The first thing to realise is that the secret is not to come up with a new idea.
There is rarely such a thing. Instead, the secret is to look at a space with people, or businesses already established, and see what they’re doing wrong. Then invent something that improves on what they do.
Whether this is blogging, publishing, film-making, business, photography or whatever, you can do this. The “gap in the market” isn’t some big group of people that no-one has thought of targeting before. It’s found in the shortcomings of players already in the market.
Here are some disruptive approaches into any of these fields.
Be the inspirer: use your work to inspire and excite others with new ideas: this is how I have blogged for six years. People love being inspired.
Be the connector: bring people together, either in person, or online, like a good party host. Create a digital space for people to interact (a forum, a social site) or a physical one (start a monthly meetup).
Be the combiner (of new ideas): I’ve written about this before. Combine two disparate ideas to make a new one.
Be the leader: have a vision for how things can be better and actively set out to make it happen. Others will follow.
Be the experimenter: be about lots of ideas, rapid prototyping, quick feedback. Very few people do this openly in any niche (afraid of looking stupid)
Be the doer/maker: get busy building (films, books, events, software) – let your actions speak for you. Probably the best way to go (after all, anyone can talk the talk..)
Be the problem solver: actively look for the problems in a particular area, and create solutions.
Be the UX fixer: any bad (reading, watching, buying, discovery, sharing) experience is an opportunity to own the market, simply by creating a better experience. Instagram wasn’t the first photo-sharing app, but it’s the one that’s the most satisfying to use.
Be the most fun: constantly surprise and delight your users/audience/readers.
Be the most caring: how many magazines or news websites give a damn about their audience? If they really did, would their products be full of adverts? All big organisations and corporations have this human disconnection problem (when was the last time your bank wasn’t an arsehole?)..and they’re all opportunities for smaller, leaner people-driven competition.
Notice the two items that are missing: be the fastest and be the cheapest. They’re races to the bottom and should be avoided at all costs.
One of the first and best bits of advice I’ve ever been given has been this: write everything down.
Writing an idea down – making it physical on the page – engages your brain in imaging how that idea might happen. As the words form on the page, you think about logistics, treatments, audiences.
It also gives you the ability to vocalise and understand a problem. If a film you’re making isn’t working for some reason, try and write down why: if you can put your problem into words, you have power over it.
So for the last three years I’ve written ideas down as a matter of routine. I’ve got notebooks upon notebooks, as well as a 50 page Word document on my hard drive full of them. Many of the ideas are now redundant as I’ve moved onto other things, and following last week’s confessional, I thought I’d give some them away for free.
You never know, one person’s trash might be another person’s treasure.
A couple of disclaimers: I am fully aware most of these ideas are either lame or not original – that’s partly why I never pursued them. So I won’t be taking criticism in the comments about the quality or originality of the ideas, thank you. However, even if you don’t find any directly useful, they might fire off a spark into something else.
I’m publishing these under a Creative Commons Licence I’m calling the Call-Your-Mum-Licence (CYML 1.0). You don’t have to give any credit or anything, but if you do find a use for them, promise you’ll give your mum (or equivalent) a ring.
Right, let’s get on!
30 free ideas for digital producers
- Amazing real life stories that emerged solely from data on a spreadsheet
- Stories about items (typewriter/kodachrome) going extinct
- Stories of the glamour days of air travel (PanAm etc)
- Missed connections on Gumtree
- Profiles of people who make a living pretending to be someone else
- “My first…” directors/writers/painters talk about the pain of getting the first film/book/painting done
- “Journeys that almost killed me”
- “Scene of the crime” – take people back the place where something major happened in their life
- Is Britain tilting? (apparently it is)
- Elderly people share one piece of advice they’ve learned in their many years
- Investigate how easy it is to plant a tree in a public place (apparently not very)
- Run for MP in the next election and make a documentary about it.
- Visit every World Heritage Site in the country and document
- A website/magazine about people for whom ‘OK isn’t good enough’
- A collaborative piece where people across the country find out where their waste goes
- A website where people can fill in a box to say sorry for something they’ve done (anonymously)
- An app that lets people photograph potholes/graffiti and sends it, plus location, to their local authority. The LA can then text them directly when the problem has been fixed.
- Competitions to bring people from around the world together to solve a big problem – crowd sourcing problem solving
- A platform to show news packages from around the world..how have different countries covered the same event?
- Films about people who do a dying trade (blacksmith/wood turner etc)
- If we could build the internet from scratch, with everything we’ve learned, what would it look like?
