The following is a guest column from Nicholas White, the editor-in-chief and CEO of the Daily Dot.
There is nothing “fun” about changing the world. No matter how big or small your ambitions, if you work at a startup — or worse, if you’ve founded one — you are trying to change the world. You’re creating new patterns of behavior where none existed before.
But the world doesn’t want to be changed. It’s turning perfectly fine without your help, thank you very much, and it would prefer that you just keep your opinions to yourself.
This simple fact is what you learn once you’ve launched, survived, and even grown. This is what you must embrace if you want to succeed.
Let’s be frank: If you’ve started a media company, you are a particular kind of fool. The entire industry is completely destabilized, and no truly successful models have emerged.
We started the Daily Dot with ambitions as big as they come. I believe the culture industry is a force for good in the world, but that it is a shadow of what it could be. I want to prove that doing it right can work and make great business sense.
We’ve more than tripled our traffic from a remarkably strong launch. We’ve covered stories that no one else would have covered, exposed scandals, and even changed policy. We’ve landed some big syndication deals, and we’ve churned out a steady stream of hit stories that have earned us the respect of our peers. We have changed the world — in a very small way, so far. That, in and of itself, is a remarkable thing.
But those are hard-won successes. The journey has not been smooth or easy, and we have certainly made some big mistakes. I’m not too disturbed by mistakes; they’re often where you learn some of the best lessons. It’s not the mistakes themselves — it’s refusing to learn from your mistakes that will sink your ship.
Previously, I wrote about my lessons learned in starting and launching a new media company. In the process of operating and scaling that media company, I’ve learned that it’s the desire for “fun,” for immediate gratification, that threatens startups the most.
Drive everyone away
I’ve written before that people are the most important resource in a media startup, and I thank heaven every day for the talented group of hardworking journalists who have joined our merry band. Whether their day-to-day identification is as reporters, editors, programmers, designers, marketers or operations folk, in my mind they’re all journalists — they just use different tools.
In a startup media company, you’ve got to dig with your bare hands to find the right people. You don’t have established recruiting pipelines. Even worse, since you were a fool to start this company, it’s even more foolish for someone else to join it.
On the other hand, you need each person badly, even desperately. As a result, you have the instinct to channel your inner Tom Sawyer and convince people to join you.
DO NOT DO THIS
In fact, some of the best advice I’ve heard is this: Convince people not to join you.
Early on, I succumbed to the temptation to “sell” people on the job. And as a result, I think we’ve definitely burned some cycles as some of us have had to make an adjustment to the fact that working in a startup is not like working at other companies.
Most of us have made the transition, but I’ve come to realize that a startup is not the right place for a majority of people. And the higher up that person might be, the smaller a segment of the population is suited to the job. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way — it’s just that most of us aren’t Vikings looking to navigate unknown territory.
Most companies are cruise ships. There are activities and direction; you get up every morning and can select from a menu of activities prepared by the cruise director.
Startups are longships. The work is long, hard and back-breaking. The ships are uncomfortable. You don’t really know how exactly you’re going to get where you’re going.
Once in awhile, you get to discover the New World centuries before Columbus, but that’s cold comfort when it’s far more likely you’ll freeze to death in the North Atlantic before you even have the chance to drown.
Personally, I am bored on cruise ships. But I’m weird.
I’m reminded most of Matt Sisson, our designer. We hired him last fall, right after I’d heard that advice to drive people away. When we hired him, I really laid it on — asked him what was he thinking trying to join a company with little security, few resources, and negligible support? But Matt was undaunted, and he’s clearly been a huge asset to the team. And we have put Matt through the ringer. He’s stayed up all night working on projects without a complaint. He (and others) are an inspiration to me.
So you need weirdos. But the way to get them is not to talk about the plunder and joy of discovery that you plan to reap on the high seas — that approach is sure to result in poor hires. Instead, show off the blisters on your hands, the scars of the lash, and your missing toes. Only if they’re interested in all that is there any chance they’ll make it through.
It can be easy, in a startup, to let things be pretty loosey-goosey. There’s tons to be done, and if everyone’s clear on the vision, who has the time to do a bunch of “process” stuff?
I think that it can be really good to feel your way in the dark for a little while, but sooner rather than later, you need to start defining — before you really know what they are — the same small things each individual needs to do every day that, added together, will make the vision a reality.
We started well. We tested sample articles; we ran proofs of concept on Facebook; we started a newsletter — all before we had a website.
