Rewind to 2011, the year I started Pando.
Back then, while I was raising money ahead of launch, I explained to skeptical investors that our reporters shouldn’t see any of our traffic stats, and that all previously lauded Key Performance Indicators of the journalism world were corrosive to building a long term company.
Obsessing over SEO rankings? It’s antithetical to breaking news because, if something is truly news, readers won’t already be searching for it.
Page views? That leads to link bait, kitten videos, and “YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE WHAT THIS THIRTY ONE YEAR OLD…” style headlines.
Michael Arrington’s chosen KPI in the TechCrunch days was Techmeme headlines. It didn’t matter that TechCrunch’s traffic was multiples of Techmeme’s, he felt the Techmeme leaderboard was the best metric to show if TechCrunch was breaking news.
That was more laudable, in theory, than tracking page views— which is why TechCrunch back then was a far more substantial, if smaller, property than, say, Mashable. But like all KPIs, it soon got gamed. Reporters quickly realized that there was an easier— and more sure — way to get TechMeme headlines than break real news: Rewrite a press release with the most straight news headline you could, the fastest.
A KPI intended to make TechCrunch reporters do what Arrington was so good at, ultimately turned the site into the home of re-written press releases we see today.
Even tracking the number of social shares is a flawed performance indicator. We’ve found at Pando that many of our best, most impactful, and mostly widely read stories, do not have high numbers of vanity shares. No one wants to be seen to be reveling in the struggles at Kleiner Perkins, the growing acceptance that Uber is doomed in China, or the trials and tribulations of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. Instead those stories are passed around quietly, by email or private message. Internally, we call those “chicken shares.”
A slavish worship of Chartbeat is even worse. Chartbeat is the only analytics tool we pay for, and is great for editors and social media directors. But for reporters it is a second-by-second indictment of how the viewing masses liked your headline, not who may be reading your story or the impact it may be having on the world. It’s page views, on crack.
Back in the early days of Pando, I even got in an argument with the head of a software company whose entire raison d’être was helping companies find and measure the right KPI. I argued that any single stat could be gamed and that running your company by staring at it too closely could make you lose sight of your broader mission. He argued there was a perfect KPI for Pando— one that wouldn’t do all of those things— but I just hadn’t found it yet.
Now fast forward to this past June. Pando is six months away from its fourth birthday and coming up on two years since our last venture round. Our business and brand are stronger than ever, but our cash balance any given month is…. well, it depends on the month. For the last year the fuel light has flickered on, then an ad deal closes, or something else happens, and it goes off again.
Some months, knowing how much longer we’ll stay in business is like driving up and down hills in San Francisco. “Oh shit, we need a gas station quick! Oh no, nevermind, we’re good for another six months.” At this point, we’ve come back from so many seeming existential threats we should be renamed LazarusDaily. Other media companies, of course, haven’t been so lucky. It sometimes feels like you can count the remaining number of independent outlets covering the tech industry on one hand. Other times it feels more like one finger.
Our switch to a membership model has made a big difference. As we’ve written before, we have a target of 5,000 paying members by the end of the year, which will put us on a much more solid financial footing. With just less than three months to go, we’re close to achieving that goal — and keeping the gas warning light off for good — more on that soon, but we’re not quite there yet.
For now, we’re not in “sit back and spout philosophies about how you build a great media company” mode. We are in grind mode. One disappointing subscription month, and we are in “please God don’t make us layoff more people” mode. One bad quarter and we’re in “I may have to sell my house and tell my kids we have to move out of San Francisco” mode. Six bad months and we are in “I hope my business partner doesn’t have to leave the country because I drive us out of business” mode. And we are staring into a startup market that many (including us) believe is about to collapse in some shape or from— potentially taking the business confidence of many of our advertisers with it.
And guess what? Amid all this, I finally found the perfect Pando KPI: The number of new Pando members we add daily.
Go down this handy Wikipedia checklist of what makes a good KPI:
– A KPI can’t be expressed in dollars. Check!
– KPIs have to be measured frequently. Check!
– They are acted upon by the CEO and senior management. Check!
– They are a simple measurement the staff understands and knows how to correct for. Check!
– Responsibility for the KPI can be assigned to a team. Check!
– They impact more than one of “the organization’s top CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS” … um, probably, check.
– They encourage action that helps the company’s mission. Check!
So this is what it’s like to be a CEO who reads business books. As a KPI, “new daily subscribers” is truly perfect, as long as our churn is low, which it is. Each subscriber added means we are that much closer to sustainable, month-on-month revenues that pay our journalists’ salaries without depending on the lumpiness of ad deals or the inherent (and unavoidable, if the editorial team is doing its job) cost of pissing the wrong sponsor off with our journalism…. particularly as we’re about to enter a market downturn filled with bad news.
