This is the second post of a three-part series on where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and where I’m going. To read the first part, click here.
I would be kidding myself if I said this was an easy write. On the contrary, it was one of my biggest writing challenges to date, producing several drafts in the process. Understand that this project was very dear to me, and spurred me on when times got tough. That means something to me. But all journeys end some time, and the best one can do is reflect on them and glean lessons from the history. It’s the only way to move forward, really.
The following is a brief, personal narrative of my involvement with 7iber. There are plenty of details not worth relating because a) they involve people that were very close to me and a place that still exists, b) they’re not relevant to the story, and/or c) they’re just downright boring.
Throughout the story I’ve sprinkled little retrospectives on what I learned from my personal experience. Those snippets are compiled at the end, in short-form. So if you don’t want to read the story, feel free to skip ahead. It’s kind of like watching a movie sequel that doesn’t really require you sitting through the first film. But it helps to know the backstory.
Chapter 1. In The Beginning (circa. 2007)
On an unusually warm winter afternoon in early 2007, weeks after coming home from my undergraduate life, I met two bright minds that had an idea for a platform. Over mint lemonades at Wild Jordan, we talked about a place that could attract a community interested in reading posts by top Jordanian bloggers. By the time we paid the cheque, the idea had grown. Why not open it up to anyone with something articulate to say, and in need of a local platform to say it on?
In retrospect, this sounds ludicrous today, in this age of social media platforms and networks – with everyone producing, publishing, and sharing. But back then, the only thing ludicrous about the project was trying to find enough voices. Remember – this was months after Facebook had just expanded globally, and Twitter hadn’t even celebrated its first birthday, let alone a following. Global social consciousness hadn’t shifted towards a culture of media production and sharing.
So we chipped away, and by May 25th – Jordan’s independence day – 7iber was alive.
It didn’t take long to discover that building a website wasn’t the same as building a platform. Blogging was at its peak back then, but online audiences were still slim. As a blog, 7iber’s identity extended the idea of a blog as being a one-person show, to the broader realms of citizen media, where anyone with something promising to say could get published. Easier said than done. Contributions came hard, and with all of us seeing this as a passion project on the side, I’d be lying if I said we aggressively pursued the kind of voices we were looking for.
We had ideals and those largely determined what submissions – on the rare occasion there was one – were worthy of publication. In retrospect, even early on, this should’ve been articulated better through a public editorial vision. There were submissions that just didn’t fit. We got a lot of bad poetry, and one-paragraph commentary that might barely qualify as a Facebook comment these days. We were looking for fresh perspectives, a critical eye, and a narrative that contrasted the mainstream. Again, easier said than done. We were competing with a citizenry that didn’t see the value in speaking out, and in all fairness, we were 23 year olds (I think) whose limited real world experiences blinded us to the costs.
Soon after the launch, it felt like everyone went their separate ways, making promises to “keep it together”. Those are the kind of promises you make in your early 20’s – before reality sets in. Post-graduate studies, full time jobs, and other adventures kept 7iber in a semi-comatose state for its first year. I can’t even recall even having a single meeting after we launched. Not until mid-2008 when an event compelled us to come together again and perhaps take this passion project more seriously.
Chapter 2: Meeting Royalty and 7iber gets to work.
In an earlier draft, the following story was an aside – but I realized how pivotal it was to this tale, and that it was a catalyst. Neglecting it would be bad storytelling. I’ve never really written it due to reasons that now moot. But here’s the (very) short version:
In early 2008 I published a story on this blog and in Jordan Business magazine that got me an invitation to a military court. I spent the day in an empty room until a judge berated me. The only way through the door marked EXIT was to delete the post and retract the story. Done.
I imagine this story winded its way through the corridors of power and soon enough I was called in to meet the HM King Abdullah.
He was empathetic. It was an off-the-record meeting but after discussing the state of media he asked me to invite more bloggers. So then we were a small group lunching with the Royals and the head of the General Intelligence Department came along too (as far as I know, he is currently serving time for corruption).
These meetings were largely about the King emphasizing to his advisors and those close to him, the need to stop throwing journalists in jail. Month’s later, he would articulate that publically.
In retrospect, my belief is that the King genuinely wanted to send a message that bloggers weren’t to be touched – something about maintaining a free Internet and all. But in retrospect, the term “Arab Spring” hadn’t been invented yet. So in retrospect, the meetings really yielded nothing aside from bringing the people that started shaping 7iber, together. But that was something.
We were emboldened and started to look at ways to sustain our work.
For the next three years we survive on random citizen media workshops. Essentially, we taught a lot of people all across the region how to use digital tools to connect and report. None of this was sustainable, and the era of social media “experts” and “gurus” was quickly encroaching – but the site maintained its independence and we all kept our day jobs.
The milestones that proved to be catalysts included the war on Gaza in December 2008 where we used the platform to organize an emergency food and clothes drive (an event that I can’t recall without the need to thank Aramex, which saved our butts on a cold winter night), and of course – the Arab Spring.
