Today we’re speaking with Emerson Spartz, founder of Spartz Media. Emerson is a young entrepreneur( born in 1987) and is a New York Times best-selling author, founder and CEO. He’s a middle school drop-out and founded the #1 fan site for Harry Potter, Muggle.net, OMG Facts and Spartz Media portfolio of sites and apps. Today his company launches a new site every month and to date earns 160 million monthly pageviews across its various properties..
Keypoint Takeaways: Thinking Big
At 12-years-old, Emerson convinced his parents to let him drop-out of school and homeschool himself. At its peak, his site Muggle.net grew to 50 million paid views a month, forcing Emerson to grow up fast. He was managing a paid and volunteer team of 120 people. Muggle.net wasn’t just a stand alone website, it was a collection of different properties from online forums, fan phishing sites and books. Emerson also had the number one podcast in the world, not just for Harry Potter, but for all podcasts.
While most people would think virality was hard, Emerson makes it seem like managing people has been the most difficult. Today Emerson has been managing people over half of his life at this point. At age 12, he kept his age guarded and a secret, knowing they wouldn’t be interested working with a kid. Eventually he came clean and people weren’t surprised. But not everything ran smoothly He had one member try to perform a mutiny that quickly failed, but he stole the website and it took Emerson three weeks to get it back. Muggle.net nearly died before it got started.
Emerson’s highly unique and profitable self-education taught him how to code, write, edit, lead, manage and design. His parents (smartly) stayed out of his way and let him take an unschooling approach to his education. But the one thing they did request was Emerson read four short biographies of successful people every day. As Emerson says, “And this just shattered my 12 year old brain into about 10,000 pieces and I started to think really big.”
By reading the biographies, Emerson realized if he could do all of these things at age 12, imagine what he could do at 17. Instead of stopping with Muggle.net, he decided to think big and change the world. Emerson says he quickly realized that people who change the world are extraordinarily influential before they change the world. He realized influence and impact were closely linked. The more influence you have, the more impact you can make.
Emerson figured if he could make things go viral, that would be the closest you could get to having an immense superpower. He sees the power of virality as a tool that could tip elections, over-throw dictators and start movements.
An obsession with virality
Despite his success and enormous ambitions, Emerson decided to go to college “for fun.” He ended up getting bored and dropping out to start another business. He wanted to go really big, bigger than Muggle.net, with his next venture. He wanted to identify a model that would maximize his probably of getting to a billion dollars by the time he was 30.
He got busy setting a goal reading one non-fiction book every single day until graduation ranging from business, politics psychology, economics, technology, science, with the heaviest books being on the human mind; neuroscience, cognizant psychology, behavioral science, and more. Emerson even pored through ICCs filing, 10K research, and abstracts. He also set about the arduous tax of training his brain to absorb, apply and recall complex information.
Emerson soon became obsessed with generating billion dollar ideas and figuring out their probability for success. He applied that same obsession to virality and started figuring out the viral potential and probability of success. He experimented by setting up simple Facebook pages with a variety of algorithms to get pages to go from zero to millions of fans over a few hours or days. According to Emerson, he eventually figured out how to tell in twenty seconds when the page was going to go viral and was having a blast.
The science of virality
If he had to summarize everything he’s learned about virality to one key idea it’s; “the more incentive you give people to share the more likely they are to share. You create a lot of emotion or giving them something of value that incentivizes them to go tell their friends.”
Emerson talks about the differences between incentivized virality like bribery “if you share mine, I’ll share yours” and emotional virality. He says content doesn’t go viral because it doesn’t create enough emotion. Humor, cute animals and anything creating a positive emotion makes people likely to share. He warns it’s difficult to create virality from scratch, and Emerson suggests tapping into proven viral than trying to come up with something completely new.
Emerson bootstraps all of his companies and invests all of the profit back into it. He says it’s the only reason why successful entrepreneurs make it because you have no choice but to believe in yourself and make it through those rocky areas. But despite boostrapping his way to success, Emerson says he should have raised money sooner and squandered opportunities while treading water.
Emerson doesn’t just have productivity hacks to increase business speed and scaling, he makes a game of it. He would figure out if he could do his routine one second faster like crossing city streets five to eight times faster by keeping a 45 degree angle between himself and the destination. If he can figure out the science behind virality, he can certainly figure out how to carve out a few extra seconds in his day, weeks, months and lifetime.
