So You Want to Be a Media Mogul: Lessons From Econtent Entrepreneurs

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THE BUSINESS OF STARTUPS

If you're eager to incorporate your dream of becoming a digital content mover and shaker, the first step is to move quickly, says Mody. "Start your company as soon as you've validated your idea, because every day that goes by is a day that's lost," Mody says. "Additionally, exercise extreme patience once you launch your business. Any good startup story takes a while to build. We always hear these overnight success stories, but they are rare. Good things take a long time to build."

Flexibility is another key virtue for startups to aim for, says McLaughlin. "As the technology market is ever changing, you must be willing to adapt quickly to remain relevant," he says. "You must also be willing to adjust to the market. Our company started out as a product company, but due to the market landscape, we transitioned into a service company utilizing the products that we were previously competing against."

Daphne Kwon, CEO and co-founder of EXPO Communications, a New York City-headquartered consumer network focused on creating and distributing product video, says establishing publishing partnerships also makes sense in the current web environment. "Partnering with players with large audiences to get your content out is much more effective to evangelize your product than making everyone come to you," says Kwon. "That may happen, but it's lightning in a bottle, and that's not much of a business plan."

While it's easy to concentrate on the product, many entrepreneurs-digital or not-neglect to think about building the right team. To build a strong company, Ben T. Smith, CEO of Los Gatos, Calif.-based Wanderful Media--a local discovery shopping service provider--says you've got to choose your team players wisely. "Build your startup with people who can shed their egos, solve problems, and exceed what is reasonable to expect," says Smith. "Look for people who have passion and aren't job hoppers, and give them complete control and ownership of their jobs."

Startups always have tight budgets, so paying big bucks for recruiters or trying to woo away Google's top engineer with a high salary isn't going to be an option, adds Mamone. "Your best bet is to find engineers with entrepreneurial spirits and convince them to join the founding team--which often means lower cash salaries but higher equity ownership. Also, if the first few people in the company are strong engineers, you'll be able to attract and hire more like-minded folks."

To attract the best employees, and allow them to do their jobs, you'll also need to pursue the most current and cutting-edge technologies to give your company an edge. "(Implementing the latest technology) is not just a support function. It's a core competitive advantage and the key to engaging and growing audiences," says Mamone. "So make sure that you have strong technical and analytical firepower in your founding team."

Once you've got your team and product in place, you'll have to take on the task of figuring out what your services are worth. Many startups have to balance the importance of finding business with not low-balling its skills and services. "Protect yourself from clients who want you to work on the cheap. It is never ever worth it for anyone. You'll go broke and the client will never be happy," says Jackson. "Know the value of your services, and defend it."

Jackson says 6 months after launching his company, he had a client with a lot of potential to be a very high-volume customer. "However, they were getting content for $7 a post through an India-based company, and wanted us to match price, with a promise to increase price if the content was ‘good.' There was no real discussion about quality metrics, or business outcomes, only price, and the client would not commit to any future rate increases or key performance indicators on paper. We knew at that point that even though the potential was huge, this would never be a good relationship for either company. Did we need the business? Absolutely. But, with clients like this, you have to maintain rate integrity and walk away from the business."

And be prepared for business to walk away from you too, if you overprice your goods and services. "You have to set realistic rates, and that comes from market intelligence," says Jackson. "By having a firm grasp of what you think you're worth-and more importantly, what the market says you're worth-you can be confident in being selective about who you do business with."

Your market value should be based on what past clients have paid you, what your competition is getting, what other clients are paying for similar services in other markets, and your ability to prove that you can deliver, Jackson says.

ROLL WITH THE CHANGES

Mody says the digital landscape will continue to expand in unexpected ways, so be ready for change.

"As an up-and-comer, remember that changes create the best opportunities for startups. If you can recognize a disruption early enough, that's your chance to get into the mix and try something new that larger and more established competitors will be much more cautious about," says Mamone.

Case in point: Mamone recognized early on that traditional magazines would focus too much on their print business to really dive headfirst into new opportunities with web, mobile, and tablet publishing. "That gave us a head start (of several years) to focus on digital and digital only and allowed us to grow our audiences and brands without as much competition. Now, StyleBistro reaches a bigger online audience than InStyle, Glamour or Elle."

If you're not interested in a rapidly changing landscape, "then you shouldn't be anywhere near digital content," McLaughlin says. "Prepare yourself to be constantly in learning mode, as there are always new technologies and methodologies that make their way onto the scene."

Finally, remember that the digital publishing game is a marathon, not a sprint, says Kwon. "That's actually true of any entrepreneur, but definitely of anyone in the digital space. Things happen so fluidly in this space-players change, technology morphs, and hot things distract then sometimes disappear," Kwon says. "Making sure that you stay true to what your vision is can be hard when money, clients, and consumers get distracted by the ‘new new thing.'"

Navigating the crowded waters of digital content can be a hard go for startups. But by providing value-added content that your audience appreciates, knowing your financial limitations, adapting to the inevitable changes that will come, and learning from the victories and losses of digital entrepreneurs who came before you, you can sail through even the most turbulent seas unscathed.

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