I’ve spent a good portion of my startup career pushing content. The first time I ever went out totally on my own, I founded Intrepid Media, the first social network for writers. It was a modestly successful venture that would go on to win a ton of awards, send me all over the country, and produce a handful of New York Times Best Selling Authors.
September 21, 2015
Content Startups Are Making a Comeback
And This Time, There’s Help
Oh, and it made a bunch of money.
While Intrepid financially and technically paved the way for almost everything I did later, I never exited. I also never raised a single dollar to get it off the ground.
Both of those opportunities were never taken because they were never there. In the early 2000s after the dot-com crash, no one was going to give me a dime to prove that people actually still cared about content on the web. And as Intrepid revenue finally started drying up in the early 2010s, the offers that were made for the IP and the brand were never tempting. People still love Intrepid, to this day, and I love that fact. So it sits there, zombie-like, creating a lot of love.
The sad story of Intrepid Media is that, on the way up and as growth flattened out, no one knew what to do with it, including me.
The main source of revenue was paid membership, which would spike and then plateau in the late-2000s. I sold ads, but I immediately knew that wasn’t the answer and it was soon going away. I spun out books, eBooks, and mixed-media releases, but that wasn’t scalable.
If all of that sounds familiar that’s because it’s what every single content/media company tried to do with the onset of the Internet. I watched all of that happen having already proven it wouldn’t work. Frustrating.
Finally, I gave up the ghost. In 2011, I sliced off a version of the Intrepid content management framework to build ExitEvent, which was a huge win but for different reasons. I also took all of the algorithm and content development experience I had learned from Intrepid and built the content design engine for Automated Insights, which we’ve now evolved into the first fully automated content engine. Boom.
Personally and professionally, Intrepid was a huge success. But I always think about what could have been.
See, I had no help. None. Because, as I implied, help wasn’t there to be had. The startup crowd saw Intrepid Media as a writer’s play. Small potatoes. The writer crowd saw Intrepid Media and their eyes glazed over. Technology? With words? Pshaw!
I could never get the two sides to meet.
But that’s changing, and at a rapid clip.
I’m not saying content startups are going to be all the rage again, that blogging and a new wave of social media are re-emerging, that podcasts are the future and everyone will get their 15 minutes on YouTube or 15 seconds on Periscope.
Content was dead. Deceased. So this is nothing like a gold rush. It’s a do over.
John Clark is a great local resource for this reset. He’s the executive director of the Reese News Lab at the UNC School of Media and Journalism in Chapel Hill. I met John at a showcase of some of his students’ projects and was so impressed that I immediately hired two folks out of the lab as summer interns at Automated Insights.
Those two hires weren’t budding journalists, they were budding technologists, and both wound up hired full time on our tech team. That’s Clark’s program in a nutshell, full of technology-savvy journalists and journalism-prone technologists, working to make strides in moving past the tried-and-failed methods to revive journalism and its purveyors from a coma.
A few weeks after meeting Clark, I gave a talk on automated content at a conference at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. I was blown away, not only by the advancements that were happening in J-Schools and newsrooms, but at how the focus was shifting towards the market instead of the page. In other words, there were tons of initiatives that weren’t about readership and eyeballs and advertising, but rather using data science, journalism, and content creation to create new products for new markets—and in the end achieve a sustainability that went beyond pay-per-click or paywalls.
On my return from New York, I started meeting with Clark irregularly and informally to discuss the state of affairs, so to speak, and our discussions kept coming back to a common theme. We’ve got to do a better job of getting this technology, these products, these potential startup companies, out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Around that same time, I had finished up a semester of volunteering my time to help out Ted Zoller with his Entrepreneurs Lab at UNC Kenan-Flagler. That program, along with Ted’s work with the public-facing startup event the Carolina Challenge and the incubator Launch Chapel Hill, focuses on getting entrepreneurship off-campus and out into the real world.
There is traction there, and it’s spreading over to the Reese News Lab.
Earlier in September, UNC and the Knight Foundation announced a $3 million grant for the Journalism School, with another $1 million in matching from UNC, to fuel a program, led by Clark, to discover new ideas in digital media delivery and help local and smaller news outlets embrace disruption.
That sounds like a solid start.
Related, but not directly, this past Friday the Knight Foundation’s Ben Wirz visited startup communities in Chapel Hill and Durham in an effort to discover what’s going on in the media and content startup worlds, and how the Knight Foundation might get involved.
Wirz is the director of ventures for the Knight Foundation and manages the Knight Enterprise Fund, which “invests directly in early-stage startups that improve access to quality, useful information.”
Wirz met individually with me about Ai and ExitEvent, and also folks like Bull City Venture Partners’ David Jones, The Startup Factory’s Lizzy Hazeltine, and Groundwork Labs’ John Austin, among others, then held a meet and greet session at American Underground at Main with several media and content related startup founders, including Ricci Wolman from Written Word Media (Freebooksy) and Jamey Heit from Essay Assay, both of whom I’ve worked with over the past few months.
For the media and content side, this is not unlike Valley investors flying in to check on investments and then, on the side, getting to know the lay of the land. It means there’s interest. New interest. That’s awesome, because interest had measured zero in all the time I’d ever been involved with media and content startups.
To me that sounds like a good old-fashioned resurrection, even if it is just finding a pulse.
The trend will continue. As major media organizations splinter and fracture—in the same manner that skinny bundling is threatening to unwind the cable conglomerates—media, journalism, and content companies will continue to refocus. It’s been almost two decades now of trying to stop the bleeding, and it appears that the industry is finally taking a more proactive, out-of-the-box approach that isn’t about just surviving, but thriving in the new media age.