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Feb. 16, 2010, noon

Jeff Israely: Lessons learned in Year 1 of a magazine correspondent’s (would-be) online news startup

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a “new global news website.” He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he’ll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. —Josh]

I realized not long ago that it’s been one full year since that night I drifted off to sleep, (suddenly) secure in the knowledge that this was going to be the new passion and focus of my professional life. With the future looking grim for any single foreign correspondent, it was time to commit to the one good idea I’d been mulling for awhile: a unique, cost-efficient way to produce high-profile world news content online. It would be a few more months before I would actually be operative, but I dozed off that night knowing that with a lot of hard work, a few good friends, and a couple of million pesos of funding, all would fall into place.

How I got to that late-night clarity is a long, not very fascinating story. But what has happened since — both much more and much less than I could have envisioned that night — may be of some interest for those tracking or taking part in the figuring out of where the news business is heading. Banging it out here will certainly be of use to me, to give a quick hard once-over at my past mistakes, and return to the counsel of Lesson No. 11 below.

So here’s the run down of the would-be lessons that I’ve learned — and keep on trying to learn.

1. ‘Plan A’ will not work

How you think it will all go down when you are at your most charged and confident (ie, before you’ve started) will very quickly untangle when confronted with real life. The core concept/product may remain standing, but the two other major pieces — how your content will be delivered/generate revenue and figuring out how to actually get to lift-off — will be ground into chopped meat, early and often.

The fact that the news business and technology happen to be in such flux is not the principle reason for this ground-meat sensation. Much more banally, it’s because you are getting on the bicycle for the first time. Starting something that’s meant to be bigger than a job or a blog is like Grad School and Five-Years-of-Full-Time-Experience crammed into several months. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a Plan A, or B or C, that you believe in to the bone. You should. Just be prepared for it to evaporate — or at least, radically transform — any minute now.

2. Your business plan is not enough (not even close)

The first tangible task was cranking out a business plan, with input from a few select colleagues and a quick tutorial on PowerPoint from my nine-year-old (really). For an old media hack, it was empowering that with just a few strokes of the keyboard I could suddenly be presenting information the way the business world does. But sending off the document by email or pulling it out of a snazzy plastic folder may fool you into thinking you are on your way. You are not. Save some money by not printing out more than one or two copies of the thing, for you will be constantly updating it, and fewer people than you think will be interested in actually reading it.

More to the point, a BP is not enough these days, even for those intrigued by your project. You should really consider, sooner rather than later, getting a live prototype up on a URL. Even if you have a concept that can be well described in a business plan (or on the back of a business card!), it is worth your time and money to have a preliminary version in pocket of THE THING itself. Mine will be ready in a couple of weeks. A bit late, perhaps, but not too late.

3. Partners are the least and most important thing

You may already have a partner. Or a sort-of partner. I had two of the latter, each a colleague and friend, involved at different stages and to different degrees. And I consider both very much still part of the project, and certainly still friends. But it became clear, for different reasons, that they were not going to be partners. Ultimately, I was able to better focus on what I needed to get done when I accepted the basic fact that the project was mine alone.

Still, a fully committed partner (perhaps even more than funding) is what this particular project needs right now, and I wonder if I should have been more clear in my mind about that, and in offering to share it squarely. Of course, it can’t be just any partner. The person or persons have to bring the right skills and energy to the table. But in and of itself, you see in other teams of entrepreneurs the value of having someone as committed as you to bringing the project to life, both in the substance and psychology such an adventure requires. In the meantime, though, it is better to go it alone than to spend energy trying to drag others along with you.

4. Funding is the least and most important thing

I have not actually asked anyone for funding yet, though I have talked both to and about money sources. My Plan A was premised on some basic seed funding from one particular source I had in mind. That didn’t happen — a miscalculation that sent my wheels spinning for a good month. But I soon realized there was plenty to keep me busy and moving forward in refining just what I wanted to build, and how to build it, before I should even be asking for cash. I still have much to discover about this obviously essential piece to the puzzle, but it seems that the challenge is as much in the weeding through the many potential funding avenues — seed capital, VC, media companies, foundations, public support — as it is in facing a shortage of options.

