STIMY Ep 68: Neal Freyman - Managing Editor, Morning Brew media company & podcast & newsletter

Ep 68: Creating Content for 3+ million Subscribers | Neal Freyman (Managing Editor, Morning Brew)

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Welcome to Episode 68!

Our guest for STIMY Episode 68 is Neal Freyman.

Neal Freyman is the Managing Editor at Morning Brew, a new media company that provides informative and digestive business news to over 3 million subscribers. He oversees Morning Brew’s flagship product – a daily newsletter, as well as the weekend light Roast edition and native advertisements. 

The Morning Brew happens to be one of my favourite newsletters so I was excited to dive into the behind-the-scenes with Neal!


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    Who is Neal Freyman?

    Neal Freyman grew up in Massachusets, playing a lot of classical music while growing up before going to study at the University of Maryland College Park where he wrote for the school publication and was even a camp counsellor for four years! He then went on to teach geography and urban studies.

    • 4:43 Studying at the University of Maryland College Park
    • 7:16 Teaching geography and urban studies
    I just think that in the early days, I didn't know much about business, so I was not necessarily providing a lot of analysis. I was kind of just saying what happened and regurgitating what other people were drawing their own conclusions from. So it was really nice. I felt like I've read enough about this subject to at least have my own opinions and analysis. That was like a big breakthrough moment for me.
    STIMY Ep 68: Neal Freyman - Managing Editor, Morning Brew media company & podcast & newsletter
    Neal Freyman
    Managing Editor, Morning Brew

    Working at Morning Brew

    Neal shares how he ended up working at Morning Brew: he saw a job advertisement by Alex Lieberman and applied. 

    However, he didn’t end up getting the job at first!

    But when the other deal fell through, Neal ended up joining (perhaps thanks, largely, to the very nice rejection letter that Neal had sent to Alex!).

    • 8:07 Applying to work at Morning Brew as a writer (and being rejected!)
    • 9:00 Sending a nice rejection letter
    • 10:05 The newsletter industry in 2017

    The Growth of Morning Brew

    As one of Morning Brew’s first employees, Neal has seen it all.

    He shares what the newsletter industry was like back in 2017 (before the age of Substack newsletters & superstar solo writers), how they figured out who their ideal reader was, and the method of “write, grow and sell” that saw their subscriber count explode from 100,000 to 1.5 million subscribers in the 2018/19 period:

    • 10:05 The newsletter industry in 2017
    • 13:05 Working as a young newsletter startup out of a room in NYU
    • 14:41 Morning Brew’s ideal customer and how that definition has evolved over time
    • 18:12 Having readers get super pi**ed at them
    • 18:45 Creating a political newsletter
    • 20:18 “Write, grow and sell” as the tactic for Morning Brew’s explosive growth from 2016-2019 
    • 22:51 Writing continuously for 5 years 
    • 24:24 Milestones that contributed to Morning Brew’s growth
    • 26:19 Main reasons for Morning Brew’s subscriber count going from 100k to 1.5 million in the 2018/19 period
    • 27:01 The importance of Morning Brew having its own in-house referral system
    • 29:40 How Morning Brew manages to get 25% of its signups from its referral program
    • 32:29 Capitalising on momentum, as Alex Lieberman discussed
    STIMY Ep 68: Neal Freyman - Managing Editor, Morning Brew media company & podcast & newsletter

    Morning Brew as a Media Company

    Morning Brew started off as a simple PDF newsletter. But it has since grown and is looking to turn itself into its own media company, putting out video & audio works and rolling out franchises to bring more people into the Morning Brew ecosystem.

    Neal shares the behind-the-scenes at the company as they build some of their new offerings and their latest venture into education with the MBA Accelerator:

    • 34:24 How Morning Brew launched the Emerging Tech newsletter
    • 37:18 The importance of having a strong online following like Alex Lieberman & Austin Rief
    • 41:44 Checks & balances
    • 42:49 Becoming Managing Editor of Morning Brew
    • 44:23 Maintaining a close knit working culture
    • 45:43 When Neal felt that they had created a great product with the newsletter
    • 47:59 Staying relevant
    • 49:35 Retaining talent staff
    • 51:40 Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
    • 53:01 The Essentials
    • 54:02 Impact of Morning Brew’s reported $75 million acquisition by Business Insider
    • 54:35 Creating the podcast arm of Morning Brew: Business Casual & Founder’s Journal
    • 56:23 Building in public
    • 59:39 Entering the education space with the MBA Accelerator

    If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:

    • Kendrick Nguyen: Co-Founder, Repulic – one of the top equity crowdfunding platforms in the US
    • Austen Allred: Founder, Lambda School (now rebranded as Bloom Institute of Technology) – on building a FREE coding educational platform for all using the Income Sharing Agreement 
    • Karl Mak: Co-Founder, Hepmil Media Group – building Southeast Asia’s largest meme-based company 
    • Azran Osman-Rani: CEO of AirAsia X, iFlix & Naluri Hidup – on what it takes to be one of Malaysia’s most prominent founder & CEO

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    Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:

    STIMY Ep 68: Neal Freyman - Managing Editor, Morning Brew

    Neal Freyman: I just think that in the early days, I didn't know much about business, so I was not necessarily providing a lot of analysis. I was kind of just saying what happened and regurgitating what other people were drawing their own conclusions from.

    So it was really nice. I felt like I've read enough about this subject to at least have my own opinions and analysis.

    That was like a big breakthrough moment for me. where I was like, I've read all about this.

    And like, I think I know what you should take away instead of like what some other writer wants you to take away. And I think we've, developed a style of humor that felt good. It was not like condescending or punching down or anything like that.

    Like it was uplifting and clever and not corny. And I think that also took a lot of time to develop, because I think just when you think mobile millennial newsletters, you're like, you probably think super cringy jokes and things like that. I think maybe in the early days we were doing that. And I think When I felt good in the later years was that we were more subtle about it.

    So it didn't like break up the flow of the newsletter.

    And then the design really became much better. I don't think it was very pretty to look at in the early days. So It wasn't just the writing, but the design ended up looking really good. We created good new sections and it just wasn't taking me as long to write it.

    So I think that's the biggest indication where I was like, all right, I'm in the flow now.

    Ling Yah: Hey everyone. Welcome to episode 68 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and produce, Ling Yah, and this week's guest is Neal Freyman, the Managing Editor of Morning Brew..

    Now, if you've been following my weekly newsletter, you'll know that Morning Brew, which currently has over 3 million subscribers, is one of my most favorite business newsletters. So I was really excited to dive into its inner workings with Neal, who was that Morning Brew at the very start when they were just a handful of them working of a room in NYU, near Washington square park.

    Neal shares how he went from teaching geography and urban studies to first working at Morning Brew. And guess what? His job application was initially rejected! And from there, they used the three tactics of write, grow and sell to build Morning Brew into a business, going from 100,000 subscribers to 1.5 million in the 2018/19 period, as well as other things like the importance of having a strong social following, Morning Brew's path to becoming a media company, the impact of his reports at $75 million acquisition by Business Insider and the pandemic and the newsletters that Neal personally subscribes to.

    Want to learn more about what it's like being the managing editor of one of the hottest media companies around? Let's go.

    Neal Freyman: So Massachusetts is a state in new England in the United States, and it's known for being cold. Boston is the biggest city there . though. I grew up about an hour and a half west of that city.

    Looking back, I think I had a pretty great childhood, all things considered. I played a lot of sports. I played a lot of music. I had great and supportive friends. And so it was a pretty quiet suburban town.

    But I had a lot of access to big city, so I would go see Broadway shows with my family in New York city, which is like two and a half hours away.

    Can't say anything bad about it.

    I know I probably complained when I was a kid about it being boring. But I truly had super supportive family, great schools and just had a lovely time back in Massachusetts and I visit regularly.

    Ling Yah: I got the impression that you really love music. Cause I found this YouTube video of you being the lead singer of a choir.