But in the rush to launch, a “throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks” mentality took over. Arguably, that was what was required at the time, but it could easily have stuck around too long.
At times, we’ve spent too much time either duplicating efforts or losing things in the cracks between people. We’ve found ourselves clarifying roles and responsibilities in the midst of work needing to be done because we didn’t take the time to figure it out upfront.
And now, to learn from our experience, we have to investigate ourselves a bit because we didn’t clarify upfront what we were doing and what exactly we hoped to achieve.
In a new company, the temptation is to think that staying nimble means leaving every door open — not making any choices, avoiding the rough draft. Plus, there’s so much to do — why slow down?
We consistently resist defining and redefining roles and responsibilities. This is bad organizational behavior, cloaked in being flexible — and lean.
I’ve heard a lot of “lean startup” advice — too much, in fact. It annoys me. We don’t strive to be a “fat startup,” of course, but the norms in tech startups do not apply to media startups.
We did adapt some of the lean startup principles in a way that makes sense for media, as described above. Now we’re returning to that mindset. We’re stepping back and asking, where are we succeeding and where are we failing? What do we need to put in place to track those areas in the long-term?
As we grow and evolve, we’re working hard to be increasingly robust in our methods: breaking down our business model into its key constituents, methodically testing our strategic assumptions, validating tactics, measuring results, and building on success.
That requires diligence and commitment at every level of the organization. But when you’re trying to change the world with limited resources, that’s what you have to do. Being methodical isn’t sexy, but it’s the difference between a floundering startup and a great media company.
Win the boring middle
There’s an old story about an army marching to meet the enemy on the battlefield. The generals of the army decide they want to get to the battlefield first to be able to choose their ground. So the army marches through the night, taking a shortcut through a swamp, and reaches the field of battle first. The next day, the two armies fight, and with many great acts of heroism, our army is victorious.
The marshal asks his generals, when did we win this battle? One general says, “when the cavalry charged,” and another says, “when the infantry broke the enemy line.” “No,” the marshal says, “we won when we marched through the night.”
It is always tempting to believe that you’re going to be able to pull it out at the last minute. It feels like a cavalry charge. It’s thrilling.
In a startup, you’re constantly tempted to get excited in the beginning, get distracted by more exciting and urgent things in the middle, and believe that you can pull it out in the end. We’ve made plans for the most awesome special projects, which have all the complexity and difficulty of the invasion of Normandy. And we’ve insisted that we can improvise the details.
Any project, no matter how routine, can fall into the trap. We’ve thought through the personality-fit for a new position we’re hiring with all the detail of a middle-school girl imagining her future husband, and then let resumes sit around for weeks. And right up to the end we insist on believing that we can still get it done — we’ll be able to sort through 50 resumes, screen 10, interview the top five, do secondary interviews with the top three, negotiate salary, make an offer, and get an acceptance — all in 48 hours.
So we’ve learned to focus on that middle part — to make a detailed (but changeable) plan and to work the plan. We’re far from perfect yet, but we’re better. Perhaps you heard about the print paper we produced for SXSW. It was 16 pages of substantive reporting.
We weren’t the only one-off paper, but we were the thickest, despite being the smallest and least established publisher. The fact that we pulled it off was the result of the discipline to slog through the boring middle.
The result of overheated spit-balling and last-minute scrambling is most likely ignominious defeat — at best, it’s safe mediocrity. It is only with grit that you can achieve a resounding victory.
If there’s a will
The ancient Romans believed that two legions were sufficient to defeat any force on Earth.
In a startup, it is easy to believe that the deck is stacked against you — that you will never be able to overcome the vast material advantages of more established competition. But this is a chimera.
The truth is, resources don’t guarantee a thing — 20,000 Romans routinely took on forces 10 to 50 times as large and won because they were a disciplined force. The enemy, vast though it may have been, was nothing more than a mob.
Change is not the exclusive province of wealth and power. It is within the reach of anyone — even you, if you have the will to make it. You just have to hate fun and love work. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other sore, blistered foot long after the first thrill of setting out and long before the promised land has brightened on the horizon.
Discipline is a dirty word in our culture, which has become truly Epicurean in its search for individual freedom.
But the ancient Romans had another belief: that “bread and circuses” would keep the masses in line.
“Fun,” and “pleasure” are fine, but if anything, they merely support the status quo and the ancien régime. Change comes from a small team of highly organized people, unwaveringly committed to the long row ahead and willing to endure any hardship with negligible chance of success. In other words, the only thing that can change the world is us.