How I Made It: Lisa Sugar grew a blog into a global media empire

The gig: Lisa Sugar, 40, is the founder and president of PopSugar, the global media company headquartered in San Francisco whose eponymous lifestyle website attracts more than 100 million visitors a month. Sugar oversees strategy for the business, which has expanded to include e-commerce website ShopStyle and now has offices in New York, London and Australia.

Entertainment addict: Sugar grew up outside Washington, the daughter of a lawyer and a retail clerk. She recalls being a tomboy who always loved entertainment and pop culture. “I made collages and mood boards, and collected magazines,” she said, describing herself as a huge fan of celebrities, movies and TV shows. “I would stay up late, but it wasn’t to party — I just wanted to watch Letterman and whoever was on ‘The Late Late Show.’”

Stint in New York: After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in psychology, Sugar moved to New York with her future husband, Brian Sugar, who she’d met on her first day of college. She interned at the morning talk show “Fox After Breakfast” and landed a job in advertising with Young & Rubicam, an agency where she ran the accounts for Showtime and Sony. The job brought her closer to entertainment, but it also helped her realize that it wasn’t close enough.

“I wanted to decide what’s on TV,” she said. “Why were they putting ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ up against ‘Dawson’s Creek’? They’re the same show and the same audience; why are they making us choose? That’s when I realized I wanted to get more involved.”

Another agency in San Francisco: Shortly after they married, her husband was offered a job in San Francisco and the couple moved west. “I was shattered,” Sugar said. “I felt like there wasn’t an entertainment or content company I could get excited about out here.” She ended up at local ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, where she spent the next five years.

Perks to pop: One of the upsides of being at an ad agency was Sugar often got tickets to advance screenings of films and access to TV shows and beauty products before they hit the market. In her downtime, she wrote reviews for her friends, recommending upcoming shows to watch and products to buy. “Eventually I got a nudge from a friend who would listen to me talk about all these new beauty products and TV shows, and Brian built me a website called PopSugar and taught me some code, and I started publishing,” she said.

A new voice: Blogging was a relatively new concept in 2005. Gawker Media was but a few years old, and most traditional publications hadn’t yet migrated online. Sugar wrote on her website before work, during her lunch breaks and at night. “Magazines were slow to update and had no personality, and a lot of blogs were super-snarky and mean and tore people down,” Sugar said. She made PopSugar an extension of the reviews she wrote for friends. She wrote in the first person, avoided tabloid gossip and focused on the things about the entertainment world that excited her. 

“It felt like I was talking to you,” Sugar said of the website’s tone. “Like you were reading something your girlfriend was telling you. PopSugar was always clean and safe, and you felt as a woman proud to read it because it wasn’t tearing people down based on weight or looks. It was important for PopSugar to be a positive place.”

Word-of-mouth: Sugar started blogging on her website in March 2005. By November of the same year, more than 1 million people were visiting PopSugar every month. The site’s audience grew via word-of-mouth, Sugar said, and before the end of the year she had quit her job to focus on it full time. Her husband quit his job too, and they incorporated the business in April 2006. Seeing its rapid growth, local venture capital firms such as Sequoia Capital came knocking, and Sugar raised $5 million to hire more writers and expand the site.

Ask for more: Sugar said she believes one of the reasons she found success was because she had learned to speak up and ask for more responsibilities. She recalled being bored while folding jeans when she was working at an Urban Outfitters in D.C., and how speaking up about it landed her newer, more interesting responsibilities. “I was just folding jeans over and over again, and if I had to fold another pair of jeans I was going to go crazy,” she said. “So I asked my manager if there was anything else I can do?”

She’s applied this lesson to her media career, asking for more responsibilities and being willing to roll up her sleeves to do what needs to be done. “If people need me to write on Oscars night, I’m gonna do that,” she said. “It’s about being a team player.”

Advice: PopSugar is now a global media company and a stalwart at music and movie awards, red-carpet galas, and Fashion Week in Paris, New York and Melbourne. But it took Sugar more than 10 years to grow it. “You have to start small,” she said. “A lot of people think you’re supposed to do these things overnight and see success, but you have to be patient.” 

Personal: Sugar lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughters Katie, 10, Juliet, 7, and Elle, 3. They have a dog named Lucy. Her book “Power Your Happy: Work Hard, Play Nice & Build Your Dream Life” is now on sale. 

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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