#61. BuzzFeed Commerce, the media company’s commerce and product arm, has proved in only a short span of time that it might be the most agile and prolific team in consumer products. We talk with its director, Ben Kaufman, who joined the company with his team in the fall of 2016 after realizing that BuzzFeed thinks about social content in the same way he thought about social products—in the last year and a half, Ben and his team have produce a litany of products that span audiences, categories and materials, some going viral. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 61st episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letter to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders, and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:07] Joining me today is Ben Kaufman who runs BuzzFeed Commerce, the media company’s commerce and product arm. Ben and his team joined BuzzFeed in the fall of 2016 after realizing that BuzzFeed thinks about social content in the same way Ben thought about social products.

Ben: [00:00:48] We met with Jonah Peretti [the CEO of BuzzFeed] and he was like, “Wow you guys are thinking about physical products almost in the exact same way as the way we evaluate and think about digital content.”

Richie: [00:00:57] In the last year and a half, Ben and his team have produced a litany of products that span audiences, categories and materials, proving that they might be the most agile and prolific team in consumer products. Here’s my talk with Ben Kaufman.

Richie: [00:01:13] Why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to this thing that you can’t believe is your job existing.

Ben: [00:01:21] So when I was growing up I would find every reason I could to not go to school and the number one reason was to go to my mom’s factory in Queens where they injection-molded permanent merchandising fixtures for most of—

Richie: [00:01:38] This is in the blood.

Ben: [00:01:44] Oh, it is. It’s deep in the blood—displays for cosmetic companies and all of the major department stores in New York. I would sit on the factory line and add spring-steel pushers to nail polish dispensers.

Richie: [00:01:55] Like your own Foxconn.

Ben: [00:01:56] Yeah, it was Long Island’s Foxconn. Yeah, I was exposed to the process of making stuff as early as I can remember and it was a family—it wasn’t my family’s business but my entire family worked there. So my grandfather ran the shipping department and logistics—I would sit there and watch him load 18-wheelers—and my mom ran operations and my aunt ran sales. That’s how I got exposed to this stuff. So, anyway, I was a horrible student and the journey really began, outside of being exposed to stuff there, my senior year in high school, where I was trying to figure out a way to not listen to my teacher but instead listen to my iPod Shuffle without her realizing. So I had an idea for a product and it was basically a lanyard headphone. So it was kind of a lanyard keychain that you would wear in high school and then headphones kind of wrapped up through it. I went home, prototyped it out of ribbon and gift wrap and that was the start of a company called Mophie, named after my two golden retrievers, Molly and Sophie, and that was the beginning.

Richie: [00:02:58] What’s the three-to-five minute version of that company? And then what got you up to BuzzFeed basically?

Ben: [00:03:05] So Mophie was an Apple accessory company. Made all sorts of [what] I used to call them condoms for iPod and then later iPhones, got really excited about the process of making stuff. When you have a product company, people start asking you about their product ideas and people started being like, “Oh you make these products, I have this great idea for X”. And I was very interested in the fact that I was lucky that I was able to start a product company because my parents were crazy and they remortgaged their house and all of these circumstances allowed me to start a product company. So I got really excited about trying to democratize the way products are created and let the best idea win.

Ben: [00:03:42] So I wound up selling Mophie, arguably prematurely, and focusing on building out this platform for ideas. It was originally called Cluster. Cluster was the software that helped people collaborate online and we actually had a digital currency which is really funny to think about. And then Cluster morphed into the invention company known as Quirky which was a phenomenal ride and, like any ride, it had its ups and downs. So Quirky developed like 500 products in six years, retail distribution in 70,000 doors around the world, incredible team and then died a quick and horrible death.

Ben: [00:04:21] And the reason Quirky died—and I’ve never actually spoken about this publicly—is because we were creating products at a pace really unbelievable to the world but there was nowhere for that pace of innovation to be absorbed in the retail channel because of the way brick-and-mortar retail works. And that was our primary method of distribution at Quirky. You plan products 18, 24 months in advance, and so on. There was just this huge gap between what we were creating and what the world was able to absorb in its current methods of distribution.

Richie: [00:04:55] Right. And that was third-party distribution or your own or both?

Ben: [00:04:59] It was everything. It was any way we could get a box out into the world. Nothing could keep up. Obviously, in hindsight, probably should’ve just stuck with direct ecommerce at Quirky, but because we were a venture-backed company chasing growth, wholesale orders were just a lot easier to grow on. That experience of realizing that, wow, we could completely flip upside down the way products are made.

Richie: [00:05:24] What did that mean? Or how?

Ben: [00:05:25] Getting products from literally sketch to full-store roll-out at Bed Bath and Beyond in 28 days.

Richie: [00:05:30] So like fast fashion for products.

Ben: [00:05:32] For real invention. And even fast fashion is like 90 days, 120 days. This was crazy fast. See a trend happening in the world, respond, manufacture, get it out, distribute it. That was an incredibly fun process and the thing that I realized was, “Okay, well that should still exist in the world.” So, post-Quirky, got together with a group of friends and started to experiment with, “How do you marry that very trend-aware product development process with a modern distribution model?”

