“There are great entry points to talk about, to educate, to talk about where stuff is coming from and where it goes. That’s what I’m really trying to do in The Column.” – Darius Mortazavi.
On this week’s episode of The Chemical Show podcast, host Victoria Meyer speaks with Darius Mortazavi, founder of The Column, an email newsletter that provides context and commentary on events in the industry at large—it’s an endeavor that he hopes will unite different sectors of the industry, and foster an online community. In this episode, Victoria and Darius discuss invaluable insights into the chemical industry, the current trends with different mediums used within the industry, the importance of educating people who are interested in this space, and so much more!
Topics discussed this week:
- What made Darius interested in chemicals and led him to start The Column?
- Working in the industry versus what is expected based on education
- The inception of The Column
- The current state and future of the chemical industry
- Leveraging social media and other online platforms
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Bringing Insights to the Chemical Industry with Darius Mortazavi
This is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This week, I am speaking with Darius Mortazavi, who is the founder of The Column. Darius’ background in chemical engineering has shifted his career focus into media, and really with The Column of focus on making chemical process industries easier to understand. To do so, Darius founded The Column, an email newsletter that provides context and commentary on events in the industry at large. It’s an endeavor that he hopes will unite different sectors of the industry and foster an online community. Darius is a chemical engineer. He has several years of experience in different companies. We’re here today to talk about the wonderful world of chemical engineering in media, and how he’s taking on this new approach. Darius, welcome to The Chemical Show.
Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.
Glad to have you here. What’s your origin story? What got you interested in chemicals? And what led you to start The Column?
It’s probably a common story you’ve heard before. I think there are a good bit of chemical engineers who choose the study just because they were proficient in math and chemistry in high school. And my story is not too different. My AP chemistry teacher was a chemical engineer. One thing led to another just not knowing very much. You just kind of end up in these sorts of places. But I think I stuck with it. Because, fundamentally, I was really interested in where stuff is coming from, what stuff is made up, and where it ends up. I am generally interested in how that goes from just a lab scale to something that’s global. To me, it’s sort of impressive. I can trace this way back to the chemical industry.
That’s one of those things that’s hard for people to see. So that makes me like it, as well. That’s how I got into the major. How I got into writing about it was related. I was a few years into studying. I had taken a lot of classes. I had done some internships and gotten a feel for what the industry was like, but I could not piece it together. For all that I was trying to do, I was Googling things. There wasn’t much out there. A lot of publications are paid. It’s tough to get a grip on the whole industry. And I guess, trying to make sense of what I found myself in the middle of it. And that’s sort of what sparked the creation of The Column. There are plenty of other reasons for that. It’s more pragmatic, but that was like the inspiration, I guess.
When you started it, were you targeting other students, or were you targeting the industry at large?
There were other students, initially. I think in the beginning, a lot of my initial subscribers came from me popping into various meetings virtually through Zoom because we were at that point, something like seven or eight months into COVID. So all of the meetings were all on Zoom, and no one seemed to mind that I would come at the end of the meeting and pitch the newsletter. But as the years have gone on, I’ve realized that even folks that have been working for 10 years face a lot of the same difficulties that you do right out of school. There’s a bit of a silo effect that tends to happen. That’s not always the case. But it certainly is a common thread amongst chemical engineers.
So tell me more about the silo effect? What is it that you see happening?
It was supposed to speak more about commodity chemicals than anything, but it happens everywhere. There’s just this natural trend for specialization, as well as, you go out to a plant. You go into it with the expectation. You’ll be there for a few years. But a lot of times you end up being most valuable to a plant, whenever you’ve spent a lot of time at that plant. That’s those who know the ins and outs. That tends to create this effect where you know what you’re doing extremely well. And the unit operations, your plant at the same plant 1000 miles away, but you’re not that familiar with that chemical process. I think that’s what I mean by the silo effect.
I think that’s true. I certainly see that also in the business side of the industry. On a manufacturing basis, which is a little bit of what you’re referring to, whether it be manufacturing process engineering or R&D, people tend to get specialized because you’re right, that’s where there’s value. Then on the same side, there’s this vast array of businesses and products and from a commercial perspective, some companies and some individuals move across different products and others don’t. In companies, I’ve been at, or various companies I work with, it’s like the same people have been the salespeople for those products for the last 20 years. They know everything. If you haven’t had a chance to work in that space, you don’t fully appreciate it. You might appreciate some of the fundamentals, but you don’t have the same insights. With thousands of companies, thousands of products, and thousands of processes, it’s hard to know at all.
