“Pick a company no one wants to work for and bring value right away.” – Jon Steinberg
In this first installment of the Zoom Innovators in Business series, Christopher Rathbun interviews Jon Steinberg, former President of BuzzFeed and current CEO of Cheddar, about the future of media in the midst of the pandemic. All proceeds from this interview were donated to the The Basser Center for BRCA at Penn, the first comprehensive center for the research, treatment, and prevention of breast cancer. Learn more about the work at the Basser Center at https://www.basser.org/.
Who was your role model growing up? Why?
“My role model has always been my dad. My father is a very successful real estate broker. He changed his career from being a doctor to being a real estate broker. So that always inspired me, showing that you can reinvent yourself. He’s always been an incredible negotiator and I grew up watching him through his various entrepreneurial ventures. And then the other role model, a more public figure, would probably be Walt Disney. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with all that he created out of thin air, basically before computers. The ability to build Disneyland and Disney World is pretty incredible when you think about all the technology we have today and what they didn’t have back then.”
What do you have done differently in college and any advice for undergraduates?
“I got a heck of a rigorous education in Princeton. I took hard classes and loved some of my professors, but I should have either worked for imagineering instead of going to college, or gone to Stanford. But, the whole idea of what you would do differently is sort of a waste of time to think because you always end up where you are because of what you’ve done. I’ve had a very kind of meandering, weaving path, but I’m happy where I am now. I can’t really make any complaints about the decisions that I made.
I never really gave up, and I always tried things; I tried to get a job at Foursquare, I tried to get a job at Twitter, and I tried to always call/ email people to make my way in the world. I think there were probably periods of six months or a year, where I was just stuck at Booz Allen, or I was just stuck being a stockbroker and things weren’t really going the way that I wanted to. But I always imagined that I could figure something out at some point. There’s a quote that Martin Sorrell has. He talks about what his father had said to him, “no matter how dark the storm, you must feel no fear.” I worry plenty of times and I feel plenty of fear, but I try to live up to the idea that even in the darkest moments or even in the moments of the most defeat, you can figure something out if you try.”
When was the lowest point in your career?
“The lowest moment of my career was working for Booz Allen. I went down to Northern Virginia. I worked in a dark office building where my job was to make PowerPoint slides about how papers should be moved through the NSA. And then, every evening I went back to a hotel across the street and then back and forth. I was doing work that was terribly boring. I didn’t think it was important. I had gone to Princeton, I’d had the Disney experience, I’d gone to business school and now I was just doing this. I felt in that moment, ‘how do I get my way outta here?’
And then I left Booz Allen after 10 months, because I realized they had sort of sold me a bill of goods. My first startup after Booz Allen was called Majestic Research. It was an independent research firm. And then, I got the startup bug from having done that.”