By Colleen DeBaise October 13, 2012
Entrepreneurs are a fascinating lot. Think of the computer whiz who invented a social network from his college dorm or the traveling salesman who turned fast-food burgers into the world’s most popular restaurant chain.
It’s tempting to craft a colorful profile on any up-and-comer in a cool industry or veteran business owner with battle scars. Before scheduling the interview, however, make sure you can answer this question: Of the 28 million small businesses in the U.S., why am I writing about this one?
The most successful small-business profiles are the ones that provide a takeaway for the reader, who might have entrepreneurial aspirations of his or her own. A truly great read will use the entrepreneur’s intimate story to highlight a larger issue, such as perseverance during a financial crisis or navigating governmental red tape.
To track down profile candidates, try posting queries on services such as ProfNet or Help a Reporter Out, to which many small businesses subscribe. Ask groups such as Entrepreneurs’ Organization, National Association for Women Business Owners or SCORE for recommendations. You could also attend conferences, business-plan competitions and networking events such as Entrepreneur Week for leads.
Once you’ve got a candidate in mind, make sure he or she meets at least one of the following criteria:
• The person has a success story so astounding it will inspire or motivate readers.
• The person conducts business in a specific way that’s either notable for its uniqueness or illustrates a current, newsworthy trend.
• The person has experienced a setback or (even better) an epic failure. There is an old expression in the news business: “If it bleeds, it leads” – and that will never change. Ideally, the profile will shed a light on what caused the failure or provide a teachable moment from which readers can learn.
If your profile candidate fits the bill, it’s time to get to work. Here are a few tips.
Rebuff the fluff
Make it clear to your subjects that you will profile them only if they are candid about mistakes made and challenges overcome – not to mention financial information. Small-business owners are naturally leery about supplying facts or stories that may cast them in a negative light to customers, investors or the public at large, and unlike public companies, private companies are not required to disclose revenue or other significant data about how business is going. So if your profile highlights some aspect of the business that’s been successful, make sure the candidate will supply a number – whether it’s a dollar figure or a percentage – that substantiates the company’s track record and facilitates a comparison to its peers. Too often, entrepreneurs are overly bullish on their products or services, or they retain public-relations agencies that inflate their market position. Do some additional reporting to verify the company’s legitimacy. For example, call past clients, or scan online review sites. If your profile is focused on a negative aspect of a business, such as a mistake made, assure your subject that the goal of the article is to help others avoid repeating it.
Load up on color
Pay a visit to the company’s location, and watch how the entrepreneur interacts with customers, talks shop with employees or otherwise goes about his or her business. The details will paint a fuller picture of the entrepreneur’s work and keep readers engaged. It will also make writing the piece easier. Take notes or photos of what it’s like to be there: the abrupt sound of machines whirring to life, the profane graffiti on the building next door, the smell of fresh-baked muffins.
Put it in context
Incorporate statistics, survey data or Census numbers that give readers a sense of the entrepreneur’s place in his or her industry. Include key details: the number of employees, the names of big clients or investors, and the company’s geographic reach. If the entrepreneur is pursuing an interesting strategy, for example, show the reader that it’s part of an emerging trend by including industry data or a quote from an academic or competitor.
The biggest sin in profile writing is to turn in a puff piece – a flattering, one-sided story that reads like it came directly from the entrepreneur themself. Entrepreneurs are innovative types with an almost delusional sense of ambition, but many of them will fail to accomplish what they set out to do. Keep in mind that half of all businesses fail within the first five years.
Avoid excessively flattering terms, such as “brilliant” or “mind-blowing,” or PR jargon such as “market leader,” “best in breed” or “next generation.” One way to stay level-headed is to include a “to-be-sure” paragraph that acknowledges the business’s risks or challenges that entrepreneurs in a similar position may face. What do critics say about this company or its ideas or approach? Call some objective sources familiar with the business and include their views.
Colleen DeBaise is the special projects director at Entrepreneur.com and the author of “The Wall Street Journal Complete Small Business Guidebook.” She has written about entrepreneurship for SmartMoney, BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal, where she served as small business editor.
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 13th, 2012 at 6:58 am. It is filed under Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with Entrepreneurship, profile, Small business, writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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