The art and business of storytelling
Narratively founder Noah Rosenberg on the criteria for a great story, building a strong community and how ‘niche is the new mass’. Here’s our candid, transatlantic chat.
- Noah’s storytelling
- What makes a great story
- Building the brand
- Journalism and technology
- Tips for a successful startup
1. Noah’s storytelling
How did you become interested in storytelling?
From a young age it was instilled in me that stories are an amazing way to experience other worlds, to broaden your imagination, to pique your curiosity, and so forth.
My grandmother was a children’s librarian for about 40 years and, as a little kid, I would go to her story hour where she would tell stories, dress up with puppets and props and engage these little three, four and five-year-olds in this extraordinary way. Up until she died, she would get letters from people who came into the library telling her how they were now grown, with kids of their own, and would bring their kids to the story hours she did.
It never really dawned on me, but after she died I thought: this must have had a huge impact on me.
Beyond going to a library and spending time with her, she was always in story mode. When I used to sleep at her house, which was pretty much every weekend, I was always around that story culture. I was an only child as well, so from a young age I liked to talk and was always very curious, asking a ton of questions. My parents never made me feel silly, or that I was intruding for asking questions, they would always humour me. I became a very curious and inquisitive little kid and grew into a very curious and inquisitive adult.
When I was a kid and got my hands on a great book I would never put it down, I would always read it in one sitting. I was a very active kid, into sports and running around with a lot of energy, so it would take a fantastic book for me to get into that mindset. When I got into high school I started writing for the high school newspaper. I ended up creating a news programme in college and did some work for the poetry journal and student newspaper on campus.
I really started to spread my wings when I got to college and to explore storytelling in all these formats.
I came from a family that was artistic and encouraging of people pursuing their passions and really engaging with the arts and writing culture. They were very embracing of these sort of ‘alternative careers’, if you will. Even when I was a journalist earning $10 an hour, I was made to feel that this was ok, that I would get there eventually, and my family would be there to support me along the way. Certainly, that’s helped. And I was really fortunate to meet a co-founder, Brendan Spiegel, who shares my passion for storytelling.
2. What makes a great story
What makes a Narratively story?
What we look for in a good story is similar to (I hope) what most editors look for:
- Is the story captivating? Does it make you want to read to the end? Too often today people share something before they even finish it.
- Is the story teaching you something new? Is it piquing your curiosity?
- Is the story forcing you to ask questions? To rethink what you thought you knew?
The definition of what constitutes a story is changing all the time, from Humans of New York posts, to Tweets, to New Yorker cover stories. In our case, we want to inject a certain amount of poetry into the story, so it reads really well, and you finish the piece and say “Wow, that was beautifully crafted”. Handcrafted, authentic… obviously buzzwords these days, but we take them very seriously.
What’s your process for choosing a story?
- The connective tissue is the character-driven narrative: Who are the people in the story we’re casting a spotlight on? In fact, that’s the first question when someone gives us an idea.
- Sometimes the editors will come up with a theme for a week of stories, or we’ll get the idea for a theme by a pitch someone sent in, or a submission. We’ll say “What are the themes of this story? Can we build it into something bigger? What other stories will go along with this?” It’s almost like puzzle pieces, trying to find pieces that work well together, even though they’re all standalone stories too.
- We’ll put out a call for submissions once every three or four weeks. We have around 2,000 contributors around the world on our email list that work all over the place: New York Times, Getty, Wall Street Journal and The Times (London), as well as smaller publications. I’m proud of the fact that we have stable contributors who work at the top of their game, but that we also have college students working with us. We list five or so themes we’re working on with descriptions for each.
- The ideas will then come in. We first ask “Does this look interesting?” and beyond that “Has the story been told before?” If it has: “What’s the new angle?” and “Who are the characters in the story?” Generally speaking, the character is a human being, but we’ve done stories before where the character is an island, a place, or something like that.
