Tag Archives: inspiration comes from strange places

Do One Thing Really Well.

that is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza

Last month, on a road trip back from New England, I had the best pizza of my entire life.

It was at a place called Sally Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, a restaurant that’s been there since 1938. The pizza was incredible. Everything they did — the crust, the toppings, the sauce — was perfect. Right now, even just thinking about that pizza, I’m trying to figure out if there’s time for me to get on a train and make it to New Haven before Sally’s closes tonight.

Like I said: Their pizza was unbelievably good.

Here’s my favorite part of the Sally’s experience, though: The menu. This is what their entire menu looks like:

the Sally's meu

You’ll notice something about that menu: Sally’s does not sell the usual Italian fare. They don’t sell salads, or mozzarella sticks, or calzones, or pasta, or any sort of side dishes. They sell pizza, and drinks to go alongside pizza, and nothing else. That’s the way they’ve done it since 1938.

Turns out you can stay in business for 78 years selling only one thing if that one thing is that good.

There’s something to be learned from a place like Sally’s. When I was coming out of college, my skill set was like the menu at a New York diner: I did a little of everything, but nothing particularly well. I had written for print, blogged, edited video and audio, and even gotten into photography. I was OK at everything.

When I tried to figure out the first step in my career, I found myself stuck. I could do a lot of things, but I wasn’t sure what one thing to focus on. I didn’t seem fully qualified for anything.

So for that first job, I applied to everything — and I mean everything.

I applied to jobs as a reporter and editor. I applied to jobs on the radio. I even applied to a job as one of CNN’s new backpack journalists, despite the fact that I’d never been on air.(1) I didn’t hear back from anyone, because hiring managers could tell that my experience was a mile wide and an inch deep.

If I could go back, I’d tell myself to focus a little more in college. Yes, it’s good to be well-rounded, but it’s even better to have one killer skill that people can’t ignore.(2)

I’d tell myself: You can always improve your skill set later, and you can always move from one field to another. But especially for that first job, having a specialty sets you apart.

When it comes to careers, we could all be more like Sally’s Apizza: Do one thing, and it really well.

———

That is a photo of me about to eat all the pizza at Sally’s. (Two of us ate enough pizza for about 6 people, and I’m not embarrassed by that at all.)

  1. A fun fact: I applied to that CNN job in every single bureau they had, which meant I applied for the same job about six different times in six different cities. I didn’t realize one HR department handled everything, and they grew increasingly more annoyed with me as my applications kept rolling in. Whoops!
  2. Maybe it’s even connected to whatever weird/fun thing you make on the side!

Ring That Bell.

that's Mel Brooks at Radio City

Last Monday, my wife emails me an interview with Mel Brooks. The interview has a bit of news: He’s going to do a showing of “Blazing Saddles” at Radio City Music Hall later in the week, and then a Q&A after the movie. We both love Mel and his movies, so I go looking for tickets. They’re a little pricey, and we’re debating whether or not to go. I’m leaning towards going — Mel is 90, he’s a living legend, and you never know if he’ll be back again.

Halfway through our email thread, the news breaks that Gene Wilder has died.

We buy the tickets.

Of course, it was worth the price of admission, and then some. The crowd could not have been more excited — you should have heard the ovation when Wilder’s Waco Kid first showed up on screen. And then Mel Brooks came out on stage and started telling stories, and we all went absolutely crazy.

He told this one that really landed for me. He’s told this story before, so I’ll quote it for accuracy:

At one point in the movie, an old lady in a bonnet says, “Up yours, n—-r.” Brooks recalled asking John Calley, then head of production at Warner Bros., “‘Can we beat the s— out of a little old lady? Can we punch a horse?’ He said to me, ‘If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it.'”

If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it. I absolutely LOVE that.

And it explains so much about Mel Brooks. This is a guy who did musical numbers about both the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany. This is a guy who made Frankenstein dance. This is a guy who put a fart scene into a Western.

Yeah, Mel Brooks rang that bell.

If you’re going to go halfway, you might as well go all the way. Mel Brooks taught me that last week, and I’m going to try not to forget it.

