Category Archives: prototype

Momentum v. First Impressions: Why Perfection is Not an Option

We have had a design glitch…or better, we have changed our mind on the layout of our signup page. The good news is that my partner Irene and I agree (as we tend to on most things, including design) that we have some reworking to do. But what we thought could be resolved quickly with the designer we were using, may now require a more substantial working over — and, it seems, a new designer. And that means a DELAY.

I have gradually gotten used to the fact that the calendar in my head (or even the one I stupidly declare out loud) is essentially worthless. The project has its own calendar. Still, when Irene warned me last night that the delay in question could be “weeks,” we inevitably launch into one of our by now weekly, er, lively conversations.

It is not that Irene is any less impatient than me. By nature, she is in fact probably more impatient. But there are two fundamental differences in our respective outlook on time.  The first, is that she has managed website launches before…and so the lessons I am learning about a project’s calendar, she has learned a dozen times before. She reminds me that no one has imposed any fixed deadlines, and repeats the importance of first impressions. She is right, of course.

Still….still. I have learned over the past year that a startup must also always measure up with its own limits. Of time, of costs, of people’s attention spans. I have learned this in the lonely days when this project had a lot less to show for itself (including Irene!). Perfection is not an option. The ball must keep rolling forward, even if you gotta keep kicking it up that Sisyphean hill…Momentum is everything. It is what we need to both solidify our standing and feed the imagination of potential partners, investors, consumers — and ourselves, the ones working on the damn thing every day. 

In a follow-up phone call near midnight, we are both a bit calmer. And back again on the same page. A) We can only have a layout of the signup page that truly satisfies us both. B) we need those forecasted “weeks” delay to be more like several days…Yeah, yeah: but just how many!?

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The Prototype is Done. Now What? Newsman Must Become Salesman

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…?

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Ten Things or People Slowing Down My News Startup Launch

As I’ve described before, this would-be enterprise is not only an adventure in navigating the changing state of the news business, but the state of my own professional evolution (or lack thereof) as well. A wayward marksman and his moving target. With that in mind, momentum is key. Moving forward is not an optional. Peer News editor John Temple recently talked about that urgency of wanting to get up and running asap what you can already (more or less) envision in the very first week of operations. My target right now is just getting to that first week, and the desire to see something live is no less real. But when you’re still working mostly solo — and juggling other balls — the urgency can sometimes be hit and miss. The past week or two it’s been more miss than hit.

My big news, which would potentially be much more significant than the current slow down, is that have found a biz-tech partner who is ready to try to raise money and launch the thing with me. Yes!! There will be more on him in the coming days. For now, though, I am facing a mini brick wall. Here’s a quick rundown of the top 10 bricks in that wall…

1. Pope Benedict XVI

2. Attention Deficit Disorder

3.Howard Chua-Eoan, Time news director

4. Annie’s (designer of prototype) two young kids

5.   Overconfidence (convinced no one else is out there working on the same product)

6. Lack of Confidence (convinced no one else is out there working on the same product…for a damn good reason!)

7. My two young kids

8. Knowing that the next step is actually asking people for money

9.  Anxiety about having all my ducks lined up before starting to call (and call back) all the contacts on my list of potential funders/partners/mentors.

10. Distracted by ideas for OTHER startups (some not related at all to news business!?)

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Iteration vs. Momentum. My News Startup in Flux

I have decided to add a major new component to my online news project. As mentioned in a previous post, when this feature was suggested to me it felt big and potentially game-changing, which necessarily also meant a bit scary and pretty damn disorienting. I have since gotten positive feedback from everyone I’ve talked to about it, except my wife. And while it is true that she holds WIDE-RANGING veto power, I am forging ahead nonetheless!?

Without going into details – both because I prefer to speak 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 fellow startup dude vigorously suggested, I still think there is much room to integrate it in a way that could both shake up the very nature of how the thing will function, and 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. Needless to say, this iteration offers good reason to be optimistic.

Yet today I am feeling more paralyzed than pumped.  It’s like a sudden brake has been put on what has been a good month or two of the big ‘Mo. On the prototype (which I KEEP saying is just a week or two away!?) we will have to rejigger all the current pages and add a brand new page or two. Meanwhile, the business plan will have to be overhauled. Completely. Again.

And so right now, I have that awful feeling of not really knowing where to start. It’s hardly a new sensation, of course. Every journalist knows that moment when you’re just finishing writing your breaking daily story or enterprise piece.. and a new twist to the news arrives or a sudden interview comes up that will make the article much much richer, but requires you to virtually start over. The difference here is that I’m not on assignment for anybody, I have no deadline. That is the real novelty/challenge of this experience, at least at this stage. There is nothing that has to go to press, or hit the wires. No news cycle to feed. No editor breathing down my neck. No reader waiting for my website to go live.

