The Optimist Daily named Summers McKay as its new CEO in July 2019. As an organization that publishes positive content and news every day, they need Summers’ upbeat personality and leadership ability. For over 20 years, Summers has been helping build successful businesses.
At Optimist Daily, Summers McKay started out as a consultant, and then she was invited to take the leadership position at the company. She also earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California Berkeley, and her master’s degree from UCLA.
Aside from Optimist Daily, Summers McKay is also a keen marathoner, Kilimanjaro climber and Olympic-distance triathlete. As the new CEO, she has “jumped into her role with both feet, planning big things for the future of the popular publication.”
Summers McKay steps into Optimist Daily as the leader of a “reader-funded project,” which operates in a “simple online format, without pop-up ads, clickbait or any other e-zine annoyances.” The publication is free for most subscribers, and it supports itself “through the generosity of readers who are willing and able” to help the site keep going.
As CEO, Summers McKay oversees Optimist Daily, which has been “delivering over 50 positive, solution-based news stories each week to an avid audience of over 20,000 daily email subscribers,” striving toward their mission “to accelerate the shift in human consciousness by catalyzing 100 million people to start each day with a positive solutions mindset.”
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I cannot understate the value of strong team relationships and collaboration to get through the most trying of times. Summers McKay, Optimist Daily
Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Summers McKay: As a media company, The Optimist Daily is an extraordinary organization. We have focused our mission on upending the media model and disbanding the notion of “if it bleeds it leads” in favor of developing a new mantra — Solutions for a better tomorrow. One of the most exciting things that has happened for our company has been the increase in subscribers, traffic, and social engagement during the Coronavirus Pandemic and global lockdown. We have seen increases of nearly 500% despite the chaos in the world!
What draws people to The Optimist Daily during these unprecedented times is a collective sense that we all need optimism. We all need solutions. Instead of getting sucked into the couch in a doom-scrolling desolate field of tweet rants, people are hungry for ideas on what can be next. When the landscape of social and news media is largely negative, inflammatory, and not focused on how things can get better, people respond. They want and expect something better both in how they spend their time online and how they envision their future.
At The Optimist Daily we cover relevant news, breaking news, even emotionally challenging news — and we do it with a focus on: what is the solution, what are the innovations that can change outcomes for the good, and who are the people with solutions focused mindsets!
Jerome Knyszewski; Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Summers McKay: I cannot understate the value of strong team relationships and collaboration to get through the most trying of times. Find a collaborator with whom you can share utter transparency, who can bring you out of your rabbit holes, and someone who will listen to you have your “rage” fests and be willing to talk you through the worst days.
My colleague and partner in The Optimist Daily leadership, Chief Content Officer Kristy Jansen is extraordinary. Without her partnership, I would not be able to keep pushing in an industry so determined to do the exact opposite of what we do at TOD.
Burn out is inevitable in any career, but when you are working against traditional structures, and focused on a mission driven Do Good Do Well business, there will be a lot of resistance.
Whenever I find myself approaching burnout here’s my go to steps.
- Rant it out. — Is it anger, frustration, or just exhaustion — identify what’s going on.
- Remind yourself of your goal. — Remember that the goal is not the path. Redirecting your tactics to overcome current obstacles is often required.
- Take a break — a real break. For most entrepreneurs, the idea of taking time off sounds crazy — but it is imperative to reset.
- Make a plan to get back on track. When you come back from your break, don’t just jump right back in. Take time to identify the next steps, the important tasks. Ask yourself repeatedly, “Does this get us to the goal?”
Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Summers McKay: I have been incredibly fortunate to have talented mentors, investors, and collaborators through all the chapters of my entrepreneurial journey. It’s definitely hard to choose. When it comes to The Optimist Daily, no question our Impact Investor, Rinaldo Brutoco gets the lionshare of my gratitude. When Rinaldo and I first met a few years ago, he was looking for someone to help take The Optimist Daily from good to great. It was a small organization with a dedicated readership, but it had not yet found its wings or a path to critical mass. Rinaldo is a brilliant guy who wanted nothing more than for his passion project to turn into a fruitful business. Care and feeding and patience and faith are required.
Rinaldo had the courage that most investors don’t have. He elevated a 9 month pregnant entrepreneur in her 40s to a primary leadership role in his organization. I was named CEO of The Optimist Daily ten days before I gave birth to my baby girl. This was an extraordinary act of courage, aligned with The Optimist Daily’s philosophy and our business mission. At the time, he had a lot of people in his ear telling him it was a bad idea, but he and I both knew it would drive us harder and further than resetting.
