Be Proud of the Work You’ve Done.

A client had a question recently about something I’d worked on at BuzzFeed, so I went back into my email archives to try to find an answer. And what I found, unexpectedly, was this email:

That's an email I sent after the first year of work at BuzzFeed. That year, we launched 9 new newsletters, added more than 100,000 subscribers, and drove 600,000 more clicks than the year before

It’s from the end of year 1 of my work at BuzzFeed. It said:

Monday marks 1 year since we really launched the newsletter program here at BuzzFeed. Quick numbers for you:

January 2013
5 newsletters — all automated, with about 20,000 total subscribers
Newsletters drove 46,000 clicks to BuzzFeed
Newsletters were the 28th biggest referrer of traffic to the site

January 2014
14 newsletters — all hand-curated, with more than 125,000 total subscribers
Newsletters drove over 650,000 clicks to BuzzFeed
Newsletters are the 8th biggest referrer of traffic to the site

I’ll be honest: I knew I did a lot of work that year — I just didn’t remember how much work!

Looking back, I know I was motivated to prove that newsletters could be a great tool for BuzzFeed, and I remember working long hours to keep the newsletter strategy moving forward. I was making stuff up as I went along, and I didn’t really have many resources at my disposal. I was lucky to have a few wonderful supporters in my corner who helped me stay on track. But even now, looking back at this email — which I wrote — I’m stunned at those results from year 1.

Did I really do that?

I know I can be dismissive of some of the work I’ve done in the past. I know I’m better at this now than I was a decade ago. I don’t always want to talk about the mistakes or lessons I learned along the way.

But I don’t get the chance to build Inbox Collective without that work I put in ten years ago at BuzzFeed. I’m grateful for that work, and I’m proud of it.

I Don’t Have a Bag of Magic Beans.

that's a photo of the LOL sign at the BuzzFeed office on 21st Street in New York.

A former BuzzFeed colleague of mine just left a job there for a new role, and we had lunch the other day. She asked me if she should know anything about working at a new job — a real job, where there isn’t a test kitchen and where staff writers don’t wear JNCO jeans as a fashion experiment.

“They’re going to think you have magic beans,” I told her.

She looked at me funny. (And I don’t blame her.) I went on.

“When you leave BuzzFeed for a new company, they’re going to unusually curious about what you’ve learned at BuzzFeed. They might think you know some sort of deep secret of the internet — that someone on the BuzzFeed team, on your first day, gave you the cheat code to unlock all that internet traffic that BuzzFeed gets every day. And they’ll be a little disappointed when they find out that there isn’t a secret to BuzzFeed at all.”

I paused for a second.

“There wasn’t any big secret to BuzzFeed — just a set of lessons that helped us build a platform that readers loved. Remember those lessons: Test out weird ideas. Be willing to look stupid, and be willing to move on when things don’t work. When you get the chance, hire smart, curious people who listen to one another. Make sure you have the tools you need to test out your ideas. Make sure you know what you’re measuring when you do the work.”

She nodded along.

“Just show up and do the work every day,” I reminded her. “I’ll take your work ethic and the lessons you learned from BuzzFeed over a bag of magic beans any day.”


That’s a photo of a giant LOL sign that hung at the entrance to the BuzzFeed office on 21st Street in New York.

Be Willing to Let Things Go.

When I think back on my time at BuzzFeed, there was a lot that made us successful. We hired a talented, diverse group of creators. We invested in learning and development programs so staff could continue to grow in their roles. We built strong product and data teams to provide the resources so we could try things that no other media company could do.

But we also were willing to let a lot of things go.

There’s a long list of BuzzFeed projects that launched — some to significant fanfare — that didn’t work.

There aren’t many who still remember projects like BuzzFeed University (a program to encourage advertisers to build their own sponsored content), (a dashboard tracking the biggest stories on the internet), or (a social network that allowed you remix content). We launched these, and quickly realized that they weren’t working.

Sometimes, BuzzFeed launched projects that flopped — but showed a few signs of promise. Often, someone on staff would latch onto those projects and try to figure out how to take what had worked and turn it into something new.

But with certain projects, we knew early on that there wasn’t an audience for the thing we’d built. So instead of compounding our error and continuing to funnel resources and staff into a failure, we let it go, and moved on to whatever was next. There was always another idea that was worth trying.

No one wants to see a project fail. But it happens. Anytime you launch something new, make sure you know in advance how you’ll measure success for this new thing — if you do that, you’ll be able to see clearly when a project works, and when it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t, you may have to let it go. If there isn’t an audience or a need for the project, no amount of tinkering or investing is going to help. Better to quickly move on to the next idea than to lose more time trying to fix what doesn’t work.


