Planting Your Flag — An Interview with Matt Daniels, Editor of The Pudding
Matt Daniels is an editor at The Pudding, a journal for visual essays about complex topics. He grew up in Flint, Michigan, graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Business, and he’s very good at designing PowerPoint slides.
(Side note: We were obsessed with Matt’s piece, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop” when it came out while we were in college, long before we knew him. He just published a follow-up article, “The Language of Hip Hop” and it’s mind-blowing. Give it a read.)
Many entrepreneurs struggle with settling on a single way to make an impact, a single focus. For many creators, their minds are full of ideas, and it becomes easy to bounce from one idea to the next, never completely sure what you want to do.
This held true for a time for Matt Daniels as well, until a piece of his work went viral and he found a place to plant his flag. And a way to leave his mark.
After college, Matt worked for American Express and Prophet, a brand consulting firm, before landing at Undercurrent, a digital strategy firm, for 5 years. His work at Undercurrent did wonders to prep him for his next venture.
“That basically primed me to understand how to do agency work and how you write scopes, how you manage deliverables, how you manage clients. I had been doing that for 5 years, so I had a pretty good taste of how to work a project and keep a client.”
A passion project turned viral
Matt enjoyed his time at Undercurrent, but never stopped pursuing different interests, mainly dealing in visual communication.
“I was in consulting for several years, doing lots of PowerPoint decks for clients and got really into the design aspect of making slides and presentations, which is essentially visual communication 101. I’d always be doing random projects on the side that involved code, websites, and the internet, and eventually, I started taking the leap into visual storytelling.”
Matt focused on these projects on the side while working at Undercurrent until the spring of 2014.
“I took a sabbatical in the spring of 2014 for three months. The goal during that time was to learn to code more.”
Matt had gained some decent internet traffic, about 10,000 views, with a piece he had published previously and that earned interest from Red Bull. They had discussions about some projects, but nothing had worked out with Matt working full-time. Now, the sabbatical allowed him the opportunity to pitch projects more seriously.
“I was reading this book on natural language processing, and the first chapter was researching the number of unique words in a text. Basically, if you were reading the State of the Union Address, it would tell you how many unique words there were. From those previous coding projects I had done, I had a lot of data from Rap Genius. I sandwiched the two data sets and the methodology together and made this project about the vocabulary of different rappers. That project did really really well; it got 4–5 million visits that year.”
Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t
Reading that piece, it seems the work is incredibly complex, but ironically enough, Matt credits the success of the article to the fact that he actually wasn’t very skilled at coding at the time.
“For the rapper vocabulary project, basically I had some code but it’s really duct-taped together… one lightly coded thing and then simply screenshots of PowerPoint
I think you can have a really successful project without knowing a lot of code and sometimes knowing a lot of code can be debilitating because you want to do really fancy things. You think, ‘Oh I know how to build this crazy architecture, I’m going to build the fanciest house ever.’ Whereas, if you only know how to build a log cabin, you just end up building a really nice log cabin.”
This approach led to Matt producing really high-quality work, even though there wasn’t a lot of it.
“I was really, really slow. So each chart took a really long time but also I spent a lot of time thinking about each chart.
I thought, ‘I can do one thing… maybe.’ So that one thing needs to be perfect. The coding is going to take you a really long time so if you’re going to code a feature, that feature needs to be super necessary. You’re really killing anything that is superfluous and focusing on what people will really use.
There are sometimes when execution is hard and it slows you down as the maker. That’s really good.”
The success of that project was enough to convince Matt to make a permanent change.
Going at it alone
Matt left Undercurrent in the spring of 2015 and began to work on similar visual storytelling projects for multiple clients, including Spotify. He worked with some fellow freelancers but was mostly doing solo work when he realized he could be preparing to work on something even bigger.
“Instead of just launching the Spotify project on my personal site, I thought it would be cool to make it feel more like a publication and not just a personal blog. I thought it would lend itself to having more credibility and would also open the door for building something bigger than myself.”
And with that, in the fall of 2015, Polygraph got its official start. For the next year, Matt did a lot of client work, working with several freelancers and creating relationships along the way. At the same time, he was building enough financial runway so that he could hire people full-time.
Building something bigger
Matt brought on his first full-time employee in December 2016 and the company now has 4 employees, all of whom Matt freelanced with previously.
Polygraph was created to continue and expand upon Matt’s previous client-based work, but the team soon realized they were excited by the practice of publishing editorials using visual storytelling. So, in concert with the client-side of the business, they launched The Pudding early in 2017.
“The Pudding is a publication for visual stories. Instead of having a prose-led story with a lot of writing, we try to design some type of visual explanation of a story using code, animation, illustration, and all sorts of tools for visual learners. We’ll often take on really complex topics that would be really hard to write about but actually lend themselves well to a visual story.”
The team focuses on producing very high-quality work, spending an entire week on a project with 4–5 people on it, or a month to six weeks on a single-person project. The work covers pop culture topics — music, film, sports, politics — so as to appeal to a large number of people. Their goal is to make otherwise difficult to understand data easy to grasp and appealing for everyone.
Their focus on quality work has paid off, as people read their content in droves, with nearly 7 million readers this past year.
Plant your flag
A key factor that led to Matt’s current success — he had to make a choice.
“For a while, even after the rapper vocabulary project, I was thinking about different paths — data viz, e-commerce — I was thinking about just random stuff.
I decided, instead of being a generalist, I am going to choose one thing — data visualization — and if it doesn’t work out I will do something else later. I think planting that flag is really helpful because when you meet somebody and you give them a very straight answer on what you do — even though data visualization makes no sense for most people — just saying those words means when they meet a new person, they think to say ‘Oh, Matt does that! You two should meet.’
I think from a branding standpoint it has helped to be very specific, whereas a lot of people or agencies will try to be really general so they have as many options as possible. There is a comfort in that, but I’ve noticed that being specific has helped out a lot.”
And leave it there
Matt also learned that after you plant your flag on a certain plot of land, building something there takes time.
“When you plant that flag say, ‘I’m going to do this for two years,’ instead of one year or six months because, while you should be ready to fail and choose new things, two years really is the range where the choice has the ability to blossom.
It’s going to take a long time. You need to give it a year. The first year is simply telling everybody what you’re doing and that only pays dividends a year later.”
Giving it a year proves you have a passion for the project at hand, which means you really don’t mind the wait at all.
As Matt explains, “If you’re still around a year later, that means you’re serious about it…. you don’t really see the benefits of planting that flag until then.”
We cannot thank Matt enough for sharing his story with us. Remember to check out The Pudding — there is something for everyone. And if you liked this article, do us a favor and spread the love.