Raising BuzzFeed’s Jon Steinberg

Raising kids in a digital world is a challenge for almost every parent. We decided to ask the parents of kids who grew up to disrupt the tech world what it was like to raise their kids and what advice they’d give to today’s parents. This is the first in an occasional series called “Raising Tech Stars.”

Raising Jon Steinberg, now the president and chief operating officer at BuzzFeed, was easy, his parents say. He was a good kid who didn’t put up much of a fight when it came to most things. But when it came to sports, the Steinbergs had a fight on their hands. Sports, they recall, was not Jon’s cup of tea.

In his parents’ defense, they didn’t like the sports thing much, either. On the advice of educators, however, they forced him to participate, when what he really wanted to do was spend his free time exploring his real interest: computers.

It didn’t take long, though, before his parents, Renee and Richard Steinberg, decided enough was enough.

“Every night at dinner, he would say, ‘I got picked last for the team and all I want to go is to the computer room,’” Renee Steinberg recalled in a phone interview with BusinessNewsDaily. “At about 13, he put his foot down.”

His parents switched him to a school that was more supportive of his interests and they dropped the sports routine.  After that, Jon Steinberg spent his time exploring every new gadget he could get his hands on.

“I remember going and getting my Apple IIc, my first computer,” said Jon Steinberg, who is now 36 and running BuzzFeed alongside its founder Jonah Peretti.

Renee Steinberg remembers that her son was interested in every new technology that came out — from computers and video games to cordless phones.

“The electronics store was his new favorite haunt,” his mother said. “He wanted all the game systems that came out. His biggest treat was to be taken to the game store.”

Both his parents recalled Jon’s desire to test and experiment with new gadgets.

“When we got a portable phone in the house, he wanted to figure out how far he could go and still be connected,” Renee Steinberg said. “He convinced me to [let him] take the … bus down Central Park West [in Manhattan] to see how far he could go.”

He was always doing an experiment or taking things apart to figure out how they worked, Renee Steinberg said. 

His experimentation led him to be a sort of visionary, said his father, Richard Steinberg.

“He would say to me that portable phones — these will be small enough to fit in your pocket some day,” Richard Steinberg said.  “I thought, ‘you’re out of your mind.’ I knew he could look into future and have insight and sort of predict, but I never realized how accurate he would be.”

‘Unusual … in a loving way’

Jon Steinberg’s interests weren’t exclusive to technology, though.

He was in school plays and on the debate team. Jon “had a lot of cultural interests,” his mother said.

He also liked to learn.

“Jon was always reading Scientific American,” Richard Steinberg said. “I knew he was smart and sensitive. He was always very analytical and intelligent. I knew he was different. Unusual … in a loving way.”

It was while reading Scientific American that Jon Steinberg learned about a test he could take to see if he had what it would take to be a Disney Imagineer.

He took the test and qualified. It was only when he arrived for an interview in California that the Disney interviewers realized he was only 16 years old. They offered him a summer job, anyway. With his parents’ blessing, he moved to California for the summer and lived with college-aged kids doing internships.

It wasn’t an easy time for him.

“I was 15 and living with college kids,” Jon Steinberg said. “I didn’t have a car.” Still, he cherishes the experience to this day, calling it "transformative."

Some of the people he met during the time are still his friends and mentors.

Not all of Jon Steinberg’s early jobs put him on the fast track to entrepreneurial stardom, however.

[Are Happy Kids More Likely to Be Rich?]

He had a summer job scooping ice cream, worked as a summer camp counselor and worked in a restaurant kitchen chopping vegetables.

He used his earnings to feed his interests — buying more technology.

“His room, at one point, was so hot from all the machinery, he had to get a fan to cool down the systems in his room,” Renee Steinberg said.

Working summer jobs to buy video games wasn’t, technically, necessary. His mother was a teacher at a prestigious private school in New York and his father was a doctor turned successful real estate broker. They could have afforded to just buy the items for him, but forcing him to work for what he wanted was a conscious decision, Renee Steinberg said.

“We really believe in [the importance of] a kid’s work ethic,” said Renee Steinberg, who is now grandmother of five — two of them Jon’s children. “Old-school values hold true. That’s why he’s such a hard worker. No one did anything for him. Got into Princeton on his own. And Columbia Business School. No calls were made on his behalf.”

