Emerson Spartz has hunted down and capitalized on patterns in business since he was 12 years old.
Fast-forward 18 years, and Spartz is the CEO of Dose, a digital media company that reaches 200 million Millennials every month with content designed to provide fresh ideas, knowledge and perspectives. Spartz is also one of the world’s leading experts on virality, having extensively studied its patterns and used what he learned to build his media company that was onced composed of more than 30 unique websites.
In our interview, Spartz lets me in on his secrets for effectively learning new information, his best strategies for negotiating deals, the power of doing “comfort zone challenges,” and of course, how virality really works. He’s an extremely well-read guy who’s practically bursting at the seams with knowledge, and I’m grateful that he’s more than willing to share some of his insights.
Head over to Spartz’s personal website to connect with him and learn more about his journey, and please enjoy the interview to learn about virality and the power of patterns in business.
In this episode with Emerson Spartz, you’ll learn:
- The secret to making any business project a success (8:15)
- How you can learn to be successful by studying the lives of successful people (13:00)
- Strategies you can use to get better at learning (19:57)
- The two best tactics for becoming a better negotiator (25:55)
- Why doing “comfort zone challenges” will make you a better businessperson (27:14)
- The art and science behind virality (33:36)
- Listen to it on iTunes.
- Stream by clicking here.
- Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here and choosing “save as.”
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So if you have an idea for a web or mobile app, or need help identifying the great ideas within your company, go to developertown.com/powderkeg.
If you like this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. You can also follow us on Soundcloud or Stitcher. We have an incredible lineup of interviews we’ll be releasing every Tuesday here on the Powderkeg Podcast.
Emerson Spartz Quotes from This Episode of Powderkeg:
“It turns out, if you work on any passion project for eight hours a day over an extended period of years, it will probably, eventually, not suck.” — Emerson Spartz
“If you understand people, and why people do what they do, then you understand half of everything else.” — Emerson Spartz
“I believe learning how to learn is literally the most important skill that you could possibly develop.” — Emerson Spartz
“Most people think of virality as something that just comes from scratch, but it rarely ever comes from scratch. Almost everything that you see that’s viral has already been on the internet before.” — Emerson Spartz
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Coming at you from VERGE headquarters in Indianapolis. I’m Matt Hunckler. And this is powderkeg igniting startups, Episode 18. And today I’m talking with a virologist Yes, his media companies collectively do 50 million visits per month. And he’s not an old guys. He’s about my age, which is pretty impressive. He’s created his media empire. But all of it started when he was just 12 years old.
There’s two strategies I consider to be by far the two most important strategies in negotiation. The first one is always ask for more than you expect to get. Most people are terrible negotiators, because they are just too afraid of what will happen if they ask for more. So that’s one and the second one is that you have to make sure that you always project walk away power, the second that the other person knows that you can’t walk away, you’re done like you’re completely done for negotiation perspective. So you have to make sure that even if you can’t walk away that they don’t know that
that’s Emerson sparks, the founder and CEO of dose, which is a media company that includes many different properties online, including dos.com, and OMG, facts.com. You probably have seen these in your Facebook feed or in your Twitter feed, because they create amazingly engaging content. And that is probably Emerson’s superpower of figuring out virality what do people want? And what do people want to share? He’s created amazing brands, and we talk about that a lot today on the podcast, as well as some of the lessons learned starting up from the age of 12. That journey and the lessons learned along the way, coming up on powderkeg igniting startups, where each week we share the untold stories of innovation, leadership and technology beyond Silicon Valley. I’m your host, Matt Hunckler. And I’m the founder and CEO of verge, which is a network of local communities with global reach for tech entrepreneurs, investors and top talent outside of Silicon Valley. And as my team and I have grown verge over the past seven years, we’ve hosted more than 1000 entrepreneurs at our events around the world. Those founders have gone on to raise more than $500 million in capital collectively. And they’re disrupting industries, creating wealth and changing the world. That’s why we started this podcast. Each guest has their own powderkeg full of raw skills and talents that’s ignited their startups and fueled their growth. These are their stories. You can find me on Twitter and on Instagram at Hunckler. That’s H UNCK L E R and let me know how verge and powderkeg. And I can help you with your entrepreneurial journey. In the meantime, please make sure you subscribe to The powderkeg wherever you listen to your podcasts. We’re on SoundCloud, Stitcher, all the major podcast outlets, including of course, iTunes, you can find us on iTunes using our handy link powderkeg.co/itunes. And using that link, you can subscribe make sure you don’t miss a single episode, not a single conversation that we have here. And I just want to give a huge shout really quick to all of you powderkeg guests out there who have already left us a review. It’s your feedback and sharing that helps us reach so many more people and this community that we’re growing is so inspiring. It’s what keeps me coming back here every single day making sure we’re bringing the best guests to you with every episode. Thank you. powderkeg is brought to you by developer town and developer town helps enterprise companies move like a startup. I’ve seen it firsthand. Corporate innovators often work with developer town to explore software solutions that support their core business needs. By leveraging their years of experience working with startups, developer town is able to help companies better understand the viability of potential software solutions, and quickly bring them to market. Developer town has created a proven sprint to market process. So large enterprises can move like a startup. Find out more at developer town.com/powderkeg. That’s developer town.com/powderkeg. Developer town, start something. Emerson Sparks is my guest today. Again, he’s the founder and CEO of DOS, which is a media company that drives 50 million monthly users to its web properties. And as I mentioned previously, Emerson started his first company at age 12. And you know what it was, it was actually a Harry Potter fan site, which is just amazing. And it was called muggle net. But that was sort of the precursor to what he has created now with his empire at Dos. And what I love about this conversation is of course, we talk about virality. What makes content good, what makes it shareable, but we also talk about his journey as an entrepreneur, and some of the superpowers he’s developed, including probably the most important superpower of all, which is learning how to learn. There’s so many good lessons to be had here. I learned a ton just having this conversation with Emerson. I know you will, too. So let’s set this thing off. Well, hey, I want to jump right into this because I’m really excited to touch base Since the launch of DOS, you know, I’ve followed from afar. But I know that there’s a lot of strategic decisions made in kind of doing the rebrand to DOS and putting everything behind that brand. But can you give me just as a quick way of jumping in here, sort of your 32nd elevator pitch on what dose is and what kind of scale you guys have right now?