- The ideas are already arranged around a particular medium. Someone’s pitching the story as a text piece, or a photo essay, or audio. For the most part, we won’t get back and say “This is a great story, we don’t want it to be an article, it should be a video.” We always work with you. In some cases we’ll go for the text piece and then we’ll integrate multimedia accents into the story, so we’ll add video clips, and so forth. We try and let the story dictate what the medium is and not everyone pitching to us is comfortable working across all mediums.
Not to call out our shortcomings, but I always give one example of this really beautiful text piece we did called The Subway’s No.1 Charmer. It is a profile of a train conductor in New York who delights or horrifies the passengers every morning by going off on these tangents. He’ll say these crazy things and welcome you with colourful announcements over the loud speaker — when most people just want to drink their coffee and ride to work! We did a profile with this guy and it was a beautiful piece, but the one thing that was missing, I thought, was an audio clip of him talking, a clip of what he actually says to passengers. That’s the only thing. In an ideal world, if there’s a story you really want to capture beyond words, we’d be able to do that too. This is what we strive for, but for various reasons — access, equipment, etc — storytellers and editors don’t always have that luxury.
How far does data influence the story?
The short answer is not enough, but I think that’s a good thing, as it has helped us really maintain a sense of innocence. When everyone is trying to do the same old crap (pardon my language), we tend to rise above the noise by focusing on quality and marching to the beat of our own drummer. (Here we have an editor using terrible cliches — that would not make it into a Narratively piece!)
We try to do the stories we believe deserve to be told, but we are also thinking a lot more now about stories that have performed the best in the past and atracted the biggest audience. We’re trying to look at our bigger stories and think “What was it about this that did so well? Is there a way to apply what we have learned from this piece to future stories we are thinking about?”
One thing that’s interesting, which I’ve come to learn from a lot of other (digital ) publishers, is that the majority of traffic they receive in a given month comes from a couple of stories. Even one story may drive 90 per cent of the traffic.
We’re not quite like that right now. All of the stories are great, but they can probably see a much bigger audience than they do and we’re working on that.
Now, we’re sitting down every month, looking at the editorial calendar and thinking “What’s the one story that could take off this month and what could we do to help that happen?” But we’re also thinking “What are the two or three stories that may be really special pieces, that we hope will be award-winning pieces, and will drive some good numbers to the site?”
What’s the most popular Narratively story?
One of the most popular storis of all time, if not the most popular story, is one called Nick Brown Smelled Bull about an amateur psychologist from the UK who had debunked this psychological theory that was previously thought to be ground-breaking. This amateur says “That’s not how it is”, and proved them wrong. That story was a long piece, 6,000 or 7,000 words, and it got linked all over the internet, curiously by a number of conservative right wing blogs. They saw this character as someone who was saying, “Screw you!” to the man, and taking things into his own hands. That’s perhaps why it became popular in that orbit.
An extremely close second, by about 200 visits, is a piece called Legends Never Die, which was a really powerful story. Do you remember there was a movie back in the 90s called Kids? They took these ordinary skateboard kids off the streets of New York, put them in a film, fictionalised the storyline, and told the story of their lives.
We do these big editorial meetings every two weeks. Now, it’s our core team of editors only, but when we first launched we had 80–100 contributors in a room talking about stories. In one of those early meetings, one of our writers — Caroline Rothstein — brought this idea. We were talking about a whole host of ideas to do with children and she said “I wonder what happened to the kids from Kids”. We said “That would be epic if you could find these kids and tell their story — where they are now”. We never thought it would happen, but lo and behold she was able to find these connections, wrote this beautiful piece and it went viral. That was within seven months of our launch, so it really helped introduce us to people.
In those days we didn’t have the infrastructure to capture traffic. Now, we have a little pop-up, such as ‘Like us on Facebook’. That’s a big part of what we do, not only attracting visitors, but helping them become a part of the community. Because the story was really big, Caroline ended up teaming up with several of the cast members to work on a documentary film about the impact of Kids — the inside story.
