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.
Have you ever received a text message from your local news outlet? This is one of the more innovative approaches we are seeing recently, particularly in the US, where news providers are texting their audiences about critical beats like the wildfires.
One company making that possible is Subtext, a US-based SMS platform designed to connect "hosts" (which can be media companies or individual content creators) with their audience, who subscribe to receive updates. Subtext currently has more than 900 news or media-centric hosts and close to 1m subscribers.
Other news outlets have kept their readers in the loop via text about local mayoral elections or covid-19 and furlough updates during the pandemic. Its clients range from local news organisations to the likes of BuzzFeed News but it is only available in North America.
Subtext was launched in 2019 when it was formerly known as Project Text, and as of today has 20 employees across the US. Hosts pay a SaaS (software-as-a-service) licencing fee to use Subtext and can charge their readers nothing or a small subscription fee. It also has a revenue share model, which takes a 20 per cent cut of subscriptions.
The co-founder and CEO Mike Donoghue is in charge of setting the vision and long-term strategy, whilst keeping operations running day-to-day. That means working with various teams across engineering, product, sales, client success, ops, marketing and design teams to ensure the business is evolving and scaling to meet demand.
He has previously held various leadership roles in tech, media and advertising, significantly leading the tech and media incubator for Advance Alpha Group which launched Subtext. Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, he reflects on his day-to-day responsibilities. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
Operating in a competitive startup environment means making a lot of decisions quickly but also understanding how to prioritise your time and resources to ensure you are making the decisions that will have the most enduring impact on your business.
In a role like this, it is very easy to get involved in every single decision that needs to be made but delegation is crucial. I am a firm believer in hiring talented people and then empowering them to make the decisions they feel are in the best interest of the organisation as dictated by our collective vision as a team.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and your specific business? What is your problem-solving process?
Running a media startup is uniquely challenging in the sense that the industry tends to eat its young. What I mean by that is media startups, in particular, tend to be highly visible. In an industry that balances a crucial responsibility to the public with the need to rapidly innovate you have to take a lot of chances which, in some instances, means enduring criticism that may not always be warranted.
Broadly, my problem-solving process is very simple. When there is an issue or opportunity that arises I have to ask myself whether or not this furthers the mission of our team and the business in a way that is commensurate with the resources necessary to do it. You have to get comfortable with the unknown but if you use your mission as the barometer for your decision-making you are always going to be doing the right thing.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
In order of importance, I would say, emotional intelligence, passion for the problem you are solving, steadfast commitment to doing what is right for your business, team and clients, intellectual curiosity, candour, persistence, and optimism.
I realise these are not hard skills necessarily, but these are skills that, like anything else, need to be honed over time. The best way to do that is to challenge yourself and your team in each one of these areas while being honest and open about the results. I also encourage CEOs and anyone in senior leadership to talk to members of their team at every level and take their temperature on each one of these areas to see if you are aligned.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when becoming CEO?
Being a skilled salesperson benefits a lot of CEOs. Not necessarily in the sense that your only remit is doing business development but in the sense that you learn how to be compelling and persuasive without having to rely on your job title.
Doing this successfully means employing a lot of the skills I shared previously. Being a CEO means constantly being persuasive and selling what it is you do to various stakeholders whether those are employees, investors, clients, or the public.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to become CEOs of startups?
Do not be afraid to bet on yourself and never stop being a student of the industry.
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