I think the expectation is probably not to know it all, per se. But definitely early out, it’s hard to get a feel for the industry, like the landscape, the taxonomy, just how to talk about it with other engineers, and people not in the engineering department, as well outside of manufacturing, is a whole different world. But that interface is really important. And then there’s also the interface with right the public or other industries, too.
: There are so many stories to tell in the industry over a century and a half old and to some extent. There's a lot to say, a lot of stories, and a lot of old conventions that are still being done in one way or another.
You’re pretty early still in your career. Not that long ago, you were in university studying to launch. What’s been the biggest surprise for you working in the industry, versus what you expected based on your education?
I spent the first year and a half out of school with Procter and Gamble. I think my expectations were pretty set by then. Because it was roughly in line with what I saw during internships, not necessarily on a day-to-day basis, but just from working inside of an organization and the extent to which there’s internal knowledge versus external knowledge. But I think from what you learned in school compared to what you do in the industry on that comparison, we learned very well in school, how to make stuff, like the theoretical operations, how to solve those problems, and we solve problems that are relevant, whatever process we’re solving, any question on the test, or in the homework, it is usually industry-relevant, but it’s not like we’re paying attention to those details.
We’re just more inclined to solve the problem and get to the next one and on an exam. So I think that was kind of a shift that all of a sudden, it really mattered. What it is that we’re working on, and understanding what raw materials you’re working with, where they’re coming from, and where the products you’re shipping and all that stuff is really important for how you perceive yourself and your work. That’s not really something that was a focus of any chemical engineer. I don’t think I’m in the middle of an exam or the middle of homework.
One of the good examples that come to mind for me, I was a project engineer at the beginning of my career. One of the plant process engineers had said that we needed an aperture drilled to a certain size. It was a sizing issue. And whatever the number was, it was some number. And my boss, the project director that I was working with, said that you can’t accept this. I’m like, I don’t understand. He said, we physically can’t drill that number. You’ve got to go back the quarter inches or millimeters that you actually have to then apply not just theory, but back to the practicality of how things are sized, so you can size something. Then when you size it exactly and precisely, that’s awesome. But you can’t actually do that because it doesn’t exist in real life. So it’s that whole blending of theoretical to real life that is necessary. I guess that’s part of the learning curve that we all go through.
The industry is probably full of examples like that one. There are so many stories to tell in the industry over a century and a half old and to some extent. There’s a lot to say, a lot of stories, and a lot of old conventions that are still being done in one way or another.
Absolutely! Let’s talk a little bit more about The Column. You already touched on how you got started. Tell us more about just what it is. Since I’ve read it but maybe other people have it, although I think you’ve got a great list. Tell us about The Column and what people expect from it and how you even get to that.
I’ve struggled to define it exactly because I don’t want it to be too rigid, but it’s taking shape now. I think The Column is doing a good job of it’s taking traditional sort of industry news. We’re talking about press releases for the most part. There’s a new plant being announced as a plant being shut down. There’s a merger as a joint development agreement. These sorts of things. But every single one of these press releases isn’t necessarily important from a news perspective, as in their ground shattering, and things like that. So they don’t really get coverage. But there are great entry points to talk about, to educate, to talk about where stuff is coming from and where it goes. And it’s a launching pad for some commentary on whether or not this announcement makes sense is what you should actually find interesting about it, or how it connects to previous examples, or larger trends.There are so many stories to tell in the industry over a century and a half old and to some extent. Click To Tweet
So that’s what I’m really trying to do. Three times a week, I boil down two different stories, covering a broad range of things, whether that’s commodity chemicals or specialty chemicals. I’m talking about cement or random stuff. I tried to do all of the chemical process industries in a broad sense because there are interesting things to say about all of them that are always related to the actual news event. But that’s what it is. It’s a way for you to learn about the industry or stay up to date with the industry or both. I think you can find value in it across the board. I think that’s partly why it’s been able to attract a larger audience and broad age range from right out of school or in school through people that are closer to retirement. I think it’s a lot of those people’s gaps there.
Any big recent news or insights that you drew that you got some great feedback on in terms of people like, I can see that now. Do people give you feedback? I think that’s always an interesting thing.
I do. I think the nature of email is that you can very quickly hit reply, and send me a direct note, I can directly reply to you, which is really cool, I think. But I don’t know if there’s been something super significant. People are really into a lot of startups right now. A lot of what I write about tends to be related to sustainability. That is a function of my own bias or interest in those industries. But also, that’s a lot of what the press releases are containing.
So much focus right now on sustainability. That is where it is. It’s interesting.
There’s a lot there. You’re building different directions because it’s a very big topic, and every single chemical company is approaching it differently. However, it fits their ability to pivot their assets, or, the rest of us currently have it. It’s interesting.
