This is the first installment of my start-up diary.
It’s not actually been 9½ weeks, as per the title. More like 3½ months. But if I count it from the time I started selling subscriptions, that’s roughly right. So I will stick to the title for “da saucy clicks” anyway.
So here goes… And apologies if this gets a little too indulgent. It is meant to be a diary, after all.
When I first came up with the idea for the Blind Spot, it was simple enough.
I believed there was an urgent need to shake up traditional financial reporting so that groupthink could be challenged and contrarian but well thought-out and credible takes could once again be allowed to flourish in media. This alongside space for long-form deep dives and wonk investigations, would, I hoped, help to embolden honest and authentic commentary leading to better insight and value creation.
Too many topics had become taboo to write about in the mainstream.
That alone I thought would make for a compelling offer.
But I had other innovations in mind too. Among them I wanted to work towards creating a financial Bellingcat model. The basis for this idea was the fact that the media system of today generates far more public domain content than any single beat reporter – or even small team – is capable of dealing with. Journalists, as a result, end up defaulting to inhouse filters which too often cultivate echo chambers and biases. I figured everyone would, as a result, benefit from journalists outsourcing some of their news gathering processes to partially vetted feeder and filter networks, while retaining quality-control.
Another innovation, however, was also that I wanted to make the reporting focus as much on analysing the medium and mode of delivery of the message, as it did the message itself.
Last, I wanted to inject some parody and levity into financial journalism – not least because in today’s hyper sensitive environment it is often easier to speak truth to power in comedy than in plain speech.
Ms Davos Deville came to life accordingly:
Izzy Kaminska’s start-up caper
Early in the endeavor I thought it might be cool to document the entire sorry process of birthing a media business here on The Blind Spot.
The intent was to take the reader with me on the journey, through the good times, the bad times and all the crazy or mundane interim moments too. Mainly because I figured the story itself would be interesting — offering the wider market insight into how, despite the best intentions of so many journalists, things can and often do go so wrong in journalism these days.
But then the Ukraine war broke out, and just keeping on top of the news flow proved a full-time exercise eating into every minute of my waking day (and even the nights).
My ambition to run a Jeremy Clarkson style “Izzy starts a company” diary — full of delightful anecdotes about my business debacles — was thus temporarily suspended.
In hindsight, I think this was probably a good call. At the end of the day the journalism must come first.
But now that the big story is experiencing a phase shift, there’s an opportunity to sit back, reflect and take stock.
So where do I find myself today and what have I achieved or daresay even learned in the process thus far?
Before I get to that, though, I need to thank all of you who have taken out subscriptions already. I only have “Oscar acceptance speech” level words of gratitude for you. Genuine blubbing here. I am beyond touched. Without your faith in me at this early stage, I could not have made it to where I am right now. So thank you so much.
I hope somewhere in the madness of the last three and a half months I’ve been able to offer value.
But what of the business?
Well, it’s been an endless journey of discovery for me, and one that I think at the age of 43 I was probably a bit old to take on. I wish I had done it earlier, in many respects. Though perhaps I needed those other learnings first. Who knows.
As I keep telling almost everyone I meet, I have probably learned more about the practical workings of corporate finance and business since gong solo in February than in 22 years as a financial journalist.
Many of you who already have a low regard for journalists will not be surprised to hear that, I suspect. “See! I told you those good for nothing journalists don’t have a clue.”
This is indeed an uncomfortable truth I’ve had to recognise. Sometimes we journalists really do bullshit our way through our day jobs.
Though I suspect I’m not the only mainstream journalist to have figured this out about herself begrudgingly.
It turns out a lot of us have the ability to live, breathe and talk finance every day and still be utterly ignorant of the real issues at hand – because we don’t appreciate the difference between theory and practice. This is how cushioned and protected we are from it all in our steady salaried jobs and support networks.
But I see now that taking risk directly or living through some sort of business development experience (outside of a pre-existing corporate structure) is essential to developing a proper understanding of business, finance and the broader economy.
Unless you are living it, chances are you will be oblivious to the pressures, conflicts and – most important of all – the compromises one is often pressed to make as an entrepreneur or corporate leader.
