- Erika Nardini is the CEO of Barstool Sports, a sometimes controversial website with content featuring “stuff guys talk about at a bar”: sports, girls, news.
- Before Barstool, she followed a fairly traditional career path in advertising.
- She’s been a vice president at Yahoo and CMO at AOL.
For a lot of her career, Erika Nardini worked at big companies: Microsoft, AOL, Fidelity Investments. Then she took a risk.
“When I joined Barstool, I knew that there was going to be no looking back,” Nardini said on Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.”
She beat out 74 men who had interviewed for the job as Barstool Sports’ CEO. Nardini’s friends were surprised by her move. Some even dropped her as a friend because of the site’s reputation.
Barstool Sports is a comedy website known for the kinds of things guys talk about over beers: news, sports, and girls.
“This is a company that intentionally is not PC,” she said.
On this episode of “Success! How I Did It,” Nardini tells us what attracted her to a site some say is sexist, why as many as 8 million “Stoolies” check out the site several times daily, and why she likes to text prospective hires on the weekend.
Listen to the full episode:
- Walmart eCommerce CEO Marc Lore
- BBG Ventures President Susan Lyne
- Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard
- Tennis superstar Venus Williams
Following is a transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
As she told me, her winding path to Barstool started when she graduated from Colby College and landed at Fidelity Investments in Boston.
Erika Nardini: The economy was great when I graduated from college. I was a sociology major and philosophy. I loved sociology. I thought it was fascinating because it’s just basically the study of people and groups.
When I was a junior I interned in Boston and I worked at Fidelity Investments, and I was, like, “Oh shit, I should have had an econ major, I should have done something more disciplined with my education versus liberal arts and writing a lot of papers and reading a lot.”
So my senior year I started to think that I really needed to get ambitious, and stats and econ and business administration, all this stuff which at the end of the day wasn’t for me. I graduated and I went back to work for Fidelity in their legal department and I thought maybe that I would to want to be a lawyer, and at the time I made a fair amount of money. And I hated it. I found nothing to live for.
I really liked to work and I’ve always liked to work, and I didn’t like that I couldn’t find, like, my soul in what I was doing, and so I often got to go to this building at Fidelity where the advertising people hung out and I was like, “Ah, I want to work in advertising.” The HR person at Fidelity was, like, “That’s the single worst decision you could make, that’s just dumb. Why would you do that? You have such promise working here in the legal department.”
I was, like, “I don’t really want to work in the legal department.” I took a pay cut. I think I was making $US50,000, which was lot of money for me at the time.
Shontell: Yeah, that’s a great first salary.
Nardini: That’s a lot of money now, yeah. And I went and made $US16,000.
Shontell:Whoa – you went from 50 to 16?
Nardini: Yes, and wracked up so much debt it was, like, I could hardly feed myself, but I found my passion, which was in a far more creative environment. At the time, the internet was just beginning and print was very dominant and broadcast was very dominant and nobody cared about the internet. I think I was 22, got to play in the internet, and I just fell in love and never looked back. I’ve been in the internet ever since.
I started my career once I entered on the advertising side, and what I realised is that while I very much loved working at an ad agency – and I think an ad agency is an incredible place to start a career because you’re just forced to learn and do simultaneously without a lot of supervision which I personally liked – what I realised is that I wanted to work at a publisher and I didn’t want to buy something or inform something, I actually wanted to build it myself.
Shontell: Yeah, so it sets you up for a great career running the business side, really running a business in general. I think if you don’t know how the advertising side works, it’s impossible to run a publisher these days.
Nardini had a traditional advertising career before running Barstool Sports
Shontell: You’ve got that background and then you go to AOL. What was it like joining AOL, being CMO? You had a huge group under you there.
Nardini: AOL was fascinating. It was a really interesting company. It’s an internet company that went through 15 to 20 years ago, maybe more, what television companies are going through right now, which is: How do you manage the attrition of subscribers, maintain your business model, and pivot to new sources of revenue and new sources of audience? So I loved it. I thought AOL enabled me to think about how to drive evolution and the importance of execution in that and the importance of vision in that and the importance of stamina in that.
Shontell: There was another company you were part of along the way, but I want to talk a little bit about just first how you found Barstool as a reader.
Nardini: Oh yeah.
Shontell: You’re from the area where kinda Barstool’s from. It started in Boston.
Nardini: Yeah, I lived in Boston when Dave created Barstool and I remember stories of this guy.
Shontell: Dave Portnoy is the founder.
