Media Moves

How a business journalist became his own boss

October 21, 2015

Posted by Chris Roush

Luke Timmerman is the founder and editor of The Timmerman Report, an online website covering the biotechnology industry for $99 a year.

Before starting his own publication nine months ago, Timmerman was national biotechnology editor for Xconomy and national biotechnology reporter for Bloomberg News.

Timmerman got started covering life sciences at The Seattle Times, where he was the lead reporter on an investigation of doctors who leaked confidential information about clinical trials to investors. The story won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award and several other national prizes.

Timmerman holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and during the 2005-2006 academic year, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

On Tuesday evening, the Timmerman Report held a party in San Francisco to celebrate it reaching 1,000 subscribers.

Timmerman spoke by email with Talking Biz News about his career and about his business. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you first get interested in covering biotech?

Luke TimmermanPure happenstance. I was a general assignment business reporter in my mid-20s, working in the suburban bureau at The Seattle Times. I had never studied biology in college. But the biotech reporting beat came open in 2001. The first draft of the Human Genome Project had just been completed, there were a lot of exciting things going on in biotech drug development, and I was itching for a challenge. Seattle at that time had a major biotech company, Immunex, that developed a hit drug for rheumatoid arthritis, called Enbrel.

Biotech struck me as a beat with many interesting ingredients for storytelling – science, human health, business, and ethical dilemmas. Everything changed fast, and there were lots of little companies to cover – not just one behemoth. I took the job. It was intimidating at first, with lots of scientific jargon to wade through. I was eager to learn, and fortunate to be in an environment that allowed me to learn, surrounded by a lot of strong reporters and editors doing good work.

What made you decide to leave working for others and start your own publication?

This was a long, hard decision. I had always imagined myself as a journalist, not a journalist/businessman. When you work for someone else, you might imagine how the business side works, but the actual work is left to others. My most recent experience at an online startup (Xconomy) forced me to think harder about how my journalism contributed to the larger business whole. Success there gave me confidence that I could both identify opportunities and execute on them.

I left Xconomy to work full-time on a book project, and gave myself some time to think about whether to work for another media company or start my own. I talked for a while with other media companies, but nothing came together.

My passion was for doing my own independent thing. Andrew Sullivan had some success with his own publication in politics, and The Information had started a subscription model fairly recently in the tech world. Nothing quite like that had been done in biotech. The opportunity seemed to be there for someone like me with a lot of experience and a lot of connections to a targeted audience.

What type of things did you have to do before starting the Timmerman Report?

My wife and I spent years saving up seed capital for my book and for a potential startup. Then there were all the usual nuts-and-bolts things. I had to figure out what kind of entity to incorporate in my state. I found a husband-and-wife web design and development team who could build me a great-looking, highly functioning site. I got an attorney to write up my Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Then there’s insurance, bookkeeping, taxes, and other administrative things you’ve got to get right.

On the journalism side, I went to San Francisco for a biotech conference a few weeks before the launch so that I could hit the ground running with fresh content in February. I compiled an email list of contacts from LinkedIn so that I could publicize the debut by hitting people close to me directly in their inboxes. I started writing a few freelance articles per month on Forbes to get back in the flow of writing news articles, and get my name back out there on the free, visible web. That was an important pre-launch step, because I had been out of the daily journalism game for almost a year on book leave.

How difficult is it to be your own media company?

Extremely. There’s a lot more to it than just doing the journalism. I worked long and hard at Bloomberg News. I took my work ethic up a few notches as an early employee at a startup, where everyone’s contributions count in a big way toward the success of the whole company.

But when you are on your own, it’s a new level of difficulty. Everything is your job. That means not just breaking stories, but negotiating contracts with software vendors, and making sure all your subscribers are able to log in on whatever kind of device they are using.

How did you decide on the $99 annual rate?

This was the most important strategic decision I made before the debut of Timmerman Report. I wanted to set a price that would be affordable to almost anyone who makes a living in biotech and can put it on an expense account, or write it off as a business expense. Nothing quite like that was available in the biotech sector, where there are a handful of very high-priced trade publications, and a number of free websites that vary somewhat in quality. I saw an opportunity for premium content at an affordable price – a wide open space.

