Focus is leverage

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One of the best parts of visiting Tokyo is exploring the back streets and alleyways to discover new gems. During one visit, I found my favorite coffee shop of all time, Turret Coffee, located on a back street near the Tsukiji fish market. Turret is home to the Turret Latte, quite possibly the best latte in the world. The entire shop holds about eight people. There aren’t many other options than the latte. What’s always impressed me with Japanese culture is the dedication to excelling at one thing. The goal is often to be the best, not the biggest. Turret could easily expand,  but the owners choose instead to remain small and take the time to make one latte at a time themselves. Turret has the “rule of the 1 drink.”

You’ll find enterprises like Turret all over Japan, seemingly oblivious to the market pressures to only focus on growth. It’s a different way of thinking, and I find a lot to admire about it. Growth comes at a cost, often to the quality of the product or service. It’s very hard to continue to grow and not sacrifice, to some degree, quality. But another hidden growth cost comes in complication. The more you do, the more chaotic the environment becomes. This chaos is familiar to anyone who has been part of moderately quick growing companies. The growing pains are often felt across the organization, as most new initiatives require ad hoc teams to get them up and running before a dedicated team can be put in place.

The end result of this common approach is that many people have four or five part-time jobs in addition to their full-time job. Many company leaders don’t see, or ignore, the cost of this fire-drill approach to growth. When I read the many stories on “burnout” at media companies, I find myself coming back to a few structural issues that, to my mind, are at the heart of the discontent. The pandemic caused most people to take stock of their lives, and many didn’t like what they found. Many companies reacted to the pandemic by piling more work on a slimmed down workforce. The stress compounds as people are continuously asked to do more with less. Some in the Boss Class see this as malcontents, but in truth I believe most people want to do their jobs well, free of distractions.

That’s why for all the talk of “diversification” and “making money in many ways” -- I plead guilty to glibly preaching this -- there isn’t enough focus on the internal costs of adding more business lines. more projects, more commercial offerings. More often than not, adding in new ways of making money -- a new event, a new awards program, a new whatever -- takes organizational focus away from the most important thing: the content. It would be as if Turret decided to expand to four locations, add breakfast, teas, record label and an experiential agency. Safe to say, the latte quality would likely suffer. Simplification is powerful leverage in a business.

But in business and life, we often ignore that. There’s a gravitational pull to constantly do more and add more. New initiatives are exciting. There are launches, announcements, congratulator tweets. Incremental improvement is unheralded, usually only appreciated in retrospect, over a long period of time. And let’s face it, nobody gets promotions at companies by advocating doing less.

I often speak with those starting media businesses or running small ones still getting off the ground. The one constant is this tension between the very real need for growth with the complications of taking on too much. I’m glad more people are coming around the power of focus for media businesses. Focus is powerful because it simplifies businesses. Most people stretch themselves too thin, convinced they have to do it all, urged on by the hustle porn of the entrepreneur set. In reality, the better approach is likely to master one thing before doing more. I admire Morning Brew for focusing completely on a singular product for years before expanding with vertical publications and other forms of media. There’s a lesson in that.

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5 things to check out

Vertical media remains a growth area. Sifted, a publication focused on the European tech scene, closed a £4 million ($5.4 million) round to continue its expansion from its current headcount of 40 with the goal of doubling in the next year. Sifted claims 10 million monthly users and 100,000 email subscribers. Sifted is an interesting example of a new vertical publication that was born out of an established publication --in Sifted’s case, The Financial Times. The FT still retains a roughly 15 percent stake in the business.

The top of the funnel matters. Subscriptions are a great base for media businesses, but business is not religion, so the idea that companies should restrict themselves to a singular model seems crazy. “When everything is paywalled, you’re limiting the audience you can reach every single day,” co-founder Alex Mather said to Bloomberg, which details The Athletic’s growing pains as it gropes for a sustainable business model. Unsurprisingly, paywalling video and podcast content didn’t work. The company has been conspicuously for sale over the past year, being linked to The New York Times, Axios and even DraftKings. The Athletic is a polarizing company. Plenty of very smart people have predicted to me that it’s doomed over the years. Personally, I admire the quality of the product and hope they succeed. They’re already inching into advertising and have a clear opportunity with all the gambling dough sloshing around.

Of all the daily news emails, The New York Times might have the best in The Morning. The Times executes well across a wide variety of areas, so it’s not a shock that it has established a great franchise in email, with The Morning boasting 5.5 million subscribers. The Morning is a great product because David Leonhardt has developed a nice point of view without being an activist. (His level-headed approach to the thorny issues of the pandemic has been refreshing.) Now, the Times is expanding The Morning to seven days a week, adding Vox’s German Lopez to complement Leonhardt.

The “toxic workplace” stories are starting to blur. Every company is dysfunctional and imperfect -- especially fast growing ones -- and these “we spoke to 31 employees” stories have become formulaic. I’m left unclear what is unusual or even noteworthy about an immature company with a first-time founder still in her 20s having rough spots and a pace of work that isn’t for everyone. This genre of stories tend to have a woeful lack of perspective. The best part of The Great Resignation is the marketplace will determine how companies organize and operate. Some people love the grind of startup life, and its promise of outsize rewards, and some don’t.

Turns out good content is important. Insider explored the “rise and fall” of Clubhouse, the audio app that was a very brief pandemic hit. For all the regular issues this piece brings up, the obvious one to anyone who spent any time on Clubhouse is the content, for the most part, sucked. There was some charm in the rambling nature of Clubhouse rooms, making you feel like you were eavesdropping on conversations. But the problem with novelties is they wear off, leaving a chaotic mess. Clubhouse will likely go down as a nice feature, not a product.

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