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. I don't know if I was a lead singer of a choir, but basically over the course of my school years, I played a lot of classical music. I played piano and I played cello in our school orchestra. When I got to college, I wasn't good enough to pursue music more. So I just tried to find an outlet where I could still do music things on the side while studying. So I joined an acapella group there and that was like a great community and I was able to continue doing music things. I'm not a great singer, but it was just one way of still finding a musical outlet at college because it was a big part of my life earlier.

    So that was a wonderful time. And I met a lot of great friends who I still talk to every day. But that was a great time in college just to continue doing music things.

    Ling Yah: And you ended up going to the university of Maryland College Park. You ended up doing quite a lot of things. You were writing for the school publication. You would also camp counselor for four years and you even led a group to Israel for six weeks. What was that like?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah, I went to camp in New Hampshire for many years and during the summers, I decided why not. All my friends were doing it. I'll be a counselor too. So I was a counselor there for five years and I happened to have the same kids for each summer, which was super rewarding. A lot of other counselors were like moving around and being counselors for a variety of age groups.

    But I had the same kids and we all grew older together and I led them on a trips to Israel one summer. Those kids have become honestly really good friends. I mean, they're like 26 now, so they're not really kids. And actually a few of them are staying with me this weekend in New York city so we're having a good time.

    But it's just another fun thing that I did and a lot of people say you need to have an internship over your summers in college. And there was a lot of pressure to get a job that furthers your career. And I was never going to be a professional camp counselor, but somehow I found it to be a really rewarding experience.

    And now I have a lot of great friends who I'm still in touch with. And I do think it was a great entry into the workforce for a college kid

    Ling Yah: Since people were pressuring you know, as is normal in college on thinking about your future, didyou have an idea of what you want in the future?

    Neal Freyman: No clue. I had absolutely no clue.

    Some of my friends were in pre-med, so they knew they were going to be doctors and others were also fairly certain of their future. But most of us, I would say at college did not really know. I mean, we were like 18 to 20 years old.

    I dunno how many people know what they want to do, or even know the full suite of opportunities that are available for someone. I had no idea. I took, history because I was just thinking, oh, I could read and write. And that's what I like to do. And those skills would be helpful for any sort of profession going forward.

    So I just tried to take a bunch of different classes and learn a bunch of different things and try to figure out what I wanted to do. And I don't think I figured it out by the end.

    Ling Yah: You said you read and write, I heard in a different interview, you said that you weren't serious about it and you didn't think it was a potential career, even though you loved writing.

    Neal Freyman: Yeah, I definitely did not. It just seemed like a super impossible thing to make a living off of. And I just didn't think I was that good enough. So I was like, alright, I'll just try something else. And maybe I'll have this always as a hobby, but I'd never thought that I would do it as a profession.

    Ling Yah: So that something else was teaching geography and urban studies, which sounds wildly different from history. How did that happen?

    Neal Freyman: Well, I'd always been very passionate about cities and urban planning and geography. Like even when I was three years old, that was looking at maps and atlases. And just the way I think about the world is very spatial.

    And the first thing I always ask people is where they're from. It's just the most interesting thing to me about a person or a community. Love traveling. So that was always in the back of my mind as something I wanted to pursue, I didn't really do it in college, but in grad school, I did go to Philadelphia and temple for urban planning and spent two years there doing various internships and jobs related to economic development, bringing in jobs to various regions and how different places can grow. So that was fun.

    Ling Yah: So how does one go from urban studies to applying to Morning Brew?

    Neal Freyman: I had heard of Morning Brew through a mutual friend.

    I didn't know anything about business or business news. I studied history and I had a couple friends in the business school and I was like, these guys are annoying because they don't have class on Fridays. They didn't seem to do much work. So I looked at the whole business world a little scornfully and I didn't know that much, but I always loved reading the news and making it funny for people.

    So, I just was like scrolling on LinkedIn one day and I saw that the CEO of morning brew was looking for another writer. I happened to know a few people who were in morning brew's orbit at the time. So I called them up and I was like, should I apply? And they were like, definitely.

    And I just read the newsletter as it existed and I thought I could do it better than it c urrently written. So I applied.

    Ling Yah: You ended up getting rejected the first time, but you sent a really nice letter. What was that letter about and do you think that play a part in you eventually getting hired?

    Neal Freyman: I think so. Yeah. So I applied and went through the entire process, wrote a bunch of samples, went into interview with them and they ended up going with someone else who was another writer, but that didn't when they started talking about contract and actually putting them on board.

    It didn't work out. But before that, Alex, the CEO sending an email to me being like sorry, man .It was a really nice email. He was like, we should definitely keep in touch in the future. And so I just struck the same tone and thinking well, this sucks that it didn't work out, but might as well not burn any bridges.

    I had a great experience. It seems like they're a growing company, so they'll probably hire more people in the future. And It seemed like I was second place at least and they definitely liked my stuff.

    You know, Just the way I treat everything is be respectful and you never know what's going to happen in the future.

    So I sent that note and a few months later, Alex said, things didn't work out and they looked to hire me.

    Ling Yah: This was back in August 2017 when you joined, which is the tech boom, what was the newsletter industry like? I mean, now sub-state writes is have exploded. I don't think it is quite that huge a thing at the time.

    Neal Freyman: It definitely wasn't. It's hard to think back about what it was like. The skim was definitely the major player and they definitely pioneered the business model.

    Prior to the skim, there were a definitely a bunch of newsletters, but they were more in like niche communities. I would say the skim was the most popular and popularized the entire industry.

    So we were able to ride their wave.

    There definitely was no sub stack newsletter. You know, Maybe you were getting a few newsletters, but not every publisher seems to. All they want to do is send out newsletters, like from the New York times to wall street journal, to every single legacy, legacy media outlet.

    So it definitely was more of like a niche thing. We also had trouble convincing advertisers that newsletters were a good way to advertise, because it was seen as just like a new and an emerging space that they didn't necessarily have a lot of experience with. So I think in the early days it was like, yeah, you should spend some money on newsletters.

    And they were like, what's that? Are you sure? And then now, obviously it's a much easier sell. Just 4 years ago it was a very fledgling industry and not many people were looking into it. So I think we were definitely in the right place at the right time.

    Ling Yah: Also put it in context at the time you, Alex, Austin, the co-founders were also really, really young. You just graduated from college. So going out and asking people to invest in believing you is quite a stretch. Did it ever crossed your mind, or did you ever find yourself wondering what am I doing? This might go now when I've just wasted my first few years out of college.

    Neal Freyman: Maybe.

    So I was a little bit older cause I had just graduated grad school. So I was like 25 or something and they, were really young. They were like 23 and 24. So I was just blown away by their maturity and their ability to just hustle and grind and just do whatever is necessary to make something happen.

    And I would say I was never sort of like in doubt of this thing, not working like ever. I think I was done, but I also didn't know much about the startup world and the fact that like 90% of startups don't make it. The luck is against you. Like it's supposed to make it as a four-person startup, but I just had no idea.

    And I was like, well, we're growing, I'm working with really smart people. I'm still young. So if this fails, I'll probably have something else to do. I have a grad degree. So I had like a cushion so to speak, but I still just never even thought of the alternative that this thing wouldn't work out.

    I was just writing the newsletter every day and I thought I was putting out a good product and making it better every single time. And we were getting good feedback and Alex and Austin, and a couple of the other younger or earliest employees were just hustling and making stuff happen. Then there was just like no feeling around the office in those days that anything could go wrong.

    Ling Yah: When there're around three to four of you , you had to move to New York and was in an incubator for a bit. What was that like? I've read that you were writing for nine hours every single day, and then having to input it into the HTML code.

    Neal Freyman: It was a grind. Uh, It was definitely a grind. I don't know if I would call it an incubator.

    I think that's what they build it out as, but it was just this like room in NYU, near Washington square park, where a bunch of people who were working on startups had their computers. So it was definitely like not a very nice place. And it wasn't like a WeWork as you would imagine it. Or a new co-working space in 2021.