They just did a Kickstarer campaign that was successful, and we did an event two months ago at the Angelica Theatre in Greenwich Village in Manhattan where Kids premiered 20 years ago. We did a screening of the film on the 35mm footage it was originally filmed on. Twelve cast members were there, as well as the director, for a panel discussion. We actually created Narratively’s first ever print publication, a pop-up about Kids with some new content. It was one of the awards on their Kickstarter campaign and we’re going to start selling it on our website pretty soon. That’s a good example of evergreen stories that we can find a new life for. The event we did, documentary, print publication... all tying back to the one story we did, which is kind of cool.
It’s 50/50 in terms of memoir pieces and first person stories. We’ve done our fair share of stories about sex, love and relationships. Other publications, if they were to do those same stories, may come across as very sensational and maybe low brow. We have headlines like I’m Married, I’m a Woman, I’m Addicted to Porn, which is a first person piece with original illustrations. We’re helping to introduce people to these new topics and new perspectives in a really creative way and I’m proud of that fact, but our two biggest stories of our time illustrate the fact that it doesn’t have to be a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, to do well. If you look back at our best read stories of all time, they are literally our best stories of all time in terms of the quality of the prose and so forth.
Are those the stories that have been most powerful for you?
So many of them have. It would be like asking me (if I had kids) to pick my favourite child. I would say, as a rule, the stories I remember the most are the ones I have personally edited, worked on, or had the ideas for.
The sad reality is that, as Narratively has grown, I have slid into a role where I’m focused on growing the business, long-term vision, partnerships, pretty much everything that’s not editing stories on the website. My business partner Brendan is the editorial director, who does an amazing job making sure we put out the best possible stories we can, day in, day out. That being said, I do everything I can to maintain an extremely active role in the editorial side. Brendan and I sit down every week and work on headlines and sub-headlines for stories together. But the reality is that it’s been a while since I’ve edited a piece myself. Before, I was literally editing every single story with Brendan and I miss those days.
I’m a storyteller and it’s been over a year since I published my own story on Narratively. As we grow and have more people helping with the business side, I can be more involved in the actual story creation.
3. Building the brand
It’s been three years since Narratively launched, what have you learnt along the way?
We’re actually planning a third birthday right now. I recently started getting notifications on LinkedIn saying “So-and-so liked your work anniversary status” and it was kind of cool to get that acknowledgement. Even though I had a crazy busy day, in the corner of my screen I kept seeing these reminders come up of what we’ve built and how far we have come, so that was great. It’s been a phenomenal process, I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life than of what we’ve built here, and the people we’re working with around the world to bring these amazing stories to life.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is the need to focus and prioritise. There are so many opportunities that get thrown at us all the time, many of which we’re actively seeking with other big publishers that want to partner with us, brands that want to partner with us, print publications we want to put out, etc. These are all things we want to be doing in the long run, but I think we’ve had the best result over the past few years when we’ve maintained a militaristic focus.
About six months ago, we made the decision to focus on three key priorities.
- Growing the audience. For the most part we mean growing the digital audience right now, but obviously we’re doing events and other things as well. We’re growing the audience through partnerships, as well as really maximising what we’re doing on social media, particularly on Facebook, as that’s where we see the biggest return on investment.
- Perfecting our revenue. The business model essentially, what we’re doing with brands. So, we have two parts of the business. One where businesses hire Narratively to produce stories for them, that’s our creative agency, we call it Narratively Creative. Because of the high quality of content on the website, and because of the authenticity and fresh approach we take, we’re hearing from a lot of other brands that want to hire us to produce content for them. We’ve done work for everyone from the Wilson Center, helping them launch as a digital publication and producing stories for them, to creating blog posts for Chevy the car company, and so many brands big and small in between. The second part of what we do with brands is sponsorship, getting brands to advertise on our website. Recently Square Space, the tech company, became our premium sponsor. So, those are the first two key priorities — audience development and defining what we do with brands.
- Overhauling the website. As great as the website looks and as awesome as it’s been for us, it’s time for us to update things. We have so much great storytelling in our archive which we can be refeaturing and want you as the reader to be able to discover.
