Three extremely good reasons why being a media entrepreneur is totally not worth it
And one reason why they don’t count at all
Here is a scene etched into my memory from back when Zetland was literally nothing more than four people (me, Jakob Moll, Hakon Mosbech, and Silke Bock) who had given up their jobs in the established media to start up … some sort of new media.
We had rented a microscopic former shop on Jægersborggade in Copenhagen. The space was sparsely furnished, only a few desks each of us had brought from home. It also had a doorway without a door, leading to a back room that a handful of tech dudes had rented. They had long hair hanging over their eyes and were developing an app and ate mackerel on rye every day for lunch. It smelled.
Jakob, who had been an editor at a major Danish publisher said we had to buy a printer. We couldn’t be media entrepreneurs without a printer. It had to be a good printer. He wanted nothing to do with that ink cartridge crap. It had to be a laser printer, good quality, and he’d found one for 2,000 crowns — 270 euros — which I thought sounded like an absurd figure, since at that time we had exactly zero crowns.
It was insane.
I’d left a position at the Danish daily Politiken that I would have given my right arm for back in journalism school in the early 00s. I’d waved goodbye to retirement benefits, a canteen perk and perks of any kind, a printer some other people had bought, a person you could call if the printer didn’t work, a century-long newspaper tradition, an award-winning brand — in short, an identity as a journalist with a coveted title on my business card (yes, people still did use them back then).
Now people asked me if I was on unemployment. And Jakob wanted to buy hardware that cost 2,000 crowns.
This, I told myself, is going to be an uphill battle.
I think most entrepreneurs know from experience that as your business grows, the story of the business grows, too, and it begins to remind you of pearls on a string: something happened that led to something else, which led to something else that led to something else, and that’s how we created a success.
The story is seldom accurate. It isn’t in Zetland’s case, either. There are no pearls on a string. There is a single mishmash of ideas and coincidences and trials and hard work and errors and openings and principles, and out of this chaos something might emerge that at some point in the future will show itself to be a success. But as long as the chaos reigns, all the time people are asking you: Was it all worth it?
There are two answers to this question: the one you give and the one that’s true.
Here, however, let me try to actually give the true version. In all it’s messy and embarrassing glory.
First let me fast-forward through Zetland’s history, the pearls-on-a-string version: what in 2012 came out of the microscopic shop space was a small media business that published a single journalistic story each month in an e-book format — singles, they’re called. Readers could either purchase them separately or through a membership in Zetland. Our name, incidentally, was Hakon’s doing. We had a list of terrible candidates, such as Scoop and Radar and Zaire (yes, Zaire), but then Hakon checked Wikipedia for hybrid animals, the idea being that we were a type of hybrid media that would combine new technology with classic journalistic virtues. Besides the mule (a cross between a horse and a donkey) there are the tigon (tiger and lion) and the cama (camel and llama) and the beefalo (buffalo and cattle) and, finally, the zetland, the end result of a sexual union between a zebra and a Shetland pony. It’s a small, ugly animal unable to reproduce itself, but we refused to take that as an omen, because the name sounded intriguing. And the “Z” would look great graphically. We took it.
When we launched Zetland, besides the monthly singles we tried placing journalism on a stage in the Zetland Live format. We knew nothing about doing stage shows, but it didn’t take long for the idea to take off. We could fill the Old Stage at the Royal Theater from a single notice on Facebook, and soon we were being hired as consultants for other organizations’ live events.
We kept publishing the singles. They were good, one of them was even nominated for the most prestigious Danish journalism award, a Cavling, but they weren’t always essential reading, and they didn’t solve what we saw as a steadily growing problem: the explosion of news on the net, the resulting information overload, and how and where to get truly essential, in-depth reading. We had become consultants who occasionally put out an excellent story. It wasn’t why we’d given up our good jobs. We’d done so because we believed there was a need for new and visionary thinking in the Danish media. So we changed course.
We decided to establish an online newspaper that cut through the cacophony of news. We formed a business plan and raised the vital millions from three private investors. We received support from 1,400 people in a kickstarter campaign and innovation funding from the Danish Culture Agency, hired approximately twenty men and women, built a digital platform, launched the paper in March 2016, attracted a steady stream of capital, and now just reached the point where our income matches our expenses.
So anyway. That’s the pearls-on-a-string version.
Here’s the chaos version.
