Three Lessons on our Third Anniversary: The Hard and Lovely Things About War on the Rocks
Last Friday, War on the Rocks turned three. It has been a wild ride since I clicked “Publish” on our first article and shared our founding ambitions. Our success in becoming one of the premiere outlets on defense and foreign policy surprised many, but no one more than me.
After I returned to Washington from Afghanistan in 2011, I re-entered the think tank scene. I found myself disappointed in the tone, tenor, and quality of debates over various defense and foreign policy issues. Publications that used to speak first to the community of interest had turned toward a mass audience, putting out more and more articles of lower and lower quality. As someone who cared deeply about defense and foreign policy, I felt ignored and left behind. At the same time, I was having great conversations over drinks (of course) with veterans of the military, government, and academy — experienced people with deep insights. I got a lot out of these conversations and also learned they felt similarly frustrated by the lack of substance and seriousness that had become the new norm in the media sphere.
So I set about to do something about that. I put together a small team with the aim of bringing these conversations to a larger audience. War on the Rocks was the result. After a few months as our readership ballooned, it was pretty clear we had something bigger on our hands than I initially imagined. The community of interest was hooked. Now, three years later, I am in the process of raising money from angel investors, planning to bring on staff, and turning War on the Rocks into a company that generates impressive revenue without compromising its mission of forcing a better strategic conversation.
To commemorate this anniversary, I offer three lessons I have picked up over the last three years. None of these have to do with defense or foreign policy.
1. Building things is hard.This is commonplace to people who have done it. There is a big difference between coming up with a good idea and actually making it happen.
People tell me often how much they love the site and how great we seem to be doing. That is always wonderful to hear. What most of you don’t see, however, is how fucking hard this is (please excuse my language, but there are no other words that offer the same degree of emphasis). Those of you who visit the site and follow us on social media see the tip of the iceberg. You might understand that there are people working to edit the articles, post the tweets, send the newsletters, etc. But there is so much more beneath the surface: web development, vendors, bills (lots of them), meetings, technical disasters, no days off, business filings, business plans, legal issues, operating agreements, side letters, term sheets, accounting, slide decks, sales, revenue projections, and communicating with investors and prospective investors.
I haven’t (yet) bled for War on the Rocks, but I sweat and cry for it, as did my friend John Amble, who shared this journey with me until earlier this year. I’ve been playing jump rope with the poverty line for three years while holding it all together with duct tape and bubble gum. Running a startup is like having a baby that craps and vomits on you all day, but you love it because it is yours. Then it stabs you. And, as you sit there bleeding all over the place, you still love it.
I do not convey the hardships to inspire pity, but to tell those of you who plan to start something — a company, a website, a charity, whatever — to understand what you are taking on. Starting a new organization shares one important thing with war, summed up (of course) by Clausewitz:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.
Do not try to do it on your own. Find mentors and advisers who have started and managed organizations. Ask them what the hardest things were and prepare yourself for worse things to happen to you. Read books by people who have been there.
Explain to the people closest to you in life what you’re about to do. Some of them will get it. Many will not, especially when you’re three years in and they see you struggling and ask why you don’t just get a normal job. Those who do get it and stick by you when you’re getting evicted are priceless. Hang on to them.
Here is what I didn’t understand when I was starting War on the Rocks: For it to sustain itself and fulfill its promise, it needed to be more than a cool (used loosely) hobby for defense nerds. It needed to be a business. I didn’t understand I was starting a business. I am that brand of entrepreneur that didn’t know he was about to become an entrepreneur. It was a hobby that met with catastrophic success.
Three years into it, I understand. The knowledge I’ve gained in the interim has been hard-earned. If you’re successful, business is a process of trading old problems for new problems. If you aren’t successful, you are stuck with the old problems. Time for the new problems. I know War on the Rocks has even greater things ahead of it, but boy do I wish I knew what I was getting into three years ago. And I wish I went into it with the knowledge that is now in my arsenal.
2. Quality begets quality. This applies to people, content, and ideas. I’m sometimes asked why people write for us, especially since we do not pay. I have my own opinions, but I thought it would be best to get it straight from our writers, so I asked a bunch of them. Why write for War on the Rocks when you can write for another outlet — one that might pay, one that might have flashy offices and a larger readership?
The answers clustered around the same themes:
- Great editorial experience (“preserves author voice while improving writing and argumentation,” “respect for the writer,” review by subject matter experts),
- Influence (“I get more comments from my WOTR pieces than anything else,” “where the intellectuals of national security publish,” a “must read,” “get read by people who matter — especially inside USG,” “the confidential diary of a United States searching for its role in a changing world,” and “a source for key Hill and Pentagon leaders”),
- Opportunity to write alongside other top thinkers (“I am joining the best strategy and military essayists anywhere”),
- Politically balanced (“allows me to be opinionated without having to be partisan”),
- Willingness to take on unconventional topics ( “an uninhibited space” and a place “where seemingly recondite topics find a receptive audience”),
- And WOTR articles lead to new opportunities (lecture invitations and even job interviews).
These comments are a testament to you — the amazing people who visit the site and engage with War on the Rocks content. I share this feedback to note that the overall trend in the media industry — getting as many readers as possible with as much content as you can spew out as fast as you can — may not be the right one. I predict that a lot more outlets in other affinity areas will start looking a lot more like War on the Rocks in the next few years in that they will see the value (both human and monetary) of speaking to influential and engaged tribes rather than faceless userbases full of people looking for something to do on their phone for 30 seconds. As one of our writers put it, “War on the Rocks feels serious, weighty and author-led — the opposite of newsy, editorial punditry.”
Publishing high-quality content brings in high-quality users and high-quality content producers. Rinse gently and repeat.
3. You are a member of the War on the Rocks tribe. I used to use the word “community,” but tribe hits closer to the mark. I felt left behind as defense and foreign policy media outlets turned toward a mass audience. As it turns out, a lot of you felt the same way. You are what makes War on the Rocks what it is. According to our research and survey data, you are consistently more engaged, educated, influential, and informed than those who go to other sites on defense and foreign policy. Quality begets quality. You care a lot about how the United States and its allies engage with the world. Other sites have users and readers — millions of them. We have tribal members. We are smaller in number, but committed to changing the world. That is powerful.
You come to War on the Rocks not just because of our high-quality articles and too-occasional podcasts, but because we create an experience that allows you to feel more connected to and more informed about defense, foreign policy, and national security. Your biggest request is that you crave more. You want more high-quality content (especially podcasts and long-form essays) as well as more opportunities to engage with us, each other, and the issues that drive you. As such, our success as a business and as a mission-oriented organization will be determined by our ability to deepen these experiences while also pulling more committed people into the tribe. We have some exciting plans on how to make that happen. I look forward to getting to know more of you, my fellow members of the tribe, and to learn what War on the Rocks can do to be more useful to the tribe.
The Future of War on the Rocks
While running this site often feels like pushing a rock up a hill, we have hit on a winning formula. As I mentioned above, my main focus is putting together the resources and infrastructure necessary to generate strong revenue without compromising on our mission of forcing a better strategic conversation. We are going to show the media industry that it is possible, and even advantageous, to do both of these things. Our success will depend on giving you what you want. So please stay tuned and in touch, dear members of the tribe, as we roll this next phase out. Stay engaged, stay involved, and never hesitate to reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to provide feedback as the War on the Rocks journey continues to unfold.
Ryan Evans is the founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He loves scotch.