Hustle and Programming: How BuzzFeed’s Peggy Wang Achieved Her Teenage Dream

peggy wang buzzfeed

Among the dreams that creative people tend to share, being in a band and being in on the ground-floor of something that becomes huge are pretty close to the top of the list. Peggy Wang has already managed both.

The first employee at BuzzFeed, 34-year-old Wang now the editor of the mammoth site’s DIY vertical. Oh, and she also has a book coming out this month, and continues to make music with the college-radio favorite band, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

We wanted to know how she manages it all — and how she and the team over at BuzzFeed managed to grow the site into the content machine it is today. Here’s our Q&A:

Tell us a little about how you got where you are.

It’s funny because I’m actually living my teenage dream right now. But there was definitely a disjointed part of my life where that dream derailed.

In high school, I wanted nothing else than to be in a band, I was a complete obsessive over music. I learned to play guitar and piano at a young age, I was going to punk shows by age 15, and I had tons of pen pals and internet friends that I exchanged mix tapes with. I was also an aspiring writer. I had a middle school English teacher who turned me into her protegé and had me reading all of these feminist books at age 13. I recited an Angela Davis speech from memory for the local speech & debate tournament and was obsessed with Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson.

By the time I got to college, though, I really just wanted to get out of the town I was in and I knew I would need a job where I wouldn’t have to hustle if I actually made it to New York City. So I became a computer programmer and that’s what I did for a good 7 years of my life. In 2006, I was hired as the first editor of BuzzFeed and in 2007, we started the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. And that’s basically my life story right there. I’m still incredibly grateful that I was somehow able to achieve a modicum of success (read: job) in these two areas that I loved so truly.

You’ve been in a band, you’re busy with BuzzFeed –clearly, you’re a person who has a lot going on at a given time. What are the tools you couldn’t live without to keep it all together? How do you stay organized?

I am pretty disorganized actually.  I used to have an awesome memory that could basically keep track of everything going on, but in the past few years, my brain has been sanded down to a glass pebble, the folds that hold all the pertinent info smoothed away.

Right now the main thing keeping my life together is Google calendar. I’ve tried apps like Peek and Wunderlist and Clear and for some reason none of them stick for me. I want to be one of those people that pulls out a Moleskine that holds all of my future plans, to-do lists, quirky sketches and brilliant thoughts, but I can never keep up with it. I need everything in one place within arm’s reach at all times, and that one place is Google calendar.

BuzzFeed has a kind of culture and mythology about it; how do you craft a working environment that supports the kind of product you want to make?

You need smart, funny, idiosyncratic people! I think that when smart, funny, and weird people get together, it becomes amplified into something greater than the sum of its parts because people are feeding off of one another. I love that BuzzFeed hires these kinds of people in every area, whether it’s tech, sales, creative, or editorial. I also think not having a dress code is important, as well as being allowed to  drink alcohol in the office at opportune times.

What do you see others doing in the editorial/online content field that you admire? What do you see that isn’t doing anyone any good?

Rookie is the coolest thing happening, and I really wish it had been around when I was a teenager. The Awl is like, aspirationally smart to me in a way that simultaneously brings me joy and also a bit of self-loathing. Grantland also has some of my favorite writers, and I love their “Girls in Hoodies” podcast.

Hmm, as far as stuff I don’t like, I honestly have so little time to even look at the stuff that I DO like that I don’t pay much attention to the stuff that I think is flat out bad. Let’s just say that I find trolling-as-content to be something that I don’t care much for. It doesn’t anger me so much as bore me to death to the point where I can barely even muster a facial eyeroll.

A lot of people focus on statistics and analytics; do you get caught in that? How do you stay focused on just creating strong content?

Honestly, I should probably pay more attention to statistics and analytics than I probably do. At BuzzFeed, those stats are there if we want them but we aren’t forced to look at them or talk about them. Instead, we talk specifically about the posts that we liked and what made them special. I think it’s important to reflect on your work in a light that is like, “Wow, this person tried this new thing and it worked really well. How did they get the idea? How can we riff on that?” Also, you have to find different ways to both challenge and reward people, and not just in ways that are traffic-based.

Marketing is something that’s really overwhelming for a lot of people, especially those who make stuff and do creative things. Which social media platform and metrics matter? Which ones do you tend to ignore?

Facebook is really important for promoting your stuff, creating a community, and getting people to interact with your content. Pinterest is good for building your “brand,” whatever that may be. I personally don’t find Twitter to be very important for self-promotion because I think being good at Twitter is something you either have or you don’t! And I just don’t have it, so I’ve sort of given up on it. I feel like Twitter is for the witty and the pithy, of which I am neither. I’m definitely more of a Twitter Lurker.

What do you want to work on next?

I want to build BuzzFeed Life (our new lifestyle section), to the fullest! I want to hire smart, funny, idiosyncratic people who will meld together with our already smart, funny, and idiosyncratic team, who will help us make a really entertaining, inspiring, and accessible section. Maybe at some point, I will get really good at sampling in Ableton and make an IDM album, but right now I am feeling very immersed in all things BuzzFeed.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Think outside the mason jar.” Haha, no, just kidding.

Well, I can’t really think of anything, but I did get some good advice today from my coworker Matthew Perpetua! I tend to be really indecisive, and he said to trust my instincts because they’re what have gotten me here to this point. I thought that was a sweet thing to say, and also something I really need to keep reminding myself of.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.