Let’s focus less on business models, more on business practices

After I finished my panel at SXSW on Saturday, I spent some time talking to folks who had been in the audience about what resonated with them from our discussion.

Nicole Hollway of the St. Louis Beacon and I had just finished an hour of sharing what we’ve learned about philanthropic funding and journalism. Nicole’s wisdom is the hard-won kind, coming from her work with the Beacon crew to build a community asset that serves St. Louis citizens while also achieving financial stability. My thoughts come from working with The Patterson Foundation and seeing up close both the needs of independent news publishers and the concerns of funders who are trying to help fuel their efforts.

One of the topics Nicole and I discussed that really seemed to stick with our audience was our belief that there is no single business model out there in the ether, waiting to be discovered and provide the answers to everyone’s journalism prayers. We’ve talked about how the emphasis on business models has led to unnecessary debates about for-profit versus non-profit status as the “right model’’ for independent news sites.

In my opinion, that emphasis also has led the field overall to chase after particular “models’’ that seem to be in favor with funders, in hopes of attracting grants. That skews expectations on both sides of the funding aisle, with publishers trying to discern what funders want and funders seeing a rush toward a particular approach and thinking that represents the way the market is moving.

The point Nicole and I were trying to make is that we should talk a lot less about some holistic model and instead start talking about practice. And I’m afraid that point may have gotten lost a bit in our audience’s enthusiastic embrace of the “no one business model’’ idea.

In our work at Coats2Coats, Rusty and I have worked across the entire media landscape, and we’ve done that quite purposefully. After spending our careers in newspaper companies, we vowed never again to see the world through the perspective of one industry again.

Our diversification has been good for business but even better for learning. By working with independent news startups, entrepreneurial mobile and tech companies, public media, newspapers, universities, think tanks and foundations, we’ve gotten the opportunity to see inside a wide range of enterprises and understand how they are thinking about news, information and social engagement.

And we’ve come to this conclusion: While the business model conversation isn’t particularly productive, the conversation about practice is.

Over and over again, we find ourselves confronting some of the same issues with our clients and proposing a common set of practices for them to pursue:

Exit strategy: Rusty has written about this before, and it may be my ultimate piece of hard-won wisdom from working in newspapers. Any business has to think deeply and strategically about what the end game looks like. What is the best-case scenario for you to exit this business – is it achieving a level of financial success that allows you to add partners to help carry the load? Is it becoming a serial entrepreneur, building one business on the discoveries of another? Is it being bought by someone else? Deciding what you are working toward at exit helps you frame what you should be working on right now.
Business plan: It amazes me how many businesses – whether a two-person shop or a full-on corporation – don’t do regular and structured business planning. By business planning, I don’t mean building a budget, although that is a piece of the plan. I mean spending the time to analyze who your customers are, who you are missing among potential customers, assets you need to leverage, weaknesses you need to compensate for and who your real competition is.
100-day tactical plans: Creating a 100-day plan to help you execute on your business plan is an excellent way to accelerate progress. A 100-day horizon gives you enough runway to do something significant, but it is a short enough timeframe to keep you focused.
Customer (or community) relationship management: Keeping track of who you touch in your work and how is fundamental to demonstrating the value of your work, and so few organizations do this methodically. Nicole Hollway is one of my heroes in this arena; she’s worked hard at The Beacon to develop CRM measures that roll up into the kind of relationship maps that are actionable in fund-raising and help demonstrate impact when you are cultivating both earned and philanthropic revenue.
Measurement: We’re working with the most measurable media in history, and too few of us actually take advantage of that fact. Spending time to understand what metrics are really valuable for you in demonstrating value should be a regular and rigorous piece of your work. Setting up the analytics to track those metrics in real time, checking them regularly, and sharing them with everyone in your enterprise as a decision-making tool, should be routine business practice. I can’t tell you how many enterprises I’ve seen who try to track impact after the fact, when they are reporting out on a grant or preparing a presentation for a client. Not only is that inefficient, but it is guaranteed to be inaccurate.

No matter the business model, every enterprise can benefit from these practices; they aren’t model or market specific, they are simply part of running an accountable business. And at core, that’s what all of us are doing – lofty goals of journalism service, for-profit or non-profit tax status aside – running a business.