How I Did It
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How I Did It: Lessons Learned: When Things Go Viral

BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti talks about how an e-mail exchange with Nike led to his idea for promoting social content across the Web.

Lessons Learned: Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti talks about how an e-mail exchange with Nike led to his idea for promoting social content across the Web.

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Video Transcript

00:07 Jonah Peretti: I'm Jonah Peretti, I'm the CEO and founder of BuzzFeed, and BuzzFeed is a social content site where we help media spread all across the web through platforms like Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon. There's been a lot of work done building out these networks, I think now is the time to figure out, "How do things spread, why does one idea become popular and another one fizzle? How do you make something that when people see it they'll freak out, and say, "This is awesome" and share it with all of their friends.

00:33 Peretti: So, and I started BuzzFeed, really, it goes back to when I was in grad school at the MIT Media Lab, and I was supposed to be writing my masters thesis, and, like a lot of graduate students, I was procrastinating, and I went to Nike's website -- this was back in 2001 -- and they had just launched NIKEiD, which is a service where you could customize your shoes and put a word on the side of the shoes. And, being a smartass, I customized a pair of shoes with the word "sweatshop", because I thought, "Oh, is Nike going to send me a pair of shoes that say "sweatshop" under the swoosh, and they wrote back, and said, "This is inappropriate slang, so we can't put them on the shoe," and then I respond and I said, "No, actually, it's in the dictionary, it means 'a shop or factory where workers toil under unhealthy conditions, now can you send them to me?" And we had this sort of epic back and forth, and eventually, they said, "Well, we reserve the right to not send the shoes," and I said, "Okay, fine, but can you at least send me a picture of the tall girl, Vietnamese girl who stitches them together?" And then, they didn't write back.

01:30 Peretti: And I looked at it, and I was like, "Oh, this is kind of funny." So I pasted it together, sent it to twelve friends, then those friends thought it was funny, they sent it to some of their friends, then it became one of these early email forwards that ended up getting... Activist lists, and then reporters started picking it up. I didn't really know that much about the sweatshop issue, but I still ended up on the Today Show with the Nike's head of PR, and Katie Couric, and they knew sweatshop labor, which they really weren't even that qualified to talk about, and I was like, "How did that happen?"

01:57 Peretti: And then, I started to think about this phenomenon, which is sort of a new phenomenon, which you can tell twelve people about something, and have it reach millions of people, and start to think about what I started to call the "bored-at-work" network, which is the millions of bored office workers who spend half of... Who are connected to high speed internet connections, and they spend half of their day sharing media and passing stuff to put on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on social networks, and the other half of their day working, and collectively they're making a network that's bigger than even traditional media networks, and literally, you can reach hundreds of millions of people if you make something that the bored-at-work network likes.

02:36 Peretti: And now, you're starting to see the emergence of sort of the borderline network of people on their mobile phones in line at the supermarket, or whatever, which is kind of a newer area. But, it occurred to me that people weren't really programming content for this new world of network world where people are sharing content with each other, and that's the primary way of it spreading. And so, BuzzFeed really emerged out of a lot of work making memes and viral things on the web, and trying to understand why they spread, and how do they spread.

What advice do you wish you had been told when you first started out?

03:11 Peretti: There are so many things that I wish I'd have been told. When I was getting started. I made lots of, sort of, basic mistakes around like, "How do you incorporate? You shouldn't create an LLC, you should create a Delaware-based corporation, and you should do your legal documents this way or that way, you should do your options this way or that way, here's how founders shares works, here's how this works." There's all these sort of boring technical things. They're all pretty easy to do, but there's tons of things that I didn't know. When I meet somebody who's starting a company for the first time there's always... It's not one thing that they didn't know, it's like 25 things that they didn't know, and you could run through them from legal things to financing to products to team building, hiring, it's like there's so many factors. And I think to be a good entrepreneur you have to be comfortable with being more of a generalist, and it's nice if you have one area of expertise or one thing that you're really passionate about, but then you have to be kind of good at lots of things.

Last updated: Aug 10, 2011