Dan Oshinsky is a 2011-12 Reynolds Fellow, and the founder of Stry, a news service launching in Spring 2012. Here on the RJI blog, Dan's putting himself inside the fishbowl to document a year in the life of a startup. Dan hopes that by being transparent with the process, others can learn from his successes, mistakes and failures.
I find myself quoting "Almost Famous" a lot. There's just something about the story of a young, trying-to-make-it-happen reporter struggling with the limitations of his own industry that just seems so.... relatable. Can't quite put my finger on it.
But there's a particular "Almost Famous" line that comes to mind right now. (Contrary to what colleagues might tell you, it is not, "I am a golden god.") It's the part of the movie where we've just met William, the reporter at the center of the film. He's backstage covering his first rock concert. He's talking with Kate Hudson's character. And she asks...
Penny Lane: How old are you?
William Miller: Eighteen.
Penny Lane: Me too! How old are we really?
William Miller: Seventeen.
Penny Lane: Me too!
William Miller: Actually, I'm sixteen.
Penny Lane: Me too. Isn't it funny? The truth just sounds different.
William Miller: I'm fifteen.
That William Miller and I -- we're not so different. For the past year, I have been talking about Stry. A lot. I have had conversations where I've been timid about it, and conversations where I've been overly enthusiastic about it, and conversations where I've just gotten totally lost in what I'm saying. And whenever the conversation gets too far away from me, I've found myself going to the one thing that feels safe:
Telling lies. Some big, some small, some petty. All lies.
And Miss Penny Lane was right: The truth just sounds different. It sounds... right. Perfect. It sounds like the vision I have for this company. It sounds like what I want it all to be.
Except that, of course, it isn't. Not yet. Stry isn't something I can just talk into existence.
Though I've been trying like hell.
I'd hope that other entrepreneurs won't make the same mistakes I've made. Don't lie. That's my unsolicited, kind-of-obvious advice. Go build something great and stand behind it. Actions > words.
But to come totally clean: these are among the lies I've told this year. They're the ones I can remember. There might be more, to be honest.
These are my confessions:
-We at Stry... This is the smallest of my lies. It's the subtlest. It's also the one I say most often.
When I'm talking about Stry, I use the word "we" a lot. We're optimistic about Stry's future. We reported from Biloxi. We're out at RJI. It's 'we' ad infinitum.
Except it's really just me. I founded this thing. I have not made any money off of it yet. I have lost some money because of it. But all of it -- the concept, the logo, the slogans, the words, the pictures, the dreams, the ambitions, the failures -- it's all me.
Now, I was down at the Poynter Institute in January, and I had a nice chat with Mark Briggs, a (successful) entrepreneur himself, about the use of the royal "we." He approved of "we." The consensus seemed to be that even at a one-man operation like Stry, the company was bigger than the individual. I wasn't speaking for myself. I was speaking for the company and all of its future employees/ambitions/etc.
But the more I use "we," the more it makes me uncomfortable. We? There is no we. Right now, there is only me.
This is the only lie I tell to make me feel like I'm not alone in this thing.
But it's not the truth. And moving forward, until I've got a real team behind this, I'm going to be the only one speaking for Stry.
-I'm an entrepreneur. This is technically true. But at this point, I think it's more accurate to say that I'm an inventor.
An entrepreneur is someone who creates a product and puts it into the field. But without product, I'm just a guy with an idea. And it's an idea that doesn't make me money just yet.
Yes, I founded this company. But what I really founded was the idea for the company. The mission statement for the company. The ambitions of the company.
Until I start selling stories, I'm no entrepreneur. Not if I'm being totally honest, at least.
-I've talked or am talking to media organizations about selling Stry content to them. I say this a lot. I'll be in a conversation about Stry, and I'll find myself saying, "Yeah, we've been in extensive conversations with news organizations about our product."
This is kind of true.
I have, in fact, had conversations -- most of them informal -- with higher-ups at news organizations. Not a ton. But some. The response, overall, has been positive.
But there have been no contracts signed -- just confirmation from certain news organizations that they're actually interested in Stry content, and that they might buy it whenever this thing becomes real.
But "extensive conversations"? That's some strong wording. And it's not reflective of where I've gone with Stry. This isn't a business yet -- it's an idea. Any conversations I've had with publishers have been focused on the idea, and how they think I should evolve it or pivot it to make it more marketable.
This is the only lie I ever tell when I want to sound cool. (It doesn't work, either.)