Unlike page views, subscribers aren’t empty editorial calories. They can’t be. There is no reason anyone decides to pay us $ 10 a month, or $ 100 a year, unless we are doing great work that helps them make decisions about their investments, their jobs, or their lives.
We notice that subscriber numbers tend to increase roughly two days after we produce what we qualitatively think is a great day of editorial work. That makes sense because it’s about the time one of our 48-hour unlock links expires. Our best work is still making the rounds, and now people are deciding to pay to continue reading it. Even more encouraging: Daily subscribers seems to compound when we string together several days of excellent stories. As if would-be subscribers get their third Pando story shared with them and say, “Wow, maybe I should just subscribe…”
There is literally nothing bad about this metric. The more it increases, the more likely we are to stay in business. And it can only be “gamed” by doing great work every single day. It’s finally a way that our reporters can totally ethically help ensure their salaries are paid. All they have to do is do great work. Finally it was the clearest path out of the tunnel of burning capital we’d seen yet: Just keep doing this everyday for six months, and we’ll be in the black. The nightmare is over. The number in the bank just starts to increase every month. Imagine! We actually have the answer.
That, I thought, I can do. That is in my control. I just have to write more and more good stories every day.
I lasted about eight weeks. After two months or so of working until 2 am to edit, polish, report, or write that final story, aiming for maximizing this KPI day-after-day, my body simply gave out. My two-year-old’s light cough entered my exhausted body and turned into an infection. I started having chest pains, and went to the emergency room. After running every test imaginable, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
But I kept grinding out stories. A week later, I got hit with what I thought was a flu. I couldn’t stand for long periods of time, I had trouble breathing, I was racked with fever, and a constant painful cough. I could barely lift my kids. I stopped grinding because I could barely sit up without a coughing fit. I kept thinking it had to get better. After five days in bed— longer than I spent resting after I had my second child in 2012, mind you— I went to the doctor who took one look at my vitals and sent me back to the emergency room. In the two weeks between visits, three parts of my lungs had filled with fluid. I had pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital– my first stay ever where I didn’t leave with a child in my arms.
Every entrepreneur can relate to feeling that they are drowning. I was quite literally drowning in the manifestation of my own stress, overwork, exhaustion, and slavish reliance on a KPI that demanded more and more, better and better, stories.
Here’s the thing: Up until I found this magical KPI, I’d always been pretty good about work-life balance, for an entrepreneur. I had to be. I have two children. There was no time I could crash after a short term deadline. I didn’t have the luxury to work all night. I had to stop working around 6 pm to feed, bathe, and rock my kids to sleep. I couldn’t work seven days a week, because I was a mom on the weekends. Pando had to make it without burning everyone out.
And this was a good thing for us. How many content entrepreneurs had experienced extreme burnout and health problems? Om Malik, Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, Jason Hirschhorn. It wasn’t a great pattern. If you are in the hospital, you aren’t much use to anyone. I’d seen this enough that this time last year, I decelerated a bit. Post Pandoland, I’m always exhausted. Last year, I couldn’t get enough sleep in the fall. I felt lazy and guilty, but I went down to eight hours a day for few months. I traded short term for long term.
But somehow, this year, this KPI staring me in the face every moment of every day— this fitness tracker for the company, if you will— twisted everything I thought I knew about building a media company. Without realizing I was making the choice, I started to prioritize short term over long term. And the result was a disastrous September for my favorite pet metric, because I was barely able to work and the rest of the team had to do their job and mine. The benefits of those two months of slaving— all undone with one hospital stay.
So now what?
All those people saying on Facebook, “Take care of yourself! It’ll all still be there when you are well!” are well meaning, but they don’t quite know how precarious trying to build an independent, investigative media company that doesn’t want to sell 20% of itself to an outside investor is.
Daily subscribers is still the best metric of the health of our business. And we’re still in a position where we have no long term if we don’t think short term. But I’m still coughing, my entire body aches from three weeks of it, and I still get light-headed several times a day. I could easily wind up back in the ER if I fall back into old ways. Compared to my other friends running media companies, pneumonia was a very light slap on the wrist for working too hard.
I don’t have the luxury of a cash position or my own riches to think long term. And thinking short term put me in the hospital. So maybe— ironically— the answer is to think in the extreme short term. Like the end of a marathon, one mile at a time. As of this week, we still have months of runway. This week, I feel good enough to rock my kids, run the business, and still write a story a day. This week, I can get enough sleep to get healthier. Eventually if we string together enough weeks like that, we’ll get to the entrepreneurial Promised Land.
But the truth is I don’t really have an answer. But I know running my company by KPI— even the perfect KPI— sidelined me for longer than childbirth, vacation, or anything else that’s come up in the last four years. There are so many examples of things I wish I knew four years ago that I know now. This is a rare one I knew then but foolishly forgot.
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