My guest for today wasn’t always an entrepreneur. He attended Harvard and worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, did policy work for the National Economic Council at the White House, and political organizing for the Service Employees International Union. Then he gave it all up to become an entrepreneur …
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He is the CEO and co-founder of Mic, a leading news and media company for young people. Each month, more than 20,000,000 readers rely on Mic’s unique sensibility to stay informed and make sense of the world.
My guest was also named to the Forbes 2014 30 Under 30 list.
Now, let’s hack …
In this 30-minute episode Chris Altchek and I discuss:
- The importance of picking something you are passionate about
- Why Mic needs to provide depth, not headlines to its readers
- Lessons Chris didn’t learn fast enough as CEO
- Setting priorities: Is this important or urgent?
- The true value of having amazing advisors
Listen to Hack the Entrepreneur below ...
The Show Notes
- Mic Website
- Chris on LinkedIn
- Chris on Twitter
- Jon on Twitter
- Show Sponsor: Showrunner Podcasting Course (Join the email list here)
The Art of Working between Your Comfort Zone and Your Panic Zone
Jonny Nastor: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at HacktheEntrepreneur.com/Rainmaker.
Voiceover: Welcome to Hack the Entrepreneur, the show which reveals the fears, habits, and inner battles behind big-name entrepreneurs and those on their way to joining them. Now, here is your host, Jon Nastor.
Jonny Nastor: Welcome back to Hack the Entrepreneur. I’m so glad you decided to join me today. I’m your host, Jon Nastor, but you can call me ‘Jonny.’
My guest for today wasn’t always an entrepreneur. In fact, he attended Harvard and worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. He did policy work for the National Economic Council at the White House and political organizing for the Service Employees International Union. But then, he gave it all up and became an entrepreneur.
He is now the CEO and co-founder of Mic, a leading news and media company for young people. Each month, more than 20 million readers rely on Mic’s unique sensibility to stay informed and make sense of the world. My guest was also named to the 2014 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Now, let’s hack Chris Altchek.
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Welcome back to another episode of Hack the Entrepreneur. We have another brilliant entrepreneur today. Chris, welcome to the show.
Chris Altchek: Thanks for having me, Jon.
Jonny Nastor: Absolutely my pleasure, Chris, absolutely my pleasure. Let’s jump straight into it, shall we?
Chris Altchek: Let’s do it.
Jonny Nastor: Chris, as an entrepreneur, what is the one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your successes so far?
The Importance of Picking Something You Are Passionate About
Chris Altchek: That’s a tough one. I would say the thing that’s been most important to our success so far, and to my success, actually has evolved over the course of the life of Mic. The thing that I was doing best probably the first two years has now evolved very differently in the second two years of Mic. But in the very beginning, that thing we did the best was actually solving a problem that we were really passionate about.
Starting a company is incredibly challenging in a very good way. But there’s more obstacles and more roadblocks than you’ll ever imagine before you start. If you’re not super passionate about the problem you’re solving, you’re likely going to hit a wall and fall down instead of run through it.
We’ve had some pretty awesome, epic stories, especially in the beginning. When we started Mic, I was working in finance before my co-founder, who I know from high school, Jake Horowitz, was working at Change.org. This was in 2011. Media was not very sexy as an industry. We decided to quit our jobs and start a media company focused on creating smart, interesting, informative stories for young people that we talked about as the CNN/New York Times for the next generation. That was our pitch.
We quit our jobs and quickly realized that investors were not very interested in a smart media company for young people that was digitally first. They were skeptical that online advertising would ever become meaningful enough to support a really expensive content company. We couldn’t raise money from the beginning. We moved into an apartment in Harlem, 127th and Lenox, and every day would work out of this apartment together with our first couple employees. We’d make some coffee, start working. We were all in the kitchen together.
I remember this vividly: we were sitting on the couch one night looking at the analytics, and we had just crossed our first day where we reached 2,000 people. It was the first day we reached 2,000 people. We ran some math — this was like a month in — and realized that we were going to need to reach 2 million people a day if Mic was going to be successful, or sort of successful. We were looking at 2,000 people and were like, “Oh man, how are we going to grow this 100,000 times?”
