My former boss at BuzzFeed, Dao Nguyen, gave a TED Talk about what makes something go viral. Dao’s one of the smartest people at BuzzFeed — take 10 minutes and watch:
A few years ago at BuzzFeed, my co-workers on the Product side of the house — the folks that built our website and kept it running — started talking about this idea of “tech debt.”
Here’s a simple way to think about it:(1) At BuzzFeed, we’d built our website on systems that were a few years old. Over time, our team hacked together solutions to build new features and tools using these older systems. These weren’t supposed to be long-term fixes — a lot of these solutions were hacked together.
Almost a decade later, we’d ended up with was a website that — from a coder’s perspective — was like a Jenga tower. We stacked these hacks and workarounds one on top of the other, and eventually, we couldn’t go any further. The building blocks of our site could no longer support it.
By making all these short-term compromises, we’d put ourselves in a tricky position. We couldn’t really move forward with new projects until we’d gone in and fixed the basic infrastructure of our website.
We’d accumulated all of these debts, and we finally faced the realization that we had to pay those debts off. In order to move forward, we first had to tear down and build from the ground up.
So our tech team did. It was challenging, and it took an incredibly smart team the better part of a year to do it. But they did it — and moving forward, with the right systems and structures in place, that team at BuzzFeed is going to be able to do amazing things. They’ve got a strong foundation to build off of.
But there’s more than just tech debt out there. In the first few months at my new job, I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what debts we need to pay at The New Yorker. I’ll ask co-workers: What are we doing that drives you crazy? What are you spending too much time on? What could we fix that would change the way you work?
Slowly, we’ve started to identify our debts. We’ve been able to streamline old processes that were broken, and build new processes that will allow us to move quickly. We had process debts (teams using inefficient systems to do work), communication debts (teams struggling to work together towards common goals), and quite a bit of tech debt (teams using outdated or ineffective tools and apps).
It’s going to take us a while to pay off these debts. But by identifying them, and putting together the teams to fix them, we’re making the short-term changes to allow for long-term success.
- And I’m going to really oversimplify here — I promise that my old colleagues were incredibly bright, thoughtful people, and this doesn’t at all reflect the amount of work, effort, thought, etc. they put into building some amazing products. ↩
I’ll keep this part brief: I’m starting a new job in August. I’m headed to the New Yorker, where I’ll be overseeing some new digital projects, starting with newsletters. I’m absolutely thrilled about the opportunity — getting the chance to work with their team of reporters, artists, and editors is a dream, and I can’t wait to get started.
But it also means I’ll be leaving BuzzFeed after nearly five years leading the email team. I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had at BuzzFeed — they gave me a chance to be a part of building something great. Doree, Scott, Dao, and Ben let me pitch this job, and I’ll always be thankful for that. A handful of folks got us off to the right start: Jack, Summer, Elaine, Ben R. (both of them, actually), Jon, and Erica. There were people who got our newsletters into the hands of readers around the world — Bibi, Caitlin, Claire, Ellie (literally all the Ellies), Flora, Mariana, and Millie — and writers who believed in Courses — Sally and Augusta, especially. There are so many more editors, writers, designers, developers, strategists, analysts, and marketers who helped us along the way — I simply can’t name them all here, but: Thank you! (And a big thanks to the Campaign Monitor team for all their help over the years.)
And above all, thanks to the team in NYC that built these newsletters and made them great: Adam, Ray, Kaelin, Lincoln, and now Ciera. Thanks for coming on board to do such amazing work.
If that seems like a lot of people to thank — and it is! — it’s because here’s the big secret of BuzzFeed: The company hires exceptional people. I’ve had the chance to work with a truly generous, kind, enthusiastic, and talented team. When you hire exceptional people and give them the tools and the freedom to do their best work, you get a place like BuzzFeed.
So one last time, to everyone who made the last five years at BuzzFeed so incredible: Thanks for an amazing ride.
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.
There’s a fantastic story on Deadspin this week titled, “I Covered The Braves For A Newspaper That Didn’t Exist.” It’s the story of how a real estate broker from Atlanta realized that he could get a press pass to cover his favorite baseball team by inventing a fake newspaper and becoming its one and only “employee.”
What I love most is this realization the author has about getting onto the field during the game. He writes:
“I was a Braves fan, and so I wanted to be in the Braves’ dugout, on the first-base side. Emboldened, I walked around behind the home-plate umpire while the pitcher threw warm-up tosses and simply walked into the home dugout and to the other camera well. As far as strategies go, ‘walk until someone stops you’ remains undefeated.”
