When should you quit your job to start your website? Try the 'just do it' model

What’s your greatest failure in your career?

I’m not talking about your greatest failure as a journalist. We all blow a story from time to time, and some newsroom errors, obviously, cause more harm than others. But I’d like you to think selfishly about my question. I’m not asking about your failures as a reporter or editor. I’m asking about a failure in managing your own career.

What did you do – or didn’t do – that hurt your career most?

It’s important to think about failure. Don’t ignore it. People who do, lose opportunities to learn. Lost opportunities can be failures, too. It’s important to think about those, as well, so that you might be better able to see new opportunities when they approach.

A missed opportunity might have been my biggest failure as a news publisher. Looking back, I wonder how my career would have turned out had a I walked into the Los Angeles Times with a resignation letter in hand the day after I got my first four-figure monthly check from Google back in 2003. (Or, at least, if I’d taken the next available buy-out at the Times, instead of waiting two more years to leave.)

While I was earning some good money from Google ads and hotel commissions back then, it was too easy for me to bank that as additional income, while not giving up my day job, with its regular paychecks, benefits and industry status. But my inaction cost me. In the years before I started working on my own sites full-time, competitors entered and grabbed a lot of market share – viewers that I might have been able to attract into the communities I managed, had I devoted more time and attention to them. Instead, I took the easy, secure extra paychecks from a dead-end job at a soon-to-be-bankrupt newspaper.

In short, I traded some extra money then for what could have been a lot more additional income today and into the future.

I thought about that when coaching some of the start-up news publishers at the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp last week. Some of them wrestled with questions about when to quit their day jobs, or whether to move to a new community to start their dream publication.

It’s a reticence I see often in would-be news entrepreneurs. You don’t want to quit too early, and be left with no income, and no way to support your family, while you wait for advertisers, foundations or other customers to come around.

Unfortunately for the risk-averse among us, you need to face the prospect of no income, or even just not enough income, when starting a business. It’s that pain that forces you to get out there and start talking to potential customers.

As a publisher, you primary job is to bring money into the organization. As much as you might love reporting and writing, if you’re not bringing money in – first – then you’re not working as a publisher. You’re just working like an employee, instead.

It is possible to do great journalism as an independent publisher. But that will be the second part of your job, behind bringing in the income that will allow you (and, potentially, a staff) to do that great work. Remember, lots of television shows, commercial magazines and even a newspaper or two have launched with advertisers signed and paid before the first viewer or reader has seen the work. People for years have been selling advertisers, investors and foundations on potential and promise. You don’t need to establish an audience before you go after income.

You won’t be a successful news publisher until you believe in your ability to bring in that revenue. And if you can make the money that you need going forward, it shouldn’t matter how much you have in your bank account to start. That sum will only go up once you do.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.