How BuzzFeed is Disrupting the Media and Changing the Way We Think About Content
*Our interview with Jonah Peretti was edited and condensed.
Jonah Peretti is engaging an energetic and attentive audience at Isidore Newman School in the posh and charming uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.
Calm and cool from the stage, Peretti is overlooking a small sea of middle and high schoolers — many of whom are his target audience, and others who could potentially be his future audience.
It’s not an unfamiliar scene to Peretti, who first taught students there as a computer science teacher fresh out of college. In between answering questions from the headmaster of the school, who is also his former boss, Peretti tactically inserts a quick poll asking the students how many of them use the Discover feature on Snapchat. Swarms of teenage arms shoot up into the air.
Soon after, the questions start rolling in from the students. After all, it isn’t every day you get to hear directly from the man who helped disrupt the entire media industry.
With over five billion views a month and editorial teams covering everything from investigative journalism to entertainment, BuzzFeed has certainly made a name for itself. What started as an internet experiment on viral content in 2006, has now grown to a global media company with 11 international editions. BuzzFeed is now preparing to expand to its next location — Japan.
But the question that now drives Peretti and his army of content creators is, “Can your content drive people to action?” Peretti says the team wants to create more content that is impactful, and connected to people’s lives.
And one of the ways they do that is through experimenting. BuzzFeed employs “Try Guys” — people whose job is to try new things and create content around it.
But Peretti says there is much more to it than just creating great content. “Having people who really understand how information is shared on social media and other emerging platforms is equally important in some instances, as having traditional reporting talent,” Peretti told Poynter Institute. That makes hiring one of the most important things in leading the company, he says.
“You need great people to start a company. You need people who really believe in your idea and what you do,” Peretti says. And while you may start a company on your own, Peretti says you can’t grow it all on your own.
We know you don’t go from startup to global digital media company over night. So, what does it really take to start, build and grow a global digital media company? Peretti took us back to his early days of starting BuzzFeed as an experiment at MIT Media Lab. Here’s what he had to say on The Distillery.
Q: Your first job out of college was at Isidore Newman School. How did you end up in New Orleans?
It was kind of an accident. I grew up in Oakland, and went to school in UC Santa Cruz. Every summer, I worked either with computers or teaching, I loved technology and teaching.
Through a placement service, I learned about a school in New Orleans that was doing a lot in technology, and that gave me an opportunity to combine my interests, and New Orleans sounded exciting. I’d never been to New Orleans and I flew out to do the interview. I got the job and I fell in love with the city and had a really great three years in New Orleans.
Q: That’s awesome. So, no family, friends or ties. You just came for the city?
Yup, I didn’t know anyone in New Orleans, and I lived uptown in New Orleans the first year, and I lived in the Marigny the next two years and I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood and teachers at Newman. And New Orleans is such a unique, special city that it’s hard not to fall in love with it if you spend a lot of time there and know where to go and stay off the four block strip of Bourbon Street. I always feel so sad when I meet someone and their only impression of New Orleans is that four block strip and a downtown hotel.
Q: Ahh yes, I feel the same way. Well, I’m very glad that you got to experience the city as one should.Now, can we talk a little bit about the time when you were experimenting with BuzzFeed at the MIT Media Lab? A lot of times we hear about companies, and the success seems effortless from the outside, but we know that it’s grueling when you’re building something from the ground up. Can you take me back to those early days?
Yes, I left New Orleans to go to graduate school at MIT to study educational technology, and while I was at MIT, I kind of accidentally made this early email forward that ended up reaching millions of people and ended up getting passed around on the internet in 2001 when social didn’t really exist.
There were these things called email forwards, and things would go viral that way, when there wasn’t YouTube or Facebook, and blogging was a new thing. Because I created this early email forward, I got really fascinated by the idea of six degrees of separation and small worlds, and how was it possible that a student who didn’t really know anyone in the media ended up reaching millions of people, ended up on the Today show and talking about it, and it really didn’t seem like something that was possible before to reach millions of people without owning a printing press, or a broadcast type, or having someone to push something out. So, I got really fascinated by the idea of people sharing things with each other and thought it could be a bigger network than a social media network.
