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August 16 2012

14:00

Prehype Uses Collaboration to Bring Startup Culture to Big Companies

What if you could incubate the energy and talent that fuels so many startups, inside a big company?

Prehype, a product innovation company with offices in New York City, London, Copenhagen, and Rio, is doing just that, providing an infrastructure of collaboration in which big company executives and their team members willingly play on equal ground. The result? Companies retain more talent, and entrepreneurial employees get the chance to remake their day jobs into their dream jobs.

Capturing the Startup Spirit

Henrik Werdelin

In the not-so-distant past, every business school graduate's dream was to get an offer from a Fortune 500 company, thanks to the promise of a good salary, competitive benefits, and a strong foothold on the corporate ladder. But these days, new MBAs are increasingly forming their own ventures instead. And often, the startups they create are the result of collaboration.

At the Wharton School, 5 percent of graduating MBAs started their own business rather than looking for jobs; that means more Wharton MBAs are becoming entrepreneurs than hedge fund managers. At Stanford, a whopping 12 percent of 2012 MBAs started their own businesses rather than going to work for someone else.

Big companies are scared by this trend -- and they should be. The talented employee who tenders her resignation in order to start her own company often inspires others to follow suit. This exodus lowers morale at a big company and causes a drain on the talent pipeline that such companies have long taken for granted.

Enter Prehype, which brings the creativity and exhilaration of a startup venture into big company structures. Prehype founder Henrik Werdelin, a Danish digital dynamo, has designed his career around turning conventional business wisdom on its head. Watch a video of Henrik talking about innovation:

Rebuild big business - how to innovate from within?, Henrik Werdelin, Prehype from Rebuild21 on Vimeo.

He and partners Philip Petersen and Steven Dean all have deep product experience working for and with big companies and startups alike, so they speak both cultures' languages. And they believe the two cultures have much to learn from one another -- and a lot to gain by collaborating.

Cultivating Internal Stars

Traditionally, when a big company wants to expand into a new line of business or target a new customer segment, it scrambles to hire outside talent. Prehype helps break this paradigm, focusing instead on finding entrepreneurial talent inside a company's ranks.

Prehype then helps these internal entrepreneurs -- or "Entrepreneurs in Residence" -- develop their new product ideas and pitch them to company executives. When execs give the green light, they give the employees the freedom, investment (of time and money), and opportunity to bring the idea to life.

Since a product's fate ultimately lies with customers' willingness to buy it, Prehype helps companies get customer feedback as early as possible in the life of the product -- namely, within 100 days.

Leveraging a company's existing human resources to develop innovative products comes with a host of advantages:

  1. Employees want to be happy, appreciated, intellectually challenged, and engaged. Prehype believes the best way to achieve this is to help employees execute their own ideas in an effort to support the company where they work.
  2. Companies develop a stronger spirit of collaboration, and employees feel a renewed sense of pride in their work and loyalty to the company.
  3. The 100-day launch timeline instigates a high level of camaraderie. It leaves no time for office politics, power plays, and the dreaded corporate silo mentality. To get a product off paper and into the hands of customers in 100 days, everyone involved needs to roll up their sleeves and work together.
  4. Though working for a startup sounds like nirvana to many a corporate employee, the truth is that it is a lot of work and success takes time to build. For people who have hefty financial obligations (such as mounting student loan debt, a mortgage, or a spouse or children who depend upon a stable income and benefits), leaving a corporate job for a startup can be difficult to near impossible. Prehype's method gives employees a way to keep the stability of their corporate jobs while increasing the satisfaction they get from their work.
  5. It's far cheaper for companies to fail and learn with their existing teams than it is to do an external talent search that may bring forward a candidate who doesn't understand, like, or fit into the company culture.

Making Big Companies Better

Prehype focuses on bringing together companies, entrepreneurs, and freelancers with world-class technical chops to help large companies capitalize on opportunities and minimize threats.

Of course, that doesn't always work. The bigger the company, the more complex its politics. And when a big company has been successful for a long time, it can be difficult to get its management to realize that what made them successful in the past will not necessarily make them successful in the future. Plus, in the current economic downturn, even the boldest corporate employees can be reticent about suggesting new ways of doing things, for fear of losing their jobs.

Given these challenges, why not just help entrepreneurial-minded people get out of Dodge, ditch their companies, and start their own business independently? The Prehype team certainly has the skills and connections to make that happen. Steven Dean offered one answer.

"Companies have interesting problems to solve," he said. "They have an enormous impact on society because they are deeply entrenched in our everyday living, and they have been for a long time. If we can help them succeed, then we all win."

Though they are open to working with a wide variety of companies in a whole host of industries, the Prehype team has found that certain company characteristics are more likely to predict success with the Prehype model than others. Midsize companies, with a demonstrated ability to change with the times, are much more open to the Prehype methodology. It also helps if a company's back is up against the wall and it has no choice but to change or fall off the map. Desperate times call for unprecedented measures, which can be just what's needed to allow a company to embrace the change it needs.


Prehype is currently on the hunt for new markets and partners who want to reinvent the way business innovates. Given the number of frustrated corporate employees and big companies that desperately need creative solutions to stay alive, I'd say Prehype has a lot of potential ahead of it, indeed.

Christa Avampato is a product developer, freelance writer, and yoga and meditation teacher based in New York City. She blogs daily about the art of creative living at Christa In New York: Curating a Creative Life. Learn more about the things that light her up by visiting her company website Chasing Down the Muse and very-often-updated Twitter feed.

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March 10 2011

17:00

“Journalists have lost control of the story”: Twitter, tech bubbles, and the nostalgia of the technology press

Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to welcome Tim Carmody — who you may know from Snarkmarket, kottke.org, Wired.com, Twitter, or elsewhere — as a contributor to the Lab. Here he looks at how the increasing speed of media opens us to manipulation — and false nostalgia.

There’s nothing new about speculation bubbles, especially in the technology industry. It’s nearly impossible to be certain which new ideas or products will be able to do what they’re supposed to be able to — let alone whether they’ll be able to do so at cost or scale, if they’ll be adopted by the market, or if a competitor will get there first and better. And when everything’s happening quickly and everything seems exciting, it’s nearly impossible to tell a bubble from a real boom.

The only sure strategy for an investor or inventor is to get in early, push the company as hard as you can to attract attention and investment, and try to sell high, neither too late or too soon. When the economics of money and attention move too far past the economics of the underlying value, you get a bubble. When the money and attention slow, then stop, then rush in the opposite direction, the bubble bursts. The boom is over, if it ever existed at all.

There’s also nothing new about the press’s role in helping to inflate bubbles, worrying over them, and watching them burst. What is new, according to Federated Media’s John Battelle and Thomson Reuters’ Connie Loizos, is how the accelerated news cycle of blogs, Twitter, and other digital media forces the technology press to work at the same speed as the investors they cover — with the same worries about getting in early and beating competitors trumping the real value of the product. In this case, though, the product is their own journalism.

“For several years now,” writes Loizos, “savvy investors have been effectively gaming Twitter and mastering the ability to trumpet their investments in 140-word sound bites.” The credibility (in both senses) of the technology press, when mixed with Twitter’s easy ability to quickly pass on information without comment, gives those trumpet bursts an amplifier. “Journalists have lost control of the story. In rushing to retweet the latest auction results from SharesPost, we’re not thinking about what we’re writing or questioning what we’ve been told.”

Loizos elaborated on her argument in an email. “Thanks to Twitter and, to a lesser extent, other social media like Quora, information about startups and financings has become much more porous,” spreading good and bad information equally quickly, and in volume. “The first story out wins. For example, that first ‘scoop’ is what gets the most real estate by powerful aggregators like Techmeme, while every other story gets scuttled underneath it.” It also changes the relationship between a reporter’s sources and her audience. “[Now] we’re not just competing against one another as journalists but also against savvy investors and entrepreneurs who know they can reach just as broad an audience by delivering their news themselves via Twitter and their blogs.”

