We are getting close to launch….And can’t wait to start describing just exactly what our site will be/do. Until then, this hopefully gives a flavor of what it’s like to try to make everything happen…AT ONCE!? Niemanlab
Category Archives: funding
“You like that new triangle thing?,” I asked Irene with a little chuckle. We were standing on a corner in the 2nd arrondissement in the heart of Paris, having just finished one in a continuing series of sit-downs, skypes and phone calls with potential partners, funders and anyone else who wants to know more about (and maybe help) our fledgling baby. That same morning, at another pow-wow across town, I had ad-libbed a little riff about the three elements at the core of our product, which I described on the fly as the aforementioned “triangle.” And so when I repeated my new favorite metaphor in the later meeting, Irene Toporkoff, my ever patient business partner, gave it a nod of sort-of-approval. It may, or may not, make an appearance in the next meeting tomorrow evening.
As we plough on toward launch, and focus in on fundraising, the pace of meetings has picked up. I count at least 15 face-to-face meetings we’ve had since September 1, which means we are basically introducing our project once a day to someone who knows nothing or next-to-nothing about what we aim to build — and may be key in getting it built. It’s high stakes, and never boring. If anything, we are perhaps a bit loose in the way we approach it, typically with little time to prepare, tinkering with the presentation. What we lack in polish, we make up for in both passion and agility. And ears. The questions that are posed by people who may actually end up having a stake in the thing tend are bound to be among the best (read: hardest) you’ll get…and will require you to adjust not only the pitch, but the project itself.
As I’ve mentioned before, the experience of being a professional reporter offers some good tools for us would-be startupers. Whatever skills and experience we have in conducting interviews and unpacking information can be helpful in these meetings that are the building block for your would-be news enterprise. But of course, there are also some fundamental differences.
With our recent flurry of meetings, I’ve put together a quick list (with journo types in mind) of what to know about pitching your project. One that I’ll keep off the list, though it applies very well to me: Accept That Sometimes You’ll Suck.
Work in Progress: As emphasized above, the pitch is never a fixed object. Let what you learned from the last meeting inform this one, and be willing to test and refine your product and business rationales. And again, often the best thing that comes out of a meeting is neither funding nor a partnership…but an idea.
Be Yourself: As a reporter, I would rarely prepare specific questions before an interview, usually just jotting down the six or seven topics I wanted to cover just before going in. Other colleagues work better with a more structured approach. In either case, the objective is to both get the most substance out of the encounter and to be as comfortable as possible. Indeed, those two usually go together.
Follow Their Lead: Some will just want to hear you go on and on, others will interrupt you with questions before you even sit down. Ultimately it’s your pitch, but their show. Indeed, it’s more like the interview you had for your first newspaper job than the big interview you landed with some VIP.
Adjust the Dial: No two meetings and pitches are alike, but there are certain categories of people you’ll be meeting: funder, networker, partner, expert. Think before going in what you would ideally like to get from the person, and what are the essentials they need to know about what you’re doing. It’s not disingenuous, but a question of emphasis, especially because time will always be limited.
Getting In Isn’t Good Enough: Sometimes for a reporter, just getting in is 80 percent of the battle. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant Q&A, as long as you were there to get subject X to answer some of your questions. You may have had it no easier getting to the person you’re pitching to, but here you gain no points just for face time.
Start Strong: This is one I’ve always needed help on. On big interviews I was always slow out of the box, and would often try to think of something specific to say for an intro….though that sometimes made it even worse!? There are no second takes when you’re pitching, but at least if you can wow them later in the meeting, they may forgot that your opening line was…Uummm.
Props, People Here too, there are different approaches. Irene has convinced me that the best way is to bring a printed copy of our biz plan along, but to try to go as long as possible without pulling it out. Indeed, we sometimes mention it only at the end of the meeting, and send afterwards via email. Others may prefer pitching — or being pitched — with slides from the get-go. In either case, you are there to make an impression, a human one.
Get the Next Number: Irene always reminds me that every meeting should lead to another meeting. Or two or three. Ask for contacts, make connections, get the numbers/emails before you actually walk out the door.
Finish Strong: As things are winding down — after whatever detours into the details or the state of digital media — look for an opening to bring the discussion back to your core product, and the reason it is needed now.
Follow Up: Thank you, thank you, just one more thing I’d like to ask, thank you again…
…and good night.
Hungry Hacks & Eager Entrepreneurs: The Art of Knocking on Doors and Other Mild Forms of Harrassment
Being a reporter is life training, if by ‘life’ we mean testing the extremes of clinical Attention Deficit Disorder (versatility!?… horizontal knowledge??), learning the art of the linguistic bluff (write it with authority, son!), and harassing perfect strangers (that’s called: source building).
While I was born with more than enough of those first two traits, I’ve had to work over the years at acquiring the third. I gaze with envy at my hack colleagues who find real joy in the around-the-clock hounding of those with power and knowledge and potential skeletons-in-closets.
