Skift is turning six today. Of all the achievements anyone can ask of a company from its infancy, staying power — mere survival — is the toughest of them. Let no one tell you otherwise. Make it a media startup in an age of existential crisis in media all around, and you’ve created the biggest odds against yourself right from the start.
Six years into the serpentine journey of building Skift — 2,191 days after launch — we are still here and intend to be here for a long, long time.
Longevity is not top-of-mind for many founders just starting out. Certainly, having a legacy is even further off the map. But there are certain catalysts that move you toward that realization as a founder, and I had mine about halfway into the six-year journey.
My son was born in early 2015, right about the time when the company I founded three years prior was growing out of its early-stage, survival-at-all-costs phase. Clichéd as it may sound — because everyone who has ever been a parent tells you so — the new life in my life ended up changing everything about my outlook on, well, life and business.
As I started thinking about this new life we had to take care of, I started thinking about the values I would love our son to grow up with, and that would have to start with us parents teaching him what we held dear, the values we got from our parents as we grew up.
The biggest one I kept thinking about and finally honed in on was patience. In the on-demand world of instant gratification we all live in now, patience — in intent, in living, in outlook on life — is becoming a rarer and rarer life skill, incredibly. And make no mistake, it certainly is a life skill.
Having grown up in socialist India in the 1980s, the precursor to learning patience, frustration, was not a bug in the system. It was the feature of how everyday life worked. Anything and everything was a wait. It was a wait with lots and lots of people in line with you, and that was if there was enough civic value in us to form a line in the first place. India breaks you down if you come in with Western notions of efficiency, a clean logical version of input versus output of effort. If you grew up there, like I did, it builds you up with an ingrained sense of equanimity about everything.
The daily knocks on your inner resolve to not give up, on your self-esteem, on making do with what you have, taught us patience. It taught us the long view, that in the end everything will work out if you just keep at it. All is well in the end. If not, it’s not the end.
That is the life skill I want to teach my now-pre-schooler-and-already-impatient son. “Le pause,” the great way French parents teach their kids patience. Pausing before rushing in. As simple as that.
It is the value I have brought to the company I started and I am building now along with the Skift team.
Not raising lots of money, and deciding not to raise any money beyond seed and building our own way, has given us patience. Patience gives us the ability to block out the extraneous noise and buzz of the startup ecosystem, and focus on building the products and brands that matter.
Think it through, slow down a bit. Go slow to go fast, a philosophy we adopted in 2015. I wrote this in that memo: “This is the new Skift operating principle — both in our work and culture — that we want to embody going forward.
- Doing less with more is the new doing more with less.
- Going slow to go fast is the new scaling up.
- Less is better, less is deep, less is slow and deliberate, less is human, and humane.”
When every prevailing startup wisdom says move fast and break things, there is value to doing the complete opposite. When everyone wants speed, pivots, scale, fail quick, there is value in focusing on your vision, burrowing deep, and taking time in building. Quality is the end result of patience. Quality is the table-stakes start of longevity.
That means reorienting everything patiently to this long-term thinking.
For us as a media company, it starts with our editorial and research: Think beyond headlines, to the trendlines shaping the business and future of travel, something we have embraced for all of our existence: finding, following, and deciphering the trends in travel. Think in multi-year narrative arcs — that is a mantra I tell our editorial leadership at every occasion I can. Every story we are chasing has a longer-term view, a history longer than we can imagine, a wider and deeper perspective we are currently planning to write. Everything we write can be enriched by speaking to sources beyond the usual suspects. The diversity of views makes the writing we do more relevant today and relevant in the long term. Writing in a human language — outside of the current buzzwords — about the business of travel means we are readable today and likely readable a long time from now, when the industry has completely changed.
That also means redefining what innovation means to us. One of the fallacies of media innovation today is 1) new = innovation 2) new formats = innovation. It is the basis of much of the ruin in media, chasing every new thing that comes along. Innovation for us, what I have bet my media companies on, is not chasing formats, but new ways of looking at existing sectors. Chasing new formats and hoping for innovation is like changing your reading glasses again and again and hoping you will read different things with each new pair you put on. Bringing new perspectives requires a lot more patience and innovation than cosmetic format changes. New ways of looking at the world — that’s the real innovation we are betting on long-term.