Absolutely. dose is one of the world’s fastest growing digital media companies, our content informs entertains and inspires roughly 200 million people every month to target a younger audience. Under 30 is kind of our sweet spot. So young millennials and Generation Z. And our mission is to build a media company that aims higher than entertainment alone, and introduces fresh ideas, knowledge and perspectives.
As almost like you, you’re prepared for that one.
I you’d have no idea how many times I’ve said that.
No, I can probably guess. So I would love to jump in and learn a little bit more about dos. But actually, you know, since you and I had a chance to collaborate back when I was at social reactor, and you’re doing some of the things OMG facts, I always kind of wondered how you got to where you are. And of course, read your bios, watch some of your interviews and talks that you’ve given. But one of the things I would love to explore is sort of your journey to there. Because I’ve always been curious, you know how you went from middle school dropout to running what is now impacting 200 million people every month? What was that decision back when you were 12 years old? What was that like? And why did you make that decision?
Yeah, so I was I was I was intensely bored in school. And I was one of those kids who in reading class, we’d be assigned to read a chapter a week and I read the whole book and that week, and then I would get, I would get reprimanded in class for reading other things during class because I was I was bored. And so one of my friends start homeschooling, I thought that sounded amazing. You just spend all day learning about whatever you want to learn about. And so I talked my parents into letting me give it a shot. I think in their minds, they’re like, well, he’s a smart kid, he’s not gonna fall too far behind. If he ends up just screwing around all day, we’ll just throw him back in school. So we’ll just run an experiment here that I mean, that was it really wasn’t anything more complex than that.
That’s pretty awesome that you had parents that were that open to trying something very, very alternative. Yeah,
my dad’s a total hippie.
Yeah, well, so what’s your mom? Like? Is she equally equal parts hippie, or is it kind of a good balance there?
Yes. She’s definitely she’s definitely like much more of a balance. Yeah, absolutely.
Do. That’s hilarious. My, my parental complex is very similar with my dad kind of being a little bit more hippie and out there. And my mom being very much more, you know, did you get straight A’s?
Yeah, human. Yeah. And gotta have them bounce. My mom was the one who was like, No, you should do chores, chores will teach you valuable lessons. Right? I was like chores, what lessons you learned in cleaning toilets, go build something, go create something, go learn something?
Well, it sounds like you were very directed. 12 year old I was I was doing comic books in class. So the fact that you had the wherewithal to think about launching what you launched? Could you maybe tell us how you came up with the idea for what became muggle net?
Yeah, so I didn’t really come up with an idea. I just just started making stuff. And then it just kind of happened. So basically, I started craving, I came across a free web page maker. And I thought it’d be fun to make a website. So I started making a bunch of crappy websites about things I wasn’t that into, like a Simpsons website, and golf website is called extreme golf with an X and no E. So that was super cool. And then I wasn’t really passionate, any of them to put enough time to make them good. And so I but then I read the Harry Potter and I got really obsessed with it. And then bam, it was like the start of this clouds part of the sunshine through and I suddenly found enough motivation to start working on it for eight hours a day. And turns out if you work on anything, any passion project for eight hours a day, over an extended period of years, it will probably eventually not suck. And that’s exactly what happened.
That’s, I mean, probably an oversimplification of what happened. But I actually love that because I think so many people, especially in what we do with verge, you know, we were community of 5000, plus tech entrepreneurs, developers and investors, and we’d get people that will be kind of interested in that first time entrepreneurship, you know, jumping in, how do I make this happen? And it’s as simple as like finding that thing. You’re willing to put eight hours a day, you know, eight plus hours a day into for an extended period of time. And I think that last part of extended period of time is so key. How long was it before mobilenet really popped?
