Building a content machine – Part 2
Mike Haney: I remember starting my first real magazine job when I started at Popular Science and expecting somebody to tell me just how do things work. I’d been in and around editorial rooms before, but never having my own section, which I had. And I literally had to walk around and bug people and be like, “Hi, I just started, I know we just met but do we work in Word here? Is there a server or how do we move articles around?” Because it is a machine that runs, and it’s assumed that you’re going to come in and pick it up somehow and then move it forward. It’s so much better to take the time, especially here where we’re starting an operation to just document this stuff.
Ben Grynol: I’m Ben Grynol part of the early startup team here at LEVELS. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And this is your front-row seat to everything we do. This is A Whole New Level.
Ben Grynol: Building a content machine Part-2. So Casey Means sat down with Mike Haney. People listen to episode one. That was right before this. If you haven’t go back, there was a part one to this and it’s Building a content machine at LEVELS. Casey and Haney have now taken turns, interviewing each other about how content has really grown and scaled at LEVELS. And in this episode, Casey interviewed Haney. They reversed roles. Casey learned more about Haney’s storied career in journalism. Haney has really had this wealth of experience. He started out his career actually as a graphic designer, before jumping into journalism. And he ended up working on all these different, special projects.
Ben Grynol: Some of them, they took them all the way to New Zealand. He spent time there, he learned. Eventually, he ended up at Popular Science where he reported on everything around science and technology. And he really wanted to tell stories and tell great stories that had journalistic integrity, something that he brings to the LEVELS blog and all the articles that we publish every day. He’s got this lens that he looks at everything. He calls it, the Haney pessimism, but what he does is he tries to bring integrity to everything he does. He always says, “Well, have you thought about it this way? Why can’t it be done this way?” And that is where integrity comes from. That’s the way that Haney likes to report. And it’s something that we’re truly grateful to have him at LEVELS to be able to do that. And so Haney walked through his backstory with Casey and they talked about his outlook on content and where it’s going. So here’s Casey.
Casey Means: Well, welcome back to A Whole New Level. I’m so excited for this conversation. How are you doing Mike?
Mike Haney: I’m good. I’m also excited for the part two. This is a great compliment to our first episode, which I hope folks have listened to. Although I think you can probably listen to these in any order, the first part being how you set up content before my arrival and this part, I think today about what I did when I came in and how we’re thinking, I think collectively about the future of content here.
Casey Means: Yes, yes. So for anyone listening, this is part two of our two-part content series. And just to briefly introduce Mike, who I will probably call Haney a few times during this episode, because at LEVELS we have three Mikes. And so Mike Haney has become known as Haney. So Haney is the editorial director at LEVELS. And he joined in, I think it was November 2020. Is that right?
Mike Haney: Yeah. November 15th, I believe.
Casey Means: November 15th, a very exciting day in the history of the company when Mike joined us. So almost nine months ago. And since then, you’ve really just, I mean, radically accelerated all aspects of our editorial operation and for people listening, Mike’s involved in all parts of the company, developing and managing the entire content strategy at LEVELS, running the LEVELS blog, managing a large team of writers, managing our editorial calendar, managing guest posting on external sites, creates customer-facing product content, social media content and strategy, search engine optimization, press, so much more and is a total wizard.
Casey Means: And so we, in our first episode really covered, this was Haney interviewing me and we talked about what it was like to start a content operation at a very, very early startup really from day one. And what that looked like for me in the first 15 months or so of the company. And in this episodes, we’re going to shift gears and I’m going to be asking Haney questions and learning more about how things have progressed since we hired a full-time seasoned editorial director and he joined our team. And we’re really hoping this episode will be interesting and useful to listeners who might be thinking through early editorial strategy at their companies and really any entrepreneurs who want to conceptualize how content fits into the business. So, yeah, let’s jump in. I guess, first off, we’d love to hear a little bit about your career journey and how you came to LEVELS.
Mike Haney: Yeah, so it’s a fairly [Securitas 00:05:23] journey. I began life as a graphic designer, even though I was studying journalism and as an undergrad, but I sort of fell into graphic design through a work-study job, ended up doing that really full-time even while I was an undergrad. I had always sort of been a workaholic. And so from really sophomore year on, I was a full-time graphic designer. So when I graduated, I had a print journalism degree and no journalism experience, but I had three years of graphic design experience under my belt. So I just kept doing that for a few years into my twenties for a couple of different companies but kept feeling the pull of journalism. I’d always wanted to be a writer and wanted to go into journalism. And so it was sort of debated, I either move to New York where the magazine world was located and I knew that, and knew magazines was the medium I wanted to get into.
Mike Haney: I’d done a little bit of newspaper work in college and realized that wasn’t for me. So the choice was either move to New York and try to claw your way in. I didn’t know anybody in that space at all or what I ended up doing, which is taking a shortcut by going to grad school. So I just borrowed a whole bunch of money and went to grad school and got a master’s in journalism. And I went to Northwestern, which has a phenomenal journalism program and a really practical journalism program. It’s really focused on… It’s almost a trade school. It’s really focused on the craft of editing and reporting and writing. And it’s a year-long program. So I did that, took advantage of an opportunity there to move to New Zealand for a little under six months and work at a magazine there, and then came back to New York to really start the editorial career.
Mike Haney: And what I got out of Medill, the journalism school beyond learning an awful lot about the practice of magazine writing and editing and reporting. I got a couple of things. One I learned that I don’t think I’m really a magazine writer. I think I’m a magazine editor. We got a chance to do a lot of hands-on editing and magazine creation. I really loved that process. I didn’t know what a magazine editor did, frankly, before I went to grad school. But learning about the people behind the scenes who shaped the ideas, shaped the direction of the publication, craft the voice of the publication and work with the writers in a real partnership to make these pieces was something I really liked and working with a team of other editors to put out some kind of publication. So refocused on that. I had gone into grad school thinking I was going to be a Hunter Thompson and realized like, “No, that’s just not, that’s not me.”
Mike Haney: So once I got to New York, I did a couple of different things, but ended up pretty quickly at Popular Science. And that’s where I spent the bulk of my magazine career. I was there for about seven years and went through a whole bunch of different roles. And while there, I did a lot of special projects. I really focused on technology more than science, which is sort of interesting that I’ve ended up in more of the science end but I did not study a lot of science in college. Thought again, “I’m going to be a writer. What do I need science for?” And really through the time at Popular Science and being around a whole bunch of smart people and editing a bunch of science writing came to really love it. But because of my technology focus, I ended up getting involved in a lot of special projects that looked at how we’re going to tell stories in the future.
Mike Haney: It was still pretty golden days of print, but it was early tablet times. It was a lot of interactive publications online trying to figure out websites and what journalism looked like on the web and long story short ended up as part of a special project that launched the same time as the iPad launch to figure out how to put initially magazines and pretty quickly all kinds of content onto touchscreens, and really started with tablets and pretty quickly morphed into cell phones and ended up helping to found a company that came out of that project and ran that with some colleagues for about six years, a software company working initially with magazines. So I came in as really a product person because I represented the audience. So I learned how to run product and work with a tech team and work with engineers.
Mike Haney: And then after six, seven years of that realized that software wasn’t where my passion lie, the industry and what we thought was going to happen with that industry changed an awful lot. It’s much more brand-focused than journalism-focused. So I left to go independent and just consult. And that was great. I spent about five or six years working with a whole bunch of different companies. I worked with some traditional media companies, helping them figure out digital content and brand expression, worked on a bunch of podcast projects. I’ve always been really passionate about podcasts from the very early days. I assigned podcasts back at PopSci when almost nobody was doing them. We started experimenting with them and playing with them. So I’ve always loved that medium and did some of that, but also did a lot of brand work, companies like Ford and AT&T and working with some other former magazine colleagues to try to help companies figure out how to do, not just content, but journalism and journalism as a form of content marketing, or as a way to connect to an audience.