    But yeah, I didn't know much about business. So I had to really read the news really intently to understand what was going on and why these people were important. So writing a pre-story took me a really long time. And then on the other end, our tech system was just not that developed for email. And so it took a while to code everything and make sure everything looked good.

    Email's a little bit annoying because you have to send across Gmail and outlook and a bunch of different email providers. So, we sent so many test emails out, like one time we sent a huge poop emoji out to the entire list. We would write the newsletter and that'd be fine.

    And then the last like three or four hours of the day was just like in the code trying to make it. So it didn't look terrible and looked fine for all email users. And then Alex also was the editor for morning brew in the early days. And he definitely was very, very much of a stickler and we'd spend hours going back and through edits.

    It was definitely like a perfectionist mindset. Like every word needs to be perfect.

    Ling Yah: I mean, with any business you always think of, oh, who's your avatar. And I wonder if you personally have that idea of who an avatar was and if it's evolved over time.

    Neal Freyman: Oh yeah.

    It's definitely evolved.

    I would say our initial customer was like a finance or a business student in college who was preparing to hit the workforce and needed help interviewing. And that's how morning brew group like started organically. A bunch of his classmates asked Alex at university of Michigan help for interviewing. I've never done this, but in banking and finance and interviews, they ask you about like, what's going on in the world. And a lot of young kids don't want to read the wall street journal or any other newspapers. So they don't really know what's going on. And they don't really want to find out. So he started sending out morning brew as like a PDF email to his friends, just to keep them up to date with what's going on so they could score their interviews.

    So in the early days it was definitely more of like a banking finance wall street newsletter. Over the course of the last five years it's definitely evolved as the audience has grown. I would say only like five to 10% of our audience currently works in finance and baking. So it's much more of a mass audience who doesn't necessarily work in business.

    And we've definitely changed our content to match that. We definitely still focus on the business world, but now it's really like the intersection of business and politics, business, and social and society, business and culture businesses, and the environment, just because we don't think our readers are super, super care about like the wall street drama anymore.

    They're very interested in stocks and investing in crypto, but it's just a completely different customer than the initial days where it was like college students.

    Ling Yah: How do you know who is actually reading? Do you actually go out to them and ask for many, many surveys to figure out how their interests have evolved?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah, that's honestly the only way to do it because we're not like Facebook or Google and know everything about you. We really don't know much about you at all. Our data. On the back and is really whether you open the newsletter or not, and what you clicked on. So that's really all we have to go off of.

    So we definitely need to send surveys to find out who our reader is, especially for the sales team to go out and sell the audience to advertisers. They need to know where they live and what they're making and all of that stuff. So we are gearing up more of our survey data and processes right now.

    I wouldn't say we send out a lot of surveys right now, maybe like once a quarter, once every half a year to find out who people are. But the other way we find out who they are is an email inbox that people reply to at the end of every day. And that doesn't give us like aggregate data, but you can kind of sense of who's replying and what kind of people they are and what questions they have.

    So we have some sense of people who are super engaged with our product.

    Ling Yah: Do you get people who actually do use that reply button and give you lots of opinions?

    Neal Freyman: Oh, yeah. All the time ever since the early days. And I used to spend hours in there every morning, talking to people, we felt that that was really important to like build the connection between our readers and the writers and to show that we really care what you think.

    And we're not just sending this email to the void and just writing the next one. Like, we want to establish a connection with you. So that was really important for us. And I spent every day, like hours a day, just replying back to people, whether they were super pissed or really liked it. And there's everything in there.

    Actually we still do that. I don't have time to do that much anymore, but people still replying. We've hired several interns to help reply to people.

    Ling Yah: You said that people get super pissed. Why would they get super pissed at you for just reporting the news?

    Neal Freyman: Oh, I mean, people gets so angry with the news all the time.

    They hate the news. I don't know. It's literally anything, whether it's a typo or you've phrased something wrong. You left out one of their pet projects or something they care about a lot, especially when you talk about sensitive subjects, people, guns, abortion, politics, Trump, like that's also sets people off.

    So it really is everything like whatever you think people can get angry about, they get angry about.

    Ling Yah: There was this newsletter you started because of the election that was entering into politics. Was there a lot of discussion behind the scenes of, should we even enter into this space because it was so controversial?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah, there was a lot of discussion.

    I mean, I think in early days, morning brew definitely stayed away from politics. It was very much like we're business and finance and people like us for staying out of politics and, you know, let's just not even go there. They like that we're unbiased and all that. And I I don't know, I would say when I came in and over the course of Morning Brew's career, we'd definitely dipped way more toes into politics because I just think you can do it in and stay objective and not really compromise your values of being nonpartisan or anything like that.

    And you just can't divorce the business world from politics at all. And I think Trump really brought those two together. And now it's just like the cat's out of the bag. CEO's are going to the White House every day. Obviously economic policy really determines everything about business world.

    And then also the pandemic, like fuse the two together. So now, Pfizer is a company is a private sector company. They're also intertwined with everything going on in the world right now. And I think you could point to a million other companies that you can't divorce, like their business interests from what's happening in the wider world.

    So we've sort of leaned into politics and we're not going to like report on the horse race of every election cycle or things like that. We'll still make business our main focus, but I think we're comfortable leaning into politics a little bit more than we used to be.

    Ling Yah: I heard in an interview that Alex said from the period of 2016 to 2019, there were three tactics used to turn Morning Brew into a business, which was write, grow and sell. And I wonder if you could elaborate a bit more about each of these pillars starting with, like what was it like to basically figure out where to find your source and how to distill it into something that was really unique or what's called a great product?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. My job in the early days was just to make the best newsletter possible. So I had time. I wasn't doing a whole lot else. I was just going into work every day. And obviously there was a lot going on, but my job was make the best newsletter possible.

    So I was definitely not great at it in the early days. But I just read so much, so much news and I still do, and I think that's the only key to understanding how to write this newsletter. And I think I just had a good sense of curation and understanding what people were most interested in.

    And obviously in the early days, like I might've written some articles that people on the outside were like, no one cares about this. Like, if you knew anything about the business world, you would not write this. Like it's just not material to our lives. And I still probably get things wrong. So I just think of immersing yourself in the world was super helpful.

    And then the process of writing, like I still don't think I'm an amazing writer, but it just, so it takes me a lot of time. I had a co-writer and we would just agonize over every word, we would spend a half hour thinking of the right joke for a particular sentence and figuring out the best order.

    And So we would just spend, honestly, it was just like spending so much time. It was never easy. We would agonize over every little thing and we still do in the newsletter. And also like crafting the tone was really important for us. I think we didn't really make up this tone or style. We just wrote the way we wanted to write and talk.

    And I think it just slowly evolved into a tone and style that people seem to resonate with. That's the writing part. It really hasn't changed. I've been writing and helping write the newsletter for almost five years now. And every day it happens. So, that's a great lesson.

    Like if you want to get something done, just put a deadline on it because you don't have a choice. Like, I don't have a choice. This is the newsletter that's coming out tomorrow. So you better write it.

    Ling Yah: Have you ever missed a day?

    Neal Freyman: In 2017, I already had a trip planned, so I missed a week. But I don't think I've missed another day.

    I think I've. Uh, A week in five years is nothing. Well, we have some vacation. We have vacation over Christmas break and some Thanksgiving stuff, but I think at least I've hit publish, or at least been there at the end for every single other day that we spent a newsletter.

    Ling Yah: Uh question that a lot of people would have listening to you is how on earth do you keep at it?

    Five years is a really long time and counting. Do you ever feel like you were fatigue that you wanted a break beyond that one week?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. I would say something that I realized helped is like, I don't have kids. I'm like a single guy in New York City. So I can sort of devote time to work. I obviously have family at home and loved hanging out with friends and like have a social life that I hope is good, but um, yeah, at the end of the night, like I don't have to, you know, take my kid to the doctor's office for some medical emergency or anything.

    Like, I think that's a huge overlooked part for startups , at least from my perspective, it does require like more time effort. Like, I don't think morning brew would have been as successful If, we all just didn't sorta work extra hours over the course of the day and make it happen.