So what you’re doing now, you are a full-time media guy, a writer, and a researcher, both with The Column and then also with The Diff. This is not a typical path for engineers. How do you explain that and what’s the response?
I think whatever it was at a chemical plant for the first time, it became pretty clear to me what a career path would probably look like, or there were a bunch of different career paths. But I think the certainty of it freaked me out a little bit. And that’s probably a bit of a personality thing. That was interesting. But it was also that I just couldn’t stop asking questions about how all of this stuff got here. The industry is huge and connected and old. it was just frustrating to me that whenever I’d ask questions, eventually people wouldn’t know. People wouldn’t know where things were coming from or where they went or why they’re the way they are.
And I think that just basically is gotten me in this weird curiosity loop where I just can’t stop researching and asking questions. I think that usually, knowledge is gained in the silos and communicated everyone says their piece about the one thing they know really well at conferences or things like that. But we don’t really have many people who have dedicated their entire careers towards trying to do their best to understand and communicate between all of the groups. Not that those people don’t exist. They certainly do it. We have historians and all these sorts of things. But I guess I’m not I’m trying to be a reporter. I’m not just trying to be a media person per se.
I’m fundamentally trying to do everything I can in my career to understand everyone’s perspective and be able to communicate with all of them. And I think that is a viable thing to be doing. We haven’t really had an opportunity for something like that to be a reasonable career path in which we’re incentivizing in terms of you can build a business model around it. And newsletters are a really interesting way of monetizing content that is not strictly entertaining. I think I don’t really know where I’m gonna go with it, or why I really diverged super hard from the past, but I’m really enjoying it.
I know that and in fact, I read The Column as it comes out. And I think you’ve always brought some interesting insights. That’s interesting. That takes a new take on things. I think what’s interesting about this, Darius, is we’re living and working in the digital age. Some people call it the information age, but we’re certainly migrating to being very digital. You and I both really embracing new media in terms of podcasts, newsletters, changing the way information is shared, stories are told, et cetera. What change do you think this is having or will have on the industry?
I think the changes are really hard to predict because we’re talking about not just like, first or second-order effects, or the effects we’re talking about third, fourth, and fifth-plus-order effects. How do three people who happen to be familiar with one news item, talk about it in the lunch room? How does that impact their entire career? What other decisions did they make or connections that they make to other industries or other people with more context? You really can’t. It’s really hard to predict. But having better transparency and understanding across industries or even within your own has some of those things that are hard to put your finger on.
Right now, we have a bunch of ways of consuming media that you can read long-form essays online. You can watch YouTube videos, TikTok, or Twitter. There are all these different ways of doing it. I think the industry needs to figure out where it wants to fit in every single medium. I think that for an individual. You probably want a healthy mixed diet media. You want some stuff that’s lower latency, that’s like higher frequency news and that kind of thing. And you should probably read a book or two. You probably should read about the history of DuPont or, something like that. You will learn a lot from doing things like that. I don’t know exactly how it’ll shape up. But I do think a lot of it is sensemaking. And that’s got to be viable somewhere.
Chemical Industry: There are great entry points to talk about, to educate, to talk about where stuff is coming from and where it goes. For some commentary on whether or not this announcement makes sense, or what you should actually find interesting about it. That's what I'm really trying to do in the Column.
Are you doing much or anything as it ties back to The Column with Tiktok, reels, YouTube shorts, or anything at this point?
No, not directly. I post things on Instagram, but I think all the memes work differently in different ways. So on Instagram, the the medium is best for memes, or stuff like that. Like posting industry updates, it’s not the right place, not to wait to go to Instagram and go to TikTok. My opinion is really that probably won’t shape up to anything super significant, just because I don’t think that you can use it to learn but I’m not really sure you can spin it and make it an educational thing in a fun entertaining way. I don’t know how.
I will say this is an area that I’ve actually talked with folks about in terms of having teenagers, so they get a lot of their news and opinion from TikTok, and probably YouTube. And if traditional companies such as the chemical industry are not engaging, then whatever stories are being told by less informed individuals and not less informed. How about differently informed or the stories that will survive, I see these Instagram reels, and every once in a while, it’d be something like the five most toxic things that you have in your house. They’re all chemical or plastic products. I mean that tends to be what it is. It could even be your cleaning products, which by the way, we really need in a lot of ways. It allows it’s what allows us to live healthy, long lives. And so I kind of feel like there’s this opportunity. But nobody’s cracked the nut on it yet, as you say, to start telling the stories and leveraging these other forms of media more broadly.
