Lisa Sugar, founder and president of the global media and technology company, Popsugar, has created a life she loves. And she wants to help people do the same with her first book, Power Your Happy: Work Hard, Play Nice & Build Your Dream Life. “The book is a combination of our story and the story of how the team built Popsugar into what it is today, along with practical advice for people trying to figure out their best career and overall life goals,” says Lisa Sugar, “It’s to help you be happier every day, whether it’s incorporating more of a hobby you love or changing your career entirely.” Founded in 2005, her company now attracts a monthly audience of over 100 million visitors worldwide, as well as 2.5 billion content views and 250 million video views. Lisa Sugar transformed her side hustle into a more than 500-person company while staying true to her personal mantra and Popsugar’s core value: “Work hard, play nice.”
Lisa Sugar, Founder and President of POPSUGAR
Elana Lyn Gross: What inspired you to start Popsugar? What was your career path?
Lisa Sugar: I started Popsugar because I wasn’t creatively fulfilled at my job and always wanted to write. While working in advertising, I started Popsugar on the side to share things I was excited about: a new show I would review, a fun article with great quotes, a new beauty product I had just tried. I made sure it was a different voice than everything else out there. It was a fun, positive, safe community and very fan friendly.
I started my career in advertising, but in college, I had a public relations internship at a live morning show on FOX. That was when I realized I wanted to create content. Advertising was a great training ground for being an adult and learning the basic work skills I needed beyond the jobs I had in high school and college.
One of my first accounts as a media buyer was Showtime Networks, and a year later I went over to Showtime to work in-house. I was getting closer to my goal of deciding what programming would be green lit, but really I was still a media planner. I moved to San Francisco in December 1999 and stayed in the agency world for five more years. With no cool entertainment accounts to be had, starting POPSUGAR was the way to get my fix, and once I started, I became addicted and couldn’t stop! In the first year, I reached over one million people, so my husband and I knew we were ready to start something even bigger!
Gross: What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Popsugar?
Sugar: The biggest challenge is learning when to pass on a project or task I love. As much as I like writing nonstop, it’s also a great feeling to have the team step up and run the show while I take on more responsibility. The company has grown so quickly, and it’s amazing to see how all of our original jobs have changed so much and how much we’ve grown as leaders and expanded our skills. As for the greatest reward, it’s seeing how much we are helping people each day. We get so many comments, emails, direct messages and other interactions from our audience about how our content moved them to make a change. We want to make women feel smart, confident and encouraged to do whatever they want, whether that means trying a new workout or rallying people to vote. We are constantly encouraged by our readers to keep delivering content that inspires them.
Gross: What advice do you have for other women who hope to start their own businesses?
Sugar: Start small. Even setting aside an hour each day and setting small goals lets you feel like you are accomplishing something, and that’s great! Also, try to get feedback as early and often as possible. In the case of POPSUGAR, I got feedback instantly from the fast-growing audience, which helped me realize what people wanted so I could deliver more of it.
Gross: You started Popsugar as a side hustle while you were working full-time in advertising. Is there advice that was particularly helpful when you decided to take the leap?
Sugar: The advice I would give is reinforcing the message: Start small and set realistic goals. I was also given advice that the best way to be a writer is to get yourself in the habit of writing every day. I used to keep journals, so that was one habit, but those were personal and just for me, so it was a huge change to write for others.
I originally started without telling anyone, but people found the site quickly. When I was becoming addicted to analytics and seeing how often people would visit the site or comment on stories, it only made me want to write more. So while I was still working in advertising, I found time before work, on a lunch break or at night. The key was updating a lot throughout the day, so I also learned how to be really quick. That helped too!
Gross: What is a workday as Lisa like? Please walk me through a day!
Every day is different, but if I’m not traveling, it goes something like this:
6:40 a.m. Wake up and immediately check email on my phone next to my bed. I shower, get the kids up, get ready for work and make my morning POPSUGAR flat-belly smoothie. Then I walk the kids to school or walk to work with Brian if he is in town. If I’m alone, I do a walk and talk and check in with the team on the East Coast or call my mom or friends. I also crank through more email on the walk in.
8:30-10 a.m. I’m in the office, ideally with no meetings, so I can set up the day.
10 a.m.-12 p.m. I have various meetings with sales, marketing and executive teams.
12-1 p.m. I keep this hour blocked off, if possible, to crank through more emails and have quick impromptu conversations in person.
