How Derek Flanzraich Got Six Pack Abs AND Grew Greatist to 1M Monthly Uniques in <1 Year

Derek Flanzraich is a good friend – we started off as blogging collaborators, writing about how to land startup jobs out of college, and now have followed parallel paths into entrepreneurship. Derek’s NYC-based startup, Greatist, is the fastest growth health and fitness site on the planet, with over 1 million (count ’em) uniques a month less than a year after launch.

In this honest conversation we had in late August 2012, he shares the hardest thing about doing a startup, how to really get six pack abs, the most important quality to creating sharable content and much more. Stay tuned at the end for a very special opportunity you won’t want to miss.

Jason = Grey background Derek = White background

[alert style=”grey”]Let’s start from the top: what brings you into SF?[/alert]

I’m here for the Health Innovation Summit hosted by Rock Health. We’re demoing Greatist and honestly it’s a chance to meet new folks and catch up with people. I haven’t been to SF in a while to see the city I like so much. We’ll set up a booth and just chat people up – any chance I can reach a relevant audience with Greatist, I jump at it. Rock Health is well respected as an seed accelerator for digital health startups. We’re good friends with many of the companies that have gone through the program and we also did an infographic on how The Future of Health is Your Smartphone.

[alert style=”grey”]Now, I know you recently went on an adventure to get six pack abs and wrote about it on Greatist as a series called Six Pack Abs in Six Weeks: The #Absperiment. Will you A) show me your abs now and B) summarize what you learned from the experience?[/alert]

You are not the first person to ask this question [about my abs]. They are gone. It took me 6 weeks to get them, 1.5 weeks to lose them.

[alert style=”grey”]Bummer.[/alert]

And that was a choice. I mean I couldn’t stop eating for a week after so maybe it was something in between … but anyway, the ultimate takeaway was that you can get six pack abs but the sacrifice that you have to make to accomplish that goal in a short period of time may not be worth it and may not be lasting. I came to the conclusion that I don’t necessarily want six pack abs, I just want to be healthy, happy and fit.

One other thing I realized was that I usually eat a lot more than I need to. [During the #absperiment] I basically cut my calories in half and honestly wasn’t that hungry. Now, I no longer order, for instance, double meat at Chipotle, because I realize I’m going to be full anyway.

[alert style=”grey”]For readers who want details how Derek did it, you can scroll to the bottom (I’m also throwing in a free picture of “Six Pack Derek”. Now personal experiments aside, what kind of content do you think really stands out? What are the most popular articles to read on Greatist?[/alert]

The most popular articles are really comprehensive, exhaustive lists that people can refer back to. We have some amazing user engagements for a content site. A lot of that is because we have pages that people bookmark and come back to.

For example, 52 healthy meals in under 12 minutes. That article probably has 500,000 unique vistors or something insane like that.

[alert style=”grey”]Dang. People really do love lists.[/alert]

Yeah! And the return rate is 45%. And this sounds crazy but our entire site has a return rate of 30%. Meaning around 1/3 visits to the site each month re not by someone new, but by someone coming back for more. 15% of our visitors have come back 4 times or more. And they’re coming back, I hope, because they love the great content we are writing.

[alert style=”grey”]You talk a lot about being trustworthy and relatable. What do those words mean to you?[/alert]

On a very specific level, every fact and every article on Greatist is citied by a PubMed study (the int’l repository for all peer reviewed scientific journals). Additionally, every article is approved by at least two experts. We’ve built out a network of nearly 70 experts across all kinds of disciplines – doctors have to be board certified; personal trainers need two different certifications. Every single sentence has been gone over by at least two editors.

Our writers are all huge nerds, but we write it in a way that’s relatable and down to earth. I have struggled for 8 years to find reliable content in the health, fitness and wellness space and finally I decided to build it. I believe that with a health and fitness brand that people can truly trust, we can make an enormous difference in people’s lives. Right now there is no brand like that.

[alert style=”grey”]But there are sites out there that cover this stuff right? What about Men’s Health or Shape or WebMD?[/alert]

Sure, there are websites and magazines, most of them owned by content farms, but they write the same thing every month. There are some good sites, but most of them just don’t care. They don’t care to write high quality content, they just want clicks and page views.

