3 key lessons for entrepreneurial journalists trying to get projects off the ground
It’s all about money. And people. And your ability to adapt quickly and smartly.
A small group of entrepreneurial journalists has found that money and people can make or break your business, especially in the early days when you’re just trying to get off the ground. As their projects developed, they wrestled with critical choices along the scale of staying the course and shifting gears.
During the past year, Poynter has hosted three weeklong workshops for aspiring news entrepreneurs through a generous grant from the Ford Foundation. The second workshop took place last summer and I was part of the faculty team working with the group. Recently I asked all the participants for an update so we could gauge their progress and see what they had learned in the process.
Of the 18 participants who attended, about one-third responded. I know that some projects never got rolling while others are making progress but their founders couldn’t find time to provide an update.
Still, the lessons this small group of new news entrepreneurs shared are important to consider whether you have launched your own project or you're still in the planning stages. Here are three key lessons these news entrepreneurs have learned in trying to get their projects off the ground.
1. People make the project
Many entrepreneurs start as solo acts but, time and again, experience shows that startups with more than one person stand a better chance for success. If you have a great idea that you can’t wait to build, spend some time thinking about what kind of people you will need to make it happen and then start networking like crazy in order to meet those people.
“One of my key concerns coming out of the Poynter seminar was building a team that would make Good Story happen,” Fara Warner said of the project she was working on while at Poynter last August. “I knew the idea was good and I had a strong start on the business plan. But my fear was that without a team or a community of people who believed in the project, I would never build Good Story beyond my idea.”
Warner’s Good Story idea centered around linking journalism, philanthropy and people's desire to give of their money, their time and ideas. She connected with a small group of other entrepreneurs working on a similar idea and formed the CareMovement project, which will seek to match people who want to help those in the news with urgent needs. (For example: homeless kids, a food bank that's desperately short, insurance won't cover life-saving surgery, or victims of tragedy.)
Finding like-minded and driven individuals to join your team isn’t easy, of course.
“I’ve learned that starting a new venture is a lonely experience,” says Susan Older, founder of the Real World Media Co-op. “I think having partners is vital to success. I’m looking for them now.”
Sometimes you have to look in unexpected places to find the right people. Tom Stites is the founder of the Banyan Project, which he sees as a network of local news sites that will focus coverage on the needs of “regular folks,” meaning the half of the population who are neither affluent nor poverty-stricken. An integrated software platform will create Banyan's structure and support turnkey NewsCoop.org franchise sites throughout the U.S.
Stites is currently serving as a Berkman Fellow at Harvard, an experience he says has been “quite fascinating but just as frustrating.” His goal for the fellowship year was to work with a couple of Harvard MBA candidates on detailed business planning, but after investing significant time and energy into finding a business professor to supervise the field work of the students, he said he’s “thrown in the towel.” Stites couldn’t find any Harvard business professors doing research or writing about co-ops or other business forms based on community wealth rather than investment gain.
So Stites headed west where he found a group of people who were excited about the project in Seattle. He spent a week meeting a wide range of potential supporters and investors in February, including a pro bono coach for his business planning.
“All this happened in response to my announcing to the Banyan advisory board that I've given up on Harvard and was looking for Plan B,” Stites said. “One call led to another, and bingo!”
Maybe it’s not people to join your team, but people to become your partners in business. Barbara Gref is the founder of the Media Restoration Project that is aimed at restoring news coverage to small towns and other places that have lost theirs.
“We've had the great good fortune that in our pilot community, there is already a solidly passionate group that wants to re-start their local news and they want and need our help because they have no news experience,” Gref says of her new partners in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Unlike Stites, Betsy Spratt found the help she needed from a university. Spratt is the founder of Indigo Film and Artistic Services, a seed capital finance company for documentary film and artistic projects. In November, she enrolled in the Fasttrac program at TechTown, a business incubator created by Wayne State University, General Motors Corp. and the Henry Ford Health System.Through Techtown, she was able to complete a business feasibility plan and organize the business' legal structure.
2. Money makes the world go around
As Sherrie-Ann De Leon discovered, it’s not easy to build a great team with zero budget. Her project, WeDePeople.com, is a news and information website for expats from the West Indies who live in New York City and the surrounding areas.
“Progress is much slower than I would like because I find the need to work at a job that pays the bills,” Deleon said, echoing a sentiment felt by early stage entrepreneurs everywhere. “If I could commit myself completely to this project for a few months, I believe it would take off in the way I envisioned it.”
Many journalists would prefer this whole startup thing be about the journalism and not about the business. But the reality is that money matters. A lot. Like many entrepreneurs before her, Gref said she is learning it’s the most important lesson in starting a business.
“You can't wait for the money to come to you,” Gref says, “you have to go to it.”
Logan Braman, co-founder of Rooted Austin, a multimedia storytelling website that launched a few months ago, agrees. “It's all about the money, even though we don't want it to be.”
Like De Leon, Braman and his team have been financing the startup by working other jobs and are now realizing that it is not a sustainable long-term model. They are now looking at other options for revenue and sustainability. It’s the essence of adaptability that is also critical for startup success (see No. 3).
“The potential for change came about because of the realization that the path we're following is a marathon to profitability, and we think there are a few ways to make it more of a sprint,” Braman said.
3. Agility and adaptability will be critical along the way
Many startups change course or alter their business model. Knowing when to change direction is one of the most difficult challenges an entrepreneur will face. The need to remain focused on a singular vision is important, too, because chasing every shiny new object or new idea that appears is a recipe for failure. But it is often critical to adapt the original vision to the marketplace, letting the customers (or audience) help guide the direction for the project.
It’s a fine line and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to learn when to stay the course and when to go with the flow.
The direction of a startup business isn’t the only thing that may need to change. The size and scope of the original vision may also need to be adjusted as needed.
For example, Older realized that she is a “dreamer,” and a successful venture is more than a dream. She admits she hadn’t done any market research before her mind took off with her original idea, called Displaced Journalists. “But the seems-so-obvious hitch,” she says, “is this: If there’s no market, you have no venture.
“I always think of things on a grand scale,” Older says. “What I’m learning is that perhaps I need to think smaller. Maybe it’s not so important that I start some huge national project, although that’s where my heart is. It’s what I want to do.”
Older has shifted her focus to a new, yet related, idea. With the Real World Media Co-op, she hopes to create a content cooperative, which would provide content buyers with access to top-notch talent.
Regardless of the size or direction of the original plan, it’s highly unlikely that everything will go according to plan. If nothing else, entrepreneurs must be flexible and adaptable.
“I think another lesson is the realization that change is inevitable,” Braman says. “Things aren't going to go as planned all the time, or even most of the time. That's where adaptability comes in, and I think we're embracing that right now with our possible deviation from our original plan.”
The next Poynter entrepreneurial journalism workshop is scheduled for the first week of August, so mark your calendar and watch www.poynter.org for an application announcement.
Mark Briggs is a Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism Teaching at Poynter. He is the author of "Journalism 2.0," "Journalism Next" and the forthcoming "Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News," due out this summer. He also writes about entrepreneurial journalism at www.journalism20.com. You can take his NewsU course on Becoming an Entrepreneurial Journalist here.