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June 28 2010


Crafting a Simple Elevator Pitch for the Public and Investors

A Knight Foundation grant is a wonderful gift, but in our case at CityCircles (and for many projects), the grant only lasts for one year. Because most of that year may be spent on programming, this gives winners very little time to craft a pitch.

By "pitch" I mean: How do you explain this to your audience in 10 seconds or less (i.e., an elevator pitch)? How do you explain this to people who may want to work with you after the grant ends?

We've finally found an approach that seems to be working for CityCircles, so let me save you some time by presenting two options to consider.

Pitching the Audience

First, let's start with our audience -- the people we want interacting with the site via their phones. These are folks who either ride light rail, live by it, or have a business near the tracks (within five blocks, to be exact). We've built a website and mobile site that lets them post news, events, classifieds, promotions, resumes, and community projects. Journalists can also contribute stories to the community.

Earlier in the grant period, I would give people what I thought was a clean, concise-yet-explanatory pitch about what we are and how we work. As time went by, it became shorter and shorter, and the look in their eyes seemed more attentive. I was on the right track. At some point, I tried this pitch:

It's called CityCircles. We're like Craigslist for the light rail community -- with a splash of journalism.

That's it. Done. Pause two seconds to see it sink in, then add a few details to fill in the blanks.

Now, I'm not advocating for making your project sound like a cocktail with a weird twist. But I am advocating for using a comparison to something that already exists, closely relates to your project and is widely known. It helps get the point across quickly. Choose wisely.

Detractors might ask, "Why would you want to promote someone else in your pitch?"

To which I respond: If the other project already has an established community "feel" to it, then it may help your chances. In our case, Craigslist is a universally known example, and it resonates immediately. The "splash of journalism" adds context and meaning.

Investor Pitch

Now let's look at the investor pitch. These are the folks who will keep your project going after the grant expires. We're solely focused on making our project a success in Phoenix, but reality dictates that we plan ahead. To do this, we're considering "sponsors" in other markets.

Instead of trying to find one large-scale investor, you might consider a "sponsorship" from someone who needs/wants some additional street cred.

One thing I am looking at is last year's green company rankings from Newsweek. Since we're a platform that encourages civic involvement and mass transit in the inner city, someone toward the top of the list could add us to their "green portfolio" if they support our expansion (in exchange for a promotional advertising presence on the site, like NPR's "brought to you by..."). Conversely, those companies toward the end of the list may want to use us as a means to advance up the rankings.

And like the audience pitch, choose wisely.

June 04 2010


How a Test Suite Can Help Your Open Source Project Grow

At CityCircles, we've been fortunate to work with a local developer who is passionate about our project's goal of developing hyper-local communication tools for mass audiences. Our first implementation of that is a platform for light rail passengers in Phoenix, Arizona.

That said, one person can't carry the entire load, especially as the project inevitably evolves from its humble beginnings and wire frames.

One solution that's worth considering is sinking some funds into a test suite -- a closed environment where other developers who share a vision for the project can develop new features with the approval of the "master" developer. This is the approach we recently took with CityCircles.

Test Suite

In March, we contracted with a local development shop called Integrum Technologies to build a test suite. The project is connected to our code base and includes simulated tasks that other developers can build toward and "test." If these features pass muster in the test suite, then we can push those changes to our code base permanently. If they do not, then the developer can tweak them until they do without ruining the live site.

The test suite took almost three weeks to build and cost us roughly $9,500. (That may seem pricey to some, but good Ruby on Rails developers are not cheap. In our case, Integrum specializes in test suites.) However, for startups, this is a very helpful option for reaching goals of new features and functions on a budget. Open-source software developers that are looking for a "portfolio" piece and are attracted to the project's mission can participate at a fraction of the cost to the project. In return, they receive publicity and, in some cases, a promise of future paid work. The idea is that everyone wins.

Once your test suite is completed, start poking around your local area for developer meetups. Go online and subscribe to developer forums and Google groups. In our case, the project is built in Ruby on Rails. I have joined the Rails community's leading Google Group with the intent of marketing this test suite to developers.

I've also been invited to attend Integrum's weekly "hacknight" meetup in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb. Tomorrow night, I'll be there to spread the gospel of the project and hope that our handy test suite attracts the right crew.

Use these test suites to your advantage, as simulators like them can also help create an organic "buzz" around the project as well. Include the developers' names on the open-source software license, too. That will also help.

But be mindful of the pitfalls. Just as there are several developers that may want to participate, they may not have the chops to complete the work in a timely or accurate manner. It helps to have a strong master developer to sign off on their work.

March 11 2010


Top 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Zonie Report

Last week, I wrote a blog post on The Zonie Report (TZR), my Arizona news blog, that I was temporarily shuttering it to spend more time working on CityCircles, a Knight Foundation News Challenge project.

Since most of you probably haven't heard of TZR, here's a quick recap of my post: In my digital farewell, I talked about why I did what I did, outlined a few things I learned, and shared what I planned to do next. Since then, I realized I should have elaborated more on my lessons learned because I feel they have been misinterpreted. I could do that on The Zonie Report, or I could do that here for the greater good of online journalists. I chose the latter.

What follows is a top five list of things I learned along the way of running a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful news website in the great state of Arizona. I am applying what I learned to CityCircles, a hyper-local information tool for light rail riders and nearby residents in Phoenix, and I hope this comes in handy for your respective online journalism projects as well.