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Eric: Hi everyone. Welcome to this week’s edition of Growth Everywhere where we interview entrepreneurs and bring you business and personal growth tips. Today we have Emerson Spartz of Spartz Media. Emerson is actually fairly young, born in 1987, New York Times bestselling author and CEO of Chicago based Spartz Media, like I just said, founder of OMG Facts, and also founded the Harry Potter site Muggle.net at age 12. Also a middle school dropout. Emerson, how’re you doing today?
Emerson: Good man.
Eric: Cool. Thanks for being on the show. Why don’t you tell us a little about your obviously very interesting background?
Emerson: When I was 12 I convinced my parents to let me drop out of school and start homeschooling myself. So, I had a super nontraditional self-education where I designed and developed my own curriculum. In the beginning I just built stuff, built a lot of things, websites, one of them did very well, a site called Muggle.net which grew to becoming the number the one Harry Potter website.
Let me get into a little bit of context because people have different ideas about what that means. The site was doing about 50 million paid views a month. I had to grow up really fast because I was managing a part pay, part volunteer team of about 120 and Muggle.net was a collection of different properties. We had one of the biggest forums online, one of the biggest fan phishing sites, one of the biggest interacting RBGs, published in book, one of which became a New York Times bestseller, so I got to go on tour and live like rock stars and it was pretty wild.
We also have the number one podcast in the world, not just for Harry Potter, but for all podcasts. I learned a ton from that experience, how to code, how to write, how to edit, how to lead, how to manage, how to design, and as far as my curriculum my parents pretty much stayed out of my way, but they let me study whatever I wanted. One thing they did though that was really smart was they had me read four short biographies of successful people every day. And this just [blowup noise] shattered my little 12 year old brain into about 10,000 pieces and I started to think really big.
I remember having this epiphany when Muggle.net was doing really well and I was reading all these biographies I thought to myself I can do all this and I’m only 12. Imagine what I can do when I’m 17. Course I wasn’t a very old age at the time. And I decided I wanted to change the world and I wanted to do it on a massive scale.
I began further immersing myself into the lives of people who had already changed the world, and whose patterns I could extract from their experiences. In doing this research, one conclusion I came to very quickly is that people who change the world tend to be extraordinarily influential before they change the world. I realized the influence of impact were inextricably linked, and the more influence you have the more impact you create. That set in motion for me a lifelong fascination with understanding influence and there was one particular type of influence that really captured my imagination which was virality.
I thought if you can make things go viral that’s the closest that you can get to having an immense superpower. You could tip elections, you could over-throw dictators, you could start movements, you could revolutionize entire industries. Fast forwarding a bit I decided to go to college, just for fun. It’s a stupid reason to go to college. I got bored really fast, really predictably and I was going to drop out and start another business.
But I had already had enough success with the first one that I wanted to go really big with the next one. I wanted to identify a model that would maximize my probability of getting to a billion by the time I was 30. It’s a big number and a way to keep score. So I wanted to go as broad as possible. I wanted to be able to connect dots and see patterns between different disciplines and industries.
I set a goal reading one non-fiction book every single day until graduation; business, politics psychology, economics, technology, science, with the heaviest books being on the human mind; neuroscience, cognizant psychology, behavioral science, etc. It wasn’t just books though. It was going through ICCs filing, 10K research, abstracts, text books, it was studying thousands of individual companies looking for patterns. Like, what do successful companies do differently than unsuccessful companies?
It was studying industries, everything from natural gas wholesaling to drywall contracting. But it was actually a three part process. There was reading, reviewing, and rehearsing, because it’s not enough to just learn information, you have to remember it and you have to be able to apply it to get value out of it. As far as being able to remember the information I spent the first six months doing a really deep dive into the neuroscience of learning and memory because learning how to learn is literally the most important skill you can possibly develop. It’s the closest we can get to wishing more wishes. It provides an exponential return on the investment.
I ended up filling out a variety of different space repetition schedules where I would review everything that I wanted to remember on a schedule of a day later, a week later, a month later and then every six months in perpetuity. I have a very, very good memory for certain types of things, not because I have a photographic memory, just because I’ve reviewed it extensively and I pull obscure facts out of my ass like you wouldn’t believe.