As partners, Rinaldo and I have been through the ringer and he has been exceptionally committed to helping us keep focused on the company mission and goal. Rinaldo and I both have a farming/ gardening mindset when it comes to business. The right soil, the right seeds, the right feeding and watering, and the patience to let the business grow can work.
A good company has to provide goods or services that customers want at an effective price that can support the team. A great company is one that does that, and more.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Summers McKay: A good company is one that provides for its employees, customers, and stakeholders in a way that is sustainable and equitable. A good company has to provide goods or services that customers want at an effective price that can support the team. A great company is one that does that, and more. It is a purpose or mission-driven business that will improve the world for years to come. A great company is one with a culture that expands and empowers its employees and customers, seeing all as part of the ecosystem of a positive future. A great company walks the talk — from their brand, to the products they sell, to their company culture.
Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Summers McKay: Growth feels fantastic as an entrepreneur and so does sustainability. Often those things don’t happen concurrently, but it is important to recognize the value of both. Growth requires financial input and an outlay of resources. It does not happen without it. Growth also does not happen without risk. The first thing I would suggest is that the leader ask if growth at the current moment is imperative — or if the KPIs they are using to measure business success have perhaps worn out their welcome. Perhaps, you may see that your business has matured into a chapter of sustainability. This may mean that the goals can change for a time. If however, growth remains the focus — then it’s time to retool the inputs that accelerate growth. Look at your marketing budget, sales team, customer support, and consider reallocations of resources, identify new markets, figure out where and how you can find additional capital, resources and relationships to grow your product offering and new market penetration.
Many first time entrepreneurs and micro- investors spend a lot of time attempting to define that “one thing” that will make a business successful. To me, that is another archaic hog wash notion. Is it marketing, spending money on PR, adding a new product? What do we have to do?!?!? Well, everything — in a measured, managed, and strategic way.
At The Optimist Daily we continually remind our readers that solutions are not silo’d. There’s a wonderful synergy when things work together and new ideas and new inputs collaborate in a holistic way. Above all — remember that what you did yesterday for growth will absolutely not indicate what you need to do tomorrow.
Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Summers McKay: Having the stomach to get through the worst times as an entrepreneur requires more than just grit, it also requires planning and strategic use of resources. And a fair amount of long-sighted optimism! Whether it’s a cottage industry business or a Series B funded startup, there are times for expansion, reinvestment, and growth — and there are times for holding steady. At The Optimist Daily, financially we approached the pandemic, political uncertainty, and the chaotic environment that was affecting our entire audience with a very measured hand. Recognizing that user behavior was unpredictable and we had no idea what subscriptions or readership would do, we held back on expansion of marketing dollars and instead invested on the home front. We shored up our analytics capabilities, kept our editorial team gainfully employed, and while there is inherent risk in any startup, we minimized our risk exposure by ensuring we weren’t taking any huge leaps of faith.
What has been most fascinating about this period has been seeing what a renewed internal focus could do for our company. Our team was more creative and innovative. Our content got better, we launched a daily podcast series, launched a thought-leader essay series, and began expansion into video content. We asked our audience their thoughts and instead of focusing on just new audience acquisition, we improved our relationship with our existing audience. We saw an expansion of both free subscribers and paying readers.
When there is uncertainty brewing, (more than just the usual startup uncertainty) it is a good time to focus inward as a team and improve your relationship with your core customers. You can improve CLV and keep cash-flow steady which can help you get to a better economic chapter.
Most of the time, leadership greatly underestimates the value of relationships with team members.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Summers McKay: This one is pretty simple. Most of the time, leadership greatly underestimates the value of relationships with team members. We have a two-way review system at TOD and encourage our team members to share their thoughts with leadership on a regular basis. This pandemic has required team flexibility, autonomy, and a whole lot innovative, outside your job-description kind of thinking. The partnership I share with my Chief Content Officer, Kristy Jansen is a critical part of that culture. Our relationship and the relationship with every one of our team members is important. TOD team members were ready for the challenge and felt safe taking on new roles. They trusted that we’d offer training, coaching, and mentorship to the best of our abilities and always back their plays with our investors as we evolved. In uncertain times, employee stability, loyalty, and innovation are essential. Underestimating their value during the good times can lead to a scary wake up call for leadership when the going gets tough.
Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Summers McKay: When you call or email our customer service team at The Optimist Daily, you reach some of the most dedicated people you can imagine. Our customer service Team Lead, Maureen ensures that everyone who reaches out is acknowledged quickly and any issues are resolved in short order.