And he’s not wrong. From my years covering sports, I can tell you that you can get away with just about anything at a sporting event as long as you:
A) Look like you know what you’re doing, and
B) Nobody stops you.
I’ve watched rain delays from the dugout, and snuck into stadiums when I wasn’t allowed. If no one else is going to stop you, why should you?
And it turns out that the same philosophy applies to pretty much anything you do. Here’s a lesson from work: A few years ago, we started aggressively promoting newsletters at the bottom of most posts on BuzzFeed.com. There wasn’t a meeting where a bunch of higher-ups agreed that this was the right strategy. My team decided that we should try it. We told our boss on the editorial side, and one on the product side, and then… just started doing it. We figured we’d do it until someone stopped us.
That lasted almost two years.
We had so much success with those boxes that other teams at BuzzFeed decided they wanted access to that space at the bottom of the page. Eventually, we made some rules governing that promo space, and my team is happy to play by the new guidelines.
But the minute we see the next opening — a space where we can try something without a lot of restrictions, an opportunity where another team says, “Sure, that’s OK with us!” — we’re going to take advantage. The rule remains the same: Just start moving until somebody says you have to stop.
That’s a photo I took at Atlanta’s Turner Field back in 2010.
A week before I started my job at BuzzFeed, I started to get the sense that this new job was going to be a little… different. I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw everyone at BuzzFeed — literally, hundreds of my soon-to-be co-workers — retweeting an account called @SeinfeldToday, which imagined if Seinfeld took place in the present day:
Jerry gets paranoid about his girlfriend’s past when her iPhone automatically connects to the wi-fi at Newman’s apartment.
— Modern Seinfeld (@SeinfeldToday) June 3, 2014
That account was co-created by a BuzzFeed editor. And he wasn’t alone. Everyone at BuzzFeed, I’d discover, had something odd that they did on the side.
My co-workers were responsible for weird Tumblrs like Texts From Hillary, Onion-like Headlines In Real Life, and Daily Odd Compliment. They launched absurd internet projects like @Horse_ebooks. They had their own podcasts, newsletters, and comedy shows.
It’s not a coincidence that so many BuzzFeeders have a side project or gig. I work with an office full of people who love to make stuff — and are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to do even more of that during their 9-to-5. The common denominator at BuzzFeed is that we’re an office full of makers and creators. When you put people with a track record of making great stuff in a building together, you’re going to get some pretty impressive results.
It’s why I always tell people who visit BuzzFeed and want a job there someday: Do something weird with your spare time. You have the same tools that we do — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. You have the same opportunities to make something amazing on the internet that we do.
So go ahead and make something. It’s the best way for you to learn — and it might be the best way for you to get noticed by a place like BuzzFeed.
That photo of Jonah Peretti was taken by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch, and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.
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:
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:
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:
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.
Four years ago, I took a job at BuzzFeed. I didn’t know BuzzFeed would grow into the company it is today. I didn’t know I’d get to do the work I’ve done, or get to work with the team I have. I took a risk in taking the job, and it paid off.
This isn’t the story of how I got the job at BuzzFeed.
It’s the story of the job I nearly got three months earlier — one that would have been a total disaster.
It’s August 2012, and I’m living in Springfield, Missouri. It’s the final month for the Stry.us team in the Ozarks. At the end of the month, we’re all about to be unemployed. I have no idea what I’m doing next, but I know I’m done with Stry.us.
I start applying to jobs. I want to go to New York. I think it’s the next big step for me.
And that’s when I see this story on the Nieman Lab blog about a news organization that owns a dozen papers around the country. They’re opening up an office in NYC that’ll be the central hub for all those papers. It’ll be the news desk coordinating national stories for all their properties, and they need a senior editor who can work with all these papers — and occasionally parachute in with a team to run point on big, national stories.
It’s the job I’ve been training for this entire time.
I apply, and I get an email back four hours later from the editor-in-chief: Let’s talk.
I interview with her, and I nail it. I do a second phone interview, and I nail that, too. I do a third, with a senior advisor to the company. He loves me.
They offer to fly me out to New York to meet in person. It seems like a formality at this point: I’m going to get this job.
I don’t get the job.
I bomb the interview. I don’t know why, but I’m a trainwreck that day. I’m evasive and vague in my answers. They ask me some personal questions that I don’t know how to answer. The interview gets uncomfortable, and then more uncomfortable. And worst of all: The trip home takes forever. It’s a three-hour flight to St. Louis, and then a three-hour drive back to Springfield. For 6+ hours, all I can think about is how I’ve blown the chance at my dream job.