-I'm going back out the road soon. This is pants-on-fire untrue. I never tell news people this. It's just patently untrue. Any any reporter worth their Ticonderoga No. 2 would figure it out in a minute.
But this Spring, I'd be at my kitchen table, writing, and the plumber would be fixing the drain in the sink, and he'd ask me what I do. It'd be 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. I'd be in sweatpants. And I'd tell him about Stry, and I'd add in that I was going back out on the road soon.
Why would I lie to the plumber? Or, for that matter, the gas station attendant? Or the cashier at the bank?
There's just an awful feeling that I get when I tell someone who works legitimately hard that, yeah, my days are filled with writing and meetings and networking. Or sometimes, just updating a website while making a YouTube playlist. Or maybe even nothing at all.
And some days, as the keeper of this grand and great and ambitious idea that is Stry, I found myself telling the plumber that, yeah, I'm going back out on the road. It's my way of saying, Don't give me that look. It doesn't look like I'm doing much today. But I've got something big up ahead on the tracks.
This is the only lie I ever tell out of pure, unfiltered shame.
(I should say, though: I will be putting out other reporters on the road in 2012. That's a start.)
-I'm consulting with lawyers and CPAs. This is very much a half truth. One of the earliest pieces of advice I got was, Get a lawyer, get an accountant, and get the structure of your business figured out.
And I have, on occasion said, Well, I'm already on that.
Truth is, between Biloxi and RJI, I lived with my parents. (And to be unflinchingly honest: I actually enjoyed it.) My dad's a lawyer. Commercial law. Works on business deals. He also has a background in tax law. Having a bowl of Chex with the big guy and asking him about the legal structure for a non-profit isn't the same thing as sitting down with a real legal team.
Same goes for asking a question to my Uncle Jimmy (small business owner) or Uncle Tim (CPA). Doesn't count.
On that note...
-Yes, the paperwork is in motion. This is just a flat-out lie. I can't remember how many times I've said this. Truth is, I don't move very fast on certain things. Paperwork is one of those things. Last November, I had pretty much decided to file as a non-profit. My dad helped me register in the state of Maryland. All that was left were the federal forms. And.... they just refused to write themselves. Deadlines passed. I kept telling people the forms were in, or were about to be sent in.
They never seemed to send themselves in.
This was the only lie I told out of laziness.
And in the end: I ditched the non-profit route. I'm filed with the state of Maryland under Stry, LLC.
-I've been focus group testing the concept. A friend called me out on this one. (Thanks, LK. It deserved to be called out.) It started at the Online News Association conference in DC last fall. I had just introduced myself to David Cohn, one of last year's RJI fellows. He asked to interview me. And during the interview, I manage to tell him that before launching Stry, I had done some focus group testing on something or other.
I don't remember saying this. I've refused to re-watch the video to confirm exactly what I was allegedly focus group testing about. (Such is the nature of my shame.) But I know this: I did no such testing.
When I was launching Stry, did I consult a wide swatch of family, friends and professionals? Absolutely. I asked their opinions on the concept, on the name, on the logo.
But talking to a few dozen people isn't the same as focus group testing. Not even close.
Sorry about that one, David. Don't know where that came from.
-I'm Dan, Stry's senior bureau chief. This is the title on my business card. And, technically speaking, it is not a lie. I invented this company, and every entrepreneur I've talked to has said, Yeah, if you want to call yourself the Grand Poo-Bah of Underappreciated Entrepreneurial Journalism, that's your prerogative.
For reporting purposes, being the "bureau chief" was helpful. In Biloxi, people got confused when I introduced myself as the company's founder. "So why are you here?" they'd ask. "Shouldn't your reporters be here instead?" This title was a way around that question.
Of course, it freaked some sources out. It was misleading. And if you met my email signature before you met me, and then I walked in the room.... well, I got laughed at. Senior bureau chiefs are usually older than 23, I've learned. (Since Biloxi, I've turned 24, but you get the idea.)
-I know what happens next. Look: I have a vision for Stry. I know where I'm going. I know what we'll -- er, I'll -- be selling, and I know what the product should look like. I know what I want in a staff. I have all the big picture stuff sketched out -- talk to the lawyers, put a pilot bureau on the road, test the syndication process, sell publishers on Stry, raise the funds, launch this sucker -- but I don't know what's going to happen. I have hopes. I have dreams. And I have no idea what might become of me in the next eight months.
But I know this: I'm going to try to let my stories speak for themselves. From here on out, if I can't give the answer I want to give, I'm going to either have to:
A. Work harder to make it happen.
or, B. Get into a new line of business.
That's the truth.