- Repackage out-of-copyright books in a more visual and engaging way
- An app that makes it really clear what food is in season and local to you for when you go shopping
- Use splitscreen/tallscreen to show two sides to an argument
- A simple, non-technical description of how web sites are made
- A celebration of unconventional solutions to problems
- A visual rundown of all the different types of material and how long they take to decompose
- Take someone who’s in a bad place in their life on a creative journey (How to look good naked but with creativity not clothes)
- Get 15 brilliant people from completely different industries together to try and solve a problem in a weekend. Document it.
- A repository for unwanted ideas that other people can use and take inspiration from. In fact, let’s start it right now – share yours in the comments box!
UPDATE: Journalist Ben Whitelaw has added some of his spare ideas on his blog. Let me know if you do the same and I’ll link to them too.
Most of us, either through our upbringing, education or profession, have an aversion to making mistakes. Most of us too are governed in some way by a fear of failure.
Fair enough, but we live in a world, and work in an industry, where change is afoot and where innovation is desperately needed. This comes not from walking the line, but from making mistakes and experimenting.
As I start to wrap things up around here I’ve been looking back over some of the mistakes and false starts I’ve had over the last few years. There are lots of them. I hope that sharing mine will make you feel better about yours.
Here’s a quick list of some of the false starts I’ve had so far:
- I blew my first potential gig as a film-maker, a commission to make a documentary for an NGO. In my naivety and desperation to get the gig I under-sold myself and gave a very cheap quote. Sensibly, they decided to go with someone more expensive!
- I wrote an ebook of journalism skills for hyperlocal bloggers – it sold a whopping 15 copies
- Next Generation Journalist did a bit better – it made enough to justify the time I spent on it – but sold far fewer copies than I thought it would
- My Future of News Meetups in 2010 started off amazingly, but I was unable to continue them after 6 months (although others carried on the baton)
- I spent about 5 months developing an idea for a new magazine with a friend, but we both lost motivation when we couldn’t marry it to a demand in the market.
- I started a video business in January 2011 and it did really well. But when the web domain came up for renewal I decided to cancel it and end the business – not through lack of work, but all my clients were coming through me, not the business.
- I worked with two great journalists on ambitious plans to create a multimedia explainer of the Eurozone crisis last winter. The topic was so big and fast changing we had to drop it over Christmas.
- I started a website called Volcano Love Stories which was going to collect love stories that emerged from the volcanic eruption in 2010. I only got one submission
- Not to mention more than 20 films that have not made the splash I wanted, a dozen web domains bought and left to rot, and the countless ideas that sit in notebooks.
The point is, every one has false starts and stumbles. Everyone falters and fails, particularly on the way to doing important work. Although each of these were disappointing and painful at the time, I learned something important from each of them.
Don’t be set back by your personal false starts. The people who make it in the end are the ones who pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and get busy again. As long as you learn something from them they haven’t been a waste of time.
What have your false starts been and what did you learn from them?
Publishing is changing fast, and so are its rules. This is fantastic opportunity for anyone willing to take it, and a problem for traditional publishing houses (unless they’re willing to adapt, and quickly).
At the same time, the danger is to walk into this new world carrying the baggage of the old. We’ve seen it happen a lot in video. Whether you’re publishing ebooks, digital magazines, podcasts, a blog or video, here are some “rules” which apply to traditional/mainstream publishers, but not to you.
.01 you need to publish to a regular schedule
Traditional magazines publish weekly or monthly and it’s easy to fall straight into that mindset if you’re publishing digitally. But remember magazine schedules are based on the cost and systems of printing paper. Publishing digital products, like ebooks, magazines and apps online you are free from those constraints.
Think for example of California Is A Place: it’s a video web series, but new episodes appear only when they’re good and ready. That hasn’t stopped each video racking up tens of thousands of views.
.02 you must make advertising revenue
Again it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the only way to make your journalism pay is to stick adverts all over it. GQ and Grazia might be 60% advertisement but your digital publication doesn’t need to be.
How come? Well, firstly your overheads are lower so you don’t need big contracts to keep going. Secondly, the web opens up a whole host of other revenue streams from subscription, to events and other products.
Here’s the thing about advertising: in an ideal world, does your audience want to consume adverts? No. So do a good thing and spare them the pain.
NOTE: by coincidence, the New York Times has just revealed it is starting to rely less on advertising, in the face of big slumps in revenue.
.03 you need to publish a certain quantity every month
Isn’t it funny how a newspaper is always the same size no matter how much news there’s been that day? How the evening news is always 30 minutes long no matter what? Again, these are constraints created by those specific platforms.
