Vision, paperwork, records: A behind-the-scenes guide to launch

By on May 15, 2012

As I told Alex Howard recently, Homicide Watch, the website, started with a spreadsheet.

But starting Homicide Watch, the business, took much more.

There are a lot of resources out there for entrepreneurial journalists; unfortunately I didn’t know about any of them when I got started. Much of my learning was trial and error. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to set up your own business, and in this post I’ll take you through my steps and what I learned in the process.

My first step was to define my vision for the venture. What did I want to accomplish? What was my editorial direction? As Alex reported, this was initially a spreadsheet. But, eventually, it became my organizing principals: Homicide Watch DC would report every homicide that post-dated our launch date from crime to conviction using data and an open-notebook method. Being able to identify my vision helped me write my business plan, craft the site and communicate to others what I wanted to accomplish.

But I wasn’t ready to publish yet.

Before I put a character to WordPress, I formed an LLC. Requirements are going to vary based on where you are; the Citizen Media Law Project has a really fantastic explainer about LLCs, including details about requirements in your state or district. Here’s the listing for the District of Columbia.

I also needed to file trade name (DBA) paperwork with D.C. Basically this is for any name you use that isn’t the name of your LLC. I realized this late, when I received a donation check made out to Homicide Watch DC, but our LLC was named Glass Eye (we picked a name out of the hat). In order to cash the check, I had to register a trade name and provide that paperwork to the bank.

Which brings us to what we all really care about: money. The first step is to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) with the IRS. This is necessary even if you don’t have any employees because it’s used to set up your bank account. You can apply online and receive an EIN almost immediately.

To set up a bank account, you’ll need your LLC and DBA (trade name) paperwork and your EIN. I went down to my local Bank of America branch to set up my account because it was easier than doing it online. Having a business bank account made my business finally feel real. My account is super basic, but I’ve connected it to Wave, a free online accounting service, that helps me track spending and income and send invoices. There are lots of online tools that do this, but when I looked at Wave, it seemed easiest to use.

The nest step is another big one: Buy your domain. There are lots of services including goDaddy, Google and more to do this. It’s about ten bucks and a good chance to use that new bank account!

For Homicide Watch, I choose a .org domain because I initially anticipated that my business would be non-profit. As my business evolved, however, and as I considered my business plan, I moved to a for-profit business plan. We’ve kept the .org because it’s how our readers know how to find us, and I haven’t felt that it’s really mattered. See this post for more on business plans.

While you’re setting up accounts, consider what online accounts you’ll need immediately and in the future for your business. Also, consider registering names that people might assume your business is called. (Homicide Watch DC is online at, but people might search Some basic accounts to think about or remember are:

  • Google (analytics, AdSense, email, etc)
  • PayPal
  • WordPress
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Document Cloud
  • Sound Cloud
  • Tumblr

Finally, with your site ready to ramp up, consider building your resource network. Get in touch with the Online Media Legal Network and see if you qualify for free legal assistance should (God forbid) you need it. Connect with others doing similar work through ONA, the Knight Digital Media Center, Block by Block, Poynter, your local press club and other organizations. Many universities also are now teaching entrepreneurial courses (which will cost you), but you might be able to see their reading lists and follow what the students are doing online. (Mark Potts teaches an excellent class at the University of Maryland, for example.)

Keep records as you go. A well-organized file cabinet is priceless, and a skill I haven’t yet mastered.

Also, especially as you take care of the financial and legal matters, make note of any deadlines or further requirements. While putting together this column, I realized that my LLC’s bi-annual report was overdue. That’s going to be a hefty fine that I could have avoided if I had been more organized.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of steps, just what I remember of my experiences, so please leave comments with steps or tips that I might have forgotten or not experienced. And good luck.