I think the single most important part of customer service is having real people who truly enjoy being in the role of customer care and compensating them well. They are your relationship managers and often the face of the brand. Simply put, do not hire a grumpy customer service person and if the person in that job is not content with their experience, either improve it or find a new role for them.
Choose your experts, identify the meaningful channels for your brand, create a strategy, and then fund it.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Summers McKay: Companies must have a social media presence and it must be handled by an experienced social media team. The biggest mistake companies make is not respecting the medium. Giving the newest intern the job of social media manager is always a mistake. Like any communication tool, it is essential to have an expert to manage the company’s voice and brand through the various, prioritized social channels.
One mistake I see businesses often making is that they don’t invest proper resources to back up a social media channel. Let’s get on “Tick Tock” says the senior leader who saw his grandson laughing at a viral dance. Then the untrained team attempts to scramble for a presence without a strategy behind it. A weak version of the company’s brand shows up and meeps along and someone now poorly manages the channel as part of their overall responsibilities.
You wouldn’t buy half a billboard or have your office manager paint it. Don’t do that with social. Choose your experts, identify the meaningful channels for your brand, create a strategy, and then fund it.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- They are underfunded for the current goal
I am all for grit, moxie, creative thinking and being scrappy, but the peril of the bootstrapped entrepreneur is that they have not established achievable goals based on the resources available. If you only have $3,500 a month in marketing dollars, don’t expect to be making $100,000 in monthly revenue. Scale matters. If you need to, start small, start with a side hustle, but make sure you align your goals with the budget available.
- They shortchange marketing
I will never stop reiterating the importance of marketing and PR. If you are in a consumer driven business, communication about your product or service is essential, and most entrepreneurs forget that first and foremost — you are in a marketing business. When you are developing your budget and raising capital, assume that your marketing costs will be equivalent to your operations costs. Hire exceptionally skilled media buyers, talented PR professionals and don’t assume you can just do it yourself with a creative Instagram post or two.
- They act in a vacuum
It’s called confirmation bias…. Entrepreneurs have ideas that they think are brilliant. Entrepreneurs are certain their new widget will be a billion dollar idea. Entrepreneurs then go find people who agree. Entrepreneurs then spend years trying to take the idea they developed and confirmed with a few like minded people to a broad market. Entrepreneurs fail.
As an entrepreneur, it is your responsibility to find people who will challenge your idea, your hypothesis, your marketing strategy. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are not acting in a vacuum and instead are canvassing for perspectives and adjusting your own tactics based on information you learn. It is your responsibility to listen. The idea of the solo entrepreneur is a failed one. If you are “doing it on your own” you are not going to succeed.
- They base decisions on other people’s opinions
And now, I shall frustrate you with what feels like the converse of point number 3. Here’s the thing though, it’s not. They work together. The process of “not acting in a vacuum” means your decisions will be based on a collection of advised inputs. After talking to enough people about the idea and hopefully being thoroughly exhausted and challenged by those conversations, you can make the decision yourself. You will have an aggregate of opinions and will not be based on any one person’s perspectives. Entrepreneurs must make AND own their decisions — even when they are counter to those of someone you admire or trust.
- They don’t start before they are ready
And after all that thinking, talking, considering, budgeting — many entrepreneurs just sit with all the data and never get off their duff. Being an entrepreneur requires you to be all in- even when you are uncertain — and especially when you are scared. I’ve seen hundreds of entrepreneurial endeavors fail because the bullish tactics required to get going were more than the appetite of the team. You must start when you are almost ready, when your idea is nearly seeded, and when you are seeing the opportunity growth ahead — and then you course correct along the way. You will not end up on the same path you started, but if you are focused, determined, collaborative and strategic, you can achieve the goal.
Let’s create an optimistic, mobilized, & solutions focused global society making the world a healthier place for all. Summers McKay
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Summers McKay: I want to achieve the vision of The Optimist Daily and catalyze a new era of collaboration, positive thinking, and solutions focused mindsets. I want people to step away from the addiction we all have to negative media and step into the next chapter for our world. Let’s create an optimistic, mobilized, & solutions focused global society making the world a healthier place for all.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Summers McKay: Check out TheOptimistDaily.com and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. Stop the Doom Scrolling and head to TOD for inspiration, solutions, and community of positive like minded thinkers. Sign up for a free subscription to our daily newsletter and receive 5 positive solutions in your in-box every morning, and if you’re feeling it — join our community of Optimist Daily Emissaries and support reader-funded journalism here.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
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