When I met Playbuzz’s founder Shaul Olmert at the startup’s headquarters in Tel Aviv a couple of months ago, I was curious about what the demeanor of a guy whose company has grown from 0 to 350 million users in just over a year would be. It’s an astounding achievement no matter how you look at it, or “bonkers” as one journalist put it (my favorite description so far).
Needless to say, the sight of a thousand puzzle pieces laid out all over his couch, with the frame of the puzzle already starting to take shape on the adjacent coffee table – definitely threw me.
“I’m used to doing a few different things at once” he said when I questioned him about the puzzle. “It just helps me relax and concentrate.” Obviously I thought it was odd, but then again, a sort of appropriate demonstration of playfulness from the guy who invented the term “Playful Content”.
As the interview unfolded I was further surprised by the fact that although Shaul never stopped fiddling with the thousand-piece Marvel Comics puzzle (and making rather good progress in the hour and a half or so that we chatted) his answers to my questions were always on point and very well-articulated. Go figure.
If you’re like most people on Facebook, then you’ve probably come across Playbuzz at one point or another even if you weren’t aware of it at the time. Perhaps it was through a friend proudly sharing the results of a personality quiz like “What Animal Were You In A Past Life?” or a list like “12 Crazy Toilet Facts That Will Blow Your Mind!” or a poll like “Who Wore It Better: Jay Z or Harry Styles?”
You’d think that in a world now plagued by content overload, maybe we could all do with one less personality quiz, or list or poll, but as 2014 proved, playful content kicked so much butt, that by the end of the year, Playbuzz – the Israeli startup behind the platform that allows anybody including publishers, bloggers and brands to create and share playful content (and a Viola Ventures portfolio company) – overtook Huffington Post as the most shared site on Facebook.
Playbuzz is one of Israel’s fastest growing startups. It was created in 2012 by Shaul and now includes a staff of around 40 based in Tel Aviv and New York, led by Shaul as CEO and Co-founder Tom Pachys who is also the company’s CTO. The website was launched in December 2013 and although the first items of content were created by a team of just two, after a mere 3 months the product took on a life of its own as people kept sharing and also creating more and more playful content. Today, 97% of Playbuzz’s content is generated by their communities of users and publishing partners, including MTV, AOL, The Blaze, Bild, Martha stewart, Cosmopolitan and others.
Perhaps it’s because we’re confronted with so much ‘serious’ content on a daily basis that playful content has gone ‘viral’ even more so than ‘newsy’ content. After all, in a day full of hard work, depressing news stories and a groundhog-day like routine, what’s a 4-minute break to discover “What Kind Of Pop Diva Are You?” and then share the results with your friends, family and colleagues? It’s a welcome relief, apparently, as evidenced by millions of people who have viewed or interacted with Playbuzz’s content, fueling a growing network of users, publishers and investors.
And so, curious about how Shaul became Shaul, I began at the beginning.
What were you like as a little boy?
I was a weirdo. I used to invent machines, especially ones that were based on electrical circuits like radio transistors, lighting installations, or walkie talkie type gadgets. I’d write stories, develop little computer programs, that sort of thing. I loved watching football, but I also spent a hell of a lot of time reading and was constantly coming up with ideas. I was kind of all over the place, typical ADD.
I was always a really good communicator too so I’d often speak to older kids or grownups. Most of the kids my own age didn’t quite get me and as a result I was sort of clumped with the outsiders and the oddballs (as a little boy).
Did you find that you had a knack for certain activities?
I used to love creating things, like movies, for example. I had a video camera and when I was around 8 or 9 years old I placed an ad in a local newspaper in Jerusalem for “actors of all ages that were wanted for a movie production”. Lots of people phoned in thanks to the ad and I held auditions and everything! My parents were super-supportive and although they understood that their 9 year old wasn’t about to create an Academy Award calibre film, they never let me feel as though I couldn’t. Their attitude was always “just go for it”. So in that respect I was very creative and since I was always coming up with ideas, nothing seemed more natural than to just go and make them happen.
I also really loved puzzles (we pause for a bit of a giggle as he places another piece of the puzzle on the board). Assembling things, building airplanes, anything involving construction.
What about entrepreneurship?
I managed to reach senior executive-level positions in big companies relatively young and people would tell me every once in a while that it’s obvious that one day I’d start a company of my own. I remember always thinking “I don’t think so. What do I need that for?” It didn’t really interest me from a practical point of view, but eventually it happened.
At 38 I started my own company, and it was my first experience as a founder despite having been involved with other startups like SundaySky (but not as a founder). Maybe it took so long because I was waiting for all the stars to align, so to speak, so I guess that it probably was a combination of things that led to it. I was looking for something new to do at the time and was sort of at a crossroads searching for my next steps. I remember that shortly after I left Conduit where I was CMO for a short period, I consulted with Danny Cohen who was a friend that I often consulted with about professional issues, and he said that he’d like for the next thing that I do to be something big, because he thought that “it’s time”, and I was very flattered that he said it.