Nardini: Dave Portnoy is the founder.
Shontell: El Prez.
Nardini: El Prez. And I lived in Boston when El Prez created Barstool, and to me Barstool is the way most every guy I grew up with, all of my guy friends from college, it’s just how guys talk, it’s how they related to one another, it’s how they saw the world, and I’ve always had a guy-ish sense of humour. I always really liked the idea that there was this guy out there who went up against everything to build something and it was something that I feel like as a woman I felt that I had to make traditional choices to move in my career.
And I didn’t know Dave at the time at all but I loved the idea that there was this guy who was out there like a Don Quixote pursuing his own path and he was on a quest and brick by brick and handing out papers and sharing a point of view of whether it was popular or unpopular, it was a point of view. I really admired that always. I thought the shorts were funny. When Deflategate happened, I read a lot of Barstool.
Shontell: Dave actually got arrested, didn’t he?
Nardini: Dave got arrested – four of them got arrested.
Shontell: For protesting?
Nardini: Yes, at the NFL headquarters. What I loved is I had created Bkstg [pronounced “Backstage”]. I had left AOL and created Bkstg at that time.
Shontell: And what was Bkstg?
Nardini: Bkstg was basically a direct-to-consumer platform for music artists. And what we saw was that if you find a music artist posting something and you refresh it, you just see the likes and the retweets and you see heat, but music artists don’t have a way to connect to consumers directly. They don’t own their data. They can’t distribute content. They create a ton of page views and engagement and interaction on other platforms but they don’t make a business from it.
I thought that was a really good problem to be solved. The company that I always looked to was Barstool because when I, on a Saturday morning, was reading Dave had a long heartfelt post about Deflategate. At the bottom of it was an ad for a free Brady T-shirt and I remember the morning exactly, I bought five T-shirts. I thought how smart this company that thinks about content and commerce simultaneously and the commerce is an extension of what I felt in reading a piece of content and I loved that. I got connected to Barstool kind of through happenstance, but I’m so glad I did.
How Nardini got the job at Barstool Sports
Shontell: When did it start to become a career opportunity that you might work for this company that you’ve been loving for ages?
Nardini: Yeah, I didn’t think it would be, to be honest with you.
We had gone to see the Chernin guys about Bkstg because Fullscreen and Fullscreen Direct was essentially trying to do a very similar thing, which is enable artists to go direct to consumer. I remember vividly being in the meeting and Jesse Jacobs said, “Hey, yeah, we just bought a majority stake of this company we’ve never heard of called Barstool Sports.”
I whipped out my phone and I was, like “Oh, I have the Barstool app. Like let me tell you everything that’s right about this company and why it’s incredible and this is jenkiest piece of shit technology I’ve ever seen. Like there’s so many things that they should fix and do.” I left the meeting super jealous because I felt like they were going to find a white guy with an MBA and the right pedigree to go partner with Dave to run that company. I went on my way, and then Betsy Morgan, who used to be the CEO of HuffPost, and Dave and I met for coffee late that spring, early that summer, just to meet Dave, and he and I clicked, and I loved what he had to say. And I wasn’t sure what El Prez was going, you know, I wasn’t sure who I was going to get.
Shontell: Is he – that’s another thing I wanted to ask –
Nardini: He’s incredible, yeah, he –
Shontell: It’s hard to imagine him being any less filtered than he is.
Nardini: It’s not a matter of filter. Like he’s quite humble and a great listener and intellectually very curious, and I loved meeting him. I was, like, this is a brilliant creator whose created something and knows that there’s a very big place for it, doesn’t have the tool set to get there. I don’t mean him personally, but just the operation of it. What makes Dave very rare is that he is exceptionally savvy and a funny brilliant creator.
Anyways, I loved our meeting and we had a couple more coffees, and I realised, I was, like, “I just really want to work at Barstool Sports, like, I would love the opportunity to work at Barstool Sports.” The rest happened super quickly and I’ve been here ever since.
Shontell: Yeah, so tell me about the interview process because I know when we were talking about you coming in for this interview, you mentioned, like, “Ah, it’s so frustrating sometimes – people think I’m just this token at Barstool.”
Nardini: Oh yeah.
Shontell: Which is ridiculous.
Nardini: Yeah, Dave brought in a token woman as a CEO, which is funny.
Shontell: Except that he interviewed 74 guys, and one woman for the job as CEO, and you got it.
Shontell: So it doesn’t sound like he was particularly hunting for a woman at all.