Personally, I think that the opportunity on those platforms is that they lend themselves really well to discoverability. So people find something really interesting or fascinating that they didn’t know. I guess I haven’t really done this yet. But really, there’s just a broad gap and understanding about what stuff is made up. And just telling the story about what a surfboard is made of. It is something I think TikTok would like or treat itself well, too. That would perform well, I think, but in the news, strictly? I don’t know. Basically, I think that those platforms are great for wrangling everybody together and funneling people into a place where a medium is more structured. It suits itself better towards news or education.
So kind of getting back onto this storytelling a bit. In many ways, you’re a storyteller in the industry, I would call it. Taking, translating, and creating that connectivity between announcements, big activities that are going on with companies in the industry, how it applies, and how it relates. Are there learnings that individual companies should be taking from that approach? Do you think, is there an opportunity for the companies themselves to do it differently?
Do you mean for them to use social media differently?
No, I mean, really just kind of this whole connection of storytelling. Like, here’s interesting. Now, these are the inferences that you can make, whether it be about the product, what the impact is, etc. Is there an opportunity to change how companies are communicating with their stakeholders?
I think so. It depends. Companies balance a lot of things. There we have entire public relations and investor relations teams to make sure that that’s all communicated properly. I think that does add a layer of difficulty. But there’s a lot of opportunity for corporations or smaller companies, especially to write blogs specific to their content. I think one thing that a lot of companies get wrong, is they try to say that we make polyethylene and that goes 80 trillion things. Showing the big chart of every single thing that it goes into is really helpful. What I think is really a lot more interesting is talking about one specific end application.
It’s like an underwater sea cable, and talking about how your one polymer plays as one function in this cable. I’m not a sea cable expert. But I do know that we have polymers in them. And I think it’s better to start from the perception of something people understand than to start from something obscure and in the middle of the economy. I think probably, there’s no place for that on blogs. And the general trend is that people are demanding transparency more and more and more. And as our ability to synthesize and look at information becomes easier with the advent of all these AI things. I think our tolerance for any opaqueness in the industry will continue to plummet.There's a lot of opportunity for corporations or smaller companies to write blogs specific to their content. Click To Tweet
What stands out about that for me, Darius is this whole aspect of personalization. At the end of the day, it’s about people and making them comfortable based on what they know, and what’s around them at the moment. So explaining what your computer keyboard is made out of is a lot easier because it’s very relatable and tangible, and I understand it, versus some chemical product that I may or may not be able to pronounce or understand and kind of using that to bridge the gaps that we have currently.
There are a hundred blogs and each one becomes an individual case, going from material to the product to produce going that direction, it is a lot more impressive than one big article that lists a bunch of ways they go for sure.
We have opportunities to grow. Darius, what’s next? You’re running The Column. What’s next with The Column? What should we be looking for?
I’m at a bit of a crossroads. At this point, it’s grown and approaching 10,000 readers. I think at that point, I’ve been trying to monetize partly by doing paid subscriptions. I would like to move to a model where it is free in entirety to everybody. That does rely on advertisers. But I think it’s a really interesting opportunity for companies to get in front of an engaged audience that’s been staying up to date for one to three years in the industry. So that’s kind of a thing. You’ll see a little bit more of that. I don’t know exactly how it’ll pan out over the next few years in The Column itself. But there are plenty of opportunities. There is definitely interest in integrating across the media.
So things like getting onto YouTube, TikTok, and those sorts of things. Those are ways I think The Column will probably go as a product and what it reports. The problem will be mostly boxed up for me. I think I’ll continue to try to go deeper and deeper. And probably that means writing elsewhere in different formats and in more depth because if I report on the industry at a high level for the next 20 years, I’m not really going to accrue enough knowledge to do any leadership or guidance on the industry. I think I need to dive really, really deep. And that means doing more than coverage of the industry. It means interviews, or really getting down into a month-long research project on a chemical process. And I think that’s the direction I personally will go.
It’s interesting. We got a lot of opportunities in front of you. Darius, thanks for joining us. If people want to get connected with you or find The Column, how do they do so?
I’m on LinkedIn. It’s Darius Mortazavi on LinkedIn. I’m sure my name will be spelled somewhere in the notes. If you go to thecolumn.co, you’ll be able to sign up for the newsletter there. That should be enough to find a way to connect with me. That puts you on the email list or right on my LinkedIn.
Awesome! Darius, thanks for joining us in The Chemicals Show. I appreciate having you here. And thanks, everyone for listening. We will bring you another new episode next week. Keep listening, keep liking, keep sharing, and following.
About Darius Mortazavi:
While Darius’ background is in chemical engineering, he’s shifted his career to focus on making the chemical process industries easier to understand. To do so, Darius founded The Column, an email newsletter that provides context and commentary on events in the industry at large—it’s an endeavor that he hopes will unite different sectors of the industry, and foster an online community.
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