Renee Steinberg said he bought most of his own equipment. What he couldn’t buy, he worked it off. He got loans from us and his grandparents, she said. “There was a lot of negotiation.”

Steinberg’s dad felt the negotiation was a two-way street.

“I always felt it was 50/50,” Richard Steinberg said. He believes that by helping his son finance his interests, he was expressing his support for him. Not doing so would have sent the wrong message, he said.

“[It would have said] ‘I don’t have enough trust or confidence in you to support you,’” Richard Steinberg said. It wasn’t a one-sided deal, however — he forced his son to contribute, too.

“If it’s important enough to you, you’ll contribute,” he remembers thinking.

‘You can’t be a doormat’

Negotiation was just one of the many things Jon Steinberg learned from his father. And, not just from his own negotiations with his parents.

By watching his dad run his own real estate business, he learned important lessons he still lives by today.

One of those lessons came in the form of a phone call Jon Steinberg still remembers overhearing.

“He was on the phone with a buyer and the buyer said, ‘If they’re not going to throw in the drapes, I’m walking away from the deal,’” Jon Steinberg said. His dad, he recalled, called his client’s bluff and ended the call politely. Shortly thereafter, the guy called back and bought the property.

“I learned that in business, you have to have self-respect and an opinion and be polite and confident,” Jon Steinberg said. “You can’t be a doormat.”

He also learned the value of pointing out your weaknesses up front. His dad, he said, would show a potential buyer a building and point out all the positives, but he would also point out the negatives, too.

“You need to tell them the weaknesses up front,” Jon Steinberg said. “You can’t try to pretend things are perfect. Nothing’s perfect. That’s a totally unbelievable position.”

It’s an attitude he encourages his team at BuzzFeed to take when dealing with business partners. It’s part of a culture he’s trying to build at BuzzFeed, he said — telling partners up front about what they are (and are not) good at. 

Another part of the BuzzFeed culture Jon Steinberg is cultivating is encouraging his employees not to rely solely on technology when trying to get something done.

If they haven’t made a phone call or reached out in person, then they haven’t tried hard enough, he said.

‘I could never have imagined it’

Blending the two worlds — the real and the digital — isn’t just a challenge he faces at BuzzFeed. It’s one he will face while raising his two children who are currently toddlers. Like any parent, he worries about them facing cyberbullying someday and how to balance screen time with real-life interactions.

He knows modern technology — 3D printing, robotics, structured computer learning — are all good for teaching kids to be creative. But, like any parent, he knows he’ll soon be navigating uncharted waters.

Renee Steinberg agrees that it’s a different world than the one she raised her son in.

“I never had to say, ‘I think you’ve been on the computer too long,’” she said.

Jon’s dad, Richard, thinks parenting now, as then, requires a delicate balance.

“You have to cooperate in their creativity, but the old rules still apply,” he said. “I don’t think you can give them free rein.”

Ultimately, he believes kids just need to be encouraged to be themselves.

“I think that as parents, we’re in a very unique time," Richard Steinberg said. "The world is moving so quickly. We need to encourage our children to do whatever makes them feel good.”

So what does he think about his son’s success?

“I never could have imagined it,” he said. “He’s such a great kid. Every family should have a Jon.”

So who did Jon Steinberg grow up to be? His BuzzFeed bio says:

Steinberg joined BuzzFeed in June 2010 growing the company from 15 employees to over 300. Under his leadership, BuzzFeed has grown into a global and profitable social advertising business that works with over half of the top 100 brands. Steinberg was named one of AdAge’s Media Mavens in 2012.

Steinberg was previously Strategic Partner Development Manager on Google’s SMB (Small Medium Business) Partnerships team. Prior to Google, Jon was the Director of Business Development at Majestic Research and the founder of iBuilding, a commercial real estate software company backed by Tishman Speyer Properties, Benchmark Capital, and 12 Entrepreneuring.

He is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and holds an MBA from Columbia University. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and the Paley Center Media Council. He lives with his wife, two little kids, and cat on the Upper East Side.