When I started the company I still wasn’t sure of my own vision. In fact, when I first approached Danny for funding while he was still at Gemini, I didn’t even have a co-founder yet. It was obvious that I’ll be needing one but I wasn’t clear on who that would be. Finding the right co-founder was a process that took time.
Sometimes people tell me today when they see what we have achieved with Playbuzz so far, “You know, well done, amazing job. I didn’t see it coming.” And my reply is “Me neither!” And it’s the truth. I wasn’t one of those founders with a crystal ball who knew exactly how my startup would turn out. Basically, I had a vision for an idea and decided to give it a go and see what comes of it.
How did you come to approach Tom to be your co-founder?
I have known Tom (Tom Pachys, Co-founder and CTO of Playbuzz) since he was 12. I was 22 at the time and was his Computer teacher in high school.
I didn’t realize that you had a knack for computers or programming!
Well it might have stemmed from my interest in building stuff as a kid and always looking for tools that I can use to build things, so that eventually led to an interest in programming, and when the internet came along it was very obvious to me that that’s where my future is.
After I finished my army service I taught a subject on Computers in a high school in Jerusalem and Tom was one of my students. We quickly ‘clicked’ and it was apparent to me that not unlike me when I was his age, he too seemed more advanced for his surroundings. I remember asking his parents to come to the school to meet with me and they were of course surprised to be summoned to the school because it had never happened before. I told them that they should really enrol their son at university so that he can realize his full potential, so at the age of 14 they enrolled Tom at the Open University to further his computer studies.
Years later when I was living in New York (Editor’s Note: Shaul still splits his time along with his wife and 3 children between Tel Aviv and New York), I called his parents again and told them that I’d like to invite him to come to New York for a month or two and arrange an internship for him somewhere so that he can get a sense of what it’s like working in a software company rather than just sitting and programming from home. I thought that this would be a very important step in his development.
His parents agreed, and Tom slept on my couch for about a month. I was working in finance on Wall Street at the time and Tom was getting some valuable experience as a programmer in New York. Later after he finished his army service we recruited him at SundaySky where he worked for a few years. Eventually I left SundaySky and for the next few years we each did our own thing but we stayed friends and stayed in touch.
In the meantime, the idea for Playbuzz began to brew in my head and kept evolving through several incarnations over several years. Then one day I went to lunch with a friend and he told me about an idea he had for a company he thought that we should start together. I told him to “hold that thought” while I rang my wife and asked her to find a presentation on my computer and send it through so that I could show the guy that I had already thought of the same idea myself. Encouraged by the fact that we were “on the same page” we rented an office space in Hertzliya and started working on it together but after a year it became apparent that it hadn’t been the right decision for him after all, so we parted ways.
When Tom came into the picture, at first I hired him as an employee but he quickly took ownership of his role and became the “go to” guy for all things tech in the company. I basically recognized that “he’s my guy” so we promoted him to co-founder. These days no one really remembers that he wasn’t a co-founder from the very beginning because the role fits him like a glove and the dynamic we have as co-founders feels very natural.
We consult each other not just on the obvious areas of our individual expertise, but on all aspects of the business and sometimes Tom’s input on a business decision is more on point than mine just as my input on a product or technological-related issue might be more on point than his. I think that we both understand that we’re not each responsible for our own area but that the business belongs to us both.
On waking up in the middle of the night before our interview (it had nothing to do with the interview):
Last night at around 3:00 am I woke up and I don’t know why but I had an urge to get out of bed, pick up my phone (which was in the other room) and check in the Analytics what’s going on with the traffic to the site. I saw that one of the servers had crashed so I began waking up the relevant people (some of whom were already awake anyway because they’d received alerts about it) to let them know that there was a crisis and urge them to do something. It doesn’t matter how senior and competent my people are and how emotionally invested they are in their jobs (thankfully I have people like that who work for me and it’s a crucial thing because without people like that you can’t succeed) – but because it’s my business, I’m the one who will always wake up in the middle of the night if I have a hunch that a server is playing up.
What is it about Playbuzz that you think has contributed to the crazy pace of progress you have achieved in just one year?
Given that our traffic is mostly social, people almost expect me to explain how we reverse-engineered Facebook’s algorithms. But the truth is of course that we didn’t, because you can’t base your entire business on the back of someone else’s ecosystem. We are making the most out of Facebook of course and it’s certainly contributing to our growth but we are not dependent on Facebook. It’s not like without Facebook we wouldn’t exist.