Chapter 3: The Arab Spring & Beyond Building momentum
It was winter 2011 and it felt like the entire Arab world was either on the streets or behind glaring screens. In Jordan, online discussions erupted and we saw people discovering themselves in conversations. It was then that 7iber’s Hashtag Debates emerged from a desire to get people talking face-to-face, but after a few sessions we saw that most had come to listen, learn and understand. This got us into producing content we felt could help inform people about the issues of the time, including constitutional amendments, to the role of the security apparatus in public life, media censorship and the unionization of teachers.
7iber received its first real grant in 2012 and with what little we had saved up, it allowed us to work full time, move into a cozy office in Jabal Lweibdeh, and hire four young content producers that came with a wild spirit to match our own. Even with the support, it took quite a while to get the ball rolling, grow the content, and grow the audience. But the work attracted some attention, and enough interest to secure grant funding from various organizations.
We went from the random workshop to dealing with staff health insurance. We had plunged headfirst into the deep-end of a media startup, and it was exciting.
Chapter 4: Parting Ways It happens.
Working in the Jordanian media sector has its pros and cons, relatively speaking. The former are few, the latter are plentiful. In the same country where you can make quick and helpful contacts, is a security culture that has a way of doing things and a way of codifying that culture into law. Suffice to say, 7iber was a casualty of that culture. I won’t use the word “victim”, because when you defy a way of doing things you’re a willing participant.
In retrospect, the blocking was perhaps a drop in the river, and what it all accomplished was to simply create an environment where it was difficult to operate. A blocked media site isn’t good for business, and what pressures I faced personally weren’t good either.
So, with an opportunity to study abroad for a year, it was a good time to take a break from 7iber until things cooled down. Meanwhile, my family couldn’t fathom that their son, who was barely making a living off the thing he loved, would be leaving with a kid soon on the way. Supporting my family was important, but staying might have come with higher costs to myself, my family, and to 7iber.
My partners were not aware the extent of what I was going through, but to their credit, they were understanding of what I needed to do. Over the years, every partner had departed for stretches of time; some for academia and others for freelance work. Sometimes the absences were weeks, sometimes months. We would typically divvy up the role amongst us to fill the gap, or the work simply wouldn’t get done. In retrospect, this was at the heart of 7iber’s accountability problem, which I’ll get to shortly.
So my role was distributed amongst two partners (one of whom I happen to be married to), and I sailed away in late September 2013.
Between December 2013 and May 2014, 7iber moved in to a great new space and took on a new partnership. During these months I came home intermittently. We met repeatedly, and set out plans for the coming year.
A major goal was to steer a path away from a grant-dependent model, and develop actual revenue streams from the content production that could lead 7iber to financial sustainability and relative independence. There was also consensus (at least early on) that developing an actual business model was tied to 7iber expanding its reach, and thus we looked to the region.
In the background, there were also a string of issues that needed to be tackled, such as organizational accountability. It was honestly impossible to hold any partner accountable, mostly because we had developed intricate relationships over the years. There was a need to bring in outside management that a) could offer the strong managerial skills we lacked, and b) could hold us accountable for our performance and deliverables. This was key in an organization where each partner took on a prominent, and unchecked role within it.
That was the gist of it.
Soon after a visit in April, I booked a mid-summer return flight to Amman, excited to put theory in to practice. But a few weeks into May, a conference call with the group suggested that my role had been fully taken over, and I was essentially made redundant. This was surprising given that I had just met with the group two weeks prior, in Amman.
Regardless, the majority of that conversation turned towards driving home one point: if another partner was to be taking the lead, we at least needed to hire a proper manager for the sake of accountability. Putting aside media ethics or good business practices – accountability was a non-starter for me simply because it was such a gaping hole in the organization. Without addressing it immediately, the company would get lazy, inefficient and eventually stagnate. This was especially important at a time of growth, and especially important in seeking a sustainable business model. Our house had to be in order.
Suffice to say, we just weren’t on the same page, and unfortunately, the coming months just brought about more differences in the vision. The paths in the forest had diverged.
For the longest time, 7iber was a second home to me. The kind that occupies your thoughts more than an ordinary day job does – and that’s when you know it’s good. Through 7iber, I enjoyed some of my favorite life experiences, I met with amazing people and talents, both in Jordan and the region, and that includes my wife. It kept me hopeful when times were tough, and the support of its fans was inspiring. And I’m grateful to everyone who helped make that happen.
Today, 7iber is on a path of its own, and I remain eager to see what comes next.
Here are some of the lessons I derived from my personal experiences at 7iber, and my work in media at large. Hopefully, they can serve as guidance to anyone working in this field, or looking to enter it.