The third part of the process was rehearsal, the idea being you have to practice applying this information to be able to apply in a situation where it’s relevant. Think of how you get your 10,000 hours of practice in. So I organized all the information into a framework to contextualize it so I’d have a persuasion framework, a negotiation framework, an innovation framework, etc. Take something like innovation with the practice innovation is I would compile a series of algorithms that encapsulated every different type of business model.
Then I’d go to Walmart and go from product to product, to product on the shelves and I’d take every product and apply every model to it, then come to the new products. So, when you’re systematic with innovation like this it becomes really easy to generate your ideas. Take something like a dry-erase marker: Luxury; Long-tail; Unused Capacity; etc. Luxury- could I sell a more expensive dry-erase marker that sells status to people who disposable income. Luxury- could I look at customers who buy dry erase markers, etc.
Using this—I came up with a $1000 billion ideas and I got real interested in the notion, which of these has the highest probability of becoming a billion dollar business. I got really obsessed with this idea of probability of success. When I started studying virality it was that combination of thoughts; viral potential and probability of success that led to my big ‘ah ha’ moment, which was the kind of insight that if I was in publishing I would have started publishing papers on, but I’m not an academic, I’m an entrepreneur.
So, I just started doing it right away and seeing if I could make money off it. I used Facebook as my first petri dish, developed a series of algorithms designed to get basic pages to go viral, created dozens of pages that went from zero to millions of fans over a period of a few hours to a few days. What I was basically doing was I was testing 100s of different variables and seeing which variables correlated positively to virality and then I just kept shortening the viral loop until I could tell in twenty seconds when the page was going to go viral. I was having a blast. These are all network global insights, no tubs [ph 00:06:15], and things like that.
So, I would take the same radius from Facebook to Twitter, have a million of followers on Twitter, You Tube, Tumblr, Websites, apps, worked every platform, although some platforms are vastly more conducive than other platforms. In any event, started the company about four and a half years ago, not really intending it to be a company at all. It was just me using Facebook as this sandbox of experimentation. Then just started hiring people, then one day we were actually a company.
Now, based in Chicago, we’re about 45 people, I bootstrapped it for the first three years or so and I’ve raise about $10 million since then. What we basically do is; taken that body of, that foundation of virality and we’ve been expanding the types of products that we can create and viral challenges that we can sell. Now, we’ve got a network of websites and apps that generates—we’re in the ballpark of 20 million monthly users right now. The well-known ones would be OMG Facts, which is just a fact site.
We’ve got a funny website on auto cracks [ph 00:07:18] that went super viral a couple of years ago, a variety of mean [ph 00:07:22] sites. Our newest one, our fastest growing site ever is a site called DOSE. It’s Dose.com; D-O-S-E-.com and it’s just putting out high quality content that has a high probability of going viral across a wide variety of different content tablets.
Eric: Got it. If you were to explain the ultimate mission of Spartz Media, what would it be?
Emerson: Cracking the code of Virality.
Emerson: It’s this underlying theme of everything that we’re doing is building out this technology infrastructure—we’re a tech company that’s masquerading as a media company right now. Our ratio of developers to writers is absurdly unbalanced and the machine that you need to build to be able to create virality systematically is not a trivial undertaking and there’s not very many companies who have been able to accomplish—made a lot of progress here, Buzzfeed being the most obvious notable of companies that have been successful with that.
Eric: Got it. Okay. One thing that really sticks out to me, I mean, you’re 12 years old, you’re managing 120 people. Even right now you’re age, you’re 27 right now. At age 12 when you’re managing a120 people what’s the reaction you’re getting? How do you go about doing that?
Emerson: I kept my age a fiercely guarded secret for a long time because I thought if they knew how young I was they wouldn’t be interested in working for a kid and eventually I just decided to come clear with my age and people weren’t that surprised. I was younger than everyone expected, but they kind of expected that I was young and just very mature for my age. But I had to grow up really, really fast.
Eric: Wow. At age 12, I mean, I’m only a year older than you and at that time I was playing fricking MMORRPGs [INDISCERNIBLE 00:09:02], I didn’t even know how to build a website. Anyway—
Emerson: I had a lot of free time.
Eric: Yeah. In terms of reading four biographies, that part really sticks out to me too, and I think that’s a parenting tip maybe everyone on the show should probably take on at least once in their life. How did they go about finding four biographies for you to read each day? What’s the process?