———

That’s a (not very good) photo of Mel at Radio City that I took on Thursday. Look closely: There’s a little Jewish guy at the front of the stage. That’s Mel.

What Happens After The Rocket Ship Levels Off?

The rocket ship levels off

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I completely agree with Simon Cowell on something.

You remember Simon, of course. He was the loud, controversial judge from “American Idol”, and the reason even I tuned in to see that show’s finales.(1)

Anyway, he said something in an interview with the New York Times last weekend that got me thinking about the way we define failure. He was asked about one of his other shows, “X Factor”, and he said:

“I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi and it was called ‘The Other Guy Blinked.’ And we blinked. We thought 12 million [viewers] was bad. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.’ But we beat ourselves up so much about it and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself, but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

That last sentence is the big one. What must it be like to launch a huge TV hit and still feel like a failure?

It makes sense if you think about where he’s coming from. Simon’s first U.S. hit, “American Idol” once drew 38 million viewers for a finale. But then the numbers dropped, and never fully recovered. Here’s what it looked like, according to Billboard:

American Idol ratings by year

Even into it’s thirteenth season, the show was still drawing big numbers for finales. But it wasn’t what it had been a decade earlier.

Keep that chart in mind for a second. Now look at this:

Upworthy before

That’s a chart that Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing publishers of the decade, showed off publicly in 2014 as they grew from zero to nearly 70 million unique visitors.(2)

Now let’s zoom out for a second:

Upworthy after

That’s what it looks like when you rely entirely on another entity for success — in this case, Facebook — and then that business changes they way they do business. Facebook changed their algorithm, and Upworthy went from 70 million uniques to 50 million uniques, and kept dropping. Afraid that they could go from 70 million to nothing just as fast as they’d gone from 0 to 70, Upworthy changed their publishing strategy, and then changed it again. Now they’re doing what a lot of media companies — including BuzzFeed, where I work — are doing: Following the lead of distribution channels and hoping that the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world take us all to profitability. We’ll see how that strategy plays out over the next 3-5 years.

But what I’m most interested in is what happens to the people on the inside when a rocket ship like Upworthy starts to level off. That’s where Simon’s quote comes to mind. Read it again:

“We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

“American Idol” was a rocket ship, too. It grew from nothing into a national phenomenon. But it didn’t last forever. The numbers dropped, and “Idol” merely became a big and hugely profitable TV show — merely a big and hugely profitable TV show! — not a supernova.

It’s all about perspective, though. What “Idol” built — and “X Factor” did, too — was a huge success, but from the inside, it clearly didn’t feel like that. And when you’re on a rocket ship like “Idol” or Upworthy, or the one I’m still on at BuzzFeed, it’s all about perspective. They’re about understanding that the ride up doesn’t last forever, that leveling off can be a normal course correction, that from where you stand — 12 million viewers, 50 million unique visitors, whatever — you’ve still built something impressive. You might feel like you’re losing ground because you’re not meeting your own expectations, and then you look around and realize where you actually are.

Maybe it’s not the up-up-up ride you thought, but you’ve still reached rarified air.

One last anecdote, from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider. I saw him tell a story once about Hootie and the Blowfish, a band he opened for back in the ‘90s. He talked about how their first album sold 16 million copies. Their second sold 3 million. Their third sold a million. They were a rocket ship that burned out. People called them a failure.

And it’s at this point in the story that Snider said, “Their third album still sold a MILLION copies! Sign me up for that kind of failure!”

It’s worth saying again: After “Idol” started to fail as a show, it still ended up running for 15 years. Simon Cowell launched two more hit shows. Upworthy is one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hootie sold several million albums. Darius Rucker went on to win a Grammy.

Yeah, sign me up for that kind of failure.

———

That photo of a rocket comes via SpaceX and Unsplash.

  1. I still stand by my Ruben Studdard vote.
  2. I’m going to pick on them for a second not because I dislike them — I actually think they’re doing really good work! — but because their last 4 years have been so well documented.

We Should All Stop Eating Those Sad Desk Lunches.