    I'm not an advocate of like overworking yourself at all. I'm just saying, like, from my experience, we had to work more than the average person works to get this thing off the ground. And I think I still do.

    So for some reason I haven't like burnt out yet. I think the fact that I really like what I do and the news is changing every day.

    You know, you wake up the next day and you have no idea what you're going to write. You don't know what's going to happen in the world. So that makes it like a fresh and unique challenge every day. So, yeah, I definitely could get a lot of energy about just, I really enjoy it. Every day's a new, every day's a new challenge. I don't feel fatigued.

    Ling Yah: Are they any particular stories over the course of you being at Morning Brew that stand out that might have say contributed, and been a milestone in Morning Brew's growth?

    Neal Freyman: I think there's some few wins from the growth stage that were really interesting. From the growth perspective, because the newsletter hasn't changed a whole lot, but in terms of the right growth style, though, there have been milestones in those other two.

    And there were a few Instagram ads that did really well for morning brew in the early days. So we weren't paying for advertising. And we started putting on a little money into Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, and one particular ad creative did really well. And so we like dumped our entire bank account into that one loudly creative, and everyone was super hyped the next day because we got a lot of subscribers.

    And when you get more subscribers, more people share, and it's just this great domino effect. So if you can get a lot in one fell swoop, it's really helpful. So I remember us all being super pumped about that. And then another one was in gmail, there's different tabs in Gmail, and it really matters for open rates.

    So if you're in the promotions tab, it's not super great because you're buried in there with like e-commerce brands and coupons and stuff. Like most people don't really read and you want to be in the primary tab where all your friends are and your working emails are. So one day, we have been in the promotions tab for a long time and we've been lobbying Gmail and like just trying our hardest to get from promotions to primary.

    We were doing everything we could. And one day it switched over to primary and like our open rate jumped by 10%, the way more people were opening it. So I remember that was like another big milestone in the early days where it was like, wow, this is really great. We been working so hard to do this and we have no idea why it just happened, but it did.

    And so we're just gonna really keep going and ride it.

    Ling Yah: Was this before the 2018, 2019 period?

    Neal Freyman: It was maybe in 2018.

    Ling Yah: Because that was the giant growth period, right? You went from a hundred thousand subscribers to a million subscribers. Would you say that the Gmail tab category was a major contributing factor.

    Was this something else?

    Neal Freyman: I think it was a lot of different factors. That was a big one. We started spending a lot more on advertising and getting subscribers that helped. Then we had this referral program, which my friend Tyler built, which is like what people know morning brew for. And a lot of people have tried to emulate it, which is basically when you hit certain subscribers targets,you get swag or exclusive content. So that was super helpful for us. So I think it was just the confluence of a lot of different things that led to that period of growth.

    Ling Yah: I saw quite a few articles that Tyler Denk, who was then the Senior Product Lead. He wrote about basically building Morning Brew and the tech behind it.

    And I found it interesting. He said that he created the customized referral system that Morning Brew uses. How important is having your own system as opposed to something that a third party had?

    Neal Freyman: I don't know the answer to that question. I think ours being one that we created, we obviously had a lot more control over it.

    We didn't have to call up anybody when we wanted to change something. If something broke, Tyler could go in and fix it himself. But it seems like most of the options are third party sources. We used to get emails every day being like, what's the referral program you use because I want to use it.

    So we had to create a template like, we made it, sorry. But, it seemed like a pretty unique thing in the industry to create your own. But I'm just not, well-informed enough to say how that differs from what is also on the marketplace. But I know it was obviously a lot of work early on, but it was super helpful for us.

    And obviously like other people were pretty envious of it. So I have to say it was probably a good decision. I don't know if it's the right decision for every publisher to build their own referral system when there's probably a great ones on the market.

    Ling Yah: You're saying that a lot of people asked you about how they can use the system you use makes me think of so many startup stories where they pivot, because they realize that, oh, I have something else that other people like, so like Justin Kan with Twitch, that's how it happened.

    Was they never discussion on selling your referral systems or were you just solely focused on newsletter? This is our business, all we're going to do right now.

    Neal Freyman: We've had a million ideas. Like I don't remember them all. We were like, let's go into events. We were just like throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall.

    We should create like internal newsletters for different companies like Axios is doing right now. Like let's use the morning group template and pair with whatever company to send out their own internal communications. We threw like a bunch of ideas at the wall. And at the end, I think what really worked for us was just staying focused and growing the main newsletter to millions of people and then using that as distribution channel for other sorts of products like we have done.

    We have like executed on some of our ideas at this point, like video and podcasts and other newsletters and virtual events and things like that. So I wouldn't say that we don't just throw out an idea and not do it, but for some of like the more software based stuff, like we only had one to two engineers on the team for most of the times.

    So whatever we said was certainly not realistic. I think we may be entertained it for a little bit and then we're like, we can barely just do this one thing. So maybe we should stick with that.

    Ling Yah: Fair enough. In terms of the referral program, I've read that it takes up 20 to 25% of the signups that you get.

    Why do you think that it's done so well? You offer say stickers if you do five referrals, 15 gets you a coffee mug. Don't people have more than enough stickers and mugs?

    Neal Freyman: I don't know. I don't want a sticker. I don't like that. Doesn't appeal to me, but I obviously don't understand human nature.

    People love stickers. One of the biggest drivers of that I think was this one thing we used to have, which was Light Roast, which is our Sunday newsletter. And that was extra content. We didn't have a Sunday newsletter. And when you hit three referrals, you got a Sunday newsletter from us. And that felt good to me because I was writing the content, obviously.

    So the fact that people would share to get more of it on a day that they didn't have it was pretty awesome to hear. And I think that was like a huge driver of subscriber growth and a big reason why people shared and they also want swag and stuff. Like, I guess people want free t-shirts. I mean, I would go to like random club meetings in college just to get a free t-shirt. That's no different.

    So yeah, we moved our Sunday edition to have like instead of having it behind, like a subscriber pay well. We now opened it up to everyone. So we were still looking for that one great driver referrals again, in the referral system, because we kind of removed maybe one of the most highly anticipated uh, rewards.

    Ling Yah: What's amazing is that you also have a reward for someone who's given a thousand referrals.

    They get an epic work from home makeover, and some people have reached that milestone. And I'm wondering if you've analyzed and find out what distinguishes these people give over a thousand referrals compared to one who might just read and make one referral.

    Neal Freyman: There aren't many, I would say it's in the single digits, but people have hit a thousand referrals.

    I've met a few of them when the world wasn't all remote, we would invite them to New York city to hang out with us. So we have spent a few days with these people and I don't think they are any different. They're just normal people. who, Everyone has their own particular hobbies and things they get super into for a little period of time.

    And I don't think these people were like way more into morning brews specifically, but they devise these interesting ways of getting a lot of referrals. Like maybe they were at a college and there was just like a ton of people around to be able to get a thousand referrals. And then one guy also did, like, he had a website, you know, and it was highly trafficked and he was able to generate a lot of signups that way by putting his link very visibly.

    And other guy bought search ads. Like it, people just kind of like hack their way to a thousand referrals. Not everyone, but some people did. And so they're just like you and me. And just found a way to get a thousand referrals. I don't know if they were like woke up every morning, thinking about it.

    Ling Yah: I recently listened to an episode on Founder's Journal by Alex and he talks about momentum and how momentum equals action plus desire and reflection. And I wonder, you know, especially during that period 2018- 19, when you grew to one and a half million subscribers. How did Morning Brew plan to capitalize on that momentum?

    Is there anything that upon reflection you thought you could do better?

    Neal Freyman: I don't know. I think it was a period where we were exploring. Okay. We now have a big audience what's next. And that was like the main discussion, because for many years we focused on growing the main newsletter. It took me a while to really feel happy with the newsletter.

    Multiple years in, I was still not feeling as I've talked about. Like, it was still very much a grind. I had to work really hard every day to figure out what I should write. And only a few years ago that I really feel like I got in a groove with it. And it was a really, really good product. So we were still figuring out how to perfect the main newsletter, but when we felt good about that, I would say in like 2019, and we had a lot of subscribers, we were like, all right, we want to just be more than a newsletter company, or we want to just have more than one product.

