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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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April 26 2012

01:03

Design-Thinking Hackathon: The *Weekend Movement

The TechSoup Global Network team is in action today over at the Stanford Social Innovation Review. My good buddy Glenn Fajardo recently went to Malaysia where he spent time with the organizers of the *Weekend Movement, a community of people that builds crafty projects and innovative solutions to real-world problems -- over the weekend.

 

Glenn explores some of the critical success factors for the *Weekend Movement in his piece today in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. How they select participants, how they hook in potential project supporters, and how they understand the motivations and interests of their participants all factor into their success and productivity.

 

Check it out, and be sure to comment if you have any questions or ideas to add.

June 25 2011

05:31

When the "rest of the web" becomes irrelevant - Facebook's unbelievable effect

Business Insider :: Facebook is quietly eating up all the time we spend on the web at the expense of all other static non-Facebook sites, according to an analysis by Ben Elowitz CEO and founder of Wetpaint, a digital media startup. If you exclude online video, and mobile web consumption, Elowitz says, "the web is shrinking." He says the rest of the web is quickly becoming "irrelevant," and argues that in the future companies will need to spend less time on SEO, and more time on optimizing for Facebook.

Watch the chart - continue to read Jay Yarow, www.businessinsider.com

Original piece - continue to read Ben Elowitz, allthingsd.com

May 29 2011

21:09

Free live TV on iPad (U.S.)? - Bamboom

AllThingsD :: Your iPad can do lots of things, but live TV generally isn’t one of them. With a few exceptions, the TV networks don’t want their programming going out live anywhere but your big screen, under their supervision. Here’s a startup that wants to change that: Bamboom says it will let you watch live broadcast TV anywhere you can get a Web connection, on whatever device you want. A legal challenge but Bamboom has a Rube Goldberg-like approach that might hold up to the inevitable legal challenge

Continue to read Peter Kafka, allthingsd.com

Visit their site Bamboom

December 30 2010

18:35

Lessons Learned from ReportingOn

In 2008, I was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant to build ReportingOn, a back channel for beat reporters to share ideas, information, and sources. The goal of the project was to provide journalists of all stripes with a place to talk about content -- not craft, or process, or skillset.

I taught myself enough Django -- and sought out advice from friends and co-workers with little regard for their interest or priorities -- to launch the first iteration of the site in October 2008. In July 2009, with fresh design and development from the team at Lion Burger, ReportingOn 2.0 launched.

And almost immediately, I stepped away from it, buried in the responsibilities of my day job, family, and other projects. To grow and evolve, and really, to race ahead of the internal and external communication tools already available to reporters, ReportingOn needed far more time, attention, and dedication than I could give it.

Yesterday, I shut down ReportingOn.

In its last state, it only cost a few bucks a month to maintain, but it has more value at this point as a story, or a lesson, or a piece of software than it has as a working site.

To head off a couple questions at the pass:


  1. No, you can't export your questions or answers or profile data. None of you have touched the site in about a year, so I don't think you're that interested in exporting anything. But if you're some sort of web packrat that insists, I have the database, and I can certainly provide you with your content.

  2. Yes, the source code for the application is still available, and you're more than welcome to take a stab at building something interesting with it. If you do, please feel free to let me know.


And a few recommendations for developers of software "for journalists":

  • Reporters don't want to talk about unpublished stories in public.

  • Unless they're looking for sources.

  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.

  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like email or the telephone. Not in your application.

  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you're building meets a very journalism-specific need, you're probably grinding your gears to build something "for journalists" when they just need a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.


As for the problem ReportingOn set out to solve, it's still out there.

Connecting the dots among far-flung newsrooms working on stories about the same issue is something that might happen internally in a large media company, or organically in the wilds of Twitter, but rarely in any structured way that makes it easy to discover new colleagues, peers, and mentors. Sure, there are email lists, especially for professional associations (think: SEJ) that act as back channels for a beat, but not enough, and not focused on content.

(Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.)

As for me, I'm working on another (even) small(er) Knight-funded side project a few minutes at a time these days. Watch for news about that one in the coming weeks.

