Start-up companies, start your research first
Nothing says inexperienced like hiring people without knowing what they do
When I asked the hiring manager what his editing style was, I was not expecting this response, “It will be a [sic] article accompanied by a picture that complements the read.” I leaned my head back like Tupac and already knew I was opting out of this job, regardless of its intended demographic revolving around readers who fit my own demographic. I wasn’t even surprised when he told me his website wouldn’t be ready for four months. Of course it won’t.
It was the third time this week that I’d heard from a startup blog company and/or publication. A few days before that, I asked about word count and story angles from a hiring manager who wanted me to write about politics although he “wasn’t into all that.” I couldn’t help but ask, “If you don’t get into politics, how are you going to edit my content?” His response, “My manager will do it.” My reply, “Oh, so your managing editor will. OK, that makes sense.” And his response, “No, my manager will. She’s my editor, my PR person, my social media person, handles my tours, hires the writers and handles the contracts for my basketball career.” At this point, I wondered why she didn’t babysit his kids (if he has any) and remodel his house, too. Don’t be lazy, lady!
Why you need to do the research before hiring the contractors
In the past year, I’ve found myself being hired as a consultant more than my own editing and writing help. Startup companies have optimistic ideas for what they want to accomplish, but entirely too many don’t bother to do the research regarding how to make their own companies work, which employees (or contractors) they need from the beginning, the startup costs needed to get the business moving and what the competitors are doing.
In a third example for a writing company that wanted to write “women empowerment” and “women directed issues” for black women, I asked the startup founder, “What does your content offer that companies like Essence and ZORA don’t already?” His response was that “it would be more comparable to Essence than ZORA.” That alone told me he’d never heard of ZORA or read enough content; that Medium publication is loaded up with women’s empowerment topics and the former editor of Essence was the person responsible for me having this piece on artificial intelligence published there.
In addition to knowing who your audience is and your competitor, asking seasoned writers to work for startups is a gamble on both sides. The seasoned writer who wants to write for someone other than the mainstream publications that usually have in-house writers may be interested in the publication. Why not? If it’s good, it should eventually get the credit it deserves. But if the creators don’t even know what their own audience reads, how can those same writers expect to get a fair shake once the content is live?
Knowing when to hire and when to investigate
Everyone has to start somewhere, whether it’s a new tech startup, a new magazine or a new cookbook. The person who owns the company doesn’t have to be able to do every single job that the other contractors/employees do. Is it a good idea? Yes, 99.9 percent of the time. Is it a requirement? Nope. But what the company does need is someone trustworthy to be able to hire the right people. In all three examples above, I can guarantee that if I’d talked to a seasoned editor before speaking with a company head, none of the conversation would have gone this way.
According to Forbes, 90 percent of startups fail. Minus one law firm I co-blogged with for 1.5 years — who also ended up representing me when I bought my condo — every last startup I’ve worked for since 2003 (college graduation date) has flopped. Why? Because they didn’t do the following 10 things:
- They never found something unique about their business that wasn’t available with others (i.e. no hidden sauce).
- They wildly underestimated how much money would be needed to release a final product to the public. (This happens constantly with new magazine owners that don’t properly estimate how much printers charge for color versus black and white, as well as subscribers and direct-mail costs.)
- The entire team of founders is not equally invested in all parts of the business. (I watched this happen with three friends who started a magazine. Two worked nonstop, and one showed up late and clueless to every meeting.)
- The founders were dating, and the relationship didn’t last. (Be very careful about going into business if you’re not already married or in a long-term relationship. Those boyfriend-girlfriend or lusty relationships do not always make good partnerships. And the rest of the team feels it when you two argue. If you need inspiration for how to partner in an industry correctly, look at how Russell Simmons is still credited for Phat Farm and Kimora Lee Simmons is working with Baby Phat again — even after selling both off to Kellwood in 2004.)
5. The founders have absolutely no idea what their employees do and only focus on their area of expertise. (I watched this with a married couple who bought a beauty salon/barbershop. However, the husband was more interested in selling T-shirts and couldn’t tell me the hair specialties of his barbers or beauticians.)
6. There was no advertising/marketing budget. (While I definitely take issue with burning through money for social media marketing and print advertising without being able to afford it in the budget, there is just no excuse to not advertise company events on free platforms like Patch and EventBrite. An effective social media manager should be able to reach location-specific people without praying a general ad does not get auto-blocked. Use Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for something other than 10,000 selfies and “date night” pics.)
7. The founders were procrastinators and/or didn’t hire a project manager. (PMs have thankless jobs and often save so much lost money. They are Type A personalities who are paid to babysit a job from beginning to end, and are often talented enough to do some of those jobs themselves.) If the founders or other employees know they’re procrastinators, in order to stay on schedule, a PM is definitely needed. If a new product (hopefully patented or trademarked) is being sold, a product manager couldn’t hurt either.
8. The founders never bothered to find out which positions they needed starting out. (Going back to my second example with the manager-of-all-trades, anyone who has been a Managing Editor or Editor in Chief knows how much work goes into that job. Anytime a company doesn’t hire all necessary workers within that company, expect there to be chaos or people doing way too many jobs at once.)
9. The founders never considered how many hours and days the work would take. (There are bookstores and blogs flooded with content regarding how much time experts in each industry put into their respective fields. They’re not just saying that for bragging rights. Pay attention to how much work went into their companies to last. If you cannot put in that much time and energy, this may not be the right time for you to start.)
10. The money dwindled away. (This isn’t even a startup problem. This is an everybody problem. Emergencies happen. Insurance only covers so much. Contractors charge more. Employees need more money. Cheaper isn’t always better, but overcharging isn’t either. As with the amount of work needed, have a ballpark figure saved and ready for use before announcing your business to the public. You just never know what will happen in the meantime in between time.)
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