And yes, publishing online frees you from this too. So, if you’re publishing a digital magazine don’t feel you need to fluff it out with more pages just to fit a quota. And don’t feel your ebook must be at least 100 pages to make it valuable. If you’ve got 20 pages of fried gold your readers will appreciate the quick read.
Incidentally, I read somewhere once that physical books often need to have a certain number of pages in them, so their spine is thick enough to get noticed on a bookshelf!
.04 you need to publish forever
Again the overheads associated with magazine production make it necessary to aim to publish indefinitely. While it’s impressive to build a formidable brand over many decades of publishing, it doesn’t have to be so.
The Domino Project was a publishing business that ran for a year with great success and published 12 titles before Seth Godin decided to wrap it up. “Projects are fun to start,” he said “but part of the deal is that they don’t last forever.”
If that feels a bit futile, don’t forget you can start a company that runs short projects, each one temporary but contributing to a larger brand.
.05 people won’t pay for digital products
This is being proven wrong all over the shop. While a couple of years ago it seemed consumers were hesitant, ebooks now generate $2billion of revenue a year; meanwhile iTunes and Spotify are the biggest forms of income for record labels.
Furthermore, it’s not the cheapness of digital projects that appeals. Don’t get fooled into pricing your next book at 79p. Instead try charging £5 – and making it worth all five pounds.
.06 you need to reach a large audience
The mainstream media and mass communication is about just that: the masses. Traditional books, movies, magazines and TV shows are judged solely on numbers and can’t survive unless they have big audiences.
It’s a relief to see the debate around online publishing moving away from its obsession with hits. The internet is designed for niches: slim, deep verticals where people are small in number but big in passion and engagement.
You only need 2,000 passionate readers willing to pay $100 a year to subscribe to your work and you’re making a tidy $200,000.
.07 you need to control your content
Audiences are grateful for your act of generosity, and your idea and brand are spread far and wide. So don’t try and own your content so hard; make it easy to share, let other people remix, transform and copy it, let it spread far and wide.
Acts of generosity always come back to you in the future.
.08 you need to be short, snappy and controversial to get attention
While “50 pictures of cats wearing sweaters” and their ilk may be around forever, the debate about journalism and content is finally appreciating deep, high quality – if less regular – journalism. I’ve written about Matter before, it’s the science magazine launching in September, aiming to publish one long-form article a month.
They’ll be specially commissioned in-depth pieces, with their own bespoke illustrations. This is clever because rather than trying to get lots of eyeballs and attention, they’re setting a standard for quality: something worth paying for.
.09 you have to have a consistent price
We slip into this mindset of commerce without even thinking about it: when one charges for a product, one must choose a single price.
Says who? Here’s two ways you can mess with that idea: firstly, scaled pricing where you offer a bronze version, a silver price and a platinum edition. Each layer gives you more stuff. Kickstarter has proven how well people respond to tiered pricing levels.
Secondly (and I love this idea): have a dynamic price for your product that increases by one-penny every time a new copy is sold. In other words, the book gets more expensive the more people buy it. If you’re a customer, that injects an urgency in buying the book.
It bears repeating: this really is the time to get into this game. Choose to be a creator, not just a consumer. Make great stuff and build a crowd around it. And forget how publishing has been done, and instead think about how it could be done.
You’ll know it’s not often that I do interviews on this blog, despite getting requests from PR folk each week.
Thom Chambers though is someone I think you should meet.
He left a job in marketing to found his own micropublishing business Mountain and Pacific. It publishes two digital magazines: In Treehouses, a free release about freedom lifestyles and The Micropublisher, a subscription based magazine for wannabe publishers. He’s recently joined authors Colin Wright, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus in founding Asymmetrical, a community for writers and publishers, which I have had some great fun with in the last month or so.
But what I really like about Thom is his approach. He knows that you don’t need to be big or have a huge audience to be successful, just please a small, loyal crowd. And he knows there are no shortcuts to thriving in the age of the online publisher, just hard work and commitment.
(By the way, if you’re interested in finding out more about how the microbusiness approach can be applied to journalism and publishing, I’m running a workshop at the General Assembly in London on the 24th July 2012.)
Interview with Thom Chambers, founder of Mountain & Pacific
What is the concept behind micropublishing and how is it different to normal publishing?
Self-publishing, as you’ll well know, has changed. It’s no longer a stepping stone or a fallback, but a lucrative destination in its own right. The opportunity for you to make a living with words is greater than ever before. But there’s a problem: in the self-publishing world, without publishing houses to filter out the rubbish, readers are overwhelmed. It’s harder than ever to stand out.
I believe there’s a simple solution: be your own publishing house.