Mike Haney: And that really is what I think prepped me. I think all of that together is what prepped me to just be, I think, the right fit for what LEVELS was looking for. And when I, just before coming to LEVELS, which is around when COVID started to shut things down, the consulting work had kind of slowed because companies and their marketing departments were taking a break and it gave me a chance to hang back and reflect on what I wanted to do. The consulting work I always felt like an interim step until I figured out what the next chapter was and what I realized after 20 some years of doing this is kind of where I started journalism is what I really like. I didn’t want to be a marketing person and a lot of the content jobs were very marketing focused.
Mike Haney: And I’ve done a lot of that at my own company. And through some of the consulting enough to know that that wasn’t what I was passionate about. I’m not passionate about helping people sell widgets and using content to do it. I’m passionate about telling stories and reporting and satisfying my curiosity about a particular topic and really just at that moment of going, “Okay, I want to go back into journalism. What is that going to look like?” The magazine industry, as I knew it, and as I joined it 20 years ago is very, very different. I won’t say dead but approaching that or at least becoming a much more niche. And so I literally was sitting here thinking, “Boy, do I try to go into newspapers? And is being a newspaper reporter or something the second half of my career,” and only then did LEVELS come along as a company that was really focused on doing actual journalism as the content strategy. So, that’s what led me up to this spot.
Casey Means: Wow. It is so cool to hear your personal story from your own words. I’ve obviously read it in your interviewing for the job, but it’s just really neat to hear the path and just how things evolve and how you really trusted your instincts on a lot of this stuff. And you make this really both instincts, but also what was happening in the market, move towards digital and magazine needing to be on a screen and all of this. But you made a really interesting distinction between journalism versus marketing in content. And I think that’s an interesting piece and that you’re passionate about telling stories. And when you were consulting, you wanted to help companies really do journalism. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more for people who are listening, who might not really know what that distinction means and who might be thinking, “Yeah, I have a company and I want to have a content operation because obviously I want to sell more products and might get drawn into a bit more of the marketing side of things.” Maybe just kind of unpacking what that distinction means to you.
Mike Haney: Yeah. It’s a really good question. I’m glad you called that out. And I think the distinction is fuzzy and I think different people would come at this from a different perspective. So I’ll just caveat by saying I’m coming at this from the perspective of somebody who started in journalism, watched the industry move into marketing a little bit. And so that’s my background. I think there’s a couple of things that would make the distinction between something being what I would call pure content marketing versus journalism. One is that intent when you mentioned companies might be starting content operation and want to sell product. Is the primary intent to draw clicks to the site or to promote a given product or to promote a particular selling point of a product?
Mike Haney: That content can still be rigorously reported. It can still be honest, but it’s sort of like, I think of it somewhat analog to the opinion page of a newspaper. Opinion stories in the Times are still very reported. They’re still fact-checked, they’re still honest, but they’re promoting a very particular point of view and the reader knows that going into it. “Oh, this is an opinion piece by so-and-so. I know their background typically upfront, they’re pretty straightforward about here’s the point of view that I am promoting.” I think content marketing, where the intent is to draw clicks to the site, to get people to come check out what you’re doing or to sell a product, to try to convince somebody like, “Hey, I really need an in-ground pool, or I really need a continuous glucose monitor.” That’s one thing.
Mike Haney: The other side of it, what I would put in the more sort of pure journalism camp is when the intent is to educate and inform. And if a sale or a click or an interest in a product comes downstream from that. And I think it absolutely can and we could talk more about sort of how we think about that here, using that journalism as a primary lever to drive a secondary outcome.
Mike Haney: I think that’s more pure journalism when my initial primary intent is to educate and inform people. And it means that I have to sort of actively divorce myself a little bit from the point of view of the piece. Now, as I say to our writers, “Look, it is of course the case that we have a point of view,” every journalist does, right? I don’t care if you’re a war correspondent for the Times, you were all bringing our own subjective experience to the process. We’re all making subjective judgments in what we cover and how we cover it and how we say it. And so even if we’re doing pure journalism here, we have a point of view that metabolic health is important and that it’s good.
Mike Haney: We still may write pieces that run counter to that as thought experiments or to explore that side of the reporting. But generally our point of view is going to be, “Look, we should all be paying more attention to our metabolic health. And those are the kinds of stories we’re going to tell.” But within the telling of those stories, my job is not to convince you that you need a CGM. My job is to help you understand why resistant starch is good for you, and here’s how it affects your body. And here’s what the research is telling us about how resistant starch works within your body. If you then take that information and decide, “Boy, I should be more conscious of my blood sugar levels and I think LEVELS looks like an interesting tool to help me do that.” Fantastic. But that’s a step removed from what the original intent of the article was.
Mike Haney: So I the think that intent is really the first part of it. And I think that the second part of it is probably related to that, but it might even be the same thing. It’s sort of what are you going into the piece to do? What’s the purpose of this? And I think it’s actually probably related. I was thinking in my head, they’re a little more separate than they are but I think intent probably captures the whole distinction is what is the purpose of that piece? And I think it’s easy to default to a notion when you’re writing for a company that the intent is to promote or sell product. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think you can absolutely do content marketing that talks about really honest, well-reported useful advice about any given topic that is also promoting your tool.
Mike Haney: I did a bunch of stories at Ford about some of the safety technology. That was one of the things we wrote a lot about for Ford, the agency I worked with because we all came out of tech. We knew that space. And so we’d write about all these interesting driver-assist features. And those were honest reported stories. We would talk to the engineers. We would find the backstory about how that particular feature was created, why it was created, what’s going on inside the car to make that particular feature work. And we’d write a story about it.
Mike Haney: Now, the point of that story is obviously to help you understand why this thing that a Ford has is awesome and you should have it, but it’s still done with integrity and honesty. But the intent of that is that’s pure content marketing in my mind. And that’s one of the things when I talk about using journalism to help tell stories, that was one of the part of the pitch we would make to companies is to say, “Look, the more honest and rigorous and deeply reported you are, and the more service-focused you are, which is to say that you are thinking about the things you’re writing from the perspective of what your reader needs or what they want to know. The more you’re going to connect with people, the more they’re going to trust you. And then the more likely they are to trust your product and to want to buy your product. You’re still going to get that kind of downstream effect.
Mike Haney: “And if you are not careful with those points, if you’re not thinking about the audience first, if you’re thinking about your line that you want to push, or you’re loose with your reporting or your surface with your reporting and not uncovering or revealing anything interesting or deep, people are probably going to move on and they might still have an affinity for you, but it’s going to come from some other thing, like a brand impression or a friend recommendation.” It’s probably not going to be driven by that content because there’s just too much content out there. And I think people can sniff out what is authentic and legitimate and what isn’t. So I think that’s the distinction is it really comes down to intent and what you mean a piece to do.
Casey Means: Wow. So many pearls, I think in that response. I mean, I think the intent one is really interesting, but also just a lot of these high-level principles, integrity, honesty, rigorous, service focus, deep reporting, these principles that will take people a long way, if the content operation is really based on that. And I think the way you wrap that up though, that what this can ultimately do by investing in those values and principles, you’re building brand affinity, people will. We all do it. When we see something fluffy online, we move on. It’s not going to engender that deep affinity, and this is an opportunity to create brand affinity through this type of content. But I think that was just really well said. There’s just such opportunity I think when you focus on those core principles that you talked about.
Casey Means: Let’s go back to your first couple of weeks at the company. So you’ve just joined LEVELS. And one of the first things that you did I believe was aside from digging into all of the memos at LEVELS that had already been written to get up to speed, which I think a lot of what you read during the interview process, you wrote our first massive content strategy memo, which truly was a work of art and just blew everyone away. But can you talk through a little bit about the process of doing that when you started? Is that normal or was that a little bit of an unusual thing to write this very, very long memo on global content strategy? And how’d you decide what to include and really, what was your initial vision for where you wanted to take things a LEVELS when you started?
