Joanna Track entered the world of digital entrepreneurship with Sweetspot, the beloved e-newsletter that helped define an era in Canadian female lifestyle and fashion. That was 2004, and since then she’s been proving a knack for knowing not only what people want to know but how they want to know it. That’s how she went on to co-found boutique consultancy Good Egg & Co., launch her daily news digest The Bullet, and become an advisor for MaRS’ Consumer and Commerce cluster.
On the day of our interview—like any other day in the past few months—it had been one shocking news alert after another since the morning. But if there’s anyone who can talk sense about this chaos, it’s Joanna. Read on about her thoughts on media today, the love-hate she feels for social media, and why she’d rather eavesdrop than sightsee when travelling.
Let’s start with The Bullet.
Let’s. The news is the news right now.
With media rethinking its role and responsibilities, how has the past year affected your approach with The Bullet?
The one thing that had been on my mind, and has since been exacerbated since the election, is my own frustration with the news. But it’s also partly with myself. I wanted to be in the know, but I always found it very overwhelming to understand a lot of the subject matter. Unless you work in politics, or if your whole life is in finance, it’s very hard to stay on top of everything. So much of it is also so depressing. It was a lot easier to watch the sitcoms and ignore what was going on. [laughs] As I’ve gotten older, and had a child, I realize that’s not good enough. I saw a number of these concepts—taking the news and dishing it out in more appetizing doses—and seized on that.
It’s actually very similar to The Sweetspot. What I hit on was how people like to consume information. They like it to be simple, especially with today’s attention spans. Long-run features have a place, but not when it comes to current events. They’re here and gone, so it’s important to get in and get out. A sense of humour, too.
I read an article a few weeks ago that declared ‘content is king, but only if it’s funny.’ And then the election happened, and the constant barrage of information and articles has resulted in a lot of fatigue and stress. I’ve become even more vigilant in giving people what they need: something palatable.
When did you realize a point of view was important?
The point of view is what makes it fun, but it’s also the most challenging aspect. It’s hard to have a point of view, and not be too outwardly liberal. It’s clear that’s where we lean, but I don’t want to be known as the ‘left publication.’ I want to give people the news as it is. I tell my writers that they can make fun of the person, but not the politics. You might notice that we’ll make cracks about Trump, but we’re not going to start saying anti-abortion beliefs are crazy.
Much of my distaste for traditional media—especially Canadian media—is in how vanilla it is. There’s no point of view, and there’s no personality. Reading it puts me to sleep. [laughs] But you can’t go so far with the perspective to the point of extremism or bias.
“And then the election happened, and the constant barrage of information and articles has resulted in a lot of fatigue and stress. I’ve become even more vigilant in giving people what they need: something palatable.”
What do you think makes a good idea in 2017?
A good idea has to make money. You’re probably not expecting this answer, but in my consulting work with Good Eggs & Co. and MaRS, I see a lot of ideas that don’t happen at scale. Unless you’re in it for charity.
Granted, I say this with a grain of salt because Amazon doesn’t make money—but those are exceptions. Unicorns, in fact. I see too many people with ideas and visions of grandeur, but their ideas don’t make money. A good idea has to have a solid business model behind it.
I used to teach digital marketing at York University, and many students were striving to build the next Facebook. But they don’t need to be. If I tell you that you have a one in a billion chance of making a billion dollars, or a solid chance of making a six-figure income for the next decade, which one are you going to choose? Too many people are caught up with the possibility of The Big One—when they can come up with a business that gives you a continuous income, an outlet to channel your passion and make the world a better place.
“If I tell you that you have a one in a billion chance of making a billion dollars, or a solid chance of making a six-figure income for the next decade, which one are you going to choose?”
When it comes to trend-spotting, are there any tools you use that you find underrated? Overrated?
Like a lot of people, I have a love-hate relationship with social media. But it’s just a new version of a reality we’ve always had. For example, five years ago, everyone kept saying newspapers were dead. Now they’re living somewhere else. Same with classifieds. I think social media’s the same. It’s not the be-all-end-all. The whole world’s not going to only communicate through this platform. To ignore it would be ignorant, but to revolve your whole life around it is very narrow-focused.
I also love to read. I get dozens of newsletters a day—partly to see what competitors are up to, but I also just love periodicals. Magazines, newspapers… I’m constantly consuming information. That’s how I spot trends and ideas. It’s not when you read about one idea; it’s when you start to see the same messages over and over. To do that, you really have to be following different things. If you’re only on one channel, you’re not going to see everything that’s going on in the world.
But if you only had one channel—what would it be?
Ha! Well, I’m biased, but I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that email’s very much alive and well. It’s having a resurgence. I think when social media channels came on the scene, people thought well, email’s dead.
Not only is email not dead, I think there’s a greater appreciation for it. You can’t control what comes in your physical mailbox at home anymore. You can’t control what comes in your social media feed. Email is the final frontier of control. It’s the only one where you have to sign up, and even when you don’t, you can easily get rid of it. You decide what comes in there. You decide when you’re going to see it.
There’s this greater respect for email. After all, what’s the first thing people do when they get up in the morning? Most people go to texts or emails. It’s an entry into people’s minds.
“You can’t control what comes in your physical mailbox at home anymore. You can’t control what comes in your social media feed. Email is the final frontier.”
Consciously balancing control and open-mindedness is so key to staying sane in this information age.
When you go through any of your feeds, it’s always a journey of yes, no I didn’t sign up for that, yes, no. Given people’s attention spans these days, too, email can pack in just enough information. It’s not a 5,000 word article, but it’s not a 140 characters. It gives you just what you need.
What about real life experiences? How do you balance control and open-mindedness when traveling?
To really understand what’s going on in the world, you need to travel. It’s the only way to understand how people live, learn about what’s important in other cultures.
The balance is in time. Its finiteness is a battle; I’m a single mom with a seven year-old, so my ability to go jet setting is more limited. When I have the time, the internal debate I have is choosing between the places I know and love, or to try something new.
Are you conscious of how your travels influence your work?
I’m a big walker. I play this game with myself, and the street that I drive on every day to get home—what new things do I notice when I’m walking down it instead? You notice the way the houses look, the tree around the corner you missed. When I go to other cities, I try to do what I do here, which is walk as much as I can. Sit in cafés and restaurants, eavesdrop. [laughs] I love to people-watch.
I’m a bad sightseer. I don’t do the museums and all that—which is bad, I know. But I like to do what the locals do. How they dress, how they interact, what they’re doing… what a typical day is like is much more interesting than the tourist spots.
“What a typical day is like is much more interesting than the tourist spots.”
What’s next on your ever-growing plate?
I’d love to learn more about politics. By no means would I consider myself a political pundit, but the last six months have taught me a lot about how to explain my own point of view to people.
For me, [The Bullet] is a learning journey. I am the audience. My writers agree the hardest part is reading a story and simplifying it. If it takes us that long to figure out and translate it for our readers, that’s part of the problem, right? That’s the solution we’re bringing to people: taking this information, distilling it, making it simple. I love to learn, so this has been a real joy.