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 09 2010

15:00

Loose ties vs. strong: Pinyadda’s platform finds that shared interests trump friendships in “social news”

There isn’t a silver bullet for monetizing digital news, but if there were, it would likely involve centralization: the creation of a single space where the frenzied aspects of our online lives — information sharing, social networking, exploration, recommendation — live together in one conveniently streamlined platform. A Boston-based startup called Pinyadda wants to be that space: to make news a pivotal element of social interaction, and vice versa. Think Facebook. Meets Twitter. Meets Foursquare. Meets Tumblr. Meets Digg.

Owned by Streetwise Media — the owner as well of BostInnovation, the Boston-based startup hub — Pinyadda launched last year with plans to be a central, social spot for gathering, customizing, and sharing news and information. The idea, at first, was to be an “ideal system of news” that would serve users in three ways:

1. it should gather information from the sites and blogs they read regularly;

2. it should mimic the experience of receiving links and comments from the people in their personal networks; and

3. it should be continually searching for information about subjects they were interested in. This pool of content could then be ranked and presented to users in a consistent, easily browsed stream.

Again, centralization. And a particular kind of centralization: a socialized version. Information doesn’t simply want to be free, the thinking went; it also wants to be social. The initial idea for Pinyadda was that leveraging the social side of the news — making it easy to share with friends; facilitating conversations with them — would also be a way to leverage the value of news. Which ties into the conventional wisdom about the distributive power of social news. In her recent NYRB review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith articulates that wisdom when it comes to Facebook’s Open Graph — a feature, she wrote, that “allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”

What Pinyadda’s designers have discovered, though, is that “social” news doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with friends.” Instead, Pinyadda has found that extra-familiar relationships fuel news consumption and sharing in its network: Social news isn’t about the people you know so much as the people with whom you share interests.

Pinyadda’s business model was based on the idea that the social approach to news — and the personalization it relied on — would allow the platform to create a new value-capture mechanism for news. The platform itself, its product design and development lead, Austin Gardner-Smith, told me — with its built-in social networks and its capacity for recommendation and conversation — bolsters news content’s value with the experiential good that is community — since a “central point of consumption” tends to give the content being consumed worth by proximity.

The idea, in other words, was to take a holistic approach to monetization. Pinyadda aimed to take advantage of the platform’s built-in capacity for personalization — via behavioral tracking, or, less nefariously, paying attention to their individual users — to sell targeted ads against its content. “Post-intent” advertising is interest-based advertising — and thus, the thinking goes, more effective/less annoying advertising. That thinking still holds; in fact, the insight that common interests, rather than familiarity, fuels news consumption could ratifies it. As Dan Kennedy put it, writing about the startup after they presented at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this summer: “Pinyadda may be groping its way toward a just-right space between Digg (too dumb) and NewsTrust (too hard).” The question will be whether news consumers, so many of them already juggling relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Posterous and other such sites, can make room for another one. And the extent to which the relationships fostered in those networks — connections that are fundamentally personal — are the types that drive the social side of news.

October 22 2010

15:00

How a Fish Story Inspired Collaborative Video Platform Stroome

Like birds, most fish have something to say, especially when it comes to mating calls. You can read it about in a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for the New York Times' Science Times. But what does a talking fish sound like? Look like? In fact, it was exactly those questions that led to the creation of Stroome.

Rush to Produce video for the Times

The decision to publish the fish story happened in a hurry. On a Thursday afternoon, I received a phone call from one of my editors letting me know the piece would be running the following Tuesday. I had already decided that I wanted to create an accompanying web video but this was an unexpected hustle. I would have to have both the story and the video full edited and delivered by Monday evening.

I quickly called Cornell University's PR department. They agreed to film the aptly named professor Andrew H. Bass as soon as he was available on the next afternoon and send the footage overnight. However, they only had access to a video camera that shot pro DV sized tape. This meant that not only was I going to lose more than a day waiting for the shots but I would also have to hire a local video house here in Los Angeles to transfer the interview into a mini DV format which I could edit with my own equipment.

A similar scenario unfolded with professor Joseph Luczkovich from East Carolina University. He had a friend shoot him using a digital camera while I conducted the interview over the phone and while I received the file within hours, it was formatted for a PC and I had to find a way to convert it for my Mac. Since I had no time to find friendly shareware, I had to pay for a program that I only used once.