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BuzzFeed’s grown a ton since I started in December 2012 — not just in prestige or influence or monthly UVs, but also in raw size. We had about 175 staffers in New York when I started. Now, we’re so big that we take up two different offices — one across the street from the other.

And we’ve seen a few unexpected side effects of that growth. Here’s one: We don’t have nearly as much space in our canteen to eat lunch in anymore.

When I started, I regularly ate lunch with co-workers from across the company. We talked about what we were working on, and interesting ideas and projects often sprung from those lunches. But as we grew, and as space became as issue, I started eating more and more lunches at my desk. Eventually, it became my daily routine.

And because I started doing the Sad Desk Lunch, everyone on my team started doing it, too.

But a few weeks ago, I noticed one team at BuzzFeed that was still actively eating together — our team focused on content distribution. They’re run by Summer, who happens to be one of our best (and friendliest) managers. I noticed them eating lunch, enjoying conversation with one another, and I realized: My team needed to follow suit.

So on the newsletter team, we’ve made a new rule: On Mondays and Wednesdays, we grab lunch, head to the canteen, and eat together for 20 minutes. It’s a time to bond as a team, and it’s an opportunity to talk about work in an informal setting. Sometimes, you need to get buy-in from team members through a formal meeting or an emailed request. But other times, over a sandwich, you can talk about an idea and actually set some work in motion, and that’s also great! Some of our best ideas — our Dude A Day newsletter, for instance — have come out of those informal lunches.

Collaboration, communication, and a sense of camaraderie. They’re all wonderful things that have come out of a simple act: Eating lunch together.

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That photo at top comes via Flickr’s Link Humans.

Another Chance To Do Better.

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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.

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That photo of a sunset comes via Unsplash and photographer Mayur Gala.

It’s All Process.

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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.

———

That photo of Clayton Kershaw comes via Flickr’s Arturo Pardavila III.

How Will They Talk About You 15 Years From Now?

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 10.58.16 PM

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.

But things fell apart from Kmart — and quickly. Kmart offered 250,000 products on Bluelight.com, but it struggled to keep products in stock online. The website struggled, and Kmart’s entire business went into bankruptcy in 2002. The strategy made sense; the execution was lacking.

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.

What Does The Modern News Media And Whaling Have To Do With One Another?

nantucket-2015

I’m taking the week off, and spending it up in Nantucket. I love it up here: the days are simple, and there isn’t internet or TV at the house. (I’m making a quick exception to log online for this post.)

The island is an interesting case in reinvention. A few hundred years ago, this was the whaling capital of the world. Today, the big industry is tourism. Aside from the Whaling Museum downtown, and a few extra copies of “Moby Dick” at local bookstores, you wouldn’t have any idea that life on Nantucket was so radically different in the 1700s and 1800s.

But something caught my eye this week in the local paper, the Inky Mirror. (Back in the day, I used to write for the Inky’s rival, the Indy. They like their newspaper abbreviations up here.) Every week, they publish an excerpt from the paper back in the day. The full excerpt is at the top of this post, but I wanted to highlight a snippet. It’s from the Inky 150 years ago, and it depicts an island on the verge of a huge transition:

“But the whale fishery is gone; gone beyond hope of revival. And if we truly love our island home, and would retain its already reduced population, we must introduce new branches of industry.”

The general theme of it seems familiar to me: Good news to report on the new industry in town, followed by a warning that said industry might not actually work, followed by a reminder that the old industry is long gone, and total reinvention could be necessary.

Why so familiar? Because… that’s the formula for nearly every report on the state of the news industry over the past 10 years! There’s always the good news (“We’re making more money via digital advertising than last year”), following by the big warning (“But this pales in comparison to ad revenues from 20 years ago”), followed by the requisite announcement (“We still need to make much more money to be sustainable in the long run.”).

I know how things turned out on Nantucket, even though I’m not sure islanders would’ve believed it 150 years ago. (“You’re telling me that this postage-sized stamp of scrub brush 30 miles off Cape Cod is going to be a tourist destination? And everyone’s going to wear cranberry-red pants? Really???”) How things turn out for the news industry, I’m not sure. But it’s not hard to alter that Inky warning for the news media of 2015:

“But print advertising is gone; gone beyond hope of revival. And if we truly love journalism, and would retain its already reduced influence, we must introduce new branches of revenue and distribution.”