- A micropublishing house is simply a traditional publishing house shrunk to down to a one-person operation. A micropublisher is the person who runs it.
- A publishing house distributes to bookstores. Your micropublishing house can sell books through its own website, through an online bookstore like Amazon, or both.
- A publishing house needs writers. Your micropublishing house only needs one writer: you.
- A publishing house aims for a large audience. Your micropublishing house finds a small, specific niche audience and aims to delight those happy few.
- A publishing house publishes a large number of titles. Your micropublishing house publishes a small number – perhaps only one.
- A publishing house has huge print costs. Your micropublishing house makes digital publications or print-on-demand titles only.
- A publishing house runs big promotion campaigns. Your micropublishing house talks to fans who’ve given you permission to talk to them.
- A publishing house has a huge staff and expensive offices. Your micropublishing house can be run by just you and a computer, from anywhere in the world.
I believe that micropublishing is the best way to make a living with words. By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers. A micropublishing house is a publishing house for the self-publishing world. It’s a combination of the intimacy of blogging with the professionalism of traditional publishing houses.
How did the Mountain & Pacific business develop over its first year? Was it a slow start and was it hard to get going? How did you build momentum?
Mountain & Pacific only came about after I’d been publishing online for a little while. I started out with In Treehouses, which was a standalone magazine. When I started publishing other work as well, I wanted an umbrella under which to gather it all, rather than have it scattered across different websites. Starting a micropublishing house was a good way to accomplish that.
By taking up the professional attitude of a traditional publishing house, you help readers, turning them into fans and customers.
As a result, Mountain & Pacific had a kind of running start – there was the audience for In Treehouses who came over and read the other things I was writing as well.
With everything I’ve started, though – whether the micropublishing house or the individual magazines – they’ve grown slowly and steadily. I’ve never ‘gone viral’ nor have I made work that was designed to. Instead, I’ve tried to make things that delight those readers I do have. They’re then generous enough to spread the word, and so my readership grows.
That’s the real ‘secret’. However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.
You recently launched Magazines for the Rest of Us – can anyone become a micropublisher these days?
Sure – but whether you’re able to be a successful micropublisher is a different matter.
All those things it takes to succeed in any other career or discipline – dedication, practice, focus, effort, time – all apply to micropublishing as well. While anyone can publish to the web, not everyone will make a living out of it.
You’ve got a very disciplined strategy which impressed me straight away: your blog posts are short and to the point, you don’t seem interested in having lots of followers or making a big noise. And heaven forbid, you don’t live in London, New York or San Francisco! What are the benefits of doing it this way?
You know, the biggest shift in my entire philosophy came when I realised that most online publishing works best as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
There was this little period in time, and I think it’s already gone – when you could make a living as a ‘pro blogger’. Really, though, a blog is just a communication channel. It’s a wonderful one, but that’s all it is – a way of spreading your message, connecting with readers, generating new business. It’s not a business in itself, it’s a platform from which to build your business.
However much you want there to be a nice easy shortcut, the only way you’re guaranteed to succeed is by doing great work that delights your existing readers, over and over. Do that, grow slowly, and set aside the gimmicks.
When you realise this, you also realise that you don’t need to be ‘that guy’ if you don’t want to be. That guy who’s guest-posting everywhere, trying to scrape other writer’s readers. That guy who’s podcasting because a blogging guru told him he should. That guy who writes provocative ’30 things you don’t know about me’ posts that include some naughty swear words, because he’s seen it succeed elsewhere.
I’m not writing to get traffic, or make a big splash. I’m writing to make a connection with people who share my values and philosophy, and to build a reputation of which I can be proud. It’s still important to entertain, be interesting, and so forth – but there’s a difference between doing that and pandering to the lowest common denominator.
It’s becoming clear that success in online publishing comes from building a loyal audience around consistently high quality content – the hardest thing to do! Is that good news for micropublishers or bad?
Well, it’s bad news if you see micropublishing as the next ‘get rich quick’ tactic – if you’re looking at Amazon or the Kindle as ways to make a fast buck. Yes, some people will succeed with that – but most won’t.
The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before. Yes, there’s a lot of noise with which you have to compete, but if you’re able to cut through that then the audience is ready and waiting.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in building up the Mountain & Pacific?
Well, I think I’m still overcoming most of the challenges. I’m still teaching myself to be more focused, to do better work, to put in the hours. I haven’t scratched the surface of what I want to achieve – with Mountain & Pacific or with other aspects of my work.
Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge of all – overcoming complacency. Reminding yourself that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.