Nardini: No, I don’t think he was looking for a woman at all. Dave had been approached by a lot of companies to give him money. The Chernin guys were the only ones that stuck, and the reason was the Chernin guys saw his vision and they wanted to help him achieve it. Their only question to him was, “If we gave you money, what would you do?” I think he liked that. I don’t think he was looking for a woman CEO.
Shontell: No, clearly not.
Nardini: Obviously not. I think he was looking for a partner to help him take this thing to the moon, and I feel really fortunate that we crossed paths on that.
Shontell: How did you beat out 74 other candidates? What did you do?
Nardini: I think I came at the end of the line, so they were probably very few left by the time I got around. I think one of the things is Barstool’s not for everyone. I met Keith Markovich, who’s the editor-in-chief, “KMarko,” for a drink for our interview.
Shontell: How many rounds did you have to do?
Nardini: I met a lot of people, yeah.
Then and now, we are really diligent about hiring, and I appreciated that process. The recruiter was awesome, the Chernin guys were awesome, but I met Keith and we had a great conversation and I told him everything I would want to do and I was excited, I asked him a ton of questions, whatever.
At the end of the interview, he said, “You’re the only one that didn’t ask me about the girls. You’re the only one that didn’t ask or give an opinion that Barstool needed to shut down “Smokeshow of the Day” or this that or the other thing or the history of Barstool or “The skeletons and controversies in Barstool’s past are innumerable.”
The reason I didn’t ask is because I think, at its core, there will never be another company like Barstool Sports and the reason there will never be another company is that Dave created a brand for consumers, and all he ever cared about – and all anyone whoever came to Barstool cared about – was how they connected with their crew, and they ignored technology, they ignored distribution, they ignored everything. But they inhaled any device or any platform that enabled them to talk more closely with their audiences. And I felt what was most important was not to change the nucleus of that thing but to make that thing become and evolve into something much bigger and to frankly preserve the heart of the relationship between Barstool and its fans which, you know, we talk about your tweet six times a day at our place because we can’t believe it but the fact that a really small –
Shontell: I tweeted about how crazy the engagement on anything we write about Barstool, it’s like –
Nardini: It’s insane.
Shontell: And it’s all from Google. People are searching for your news. They want to know what’s going on with your company.
Nardini: They want to know and so my feeling was you could get really tactically worked up about this and that and this and that in Barstool’s past or Barstool publishes 180 pieces of content a day at this point. It’s a lot of content seven days a week. You could get caught up in that or you could harness the potential of what this is and make it into something even bigger and that’s what I chose to do.
Shontell: Talk about you deciding to take this job. It is a controversial brand and I actually read that you said you had a group of women friends who dropped you like a bad habit once you took the job, which is wild.
Nardini: When I joined Barstool, I knew that there was going to be no looking back. I was never public before; I’m way more public now then I ever thought I would be or wanted to be. It was also somewhat hurtful because I felt judged. I felt I was looked down upon because I joined something that wasn’t pristine, and in the logical next step of what a CMO from AOL or a president of a startup would do, and that bothered me. I also found huge and unexpected champions, which was awesome, and I’ve met so many people since joining Barstool, women and men and execs and Stoolies alike who have been really inspiring. I don’t regret a single thing. I’m so grateful for it, but it was a massive change for me in my network, in who and what I identified with and what I was identified with. I find Barstool to be one of the most intellectually interesting things I’ve ever done.
Shontell: Talk about why this company was worth taking the risk on. I know like the Chernin guys have said, “We saw their Google analytics, and we’ve never seen a site like it.” We see the power of it when we read about it on BI, but what exactly did you guys build? Because it is like a cult-like following, there’s really no other way to describe it.
Nardini: Yeah, it’s alive.
Shontell: Many people are checking 20 times a day. That’s unheard of now.
Nardini: Our numbers are unheard of. It’s so funny. When I joined Barstool, Dave had stormed the Twitter lobby but they had never had a meeting with Twitter.
Shontell: What do you mean he “had stormed the Twitter lobby”?
Nardini: Something happened – he tried to get verified.
Shontell: Oh God.
Nardini: It was when the Super Bowl was in San Francisco, and I can’t remember exactly what happened, but he had a beef with Twitter because he couldn’t get verified, and he went and just stormed the lobby and demanded to talk to whomever or whatever.
Shontell: Jack Dorsey?