No, I am not the steamroller, take-no-prisoners, just pick-up-the-damn-phone type. Still, I figured out early that the fruit of that perennial chase is the basic currency in which the news business trades. And if I wanted to participate/succeed in any meaningful way, I would have to take up the hunt.
Just how to go about it is more art than science, and depends on the nature of the hunter. I’ve always looked at it as the search for the sweet spot between insistence and politeness, patience and impatience, creative thinking and single-minded stubbornness. Oh, and luck too. When it works, it can net some timely scoops, and exclusives that make up for all the humiliating phone calls and ignored emails; and yet there are just as many occasions when the best intentions and foresight are useless if the stars line up against you.
Now, 20 years later, trying to get my news startup off the ground, I am benefited by the acquired skills at knocking on all the right doors with all the right techniques. Who is THE person I must talk to? How do I get to him or her? And since plan A often fizzles, how do you maintain the momentum of the pursuit over the course of the day or week…or even months…when no one seems to be taking your calls?
Now, rather than sources or some prized VIP interview, the targets of my attention are colleagues, media executives, all-around smart people, possible funders and potential business partners. Whereas agreeing to talk to a reporter working on a story has a rather obvious up side or down side, often the people I have tried to track down over the past year face both less risk and less payoff in taking time out of their busy schedule to hear me out.
It’s very clear, in other words, that it’s me who needs them more than they need me. Hopefully the moment will arrive that both investors and partners — and employees — will see how I can help them too!?
But at the start of the startup, after 10 months of knocking on doors (and 20 years as a reporter), here’s a quick list of what I will politely call my hounding techniques…
1. Try to get an introduction, or at least a name you can cite as a reference.
2. Try to find out (or guess, if you have to) if the best first contact should be by email or phone. These days it’s almost always email. (Note: Facebook/Twitter/Skype Chat/Etc are not good alternatives.)
3. If it’s email, your first follow-up should be email. If it’s phone, your first follow-up should also be email.
4. Edit down. Be brief in all correspondences.
5. If you haven’t heard back in a while, and you are just dying to follow-up, it’s probably worth it to wait two more days. But no more than that.
6. Be friendly with assistants, secretaries, spouses to increase likelihood that your messages are put on top of the pile.
7. Once they do respond, be utterly flexible about when and where to meet or call.
8. Follow up with a brief thank-you email that finishes with the ball continuing to move forward — though not a new favor to ask or appointment to fix.
9. Don’t be afraid to show you have just a touch of humor/irony (if you do. do you…???). Nevermind. Keep it straight.
10. Know when it’s time to quit/Never Quit. If someone is simply not responding after four or five inquiries (even if they initially seemed interested) let it go. For now. And never sign off with nastiness or burn bridges… for they may yet come around.
Remember that any help you get is gravy. Be grateful for everything. And then some day, it’ll be your turn to do the helping. In life…In news…In business…. Karma counts.
I have promised more about Jed Micka, as of last month, my full-fledged (though not yet full-time..see below) partner in this enterprise. Most of the basics on Mr. Micka are in my last Nieman Lab post, but I wanted to add a quick update here on where we are, which will lead into the subject of this piece.
Jed is not thinking about the news business, or even our project, in this very moment. He’s all about the Arctic. That’s the topic of the Master’s thesis he must complete by June in international political strategy at Sciences Po University here in Paris. That leaves me to do the heavy lifting (for now) on the project while Jed works around the clock on his 100-page paper (“four pages a day,” he says, giving away his programmer/engineering tendencies). Still, we do meet every Friday for a couple of hours so I can update him on the week’s progress (or lack thereof) and get his feedback, and we can brainstorm and map out the weeks and months to come. Perhaps even more than his computing/programmer skills, that which feels most valuable is his business mind: questions of costs, incorporation, copyright, spreadsheets, strategy are both on his resume and in his DNA.
Still, in the more short-term, the good news is that Jed has the programming skills to build the live site, and even as we hope to raise some funds in the coming few months, we are moving ahead with a pure bootstraps approach, financing-free if necessary, with the aim to launch a limited beta version in September.
Still, just the two of us won’t quite cut it. We will need some additional peoplepower. This is something I have known since the get-go. My would-be digital brand is NOT a blog or some other kind of one-man show. Indeed in my pre-bootstrapping ignorance, I envisioned raising the million or two needed to launch the thing at full capacity, with a well-fed staff of 10-15 folk. That ain’t gonna happen–even if the millions were to suddenly fall into our laps. Jed has helped crystallize the importance of making sure that there is a constant and direct correlation from Day One between costs and revenues: we are a lean startup, both in financial and existential terms, and will be for a long time to come.