That last point is probably my biggest insight from the process so far. It explains why us journalists so often apply unrealistically high standards to entrepreneurs and never give them a break.
The endless compromises
You can have amazingly noble intentions, which are focused on the highest standards and morals, but it turns out that the system and reality is structured in such a way — especially if you don’t have a personal wealth buffer — to continuously force existentially-threatening tradeoffs on you if you try to enforce those values. It is a sort of trap, which tempts you time and time again down the path of least resistance. To the dark side.
You have to be a uniquely self confident, bull-headed and resilient individual to be able to withstand these pressures.
From the outside it’s easy to roll one’s eyes about the naïveté and obstinance of those who want to try to change “the system”. It is equally easy to criticise those who fail or resort to mediocracy (or even corruption) when they encounter their first proper challenges.
Sometimes that criticism is harsh but fair. Other times it is not. The intent of the disdain is usually to spare investors, and society more generally, the capital burn associated with bull-headed trial and error process that eventually reveal to the entrepreneur something everyone else already knew: that their idea just isn’t very good. I understand this. I wrote those stories.
But other times this attitude neglects that the best entrepreneurs see something others don’t and enter into a bit of a mission to convert others to the way they think. Sometimes, it’s not that the idea is not very good, but that the wider system is too calicified in its diminishing sum ways to appreciate that a different way of doing things, or a higher quality way of doing things, is worth it in the long run. Sometimes it takes going backwards to leap forwards to revive a positive sum system. This is why it takes an entrepreneurial mission not just the prospect of making money for one’s self.
What’s more, even if the efforts do end up replicating the old systems almost exactly, I can now understand why the act of disrupting or challenging the old and starting from scratch — re-learning everything first hand, so to speak — is a worthwhile exercise to keep the system free, honest and community serving. Old systems have great insights and experiences. But they too often get corrupted by lazy practices, and path of least resistance thinking. Even if your business isn’t entirely innovative, you can still compete on quality or efficiency doing the same exact thing. This is probably worth it.
None of these insights are new by the way! It’s just I’ve never really understood their rationality the way I do now. Comms between practitioners and theorists too often get lost in translation.
In my case, however, I really wouldn’t have risked the comfort of a steady pay packet, a scaled-up support structure and more if I didn’t genuinely think there was an issue in journalism that needed resolving. Or if I didn’t think I had an insight into how to solve these problems.
It takes a stubborn, focused and jammy founder who never questions their vision to keep such a mission alive in the face of a system that is endlessly trying to get you to compromise.
Indeed, one of the biggest revelations I’ve had, is just how close the whole exercise is to pursuing a mission or a calling.
Faking it until you make it
There are some unique factors in the media industry that make starting a business, whose selling point is integrity, doubly hard. The key ones are the paradoxes and conflicts in most of the revenue models. But also with anything to do with raising or generating money more generally.
Money corrupts. But good journalists are supposed to be able to withstand those forces. And yet, the less they earn, the more corruptible they become. Operating on an entirely vocational holy mission basis, meanwhile, is hardly a selling point to investors. That’s why you need your users to be your funders as much as possible. And that, I think, is what Web3 possibility gets right.
But even then you still need funding for promotion and marketing.
So back to square one and a need to be priestly, but not too priestly.
There’s no way to escape the fact that a key skill for any successful entrepreneur is having the ability to pull in favours and sweet talk one’s way to funding and support. This more often than not involves having no shame in selling yourself or being able to exaggerate your services.
Obviously this is hugely conflicting for a journalist.
But also for anyone who is uncomfortable with overhyping their skills, rather than letting the skills themselves do the selling.
Even if technically we journalists (specifically opinion writers) might have very good bullshitting skills, we specialise in deploying them to aggrandize our public personas or arguments. This may be a similarly self-serving exercise, but it’s deployed in the interests of generating reputation and influence not cash specifically.
I have a vision. And I have a goal. I think it’s a good vision, which eventually moves things towards the creation of a self regulatory system for independent journalism more broadly. But try as I might, until I bootstrap myself single-handedly beyond the point where I am merely operating as a one-woman Minimum Viable Product exercise, speaking of elaborate media visions feels disingenuous.