Mike Haney: That’s a good question. I think the question of whether or not it’s normal is a good one. I would say it’s not, but it probably should be. I mean, that was really spurred on by the memo culture here at LEVELS. It was pretty clear to me from the onboarding and even interview process. When as you say, I was exposed, as all of our candidates are to a lot of the internal documentation, it became very clear that that’s just a principle of this company. There’s a product memo, there’s a research memo. There’s these sort of foundational memos on each part of the company that are written with some regularity a couple times a year or quarterly as a way for everybody within the company and for a lot of folks outside the company to just have a sense of what we’re doing. And it’s part of our whole sort of transparency and documentation culture here.
Mike Haney: So it was clear to me that was going to be a first step was to really thoroughly document this. And in deciding what went into it I thought about a couple of things. One, I really treated it like a publication launch. I’ve been involved in a number of launches back in the day of launching magazines or launching content operations for other companies. And the more clear we are at the beginning about the principles underlying that launch, what is the point of this thing? Who are we trying to talk to? What are we trying to say? What’s the success outcome? What’s going to make us happy six months from now? Sometimes those are quantitative. Sometimes those are qualitative. Who’s our competition? Where do we see this evolving to? What’s the best-case scenario? The more you work through those questions at the front end, the easier everything becomes. You might be wrong about half of them, but at least it gives you a path forward, something to check back against as you’re bringing in new learnings.
Mike Haney: And again, that doesn’t always get done. Sometimes it’s just, you don’t have the right folks in place who can think about that or who have been through, know what questions to ask and what to outline. Sometimes there’s just an urgency to get going. Sometimes things just happen organically, as I think had been happening before I came on. I mean, I think we were fortunate that a hire created a moment in which we could stop and go like, “Okay, what are we doing here? And why are we doing this?” And I also press that really hard through the interview process. And I know we all had a lot of discussion with all the founders about that. And I kept sort of interrogating this question of “What do you really want to do with content? Okay. I’ve heard research and reported, but does this really, you just want to sell widgets and when I get in, we’re going to write 50 stories about why CGMs are awesome?”
Mike Haney: And I heard a very consistent message throughout the team of, “No, this is what we’re looking to do. This is what we’ve started. This is…” and largely through conversations with you of what the principles were. And so it created a good moment for us to just put those down and flesh them out a little bit. “Okay. What does that actually mean to do a science journalism publication,” what we often call sort of the media arm of LEVELS, “As opposed to the content marketing arm?” And that really just sort of spelled what we had to put in there. Then I think it comes down to how each person thinks and works. For me, I’m very outline-driven. And so for me, it starts with an outline of what is every possible practical topic we could cover it in here.
Mike Haney: And I think one could probably make the argument as with many things I write it’s way too long and there’s probably too omnibus and too all-inclusive. But I think as a first salvo, a first moment of the beginning of the rest of the content operation here, it’s probably okay to be a little broad-ranging and cover all possible questions. And even within that, I realized later there were things that I didn’t discuss that that were probably useful. But the other thing I would say about it is, and I tried to keep this in mind and going through and writing it is write things that you can refer back to later that will be helpful. It’s easy to really start to wax philosophical or imagine different paths or go down the road and write a strategy that really won’t be relevant till two years from now.
Mike Haney: For us, for instance, we’re still in beta. We’re not launched to the public yet. So what this content operation is going to look like when we are launched and we’ve got millions of users is probably really different. I didn’t tackle that in that memo because frankly there’s not a lot I can do about it. And I don’t know that much about it right now. So I really try to define a scope of how long this memo I think will be relevant for. And then within that, try to write things that, and I do this still, I try to remember to do this, to go back and look at it and say like, “Okay, is this the audience we’re really talking to? Do I still agree with this? Oh, are we answering these questions? How are we doing against these success metrics that we laid out? Or these moonshot projects we talked about doing?” Because otherwise a memo just as we’ve learned here in this documentation culture memos that don’t have any utility beyond their original creation are probably not ultimately worth your time.
Casey Means: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just looking through the memo, that’s now many months old, just like you said, there’s knowledge there from both a point in time, but also just foundational knowledge that is always valuable to look back at and just for people listening. One of the things I really loved about the memo when it was first written was that there was a very large section on the strategic aspect of the content strategy, but then there was also the tactical. So it was that high-level philosophical parts of things, which is that doesn’t really go away. A lot of those I’m sure will stick with us for a long time. This is like, what is the role of content at LEVELS at this stage in the company content, success looks like? And then it goes into detail. Who are we talking to and why? Where are we talking to them? What are we saying? And how much should we talk about LEVELS?
Casey Means: And then for tactical, you really laid out. I remember there were priorities for the next six months, which were very broad and then ended it with five concrete goals for the next six months. So it had this amazing way, which a lot of your… I think your writing does as well of going from the big picture to really funneling into strategic priorities. And I think just given our memo culture and how much we believe in the importance of getting this stuff down on paper, I would say for anyone starting a company, really, of any type, even if they haven’t hired someone, a professional in an editorial role, like you it’s worth doing this early on in the company, even if you are really it’s short and just thinking through, putting down on paper, what do we want our public written presence to be like, and what are we trying to say? And who are we talking to?
Casey Means: And explore these questions because I think it can be a really fruitful exercise, but to see it through someone who has such experience as you did and the way you thought about it, I think it was a learning experience for everyone who read it and will continue to be just seeing how… what this could really be. And it was very exciting, I think for everyone to read. So something I think to jump into again, tactically. You’re involved in so many parts of the company and maybe I’ll just start by asking you to describe a little bit of what areas you’re involved with with LEVELS because I mentioned in the intro, some of them, but it’s really broad-ranging, but maybe give people a picture of the different parts of the company that editorial touches.
Mike Haney: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think the blog or the website is really still the core of what we’re doing, but increasingly I think we’re trying to focus tactically on something we talked about strategically early on, which is to make sure we’re thinking about content and sort of content being expressed through these first principles through a number of different channels. So for instance, email, and which is initially an email newsletter, which existed before I came on, but increasingly will be unique email products, but email as a publication channel and as a unique publication in and of itself, it can be both a distribution mechanism, but also a unique publication. That’s one area that we’re also thinking about. Social media is a really important one, again, both as a distribution channel for the existing content to try to get eyeballs on what we’re doing, but also as its own unique publishing medium.
Mike Haney: And one of the things we’re doing a lot of experimentation with now is how do we deliver short service-focused messages that might have an origin in some of the longer site pieces that we do or maybe not, but really deliver value self-contained value within that social post? It’s something that I hadn’t done a lot in the previous jobs, the previous consulting work, we used social a lot and I was doing work with Ford for instance, or with AT&T, but it was really that social work was really promotional. In fact, in many cases it was paid and the point of it was to get eyeballs on the story. And that’s a very different thing. This sort of goes back to our marketing versus journalism conversation. Are you using marketing or are using journalism to promote your journalism? And I had a lot of experience using marketing to promote the journalism, to writing very teasy headlines or things that really meant to grab you and just get eyeballs on that story.
Mike Haney: What I think we’re trying to do more of and other folks Mark Hyman and others do really well, is use the journalism to promote the journalism. So deliver the reported service-focused utility within the post itself. And that both delivers a punch right there if you get some information just as you’re scrolling, but also helps I think pique interest and can also drive eyeballs and get people to dive into the deeper story. “Hey, that’s a real interesting topic. I didn’t realize that this was the case. Let me go read what else they have to say.” So social’s another big component of it. And then another one, which I think we’ll probably talk more about is product. And that was something that I was really interested in very early on because again, this point of the stuff we’re doing, being education and us being in a realm where a lot of folks don’t have the education.
Mike Haney: Most people, if you say, “Metabolic health,” don’t know what you’re talking about. And so we have a pretty open blue sky of information and knowledge to deliver of education, to give people to know what we’re talking about and why and why it matters. And certainly within our app within part of the product experience is a core place where people need that. And that was something that even during the interview process, I talked a lot with David and Andrew, our product and engineering heads about got their views on how much can we use content within the product and something that was exciting to do the last few months to really write some pieces that were focused specifically on that audience and that use case because one of the things we know as we go through what we very casually internally called the multi-channel content distribution, which is to say putting content through all these different places is that each one’s unique, each one has a different audience.
