If you’ve ever felt challenged by today’s intergenerational workforce, imagine if 90% of all your employees were millennials. How would you recruit, lead and retain them?
That’s exactly the situation Render Media CEO Vic Belonogoff is in, and he and his millennial team are clearly doing something right. Render Media is a digital publisher designed for the social age. They own the media properties Opposing Views and Cooking Panda, the latter of which has over 7 million followers on Facebook alone, and generates over 100 million monthly video views. Their overall growth rate led Inc. to name them the second fastest growing media company in America for 2016. I had a chance to sit down with Belonogoff in his Los Angeles office to ask him about their incredible success. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Recently you’ve experienced incredible success, but can you share a time when you actually failed?
Vic Belonogoff: It was really in the beginning when we first started. It all came down to focus. When we first started this company, we were actually working on a number of websites in the background before diving fully into Render Media. What we realized is that we thought we could build up another Demand Media, or work on forty or fifty websites at once and hope a few would kind of emerge as the winner, but what we realized was is that every single website takes a lot of time, they take focus, and you just cannot do it. You can't do everything really well focusing on that. The only moment where we decided to scrap almost every single website and focus only on Opposing Views, which is our news website, did we really succeed. Part of that was really trying to mitigate our risk.
We said, “Hey, if we have a lot of different properties to focus on, we're mitigating risks.” If you make investments, you make fifty versus one, fifty will succeed, but then you're spreading your money out too thin sometimes too. That was actually our big turning point was scrapping everything and focusing on one property and growing that for our first few years, and building out all of the infrastructure of the company around that one property. What I mean by that was building our content team, our video team, our engineering team, our operations team, and then making sure those centralized services were done correctly, and then utilizing them for other properties such as food, beauty, and style later on down the line.
Kruse: You’ve described your leadership style as ‘hands-on’ and you once said you think that's the best style for startups. Tell me more.
Belonogoff: There are a few reasons why I think hands-on leadership is really important. One is you really understand every part of the business. Now when we first started, we never raised a lot of money. Without having a lot of money at your disposal, you can't hire a ton of people, which I think is actually a good way to do it because you're going to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning and they won't be that costly. By not having all of those resources, I had to learn how to use our content management system that runs all of our websites. I had to learn how to do a P&L really well. I had to know how to deal with vendors. I had to know how to monetize. At one point, I was using our ad management system to put ads up on the site. I actually ended up doing almost every single job that you see in a company today.
In the beginning, I think that's really good because you learn the company, and then when you're talking to employees as you grow you're talking to them on the same level. There's a level of respect. They're like, “You know what? He's been there before. He's willing to get his hands dirty. We're willing to do more for him as well.” That's the reason I think it's very important.
There's learning every part of the company, but also the respect from your employees that you've done what they've done, you know how much work it takes, and so I think it goes both ways. I'd be cautionary that being that hands-on, it has to go away at some point. When you start getting too big, you will be inefficient or you'll burn out by still trying to keep your hands in everything. I had to really learn how to step away at the right time, which is difficult to do. Now, I am hands-off. I have given all to the people who I manage. They do an amazing job. It wasn't easy to let go, but I'm glad I did.
Kruse: You guys have had incredible success and growth over the last couple of years. How are you attracting and hiring the best talent?
Belonogoff: I feel like a lot of people think that they need to leave a company to move up in their career. We hear that a lot when people are interviewing with us or talking to us. We're the exact opposite. Thirty percent of our full time employees were interns. Our Chief Operating Officer was a Project Manager. Our VP of Content was a sports writer at one point. Our VP of Business Development was an intern.
When we are interviewing people, we give them concrete examples and say, “Listen, you do not have to leave this company in two years or one year to move in your career. Look at every single person here, how fast they've moved up in their careers, and if that's exciting to you, then this is the place for you.” I think that's one area where we've had success. I think too is just our overall outreach and, like I mentioned, our intern program. We have internship programs with USC, UCLA, so we bring in a lot of people early on. We pay our interns, which is still very important.
Then, third, we do a lot of professional development. We go through and pay for people to learn on the job. One of our employees, she was basically doing kind of more of a coordinator for our video team. She wanted to learn how to become a director, so for the last year we paid for her professional development at night, and now she got promoted to being one of the directors for our video team. We do that over and over again, but we invest back into our employees. I think it's also important to show concrete examples of how often this happens at this company. Anyone can go out there and talk a big game, but you have to walk the walk.
Kruse: About ninety percent of your employees are millennials. The stereotype for millennials is they're hard to manage and you can't keep them. So what’s your secret?
Belonogoff: Our transparency. Everyone here knows what's going on with the entire rest of the company at all times. Also, I find it very important for me to always express the vision of the company, where we're headed, and how each group participates to get to that vision. I think that the mix of knowing that internally, or personally, that they can keep growing in their career, but at the same time what they're contributing to adds to the overall excitement of our larger vision, helps as well.
Kruse: What advice would you give to millennials out there, who want to succeed in the company they work in, but they work with a boss who's not a millennial and might not get it?
Belonogoff: I think one of the things I hear a lot of people asking, they're like, “Well, what are some of the perks and benefits to your company?” A lot of the things, we're like, “Well, we have free lunches and we do these events.” I mean, everyone does that, right? At the end of the day, do you really care if you get a free lunch every day or that you were able to move up in your career after a year, and then two years, and keep moving up in the company? I think the latter is way more important than the former. If you're a millennial interviewing, ask those questions. “Hey, give me five concrete examples of people who have moved up through your ranks and tell me more about their stories. Tell me, how often do you have company meetings where you're updating your employees?” We do it once every Monday; we have a company-wide meeting to talk about status, to talk about vision, and things like that. I would say ask really pertinent questions. If you don't go to an interview and have these five or ten questions for the company, then you might have a very tough time in six months or a year when you join that company.
Kruse: What can you challenge our readers to do, today, to advance their careers?
Belonogoff: Sit down with [your manager] and say, “Hey, give me some advice on how you moved up in your career.” I think that shows you have a sense of curiosity about what they've done in their life, and it's not all about you. In turn, when we see that when people ask us those questions, we want to invest more in them because they have a sense of drive, a sense of curiosity. You didn't approach them and say, “Hey, how can I do better? How is all about me?” By asking them about them, it comes back to you.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.