I get a lot of emails from teenagers who’ve started businesses. And moms who’ve started businesses. And companies that donate one of their product for every one sold. And, well, many other broad types of entrepreneurs. They’re easy to instantly categorize in my inbox. For example, here are actual subject lines from emails I’ve gotten recently:
“Teen Entrepreneur’s Kickstarter”
“Millennial Entrepreneur Encourages Peers to Build a Business”
“17-Year-Old Entrepreneur Wants to Go Public”
The emails from moms, one-to-one-giving companies and others are just as predictable. These entrepreneurs had the right idea: They were trying to highlight the detail they thought set them apart. But they picked the wrong detail. Rather than making themselves look unique, they made themselves part of a crowd. And repetition is an editor’s worst nightmare. If I hear about something too often, I think, Well, that’s not special. Then I don’t want to run a story on it.
Each month, I devote this space to explaining how editors make decisions — demystifying the process so that entrepreneurs have an easier time getting press for their companies. And for January, I invite you to rethink your story. What sets you apart? Scrap that answer, and ask again: What really sets you apart?
Sometimes the answer isn’t obvious. Back in November, a woman named Jenny Diaz emailed me about her friend, a small-business owner named Vick Tipnes. She had volunteered to serve as something of a publicist for him, and wrote me many details about his social media presence, places he’s spoken and awards he’s won — all stuff that, while great for him, doesn’t make a compelling magazine profile. But she also told me about the inspiration he found in an old war story, and how it moved him to take a major risk in his business. The timing was great. As it so happened, just as I was reading that, I was struggling to create a new back-page concept for the magazine — and when I read about Vick, I had a breakthrough. The page, I realized, should always feature small things that inspire entrepreneurs, and Vick’s war story should kick it off!
Jenny was a little confused, which I understand. My interest seemed so random. She clearly expected me to seize upon something else. But she’d told me something unique and it perfectly fit a need I had for the magazine — the two things that create a winning combination in media. That’s how stories are chosen.
(You might reasonably wonder: How do I know what an editor needs? The answer is the same at any publication: Pay close attention to the kinds of stories that run, and the formats that recur.)
Not every story is based off random details, of course. Back in August, I spoke at a great conference called two12 and met a guy named Andy Drish. He runs an education company called The Foundation, which sounded interesting, but, truth be told, I didn’t see an Entrepreneur story there. A few hours later, though, he found me and explained that he’s also part of the “open-books movement,” in which companies share their financial data with clients, employees and sometimes the public. Now that’s something I wanted to learn more about. I put a reporter on it, and the resulting story (which, of course, includes a quote from Andy) is in this issue.
Editors have to say no a lot. It’s the nature of the business: We can’t possibly publish every interesting thing we come across. But remember that when an editor says no, they’re really saying, “You didn’t tell me something that fits my needs.” That’s why you should step back. Consider what makes you memorable — because it may not be the basic details of your business or your success. It could be a risk you took. A problem you solved in a creative way. A crazy strategy you adopted. Or, better yet, some other thing I can’t even anticipate. Editors want to surprise their readers, which means you want to surprise the editors. So think differently, and surprise yourself first.