Mike Haney: It has a different format. It has a different utility. You can’t just take, if you want to do this successfully, you can’t just create one piece of content and then beam it out to 10 different locations. You have to think about how to use the content in each one of these. You can use the same core, the same reporting can and the same ideas, but it has to be uniquely shaped for each one. And I think that was something we really found within the product and we’ll continue to learn and iterate there, but a 3000-word piece within the product, when somebody’s trying to figure out a reading, they just got on their dashboard is not useful, a 500-word piece or a 200-word piece that gives them the intro or the ability to go from a really shallow explanation that might satisfy an immediate need to a much more deeper explanation that might help set them up to better understand things that are going to happen later.
Mike Haney: That’s maybe a more useful journey. So those are the primary areas. And then there’s some other just fun things we do, like an idea that came from Sam, our CEO called Everyone on Content, where we get folks within the company to write pieces or contribute to pieces about some of their unique expertise that they have developed. In fact, well, these couple of episodes of this podcast are sort of iterations of that, where we’re trying to surface the knowledge that you Casey, and I have about creating content and we’ll create written pieces out of that. So we’ve just launched a medium pub to do that. So yeah, those are the primary places right now. And then, because we’re a small startup, I get to be involved in all sorts of other things that maybe don’t directly relate to content, but where what’s great about this company is just how much everybody gets to contribute to all sides of the company. Did I forget anything? You probably have a just a much a sense of what I work on as I do.
Casey Means: I mean, I think some of the other things that come to mind and one, I want to dive into a little bit deeper, but metrics, search engine optimization stuff, and tracking that. And then now getting into press a little bit more, which, I think those, both of those are logical extensions, but then I think also a really big one that I imagine is a big portion of your time is the managing of so many other people who work with us on content. So I’m thinking freelance writers, different contractors, and then also agencies that we’re starting to work with.
Casey Means: And so I think, it’d be interesting to maybe talk a little bit more about what that looks like for you now. So we’re a startup that’s two years in, we’ve invested a lot in content, full-time editorial director and working with a lot of these other people that you’re now managing. What does that look like in your day-to-day? What do you at this point decide to take on for yourself and do editing or the writing yourself versus what are you delegating out and working with freelancers or contractors or agencies on? And how do you think through that and how did that evolve over the last nine or so months?
Mike Haney: It’s a great question because I think it is really relevant at all stages of the company. But I think particularly early on, I know you’ve had these conversations and I have as well with folks that are at the very early stages of thinking about how to set up a content operation and this question of what do I have in-house versus what do I outsource or hire an agency or contractors to do? And then what do I look for in those? It’s really tricky hiring agencies for anything, it’s tricky to find the right fit, but particularly in this space. And it really comes back to that thing we started talking about, which is what’s the intent of your stuff that you’re doing? Is it content marketing, or is it journalism? And if it’s journalism, which is to say, if you want to do rigorously reported pieces, and particularly if you’re in a realm like us, where you’re dealing with health and science. That’s harder.
Mike Haney: You can find a lot more agencies who can do content, who can do relatively shallow pieces, which might still be interesting and useful and fun to read, but are just more shallow, less reported. That stuff’s a lot easier to turn out. And that’s what the bulk of content on the internet is. Finding folks who have the training and skill to write really well and to do this kind of reporting and translate this kind of reporting into texts that anybody can read is really hard. I mean, we’re still trying to figure it out. It’s a constant challenge with every piece, I think. And so I think it’s important to… It goes back to the memo idea and I’m glad you called out that notion of strategic versus tactical because it is often how I think is, “Okay, let’s have these principles, but then let’s talk about what that means day to day, what that means in our real life.”
Mike Haney: And I think you mentioned the importance of anybody working on that memo. And I think this point is why because, okay, you want to start a content operation or you want to start doing content within your company because you’ve heard it’s useful or can drive your narrative or it can help bring people in. And you’re thinking about what to do. Before you go hire anybody, you should sit down and do some version of this memo process to know what your intent is, what your principles are? What’s important to you? Who are you trying to talk to? Why? Also, you may find in writing that memo that you don’t know the answer to some of those things and that’s okay, because then what you’ve learned is you need somebody to help you figure that out. And that’s a different skill set than hiring somebody who goes like, “Okay, just tell me who you want to talk to and what you want to say. And I’ll go make those pieces.”
Mike Haney: It’s a different skill set to have somebody who goes, “Okay, let me help you work through the strategy. And let’s try to figure out together how to answer those questions.” But if you don’t know the answer to those questions and you don’t know what you’re trying to do, it’s really easy to just end up with a poor fit. It’s easy to bring on a content agency that might have a really good roster of clients. They might have impressive results in terms of driving traffic or conversions. But if they’re not aligned to doing the kind of content that you think is important, they’re not going to give you something that’s useful and you’re going to burn a whole bunch of time and money going that direction. So I think that’s the first principle is just to understand what it is you’re looking for or what you don’t know about what you’re looking for. And try to hire that.
Mike Haney: I think really testing the agencies and the contractors, which is to say, looking at previous work they’ve done and really diving in is important having… I’ve come to learn over time and I’m still working through this, but the interview process with an agency or contractor, I think really has to resemble the interview process of hiring an employee. And it’s something we take really seriously here. Hiring and onboarding is something we put a lot of time and effort into because we have a unique culture and as a fully remote company, and as an early startup, I was just talking to Sam this morning about this how much time we put into making sure the folks we hire are going to be a good culture fit. And I think we don’t do that enough with agencies and with contractors, it’s usually, “Oh, they have a skill set or they came recommended, and we bring them on.”
Mike Haney: But if they don’t have the same culture fit, if they don’t work with your style, if they’re not aligned in the goals, that can just lead to less than optimal outcomes to the point where what I often encounter with folks now in our company and others, is it just a cynicism about working with outside contractors, where you just sort of assume that an agency is going to be probably 50% waste of money, but maybe you’ll get some value out of them. And that’s unfortunate because I’ve worked with agencies who are fantastic and do incredible work and really drive things forward, are a force multiplier. But I feel like in the past, we’ve gotten lucky with those and I’m still trying to figure out what is the right process to find those kind of people. And I think particularly in the content realm, just to get real practical and tactical about it, there’s very, very, very few agencies that I’m aware of any way that can do journalism. And that can do really rigorously reported journalism.
Mike Haney: We just started working with one that’s made up of former health journalists, folks that come out of my world. And I have confidence that they’re going to be able to execute this just because I know the work they’ve done in the past. And it is of the variety of stuff that we’ve done.
Mike Haney: The other option, if you aren’t going to hire an agency is to hire individual contractors, which could be an editor. It could be a writer, could be somebody like me who can do a little bit of that plus the strategy stuff a editorial director, but understanding that intent will tell you, “Do I need somebody who’s marketing first who can really think about how to take this content? What kind of content should we make to achieve this particular marketing outcome, whether that’s clicks or conversions or maybe brand, or am I looking to do an education-focused journalism based content operation, because I really need to educate people on genetics or CGM or in ground pools, which I keep coming back to, because I know that’s an example of an early content book that you had read that was really interesting. But I think it makes the point that no matter your industry, there’s… you can always approach things from these couple of different directions.
Mike Haney: And if that’s what you want to do, making sure that you’re looking then at journalism first, that you’re looking in the journalism, editorial worlds. Now, the good thing is because of the changes in that industry, because the shrinking of magazine newspaper print, some of the places that really generated the most kind of rigorous work, because those have been shrinking, there’s a lot of folks out there floating around right now, working for companies and bringing this kind of work into brands directly. So those people can definitely be found. But I would say one of the things you talked about in your podcast that I thought was really helpful was taking advantage of your network and asking everybody you talk to for recommendations and who they might know.
Mike Haney: And even if you don’t know what you don’t know, trying to answer that question. So going, “I think maybe we want journalism. Is there anybody I can talk to who knows anything about that world? Never mind, getting the actual contractor, just anybody I can talk to about that who could help me understand what the difference is between an editor and a writer and a freelance writer and an editorial director so I can just start to wrap my head around what I need.” I think that’s really key is knowing what you’re looking for before you go out and look. As sort of a circuitous answer, I can talk more specifically about the folks we’re working with, but that’s how I think in sort of high-level principles about contractors and freelancers.