We were looking at a pretty daunting challenge from the beginning. It was really our passion for building something that we actually believe should exist and could exist that made us persevere through — I wouldn’t say crazy hard times — but times where we could have definitely packed it up and quit. I think in the beginning, it’s all about picking something that you’re very passionate about.
For the last two years, though, as the company has gone from … We started last year with 15 people. We ended last year at 50 people. We’re now at 65 for the last two years. It actually gets a little bit simpler, and it becomes mostly about raising money, making money, and hiring really, really good people. Your job very quickly goes from doing a little bit of everything or doing all of everything to doing a very limited subset of things, but having to do them really, really well. As CEO, that subset for me has ‘worry about the money,’ so raise money or drive revenue, and ‘hire really, really good people.’ That skill set is very different than the initial skill set and is super challenging.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, that’s a lot. Obviously, when you started, there were just a couple of employees. Your co-founder Jake and you had to do, like you said, a little bit of everything. You were probably officially on paper a CEO at that point, but of a very small group of people. Then you went from 15 to 50, now to 65 people.
During that process, what was one of the first things that either your co-founder or yourself was like, as soon as you could, “Chris, you can’t do that anymore, because you’re just not that good at it. We have to get somebody to replace you for that part and move you to something where you can obviously provide more value.”
Lessons Chris Didn’t Learn Fast Enough as CEO
Chris Altchek: There is a lot of things that I’m not good at. That’s a long list. I think it’s hard to point out or pinpoint one thing. But if I had to pinpoint a few things, I was alternating every day writing our newsletter, which was an editorial summary of what was happening in the world at 5:30 AM, with my co-founder for the first year. When you think about it, I was writing the newsletter and then running financing processes, running tech, and doing all these things. That was a little bit crazy.
Getting me fully out of editorial was the first thing. I’m not a very good writer. That was very important and happened very quickly. Now we’ve got a 39-person editorial team with some really amazing people. Thankfully for them, they don’t ever have to read anything I write.
I would say the second thing that I didn’t hand off fast enough was running product. You’ll see a lot of CEOs hold on to products for a long time. Some of the best product companies are driven by really product-driven CEOs. I probably held on to product too long at Mic.
The reason I say that is because while I care a lot about product, I’m much more of an analytics and numbers person and much less of a truly forward-thinking product person. I think I thought I was more than I actually was. Since we found a really talented VP of product, I can still inform our roadmap based on the numbers, but he’s got much deeper sense of what users actually want. That’s been hugely valuable to us. Those are two of the big lessons.
What you realize pretty quickly on is your job as CEO is to replace yourself in all these functions as quickly as possible. I think most of the time, I didn’t learn that lesson fast enough. But your job is to really hire leaders, empower them, build them up, and build a process where they can get your feedback and/or suggestions on things, but we’re there as the true owners of the different pieces of the company. I think that was something that I’d figured out or I figured it out way too late.
Jonny Nastor: I think that’s very true. I like how you’re aware of it now, that your job is to replace yourself and that you might have done it too late. Not even all CEOs at your point are even aware of that at this point. It’s really, really impressive in that way.
But let’s go back when, to the very like the spark of the idea, for creating a media company — like a CNN but for millennials. It’s massive. It’s a huge, massive undertaking. You’re fairly recently out of school. You had a job for, I believe, about a year. You and Jake sit down…
Was there ever a time from the idea that, “We should create this massive media company that changes the way news is given out to the younger generation,” where you were like, “We should try something smaller?” What’s the mindset that it takes to be like, “No, we can do this. This is something we should definitely do?”
Chris Altchek: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there’s a few things. One is the founding story. I’ll tell you that in a second. But it definitely started with a more narrow scope. Most successful startups start with a more narrow scope, and then you realize as you start building your product, as you start seeing the opportunity, that a bigger opportunity is unfolding that was in the back of your mind but wasn’t fully your driving beacon at the very beginning. In the beginning, for Mic, it was actually called Policy Mic. It was more narrowly focused on issues around politics, policy, and social issues.
In the beginning, we were very focused on creating a platform that would spark meaningful, important conversations among young people about what we thought to be substantive issues around politics. Then, it broadened out into a much bigger idea around news as we saw that opportunity open up and we actually thought it was possible. Actually, I’ll take you a step back.
Jake and I actually played in a jazz band together in high school. We go way back. He was the creative mind of our jazz band. He wrote all the music. I was the business operation sales guy that booked the gigs and marketed the band. That was our split back then, and it’s pretty funny. It’s still our split today.