So that’s how it got started. It was really an idea. And then I ran an RD Lab at a nonprofit in New York and got to keep working on it for a few years. And then I sort of accidentally ended up in business with Arianna Huffington and Ken Lair of the Huffington Post because Ken said, “Oh you know the internet, and I know business, we should work on something together.” And that ended up being the Huffington Post.
And I started BuzzFeed as a lab in New York in Chinatown while I was still at Huffington Post. And then maybe about six or seven years ago, BuzzFeed took some outside funding, and about four or five years ago, we sold Huffington Post to AOL, and then I went full-time on BuzzFeed.
And I guess to answer your questions about hard times, it’s definitely starting a company and growing it from nothing into something big is hard. It’s definitely ups and downs, but I think your attitude towards the ups and downs is really important. If you don’t enjoy the challenge of it, it’s not a good field to go into.
Some people are just driven and competitive and they don’t enjoy it, but they make themselves do it. For me, I always enjoyed it. I mean there’s stressful times I didn’t enjoy, but when you hit a wall, or something would be really hard, or you hit a problem you’re struggling to solve, I always thought of it as if you’re playing a video game, and it’s a hard level, that’s what makes it fun. If you’re at the gym, working out, and it’s a hard exercise, that’s what actually gets your endorphins going.
You have to actually love the hard stuff, or else it’s better to get a job that’s more peaceful.
I actually found that being a teacher was as hard as being an entrepreneur. From 8 in the morning, having class after class, 7 periods, and teaching five or six a day. You have to be on, and so many students are looking to you to give them instruction and not having that much time to prep, and keep them engaged and learning. And if you really care as a teacher, it’s one of the hardest things.
Q: That’s a really interesting perspective. I have never taught but I have always thought that teaching must be one of hardest professions that exists. Okay, I’m going to ask you to take me back and paint a picture for me. Can you tell me in those early days, what was one of the lowest, darkest moments that you experienced as an entrepreneur? A moment where you thought, what am I doing, and how am I going to get through this?
Yeah, there was a moment early on where all of our Google traffic, well not all of it, but most of it, dropped over night. We were doing so many different experiments in those days, we thought maybe it was something that Google got upset by, or that we violated Google’s term of service or something. So we spent a whole month trying to go through the site trying to figure out what the reason was. You know Google is a giant company, it must have a good reason for penalizing our site. And we made some changes, and couldn’t really find anything. And eventually we got in touch with someone at Google through an investor, and Google said, Oops, it was a bug on our side. For security, we would put embedded media inside of a different domain, and it was “Buzzfed.com” and Google algorithm thought “BuzzFeed” was injecting malware, but it was actually something we were doing for legitimate security reasons. So then they fixed it and the traffic came back.
But during that month, we were like, wow, we have this whole team, we’re building this company and we just lost half our traffic and it was really stressful and difficult.
But it turned out to be the best thing ever because during that period, because what we care most about is social not search, it made us really focus on sharing and social as being a priority metric, and up until that point we were trying to do both social and search and combine the two, and we went all in on social, and I think it’s the reason we ended up becoming a leader in social content and news because our survival depended on it because search disappeared over night.
“I think you’ve probably heard this from other entrepreneurs, but a lot of times, the toughest times turn out to be blessings in disguise and you figure out something new as you get through a tough time.”
Q: Yes, you took the words out of my mouth. Do you remember when that was?
It was six or seven years ago.
Also, when you’re a small company, and you don’t have that much money in the bank, and you have to make payroll, and you’re really lean, and people are working for low salaries, and you’re having to make the resources go as far as you can, having a setback is a lot more difficult.
Q: Absolutely. When you have people’s lives hinging on that?
I never felt like I had people’s lives hinging, there were smart people working at BuzzFeed would get great jobs other places if BuzzFeed didn’t work out, but you still feel a sense of responsibility.
Well, that’s reassuring. It’s not life or death.
Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to remember.
Q: One of the things entrepreneurs talk to me a lot about and say they struggle with is often feeling lonely. The journey as entrepreneur can often be a lonely one. Have you had moments along the way where you’ve felt that way?
