Entrepreneurship on rails

“Maybe my efforts were imperfect in the end, but I ultimately learned a lot about publishing in the process, lessons I was able to take elsewhere.”

Recently I’ve been looking back at some of my earliest posts on ShortFormBlog, my first strike-out-on-my-own site. And reading back reminds me of all the sacrifices that I made to get it online.

I built it in part because I’d lost my job at the time at Link, a late, great weekday news product published by The Virginian-Pilot. One of the great things about Link was that it actively ignored long-form prose, instead going for chunked-up blurbs that were cut down from longer stories published by the wires and the Pilot. Many of the free daily newspapers that did stuff like it, like Red Eye and Express, had some of these elements, but Link essentially banished lengthy prose entirely — a bold move at the time.

Over time, I came to find it an important idea that more journalists needed to embrace. So when Link shut down during the 2008 recession, I was desperate to keep the threads of that idea alive somehow. That was what led me to create ShortFormBlog.

I fought really hard for this concept — and it led me to take a lot of risks. During the period I was laid off, I made the decision to buy a new laptop with my severance money after my old one started showing its age in unbearable ways — despite only having a strong hunch that I would likely get hired for my next job. (I did get hired; the blog, obviously, kept going.) I tried to bend platforms like Tumblr to my whims. I worked on weird experiments using tools like RebelMouse just to see if I could take this idea further.

And at least once, I put myself in great personal danger because I was afraid of losing my hard work. (And after it happened, I brushed the whole thing off with a cat meme!)

Maybe my efforts were imperfect in the end, but I ultimately learned a lot about publishing in the process, lessons I was able to take elsewhere. And I think that it gave me an entrepreneurial spirit that I try to keep with the work I do — even if, in the end, it’s just a side project.

Throughout 2020, with the pandemic leading to closures, shutdowns, and mass layoffs in journalism, a lot more people are out on their own, in a similar position to where I was at the start of 2009. They’re sticking their necks out in ways not dissimilar to the way I once did, with the added benefit of lots more resources to pull it off — tools like Patreon, Substack, and Gumroad. Now, it’s even possible to buy liability insurance for your work, in case your online work leads to legal trouble.

To me, it wasn’t just about promoting the big idea, but about keeping it alive. It was a lot harder back then when I turned the site online in a bagel shop on the first of January 2009. In much the same way as Pets.com had to build its own server rooms because the cloud didn’t exist, the infrastructure for supporting what I was doing wasn’t there at the time. That meant I was often stuck guessing.

That infrastructure is here now. And I hope the people who find themselves in a similar place at the start of 2021 use this moment to take advantage of those big journalistic ideas, complete with the battle scars that they’ll get along the way.

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter.

Recently I’ve been looking back at some of my earliest posts on ShortFormBlog, my first strike-out-on-my-own site. And reading back reminds me of all the sacrifices that I made to get it online.

I built it in part because I’d lost my job at the time at Link, a late, great weekday news product published by The Virginian-Pilot. One of the great things about Link was that it actively ignored long-form prose, instead going for chunked-up blurbs that were cut down from longer stories published by the wires and the Pilot. Many of the free daily newspapers that did stuff like it, like Red Eye and Express, had some of these elements, but Link essentially banished lengthy prose entirely — a bold move at the time.

Over time, I came to find it an important idea that more journalists needed to embrace. So when Link shut down during the 2008 recession, I was desperate to keep the threads of that idea alive somehow. That was what led me to create ShortFormBlog.

I fought really hard for this concept — and it led me to take a lot of risks. During the period I was laid off, I made the decision to buy a new laptop with my severance money after my old one started showing its age in unbearable ways — despite only having a strong hunch that I would likely get hired for my next job. (I did get hired; the blog, obviously, kept going.) I tried to bend platforms like Tumblr to my whims. I worked on weird experiments using tools like RebelMouse just to see if I could take this idea further.

And at least once, I put myself in great personal danger because I was afraid of losing my hard work. (And after it happened, I brushed the whole thing off with a cat meme!)

Maybe my efforts were imperfect in the end, but I ultimately learned a lot about publishing in the process, lessons I was able to take elsewhere. And I think that it gave me an entrepreneurial spirit that I try to keep with the work I do — even if, in the end, it’s just a side project.

Throughout 2020, with the pandemic leading to closures, shutdowns, and mass layoffs in journalism, a lot more people are out on their own, in a similar position to where I was at the start of 2009. They’re sticking their necks out in ways not dissimilar to the way I once did, with the added benefit of lots more resources to pull it off — tools like Patreon, Substack, and Gumroad. Now, it’s even possible to buy liability insurance for your work, in case your online work leads to legal trouble.

To me, it wasn’t just about promoting the big idea, but about keeping it alive. It was a lot harder back then when I turned the site online in a bagel shop on the first of January 2009. In much the same way as Pets.com had to build its own server rooms because the cloud didn’t exist, the infrastructure for supporting what I was doing wasn’t there at the time. That meant I was often stuck guessing.

That infrastructure is here now. And I hope the people who find themselves in a similar place at the start of 2021 use this moment to take advantage of those big journalistic ideas, complete with the battle scars that they’ll get along the way.

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter.

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