Casey Means: Yeah. I think it’s such a great point because I think people can… I can imagine someone starting a company and feeling a little bit overwhelmed and they’re like, “I know I need to do content. And so I’m going to hire someone, a contractor or an agency to take this off my plate and have them get the wheels turning.” And I think what I’m kind of hearing you say is that it putting some of that upfront work in first, of really trying to understand what you’re looking for, what you want to say before going to the agency, give as much as you can to who you’re working with on a silver platter of like, “This is what we’re trying to do and say,” and even if it’s the high-level narrative or goal or what you want to make the reader feel.
Casey Means: Anything like that can be, I mean, I think helpful direction. At this point, obviously, we’re going to these people with a lot of information about what we want and what we’ve done and where we’re trying to go in long-form documents that we can share with them, which I think is probably optimal because it’s, there’s so much clarity.
Casey Means: And so we can, like you said, really join together as this force multiplier, but I think handing over the reins before knowing what you want could potentially lead to some directional differences that you might not end up being happy with. So even if it is just putting down those thoughts, brainstorm or memo before turning over the reins totally to something outside the company could be potentially helpful. But shifting into maybe some more tactical stuff with the management of all these different people that you’re working with, you have lot of balls in the air with your role.
Casey Means: And a lot of those are working with these people who are delivering articles at different timelines or an agency working on the blog and redesign and things like that. So it might be helpful to hear a little bit about some of the systems that you’ve put into place to organize this, because I can imagine if people aren’t organized this, it could become just really a stressful flurry pretty quickly. And I’ve been just astounded by the systems that you have put into place at LEVELS. So maybe, things like the edit calendar and other things like that. So maybe just walking people through how you manage some of this stuff, maybe starting with the edit calendar and what that looks like.
Mike Haney: Yeah, great question. And it’s funny, you mentioned that. It’s funny we’re talking about this now. I just completed a week of something we do here as an occasional exercise, which I find really valuable. We call areas of responsibility or I call activity tracking where we track very rigorously for a week, how we’re spending our time. And it becomes a really interesting window into what you think you’re spending your time on versus what you’re actually spending your time on. And I just did the analysis last night, the early analysis of my last week. And I had to add a category called managing contractors and writers because I realized that it is an increasing bit of my time between calls and we don’t do a lot of synchronous meetings and calls here, but just calls and catching up on memos and trading Loom videos back and forth has become a big chunk of what we do.
Mike Haney: So yeah, those systems are really important. So yeah, practically, the first thing that I wanted to set up when I came in and I think is a really key component is what I call an edit calendar. And this is just an old term from people are going to call it lots of different things, but an edit calendar is essentially a typically a table, a spreadsheet of some kind that tracks every piece of content that’s being created and everything you might need to know about that piece of content. So for instance, description of what it is, date that you came up with the idea, which is a really useful thing to track. So you can see what’s been lingering when a draft is due when a revise is due, when you’re hoping to publish it, whether or not it has a social post, whether that post has been created, what is the fee that you paid for it, is there art associated with it? Is there other kinds of media associated with it you need to get collected? These are organic documents.
Mike Haney: For instance, in the document that I set up, which is in Notion because that’s sort of our primary tool, there’s some columns in there that I found I don’t really use that often I thought might be useful in the beginning. So the step I need to take is to clean that up. We’ve added some new columns for things that come up over time. I added a column called intent. Why are we writing this piece? What do we hope will come out of it? Is this an SEO driver? Is this something we just need for our members to have? Is this a useful reference piece? Is there an SEO term associated with it? So just having that central document, I look at the edit calendar 30 times a day.
Mike Haney: It’s a constantly open tab on my desktop because it’s just a point of reference and being able to sort it and in Notion, we can look at it in a calendar view and a table view is extremely useful. I share that with a lot of people, a lot of the contractors I’m working with. It gives them a good sense of the kinds of things that we’re thinking about and working on or that we have done in the past. And anybody who’s working with me to execute content, you can share it out with them and have them work off the same thing. So that’s really the core reference document for just managing all of the content that you have going on, including for instance, product content. There’s a whole section in there that just deals with the… or way to sort for content we’re creating uniquely for the app.
Mike Haney: So if I need to look at that, I can just sort on that view and see, “Okay, what have we done? What haven’t we published, et cetera?” The other kinds of things we do is it’s really leaning into, and frankly I’ll say a lot of editorial operations don’t do this very well. It’s something I’ve really been able to learn and take advantage of here in this memo-driven culture, which is to get really serious about documenting your processes. So just about anything that we do, whether it’s creating the audio versions of our articles, which is something we started doing, it’s one of these ideas that I did not have. It came from another colleague and I loved the idea and we tried it and it was very popular. And so now we have a process by which we create, read out loud versions of all the articles and the podcast feed of those directly.
Mike Haney: I think it’s been really successful as a way to consume and distribute the content. But that’s a whole process of when do we assign the articles to the VO artists? Because we use VO artists to do them, not AI generated. How do they make the file? What do they name the file? Where do they put the file? How do I know when they’ve put the file there? How does it then get posted to the site and to the podcast feed? So I create a memo and a video for everything like that. So for the audio there is that. And what that allowed me to do is to eventually outsource that process. So I have a contractor who just takes care of that for me, I’ve got the whole thing documented of when a piece publishes, reach out to one of our four VO artists, assign them the piece and then step two, three, four, five.
Mike Haney: So I was able to just hand her that memo and go like, “Here, here’s the video, here’s the memo, here’s the login credentials. Run with it.” And it was super easy and she’s almost never come back with any questions and the machine just runs. So I do that around my SEO process. How do I think about search when we’re writing a piece and what are the tools I use to between Google Search, where keywords analyzer, and Clearscope and our SEO agency? So documenting and creating these kinds of process memos, both written and in some cases, just video, how do we post, what are the checklist of things we do for each post? Those are really helpful. And as I said, they’re not, I’ve not done a lot of that in previous jobs. A lot of it becomes just sort of inherited knowledge. I remember starting my first real magazine job when I started at Popular Science and expecting somebody to tell me just how do things work?
Mike Haney: I’d been in around editorial rooms before, but never having my own section, which I had. And I literally had to walk around and just bug people and be like, “Hi, just, I just started, I know we just met, but, do we work in Word here? Is there a server or how do we move articles around? Because it just is a sort of machine that runs and it’s just sort of assumed that you’re going to come in and pick it up somehow and then move it forward. It’s so much better to take the time, especially here where we’re starting an operation to just document this stuff and be able to refer to that and have it for any contractors who bring on for any new people who come on, but also just visibility within the company really helps. I think leadership and anybody else who’s interested to just understand how things work and why they work that way, or to maybe even make suggestions.
Mike Haney: So that kind of documentation, I think, is a key part of how we manage things. And the other thing I think I’ve learned from other folks here is that you don’t always need weekly status meetings. That’s something that happens a lot with agencies that you want to create the hour every week, where you kind of go over an itinerary and you talk through things and sometimes that’s helpful, but a lot of times that can just be done in a sort of shared document. And so that’s something else that I’ve been trying to introduce to the contractors and folks that I work with is like, “Hey, we don’t need to jump on a call and just sort of together read an outline, let’s jump on a call when we’ve really got something to talk about and to sort through. And then that time will be really valuable.” That’s been really helpful.
Casey Means: Wow. Yeah. So many great things in there. I feel like we could probably spend a whole nother episode unpacking some of those systems and processes that contribute so much to, I think both the efficiency and the just ability, the velocity of the work that we’re doing here. And I think some takeaways there for sure for, I think the listeners one is just the importance of documenting processes.
