Ten years ago today, I brought out my laptop at a general store in Lake Tahoe and officially became an entrepreneur for the first time. With a click on the keyboard, I pushed my first website onto the world thanks to that store’s wifi connection. For the 50-something me, it was a turning point.
For the entirety of my professional life, I extensively reported on the people who led some of the world’s most successful companies and many pioneering entrepreneurs. I often would joke that most business and economic reporters would not be able to run a lemonade stand or a shoeshine stand (something I have actually done in my teenage years for 15 cents a pair) on a busy street corner. Now, I had taken the big step to run websites on the world’s cluttered and noisy Internet.
I had never had to manage a real P&L, recruit and hire people I would pay out of my own pocket, or think about the strategy and differentiation of my own company and its products. I never had to directly pay for health care benefits, 401K plans, payroll taxes or deal with regulatory filings for full-time employees in New York, Canada, Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, and California, where the business is located. And I brought no experience in negotiating deals with contractors and partners.
Without any outside investors or even a loan, I was able to bootstrap my digital media firm, C-Change Media Inc., on Aug. 9 of 2010 (8/9/10 turned out to be an auspicious date) after spending six months preparing for the launch of what would be our first and most successful website, PoetsandQuants.com, devoted exclusively to the coverage of graduate business education. Four other websites followed, including those covering undergraduate business, executive education, law, and social enterprise.
In every one of the ten years since the company has never spilled a drop of red ink, something I will be eternally thankful for in part because my last years in the magazine business had me in a role where I had to layoff people I deeply respected as the losses piled up. In fact, every single year C-Change Media has not only been profitable but we have been able to report ever higher annual revenue, year after year after year. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession, our bookings are up more than 30% in the first half, on our way to yet another record year with total revenue of $4.5 million and record profit to boot. Our company doesn’t merely post stories online. We have published books, held global conferences, produced high-quality video and podcasts. We publish newsletters, orchestrate direct mail and lead generation campaigns for clients, and deeply engage with our users—the best applicants in the world to the best business schools in the world.
A confession: I never imagined that building something valuable on my own would bring me more joy and satisfaction than all my years in magazine journalism. For a first-generation college graduate with a mother who could not read, I was lucky to find myself in a profession I truly loved as a journalist, an editor, and an author of more than a dozen books, including two New York Times bestsellers. I worked in London as a bureau chief, traveled all over the U.S. as a staff writer for Forbes magazine and felt privileged to be invited to join BusinessWeek, first as its management editor and later as a senior writer.
My long-time boss, legendary BusinessWeek Editor-in-Chief Stephen B. Shepard, would jokingly call me “Johann Sebastian Byrne,” for my productivity in turning out cover stories while at the magazine (58 of them in all). I was named editor-in-chief of Fast Company magazine, succeeding the founders, and helped to find and guide an investor who kept Fast Company alive when every other bidder in the auction wanted to shut it down. Once the magazine and its staff were rescued by the new owner, I decided to return BusinessWeek, which I considered my professional home, as executive editor of the magazine.
But it was as the editor-in-chief of businessweek.com, the magazine’s online initiative, that allowed me to see the potential in digital media. The very technology that was destroying the legacy media business was also providing unique opportunities for journalistic entrepreneurs. Even before BusinessWeek was sold to Bloomberg for a reported sum of just $5 million after losing roughly $65 million in its last year under the ownership of McGraw-Hill, I had been thinking of doing something on my own.
The first idea was to create a Huffington Post for business and economic coverage. I tried to arrange a partnership with the managing editor of Fortune and the former publisher of forbes.com, a sort of supergroup of business media types, to launch the idea. But something that ambitious required venture capital funding. My efforts to convince a few VCs of the idea went nowhere.