    So that was a time of just exploring what that could be. And like I said, we threw a ton of ideas at the wall and we landed on doing sub industry verticals, which was a tactic that Axios was doing. And it was what industry dive has most popularly done, which has a bunch of newsletters across every single type of profession.

    And the idea was to not go after a mass market anymore, but go after a smaller community. You can charge more to advertisers. You can go down funnel with that community and create communities like online communities. You can do events and so we launched emerging tech brew that year and that's led to a pretty thriving what we call B2B business.

    Ling Yah: I wonder if you could show us the behind the scenes of the planning in how you launch emerging tech.

    Neal Freyman: I think we just like throw up every industry on the wall and tried to like, get a vibe and Venn diagram of like crappy existing media, like advertiser appetite, consumer appetite, and like a couple of their variables and just like shoved at them together and see which sort of industry made sense there.

    And so I think we landed on in emerging tech. Obviously it's not the only one where that fits that description, but I think that's pretty much the strategy behind it.

    So then we look for a writer and we found one in Ryan Duffy, who was very similar to me. and Like, didn't have a lot of writing experience, but was just willing to work hard and love the subject matter and was willing to just like dive deep as possible and be a part of something that was truly experimental.

    So then we devised this launch plan. We wrote a bunch of fake newsletters. That was all That's something we still do when like hiring new writers or launching a new product is we just like send it a bunch. We live just like practice it and get in the flow of it by writing a couple of fake newsletters and don't send it out to anyone and see what the process is like and work out the kinks it's like preseason sports.

    And then we devised like a big promotional plan and i t used to be when we launched emerging tech, the promotion plan was put at the top of the newsletter every day and just like promote it. But now we have platforms across social media and newsletters and podcasts.

    So our promotion plans are definitely a little more sophisticated than just like, let's say we're launching a newsletter at the top of our main newsletter every day.

    Ling Yah: Which channel garners the greatest attention now, since you're everywhere?

    Neal Freyman: I don't know. You could look at the numbers of followers on any particular platform in that might give you your answer, but it's hard to say because everyone's sort of like their own type of person. So like I I'm on Twitter all the time so I think morning brew's Twitter like has an outsize influence on my life and other people's life just because that's where I'm on.

    And other people are probably on Instagram, way more than I am. So they'll see morning brew there. And we have, I would say like a comparable amount of followers and we've also built up a Tik Tok channel. So if you're the type of person who likes to consume stuff on Tik Tok, then you'll probably feel like morning brew is an outsize influence on your life.

    Or if you're like a podcast person listed in the founder's journal or, the other podcasts, then that's maybe where you find morning brew. So I dunno if I can like quantify where we think morning Brew is, you know, Its biggest platform outside of the daily newsletter. I like to think it's probably social media and will continue to grow because we're just hiring a lot on that front and we're investing a lot of resources into YouTube and video and Tik Tok and social media and building out more handles. We think that's like a really big growth avenue for us.

    So I'm hoping that it will be social media. And the newsletter will be this nice little trophy on the side and it'll just keep chugging and we'll see what happens.

    Ling Yah: Twitter was the next thing I wanted to bring up because you have quite a substantial following there, but Alex, Austin they have very substantial followings as well. How important is it to have these kinds of followings and presence on Twitter for newsletter, writers and podcasters?

    Neal Freyman: I think it's important, but it's not necessarily the be all end all. I think people use it for various things and Alex and Austin have used it really well to create connections with other people. And for me, it's been- I've like watched it happen and I haven't like done so much myself or poured a lot of resources into it. But when we launch something new or we need to recruit somebody or we need to find somebody, Alex or Austin can just kind of tweet it out to 300 or however many, hundred thousand people follow them, like that is a really powerful tool.

    So I've found it that it can be really helpful for a company to have a big presence on social media, if they want, especially Twitter if they want to like network. It's amazing for networking and recruiting. It's super helpful, especially in this day and age where it's really hard to find workers to say that you're hiring somebody or you're hiring for a position and you have this massive network of people that can recommend people and vouch for you.

    And I just see way more people being hired from their presence on social media or Twitter than applying in cold. So I think it can be used for in various strategic ways other than just like pumping yourself up. And also it's important for distribution, like for our content. I think if I had a bigger social media following and I have like a relatively small one for compared to other morning brew people, like if I wrote something or one of my writers wrote something, I'd be able to distribute it and have people read it and people would see it more rather than just reading it in the newsletter.

    So I think it seems important to me, but like in moderation I've seen a lot of people go Like off the deep end and social media. It's just a little cringy and I don't like it. So it's not for me anyway.

    Ling Yah: Do you have any advice for the best way to use Twitter without going off the deep end, but still getting attention?

    Neal Freyman: Uh,

    It seems to me like you need to have your area of expertise, right?

    Like people don't really care about what you ate for dinner or like your little jokes about something. like The best Twitter accounts I think are very consistent in the type of content they produce in the format. So, you know what you're going to get from Alex Lieberman, and, you know, you're gonna get from anyone else who's super successful.

    And I think it's only like the celebrities that can use it, like Facebook, where they're just like, here's what I'm doing today. I don't think that's really the right tack. Like you should lean into whatever you're an expert at and use that and just do that over and over again. And people will go back to your account to notice you and like learn from you.

    So you need to provide value. I think I don't do that. So that's why I'm not particularly successful. So I'm not taking my own advice, but there isn't just like one thing that I'm obsessed about, I guess I could like tweet about emailing and newsletters all day, but I don't really want to do that.

    But I do find that the people who are super successful are just like, let me be this one type of person and all. That's fine on Twitter.

    Ling Yah: Are there particular people, since you spent so much time on Twitter, that you really enjoy following and you would recommend?

    Neal Freyman: I'll have to think about it but I liked Joe Weisenthal for economic stuff. He's a Bloomberg guy. And then there's just like a variety of other comedians that I follow. I think it's just a great opportunity for like one liners and jokes and making fun of culture.

    So I don't know their names off the top of my head, but it's mix of like CNBC pundits, Bloomberg pundits, sports people and random comedians who just make me laugh. So it's just like a really smashed together thing. That is pretty delightful.

    Ling Yah: It sounds pretty much like the tone you find in Morning Brew newsletters as well.

    Neal Freyman: Yeah, totally. It's all, it's all just like, yeah. Everything mashed together from what's happening in the world to things that are funny to cultural moments and sports but you have to remember that it's still a bubble.

    Like most people are not on Twitter.

    Twitter has 200 million or so users and like Instagram has over a billion. So when you're getting angry about something on Twitter, you just have to realize that 90% of people have no idea what you're talking about and don't care.

    So that's very important. I think the news media really needs to take a little more caution with writing about things that only they care about. And there's a discussion on Twitter and realize that like the average person doesn't care and it doesn't apply to their life.

    Ling Yah: Do you have any checks and balances to ensure you don't fall into that hole and you try to give as holistic a view as possible?

    Neal Freyman: Not really any checks and balances. It's like what I just articulated. It's something that I think about often. So, what's great is we have writers from a wide variety of perspectives.

    And So it's not just me writing the newsletter. We have three other people who write the bulk of it, and I'm just the editor and everyone comes from variety of backgrounds and upbringings. And so I think us just talking about stories together, provides a natural checks and balance about like what we should be writing about.

    Because if I was just writing the newsletter, there'd be like way more sports, like stuff I'm more interested in it. And then, it's nice to have someone else or a bunch of other people being like, well, this is really interesting to me. And I would be like, well, I had no idea. That's cool, I'm sure there are a lot of other people who find that super interesting. So I'm glad you brought that up.

    And so if everyone just brings their own sort of interests and things they find really interesting to bear in the middle, then we can like create crafted pretty good newsletter that captures hopefully most people's interest.

    Ling Yah: So as you have alluded that your role has changed. You were first a writer, then August, 2018, you were managing editor. How does that role evolved for you your time at morning brew. What do you do now?