These three are not necessarily in that order, but the big three priorities end with the website, that’s something I want to improve a lot. In December last year we said “We’re going to focus on these three things and if it doesn’t fit into these we’re going to say ‘No’ to it, or we’re not going to pursue it.” As a result of that, the audience started growing, we started growing partnerships, and we really have turned a big corner in terms of revenue. We’ve got some really big clients, which are helping us keep the lights on.
If we hadn’t been so focused on those three things we might not have been in such a good position as we are right now.
Have you started making changes to the website yet?
We started doing little changes, but we haven’t done a big overhaul of the site in about a year and a half. It’s not that the site doesn’t look good, we get great feedback all the time, but I think we can do a better job of signalling to readers what it is that we do, and showcasing different content along verticals or categories, really perfecting the discovery aspect. A story we published three years ago is still very valuable and interesting today and in some cases it can be more interesting because of what’s happening today, because of a news event.
When ISIS first came into the lexicon we did a profile of a young man who had left Denmark to go fight. At the time, we were the first out there to do a big in-depth piece, but even now there isn’t a lot of reporting looking at the longform in-depth view of what it’s like to be on the frontline and the psychology of why people are converting and going there. Anytime there’s a story that relates to ISIS we can refeature that type of story. We’ve also done some beautiful stories about soccer around the world, so next time there’s a big soccer game we can refeature a story, even if it’s not related. An evergreen story has no expiration date.
You want readers to care about the people behind the news?
The reason I thought it was important to create Narratively is because I would be on an assignment for the New York Times (covering a news event in the middle of the night, a homicide, or what have you) and would meet an amazing local character who deserved to have his or her story told. Of course, that person couldn’t ordinarily fit into a short news item, so I would go back and pitch my editors a feature on this person and often it was 50/50. I got to know what sort of stories they wanted, but even when they said “Yes” to that story I was lucky if I got 800 words for it.
Don’t get me wrong, we do a lot of longform and sometimes I happen to think that some of the stories are too long. I think it’s important to have diversity in the types of stories you do, so not every story needs to be a mega word count, but often in the mainstream media there isn’t enough being done, it’s the same old repetition. A race to the bottom where big media outlets and click bait are all going after the same stories and repurposing them. There’s a lot more we can be offering readers. That’s why we do what we do, by showcasing these stories that would have ordinarily fallen through the cracks.
What has been the biggest challenge?
- I don’t shy away from the money conversation, we’ve had some tough times. Thankfully, we’re in a really good position right now. We’ve always been on the up and up, but when you begin a startup and the audience is relatively small, a lot of work goes into it. Even though we’re only doing one story a day, we’re doing pretty in-depth stories. We’ve had some difficult stretches, some uncertainties around when the next check is coming in. Fortunately we moved on and got through those phases, but it’s certainly a challenge. We don’t claim to have figured it out, but we’re making good progress. Fortunately, we have been able to take a really unique stance when it comes to storytelling and that will hopefully help us in the long run.
- The difficulty of prioritising, figuring out the things we should be doing and should not be doing right now, is that there are so many opportunities. Some things are harder to quantify and measure. We started to do an event every two months at one point, which was great, people loved them. But I looked around the room and saw that the same 100 people were coming to every event. This was great, but we realised we were putting a lot of time and effort into doing this and maybe it was too early. We put a hold on it and now in the last year-and-a-half we’ve focused on putting on two big events a year. In fact, we’re kicking off an event tonight. Narratively has a large collection of photos on display at a non-profit, Photoville, in an old shipping container.
We’re much more careful now about the things we say “Yes” to and, as result, I think we’re doing better than when we try to do too much.
Do you plan on doing an event in London?
If you had come to me six months ago and said “Let’s do an event in London!” I would say “Yes, let’s do it!” I would love to now — with the right partner, but we’re trying to do it all on our own at the moment, so finding the right partner is a priority. The vision for the next two years or so is to slowly get to the point where we are doing a monthly event in New York. When I say event, I mean a storytelling event, which can range from film screenings to live reads, and discussions to storytelling workshops — writing, video, editing. But we would also like to start doing conferences, for example having a bi-annual storytelling conference where we bring really interesting visionaries together. With all these types of events, we would love to be doing them on a monthly basis in London, Toronto, San Francisco, Beijing, etc. That is definitely something that’s on the cards. We can’t execute on it today, but we are thinking about it a lot.
