Retrospective: What I Learned From My Time at 7iber or, Adventures in Media Entrepreneurship

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.

Preface.

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.

9 thoughts on “Retrospective: What I Learned From My Time at 7iber or, Adventures in Media Entrepreneurship

  1. Salam Naseem.
    What an emotional post, I almost teared up scrolling through it.

    Despite the not-so subtle-dig of the “blue header” that served as an instant initial turn off,
    the circumlocution turned out to be a bigger “meh”-inducer.

    But since we are trying to bring back that long-lost 2006 “blogging” spirit,
    (whatever that means in 2015),
    let’s go back to our old contentious ways,
    with our usual… no love lost on the personal level.

    As a former “Contributor of the Year” to 7iber,
    and later on as a full-time “employee”,
    I would really appreciate it if you would allow me to make this argument:

    ——-Despite being a co-founder and a boss at 7iber, you were practically irrelevant to the project—–

    Let;s keep in mind that this is not a canned-food factory or a governmental initiative,
    which would require the typical middle management euphemisms to justify middle management existence:
    vision, initiative, planning, sustainability, mission, objectives…..means absolutely nothing.
    (maybe a footnote to be fair)
    Let’s put this jargon aside for a minute (or more) and focus on ….CONTENT.
    As you have explained above and previously, you seem to identify yourself as being “in the online content creation” business, or more superciliously “online journalism” (whatever that means in 2015).

    Hence the question:

    ——–Can you please identify ONE piece of content on 7iber.com over the last eight years that has your “editorial touch” behind it?———-

    I would’ve liked to ask the question of:
    ——–how much 7iber material you’ve bylined or how many words you’ve actually written (or even edited)—-
    but the answer is as we all know is, zero.
    At least for the few years we’ve worked “full-time” at 7iber together.

    During the time,
    there were Black Iris posts,
    there were some features for a lame business magazine,
    and there were a lot of meetings.
    But, there was no deep-impacting journalism-style shit produced on your behalf.
    (And please correct if I am wrong).

    To be fair, maybe there were a few general themes and ideas pitched,
    and definitely some excellent HR decisions made ,
    but those are things that any temp office assistant could have done.
    (Please please correct me if I am wrong).

    ——The rise or fall of 7iber has never had anything to do with you—–
    And please try to furnish any evidence that proves otherwise,
    because, at least, it will make the above thousands of words semi-relevant.

    (And on a side note,
    it is beyond impressive how (as evident by this post) you have managed to maintain your relative reverence and tas7eej-spirit for the corrupt monarch (over this whole decade),
    while at the same time maintaining the image of a discontent “reformist”!
    OOOft.
    Now that’s a formula that is worth a long advice-style “blogpost”).

    Cheers.

    1. Thanks for the well thought out feedback Musa – I’m glad it was you. Largely because you’re one of the few people that I can honestly say are incredibly smart, sharp, no-bullshitters. So it goes without saying that I really admire the work you put into that comment, and your absence has been sorely missed on this blog.

      Let me address your questions one by one, and then follow them up with a few of my own. There’s obviously plenty one can say, but I’ll try not to be personal here, and also respect your “no-love lost on a personal level” rule. (whatever that means in 2015)

      First it wasn’t my role to create content. It wasn’t the job of any of the partners or co-founders, and none of us did. That’s evident by the body of work that’s on 7iber (and if you find yourself bored at the office one day, you can even put up one of those cute scoreboards and take account).

      This was a mutual decision that was agreed upon over the years, to the extent that anything I (or anyone else) ever wrote for 7iber was never published in any of our names (with the very few exceptions, and those exceptions validated our decision to avoid doing that in the early years), but rather “the 7iber team”, and this includes the very first post published on the site. This is further evident by the fact that over all those years, any time I wanted to write or publish something, it was never done on 7iber (despite the availability of the platform) but rather in my name, on my blog, which meant: completely under my responsibility. Our aim wasn’t to use the platform to publish our voices, but rather open the opportunity for others to voice theirs, including your good self – all the while taking responsibility for what they wrote, and what we chose to publish. There are also things we published in support and promotion of 7iber’s work, including articles and interviews.

      Lastly on this note, this was also the organization’s day-to-day objective – to create the circumstances that created content. This meant taking that vision, and all those abstract things you mentioned – and translating them into creating projects that could be funded – from trainings, workshops, and events, to eventually media packages, and long-term content production.

      This was the process that allowed the organization to stay afloat and hire people to produce, including your good self. If you think my contribution to the managerial process was zero, then that’s your opinion. But it would be an unfortunate one (if not a bit ironic) as it was that work – and all those meetings no one ever really wants to go to – that employed you, the team, myself – everyone. I don’t know how you thought your paycheck, or anyone else’s, materialized every month, but I can assure you that it didn’t magically appeared because people donated after reading something lovely that you and others produced.

      So the managerial side is a whole other territory that I’m not sure you were ever involved in to be qualified to measure a person’s relevancy to this project. Actually, I’m positive you weren’t. Moreover, beyond the day-to-day things on my plate and every other partner’s plate, there are things beyond those roles that are simply not quantifiable, but add value to the organization nonetheless. To put this in a more familiar context, I would say that despite being hired as a full-time writer, your value wasn’t limited to the few contributions you submitted or the research for stories that lasted weeks or months and never materialized. You added value with the ideas (and humor) you proposed during content meetings, working alongside some of the team members and serving as a mentor to them, and your general harsh opposition to most things, which kept us on our toes editorially. Conversations with you were valuable. And those are the things you don’t factor in when you initially hire someone, but they come to be – enough so that it justifies their overall contribution to the project.