Loizos is a veteran of the last tech valuation boom and bust, reporting for the first-generation tech magazine The Industry Standard, founded by Battelle. Battelle’s Federated Media has since gone on to partner with a who’s who of current tech culture and business sites, from Boing Boing and TechCrunch to Business Insider and GigaOm. He sees a problem too, possibly bigger than VCs driving their investments.

The real bubble, or at least the more troubling one, is the “Internet interest bubble.” Here the press is not peripheral but central to the story.

In the new media landscape, “we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties,” Battelle writes. In addition to investors, we see “bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets…The tweets, conference utterances, and blog posts of these sources are instantly turned into ‘news stories’ by the post-cambrian publishing explosion of sites covering the narrative that was once the province of first-generation Internet magazines” like Battelle’s Standard.

Churnalism, in other words, is a much bigger problem than just press releases and wire stories. It’s everywhere — and creating an echo chamber unprecedented in its size and reach.

“Millions upon millions of people visit these tech news sites, because the narrative they chronicle is more important than it’s ever been,” Battelle writes. “Our industry impacts a huge swatch of society and culture, and increasingly is understood to be the core driver of pretty much all of business today.” And apart from contributing to a tech bubble, Battelle and Loizos think that the echo chamber crowds out better analysis and better stories in our news sources:

But where’s the bigger picture? Where’s the hold-on-a-minute-let’s-think-this-through-and make-a-few-phone-calls-and-see-how-it-develops approach? Where’s the conceptual scoop? The second-day (or even second week) analysis?

“There are stories about healthcare startups that are transforming lives that no one is reading,” Loizos told me. “I think behind-the-scenes profiles of employees who truly make Valley companies valuable are fascinating, but people don’t make time to write them because there’s still this unquenchable thirst for the same stories being written again and again: about the hottest new startup, the hottest new venture capital firm, the hottest new valuation, the hottest new application.” There’s also the comfort of the familiar: “in the tech universe, people could read about Twitter and Facebook” — or Apple and Google, etc. — “all day long and journalists — saddled with driving eyeballs — are giving them what they want.”

“It’s an exciting time, but it’s also pretty screwed up,” she adds.

Both Loizos and Battelle show some nostalgia for the tech coverage produced by magazines like the Standard in the 1990s — partly for the quality of the reporting or at least the relative sanity of print’s slower pace. But Owen Youngman, Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is skeptical that things were any better a decade ago.

“In my memory,” Youngman told Loizos, “a lot of glossy magazines back then were by and for the same people that are running up valuations today, and they could make even the wispiest of ideas seemed substantial.” In an email, he added that “the nostalgia is more about the former number of high-gloss, high-profile, high-paying outlets for tech journalism, not necessarily for the journalism itself.”

In a recent article for The Atlantic, James Fallows voices a similar skepticism about our ability to accurately measure journalism’s present against its past.

“When I recently talked to people in the news business, historians, political scientists, and others about the current predicament of the news, every previous era looks innocent,” Fallows writes. Flux in journalism isn’t the exception, but the rule; and what seem to us like venerable staples like Time, Nightline, or NPR are both younger and were more radical than we typically remember. Ultimately, even that is the wrong question: “While it’s interesting and even useful to know whether today’s journalism marks a descent from past standards, what matters more is how it suits today’s needs.”

At the same time, even VCs themselves are balking at the speed of the market and how social media are disrupting their own practices. AngelList plays a similar role for investors and entrepreneurs that TechMeme plays for journalists and readers, using aggregation, filtering, and social media to manage the flow of information and create new opportunities for both. In “Why I Deleted My AngelList Account,” influential VC Bryce Roberts detailed how this approach conflicted with his own investment strategy and style:

At the earliest stages, it’s nearly impossible to pick the next Google so throw a lot of darts in the dark and hope you hit it. That high velocity, light touch style is certainly a viable approach to investing. It’s just not my style.

I tend towards a more concentrated approach to seed investing where we make fewer, larger, investments and take an active role in working with the companies we fund. Frankly, I just don’t buy the notion that making an investment is akin to throwing a dart in the dark. Worse, I think it’s a dangerous idea to promote…

Real or perceived, organic or manufactured, AngelList is in the business of generating heat. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, I tend to be interested in ideas and companies that most investors aren’t, so heat is generally a false signal for me.

Johnson’s post quickly drew a sharp response from Internet entrepreneur/provocateur Jason Calacanis. “Let’s be honest and just say what’s happening here: you’re pissed that you now have hundreds of angels swarming on deals that you used to be able to snap up at half the price…There are now *hundreds* of qualified and unqualified angels who are driven by sport and not return! They are betting with their own money — not some LP’s” — limited partners who invest in a venture capitalist’s aggregated fund rather than make individual investments — “and [they're] more excited by private companies than 4% muni bonds.”

The language is very different, but it’s not dissimilar to Youngman’s critique of journalistic nostalgia — or for that matter, Nick Denton’s defense of Gawker’s approach to web journalism to Fallows. People want what they want — and what they want is low-opportunity-cost fun. Nobody wants “to eat their vegetables,” to use Denton’s phrase for high-substance, high-prestige investigative journalism. These outlets need the support of institutions or nonprofits, not advertising and eyeballs alone.

It’s clear that both technology companies and technology journalism are on the cusp of something. Whether it’s a bubble or a boom, we can’t know. In the meantime, we have all of the problems of indeterminacy: practices and standards held over from an earlier period jostling against emerging conventions which offer something new.

Blogs and social media offer both entrepreneurs and journalists new modes of engagement with each other and a different kind of conversation with their readers. At the same time, the demands of traditional news formats can actually push us into stories that privilege new forms of manipulation. Reporters seeking a news peg for an analysis-driven story about a popular company can find quotes from blogs, Twitter, or Quora as easily as they can from a company’s press release, putting the same texts and voices into circulation.

Finally, news outlets have to recognize that a big part of their readership is driven by popular speculation, particularly if their coverage focuses on hot startups, big IPOs, and new deals. If a valuation bubble bursts, those eyeballs vanish too. Investing in deep analysis, conceptual scoops, alternative content, experimental storytelling — and the reporters who can produce those stories — is a terrific hedge against that dangerous future.

February 22 2011

19:00

Jeff Israely: Building a news org in order to support good journalists

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He occasionally describes and comments on his startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Via bank wires and PayPal emails, sent to accounts in Philadelphia, New York, the U.K., Spain, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and here in France, Worldcrunch is sending out its first payments to the men and women (mostly women so far) who select, translate, and shape the stories we are producing for our site and the sites of our partners.

It is a significant occasion for any startup when it begins to make its wares with the sweat and smarts of real people, beyond its founders and first investors. I would add that it is even more significant — in 2011 — if those people are professional journalists, getting paid for their work.

But this post is not about self-congratulation, or even necessarily optimism for the news business or the profession of journalism as a whole. One of the rationales for our decision in December to go live with our online work-in-progress/pre-beta “garage” was to be able to take the first step in seeing how we might build a team of journalists — with a range of experience, backgrounds and foreign-language skills — to make our daily (top-quality!) supply of global donuts.

In financial terms, the good news for our project is bad news for the only line of work I’ve known for the past 18 years: smart, qualified, multilingual professionals are ready to work at a rate that is indeed lower than the very modest money I was making when I began 18 years ago.

In the short/medium term, this works in our favor, allowing Worldcrunch to showcase our stuff without burning through the first bit of seed investment we have raised. Whether it is good news in the longer term is a much more complicated question that touches on what we might call the labor economics of the transformation of the news business.

I am not an economist, and have exactly 14 months of business experience…so the best point of entry I can offer is the economics of my own transformation in the news business.

Time, where I’d been a correspondent since 2001, has progressively been moving to a freelance-stringer model, and has cut staff positions every year since 2005. My turn came in May 2009. I had the possibility to continue contributing with a solid pay rate, which — if I supplemented with another string or two — could allow me to earn a living and keep calling myself a Time correspondent. And indeed, that is what I did for a while.

