You cannot grow unless you fail, said Greg Coleman (B’76), former president of BuzzFeed and Georgetown alumnus and parent during a conversation at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business on February 20 with Rebecca Hamilton, the Michael and Robin Psaros Endowed Chair in Business Administration and professor of marketing. Coleman began his career at Reader’s Digest and worked at Yahoo!, AOL, The Huffington Post, and Criteo before joining BuzzFeed as president and now senior advisor.
Coleman spoke openly about his brief stint at AOL, the company he was fired from after just 10 weeks. “Everyone is going to get knocked down. How you deal with it is what it’s all about,” he said, adding that those moments help you learn about yourself. “My advice to you is to get fired. Try to get it done early in your career, and then move on.”
Coleman stressed the value of failing, stating that at his monthly meetings at BuzzFeed, he and his coworkers enumerate their “fails of the month,” which often are risks that did not pan out. “We have the good fortune to say we don’t need to know if something will work, but we are going to try,” he said. Some of these risks become “fails of the month,” but many of them pay off.
One risk that worked is Tasty, BuzzFeed’s food network, which launched only two years ago and is already the largest food network in the world and the largest page on Facebook. Nobody at Buzzfeed knew anything about food, and the company did not have a business plan for the network. They took a chance and within a few months, it was a success. “Every single day we test things,” he explained. “We look at the statistics for feedback and work off of that.”
Coleman emphasized the importance of building relationships, particularly in an increasingly technological world. “It’s a combination of grit and that personal relationship,” he said, adding that when a problem arises, if you have not cultivated personal relationships, you will be stuck.
Coleman became “media crazy” as a Georgetown student when he took a course called “Magazine Marketing” with the then-president of Newsweek. “I felt drawn to it,” he said. “I wound up doing extra projects for this professor because I was just hungry to be in it.” This is what Coleman termed “authentic personal marketing” – going above and beyond for people without expecting anything in return. Taking on a project solely to go above the call of duty and not to be recognized allows you to create genuine professional relationships.
“You’ll have more of a proclivity to do that if you love what you’re doing,” he added, arguing that life is too short to waste time at a job that you don’t love. Addressing the students, Coleman said, “It’s a big part of your mission as students to go out and find what interests you, and then follow that.”