That also means redefining what scale means to us. The internet changed what scale meant to everyone, and it became a never-ending quest of chasing bigger and bigger audiences. It became “scale for scale’s sake” and investor-driven frenzy to prove out a model that ultimately ate itself. We gave up chasing scale around 2014, after this realization and have redefined it since: The media we are building is a big part of those who care about travel. That for us is scale, to be a big part of the professional lives of the people in the travel industry. That is how we gauge the effect we are having.
That also means redefining what hiring means to us. We want to hire and groom travel careerists, people who want and have deep expertise in travel — not dilettantes — and want to make a career in one of the most exciting and largest sectors on the planet. We give an audacious four-point promise to our employees, a long term commitment from us to them:
- Joining Skift will be a transformational move for your career.
- You will do the best work you have ever done while you are at Skift.
- You will be the happiest you have ever been at work, while at Skift.
- You will be set for life; your success beyond Skift means everything to us.
That’s also what performance — of us as a company, of our team — means to us. That means show up and produce, every day, day in, day out, over and over again. Consistency, in the right amount every day, matters a lot more than being consumed by work and work alone. The quality of our work is the end result of this consistency mixed with patience. That’s the not-so-secret of our long-term fecundity.
That also means redefining what culture means to us. It is not this mythical, magical thing that comes at the end of work, an add-on to make the drudgery bearable. For us, culture stems from the meaningful work we do, and each of us seeing the tangible in-situ effects of that work — helping change the direction of the future of travel and dining, even — in a reasonably short time frame for the people for whom we create everything. It gives us a purpose to create a long-term culture, around the larger promise of travel and our promise to the travel sector: We are eternally curious about the business and creative possibilities of travel, and what it means to the world at large. “If you are tired of Skift, you are tired of the promise of travel,” is a line I use often. That is what inhabits our culture, today and well into the future.
That certainly means redefining how we look at creating value in the company we are building. What does it take to build a media company that matters to people in their daily personal or professional lives, that can survive any kind of micro or macro correction, that can thrive in the long haul?
We have come up with a “metric” to gauge the longevity of media brands. It goes something like this: Imagine, because of some catastrophe, the media company you know suddenly shuts down tomorrow. Will anyone miss it, and will the disappearance of said company harm the ecosystem at large in various ways? The first part of this question is a level-one test, the second part a level-two test, both of which take time to build up to.
What would happen on day two and beyond, if you suddenly go away tomorrow?
These are two ways of saying the same thing: How much of a personal or professional utility value do your users ascribe to your brand? And how indispensable are you to the ecosystem you exist in?
All of this hides an ugly unspoken truth about media in general: that it is disposable, in so many ways. The key is to move toward making yourself indispensable, by adding enough value.
That also means redefining what leadership means to me. Instead of “leading from the front” as I have done for the first five years, a necessary role to build a company in its infancy, I am now transitioning to “empowering from behind” as is the management of our company. After being the face of Skift, being a face of Skift is role that I now cherish. The long-term goal of any founder is to make themselves useless. I am on that journey now.
Today we’re launching a book, “For the Long Haul.” This book is an aspirational manifestation of our philosophy on longevity, using travel companies as a mirror to look at the qualities of long-lasting companies and brands. From the efficiency-focus of JR East in Japan, to the courageous will to disrupt from Southwest Airlines, to never putting a price on serving your customers from Oberoi hotels, to Expedia’s realization it could make real people’s lives easier, the chapters here offer valuable lessons. Autogrill’s ability to create a sense of place with all its offerings, and the South by Southwest festival’s willingness to embrace outsiders are testaments to the long view. We, at Skift, salute these strategies as we look ahead to many more of our own anniversary celebrations.
— Rafat Ali, Founder and CEO, Skift