But all along, this project was staring down at me from the shelf, saying “now or never.” And so, on the side, I got the ball rolling on what would become Worldcrunch.

But my story is the exception that proves the rule. For starters, I have a wife with a good job (that’s grist alone for a whole other post!), and a net of security from the French social system (ditto!) that colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere don’t necessarily enjoy. But more to the point, I had Worldcrunch, a bona fide business concept, a would-be company to build, that went beyond the sum total of the journalism I could produce with my own two feet and 10 fingers.

And so, this post contains a conspicuously paradoxical polemic: an entrepreneurial journalist taking issue with all the huffing and puffing about the “rise of the entrepreneurial journalist.”

First, though, to try to limit the amount of hyperventilating on Twitter, let it be clear that the concept that Jarvis and others champion largely reflects what is in fact a new reality for both individual journalists and the news business as a whole: We all must market our work better, we must look for creative ways to generate revenue (for ourselves, and others), we must innovate, adapt, evolve, and take the occasional calculated professional risk that all successful people do to strike forth into new territory.

My gripe is that this misses a basic reality that most journalists face, that they know right well what territory they want to conquer: It’s called journalism, y’know, like doing stories, shooting videos, covering beats. Notwithstanding the power of Twitter/Facebook/liveblogging/extreme aggregation or any combination thereof, the self-contained “piece” of journalism remains the form the vast majority of people still rely on to get informed, educated, entertained. And by far, the most likely way to get paid for your journalistic work continues to be selling the sweat of your labors to a media outlet, either by the piece or by way of a salaried position. (For the record, having a fixed job doesn’t in itself make you fat or lazy or unethical. Indeed, it remains the most efficient path to the kind of honest/investigative/experimental work we used to call enterprise journalism, a term that both pre-dates and, a priori, produces more civic value than entrepreneurial journalism.)

Some like to celebrate the cases of those who have used the tools of new technology to carve out their own space and make major career leaps, unhindered by the conventions of traditional news business economics. But these exceptions continue to prove the rule: The vast majority of wannabe, would-be, once-were full-time journos — who work hard, have ideas and talent, and are willing to adapt to new platforms and technologies — are simply sliding down into that ever widening pool of underpaid piece workers, hired-gun press releasers, content-farm sharecroppers.

What may look like the golden new age of entrepreneurial journalism for the lucky few cannot hide the dark realities of bad-old freelancing for a growing proportion of those actually delivering the goods.

The cause, we all know well: The Internet-era business model for the industry just ain’t there yet, and probably won’t be for a good while. The risk, of course, is that the new landscape being tilled with the received wisdom that “anyone can do journalism” will wind up barren of anyone who can pay the bills doing journalism, the kind where news is gathered and sense is made of events in the places where they happen. We are in serious self-fulfilling prophecy territory.

Still, I would be a fool, on a number of levels, if I spent my energy trying to preserve or bring back the old labor model. But being flat in the middle of a do-or-die startup, I also have no choice but to think clearly about the way things are, rather than some idealized/demonized ideological view of where the industry is coming from, or going.

And that brings me back to those ever modest initial Worldcrunch payments. Yes, we have big plans to capture the proverbial “energy of the crowd.” But this particular project will not work without the steady/reliable/available labor of professionals. And so we must hope there is a model by which the talented and hungry (not starving!) will be able to stay in this line of work. Naturally, it will be different from the old labor model dominated by large staffs of fixed professionals. But it also cannot have “free” (or dirt cheap) as its baseline. This tweet was how it crystalized in my head just a week or two after we began paying journos: “Building a News company means having a vision for how journalists will earn a fair wage working for you.”

In just these first two months, when the early reality can’t match that “vision,” I am seeing how the journalists react (each, slightly differently!) to the work and the pay and the betting on our project’s future success. In the back-and-forth, we are coming up with new ideas about what and how stuff gets produced — and I see how it relates to renumeration. The shifting labor economics, indeed, will actually be part of how we shape both the business model and even the substance of the journalism we are producing. We must balance the need to bring great people into the fold with our own bootstrapped finances and future cost/revenue projections. We must be viable, in other words, or we will be providing no work for anyone.

It is clear that news and journalism are a different beast than just generic “content.” As a global news source, we have launched in this trial-by-fire moment of the rolling revolutions in the Arab world. We aren’t yet working directly with Arabic publications, but have gotten some great on-the ground stories and analysis translated from of our top European launch partners. We were also lucky enough to hook up with Kristen Gillespie, an Arabic (and French!) speaker, with 10 years of on-the-ground experience in the Middle East for the likes of CBS Radio, NPR and The Nation. With events unfolding fast, and the region’s media/information transforming before us, Kristen and I came up with this regular feature, Arabica, to give our readers a quick daily tour of what is being said/shared in Arabic. These items, like the pieces we are selecting/translating from the mainstream foreign-language media, must be accurate, reliable, accessible, interesting. They must also be timely. It is work for professionals. (The rubrique is also the kind of germ of an idea that comes in working/brainstorming in a team, rather than in isolation.)

I don’t know yet how we’re going to keep Kristen — or whether Kristen herself will even be able to continue to make a living in the news business. Don’t let the (temporary) influx into Cairo fool you: Kristen’s gigs from her base in Amman were gradually reduced and eliminated over the past few years, with one editor telling her “don’t call us unless Americans are killed.” In her desire to continue in this line of work, I am starting to get an idea how I might gauge my own entrepreneurial foray into the journalism business: We can consider Worldcrunch a success if we can build something that allows others to spend more and more of their time and energy focused on the business of producing the journalism itself.

December 14 2010

18:00

Jeff Israely: Speeding up a startup, but slowing down at the same time

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he’ll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Okay, here’s my shot at a new law of physics to apply to our news startup: Q. When does speeding up help you to slow down? A. At the exact moment that slowing down will help you speed up. Experienced entrepreneurs (and basketball players) will recognize this quantum bit of gobbledygook as the art of the pivot. Here’s how this particular apple fell on my head.

A month ago, when we unveiled Worldcrunch in this space, with a signup page and basic description of what we’ll be doing, it was part of a fairly straightforward plan and timetable for getting our site launched. Step 1: Announce the thing and open Facebook and Twitter accounts. Step 2: Complete the back office and site development. Step 3: Revamp the design and refine the functionality. Step 4: Solidify the core crew of multilingual journalists to begin building the editorial structure. (Note: Fundraising, partnerships, and legal issues are always at the top of the list…but their timetables have a logic all their own.)

Once steps 2, 3, and 4 began to fall into place, we’d start. Gradually. Privately. Our homepage/signup page would be a placeholder, while the various pieces came together behind the scenes. Through December, we’d use a special password for access to begin to show what we were doing (design, functionality…and the articles themselves) to our friends and colleagues, potential partners and investors, and those interested enough to sign up. Then, by the first week of January, shazzam: Launch!

But in the span of 72 hours in mid-November, two things happened that convinced us it was time to, er, slow-down-and-speed-up. First, we were presented with the chance to create an innovative front end for the website, which also held the possibility to integrate iPhone and iPad apps more rapidly down the road. This new front end would slow us down. Around the same time, one of our news partners, top French business daily Les Echos, told us they were extra eager to have us begin producing their stories to post on their website. Well, we thought, after we saw the first few Worldcrunch-produced stories on lesechos.fr, we realized we should (as is foreseen in the partnership agreement) also start posting them on ours. This would speed us up.

Putting these two equal but opposite forces on some kind of pulley system attached to a pair of fisherman’s sinkers (10th-grade physics don’t fail me now!) created the perfect conditions for our startup to make that famous pivot.

So as of two weeks ago, we are live, sort of — for anyone to see. It is not our beta, or even alpha, version. Yet it’s not quite a blog either, since we are not just publishing stuff about what we’ll be doing, but actually starting to do it. We have chosen to call our temporary public home The Garage.

