Note: This is the second attempt at this post on a sleepless Saturday night. The first and better draft was lost. Alas, this one may be less robust.
I’ve always wanted to see a Crunchbase for journalism startups. If this is a time of experimentation then we need to keep better track of projects that start and fail. When I talk to young journo-entrepreneurs that don’t know what Backfence was, I’m concerned we are going to reinvent the wheel. Or worse – reinvent a squeaky wheel.
All of this is to say – we can learn from projects that fail (failure is not a bad word). Recently a Y Combinator project “NewsTilt” launched to great fanfare only to shut down three months later, returning money back to the investors. I want to examine this not from a high-horse position, but because from my point of view the speed at which this happened allows us to hone in on specific lessons.
1. Under Promise and Over Deliver
This is a general rule of thumb whenever you are going to try something for the first time aka a web-startup. When you launch, you probably only have one iota of functionality. That is the functionality you can promise. From their press release: “NewsLabs aims to save journalism by building community around news.”
Stop right there. No ONE thing will save journalism. You will never find me claiming that Spot.Us is going to save journalism. I often say that Spot.Us is PART of the solution or PART of the future for journalism – but there is no silver bullet. As awesome as you think your startup is, don’t claim that you are inventing the coolest thing since sliced bread. If you have indeed done that, others will say it for you. When Spot.Us launched my stated goal was to fund 4-6 enterprise reporting projects in the first year. Looking back that might have been a VAST under-promise. But hey, I delivered and then some.
Meanwhile NewsLabs (the company of NewsTilt) claimed “This is the future of journalism.”
It seems the CTO also learned this lesson as stated in his farewell note:
In retrospect, I now believe that we should never have made promises about building your online brand or large amounts of traffic (early email threads about how to deal with large number of comments now seem very ironic).
2. Duty and Teamwork
It is easy to start speculating here because of the nature of how this venture shut down. The CTO wrote a farewell post noting that the CEO had left two-weeks earlier. There was also mention that for one of the three months the startup was around the CEO was on a honeymoon. This leaves room for a lot of WTF questions which I won’t go into, but my friend Matt Mireles does (glad somebody asked these questions and pointed out the craziness). I’m less interested in the drama that probably occurred behind the scenes than I am from the lesson we can take here – which is around the role and relationship of founders. (note: Hacker News has a thread where the CEO says he will give his own postmortem explanation).
I was lucky to meet Paul Gahram the week before NewsTilt shut down. He gave a talk about successful startups and his first rule is: Founders, founders founders (to the tune of – location, location, location).
The idea and technology behind a startup is not nearly as important as the founders. That is the heart and soul of a startup. He went on to talk about dynamics of founders, the number of founders and the relationship between founders. Bottom line, it’s important that they have a strong and trusting relationship. Things WILL get tough and you need to be able to lean on each other. The analogy Paul used was that of soldiers. They form a bond with each other such that they don’t want to let each other down. Marines go through hell during training to become “brothers” so that in the thick of battle you don’t show a tint in your armor. It’s not because you aren’t scared – but because you don’t want to cause concern for your other brothers. When things are tough, you smile and carry on, usually bearing more than your normal load. The startup world moves so fast that if both founders feel that bond, they’ll both smile, carry more than they can – and will often come out of it with a stronger startup than when they entered the tough times.
3. Your value is NOT just for journalists
NewsTilt had a good proposition for writers, as Spot.Us contributor Matt Baume noted, but it needed to be checked with an appeal to a larger audience. I’ve ranted about this recently. NewsTilt was not the startup I was discussing in that original post – nor do I think they are 100% guilty of this journo-startup-sin, but I think a comparison with True/Slant gets my point across.
- In fact True/Slant and NewsTilt are VERY similar (they should have studied True/Slant. The technology NewsTilt offered wasn’t that much better.
- Both had a shot at marketing but True/Slant‘s efforts were more geared toward attracting readers (same with The Faster Times). NewsTilt started by appealing to and attracting to reporters. Great for a discussion in the journalism community among journalists who discuss the future of journalism – bad for the other 99.99 percent of the population.
- An interesting side note: True/Slant was bought by Forbes, although it was not a true acquisition Forbes was an early investor and the founder was a former editor of Forbes and is now head of innovation. This could have been a signal to NewsTilt that potential exists are tough.
4. It takes more than three months
If your goal is traffic and engagement (for the sake of traffic) it will take more than three months. Plain and simple. Which is to say – don’t quit on your startup. Granted if lesson #2 (duty and teamwork) is hitting the fan, you have other issues and maybe should throw in the towel – but you can’t quit after three months because the traffic isn’t where you want it to be. Iterate, learn and adapt. Three months is not enough time to evaluate if you are able/unable to achieve your under-promised goals. The lesson here: The best way for your startup to fail is if you quit.
If you build it – they will come only works with ghosts and baseball fields. Websites don’t possess that power (except for Kevin Costner’s website)
5. Technology won’t necessarily solve a social problem.
Journalism faces a lot of problems. Some of them are technical. Or better yet, some of them are the inability of news organizations to become technical. Or better yet, some of them are a result of technology changing the way we exchange information. Or better yet, some of them are about how technology is changing the economics of content. Or better yet, some of them are related to how technology is changing the way people spend their time (I know you’d rather be LOL Cating right now).
Point is: Technology is very much a part of this discussion – but it is not necessarily the solution to what is a very deep and nuanced social issue. I think (although I certainly don’t know) the folks at NewsTilt put too much emphasis on their tech-wizardry and the idea that they would build tools for journalist and all the sudden POOF – journalism would be solved.
Again – technology is certainly a PART of the solution, but it needs to be integrated within the fabric of a social context – where the problem exists.