The Bullet's Joanna Track on the renaissance of email and modern journalism
Welcome to Press Pillay Chats, where we feature stories from social entrepreneurs, fearless founders and all-around awesome humans.
Meet Joanna Track, the entrepreneur who has made it her business (literally) to enlighten and inform Canadians on the latest need-to-know news. In the current media scape that is convoluted more often that not, her latest venture, The Bullet offers a light-hearted take on current events that doesn't skimp on facts.
How did you come up with the idea for The Bullet?
Well, before I started the Bullet, I was doing consulting for about 4 years, and working with other brands to help them grow their business— mainly through marketing and digital, which was my slant. But after about 3 years, I started to get a bit bored, because prior to that, I had been building my different companies. They were all content-based—my first business, Sweetspot, was a lifestyle publication on all that’s hot and happening. And then there was my second business, Eluxe, which was e-commerce but really couched in the content strategy in that we produced a weekly digital magazine.
I’m very passionate about content and online—and email specifically—and so after the few years of consulting, I was really feeling unfulfilled. I wanted to build my own brand again. I had started seeing this trend in the US, primarily with the Skimm and the Hustle and a whole bunch of email-based publications and I thought, 'there's nothing like it in Canada.'
I know for myself, and the people I know, that traditional media—of course, they report the news, and they're good at what they do—but it can get really dry. It's hard to keep your interest, and if you don't really understand the background on a certain issue, it can get really hard to follow.
And so I knew that I had all the skills and experience from my previous companies to do something like this in Canada. At the same time, I myself was becoming more interested in the news but also becoming very overwhelmed by the lack of options available. And so that was how the idea of the Bullet came about.
How do you think the Bullet is a social innovation to address the current state of media today?
We always say we're making the news more digestible. So I think how we're actually helping Canadians, specifically, is that our goal is to make people actually want to tune in, as opposed to sticking their head in the sand. I admit I've also been guilty of this in the past, when it got too overwhelming, I didn't even want to know about it.
But I think the more people know about it—the more informed they are, the more passionate they’ll be about voting, or supporting causes, and so on. By dishing it out in these more digestible bites, we feel that we're getting more people's interest by making news more accessible.
Our goal is to enlighten as many as Canadians as possible. We’re really dedicated to the Canadian market, we don’t have any interest in going anywhere else.
What drives you to wake up in the morning?
Well, there's the newsletter. (laughs)
I love the businesses that I’ve built—there’s building the brand, the thing that people see. But what i really love about it is building the internal side, the organization, the team and that culture. When I see that start to come together—when I get to go from being just me to two, to four people, and on, that's what really brings me the biggest joy.
And what also gets me up is my feeling of responsibility towards those people. So even when times gets tough—its a startup, times get tough—I remember that it’s not just me anymore. There are other people who are relying on me, not only to pay them, but also to mentor them and their career.
What's your favourite personal routine?
There’s the selfish me—I have a 9-year-old son, and from 4:30 to 8pm, I really try not to do any work. That's my off time, whether I'm spending time with him, taking the dog out, or going out for ice cream or whatever it is. I really try to make it his time.
Also, I really make it a priority to work out, go to the gym and go to yoga—and to put it in my schedule, because we all know, if you don't then you'll always bump it. And now, in this weather, I'll also try to get out more—if I can get in a 45-minute walk with the dog through the Beltline or out in nature, it refreshes me.
What advice would you give to yourself from ten years ago?
To save more money. Even 20 years ago, I would've said that to myself.
I advise everyone, even my 9 year-old, the same way. It was just his birthday recently, and he just got a bunch of birthday money, and of course, he wanted to blow it all. But I said to him, 'no, you can have half, and trust me, one day you will thank me for saving your money.' I didn't really get that lesson strongly enough from my parents growing up and I think I would really be much more mindful of saving money to buy a house or start a business. I think that's the biggest thing. If you actually save money, it doesn't have to be important—you can not worry about it.
What is your biggest personal achievement?
Building these brands that people recognize and love. And I don't mean recognize, like 'know' it, but the fact that Sweetspot has been closed for five years, and I still get people who approach me and say how much they loved it and what it meant to them. The feeling reward that comes with that—you can't put a price on it.
What’s the last thing that left you stumped?
Trying to raise money for a small business as a woman.
It's very frustrating, and it's really shameful. I never realized how bad it was until I experienced it myself. It's a tough grind. I find so many women I know, colleagues, who are all running amazing businesses—and we're all bootstrapping it because we’ve pretty much given up on the finance ecosystem.
What do you think is undervalued in society today?
One thing I would say is, healthy, small-to-medium sized businesses. And what I mean is, especially in the venture capital world, they're looking for the 'hockey stick growth'—they're looking for 100-billion-dollar companies or else they don't consider it worthy. But to me, I say, if you could grow a 3-5 million-dollar that's profitable, that's really successful, and I think that's so undervalued. People get caught up in the fantasy of the Facebooks of the world, and they don't realize that if you have a company that makes seven figures, and you take home a six-figure salary steadily for your working life, that's pretty amazing.
And that's sort of the goal for the Bullet. Revenues are starting to generate, and we're getting to that point where we're able to sell more advertising, but the goal is to be a self-sustaining business that stays in the small to medium range. Especially for me, the team culture that way is more manageable and also more meaningful to me.
How are you making journalism work for the modern age of communications?
I think what I’ve done with all my businesses is that I have managed to come up with a model where I can make content cost-effectively.
I think a lot of the big behemoths—we won't name any names—they have so much baggage, so many extra people. They work with print and all this stuff that is hugely costly. I don't have any of that.
Also, I think by working with junior people—it's not to exploit or pay less—but they get to learn more, and I also get more out of helping them grow. Everyone wins and it's more profitable, as opposed to having VPs of this, that or other. It is a tough model, selling advertising is tough--I always joke that I wish I had something like widgets to sell, where there's a set price. Advertising is tough, but I think that what I've done is completely doable if you do it right.
How did you choose email as a channel?
I always say email is having a renaissance. I think it's actually my favourite medium, what with the proliferation of social media. With every social media channel you open up, you don't control what's in there. A lot of what's in there, you don't really ask for. Even your physical mail box at home is full of things you didn't ask for.
Your email inbox is literally controlled by you. The minute you say no to something, you unsubscribe, and it's not coming back. And you and I, we're very discerning. When you sign up for an email, you're really deciding if you want to hear from these people.
So I think email is where you can really capture people's attention. And seeing where we're at with people's attention spans nowadays, email is just the right amount of space that can keep people's attention. With social media, it's there and it's gone, you could miss it. Email is there until you get rid of it.
A lot of people doing social good feel like they’re sacrificing the ability to make money—do you feel this way, why or why not?
I think if you base a business on strong values, you can't really go wrong. Look at Apple, for example, they’ve changed the world in a mostly positive way. Of course, everything has a downside, but they're an amazing company and they're definitely not doing it for charity. I think you can always incorporate a social cause in a company.
If you build a business that isn’t providing some good to the world, why are you doing it? Because that means either you're having no impact, or a negative one, and we don't need anymore of that.
In a sentence, what is the value of the Bullet?
We are enlightening Canadians with information that they need to help make the world a better place.
If you could have dinner with someone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Obama—I didn’t even think have to think about that one.
I just think he is so interesting, and so smart. I always used to say I think he was the right president in the wrong country. I saw him speak once, and I was so blown away by his diplomacy, the way he can take something and simplify it and make it interesting, and he seems really funny.
He really keeps your attention and makes you care.
That's similar to what the Bullet is doing, isn't it?
(laughs) Yeah, that's true. We're just trying to be Obama.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.