Lessons in selling from a Girl Scout dropout

There are plenty of things I remember loving about being a Girl Scout. I loved the mother/daughter sleepovers, the craft badges and the dance parties, to name a few. But, my overwhelming memory of Girl Scouts is how much I hated selling the cookies. Nothing was emphasized more every year in my time as a Girl Scout Brownie (heck, even the title is a reminder of the pressure to sell desserts) than cookie sales. Every year I strained myself to reach the minimum required sales level. I’m pretty sure my parents were the only reason I sold any cookies at all. They would take the order forms to work and save me from the absolute horror of personally knocking on someone’s door to sell them cookies. I never wanted to ask someone of their time and money. I felt bad selling the cookies – like it was terrible to use my youth and pity-value to convince someone to actually buy my product (which is actually pretty illogical because everyone loves Girl Scout cookies). Most of all I was pretty shy and self-conscious at that age, and I feared rejection. So I became what I’ll call a Girl Scout dropout after fifth grade. Pretty rebellious, I know.

When Diana Kander challenged me to sell people something last week, I once again felt like a terrified 11 year old, doomed to never earn a cookie badge. Kander challenged me and student Kara Tabor to turn $1 into as much money as we could in one hour. I was worried. First of all, I have no skills that easily translate into a product. I can’t sing or dance or play guitar. Secondly, I just didn’t want to bother people with whatever product I could come up with. After all, I didn’t want to bother people with cookies, which I already noted, is illogical.

After a lot of brainstorming, Kara decided we should sell haikus to strangers. Both of us can count syllables on our hands and we can write fairly well. We thought maybe people would pity us. It turns out pity is not a good business model. We only made $2.37, but I also gave a homeless man $2 for a sandwich, so we really only made 37 cents (So far I have only lost money on these challenges like last week when I gave away $5). But, I am happy to say that I learned an incredible amount from the hands-on experience and talk with Kander afterward. I can’t say that I will ever allow my daughter or any future generations of mine to participate in Girl Scouts anytime soon (I’m mostly joking), but I am much less intimidated by the selling process. Here are some of my top takeaways from the conversation with Kander:

photo 3

Kara Tabor and I set out to make as much money selling haikus as we could in an hour last Friday, May 2. My favorite haiku from Kara reads,”You are sweeter than a baby panda eating tons of Nutella.”

1. Your skills don’t matter

One of the most insightful things Kander explained post-challenge is that it is most important to focus on what people want when selling a product. My approach for this second challenge was to brainstorm all the skills I had and then try to force people to want my “best” skill. However, that approach doesn’t solve a problem for people. People don’t need haikus. Sure, we made some people laugh and we got some pocket change, but profit can’t be made from a product that doesn’t solve a consumer problem. Kander told us that she had seen students make $100 in an hour by focusing on the customer. For instance, students selling back rubs or challenging people to bets solved problems of stress and free time.

2. Don’t convince someone they have a problem

Even if a seller thinks they’ve identified a problem a consumer has, it doesn’t matter if the consumer isn’t aware of it, Kander said. Kander explained that just like there are different intensities of headaches, there are minor and extreme problems. A seller will only be able to sell a product well if the consumer can’t ignore a problem they have. This means that the consumer also has to have the desire to fix the problem. They have to have taken steps to solve the problem, and, better yet, they have to have money set aside to fix that problem. Without the combination of these variables, a product is very hard to sell, Kander said.

3. Your market isn’t everyone

Not every customer will recognize a problem, want to solve the problem and want to pay to fix the problem. This means that inevitably, the target market for a product is not everyone. This also means that consumer problems are incredibly specific and unique, and that marketing to broad demographic groups doesn’t not work. Kander said that the best way to sell a product is to focus on an consumer archetype and sell to a category of people in which 99 percent of the group are potential customers. That is a true target market.

Once again all of these lessons can be applied to journalism as well. I especially think the lesson on target markets would be interesting to implement in a newsroom. What if we talked to a specific archetype of readers before a story pitch meeting and then tried to write a story an extremely high percentage of that niche group would read?

Sneak peak: 

Over the next two weeks I will be interviewing the founder of a young startup about their business. I will ask them all of the hard questions I’ve learned from Kander. Then, I will talk with at least five people they describe as their target market to see if they’d actually buy the product. I’m really interested to see the result of this challenge.

This week I will also be talking to young people about their phone use habits in an effort to see what news companies could be doing differently to solve their problems.

Updates to come!

Sarah Poloroid Two

Proof that I was once a Girl Scout. Here’s me with my lovely mom.