There are other dilemmas too. These are particularly worth drawing light to, because I think they perfectly sum up why independent media is so hard to get right.
I will be back with specific reflections about these in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime here are some bullets about my key learnings, achievements, and ongoing challenges as I currently see them. And some shout outs.
- Hustling my way to building a functional website and subscription system at minimal cost.
- Maintaining good quality coverage of key topics.
- Have created essential partnerships.
- Recruited basic editorial support services.
- Built a Discord community.
- Engaged in high-level promotional work.
- Created “a plan”.
- Got a tweet acknowledgement from Elon “accurate video”.
- Engaged in a marketing and distribution exercise.
- Figured out how to make my first TikTok video.
- Have grown a solid early-stage subscriber base.
Unexpected challenges, disappointments and realisations:
- Pulling in business related favours is super awkward when you are a journalist. Far from ideal.
- A sub-based business is not necessarily immune to being influenced by third parties. Sometimes advertising is more honest.
- Fudging is a skill and an art form.
- Being transparent can put potential collaborators off.
- Most of the cheesy start-up cliches turn out to be true.
- Having the idea is not the hard bit.
- Working with friends is not always optimal – don’t be afraid to u-turn.
- Independence doesn’t necessarily free you the way you think it will. You are still at the mercy of your funders.
- You can’t rely on or get too excited about prospective partners, suppliers or anyone else until the deal is done — verbal commitments or insinuations are meaningless.
- Lawyers will always find things to worry about and more reasons for why you need their services.
- For everyone who lets you down there is often another person waiting in the wings to lift you up. Sometimes for their own personal gain but not always. So don’t get too disheartened.
- Experienced mentors, guides and advisors are among the most valuable contacts you can make.
- Journalists are incredibly risk averse in their own lives and usually not in a position to take risk. Proceed with caution when dealing with them. They have very cold feet and tend towards the path of least resistance.
- Retaining control and growing slower is probably preferable in a media exercise. Be patient.
- Every journalist benefits from an editor and an in-house legal counsel.
- Everyone should know how to use excel. Sadly I don’t.
- Business iteration is probably linked to some fundamental law of the universe.
- How to leverage state or foundation support for entrepreneurs is an enigma.
- Don’t rush into a founding team with those you have never worked with. It’s possible the best way to structure one is via some sort of auditioning process.
- Some aspects of deal-making remind me of flirtation.
- Raise start-up capital in a way that doesn’t compromise independence. (Convertible notes are the current preference.)
- Hire a commercial/business development person to limit conflicts, generate more bandwidth for reporting, realise key projects.
- Hire other editorial positions.
- “Audition” prospective partners to see if they are a good match.
- Think about using commission structures for specific projects developments.
- Add consistency to output.
- Get podcast launched.
- Get “phase two” of the vision underway.
- Keep cultivating the Blind Spot community and communicating Blind Spot values.
- Minimise all bullshit whenever possible.
- Operate in a freedom of speech maximizing way – but be conscious of the limits to free speech too.
- Find a way to pull in favours without coming across like a hustler.
- To the fam for bearing with me and tolerating me being an annoyance that is perpetually linked to my devices.
- To Frank at HaYa for his help in getting me this far.
- To my angel advocate, Tim. Both for his backing and his content contributions which are entirely value aligned with mine.
- To that very experienced someone, who knows who he is, who has helped me iterate, think in product mode, and focus on the value and the positive sum.
- To DM for the lunches and the introductions.
- To AF for offering up her Saturdays!
- To the “data artist” for his contributions.
- To WayneJ and David for rising to the Discord challenge. And to the Discord community members too.
- To everyone who contributed to the OSINT linkfests in the early part of the war.
- To everyone who has been kind enough to give me a platform on their networks to help promote the venture.
- To Jonathan Ford and Neil Collins for having me on ALTIF and for letting me post their transcripts.
- To the haters, for keeping me motivated and focused on the need to build systems where decorum, respect as well as a thick skin are highly valued.
- To the DD team.
- To everyone who has sent a note of encouragement.
- Above all, to all the subscribers. ❤️