Casey Means: I think about a great book by Dr. Atul Gawande who wrote The Checklist Manifesto, a great book looking at the healthcare system and about when we started documenting process more in medicine, particularly around the steps that need to happen before and after a surgical procedure in really a systematized way so that doctors could just go through the list and make sure they were taking care of each thing that needed to happen. Infection rates plummeted and there were all these really amazing positive outcomes. But it really does take that discipline to put it down on paper. And it does take work to create the Loom videos, documenting the process and write the memo. But I think we can both attest to the fact that the benefit from putting in that investment in documenting process is just absolutely massive. And so-
Mike Haney: The other thing I would say that it just occurs to me as you’re talking about that the other place, I think that could be really valuable for people who are at the front end of starting this and particularly folks who maybe don’t come from a content background, even if your process is really kind of janky and you feel like it’s not great and you just have cobbled something together, document that because now what you can do is share that with people.
Mike Haney: Now you meet somebody who works in this space, or some other, this happens all the time that folks come in through our network who do kind of what I do at another company. Now you can send them that document and go like, “What am I missing here?” And they go, “Oh, this is step three. Don’t do that. That’s a complete waste of time.” You’re like, “Oh, that’s great.” Having that thing to check back against, even if you don’t think, I feel like there would be an instinct in a lot of folks to go like, “Well, I don’t really know if my process is very good. So I’m going to wait until it’s really good to write it down.” Like no, “Write it down immediately and then start improving on it.”
Casey Means: Totally. And I think also just for… we talk a lot; I think at LEVELS about this idea of scaling yourself. How do you scale yourself? Because you should be evolving right in your role. And if you are not documenting how you’re doing things that then other people can kind of pick up and help with that and scale that you’re going to end up reinventing the wheel every time. And so that just simple examples, like for instance, uploading a post to the blog, for instance, something really simple and that the different things that go into that. If that’s beautifully documented once, you could pretty simply bring on a helper or a contractor or someone to take that off your plate. And then you’re freed up to do more of your, whatever creative work you… is next on your list of priorities. But it’s really integral in that process of scaling your time and scaling your abilities to document that.
Casey Means: And if you’re going to explain it once verbally, why not just… It is harder and it does take more discipline, but writing it down, recording the Loom and then it’s Evergreen. That process is then Evergreen and can be used many, many times over and potentially add value to other people. And that’s something that we care about a lot at LEVELS as well, as you mentioned, are everyone on content effort. This is the idea that how do we share the expertise and the knowledge from within the company more publicly to benefit people, not just through our mission of reversing the metabolic crisis, but also through how we’re operating as a company and how we’re growing our business? And so lot of different trickle-down benefits. I think about what you’re talking about that are valuable for definitely more broadly than just thinking about content, but really for any part of the company.
Casey Means: So yeah, I guess one thing I think might be interesting to get your perspective on is we talk about LEVELS as a media company, and you’ve mentioned that before, but that might… I know when I first started hearing that phrase of a tech company as a media company, I didn’t quite know what that meant and now I think it’s much more clear to me, but can you explain what that means and for someone who’s never really heard that type of concept? Why should my startup that’s making some app also be a media company? What does that mean? And I guess this might get into also, why is it important for companies to be thinking early about content?
Mike Haney: I’m glad you asked that because I think the answer to why should my particular company be a media company is probably most of the time, it shouldn’t. The world probably doesn’t need a lot more media companies. And one of the things we’ve seen is I think a real shrinking in the number of media companies, depending on how you define media of media companies that are out there. I think it relates back to our first topic about journalism versus marketing. The reason that we think sometimes about a potential content future, I don’t know if it is the right content future, but I think a potential content future of LEVELS, given the kind of work that we’re doing now. And I think the early return and value we’re seeing in it, which is to say this education-focused work that really focuses on my three core principles in our work that, or the things we’re trying to explain, which is that metabolic health is a thing, it matters, and you can do something about it.
Mike Haney: That was one of my phrases I wrote in my content memo that I come back to all the time. I think for us, the reason that a media company, which is to say a company focused on an aspect of the company or division the company, whatever you want to call it, focused on journalism and education. And with that as its primary mission and not sales, it very much relates back to the other part of the company that will post-launch be focused on getting our product into people’s hands. But I think for a company like this, where the larger mission is in many ways divorced from a particular product, the mission of this company is, as you said to reverse the metabolic crisis. Our mission is to improve people’s health in a very straightforwardly. And one of things I love about this company is a very simple thing to communicate what we’re trying to do.
Mike Haney: We’re trying to make people healthier and we’re trying to make people healthier by helping them understand this particular part of their health that a lot of folks just aren’t thinking about, but the statistics and the research are really clear is a problem. You can debate all day long about how big of a problem it is and are we focusing on this analyte versus that one? But I think it’s pretty clear from all the statistics that I’ve seen in my real deep dive into this since I’ve been here. And certainly that you’ve worked on for a long time, that there is a real problem here, and we need to focus on it. For us what creates the right, I think, environment for thinking about a future in which we dedicate real resources in the company to continuing that education mission and expanding it. So when we say media company, what I think about is that goes beyond a company blog.
Mike Haney: There’s one thing to having a company blog, some part of your site that is dedicated to content, and that might be even if you’re purely content marketing, you just need a place to put the text that you hope the Google Search engine will notice to bring people to your site or that you will be able to send the link to when you do social promotion of your content. You might need a blog. That’s different than digital property that is focused purely on education and goes really beyond that company blog, then that can have podcasts or newsletters or its own sort of social presence or guest posting or ultimately video or a TV show could have all kinds of different expressions that are all focused around this message of education and awareness and information around metabolic health, not sales.
Mike Haney: And just to put a very fine point on it. I think that’s the difference if we think about the media publications or the media companies that we interact with, whether that’s the New York Times or Healthline or Women’s Health, they’re trying to make money through advertising, but their point is to disseminate information. Now they hope that you look at that information and then they make money off advertising. The benefit to doing a media company through something like an existing brand is that probably we wouldn’t have to go into advertising, which has its own challenges and benefits, but we can be supported by the product arm of the primary company because our missions are we’re working toward the same mission. The media company idea is really about having a portion of your company that is ongoing, dedicated to education.
Mike Haney: And again, that’s not to say it can’t support the marketing and sales of your company. It absolutely can because it does create that trust, that brand affinity. People see that you are being honest and rigorous in the kind of information that you’re trying to share, and that hopefully helps them trust your product side as long as your product side operates with the same kind of integrity and sort of honesty about the product and how it works and is to keep that same kind of relationship with the customer. So I think any company can think about content and its value, whether that is just to help people understand better, even in a pretty marketing-focused way, why you need X product saying more than you can say in a headline and an advertisement is often valuable. Sometimes you just need more or you might need customer stories or testimonials or interviews with experts. There’s all kinds of ways even in a pure marketing sense, you can use content longer-form stuff to communicate your message.
Mike Haney: If you’re going to go that kind of education route, if you are in a space whereas we are, where we can’t sell this product to people, if they don’t know what the space is. If nobody knows what metabolic health is, they’re not going to put a CGM on their arm or start using any other aspects of our product that might come. And so I think we’re in a kind of unique environment where both the mission of the company, the needs of the company and the fact that nobody else is really talking about this out there in any real way, gives us an opportunity to do it and to create, essentially LEVELS the media company to be the definitive online resource for this kind of information. Now look, if tomorrow the New York Times launches a metabolic health division with 10 people on it writing these stories maybe we don’t take that on. If somebody else fills that vacuum, but I think that’s probably not going to happen. I think we’re just really well-positioned to do it.
Casey Means: Yeah. I love that. The alignment, it’s a beautiful thing when the company mission the business and content all really align and ultimately with our mission being, I mean, you articulate it so beautifully being to reverse the metabolic crisis. So much of that is awareness and getting it on people’s radars. And it’s not necessarily about a product it’s about the mission. And we really do believe that. And so that really corresponds nicely with our editorial goals of really focusing on pushing the message, not necessarily the product.
Casey Means: So I think something in that, just thinking through your answer and also just the rest of this conversation, it’s clear that there’s a lot of, there’s more than a full-time job here for someone, for editorial at even a small early-stage startup. And I’m curious when you were in journalism school at Northwestern, was this path being sort of, it’s almost like the general in-house general counsel lawyer type role for a lawyer at a company like this in-house editorial director at a company.
