Holy crap! We have a functioning company! With revenue!
That’s the first thought that comes to mind whenever I stop to think for even a moment about what’s happened to our little hobby project. We’ve created a living, breathing organization, with paid employees, a culture of its own and a truly differentiated product.
Even though we started work on Aldertrack just six months ago and made the decision to become a paid, year-round product just three months ago, Aldertrack was far from an overnight success. It was years of learning and failures that led us to where we are today.
Most important, there were many who helped us along the way. Readers, journalists, political operatives and politicians who knew us from long ago and people who took a flyer on helping us learn, build an audience, gain sources, find advertisers and much more.
People who made a difference:
Anabel Abarca, Jim Allen, Brian Bernadoni, Niala Boodhoo, Justin Breen, Sarah Calder, Will Caskey, Ken Davis, Pat Doerr, Bruce DuMont, Katelynd Duncan, Derek Eder, Mike Flannery, Greg Goldner, Eric Herman, Mike Houlihan, Ben Joravsky, Jake Kaplan, Justin Kaufman, Joanna Klonsky, Michelle Kucera, Kitty Kurth, Kevin Lampe, Fred Lebed, Paul Lisnek, Terri Lydon, Carol Marin, Dan Miller, Rich Means, Jordan Muck, Avy Myers, Mike Noonan, Tom Ogorzalek, Dan O’Neil, David Ormsby, Cindy Paulauskas, Mike Reever, John Rowley, Tracy Schmidt, Jaimey Sexton, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Scott Smith, Tom Swiss, Anne Szkatulski, Sean Tenner…and many more who shall remain nameless because they probably prefer it that way.
And on to the lessons!
- Sales calls matter. As we got closer to Election Day my sales call time fell off the schedule, but when I was making calls to ask people to subscribe, it made a world of difference. Plenty of people said no, but enough said yes that we’re able to pay our employees. A few people actually said they wouldn’t have subscribed unless we’d asked.
- For niche content, it’s all about information, not graphic attractiveness. Neither our website nor email look very good. But we’ve yet to hear someone complain. But when we don’t cover something people think we should have covered…plenty of complaints.
- There is such a thing as too much information. Especially when we got close to the General and Runoff Election Days, the amount of information we could gather and the reporting we could do was staggering. And we wanted to cover every last thing, all of us working well into the night. Some of our email reports went well over 8,000 words with close to 100 links and a dozen different stories – all written in one day by five people. It was obscene. Looking at our clickthroughs, I’m not sure our readers really wanted all that. Maybe it was important as a kind of tour de force so show how bad ass we really are, but our subscribers probably didn’t want or need as much detail as we provided.
- Presenting well on TV and radio is task all of its own.
— Good Day Chicago (@GoodDayChicago) April 8, 2015
One amazing experience for me was that in the course of the runoff I went on a dozen different TV and radio shows. In particular I had one weekly in-studio radio show and one TV show I did every day for a week. They were exhausting. Before every show I wrote extensive notes and even practiced how I would speak. For TV I spent time thinking about how to dress, stand and sit. I listened or watched every show, made notes about how I sounded or looked and then tried to do better the next time. TV in particular is hard: Knowing which camera to look at, where to look when you aren’t speaking and being able to speak quickly and change topics in a short period of time is a big challenge. I have a whole new level of respect for people who do TV and radio. Looking halfway human while speaking on a topic (even one you know a lot about!) consistently is hard, hard, hard.
- A professional PR person really can help. In February I was reconnected with a D.C. acquaintance, Michelle Kucera, who volunteered to help us put together our first Election Night party. Michelle, who was Tipper Gore’s communication’s director at one time, makes everything seem easy. Our first party went without a hitch, and Michelle made sure plenty of people knew great things about Aldertrack. We threw our second party without her, largely because she had other paying things to do instead, and boy did we notice the difference. Someday when we’re really ready to grow, we’ll engage her to help with much more than event planning.
- Say yes to every media opportunity, no matter how small. Reporters and producers constantly struggle to fill their shows or news holes. When you show up and do a great job, they remember you and ask you back. Also, sometimes, when you’re at a TV or radio station, you run into people you’d like to know or talk to. There’s a certain magic at those places, where people become willing to say yes to all kinds of things. And of course, when you’re on TV, radio or in the newspaper, it validates you in a big way.
- Throwing a party is hard work, but pays off in all kinds of little ways.
We're still at Kaiser Tiger. Come on by! pic.twitter.com/5nTjkpM2mG
— Aldertrack (@Aldertrack) April 8, 2015
Gathering our readers, sponsors and subscribers in one place creates another kind of magic. “Hey! I like this! And so do you!” These people all want to know one another. And it’s fun. After our first party people would stop us and say, “What a great party! When’s the next one?” That is a great kind of goodwill.
- Tweet, and treat it like a totally separate medium. Our whole team tweeted from @aldertrack We’d tweet pictures, observations and pieces of news we discovered. Sometimes we’d discuss on Slack whether or not to push things out on Twitter, but mostly we put as many small news bits out as possible.
Happening now: 97 provisional ballots from 10th Ward race under review by both cand's CM's/attys, three hours in. Feels tense.
— Aldertrack (@Aldertrack) April 10, 2015
Plenty of people retweeted our stuff and twitter became a whole new outlet–and path of discovery for us. Our audience is still only about 2,700 people, but everyone in political media follows us, as do many politicians. It only binds everyone closer.
- Take people out for lunch and coffee. When you’re in the thick of things, it’s tempting to constantly work, get to the point, be direct. But the best relationships, conversations and ideas come from slow, longer discussions. When you meet people interesting, ask them out for a sandwich or coffee. You’ll never regret the results.
- It’s wonderful to know your audience. While we have a few thousand email subscribers, our power readers number in the hundreds. We’ve managed to meet most of them and they tell us all the time what they like and don’t like about Aldertrack. It enables us to not only get better, but have the confidence that we’re doing something great–and have more fun as a result.
- Slack, Slack, Slack. I know I mentioned this before, but more than any other, this tool has emerged as a game changer for our team. Everyone is reachable, everything is searchable, and it feels so intimate. Slack has, in many ways, made us into a more tight-knit team than we would have been otherwise.
- When you make a mistake, own up to it as fast, as publicly, as directly as possible. Occasionally we made some mistakes in reporting. As a reporter, making a mistake is doubly bad because not only are people getting the wrong information from you, but you may have unintentionally besmirched someone’s reputation. Own up to it fast–Twitter was the fastest way for us–and then make sure everyone knows you made a mistake along with the correct information. We’d print “Correction” or “Clarification” at the top of our email the next day with a one or two sentence explanation. Generally, people forgave us and everyone lived to work another day.
- Do great work consistently. Other people who do great work will find you. Aldertrack’s two amazing and talented reporters, A.D. Quig and Claudia Morell, found us. Tom Ogorzalek, who made great maps for us, emailed us out of the blue. We have a dozen of these kinds of stories. Because we love what we do and work hard at it, other great people want to be a part of it. And knowing whether something is “great” is totally intangible, you only know it when you just know.