The good news is that, if you’re willing to work hard to become the best you can be and you’re willing to do valuable work (rather than simply imitate others), then you can find a bigger, stronger, more vocal audience than ever before.
You’re probably a reader of this blog because you work in, or want to work in, digital publishing.
There are dozens of sub categories in this space like blogger, video journalist, web designer, fashion photographer, that you’ll identify yourself with, but they all boil down to a few broad skills: you want to be a writer, or a film maker, or a designer, a photographer, an audio producer, or perhaps the publisher yourself (and if you’re a tortured soul like me, all of them!)
Here’s the best advice I can give you about succeeding in these areas, and it is very simple. Whatever it is you want to do, you must produce it and consume it every day.
Produce and consume
Stephen King’s popular book about the craft of writing On Writing makes this point very clearly:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”
Stephen King, On Writing
If you want to write, you must write every day and you must read every day. If you want to be a web designer you must design something every day and you must study good web design every day. If you want to be a film maker, you must find time to make films every day and watch films every day.
You don’t have to finish a film or a design a day, but you must devote a solid block of time to working on it.
Note there’s a difference between ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ and this isn’t easy. For many people, myself included, it involves getting up an hour or two before everyone else to put the work in before heading out to do the stuff that pays the bills. Or it means staying up late, or working on weekends (when I am writing this post, incidentally). It’s not easy. But it is simple.
There are things to help you. I recently started using 750words – a clever little platform which nudges you to write 750 words of something every day. It doesn’t matter what, it just has to be written.
If you have passion for your craft then this should come a little more easily. But even passionate people lose motivation and direction occasionally. These are the days where it is even more vital you keep producing and consuming. If you do it every day, even for just an hour, it becomes a habit (in other words: automatic). When you achieve this, your day won’t feel right until you’ve done your thing. Stephen King admits he writes 365 days a year – even on Christmas Day – and for him “not working is the real work.”
It doesn’t have to be for long, and it doesn’t even have to be productive or successful.
But it does have to be every day.
Where do ideas come from?
I’m talking ideas for projects, ideas for stories, ideas for businesses.
By now, you know that “there’s no such thing as an original idea”. That’s true, but it’s only half the story.
Twyla Tharp in her excellent book on creativity describes the “unshakable rule that you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” It’s an eye opener because it makes you realise that there’s no lightning strike of inspiration. You realise that a good idea is a simple matter of combining two different ideas together.
Many of my own projects are the result of this combination.
My popular journalism prediction videos were a combination of the raft of end-of-year predictions which flood the internet each December and stylish video.
Inside the Story, which raised $4400 for Kiva this spring, came about by taking Seth Godin’s book What Matters Now and applying its approach to a completely different field of digital storytelling (you’ll notice Seth gets a nod in the book).
Meanwhile a whole industry of advocacy film-making has developed from the concept of applying a documentary approach to the third-sector market.
To take it a step further the most innovative ideas can come from combining two things which would never ordinarily be put together.
A huge amount of content for this blog, in fact, comes from combining smart things Chris, Amber, Ryan, Seth and Tim say about philosophy, life-design, productivity and marketing and wondering “what happens if we apply that to online publishing and journalism?” It’s the reason the blog’s approach to entrepreneurial journalism stands out, say, from what Jeff Jarvis or Mark Briggs might write.
Similarly, the aesthetic of online video is starting to step away from mimicking television news because videographers, armed with HDSLR cameras are taking their cues now from the disparate world of fictional cinema. They’re combining James Cameron’s style with documentary content.
Wait, isn’t that stealing?
Of course it isn’t. Kirby Ferguson, the brain behind the influential series Everything is a Remix, makes this point brilliantly in his series of films. He argues how we take an idea, transform, remix and combine it to create something new. To flat out copy What Matters Now and pass it on as my own – sure that’s stealing. But to combine it with another idea transforms and remixes it into something new.
“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”
Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
Lots of young journalists, film makers and publishers are told to start blogging, but abandon it because they don’t think they have anything to add to the saturated journalism-naval gazing market. Certainly, no-one wants to read another postgraduate’s opinion of the Leveson Inquiry. So if you’re stuck, start by taking something else you’re passionate about – maybe another industry or another craft – and collide it with journalism.
If you’re lucky and persistant, sparks may fly, and give life to a whole blog, an article, a documentary – even a new business.
I’ve been looking forward to this one since January.
Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of wiring $4339.99 to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. That’s the total sales raised from shifting nearly 1,000 copies of Inside the Story: A Masterclass in Digital Storytelling from the People who do it Best. It’s an astonishing amount of money for a brilliant charity.