Jonny Nastor: You were the CEO of the band, basically.
Chris Altchek: I was the CEO, and he was the creative genius. We go way back to high school. Fast forward to 2010. Jake had just moved back from the Middle East. He was working for the Carnegie Endowment in Lebanon. I was working at Goldman.
We were having lunch and essentially had this idea that young people care a lot more about substantive issues than most people realize. We saw it in the ’08 Obama elections, and you still see it today through Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and Ferguson. These social issues drive conversation that is really ongoing amongst our generation. People are very, very tuned in to these things. We’ve felt that undercurrent, and at the same time, we didn’t see legacy media companies — the CNNs, the New York Times — successfully pivoting to reach and speak to people like us.
We saw those two things. We actually launched Policy Mic while we both had other jobs as a small blog to crowdsource ideas from young people that we knew that we thought were smart: “Let’s see where this goes.” That was the very initial idea. It was not a business. It was something we were focused on doing in terms of passion.
We launched this thing in November 2010. December 2010 rolls around, and we had a writer in Tunis, in Tunisia. He sends us an email at like 2:00 in the morning one night. I was up because I was working at Goldman, and I was still at my desk. I called Jake, and I’m like, “Jake, you get this email?” He’s like, “Yeah, this is crazy.” We had this writer in Tunisia who was essentially live-blogging the revolution.
He’s like, “Hey guys, sh*t’s going down. This is crazy. This is a much bigger thing than anybody realized. The streets are going crazy. They’re rioting. They’re breaking buildings. Like, there’s a full-on revolution here. Post my stuff as fast as possible.” We stayed up all night posting, this guy, David Dietz, his articles from Tunisia as this unfolded. The story was not being covered by CNN yet. It was not being covered by Reuters. Nobody really had correspondents in Tunis. It wasn’t a media hotspot.
We ended up being one of the first on this. It didn’t get a ton of traffic because we weren’t set up for it. We didn’t have the distribution. But, what we realized was that media was fundamentally changing at a very core level and that news was evolving into something very, very different than it used to be and that this was super fun. This was addictive. We wanted to be in the middle of this, and we wanted to see where this would play out. I remember the next day, we were like, “We need to be doing this all the time.”
That’s when we decided we were going to quit our jobs. By March of 2011, we had both left our jobs. It was time to start Policy Mic.
That’s how we got hooked. Then a bunch of things changed in our favor in the broader industry that set it up so that now we actually had a legitimate chance of building a brand that’s going to become as trusted as CNN. But in the beginning, we didn’t really know if that was possible.
Jonny Nastor: Interesting. Do you still live-distribute news as it breaks, like in conjunction with how Twitter would be doing it now or people on Twitter?
Chris Altchek: No, we don’t.
Jonny Nastor: Okay. Because in 2010, it sounds like that was … but now Twitter gets used for that.
Chris Altchek: Yeah, Twitter owns breaking news in real time. Twitter is an amazing platform for real time. That’s actually been a really big evolution for us in terms of how we think about it.
Why Mic Needs to Provide Depth, Not Headlines to Its Readers
Chris Altchek: CNN’s job is not really breaking news anymore. News gets broken on Twitter. If you’re 25 years old with a smartphone, you see news through a push notification on one of the 5 news apps you have on your phone, or you see news on Twitter, or you see news on Facebook. You don’t really need a news company giving you headlines anymore, because you live in a world of headlines.
If you’re 25, what you need is perspective that you can trust. You need a deeper look at what’s actually happening. You want to think about what the future looks like. You want to engage at a layer deeper. That’s really the role of media companies today — to provide depth, not headlines. That’s where I think CNN and The New York Times are eventually going to go, but that’s where Mic is right now. We want to be real-time. We want to be current, but we know people are getting the breaking news facts from platforms. They need a trusted media company to go a level deeper.
Jonny Nastor: That’s cool, because as you were saying, with 2010, it was different back then. You’ve seen that evolution and had to, obviously, adapt your business to it, I guess, in that way.
Chris Altchek: Yeah, exactly.
Jonny Nastor: Your company is growing fast, like really fast. From 15 to 50, as you said, to 65. Obviously, technology is changing around you. The way people are consuming the news and information is changing faster than … we can take guesses at it, but we don’t know where it’s always going to go.