Entrepreneurship Challenge is a new miniseries that will differ from my typical blog posts. In these posts I will experiment with my interest in entrepreneurship in a hands-on way. Over the next few weeks I will blog about every “challenge” given to me by local entrepreneur Diana Kander. Kander and I connected on Twitter, and after further discussions, she offered to give me entrepreneurship challenges and then meet with me to talk about them. I will comment on my experiences and discuss the lessons I learn about entrepreneurship and media entrepreneurship in this series

About Diana Kander:  Kander is a Columbia-based entrepreneur and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. She is also the author of  book called “All In Startup” which emphasizes the importance of teaching students about entrepreneurship through hands-on practice. 


Build it and they WON’T come


Entrepreneurship Challenge is a new miniseries that will differ from my typical blog posts. In these posts I will experiment with my interest in entrepreneurship in a hands-on way. Over the next few weeks I will blog about every “challenge” given to me by local entrepreneur Diana Kander. Kander and I connected on Twitter, and after further discussions, she offered to give me entrepreneurship challenges and then meet with me to talk about them. I will comment on my experiences and discuss the lessons I learn about entrepreneurship and media entrepreneurship in this series

About Diana Kander:  Kander is a Columbia-based entrepreneur and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. She is also the author of  book called “All In Startup” which emphasizes the importance of teaching students about entrepreneurship through hands-on practice. 

Giving out free money to people is hard. I know because on Tuesday night I completed my first entrepreneurship challenge from Kander – to hand out five $1 bills to strangers at the Columbia Mall. I also brought along Kara Tabor, a journalism student interested in entrepreneurship. Between the both of us, we had several people turn down our free  money. (Kander also challenged us  to try to sell a book for $5, but Tabor and I ran out of time and were also slightly afraid of the mall cops).  Although we gave away most of the money with varying approaches, the experience was somewhat discouraging. Some people didn’t want what is seemingly the best product imaginable. In fact, most of them wanted to know if there was a catch. Check out this video (Yeah, I know it’s low quality) of me trying to give out one of the dollars. You can here the woman ask if it’s shady at the end.

We later met up with Kander to debrief on the experience. Here are some of my top lessons from our conversation:

1. Build it and they WON’T come

According to Kander, most want-a-preneurs (people who really want to be entrepreneurs but can’t make money) don’t actually talk to customers until after their idea has already been built and marketed. That’s when they realize they don’t have an idea that people want. She told us that our first challenge was meant to simulate the challenge of talking to customers – and she’s right, it’s really hard. The overall takeaway here though is that a “good” idea may not actually make it in the real world. After all some people won’t even take free money.

Journalism takeaway: 

Journalists are really bad at this entrepreneurship tip because we get caught up in how “good” our content is. But, as much as we all wouldn’t like to admit it, journalism is a business. Especially as online news sites try to find pay models that work online, it is especially important to find out what news consumers want in the first place. However, most news organizations are still of the thought that there is an inherent demand for journalism excellence. Although I, too, believe that there will always be a need for quality journalism, there is a point when great content doesn’t matter if no one sees or wants it. Journalists can learn a lot from this tip. We should be talking to the target audience of a story and then try to shape content around them.

2. Customers buy solutions

This lesson piggybacks off lesson number one. During our meeting, Kander told us that customers buy solutions to their problems, but entrepreneurs don’t always design products around a real problem. In the minds of many entrepreneurs, Kander said, solving a problem means creating a product that doesn’t exist yet. However, this mindset is faulty and explains why there are so many apps in the world that never make any money. Ultimately good ideas don’t make money, ideas that solve a real problem make money. A $1 bill, for instance, doesn’t solve a problem for some customers. Kander said you can only find out consumer problems by talking to people. She recommends pitching an app idea to customers before the app is created and to see what percentage of people will actually try to search in the app store for the product. These are the people who would actually buy the product.

Journalism takeaway: 

As I touched on in the blog post about the 2014 News Media Report I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there has been explosive growth in some digitally native publications. Many of these publications recognize customer needs first. For example, BuzzFeed has seen huge growth from users because they solve a problem. The site condenses information on the web and packages it in efficient and social ways. I don’t always have time to sort through hundreds of news stories online, but if a news story makes it to BuzzFeed, I will probably read it because it has been condensed to fit my time constraints. The site has its critics, but its success has allowed for increased focus on original reporting. The site has been able to hire a number of Pulitzer-winning journalists to fill its reporting departments. Other journalists can learn from their focus on consumers.