If you’re wondering why the final figure isn’t a round number, remember Paypal and Google Checkout both take a fee per transaction. Each sale therefore raised between £3.12 and £3.15, depending on exchange rates.
The money is now with Kiva, who estimate that every dollar donated (as opposed to loaned) generates ten dollars in loans – so we could effectively have created more than $40,000 for a brilliant charity. If you haven’t caught up with what Kiva do, then check them out here.
I’m personally astonished by the final amount we’ve raised. I had tentatively hoped we would make about $2,000 or maybe $2,500 tops. But to hit nearly $4,500 is just mind-blowing, so thank you if you bought the book, and thank you again if you encouraged others to buy it by blogging or tweeting about it.
I’d also like to thank the 25 brilliant contributors who gave time and effort into making the book happen. The charitable fundraising aside, the response from readers has been fantastic; I’ve had emails from people all over the world who say its inspired them to up their storytelling game in a big way.
Some of you have asked why the book was only on sale for a temporary period. It’s a logistical thing, mainly: there isn’t a convenient way to set up transactions so the money goes to Kiva as soon as the book is bought, and so I have to look after sales and make a one-off donation. That, plus dealing with customer service emails takes up a lot of time, which I don’t have.
However, Inside the Story will return this summer, and will be permanently available, either for free, or with an optional donation. If you would like to know when that happens, then signup to the mailing list here.
On being generous
I’ve also been asked why I did the project in the first place. Why put so much effort into something like this, without any reward for me? This isn’t how entrepreneurial journalism is supposed to work, surely!
It also gave me the opportunity to get in touch with some of my favourite storytellers, journalists and film makers and collaborate with them.
But above all, it’s practicing a fundamental pillar of online publishing and enterprise: you must be generous. If you want to build an audience or a community around what you do and what you love you have to be willing to give away a huge amount, willingly, happily without want for immediate reward.
You have to be willing to share what you learn, give away your best secrets and skills, bring others along on the journey with you. That’s why I’ve spent several hours writing a new blog post every week for the last five years, which I give away for free, with no advertising and no fees attached. It’s why I always try to respond to emails from readers, give interviews and help with student dissertations.
As well as demonstrating you know what you’re talking about, it also builds trust and grows attention – two things in hot demand.
Note that generosity doesn’t include tossing off short lazy blog posts, or poor quality podcasts every so often. Real generosity is crafting something of exceptional quality, like Inside the Story, or even Everything Is A Remix, and then giving it away for free.
So, if you’re stuck about what to do next, and where to go from here, try being unashamedly generous. Give away free advice on Twitter, offer your filmmaking or writing skills for free for a day; hey, you could even publish an ebook.
Think about what you know, what you’re good at, and what you love spending your time doing, and then ask how that can be put to good use helping other people.
First off, an important announcement about Inside the Story: the book will go off-sale at 23:59 on Thursday 24th May London time, so this is your last chance to get a copy. I have no plans at the moment to re-release the book, so if you want it, don’t waste time.
• • •
I write a lot about entrepreneurial journalism round here, and get to talk a lot about it too (see below). It’s the Age of the Online Publisher and an incredibly exciting time to be exploring this space.
But I see a lot of people make a big mistake when attempting an entrepreneurial venture in journalism: they think like a traditional business.That either puts them off starting in the first place, or leads to fatal errors, such as relying solely on an ad-based revenue model for a hyperlocal website, or measuring of success in terms of hits and not loyalty.
Enter the Microbusiness: the smart way to think about entrepreneurial journalism.
What is a microbusiness?
A microbusiness is, in some ways, a unique by-product of the internet age, although of course they existed before then. Generally, a microbusiness is one that is intentionally small. It usually consists of one or two people, working from home or from a shared workspace, being frugal, minimising overheads, concentrating on pleasing a small but loyal customer base and, as a result, being impressively profitable. But we’re not talking about Facebook money; one of the defining characteristics of a microbusiness is the owner aims to make ‘enough’.
In his excellent book Rework*, Jason Fried says you shouldn’t be ashamed to run an intentionally small business.
“Don’t be insecure about aiming to be a small business. Anyone who runs a business that’s sustainable and profitable, whether it’s big or small, should be proud.”
I started a video production micro-business in early 2011. I had all the equipment I needed, after saving up over the previous year. All I needed was a website which I made using WordPress over Christmas of 2010. I challenged myself to launch it in 30 days…in the end it took me only 10. I had a target for the business to make a certain amount of money every month by the end of the year…it reached that goal after just two months and continued to be busy throughout the year.
