What is a media solopreneur?
We've experienced an unreal amount of unrest within the last year. The crisis behind journalism — both in its sustainability, trust, viability and growth, has only continued to grow. With the COVID-19 pandemic and a hot button election year, we've needed access to good, quality information provided by journalism more than ever, but have failed to connect with journalists of a previous age. On top of this - rising journalists in touch with the skills and tools we need were more likely to be laid off due to cuts made in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The concept of a media solopreneur started to take shape. Advice given to students at countless times has been "start building your audience now," "write something," or "find your followers." We've sacrificed authenticity for klout at times, but in some ways that's the same thing that's keeping some folks going.
Solopreneurship provides an answer to unstable media climates. It offers a solution to continuing your craft and putting your stake in the world, without the burden, restriction, or even dare I say financial, or career instability. Some prominent media solopreneurs have even claimed that a motivation into doing it on their own is the freedom from editorial staff or decisions.
Solopreneurs, while free of some of the bureaucracy and instability of the newsroom, face other obstacles. Serving as your own editorial board, your own tech support, writer, editor, content strategist, designer... the list goes on. Getting started in your career as a solopreneur requires a sort of self-onboarding. Materials to get started and going aren't provided in a sort of buttoned-up onboarding provided by most newsrooms.
- A media solopreneur is someone who's primary product is content. This could be a newsletter, a blog post, a podcast, vlog, webinar series — you get the idea. They're building their substack empires, or have scaled their newsletter to be a larger corporation, or maybe just maintaining it for a few close friends for fun.
- The creator economy or the passion economy is the system that individuals that make a living through creating content, operating as individual small businesses. The tools and platforms that these creators use to create or share content in are also part of this ecosystem.
- Platform refers to the outlet in which the creator publishes content on. This can take the shape of a blog, or podcast, or simply a social media platform. In the case of some creators, the platforms have allowed them to go viral in some section.
Solopreneurship isn't as cut and dry as outlined as above. In fact many creators wouldn't necessarily describe themselves as a media solopreneur or content creator. They've just been doing what they've been doing for a while, and have sort of stumbled into making a living. The most important thing to note, is that you can be considered a solopreneur even if you're not making a single dime. Monetization and solopreneurship are not directly related, however for many can be.
This feels like I'm creating a startup?
Well, it probably does. Those who are a media solopreneur and those who are building a startup often hold the same traits to a high pedestal. They're extremely passionate, curious, trustworthy, looking for adoption, and often looking for monetization. This isn't a bad thing. If you want to bootstrap a living as a creator, you need to be prepared to think about things from a business angle as well.
Here's where you get real with yourself; ask yourself the tough questions.
- What happens if I cease to exist?
- What happens if I want to scale this into a business beyond a solopreneurship?
- What are my personal code of ethics on how I will operate and do business?
Solopreneurship requires product thinking (and business thinking, and creativity, and bookkeeping, and your own creative panel, and your own editing, and….)
The biggest frustration of those who are going it alone is well, you’re not alone. Almost every solopreneur interviewed or surveyed called this out as their biggest issue. Having editors, designers, operational help, heck even a bookkeeper was called out as lifesaving to many. Many folks that work in newsrooms that then went remote realized they took for granted the support staff that was provided by the newsroom.
This isn’t only a problem for solopreneurs, even individuals within legacy organizations or in brands should keep this in mind as well — people do business with other people, not the business or brand.
A quick Twitter search would lead you to believe that for every 1 journalist who launched their own thing, there were at least 10 folks with a tech background. This isn’t to shit on those building with a tech background but rather to dig in deeper as to why. Surveying folks in each of those audiences, I started to notice a bit of a trend in this arena.
Those coming from a journalism background often cited a sort of catalyst event towards going it solo. Whether it was job loss, pay cut, or butting heads with an editor. Those coming from a tech background often considered launching something part of a rite of passage. It was a natural progression to build your own thing.
Regardless of the difference in background, both parties exhibited a sort of stick-it-to-the-man-itis, self-describing as a bit of a renegade, chronic early adopters, someone who gets a kick of being in the know and creating for the sake of creating.
Monetization and the solopreneur
One of the biggest things to take into consderation when you're looking at going solo, is being honest with yourself on monetization. Are you starting something with the intention of it being a full-time primary source of income, or rather as something that you're just wanting to just carry you on the side? Or, is this rather a side hobby where you're not worried about monetization at all, and just creating for the sense of creating.
If you're looking for this to be your primary income — it's important to take into consideration the safety nets that you'll need to get started. You'll also want to test your audience to make sure that you've created a following that has enough trust, buy-in and loyalty to convert to a paid audience. We'll go more into this in-depth as we talk about monetization, but keep in mind, the overall trend is that this is not a get rich quick scheme, but rather an ongoing labor of energy and love that takes it to the next level.
How do I get started being a media solopreneur?
First off — start by doing. Accepting that you're not going to have a perfect plan, routine, or organizational strategy from the get-go is the first way of doing this successfully. While many of you whom are planners may find this a bit uneasy, then do I have news for you about solopreneurship.
That start by doing, choose a platform. Common platforms for creators include Substack, Mailchimp, YouTube, Twitch or a podcast. Pick something you feel comfortable in, you can always refine the product, but your platform is just the tool to which you're building your empire. At the end of the day, as a solopreneur, you are your product. People will come and identify your product with you, not the platform that you started on.
We're seeing this already happen with individuals migrating from platform from platform, often taking their audiences with them. In the case of some of those who were building a following on Vine, a now-extinct video sharing platform, they have successfully moved to other platforms, primarily video related platforms. (Curious to see the grow up? this Buzzfeed article tracked down some of the top Vine-rs to where they are now.) Don't paralyze yourself in choosing a platform, and rather choose something that works for now, and focus your energy on creating and engaging with your audience.
Be willing to take risks
One thing that many of those surveyed held high, was the ability take risks. Outside of a larger media outlet or organization with different brand standards and editorial guidelines, individual solopreneurs open and available to take more risks than ever before. Things like building relationships and connecting with your audience
We should lean into this idea and way of operating — in one article written by Ben White and Steve Cole, about the New Media Creator, creators are no longer operating in their own silo, but rather in a larger realm
"In our eyes [New Media Creators] (NMC's)are fresh and passionate. They’re able to direct, inspire, and instruct the audience they have amassed. They can influence change, whether politically or cause-based. There isn’t a day that goes by these days without a major social media trend being kicked off by an NMC across the major networks."
Ben White and Steve Cole, 2016
Finding your niche.
What are you obsessively passionate about? What do you wake up in the morning and want to chase day after day after day? This is what you should keep in mind in the back of your head. If you don't care about the topic that you're creating content about, it will show through.
My recommendations to picking a niche; pick two or three things that you give a damn about, like really care about and focus on that. One bit of advice I received while I was building in this space — come up with a topic, jot down a few ideas, then sleep on it. It's easy to be impulsive, its much harder to stick with it day after day after day.
Building and connecting with your audience.
The most successful solopreneurs often have cult-like followings. Casey Newton, Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Andrew Sullivan, and Austin Rief, among others have crafted a persona that someone can relate to. These people all have a few things that are in common that we can learn from one another — they've successfully connected with their audiences in a way that is hard to related.