Reason 1 why it’s not worth it: Your children have no reason to thank you
Tommy Ahlers, a Danish entrepreneur-turned-science-minister, once gave an interview about life as an entrepreneur, describing it as a type of infatuation — like being “utterly absorbed” in the work. That’s something I absolutely cannot relate to. I can relate to the many, many hours of work to be done if you want something that doesn’t yet exist to become something big, and if you’re one of the few people on Earth who can make it happen because you’re one of the few people on Earth who believes in the idea. But infatuation? No way.
The first years of Zetland’s history, before we began hiring people, was only fun and infatuation-ish in short flashes. It was mostly just really rough going. Sometimes we founders argued with — yelled at — each other about all sorts of things. My husband took most of the maternal/paternal leave with our two youngest sons, and I made it a principle to not meet anyone for coffee if it didn’t involve a specific agenda. When a journalist student wrote and asked for advice about what he should read for his postgraduate degree, I took being interrupted in the middle of a million things as a personal insult.
There is an acute risk of becoming weird when you dedicate so much energy into getting a business up and going. When I was young, my greatest fear was not finding a job as a journalist. Nowadays it’s that no one outside my family find it natural to give me a call on my birthday. Looking back, I can see that first fear was overblown. The second one isn’t.
When you ask the question “Was it worth it?”, you assume that it’s up to the person you’re asking to determine the answer. Was it worth it to climb that mountain? To break that record? To risk your good name and reputation? But maybe the person’s answer can never be complete. Was it worth it to my husband that I co-founded Zetland? Was it worth it to my parents, the constant babysitters? My boys? My friends? It’s not certain their answers would be the same as mine.
So you can see why the question easily deceives. And not only for that reason.
Reason 2 why it’s not worth it: You want freedom. You get the opposite
What all the books about entrepreneurship point out, but what the fewest entrepreneurs understand before they find themselves in the middle of it, is the challenge inherent in growing from a trashy rear-courtyard start-up to a business employing around twenty-five people. When it happens, your role as co-founder changes significantly. You go from knowing everything about the business to absolutely not knowing everything — for example, the name of the new intern, or what they’re talking about in the smokers club down in the courtyard. You also go from being someone dedicated to making the product you’ve created, to leading the people who are now dedicated to making that product.
One day Torben Sangild, a Zetland journalist who specializes in culture and science, sent all of us one of those personality tests, the kind you can take on the net. I took it. I thought I must be one of those leader types. I thought a title such as protagonist (“charismatic and inspiring leader”) or commander (“courageous, imaginative leader with a strong will”) would be fitting. I wasn’t even close. The test classified me as a “debater,” and it characterized me this way: “Debaters are the ultimate devil’s advocates — they enjoy picking apart arguments and ideas and letting the cat out of the bag for everyone to see. In contrast to more resolute personality types, debaters don’t do this to achieve any deeper purpose or strategic goal. They do it just because they think it’s fun.” Also: “Debaters take a certain pleasure in being the underdog. They enjoy the mental challenge in questioning the predominate ways of thinking … Debaters will be unhappy, though, if they in fact are responsible for the daily implementation of their ideas.” It was mentioned that only 3% of the population are debaters. Thank God, one might add.
Around the lunch table, the others freely and loudly shared their personality types. I kept a low profile on the results of my test; I felt like the day I showed up for work without mascara, which is tantamount to showing up naked. It’s fine to see things in a different light and say, “This is another way it could look.” But as a leader, it’s also a fine thing — I’ll even go so far as to say a necessary thing — to be able to say, “Let’s make a plan.” And, “We’re staying with what we decided yesterday.”
My big sister is a brilliant leader. It’s very telling that she’s always been exceptionally good at putting on parties. She has mastered the role of the managing hostess to perfection. I, on the other hand, have always mastered to perfection being a guest at her parties. I arrive without a care in the world, without one speck of the hostess’s nervousness, with no obligation to the guests who don’t know many of the others, and I get people up on the dance floor and I leave seconds before it’s time to pick up all the bottles and start cleaning the place.
I left the established media because I wanted to contribute to the re-thinking of journalism we’re so badly in need of. But I also left my salaried job because I was insanely restless. Underneath my idealism I was yearning to be free, to be the boss of my own life. The reality I moved into proved to be teeming with obligations, much more so than the one I’d left. I became the managing hostess. The one waiting nervously in the hall for the guests to please show up, the one refilling the bowls with chips, the one fervently hoping everything would go well, that everyone would have a really nice time, that the party would last long enough to be called a success.
