Blog: 5 failures in our first 5 months

In a recent edition of Entrepreneur magazine, Idil Abshir writes, “In Africa’s emerging startup communities… failure still carries a heavy stigma. Failure doesn’t make you stronger; failure makes you a failure. And the consequences of an entrenched unwillingness to talk about it can be bad for local economies and catastrophic for small-business people.”

Inspired by Abshir’s insight, here are five areas where we admit that we’ve failed in our first five months of existence:

1. Coverage imbalances

Geographically, our core coverage area spans most of northeast Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. Since our founding in January 2017, we’ve done most of our reporting from these first three countries and significantly less from Uganda and Kenya.

Because Uganda and Kenya have fairly well-saturated media markets, we opted to focus more of our resources — editorial and otherwise — on underserved areas, namely, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan. The logic here is driven by both editorial and business considerations: untold stories are news, by definition, and underserved media markets are easier to break into than saturated media markets.

While this is probably the right strategic choice, the opportunity cost is that we may be missing some of East Africa’s biggest stories. Hopefully, we’ll strike a better balance in the months to come. We’re convinced that there are a lot of untold stories in Uganda and Kenya that require professional investigative work.

2. Text-heavy

At The Messenger, we believe that there’s usually more than one way to tell the same story, and sometimes the lens is better than the pen.

For a variety of business and editorial reasons, we’ve leaned so far more heavily toward written work over pictorials. This could be listed among our early failures because it creates a skewed impression of what we’re all about and the editorial direction that we’d like to take. Professional photojournalism is definitely going to be a bigger part of The Messenger at some point to come.

3. Revenue shy

Revenue-generation has not been an immediate priority for The Messenger. As a startup, it’s certainly important to develop income streams, but it’s more urgent and more important to build product quality and brand recognition. That’s been the focus in the first few months.

Our business plan calls for rolling out new premium digital products next year to bring in significant revenues. Yet we need to be careful about this because we want to preserve the better part of our journalism as a public good. We also don’t want to create a reader experience that involves lots of distracting and often irrelevant promotions by third-parties.

The downside of our approach is that, in the meantime, stakeholders lack clarity about the future of The Messenger. So as an interim measure, we’ve just introduced a system whereby readers can voluntarily patronize our work. Since our journalism really is a public good, we’re hoping for some contributions from people of goodwill who recognize it as such and commit to help sustain and grow the business.

4. Failure to study peers & competitors

The Messenger isn’t aiming to beat out all the competition as an end in itself. We believe that plurality is generally healthy in the media field. But we do need to stand out to survive.

No doubt, we have much to learn from our peers and competitors. The Messenger was launched without formal market research. Not ideal! As we continue to grow and learn, we’ll need to come up with more structured ways of looking outward and learning from our peers’ successes, avoiding their failures, and looking for opportunities. This is all the more important because we’re keen to establish external strategic partnerships for both journalistic and business reasons.

5. Soft launch = low excitement

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” — Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn

Success in journalism these days is about building trust with audiences, and that takes time. So we opted for a soft launch sooner rather than a hard launch later. We started reporting and publishing for The Messenger well before we had a ‘perfect’ product to offer.

The upside of this is that we’ve been able to learn and grow step by step and attract reader interest and loyalty bit by bit. The downside is that we didn’t ever generate much sense of excitement around our launch. The hard launch option tends to do that better.

Energy is important in any startup operation. We want people to be excited about The Messenger and what we’re trying to do. But building up a credible reputation in journalism takes time. It’s more a marathon than a sprint. Finding the right balance between investing toward the future and creating impact now is an ongoing matter of discernment.


This post is part of a series of planned updates on the business side of our journalism. Interested in learning more? Sign up for our weekly email newsletter to keep up. 

Read the previous post in this series here: Blog: The Messenger’s 3-year plan.