Metrics of a Start-up

Lessons learned from an editor who has started his fair share of publications.

Rule #1: Don’t be arrogant. We’ve earned our humility the hard way. We’ve made enough misjudgments to develop a healthy suspicion of our marketing prowess. Our basic assumption today is no idea is so good that we can’t mess it up, so we approach even seemingly good ideas with a healthy dose of skepticism, if not for the idea then at least for our ability to execute it profitably.

Rule #2: Define the target. Every one of our magazines is a niche publication. The broader a product, the less likely its success. We’ve learned to hone an idea down, to sharpen its point, and to aim it directly at a select demographic that we can pinpoint.

Rule #3: Argue. Around here we talk a lot. Sometimes the talk gets passionate. We speculate, we ridicule, we pound fists on tables, and we laugh at our own folly. In that kind of atmosphere, today’s great insight can easily become tomorrow’s donkey. Even when we’ve convinced ourselves, we still wander into a lot of blind alleys and dead ends. All those dead ends eventually reduce our options; what we’re left with is usually the right path.

Rule #4: Ask your customers. We don’t believe in surveys or focus groups. Nobody who is not in our business knows our business as well as we do. But we do believe in listening to our customers. If we listen carefully, and without prejudgment, they will tell us what they want. Our job is to filter what they say to get at what they mean.

Rule #5: Be cheap. Internal start-ups have more constraints than stand-alones. Their cost comes out of earnings, which in our organization means it comes out of everyone’s pockets. So we try to leverage existing resources and capacity until the idea proves itself. We know a start-up is an investment, and we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t believe it will pay off, so we aren’t penny-wise and pound-foolish. But we are cheap. 

Rule #6:  Spend on the product and the sales team. The magazine’s contents are what captures the attention of the market. What makes it successful is a dedicated sales team. We’ve tried leveraging our existing sales force to introduce new products—and it rarely works. A dedicated sales team is focused, passionate, and totally dependent on the idea’s success.

Rule #7: Understand the problem. There will be problems. Problems are part of the learning process. We’ve learned—once again, the hard way—to face these problems honestly. Arguing helps. If the problem is strategic, then the idea is flawed; if the strategy is so deeply embedded into the execution that it can’t be changed, we cut our losses. If the problem is tactical, if it is only a matter of execution, it can be fixed.

Rule #8: Be nimble and be fast. Like a running back threading and dancing his way through the defense, we react to tactical problems and obstacles by shifting direction to get to the goal line. We’re opportunistic: when we see an opening, we go for it. 

I’m not saying we’ve perfected the process. I’m only sharing what we’ve learned from going through the process so many times. We’re human. We are still easily seduced by our own genius. We still see dollar signs when we should see stop signs. But we’re a learning organization, and when the seduction has us almost entirely entranced, Rule #3 usually is enough to bring us back to earth. Blind alleys and dead ends also have a lot of teach, if we’re open-minded enough to be teachable.

Start-ups need focus, but not fixation. Start-ups need persistence, but not stubbornness. Being open-minded isn’t a rule, it’s a way of life. And that’s ultimately why great ideas get nourished here.

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