This was a major decision, strategically and psychologically. As such, it was bound to test the fiber of the team, and again proved that despite our occasional bickering like brother and sister, my co-founder Irene and I are truly in synch. There was a lot riding on the decision to both push back the beta launch, and in the meantime go live with our stories. It would change both how we’d present ourselves to the public, and the mechanics of how the actual site (and company) might evolve. Yet after two brief conversations between us, and consultations with our investors, we agreed on the change of plans as if we were thinking with one brain. This bodes well for other big decisions — and pivots — that are sure to come.

A pivotal meal?

Last week was The Lunch. If some day Worldcrunch ends up realizing its full potential, the cafeteria-chic meal at Gustave in the Eighth Arrondissement will stand as one of the key moments that set us on our way. The occasion was the arrival in Paris (for the LeWeb confererence) of Lili Rodic, our indefatigable Zagreb-based web development team leader. Along with Irene, there was also Frederic Bonelli and Diane Grappin, two of our first investors. Fred has been advising us on key technical and digital publishing strategy. Diane is driving all that is product- and design-related at Worldcrunch.

We were at lunch to talk about refining the Garage, and the next steps for moving closer to the beta launch. But inevitably what we need to do today, particularly in the development of the technology, leads to discussions about the future: about how to build into the technical framework the right tools to allow our editorial and business ambitions to be realized. We brought up ideas that had already been floating around. We factored in budget and timing issues. We ate our nouvelle cuisine off of plastic trays.

But at a certain point, Fred began to lay out his vision for what the architecture of Worldcrunch should be, literally mapping it out for Lili (and the rest of us) on a piece of scrap paper. Something in that moment started to crystallize. We could suddenly see how our editorial and technical potential was naturally intertwined. It was the blueprint for a news enterprise built with new eyes — as I put it a year ago in a blissfully ignorant “about” page for my blog — and legs.

Still, big plans aside, my days now are mostly (and finally!) filled with the nuts and bolts of producing stories. We have the beginnings of a dynamite team on the editorial side. Together, we are using this time in the Garage to begin to create what in some ways is a wholly new editorial process: the selection and production of stories in English from the best of the foreign-language press, in real time. There is much to dissect, much to learn, and it will of course be a topic for future posts. In the meantime, both the day-in, day-out journalism we are doing and the other dot-connecting to come is proof of another theorem: The quality and efficiency of the editorial side improves in direct relation to the quality and efficiency of the business and technical sides. And vice-(vice)-versa. But this is not another new law of physics: just the old, yet ever valid formula for what we still call the news business.

November 10 2010

15:00

Jeff Israely: An idea and a brand come together as Worldcrunch

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here. —Josh]

This is a long overdue introduction: a kind of public christening, a chance to share with you, the reader, our vision for the future of news. Okay, you see where we’re headed: this post is all about marketing. Sixteen months after secretly banging out my first PowerPoint business plan, nine months of blog posts delving into every twist and turn of my digital news startup except what the damn thing was — I am hereby beginning the rollout.

But first, one last hedge. Up until now, the motivations for these pieces for the Lab have varied: trying to figure out where I fit in to this transforming industry; sharing the daily ins and outs/ups and downs of Old Media Guy launching New Media Thing; a public search for my writing voice on new platforms and in the new role of would-be startup business dude. On that final point, I have been keenly aware of the potential benefits afforded by this space — and blogging in general — in the attention it might generate when (and if) my project got off the ground. It is an expression of that sometimes uncomfortable truth about the 21st-century journalist: that we can no longer shy away from the nitty-gritty of promoting, selling, marketing each piece of editorial output we produce and the building of each of our respective personal brands as the best way to increase the chances that we may continue (or begin) doing the actual newsbiz work we originally set out to do.

And so here, just this once, let me set aside the personal exploration and entrepreneurial and journalistic “processes,” and focus solely on product: a mini/soft/pre-launch and presentation of our company’s core concept, our big ambitions, our brand. I won’t go into detail here about our plans for actually executing what we set out to do, though that is perhaps the most difficult and decisive of all topics. Once we’re up and running live, we will see together how that execution is proceeding, both in the back office and on the front page. But first: throat clear….drumroll!….spotlight!!

What we do

How do you cover the world — the most sprawling and variegated and expensive beat of them all? Where do you turn to find the fresh new stories and voices that break through all the inevitable chattering and cannibalizing around this or that single news event that only the wires or The New York Times have managed to chronicle? Where is the existing, untapped potential for on-the-ground journalism that is more than just a lucky tweet? Might there be a shortcut to quality content? Real, worldwide scoops? Though ours is just one part of the solution to covering the global beat, we believe it is strong on simplicity and economy and immediate impact: The professional (and participatory) selection and translation of the best, most relevant stories in the foreign-language media.

This new idea, of course, is not brand new. There is much interesting already happening now around online translation of news and information: Global Voices’ coverage of international bloggers, Meedan’s innovative Arabic-English online current-events dialogue, Café Babel’s and Presseurope’s multilingual European coverage, Worldmeets.us’s global viewpoints on American policy, Der Spiegel’s English-language website. But the quest for a commercially viable digital formula around the top names in global journalism is indeed something new. And, we think, rich in potential.

The roots of the model can be found in Courrier International, a successful general interest weekly launched 20 years ago in France, and has been taken up by others, including my good friends at Internazionale in Rome, Forum in Warsaw and Courrier Japon in Tokyo. Indeed, we are exploring a range of possibilities in partnering with Courrier, which is just a Paris Métro ride away from our home offices. We have much to learn from what they’ve been doing in print, including questions of selection and translation and copyright. And some day, they may have something to learn about what kind of journalistic and business opportunities we can create by applying this formula digitally, and in the real-time news cycle of the Internet. Indeed, partnerships will be key to executing what we will be doing. More on that in a future post.

Where we are

Unlike Courrier International — or World Press Review, a high-brow New York-based monthly that survives as an online forum for global opinion — we are being born as a live news source in the digital space. This will permeate everything we do. But the technology (like the traditions) must serve the journalism, not be an end in itself. Frédéric Bonelli, one of our first investors, describes the media world right now as being “like Europe after World War II“: a mixed landscape of ruins, reconstruction efforts, old institutions trying to salvage their standing, and ambitious new players, some with true vision, others just looking to exploit the confusion. As a company that is both global and agile, we hope we can fit somewhere in the “vision” camp, aware of the words of Jay Rosen, who declared in a September speech here in Paris that “the struggle for the next press is an international thing.” Mais oui, monsieur!

What’s our name?

Way back in December 2009, when my Danish-born, Rome-based web designer friend Annie Skovgaard Christiansen agreed to create the demo site for the project, she casually said, “Okay — but I can’t start until you tell me the name.” Panic. There was a working name attached to my working biz plan, but it was both mediocre and unavailable as a URL. So the next 48 hours, I spent wracking my brain, harassing friends and colleagues, getting to know goDaddy. It had to be punchy, global…and available as .com for the standard $8.99 rate! The good names were all taken, and those not yet taken, weren’t quite good enough. Until…hmm…that’s not bad…probably not available? Let me see…yes! The feedback ever since — colleagues, friends, potential partners and investors — has been about as positive as you could hope for (though my ownDaddy said it sounded like breakfast cereal). So the URL nabbed back in late December has stuck as our website’s name, our company’s brand. And if we do the rest of our job well, we hope it sticks in your brain as a mark of quality international news: Worldcrunch.

One last bit of bald marketing: Please sign up for updates on our launch, as we continue with our alpha testing and building our team (and continuing our fundraising). We also have Twitter and Facebook pages. And though my business partner Irene is opposed, one day the Worldcrunch coffee mugs will arrive as well!

And finally, the brand needs a slogan, or what I’ve since discovered is referred to as a baseline. It came to me just a few weeks ago, as I swam my laps. Maybe you once heard it in j-school? Or at your first newspaper job? They say “All news is local.” Of course it is. The county hospital’s response to national health care reform, the school board budget deliberations, and the new stop sign installed around the corner must get covered because they affect the lives of you, the reader. But for the same reasons, we must keep up with the latest news from Peshawar or Pyongyang, China, Chile, and Chicago too, to say nothing of this autumn’s harvest in Bordeaux. What happens there matters here. All news indeed is local. We just say it differently here at Worldcrunch: All News is Global.