Ben: [00:06:05] And, along with a group of folks, we created a candle company and this candle company was basically created with distribution in mind at first. So we said—instead of, “What is a cool product idea we should launch?” we said, “What is a targetable audience on Facebook?” And we realized we could reliably target people who have recently moved. And then we said, “Okay, well, what can we make them?” And, literally, the idea came out of the distribution and it was candles that stink like where they’re from. And we launched it quickly and spent $100 on Facebook ads, sold out of candles and just kept going. And that was a company experiment thing we called “scroll commerce.”

Ben: [00:06:47] So, about three to six months into having this candle brand and realizing, wow, you can really engineer this process with all of the social tools that exist and all of these things that make products inherently social—things that make you want to share something with your friend, and so on—we kept going and we grew it. And, sooner or later, we met with Jonah and he was like, “Wow”—Jonah’s the CEO of BuzzFeed—he’s like, “Wow, you guys are thinking about physical products almost in the exact same way as the way we evaluate and think about digital content.” Does it speak to someone’s identity? Does it allow them to express themselves? Does it allow them to create deeper connections with their friends? That was a cool lightbulb moment and here we are at BuzzFeed.

Richie: [00:07:30] And so when did you start officially?

Ben: [00:07:32] October 11th, 2016.

Richie: [00:07:35] What was the first thing you did? Where did you start? Because you had a team that you started with.

Ben: [00:07:40] Yeah, we had a small team we brought over, primarily ex-Quirky folks. And day one—well, we kept on building the candle business. So BuzzFeed still runs a multimillion-dollar candle enterprise, which is ridiculous.

Richie: [00:07:53] Did you have any sense how big it would get?

Ben: [00:07:54] No. In a dozen years of making products, I have come to realize that anything I think will be huge is horrible and anything I think is horrible will be huge. But it doesn’t work to just artificially think they’re horrible.

Richie: [00:08:07] You still have to form an opinion.

Ben: [00:08:08] Yeah, which I sometimes do. So, day two, I got an email from Ashley McCollum who is the general manager of our Tasty brand. Tasty is this global food network. And she was like, “Hey, I’ve gotten 15 proposals from book publishers to create a Tasty cookbook and our audience is actually asking for it.” She sent over the proposals. I looked at them. All of these publishers wanted Tasty cookbooks to launch in 2018. All right. Normal publishing timelines.

Richie: [00:08:36] We’re in October of 2016.

Ben: [00:08:38] Year and a half of development, marketing, whatever. And we like pressure. We like to put ourselves under incredible constraints. And so—

Richie: [00:08:47] Wait, why?

Ben: [00:08:48] I think it leads to great product. I think it leads to not overthinking things, not over-engineering things, not prematurely optimizing things and, ultimately, that leads to a great product.

Richie: [00:08:59] I think it’s interesting because there’s so much money floating around that people can get as much runway, within reason, as they want right now. And I think, of a similar mindset, that I would rather put a lot of constraints around something to kind of squeeze out the essence and just have every place you can go and as much money as you can spend to see something.

Ben: [00:09:16] Yeah it’s a weird one, man. This is one that’s a controversial opinion to have in the world, but I actually blame Apple for almost all of this existing in the universe. They are so good at what they do that everyone tries to think that, “Okay, well you don’t need to be the first.”

Richie: [00:09:34] Just be the best.

Ben: [00:09:35] You be the best and I want to do it right. And people think that doing it right is just an excuse to get more time.

Richie: [00:09:43] And money.

Ben: [00:09:44] Exactly. And—I don’t know—I don’t want to live in that world. I want to live in a world where we’re all incentivized to try things and fall over our own boots and fail until it’s right. And anyone who has met me for more than an hour is going to be sick of the fact that I’m gonna bring this up again, but we’re looking north right now at the Empire State Building and, to me, this is the most amazing example of being, what’s sometimes called, pressure, prompted.

Richie: [00:10:10] Is that the safe way to say it?

Ben: [00:10:11] Yeah, it’s like the business-y way to say it. Anyway, the Empire State Building was built in 410 days.

Richie: [00:10:17] Wow.

Ben: [00:10:18] And I don’t see anyone going in there and being like, “Well, if they just spent an extra couple months on this, they would have gotten it right.” I feel like it’s pretty right. I feel like it’s one of the most iconic buildings in the world. It’s standing. It’s structurally sound. It’s iconic. It’s memorable. And we built it during the Great Depression to show that we were resilient as a nation. And there are so many great examples of amazing things being invented in short amounts of time and that’s the world I want to live in.

Richie: [00:10:44] Yeah. All right. So back to Tasty.

Ben: [00:10:46] Back to Tasty. So I got an email from Ashley McCollum and she had all these publisher proposals that were 18 months out and she said, “Is there any way to make a cookbook based upon the recipes people like?” And I was like, “Oh man, maybe you could create a custom cookbook program and digitally print one at a time.” And so that was October 12th or 13th. On November 21st of 2016, exactly three and a half weeks later, we launched what became known as the Tasty Cookbook, which is the world’s first custom cookbook. We built an entire supply chain around it to print one book at a time. We built the tech that automatically published PDFs and API’d over to a printer, distributed books. In the 30 days that followed, we sold over 100,000 cookbooks.