How do you guys, in your company now, you and your co-founder, decide on a direction Mic needs to head? Whether it’s a new project or a new feature with the service or a new way of gathering the information, how is it that you decide? It’s not like you’re three people anymore where you just sit at a table and are like, “Okay, let’s do it.”
There’s probably a big process. There’s probably processes in everything to get things changed and adapt new people into these new processes. I’m interested to know, though, with the growth going on and obviously in such a crazy, fast, ever-changing market, how do you guys decide where it is you should head next or now?
Chris Altchek: Yeah, that’s really probably my second-most important job after making sure we don’t run out of money, is figuring out what we do next. I’ll give you the big picture and then the actual process.
At the big picture, we observe what’s happening in the world. We think about where it’s going. Then, we base strategies off of that. If we were talking right now about what’s happening in the media landscape, I would say there’s probably four trends that Mic is very interested in. One is, essentially, the line between news and video is blurring really fast, both on the consumption side and the creation side.
On the consumption side, you used to read your print newspaper and watch your TV news. They were different mediums provided by different brands. Now, as a user, you’re watching video in Facebook and reading articles in Facebook. You’re watching video in Snapchat and reading articles in Snapchat. You’re reading and watching things on your laptop, on your computer, and on your smart TVs. People are reading and watching on the same platforms and through the same platforms and on the same devices.
That’s really, really interesting as a media company. Where you used to be segregated to one medium, now, you have access to, essentially, all of them through the platforms that you normally distribute content with. That’s one big trend that’s super, super interesting, and that’s only accelerating.
A second big trend that we’re interested in is, essentially, trust and brands are becoming more important. Five years ago, when Google was the only game in town in terms of distributing content, it didn’t really matter what your URL was. It only mattered if you got indexed highly on Google. Today, you have actually real competition in social networking. You have Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. You have all these messaging platforms growing up really quickly.
All of these platforms, these social media platforms, they’re really communication and content discovery networks. The way Twitter beats Facebook is by having better content than Facebook for users. That’s a big component. They’re all looking to have the best content on their platform and essentially creating competition for good media and good media brands.
That just didn’t exist 3 years ago. As media brands become more important, it’s going to be a big shift. It hasn’t really existed on digital in a big way. With Netflix and Hulu and Roku, you’re even going to start seeing users pay for content on demand, which is going to add a whole new layer of ‘quality content is rising.’ Those are two of the big trends. I guess I’ll give you the other two very quickly.
Three is, advertisers needs to reach millennials. That’s obvious. Essentially, a lot of brands, if they don’t reach millennials now, are going to go under. Then, four, there’s going to be new winners in the space, and they’re going to be decided in the next couple of years. Those are four of the trends we’re thinking about.
Setting Priorities: Is This Important or Urgent?
Chris Altchek: In terms of process — very quickly — essentially, the way we think about it is, is this issue that we’re thinking about important, and is it urgent? An example would be video. Is video important? Yes, because it aligns with a big trend. Is it urgent? I don’t know. Do we think if we don’t do it today that we’re going to lose? That’s how we think about priorities at Mic. Is it important? Is it urgent? If it’s both, let’s do it right now. If it’s important but not urgent, we’ll do it later. If it’s urgent but not important, we’ll never do it. That’s our framework at a high level. We really rely on the VPs to set roadmaps every quarter.
Jonny Nastor: Wow, excellent, man.
We’re going to end off on something that I’m calling ‘the entrepreneurial gap,’ which is the fact that somebody like you, Chris, are moving at such a fast pace. Your business is growing. Where you are, it’s moving so fast. You’ve come a long ways in — to me, obviously, not to you — but from the outside, it looks like a relatively short period of time. But we’re always looking forward, always three months, six months, a year, five years down the road: “What is it going to be?”
We don’t often stop right now and look back at what we’ve come through, what we’ve come over and around and across to get to where we are and appreciate that. Could you stop and think of graduating from school to where you are now, in a very short period of time, and tell me how you feel about where you’ve gotten to? Also, tell me where it is that you want to go.
The True Value of Having Amazing Advisors
Chris Altchek: I feel like I’ve had an insane and incredible opportunity to learn at a super high velocity. That’s been a few big things. One is that I’ve been super lucky to have an amazing group of advisors who are really honest with me and push me to be better. This job would be impossible without those people. That’s one.
