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Revenge of the makers
Better to be a doer in a downturn
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Season of doers
Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter could end up proving to be a fascinating case study of management and leadership. Personally, I find most of his approaches childish and cruel. John Battelle summed up the dangers of Musk’s Extremely Hardcore™ approach becoming normalized as how you lead teams.
“Not only does it foster unhealthy relationships to work, it also celebrates a toxic brand of male-dominated power - the kind of power that many of tech's current titans, including Musk, Andreessen, Thiel, and their ilk - seem to believe is threatened. In their writings, investments, and political lobbying, it's clear that "hardcore" is a philosophy this group of Valley troll-bullies seem desperate to entrench.”
Right or wrong, we are entering a period of overcorrection as power swings back to the capital/management side and away from labor. The cascading layoffs will continue into 2023. Many business leaders look at Musk’s actions and do not react like John does. They’re jealous. We’ll see other mini-Musks out there, just as the canonization of Steve Jobs made many mistakenly think they could adopt his psychotic tendencies and have a better chance at success. We often learn the wrong lessons from successful leaders.
The Extremely Hardcore™ approach is obviously flawed to the point of being inhumane. It will appeal to a subset of young and mostly male coders, and the opportunity to work closely with Elon Musk has obvious appeal to the ambitious. I think the debate sometimes obscures a more interesting approach Musk is taking to wrench Twitter out of its malaise: He is upending the organization to make it engineer-driven. This has long been a totem of Silicon Valley, yet the bloat that’s set in at many of these companies has pulled them away from that.
Last week, Musk sent an email to all Twitter engineers that was telling: “All managers are expected to write a meaningful amount of software themselves. Being unable to do so is like a cavalry captain who can’t ride a horse.”
You can disagree with 98% of what Musk says and does, but this has a lot of appeal. Anyone who has spent appreciable amount of time working has realized how much of business has been taken over by administration. The doing is often treated as an input to be swapped in and out. This is a classic case of takers vs makers.
The upheaval at Disney has a similar theme. Bob Chapek had many missteps during his short tenure as the successor to Bob Iger. One of his biggest was not winning over the creatives who drive the business. They’re the doers. Running businesses off spreadsheets will only get you so far. Iger’s first move was a reorg “that puts more decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams.”
The era of easy money fueling growth is ending. Everything gets harder during a downturn. Companies will be rewarded for cash flow, not theoretical future growth fueled by cheap debt and financial engineering. The pendulum will swing from takers to makers.
As a reporter, I was always amazed by editors who never wrote. Some hadn’t published anything beyond an editor’s note in a decade or more. Editing is a different job, requiring different skills, but it is a leadership position. And it’s hard to lead a high-performing team of doers if they know you can’t do what you’re asking them to do.
Many are heading into the first downturn of their careers. The one thing I’ve learned in going through a few is that companies usually use downturns to correct organizational bloat. That usually starts with the administrative class. The high-performing doers – in publishing, people making the product every day or selling it every day – are passed over. The organizers end up being targeted.
Then again, considering the advances in generative AI, the robots could be taking over most of the making soon.
How to choose an email service provider
One of the key platform decisions for any publisher is what email service provider to use. Each ESP has its own features, tools and benefits. Ultimately, an ESP is a means to an ends. It is a way to develop a direct connection with your audience and understand more about them to segment and test the best messaging, personalize content and ensure your emails get to your subscribers. But the most important test for any ESP is its ability to seamlessly integrate with other tools and platforms to better serve audiences and drive business results. Omeda, the marketing automation platform, has put together a playbook for choosing the best ESP.
Pity the Forbes 30 Under 30 list makers because the issue apparently closed before the FTX meltdown. Credit for not nuking the digital evidence of the honorific for Alameda’s co-CEOs, including this doozy about Caroline Ellison: “Ellison wrote her MIT professor-dad an economics paper analyzing stuffed animals' prices when she was eight years old.” Needless to say, many media businesses have not covered themselves in glory during the FTX debacle. SBF knew all the levers to pull.
Recession watch: The cutbacks are gathering pace in the media business. The gathering downturn heading into 2023, as seen by the big cuts to bloated tech companies, was inevitably going to hit the media business. CNN has started layoffs, along with Gannett, following in the footsteps of cutbacks at Morning Brew, Vice and more. NPR is also in cost-cutting mode. The pivot from growth the efficiency is on, and 2023 will reward those who kept lean even during the very brief “Roaring 20s” phase that turned out to be a bit of a pandemic-generated bubble.
The situation is even more precarious for publications that relied on crypto advertising. During the heady days of the crypto boom, I marveled at a brand new podcast bragging about a $1.5 million sponsorship deal from a crypto company that naturally ran aground soon afterwards. The news out of FTX shows that spending controls were pretty much non-existent there and likely at more companies that were in land-grab mode. Now the backlash is coming for influencers who tied themselves to crypto, showing the tricky side of aligning a personal brand with a sponsor. CoinDesk is in the weird position of kicking off the revelations about FTX while also potentially putting its business at risk since it is owned by a major crypto investor. Side note: I find it hard to believe CoinDesk was offered 6x revenue for its business.
Discounts are a reality of the subscriptions business. But there’s the risk of becoming like Gap: Always on sale. My former colleague Jack Marshall at Toolkits has been tracking promotional offers by publishers, finding that the market has coalesced around near-zero promotional pricing that defers revenue until the promotional period expires. The risk is making what should a steady revenue line more volatile, while also rubbing people the wrong way with sticker shock once the promotional period ends. (You can be sure most publishers keep quiet when the promotional period is about to expire. That’s not an oversight.)
Barstool founder Dave Portnoy now has a watch company, joining legions piling into the space. The watches have come under immediate fire as being overpriced and mostly just generic pieces that happen to have a (controversial) celebrity attached to it. I only own an Apple Watch, so I can’t comment on the quality of Portnoy’s $2,400 watches. But the problem with many products coming from influencers is they put the distribution and marketing ahead of the product.
Middlemen are a reality of any business. Over at Mostly Metrics, CJ Gustafson has a useful rundown of the wildly different take rates among platforms and marketplaces.
If you have a podcast or want to start one, I suggest checking out Pod Help Us. It’s a full-service podcast production company with a particular expertise in video podcasts. I’ve worked with Jay Sparks of Pod Help Us for the past year on The Rebooting Show, and recommend getting in touch to discuss any podcast project you have. Check out Pod Help Us.
One of the most successful franchises we started at Digiday was “WTF Programmatic” explainer series to get into the guts of ad tech in a conversational way. What I like about Marketecture is it’s going beyond the 101 to provide more in-depth overviews of the myriad ad tech solutions out there, like this recent conversation with Zefr CEO Rich Raddon. The idea is to replace that first get-to-know-you meeting that is a staple of publisher life in vetting potential partners. Sign up using “Rebooting” for a 20% discount.
Keeping track of all the AI tools coming online is a part-time job. Futurepedia is a directory with over 300 tools and counting to sort through and check out.
If you’re a solo or couple-people independent publisher, I’m putting together a group to help think through challenges with growth, monetization, partnership, staying sane, etc. Have some good people already involved. Will likely entail a monthly Zoom to start and then go from there. If you’re interested in joining, send me a note: email@example.com.
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