So I scaled back my plans, starting with a single website, the one that launched in August of 2010 as the economy was still recovering from the Great Recession. I had something of an edge. I knew the graduate management education well, having launched the first regularly published MBA ranking in 1988 and helping to set up a franchise at the magazine that led to the only truly sticky part of our website (BusinessWeek‘s online community of MBA applicants and students would consume roughly 58 pages of content a month vs. the 1.8 page average for a monthly unique on the website). At its peak, higher education advertising at BusinessWeek racked up in excess of $8.5 million a year.
The potential to better serve this aspiring audience was obvious. I also knew that journalists more often than not write for themselves. I badly wanted to write for the reader. And that is exactly what we did and what we still do. When Poet&Quants took off, I pivoted from my early plans to create a Huff Po for business to a provider of higher education information and analysis. Today, PoetsandQuants.com is far and away the world’s leading source of news and analysis on graduate business education, read over the last decade by 30 million unique visitors who have absorbed more than 200 million page views of content. Poets&Quants now racks up nearly five million page views monthly, all organically without tricks or gimmicks common to the Wild, Wild West of the Internet.
More importantly, though, we’ve become a friend and partner to tens of thousands of smart, upwardly mobile young professionals all over the world who rely on us for advice and counsel in making a very deliberate and costly decision to pursue a graduate degree in business–or for that matter majoring as an undergraduate in business or pursuing a degree in law. It’s a rare day when we don’t hear from a grateful applicant, student, or alum wanting to thank us for guiding his or her journey to graduate school. With 35% of our traffic from abroad, there is not a single corner of the world that we fail to touch, with readers even in the Vatican.
So what have I learned as a late-to-the-game entrepreneur during these ten years?
1. Success in digital media is in the niches. It’s nearly impossible to go head-to-head against the still troubled incumbents who continue to accumulate huge losses in their news operations. If you want to build a viable digital media business, you need to find a poorly served niche where there is nearly a cult following of smart, ambitious and upwardly mobile professionals who need the information to make big decisions.
2. Hire the right people and turn them loose. We’ve had an extraordinary streak of recruiting and hiring highly-talented and creative people to our cause. We heavily rely on a group of truly dedicated professionals who run business operations, service our clients, and report and write our stories with the highest integrity. The company’s success is entirely dependent on this team of people who I consider part of my extended family. It reinforces what I have always believed about business: It is one of the highest callings in our society to generate meaningful employment for others and their families. Our success in helping young people all over the world achieve their dreams is their success, too.
3. Journalism still matters, a lot. At our core, we are a journalistic operation. Our reporters and writers cover the world of higher education as if we were at the New York Times covering politics and public policy. We write about it all, in-depth, providing context and analysis on every important development in our field. We don’t believe that digital journalism is short and snappy. Many of our stories are magazine cover length features.
4. Journalism isn’t enough. When the company was launched, the C in C-Change Media stood for three things: Content, Community and Curation. Obviously, original and creative content is essential. But in this world, you need to acknowledge that you are not the sole source of all wisdom and knowledge. Others are producing valuable content and for the audience you’ve acquired you need to serve that up to them through intelligent curation. Finally, fostering community in this world is crucial. It was important that we cultivate and nurture a real community of like-minded people with similar interests and engage deeply with them. We are accountable to our audience and respond immediately to their queries and interests. I still believe that a story is merely a campfire, around which you gather people willing to share their perspectives, beliefs and experiences. The story is the start of a conversation, not the end of it.
5. Nothing turns you on more than something you believe in. I have been a passionate advocate for higher education ever since I walked on a college campus. In my own life, it has made all the difference. One of my earliest memories as a child is seeing my dad come home from his factory job with his feet dyed in rainbow colors. He worked in a textile mill that dyed fabric in the days before there were safety standards for safe and healthy working conditions. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees put me on a different path.
An undergraduate or graduate degree is no guarantee of success, but it does swing the odds nicely in your favor. And it’s not about making more money or gaining more status. It’s about living a more fulfilling and productive life, engaging with people who are genuinely concerned about the world and its future, and who strive to live a life of meaning.
At the end of the day, that is rewarding enough.
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