Learning to repeat yourself, a lot, over and over again – Lessons in Entrepreneurship

David Cohn | Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow

When I first started Spot.Us my friend and advisor Jeremy Toeman helped come up with the tagline “community funded reporting.” Then he warned me – I would have to repeat this. A lot. Over and over again.

I said… ‘no problem.’

He responded with a more firm version of the warning. “You will get absolutely sick of saying this phrase and explaining Spot.Us but you’ll have to learn to do it, with gumption, every single time. You’ll say this phrase and the description of Spot.Us thousands and thousands of times and you’ll have to wear a smile every time.”

He was right. I have said it more times than I care to know. I can do it in my sleep. I can give the description of Spot.Us without thinking, stuttering, etc. There are many questions about the Spot.Us model I can answer by reflex.

But there is a valuable lesson here.

1. Really think about how you want to present your project. If it’s not a straight news site and requires some explanation – you need to sit and think about the language you will use to describe it. Make sure you’re comfortable with the language because if you are not – you’ll internally wince every time you say it. Make it something that you can say quickly but still gets the point across.

If you are running a startup you are not only the project manager – you are also its face. You need to be able to express the purpose, passion and story behind the project and you should be able to do each in one sentence. It takes some time to find those sentences – but you do need to find them.

Then learn to grit your teeth and repeat these sentences for as long as you are working on the project because no matter how big you get – until you are Google/Facebook/Twitter sized – there is somebody who won’t know what your site is. Even the leader of Bing.com has to give its elevator pitch.

Two Years later

I had a good but brief chat at ONA with Monica Guzman who recently left the SeattlePI.com for a startup Intersect. First off: kudos to Monica. It takes a lot of guts to leave an organization where you are a young star for an unknown startup. My hat is off.

I started to ask her about Intersect while we were walking to an after-session bar and then I realized how exhausted I was, how tired she must have been and I tapped her on the shoulder and apologized. As somebody that has gone through the spiel thousands of times, I didn’t want to make her go through it one more time on the way to a bar with friends and colleagues. Spot.Us is going to turn two years old soon. I know just how tiring it can be to try and explain your project to the public let alone journalists. I wasn’t going to make Monica do that for me. I’ll just play on the site for myself. But we discussed how exhausting it is to give the quick explanation and how difficult it can be to find the right words depending on what your site does. Interect is a complicated web application – I can’t find a way to describe it in this blog post other than to say – check it out – storytelling 2.0.

Later at ONA Vadim Lavrusik and I were chatting and he asked if I got sick of being asked “how is Spot.Us doing?”

The answer is both yes and no.

Why I’m not sick of the question: This question is actually much better than “What is Spot.Us” because it means the person has heard of Spot.Us, maybe even checked out the site and is curious to know what’s going on. So that’s a step in the right direction. As an experiment I have a responsibility to report back to the larger journalism community. That is the charge of anyone trying something new. I recognize this responsibility and I’ll report back to the journalism community one-by-one if I have to (although I’d prefer everyone just read this blog). So I don’t mind getting this question.

Why I am sick of the question: It’s exhausting. Sometimes you get the feeling people are waiting for it to crash and burn so they can tell you what you did wrong. I have to repeat myself, over and over again, to say the same thing I just said in different words. Which is to say, I have to find new ways of saying the same thing (get the joke of that last sentence).

What I’ve been saying: As an experiment Spot.Us is a success – now I need to find out if it can be a success as a business. With the sponsorship model – we have all the tools in place, I just need to sell the sponsorships. I also need to convince a LOT more news organizations to create pitches on the Spot.Us site (too bad it takes on average 8 months to convince a paper to try something). I also say: Spot.Us is fine for the next year and I hope to say the same thing this time next year.

Questions never stop: The ongoing untold joke at ONA this week was about NPR. I tried not to broach the topic with my friends at NPR. I accidentally did with Mark Stencel who was a good sport about it when I started to apologize. He said it was okay – it’s like a death in the family – you want to ask but don’t want to cause emotional trauma.

If you work at the NY Times – perhaps the question on everyone’s lips is about the looming paywall.

The lesson here: The questions never stop and depending on where your organization is – you can expect to get the same question over and over again. No matter the question – journalists need to learn to represent their organization with a smile. This is especially true the smaller your organization is and perhaps there is more leeway to gaffe then larger organizations like NPR and CNN, but in any case – be prepared.

3 thoughts on “Learning to repeat yourself, a lot, over and over again – Lessons in Entrepreneurship

  1. Wow! You’ve put it all into words to beautifully. I’m not running a news organization, but I’m facing the same challenges and questions – doing something just a little bit different from what people expect takes a LOT of explaining. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, and every little success and setback seems hard-won.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the people who are just waiting to hear you say it’s crashing and burning. The haters hate on anything. Remember that most of us ask how you’re doing in the hope that you say “I’m making progress”. More people are rooting for your success than aren’t, in other words!

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