Opinion

Letter from the editor: Nine lessons from a digital-media founder

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Preparations are well underway for The Logic’s third birthday next month. One of our founding missions was to serve as an inspiration for a new generation of publishers. Every time a new media venture launches in this country––and there have been many that have sprouted over the past three years––we’re beyond thrilled. The news ecosystem, while still financially challenged, is rejuvenating.

New media entrepreneurs often ask me for advice on what it takes to run a growing publishing business. As I look toward our fourth year, it’s a good time for reflection, and perhaps I can offer a few words of advice. While we still have a long way to go, and by no means have we got everything all figured out, there are some things I can share that may resonate—a sort of update to my 2019 column on lessons I learned while raising our seed funding round.

Lesson 1: Trust your team

The founder as all-knowing controller of everything a company does may play well in Hollywood, but it is a dangerous myth that will not result in a long-lasting, trustworthy and ethical company. “Trust your team” may be a cliche, but it’s true. Treat your team with the respect they deserve, and they will amaze you every single day with their commitment, smarts and talents. Don’t hoard information; share it. Don’t patronize them by shielding them from the difficult trade-offs required in a startup; arm them with the knowledge they need to build a great business. And don’t hire sycophants. Nobody should be bigger than the company itself––we all play an important role. Try never to breathe your own exhaust fumes, and for the times you do, make sure your team isn’t afraid to tell you you’re being an idiot.

Lesson 2: Get your financials in order and have a working financial model

When we were less than two years old, The Logic Inc.’s board of directors insisted we get audited financial statements. It was something I impulsively rejected, as it would cost money and productivity. I say this with sincerity: the day our shareholders signed off on our first audited annual financial statements was the day we became a real company. Having audited financials allowed us to build a functioning working financial model (our fourth!), and we now have the tools and the confidence to make tactical and strategic long-term business decisions. It also gave our investors––and future funders––peace of mind that their dollars were not being spent recklessly. Auditing is a pain, but it is worth it if you want to be taken seriously as a business.

Lesson 3: Forecast conservatively, spend aggressively

Setting overly aggressive targets puts unrealistic expectations on the entire organization that lead to unintended consequences, like political infighting, or worse, unethical or even fraudulent activity. Far better to forecast conservative revenue growth so you can plan for the worst-case scenario and build from there. You never know when a pandemic will hit. The added benefit of conservative forecasting: when you exceed your targets, you can spend accordingly, growing your businesses while optimizing your burn rate. Successful media businesses come from increasing expenditures in line with revenue, not from rapid scale in the hope revenue will one day come.

Lesson 4: The incumbency advantage is real

Don’t underestimate the powerful legacy of those you’re disrupting. The perceived prestige of a newspaper front page or a broadcast news program still looms large. Fewer people may actually read the physical newspaper, but the idea of the medium makes reporting, subscriber acquisition and even recruiting staff more challenging. It is by no means an insurmountable hurdle—we wouldn’t still be here if it were—but a hundred years of learned customer behaviour is not easy to break. Don’t assume your product will be judged inherently on its quality. You can’t be just as good; you have to be much better than your competition.

Lesson 5: Be ready for the counterattack

The minute you start to gain traction with customers, expect competitors to react. Whether by reallocating resources and attempting to poach your staff, investing in similar products or downright copying your work, don’t dare bask in your early success—because you’ve become the catalyst for change in legacy institutions, and their target. To be clear, this is a good thing. Competition makes for better stories, better working conditions and better journalism for everyone, which in turn strengthens our democracy. Just don’t get caught flat-footed.

Lesson 6: Recruiting is a full-time job

Technology has in some ways made everyone a media professional. Reporters and editors no longer need legacy institutions to make a living when they can launch a Substack newsletter. The market for talent is getting even more competitive. So what will set your organization apart? We spend a lot of hours thinking about this question, and so should you. It’s not just about building relationships—it’s about professional development, workplace culture, who you write for and what you cover, as well as compensation and benefits. There are so many factors that go into hiring and retaining great people. We can and should always strive to be improving as a workplace. 

Lesson 7: Journalism isn’t well understood

You will face critics who will attempt to intimidate and silence you. Many CEOs, public relations professionals and industry champions came of age in a time when journalism was dying, so they consider “reporting” to simply be the rewriting of press releases. I once had a prominent venture capitalist tell me that I personally was “ruining the ecosystem” by reporting on it, and that I was an enemy of the cause. Of course, that’s not what we do: we make the ecosystem better by holding it to a higher standard, and we do it fairly, with ethical and professional standards as high as any in the industry. Former Washington Post editor Martin Baron said it best in 2017 when referring to Donald Trump: “We’re not at war, we’re at work.”

Lesson 8: Founder fuel will come from unexpected places

The knowledge that this company was a figment of my imagination just four years ago amplifies all the emotional swings of running a business. Every subscription, every cancellation, every sponsorship deal is felt deeply. Which is why an unsolicited note from a satisfied reader or corporate client is fuel for the soul. Thank an entrepreneur for what they’ve built and they’ll never forget it.

Perhaps the most unexpected joy of launching a business is watching your colleagues grow alongside the company. Take pride in their journeys. When your employees––who took immense risk coming onboard––blossom in their roles, are able to buy homes and live on decent wages, it will fill you with an overwhelming, almost selfish sense of pride. The Logic contributes to society not just through our work but in that we even exist. I’m chuffed that we contribute payroll taxes to the Canadian economy. This is why you start a business. 

Lesson 9: Stay true to your vision

At this stage of a company’s life, when you have a hard day you may be tempted to give up. And you could! But never lose sight of why you got into this in the first place. The road can be winding and long, but if you stay true to your vision, you can muddle through the difficult days. I come back to Lesson No. 1: if you have hired well and have a great team in place, you can lean on them when you need to. They will pick you up on your most difficult days. Bravado isn’t a job requirement, but resilience certainly is. 

This seems like a good time to thank The Logic’s editorial and administrative team: Jenna Zuschlag Misener, Jordan Timm, April Fong, Hanna Lee, Sarmishta Subramanian, Caroline Mercer and Amanda Roth. You don’t read their bylines every day, but make no mistake, they are the backbone of this company. 

And finally, immense gratitude to you; our readers. Without you we don’t exist. If you like what we do, please tell your friends and colleagues. Three years on, we’re just getting started. 

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I mentioned above that I believe we can always improve as a workplace. Almost a year ago, I wrote that the parts of the startup sector that attract attention—and the media covering it—are predominantly white, while the burdens of the gig economy and bias in new technologies like facial recognition fall overwhelmingly on people who are not white. 

As part of our efforts to help correct this imbalance, The Logic is now accepting applications to our new program for BIPOC journalists, an initiative we’re launching to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities in the Canadian media landscape.

The program will provide a unique opportunity for an aspiring or early-stage journalist to gain firsthand newsroom experience, as well as one-on-one mentoring from seasoned business reporters and editors. And building a more representative newsroom at The Logic is essential to giving our subscribers the best coverage of Canada’s innovation economy.

This is a full-time, year-long program that includes a salary, two weeks of paid time off and a full benefits package.

If you know someone who would be interested, please share this posting with them.

Applications are due by Monday June 7.

This initiative alone won’t solve these challenges, but hopefully it can be one small part of the solution.