Zamzar was launched in October 2006 and in this special series of blog posts we look at some of the biggest startup successes who also launched in 2006 and how they came to be.
Jonah Peretti and all things viral
To look at how BuzzFeed began we need to start with BuzzFeed’s CEO and founder Jonah Peretti. Jonah has a formidable track record and has long been obsessed with the idea of viral content. Back in Grad school, Peretti was faced with the unenviable task of writing his Masters. Whilst procrastinating and surfing the web he stumbled across the Nike website, and a new tool which allowed users to customise their own shoes.
Peretti tried to customise some shoes by writing “sweatshop” underneath the tick but Nike rejected the order. This prompted an email discussion between Peretti and Nike. Nike claimed it was an inappropriate term, whilst Peretti laid out it’s definition as “a factory worker who works in poor conditions.” The conversation carried on until Nike said they wouldn’t be sending the shoes, with Peretti countering by saying “can you at least send me a picture of the 10 year old Vietnamese girl who stitched the shoes.”
Peretti pasted this email content and sent to his friends, who then forwarded to their friends and suddenly the email blew up, went viral and ended up on The Today Show where he debated the issue with Nike’s head of PR. It would be this experience that showed Peretti that media was shifting. If something was worth sharing it would be shared and could potentially reach millions of people even if you didn’t own a printing press.
Peretti enjoyed other viral successes. He created a New York rejection phone line where people who were being ‘hit on‘ and asked for their number could give out the rejection line number instead of their own.
Anyone calling the number would get an automated rejection message “the person who gave you this number didn’t actually want to see you again.” This idea proved incredibly popular and helped Peretti to achieve viral success number two. The viral successes didn’t stop and it wasn’t long before Peretti gained significant attention and quit his teaching job.
The Huffington Post
All of these experiences led Peretti to Kenneth Lerer. The two worked together loosely on some projects and impressed each other. It was clear to Lerer that Peretti knew the Internet, and Peretti had been impressed with Lerer’s knowledge of the business world. They agreed to start a business together. They just didn’t know, at that time, what it would be.
Around that time, Lerer met Arianna Huffington and was staggered by how impressive her network. Lerer decided, there and then, without Peretti’s knowledge, to start a company with Huffington of which Peretti, Lerer and Huffington would be equal shareholders. The final piece of the puzzle was Lerer securing Andrew Breitbert from the Drudge Report. With Huffington’s network, Breitbert’s knowledge of news and content, Peretti’s ability to make things go viral and Lerer’s business acumen the Huffington Post was born and went on to become a huge success.
The birth of BuzzFeed
In 2006, Whilst working at the Huffington Post Peretti created an Instant Messenger bot called “BuzzBot“. This tool harnessed a trend detector, built by Peretti, which crawled blogs, looking for popular links among a pool of influential bloggers. It was inspired by BlogDex, a similar tool, but added a new dimension to automatically message users when a link appeared to be going viral.
BuzzBot developed over time to include a human editor – Peggy Wang (who still works for BuzzFeed today). She was tasked with sifting through the viral links and writing up summaries of any interesting stuff was that was being shared.
This morphed into the website BuzzFeed, a website that curated what was popular on the Internet. Wang’s summaries were pulling in around 300,000 visitors a year in the early days, but this number had doubled by 2008. The numbers were not enough to create a viable business, but Peretti continued to focus on growing the website to a level where it could operate as a standalone entity.
Two factors combined to make BuzzFeed a huge success. First, Huffington Post was sold in early in 2011 freeing up Peretti to focus solely on BuzzFeed. Second, was Peretti’s knowledge of how to make content go viral.
Peretti had noticed people were using content to connect to other people in their lives and using content to express their identity; for example political and cultural beliefs. Increasingly sophisticated users were not just consuming content, but instead sharing it with friends and social groups as a way of connecting with others.
Peretti, and BuzzFeed latched on to this idea. Peretti hired Politico’s Ben Smith who had garnered much attention as a political blogger. His role was to assemble a news operation to go alongside the other major focus of Peretti and BuzzFeed – listicles. Listicles were simple articles in the form of lists that centered around a common theme. For example, “11 bizarre places in the US you need to know about.”
According to Peretti he and BuzzFeed saw that:
“People were connecting online via memes and by cute animals. Cute animals were used to make them feel closer to a person, much in the same way that they pat a dog. It’s not just about the dog, it’s a way for them to connect to other people. And humour is the same thing, when you laugh with someone you instantly feel closer to them.”
BuzzFeed gave users the tools to easily share their content via any social network, as they accelerated the virality of all forms of content – news, video, short and long form writing and listicles. BuzzFeed was also adept at spotting emerging trends – for a time there was a focus on quizzes as users were increasingly sharing that content. More recently politics has become a key focus for the site.
BuzzFeed has been able to grow to become one of the worlds biggest news websites because Peretti developed tools and instincts to determine what content people wanted to consume online. More importantly he knew what content people were likely to share. Right back to the very first email to Nike, Peretti had a strong sense for what content might go viral. He leveraged that instinct to build a company that specialised in virality, and in the process built one of the biggest new websites of the modern era.