    Neal Freyman: It's different in the sense that I'm managing people and I'm assigning stories and editing them as opposed to completely writing them and have one-on-ones with people and I'm trying to help them develop.

    So it's more like a coach kind of thing. Whereas in the early days I was merely a player. It's been an interesting thing. Like everyone talks about being a manager is very different than being a regular employee. And you have to put others' interests first and like prepare for meetings and lead meetings.

    It's just a completely different job. than what you're trained to do. But it's been a great challenge and I still find ways to write every day. So that's sort of like the same, it's different in that, like I'm managing a group of writers. They're all sending jokes and I kind of have to pick the best one because no one else is going to decide.

    But at the end of the day, like every afternoon, we're still writing the newsletter. And So that is part of my job that just hasn't changed and I hope will never change. Another part that's changed is

    like in the early days we didn't have any other projects. We would be like, okay, let's write the newsletter.

    Let's write the newsletter. Let's write the newsletter. Now it's like, what are we doing six months from now? What are we going to do for earth day next year? What are we going to do for the Olympics in three months? What's gonna work. What's our travel thing gonna be like for Memorial day 20 22. And so thinking about those longer run projects is definitely a bigger part of the job than it used to be when we were just like on the hamster wheel during the day to day.

    Ling Yah: What have you found to be the most helpful in creating that close knit morning brew culture? Because in 2018, you had 25 staff. Then recently you've had over a hundred stuff and I heard Alex say that, before you knew everybody and everyone had their first name as an email, but now that's the longer possible. Huge change.

    Neal Freyman: It is a big change. And I think it's tough for every company out there. And I'm sure there's a million blog posts about like how you can create a culture at a remote company.

    We're not fully remote. We don't plan to be fully remote. We plan to bring back an office, but for right now we are all fully remote.

    So I think it's just a credit to our people operations team led by Kate Noel, who has been just an incredible person and like creating community and creating activities for people to do and feel part of the company, even if they live in Montana and open up a laptop and now work at morning brew, which is very different than you know, when they came into the office in New York city in the early days.

    It's just so different.

    Feeling like you're a part of something. So I give full credit to that team for creating like super engaging activities and putting in different mechanisms in place to make people feel like they're a part of a community and the company, even if they're just in another time zone or international or things like that.

    So I'm excited to get back to the office though. I think there's no replacement for that.

    Ling Yah: I wanted to jump back to something you mentioned earlier. You said that it was only a couple of years ago, you felt that you had created a great product that you were happy with. I wonder if you could share a bit more about that moment and what it was about that newsletter you were creating, that you felt was great and was finally what you wanted it to be?

    Neal Freyman: I just think that in the early days, I didn't know much about business, so I was not necessarily providing a lot of analysis. I was kind of just saying what happened and regurgitating what other people were drawing their own conclusions from.

    So it was really nice. I felt like I've read enough about this subject to at least have my own opinions and analysis.

    That was like a big breakthrough moment for me. where I was like, I've read all about this.

    And like, I think I know what you should take away instead of like what some other writer wants you to take away. And I think we've, developed a style of humor that felt good. It was not like condescending or punching down or anything like that.

    Like it was uplifting and clever and not corny. And I think that also took a lot of time to develop, because I think just when you think mobile millennial newsletters, you're like, you probably think super cringy jokes and things like that. I think maybe in the early days we were doing that. And I think When I felt good in the later years was that we were more subtle about it.

    So it didn't like break up the flow of the newsletter.

    And then the design really became much better. I don't think it was very pretty to look at in the early days. So It wasn't just the writing, but the design ended up looking really good. We created good new sections and it just wasn't taking me as long to write it.

    So I think that's the biggest indication where I was like, all right, I'm in the flow now.

    Ling Yah: Yeah. I definitely remember I was reading for quite a while and suddenly one day opened it and it was full of rainbow colors and then I thought oh, it's gone through a big rebranding.

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. We tried a bunch of things.

    Some things have not worked out. People let us know and he changed it back like the market section a few months ago that graphically changed and it turned out to be a disaster. We just try things and people let us know if they like them or not. And if enough people don't like them we change it back.

    But that's seems to be the minority. Yeah, I figured out what I want for like the trivia and the game section. We've built that up a lot. But overall it just felt really good. And, like I said, I think the fact that it wasn't taking me to a 1:00 AM was pretty good indication.

    Ling Yah: Do you think about how to stay relevant? I mean, you're sort of a disrupting factor compared to the incumbents. And a couple of years later, there'd probably be a new upstart that's coming to try and disrupt Morning Brew, who is part of the incumbents. So how do you think about?

    Neal Freyman: It's definitely on my mind right now.

    It feels like every other day there's another newsletter that's launching and doing this exact thing that we do. And since we are sort of the incumbent at this point, people are like nasty to us online. So that's been new and like now it's like, let's take down morning brew. Like That's kind of the sentiment.

    I don't know if it's like a big sentiment, but I've obviously something that I pick up on. Maybe other people haven't. So yeah, it's something that's really on my mind. I haven't figured out a game plan yet. I don't think we're not relevant, but you always do need to stay one step ahead of the curve and see where people are going.

    So I don't have like an action plan yet, and I don't think we need to like scramble to do anything, but it's definitely something that's on my mind that there's like very much increased competition. And the email space for doing exactly what we're doing. And then there's also competition from social media people.

    And there's like single creators that have a lot of audience that are also putting out Newsbury caps. So yeah, it's something that's definitely on my mind. I don't know exactly what I'm going to do about it, or if we have to do anything about it. But I'm definitely just like keeping tabs on the new landscape, which is more emails, videos, Tik Tok, people doing news recaps. Like if people start consuming more of their news on podcasts or Tik Tok or whatever it is like we have to be there. So we'll keep tabs.

    Ling Yah: Is staff also a concern? I mean, you have people like Casey Newton who has his own newsletter and with say, Buzzfeed they create all these super media stars who then come out and launch their own media empires because they've already collected all the necessary skills and attention as well.

    I wonder if that's something that you'd be concerned about that you will lose great staff who want to create something that might be a competitor?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. I think early in the pandemic, everyone was starting their own Substack and everyone thought they could be their own media company. And I think we're sort of seeing a little bit of a backlash to that now.

    And a lot of those people who started out on their own are maybe resigning with publishers like the Atlantic or whatever it is. And I think we're seeing that it's not super sustainable for the vast majority of writers to be your own media company. As you can see for me, like it's a grind and I was only the white circumstance.

    I have so much support. I have a copy editor, we have three other writers and we do this newsletter. So I can't imagine one person trying to do this all themselves. You know, Eventually they'll probably hire an editor, hire a legal team, hire a pub, you know, a design team. And then you just basically have another media company.

    So at first I was a little concerned, like you were just mentioning where it's like, oh, everyone can just start their newsletter and they have such big audiences. And then now I'm sort of realizing well, I have 60 people on the sales team who are like selling this thing.

    Like, are you kidding me? And we have so much support. I have like a couple of managers above me who are so supportive and helped me. And so I just don't see how someone can do this day in, day out and not burn out with a huge support system, which is basically what a media company provides. So I think you're starting to see the pendulum swing back away from the single creator company.

    Though I'm sure some people can do it. It just doesn't seem like sustainable. So I'm not terribly concerned. I mean, some people might try to do that from morning brew, but hopefully they'll see the value in what a media company provides. And like, you can take a day off and someone can fill in for you.

    Pretty cool.

    Ling Yah: And how do you feel when COVID first hit, when you first hear about it and when did you realize that this was something that would impact you and Morning Brew?

    Neal Freyman: I will have to say I was pretty like dismissive early. I was like, did not think it would be a thing. I never lived through anything like this before.

    I actually have a text with a friend where he was like, this is going to be bad. And I was like, nah, don't worry about it, man. Just like, continue your life. I had no idea what I was talking about. And so it was all pretty abrupt. I think I suffered or like I went through the same thing.