No office, no investors, no employees and all the associated baggage. It also carries less risk, so you can see why it’s a popular option for the first-time entrepreneur, and in particular journalists and publishers looking for new opportunities.
In fact, the micropublisher is already a thing: to see someone really smart building something great in this field you would be wise to check out Thom Chambers, the founder of Mountain & Pacific, a micropublishing house. It’s just him, making very well designed magazines, and working hard at building a loyal audience.
The space is beginning to get populated by more and more success stories. I’ve mentioned many before: people like Kirby Ferguson of Everything is a Remix fame and even successful hyperlocal blogs (when done well) work best as microbusinesses. Many bigger beasts in the industry started out in someone’s living room, a passion project for one or two driven creatives.
Well, a lot of it depends on your own design – and therefore having a willingness to ignore conventional wisdom, and really create something that fits around your life and your passions. But if you are looking for a guide, you’re lucky because one has just come on the scene, courtesy of one of my favourite authors.
Chris Guillebeau is the founder of The Art of Non-Conformity and the author of a 2010 book by the same name*. It’s a must read for anyone leading unconventional careers like I do. He’s just published a follow up all about microbusiness called The $100 Startup*. (Disclosure: I get a very brief mention in the book, alongside lots of successful microbusiness owners).
It’s not specifically about journalism or publishing (there is a small section on it) but the lessons are universal. Moreover Chris talks in detail about how he has launched his own information-based products, and there’s some great advice about how to launch a new website, book, or other digital product. A lot of his advice actually helped launch Inside the Story last month with such success.
Courage and Commitment
Last month I was invited to Perugia in Italy to talk about entrepreneurial journalism for Media140, and my talk focused on microbusinesses. You can watch a video of the talk (in English) here, and the presentation itself is below. Check out the “microbusiness challenge” slide which gives you a rough run-down of what you need to do.
It’s pretty self explanatory, but I ended on a note about courage and commitment. These are the two essential ingredients that, above all others, make successful businesses. But they are often misunderstood.
We often think courage involves being fearless in our pursuit of something. Courage is nothing of the sort. Courage is feeling shit-scared, but acting anyway. I can’t stress how important this is. The only people who genuinely don’t feel fear have a pathological condition. The rest of us get on with our work despite how scared we are. You need to do this too if you’re going to start any project that makes waves.
The second is even more underestimated. To be a starter, an innovator, a leader of any kind requires total commitment. This means making a leap of faith, and betting the farm on your idea, not doing it half-heartedly or half-arsed. It means committing to late nights, often working alongside a normal job, working weekends and more. It means at the moment you feel like taking a break you push yourself to work an extra half-hour. At the moment you feel like giving up, you force yourself to give it one more try.
Do you have that commitment?
Our industry needs innovators, boat rockers, leaders, starters.
If you want to make your mark, get noticed, here are some ideas. These are things you can do as a journalism student, recent graduate, employee – whatever. They’re necessarily big (what’s the point in making small waves?) but manageable if you start small, take baby steps and gain momentum in your spare time.
- Create a product (that’s a website, magazine, app, film, podcast, experience or book) that challenges how journalism is done right now.
- Deploy new technology on journalism before anyone else does. Think of Not On the Wires‘ clever use of mobile reporting in 2009, and more recently Codoc’s ideas for layered video journalism.
- Create a product that strives to do journalism better than the mainstream media (it’s not difficult).
- Create an in-depth multimedia production that goes deeper into a story or issue than anyone has before. There are plenty of examples, from Powering a Nation, to The Ration.
- Write a blog that challenges the status quo. Duckrabbit do this really well and everyone loves them for it.
- Go in-depth into an under-reported community and create a site about them. MA students at City University in London have been doing this with good results.
- Design products that savour in-depth quality over 400 word posts. This space is wide open right now, but it’s time consuming and hard to do. I’m really looking forward to Kirby Ferguson’s next project This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, but he’s spending months putting it together.
- Find a gap in the market and go all out to fill it. Think of how Jamal Edwards has become well known in a whole music genre by pushing SB.TV or even how Poppy Dinsey saw a space in social fashion.
- Be an experimenter and a ‘media inventor’ who’s always creating new things. Robin Sloan is one of my favourite people on the whole internet. Have you read his tap essay? You should.
- Create something that looks fantastic and ignores the design conventions of the web.
- Pick a niche and knuckle-down to become an expert in the space. This doesn’t mean getting qualifications, it means being generous with what you know.
Whatever you do, aim big and take no shortcuts.
The industry already has more reporters, subs, producers, editors and designers than it needs, and you’re up against thousands of others to become one of them. What the industry sorely lacks are people who come up with big boat-rocking ideas and execute on them.