I think that I’ve had really great partners and I’m married and have kids and I spend time with my family, so I feel like I haven’t felt really lonely. My board is great, and my executive team is great, but there are moments as a CEO when you have to make a decision and you’re on your own and you’re really the only person who has that responsibility and at that point, you can feel like you’re on a fairly solitary path. I just try to always think, it’s not just about me, it’s about all the people who are building BuzzFeed with me.
So when we make a decision, like a couple of years ago, a company tried to acquire us, and it was a decision that I had to make. Do we sell the company? And in some ways, it felt lonely to have to be the person to make the decision. But in other ways, I felt like I spent a lot of time thinking about our team, and the investors, and all the other people involved, and felt in a deep way that the best thing for everyone, not just me, was to keep the company independent and growing it for the long term.
Q: Okay, now it’s time for the real stuff. What do you think sucks the most about being an entrepreneur?
“Well, I think it’s a little bit like being a parent. You can’t just define everything how you want it to be. You have to deal with the likeness of your kid. And that sometimes means you’re getting up at three in the morning. Or you’re traveling or supporting your kid, and your kid is a different person than you, and they have different interests and you can’t tell them or shape them to what you want to be. You have to help support them and let them grow and help them reach their full potential. And I think that’s true of a company as well.”
And for me, sometimes that means I’m traveling a lot more than I’d like to travel, because I’m doing the right thing for BuzzFeed to grow into a global company. But now we have a big office in Los Angeles, and New York, and in London and Mumbai and Australia and Brazil, and it’s not always easy on a personal level to have to travel and communicate across all these different offices and locations, but it’s the right thing for the company, and it helps the company reach its’ full potential.
So I think that on an abstract level, that’s really the thing that’s hard about being an entrepreneur. You are or you should be totally focused and obsessed on what’s good for the company, how it can reach its full potential, and how to help it grow.
Sometimes people say to me, “Oh the company has gotten big and it’s pretty successful, now it probably just runs itself, you can define your schedule or you can work exactly how you want to work and delegate all the other stuff,” and really that’s just not true at all.
To be a good parent, or to be a good entrepreneur, or steward of anything that is outside of yourself or that you’re helping support, you need to think of it as service. It doesn’t mean that you totally neglect your own needs, I think every person who works at BuzzFeed or any executive at BuzzFeed also needs to recharge and have their own life and have other things that are just for themselves. But the work itself, a lot of it is serving the greater good, or helping the company itself reach it’s greatest potential, especially as a founder or CEO.
Q: I love that analogy about an entrepreneur as a parent. What would you say is the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
“I think now is probably a moment where you find people who want to be an entrepreneur, because they think it’s cool or something. It’s like they see entrepreneurs getting glamorized or on the cover of magazines, being seen as these heroic figures, and I think that the truth is that people who run companies or start companies get way too much credit for the successes of the companies they run, myself included.”
So much of having a successful company is the timing. If we had started BuzzFeed two years earlier or three years later, we would have missed the window where what we do is even possible. So much of it is the early successes and accidents that end up being magnified later. A lot of it is the team who joins later that makes the big impact on startups and the people who join later and not the founding of the company.
So again, I think one misconception is that entrepreneurs are the primary cause for success for ventures, and that their sweat, tears, and work are what make it successful, and I think that all big things are team efforts and group efforts and require lots of talented people working together and a good leader can help make that happen and certainly should get some credit, but I think the biggest misconception is that it’s a desirable, cool thing to be, and that a founder of a company is responsible for all of that success.
Q: Yes, that’s exactly why The Distillery exists. People think it’s glamorous and cool and fun. It’s NOT. And it’s not just one person, it’s a team, and it’s years and years of effort that sometimes doesn’t manifest until much later. Do you have any moments that you look back on fondly in the early days, perhaps while you were in the studio in Chinatown?
We had so many great times and fun adventures and stories, but I try not to be nostalgic. I feel like sometimes words in stories become too big in a company where people talk and get focused on that and my attitude is always what are we going to do next is going to be way more interesting and cooler than anything we’ve done in the past. So I try to focus mostly on the future and get excited about the next thing we’re going to build.
Q: Just like an innovator. Always thinking of what’s next. One thing you said at the lecture that I loved was that at BuzzFeed you create content that creates impact, not popularity, and I think that any writer or anyone who’s producing content feels that way. You want your writing to be impactful. How do you continue to deliver on that?
