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Bloomberg Businessweek’s editor believes print remains the ultimate “distraction-free news product”
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Jan. 9, 2017, 10:14 a.m.
Business Models

The Timmerman Report is putting customer service at the center of its one-man news business

“As a businessman, I try to run this like a Main Street shop. If you’re a subscriber and you have some issue, I need to respond to those issues promptly, as if it was your neighborhood hardware store. That’s part of my job.”

When it comes to running your own one-person media company, the hardest problems are often the smallest.

In 2015, veteran biotech reporter Luke Timmerman set out on his own to launch The Timmerman Report, a $149-a-year subscription product offering original news and analysis about the biotech industry. The product quickly found its audience: Within ten months, Timmerman had attracted 1,000 subscribers, which he says was evidence that the idea could work in the long term. (Timmerman hasn’t shared an updated subscriber number publicly since.)

Then came the some of the more knotty issues, most of which came out of left field. While signing up individual subscribers was straightforward, interest from companies looking to sign up multiple employees complicated things. Timmerman, the site’s sole reporter and salesperson, also became the sole customer-service representative, handling, for example, the wide variety of login and billing problems that subscribers often have. All of these duties, dispersed across multiple people at larger media companies, were suddenly all on his shoulders.

“Setting out on your own is obviously an attractive idea, but then you realize there are all of these little administrative tasks you didn’t realize you would have to deal with,” he said. “If someone’s login isn’t working, or they can’t find their password — that’s really important. I gotta take care of that, and a certain amount of my day has to go towards some of those things. But at the end of the day, that’s customer service and you are a business, so it’s your job.”

And yet, despite those challenges, Timmerman says he’s as bullish as ever about the one-person media company model. I spoke to him about the evolution of that model, the importance of customer service, and why digital media companies should think more like brick-and-mortar businesses.

Ricardo Bilton: So how has your model changed over its first two years?

Luke Timmerman: The biggest change came a year in, when I raised the price from $100 to $149 a year. But the increase went over just fine with my subscribers. No one had a problem. The value is there — it was there at $100, and it was there at $150. That didn’t make a big difference. I’ve also brought in a couple of contributing writers. So while in the beginning, it was 100 percent me, now it’s closer to 90 percent me. Those people bring complementary perspectives, different kinds of experience, and they provide me a break when I need one. I’m about to take my first real vacation in about three years.

Bilton: What are your thoughts on the idea of the one-person media operation overall? People have said going out on your own is more viable now, thanks to all the services and platforms that make parts of that process easier. Does that still hold up?

Timmerman: You know, it’s still really hard to get things started. I’m impressed with Ben Thompson at Stratechery. I think he’s done a nice job. I’ve shown you can also do it in biotech, and there are other industries where it can work, where you have readers who have a lot of disposable income and clearly see a value in your distinctive content. That’s one thing that both Ben and I are able to do.

It could be done in other industries, but it’s not going to be for everybody. I don’t think covering your local city council is going to lend itself to that kind of model, or coverage of your local sports teams. It also depends on the distinctiveness on the content. If there are a whole lot of free alternatives that are a lot like what you’ve got, then it’s going to be much harder.

Bilton: What would you say are the essential parts of making something like this work? Your approach seems to focus on building a real relationship with your subscribers.

Timmerman: Yes, I do think it’s very important to be out there and connected with the readers. They feel like we have a one-to-one relationship, but honestly, that’s not really true. It is somewhat true with some percentage of them, but I have over a thousand people reading. I’ve met some of them in person. I’ve looked them in the eye and shaken their hands. It’s like old-school Main Street business — people really appreciate that.

I think the content also feeds into this. I have a distinctive voice. Some people like it; not everyone does. It’s who I am. That shines through, whether you see me on Twitter, in my Forbes column, or in my podcast. There are a lot of touchpoints that I have out there on the free web where people hear me, see me and the things I have to say, and it’s all very consistent with what I put on my newsletter. And what’s in my newsletter is the best I have to offer.

Bilton: It’s important to have some kind of funnel. You can’t just report and write, put it behind a paywall, and expect people to automatically want it.

Timmerman: People do need to find a way to discover you on the traditional free web. Ben Thompson does this with his weekly free articles on his site, plus his podcast. I’m doing a very similar thing. I just have those touchpoints on different platforms.

Bilton: You mentioned that this model is one that will work in some verticals, but not all of them. What about personality — do you think this model is a good fit for most people? There’s a certain lifestyle you have to be comfortable with.

Timmerman: You definitely have to have the entrepreneurial, startup mindset and, yes, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty and stress that goes with that. I’m directly responsible for bringing in the money that feeds my family. That’s not someone else’s job down the hall. I’m not in a situation where I can luxuriate doing nothing but my journalism. I wish I could. But I need to think about managing my own business and being the CEO of my company and that means, for example, paying attention to media news and the big macro trends. I have to think about how these things affect me.

Bilton: What’s a big trend in the industry that you’re paying attention to?

Timmerman: Paid-model adoption, for one. I was happy to see after the election that so many publications saw a big bump in their subscriptions. That tells me that a certain percentage of the reading public is recognizing there is no free lunch here, that if you want quality journalism, maybe you should pay something for it. If the wind moves even just a little bit into the sails of subscription models, that’s a good thing for me. I have to pay attention to that and think about how it affects me. Consumer behavior is something I think about. Do people think that all content should be free, or are people willing to pay when they see quality?

Bilton: Was it jarring to go from focusing on your reporting to having to suddenly consider all the business questions as well?

Timmerman: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about business. This is a business. Journalists have been walled off from the business side, and there’s a reason for it — I get that. But somebody in every journalistic company is responsible for generating the revenue. Every journalist gets their salary paid somehow, whether they want to reckon with how that happens or not. Someone is always working hard to pay the salaries of those journalists, who do good work. In my case, as a one-man band, I see it as my job to make the money that I need to do the quality journalism that I want to do.

Bilton: So you see what you’re doing as a digital business, but operating with something closer to a brick-and-mortar service mindset.

Timmerman: I’m a person, and they’re people. I’m not a nameless, faceless corporation. All of this feeds into this idea that we have a connection. You’re the reader, I’m a journalist, and hopefully if I do my job well and I treat you well, you will be loyal. You will renew your subscription; you will tell your friends. It’s definitely not easy or for the faint of heart. I’m definitely still going against the grain, but I’m encouraged. I think that this model can be quite durable for the long term because of the loyalty of the readers.

As a businessman, I try to run this like a Main Street shop. If you’re a subscriber and you have some issue, I need to respond to those issues promptly, as if it was your neighborhood hardware store. That’s part of my job.

Photo of Luke Timmerman and subscribers by Spencer Brown Photography used with permission.

POSTED     Jan. 9, 2017, 10:14 a.m.
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