Stacy-Marie Ishmael: Founder, Editor, and Reporter

Stacy-Marie Ishmael contains multitudes. Currently, she’s the founder and editor of Galavant Media and an adjunct at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Previously at the reins of FT Tilt, an emerging markets news service, as a co-founder and editor, she has also reported for the Financial Times and FT’s financial blog Alphaville.

We talked with Stacy-Marie about the challenges of running a news startup and how she gets the better of distractions and deals with a career transition.

Stacy-Marie Ishmael

With FT Tilt, you were in charge of a team from all over the world — Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, London, Sao Paulo. What was it like starting a new project this way?

The challenge for me was how do I get these people to think like a team. How do I get them to feel like these are their colleagues even if they have never met?

One of the things I did very early on was to have a call that everybody has to dial into, no matter what you’re doing. That became one of the spaces where they could hear each other’s voices.

The second thing is we had two different Skype chats. We had one that was called General Tilt chatter, and that was the watercooler Skype chat. That was when they were like, “hey guys, what up, have you seen this hilarious cat video?” as if they were all sitting next to each other.

Then there was the “official” Skype chat. We needed to get stuff done, so I didn’t want to have that buried in the general chatter because it would be like shouting across a crowded newsroom “can somebody edit my story?!” so separating them worked really well.

It’s interesting that you thought it was important not to shut down the watercooler chat.

It was a social lubricant in a sense because otherwise it would have been a very formal working relationship. I think that was one of the key things that helped them build camaraderie.

How did you deal with the challenges of starting a new news service?

One of the things I’ve learned is that whatever goals you set will be what people work toward, and in a startup environment, those will change all the time. One of the things I tried to do with the team is say, here are our basic outcomes and I want your ideas on how we should get there. So I said, hey, you’re covering Russia, how many stories do you want to have done, what kind of traffic would you like to see, that kind of thing.

Then my job became not telling them what to do but making sure they were on track to achieving the goals they set for themselves. I found that that worked really well because if somebody says, “hey, this is what I want to do,” it’s not a case of “hey, this is what you have to do.”

What about the times where you have to say exactly that?

Yeah, there are always times where you say “this is what you have to do.” But once you get to the point where the team feels invested in whatever they’re doing, they’re very, very receptive to that.

Right now, you’re in a bit of a transition period career-wise. How do the work habits you’ve cultivated cross over to help you?

One of the ways I was using iDoneThis is whenever I sent an e-mail or followed up with somebody, one of the things I’d say was, e-mailed my resume or got in touch with these potential references. Having it written down as kind of a mental prompt to what’s the thing that I need to do next, I found that to be very helpful.

Sometimes, frankly, I would be embarrassed if I didn’t accomplish anything. I feel bad if I don’t get to write down that I went for a run today. Because it’s very easy when you’re in a transition period to feel like because there isn’t anything to do, you can’t do anything.

I also find that I can get bogged down in projects, so I need to cut them up into bite-size pieces. That’s kind of how I’ve had to approach this transition period, like there’s no way I can go through the process of re-editing my resume for the first time in six years or doing all of these cover letters. So what small tasks can I do to get this done? Revamp your LinkedIn profile, you can do that in ten minutes. Then when you update your LinkedIn profile, you’ve got to update your CV, so it’s gamifying my life in a sense, like mission accomplished, a good way of staying on track. I’m not getting distracted.

Do you find that distraction is one of your main obstacles?

One of my issues is focus. I get distracted extremely easily. Have you seen the movie Up? I’m like the talking dog whenever he sees a squirrel. My main thing is that I need goals to help me focus. So I wake up in the morning and I think, here’s what I need to get done today, or here’s what I’m working toward. It’s very helpful. Otherwise it’ll be 4 pm and I have instapapered 5000 articles and done nothing else all day. Once I’ve started writing, once I’ve achieved that kind of flow state, it’s fine, but it’s the getting there process that’s not so straightforward.

So how do you set goals for yourself at the beginning of the day? How do you get into that flow?

This is one of the things I really like about iDoneThis — it lets me look back at what I achieved for a period, and it helps me see patterns.

I started noticing that on the days when I got out of bed really early and I went for a run or went to the gym or went to spin class, I got three times as much done than as on the days when I get up slightly later. For me, there’s a direct correlation between waking up early and doing some kind of exercise and having an incredibly productive day. That’s not something I would have noticed, had it not been for keeping track of that and looking back at my calendar.

You mentioned in an e-mail that you also use iDoneThis to keep in touch with your friends? It’s one of the first times I’ve heard of using iDoneThis in a social sense.

I have this crazy all-over-the world group of friends that are drawn from people that I grew up with in Trinidad and when I went to LSE [London School of Economics], which is the kind of school where it’s more than 60% international students, and they’re not on Facebook. E-mail is such a horrible way of staying in touch with groups of people. So I thought, here’s this group of people that I know, they’re doing cool things, but I’ve got no idea what they’re up to in a smaller space of time. I’ll get a big 6-month update from somebody like, “Hey! I got married!”

But when you’ve got this daily thing, I feel like it fleshes out the relationship in a way you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. When you have lunch with them, you get that background noise, but when you’re only seeing somebody maybe once or twice a year, you only get the headlines because the background noise you feel like it’s too unimportant to talk about.

You’ve accomplished so much already. What would you love to be doing next?

The main thing I want in my next job is to learn different skills. I know how to be a reporter, but I would like to be a lot more on the business side of things. I’m more into product development, project management, so editing from a different point of view —still seeing things to completion but instead of just words, you’re helping a whole new company or a whole new team.