By Bianca Mendez Carolyn Kylstra’s résumé is the dream for every whippersnapper with an ambitious five-year plan. In five years Kylstra has gone from associate editor at Men’s Health to editor in chief at SELF. There, she oversees digital strategy and, after one year, she redesigned the site and broke traffic records with 5.3 million unique viewers. As if that’s not impressive enough, she also was responsible for launching BuzzFeed’s health vertical and also served as editorial director at WomensHealthMag.com where she tripled site traffic. Kylstra’s a digital guru. Here, she talks about graduating during a shaky job market, diving into the digital, and her plans for the new Self.com.
What is your career backstory?
I’ve worked at a number of different publications: Worked my way up from internship to associate editor at Men’s Health, then went on to become a senior editor at Cosmopolitan, deputy editor at Cosmo for Guys (an iPad-exclusive magazine), site director at Women’s Health, health editor BuzzFeed, and executive digital director at SELF and now editor in chief here.
You graduated from Dartmouth in 2008 during a shaky time in the job market. Can you explain what it was like breaking into the magazine industry back then?
It was a really scary time. I graduated in June of 2008. Three months later, I was halfway through a paid six-month internship at Men’s Health when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Around that time, there were mass layoffs across the publishing industry, as well as hiring freezes—that means that the big publishing companies weren’t allowed to hire new people. I was terrified that I wouldn’t have a job after my internship was over in December. I ended up getting a temp job with Rodale for six months after the internship ended, working on Men’s Health and also on the popular book series, Eat This, Not That. About two weeks before that temp job was scheduled to end, a spot on MensHealth.com opened up, and I applied for it and got it.
To this day I am in awe of how enormously lucky I was during that time period. Lucky that there was a temp job to apply for at all. Lucky that the spot opened up at exactly the right time that it did. Lucky that I had the internship in the first place, and hadn’t taken some time off between college and the working world. Lucky, more than anything, that I was privileged enough to know that I had a fallback plan if things didn’t work out — I absolutely could have lived with my very supportive parents while I looked for a job. I know that most people don’t have that luxury or peace of mind.
I still feel to this day that while hard work probably didn’t hurt, sheer dumb luck was ultimately responsible for my remaining employed. I think back on that time with enormous gratitude.
You went from being senior editor at Cosmopolitan to Site Director for WomensHealthMag.com. What made you want to go into digital?
I was already doing digital—Women’s Health was just the first place I was doing exclusively digital. Every job I’d had at Men’s Health and at Cosmo involved digital responsibilities. At Men’s Health I oversaw the sex and relationships channel on MensHealth.com, and I worked a lot on newsletters and premium syndication content, as well as on creating the web presence for Eat This, Not That. At Cosmo I had a dual role — I spent half my time working as senior editor for the magazine, and the other half as deputy editor for Cosmo For Guys, which was Hearst’s first iPad-exclusive digital publication. We learned a lot from it. During my time at both Men’s Health and Cosmo, I became really, really interested in digital and digital storytelling. So Women’s Health was a natural fit as the next step.
When you were brought on to be the executive digital director at SELF, what was on your to-do list?
I was so excited to come on as executive digital director at SELF! [Ed Note: Last week Kylstra was promoted to EIC when the print magazine folded.] I have always loved this brand. Top of my list: Build out an awesome digital team. Re-platform and redesign the site. Grow our social audiences on every platform. Expand onto new digital platforms. Experiment with video and learn what works and what makes sense, and then do more, more, more.
Congrats on the SELF redesign! What makes SELF stand out from the other health/fitness/wellness sites in the space?
Thank you! I’m so thrilled about it. Here’s what SELF stands for: Inclusivity. Service. Support. Motivation. We provide authoritative, expert-backed information and advice to help people make the best decisions they can for their own health and wellness. And we also try to keep people smiling and feeling empowered and motivated.
We relaunched with an editorial packaged themed “Come As You Are,” because we want Self.com to feel like a home to people, where they feel welcome and supported, no matter what wellness looks like to them. For some people wellness means green juice and barre class, and that’s awesome! We’ve got that. For others it means using makeup to express themselves, and that’s great, too. And for others it means never stepping foot on a scale again out of protection for their mental health and self-care, and we have great content for that need as well.
What’s a typical day for you at SELF? (If there is one.)
There is no typical day, which I love. I’m always talking to different people about all the ideas we have for how Self can keep growing and getting better and better in the future. I work regularly with people in lots of different departments across the company — sales, marketing, analytics, audience development, video, product, design, you name it. At the same time, I also check in with our editors to see what we’re working on that day or week. I weigh in on editorial choices and help the executive editor and deputy editors make tough calls, if they need that help. Also, I have the Parse.ly app on my phone, which means that I obsessively check how our traffic is doing an unhealthy number of times during the day.
What qualities do you look for in new hires?
Really good digital instincts and a strong understanding of how the digital universe works. Super, super hard-working. Passionate. Eager to learn. Eager to try new things. Digital is always changing, so it’s also really important that people can be flexible and adjust and adapt to changes at a moment’s notice.
What’s one piece of job advice that you wish you could go back in time and tell yourself?
Ask for help when you need it. I wish I’d sought out management training when I was an inexperienced manager. I made a lot of mistakes early on. I actually really enjoy being a manager now, but it took a long time to get there, and I think that some level of professional development in a formal capacity would have helped. I was afraid to ask for advice because I didn’t want people to think I didn’t know what I was doing or that they’d made a mistake in hiring me…but the truth was I really didn’t know what I was doing in a lot of ways.
What’s the one thing you can’t live or work without?
My husband, Ryan. He’s the best partner I could possibly ask for. So supportive, so encouraging, so smart, and he helps me stay grounded and sane and work things out when I need a sounding board. It helps that he started his career in journalism, so he’s actually fairly interested in this stuff!
Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat?
Snapchat. It’s my primary form of communication with some people in my life.