3. Successful entrepreneurs are detectives

Extremely successful entrepreneurs seem pretty lucky, Kander said. Most people couldn’t have looked back and predicted Facebook. However, Kander said the most successful entrepreneurs make small bets and validate each stage of their product and startup before taking huge risks. For example, Facebook tested its early site on college campuses where other social media sites existed because the founders wanted to be sure customers liked their product. Successful entrepreneurs investigate what the customer wants and aren’t disillusioned by how much they like their idea. Before marketing our dollar product, for instance, we would have benefitted from many more rounds of talking to customers.

Journalism takeaway: 

Most journalists are already doing detective work. They find out information other people haven’t asked about and are always investigating. Journalists should also use these same skills to better serve their audience. Journalists would benefit from making consumers a more active part of their reporting by seeking feedback before and during a story’s production, not just after it has been published.

Sneak peak: 

Stay tuned for an update on my second entrepreneurship challenge. This weekend Tabor and I have been challenged to turn $1 into as much money as we can in an hour.

Do you have any advice? How much money will we make? Tweet me @_SCDarby.

What students can learn from the State of the News Media report


Screenshot from PewResearch Journalism Project

Every year, PewResearch releases a State of the News Media report as part of its ongoing Journalism Project. The report researches everything from who is producing the news to new key players to economic models for content. This year the report identified a few key trends including changing revenue models, increasing local TV acquisitions and content sharing, momentum for news videos and growth in digital reporting. 

Although all of the trends are relevant to students, I think the trend of growth in digital reporting is especially important. The report focused on 468 digital publication for its study of the trend. Almost 5,000 full-time positions were created from those companies alone. This statistic is especially exciting when you take into account that from 2003 to 2012, 16,200 full-time newsroom and 38,000 magazine positions were lost. The report also found that:

  • Hiring rates at digital native companies has been explosive

  • Most digital sites are small, new and not-for-profit

  • Digital organizations often focus on niche news needs such as local and investigative news

  • Many sites are investing in global coverage

  • Websites are hiring both experienced and young reporters alike

  • Most job losses are coming from print

  • Growth in digital sites does not mean sustainable business models have been created

It’s hard to not be excited about these findings. The report as a whole even began with a few words of optimism:

“In many ways, 2013 and early 2014 brought a level of energy to the news industry not seen for a long time. Even as challenges of the past several years continue and new ones emerge, the activities this year have created a new sense of optimism – or perhaps hope – for the future of American journalism.” -State of the News Media 2014

I read this report and thought back to the Journalism Interactive conference I attended last weekend. The conference was all about digital media and was packed with ideas about new journalism tools. Digital strategist Amy Webb’s talk stands out the most to me. Webb gave an insightful presentation on top tech trends for journalists and journalism educators. She also said that journalists weren’t moving fast enough and that journalism curriculum was outdated to teach budding journalists how to succeed and better the new media environment. The State of the News Media report shares some promise and optimism about the digital revolution of news, but we need to act fast if we want to capitalize on it. We also must not mistake short term growth for sustainable revenue solutions for news (which the report doesn’t fail to mention). That all being said, I think there are a number of ways young students can take advantage of growth in digital reporting:

Tips for students

1. Experiment with digital tools

This semester, I changed my blog’s theme to focus on the intersection of technology and media. The inspiration came from the combination of classes I am taking (Entrepreneurship, Convergence Reporting and Emerging Media), and also from some personal interests I wanted to act on. Every week I now write about some aspect of technology and news and their intersections, and it has already been incredibly beneficial to me. By holding myself accountable to a weekly blog, I essentially force myself to read about and experiment with new tools. I encourage every student to do the same. If you have more time and motivation to simply experiment on your own, do it. If you can integrate new tools into your reporting, even better. In order to master digital reporting, you have to be familiar with practicing it. You will learn from this application and also demonstrate your knowledge to future employers.

2. Gain experience at a digital-native company

I can’t begin to count the number of students who have told me they want to work at the New York Times or the Washington Post.  These are the same students who got really amazing print internships the summer after their freshmen year. First of all, they rock. I myself came into the journalism school with print experience from high school thinking I would only be successful if I could get a job at one of these big name news publications. I believe that journalism organizations will always need talented writers and reporters who don’t want to stray from their craft in these changing times. However, I also believe that students should look beyond the kinds of journalism jobs they are familiar with and explore digital-native companies.