It’s hard. It’s a harder thing to measure. I think that in the early days of the Internet, people looked at impressions, and looked at shares, and times, but really what matters the most is impact. Multiply impact by scale. If you have a big impact on a large number of people — that should be the ultimate goal.
But it’s harder to measure impact, it’s actually people’s lives. It’s not just something that’s on a phone or a computer. We look at does our news or reporting help change laws or change powerful institutions? Does our food content result in people actually cooking or eating the food? And we look on Instagram and Pinterest to see if people are posting the foods their cooking. And with our entertainment content, we look to see if people share with others in their lives as a way to laugh with them, and engage with them, and connect with other people.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur?
I enjoy that the job changes every year. Since we’re growing and the market is so dynamic and changes so quickly, the stuff that I spent my time on each year is different. I think when you’re in a startup, the job is changing rapidly, it always gives you something to think about it.
Q: Do you ever have days when you wake up and you just feel overwhelmed? It’s a lot. What do you tell yourself? How do you work through that?
I think it helps to be very optimistic. I think that most successful entrepreneurs are pretty optimistic people. And so I think it helps to enjoy the challenges, and say it’s not the end of the world, it’s just a new thing to work on. It helps to eat well, and exercise and try to get enough sleep and spend time with your family, all of the other things that helps keep things in perspective. I think everyone gets overwhelmed, it’s not just entrepreneurs. I think the difference is that entrepreneurs need to spend a little more time managing their stress and need to get better at dealing with stress.
I’ve met people that run the biggest companies in the world and one of the things I noticed about all of them is that they’re very good at managing stress. They have a huge amount of responsibility and a lot riding on their decisions, but they don’t freak out about it and they don’t get upset about things. They just put one foot in front of the other and focus on things. I think that’s the only real way you can do it.
I really appreciate what you said about health because I’m a huge health advocate because of my own experiences. Also a big believer in proper sleep, which I think more people need.
I think one of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is you don’t sleep and you’re constantly working, and you’re doing everything you can and you see people make a lot of mistakes, and they overwork themselves, and make worst decisions, and they think that’s what being an entrepreneur means. Now, it doesn’t mean that sometimes you won’t have an emergency situation, and you won’t sometimes work through the night, and you won’t have some things where you’ll have to push yourself beyond you normally would, and where you would be comfortable, but if you do that all the time, you’ll be a worse entrepreneur. You won’t make good decisions, you won’t have as much perspective.
“It’s a dangerous stereotype that an entrepreneur has to have no work life balance and can’t get any sleep and has to grind through everything. Working smart and playing for the long gain is the best way to do it.”
Q: What’s your favorite way to unwind?
I go for runs, I hang out with my kids. I sometimes play games on my phone. I cook. Nothing too exciting.
Q: Nothing exotic or luxurious?
None of that. No kite surfing, or flying small aircrafts or scuba diving or any of that stuff.
Q: Just playing games on your phone, hanging out with your kids. I love it. And finally, you just launched BuzzFeed Japan. Is that the next big thing you’re working on? Are there more things in the works?
The big focus for next year is building a global, cross-platform network and what that means is that we want to be in the most interesting cities in the world and opening in Tokyo is going to be a great place to expand so that we can have creative people making content for their local market, but also things that we can adapt for everything else in the world. And cross-platform means we’re making things for our own sites and our apps, but also for other platforms like YouTube and Facebook video and Snapchat, and if we can learn what works on one platform, that helps us do better work for other platforms. So building a global cross-platform network is the thing that ties everything together, where we’re able to learn in different countries, and on different platforms, and then take that knowledge back and use it to get better at everything that we do.
Q: Do you have words that you live by? What’s the Jonah mantra?
I don’t really have a mantra. There’s some values at BuzzFeed that are pretty important. We talk about this concept of humble confidence, which is having the confidence that you can do really big things and make an impact on the world, but also being humble that you don’t know exactly how to do it. Because as soon as you get arrogant, you stop learning. And you stop being able to figure out new things, and once you figure something out, the world changes, and you have to figure it out again, so you should never really get cocky about what you know. So, I think having the ability to try new things and learn new things is core to what matters to me and I try to spread across BuzzFeed.
We’re eager to see what content BuzzFeed brings us next.