Pre-Recruiting: Building a Team Before the Fact, Channeling Vince Lombardi

I have promised more about Jed Micka, as of last month, my full-fledged (though not yet full-time..see below) partner in this enterprise. Most of the basics on Mr. Micka are in my last Nieman Lab post, but I wanted to add a quick update here on where we are, which will lead into the subject of this piece.

Jed is not thinking about the news business, or even our project, in this very moment. He’s all about the Arctic. That’s the topic of the Master’s thesis he  must complete by June in international political strategy at Sciences Po University here in Paris. That leaves me to do the heavy lifting (for now) on the project while Jed works around the clock on his 100-page paper (“four pages a day,” he says, giving away his programmer/engineering tendencies). Still, we do meet every Friday for a couple of hours so I can update him on the week’s progress (or lack thereof) and get his feedback, and we can brainstorm and map out the weeks and months to come. Perhaps even more than his computing/programmer skills, that which feels most valuable is his business mind: questions of costs, incorporation, copyright, spreadsheets, strategy are both on his resume and in his DNA.

Still, in the more short-term, the good news is that Jed has the programming skills to build the live site, and even as we hope to raise some funds in the coming few months, we are moving ahead with a pure bootstraps approach, financing-free if necessary, with the aim to launch a limited beta version in September.

Still, just the two of us won’t quite cut it. We will need some additional peoplepower. This is something I have known since the get-go. My would-be digital brand is NOT a blog or some other kind of one-man show. Indeed in my pre-bootstrapping ignorance, I envisioned raising the million or two needed to launch the thing at full capacity, with a well-fed staff of 10-15 folk. That ain’t gonna happen–even if the millions were to suddenly fall into our laps. Jed has helped crystallize the importance of making sure that there is a constant and direct correlation from Day One between costs and revenues: we are a lean startup, both in financial and existential terms, and will be for a long time to come.

This all means that we need to find low-cost, high-quality help from Day One. Or even before. The good (and yet sad) news on the editorial side is that it is a buyer’s market. Highly qualified professional reporters are out of work. Journalism schools are still churning out smart and eager j-bunnies. Still, buyer’s market doesnt mean slavery–which is not the business I wanted to get into anyway. What I have to offer is OPPORTUNITY, to get in on the ground level of something that, if it works, will be part of the future. The alternatives can both be grim for different reasons: either staying/getting shackled to a sinking ship or shilling for something so damn cheap and chincy that is depressing precisely because it is the future.

Still, Jed’s whole cost/revenue approach means that we simply cannot compete with the older and bigger and richer outlets in paying for services.  None of this, however, is either easy or predictable. I have had a smart, hyper linked and ambitious J-school grad in need of experience suddenly jump ship, saying she needed some income immediately; while a well-established colleague said (unprompted) that she would consider leaving her solid job with a major news organization even if my project couldn’t guarantee her a salary. We’ll see.

Much of it is a question of stars aligning. Right now, the stars have aligned enough to have a potential early contributor already working (for free, so far!) on the project. Amar Toor is contributing on my relatively new morning “overnight news bundle” whileUslept. He has income coming in from other writing/blogging work, and a flexible schedule. And Amar too is smart, hyper-linked and ambitious. He got a master’s in economics rather than journalism, but writes with the ease and attitude of a seasoned hack. To round out the storyline: he is actually the person who introduced me to Jed.

But even though he seems genuinely excited by the larger project, it’s hard to feel like you can count on someone if you can’t pay them. Again, we’ll see. All I can do is to be as honest and open as possible, sharing what I know and asking help for what I don’t. Hopefully, all of that can can help the others around me believe in the project as much as I do. And though I’m no Vince Lombardi, on good days, I like to think some of that is in my DNA.

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Filed under business model, entrepreneurship, funding, journalism, new media, platforms

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