Casey Means: Is this a path that editors and writers sort of know about, or is it a little bit unusual? And I think that’s kind of the first part of the question. The second part is really getting into this question of like, what is the right profile for someone who is maybe an editor and/or wants to work for a company, a startup, maybe a health tech company. What should that health tech company be looking for? And just getting into the question of hiring. I know that for me, when I was thinking through bringing someone on, it took me a lot of iterations of the job description to figure out what we were really hiring for. First, I was thinking I wanted like a MD or PhD, senior scientific writer to really come in and write, and then through many, many conversations with some amazing people in our network.
Casey Means: So Nall from Andreessen Horowitz and Derek Flanzraich from GXG and many other friends and colleagues realized what we wanted was exactly your profile really, and that you were the job description in human form and 10 times better. But this has become a very convoluted question, but I guess big picture, first question is this path towards being sort of in-house editorial director at a company is, how does this fit in with the normal editorial journalistic path and what you maybe was the prescribed path that many people thought was normal at school? And then how should a health tech company or any startup be thinking about this role and hiring and what kind of profile is the right person for this?
Mike Haney: It definitely was not a path that existed when I was at journalism school, which again was in the mid 1800’s. So it was a very different environment. But back then, it was in fact, when I was at Medill, there was a separate path called integrated marketing communications. And it was basically if you want to do content, but with a marketing focus, it was very early days was sort of content marketing work. This was early 2000s. So there was a path, but it was separate from, it was housed under the journalism school, somewhat controversially, but it was a very separate path because you were focusing much more on marketing and what marketing was and maybe content would sort of be a part of, or it was PR, which is a lot of journalism schools. I know my undergrad school had PR as a potential direction. You could go because again, to be a good public relations person, you need to understand how press works and how to write a press release and how content and journalism works.
Mike Haney: But it’s a separate path which really comes back. For all of those it comes back to intent. Is your intent to sell a product? Is your intent to promote a company or is your intent to convey information and potentially education? I will say that moves gets to your hiring question. That environment is very different. I haven’t been back to Medill in some time, but I suspect that now there is much more within journalism schools. I bet there is much more focus on this as a potential direction because it is something that’s really emerged. I would say within the past 10 years. And I have a lot of colleagues who came up through a similar path that I did through journalism or journalism school who now have these kinds of positions because content has become so much more important in what companies do and how they interact with their customers.
Mike Haney: And I think the really there’s a cynical development to that, which is, some people would look at that and say, “Commerce has co-opted journalism.” I would say the good thing about it is that everybody can now be their own sort of media company that you don’t need some of their traditional PR channels of using a PR firm to go get some other publication, to tell your story. We do that and other folks do that and that’s still useful, but it’s not the only way to get your education, your story out. The fact that anybody can now publish it. And I think that was largely traditionally just, it was a function of the mediums that existed. You didn’t own your own newspaper or your own magazine with digital content distribution. All of that became and a lot of social, frankly, all of that became much more possible.
Mike Haney: And so I think that’s great that there is that focus and I hope that this becomes a direction where people who are trained in the traditional principles of journalism, how to report things, how to structure stories, how to write really well, how to think about your audience, that all of those things can get funneled into companies telling stories, because whether your content is designed to help sell your product or whether it’s designed to educate, I think that the more competently it is executed and with the more integrity it’s executed, just the better we all are. I would, even if I’m going to read a story from Nike about running shoe or a story from Ford about safety tech, the more reported that story is, the more interesting it’s going to be, and the better Ford’s going to be and the better I’m going to be for having read it.
Mike Haney: So I think when it comes to hiring, I think it comes back to that principle we talked about earlier about intent, really understanding and trying to work through that question of what is it you want to do with the content and where are your holes? So I think as part of the first part of this two-part podcast series, I think we posted the job description for this role or what we ended up on. And I think your journey through that hiring was really instructive and probably similar to what a lot of folks might go through, which is to start. I think it came out of you looking at how you were spending your time and that areas of responsibility exercise and realizing that a lot of your time was being spent working on this content. This is a thing that could be outsourced.
Mike Haney: There are other folks that know how to do this or that can be hired for, but then kind of diving in a little deeper to go, “Right, but what parts of that do we need?” And I think I’m putting words in your mouth, but I think one of the things you learned was, “Oh, if I just hire a science writer, I’m still going to be spending a whole bunch of time assigning and editing and tracking, and it still doesn’t fill in this hole of, ‘Well, wait, what are we doing with content over the next year or two or five years? What’s the strategy?’” So I think understanding what your needs are if you have an agency or you have a person on staff, or you have yourself a very clear picture of the strategy that you’ve arrived at through whatever means, and you just need folks to execute, that’s good.
Mike Haney: That tells you whether you just need a writer or you need an editor who can go work with other writers and find them. If you are a little more upstream and don’t quite know what you want to do, then you should look for somebody with some strategic roots. And I think finding people, and again, a good thing is there’s a lot of these folks around now who have some experience with companies who have brought some of those traditional journalism skills maybe, or maybe came from a marketing background, but have thought about how this works inside of a company is useful to find, even on the strategic side. You can maybe bring some of those traditional editorial management practices like we talked about with edit calendars. And those kinds of things are working with fact-checkers, which is something we brought on here that I brought from the traditional journalism world. Those kinds of skills are good but being able to understand how to work inside of a company and inside of a brand is different than working within a media company. And I think that’s useful to screen for as well.
Casey Means: When should someone start thinking about content at their company? And if they were going to take a first step in dipping a toe in, what would you recommend them doing?
Mike Haney: Ooh, that’s a good question. The first part of it, when you said it, I was like, “Oh, I have an answer for that.” But the second part, I’m not sure if I do what the first step would be, but I think when they should start thinking about it as immediately. I think when you’re thinking about your company and what you want to do, understanding that you have a story to tell and how you want to tell that story and how you want, who are ultimately your members or your customers to understand what you’re doing and why it’s valuable to them is something you should wrestle with early on. And I think in traditional world decades past, we assumed that was solved by advertising and perhaps marketing. And I think now it is really worth considering whether there is a content arm to that. And by content here, I really just mean something longer form than the headline in a social post or an ad somewhere, something that does involve some level of storytelling or delivering written out reported to some degree service.
Mike Haney: One of the things that a colleague I worked with at my last agency used to say all the time is “People don’t care about your problems. They care about theirs.” We used to say this to companies when we were convincing them to think about content, which is to say, “You have a problem in the company that you’re trying to solve, which is you’re trying to sell a product. You’re trying to get people to take notice of your company. That’s not what anybody else cares about. They care about what problems they have to solve, and your job is to help them understand how your product and your company can help them solve their problems.” You could probably do that in a really good headline or a good social post, but you may need a content arm to do that. Now you might decide after thinking through this, “That’s not something we need to think about for a year until we’ve really got a product, or we have a better sense of what we’re doing or who our members are.”
Mike Haney: I think that’s all probably fair and legitimate. If you’re a company like ours, where you realize early on, you’re much more mission-driven and you were in a space that a lot of folks just don’t know about, then you should really think about how content can help you do the education thing very early on. So I think the way to start thinking about it is maybe just to think in those terms to really step back and think, “Okay, what is the story that I am trying to tell and what is the service return to deliver and how are we going to help people understand how that service helps them?” And look for a lot of companies that may be super obvious that just you provide a thing that people need. And maybe what you need to work on is just differentiating yourself from other brands.
Mike Haney: And that really is done through marketing and advertising and brand development. I believe strongly in the power of brand and brand marketing and the value that can have. It’s not always more words it’s not always the answer and more content, whether that’s a audio or video or text is not always the answer, but step back and think about whether or not it might be. And what kinds of articles would you like to read about the space that you’re going into? What do people not understand? What don’t they know? When we worked with Ford, for instance, we just said, “Look, the safety tech that’s in all of these cars, people see these terms thrown around safety sensor, alertness or whatever it might, whatever the brand name of the thing might be, but that’s not… Whether or not they need that, how it works and how it’s going to help them is not going to be conveyed through the clever name and the nifty little logo for it.