October 18 2010

15:30

Launch! Five lessons from the first months of running a news startup

Six exhilarating, nerve-scraping months ago, I left my daily newspaper job to put my livelihood where my mouth is: to build a topical local news service serving riders of public transit in Portland, Oregon.

In print, Portland Afoot is an image-rich four-page monthly newsmagazine about “low-car life,” distributed by mail to homes and, starting in the next month or two, to workplaces. Online, it’s a heavily reported wiki, with evergreen pages on every bus route, bike law, and commute subsidy in town, among many other things.

Crazy? Obviously. But four months after launch, I’ll tell you this: I’ve never been learning more or learning faster. Now that I’ve become one of the entrepreneurs I’ve covered here at the Lab, Josh has generously invited me to spin out a few of the practical lessons I’ve been spooling up. Let’s start at the beginning.

Start scheduling meetings immediately, at least one each week, and do not stop.

Michael AndersenYou know how one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight? One coffee date before your launch is worth two coffee dates after your launch.

Maybe it’s because people like to be in the know. Maybe it’s because they’re proud to see their advice shaping your product. Maybe it’s because they have a reflex to root for risk-takers. I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, the earlier people hear about your plan, the more they’ll want to help you. And “people who want to help you” happen to be the things you’re about to need more than anything else in the world.

Loop in local institutions that share your interests.

I thought I was picking a topical niche for the sake of our audience (harried readers without time for irrelevant news) and our sponsors (retailers wanting to target green consumers at the neighborhood level). What I didn’t realize was that I was also opening my arms to a whole universe of private local organizations predisposed to help me succeed.

Portland Afoot needed early subscribers and legitimacy; celebrated local-news blog BikePortland.org ran a positive preview. We’re planning a neighborhood-specific product; the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, a regional advocacy group, helped me brainstorm the contents. We needed a pilot location for my workplace-distribution scheme; the Swan Island Transportation Management Association, a federally funded traffic-reduction nonprofit, agreed to host it in the industrial area they oversee.

Spare me the warnings about lost independence. Yep, that’s a major risk, and I’m doing my best to deal with it through full disclosure. But it’s a jungle out there and you’re not going to survive without friends. In our case, the whole revenue model depends on print distribution partnerships; entanglements are a fact of life. If your news startup is ever going to get important enough to make enemies, it’ll need to make a few friends first.

If you’re going to sell ads, sell two cheap ones before you launch.

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social NetworkMy gut says Justin Timberlake is right: a website with ads is like a great party that has to be over at 11. I’m sure Portland Afoot would have a few more print subscribers, a bit more web traffic, and most importantly a few more superfans if it had launched with zero ads.

But this nonprofit business, unlike Facebook, is not headed for an IPO. It’s got about a year to succeed or fail to pay my rent. And though I haven’t yet started selling ads in earnest, I’ve done enough to guarantee that you second ad is easier than your first, and your third ad is easier than your second. Prove to advertisers that your audience has worth by getting some ads on the page.

You are not too cool for e-mail.

I hate spam. I hate it so much that when we launched, I promised to ping our mailing list no more than once every three months. It’s a promise I’ve kept — and it was a big mistake.

For people who care about you, regular emails aren’t spam. They are reminders that you exist and are doing wonderful things of which they approve. How do I know? Because nothing — not direct mail, not inbound links, not tables at neighborhood events — drives traffic or action like a mass email to people who’ve opted to receive it. One of my lucky breaks before we launched was that I popped a single box on the site to start building a list of the emails of early visitors. Here’s the PHP script. Steal it.

The weirder your product is — and ours, a heavily reported wiki and four-page monthly magazine, is almost as weird as they come — the more important email, with its universal familiarity, becomes. Email is the U2 of Internet communication — all these years later, it’s the one thing we all still share. Embrace it.

Launch as close as possible to the summer solstice.

Trust me — you’re going to need the energy.

September 27 2010

14:00

Jeff Israely: Juggling on a tightrope, aiming for a news startup’s launch

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments. —Josh]

For any startup dude or dudette, impatience is a virtue…and delays a necessary evil. You must insist, insist, insist and then keep insisting: with gurus, colleagues, developers, designers, potential partners and funders, and that eternal beast of institutional inertia. But you must also remember that all those people essential to your success can never share the same degree of urgency you have in getting your project off the ground.

So we must always guard against our own over-eagerness, that hunger to start actually producing what we have spent months preparing to produce, to finally have something to show for yourself. The journobeast is a creature used to having his work out there to see and touch, and so we must adjust to the longer rhythms and anonymity that go with planning, lining up ducks, laying groundwork. Succumb to your own anxiety and vanity, attempt to stick to timetables linked more to your (tunnel) vision and psychology than to the facts on the ground, and you can start to make mistakes: You frighten away people who might otherwise (in due time) be on board; you overlook key details; you oversell the proximity of your target launch date.

Even in this space, for example, I’d desperately wanted my first after-the-summer post to include a sign-up page — and perhaps the announcement of our name — to add some grist to these musings. That ain’t happening here and now, though it does feel as though we are close enough for me to say (ever impatiently!) that over the next two posts the who and what we are will begin to come into focus, as we head toward the alpha launch of our website.

Still, as always, I hope there may be something from the startup experience itself that may be worth sharing with others wading through the wreckage and sawdust and buzz of heavy machinery of this global information retrofitting. In the final countdown phase of my little piece of it, five distinct areas are staring me in the face: product, partnerships, team, fundraising, the company. Like a watch, all are interconnected, and must be properly calibrated to keep the thing moving forward. But things move forward (or backward) at unpredictable paces. Progress on one of the five components can spur on the others, and the whole project suddenly lurches forward; conversely, one aspect getting sidetracked can send the whole thing unraveling. It’s a confidence game. A juggler on a tightrope. Last week, I taught our French lawyer Serge Vatine the expression Catch-22. The road of a startup is filled with countless such binds and potential binds. They are what keeps me up at night…and alas, what sometimes slows things down.

Smarter, more seasoned people who have already crossed the threshold and beyond can tell you from experience what worked and didn’t work in the weeks before launch. Instead, here I can tell you what it looks and feels like now: facing the unknown of all those moving parts. Scared. Hopeful. Too dumb to know any better.

PRODUCT: One could break down the building of a news website into two component parts: the journalism/information and the how-to-get-it-delivered/consumed/interfaced-with. Content and functionalities. In an ideal world, they should serve each other. But the reality of this early stage, when you’re not quite sure what you have, when your time and resources (that’s what polite folk call cash money) are limited, extra attention on one can sacrifice the other.

We have the good fortune to have found Lili Rodic, who began her career as a journalist, to project manage the development of the site. Though she may not be able to provide us with everything on our wish list, within the constraints of time and money, it’s never because she doesn’t understand what we are after. She knows perhaps better than us — too often entranced by some cool feature or design — that the functionality is not an end in itself, but a tool to bring out the best in the journalism. That is, in fact, our product.

PARTNERSHIPS: In the networked future-of-news, doing it alone is not an option. Gotta partner up, link out, look for love. Partnerships are fundamental to the content we will be offering, and we are perhaps farther along on this aspect of our project than any other — and pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of institutional inertia. But the Internet’s immediacy and accessibility is a double-edged sword: It makes it much easier to actually get a product up and visible. And that means some people will want to wait to see you in operation before committing. That’s been particularly true on the distribution side, where the good feedback from would-be partners has stopped short of actually talking turkey on sales, syndication, links, etc. Instead it’s been some variation on “Let us know when you have something live.” (See above overeagerness to launch!)