Be one of those people and your career could take you to remarkable places. But you’ve got to make waves first.
Speaking of boat-rocking ideas, Inside the Story has already raised more than $2500 for charity and helped hundreds of people get better at storytelling. Have you got your copy yet? It’s only available for another 12 days.
image SeanRogers1 on Flickr
First a quick update on Inside the Story, which has been on sale for 10 days now. It is selling extremely well, and has raised around $1700 for Kiva so far. I want to double this by the time the book goes off sale at the end of May though, so please tell everyone who’ll listen to get a copy!
The active way to start your journalism career
One of the most popular posts on this blog in the last six or so months was a response to a query from Nick, a young Australian journalist. He wanted to know how to use the age of the online publisher to start his journalism career in the best way.
My main advice was to get to work, making high quality video stories, even with nobody to pitch to. Take the initiative, make a bold move, and create good content.
Well, I recently received a follow-up from Nick, which again, he’s kindly agreed to let me share with you.
Believe it or not, this morning I got offered my first real job in the journalism industry. It’s just as a Production Assistant at a TV news network, but most importantly it’s my foot in the door. Honestly, after three rounds of interviews it hasn’t sunk in yet.
The reason I’m telling you is because at the beginning of this year I decided to take some initiative, get out there and start creating stories. At the time I drew a lot of inspiration and advice from your blog and links. I bought a Canon 60D (with 50mm f1.4) on credit, found ‘free’ software, created a simple blog and began making videos. My videos are very amateur, but I’m convinced that the reason I got the job this morning was because of taking that initiative. And in part – that initiative was a result of reading your stuff.
First of all that’s fantastic news and congratulations Nick. I’ve shared this, partly to show that fortune really does favour the bold, but also to highlight some of the specifics of Nick’s approach that you can apply yourself.
The key is Nick’s decision to take the initiative, start a project, and get to work making videos. There is literally no excuse not to really, and if you’re a beginner, like Nick, then it is the only way to improve your craft.
Now, Nick says his videos are “very amateur” although I would beg to differ. Take a look:
First of all, I love the concept: give people an ice lolly in exchange for their opinion? Brilliant! If you don’t mind Nick, I will be borrowing that idea myself one day. (Vox popsicle anyone?). His videos are creatively cut, perhaps inspired by the famous 50 people 1 question series, and he uses his DSLR camera and lens well.
The important thing is this: he has designed a project to channel his creativity and force him to create a series of content, just like some of the video producers I mentioned in the post before. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. It’s a clever idea, but not so ambitious it would take a long time to do (and cause enthusiasm to eventually fizzle out).
Secondly, Nick smartly doesn’t make a big financial investment where possible. He uses free editing and publishing software to get his content made. The music in his films are creative commons licensed. The only thing I’d advise is to avoid buying anything on credit as far as you can. From painful experience, borrowing money is not a route to go down, especially early in your career.
That said, Nick’s investment in his camera does demonstrate one important thing: commitment. In buying a camera Nick is saying to himself, to the universe and of course, to potential employers, he is serious about this. He is committed.
From experience I can tell you that big projects often require a public demonstration of commitment, as if you are telling the Gods ‘I am serious about this shit‘. Once you make that commitment, you find things start to shift in your favour somehow: people start getting in touch, offers start coming through, inspiration takes hold.
Finally, and most importantly, Nick shipped. He started the Icy Poll project – and he finished it. That proves stamina, determination and an understanding of when something is done.
So, if you are sitting across the table from Nick at this TV News Network you see a young journalist with initiative, creativity, commitment, determination and leadership. Cool fact: they are five skills they don’t teach you at j-school and are therefore rare.
Prove you’ve got those skills too – through action, not words – and you’ve got a much better chance of standing out. The jobs market is not going to get easier: you have to get tougher.
And we’re off! It’s taken months of work, several hundred emails all over the world and lots of late nights, but Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is now on sale!
On the website you’ll find more about the book, more about Kiva, the charity receiving the proceeds from book sales, and the checkout button to get hold of a copy.
One small change of note: I announced yesterday the book would sell for US$5.00. After some more user testing, we’ve decided to sell the book in pound sterling instead, as it means sales are processed automatically and you won’t have to wait long for your copy to be available.
So it’s now priced at a sterling equivalent (give or take exchange rate fluctuations) of £3.50. You can buy with PayPal, your debit/credit card or Google Checkout.
And a final important note: Inside the Story is on sale for a limited time only: just four weeks. That’s when we’ll donate all the money to Kiva and the book will go off sale. If you want the book, it’s vital you get hold of it soon!