Two, the way we talk about it at Mic is, personally, you can be between — in terms of how hard you’re working, how hard the problems you’re working on — you could be in your comfort zone or you can be in your panic zone. In your comfort zone, you’re going with the flow. You’re not worrying too much. In the panic zone, you’re hyper stressed out, and you’re probably too stressed to actually do good work. Where we like being is somewhere between comfort and panic, where you’re stretched, but you’re not too stressed out to actually learn anything.
I think about keeping myself in that stretch zone. I’m pushing myself hard, but I’m not in panic mode. That’s where I find that I learn the most. I definitely feel I’ve been alternating between panicked and stretched for the last four years at Mic and learning a ton. That’s been really special.
Over the next five years, I really want to learn how to build a sustainable, high-quality company culture and organization. I think it’s one thing to build a startup that grows fast. It’s another to build a company that lasts a long time and evolves. That’s something I’m learning how to do, and hopefully, I’m going to figure out how to do, but that’s very different than what I’ve been doing. That’s the vision for me.
Jonny Nastor: Excellent. The stretch zone between comfort and panic — that’s awesome. I love it. It’s such a great way to look at it, and it makes so much sense when you say it.
This has been a lot of fun, Chris. We’ve got to talk about you and your business in passing. Can you specifically tell the listener where they can go find out more about you, Chris, and then also about your business?
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome. I will post all that to the show notes so they’re easy for everyone to find, but definitely check out Mic.com, because it’s amazing what you guys are doing.
Chris, thank you so much. Please keep doing what you’re doing, because it is amazing to watch. I think you guys are on to some really, really big things. It’s great to see. Thank you so much for stopping by.
Chris Altchek: I really appreciate the time, Jon.
Jonny Nastor: My pleasure.
Chris Altchek: Bye.
Jonny Nastor: Chris, thank you so much for that conversation. Wow. When they tell you that if you are the smartest person in a room that you’re in the wrong room — we weren’t literally in the room together, but if I was in a room with Chris, and the way I felt in that conversation, it was definitely in the right room. Wow. I guess ‘Harvard’ should have tipped me off, and now, building Mic, it’s really impressive.
So I have this giant list of possible hacks. I do. You probably do, too. Because Chris said a lot of things. He’s a smart, smart person building what’s going to be — it already is, but it’s going to be — a massive media company. It’s not a small thing to start, and he’s just going for it, and I love it. He said so many smart things, yet there is this one thing. This one thing. It stuck with me, one thing. Did you get it? Did you hear it? Let’s do it. Let’s find the hack.
Chris Altchek: In terms of how hard you’re working, with how hard are the problems you’re working on, you could be in your comfort zone, or you can be in your panic zone. In your comfort zone, you’re going with the flow. You’re not worrying too much. In the panic zone, you’re hyper stressed out, and you’re probably too stressed to actually do good work. Where we like being is somewhere between comfort and panic, where you’re stretched, but you’re not too stressed out to actually learn anything.
Jonny Nastor: That’s the hack.
Chris, this is good. Somewhere you need to be is between your comfort zone and your panic zone. I love how he wants his people and himself to be stretched, so you’re not just laid back in the comfort zone, you’re stretched. But you’re not running around like a chicken with your head cut off, where you’re so stressed that you’re not learning anything, you’re not growing, and you’re not really putting your full thought into it. That’s beautiful – ‘stretched, but not stressed.’
It’s so true, because you don’t want to get lackadaisical. Yet you see people that are so busy that they really don’t accomplish anything of any value. I have never heard it put more eloquently than you just put it, Chris. I thank you so much for that.
All right guys, this has been a lot of fun. I thank you so much for taking the time again to stop by and listen. You have to know at this point how much that means to me. It really, really, truly does.
If you haven’t, check out the website, HacktheEntrepreneur.com. You’re going to see my pretty face up there. Beside that is a place to put in your email. Please drop your email in there. I can’t believe there are people listening and they haven’t done this yet. I would love to be able to write you an email every Sunday afternoon. It would mean a lot to me, just like it means a lot to me that you’re out there listening.
This has been a lot of fun. I thank you. Please, until next time, keep hacking the entrepreneur.