Steinberg on How He Grew BuzzFeed & Plans for New Gig at Daily Mail
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The future of New York’s tech economy looks bright, thanks in part to a new crop of digital media startups. Within the past decade, the city has churned out Business Insider, Mashable, Thrillist Media Group and other companies proving that journalism isn’t dead, it's just undergoing a transformative shift.
A recently leaked internal report from The New York Times listed several digital media startups as clear and eminent threats to the iconic publication. BuzzFeed was on that list. Its traffic eclipsed the Times' in 2013, during the tenure of Jon Steinberg, who recently stepped down after four years as BuzzFeed's president and COO. He was just hired as CEO of MailOnline North America, the digital arm of the British newspaper.
Steinberg says he is thrilled by the Mail's plans to invest more in world news, video, and mobile/social technology -- and looks forward to helping them expand on all fronts. "I also look forward to developing innovative ad solutions with the advertising community - combining the very best of native and display formats,” he says.
We caught up with Steinberg at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s decompressed after overseeing the whirlwind growth at BuzzFeed (he saw the staff grow from 15 to 500) and had much more to say about digital media and managing people.
Entrepreneur.com: What forces are transforming digitally engaged media?
Steinberg: Mobile and video are clearly the biggest factors. At BuzzFeed we integrated WhatsApp almost a year before they developed a huge usage base. It’s important to come up with unique insights and be contrarian. But everyone knows mobile is big, so you have to be a few steps ahead of everyone.
How can media startups stay ahead of the curve?
The new players should look closer at the significance of everything, including the big screen phone. Adding a little more width to the phone screen makes a huge difference for the industry, just look at the 5.7-inch note devices that are popping up. Samsung is best known for manufacturing these while HTC enters the game. It changes the game for the consumption experience, how media outlets layout the homepage and create content differently. Meanwhile, Apple sold 500,000 less iPads this year compared to last. So these media startups have to think a lot about what to do differently simply because the mobile screen is getting a lot larger.
How has media changed the New York startup economy?
If you look at NYC, there are even more creative businesses entering the game just within the past four years. There’s Policy Mic, Elite Daily, Skim and Bustle. Even established media companies are getting innovative, like Time Inc’s new streaming video channel 120 Sports. And The New York Times has an impressive set of digital products, too.
In order to differentiate yourself as a media startup, you have to come up with an idea that’s focused on content or a common interest or idea. Most important, there has to be great writing and the site has to perform. It’s not the same volatility as building an app. It’s possible for an entrepreneur to do well here because the audience isn’t as binary.
Now that you're transitioning to a new role, where are you sourcing great ideas to continually reshape and innovate digital media?
When I was president and COO at BuzzFeed, I had my head down in the company for four years and couldn’t be more proud. We went from six million monthly unique visitors to north of 130 million unique visitors in that timespan. When a company is growing that fast -- and I had two young kids – I had no time to take nonspecific, open meetings. But now I’m suddenly having lots of coffees. I still love media and tech, and now I can come back to interesting people I met in those industries and ask what they’re up to.
In an AdWeek article about your departure from BuzzFeed, a Google exec noted that everyone at first viewed BuzzFeed as “a joke.” No one is laughing anymore, but how did you keep company morale trucking forward during those years as an underdog?
That struggle may have been the best thing that ever happened to us. We had a hard road always trying to prove ourselves, so we never had the media fall in and out of love with us. For example, the media loved and glorified Zynga and it led to complacency at the app company. When you fall in complacency you miss out on big things.
At first everyone thought BuzzFeed was a toy that would never be a serious media website. That gave us a lot of humility. I at the start was an inexperienced executive and no one thought I could grow a company. So when no one tells you you’re great and everyone doubts you, it makes you work harder.
Related: How Successful Entrepreneurs Confront Failure (Video)
You oversaw BuzzFeed go from 15 to 500 employees – what kind of critical people management skills did you pick up during that massive expansion?
Anyone that wants to be a manager of people and a member of a team can learn those skills. There are countless books that emphasize the same things: treat your staff with respect but be direct with them. That never changes.
But an interest, expertise and passion in subject matter are things you have to have yourself.
Everyone at BuzzFeed loves social media, web and pop culture and has a learner’s orientation with new apps and social platforms. You can’t learn that passion.
As a startup exec, how do you create scale amid rapid growth?
First, do all the processes and small tasks -- such as the decks, models, spreadsheets and pitches -- yourself, so that you’ll always have firsthand knowledge about the company. If you skip these tasks you’ll become a descaled executive who no longer knows how to roll up your sleeves.
Now when you do scale, the question is do you continue doing these tasks yourself, or do you take time to mentor and train the next person? When you can complete a task in less than an hour, but training the next person to do it can take four hours, you just have to buckle down and teach, trust and empower the next manager. Teach the new team member how to fish right that one time, that’s the key to being a good manager.