    Cause as many people being like what is going on but then what was great or was great and was not as when that was great. The news was so intense during March and April and changing every day. The unemployment rate went up to 14% and the economy was collapsing and markets were going crazy.

    So I'm glad I had work that was distracting me from everything and also immersing me in literally everything. And so I was just working, we all went home like in early March and I was just working in New York while the sirens were going around, just like writing the newsletter every day, trying to figure out what was going on, trying to strike the right tone.

    And then once like the dust settled, like figuring out how we could capitalize as a company, because a lot more people were reading the news and wanting more things to do and just didn't know what was happening. So I think morning brew was like in a good position to help there.

    Ling Yah: How did the idea of the essentials come about?

    Neal Freyman: Yes, That's kind of what I was just talking about. It was like mid March and I had nothing to do. Like besides work and I don't think anybody did like all of your social things, all of your travel plans were gone. All of your social events were gone. You were just like sitting at home.

    So at the bottom of the newsletter, every day I started to do this like daily planner thing, which was like a workout, a media rec TV show recommendation, like a way to level up just here's like your calendar was wiped out here. Let us help you. Like maybe figure out what to do with your life. So we started doing that for a month and each of the writers took, turns writing it, and it seemed like it was a huge hit.

    It was like the most popular part of the newsletter. So then Jenny on our team decided , why don't we just make it its own newsletter called the essentials? And we did that. So that went for a few months and then we turned that into Sidekick, which is like a more permanent lifestyle newsletter.

    So That's a pretty cool example of something just being created out of thin air based on need.

    Ling Yah: And recently as well, Morning wa s recently sold to Business Insider for a reported $75 million. How has that impacted what you do at Morning Brew?

    Neal Freyman: It really hasn't impacted me at all.

    Honestly, I don't have any contact with business insider. I think the CEO Henry Blodget retweets me sometimes, which is cool. So that's been the only thing. I, I'm sure there's other relationships going on with the growth team and trying to figure out ways we can leverage all our platforms, but at least from my perspective, absolutely nothing has changed since the sale from an editorial perspective.

    Ling Yah: Since this is a podcast, I feel we can't not talk about your own podcast. So there is Founder's Journal. There's also business casual podcast, which you have appeared in as well. How did the idea of having your own podcast start and how did Alex pet project become a part of Morning Brew?

    Neal Freyman: guess I'll start with Alex's thing.

    I've been on very few podcasts with Morning Brew and they just tap me. And for whenever, like the end of the year episode I'll appear in because I've just been writing newsletters for the entire year. So I kind of have a decent sense of what happened and can help people recap or like, think about what happened this year and what we can think about next year.

    So I've gone on their podcast a few times and I will, again in a few days.

    Alex's thing is, I don't know, he's just like a machine. He's a freaking machine. Like he started morning brew out of need for his friends. Then I don't know exactly how founders journal started, but he wanted to journal.

    And so he just started making these voice memos and then, you know, it's turned out to be valuable to other people. And I think It's just a great example of, don't force it. Do what you were going to do. And if other people find value, you then like leaning into it. And so he is just amazing.

    Yeah. Like he's created two amazing products now and I think it's like number eight on business in iTunes , or apple podcast.

    Ling Yah: It's very binge-worthy I was shocked.

    Neal Freyman: It's super binge-worthy, it's like super valuable. Like there's no fluff. Every episode will help you. And they're like 10 minutes long.

    So, you know, I think it's the right size and right timing. And so I'm just excited to see where he takes it from here. Like now he has a lot of support with like producer and a bigger audio team. And he's done photo shoots with like a leather jacket and like all that stuff. So I'm just a cheerleader.

    So I'm excited to see what happens with that.

    Ling Yah: Yeah. What I love is during my research is realizing how people at Morning Brew are open about how and what you do like with Founder's Journal, Alex is very open. How you develop the tech part of it. Your former colleague was very open about this as well, I wonder what your thoughts are just about this whole building in public movement.

    Neal Freyman: I think it's fine. I'm not like drinking the Kool-Aid , I don't think you would need, like I said earlier, I think building in public it gives you an opening to hire people and make yourself more visible and like creates a brand around your company.

    I've seen it go the other way where people build in public and they're like crash and burn at the end. And they're like beating their chest and like we're changing the world and blah, blah, blah. And they say everything they do. I hate that. Like I'm more of like, just do your job.

    And like,people will come and do everything. So it's like, you're being all bravado on social media and you don't like follow through, that is a terrible look. So I would never do that. I wouldn't. So You shouldn't brag in public. But I've seen for at least a bunch of people in morning brew, it's been so helpful in so many ways of like finding guests for podcasts or making connections or finding advertisers when we're in a pinch.

    So I would say if it works for you to do it.

    Ling Yah: How do you find that line between building in pubilc and not bragging in public? Isn't that a bit of a fine line?

    Neal Freyman: Yeah, it is a fine line. I think it's maybe the tone with which you take. if you're just like humble about it, you don't do it that often maybe.

    And like you're very strategic about it. Like you only say something when you hit like an actual milestone. That means something. And you know, you give credit to other people instead of yourself thing, there's just like more tactful ways to do it. And, but I think like communicating that morning brew hit like 300,000 Twitter followers are like, we hit a certain number of subscriber numbers, or we hired a bunch of people.

    I think those are moments to capitalize. And, I think that is really important for someone to be like, oh my God morning brew, Like, they're hiring a lot of people. I'm really smart, but like maybe for my next job I'll work there. Like, it seems like they're doing really well.

    And so I think that can be very useful for a company. Just don't do it all that much because people would just be, just get annoyed with you. I think that's just communication.

    Ling Yah: And what is one thing that you should be doing and aren't and why?

    Neal Freyman: Well, I think I could be a better teacher to other writers. It's just a different mindset. And over the course of my career. I've just been like, write this, write this, write this, write this. And now I'm an editor and I do a lot of editing of people. So I'm giving feedback like hours a day on people's writing like on the nose feedback, like this doesn't work, this isn't funny, like really intense feedback. And so like, it's very in the moment, I think I could do a much better job of talking with people and being like, where do you see yourself in five years?

    And like, let's help you get there and take more time to do more workshops and being like, let's just do more professional development and in journalism. And like I've asked around the industry and it doesn't seem like that's something that's done at all, it's just you go to school and then you're off to the races.

    And like write, report, you know, learn from people organically. But it seems to me like we should have a little more structure around it. So that's something that I hope to do next year.

    Ling Yah: Actually next year, speaking of education morning brew has started entering into the education space.

    So we should talk about that. Can you share a bit?

    Neal Freyman: I think what they're doing is awesome. I've done this awhile where you can kind of get a sense for things that like are catching on and have momentum as we talked about, and the MBA that morning brew is doing, which is an eight week virtual program to help you level up your career.

    If you can just tell like the people who've done it have loved it. They've posted. That's another great part about building public because they posted on social media. And the alumni posts on social media and like that is a great signaling for anybody else who sees this. And they're like, well, this person really loved it.

    Like maybe I'll sign up. And so that whole team, I just really loved them and they're so hardworking and humble and fun. And I just see great things. Like I'm not an expert on the online education space. I don't necessarily know where it's going, but clearly like people have found the program really valuable.

    And so I'm excited to see what happens and I'd love to just be a part of it and help them grow.

    Ling Yah: Correct me if I'm wrong. But this whole MBA actually arose out of that period, March to April, 2020, when the co-founders actually thought there would be no Morning Brew. And they were trying to think of all kinds of ways to keep this thing going.

    Neal Freyman: I have not heard that story.

    I think education was always like part of the game plan because of who our audience was like young professionals who wanted to get better. And so we always were thinking about like, maybe an educational product would be good.

    We know that like career and professional content does really well with our readers. Like if we say, how does schedule better meetings is they're like, here's why you're having zoom fatigue and all of that, like our readers that up. So I think it's just a natural extension to do like our own educational thing and professional networking things.

    So I am not smart enough to create that out of thin air, but we hired a couple people and they literally created this thing that didn't exist before. And that's so impressive.