Emerson: What happened was, my dad, he printed off thousands and thousands of pages of biographies. These were like magazine length biographies and if I was interested in reading more than I would read a full length book autobiography or biography, but I got to choose whatever biographies I wanted to read. In the beginning I literally only read athlete biographies because I wanted to be the next Michael Jordan at the time or the next Tiger Woods.
I went through a phase at some point in my life where I played every sport competitively. In his wisdom he realized that the important things was that I was reading these biographies and then eventually I moved on to other professions and other topics. The value that you get from this, you kind of spend—you know the—one of my favorite quotes ever is that a man who reads lives a 1000 lives; a man who doesn’t lives only one. So by getting to walk in the shoes of the most successful people of all time you get to think more like them, they kind of become your friends in some way, and they influence you in your life choices, and that was the primary value I got out of that experience.
Eric: That’s incredible because, there’s a group called Entrepreneurs Organization where you take from the experience of others and that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking four biographies a day is just insane. I think I might make my kid read eight a day when I pop one out. Obviously you’ve grown these different types of businesses. Let’s go back to the Harry Potter site, Muggle.net. What’s one big struggle you faced while growing that business?
Emerson: There was a few struggles. First of all I didn’t even consider it to be a business. I didn’t even want to make money off it. I just wanted to make the best Harry Potter website in the entire world and I got it built for $200 and even though I was never going to put ads on it because the perfect Harry Potter website could not have ads on it, of course, but $200 when you’re that age may as well be $2 billion.
Okay, I’ll put up one ad just so I could pay the server bill and then the ad started making so much money that I was like, “Okay, I’ll let it go, one ad for one month. That’s it. Not going to end this site.” I ended up making $6000 of that one ad. I swear, I never felt so wealthy in my entire life, as I did when I got that check. The biggest challenges were—one was managing people. It’s a huge pain in the ass. It’s hard.
Of the 120 most of them are volunteers and volunteers you get a very short shelf life. You get them for up to, at most, 4-6 months. That means you’re always hiring new people. You’re always training new people and you’ve got to find ways to keep them motivated and it’s hard. So, I would do things like, I would go and post pictures of football stadiums full of people and I would remind them, “Hey, this is how many people are seeing the work that you’re doing every day.” so it doesn’t feel so lonely.
I had to deal with staff issues. I had one member of my team very early on try to perform a mutiny on me and he failed because no one else backed him. But he stole the website and it took me three weeks to get it back and the website was shut down for three weeks and that was a huge, huge pain in the ass. It almost killed Muggle.net before it really got going. So many things.
Eric: How did you deal with that struggle? I mean you’re sites off for three weeks. How do you deal with a mutiny like that? Because people don’t often talk about things like this, but they do exist.
Emerson What happened was the rest of the staff was on my side and we tried everything we could think of to persuade him to give the site back and eventually we just had to start digging—we dug into his background and found some really, really, dark stuff and that information was what we needed to get the site back.
Eric: Wow. Okay. We’ll just leave it at that.
Eric: Okay. Cool. Is Muggle.net the site that you got the 160 million paid views per month? Is that the one? Or was that [OVERLAPPING 00:13:10]
Emerson: The network in total.
Eric: Cool. You built these, we’ll call them publishers. What are some big things that you’re learned while scaling these sites to massive amounts of paid views?
Emerson: I learned tons of things. I’m not sure where to start. In general when it comes to content there’s two—talking a little about virality for a second. There’s two different types of virality. There’s incentivized virality, I like to call it bribery. There’s bribery where, “If you share this I’ll give you a coupon. I’ll give you a discount. I’ll give you one for one.” etc. And then there’s emotional virality which is people where share because they feel so much emotion, the right kind of emotion that they want to share it with their friend. If I had to summarize everything I’ve learned about virality to one key idea it’s; the more incentive you give people to share the more likely they are to share. You create a lot of emotion or giving them something of value that incentivizes them to go tell their friends.
For most businesses this incentivized reality is way easier than emotional virality and that’s where I recommend more traditional word of mouth marketing programs and for most businesses is going to be the most effective way to generate virality. The other kind, the emotional virality you have to create a ton of emotion. Things only go viral when they create a ton of emotion. Think about it like this: you sit at your computer all day and click, and click, and click, article, article, article, picture, picture, photo, photo, video, video and you almost never share.
