Lisa Sugar is the founder and president of POPSUGAR, a global media and technology company, now the No. 1 lifestyle brand for young women. As president, she sets the tone and vision across the company, and all editorial functions report to her. She also spearheads POPSUGAR Must Have and all brand extensions including makeup line Beauty by POPSUGAR and oversees licensing. Her first book, Power Your Happy: Work Hard, Play Nice & Build Your Dream Life (Dutton; September 2016), chronicles what she's learned on her journey building the company and shepherding it to success.
Prior to POPSUGAR, Lisa served as a media planner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and at Young & Rubicam, and she began her career at Showtime and Fox. Lisa graduated with a degree in psychology and English from The George Washington University. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, three daughters, and two dogs — a Jack Russell Terrier and a Terrier mix.
How did you get to where you are today?
I like to think I got to where I am today by a lot of hard work, surrounding myself with a lot of really wonderful people, and a lot of adapting.
When I started PopSugar I was working in advertising and like many people in their twenties, I was just trying to figure out what would make me happy. I liked my current job, but I wasn't crazy about it- and I knew it wasn't something I wanted to do long-term. I was always looking for other jobs, but I didn’t think there was one out there for me (or that I could get).
Finally, I stopped making excuses and decided to get out there and create the job that I wanted. I knew I liked writing, so I started writing about topics I really enjoyed- like pop-culture, celebrity and fashion.
Soon after I started writing on the side, my audience grew really quickly. It became really addictive, especially once I saw how many people were coming back to read the site every day.
How did you get your first readers and start putting your content out there?
I created a site- at the time it was using WordPress - and I just started writing every day. Every so often I would tell a friend.
I had a friend who worked in PR in movies in San Francisco, where local newspapers and radio stations would go in to screen movies and write reviews. One day she asked me, "Do you want access to start going to movies, so you can write reviews?” So I started doing that, and I started getting to go to the TCA (Television Critics Association), with nearly everybody who wrote about television.
Once the site grew to a certain point, I started getting invited to many more high-profile events - and all of a sudden, I started to get high volumes of press releases emailed in. So, it really was word of mouth that drove PopSugar’s organic growth. This was before social so nothing was viral at the time as it is today but organic growth was a thing and it was very valuable.
When did you decide to leave your job to work on PopSugar full-time?
Six months after it started, PopSugar was growing to a point where it was actually getting substantial- and within a year, I had a million readers. My background was in advertising, so I knew how hard it was to reach such a large amount of people. The fact that this was happening on a daily basis, and the growth was just so rapid, was awesome. So I left my job in advertising and continued to write all the time.
What role did your husband play in all of this?
Brian helped me build the original site. He built the frame and taught me how it would actually get stories up, and he taught me basic code and Photoshop skills- basically, all the details to get the content up on a day-to-day basis.
He also had great insight into how to raise money from investors and build a business, because he had done this in a variety of ways. And since he has a very technology-savvy background, he made sure I had all the best tools.
Nowadays, he's got his end of the business and I have my end. There's obviously lots of meetings that we're still in together, but there's a lot we divide and conquer on. And we trust each other to handle what we're specialized in.
Do you two separate work from home life?
I like to say it's a work-life blend. There are definitely days where at home, at dinner, we're talking about something that has to happen for work- or where we're at the office and I'm like “We need to get these flights for Thanksgiving.” It doesn't matter where we are- we just do whatever has to get done. Obviously when we are at the office we’re trying to maximize the work hours, and the same goes for family time when we’re at home. But one is always intertwined with the other.
Does it take a certain type of person to be able to work with a spouse?
Yeah, I think it does. There are a lot of really good friends of ours who are just like, “I don't know how you guys do it.” I never thought I would work with my husband, but I think it's worked out great for us!
When you started PopSugar did you try to meet a daily publishing quota? And do you still have one now that PopSugar has grown?
It’s varied over the years. When it was just me, I would publish as much as I could each day. Sometimes, I did 15 stories a day and sometimes it was only a couple of pictures that were found, as opposed to an actual story or some longer form review. So, it was really a mix.
Nowadays, it differs- even by category (i.e. by celebrity, fashion, fitness, beauty news, etc). But there’s no set number. In fact, we study that stuff— a correlation between how many posts we do a day and how many visits we get? We analyze the numbers, but it's more important to have quality content. And that’s what we concentrate on.
What has been your toughest obstacle, from starting PopSugar till now?
I think the toughest obstacles are things that are out of our control.
For example, social media is our biggest challenge and our greatest asset. We didn't have to think about anything beyond writing a simple post when we first launched, and now we have to think about marketing in all of those places- how to talk to our audience in the right place at the right time.
So, it’s a big challenge. You have to staff up differently (we reorg constantly!) - but it keeps us on our toes and it keeps us growing.
How do you stay focused and motivated?
In an offsite with my team I recently said, "My number one thing I want to get out of this is to stay focused."
I think the hardest thing is there's so much noise around us. You know, somebody new comes out of nowhere, or a media company that gets a lot of money could do God knows what. So, it distracts from the core of what we want to do, which is provide great content and make people's lives happier, easier and more fun. Coming back to that is really important.
That said, I think sometimes it's OK to get a little unfocused. Sticking to your core values is more important than losing a bit of focus- sometimes you learn some great lessons when you give up focus.
What advice would you have for someone who’s starting a new venture- maybe a new blog or media company?
A blog is different than a media company. From a blog perspective, I really want to know about the person, why it matters to them, and how it's unique to that person- to build that emotional connection.
For a full-on media company, knowing how you're different than everybody else that's out there is really important.
How would you define success?
You have to be happy at the end of the day, right? You could have all the money in the world, but who cares if you're miserable or lonely? Knowing what matters to you is really important. For me, family and friends come first. As a company, I want success to be a fulfilling place to work that is also profitable!
What is the best piece of advice that someone else has given you?
I talked about this in the book ["Power Your Happy"]: My dad told me at a young age to “do what you love.” And it always stuck with me. Because I remember asking, "How am I going to get paid for reading books and magazines and watching movies and tv?" It just didn't seem like it was even possible. But it turns out it is. Figuring out what it is that makes you happy and how you can turn that into your everyday is really important.
Can you talk a little bit about your book?
The book "Power Your Happy" came out in 2016. The idea was that the company [PopSugar] had grown over 10 years and a lot of people had asked me the same questions over and over, like "How did you start this company," "How do I get a job like yours,” etc.- so the book was intended to tell the story of how PopSugar came to be, as well as answer a lot of those questions.
The book also wants you to know that learning and finding your own personal happiness doesn't necessarily mean starting a whole company. It could just be reading more, going and getting yoga certification, or finding time to take cooking lessons. It’s making sure that you carve out time for the things that make you happy every day, so that you're happier in the end.
If you had a life motto, what would it be?
Work hard and play nice.
How do we get more women leaders?
We're living in a time now where more women do want to lift each other up.
A lot of women are afraid to ask for help or share their ideas and I totally get how that can be difficult to do, but we should really be in a place where we can listen to each other and ask questions without being afraid. So many people want to help each other.
I believe it's happening already. Like, when I went to college, even, compared to the women who are in college now and how confident they come out to start businesses, I see the change. Even women feeling like they they can run for president—that wouldn't have happened 20 years ago when I graduated. So, I think we're seeing it more and more. It's just continuing to encourage that.