BuzzFeed: A Publisher Doing It Right

July 31, 2012

Sometime last fall BuzzFeed became a daily stop for me. Set up to be nothing but quick bites of memes, photos and new ideas, it is a slightly (but only) better than guilty pleasure. Originally entirely centered on Internet memes, it started to grow into more than a guilty pleasure when it snared Ben Smith, the political gossip columnist, from Politico. Since Smith made the move, BuzzFeed has added quick, but thoughtful, takes on the political news of the day, framing big stories in an easily digestible, water-cooler-talk, kind of way.

Not content to be the latest ICanHasCheezburger copycat, BuzzFeed is clearly on to something.

And then last week BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti wrote an amazing letter to his employees. In it, he laid out the company’s vision, how BuzzFeed should relate to readers and what Peretti thinks BuzzFeed’s competitive advantage is. The message, clearly written for public consumption, avoids boosterism and manages to be cheerful while warning employees about the company’s potential pitfalls.

This paragraph, in particular, really struck me:

“Vertical integration means we have to be good at lots of things which is hard.  But doing something hard can actually be an advantage for a business.  It means that there are not that many other people trying to do what we do or capable of doing what we do.  For example, venture capitalists don’t like funding companies that have reporters on staff.  In the early days of BuzzFeed, I had several VCs say they were interested in investing if we could figure out a way to fire all the editors and still run the site. I’m not joking.Tech investors prefer pure platform companies because you can just focus on the tech, have the users produce the content for free, and scale the business globally without having to hire many people.  Startups that promise this vision have an easier time attracting funding which is why there are so many startups trying to be the next Twitter or Facebook or the Instagram or Pinterest for X, Y, or Z.  Meanwhile, companies that employ reporters, editors, and creative people usually struggle to get funding which is why so few publishing companies or agencies are venture backed.”

Peretti is really doubling down here. He’s telling everyone, in a very nice way, if they haven’t bought into his concept, they’re behind the curve. He’s not burning any bridges, but he’s certainly making it harder to change direction if the whole vertical integration thing doesn’t work out.

This is some thoughtful, but daring stuff. How many publishers can you cite that are doing those two things at once?