Richie: [00:11:32] How much is each cookbook?

Ben: [00:11:36] Like $34, $35?

Richie: [00:11:38] Millions.

Ben: [00:11:39] Yeah, yeah. Like three of the millions. And we were off to the races. To me, that project was just such a great magic in a bottle of what commercial opportunities at BuzzFeed look like. An amazing brand that people love in Tasty, a completely new type of product that only modern, digital distribution methods would allow and then direct access to a 90-plus million person audience that already wants the thing because they’re so attached to the brand and spooling it up in three weeks, and there you are.

Richie: [00:12:12] Talk about some of what happened during those three weeks in terms of—how straightforward, challenging, opportunistic was it? Or what went into it?

Ben: [00:12:20] Well, we built the supply chain because, again, I’m really bad at picking winners, so we built the supply chain to handle 5,000 books and we sold 100,000. So you can imagine, in the heat of the holiday season, people want these things for Christmas, people are leaving on vacation. So, operationally, it was very difficult but we filled all orders and only like three people got the wrong book.

Richie: [00:12:41] That’s pretty good.

Ben: [00:12:43] Yeah, it was good.

Richie: [00:12:43] I think, in the last few years, the digital printing thing, across a lot of product categories, has picked up—printing via API, a lot of these more modern, on-demand things. Did you have to do trailblazing on that front in the book publishing space or was it a known quantity?

Ben: [00:12:56] There’s definitely a ton of prior art we were able to pull from but there really was no super modern way to generate PDFs on the fly. We had to build a generator for that.

Richie: [00:13:08] To make it “choose your own adventure.”

Ben: [00:13:09] Yeah. All these printers use different systems so we had to build custom integrations and web hooks that make sure we know where shipping was and now I’m going to be super boring operations guy, so I’m going to just shut up.

Richie: [00:13:21] It’s a safe space to talk about operations here.

Ben: [00:13:25] A safe space for nerdy operations guys.

Richie: [00:13:31] So first two months you launch this thing, you sell 100,000 cookbooks. Where to go from there?

Ben: [00:13:31] First of all, I tell Jonah that it’s not always this easy.

Richie: [00:13:37] The first thing’s a hit.

Ben: [00:13:39] Yeah. It’s the exact thing you don’t want to do when you get a first job. Basically just be like, “Now beat this.” There were a few other things that we just like pulled out last year, like in our first six weeks. We launched something called “The FuckShitShop”.

Richie: [00:13:50] Which is back now, right?

Ben: [00:13:51] It just had a second coming.

Richie: [00:13:54] Talk about that a bit.

Ben: [00:13:54] This was an idea that came out of one of my late night sessions with Rachel Shechtman where she, at Story, always sees that things that say “fuck” on it always do well. And, funny enough, our affiliate team here, the team that writes shopping content on BuzzFeed, also sees that signal too. So we were like, oh, well we should start a theme-based ecommerce site that just pulls together the best merchandise in this category. And so we did that, over the holidays too, which did incredibly well. We had this idea that a great social product is one where your use of the product is something that is shared, meaning you want to pull out your camera and share the fact that you own or have that product. And so our big test of this, last holiday season, was New Year’s Eve. A guy on our team had the idea of doing “Fuck 2017” glasses and we did this last year and it just—

Richie: [00:14:50] Was it 2016?

Ben: [00:14:50] Yeah but we just came out with the ’17. And New Year’s Eve last year, it just lit up Instagram and we brought it back this year for the 2017 coverage. Coming into January it was just like, let’s do more. Let’s find different experiments, different ways of proving what makes a good social product and where BuzzFeed should play.

Ben: [00:15:10] There’s really three parts to what’s now known as BuzzFeed Commerce. One is merchandising BuzzFeed’s media brands—so brands like Tasty and Nifty and our beauty brand, etc. Finding new products that can be made for them and new ways that they can monetize for commerce.

Ben: [00:15:27] The second is coming up with our own social product brands like Homesick and writing shopping content that links out to all the major retailers and merchants like Amazon and Shopify, etc.

Ben: [00:15:41] And then the third, which is new, is helping brands, advertisers of Buzzfeed, advertisers on BuzzFeed, think about commerce and think about product development in this more modern, fast, responsive way. So those are the three components to the work that has existed this year and will grow into next year.

Richie: [00:16:01] It seems like that last part was one of the major developments of this past year, in terms of working with other, whether it’s Jet or Walmart or any of that. How did that start to come about because it obviously seems to mirror the—I don’t know if you call it sponsored—

Ben: [00:16:14] Native advertising.

Richie: [00:16:17] Your native advertising but for commerce, effectively. So how did that start to come to fruition?

Ben: [00:16:20] As a company that primarily makes its money in advertising, we have deep relationships with brand marketers all around the world. And the good thing about having deep relationships with brand marketers around the world is you start to hear what their challenges are and what their problems are and advertising can solve a lot of their challenges, but not all of them. And what we’re able to do in the commerce group, through sprints—creative sprints that we run—and some other tools, is solve some of those more, kind of, deep business issues that just exist in the foundation. Like, “Oh my god, I can’t get a millennial audience into our store because the merchandise isn’t good or the merchandise isn’t modern” or “We’re having a really hard time breaking into ecommerce because we’re afraid of what the big retailers will do if we break their channel exclusivity.” And so by us being a third party in kind of a neutral safe space, we’re able to allow them and work with them to push those boundaries and it’s been fun. It’s been fun. We work with some really cool brands and we’re doing a lot of these creative sprints where we just get an incredible amount of smart people in the room and come up with new stuff.