TEAM: I have had conversations, in one form or another, with some 20 journalists — of all ages, locations, levels of experience and ranges of interests — who could potentially take part at launch. My network from my years as a foreign correspondent is key to all of this. Still, others have found me via my more recent blogging and tweeting. It’s obviously a buyer’s market — lots of talented people trying to figure out how to continue (or begin) making a living in this line of work. But it’s also a moment of great uncertainty. Talk is plenty, ideas abound, and many by now have had brushes with startups, some of which have never gotten off the ground. Or gotten people paid. So the conversations, on some level, must remain just that until…

FUNDRAISING: It was a full 13 months after the first draft of my business plan that I actually asked anyone for money. Sure, I’d been thinking about it, talking about it, reading about it from people on both sides of the proverbial table. Once I have more perspective on the process, I plan to write a separate post on what it’s like for a longtime staff journalist (read: employee), who is used to asking just about anything from complete strangers except money, to find himself seeking out serious people who might be willing to bet their hard-earned cash money on him.

I am lucky to have a business partner, Irene Toporkoff, who has plenty of experience dealing with money, contracts, and the like…though for her too, this is the first pure fundraising startup experience. We are still gathering advice, getting reactions to our project. But I am now no longer shy about telling just about everyone I speak to that investment is at the very top of our to-do list. Though we still have a scenario for launching first in pure bootstrap mode in order to show what we have to potential investors, we are convinced that we can show much more clearly what we we can do at launch if we have the proper, er, resources.

THE COMPANY: We have decided after some initial wavering to incorporate the company in France, though we know that we can always expand our operations and company to the U.S. Our choice to launch here is in part because that is where we are based. We also like the idea of a new English-language global news source that was born here in the rest of the world. A global perspective is key to the product we will be offering.

But we have also found that France has quite a lively Internet business environment, with smart, forward-looking people and new laws to encourage entrepreneurship. That doesn’t mean there isn’t paperwork to take care of, documents to fill out, a bank account to open. That, it turns out, is high on our to-do list this week. And by October 1, this would-be world news startup will be a living, breathing company. A champagne toast will be in order, then right back to work…and plenty more impatience on the way.

September 07 2010

18:00

Entrepreneur summer school reveals startups aren’t easy

Fall’s just around the corner, so we thought it would be a good time to check in on how the pupils of Elizabeth Spiers’ summer school for entrepreneurs fared.

We mentioned back in June that ten small companies would get to participate in a 90-day program designed to get their startups off the ground. They’d get free advice, instruction and homework assignments from Spiers, a media consultant in New York whose had a hand in founding a number of successful sites, including Gawker and Mediabistro Fishbowl sites. The class hosted guest speakers from companies like LearnVest, Guest of a Guest, the Barbarian Group and Conde Nast.

Did the students all pass with flying colors? Of the ten companies, one dropped out, a few didn’t make much progress, but about half made a serious dent in meeting their summer goals.

“Some people think they want to run a business,” Spiers told me, “then you go do the actual work and you realize you don’t. It’s better to learn that in the classroom setting.”

Spiers says she thought the program was successful enough that she’s planning on another course in the spring. She expects the structure to largely stay the same. This time around, the class met for 12 weeks, along with individual meetings with each founders. Once a week she brought in an interesting speaker. The multiple perspectives helped round out the curriculum.

“If it had just been me hammering away, it wouldn’t have been as good,” Spiers says. “I think most of the questions were answered one way or another.”

Before the spring, Spiers says she plans to incorporate the class as a nonprofit to cover its costs. This summer she handled supply costs and found some space in a client’s office.

I spoke with the founders of two of the startups Spiers said made good progress this summer. Fashism, a site where you can get unbiased feedback on questions like “does this dress look frumpy,” has been live for about a year. Its owner, Brooke Mooreland, quit her job recently to make the social fashion site her full-time focus. Her goal for the summer was to launch an iPhone app (which is live in the iTunes Store) and to get ready to meet with investors, which she says she did.

Mooreland says the key to the class was access to Spiers, who’s been through the startup process many times. She ran her business plan and her investor pitch by Spiers, looking for input. “Does this sound good to you?” was one of her frequent questions — “[Spiers] was able to give me good advice,” Mooreland says.

The founders of Of a Kind were not so far along. Their goal is to launch the site November, which they say they’re on track to do. For them, the summer was about getting all the details in order to actually launch. The site will offer stories about up-and-coming fashion designers, who will sell an exclusive item on the site. (It’s inspired by the art site 20×200, where artists sell original prints for as little as $20. The founder, Jen Bekman, was one of the speakers in class this summer.)

“One of the things we really took away from the speakers in the class was flexibility,” cofounder Erica Cerulo told me. “Our original business plan was very much ‘this has to be this way.’ We learned that this business has to grow and change. We had an inherent sense of that, but hearing people say it really makes it sink in.”

As far as changes to their original plan, the course helped them realize that editorial should get equal weight with selling. They need an invested, engaged audience to sell the products — plus, it opens up the opportunity for advertising revenue.

I asked the two founders, Cerulo and Claire Mazur, what they’re working on in the final days before launch. Their answer in unison: “Everything.”

Photo by Robert S. Donovan used under a Creative Commons license.

July 13 2010

14:00

Jeff Israely: With partners found, figuring out how best to link up

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, third, and fourth installments. —Josh]

Dating-but-eager-to-marry is the metaphor I’ve used before to describe the search for a partner for my world news startup. Save a few cultural or religious contexts, said metaphor works less well once there is more than one potential partner. And I now have two, which adds new requirements of proper symmetry, good chemistry…and, yes, good lawyers.

Like plenty of other big and small things that have happened over the past year, it wasn’t a matter of seeking out this particular set of circumstances, but rather the result of a more general seeking fundamental to trying to launch something from scratch. So here we are: Irene, Jed, and Jeff…already facing a long list of hard questions about the future of digital news — from story selection and crowdsourcing to content management and business models — to which we must add another eternal question: Is three a crowd….or the magic number?

On paper, we three create excellent symmetry: Irene Toporkoff is a successful internet executive who knows what moves eyeballs and balance sheets online. She brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. Jed Micka is a computer engineer and project manager who knows how to turn digital concepts into concrete solutions. He too brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. My 12 years as a foreign correspondent provide the journalistic chops for our world news brand, and yes, some more global perspective. And the best proof of my strategic mind is that I found Irene and Jed!

At the 10th arrondissement café where we have begun meeting regularly, we also appear strong on chemistry. Ideas flow, we don’t speak over each other, we listen, there’s the kind of energy that convinces all that not only are the big bases covered by our different resumes but that the whole is (even!?) greater than the sum of its parts.

Over the past month, with Irene’s connections in Paris now added on top of my continuous plugging away at contacts in the news business, the pace of the project has picked up notably. We have also continued a general policy I have had from the start to meet with just about anyone who wants to listen: business people, advertising executives, journalism gurus, potential future employees. But as we get closer to our autumn launch, we are zeroing in on finding what we will need to actually be operative. And so the meetings have increasingly been with potential funders, and would-be media partners of our project — both to help provide the content, as well as distribute it to the readers.

I can say with both pride and trepidation that the interest has been quite high, though the questions are not few. One key lesson I’ve learned pitching our project is the difference between what we are currently immersed in — the sweat and strategy for getting the thing up off the ground, i.e., The Launch — and what the thing is going to be, i.e. The Vision. In a certain sense, both funders and partners assume that you are taking care of lining up the ducks: They want to know what it is you will become.

Still, the launch is ever more central now. And high on our agenda right now is solidifying our own partnership. Like questions about where and when to incorporate, copyright, branding…the three-way partnership agreement is part bureaucratic, part strategic, part everything.

It was, in other words, time to find a lawyer. Serge Vatine is a go-to attorney in the French startup world, whose Paris-based firm 11-100-34.com specializes in media and intellectual property law. Last week, the three of us were seated around a large rectangular table in Serge’s sunny sixth-floor office trying to hash out the framework for incorporation and the pacte d’actionnaires.

