While a ton of great reporting does get produced every day, it’s unfortunately clouded by the massive amount of clickbait and sensational content getting shared across different platforms. News too often starts with a second-order conclusion. As crazy as it sounds, given the current landscape of media consumption, we’re being “disruptive” by simply starting with a common set of facts, and letting people draw their own conclusions from there. Secondly, the delivery channel.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Aft.
Michael is the co-founder and Co-CEO of The New Paper, a media company that makes fact-first news easy to consume. Prior to founding The New Paper, Michael led operations and strategy for LinkedIn’s consumer messaging platform, worked as a technology investor at Accel-KKR, and spent time in investment banking at Moelis & Company. Michael holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Indiana University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Absolutely — I’ll try to weave this together as if I had a plan all along, but the reality is that I had no idea this is what I’d be doing when I was starting my career. The best place to start is probably undergrad — I had the good fortune of attending Indiana University, which for a high school kid from Virginia with a very subpar GPA was a big deal. At IU, I got hooked into the finance and investment banking program, and ultimately landed a full-time gig in the industry. I ended up spending the better part of three years working in finance, first in investment banking, then in private equity and venture capital. Throughout that time I became fascinated with how companies actually operate — what dictates both day to day operations and long-term strategy. And as luck would have it, through a totally serendipitous networking contact, I got put in touch with LinkedIn’s Business Operations & Strategy team. The role couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for what I was interested in, so I jumped at the opportunity and ended up spending two years running LinkedIn’s consumer messaging bizops effort. In my time at LinkedIn, I realized a couple things about myself: 1) I absolutely loved running teams, companies, projects, etc., and 2) I desperately wanted to try something entrepreneurial. So after two years, I said a very tearful goodbye, and left to attend the MBA program at Harvard. While at HBS, I explored a number of different entrepreneurial paths, but when my co-founder John approached me to help him build the future of news, I didn’t even hesitate. The problem we’re solving is too important, and having the opportunity to work with a close friend and former colleague on a business that we knew could achieve massive scale was something I wasn’t willing to pass up.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Right now, the user experience of reading the news and staying informed feels broken. The issue is not a lack of great journalism (of which there is plenty), but rather sifting through the excess of content that is often filled with clickbait and sensationalism. It shouldn’t be hard work to start your day with a common set of facts, but the unfortunate truth is that for a normal (busy) professional, staying informed with factual news is a daunting and time-consuming task.
So, how did we fix it and why is what we do disruptive? Firstly, the content. While a ton of great reporting does get produced every day, it’s unfortunately clouded by the massive amount of clickbait and sensational content getting shared across different platforms. News too often starts with a second-order conclusion. As crazy as it sounds, given the current landscape of media consumption, we’re being “disruptive” by simply starting with a common set of facts, and letting people draw their own conclusions from there. Secondly, the delivery channel. We are the only media company (at least that we’re aware of) that uses SMS to deliver a daily news digest. The vast majority of news is consumed online, in an app, or in an email, but think about the experience in each of those channels. It’s noisy, frustrating, busy, and stressful. But text-message? It’s clean, refreshing, and most importantly: it’s extremely easy to consume. You may get a thousand emails in a day, but your text inbox is sacred. It’s your friends, your family, and The New Paper.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we were first getting off the ground, my co-founder John had the brilliant (we thought) idea of handing out actual paper versions of The New Paper as a way to drive new subscribers. So he printed off 100 copies and literally walked around the streets of San Francisco handing people paper copies of our digest. It went about as well as you’d expect — a bunch of weird looks, and way too much wasted paper. Fortunately, 18 months later, we now laugh about it (or at least I do).
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Professionally, the first person who comes to mind is someone I worked with at LinkedIn, Bryan Ng. Bryan was (and continues to be) among the most influential mentors I’ve been fortunate to have in my life, and his impact can’t be understated. I doubt he would remember this, but the story that comes to mind is actually our first 1:1. Coming from the world of finance, I had no idea what a “1:1” was or what it meant to truly have a “manager.” Bryan sat me down, told me this time every week was entirely mine, and noted that his primary goal was helping me succeed both personally and professionally. It may seem inconsequential, but it was a complete mindset shift for me in terms of what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a manager, and how much it means to work for someone who genuinely cares about who you are as a person. Over the course of our weekly 1:1’s, Bryan played the role of mentor, therapist, boss, advisor, confidant, and an endless list of roles. Suffice to say that he was a huge part of my LinkedIn experience, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.