Richie: [00:17:29] So what were some of the highlight products of this past year? What was the year in products?

Ben: [00:17:35] Okay, so the biggest surprise product, that I’m only moderately ashamed of now, was our Glamspin product. So, over the summer, fidget spinners are huge. Because I make plastic stuff, everyone’s like, “Ben, where’s your fidget spinner?” And I was trying not to play. But our research group here at BuzzFeed was like, “Hey, we’re seeing that a lot of people that consume lipgloss content are also consuming fidget spinner content.” And we had a partner come to us with this idea that mashed the two together. The partner was Taste Beauty. And, yeah, we made a lip gloss fidget spinner and it became like the number eight SKU at Sephora. I was at Saks the other weekend doing a store walk and I saw the Glamspin and I’m like, “How is this even a thing?” So Glamspin was one product.

Ben: [00:18:19] The product we’re most proud of this year won Time Magazine’s Top 25 Invention of the Year. The Tasty One Top, which is a smart, induction cooktop that basically makes it impossible to mess up cooking your food. Tap on a recipe and it tells you exactly what to do, heats the pan up to the right temperature, tells you when to flip the steak. It’s pretty cool.

Richie: [00:18:38] And where did it come from? What was it like building it?

Ben: [00:18:41] The first thing I realized in getting to know the Tasty brand was, with that bird’s eye view, top-down format, you’re always kind of seeing a few things in frame. And one of the things we always show in frame—because we don’t shoot in kitchens, we shoot in offices—is an induction cooktop. And Ashley, who runs Tasty, was like, these induction cooktops we have in these videos are getting two-plus billion views a month, just of organic. And I was trying to think about, “Oh, what if we just made it more iconic?” And Adam—who runs industrial design here at BuzzFeed—and I have had a longstanding relationship with GE appliances and they were working on an induction cooktop and we kind of joined hands to create the Tasty One Top, which has this iconic look to it and brought it to life. We started in February, shipped it in December—pretty fast-paced project for a smart appliance—but it’s a really great item that we’re all pretty proud of.

Richie: [00:19:38] And how did the launch go for that?

Ben: [00:19:40] It was great. We just sold out. We’re making more now. But just as I was talking about earlier, there’s always a way to get it done. I was in China last week because we were doing last-minute checks, trying to get the thing out. We were like, we got to get this to people for Christmas. We’re shipping direct from the factory, directly to people’s doorstep.

Richie: [00:19:58] Not cheap.

Ben: [00:19:59] You know what? You’ve gotta factor in all of these hidden costs. Like the boat to the warehouse, the warehouse to the FedEx, the FedEx to the doorstep. Yes, it is more expensive but if you factor in all of the time and the people and the touch points, maybe it’s not. And it also takes two days instead of two weeks.

Richie: [00:20:19] Right, so what are the sales you get because it’s so quick.

Ben: [00:20:22] Exactly.

Richie: [00:20:23] So was that one of the first where you created a product with a big partner or has that always been the mentality, is to look where expertise is and work with it if possible?

Ben: [00:20:30] Yeah, we try not to have a formula. Again, the mentality of the team is that there’s always a way to find—

Richie: [00:20:37] It’s just: “What’s the best way for this?”

Ben: [00:20:38] To get a product out. Right. Sometimes it’s affiliate. Sometimes it’s licensing. Sometimes it’s code development, with GE. Sometimes it’s just doing it all ourselves. Every product has a path of least resistance to market acceptance and that’s what we look to get to.

Richie: [00:20:54] You mentioned before with Glamspin—

Ben: [00:20:55] The fuckin’ fidget spinner.

Richie: [00:20:58] The fuckin’ fidget spinner. You’ve had insight coming from BuzzFeed Research. How does that relationship work because it seems that you have so much at your fingertips. I’m curious, what do you get fed and what are those conversations like? And then how do you actually decide what to act on versus not?

Ben: [00:21:10] It is not a super smooth or defined path. It’s very similar to my answer of the last question. It’s a push and pull. It’s whatever makes sense for the project we’re working on. Sometimes we get thrown ideas and we go to the research department and try to validate it. Sometimes they throw us trends. They publish kind of like their top trends of the week to the whole company and things like this that we try and glean insights from. So it’s a push-pull. There is no like, “Oh, there’s a meeting every Monday.”

Richie: [00:21:40] Right. “We decide the future.”

Ben: [00:21:43] Yeah.

Richie: [00:21:43] So you mentioned validation before. How do you validate things? Do you just launch a thing or are there, like you did with Homesick, are there tests that you run and all that?

Ben: [00:21:51] Yeah. We likely evaluate ideas less so on the, “Is this cool?” or whatever, and more so on the, “What’s the investment that’s going to be required in order to get to the point where we know this is a good idea?”

