What question is your work answering?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Every company is an approach to answering some question. (Every nonprofit might be a policy failure.)

Many mistakes are made in choosing that question: it might be too ambitious, or too unambitious. It could be too niche, or not focused enough. The true addressable market might be too small. The question may not be a lasting one. You can ask a question too early or too late, with the wrong leadership, team or product. Some of that can be changed by a good team, so along the company-building journey, you must change your approach.

But don’t change the question.

If you need to do that, move on entirely. The market does that for most companies over the long-term—excluding zombie companies—which is a lot more efficient than the bloat we can see among nonprofits. But an honest assessment can get it done faster.

Early 21st century entrepreneurial culture has many problems. But there’s value too. Fail fast; talk to customers first; protect company culture. Those are all cliches only because they’re some of the best business growth ideas from the last 20 years.

I’ve been near that culture for the entirety of my professional career. No surprise though that reporting on something isn’t quite the same as doing it at the highest level (as any sports reporter might tell you). It took me many years to go from young journalist to inexperienced CEO. 

Though I never waved too far from the question our company began to answer at our start, when I was confronted with a challenging time, I’d make sure to return to it. From launching with a couple friends through the perilous, decade-long journey since, we’ve always been trying to answer this question: Can commercially-viable local journalism survive its retreat from display advertising? (With the natural followups of “what would it look like?” and “can it last again?”)

Over 10 years, (and, in particular, over the 10 years from 2009 to 2019) answering that question took on an array of approaches. All along we got better as an organization, and we produced good quality journalism. I learned more than I ever thought I would, like any first-time entrepreneur does. (Read this about why I produce journalism with a for profit company)

Mission statements are important things. Having company values and developing organizational culture are all non-trivial acts for courting harmony too. These help build a team, as I’ve found different pieces of this framework will attract, retain and excite different kinds of teammates. 

To get to these, you must begin first with the question.