It’s all on my ass, which means I have to constantly find ways to get up off of it. After two weeks of Vancouver, perhaps we can curl out a winter sports metaphor: Think of the startup as a bobsled or downhiller:  what’s necessary to get to finish line is the right tradeoff between Momentum and Bearings. The twist here is that you actually risk losing both when you’ve hit upon an idea/iteration that is no less necessary…

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The Right Mix. News Content as Information, Entertainment, and Both.

We’re getting closer with the design of the prototype, which means it’s time to focus on the content of the prototype. For now, for reasons I’ve previously mentioned, I won’t get into the specifics of the content/concept other than the fact that it is global news. I am working on the presupposition (prayer!?) that it will be unique, premium value that will appeal to a general readership. Just how “premium” and how “general” they will be is a topic for another post, about paid content, and the like. Needless to say, more than one smart person has suggested I simply drop the idea that a “general readership” exists and/or can be reached. I disagree. And so selecting a representative mix of articles, et al, for the prototype is key, and means both trusting my old-media gut/news judgment and thinking hard about how the old definitions and categories are changing.

I have recently discovered Sam Lessin, founder of drop.io, whose BIG thoughts about how we (will) communicate/interact are both instructive and provocative. In a recent post, he expanded on his prediction that power will shift from content distributors to content producers. To help make the point, he used a series of mathematical computations and graphs. Over my head!? But he also wrote about how every bit of content can be categorized as information or entertainment (often, inside the same piece article, video, et al), and his belief that the two types of content will be increasingly separated and distinct from each other, “because Information and Entertainment are at economic odds with one another.  When you wrap Information and Entertainment into the same body, you dilute the economic power of each because your incentive set on scale conflicts with itself.”

Hey, even a hack like me got that one! This distinction has been implicit in the news business for a long time, about how far we sink (or high we reach) to get people to want to consume the stuff we produce with the righteous presupposition that we think they SHOULD consume it, both for basic civic reasons and because that is the unique service that the press provides (part of the business model, eh?). Lately of course, there have been far more bits of entertainment (gossip) in our copy than some of us are comfortable with. I cover Silvio Berlusconi after all. A few weeks ago, I did a time.com piece on some medical researcher doing a completely unscientific study of great works of art to surmise probable health conditions of the people portrayed…alas, Mona Lisa had a high cholesterol. It was the most popular story on the site for two friggin’ days!? It had virtually no real value in a news (information) sense, and I was not the first to do it, even in the English-language media. But it was not “pure entertainment” either, and hooked people into reading about science, art. Maybe they’ll come to France to visit the Louvre? Dan Brown himself is a phenomenon that straddles these categories in a new way.

You could even make the case that the internet’s flattening the playing field only increases the attempts by editors to use bits of entertainment to communicate information, and vice-versa. Maybe this is digging their own grave? Still, a writer/editor’s question about this distinction is how do you qualify a well-written sentence: information or entertainment?

And so these thoughts are with me as I cull together the content mix for the prototype. Potential partners, backers, etc, are going to open up the URL and see the lede story. Will it be scoopy? Will it be sexy? A little bit of both? Still to be determined. But I can already safely say that if the first story is heavy on Information, the second will have a bit or two more Entertainment. And vice-versa.

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The iPad and the Prototype for My News Startup

She didn’t get quite the press coverage as Mr. Jobs, but Annie rolled out the first color versions of the prototype for our would-be news website about an hour after the iPad was unveiled in California. My favorite Danish-born, Rome-based web designer and I are zeroing in on what we will present online (but locked down) to potential collaborators, funders and assorted media biz muckety mucks just like you!? The color version makes it ever more clear that we see eye-to-eye on just about everything…except for, uh, colors. It’s made extra hard by our shared desire to avoid the various shades of red that we see in so many news sites. We’ll see…

Our little coincidence in timing with the folk at Apple only stirred further thoughts about trying to stay up with the fast-changing online world as I try to imagine how our humble offering will work and look when it’s up and running for real. It’s a constant struggle to try to calculate the way technology will change habits and choices of the consumer, and the ways it will not. Will the iPad encourage/discourage people to read longer or shorter pieces? Will it encourage/discourage pay models? Is it basically the web on wheels? Or the web in bed? Again, the fascinating tension with technology and the news business was on display in San Francisco: the mobility and multi-functionality of this new device will help journalists do their work faster and wider (and allow more people do journalism or some iteration therein) even as it would seem to encourage ever more the FREE flow of their work.