5. Lots of luck with your business model

This is the proverbial moving target for journalism startups and media titans alike. So don’t feel as though your small, still-non-existent enterprise must be the one to figure out whether the future of news includes paid content, whether online ad revenue will take off, whether public money will ultimately be required to support quality news. No, it is not up to little ol you to figure it out — but you must absorb as much of the discussion as possible, and figure out, as best you can, how it will apply to what you are creating. Look ahead. Crunch the numbers. Get advice. And then choose. I’m about to start mine over, nearly from scratch.

6. Hold on to your day job

This question will apply to everyone differently, depending on the nature of your day job, of the project, your personal/family financial situation. Also the urgency question counts: If you feel a rush to market, it may be untenable to hold on to other employment. For me, I have found that it has been extremely helpful on many levels — finance-wise, state-of-mind wise, networking-wise — to continue my other journalism work. It’s also a way to stay connected with the world itself, when a startup project tends to suck you into the process and leave you isolated. After all, it is the affairs of the world — or your town or country — that we will be aiming to deliver in our projects-to-be. Better to stay on top of it.

7. Keep the horse before the cart

This is an ongoing challenge. An idea comes to mind, a potential contact or funding source suddenly stumbles into your universe. The temptation is to jump all over it. But there is a time for everything. Don’t do your prototype if you are unclear about what you want to present; it makes no sense to seek venture capital if you don’t have seed money; don’t cold call someone if you think you can get an introduction. As with Lesson No. 6, you will often find yourself forced to fend off a sense of urgency in order to make the wise decisions. With that said: “Pursue all leads” is another worthwhile dictum, not to mention: “The time is now.”

8. Don’t get sucked into the media industry psychosis

If you are reading this, you are probably already at least halfway down into the vortex. In this case: Keep reading! And there is much in the debate that can and must be applied to each individual project. But spend most of your time focused on what exactly you are trying to add to the ecosystem, and let Jay Rosen (and Rupert Murdoch) worry about the rest.

9. Talk to (almost) everyone

Like most would-be entrepreneurs, I spent the first months shielding my project and concept like a newborn baby in winter. Someone might steal the idea! What will my colleagues think? What will my businesswoman sister think!?

But little by little, I realized that not talking about it was the one guarantee that it would die. You need to feed off of the reaction of others to keep up the momentum: new ideas, your next good contact, encouragement and discouragement…are all intellectual fuel and motivation. But this doesn’t necessarily mean carrying around a bullhorn either, not electronically nor at the dinner table. Find the proper setting and scale of your conversation with the outside world. My new blog is an attempt to chronicle what it looks and feels like from where I sit, and hopefully connect for further collaboration. But even on the blog, I haven’t yet actually specified the precise content and/or business model for my site. That said, there is now no longer anyone I won’t share the project’s details with if they take the time to ask. They should be forewarned that I might not ever shut up.

10. Don’t be paralyzed by what you don’t know

For those employed on the “edit side” of the old media, jumping into online news business worlds means facing the imposing twin mountains of Biz and Tech. My previous entrepreneurial activity was selling t-shirts dorm-to-dorm at college, and I have never been a techie by any measure. The sheer quantity of all the information you don’t know and experience you don’t have can be intimidating. On both fronts — so far at least — by way of both curiosity and necessity, I have managed to get up to speed in how to think and talk on both fronts, with mini discourses about angel investors and PVs per UV now rolling off my tongue!? So much of the basics, of course, is right there on the Internet, if you need to know something specific. And the rest is osmosis. Of course actual execution on both the business and technological fronts after lift-off is something else. For that, check back (hopefully) later this year!

11. Don’t look back

One of the many encounters that sticks in my mind this past year was with someone who had nothing to do with the news business. His name is Jason Jacobs, a first-time entrepreneur, founder of RunKeeper, an iPhone application that helps avid runners track their progress. We met by chance at the LeWeb Internet convention in Paris. A super-fit, high-energy 30ish Bostonian, Jacobs was a walking (running!) metaphor. At least 18 months and several hundred thousand customers ahead of me in our respective startups, he just let all his experiences roll out in a steady 10-K of advice and encouragement. Though his project was in serious take-off phase — and his product had little to do with mine — much of what he said in our 15-minute chat could be applied to what I was doing and experiencing. His conclusion capped the metaphor: “Keep moving forward. Do whatever you have to do to keep moving forward.” The road is long, but the highs and second winds will come, sometimes even on the uphills.

POSTED     Feb. 16, 2010, noon
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