To get you to share you’re sitting back in your chair and to get you to lean forward and say, “I want to go tell everyone in my entire network on Facebook about this.” it’s got to really move you. And that means it has to be remarkable and most content is boring. Your content doesn’t go viral because your content doesn’t create enough emotion. There’s some kinds of emotions that are better than other emotions. For example: anger is a very powerful viral emotion because it motivates you to act, “I’m angry right now at this injustice in the world and my way of helping to solve this problem is to share it with my friends.” BAM! Click!
And it can obviously backfire for businesses, but it can also get people motivated. In general though I should say positive emotions work much better than negative emotions. Humor, [INDISCERNIBLE 00:15:17], cute animals, these are things that create a lot of positive emotion which you are likely to want to share. Ultimately identity is at the core of most sharing so if I share something it’s telling the world a little bit about me and we want to put our image on—we want to put the best possible image of ourselves into the world so this is the reason why nobody shares porn [laughter].
Also, this is why people share New Yorker articles extensively, because New Yorker is a serious journalistic well represented institution and you seem really smart by sharing a New Yorker article, even if you didn’t read it. There’s a really interesting study that shows that only 25% of people who share New Yorker articles actually read the article. Your friend assumes that you read it if you shared it. There’s that, current events; there’s a lot of emotion in the atmosphere if you can ride on the current event of any kind your much more likely to get virality than if you don’t.
There’s just a few things that we keep in mind as we’re thinking through the creation content process. Another thing, when it comes to content creation in general one school of thought that we’ve always adhered strongly to is this notion of; it’s really hard to create virality form scratch and there’s a lot of content that already has proven viral potential and you’re much better off emulating the success of things have already proven viral rather than trying to go into a laboratory for ten years and coming up with something that was perfect at the end of it.
Eric: Got it. Okay. You touched upon an interesting point. It’s really hard to manufacture virality which is why those naysayers that say you can’t make things go viral. What do you say to those people because I’m sure you had to deal with them before? I know you’re cracking the code for virality, but people are just like, “You can’t do it.” What’s your response to them?
Emerson: Well, they’re right and they’re wrong depending on how extreme they are and their assumptions there. It’s very hard to do with one piece of content to be able to say, “Yes, this content will go viral.” What’s easier to do is, you can create a system that maximizes the probability of creating virality and then you can still get a lot of things to go viral even if you have a lot of duds. Our mantra is, “Hit more home runs.” A home run is something that goes super viral.
At the top of the pyramid you’ve got “hit more home runs” is the goal. The two sub-goals there are: to increase your batting average or get more bats. That means if you produce a 1000 articles a day and you have a 1% chance for any one of them to go viral, getting 1000 on your best days is a lot different than getting a 100 at bat, or 1 at bat. Two of us don’t get enough at bats. And then you increase your batting average by increasing the quality of your content and the amount of emotion that you create with respect to that content.
Eric: I like that. You should do an e-book or something. I’d download it. In terms of, you’ve had these other, there’s Muggle.net, there’s Spartz Media, and there’s all these different websites you’ve had. Can you tell me about a point in time where you were completely on the brink of failure, like any one of your companies?
Emerson: I think every company’s been through a point where you’re pulling mud. I mean, every entrepreneur who’s ever bootstrapped has been to the point where they’re pulling money out of their IRAs and their looking in couch cushions to make pay roll and things like that. This company’s know different. I’ve always been the kind of entrepreneur who puts every penny that I’ve ever earned right back into the company. Inevitably when you do that you don’t have a big safety cushion for when things go wrong.
You just have to—and this is the reason why the only people who make it as entrepreneurs are people that have enormous self-confidence because you’re going to go through those rocky periods where you’re putting everything on the line and you have to believe in yourself so strongly that even if the odds are tilted against you it’s still worth the risk. You have to be almost a degenerate risk seeker because this game is impossible to play otherwise. You have to be present to win. You have to keep staying in the game. And you have to be slightly delusional because only people who are slightly delusional will be willing to take that kind of risk or people who don’t care about money as much and they’re willing to go all in on something that’s inspiring to them even if it can kill their personal finances. I would say that in general because we didn’t really start up as a company we haven’t had as many of those as maybe some companies had[DROPPED 00:19:28]
Eric: Oh, oh. Was that me?
Emerson: I don’t know. Sorry about that.