It depends what you mean by pop, like it was always growing. Because, like, within about a month of starting, I was like, there was like nobody coming to the site. And I was like, Well, this is really pointless to make this thing of no one’s gonna come to it. So how do I get people to come to it? So I went I just looked at all the Harry Potter sites and what they were doing and I saw that some of them had these things called affiliates where they were linked to each other and I was like, Oh, that’s pretty that seems pretty straightforward. They just linked to each other And then I went, I emailed every single Harry Potter webmaster on the entire internet. And I do mean all of them, I clicked and there was a search engines really back then it was like me just clicking on links, like for hours and hours and hours on end and then sending canned emails to them. And so within a month, people started to show up at the site, and then things started to take off from there. That being said, it grew steadily for years. So I didn’t actually like start bringing on people to help me. Eventually good that grew the size of the team to about 120. But didn’t really start bringing people on until I until about a, you know, probably like six months to a year after I started
using it, it was kind of like a steady growth. And it didn’t have that sort of pop, which is kind of contradictory to what I would have assumed given your expertise in virality. But it sounds like gradually learning along the way, what not only is good content, but how do you get people to see that content?
Yeah, I certainly didn’t. I didn’t know anything about morality at the time. I never even heard of the word. And I learned painfully slowly. You know, like one of my favorite quotes is the Einstein quote, I have no special talents. I am merely passionately curious. And that’s really what it was. So I wasn’t doing anything with morality in the early days. But then I just kind of like kept studying what patterns were working with content, what patterns weren’t, and then got better at it over time, and then starting to formulate more theories around how to systematize reality. So yeah, there’s definitely no overnight success with Miguel and definitely not well,
so set the scene for me here Emerson because, you know, you’re not in school, you’re spending eight plus hours a day on muggle net, which probably didn’t make money in the early days. Is that right? Correct. Okay, so you’re working on this this hobby site, your parents have given you free rein to follow your passion. Where are you? Are you in your your bedroom? Are you in an office at home? Are you at the library? What? Where are you building this empire from?
I was in the living room. My mom always jokes that she only ever saw the back of my head there my adolescence. That’s awesome. We had one computer, everyone shared the one computer and I was basically just have a computer.
That’s awesome for you. I’m sure your family felt otherwise at the time.
Yeah, I mean, probably at times, I’m sure. But in general, my parents were just so supportive. And they just loved to see that I was so passionate about this thing. And I was working on it. They didn’t really understand what it was or what it meant. But they certainly understood what it was and what it meant when we got our like the first check that came in for like, $6,000.
And how far into the project. Were you in that check came in the mail.
That was probably like, maybe a year and a half after I started.
Wow. Wow. So really kind of
quick money before that. I didn’t think that was like a thing that people actually did. I was just, I just thought it was like people made websites for fun.
Yep, absolutely. Well, I mean, and they do. And it’s fun when they make money, too, right?
That’s exactly what I thought.
Very cool. Well, it sounds like you were kind of very self taught. You’re you’re testing. You’re looking at other things and what’s working online. Were there any mentors that you came across in those first couple of years? That that really helped you think about opening this up into a business?
Yeah, I didn’t know anybody I was I was in rural Indiana. I was I was surrounded by tuner and 70 Read cornfields, like, literally my house was around my 20s Have you used the cornfields I had zero network whatsoever outside of like the online friends that I was making with all these other Harry Potter webmasters. And so but I did have significant mentorship, I’m not sure if that was was highly unusual. Because even though my parents pretty much did, they stayed out of my way. And let me study whatever I wanted. But one thing they didn’t do, which was really smart, was they had me read for short biographies of successful people every day. And this just shattered my little 12 year old brain into about 10,000 pieces. And it really laid the foundation for everything that came after because I started being really big, and I decided that I wanted to change the world. And I wanted to do it on a massive scale. And I just began further immersing myself into the lives of people who had already changed the world, to see what patterns I could extract from their experiences. And I learned a tremendous amount from them living their lives vicariously. You know, one of my all time favorite quotes is that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with Absolutely. spending several hours a day. You know, living vicariously as people who change the world, you start to think like, I mean, I can change. I mean, at least people change the world. Why couldn’t I change the world?
Absolutely. Well, so you’re literally reading for BYOC full length biographies are these
biographies. What are they? Magazine length biographies,
okay, okay. And were these curated by your parents or were these you know, you can read whatever BIOS you want. You’ve just got to go and find for a day. Yeah,
in my parents infinite wisdom, they realize the merits of letting me select the biographies myself, so they just said I can read any ones that I want as long as there for so in the beginning, I read only and I mean, literally only athlete biographies. Because at the time I wanted to be the next Michael Jordan and I played a lot of sports competitively as a kid growing up to
when you’re from Indiana man like basketball camp. But of the world? Yeah, no kidding. Okay, so a lot of sports ones, are there one or two bios that really stand out to you now as, as formative in those early years.
Not really, like I it sounds like narrative wise, like there should have been. Really, yeah, I just learned so much about somebody from people. So for walks of life, I kind of wanted to do everything and experience everything. And well finally decided I wanted to learn everything there was to learn about the world. And so I decided to read the encyclopedia, but I got like, to a C, like just a letter A and then C, as like, manage it is boring. Like, I think other things instead,
absolutely, it gives you different perspectives, you know, even if you’re not going to become a biochemist, you know, reading a bio about a biochemist not to be too confusing about the prefix there. But if you’re reading a biography about a biochemist, you know, seeing how they succeeded in their field, obviously has direct implications to how you might succeed in your field, or what you’re doing.
