We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this series, we talk to the CEOs of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job description and understand what they have learned in the role.
It is incredible how much knowledge and experience a journalist can soak up working their way up the ranks of the industry and doing their day-to-day job.
Joe McGrath started working in the media industry aged 16 for the Western Daily Press in the telesales team. He gained some more work experience at The Financial Times in secretarial roles during sandwich years at university. He really started to cut his teeth in journalism at the business news and trade publications and then moving on to become a desk editor of Dow Jones.
His years as a business and financial journalist put him in good stead for what he does now. He is the founder and CEO of Rhotic Media, a content agency serving publishers and corporate clients, specialising in financial and business content. Its customers include the world’s largest news organisations, investment banks, asset managers, broadcasters and B2B publishers
McGrath leads administration for the company, which in reality means authorising payments, forecasting, costing work schedules, writing policy documents, recruiting, attending client meetings, or reviewing new business opportunities. It started out as his own venture, and today there are 22 employees in total.
The company is entirely independently owned by the three directors. He says there are no external funders and it has no debt – something he is immensely proud of, especially given the hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. McGrath speaks to Journalism.co.uk about what it means to run Rhotic Media.
How have you managed to avoid external funding and debt? And why do you feel this is important to your company?
Many stories about entrepreneurs these days are dominated by fintechs that have successfully secured funding or who have borrowed from someone else. But that is just one option. There are thousands of start-up businesses who do it a different way. It is still possible to build a business from nothing.
It takes a lot of prospecting and dozens of meetings to build an initial client base. You will also need enough money to cover your train fares, your IT and, in my case, a desk in an office. Once you can send your initial invoices, you have the beginnings of cash flow.
We have resisted the urge to take large sums of money out of the business in director dividends.
I wanted to build a company that was profitable from day one. My co-directors share this vision. It is why we work hard to understand the margins of every piece of work that we complete. This enables us to offer stable employment to our team with good salaries and benefits. We have resisted the urge to take large sums of money out of the business in director dividends, instead preferring to build the cash cushion for a rainy day.
As a journalist that previously covered the insolvency beat, I saw too many companies that sailed close to the wind by taking on debt, having insufficient savings or where greedy directors took too much cash out of the business. As an independently owned small business, these are basic financial steps we can take that will protect our people and guarantee service continuity for our clients.
How did you come up with the idea for your startup and what gave you the confidence to run with that idea?
I have had the business plan on ice for a couple of years, but never quite had the confidence to do it. Then I was made redundant. I found myself sitting in an interview for a content job at an accountancy firm where I was being quizzed (for the third time) about whether I knew enough about writing. At that moment, I decided it was time to start my own business.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
When you are self-funded, money is everything. Decisions on expansion and hiring are based on forecasts, cash flow, debtors of concern, and the monthly and quarterly profit and loss. Everything connected with growing the business comes from assessing the financial risk and from pricing the opportunity cost.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and your specific business? What is your problem-solving process?
I do not think anyone could have prepared me for the type of stress that is uniquely involved in running a business. But over the past three and a half years, I think it is fair to say that I have become less hot-headed and more considerate in my problem-solving approach.
In instances where an immediate response is not warranted, I try to take some time to think about the issues. If something is more urgent, I will likely bring in my co-directors and colleagues for their thoughts and perspective.
How do you deal with stress?
I find exercise helps on particularly stressful days. My combo of choice is running and the gym. That said, I also enjoy a beer, a curry or a huge bar of chocolate to forget the stresses of the day. Most importantly, I think it is important to get as much sleep as possible.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
I am sure every founder has their own challenges. For me, it was that I had spent a career working as a journalist. While being promoted up through the editorial ranks was a rite of passage, running a publication is nothing like running a business. I realised quickly that I needed to upskill.
At the start of covid-19, the UK government offered a series of paid-for training programmes for small business owners, which I embraced. While these were not that in-depth, they presented plenty to think about. Since then, I have been working with an excellent business consultant who is a former CTO at a major investment bank, and I have gone back to university to study for my Master's in management and leadership.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when becoming CEO?
The ability to improvise.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to become CEOs of startups?
It is all about your network. When I started, there were people who sent business my way who I had not spoken to in 10 years. Lots of people want independent businesses to thrive. Many will go out of their way to divert business your way…. if you are good.
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