Anyway, check back to this blog in 2165, and I’ll probably have an update then on how things turn out. (Hopefully sooner.)

There’s One Little Problem With That Famous Wayne Gretzky Quote About Pucks.

Chicago Blackhawks Vs Detroit Red Wings

There’s a Wayne Gretzky quote that’s been repeated in a thousand PowerPoint presentations, and I’ll repeat it here: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” It’s a wonderful thought: Instead of chasing what’s already happened, try to get a step ahead! And hey: Wayne Gretzky once scored 92 goals in an 80-game season, so he must know something about success.

But there’s a flip side to Gretzky’s mantra, and I think it’s just as interesting: Everyone’s trying to skate to where the puck is going, and when they make their move, they usually move in packs.

If you’ve ever seen “Trading Places,” you know what I’m talking about. There’s the famous scene at the end where the Dukes try to corner the market, and everyone else starts following their lead. The other brokers don’t know why the Dukes are doing what they’re doing — they’re just chasing them blindly in hopes that there’s money to be made.

I haven’t been around for very long, but I’ve seen enough to know this: That kind of scene happens all the time. When one big player in an industry makes a move, a bunch of smaller ones often go chasing after them — even if they don’t quite understand why. Most aren’t trying to find the puck; they’re just watching bigger players for clues, and hoping they can beat the giants to the right spot.

And when you have this sort of movement in packs, with everyone trying to be first to the next big thing, it’s incredibly hard to stand out. There are too many competitors.

I’ve always taken a different approach: Watch where everyone’s moving, and then go where they aren’t. Some of the best stuff I’ve worked on (longform journalism, email marketing, responsive design) were spaces that didn’t have any buzz when I got into them. In time, they were all tapped as “the next big thing.”

Not everything I’ve done has turned out quite that well. (I started Stry.us as a replacement to the Associated Press. That, uh, didn’t quite work out.) But it’s been a pretty good policy: When you’re a little fish, don’t go swimming into big ponds. Ignore the hottest trends. Ignore what the experts are saying.

To bring it back to Gretzky: Find pockets of space where you can work, and if you do things right, the puck might even come your way.

———

That hockey photo comes via Flickr’s Nicole Yeary.

Get That Glide Out Of Your Game.

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I’ve been watching a lot of the NHL playoffs lately, mostly because I’m trying to give myself an early heart attack, but also because my Washington Capitals are in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. As always, I’ve been paying close attention to how our superstar, Alex Ovechkin, is playing.

If you’re not familiar with Ovi’s work, perhaps a highlight like this might jolt your memory:

Or this:

Or this:

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Ovi was always great at delivering the highlight reel plays. But early in his career, fans, media, and even his own coach criticized him for taking plays off. Just look at this GIF, and watch no. 8 casually skate towards the net — even with an opponent standing there WIDE FREAKING OPEN.

At the start of the season, the Caps called out Ovi, saying he “has got a little too much glide maybe in his game.” To put it another way: Ovi was taking plays off, and the team wasn’t going to take it anymore. He’s always been talented — but it was time to step up his overall game.

And he took it to heart. Last year, the Caps were outscored by 35 goals when Ovechkin was on the ice — even though Ovechkin himself scored 51 goals on the year! This year, he scored 53 goals — and the Caps were +10 with him on the ice. That’s an incredible turnaround.

What changed? Ovi’s actually pushing himself on defense, and trying to put himself into spots to contribute even when he’s not scoring goals. He’s not just gliding through the game, waiting for his chance to score.

A lot of us have struggled with a problem similar to Ovechkin’s. Some of us coast through our jobs. But to get better, we all have to find ways to push hard to get the work done — even when the glamorous or the exciting parts of work aren’t in front of us. It’s not just about the big moments. The little things — the stuff announcers call “the dirty work” — matters, too. We could all use more of Ovechkin’s new work ethic in our game.

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That photo of Ovechkin comes via Flickr’s @dan4th.