Totally, you see the same patterns coming up over and over and over again. Well, I think that’s
so important, too, especially in a world now, where there’s so much media and so much content being created, you could only pay attention to tech content all day, and it would fill up your entire time. So that sort of perspective of, at least what works for you, which is that taking a little bit from a lot of different places, kind of created this overarching sort of paradigm or construct that allowed you to succeed in what you’re doing.
Absolutely, very much, very much. So like I was conditioned genetically, I was obviously very blessed with whatever that freakish thing is that makes you, you know, be willing to get up early in the morning and like, work hard on stuff with with internal motivation, I have no idea where that came from. But man, am I glad that I got that I got those genes wherever they were. But the second part of it was, yeah, it was the environmental conditioning around all the biographies and all the reading and the learning, which laid like a foundation of knowledge and belief systems that made it so that I could actually just make these set these very large goals for myself and actually have some, somewhat of a realistic chance of hitting them.
Well, you know, I think it’s interesting, you mentioned that, you know, biologically, you’re wired to jump out of bed in the morning and work on what you want to work on. But also, if you think that maybe could be a little bit the environment that your parents created for you, you know, the fact that since the age of 12, you’ve basically been told go work on what you want to work on, go learn and play.
Oh, 100% It’s definitely that that combination of nature and nurture.
Yeah, absolutely, man. Well, that that is, that is such a cool, cool and interesting background, I had no idea that that was the case for you, I know you eventually got on a pattern, or perhaps this is internet legend, but that you are reading one nonfiction book a
day? That’s correct. How did you choose those
books? And at what point during your career did you start picking up that habit?
So that was so as far as, as part of my homeschool, most of what I learned, I learned through McGlinn. And you know, the great thing about having a business is that it kind of forces you to learn everything else out of necessity. Like I didn’t know anything about accounting, but I certainly needed to learn something about accounting, because otherwise I wouldn’t know where my money was, and how to get it and so on. And kind of one skill set for the next but I also did things like I watched like a quarter of all the biographies, a quarter of the documentary is local, local library, and all these other like random source information, read a lot of fiction, tons of pictures, okay. And then when I was in college, so I decided I so so the quick pretext is that I decided that I want to change the world I want to do on a big scale. Study these patterns, got really interested in morality as a concept, because rally to me felt like a superpower. And if you could make things go viral, you could, you could do anything, right, you could tip elections, and you could overthrow dictators, you could start movements, you could revolutionize entire industries. And so I had this kind of like burning obsession to understand, like, why things go viral. And then eventually, I decided to go to college for fun, just not a good reason. I got bored very quickly, very predictably. And I was going to drop out and start another business. Before I did, I wanted to go really big with the next one. I wanted to identify a model that would maximize my probability of getting to a billion by the time I was 30. Now I was in the EU, and the odds of that happening were infinitesimally small, but I figured, well, you know, statistically speaking, I’ll probably get three ish swings at this. So how do I maximize the probability one of those swings connecting? So I wanted to set up on this epic quest I was like, Okay, before I start my next business, I want to be able to connect dots to see patterns between all these different disciplines and industries. I want to learn everything right, that was the kind of general goal
well, let me let me stop you right there Emerson because I want to get clarity on something because you kind of moved on from Miguel net and you start thinking about how can I do the next thing but but bigger? And when you say you wanted to get to a billion are you talking about get to a billion dollars a billion users? A billion downloads? What does that term billion mean to
you? Yeah, it was a it was a vague goal. It was like a billion dollars but you know, it’s not that I’ve ever I haven’t really cared about money like for money sake, but just as like a tool for influence to create more impact. So I set out on this quest set a goal reading one nonfiction book every day until graduation. So his books about everything business politics, psychology, economics, technology, science, with a very heavy overall concentration on studying the human mind like neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral science, because they figure the human mind is constant everything you understand people and why people do what they do, then you understand like half of everything else. But it wasn’t just reading books, it was going through SEC filings, 10 case research abstracts, textbooks, it was studying 1000s of different companies looking for patterns, like what do successful companies do differently than unsuccessful companies. It was studying industries, everything from natural gas, wholesaling to drywall contracting, again, looking for patterns and the patterns industry structure is like so interesting and overwhelming. Like, you get to reconcile with any industry like, okay, take this particular industry, given these characteristics, it’s almost certainly gonna end up being an oligopoly, the market leader will have this much share, the second will have this much share, and margins usually end up being about here. And it just clarifies everything that happens in business, down to its base patterns. But anyway, it was actually a three part process, there was reading, reviewing and rehearsing, because I figured it was a waste of time to learn stuff, you couldn’t remember the stuff and apply this stuff in relevant situations. So to maximize my attention, I spent the first six months doing a deep dive into the neuroscience of learning and memory. Because I believe learning how to learn is literally the most important skill that you could possibly develop. And it provides an exponential return on the time investment that it’s like wishing for more wishes. And I end up building a different space repetition schedules, where I would review everything that I wanted to remember on a schedule of a day later, a week later, a month later, and then every six months in perpetuity. And then the third part of the process