I also was inspired by Kevin Kelly’s essay from a few years ago about the ‘1,000 True Fans’ theory of content creation in the digital age. The idea is that if you are an artist, musician, author, or even a journalist who can assemble a hard-core audience of 1,000 people willing to pay $100 a year for your work, you can make a decent living of about $100,000 a year. When I started, I had about 20,000 reader contacts through my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, meaning I had to capture a relatively small percentage to hit that goal of 1,000 readers. My wife and I were willing to sweat it out for two years if we had to, but my real goal was to reach 1,000 subscribers in the first year. I’m thrilled to say that it took just 9.5 months to hit that number.

What has been the biggest hurdle in your first nine months?

I thought proving the value of the content at $99 a year would be it, but that’s not it. Copyright infringement is the big one. Readers are accustomed to reading free content and sharing it on social media. Some people thought they were doing me a favor by sharing free copies to get the word out to non-subscribers, but the evidence I’ve seen suggests otherwise.

I knew some people would purchase subscriptions and then share pirated content with their friends, but I underestimated how pervasive that practice would be. My early paywall software was also quite easy for copyright pirates to circumvent, and many people took advantage of the vulnerabilities to read for free in the first six months. It was frustrating. I had to figure out how to get greater security for my paywalled content, and more flexibility to offer corporate group subscriptions to companies who were asking for them.

The idea was to make it much tougher for non-subscribers to get my content for free, while making it easy for my actual subscribers to read my content on their various devices. Thankfully, I have gotten that problem solved, although it took much longer than I thought it would.

How have you marketed yourself to attract subscribers?

I’ve used social media, mainly Twitter and LinkedIn. I’ve invited readers to a few free launch parties in different cities where there are a lot of biotech readers – Seattle (my home base), as well as Boston and San Francisco. I regularly attend industry conferences and moderate panel discussions there in front of a highly targeted audience of potential TR subscribers. Then there is my freelance writing for Forbes, the occasional public radio appearances on Seattle’s KUOW, and now a new podcast with the Boston Globe’s Stat publication.

How much time do you spend doing journalism vs. running the business?

That’s a tough question. Ideally, I’d like it to be about 90/10 in favor of the journalism. In reality, it’s probably closer to 60/40 in favor of the journalism. Now that I’ve switched paywall software and payment processing vendors, I have greatly reduced some administrative headaches, which should free up more of my time and attention for the journalism.

How often do you publish?

Two to three times a week. At first, I thought the volume might be higher. But I’ve found readers don’t need to hear from me every day in their inboxes. They expect me to deliver them high quality, and that’s what I want to do as well. In this case, less is more.

What lessons have you learned?

So many, it’s hard to count. I learned some basic things about how to run the lemonade stand. My first paywall software vendor, for instance, had the billing relationship with my subscribers. It collected the money, and then I would have to ‘request payment’ after they sat on the money for 30 days. At the start, I thought that might be OK, because my mind needed to be focus on other things. But after a few instances of not collecting on time, I realized this was an untenable operating situation.

Thankfully, I got in touch with a fellow entrepreneur with a very similar model to mine, Ben Thompson of Stratechery, who had navigated some of these challenges himself a few months earlier. I’m very thankful for Ben’s advice. That actually might be the most important lesson – find a fellow entrepreneur you can share information with freely, someone who understands what you’re doing. It’s lonely out there, but people are quite willing to help if you know who to ask.

You’re starting a podcast with Stat, the Boston Globe site. How did that come about?

Rick Berke, formerly with the New York Times and Politico, was assembling the Stat team last spring, and asked me if I could contribute in some way. He knew it would be tough since I had just started TR and had my hands full. But he encouraged me to think creatively. I came back with a podcast proposal that paired me up with CNBC’s Meg Tirrell. He and others ran with it, and it’s now bigger and more ambitious than I imagined. It’s fun to be a part of another startup, even though my contribution is relatively small.

What advice would you give other business journalists looking to go out on their own?

Pressure-test your assumptions with actual readers you’ve known over the years, and ones you can trust to give you the straight scoop – not just tell you what you want to hear. Find journalists who have done something entrepreneurial, and bounce your ideas off them, too. But once you’ve got a basic plan in place – just start the thing.

People sometimes tie themselves in knots by trying to plan for everything. The reality is that you will have to constantly adjust to real-time feedback from the market, and you’ll never get that from surveying readers or the most detailed plan. Once you start, constantly experiment with new ideas, and be willing to learn new things, even things you don’t care to learn, like some basic HTML.

Make time for family and other activities, too. Single-minded obsession might be necessary to make something like a solo journalistic enterprise fly, but it also can die quite easily if the founder gets burned out. I’m trying to figure out when it’s OK to relax a bit and pace myself. Or maybe even decide when it’s OK to celebrate.

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