Rusty Coats, principal of Coats2Coats, kicked off the opening panel of the 2012 BlockbyBlock Community News Summit challenging local indie online news publishers to honestly answer three questions: Is this my hobby or is this my full-time job? What pivots has your business taken since you made that decision? How has your business changed because of those pivots?
David Boraks of Davidson News.net, Denise Civiletti of RiverheadLOCAL, Amy Senk of Corona Del Mar Today and Tracey Taylor of Berkeleyside rose to the challenge in a conversation that ranged from where they started to where they hope to go and detailed the business pivots that have helped them grow as entrepreneurs along the way.
A pivot is when a business starts out as one thing and evolves into something else as it grows. Working from passion doesn’t make a business unless you learn to make a plan, stick to it and then — when necessary — throw it all away, pivot and start again.
All BlockbyBlock publishers have faced critical points where things have changed. Coats calls them pivot points, because they are points where a publisher realizes that going the same direction either leads to a dead end or simply won’t get you to where you want to go.
The publishers on the panel faced a lot of them, such as realizing they’ve gone from being a hobby to being a business, needing to add staff, taking on investors, expanding into new markets, and a lot more. How they faced those pivots points — intellectually and emotionally — is as important as what they accomplished.
“We’re lucky to have publishers so willing to share the good, bad and ugly about their personal pivot points, to be honest about how messy it can be, and to share how life looks on the other side of each pivot,” Coats said.
David Boraks, started Davidson News.net in 2006, and incorporated it as an LLC in 2007. As he worked to build a steady stream of predictable revenue, his first business pivot question was about whether and where to get assistance with his advertising graphics. He lucked out when he found a business colleague who was not only a graphics designer but also a bookkeeper and marketer. Another pivot point came when he decided to expand his business into the next town and buy CorneliusNews.net.
In his discussion, Boraks discussed several major pivots in his business:
- Hiring. In September 2008, Boraks hired Lyndsay Kibiloski as a part-time designer/web manager, work he had been doing himself. himself. His decision to hire a paid employee expressed his deepening commitment to growing for DavidsonNews.net as a business. She is an extremely valuable part of the success equation, Boraks said. Kibiloski now holds the title of Chief Operating Officer. “Her title hardly describes how critical she is to the business,” Boraks said. He also said hiring her really made him think through the business plan – it’s an evolving document that makes you think through all the business aspects.
- Financing expansion. A tanked economy forced the site to rethink a plan to expand into a second site, CorneliusNews.net. When they finally did launch in March 2011, they had a revised business plan with a new set of financial assumptions. They also hired a reporter/editor for the second site and financed the expansion with a home equity line with an interest rate of 2.8, well below the 9 percent or so the bank wanted and the 11-12 percent some private investors were seeking.
- Managing personnel. Now the sites have three full-time employees and six contract/part time employees and they decided it was time to develop a personnel policy and employee handbook.
“Your colleagues have documents (sales sheets, contracts). Steal like Robin Hood on this,” Coats commented.
Denise Civiletti publishes RiverheadLOCAL.com with her husband Peter Blasl. The site covers the eastern Long Island community of Riverhead, NY, where she’s lived for more than 26 years. Until July 2009, Denise was the executive editor and co-publisher of Times/Review Newspapers, publishing four of New York’s leading community newspapers, several niche publications, and managing the company’s navigation into the world of digital media.
She and her husband, a photographer and salesman-by-nature, founded RiverheadLOCAL.com in January 2010. The site quickly became the go-to news source for the community. Today it sees an average of 102,000 visits per month, from more than 30,000 monthly unique visitors, with more than 222,000 average monthly pageviews.
Civiletti’s bio says “In her spare time, she tries to remember what it was like to have spare time — before being consumed with the care and feeding of a hyperlocal news website. She can’t, really, but doesn’t care because she’s having the time of her life.”
- Business or hobby? Civiletti and her husband began publishing RiverheadLOCAL.com in January 2010. She decided to take the plunge, quit my “day job” and work full-time at RiverheadLOCAL.com in April 2010
- Upgrading technology. She got serious about being master of the website and studied the CMS. They also migrated the site to a dedicated server
- Hiring. Hiring an accountant. Hiring a freelance graphic artist. Riverhead LOCAL now features the writing of 8 stringers.
- LION, or finding a network of peers. Civiletti stumbled onto the LION group on Facebook and learned about BlockbyBlock and Super Camp. This helped her focus on the big picture of writing a business plan, and then revising it, and revising it again as needed as the business grew.
- Editorial milestones. Some of her coverage elevated the site in the eyes of the local community and beyond. These were stories that RiverheadLOCAL broke or covered better than anyone else. Each one of them boosted traffic to a new level and set a new baseline for daily/monthly visits/pageviews.
Tracey Taylor cofounded Berkeleyside in 2009. The hard work of the three person staff paid off when they quickly captured the hearts of 100,000 unique visitors per month. The site started taking advertising after six months. It’s now a team of four with an advertising developer. They also decided to accept investment early. All of these opportunities forced business pivots in their growth.
- Business or hobby? After community reaction to Berkeleyside’s launch, Taylor and team decided that we were going to build a sustainable business, one that would provide income for its core staff.
- Investment. We decided to hire someone when a wealthy local resident asked whether we were looking for investment, they had to decide whether they wanted to accepted it and, if so, on what terms. “We were offered more than we decided to take, she said.
- Hiring . When they decided to hire a professional ad sales person, they had to address finding the right person; how to craft expectations; and how much to pay. “None of us had a sales background,” she said. “He has 20 percent stake in the company. Very relaxed about getting money back.”
- Revenue. Advertising was going well but they decided to add memberships and events. “Some inhouse event expertise means they will bring in about 10% of our revenue,” she said.
- Editorial partnerships. Editorial partnerships with three other publishers have been fruitful.
Taylor said working through the pivots is “One of the reasons I love what I do. We sit down and you talk about it and decide. Collaborating and figuring it out.
Amy Senk, started Corona Del Mar Today in 2009, reporting on the tiny village that is part of Newport Beach. As a solo operator she sold ads, wrote stories and marketed the site. She believed her audience was starved for news.
Two pivot moments turned her labor of love into a profitable business.
- Professional web assistance. A web development firm who was a fan and also saw the news need, took over page design and began to host her site for free in exchange for an ad. This key business pivot allowed her to develop a WordPress-based site that could support ad sales. The site has grown enough that she now pays him a monthly fee.
- Editorial partnerships. Two editors at traditional papers contacted her and offered to pay weekly fees to run her articles. This built revenue and credibility. The print presence helped expand her reach into a 6,300 community that was not yet accustomed to finding local news online. “My competitors basically said they couldn’t compete and counted on me to be the reporter of record for Corona del Mar,” she said.
Local, local, local
Later, Senk and I discussed a third pivot that she didn’t get to discuss on the panel.
Early on she broke a story about sports agent Scott Boras being the victim of vandalism to his car. When the story went viral, she gained a huge one-day audience.
From that she learned a valuable lesson.
“Those numbers didn’t help my advertisers or readers. Fly-by-night visitors reading a one-off juicy story don’t convert into potential customers for my advertisers. I learned the importance of local, local, local — in my story coverage as well as my advertising base,” she said.
Senk says she now makes more money from her site than she ever did as a reporter for a traditional newspaper.