In my mind’s eye I’m a campaigning journalist not an entrepreneur, though as the site’s grown to its current huge scale, I find myself being asked about my entrepreneurial side more and more. I suppose I should embrace it, after all social entrepreneurship is a worthy goal and even with its strong ethical stance, the site is very profitable these days, enabling me to employ a team of 15 and make a very healthy living (see How This Site is Financed).
Having been mulling this recently, it made me hark back to my school days, when I, like many people was involved in setting up and running a Young Enterprise scheme company. It was the first time in my life I felt I really succeeded at something.
Our company was set up to sell T-shirts, my role was finance director, though the jobs flicked-and-flacked throughout. We were easily out-paced by our rival company which made very cool boomerangs (headed up by my contemporary, the ridiculously over-intelligent Krishna Guha, now Washington correspondent at the Financial Times). Our product wasn’t up to much and we made a very very paltry profit, pennies compared to the many hundreds of the boomerang.
However at the end of the scheme, we all sat an exam. Rather interestingly there was no course work, revision or preparation needed; it was an exam questioning your interpretation of business based on the experience of running the company. And having done this exam, I found myself invited to the National Young Enterprise final as one of the top-24, which was very excitingly for me, as a country-boy from the North-West of England, in Central London.
Funnily enough it was the failure of our company, which had only narrowly avoided making a loss, that inspired me. Many believe making money is easy, I’ve never been persuaded of that; it’s one of the reasons my strongest message is “spend the money you have better and more efficiently to get more out of it” as that’s a much more obtainable goal.
And back then I realised what we’d done wrong is think of ‘margins’ not ‘product’. In other words we’d gone for T-shirts because we thought they could be made cheaply and sold for a lot. What we didn’t do is question the actual desirability of the product we were creating. It was a numbers game; while the boomerangs were something everyone wanted, the T-shirts simply weren’t.
Perhaps that abiding memory led me towards creating the site? I believe the reason for its success is that I didn’t set it up to make money, it was there to provide information for people and help promote me as a broadcaster. When I set it up my aim was to subsidise it from my own income, and have no revenue making methods on it at all. It was only when it got too big and expensive to run that I changed that.
Yet as it was working so well, I never saw a need to change the focus of the site at all, or ever “drive for profit”. Therefore my focus has always been, unique, unbending content, primary source research, and providing things because they’ll be good, not because they’ll make the site money. The Flightchecker is the classic example, it’s the least commercially sensible tool ever – it shows people how to get 1p flights; there’s no way to monetarise that, which is why no one else has made one. Yet for me the fact it works and is useful is a good enough reason.
Cynically you could say “ah yes, but think of all the traffic it draws to the site” and of course you’d be right – it does. And it’s because of this, in a round about way, that paradoxically the whole stance has probably ended up with me creating a more financially successful site than I would have if I’d focused primarily on trying to make money.