by Tim Jahn on November 16, 2010
Ryan Paugh is the co-founder of the popular Gen Y career site Brazen Careerist. He co-founded the site with Ryan Healy and Penelope Trunk. But Brazen wasn’t always a popular Gen Y career site. In fact, as Ryan explains in the video interview above, the three co-founders spent the first year fighting about what they were going to do.
Watch my video interview with Ryan to hear about how he left the corporate world to co-found Brazen Careerist and how the three co-founders worked their way through that bumpy first year.
My name’s Ryan Paugh. I am the cofounder, community manager at Brazen Careerist. Brazen is a career network focused on young professionals, Generation Y, whatever you want to call them. What we do is provide a place for people who don’t have a network to come build a network.
We’re all about building that network, we’re all about building that network, where Linkedin is maybe about maintaining it and merging the connections that you already have. We fill that gap where people who graduate or just getting into the workforce and don’t really have a lot of connections can come and build those connections and maintain them and use them for future success.
So where did Brazen Careerist come from? Did you have a situation where you needed to build a network and decided there was nowhere to do it?
I owe everything to blogging, starting a blog. I was working at Merck Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey after I graduated from college. I had a really good job there but I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I was doing. I knew I wanted to something else. I connected with Ryan Healy who was actually my freshman year roommate in college; we joined a fraternity together. We’re great friends.
And we were both kind of thinking, you know we should try to start a business or something while we’re in our 20s; we didn’t have a lot of responsibility. So what we did was we started this blog, because we saw this Gen Y niche that people were starting to talk about Gen Y in the workforce, very entitled, bratty, you know, all that stuff. But the people that were talking about it were all the people that were a part of Generation X and Boomers; the managers basically.
No one from Gen Y was really speaking out sharing their side of the story. So we started Employee Evolution which was our first blog. Ryan Healy still writes on that blog. I actually don’t write there anymore. I write at RyanPaugh.com when I do write. But, Employee Evolution was one of the first Gen Y career blogs, and we got a lot of traction from it. We ended up getting class from people, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times. We did a segment On 60 Minutes because there were no other Gen Y blogs out there.
So that’s how we got started. That’s how we met Penelope Trunk. And Penelope is the person who really built the brand Brazen Careerist. She had her blog which was Penelope Trunks Brazen Careerist. She had a book called Brazen Careerist, she was doing syndicated columns called The Brazen Careerist. And we wanted to leverage her brand and our idea of taking our blog and turning it into a larger community for Gen Y. And that’s how Brazen was formed. That’s how we did it.
The first Rev of Brazen was really a blog aggregator. What we did was we reached out to all the top Gen Y career bloggers at the time, about 50 of them and asked them to be a part of this network. We featured the best content in front of our audience that we had built through people Penelope had known and getting some initial press.
And a year later, we decided to shift them out a little and turn Brazen more of a social network, where anyone could join, you set up a profile, you join specific networks based on your personal and personal interests, your geography and that’s how Brazen became what it is today.
So you’re working in the corporate world and then you and your buddy come up with this site, and then at what point do you decide that you want to take this and really run with it and you’re going to leave the corporate world, and kind of take that risk? At what point do you actually do that?
So I was in, I was hanging out in Mexico with my family on a vacation having a great time just kind of taking a break from the corporate world. And I came home, and then next day Ryan Healy calls me and says, “Hey, Penelope wants to start a company with us.” It was kind of all just really quick.
Yeah, and we had been talking with her for months. We were doing a column on her site called “twenty something” and it was sort of a really interesting column because it was about mellenial’s at work from mellenial’s at work. And Ryan Healy actually wrote it. And what that got, that was our in with Penelope because it was something that her audience loved, they loved tearing us apart. Whatever we said, it was just like, “Oh, you’re just stupid Gen Y’ers, you don’t know anything.” But there would just be hundreds and hundreds of comments. And she realized that we were kind of on to something here.
Like we were doing something cool, we were becoming the voice of Gen Y at work. And she wanted to start a company, she knew we wanted to start a company, and she figured, I think she figured that we were going to do something with or without her and she might as well get on board. I don’t like to say that she was just trying to get into what we were doing and she had no ideas herself because she had plenty of awesome ideas. But I think we both saw an opportunity to work with each other. And I guess it just happened really quick.
She said, “I want to just start this company.” And we were just ready to do it. We were just were waiting for the right moment for something to play out and that was it. So we did it, we said yes, we moved out to Madison because like two 20 something guys with no responsibilities at all, a woman in her 40’s with two kids, and a husband, it’s a no brainer that we’re the ones that are going to trek across country to make this thing happen. Came out here and just did it. It all happened really quick.
Like I could also see there maybe being a challenge, I would imagine where you have you two, 20 something’s and then Penelope who’s older, the three of you coming together on this idea that’s focused on the younger generation. There had to be some clashing happening at some point before you all actually settled.
Well, I mean, that’s, and that was the hard part. It wasn’t hard for us to get together. I mean, moving to Madison and quitting our jobs was the easy part. The hard part was getting settled there, finding funding, getting along with each other. I mean, we spent a year just fighting. I mean, it was a battle. Penelope, Ryan and I all have very different personalities. And that was really difficult.