Ben: [00:22:03] So, recently—this is a great story of why media companies should do what we’re doing. There was an artist in London and this artist in London created a concept for a fanny pack. It was a fanny pack that made you look like you had a dad bod. This concept was getting a lot of pickup online and a BuzzFeed News reporter called and interviewed this artist. “What’s the vision?” “Why’d you create it?” “How did you come up with it?” “And what’s next?” And, when they got to the what’s next section, he said, “Oh, I’m looking for partners, blah, blah. I don’t have a manufacturing. I don’t know what I’m doing.” That article then went to our legal department for image clearances and so on and the legal department was like, “Oh my god, should we be making this thing?” pings me, and I was like, “This is actually a very social idea. And we could digitally print these things on neoprene and get them out in like 15, 20 days.” So we evaluated that idea, not on, “Is this a huge long-term business for BuzzFeed?” but from a “This is going to take us no time and it’s super simple and I could put someone on this for an hour and get it out and why not?” So that’s how we evaluate ideas.

Richie: [00:23:13] You lower risk as much as possible and then see where it goes.

Ben: [00:23:16] Is it inherently social and is it going to be a huge time suck? As long as it’s not going to be huge time suck and it’s social, we’ll probably give it a try. Big ideas, like a Tasty One Top, we’ll be a bit more deliberate about—some research, some marketing analysis, figure out who the players are. But, for the most part, the fast product development stuff like Glamspin, it’s like, “How hard is this going to be?” And as long as the answer is not so hard and it’s pretty cool and social, we might give it a shot.

Richie: [00:23:46] Right. And by give it a shot, you launch it.

Ben: [00:23:49] We launch it. We launched this dad-bod thing—.

Richie: [00:23:51] I assume that artist was—is he a part of it or you just did your own?

Ben: [00:23:54] No, no, no. That’s the thing. We would never steal ideas from people. My entire life has been protecting inventors. What’s funny though is that there’s a hundred rip-offs of this thing online already—Alibaba, etc. We’re the only officially licensed one. But, you know what, who cares? We did the right thing. But we launched this thing and sold like tens of thousands of dollars of this thing in the first day.

Richie: [00:24:17] That’s awesome.

Ben: [00:24:18] And it’s a thing we made in a couple days. It’s great.

Richie: [00:24:21] So, after you say, “Okay, this won’t take that much to do,” you launch it, what does the scaling process look like? Because you have started to tap into more traditional distribution on top of your existing digital stuff. So when stuff hits, what do you do? Or how do you expand it from a distribution perspective?

Ben: [00:24:38] So we started structuring partnerships with these companies that we work with to create products in a very interesting way. Knowing what we know about launching products and how it works in the BuzzFeed media brand online environment, we structure deals in such a way where we get the product out quickly, we handle the distribution, but then we usually are working with partners on the other side who are more traditional. They sell retail. So, for the stuff we sell directly, we’re paying them a royalty and then when they sell into their channel and they get into Saks or Walmart or wherever, they’re paying us royalties so we kind of leverage each other’s strengths. It also means I don’t have to be a brick-and-mortar vendor, which is my number-one life goal.

Richie: [00:25:21] I guess, on that note, it seems like, also from an inventory perspective, you have little, if any. I assume that was instrumental to making this model work. But talk more about that.

Ben: [00:25:30] It’s pretty cool how much volume we’re driving with almost zero inventory. So our candle business—we’re pouring candles in Massachusetts, there’s a daily truck that goes to our distribution center in New Jersey and that’s the supply chain. Our books are printed on-demand. All of BuzzFeed merch is largely printed on-demand. One Tops—we have them in our possession, we have title to One Tops for maybe 48 hours max. It’s cool. That’s part of the fun puzzle, is figuring out how to design these supply chains so that we don’t have a horrible product business on our hands.

Richie: [00:26:10] Yeah. Has it been hard to find suppliers that will do that? Or are we just in a place now where there’s a crop of suppliers that are bringing the type of manufacturing that you want to use?

Ben: [00:26:19] I mean here’s the thing. No one wants inventory. There’s not one part of the supply chain that is like, “Yeah, we want these guys to buy more inventory.” Everyone knows inventory is a bad word. So everyone’s kind of starting to get into the mode of “Okay, if we become more agile as a molder then our customers are better and if our customers are better, that means they’ll buy more stuff.” So inventory is great because incentives are aligned all the way around. Manufacturers don’t want customers to have more inventory than they need. There’s only one place where this breaks. Big-box retailers want vendors to have more inventory than they need.

Richie: [00:26:55] Right.

Ben: [00:26:56] But I think that will change over time because there’s enough great vendors that get caught with their pants down and go out of business that retailers are starting to get smarter about, “Hey, we don’t want you to be in this super inventory position.”

Richie: [00:27:10] Right. So, having worked with this audience for 15-now months, what have you learned about the audience and the power of the BuzzFeed audience?