What should I have answered after I took the plunge as an entrepreneur, if someone had asked me if it was going to be worth it? Whatever my answer would have been, it would have been wrong. For sometimes goals change, at least experiences always do, and therefore the measuring tape for whether or not it’s worth it changes too. What you first thought the pluses and minuses would be are often completely different from the ones you end up with. I started out wanting freedom. Now my business has a loan, I’m partly responsible for twenty-five employees, I’m duty-bound to a closely-knit group when I go to work every morning, and I would feel that everything was meaningless without all of that.
As a tool, the question of whether or not something is worth it, is practically always futile. When you start out, you don’t know the conditions. Later on the question is moot, because you’ve made the decision. And really, doesn’t that apply for all the big decisions in life? Marriage. Bringing children into the world. The vision in your head of that Persian rug pales against the raggedy rag rug of experience that turns out to be for sale in life’s bazaar.
That’s another reason why the question of whether or not it’s worth it deceives you. And there’s one final, important reason.
Reason 3 why it’s not worth it: You will fail
There are pockets in the Danish media world where the belief in Zetland’s future is microscopic. It’s also true that if the conditions we’d assumed in making our original budget had been correct, we would have passed the break-even point two years ago and presumably wouldn’t have learned a lick about reality, because it turns out that conditions usually change when reality hits, and therefore your job primarily consists of adapting to the new ones and taking advantage of them.
I’m certain that for the skeptics there’s only one answer to the question of whether it was worth it, and that answer involves a red number that turns astronomically black.
But the answer can’t be found there. Nor can it be found in our merits that look so good in Keynote presentations to potential investors: that this August we managed to grow by 25 percent due to a phenomenal effort by our members, that it looks like we are heading out of 2019 with a small surplus in the bank, that we most likely are the fastest growing digital newspaper in Scandinavia, that in general we have extraordinarily satisfied members, and that approximately a third of our members are under the age of thirty (which is great, because only a few years ago it was thought to be impossible to get young people to pay for journalism). We have ambitious business plans, such as taking Zetland outside Danish borders and growing our Danish membership to 1% of the adult population, but even if one day we reach these goals, would that be the answer to the question, “Was it worth it?”
I don’t think so.
For as I’ve said, the question deceives. It deceives because it easily can lead to a cynical answer. And a cynical answer always deceives.
In the plodding, difficult work of building something up, you will always run into a world of reasons to point out that of course it wasn’t worth it. The plan was unrealistic. The mountain couldn’t be climbed. It was idiotic to hurl yourself into that battle.
And the person who points all that out will sound rational. He will wrap himself into something resembling the robes of responsibility, and in these robes of responsibility he will appear to be suitably critical.
But we’re not talking about criticism. For critics enter the battle by putting themselves at stake. This is about the particular form of intellectual laziness that is the cynic’s trademark. The cynic isn’t out to take responsibility. The cynic is only out to protect himself, but he makes it look like an even fight — between the one who says yes and the one who says no.
The battle, though, isn’t even. There are a thousand more ways to make a mistake when you act than when you criticize. Bertrand Russell once put it this way: “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”
It would of course be tempting to say that this is where the answer lies hidden — that all things considered, it was worth building Zetland because the effort was greater, and thus the potential reward is greater.
But that’s not how things are, either.
Why none of the above reasons don’t really count
It isn’t the potential reward that makes it worth it. The reason for putting in the effort lies elsewhere, namely, to reject cynicism as a philosophy of life. Not because of business considerations or strategic calculations, but from the conviction that a culture in which scorn drowns out all else is a tragic culture.
In a way, this is Zetland’s main errand: to face reality with something other than a sneer. To try being and to honoring “the man in the arena,” as Roosevelt once put it in one of his now infamous speeches that’s so brilliant to reread and parafrase now and then. The errand is to lay it all on the line. To take part in construction. To insist on a culture where joining the battle is looked on as preferable to the pleasure of snarling at those who are slugging it out. To defy the prevailing attitude of our times that so very little should command respect. To want a society that admires those who put themselves at risk, those who make the attempt, fail, try again, take responsibility, and end up looking like hell, punch-drunk and familiar with the deepest valleys of the terrain, yet they take their turn — on their co-op board, at their workplace, as a community organizer, for example — because they would rather live a life driven by a burning conviction and whole-hearted commitment than a life with arms crossed, a life in which emotions such as pride and humility can never be a part.
To reject cynicism as a philosophy of life is a principle. And the thing about principles is, they can never be weighed on the scales of rationality. Only on those of the heart.
So was it worth it?
From day one.