That was the hardest part I would say is coming to agreement on certain things, realizing or recognizing each other’s strengths, and learning how to play off of each other; make things work. That was really the most difficult thing because we’re all so different and, there’s just a lot of clashing, there’s a lot battles that happen early on because starting a company is hard. And it’s just a lot of work, a lot of frustration and it’s scary. So that fear of not knowing how are you going to put food on the table the next day sort of percolates.
And so you end up battling a lot. I mean, that’s, we spent literally about a year fighting, trying to figure out what we were going to do. But I think that’s part of the process.
How do you get to the point where you’re battling less than, where you’re spending less time battling than you were before? I mean, to the point of where you’re actually getting more done and spending less time kind of flushing everything out?
Well, you just keep moving forward and keep working hard, and eventually things start happening and you’re realize wow, we’re actually doing something now, we’re actually moving. You just have to keep the momentum going. And it’s a very, I know it’s a very vague answer but that’s really what you got to do is just keep working. And when you fail, recognize that you failed and try something new. Always try new things, don’t get too bogged down with the fact that something didn’t work because tons of things aren’t going to work.
You know, dozens of things are not going to work for every one thing that does work. So keep constantly moving forward, that was the big thing. The other thing is just really recognizing everyone on your team has specific strengths and making sure that they’re utilizing them to the best of their ability; finding your fit.
That’s when things started to really connect was when we all found our fit within the company, what we were good at and what we should focus on. That’s kind of one of the biggest, biggest ways that things started to become less tense on a regular is when we figured that out for each other.
And you mentioned recognizing when things didn’t work. Were there things early on that didn’t work and that you guys had to kind of rethink?
Yeah, I mean, we, I’m trying to think of one of the failed ideas that we have because there’s lots of them. But, I’m trying to think of a good one. I mean, at one point we thought we were going to launch and be bigger than we did when we launched. So we thought that we would launch and be like the social network that we are today. And that was a stupid idea because I was thinking you know, we’re going to be too big too quick.
We needed to start smaller, we had to be more grassroots. That was something that we probably weren’t that comfortable with early on. We didn’t realize that this kind of thing takes time and that we start small and build up. So that was sort of a failed idea was thinking that we were going to launch and this was going to be huge during day one; it wasn’t. I mean, we learned that some things happen at a grassroots level and it’s a lot of work and its going to take time.
I mean, I literally spent the first six months of Brazen just emailing people from like nine in the morning until nine at night just sending emails saying, “Hey, I want you guys to be a part of this.” And that’s how I did it and that worked. But it doesn’t work to just put it out there and get some initial press, and think that that’s going to make it take off. It doesn’t work that way. So thinking too big too fast is actually not a good thing. That was one of our failed ideas I’d say.
What did that do to kind of the team moral when you realized that you weren’t quite what you thought you were in terms of magnitude and popularity?
I think its frustrating at first and it’s always frustrating. I mean, we’re always trying to be bigger right because our, that’s what our investors want, that’s what anyone who has a stake in the company wants to see because we’re basically told that, “Hit X amount of users and you’ll be able to do this.” That kind of thing is what people want to see. They want to see those numbers.
So we’re never quite big enough, so it’s always frustrating that we’re not as big as we’d like to be just because everyone always wants it to be a little bit bigger and that’s sort of a problem. But, I think you learn to get beyond that. You know, beyond that notion that we always want to be bigger and just be happy with what we built and be focused on quality of what we’ve created. If our community’s happy, if they’re talking about it and more people are joining everyday because of that, that means I’m doing my job right. I mean, that meant that the product team and our community is in sync and something’s going good.
I mean, I try not to get bogged down by the idea that we can’t get as big as we want so quickly. That would really make me dislike my job. I have to be happy with what we’re doing today and not always be thinking, “Oh, we have to be bigger, bigger, bigger” or else. I don’t know, that would just be really frustrating. I try not to think about it too much. Even though its one of my main goals, I like to focus on the quality aspect a lot more.
Looking back at your journey with Brazen Careerist from the beginning after leaving the corporate world until now, what’s one piece of advice you’d give someone who was on a similar journey?
I would say always be sharing your ideas with people. A lot of people tend to keep their ideas to themselves thinking that they share their ideas with too many people; somebody’s going to steal it. Very few people can execute on a really good idea that you had. So share them with people because that’s the best thing you could do. You’re going to find people that want to help you, want to make it a success.
That’s how you’re going to actually bring those ideas to fruition instead of just keeping them in your mind, thinking about them to yourselves and not executing on anything. I’d say spend a lot of time talking to people about the things that you want to do instead of keeping it to yourself. That’s one thing that always helps. Every — when, I always share my ideas.
And most of the time I find someone who wants to help or they tell me the idea sucks and that I can forget about it. Which is good too because sometimes we need that kind of reality check to know when something sucks that you just, in your mind just seems so great because we’re all just kind of focused on ourselves, we think all our ideas are great. We need reality checks sometimes and so that’s important. It’s important to share what’s going on in your brain with people that you trust, with people that you respect, and people that you think are smart.
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