Personally, I’d have to say my parents. They are very much the reason I decided to pursue entrepreneurship, but not for the reasons you might think. My dad is a Rabbi in the Northern Virginia area, and growing up I would tag along to the synagogue throughout the week. When we went in the evenings, I distinctly remember the relationship he had with the maintenance staff. He knew them, knew their families, had a real relationship and made sure that they knew how valued they were. As a young kid it taught me that every person you meet deserves genuine respect, kindness, and empathy, and that your job title means absolutely nothing. It also motivated me to run my own company, so I could take the same approach of making sure every single employee is treated with extraordinary kindness and respect. And my mother taught me that effort outweighs outcome. She never once got upset if I got a bad grade or had a bad game, so long as I gave my absolute best effort. But her bar for effort was extremely high — she believed then (and I believe now) that hard work, humility, and effort are absolutely critical in life, work, and everywhere in between. As an entrepreneur, that couldn’t be more true. The day to day swings can be a challenge in entrepreneurship because you never know exactly what is going to be the next big thing to move your business forward, but every single day I fall back on those principles from my mother, and trust that success will continue to be the byproduct of hard work and effort.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
As a general rule, I think disruption is most often dictated by market dynamics. What I mean by that, is that disruption happens when a new product is a genuine improvement over whatever product it is disrupting, and can drive widespread adoption (thereby “disrupting” the incumbent). So rather than saying “disruption is good” or “disruption is bad,” I’d say that disruption happens when the market wants it to.
I do, however, think that “disruption” carries the weight of responsibility, and that goes not only for entrepreneurs but also investors, boards, and other stakeholders. So the “not so positive” examples that would come to mind have less to do with the industry or company being disrupted, and more with the company doing the disruption acting unethically.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1) Go with your gut: This is probably the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received. It may seem simple, but the reality is that we live in a world with a near-constant flow of information, and that flow of information can make decision making very challenging (e.g. “analysis paralysis”). While informed decision making is critical, the fact is that we’ll never have complete information, nor can we predict the outcome of every decision, so at a certain point you have to pull yourself out of the weeds and just make a call. This has come into play in a wide range of scenarios in my life, from my transition to LinkedIn to my decision to attend b-school, and ultimately my decision to pursue entrepreneurship.
2) Effort and attitude trump aptitude and natural ability: The first “real” internship I had during college was at a small investment bank in Chicago. I wanted to put my best foot forward, so I chatted beforehand with a bunch of former interns and analysts to see how I should approach the role. I was expecting to hear answers like “make sure you’re analytically perfect” or “you need to be the smartest person in your class,” but every single person said the same thing: hard work and an unwaveringly positive attitude are the most important factors in your success. And that idea has held true across every job and experience I’ve had since — as a person with very mediocre talents (professionally and, unfortunately, athletically), I’ve always been able to lean back on work ethic and attitude as a way to find success.
3) Say yes to new experiences: Some of the best experiences, friendships, and opportunities of my life are a direct result of saying “yes” to something when it would have been easier to say no. Saying “yes” is how I met my wife, how I ended up co-founding The New Paper, and how I found my way into countless other life-changing experiences.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
I wish there was a magic bullet here, but the reality is that quality leads come from quality work. We’ve certainly done our best to automate and streamline our lead generation process, but at the end of the day nothing trumps a good old fashioned LinkedIn marathon, doing the hard work to identify high quality prospects.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
For now I’m 100% focused on our mission at The New Paper — making fact-first news extremely easy to consume. While we’re excited about the growth trajectory of our text message product, it’s really just the beginning of what we hope to build. The New Paper aims to help every single person who reads the news start their day with a common set of facts, and while for many people, a text message is the ideal way to consume the news, for others it isn’t. As we look to the future, we plan on building an ecosystem of news products that delivers the same fact-first news experience across every channel where people consume the news. So for now, that’s where you’ll find me!
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I couldn’t more highly recommend “Everybody Matters.” It’s a book written by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and I think it’s the perfect encapsulation of how a business should be run. I’ll spare you a full-length review, but the high level is that if you treat people with respect, kindness, and genuine caring at every level of your business, you’ll be floored by not only the business outcome, but also the community-wide impact you can have. People have tremendous potential, and if you shine a light on someone, make them feel valued, and give them the opportunity to succeed, more often than not that’s exactly what they’ll do. The book is foundational to how I think about life, business, and treating people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”
I have never been, and will never be, the smartest person in the room. Any modest level of success that I’ve had to date or will have in the future was and will be a direct derivative of three things: 1) the people around me, 2) hard work and humility, and 3) yes, quite a bit of luck.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement toward empathy. Our society is growing increasingly polarized by the day, and the unfortunate truth is that thoughtful dialogue where two opposing groups genuinely try to understand each other seems to be the exception rather than the rule. I would love to see a world where we, as a society, can take a deep breath, get out of our own narrow view of the world, and genuinely try to understand people who hold different views than our own.
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow The New Paper! I’m unfortunately not nearly cool enough to use my own social media, but TNP is where I do my best (and most interesting work). Follow us @the_new_paper_ on Twitter and learn more on our website.