4. Journalism and technology
How will changes in technology influence journalism in the future?
For starters, I think the definition of a story and journalism is evolving, for better or worse. Nowadays, there is such a variety of content out there that consumers have a lot of choice, which is great, but it’s often hard to find the stuff that matters. All that really informed our editorial model of publishing one story at a time. For the long run, our plans aren’t to only publish one story a day. We want to grow that, slowly but surely, while maintaining our focus on the quality of the storytelling.
New platforms are emerging, Snapchat being one of them. Snapchat Discover is enabling big media companies to tell stories through the lens of Snapchat. That’s really exciting and we’ll see more and more of those opportunities coming up. Right now, Narratively is experimenting with publishing stories straight to Facebook, so I think the old days of building a website and needing to attract millions of people to come straight to the site are over. Nowadays, you can attract a massive following but across different places. So our stories can live on Salon or The Times, all these places where we’re building eyeballs. But also, stories can live on social media and other places, so you’re building all these satellite audiences. The challenge there is that you’re relinquishing control to Snapchat and Facebook, but the experimentation they’re doing by working with media partners is interesting.
We’re in a good position because we have our own niche. A phrase I’ve been fond of saying lately is “Niche is the new mass”. You don’t necessarily need 300m people coming to the site. If anything, if we became as big as Buzzfeed in terms of traffic, I think we may be doing something wrong. The thing that sets us apart is having this niche. Obviously, we can expand that into different cities and different topics and we’re thinking about the way to grow, but we don’t have this dying need to be the biggest website on earth, that would absolutely force us to sacrifice quality and that’s not something we’re prepared to do.
Does ‘the niche’ work for business and editorial?
Absolutely, if you look at the type of sponsors we have on the site right now, they’re absolutely the type of brand that aligns very well with us. They’re very creatively driven, in the scheme of things they’re not a global Fortune 500 company. We work with the type of companies we really feel take the same approach. We respect and admire these brands, and our audience respects and admires them too, because we have the same mentality.
Is there a typical Narratively reader?
There is a ton of overlap between our contributors and our users. The people that are writing for us are also reading Narratively and engaging with us in that regard. That forms a lot of what we do.
It’s definitely a younger audience. Our last survey showed 54% of our audience is 25–34 years old, 74% is 25–48. Definitely young, educated, largely based in cities across the globe. The biggest cities are obviously your English language places. At the same time, we get emails from 80-year-old grandmas who love Narratively. I think that’s kind of cool. I don’t know how many 80-year-old grandmas are reading Vice, although there might be — I hope there are!
The point is that, because of our literary highbrow humanistic sensibility, we appeal to so many different people. When you’re describing a new film people love an analogy, such as ‘It’s Batman meets The Wire’. When I try to describe us in simplistic terms, a lot of the time I say we’re ‘New Yorker meets Vice’, or ‘This American Life meets Vice’. People are like “Oh, yeah, wow, that’s great!”
Obviously, when I say Vice, we have different content, a different style and voice, but I think we have the same brand savvy and the same opportunity to expand into these different spaces. From having our own TV show at some point to having our own line of print publications, which we’re already starting to do. We’re already in those spaces but we’d like to do them to a much larger degree down the line.
You seem to have a structured long-term vision?
Yes, we always had a structure, there were certainly times where we tried to do too much. It’s not that it backfired, but certain things that were more important may not grow at the rate they can. Fortunately, our stories have only got better over time. If we were out there chasing opportunities to do podcasts, events, and the stories were getting worse that would be horrible. But the quality has only gotten better.