Eric: No worries. It’s something that happens all the time. We left off—
Emerson: Yes, I was talking about struggle. So, let me give you a couple of examples of specific rough periods. We went through a period a couple years ago where we started—when you’re dealing with virality you have to be accustomed and willing to deal with extreme volatility and traffic. One month you’ll have something go nuts and you’re traffic will go through the roof and the next month it will all come crashing down.
We went through a period where we—we used to be launching sites more regularly, like independent sites. We had three sites in a row that were big hits and our traffic just skyrocketed. We went form 70 million to 140 million paid views over a period of a couple of months, and then you know we were riding three trends that hit at exactly the same time and that traffic evaporated. In the few months that followed it. I started hiring having all this traffic not totally assuming that the traffic would evaporate that quickly, but traffic went from—we were losing 20 – 30 million pay views a month. It was rough and when that kind of thing happens it’s like you really you’ve got to believe in yourself and you’ve really got to believe that you’re building something that is fundamentally strong on its foundation so that you can deal with the turbulence of dire prospects.
Eric: Wow. Okay. When you’re losing 30-40 million pay views did you have to deal with any layoffs or things like that where you’re pretty much pulling your hair out every day?
Emerson: No, but that is where—that’s the period of time when you start looking at couch cushions to make payroll because you assume that, “We’re good at this game. We’re going to get back on our feet.” Just don’t overbuild in the periods when you’re booming because you don’t know when that can get ripped away from you and you’re going to have to rebuild again from a smaller high.
Eric: I hear you on that. I know exactly how that feels.
Emerson: What the best companies do is they build in a—I love Jim Collins, his metaphor for using oxygen canisters where you assume that there are so many things that can go wrong that you build in, like if you’re climbing Everest, you bring enough extra oxygen canisters with you because you have to plan for more contingencies and that’s one thing that I think I’ve done well enough is that even if, maybe some periods we did [INDISCERNIBLE 00:22:00] we didn’t bring ourselves below the depth line where we ran out of oxygen and die. I think that’s one thing that some entrepreneurs do intrinsically well. There’s a risk, a perfect risk threshold in which you’re taking on as much risk as you can stomach to grow, but at the same time not too much risk that you risk actually just dying.
Eric: Got it. Okay. That makes perfect sense, having, you can call it the cushion, we can call it oxygen canisters, adding more runway, but ultimately the same concept and it’s really important for entrepreneurs to especially watch and understand that. You’re backboard right there. Can you explain what’s going on?
Emerson: I have no idea what’s going on.
Eric: Oh, I thought it was yours.
Emerson: That’s the tech team.
Eric: I was like—yeah I thought it was something crazy you put together. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your not too far—your 27. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your 25 year old self?
Emerson I would have raised money earlier. I bootstrapped for longer than I should. I think I wasted a year not having raised money, but not having enough cash to really be able to take full advantage of the opportunities that were in front of us and as a result we kind of treaded water for periods of time that we didn’t have to. If I had the growth capital earlier we could have started growing faster.
Eric: Okay. That actually brings up an interesting question. When you’re picking the concept of cracking the code of virality to investors, there’s got to be –It’s got to be a little interesting to pitch, so to speak, to put it lightly. Did you experience any struggle when you had to pitch this concept to investors?
Emerson: Yes. I mean it’s something that everybody’s interested in, but the wide of degrees of understanding about what that means made it such that I almost had to have different pitches depending on who I was pitching. Because if I’m meeting with the Silicon Valley VC’s you understand this space really well then I can explain it almost as if I was explaining it to my team, but if I’m meeting with a different investor who doesn’t really understand the space that well, I’ve got to find a completely different way of explaining it.
Eric: Got it. Cool. How much did Spartz end up raising?
Emerson: We raised about $10 million so far.
Eric: Got it. Okay. Cool. And that’s—for most people when you raise money it’s like rocket fuel. Can you say it’s more like rocket fuel? How has it helped you guys?
Emerson: Rocket fuel. I mean the biggest thing is just hiring. We’ve been able to hire more good people because of having that cash cushion. We’ve also been able to experiment more, trying things with testing using Facebook and paid acquisition and things that we otherwise didn’t have the cash available to be able to go and do. But the biggest thing is the hiring.
Eric: Okay. Cool. What’s one hiring tactic, or process, or trick, whatever you want to call it, that you can share with the audience? Because you’ve been doing this since you were 12 years old.