      With that in mind – like any organization that’s producing content, some producers were good, and others had to be let go for not living up to expectations, or at least not enough to justify the contributions. And others even left us, when we failed to meet their expectations.

      As for that quip about writing for a lame magazine (amongst other publications I’ve probably written for that you’d consider “lame”), my answer would be, really? Glass-houses, and all?

      Well, ok – speaking for myself, writing for a lot of these publications – no matter what one’s opinion of them may be – is largely what allowed me to earn a living to survive. Being able to sustain yourself is essential to everyone, especially in their 20’s, and even more so as they grow up, get married, and have a family to support. So you often have to take jobs you don’t really love, so you can pay the bills. And this largely explains why pretty much all of us had income coming in from somewhere else (and you can put that up on the scoreboard too).

      So I guess my question to you is, have you ever had to take up freelance work to make ends meet? And while you’re thinking about that, here’s another: have you ever had manage a startup and take up freelance work so you can make up for that pay cut you need to take in order to pay talented employees a fair wage?

      Finally, I never said anything about the rise and fall having anything to do with me. I played a part, as did everyone else. There were events during the rise and fall where we each of us played pivotal role in their happening. Which is an obvious truth of any organization. What this post chronicles is my history, and mine alone.

      Regarding the side note and “tas7eej” comment. I know you’re someone who cares deeply about this country, as do I. And I know that that love fuels your opposition, as does mine. But opposition isn’t black-and-white – we all fall on a wide spectrum of political beliefs and positions. Even if we lean towards the opposing side on that very spectrum – we oppose in different ways. But the end goal – change – is largely the same.

      1. My initial comment was a bit harsh and rash.
        But also a genuine reflection of an immediate thought process.

        Wish there were an “edit” option for the comments on the new WEBSITE,
        just to tone down a few (a very few) minor things, and maybe some of the adjectives employed.

        Your reply however, is congenial as usual,
        and I really thank you for the nice words…
        and I thank you even for the few jabs thrown in the process….
        those made me smile.

        We are adults (it is not 2005 anymore, you know)
        and we should appreciate a few fingers in the ass every now and then.
        So it’s all good.

        But juuust as a final side note about the “glass house” reference,
        probably referring to my 4-year stint at NOX magazine…

        For the record, and for more effective future “jabs” :
        I was never a part of that project because I had to be there or “ended up” there,
        I chose to be there…and it was NEVER lame.

        Also, thanks for the paychecks.

        Best of luck with the new endeavors.
        Cheers.

        1. Thanks Musa. I appreciate your appreciation. Much respect. 🙂

          p.s. there’s supposed to be an option allowing you to edit a comment 30 minutes after posted (to avoid spam) but it might not be working (see latest post).

          p.p.s. nox was, indeed, great. can’t deny it.

  2. Nice to see there are people still blogging. especially people from the olden days. the nostalgia deep inside me is reaching critical levels right now. i kind of miss it. this whole blogging thing, and the community that used to be. I don’t know why, but it actually makes me sad. best not to think about it too much.
    Anways, Good read, Naseem. very enjoyable and informative.

  3. Very interesting read… Some random comments:

    My initial impression about 7iber’s inception was more on the cynical side; why would a person visit a dedicated site on which any “citizen” can post an article or an opinion, given that one of the main challenges with the internet is that good content gets lost in an ocean of nonsense? And the truth is that at earlier stages of establishing 7iber there were articles and comments which in my view had poorer content. However, my views changed when 7iber started publishing well researched targeted articles which promote in our society values of political reforms, democracy, equality, freedom of speech, and personal freedoms, and sometimes goes beyond to debate controversial values in a largely conservative society; A change I am strong advocate of. Those articles started falling within clearer themes which one would expect when visiting 7iber’s page.

    Reading about the experience with the military court and lunching with the royals is very interesting. One working in a completely different field can be oblivious about the state of media censorship in Jordan.

    It is also interesting to read that, similar to family businesses, the way for an organization like 7iber to survive would be to establish proper corporate governance whereby accountability, authorities, roles and responsibilities are well defined; Absolutely, would be my professional recommendation on the way forward.

    As a consultant, I am always of the view that we lead one of the busiest careers with the heaviest cost on family time and personal health. I always live in a dilemma whether one day I would wake up and wonder whether those years of sacrifice were worth it, or years to regret due to the heavy cost. What would my daughter tell me when she is 18? It is interesting to read about your experience with Media (or its probably entrepreneurship) to realise that the same dilemma runs through many people’s minds.

    1. Jamil,

      That experience is most definitely one that strikes across the board, especially if it’s something that demands one’s attention beyond the mere 9-to-5. Like anything, 7iber is a project that had an evolutionary trajectory, one that has been mostly positive if comparing today to early inception.

      As for media censorship – it goes much, much, much deeper (and darker) than anything I can safely relate here. For the large part, most of the actors are well aware of it. Others are aloof – so long as they are not targeted.

      Would definitely love to hear your thoughts on sustainability from a consulting perspective!

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