From the classroom to the digital marketplace: How we got to launch

The team behind called my bluff. Well, maybe I wasn’t bluffing. Maybe I am ready to become a digital media entrepreneur. We’ll find out on Thursday (July 22, 2010).

Here’s the back story. I took a buyout from the San Jose Mercury News in March 2008. I was the AME for Features when I left. My intent was to start my own digital media company. During my 20-plus years in journalism, I had supervised the creation of news and feature sections, redesigns and special projects. That was on top of meeting daily deadlines. With my three years as the Merc’s newsroom-based Online Team Leader for, I had hands-on experience with news sites and felt the exhilarating rush that comes with Web publishing.

I started Golden Wheel Communications (GWC), a digital news and information company. I talked a good game. I went to workshops financing startups. I attended KDMC’s Media News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. I took a Stanford night class called “Running Internet Advertising Campaigns.” But I never launched a Web product.

Carolyn Jung, a Merc food editor and writer, also left the newspaper in 2008. She immediately started the “Food Gal” blog. It immediately took off. So much so that after a few months, she moved from the WordPress platform to a hosted-Web platform in order to accommodate ads.

Food Gal did everything right. Carolyn’s writing is conversational and authoritative. The text is anchored by great photos, which Carolyn takes. Carolyn used social media—Twitter and Facebook—to create a dynamic following. And she leveraged her newspaper readership into a thriving digital community.

With all of her success, Carolyn said the foodgal site didn’t make much money.

I made a pitch to Carolyn. We would create a weekly email newsletter with content from the foodgal site. GWC (that’s me!) would handle advertising, marketing and circulation. What’s more, I believed we could launch with ads.

I presented Carolyn a prototype of the newsletter. When she asked about other GWC clients, I mumbled something. In reality, GWC didn’t have any other paying clients.

A few days later Carolyn sent me an email. She and her team liked my proposal and wanted a second meeting.

I came prepared with a second prototype, a timeline that sketched a three-month effort to launch and well-rehearsed speeches on why I was the person to hire.

I didn’t present anything I prepared. Five minutes into the conversation, they said make it so.

So here we are, a few days before the debut of the weekly newsletter. As we sweat out the final hours before the launch, I look back and see that I laid a strong foundation for this first GWC venture.

Here’s what I learned. I hope these tips help other fledgling digital media entrepreneurs.

  1. Start with business basics. Get a business license. If you company is going to be a DBA (“Doing Business As” or a fictitious business name) register the firm’s name and place a fictitious business ad in a local newspaper. Get a post office box, set up a company checking account, and add a phone line with a separate number for the business. Invest in business cards. None of this is exciting, but trust me, this all comes in handy.
  2. Buy domain names. Get it before someone else does. Buy your own name as a domain name. Domain names are fairly cheap. Don’t stop there. Buy a package that includes, at the very least, web-hosting, and several e-mail addresses (Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo accounts are cool and free, but it is more professional to have an individual domain name attached to your business e-mail address.)
  3. Go back to school. Take a class on Web publishing. Learn how to take strong digital photos and then how to edit them with Photoshop. Take relevant business courses.
  4. Decide on a niche. Do you want to cover your community with a strong hyper-local news site? Do it. Do you see a void in local fashion coverage? Create a site and fill it. I decided not to go down the content creation road. Through GWC, I want to support the creation of quality journalism by finding ways for digital journalists to make money. To do this, GWC wants to partner with small sites such as to create and implement marketing, advertising and circulation plans. (I’m not the only one taking this route. I gotta give a shout out to GannettLocal and GrowthSpur.) GWC will also partner with legacy media companies to help develop and test new, ad-supported digital products.
  5. Create prototypes. Show prospective customers what your site is going to look like. It doesn’t matter what form—a printout, a pdf, a digital version—people respond to visuals.
  6. Cultivate professional relationships with web designers and developers. Designers make the site look pretty. Developers know HTML, PHP and all the other code languages. They make the site work. You will need help from people with these skills in order to be successful. (See Tip No. 5. Designers can do everything—from prototypes to creating logos.)
  7. Be prepared to be self reliant. There is no “I” in “entrepreneur,” but there should be. You are going to have to do it all. Report the story. Write the headline. Shoot and crop the photos and post it all by deadline. This is more than demanding work. That is why many small and medium news sites don’t have any advertising. Journalists are too busy feeding the news machine. For the foodgal newsletter, I have created marketing kits, made cold calls to potential advertisers, created a Google AdWords campaign and passed out flyers at local farmers markets about the foodgal newsletter. I have also cropped photos and written and built spec ads.

That’s how we got to launch. Please join GWC for this first of what I believe will be many successful—and profitable—digital media ventures.

(To learn more about Golden Wheel Communication, click here. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.)

About Pamela Moreland