We still have a long way to go in terms of reaching the true audience that I think should be aware of Narratively. I was speaking at a conference in Australia and I had people saying “Oh my god, I love Narratively”, but others saying “Oh my god, I’m so glad I’ve discovered you now, I didn’t know you before!” This just shows you there are so many people out there who don’t know what we’re doing. One of the challenges is figuring out how to reach them. Moving forward, we can continue to be even more focused and prioritising more than we have been.
Is New York the best place to launch a startup? Could you have started up somewhere else?
I’ve been asked this question before, but it wasn’t until this moment that I’m tempted to say absolutely not. I really don’t think we could do what we did anywhere else and there’s a couple of reasons for that. One, there’s such a culture around journalism and media in the city, there’s no place on earth like it to make connections, meet other journalists, editors, publishers, sales people. The people you need to run and build a media company are all here.
Now and always our biggest commodity has been our community of storytellers. In the very early days, when I was freelancing for the New York Times, I’d be covering murders in the middle of the night, political rows, whatever, and I would be able to turn to the person next to me and (in the moment when we weren’t reporting) I would strike up a casual conversation and say “Here’s what I’m doing in my free time, trying to build this thing” (which didn’t have a name at that point). Inevitably, that journalist who was extremely talented and working for the New Yorker magazine, WSj, The Times, would say “That’s amazing, how do I get on board?”
Much earlier than we should have been able to do it, we built an amazing network of journalists who were meeting in bars every few weeks — 10, 50, 80 people coming to talk about stories, and that network doesn’t really exist elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing communities everywhere, journalists everywhere, but this may not been as easy somewhere else.
At the same time, when we first launched, we had only New York stories. The goal back then was to launch in New York and have a separate site for London and Paris and so forth. We kind of put that idea on hold for a bit as it would have taken some time to build all these different sites, but we became more global and started bringing out stories from everywhere. Now, three years later, I see an opportunity for us to build a separate Narratively UK, or Narratively Australia, at some point.
If we hadn’t focused on New York at the beginning then we may not have got enough traction, even though our stories are very different from what everybody else does. The fact we were doing it about New York really set us apart and created a launching pad for where we wanted to go next.
5. Tips for a successful startup
What’s your tip for being productive?
- Emails. I find it helpful to start my mornings without opening emails right away. I give myself as long as I can, maybe 10.30–11am latest to not look at my emails. That way I can be more productive. I probably get around 1,000 emails a day and maybe 50% of them are ones I need to respond to. You get down a rabbit hole when you respond to someone, make your way through the inbox, and by the time you get to email number 37 the first 36 have responded to you, which then prompts another response. A lot of it is important stuff, but a lot of it can wait too.
- Delegate. It’s only now that I’m beginning to have the luxury of doing this, delegating to others. Even now, it’s a very small team. We have a massive freelance base of about 2,000 people, but in terms of our full-time staff it’s really only myself and Brendan my co-founder. We have finally brought on part-time people who help with ad sales and partnership/audience development, so that’s helping to take some of the day-to-day business stuff off me. We also have an amazing group of part-time and freelance editors, who put in an incredible amount of work, and they’re really the ones who keep this thing going. And, of course, the storytellers themselves. Without that core team of editorial staff we wouldn’t be here right now. I put in a lot of hours still, but for the first year-and-a-half I was probably working 18–20 hours per day in the week and 12–14 hours a day on the weekend. That’s got much better thanks to the great team we have.
Sometimes on weekends I’ll get up early, like crazy early, and start thinking about things I want to accomplish — I think it’s because I have tried to take some more time off! There’s so much I want to accomplish that I know in the back of my mind I’m not going to start doing until Monday, that I start getting up on Saturdays at 5am. I’m forcing myself not to think about work, but in that process I’m thinking about work.
I honestly don’t feel like I go to work, I feel like I’m doing what I love and building a foundation for others to do what they love. It’s been an amazing, humbling process.
What’s your advice to someone following your path?