1. The Right Person For The Right Job
This is especially tough with startups. You have partners that come together to implement an idea, and when that idea grows, it takes on more people, and more roles need to be filled. Roles need to be focused and clearly defined. This means being flexible enough to acknowledge a growing organization’s needs as they arise, and move to fill those roles with the right people. In the very early startup phase, partners tend to wear different hats. But the objective should be to hand those hats over to the right people, and that usually means other people.
This is especially true when it comes to management. If management consists of partners, who are friends, and also their own directors – something’s amiss. From my perspective, bringing on board management that is empowered to follow up on performance, ensure targets are being met, and hold people within the company accountable regardless of their position, is a step you take when you’re in a position of organizational growth and have the resources to do it. Sometimes, this even means partners need to take a pay cut – but it’s something I feel really pays off in the long run.
Holding on to all those hats – out of ego, control, or what have you – is just irresponsible.
2. Give Feedback
Giving feedback is something people say that all the time but I never really understood it in a context that made sense to me. But for those involved in digital content production, it tends to come in the form of constant feedback. It’s what a young team specifically looks to you for, because it’s what allows for improvement.
A critical review of what’s being produced needs to exist in a continuous feedback loop. It helps managers understand their content in relation to the vision, and it avoids pushing a creative team into a comfort zone – producing redundant work that might get marginally better, but never exponentially better.
Without that feedback loop – innovation dwindles, and so does your team’s passion for what they’re producing.
3. Take Feedback
The worst thing any startup can do is ignore feedback from the community. For the content producers, that community is your audience giving you immediate feedback on what you’re doing. This is good news. And in an age of real-time, 140 character interactions, the feedback loop works faster, which is also a good thing. If you’re versatile enough, that feedback that’s coming at you daily is also a chance to improve daily.
This isn’t just about simply accepting criticism, but making sure the process of learning to accept criticism, is an ongoing project and that it’s not overpowered by a culture of rejecting criticism.
Granted, not all feedback is constructive. And yes, you may disagree with the community at times, but you cannot ignore their feedback all of the time.
4. Develop a Business Model & Experiment
Online news/editorial media is still in its infancy. Different organizations are testing out different models towards sustainability. From the dying banner ads, to sponsored content, to paid subscriptions – it’s all being tried. And that’s why I love this moment in media history – it’s incredibly, and wildly experimental.
My alma mater’s motto is a phrase in Latin that I love: Tentanda via. Meaning: the way must be tried. That’s how I feel about sustainable online media: every avenue must be tried; every door must be knocked on to achieve sustainability.
An over-dependence on grants (and media startups in the Middle East attract an unsurprisingly great deal of it) puts you in that comfort zone. Moreover, somewhere along the line, grants end up leading you, instead of the other way around. You need their financial support and they have specific things they want to fund, so you end up trying to fit a circle into a square just to get the support you need to survive. It’s not always like that, but it gets there.
And that’s the biggest downside of it all – all this time, you’re just surviving; not growing in a way that’s meaningful.
So, find a business model and experiment.
5. Delve Into Your Audience
Media and audiences are interdependent. If you’re part of the former, you have an obligation to better understand your audience. You need to understand whom you’re talking to, and what kind of content you’re producing for them; what’s engaging them. Otherwise, you’re producing in a bubble of your own creation, and as long as it satisfies you and your immediate circle, then expectations have been met. In reality, as one colleague put it to me, you run the risk of “over promising and under delivering.”
This might all sound like it goes without saying, but really it begs repeating. It’s as simple as a magazine geared towards university students publishing an Economist style piece analyzing the Greek bailout. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it represents the hidden contrast that emerges when you don’t fully know your audience.
The audience is no longer restricted to the receiving end of information; they’re part of a conversation. Delving into the audience means understanding if you’re helping or hurting the conversation. It means understanding consumption patterns. It means understanding your reach, and your influence.
6. Saying “No” To The Naysayers
You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it begs emphasis.
There are two types of careers: there’s the 9-to5 job, where you punch-in, punch-out, go home and get paid, and there’s investing all your time in pursuing something you truly love. Let me be perfectly clear – both are fine. I find myself belonging to the second category – but that’s just me; that’s my preference.
Both have their pros and cons, and everyone weighs them differently. But having tried both, I can honestly say that pursuing something you love is an adventure that isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re giving up stability and security to pursue a dream, and all the while you’re being barraged by family, friends and society, to conform; to secure a safe job, keep your head down, and move up the ranks. Because that is the norm; that’s what’s expected of you.
To defy that norm is to say “no” to the naysayers. And if you’re truly passionate about what you’re pursuing, and I mean the type of passion that keeps you up at nights with mental blueprints embossed with creativity and little sparks of innovation; the type of passion where if you work hard enough, it can produce amazing things; if you’re really all-in, then saying “no” to the naysayers comes easy.
They’ll keep coming. Even after you’re in it, you’ll encounter people along the way who’ll tell you something can’t be done, because no one has ever done it successfully. Make sure to avoid these people. They have no imagination.