Thankfully, when the audio files of fish grunting, humming and jack-hammering came in, they were easy to incorporate.

By the end of the weekend, I had a cut ready to send to the New York Times for their approval. I began to upload the file, but in the middle of the transfer the connection dropped. As I did not have authority to alter any file on the New York Times' computer system, I had to start the file transfer all over again. This happened with several versions as the deadline approached in New York. A kind editor stayed late that Monday night to make sure the file had landed in the system properly and to drop it into the web version of the story.

noisy fish grab.jpg

On Tuesday, when the story ran, everyone's efforts paid off. The piece, What's Making that Awful Racket? Surprisingly, It May be Fish, raced up the popularity charts. I refreshed my browser every few minutes until I could victoriously watch it land on the "Top Ten Most Emailed List."

I am certain that images and audio certainly contributed to that result. However, the process to bring it all together made it clear to me that the production flow was profoundly flawed for collaboration and sharing.

Emergence of Stroome

Out of this confusion arose the phoenix we now call Stroome. The site was developed to solve the problems I encountered working on the fish story. Today, instead of files and tapes being sent from one location to another silo, everyone involved would simply join the "NY Times Fish" group that I would have created on Stroome. Each individual with content - video, audio or photographs - would then upload to that group. Using that material, I would have been able to edit the first version for the New York Times to instantaneously view. If any editor saw the need for a change, she would just click on "Copy and Remix" to make the changes or add any necessary comments. All of this would have been kept private to the group until the story was ready to be pushed across the web.

There is a multitude of other ways to use Stroome. Anyone can create a group -- public or private -- and share and remix content with friends, colleagues or like-minded Stroome members. Shared video can be shot at the same place or from across the globe. Stories can focus on a single narrative or take multiple directions. I hope many uses will also be found for it which I cannot conceive. Kind of like the inconceivable idea of talking fish. Except it's true. Fish do talk. You can even get a ringtone for your mobile phone. Check it out.

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 01 2010

14:41

The Awl gets a sister site, Splitsider, which will be its “newsy-voicey” compliment in covering comedy

It sometimes feels like all the good topics are taken online — it’s uncommon to find a promising but untrampled niche for a new website. The folks behind The Awl hope they’ve found one in a new site up in beta today called Splitsider. It’ll cover the comedy industry for a ready audience of comedy nerds/lovers, and it’s the first evidence of the Awl expansion plans we wrote about in June.

Last week Adam Frucci, who is going to head up Splitsider, said goodbye to his readers at the Gawker Media site Gizmodo. Reflecting on his four years there, he asked: “What other job pays you to test drug paraphernalia and sex toys, to create goofy videos and unscientific quizzes? No other job, that’s what.” But there is still plenty in store for him at his new gig, where his colleagues will include Gawker veterans Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

I spoke with Frucci about why moving on to Splitsidder was so appealing, considering his success at Gizmodo. “I’ve been at Gizmodo for four years,” he told me, “but I was never going to run Gizmodo.”

He’s in the process of sorting out what kinds of posts he wants to write himself and which contributors he plans to tap for regular features. “It’s been a lot of back and forth with writers,” he says. “I want people to be excited about what they write about.” Contributors will be unpaid, at least at first. (When I asked if he can guarantee book deals, like the kind Awl contributor Chris Lehmann landed for his unpaid column called Rich People Things, Frucci deadpanned, “I promise 100 percent if you contribute, you’ll get a book deal.”) He says the core of the site will be a running stream of newsy posts from him about things like which shows and writers getting deals, plus columns on specific topics.

Sibling sites

The site will compliment The Awl, posting content that at least some Awl readers should find interesting. That cross-promotion will help push early readers to the new site. But it’ll have a slightly different tone: Publisher David Cho told me that if The Awl is all about voice, Splitsider will be all about showing they can do “newsy voicey.”

Cho told me that the combination of content opportunity and voice is what made this an appealing prospect. “To have a great writer and a topic that no one else owned, that’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think from a content perspective, it might even have more potential than the Awl.” This spring, The Awl was up to about 400,000 pageviews per day. The bread and butter of Splitsider will be the die-hard comedy nerd (“they have nowhere to congregate now,” Cho says), plus the casual reader.