One of the reasons that we are very successful on Facebook is because that’s how people get information these days so we are not successful because of Facebook but rather by using Facebook to give people something that they clearly want.
People like our playful content and feel compelled to share it because the little revelations that our playful content ‘unveils’ about them give them a sort of sense of identity.
What are your thoughts on the suggestion that some of your playful content headlines are akin to click-bait?
The term click-bait, since it includes the word “bait”, suggests that it’s basically a trap that causes you to click on something based on an expectation for certain content only to discover that it’s not what you expected at all. I believe that our content is in fact the opposite of click-bait and the proof is in the engagement time.
Users spend an average of just under 4 minutes engaging with a typical piece of Playbuzz content and our social “share” rates are between 7-20%, which proves that it’s the opposite of click-bait, since those who click through obviously enjoy the content so much that they spend so much time on it (by online readership standards).
I think that it’s difficult for the world of traditional media to accept or validate new things. When something like Playbuzz grows naturally at such a fast pace it raises suspicion. It almost looks like there’s some sort of secret tactic to expose because it goes against an order to the way things work that people know and understand. It’s much harder for people to recognize that the world changes quickly and by the time they understand how one thing works it changes yet again, and this makes them uncomfortable, they’d rather that their world was predictable.
If people want to classify the thing that makes Playbuzz’s content so viral as a ‘tactic’ and even name it, that’s fine with me, as long as we continue to be successful.
How has the content that we consume been influenced by social media?
We’re living in a world where humans don’t have the same level of face-to-face or ‘human’ interaction that they did in the past. These days when you hear the term “friend” you often think of a “friend on Facebook” and of course it’s a different type of friendship. It doesn’t necessarily make us less compassionate or communicative than the previous generation just because we use different methods to communicate so I don’t know whether it’s right to see it as either a good or a bad thing. It is what it is.
Personally I would be happier if my daughter spent more time with her friends than she does with her phone, but as long as she’s spending time on her phone, I’m trying to think about how she might be able to consume interesting content and how she can learn more and develop social skills. But I don’t see it as a problem that we must stop because it simply isn’t going anywhere.
You could say the same thing about Twitter: Twitter has tens of millions of users who use the app or website to follow other people, and they also have millions of users who use it to create and distribute content (mainly publishers, celebrities, and media organizations), so like PlayBuzz they too have the ‘2 user-type’ audience, as does YouTube. If you want your product to be part of the infrastructure of the internet you need to think on that level. It’s not a case of a product’s split personality but rather a holistic view of the world.
So since people communicate differently, they also look to different ways to present their identity to the world. Once upon a time people could learn a lot about you by the way you dressed, or talked and you could control what people thought about you through what you said and did. These days, it’s the things that you post on your Facebook timeline or tweet about on Twitter that define you in the world and forms the basis for how a large portion of your “friends” or followers “see” you. It’s how you build your persona and your online reputation, it’s how you create business opportunities and social opportunities, it’s even how you get laid! No matter the goal of your interaction, your online identity is crucial. People may decide whether to date you or not based on your Tinder profile, or whether to hire you or not based on your LinkedIn profile, etc. So in today’s world, we need to create tools for people to represent themselves to the world the right way.
When someone shares a Playbuzz quiz that reveals that “if they were a mafia movie they would be The Godfather”, it fulfills a need in them to be defined in a certain way. It sounds awfully shallow, but they use this tool as a way to express their personality online.
Shaul on the term that he invented “Playful Content” which is being slowly adopted worldwide:
There’s something about the way that people today experience media and information. Playbuzz creates narratives that allow users to experience content in a playful way. We know that we’re not long-form ‘serious’ content but we embrace the fact that we offer bite-sized fun experiences (and we do it very well) and believe that it’s thanks to this that we’ll succeed.
On his aspiration to become “The YouTube of Playful Content”:
I think that the big “win” is to create a network that ties everything together. I think that attempts to “own” the market are short-sighted, and while it’s still possible to make a lot of money with a short-sighted approach, its longevity is limited.
I’ll tell you a little story: I worked at MTV for a few years and was a VP there. My time at MTV was a very important part in my personal development, my development as a businessman and in my career. I’m very proud of my achievements there and proud to have been a part of a brand that was considered to be one the most popular brands in the world for a good 30 years. But anyway, this past summer when we were in New York I got a call from my wife one day to go and pick up our daughter from 1515 Broadway which is MTV’s address. Alma must have gone for a taping at MTV so when I picked her up I could tell her that daddy used to work there. I was so excited! As it turned out, there’s a clothing store also located at 1515 Broadway, where a popular YouTube star Bethany Mota was signing autographs, and my daughter was among the 8,000 little girls who were waiting in line for a photo op and an autograph. Of course she couldn’t care less that this was happening at the legendary venue of MTV, all she cared about was that there was a famous YouTube star in town. And it’s totally symbolic of what the world has come to.