Ben: [00:27:18] Yeah it’s incredible. There is such fandom that exists in some of these brands and some these shows that we have. A recent example is, we have a show called “BuzzFeed Unsolved” which is a YouTube series where we try and solve unsolved crimes or look into supernatural phenomenon, etc. And the community around that show is so enthralled with the hosts of the show and the brand of the show and the cases the show goes into that the amount of merch that we do—BuzzFeed Unsolved hats… And this audience—if we create content that they love and we create brands that they love, the merchandise is just an extension of that. It’s their representation of their affinity toward what we’re doing, the work we’re doing. The mission of Buzzfeed to deepen people’s social connections and relationships is really strengthened by physical product. Sharing an article or a video online is great but everyone also loves like getting a Christmas gift that’s like, “Oh my god, you got me “The Try Guys” calendar? I love Eugene!”

Richie: [00:28:26] How has the company’s view of what you’re doing changed over the last 15 months?

Ben: [00:28:31] I think it’s much better understood at the moment.

Richie: [00:28:35] Why?

Richie: [00:28:35] Well, we came in and we were just like BuzzFeed Product Labs. For the first few months, most of the company didn’t even know BuzzFeed Product Labs existed. Tasty Cookbook came out and, slowly but surely, we’ve become more deeply integrated into the core of BuzzFeed’s business and, in the recent weeks, we are now part of the core of BuzzFeed’s business and no longer in a separate office on 22nd Street.

Richie: [00:28:57] You’re out of there?

Ben: [00:28:57] Yeah we’re moving into the mothership here. It’s been a really great process to have the space to prove out these new models and experiment and then, over time, naturally be absorbed into the main machine. And I think next year is gonna be a really great year because we’re all collaborating and sharing ideas with brands and figuring out, how does advertising drive commerce drive show development at our BuzzFeed studios and have all of these things work really well together.

Richie: [00:29:28] So, I guess on that note, Jonah wrote a memo talking about how you were all diversifying revenue streams in a number ways. To me, as I’ve just followed Product Labs and you, there has been this rapid ascent, basically, of commerce becoming a more kind of core part of the business. How did those conversations evolve where this went from a little skunkworks, in a way, to being part of the fabric of the future of this company?

Ben: [00:29:51] BuzzFeed’s business was built with this test-and-learn mentality and that’s what Product Lab was. It was the ability to test, is there real material revenue to be made through these commercial opportunities? We’ve certainly got a long way to go but in the last year we’ve proven that there’s a lot of meat on the bone here. And, as Jonah said in the memo, we have such a deep connection with our audience and we’re such a part of their lives that it’s on us to build a strong business that can continue to support the amount of content and the amount of development that we do in order to stay in front of people with entertaining content that speaks to their identity and gets great news, investigative journalism out to them, etc.

Richie: [00:30:32] Have you found that the speed that you wanted to operate out has been accepted, if not amplified, by both BuzzFeed internally and the audience? That there is actually the appetite for it?

Ben: [00:30:41] Yeah. I think, operationally, there’s always stuff to work out. Like how do we make sure that these products we are coming out with are promoted when everyone else has things to promote? And so, just like any job or company, there’s a lot of operational kinks to work out. But yeah. I don’t feel like I’m held back. I don’t feel like our development times are slower than I’d like them to be.

Richie: [00:31:04] Or even from an audience perspective. They have the appetite for your pace.

Ben: [00:31:08] Oh yeah. I mean the cool thing about it is there is no audience.

Richie: [00:31:14] What does that mean?

Ben: [00:31:15] Well, there’s lots of audiences. And that’s what the cool thing about BuzzFeed is. It’s not like we’re hitting “The Try Guys” audience with a new product every week. We hit “The Try Guys” audience with maybe a product once a quarter or twice a year. We hit the Nifty audience with a product a couple times a year. We hit the Tasty audience with ten products a year. So the culmination of this is a lot of products, a lot of commerce. But the same person isn’t seeing an endless flow of buy this, buy this, buy this.

Richie: [00:31:43] And the products are not cannibalizing each other either.

Ben: [00:31:46] No. Hopefully not. We actually are starting experiments in cannibalization just ’cause we like to do this to ourselves. But we have the Tasty custom cookbook that we launched last year still selling really well. But we also did a publishing deal with Penguin Random House to sell a traditional, published, available in bookstores around the world cookbook.

Ben: [00:32:05] We did this for two reasons. One is we love Penguin Random House and the book is just beautiful. But, the second, we really wanted to understand the dynamics of publishing. And, like, okay this is what a custom cookbook does in the market where we own the supply chain and have to ship boxes and deal with customer service, etc. And here’s what a publishing deal looks like. And start to understand, what are all the different levers to pull for all of our brands and all of our opportunities?

Richie: [00:32:27] I assume this is the most successful example of a media company creating product. Is that fair to say? BuzzFeed’s?

Ben: [00:32:32] No.

Richie: [00:32:33] No? Who would be more successful?

Ben: [00:32:34] Disney.

Richie: [00:32:35] Okay. Yeah.

Ben: [00:32:37] It’s funny. I think maybe digital media. Maybe we could get the digital media crowd.

Richie: [00:32:42] Of the new crop.

Ben: [00:32:43] But, yeah, Disney’s merchandise business is just like tremendous. You can’t really come close to that.

Richie: [00:32:50] Okay, so that’s really interesting, because there have been a lot of different attempts—I’ll bracket within the digital media space—to marry this idea of content and commerce. Most of them have failed, not hit expectations. Why do you think this has been different? And then does it all map to how Disney has built theirs or is that so different that it’s uncomparable?