    Ling Yah: And before I wrap up with the final questions, one final thing. What would get you to subscribe to a newsletter or a podcast like this? What are you looking for?

    Neal Freyman: I'm looking for a unique voice. Like someone I can learn from and who's smarter than me. I don't think I need like another Roundup. So I subscribe to several that where like, the writing is exceptional and like makes me laugh every time. I don't listen to many podcasts honestly.

    I listened to like one or two and the one I listened to is conversations with Tyler, Tyler Cowen. I only listen to that because like he's a genius and knows everything about everything. And so I'm just like being in the room and hearing smart conversations with him. And that's like one thing that gets me to subscribe.

    And there's like, there's so many podcasts of really great things and like, I'm sure if I had just tried it out, I would find something similar, but I don't know. I just, I don't have a commute anymore. I don't, there's not like a ton of time that I listened to podcasts. So I liked that one. I'm just going to stick with it.

    And then I have my rotation of newsletters that I really liked too. So my media diet's a little set, but I'd like to keep continuing expanding it.

    Ling Yah: Are there particular newsletters that you wouldn't mind recommending?

    Neal Freyman: There's a couple in the afternoon that I really like. There's garbage day by Ryan Brodbeck who talks about internet culture and he just surfaces things from like the depths of Tumbler and things that I've just never even heard about. So it's really funny to see what's going on. And I would say like, he's one of the foremost experts on like code on internet culture. I like today in tabs, which is like a really fun internet Roundup. And he's just like an amazing writer. What else is there?

    And then everything else. I just read like the regular New York times Bloomberg Axios, like if there's a newsletter, I'll read it. So I have like a separate newsletter tab that I just go through every day. There's also a really good one for like engineering called the prepared. And it has to do with like engineering and design and things like that.

    And they all have some really cool links to various things.

    Ling Yah: No, I haven't heard any of this. So thank you for the recommendation.

    Neal Freyman: Well, maybe the, not for everybody but I like them.

    Ling Yah: Well, thank you so much, Neal, for your time. I love to wrap up all my interviews with these questions. So the first one is this.

    Do you feel that you have found your why?

    Neal Freyman: I think so, which is a little scary to say it right? But like I said before, I don't feel like I go to work every day. It's just really a place. I really feel like I'm in the sweet spot where the things I'm doing every day are the things that like, make me happy.

    And so yeah, like everyone always asks like, what are you doing next? What are you doing next? I'm like, well, if I could do this for the rest of my life, like, I'd be pretty happy. It's like jobs are tough and people do a lot of things they don't want for jobs. And if you asked me like 10 years ago, if I would be writing like a funny digest for people about the news, and that would be my job, I would be like, let's go, don't take that. Don't do anything else. So that seems to be the case. So we'll see.

    Maybe my answer will change in five years and obviously I don't want to just like, do the same thing for my life and not do anything else, but for right now I feel very content.

    Ling Yah: And what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

    Neal Freyman: Um, I was thinking about this and I would like to be known as a person who helped like launch the careers of a bunch of other younger writers. That would make me feel really good. Unlike me, I think a lot of people come into morning brew, like their why isn't writing newsletters, right?

    Like they're maybe a video person or they're like a social media person or a marketing person yet. They put it get put into like writing the newsletter. And so I want them, which I think is an amazing experience. So I would love to like, have people write the newsletter for awhile and then go off and do like their real passion is and what they're like the most good at.

    So I would love to be known as like all 20 of these writers who started at morning brew are now like insanely successful. And like, they all got their start in the industry by writing with Neal at Morning Brew for the newsletter for like a year and then became this like amazing person afterwards or amazing like professional on whatever they're doing.

    So I would really like that. So I'm trying to figure out ways to like, maybe more codified that, or create more of like a fellowship program where we can like really get young up and coming talent into morning brew and like have them write the newsletter for awhile. And then it's like, you can try out a bunch of different stuff.

    Here's what you're really good at. Maybe you are like a professional. Maybe you are like a newsletter writer. Like let's get you, you're going your own newsletter or whatever it is. So that I think would be a really cool legacy to have.

    Ling Yah: So tagging onto that, what would it take to get you to hire someone as a writer?

    Neal Freyman: I think writing is the most important thing because for me, it's like the ability to really write something that makes people spit out their coffee or take a screenshot of something and post on social media. Like, I think that's what's going to make us stand out because we're not writing that much different content.

    We're covering the same stories. If Jack Dorsey steps down in his Twitter, everyone's going to write about it, you know? So we're not like breaking any news here. So it's just like, what will make people read morning brew's Jack Dorsey story than another person's Jack Dorsey story.

    And so I think it's like really having writers that can think of something that no one else has ever thought of before. That one headline that makes people go like that is so funny. And obviously, I'm being like smart and understanding business and I don't even think they need to understand business at the outset because I know I didn't and I got here.

    So it's just the ability to be curious. And it's like, all right, maybe I don't know enough about this, but in one to two years, I'll be an expert. So it's a combination of as a first and foremost, it's like, copy. And then next it's like, you have to be super curious about the news, you have to love reading the news.

    Even if you don't love business news, you have to be willing to like, just dive in and learn everything there is about it. And then also just, all of the other like personality stuff, like be a team player, be humble, like give feedback and be receptive to feedback and all of that stuff.

    Ling Yah: And what do you think are the most important qualities for successful person?

    Neal Freyman: Successful in your career. That's like everyone can debate what successful means obviously. That means that you've accomplished your goals, whatever they are. If you want to found a startup and you've done that, then you're successful.

    If you just want to like use your job as a means to an end, to be with your family and, just like work the minimum amount of hours for the maximum amount of pay, then like, that's awesome. I know a bunch of people like that, that's fantastic. They work remotely, they open up their laptop, they do their work.

    Over the course of the day they do their other hobbies and then they close their laptop, be with their family and enjoy what they do. So like who am I to say that that's worse or better for than anything else?

    So I would say, yeah, if it's like, you set out your goals that you've, you meant to accomplish and like you're disciplined and work hard enough to accomplish them. Then I would say you're successful.

    Ling Yah: And where can people go to connect with you, find out what you doing and sign up for morning brew if they haven't already.

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. So if you haven't signed up for morning brew, you can just go to and they should use your referral code, obviously to show that,

    Ling Yah: Help me get my sticker.

    Neal Freyman: You gotta get your stickers. Even though you seem to not care about stickers.

    Ling Yah: I mean, just saying they work from home, but that's a thousand,

    Neal Freyman: Depends on how many people listen to this and then sign up. We could get you close. And then I'm on Twitter, obviously where I don't brag in public. And I don't necessarily have an expert beat, but you can follow me there.

    Or you can just email me at [email protected].

    Ling Yah: That's the thing that I wanted to bring up as well. You share your email very openly. Alex also shares his email very openly. Is there a thought behind that? Because some people are very secretive about it. Some share it all the time.

    Neal Freyman: Yeah. I mean, I'm not famous, so not many people just email me out of the blue.

    So it's not like I have a deluge. People don't necessarily take me up on this offer all the time. But I would say if I'm like buried under emails all day, I probably wouldn't share it maybe, but like, it's not, I can respond to emails. Like I can always carve out time to do that. And that's like some of the most rewarding part of my job.

    So I don't have to stay up till 3:00 AM every day answering emails. So I'm just like, why not? If someone wants to email me, that's fine.

    Ling Yah: The main take away, you can email Neal now and he'll respond .

    Neal Freyman: And I'm going to be like, I'm never do this again.

    Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 68.

    For the show notes and transcript, visit And if you've enjoyed this episode, don't forget to leave a review and rating at your favorite podcast listening platform. Did you know that Spotify now lets you rate podcasts?

    And stay tuned for next Sunday because we will be meeting the Chief Web Advocate of the World Wide Web Foundation on her journey from growing up in Nigeria, where for the first three months of her life, she wasn't even considered human and therefore had no name because she was born female.

    To her journey becoming one of the very first web users in Africa to her current role in advocating for a free and open web for everyone's use. This is an episode you don't want to miss. So do subscribe and see you next Sunday.

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