This fall I had the opportunity to contribute to a digital publication called Silicon Prairie News, which covers technology and entrepreneurial news in the Midwest. Over the summer I became interested in entrepreneurship when I helped with Maker Faire in Kansas City. I initially looked at the position as a chance to meet people who were as excited about entrepreneurship as I was. The position was unpaid, and it was not nearly as shiny as some of the other positions my peers had the previous summer. However, I gained a wealth of connections in a field that excites me, and I also fell in love with non-traditional media. As part of a small team, I had a lot of independence and freedom to make a story my own. I also sharpened my online media skills through experience with content management systems, for example. Experience at a digital publication shows an employer that a student is adaptable, explorative and risk taking. The first step to eventually becoming an innovator in your field is getting your foot in the door at an organization already practicing innovation.

3. Think entrepreneurially

A panel on teaching media entrepreneurship was also one of my favorite presentations at Journalism Interactive last weekend. The panel made clear that not everyone has to be an entrepreneur, but that students can help an organization by thinking entrepreneurially. The industry needs more people who understand the business so that they can use new tools to not only produce quality content, but also bring eyes and money to that content. In my opinion, every student should take at least one basic entrepreneurship class. If you’re not looking to spend too much money, consider participating in a Startup Weekend. Columbia has a booming Startup Weekend every fall. Mizzou also has an exceptional class called the Entrepreneurship Alliance which focuses on experiential entrepreneurship. At the very least, walk into Museao and talk to literally anyone in the building about the businesses they are building right here in Columbia. Traditional news skills are great; however, a skill set is only beneficial if it can be applied in unique ways. One of the panelists said it best:

“I’m not interested in your clips. I’m not interested in what candies you can put in the box. I’m interested in the box you can make.” -Lisa Williams, digital engagement editor Investigative News Network

What are you waiting for? Go out there and get digital!


Intersection spotlight: Kiva

Intersections are important (See previous blog post for more on this). There are many examples of great ways people all over the world are using different ideas and skill sets to benefit journalism. However, I also think it is beneficial to look outside any one particular field for further inspiration. When I am not exploring journalism topics, I often find myself exploring non-profit innovation. In particular I read about social entrepreneurship, and organizations that focus on teaching people skills in entrepreneurship so they can build their own sustainable communities. This week I spent hours reading a case study about one of my favorite such organizations, Kiva. Although the non-profit is technically outside of the journalism realm, a lot can be learned about the way Kiva uses intersections between technology, charity and entrepreneurship.


What Kiva does: 

Kiva is a non-profit organization that has established a unique model of “charity” through its creation of person-to-person micro lending. Kiva allows online users to lend impoverished people around the world as little as $25 to help them in entrepreneurial ventures they would otherwise not have access to. The organization works with microfinance institutions in 73 countries, and has, to date, provided nearly $550 million in microloans with a repayment rate of 99 percent.

What makes Kiva unique:

Person-to-person micro lending essentially didn’t exist before the creation of Kiva. Micro finance institutions functioned to support entrepreneurial ventures in other countries, but they had difficulty tracking loans and impact to particular people. Kiva essentially saw an opportunity to fundamentally change the “charity” model. Instead of encouraging giving money to a generic cause, Kiva emphasizes loaning money to people around the world who are actively working to create and grow a personal business. Kiva also makes these loans social and addictive through its online platform.

Intersections that matter at Kiva:

  • Traditional charity mission + accountability of a traditional business
  • Recognition of international differences + acknowledgement of problems every entrepreneur faces
  • Encouragement of donations + public social profiles to track donations
  • New world online platform + familiar charity feel
  • Giving money to people in need + accountability and purpose with money received

If you’re not as passionate about social entrepreneurship and micro lending as I am, Kiva still may not seem to stand out to you. However, I would argue that Kiva has made an impact far beyond the non-profit realm. For example, Kickstarter and Indiegogo use a very similar “funding” model to that of Kiva. The sites allow users to create a profile and then explain a need for funding. From there, numerous donors all contribute online to that user’s cause with the expectation that the money will be used to accomplish a specific task. This all happens with a focus on social engagement that journalists can especially learn from. Journalists should always be looking for intersections and untapped interest in ways that Kiva did. For instance, journalists should examine how technology can be used to engage an audience in a new way. Journalists can also focus on the importance of person-to-person interactions in trying to engage an audience. I try to look to my interests in technology, entrepreneurship and journalism to consider new, innovative ways to impact the journalism industry. Just as Kiva valued intersections that hadn’t existed before, journalists, too, can benefit from consider of innovation and application in a variety of different fields. Also, side note, working at Kiva or somewhere like it is my absolute dream job. I would love to combine interests in international studies, entrepreneurship and journalism.