From my point of view, especially after having had some false starts from potential partners, I have some issues of well, er, commitment. Before divvying up the shares of a project that for many reasons is my baby, I want to see if there’s a way to more or less lock the others in for at least the next 12 months. Jed and Irene have each in their own way assured me of their allegiance to the project, but they know “I’m committed, just trust me!” is not enough in this kind of circumstance. Things change. Tides turn. Other offers arrive. Serge has suggested different possibilities, including setting certain objectives in each of our spheres of competence that must be met by a fixed date. Still, at a certain point, the startup lawyer turns would-be marriage counselor. “There’s a certain amount of trust and loyalty that goes into it,” Serge says. “There’s no way to guarantee everything.”

Indeed, Jed said after the meeting: “This is the pre-nup.” It means having a legal framework in place if the marriage fails. (Or, in the case of business, succeeds!) Indeed, 98 percent of the time my energy is focused on creating the conditions for things to go well. It’s looking lately that I am not the only one. More and more other optimists seem to be out there in the scrum that is reshaping of the news. Not that anyone thinks a lasting, society-wide solution is either easy or close. Not that there isn’t major foot-dragging and pessimism in some corners of the established media. But maybe the industry as a whole has turned a corner, and opportunities are appearing.

One sign is how much energy there is for an endeavor supposedly in such crisis from non-journalists, which prompted me to ask the two non-journalists in this project why they’re committed to it. No one as smart and strategic -– and grownup -– as Jed and Irene is going to be doing this for kicks. Each would have all kinds of professional opportunities that steered clear of the uncertainty reigning over the future of news. Of course, much of attraction of this particular project is the product itself, which will be unveiled this autumn. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share their thoughts about both why they want to join me in trying to build a new world news site, and where they think the digital media is heading:

Irene: When you called I thought, Oh no, not another Internet startup! But working on something that is editorial at its heart is different. I believe there are new ways for the Internet to add value, and also economic value, to the way information circulates. Branded news is struggling, but it will not disappear. The value these organizations have is too often underestimated. But we need to look for innovative ways to rethink the way they do business, to build bridges between the old and the new. People in the traditional media are starting to understand that many of us who work in the digital space are actually on their side. We are business people who can help make their activities sustainable. I have worked in the U.S., Brazil, Germany, France, and I know certain differences exist in the international media, from country to country. But there are two central questions that all should be asking: How do we get the most out of technology? How do we define what is news?

Jed: The paradox is that right now, with the flood of information readily available on the Internet, there is actually a shortage of quality information. Many people see blogs as the future of journalism, but a blog is merely one person’s effort; it lacks the resources and the structure necessary to ensure the same level of quality as a professionally edited piece. Like in a café discussion, the blogger is never forced to respond to the criticism raised by an independent editorial team. But this makes my job as a reader much more time-consuming because I then have to verify the information and identify the biases myself. You might draw an analogy to the debate about open and closed source software: In open source, developers choose which part of the code they will develop, with a tendency for the most glamorous aspects to be treated in great detail, at the expense of some features that will never showcase their intellectual prowess. MySQL is a great open source database that excels in certain tasks, but falls short compared to Oracle’s flagship database, a product that contains a much more robust feature set precisely because Oracle pays developers to work on the issues that are ignored by the “crowd.” Similarly, journalists must be paid too. The challenge is to find both the methods and business models to allow professional journalism to thrive alongside the voluntary efforts of the blogging community.

June 11 2010

15:24

Elizabeth Spiers’ media-entrepreneur summer school

This summer Elizabeth Spiers is teaching summer school, and you can apply for a seat in her class.

The media consultant, founding editor Gawker, and builder of DealBreaker, several Mediabistro blogs, and other sites is looking for a handful of people with smart ideas for a small business — but not experience launching one — to join her two college interns in a 90-day class. By the end of the summer, Spiers expects her students to have learned everything they need to get their media projects off the ground.

Here’s Spiers’ take on why you should apply:

What you get in return: dialogue with other beginning entrepreneurs, some good contacts for your project and what’s essentially free consulting from me (the latter of which would be price-prohibitive for most beginning entrepreneurs if I were charging.)

I spoke with Spiers about the project and why she decided to do it. Turns out she’s a kind-hearted boss: She didn’t want her two interns completing only menial tasks all summer. So she’s requiring them to spend at least 10 hours a week on their business idea and to meet weekly to discuss their progress. Her idea, she notes in her Tumblr post, is ripped off of a similar project Seth Godin ran that he called an alternative MBA.

Spiers, who teaches at The School of Visual Arts Design Criticism program (and is off for the summer), also said she sees a lack of support for entrepreunerialism in journalism schools. Her current interns are writers with the editorial skills you need to run a new media project, but not the business savvy.

“That’s one thing that I think — in journalism programs, they don’t really equip people to start new media products,” Spiers explained. “They equip them to work within the context of an existing publication. I’m just trying to fill in the gap a little bit.”

There are, of course, j-school professors already teaching classes which require entrepreneurial spirit. Among them is our Lab colleague C.W. Anderson at CUNY, whose course Entrepreneurial Journalism requires students to cook up new media ideas. (He’s also working on a white paper on innovation in j-schools. If you know of a school working on something innovative, let him know.)

For j-schools wondering how much time to devote to more business-side coursework, consider Spiers’ 10-hours-a-week-for-90-days argument. “Starting a new company seems more intimidating than it is,” she told me. “I do think it’s the kind of thing you can transform and ramp up in 90 days. As long as you have a process in place, I don’t think it’s as difficult as people think it is.”

(If you need funding, though, then you’re looking at a longer timeframe. Tack on extra months to the process to get your project actually going.)

When I asked Spiers if she would keep readers posted on her students’ progress, she said (earnestly, no Gawker snark) she has high hopes for her students. ”I sort of expect that some people are actually going to go out and launch their projects, and I’d be happy to promote them. And intend to do that anyway,” Spiers said.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan used under a Creative Commons license.

June 02 2010

01:41

New Development Grads at University of Auckland

I have just finished mentoring a number of graduate teams at the University of Auckland, School of Development. Develop 701 Development Practice and Research. I found the diversity of students and their enthusiasm for the process of handling some big assignments, such as putting a large NGO tender together, inspiring. It makes me wonder if you can do this much in a single term, with students, what the untapped potential is to create many social businesses and NGO's in underserved regions and communities.

March 16 2010

16:00

Jeff Israely: Transatlantic nightblogging, the hunt for a partner, and other startup lessons

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first installment here. —Josh]

I am running late. My prototype should have been live and locked on its URL by now. March was supposed to be the month I began meeting with potential partners and investors, refining the project’s design and business model, and going public with the name and exact nature of the website. But the past four weeks have decidedly not brought me from my planned Point A to Point B. It has also been an incredibly busy and potentially very fruitful phase for my project. Credit and blame can both be pinned on that rock’n'roll tech startup concept: iteration.

I don’t think I’d ever said out the I-word out loud in my life before six months ago, though any hack worth his salt and barstool is used to iterating on a regular basis. It happens when you’re just about to wrap your daily story, and a big break in the news suddenly arrives; or when your month-long in-depth piece is just coming together, and the big interview you’d long since given up on finally comes through. In such a moment, a major reset is in order on something that had been going perfectly well, thank you very much. And so you curse through the hard work of integrating/revamping the best of the old with the fresher (better) material. In the end, however, the kick-ass hack is always thankful because she knows her article will necessarily be much richer in its new, updated form. And responding to events is, after all, a big part of what this nutty job is about.

As a first-time (would-be?) entrepreneur, iterating doesn’t come quite so naturally. That create-destroy-repeat ethos suddenly feels radical, a well-executed pivot being always harder to pull off when you’re still getting your bearings. With that said, you’d have to be more than a bit dim not to see that the lightning pace of change in media and technology right now means that the only straight line from Point A to Point B is where B is failure.

The iterating for me lately has mostly been around the question of audience, both how to identify it and how to grow it. Let’s start with the latter.