was rehearsal, I get how you practice applying this information relevant situations. It’s not as simple as in you know, if you’re Kobe, just go to the gym and shoot 800 jumpers today. So I organize all the information into frameworks to contextualize it. So I’d have a persuasion framework, a negotiation framework, an innovation framework, etc. So for example, negotiation, we had practice negotiation, as I go through like a dozen books, take the 15 best ideas like tactics, techniques, strategies device, put them into mnemonic devices like acronyms, so I could remember them in actual negotiations. And then I would I would get vicarious experience. So I would like replay past negotiations in my head using the strategies, I play Fishel negotiations out in my head using the strategies. So for example, I’ll be watching an episode of The West Wing, I will teach you heads of state negotiating, and I’ll hit pause, and I’ll just replay the the negotiation house in my head from both perspectives, applying each of those different strategies. In turn, again, all this is designed to maximize the probability that I’m in an actual negotiation, I actually think to apply those tactics. And I would, I believe that the time that I’ve spent studying and practicing negotiation, which has probably been NYC practice aiming like this kind of practice, I probably invested maybe 150 hours on it. And I do believe it’s been worth eight figures to me. So it’s how to like if you take the hourly hourly rate on that the ROI is just crazy, crazy, crazy height, I believe it’s true for most people to like one of the highest ROI things you could possibly do is to stay in negotiation. With a really big breakthrough for me came through when I was studying innovation, the patterns of innovation are super interesting. People think of it’s like this bolt from the blue, you know, lightning strike that hits you. And that’s what it feels like. But that’s not how it actually really works. And so the way that I practiced innovating, was I again, same thing with a bunch of books, organize all the different types of business models into mnemonic devices, acronyms, and then I would go to Walmart, and I would go from product to product to product on the shelves, take every product and just practice applying different business models to that product. So for example, like right now I’m sitting in front of a whiteboard. So I take something like dry erase markers, just go like luxury, longtail unused capacity, etcetera. Like luxury Can I just have way more expensive, dry erase marker to people with enough disposable income, you know, etc, etc, just practicing applying all these ideas. And that was what led to kind of a series of breakthrough moments which led to the creation of the company.
Now we’re these all, when you’re rehearsing this, you know, it’s fascinating, because this is exactly what it takes to actually learn something and integrate it into your being and the way you operate. Is this something that you’re doing naturally and in an impromptu way? Or were you literally scheduling time? You know, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I’m gonna go to Walmart and do my ideation game. And Tuesday and Thursday, I’m gonna run through scenarios and watch the West Wing and other scenarios where there’s negotiations, or was it just sort of like, I’m going to kind of live my life. And the way I’m gonna choose to live my life is, when I see an opportunity to apply a framework that I’ve studied and recorded, I’m going to apply that in that scenario, or some mix of both.
So yeah, what usually happens for me is I get really motivated like with this, these innovation patterns, like Walmart, I get really motivated for a period of time, it could be like hours, days, weeks or months, and I’ll do it all the time. Sometimes they’ll schedule us and they’ll do unscheduled, and then I’ll just lose interest and then like, not do it again. Or like only do it when it’s relevant and practical.
So really, you’re taking advantage of the fact that you are extremely interested in intrigued in something. And during that time, you’re doubling tripling quadrupling down on that specific skill and just sort of obsessing over it until it becomes boring to you and you move on to the next thing.
Exactly. And then if it’s something I consider be a valuable skill for the future. Oh, so you know that that framework like negotiation framework, the way that I use that framework now is that whenever I have a lot of you know, but most of its intuitive now, and I don’t even think about it, it just happens because I’ve had so much practice. But in the early days, when I was like, still kind of like an awkward teenager, and didn’t really know how to handle these negotiations with like real adults and stuff, I would always like, I would just like, pull out my, my framework, and then I would try to negotiate not over the phone, or in person, I would try to negotiate over email. So I could actually like, take my time and think through the implications of it and apply each of these strategies. But now I can actually just do it on the fly.
So that’s interesting, because I imagine your age, especially in the early days, because this is going to be before, there were a lot of young CEOs, and it was just kind of well known that you don’t actually have to be 3040 years old to start a company. And that actually, sometimes age can be a benefit to to starting a technology driven business. But you know, we all know some of like, the classic negotiation techniques, but are there specific ones that played well, for you? Are there tactics or strategies? That kind of helped compensate for being a little bit younger in those scenarios?
Yeah, so I mean, in the early days, no one really knew how I mean, people guess how old I was, because, you know, they can hear my voice, but like, I didn’t, I kept it like a fiercely guarded secret. And in the earliest days, you know, for that very same reason. But from a negotiation perspective, like, basically, there’s, there’s, there’s two strategies I consider to be by far the two most important strategies in negotiations. The first one is always ask for more than you expect to get. Most people are terrible negotiators, because they’re just too afraid of what will happen if they ask for more. And so they don’t even try, and they leave over the course of their life. Most people, I would argue for my earnings potential perspective, most white collar workers anyway, who actually have some flexibility in this regard, they leave on the table hundreds of 1000s or millions of dollars, because they were just too afraid to even ask. So that’s one. And the second one is that you have to make sure that you always project walk away power, the second of the the person knows that you can’t walk away, you’re done, like you’re completely done for negotiation perspective. So you have to make sure that even if you can’t walk away that they don’t know that.
