Stick to your Guns, or Sell Your Soul – Object Lessons from WhatsApp and The Dish

Chariots of FireThere’s a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire  (some memorable quotes here)…  Eric Liddell, the Flying Scotsman – Olympic Champion Runner — would not run on the Christian Sabbath (the day of the scheduled 100 meter race).  The committee, including some of the Royals, are trying to get him to change his mind.  But, he would not budge; he would not sell his soul.  Here’s the line, spoken by The Duke of Sutherland:

The “lad”, as you call him, is a true man of principles and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to sever his running from himself.

Here’s the formula:

First, you decide what you want to do, and you make sure it is consistent with your why.  Then, you build your business.

This is the lesson for this blog post, from the guys at WhatsApp, and a journalist who has an advertising-free web site.

#1 – The WhatsApp story:

As you now know, WhatsApp has just been bought by Facebook for $19 Billion.  Read this:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
– Tyler Durden, Fight Club

This quote (sorry about the vocabulary) fromTyler Durden, Fight Club, is a mantra for the WhatsApp now very, very wealthy guys, Jan Koum and Brian Acton.

signed by Brian Acton of WhatsApp
signed by Brian Acton of WhatsApp

Jan Koum definitely understands the power of “starting with why.”  He said this in an interview (from The CEO Of WhatsApp Really, Really, Really, *Really*, Hates Advertising by Jay Yarow from Business Insider):

“There’s nothing more personal to you than communicating with friends and family, and interrupting that with advertising is not the right solution … And we don’t have to know a lot about our users. To target advertisements well, companies need to know where you are, what you might be doing, who you might be with, what you might like or not like. That’s an insane amount of data. Besides, I grew up in a world with no advertising. There was none in the Communist Soviet Union.”

Apparently, there was plenty of pressure for WhatsApp to sell advertising along the way.  But, to do so would have required that they “sell their soul.”  So, they never did…

#2 – The Dish (Andrew Sullivan) story

Andrew SullivanI am a subscriber (from the beginning of his subscription era) to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish (Biased and Balanced).  I paid my money just to help make sure the site stayed available.  It is one of the handful of sites I check every day – frequently, multiple times a day.

Andrew Sullivan has worked for different journalistic outlets, but believed that he could find a subscriber base for a “new approach” for a web site.  He chose to do this with subscribers, not advertising.  I’m moderately neutral on the advertising issue – I’ve pretty much learned to read what I want and ignore the advertising on the many sites where advertising is king.

But he wanted to do it without advertising.  And, he’s succeeded.

Here’s a recent paragraph from Andrew’s site:

Because so many other sites do not have any actual subscription revenue, and because revenue from ads keeps declining, the prevalence of sponsored content and ads and sponsored links will, I’m pretty sure, continue to proliferate. We started with the luxury of a very loyal readership, which enabled us to head off in the opposite direction to the herd when we went independent. That was a high-risk decision at the time; it’s been a high-reward move a year later.

This is not a post about advertising vs. no advertising.  It is a post about this:  what is your why, and what “compromises” would indicate that you have sold you soul?  Whatever compromise is a “sell your soul” compromise – Don’t Do It!  You might never recover.

A business has all the freedom to make the decisions it sees fit.  But, here’s the formula to remember:

Have a soul
Don’t sell your soul

If you do have a soul, you’ve got to stick to your guns, and never sell your soul.  If you sell your soul, all could be lost.


And, a note of hope – you can sell your soul, (maybe only once), and come back from it.  But, you’d best learn your lesson well after such a failure of principle.  Here’s a story:  Nina Totenberg, the NPR legal affairs voice, very early in her career (in 1972), was guilty of a “plagiarism” infraction.  She “sold her soul” to meet a looming deadline.  Here’s what she said about it, years later (from the Wikipedia article):

In 1995, Totenberg told the Columbia Journalism Review, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”

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