Emerson: Let me think. Hiring in particular. One thing that has worked out well in hiring so far has been, I have a tendency to run for certain types of product positions where they need to think very similar to I do, because I’m a very heavy product focused CEO. I’ve run all these guys through this gauntlet. They tend to come out of school, they don’t have a ton of experience, they’re hungry, they’re super smart, and I’ll have them—if they’re interested in working for us—this is known as being one of the best places to work if you’re an inspiring growth hacker or an internet marketer, or product person, etc.—I’ll have them read twenty books on the topics of neuroscience, behavioral science, things of that nature; persuasion, negotiation, things like that. I do that to see if they’re a hustler. I do that because it’s super valuable information that’s just valuable for them to know period and they’ll be better at their jobs if I do hire them at the end of that.
Eric: Okay. And how long does this gauntlet, how many days, is there a deadline or anything?
Emerson: I usually pick the deadline depending on how much time I think that person will realistically to be able to accomplish it. If they’re fresh out of school and they have no other commitments then it will be a short deadline more like twenty-five days or so, maybe 30 days. But if they’re already working a full-time job I’ll obviously be understanding of that fact.
Eric: So, if they’re working a full time job, give or take 60, 70 days?
Emerson: Yeah, maybe more like 45.
Eric: 45. Yeah man that’s rough. Tough gauntlet right there. We can talk about this
Emerson: So far I have a 100% hit rate though doing that. Everyone who has gone through that gauntlet is has proven to be an effective hire.
Eric: What’s the retention rate on that?
Emerson: On the team members?
Eric: Yeah. Let’s say they get through the gauntlet, what—
Eric: 100%. Wow. That’s a smoking gun right there. You mind sharing those 20 books after, I’ll send you like an email. I’d love to share those books with the audience. We talk about hiring a lot. Final two questions here. What’s one productivity hack, I know you have a ton of these, what’s one productivity hack you can share with the audience?
Emerson: Okay. Something that will be useful. I’m a little crazy when it comes to productivity hacks. I try to squeeze productivity, literally, into every second, every minute, every day. I turn everything into a game where I try to figure out if I can do any part of my routine one second faster, a millisecond faster, “Oh, I figured out how to cross city streets five to eight times faster by keeping a 45 degree angle between myself and my destination and that saves, over the course of my life maybe three weeks of time. Little things like that. But that’s not—so I’ve got a bunch of little ones like that that are good. As far as something that would be useful and hasn’t been said a million times as far as productivity hacking—I’m trying to think about what hasn’t been said a million times already.
Most of the best productivity hacks are actually really, really good. I would say the biggest thing, and most people totally suck at, is this notion of locking yourself away when you have work that you have to get done. You have got to be completely ruthless about eliminating all the distractions. When I was going through a book a day, when I was in college, I would literally lock myself in the tiniest room in the basement of my dorm, no windows, I would face the wall, even though it was really quiet, even people walking by was enough to distract me [INDISCERNIBLE 00:27:53]. I’d put white noise on, I would ensure that the room window was blocked so nobody could see me and peek in and interrupt whatever I was doing, and it’s partially those little things like that are just horrendous for productivity. I just try to sit there at my desk and get things done. You need to block out hours and you need to go to a separate room and you shut off your internet, and you shut off any distraction, your phone, don’t face the window, nothing. You have to cut out every distraction.
Eric: Okay. Got it. That’s super helpful. I think it’s something I struggle with too. You feel that, “Hey, I’m just going to leave the computer on, I’m going to shut off push notifications,” but it’s really not enough. I totally agree. Every second your flow is disrupted everything gets thrown off track. Final question for you. What’s one must read book you recommend to the audience? I know it’s hard to narrow it down to one, but if you had to pick one what would it be?
Emerson: For this audience I would say its “Lean Analytics.”
Eric: Cool. Who wrote that one by the way?
Emerson: I don’t remember the names.
Eric: Okay, got it.
Emerson: But it’s part of the Lean series.
Eric: Okay. Got it. Perfect. Emerson Spartz everyone. Obviously a ton to learn from you. I need to have you on the show again sometime soon because I’m sure there’s a lot of different hacks we can learn from you. Thanks again for being on the show.
Emerson: Thank you.
Eric: Take care.
Eric Siu (@ericosiu) is the CEO at Single Grain, a digital marketing agency that focuses on paid advertising and content marketing. He contributes regularly to Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes and more.
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