This all means that we need to find low-cost, high-quality help from Day One. Or even before. The good (and yet sad) news on the editorial side is that it is a buyer’s market. Highly qualified professional reporters are out of work. Journalism schools are still churning out smart and eager j-bunnies. Still, buyer’s market doesnt mean slavery–which is not the business I wanted to get into anyway. What I have to offer is OPPORTUNITY, to get in on the ground level of something that, if it works, will be part of the future. The alternatives can both be grim for different reasons: either staying/getting shackled to a sinking ship or shilling for something so damn cheap and chincy that is depressing precisely because it is the future.
Still, Jed’s whole cost/revenue approach means that we simply cannot compete with the older and bigger and richer outlets in paying for services. None of this, however, is either easy or predictable. I have had a smart, hyper linked and ambitious J-school grad in need of experience suddenly jump ship, saying she needed some income immediately; while a well-established colleague said (unprompted) that she would consider leaving her solid job with a major news organization even if my project couldn’t guarantee her a salary. We’ll see.
Much of it is a question of stars aligning. Right now, the stars have aligned enough to have a potential early contributor already working (for free, so far!) on the project. Amar Toor is contributing on my relatively new morning “overnight news bundle” whileUslept. He has income coming in from other writing/blogging work, and a flexible schedule. And Amar too is smart, hyper-linked and ambitious. He got a master’s in economics rather than journalism, but writes with the ease and attitude of a seasoned hack. To round out the storyline: he is actually the person who introduced me to Jed.
But even though he seems genuinely excited by the larger project, it’s hard to feel like you can count on someone if you can’t pay them. Again, we’ll see. All I can do is to be as honest and open as possible, sharing what I know and asking help for what I don’t. Hopefully, all of that can can help the others around me believe in the project as much as I do. And though I’m no Vince Lombardi, on good days, I like to think some of that is in my DNA.
For about six weeks late last year, I was wavering over a single question: Prototype or No Prototype?Several smart people told me there was no need: if you’ve got a business plan (I did), and can describe your offering in two sentences or less (I could), a prototype would be a waste of time and money. Investors and partners would join in on the merits of the idea and my own professional stock.
If your news venture is a one-man or one-woman blog, or other solo operation, you don’t have this dilemma. you just build the thing and get to work. But my thing, if done correctly, needs some personpower, and thus some funding. So another way of posing the same question was Pause for Prototype or Forge Ahead with Fundraising?
I chose the former, and was lucky enough to find Annie and Gianluca, a kick ass Danish-Italian designer/programmer team in Rome. Jumping into the prototype adventure meant having to resist calling up potential funders and partners who I stumbled on in the meantime, as I wanted to wait to show (off!) the prototype before they gave their thumbs up or down. But I can hardly call these past three-plus months a “delay.” First is the prototype itself, which not only will pitch the project better than my words or any powerpoint presentation could, but will also be the actual building block (in both design and functionality) from which the actual site can launch. My new biz-tech partner Jed (more to come on him soon!) just confirmed that.
But just as importantly, as I look back to January, I know that the DNA of the project has continued to evolve in the right direction, in part because of the sweat we have put into this mini project within the project. This is that fantastic new verb I first learned at LeWeb back in December: bootstrapping. Any American, would-be startup dude or otherwise, knows immediately what this means.
So what now? Well, er, umm…it’s showtime. I’ve been pitching the project in one form or another, to all sorts of folk for almost a year. But the pitch was always open-ended: What do you think? What’s your advice? Now it’s: Please join us…
Here are quick thoughts for three different categories of folk I hope to meet, which no doubt will change once we begin…
MEDIA PARTNERS: I am solving a problem for them. I understand their predicament. I know their needs and their audience. The fundamental challenge will be to get some form of commitment — even if I involves no real time or money right now — from an industry in total crisis.
FUNDERS: There will be two types of potential funders: those interested in the journalism for the journalism’s sake, and those who want to see real return on their investment. Our pitch may be tweaked to some degree depending on who we have in front of us, but ultimately we must show that our project is both a response to the crisis in the news business…and something more than just a purely journalistic endeavor. I guess we call it: New Media. There is also always going to be crossover: even the lets-save-journalism types don’t want to throw their money away, and the most bottom-line investor won’t be talking with us if he/she doesnt have at least some interest in where the news business is heading.
HOME RUN: Before I really knew anything about all of this….like 10 months ago…I had an idea for a website. (It’s the same idea I still have, which I hopefully can share in this space in the not-so-distant future). I also thought I knew how to get it launched–and more specifically who would fund it. It was one deep-pocketed European industrialist I knew from my past life. He sent me back to the drawing board, which of course was the best thing that could have happened to me. Who knows? Maybe we will get another shot at a single solution that could leap frog the months/years of seed money, scraping by, etc… The “Walk-off home run” is what Jed calls it. But I know that if that were to happen (which I am certainly NOT counting on) Mr. Deep Pockets will be investing not only in the idea, not only in my journalistic experience and Jed’s business acumen, but in the grit and agility and waste-free, open-minded approach of two hungry, New Media Bootstrappers. How’s that for a pitch…?