“The new MTV is YouTube.”
Playbuzz content is embedded in thousands of publisher websites that also create content and upload content to our network using our tools, and they upload this content in order to embed it in their website or get exposure on our site. So just as YouTube videos exist also on YouTube, for example if ESPN upload a video to YouTube so that they can embed it in ESPN.com, many users still come to YouTube so watch the videos, and many users also go to “Joe’s Sports Blog” (just for example) where he has also embedded the same ESPN video because it’s available for free. It’s the same model at Playbuzz. It’s a different type and category of content that we truly believe is just as attractive, monetizable, viral etc. (if not more so).
What about monetization?
The foundations for the monetization model will be laid in 2015 and from there we’ll see where it goes. We don’t want to rush the process of monetization before the dust of the head-spinning success of the past year has settled and we digest it properly. We want to examine exactly what works, what doesn’t work as well, where are the risks, where are the opportunities and then we have to go with the flow based on our learnings. We don’t want to skip important steps in the natural evolution of the product and its adoption and risk implementing a monetization model that’s been developed in a rush.
What’s the best and worst business advice you’ve ever received:
The best advice is from Atreyu’s final quest in “The Neverending Story” which is basically to “do what your heart says”. Obviously it wasn’t meant in a business context in the movie, but that was the best business advice for me.
As for the worst business advice, it’s not so much the advice itself but I regret all the decisions I ever made based not on my gut but on what I presumed that other people would think is the smartest decision to make. Even though I didn’t always fully understand why I was doing something, sometimes I did it anyway either because everyone else did it or recommended it. I’d say “OK, let’s do it and then maybe afterwards I’ll also understand it”. But it mostly never worked.
What tips or words of wisdom can you offer to other entrepreneurs based on your own experiences?
The thing is, I understand that these type of questions are designed to offer inspiration to other entrepreneurs (or aspiring entrepreneurs) but I think that any tips or ‘words of wisdom’ offered can also be misinterpreted as some sort of fool-proof formula or ‘recipe’ for success, as though there’s a right or wrong or a way to do it, and I honestly don’t believe that there is such a thing. The areas in which I have succeeded are not the result of a proven methodology. If anything, maybe the reason that I succeed is because I followed the lesson from “The Neverending Story”.
Steve Jobs, for example, used to say that he doesn’t make decisions based on research, he goes by his intuition instead and puts ‘creative’ first, while other successful entrepreneurs value data and make decisions based on numbers. So you have some people who idolize Steve Jobs and others who admire the other role models, but who’s to know which approach is right for their particular business? That’s why I think that you can’t really generalize tips for entrepreneurial success.
If I had something particularly profound to say on a par with some of Steve Jobs’ visionary principles that were truly revolutionary and inspirational, then I would. But I’m not there yet. My only humble tip is to “follow your instincts”.
On the future of Playbuzz:
We’re always developing new formats for content because we believe that the way people consume content will continue to change.
Let’s see what fate has in store! We have lots of plans but we’re only at the beginning of our journey, plus there’s no guarantee that our growth will be as fast and as impressive as it has been thus far. I’m sure that we still have challenges ahead so whatever success is going to come our way, I want to earn it.
I believe in what we’re doing but success is sometimes also a matter of luck, timing and circumstance. Many things can go wrong but I believe that the potential for growth and sustainability is there.
Fun Facts on Shaul Olmert:
Who inspires you and why?
My primary inspiration has always been Homer Simpson. A man who never lets go of his goals, even if he has no idea what they are.
Which companies inspire you and why? (Up to 5 companies anywhere in the world)
Since I have to limit myself to 5, I’ll choose: YouTube, YouTube, YouTube, YouTube and Twitter.
Pet peeve: Traffic
What do you do for fun?
Read, Workout, Play video games. Oh, sorry, I am now a father of three and a business owner. Delete the previous answer. The correct answer is: think about the days in which I had more time to work out, read and play video games.
iPhone or Android: Android, duh!
Sushi or Falafel? Falafel. In fact, make it two!
Favorite TV show: Breaking Bad
Favorite technological gadget right now: Sonos wifi speakers
Phrases that you say a lot (your ‘trademark’ sayings):
“Things will get worse before they get better”
Favorite go-to websites for news on business/technology/startups:
The worst piece of business advice you were ever given:
“Trust me, it’ll work”
The best business advice you were ever given:
The ending quest of “The Never Ending Story”: Do as your heart says.
Best tip that you can offer to entrepreneurs from your own experience:
Don’t take advice from other people.
What do you think would really surprise people to learn about you?
I speak fluent Yiddish!