That’s, that’s those are both really good pieces of advice. Do you have any advice on getting the courage to ask for a bigger number than you think is reasonable? Or that you that you actually need at that moment?
Yes, I do. Okay, so I’m obsessed with this. So as you as you can probably guess, like, I love to find shortcuts so that you can condense like a tremendous amount of learning into the shortest amount of time possible. And I think the fastest way to develop this kind of courage is through a series of exercises called comfort zone challenges. So an example of a comfort zone challenge is one called the coffee shop. Challenge. The coffee shop Challenge is an idea that I got from a friend of mine, Noah Kagan. So what he would do is he would go into coffee shops, and ask for a 10% discount every time that he would order coffee. And the reason why he would do that is because it is uncomfortable. That is it. There’s no other reason why is just uncomfortable. And so if you do things like that, that are deliberately uncomfortable, you change your identity. And that’s what matters. Because you start to think like instead of like, ooh, something’s uncomfortable, I should avoid it. You start thinking, ooh, something’s uncomfortable, I should seek it out. And then when you get stuck in other situations later that are uncomfortable, you’re like, Oh, this is bad, because it’s uncomfortable. But instead, you reframe it as like, Oh, this is good that it’s uncomfortable, and you just get tougher, faster. So other examples, so like my six year old brother comes to visit me in Chicago, and we’re walking on city streets, and he’s a 16 year old. So obviously, he’s a total wuss, and he’s afraid of everything. And so what I do is I give him challenges like, okay, Drew, I want you to stop the next person on the street. And I want you to ask them if they’ve seen the Muffin Man. And just really uncomfortable things like that, right. And then we scale it up until eventually, he’s screaming the top of his lungs really horrific and embarrassing things that I won’t share here. Another example, this one. Here’s an example. So when I I’ve mentioned this a few times that a couple talks that I’ve given, and the way to illustrate it in the talks is actually lay down on stage for 30 seconds. Yeah, the middle of my keynote, I’ll just lay down and say for 30 seconds, because it’s uncomfortable.
No, I love that. I think that’s great. One of my favorite exercises, it’s a little bit more of a failure exercise, but it’s in the same vein, as by a friend of mine, Julian Smith, he wrote the book, The Flinch, which I think is actually really great. Yeah, he’s an amazing guy. And what he’s doing with breather right now is pretty incredible. But the his book, The Flinch, I think that he wrote with Seth Godin. One of the exercises is to when you pour your hot cup of coffee in the morning, and you’ve got it and you’re gonna take that first sip, instead, ticket, hold it with an outstretched arm, and let it fall onto the ground. Now, obviously, this should probably be in your kitchen, not in a restaurant or coffee shop. But the idea being, you know, obviously, that’s uncomfortable, but you’re going to clean it up to three minutes. You’re gonna have everything cleaned up, you can pour yourself another cup of coffee and you’re going to realize that taking that step of just getting a little bit uncomfortable and not fearing the failure of having to clean it up, is going to show you one so that you can be in an uncomfortable situation and get through it, but to the repercussions of something failing or not that high, you just can have your coffee 510 minutes later. I love it. Me too. I did that once. And I promised my girlfriend I wouldn’t do it again.
Yeah, he’s to find the comfort zone challenges that don’t inconvenience the other people around you too much.
Exactly. Exactly. I like the lying down on stage one, though. That’s that’s a good idea. I’m have to try that out in the next talk.
It creates quite the impression. Yeah, absolutely. Well, and
I think it kind of plays into your own persona and personal brand. Not that you’re even doing that intentionally. But that is that you kind of create your own path. You’re not afraid to create your own schooling system. You’re not afraid to create your own algorithm for taking content viral. And so you’re not afraid to take the risk of laying down on stage because you know what, there’s Emerson, he just does things differently.
That’s why I, my first, my first dream profession was to become a lawyer. Because my parents, one of my parents, friends, when I was a little kid was like, You’re so good at arguing you make a great lawyer and that she was totally not complimenting me at all. She was frustrated because I was arguing with her on things that kids have started with her about I was like, Oh, I guess I’m gonna have a lawyer.
Well, I’m glad that you decided to do what you ended up doing. Because Because I’m very fascinated with with dos. And I know some of the early days of that kind of started with, obviously, muggle net, and then OMG facts, which is a social brand online, that shares a very interesting facts from all over the world. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with dos now and why this is the thing you’ve decided to grow to the number of employees that you have right now. And the reach that you have with 200 billion views per month? Yeah, sorry, I said billion I met million, which is still an impressive number.