Ben: [00:33:07] Well, first of all, I don’t want to claim success with commerce at BuzzFeed. It’s been a year. We’ve done some cool stuff. It’ll continue to grow and we’ll learn. But I’ve been through enough cycles to know just because you had a good year doesn’t mean next year will be a good one. So we still have a lot of work to do to prove out the sustainability of this.

Ben: [00:33:26] How has Disney gotten really good at it? I think number one is building strong brands and, at BuzzFeed, this is something we’re really investing in next year and it was part of Jonah’s memo—BuzzFeed media brands. We have tremendous success with Tasty and we have audiences in all of the other lifestyle verticals and we now need to build strong brands there. Brands that can be merchandised, brands that have personalities, etc. That is something Disney does incredibly well—the stewardship of the brands, the control they have over the brands and the way they’ve positioned themselves is just fantastic. That said, they’re not all that responsive. So, when a hit like “Frozen” comes out, it takes them a year-plus to get the merchandise flowing and that is something that I think we can solve for. When we see something is a runner, we can respond and get stuff to market quick.

Richie: [00:34:14] Interesting. I think Netflix just started making merch for “Stranger Things.” That sweater was the first thing. You also have a big motion picture arm. Are those discussions happening or products?

Ben: [00:34:23] Yeah. So our studios, BuzzFeed Studios—everything just got a new name.

Richie: [00:34:29] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ben: [00:34:30] No, it’s fine. BuzzFeed Studios is selling shows to all the major distribution mechanisms—Netflix, Hulu, etc., and these shows will have merchandise attached to them. But another thing we’re toying with, we haven’t done a ton of yet, is, should we help our partner media companies be faster at product development as well? Is there a role for us to play in that regard? Can we help our friends at NBC or whoever it might be merchandise hit shows faster, using the supply chains, etc. we’ve set up and what our role is there.

Richie: [00:35:05] Yeah. From a product perspective, what won’t you do? Are there limits on anything or things where you’re like, “This is just too much or too far”? Are you boundaryless?

Ben: [00:35:14] I would say smart products and then I’m sitting here selling a smart product, but I’m pretty done with smart products. I don’t like them. I think the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, from a customer perspective. It adds a layer of complexity and cost and it sets yourself up for more work than a product needs to have, with little benefit from a customer perspective. The One Top is something we felt good about making because it’s not like Wi-Fi connected, predictive, whatever. It’s time and temperature, but it’s still a connected product.

Ben: [00:35:47] So I have a much higher bar on connected products just because of the amount of connected products I’ve created and how hard those are. We would never do anything that is—we wouldn’t do weapons or things of that nature. And then anything that is not inclusive, like things that kind of shut people out in one way or the other, we would we would shy away from.

Richie: [00:36:07] How do you—running this team—and, now I guess BuzzFeed more broadly, think about both the scale for these products and success generally? How has that evolved over the last 15 months?

Ben: [00:36:20] I mean, in the early part of this work, it was really just trying to learn something. What type of products work? What type of supply chains work? What type of work is easier than others? We now have a really good understanding of when to pull the affiliate lever, when to pull the licensing lever, which is really new and interesting and then when to just go at it on our own or co-develop and that was the way we evaluated this year. Pretty easy to look at from a gross margin perspective.

Richie: [00:36:50] So, one of the more interesting developments we’ve looked at is, as media and commerce get more integrated and as, basically, competition for products—there’s just more stuff than ever before to make sense of—gift guides are becoming really interesting and important. And The New York Times bought The Wirecutter which has powered their gift guide—

Ben: [00:37:09] It’s Wirecutter.

Richie: [00:37:08] They dropped the “The?”

Ben: [00:37:09] They dropped the “The.”

Richie: [00:37:10] Sorry. The New York Times bought Wirecutter and you had a pretty built out gift guide as well. So, traditionally, when media companies did not make their own products, there were a ton of ethical compromises or biases in some way, whether it’s affiliate fees or gifted products or stuff like that. How do you, from an ethical slash transparency disclosure perspective, think about when BuzzFeed pushes a BuzzFeed product versus another product because you have the affiliate relationships and your press?

Ben: [00:37:36] So, first of all, there’s disclosure on everything. So at the top of any BuzzFeed promoted item that BuzzFeed owns or has created on its own or affiliate content, there’s always the “Hey, BuzzFeed makes money if you buy something from any of these links.” So we are always upfront. That’s always like pretty big font at the top of every gift guide, at the bottom of every gift guide. By no means are we trying to mislead the audience. We take that stuff really seriously.

Ben: [00:38:01] At the same time, our editorial shopping team is just that. It’s an editorial shopping team. The team that makes products and designs products actually has to pitch that editorial team. We’re not able to just be like, “Hey, put this on the gifts for under $50.”

Richie: [00:38:15] “And get me a hundred million page views.”

Ben: [00:38:16] Oh they’ll fight back. They’ll fight back hard.

Richie: [00:38:19] But, again, that seems like a very valuable constraint.