Since my core content will be written articles, I for one am constantly asking myself about reading. If video is always there, tempting even the well-meaning, would-be interested reader, is the written word ultimately dying a slow death before our eyes? I don’t think so. In fact, I am waiting for the big thinkers and master builders of Silicon Valley to come up with something electronic/digital/portable that feels both like the latest, slickest thing that offers everything AND is focused on the written word. I think people want that, they want state-of-the-art help turning off all the flashing images of our world.

As for our prototype, we know that on one hand it must help demonstrate what our core content will be, and also show that we will deliver it in an aesthetically appealing and technologically intelligent way. But no, we will not have an iPad version with our presentation. I met last Friday with a sharp and straight-forward content management strategist who is advising me on the project. He said it is important even in with a news and media site to offer at least one technological innovation with a new startup. What about making it video-free?

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Something to Touch

About 20 minutes after my (very) late-night post yesterday, the first real meat and bones of this project arrived by email: the draft of the wire-frame for the prototype homepage. In its current form, it is in only black and white and grays, with mock headlines, no photos, no moving parts…and it looks fantastic! Che emozione!! Months of research and meetings and worrying, and lately realizing how ultimately insufficient my old-style business plan felt, I’m no longer just grasping at straws–I’ve got something to touch.

It is also confirmation that my gut was right about the designer. I imagine startups are filled with the kinds of coincidences like the one that landed Annie Skovgaard Christiansen as the designer of this website. Back in Rome for the holidays, I was talking to a couple I know well, Francesco and Alessandra, who are about as far from the news business, online world as you can get. That didn’t stop me from talking to them about my project at 90 mph! And the time had come, I told them, to actually get the thing up on its own URL, etc. At which point Alessandra reminded me about Annie, whose oldest son was in nursery school with my both of our sons, and who works for one of Rome’s top web design and management firms. A day later, Dec. 23, to be precise, we were already mapping out how we’d establish the working relationship, and even what the site might look like.

I had talked to various folk about how/who to find to build the beginnings of the site (I have none of the design or technical abilities to do it…I even needed a hand getting this basic wordpress blog set up). I got all kinds of advice: find someone in India, in Eastern Europe, in small-town America (the dollar’s weak), an ad on Craig’s list, notice on twitter, and I actually got a few names of specific recommendations. (Others said just do it on WordPress.)

Several people described a tradeoff in terms of costs and culture gap/language. Anyway, it was going to be my first actual investment beyond my own time in the project, my first business decision if you will. Ultimately I would have taken the plunge in one of those different directions because NOT deciding was the only decision not on the table. But (re)finding Annie was such perfect pre-Xmas timing, not only because I already knew and liked her (she is a native of Roskilde, Denmark, and we were two of three foreign parents in the local Rome school where our sons went) and not only because I now see that she has a great eye and touch…but because she knows both what she likes and what I’m after. She understands news (not that it’s rocket science!?), and makes it feel like she’s been working in this particular profession all her life (she hasn’t) in the way she asks questions and builds the site. A web engineer colleague of hers will help develop the site, once she and i have agreed on the general architecture. As for the economics of this first business decision: it won’t be as cheap as India, but the culture gap feels less than zero.

There will be more to come about the actual choices of this first incarnation of the website, but I’ll close with the email that Annie sent a little while ago, with both of us working again well past midnight…

“Yes I know what you mean. Being a freelancer, a workaholic and when it comes to my work sometimes a control-freak I have often found myself working late nights. Often without having anybody noticing it. As a web designer, when you are not talking about branding, your clients often think your work is secondary. It can be difficult to understand that a very simple layout can mean hours and hours of browsing, looking, thinking, drawing, canceling, redrawing and sometimes restarting. Often the person responsible for the site is somebody that only thinks of the future workload that the new site inevitably will be creating for him. Rarely the person who decides the remake or the start of a new site and the person eventually responsible for it are the same.

Even the developers with whom I am normally working with will look into the sky when I passionately talk about whether to move a title two pixels up or two pixels down.

This is different. Here I am working with somebody that actually wants a site!!! My client expresses his opinion on everything I send him…sometimes immediately! Fantastic!”

Annie has already put in more to this project than anyone but me. Hopefully she’s just the first. Working with fun, talented people is a big part of why I’m doing this. I’ve gotten bits and pieces from others, some of whom are no less enthusiastic about the idea/project than I am, but who just aren’t in a position to devote their time until it turns into something bigger. But for it to get there, I will have to find a few more people eager to jump in early, even if there’s little or no up front cash. Whether the dollar is weak or strong, good timing is always valuable currency.

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