Only about 1000 times less impressive and billions. But we did okay, there. You’re on your way. Yeah. So So yeah, so media is something I’ve been fascinated with my whole life. Actually, I’ve gone through phases early on, I was like, No, I’m gonna go start a hedge fund. And then I spent like 18 months studying patterns and building trading models, like, you know, this is not nearly as, as fun and doesn’t get nearly as much impact. So I’m not going to do that, I’m going to go back into medium. So for the longest time, what I wanted to build was I basically wanted to build a morality machine, like I wanted to build a system that would be able to create virality systematically, and so that’s been kind of like, my, my, my lifelong, you know, product ambition. And, and really, the growth of dose has been just a function of us getting closer to that elusive goal of creating that reality machine. And I think back on things I used to think about reality, even a year ago, or two years ago, and I think, man, I didn’t know anything back then. But even though I didn’t know, it’s still put me as one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on that topic. And so the more resources that we get, obviously, the more things we can test. And it’s just fun. And it’s interesting, and we’re learning so much, and the industry is changing so quickly. So dos dos is just is the current manifestation of that. At the end of the day, what does that mean? Where does the reality machine? Well, it just means a process, it means that there’s a process of creating content that resonates because that’s all when we say reality. That’s all we mean, we mean content that resonates. And that makes people want to share with other people. And that’s fundamentally what we do every single day, we just try to get better and better and better at the art and science of creating that, that deeply resonant content that introduces those fresh ideas and perspectives for our audience.
Can you talk to me about the science of it? Because I would imagine, given what I know about you now and the way you devour knowledge, and then go about researching and applying, I imagine you have some frameworks, what is sort of the science behind the morality,
it’s what’s the things people think about with morality that aren’t very useful or helpful, but are like common wisdom, like, what emotions tend to work better, and things like that? For the record, because most people are interested in that positive emotions tend to work better than negative emotions, people basically share for one of two reasons. Either we share because we the content triggered all the fields, and we have to share those fields with other people. That’s where positive content tends to work better. Or we share because we want to look cool. This is of course, the reason why nobody shares porn. So that’s at the highest level, right? cute animals, human histologies Just functions of like, we want to project a certain image of ourselves out to the world positive content rejects a better image of ourselves out to the world versus being like cynical and bitter. Nobody really wants you friends, people are cynical and bitter. So that’s why we’re more prone to sharing that kind of positive content. Okay, back to the science really, at the end of the day. What Valdez about that most people don’t understand is it’s about how fast just like a startup, right startups, they come with this idea, and you iterate quickly to try to get the product market fit. And then once you get to product market fit you scale rallies very much the same way you try a bunch of stuff. We call them at bats right, the more at bats that you get, the more likely you are to hit a homerun. But it’s not just about getting at bats, because if you’re a terrible hitter, you know, if you’re blind in eight and facing the wrong way, then it doesn’t matter, you’re never gonna hit a homerun, right. But if you’re if your batting average is high, and you get enough at bats, you maximize the probability of hitting a homerun. And so we just focus on that formula like how do we get more at bats? And or how do we increase our batting average? While we increase our batting average through through data, we spend a considerable amount of time focused on improving our apparatus and machinery for how do we test more rapidly? And how do we test with higher degrees of confidence?
And what tools are you using for that right now? If there were like two or three tools that are the most important for what you do? What would those be?
internal tools and Facebook? Nice, good answer. Amazing. Facebook is like the greatest tool ever created at testing rally.
It is the Holy Grail. And I’m just now getting into testing more with with Facebook’s I’m definitely eager to get more of your perspective on the science of that.
Yeah, it’s amazing. Like Facebook was my first petri dish years ago when I so what happened was I kind of stumbled across a when I was studying innovation theories, certain patterns that I thought might be exploitable with online content, which sounds bad, but it’s not actually bad. It’s just like things that work with reality. And so I developed a series of simple algorithms designed to get Facebook pages to go viral and created dozens of pages that went from zero to millions of fans over a period of a few hours to a few days. And basically, what I was doing was I was testing hundreds of different variables and seeing which variables correlated, possibly of morality. And then it just kept shortening the viral loop until I could tell within 20 seconds of a page was gonna go viral. And then I was able to take the same ideas from Facebook, to Twitter, millions of followers on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, websites, apps, the same general strategies worked on every major platform, obviously, they all have their curiosities. And then that was kind of like the early days of the company too. As we started making websites, we had a building over 30 different websites that generated each of them independently in the millions of monthly unique visitors, because again, it’s just the same patterns, it’s at bats batting average. So that’s like the very quick on a high level on how I think about it. It’s different how other people think about it. It’s it’s how you test the content, how you curate the content, because most people think of reality is like something that just comes from scratch, but it rarely ever comes from scratch. Almost everything that you’ve seen, it’s viral has already been on the internet before. The same things go viral over and over and over again.
Well, I know I could talk to you about this topic all day, Emerson. But if people wanted to learn more about morality, what resources whether your own or books that other people have written? Would you recommend that people go and check out?
Here, there’s not there’s not a lot of great content out there on this topic, unfortunately. You know, I, although we are actually in the process of creating more content around this, so you know, stay tuned for that we actually have a there’s a book that’s going to be coming out, probably early next year, very much on this topic, like applied morality of how to actually use these strategies to make things viral instead of just like, here’s some studies on morality, which isn’t all that helpful, although it is interesting, but not all that helpful.