Nardini: Yeah, exactly. Probably. I went to Facebook. Our first meeting at Facebook, it was almost like they were, like, “Hey, thanks for coming in with your regional sports blog. Like, I took this meeting as a favour.” Not saying they were patronizing, but it was a quaint meeting. Then clearly they looked into us, and we started to do a lot on Facebook, because we’re, like, “All right, we’re gonna do Facebook Live.” We broke it, we played with it, we experimented, we created hours long lives.
Shontell: I mean, Dave basically just does this on his walk to work.
Nardini: He did the walk to work. I loved the walk too. It’s so funny. I’ve seen the walk to work the other day. I loved walk to work. My favourite was when he would walk to work and Stoolies in office buildings in New York would just heckle him from 20 floors up.
But anyways, I think the power of Barstool and the connection between our guys and our audience is that it’s just real, and Dave or any of our guys – Big Cat, KFC, KMarko – they were always average guys who got a chance to do something non-average, but they still tapped it like average guys.
You talk to Dave – he would say everyone on there’s pretty average. They’re average looking, they’re average at sports, the connection between Barstool and its fans was always at the same level. Then the second thing is what Dave did and what these guys did is that they moved from writing blogs to social and then to video once I got there.
They were already doing video before I got there, but we really accelerated that seamlessly. The conversation with our audience is so constant that they feel in touch, and we’re like a family they can relate to. When the ESPN thing happened, which was a lot, but when it happened, for our fans someone had hurt the family. There was a man down in the troop and that’s just rare, and I think it’s something we don’t consciously work hard at but it’s just ingrained into everything that we do and that’s partly why it’s so cult-like, because it’s constant and it’s alive and there are 30-plus people who, all day long, talk to fans and share points of view and create content that really they just care about if somebody sees it and has a laugh and that’s all we do, that’s all they do.
How Nardini handles Barstool’s controversies
Shontell: We’re going to have to get into some of the controversies.
Nardini: OK, of course.
Shontell: Because Barstool is loved or hated. It’s part of what makes something resonate. Or the takes, and you guys do lots of takes. One thing you mentioned is the ESPN controversy. Recently, for people who might not know, you guys scored a TV deal. I guess you had done a little bit of TV with Comedy Central before last year at the Super Bowl. But this is kind of – it was a big thing.
Nardini: Yep, huge deal.
Shontell: And after one episode –
Nardini: Yeah, which is very Barstool.
Shontell: And a three-year grudge by Sam Ponder, who’s a big ESPN name and anchor, it got canceled. And it got canceled because Dave had written about Sam in a pretty unflattering and, arguably, I would say, sexist way. How do you deal with that? You’re the CEO; these are now your problems.
Nardini: Yeah, so I spent much of last year thinking about distribution and what would Barstool look like and sound like and do on other people’s air, whether that was a digital company or social network like Facebook or a comedy channel like “Comedy Central” or sports channel like ESPN. We spent eight months working that ESPN partnership, and I poured myself into that. It was uncomfortable along the way. Culturally, Barstool and ESPN are just very, very different. I think there are great people at both companies, but ultimately it was an uncomfortable partnership. I think that what’s unfortunate about what happened is that it was never about the show, and the show itself was great. That was heartbreaking.
Dave and I were talking about it last night, oddly. We both agreed that if it were all to play out again, would we have done it? We both said yes. The reason I say yes is that morale at Barstool Sports – I don’t think has ever been as high as the day after that was canceled, and everyone came together, and I think I’ve never seen anything like the Stoolies and what they did to rally around the “Pardon My Take” guys and around Barstool at large.
In terms of the controversy, I think ESPN has some challenges, and one of the challenges is that they have super-empowered talent. Sam had a three-year grudge and she played it and played it well. I don’t think that you can change the past, and if I came into Barstool apologizing for every time Barstool offended someone over the last 14 years, I basically would not do anything else in my job, but I don’t believe in that.
I don’t think that’s what I should be doing and that is certainly not what I came here to do. My feeling is it’s my job to harness what we bring to the table and deliver something that our crew wants and to find new people to be part of our crew. That’s not to say we won’t do future television deals or content partnerships or licensing agreements, but I do think we will be far more judicious in it.
I want to make sure that as our company we’re sure about what we’re doing and then we also, second, we choose other platforms and companies – like Sirius is an awesome partner for us that understands that being outspoken means and having a take means somebody’s not going to like your take. Letting us be the type of creators that we are and helping us to find more fans for that.
Shontell: Yeah, I mean there is a difference between having a take and saying that someone’s job is just to make men hard.
Nardini: Yes, 100%.