Building an audience and the birth of a one-man news bundler

I’m still finding my tweetin’ voice, but we MSM folk are starting to grasp what the real-time feed may mean for the news business. Based in Europe, and with most of my followed-and-followers in the U.S., I’d started to see how my geography and language skills position me to get some breaking news into the Twitter stream ahead of the crowd. Still, I’d been content to treat it like an ongoing mini-exercise in improving my speed and range and eye for news that would be useful when launch time arrived.

Yet, there I was one morning last month about to retweet some bit of French burqua-ban news when another interesting story popped up from Germany, and I thought: Hmmm? Let me try to squeeze these two world news items together into one tweet. But with 140 characters to work with…well, good luck. So I put the two links aside into a Word document. And then it hit me: Why not expand the two links into five…and bundle them into a “Top Headlines From Jeff” post? I could post it on my blog, and link to it once a day. But then it hit me again: If timing is everything, that’s doubly true on the real-time web, which is bound to create new niches in the ways and whens of how we consume information. With my time-zone advantage and news biz experience, I could bundle and deliver a story list early, like at 7 a.m. Eastern, composed solely of news that has broken since 11 p.m. Like Slatest, but more time-specific, and aimed specifically at helping to sort through the endless stream of news flashes coming across your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I would take the established practice of aggregating from everywhere, and combine it with what seemed the novelty of a bundled selection of the news that has broken since Americans logged off last night. Exactly three weeks old, this has become whileUslept.

Unfortunately, coming up with an idea — half or fully baked — is no more than one-third of the battle in building an audience. You gotta get it to them, spread the word, go viral…and keep it going. I began posting the daily link on my own personal accounts, and in the last few days set up While U Slept pages of their own on Twitter and Facebook. It definitely did not catch on like wildfire. After two weeks, I had exactly three email subscribers, and a best-day grand total of a whopping 56 pageviews. (The daily average was 23.) Still, the webbiness of the web means that you are potentially always just one Link or Recommendation or Follow away from exponential growth. A private boost from one new-media guru, and then a retweet from another with the word “useful,” and my daily hit count suddenly spiked to 400-plus. Then a couple days later, it topped 600 after a link from a former colleague who has since transformed himself into the epitome of the 2.0 one-man news brand.

At such peaks, you sit there watching the views come in and start to dream that you too can build an audience all by yer lonesome? But the numbers that really count are still a long ways off from major mojo: 38 Twitter followers, 109 Facebook fans, 16 email subscribers. Perhaps I will need to hop on the shoulders of a major website? Iterate the iteration, making whileUslept richer and/or feed it at multiple points in the day. It will have to grow (and sustain) exponentially if I want to reach the kind of audience that actually helps me both pitch and execute the bigger project I am aiming for. Still, what started as an exercise on Twitter to prep myself for the big launch has actually become the beginning of the soft launch itself.

Perhaps just as important is the fact that some new ideas are flowing into my old media brain. This one I will dub the Baby Moses approach to aggregate realtime news: bundle the best content and drop it in the moving river of information at the right time and place.

The crowd and the core audience

The immediate collateral damage of this mini-project are the brakes it’s put on short-term progress of the Big Project. While I have essentially begun the “link to the rest” half of the famous Jarvis formula, I’m no closer than I was a month ago to actually establishing the “what you do best” part. And what will I do? Here too there is iteration to report. Without going into details — both because I still prefer to speak here in general terms about the product, and because the details of the new feature simply don’t yet exist — I will just describe it as crowd-source related. Though I do not plan on changing the entire product around this idea, as this very smart fellow startup dude vigorously suggested, I still think there is much room to integrate it in a way that could give the project some extra watts of glow in the eyes of potential investors. Crowdsourcing addresses two key questions that arise at different stages of the startup: identifying our core audience at launch, and giving the enterprise a vision of how to scale it up.

But before that, all this iterating risks sapping some of the vital big ‘mo from the Big Project. On the prototype (which I keep saying is just a week or two away), we are now rejiggering all the current pages and adding a brand new page or two. Meanwhile, the business plan will have to be overhauled. Completely. Again. Blessed be the iterationists, I and I: In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.

Looking for Mr. Right

All of this upheaval is further reminder that what I am missing most right now: more than audience, more than money: a partner. He or she would have the tech and business background that I lack, while having a natural interest in the news business. Last week, through a mutual friend in Paris, I set up a rendezvous with Mister X, whose resume features all what I am missing and more. But looking for a partner truly is like dating: “On paper” means nothing. We met at the Mabillon Metro stop in the Latin Quarter and found a nice café to chat over a beer. Though it was a relaxed conversation, a back and forth, I was also effectively pitching him my project as best I could. Talking to a potential partner is different than pitching other people. It starts out much more casually. But you are all too aware that if it goes well, really well, the project becomes his as much as mine. So in some ways, you must actually tread a bit more lightly on your first encounter. He needs to like me as much as my project.

As with the search for a life partner, timing is key. In this case, I am single, and looking, but I couldn’t know for sure what his status was. A couple of times in the past few months, I’d met people who might have fit the partner profile, who had the right skill set, and even interest in the project, but simply were not at a place in their life/work to commit to me. Though Mister X seemed to react positively to the project, and explained that he was finishing up a master’s degree this spring, he wasn’t giving any indication of his plans for the future. And then, about 40 minutes in, I finally said: “I don’t know if you might be interested…??”

He paused about two seconds, and said: “Hey, so long as I can be running a business, I’m open to anything.” My heart skipped a beat. Later, as we walked toward the metro, and I told him I’d send him all the working docs, we even talked for a moment about what the first steps together might actually look like. Then we shook hands, and said we’d be in touch when he got back from a long planned two-week hiking trip to Morocco. Perhaps for my next update here, I will have something (good) to report from our second date…

March 14 2010

16:12

Attend a Free Webinar with Linchpin Author Seth Godin

NY Times and WSJ best-selling author, Seth Godin, has recently released his newest book, "Linchpin: Are you Indespensible". The book is all about becoming indispensable in this "new world" we live in, and it aims to change the way you see your relationship with work. Check out the webinar to hear Seth discuss the book.

read more

January 28 2010

16:17

Apply now for Knight Digital Media Center’s Web Publishing for Independent Journalists Workshop- Deadline Feb 17

Screen shot 2010-01-28 at 11.14.08 AMThe Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is offering some terrific educational opportunities this spring, including a Web Publishing for Independent Journalists Workshop to be held March 21-26, 2010.

The career path for many of today’s journalists is merging with entrepreneurship. Journalists who once covered topical, feature and investigative news for established newspapers are becoming independent publishers of specialty blogs and hyperlocal community news site. These sites fulfill an important role in the emerging news and information landscape.

Powerful and easy to use Web publishing tools make creating quality online news sites easy and affordable. These new tools are allowing individual journalists and community journalism to flourish as part of the evolving news eco-system.

The Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California Berkeley is offering an innovative new training workshop for journalists who have or are actively seeking to venture into online community or specialty news publishing. The Web Publishing for Independent Journalists Workshop will provide journalists with the hands-on training and tools to get started with an online publishing enterprise.

Participants in the Web Publishing for Independent Journalists Workshop will receive training on:

  • Setting up and maintaining a WordPress blog
  • Establishing a brand
  • Shooting good video and video editing
  • Using Photoshop to prepare images for publication
  • How to sell advertising
  • Data visualization at the community level
  • Basic Mapping and Data-driven Maps
  • Using social media to develop and engage with audiences
  • SEO and Google Analytics

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WHO SHOULD APPLY: Journalists who have already begun or are in the process of launching an online news venture.

HOW TO APPLY: An online application form and instructions are available at: http://multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/training/

To fill out the application, you’ll need to register at the site (and confirm that in an email link). By registering, you’ll be able to save your application and return later to edit, update or complete. The application includes questions about your contact information and your proficiency in various equipment and software, as well as a statement of interest by you, a letter of recommendation from a colleague who knows your professional work, and a resume summary of your journalism experience.

If you have any questions, please contact Alisha Diego Klatt, KDMC program specialist, at aklatt@berkeley.edu or (510) 642-3892.

January 19 2010

10:12
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