We’re different. We don’t have slide shows. We don’t have extra pages to click through. We just want to build a brand that people trust, love and turn to when they are trying to fit health and wellness into their lives.

[alert style=”grey”]RESPONSE I know you teach a Skillshare class on growing traffic. What are some of the best tips you’d give to people looking to grow the inbound traffic to their site?[/alert]

Well, take my class! =)

[alert style=”grey”]I would! But it’s in NYC and I don’t know when I’m going to be out there again.[/alert]

We talk a lot about identifying and writing down your voice for your brand. This makes it easy to figure out what social networks are the right ones for you, and then how to communicate and express those ideas.

For instance, FAKEGRIMLOCK is extremely consistent and a very appealing brand for who are really into startups. You know what you are getting with Grimlock everytime. I think one thing startups and blogs struggle with is why they should have a presencse on social media? They know they should do it but they’re not sure why people would want to follow them on beside for general updates on the company.

Let’s say you’re running a carpool and rideshare site for friendly people.

[alert style=”grey”]Totally hypothetically right? =)[/alert]

Of course. There are a lot of things you could post, but you have to pick one so I can say to my friend “Hey you gotta be following @ridejoy on twitter because of ____.”

Something you can easily communicate. An example would be – sharing the best rides on Ridejoy. So the only reasons you’d follow it is if you’re someone who wants rides. It’s gotta be consistent.

[alert style=”grey”]You keep talking about that. What is the value of consistency?[/alert]

If you want organic growth, you need people talking about you, and you need word of mouth to spread what you’re doing. The easier you make it for someone to share why they like you so much, the more people will. Consistency allows people to say, this the clear value they provide me.

[alert style=”grey”]RESPONSE Ben Horowitz recently wrote a great piece about how important it is to build A Good Place to Work. What’s it like to work at Greatist?[/alert]

I’m obsessed with team culture and I liked Ben’s post, but I felt he could have gotten even more into it. It’s not enough to be good to your employees – there are so many elements of keeping people inspired and creating an environment where people love to work there.

We live the life that we champion on the site. We have no vacation policy, no set hours, shared gym membership. We have healthy and delicious snacks in the office. But all of that should really be standard for every company.

The real keys are transparency and fun and trust. I think overcommunication is important. Everyone needs different things and setting up an environment where everyone understand that. Laughing a lot is key and so is sweating together.

[alert style=”grey”]A lot of people talk about transparency and we all know it’s easier said than done. How do you bring that to Greatist?[/alert]

Every Monday we have an all-hands meeting where we talk about what’s going on. I also try to have one-on-ones with people every week where we talk about everything, including non-work related stuff.

Every few months, I have people write questions on Post-It notes, throw it into a hat and I answer them. Sometimes they are “Show me your abs”. Some times they are more serious things like “Update me on X issue” or “I’m worried about Y”. When answering those questions, I try to be transparent to to the level of being worried about it.

[alert style=”grey”]Now we both cut our teeth at an early stage startup before starting our own thing. Do you think that’s important? Did your time at Clicker give you a good foundation for going out and doing your own thing?[/alert]

I went to work at an early stage stage startup because I thought it would help me not make silly mistakes and I would learn lessons that would help start a step above. That experience forced me to realize what I wanted to be doing with my life – I realized that I was never going to be ready to be a founder, so preparing to be ready was not necessarily the best use of my time.

I learned very quickly, and amost every good startup founder will tell you this, that they don’t know what theyre’ doing. And they may have worked at amazing comapnies, but they are still making it up on some level. I figured that I was going to make stuff up, I may as well start sooner rather than later.

I also realized the importance of trying to fix a problem that I would be trying to fix if i had all the money in the world and no reason to work. Some vision that I was truly obbssed with, and a difference I wanted to make and the minute I realized what that was, I figured out some way to go after that.

[alert style=”grey”]Now starting a company is hard stuff. What’s are some of the hardest things you’ve had to face when building Greatist?[/alert]

I’m a little over a year and a half into Greatist and this is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And it keeps getting harder! You think it wouldn’t but it definitely does.