1-5 p.m. I’m in more meetings for video, Must Have merchandising, edit team brainstorms and more.
6 p.m. I have dinner with the kids and get the three girls to sleep.
9 p.m. I’m back online for a little more email and some TV time. I just finished Mr. Robot season 2. and I’m currently watching This Is Us and Younger.
11:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. It’s bedtime for me, and I force myself off my phone!
Gross: What are your responsibilities as cofounder and president of Popsugar?
Sugar: Well that’s something that changes each year as our company grows, but the one thing that stays consistent is that I oversee all editorial coverage, which includes written, video and social content. Video has become a huge growth area for us: Last month we had 300 million video views. We have more than 100 content creators who generate 2.5 billion content views per month. Social media is also exploding! We have over 28 million followers, and we love the challenge to talk to our audience in various places even though each platform has its own personality.
One important area of my job is to make sure that the tone of our content remains consistent across platforms and that our voice remains positive, informative and inspirational. This also extends to management — I make sure that as a company we treat employees with respect, and I ensure that our core values of “work hard, play nice” are instilled throughout the culture and mission of the company. I also oversee Popsugar Must Have, our subscription box business. I personally curate and vet all items in our boxes — I choose my favorite things — so it is very near and dear to me. Oh and I also represent Popsugar in the press like I am right now.
Gross: You started Popsugar with your husband and have written about the benefits of work-life blending instead of work-life balance. What are some tips for other people who want to go into business with their spouse?
Sugar: I never thought I would work with my spouse; it just sort of happened for us. In the beginning, everything was so exciting, and the ideas were endless, so every meal seemed like a great opportunity to brainstorm. Now that we have kids, we obviously want to hear about their days and have family dinners, but that doesn’t mean we shut off work talk. Now it’s more important for us to know the right and wrong times to get into certain conversations.
Gross: What are three characteristics you look for when you’re hiring a new team member?
Sugar: When we interview people, we want to see passion, curiosity and experience of some sort. I also want to know if they can adapt. Things change so quickly in our world, and every year there are new tasks to learn and incorporate, so it’s important to get people who love to continue to learn.
Gross: Congratulations on your book, Power Your Happy! How did you decide to write a book?
Sugar: I was thrilled to write Power Your Happy because I had been getting asked the same question over and over, and I felt like now I had some wisdom to share based on everything we’ve learned in the 10 years of Popsugar. People wanted to know “How did you do it?” and “How do I get a cool job like yours?” So the book is a combination of our story and the story of how the team built Popsugar into what it is today, along with practical advice for people trying to figure out their best career and overall life goals. It has lots of questions to ask yourself, which are things we ask our own employees and I ask myself. It’s to help you be happier every day, whether it’s incorporating more of a hobby you love or changing your career entirely. This book helps you figure out what you might need now at this moment in time in your life.
Gross: I love your mantra “work hard, play nice.” How have you created a corporate culture that fosters kindness? How can other companies do the same?
Sugar: When we started Popsugar, we also had our first daughter. There were all sorts of emotions happening at the time. I learned firsthand how hard it is to balance work and family, but I was so excited by all that life was giving me at the time. I just made sure I was taking it all in. I also took in how I didn’t want to treat my team from experiences at past job. We’ve all had bad bosses that make us feel like crap. I also had incredible bosses who were encouraging, and the feeling you get from each greatly affect how you face your day.
At Popsugar we want you to love every day. We work together as a team. Everyone wants the same end result: to build cool products and create content that others will learn from, laugh at, be inspired by and take action on. We work together to see patterns and strategize based on that. We listen to each other. Executives sit out in the open with everyone else. There is no special treatment: We’re scrappy and we like it that way. It’s been like that since we started, and at times it’s tiring, stressful and hard, but if we surround ourselves with people who are passionate about what we are creating, then even in the darkest of days, we learn to lift each other up.
Gross: You write a lot about playing nice. What does playing nice mean to you?
Sugar: It means being a good person and having respect for co-workers and partners. We can still be fiercely competitive and not back down. It doesn’t mean being overly sweet either; you can still be badass. “Work hard, play nice” simply reinforces that it’s much more of a pleasure to work with people who are part of a team, lifting each other up, listening to one another, and in it together as opposed to egotistical, selfish rule-breakers who think they are better than everyone else.
Gross: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Sugar: My dad said, “Do what you love.” It sounds easy, but it’s not. Figuring out how to make money off of something you are passionate about when you don’t necessarily know if you are talented at it is scary.