I never hear from the newspaper company in New York again.
And then… three months later, I get the job at BuzzFeed. I don’t know at the time that it’ll change my life, but it does. And two months after that, the newspaper company files for bankruptcy. They close their New York office soon after that. Everyone gets fired.
The day I bombed that interview, I thought I’d blown it. I thought I’d missed my one big change.
I had no idea that I’d just experienced one of the luckiest days of my life.
Had I nailed the interview, I would’ve gotten that job. And five months later, I would’ve been out of work.
Instead, I landed at BuzzFeed, and I got the chance to be a part of building something amazing.
I’m lucky to be lucky, I guess.
That photo was taken by Anthony Lindsey, and graciously re-used here with permission of Campaign Monitor.
I am not old — but working at BuzzFeed sometimes makes me feel old.
Our staff is filled with so many awesome and truly talented young people. There are a lot of staffers in their early 20s. At 28 — almost 29 — I’m probably well above the median age at the company.
And the thing about working with so many young people is that every once in a while, you see someone truly kicking ass and realize: Oh, they’re five years younger than me.
Sometimes, a little bit of jealousy sets in. I’ll wonder: Why wasn’t I doing that when I was their age?
Whenever that happens, I have to remind myself of something I wrote four years ago about that exact phenomenon:
“I get jealous, sometimes, when I see 25 year olds who are way ahead of where I am. I get competitive. How’d that person pull off a book deal at 25? How’d they get a movie done? How’d they make their first million already?
But then I remember that this isn’t a 400-meter race. We’re not all shooting for the same end goal.
We’re all on different paths. We’re all running our own races at our own speeds.
It’s tough to tell where each of us is going now. It’s only with time — a decade, maybe more — that we’ll start to understand where we’ve been going.”
That last sentence really echoes with me now, this idea that it’s only with time that you understand where you’ve been going. If you’d asked me in September 2012 where I was headed, I wouldn’t have mentioned anything about BuzzFeed or newsletters. I thought I was on one path. Four years later, it’s clear I was headed somewhere different — and had no idea how fast I was getting there.
As for BuzzFeed in 2016: I get to work with so many awesome young people. I get to help them make great work, and they get to push me to make better things. We’re all on different paths, but at this very moment, we get to work with each other — and for that, I’m thankful.
And most importantly: I am doing my own thing, and I love it. I have to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, and keep owning my own thing.
That absolutely awesome photo of someone running comes via photographer Linh Nguyen and Unsplash.
Fast Company has a cover story on BuzzFeed this month. In it, Dao — our publisher, and my former boss — talks at length about how we interpret data at BuzzFeed. She even dives deep into how we do things on the newsletter team!
I want to highlight one passage. When asked, Is the newsletter team looking at click-through rate(1), she answered:
For a long time, it was: you want to get subscribers up, you want to get clicks up, you want to get unsubscribes down. But one of the things we talk about all the time is there is no one metric you are optimizing for. Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem. This obsession over time spent. In some way I feel that sort of rhetoric has died down. There really is no one metric.
I’ve learned a lot from Dao over the years. But one sentence in there really drives home Dao’s biggest message: “Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem.”
What we’ve learned with newsletters is that there is no “silver bullet” metric. If you try to optimize your email for open rate, you’ll try to game the system with headlines that entice subscribers to click. (Case in point: “You’re Fired.”) But if you overpromise and underdeliver, you’ll lose subscribers in the long run. If you try to optimize for clicks, you’ll use bold colors and buttons. It’ll work well at first — but readers will learn to tune them out. There are dozens of other metrics out there for email. And what Dao’s taught me is true: If you focus all of your energy on a single metric, in the long run, you’ll fail.
So what we do at BuzzFeed is keep an eye on about five key metrics.(2) Knowing what matters most allows us to get a better understanding of how readers are using our newsletters. The data isn’t the full story — we still have to interpret it and figure out what our readers are trying to tell us from it. But in the long run, those data points help us iterate and build a better product.
And the same is true for any product you want to build. Try to pick a few metrics that give you a complete picture of the success of your work. If you’re a basketball coach, you can’t just tell your team to focus on 3-point shooting percentage — because that ignores huge metrics (rebounding, defensive field goal percentage, turnovers) that also make a difference in the outcome in a game. If you’re an app designer and the only metric is total downloads, you’ll do anything to game the system to get more downloads — while possibly neglecting an important set of metrics that can measure how much people like and use your app.
Point is: There is no silver bullet. The sooner you stop chasing one, the sooner you can start working to build a more complete product.
At top, a screenshot of BuzzFeed.com a decade ago.