:

Almost every one I’ve met has asked excellent questions.

I think anyone can come up with an answer to life’s weirdest questions. But it takes a different kind of person to ask a good question. To ask a good question, you have to be curious, and you have to be genuinely invested in asking that question. (Anyone can tell when they’re being asked a question by someone who doesn’t really care about the answer.) I find that people who ask good questions tend to be detail-oriented.

To put it simply: A person who asks great questions is someone who actually wants to understand how and why the world works, instead of just taking it all at face value.

And I don’t just see it in the journalism world! Open up a biography about Warren Buffett or Sam Walton and you’ll find countless stories of men who were constantly asking questions, always probing beyond the surface for answers. (Walton’s biography, in particular, is full of stories about him going to Wal-Marts with his tape recorder in hand, spending hours asking his employees questions about the way they really worked.) Doctors, artists, bankers, coaches — I’ve met all sorts who know how to dig for answers.

I think it’s everyone could get better at — myself included! I think we’d find that there’s a lot more to learn about the people in our lives, if only we’d learn to ask.

Want to get better at asking questions? I’d recommend this quick guide to asking questions by a former investigative reporter.

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That photo of someone searching for something — higher meaning, or probably just a bird in the woods — comes via Unsplash and photographer Caleb George.