Risk

Frucci and Cho are optimistic, but there’s obviously risk involved. Frucci’s contract offers him the perks of getting to build and shape the site, plus a share of site revenue. But, if the site doesn’t take off, there’s no base salary for him to rely on. His old job at Gizmodo paid him a base plus bonuses for big traffic.

Cho agreed there’s a risk, but said he wouldn’t push him into something he thought would definitely fail. He added that you pretty much need a sink-or-swim personality to make this kind of project work. If you’re looking for stability, “I don’t think that’s the type of person we’d want for a job like this,” Cho said. “That’s the type of person whose going to get burn out.”

Frucci mentioned his idea for the site to Cho, who had his eye out for talented writers and good ideas for sites. Why launch with Cho and share revenue rather than go it alone? “I have no experience launching a site or selling ads,” he told me. “Basically, it makes it possible to do.” Cho says he “can get him a significantly higher CPM than if he were trying to do it on his own.”

Cho told me back in June that he hopes to launch several new sites this year. He’s keeping his eye out for interesting ideas and great writers to lead them. The details on the other sites are under wraps, but Cho did say “in a lot of ways, this site is a pilot.”

May 20 2010

20:33

Getting and managing user feedback on apps?

We're launching a news app soon that will be core to our business, but don't really have a customer feedback system in place more than e-mail and Instant Messaging.

I'm hesitant to invest in something like Get Satisfaction or FogBugz, because this is in garage mode-funding right now (i.e.: 0), and I don't want to invest very limited resources unless I have to.

One thing we would really like to do is capture feedback on current features and, maybe more importantly, possible features, as well as more general feedback, bug reports, etc. etc.

Any suggestions on what (preferably open source, fingers crossed) is out there that would be good for this?

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…

November 19 2009

15:55

Citizen Media Law Project Launches Legal Assistance Network for Online Journalists

I am delighted to announce the public launch of the Berkman Center's Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), a new pro bono initiative that connects lawyers and law school clinics from across the country with online journalists and digital media creators who need legal help. Lawyers participating in OMLN will provide qualifying online publishers with pro bono and reduced fee legal assistance on a broad range of legal issues, including business formation and governance, copyright licensing and fair use, employment and freelancer agreements, access to government information, pre-publication review of content, and representation in litigation.

The idea for the network came out of CMLP's work over the last 3 years helping online journalists understand their legal rights and responsibilities. During this time period, we've published and updated our legal guide and legal threats database, blogged on topics of interest to online publishers, partnered with like-minded organizations on a variety of educational projects, and filed amicus briefs in cases with significant implications for online speech. While we are proud of the impact we've had and the success of the CMLP website, we also recognize that many online journalists and bloggers need more than generally applicable legal information--they need their own lawyers to tackle their own individualized legal issues.

The new Online Media Legal Network aims to fill this need by making it as easy as possible for online publishers to find legal help.  If you know of anyone that could use our help, please direct them to the OMLN website.  Conversely, if you are a lawyer and you want to help, please sign up!

More info on the launch is available here.

November 11 2009

14:45

Staffing Up DocumentCloud

A few months ago (three, to be precise), I quietly announced that I'd be leaving Gotham Gazette for parts unknown. I wasn't making that up about "parts unknown," but my announcement did get a few conversations started. The most interesting one turned out to be with Eric, Aron and Scott, who persuaded me to join DocumentCloud as their program director.

I'm pretty thrilled to be joining them: I care a lot about software freedom, improving access to information, and making great software accessible to small organizations. DocumentCloud gives me a great opportunity to approach access to information from a different angle, and to have a hand in developing undeniably excellent tools that will be (some already are) accessible to large and small news organizations alike.

I just started this week, but you'll be hearing more from me as we proceed, about both our challenges and successes. The first challenge was realizing that it was time to bring someone on board to work with our document partners and help Jeremy Ashkenas, our lead developer, find beta testers to help keep him moving forward. I like to think we handled that one well, and I'm looking forwarded to more challenges to come.

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