Sure, well, I definitely look forward to that. If people want to follow you and what you’re doing, where can they find you?
Company, you can find firstname.lastname@example.org, or for my contact information, etc, etc. You can go to Emerson sparks.com.
Awesome. Well, you know, I did check out your website earlier. And one of the things I found really interesting is that you and your wife launched something called give gives me hope, which is sort of like a Chicken Soup for the Soul riff for the millennials. Can you talk a little bit about that project and why that has gotten your your passion before we sign off here?
Yeah, so so I’m actually so my wife and my co founder, Gabby, is actually also a 12 year old entrepreneur. Awesome. Crazy. Awesome. She’s super cute. So I totally do jackpot
there. Did you guys find each other at 12? No, we
didn’t. We met in college, actually, of all the places. And what happened was we were so at this point, you know, been making all these Facebook pages and had this big social audience. We’re like, Okay, well, we’re both pathological optimists. And we want to create positive impact in the world. So how can we apply what we’ve learned about reality to, to content to positive content? And so this was around the same time that that website F, my life went viral? And we’re like, hey, what if we did the opposite of that? positive stories, instead of cynical, negative stories? And that was kind of the inspiration for the site. I love it. And then yeah, that’s I’m so proud of that site, because it’s I ended up we end up spinning on it. The site did so well that we end up getting like 1000s of letters from people saying that the stories on that website kept them from dropping out of school saved their marriage brought them back from the verge of suicide. I mean, it was getting recommended suicide hotline prevention centers, to give people hope. And then we end up spinning out entire network of sites similar to positive content sites that collectively including a site people share their secrets. They got quite popular and those sites generated about a half billion page views which I’m just So proud of.
That’s incredible. That’s incredible. Well, congratulations on the progress with that. I love the focus on positive positive energy. You know, it’s clearly been a pattern throughout your life, following the positive emotions of, you know, intrigue, interest, and sort of energy to obsess on things, and then go from one thing to the next. It’s, it’s clear that that’s sort of your personal energy. And that comes through in your company. So I just want to say thanks for taking the time to talk to us a little bit, maybe we’ll have to do a follow up at some point in time to deep dive on morality, maybe sometime, when your book is about to come out. Sounds great. Love that love of Emerson. Well, hey, thank you so much for taking the time. Before we sign off, I just want to wanted to give a quick shout out to the Chicago tech community up there, which I know you’re you’re a big part of, can you maybe give us a 32nd pitch on why Chicago is the place you decided to call home.
So I’m from the Midwest, Midwest, near Chicago just has this magnetic pole from everyone in the Midwest, I have a bunch of family here. But Chicago’s great cost of living is lower, like half as much as like SF or New York. And you don’t and from an engineering perspective, although it’s competitive for engineers, you know, it’s gonna be with Google and Facebook. Sure, which is, which is great from a cost of doing business perspective.
Absolutely, man. Well, I know you’ve built a great team there. And you’ve probably got to get back to work and jump in there with the team you’re building at Dos. Thanks again. And we’ll be in touch soon. All right. Thanks, man. Thank you. Hey, it’s your host, Matt Hunckler. Here again, and just wanted to say thank you for tuning into this conversation with Emerson sparks. Let’s not let this be the end of the conversation. Definitely hit him up. He’s just at Emerson sparts. On Twitter, let him know you appreciate it, his conversation with us here on the powder keg podcast. Let him know what questions you have. He is super engaged, always obviously interested in learning more, and sharing some of his learning. So make sure you hit him up, check out his media properties at dose on Twitter, or dose.com. That’s the website of course. And then you’ve got OMG, facts.com, muggle net, you can find all that online, make sure you check that out, because it’s really amazing what he’s built there. And what he continues to build with his other media properties will be a very interesting guy to continue to follow. Thanks for tuning in, definitely find those show notes on powderkeg.co. And just find the show notes for this episode, Episode 18. With the full transcript, all the links and everything you need to keep the conversation going and continue the learning. I just wanted to remind you real quick that powderkeg is presented by verge which is a network of local communities, with global reach for tech entrepreneurs, investors, and top talent growing companies beyond Silicon Valley, we have a ton of free resources for starting and growing your business at verge hq.com. We also host several events every month around the country. So check us out and see where we’re at, I would love to link up with you in person, learn a little bit more about what you’re working on and how we can help. So again, that’s verge hq.com. And of course, you can always find me on Twitter and Instagram at Hunckler. That’s at hunc K L E R, I appreciate all of your feedback, all the conversation and dialogue there. Thank you so much for continuing to give great feedback, great ideas for future shows. And of course, let me know how I can help. I want to help you. I want to help your business. And I want to help make this podcast better and better. So that again, we’re helping more and more people. The more interviews we do, the more episodes we have. So thanks to everyone who has done that. And of course, thank you. Thank you. Thank you to everyone who has left us a review this past week and subscribe on iTunes. You can leave us your honest review by using this link powder keg.co/itunes Please give us a subscribe while you’re at it. And we’ll be forever indebted to you. Because it’s your reviews. It’s your subscriptions and your feedback that helps us get better and reach more people to build bigger and better businesses that really matter. Thank you so much for tuning in in