In many ways, I think I’m the perfect person to be doing what im doing right now. Don’t get me wrong, I never in a million years planned to be running my own media company. If you’d asked me five years ago I probably would have thought I would have been reporting for some big media outlet now and travelling and telling stories, I would be happy doing that. But this is an idea I had that never would have gone away had I not acted on it. Obviously, I have the journalism background, but I’ve always been very entrepreneurial as well and come from a family of artists and entrepreneurs. As a little kid I always had ideas for things I wanted to create and a ton of story ideas. Bringing those two worlds together has been really exciting. Of course, it’s been a big learning curve as well, but in many ways I think that I’m an extremely optimistic person.
Is there a Plan B?
My first response was “No” because we’re doing well and we’re growing, but realistically anything could happen. We might not become the next Vice, not that it’s my goal anyway. So, I think the reality is that I’m building such a wealth of experience first and foremost, contacts also, and really learning so much about the media landscape, and about building my own business. I’m completely confident that if I am not involved with Narratively in two years, five years, ten years, then I would absolutely be able to find other great work. I hope I would be in a situation where I could take some time off, write a book, do those kind of things too. That’s how I look at it in terms of the Plan B. I’m doing what I love doing now, so it’s hard even to think about that — as much as my wife would like me to be thinking about it more. We’re only getting better, which is a great thing to be able to say and be able to believe three years on.
Who has inspired you?
My family, to a huge degree. They made it so that I was confident and comfortable and knew I could turn to them. I don’t come from money, it’s not like my parents are funding Narratively. They gave to my Kickstarter campaign, as many other people did, but I did this all on my own and I think they respect that. It helped to know that they were being supportive of me, that was always very important.
Beyond that, there are just so many great storytellers out there and that’s where I draw my inspiration. I’m a voracious reader and consumer of content and I think it’s important to expand your horizons. It would be pretty boring if I just read narrative non-fiction all the time. I’m a huge fan of fiction, a huge fan of essays and a huge fan of TV series and films and art and everything.
There are so many places to find inspiration, well beyond New York, of course. I draw inspiration from the people that work with us, the people that have these incredible stories to tell and the confidence to tell them, perhaps even if they haven’t been published in a mainstream outlet yet. At the same time, I’m inspired by people that don’t work with us. People out there who are Pulitzer winners that I think should be working with Narratively and I would love to find a way to get them on board. It is such an amazing time to be a creative person, it’s a really exciting place to be in.
What makes a good CEO?
I’ve always relished the position of being a leader. As a young person I was always the captain of the soccer teams and things like that. I’m very proud of the fact that I’m able to rally people around me and without having done that, without having brought this amazing group of people with me, we wouldn’t be around today. But I also think it took my vision and my news ability to be able to spell it out and show them what was possible.
I am extremely optimistic and all of our people who work with us are, but when we’re not able to pay them what they’re worth — an unfortunate reality in the early days of a startup — that optimism can wane from time to time. This is why it’s is all the more important for me to not just be able to rally them and show them what we’re up to, but to also show concrete steps and growth: “Hey guys we all get that we should be paying more right now and here’s what we’re doing to get there”.
Brendan and I are a great team as we’re both dreamers and optimists but I think he’ll admit that I make him look like a pessimist in comparison. When we get together for meetings I’ll have ideas and it’s helpful for him to say “Yes, that’s great, but let’s put this on hold for now because of this.” And the opposite is true too.
How do you switch off?
It’s tough to, as I’m so excited about all the things I want to accomplish. I like being active, I’m a big runner and cyclist. I’ve got a foot injury and haven’t been able do this in the last four months, so maybe I haven’t had the chance to decompress the way I normally would. Hopefully I’ll get that on the radar soon.
I love reading. I love spending time with family and friends, getting people together and having a great conversation. I’m very social and my wife is too, we both love hosting and exploring new neighbourhoods and cities. We’re very curious people, so that’s certainly a big part of what I do.
My latest obsession is the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was never into it before, I never had the patience to go through it, but the NYT has this new (don’t know how new it is now) mini puzzle and midi puzzle. I started doing those and doing them really well and thought “Oh my god, I can actually do these things”. Now it’s graduated into the big puzzle — taking up a lot of my free time!