That’s a screenshot of the BuzzFeed homepage on October 23, 2013. As you can tell from the list of stories here: It wasn’t nearly as useful to readers as we hoped it would be.

Invest In Your People.

When someone finds out that I used to work at BuzzFeed, they usually end up asking me: What made that place so special?

I typically give them the short answer: BuzzFeed did an exceptional job of hiring people — people who were funny, smart, hard-working, and unusually curious. When you hire amazing people, and give them the freedom to do great work, you get a place like BuzzFeed.

But there’s a second thing that BuzzFeed did incredibly well, and I don’t mention it often enough: BuzzFeed invested in its people.

At BuzzFeed, there was a Learning & Development team that helped power everything we did. (A big shoutout to Regis, Annie, Michelle, Kris, and everyone else who did such great work on L&D!) Most BuzzFeed staffers were young — in their early-to-mid 20s — which meant that our staff was talented but inexperienced.

That’s where the L&D team came in. They put together classes and learning opportunities for everything. There were classes to help new managers learn how to manage a team, and classes to teach them how to hire someone new. There were classes for employees to learn how to communicate more clearly. There were classes to help with the little details — how to come up with story ideas, or how do more with Google Sheets — and the big picture stuff — how to be persuasive, how to give a great presentation. The L&D team would bring in coaches to work one-on-one with staffers, or invite college professors to speak about their areas of expertise.

What it meant was that BuzzFeed built a culture of learning. You were expected to learn new things, to push yourself, and to take advantage of these opportunities — that was part of your job. It was OK to not have all the answers, because there were always new opportunities to keep learning.

By investing in these L&D opportunities, BuzzFeed sent a pretty clear signal to its employees: We care about you and your growth, and as long as you’re here, we’re going to give you opportunities to grow into new roles. There’s a reason why so many of my co-workers stayed years at the company — even in a climate where many in media seem to switch jobs every year.

If you’re in a leadership role at a company, you should be asking: Does my team have the tools to do their jobs well? Are they learning and growing in their roles? Are we challenging them?

You may discover that you’re not doing that well enough — or at all.

Go out and invest in your people. Get them the coaching and the learning opportunities they need to grow. In turn, it might help you build a truly amazing team.


That stock photo at the top comes via Unsplash.

Try Weird Stuff.

I’ve written before about my love of the morning paper — the physical edition that shows up on my doorstep every morning. You never know when you’ll flip through the pages and find something unexpected.

For instance: the obituaries. I’d never go looking for them online, but in the paper, I try to make a few minutes for them. If these people made it to the New York Times print edition, they must have left some sort of mark.

Here’s one from this week that caught my eye:

“Ethel Stein, a weaver who created countless intricate textile artworks and one particularly influential sock puppet, died on Friday in Cortlandt, N.Y. She was 100.”

A particularly influential sock puppet? Go on…

“A more lighthearted part of her legacy came from a side business that grew out of her penchant for repurposing things that others might have discarded. She turned old socks into puppets, first for her son’s nursery school, then for a growing body of fans.

“She began selling them at a booth in a department store in Manhattan; a monograph published by her representative, Browngrotta Arts, says she sold 10,000. One wound up in, or on, the hands of a young puppeteer named Shari Lewis, who by 1953 was making a name for herself in children’s television in the New York market. Ms. Stein, the monograph says, designed several puppets for Ms. Lewis, who would later in the 1950s achieve national fame with Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and the rest of her puppet pals.”

How incredible is that? An artist’s side project accidentally helped launch one of the most influential children’s TV shows in the country.

Reading about Ms. Stein, her side project reminded me so much of my old co-workers at BuzzFeed. Everyone there had something they did just for fun: a podcast, a newsletter, a weird Tumblr. Some people did physical crafts. Some people were in bands or choirs. Everyone did something.

Try something yourself: something fun, something weird. Make a new thing. You never know where it might lead.


That photo is by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Here, Watch This.

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:

Pay Your Debts.

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. (And I’m going to oversimplify things here — my former 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.) 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.


That piggy bank photo was taken by Fabian Blank for Unsplash.

Some News: I’m Leaving BuzzFeed For The New Yorker.

Will work for clicks. A cartoon by Barbara Smaller, from 2014. #TNYcartoons

A post shared by The New Yorker Cartoons (@newyorkercartoons) on

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.

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.

Nobody’s Going To Stop You.

Turner Field

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 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.