I couldn’t have imagined how many things you have to figure out to make a business tick, that are not directly related to what you’re trying to do. I’m not saying I don’t like accounting and legal and taxes and paperwork. But rather, I hate it! It’s so stupid!

That makes up a surprising aount of time. One one hand, I recognize that it is my job is to serve the amazing people who are on the team and let them do their best. But if you had asked me what I’d be doing with my time as a founder, I’d have no idea it’d be this minutia.

From a personal level, I could not have imagined how lonely it is to be a founder, especially a solo founder. Even though I’m surrounded by people more or less my age, interested in the same stuff, who are all cooler than me, being the boss puts you in a different position and that’s hard. You cut their paychecks. They will never share some of the small details of their life with you the way they would with other people on the team or their friends.

[alert style=”grey”]Let’s go back a bit – tell me a story childhood that might help us understand who you are today. Like the movie version of your greatist[/alert]

Haha. Here’s a story for you: I cut two tendons in my hand when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m ok now, but it took three years of surgeries to make my pinky finger bend again. I don’t remember how bad it all was, but it meant that, as a righty, I had my right hand and arm in a cast for a long time.

That was the age when boys play sports. So I grew up not playing sports and instead read a lot. So when people say “I’ve always done sports’ I’m not that person, I’m tbe opposit of that person. That’s given me an appreciation of the awesome opportunity to be a part of a team, to be active and fit and how lucky are we to be able to do that. I mean, it could have been a lot worse, but at the time it felt really shitty.

[alert style=”grey”]That’s a good story! And even as someone who did a sport very seriously (gymnastics) I can still I identify with some of what you’re saying. Ok, last question: I know there are some readers out there NYC who are excited about health and fitness, totally fluent in social media and obsessed with analytics. Do you know of any opportunities out there for them? *wink*[/alert]

Greatist in fact, is hiring for an audience development and social media strategy director. And we’ll have a sweet startup title to be determined. We have grown almost entirely through social media, we’re the fastest growing, 1M uniques, growing 30% a month for the last 9 months.

60-70% of that is social so we are already good at this. We are good at writing content that is sharable and high quality to spread around. But we don’t think we are the best yet. And we want someone who is the best.

So not just managing social media accounts, but coming up a social media strategy that sucks the juice out of everyone, come up with for new contnest, and come up with new wyats that will push how this is done forward. Someone who is obsessed with pushing health and fitness content into people’s hands, anywhere.

[alert style=”grey”]What does that look like from a day-to-day time allocation?[/alert]

I see them working extraordinarily close with editorial and technical team to devise and execute the best social media strategies in health and wellness period. Twitter campaign, viral landing page, working through the analytics to fine tune what do we share, when and why. Engaging and talking literally to our fans and readers, creating relationships to see what they want to see.

We want the next Jonah Peretti.

[alert style=”grey”]From following you and Greatist, it seems like you’ve really embodied this role more than anyone.[/alert]

You’re right. I’m looking for someone better than me.

[alert style=”grey”]Thanks Derek. And for those folks who stayed all the way to the end, here is your reward, in a great shot of Derek’s one-time six pack abs. And again, that link to that super awesome opportunity is here.[/alert]


From the final day of the Absperiment: 

There’s no secret. “What’s your secret?” was the most popular question I was asked, but the truth is there’s nothing new. Other than some water, sodium, and carb manipulation the last few days before the photo shoot (explained below) , everything I did was what you’d expect: Eat better, eat less, and work out more. I didn’t eat anything weird (mostly, you guessed it, chicken and vegetables). I didn’t do any strange workouts (weight training, intervals, and cardio). I didn’t take any unknown supplements (just fish oil and vitamin D). I was just totally dialed in. Other than one “cheat meal” each week for the first three weeks and one slip up early on, I didn’t waver. I didn’t eat a single bite of dessert. I didn’t cave at lunch and have a sandwich or a wrap. I ate freakin’ arugula salad on July 4th. Six weeks is a really, really short time (even if it seemed like an eternity) — there was no margin for error.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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