Finding businesses for The Distance

Before The Distance went on a brief hiatus for the holidays, we had produced new episodes for eight straight months. Counting the mini stories that we released between our main ones, that’s 31 episodes covering 17 businesses—from a maple syrup producer to a junk removal company to an embalming fluid manufacturer. The Distance is a small team, just myself and Shaun, and I’m the sole reporter. This means I decide which businesses to feature, and I also do the interviews and write the scripts.

One of the questions I get the most is: “How do you find your businesses?” (They are not, as some people assume, Basecamp customers.) I thought it would be fun to go through every podcast episode and tally the different ways I found those companies. These categories are in no order whatsoever (apologies to Noah Lorang) but you get the idea:


Me: Now that I’ve spent the last three years thinking about long-running businesses, I notice every storefront and truck and door hanger ad that says “Established 1956” or “Family owned and operated since 1974.” Merz Apothecary, a store we profiled in 2015, is located in my old neighborhood and I’d pass by it all the time. I also catch references to interesting businesses in other media. T-shirt screen printer Marathon Sportswear was mentioned in this Chicago Tribune piece about Chicago Cubs apparel. I learned about Phoenix Bean Tofu in a tweet from Eli’s Cheesecake, a company we had featured previously. Another way I find stories is just by following my own curiosity—I go down a lot of research rabbit holes, and sometimes they result in stories. In 2015, with the holidays approaching and Christmas tree lots starting to pop up around my town, I wondered, “Who grows these trees?” My research led me to Richardson Farm and a family that evolved from pig farming to agritourism.

Friends, Coworkers and Professional Acquaintances: Over the holidays, I was delivering a long soliloquy about the minutiae of my job to a friend’s husband when he gently interrupted and said, “Um, I don’t know what you do for a living.” After I told him about The Distance, he thought of a half dozen businesses where he lives (Tallahassee, Fla.) that might fit the show’s parameters. This happens a lot—it’s a fun parlor game to think about your hometown and the cool old businesses you’ve seen there. Silverland Bakery was suggested by someone I knew from a previous job; he happened to visit one weekend, was charmed by the owner and emailed me later. The episode about the Nedra Matteucci Galleries came about via my husband’s college roommate, whose brother is childhood friends with the gallery’s director.

Listeners: Please keep those emails and tweets coming! I really do try to answer every email I get. I log all the suggestions in a Google Doc, a snapshot of which you can see below. Frigid Fluid Co., the embalming fluid manufacturer, and Funks Grove Maple Sirup are examples of businesses I learned about from people who support The Distance. I’m at tips@thedistance.com.

Did you suggest one of these businesses? I didn’t forget!

Businesses: Hearing from the businesses themselves—whether it’s the founder, owner or someone who works there—is always a treat. This is how I got to do stories on fire gear manufacturer LION, Zarzycki Manor Chapels funeral home and Bowlers Journal International.

PR Firms: Yes, I take PR pitches BUT THEY HAVE TO BE GOOD. Before you email me about an entrepreneurial thought leader and social media influencer who would make an amazing guest for The Distance, you should know that WE ARE NOT AN INTERVIEW SHOW and you are DRIVING ME TO USE ALL CAPS. I mean, just do the absolute bare minimum and listen to literally one episode of The Distance so you know what kinds of businesses we feature and so you hear my voice and don’t address your email to “Mr. Wong.” Examples of episodes that resulted from PR pitches are The Bales Girls, about two young sisters who unexpectedly took over their family manufacturing company after their father’s death, and Ancient History, Modern Family, about a business that deals in ancient coins, antiquities and maps. (In the latter case, the pitch was about an upcoming map show, but I went in a different, broader direction for the episode.)

After getting the initial idea, the next step is evaluating the potential of that idea and whether it’s worth pursuing a story. That’s a subject for another post! The Distance will be back with new episodes, every other week, on January 17. Be sure to subscribe in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss our triumphant return!

How an idea comes together for me

When one stands out.

First the idea hits.


Then I think about it some more and it takes a direction.


As I work through the direction, I’ll see another direction. Usually relatively similar, but different enough that it demands its own exploration.


As I dig in into the problem, more layers and possibilities reveal themselves. Sometimes they point in entirely different directions. Some seem like big possibilities, others seem smaller.


As I keep exploring, some more options emerge. Some independent of the ones I’ve already explored, but others branch off from an existing exploration.


As I keep sketching and thinking and mocking and working through variations and conditions in my head, on paper, or in code, a few strong possibilities take the lead. I begin to follow those.


One primary direction becomes the most obvious, but there are still variations on that idea.


As I dig into the variations, I realize they aren’t direct descendants of that primary direction. Instead they’re closely related offshoots, but smaller. They usually fade away.


And finally the solution becomes clear.


Then I check my thinking by going through the process again.


Where it goes from here depends on what it is, but hopefully at the end I’ve enjoyed figuring something out.



Take a look at the culmination of a lot of ideas: The all-new Basecamp 3.