Mike Haney: “You need to kind of explain to people how does a driving mode actually help me when it’s icy out? What’s it going to do? How’s it going to feel different? What’s the car actually doing? What’s the lived experience of using one of these interesting new safety tech features?” And if you’ve driven any new cars that have some of these funky safety tech features in them, like lane centering, it’s just a really unique experience and it helps to understand what that is and what it’s doing and why it helps before you do it. So I think just that kind of analysis on what is the story you’re trying to tell is maybe the way to start thinking about what role content might play in your company. And I would say start it from a sort of challenging standpoint, like maybe assume that you don’t need it and try to talk yourself into it because it’s a resource commitment, even if you’re using an agency or not sort of hiring inside, it’s a whole part of the company and its work and its money.
Mike Haney: And so don’t try to do everything you can not to go the wrong direction with it and sour the companies take on the value of content by moving in their own direction, which we’ve all seen people try it knowing, “I don’t know that it’s like, it just didn’t really move the needle or it didn’t do anything. Or it was kind of turned out to be a waste of money because this agency didn’t work out.” And then you might miss two years of when you could have been using content to do something valuable for your company.
Casey Means: Yeah. I liked that paradigm of trying to list the reasons why not to do it and then try to talk yourself out of it. That’s I think a good exercise. Okay. So final two questions, personal questions here. So in the very beginning of the episode, you described yourself as a workaholic. So curious, how do you find balance? How do you… We know that obviously metabolic health, it’s very a holistic thing and stress and balance all fit into that. So just curious, what are your go-to ways to kind of mitigate your workaholic tendencies if any?
Mike Haney: It’s an ongoing challenge as I’m sure you can relate to. Part of it was coming into the job with a honest assessment of what it was going to entail. I knew coming into this, that there was because we were sort of spinning something up, not from scratch, because we had a good base, but we were really trying to accelerate something and build a whole new system that it was going to be a lot of work. So I just told myself, and I told my wife like, “Look for the first three to six months, this is going to be one of those crazy, work all the time things. It’s just going to be, because I know for myself, I’m going to want to just dive in and learn as much as I can.” I had a huge learning curve and just build these systems because once those systems and those machines are in place, everything gets a lot easier.
Mike Haney: There’s way less anxiety because you just don’t have that background chaos of not knowing where things are, how they’re going to work. So I find that system building early on is just worth the big push to get that done as early as you can. I’ve tried it since maybe the six-month mark to shift into just not working all the time and trying to find more of that balance. I’ll say a thing that’s helped me a lot actually, and kind of unexpectedly, because I sort of hated this book when we first read it, but we read a book recently as part of a leadership book club here called, I think it’s called Why Work Doesn’t Have to Suck? Is that the right title of it?
Casey Means: It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.
Mike Haney: It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. Thank you. That’s written by the folks who founded Basecamp and it’s about this notion of finding balance. But one of the things that just reminded me in reading it is how you think about work is largely up to you. And I’ll say that’s not true certainly for everybody. A lot of people have work environments in which they don’t have that luxury and folks are maybe putting unrealistic demands on them or really yelling at them. I think our company really works hard at creating an environment in which we don’t put unrealistic expectations on people. And we really look to people to set their own values around how they work and how much they work and how they find that balance. And so it was a good reminder to me that “Look, I have this beautiful luxury working for a company that takes balance seriously, that wants me to be healthy and take time to work out and exercise and do those things.”
Mike Haney: And so it’s been a refrain for me the last month of, “I don’t have to stress about this.” Whether or not I am anxious about a particular thing or stressed about all the tasks that need to be done. Because there’s still a million things we can do not to mention just feeding the machine of constantly publishing. Whether or not I’m stressed about that sort of up to me. That works 30% of the time, but that’s better than not working any of the time.
Casey Means: Yeah. I love that. And that leads me to my next question, which is, you’ve now been at LEVELS for almost a year wearing a CGM. What has your number, I guess, maybe top three metabolic health tips and hacks that you have learned, or we should not say hacks, I should say, what are the top three insights that you’ve learned from wearing a CGM?
Mike Haney: I would say breakfast matters. I think that’s probably been my key learning and the place I still struggle. I love cereal. I have loved cereal all my life. I blame my parents. They did not do a good job at keeping me away from sugar cereal. I have failed to do the same with my own child, but it’s always been a go-to for me. I think this is a very Gen X thing. It’s why you can get cereal shakes at milk bar because we’re a generation that grew up on sugary cereal. But what I have found is on days when I start the day that way, and it produces a crazy spike and the crazy up and downs, the rest of the morning, it’s really hard to recover. I can have a really stable glucose line the rest of the day, but my overall metabolic score.
Mike Haney: And often, generally how I’m feeling, though, not always we’ll track that. I think the other thing which actually leads me to my second point and I found this through a lot of member interviews I’ve done as well. I always ask this question to folks because I’m curious about it is that what’s going on in my body doesn’t always track with how I feel. And for a long time, I thought about that as a real problem with our product of like, “Oh, if this is showing me a spike in a crash, but I don’t feel fatigued. I don’t feel a headache. I don’t feel bad. I feel kind of how I always feel. What’s the point of this?” And I had a member who said something really interesting to me, Martin Tobias. He said, “Look, yeah, I have that same experience. That’s why I wear the device because I can’t trust my own perception of how I’m feeling. It might be that I’m busy and my adrenaline is pushing me through and I’m not noticing that sort of fatigue.”
Mike Haney: It might just be the look we’re all different, but it doesn’t mean that that constant spiking and crashing, isn’t still not great for my body. And I think again, we’ve got all kinds of articles and research that indicate that frequent spikes and frequent elevated glucose and all of those things are not great for us, even if they aren’t producing that immediate sort of short-term felt effects.
Mike Haney: And the other thing I’ll say the one big behavior change that has happened though, I still struggle with cereal is I used to eat sorbet after dinner every night for years, probably 15 years. And it was just an integral part of my life. If I didn’t have sorbet before dinner, I would run to the store to make sure I had some for after dinner. And as soon as I started wearing the CGM, of course, that was a massive spike an hour before I go to bed and I’ve stopped eating sorbet. I just don’t eat it anymore. And that’s a behavior I thought would go with me to my grave, but it’s been a real behavior change and it’s fine. I don’t really miss it. And it’s just a new kind of thing for me, but I didn’t think I could achieve that kind of behavior change and I did.
Casey Means: And sorbet’s the healthy choice, right? There’s no fat.
Mike Haney: Yeah.
Casey Means: So, it’s the better choice. No, I think that’s a common thing that people think. And obviously you’re making the healthier choice by eating the fruit sorbet, but it’s seeing that result, of it’s like a IV of carbs. It’s fascinating. And it’s funny to hear that it was something that was so ingrained with you. You were going to take it to your grave and then it was just like, “Oh, I’m not doing this anymore” There are alternatives.” And not really an emotional experience, but more of just that data-based wake-up call, which I think so many of us have experienced wakes us from that autopilot of certain habits we’re doing. And that’s fascinating. I love that. Well, thank you for sharing those. And this has been such an enlightening conversation. I think this is going to be really useful to entrepreneurs and founders thinking about content and really give a… I think a real playbook for how to get started. So thank you so much for taking the time to describe your experience and thanks so much for all you do.
Mike Haney: Thanks so much. Appreciate it. All right. We are now recording.
Casey Means: I’m going to do a quick timeout here, Mike. On my end, there is no signal coming from my microphone. Do you hear me okay?
Mike Haney: Yeah, I do and it’s showing-
Casey Means: Do you see how on mine there’s no squiggly when I talk or is yours showing it?
Mike Haney: I’m seeing a squiggly when you talk.
Casey Means: Oh, okay.
Mike Haney: Weird.
Casey Means: I mean it says, “Health check pass.” And if you’re seeing my squiggly line, can you see your line being squiggly when you talk?
Mike Haney: Yeah, I see both. Well, let’s keep it going.