Shontell: You can’t change the past.
Shontell: Do you have any say over editorial, I mean traditionally –
Nardini: No, so Dave runs edit outright.
Shontell: Are you looking to grow that up in any way?
Nardini: When Dave said that, I want to say, I don’t know the exact year, maybe it was 2012. I don’t think Dave would say that today, to be honest with you. I think when you look at our content in the last year, or year and a half, since I’ve been there, I don’t think you see us saying those kind of things. No, I don’t put a hand on edit and I don’t want to, but I also think that you see an evolution. I think it’s very convenient to say that Barstool is sexist. I also think it’s very convenient to judge the past by today’s standards. I also think that this is a company that intentionally is not PC. I want to harness all of those things and at our core, our guys just want to do things that are funny and that’s what I’m focused on and that’s what I believe in.
Shontell: As a manager, another thing that I think you took a little bit of heat for, but I understand –
Nardini: The texting? Yeah. We’re going there?
Shontell: Yeah. You told The New York Times in an interview that you text candidates for jobs on weekends just to kind of see how fast they will respond. Within three hours is acceptable.
Nardini: I had a very long interview, like a three-and-a-half-hour interview, with The New York Times, and the whole interview was pretty much about things you suck at. It was basically, like, “Why do you suck?” And I was, like, “Oh, I can talk about this forever, like there’s a lot of things I suck at.” “What are your failings?” Like, “What aren’t you good at?” “What’s uncommon?” The context for that whole statement was when I was at AOL, or Yahoo, or Microsoft, or any traditional company, it was a predictable job, people showed up at 9:15 or whatever time and they left at a predictable time in the evening and it just stopped in there. When I got to Barstool, I saw how alive it was and how constant it was and anyone who works in news and information or in sports understands that most things happen on nights and weekends.
One of the things that I think is really important is that when we hire people they understand what they’re walking into. Culturally, mission-wise, vision-wise, practically, executionally, and also how I am and how we are as a manager. I’m more fluid, just me personally, and I’m not saying it’s good and there’s probably a lot of it or definitely a lot of it that’s not good, but the thing about texting people, it wasn’t texting people on the weekends. What it was, was that I am always thinking about work and that’s my issue or my gift, or just that how I’m wired and that’s that, and I like people who are also always thinking. It doesn’t have to be about work but just thinking and intellectually curious.
What I said was that I text people on odd hours and I see if they respond and I can see where that created a lot of controversy. I stand by that I do it because I also want to have a relationship with someone and I understand boundaries and I’m super respectful of that, but I also want to have a connection, and I think in a place like Barstool that is growing so fast and which so much unexpected happens, I think it’s important to know, to be responsive in general.
Nardini says take risks to find a fulfilling life
Shontell: So you’ve got your dream job, CEO of the site and brand that you’ve been loving for years. How do you think you’ve gotten to the point where you got that job? And what do you wish you knew when you were just starting out early in your career that you know now?
Nardini: I got here through luck and really hard work and drive and a desire to put myself in situations that I felt uncomfortable in or that I wasn’t qualified for.
One of my best friends texted me something, and he’s the one who usually gives me shit for most everything that I do. I think it was after ESPN and I took it hard. He said, “You know what’s different, or what I really appreciate, is that as people get older, they tend to get smaller or into more predictable routines and they kind of retreat.”
He was, like, “You haven’t retreated.” I really believe in that. I’m curious and I like people and I like to work and I think I’ve just put myself out there to be honest, and I’ve certainly screwed up in that process and failed and could have done better in a thousand things to get here. I think that’s a big thing.
The things that I would tell young people is, I think I stayed in big companies and in traditional roles way too long. When I was the CMO of AOL I realised I don’t want to be a CMO. Like I don’t, I want more than that. I don’t feel fulfilled by it. I feel a lot of times that I was lying to myself that what I was doing was really fulfilling to me.
I’m, like, I’m actually an operator, but I was so proud to have gotten there, and I had spent so many years working to get there that I was, like, how can you feel like this now that you’re here?
But I looked around and I looked at what CMOs of big brands were doing, and I was thinking about what am I going to do next? And I was, like, “Ugh, that’s just not my path.” I would say to people that it works out and to take a risk and it’s so trite to be, like, “Be OK to fail,” but I think putting yourself out there is one of the best things you can do and it hurts sometimes and it’s not comfortable but it makes you stronger and gives you something that you can take forward that no one else has.
Shontell: Thank you, Erika, this was really fun.
Nardini: Thank you.
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