Ben: [00:38:21] It’s great. And that team is so smart. They know what the audience does and they’ve built a tremendous—what we call shopping content vertical—on the site. If you Google right now “holiday gift guide,” we’re the top-billed gift guide. The tech team has done a great job building all these filters and things for you to find gifts. Yeah, it’s been really good. That team is super solid and our affiliate business is tremendous. We drive a lot of commerce through BuzzFeed.

Richie: [00:38:49] Yeah. What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned in the last 15 months?

Ben: [00:38:55] I think the cheapest lesson has been Glamspin. It just kind of solidified—the audience is huge. The people that work here are not our customers. Our customers are our customers. And just because we all think an idea is stupid or silly or whatever doesn’t mean that it’s not a tremendous product that’s on-trend and that people want to buy. I mean, it was like the biggest hit gift at visiting days at summer camps all around the country because it was right in that timeframe, you know.

Ben: [00:39:27] The most expensive… I would say One Top. It was a long project. It was expensive. It taught us two things. One—smart products are still hard. And number two—products don’t just have a role of making a media company money. Commerce doesn’t just have a role making a media company. The One Top—it grew our brand. The fact that Tasty, the food recipe thing from Facebook, is delivering this thing to people’s homes that makes them into good chefs, it brings the brand to life in such a way that no marketing could ever do.

Richie: [00:40:04] Or nothing digital which is almost the paradox of this whole thing.

Ben: [00:40:08] Yeah. So that was an expensive thing to do. It’s something we’re so proud of just because it is atypical but it’s such a service to that audience and it’s such a great thing for the brand.

Richie: [00:40:18] That paradox is super interesting and I think something we’re seeing a lot which is, as the world gets more digital, there is this gut reaction or this counterforce happening now from the quest for more physical things which I think is great.

Ben: [00:40:30] Oh, hell yeah.

Richie: [00:40:31] What do you think you’re not yet good at or you’re not yet as good as you want to be at something that is on the docket to get better at?

Ben: [00:40:40] I always want to get better at marketing products. I feel like me and the team […] that I’ve been lucky enough to have together for quite a long time—

Richie: [00:40:49] Right, because this is a team you’ve worked with for years.

Ben: [00:40:51] For many, many years. I feel like we’re really good at making stuff, getting stuff out and pleasing customers. And the reason we love being here at BuzzFeed is, as much as we’re doing our thing, we’re also learning every day about how to connect with that audience, build products that compel them to purchase. Because then you have the full circle. Make stuff, sell stuff, make stuff, sell stuff, make stuff, sell stuff. And I feel like for too long I had just a half circle.

Richie: [00:41:19] From a metrics or measurement perspective, what does that even look like for success? Is this because you have all the social side or is there a different set of metrics that, to a traditional product company, are new? Because you have all the stuff at your fingertips but also you still use your gut on this stuff as well.

Ben: [00:41:34] Yeah, sometimes. I’d say, listen, the numbers are the numbers. Sales, gross, margin.

Richie: [00:41:40] That the stuff’s the same.

Richie: [00:41:42] Add, spend. That stuff’s the same and it’s always going to be like the North Star. But there’s also a bunch of other hidden things that we may have internal goals for. Like, what percentage of a 90-million person Facebook page can we convert to true customers who are paying us? That’s a very interesting problem for me. What is the value of a Facebook like? And how many people can I take, from a Facebook ‘like,’ further upstream to a customer that has Tasty merchandise in their house?

Richie: [00:42:12] And then, just given all of the changes happening that were kind of announced recently, are you surprised how more reliant or how much bigger part of what you’re doing is for BuzzFeed’s future? What do you think about that coming in?

Ben: [00:42:26] I don’t know. I’m very anti-

Richie: [00:42:28] Expectation?

Ben: [00:42:29] Premature optimization. I, again, joined BuzzFeed, one, because I was enthralled by the leadership team here and the group of people [who] work here but, two, because I wanted to learn myself, how do I have this audience connection and make stuff that sells? I’ve done enough startups to know that businesses evolve, not just internally, but also the external environment that a business plays in changes. And change is good. Evolution is great and, one year, commerce may be great, the other year it might be down and changes need to happen in order to re-adjust and make sure that this amazing company can continue to exist and thrive. So, yeah.

Richie: [00:43:10] Yeah.

Richie: [00:43:11] And then, just going into next year, what are you excited about and what’s on the docket?

Ben: [00:43:16] We’ve been working all year this year on a big program and this program is a larger retail program—[the largest] that I’ve ever worked on my life—and it rolls out March 1st. I’ve never worked on a program this long and I’m excited, very excited for it. Sorry, I’m not usually the guy that gives vague answers like that without real concrete stuff.

Richie: [00:43:36] Yeah.

Ben: [00:43:36] But, yeah, I’m excited for that. I’m excited to really play with the affiliate model more. Affiliate has this bad reputation of being like the underbelly of the Internet and coupon sites and deals, and so on, and I think it’d be really cool to take that to a place that’s just leveled-up reader service, like really curating merchandise all around the world for the customer. Those are probably two big areas.

Richie: [00:43:59] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Ben: [00:44:01] Thanks, man.

Richie: [00:44:08] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. Join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com and feel free to leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. This episode was edited by George Drake Jr., and my thanks to him for his time on it. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Alex Fogelson of Taste Beauty and Jack Carlson of Rowing Blazers. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.