Lessons Learned

  1. Identify the community you are serving and get really, really close to it. On The Zonie Report, I tried to write about "the rest of the Arizona story" (thank you, Paul Harvey) by focusing on regional and statewide topics that I felt mainstream media outlets missed. Great idea, except I was entering the "being all things to all people" territory that challenges metro newspaper coverage today. With CityCircles, we are drilling down to everything within a five-block radius of Phoenix light rail stops, which run for 20 miles. This is much more efficient and doable -- and more relevant for a higher concentration of folks.
  2. Differentiate your presentation, voice and method as much as possible. This one may seem obvious, but shouldn't be overlooked. At TZR, I tried to write with more of a folksy style, and I think people enjoyed it. It engenders conversation, comments and trackbacks (which help site visibility) while appealing to readers. If they want drier or more official writing, there's a lot to choose from. Experiment with a weekly editor's video/podcast. Make yourself "human" - and not just an unseen editor - as much as possible.
  3. Identify your competition, then link to them whenever possible. First, use of the word "competition" in online media can be debated, but any journalists reading this will know it's a commonly used term in the industry. This may seem like heresy, but don't be afraid to link to other sites with overlapping work. It's good practice and a good service to readers, and it can help with site visibility in the long run. One of the most successful things I did at TZR was find the most interesting statewide news stories of the day from rural news outlets and point to it. I plan to do the same kind of linking with CityCircles.
  4. Use social media for more than just marketing. On New Year's Day, David Carr of The New York Times wrote a great post about Twitter. He quoted Steven Johnson, a tech observer who wrote about the 140-character phenom for Time, as saying that Twitter "is looking more and more like plumbing, and plumbing is eternal." I agree. My point is that a tool where millions of people can write about anything at any given moment on almost any device is incredibly more powerful than something that you'd just use to market your stories on your website. That's mostly how I used it at TZR; at CityCircles, we've bent Twitter so that train passengers can "tweet" all types of content - from news to events to classifieds and more - across any of the train stops. Be creative with these tools.
  5. Put together a business plan that acts like online ad revenues don't exist. Banner ad networks continue to drive online advertising prices into the floor. Unless your startup is the next Facebook and can produce volume and deep targeting, you will need a more diverse plan for sustainability. I tried this with TZR and it went almost nowhere. At CityCircles, our initial plan is to bundle online advertising with other marketing services for light rail merchants, and to make it very affordable. This may change, but, for now, we're rolling with it.

And on that note, I'd like to add more thing: Never be afraid to change your strategy on anything. The biggest mistake I made with The Zonie Report was taking too much time to let go of ideas/concepts that weren't working. Don't do this. It will bog you down - and keep you from the ideas/concepts that really do work.

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January 22 2010


Trying to Create the Stickiness Factor for CityCircles

CityCircles is a website and mobile app providing hyper-local news, events, promotions, fix-it projects, and other information for stops along Phoenix's light rail system. As we progress towards launching our full site (we're currently in beta), we face the challenge of making sure our site has the "stickiness factor." We need people to visit -- and to keep coming back.

Our site is a collaborative enterprise that incorporates an aspect of social networking, and relies on user-generated information for news and events. We're taking care of the stop-specific promotions by working with local merchants, and we hope this creates an initial "sticky" factor by keeping users coming back to check for a new deal each day. Fix-it projects for local communities seem to be a big hit as well, and we're hoping they add to the stickiness of the site.

Why do I keep talking about stickiness? Activity on our site is crucial. We've taken steps to generate stories and event listings from freelance journalists and local entities -- however, we need to get users to start using the site and generating buzz.

We've laid the groundwork in our efforts last year by hosting events in local neighborhoods around the rail in order to gain support and demo our site. During these events, we met individuals who will most likely be our new adopters and influencers. Now we've got to take the example from social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace and spread the word to as many people (within our target audience) as we can to get users on our site!

Here we go...

December 14 2009


Lessons Learned From Launch of CityCircles Beta Site

In the journey to launch our CityCircles beta site, we encountered many bumps in the road that turned out to be valuable lessons, and important opportunities. Below is some of what we've learned.

And for those not familiar with our project, here's a description of what we're building:

CityCircles is a collaborative platform where users and journalists work together to create and share information around each light-rail stop in the Phoenix metro area. That includes news, events, promotions, classifieds and social networking. There's even a community improvement tool that helps our users create, join and accomplish projects that make the city a better place for everyone. Think of us as the context that makes your urban experience more meaningful, your digital sidekick in the city.

Listen More Than You Talk

In order to start building awareness and spread the word about CityCircles, we hosted a few "community preview" events in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Needless to say, we were humbled by the turnout at these events. These events gave us the chance to discuss our project with people and potential users in a more intimate setting. We gathered meaningful feedback that helped us prioritize and develop the features and functions we would soon roll out on the site.

It was very interesting to observe how different target groups got excited about different features and functions. For example, Arizona State University students were most interested in the events and promotions going on around each light rail stop. Citizens living around the rail were very intrigued by our "Fix It" function, which allows users to post community improvement projects and organize groups around those projects.

We also began to realize how crucial it is to develop a mobile version of CityCircles. We are now focusing our efforts on making that happen. A smartphone app is definitely in our plans as well. However, we're not as concerned with that right now because our market research showed that nearly 80 percent of our target audience does not yet have a smartphone!

Learn From the Competition

When we first started out, over a year ago, we didn't notice anyone else doing what we were setting out to do: deliver geographically-based information and build communities around that information.

Now it seems that competitors and substitutes are popping up everywhere. From FourSquare, to the smartphone app Where and CityVantage, we started to get intimidated! However, we are doing things differently from what's currently out there. We need to focus on what makes us different -- such as our team -- and continue to foster the relationships we've been building with our constituents. We also need to learn from what these sites are doing right and follow their example.

Ours is still very much a work in progress, and we are constantly learning -- that's the exciting thing about starting a new venture! We welcome any advice and feedback from anyone else who has gone through the process.

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