So you want to start an online business?

Follow these five golden rules, says Michael Parsons, and nothing can possibly go wrong

At this point even the most cynical will probably concede that this internet thing is going to be around for a while. For good or ill, the audience is moving online, which means the people who serve the audience have to move with them, whether they’re selling TV, baked beans, or words. This means a lot of change: The Daily Telegraph is even going to a specially designed, brand new round office in Victoria as part of its belated conversion to the importance of new media. I’m sure they will be absolutely fine, as long as they study my five basic principles for understanding online publishing.

Rule No 1: You have no idea what you’re getting into

I’ve struggled with this one for a while. As a journalist who’s worked mainly on print weeklies and monthlies, there can be an illusion of continuity about starting to publish online. I’m sure the Telegraph is still in this shining, fantastical period. Surely the skills are the same? Surely it’s all about great stories? Actually it isn’t. As you suddenly have to think about delivery and distribution and technology as well as the stories, it’s like having to design the printing press and change the tires on the delivery vans while writing, editing and publishing the paper with half the staff. That initial illusory sense of competence is a bit like the false honeymoon twenty minutes after you first take some interesting new street drug. Nothing happens at all, and you feel slight disappointment. Then your pulse quickens, your stomach feels funny, and you feel as though you’ve drunk too much coffee. It’s not great, but you can handle it. Then it kicks in and find yourself daubed with someone else’s mucus, hanging upside down from a helicopter trying to get the aardvarks to stop laughing at you so you can concentrate on being really, really, sick.

Rule No 2: There are two types of change

There are two types of change in the transition to online: too much, and not enough. As a handy rule, if you’re going into board meetings and you discuss the serious issues that impact your business, and then just before you break for coffee someone looks up and says, “Oh, and what are we going to do about that web stuff?” then you have probably not made enough change. If this is happening at your company you should stand on the table waving your arms and talking about Google until you’ve got everyone’s attention. Tony Blair did this at the recent Labour Party conference, and even that may have been too little, too late. On the other hand, if you have fired half your staff, given everyone two hours’ training, changed everyone’s job titles and decided people need to sit at a specially designed, brand new, round workstation to facilitate a 360 degree perspective on the web, then you have probably changed a bit too much. If this has happened where you work, you need to calm down and make a nice cup of tea, and look for a new job. Try the online classifieds, they’re great.

Rule No 3: The entire known universe is now your competitor

The level playing field created by the internet is a great thing if you’re a bright teenager with a crazy dream. Just look at this video of the founders of discussing the sale of their online video hosting business to Google for $1.69 billion. The reason they are laughing is because they are now very, very rich. If you are traditional business you will never become this rich, and young people like this everywhere are now working hard to make you much, much poorer. The prospect of enormous wealth has distorted the market, giving other people the crazy idea that they should eat your lunch. Right now there are special schools in China in which teenagers are practising the art of writing light and amusing technology commentary for national newspaper websites. They are making notes about witty list structures, amusing drugs references, and the use of hyperlinks to relevant supporting video material. Many will prove extremely talented and much cheaper than the current practitioners of this misunderstood art. In fact, as an exercise I outsourced the writing of this week’s column to a word shop in Shanghai, and as you can see, there’s no perceptible difference in quality whatsoever.

Rule No 4: You now work for a software developer

This is the insight which takes the longest to sink in. The truth is, once your business goes online, it will stand or fall on the basis of the user experience. You may write beautiful words, you make take beautiful pictures, but if your web pages do not display them correctly or your users can’t find them via Google, then they may as well not exist. This is of course exactly the same as in print journalism. If the printers don’t print them or the truckers don’t truck them, if newsagents don’t put them on the shelves, your words are similarly lost in the ether. The point is that printing, and trucking, and being a newsagent are mature businesses. They pretty much work pretty much most of the time (although my local newsagent could smile a bit more.) Software isn’t like that. Software is new. Software is hard. Software is very complicated. The British Government has amazing resources, and employs some extremely smart people, but when it tries to do big software projects, they almost always go disastrously wrong. Are you richer and cleverer than the Government of the United Kingdom? Perhaps, but the same thing will happen to your online properties. They will constantly break, and your business will stand or fall on the technical prowess of two or three very smart 25 year olds, the only people who are clever enough to fix them. If one of them has a row with his girlfriend and takes a caffeine overdose, you are in for a very difficult week. Pay your developers lots of money, do exactly what they say, and you’ll be fine, but try not to embarrass them in the lift with attempts at amusing conversation. Remember: They’re the boss. You work for them now.

Rule No 5: You are going to work harder

When I began in journalism, shortly after the end of the Crimean War, a staff writer would stroll into work at around eleven o’clock, place his buttonhole in an occasional whisky glass, put his feet up on the desk, and write perhaps three stories a week, with time for a spot of hunting. Now the digital robots who work for me record their podcast audio chunks on throat mikes on their way into work, strap digital video cameras on poles to their shoulders so they can interview themselves throughout the day, and rarely write less than five stories a day before starting on their feature work. Online journalists rise at five o’clock in the morning and rarely sleep during the week. What seems to work is to hire very young children who have never known anything better, and then work them so hard that they don’t have time to compare notes, form unions, or eat lunch. The web never closes, the web never sleeps, and neither will you. Sadly this is the only part of this article you should take seriously, but you won’t.

Published The Times