The ambition of Hacks/Hackers Connect was sky-high: to stimulate a stronger and more profitable entrepreneurial community within the UK news industry.
Its core question was frank: As ‘news entrepreneurs’ (n.b. not ‘journalists’) what was it we were doing wrong? For it seems we’re letting the side down in the race round ‘Silicon Roundabout’ – London’s Old Street district, currently home to more than 4,800 investor ready technology enterprises.
According to Crunchbase, there have been just 65 London start-ups created in the news space since 2010. Only 25 of these have secured any level of investment and fewer still – just seven – achieved investment over $1 million. Yet in the first nine months of last year alone London-based tech firms companies secured $1.6 billion in new investment, according to the Mayor’s office.
Partly to find out why media start-ups so featured so lightly in London’s big technology story, Hacks/Hackers – a meet up group for journalists working with new media in London – convened the Connect weekend session, supported by Google News Lab.
But the main aim was to help people with ideas for a news-related start-up get practical mentoring and training from established professionals.
I was mostly interested how the start-up community approached financing and project development and how that approach might be adopted by the kinds of non-profit media groups I work with worldwide. They are largely reliant on funding for the media development sector provided mainly by governments, with a small but growing number of tech-minded institutional funders (See this CIMA report for a fuller account).
It’s a shrinking space, aimed at strengthening the media’s contribution to social-political change ahead of sustainability, and burdened by a lack of conclusive evidence of success. The sector is supply-driven, promoting unfamiliar, under-tested tools and techniques, and failing to build the long-term capacity of the media to accommodate changing markets and meet audience demands.
It was a relief then to discover that most of those journalists among the invitees seemed to be motivated by improving journalism rather than swift profits, as my fellow delegate Nick Duxbury noted. “In short,” he says correctly, “for most hacks, great journalism is the end rather than the means. In many ways, this is more of a not-for-profit approach than a start-up approach.”
The involvement of start-up experts from the US did highlight the lack of a targeted support structure for media start-ups in London. Google’s interest was welcome, but dedicated investment capital for new media innovation is needed. There is no UK equivalent to the Knight News Challenge, for example, which has just shared $3.2 million in funding for 17 data-led media projects in the US.
But the keynote speakers were almost evangelistic, particularly Mark Little, the old media turned innovator and founder of Storyful. Just over 100 would-be start-uppers and wannabes were accepted to take part. Chris Wheal’s Medium blog lists some of the key takeaways and his favourite speakers.
Like my fellow chosen participant Della Cheshire, my highlights also included Torsten Mueller, co-founder and CEO of Tame, on sales and marketing, and the droll but informative Neil Thackray, co-founder of Briefing Media, on how to make news profitable-ish. Philipp Moehring gave a intense briefing on angel investors, which he summarises here and is well worth a read.
You got as much out of it as you put in, particularly the ‘Lean Start-up’ workshops, designed to take ideas and test their value and viability against a series of hypotheses. This was a ingenious means of conceptualising real products out of vague ideas for theoretical markets.
My plan was to bring a long stymied tech development platform project to the workshop and see if it could be unblocked, but my colleague thought it just too raw for the event. Better to do as I did and start from a clean sheet.
So it started: What was the problem I aimed to solve? What was the solution to that problem that existing alternatives couldn’t deliver? Why could my solution succeed where others failed? Where were my customers? How would I reach them? And so on, until you had a developed a business concept that you could coherently explain in short bursts to one of the passing venture capitalists in the hall. Who would gently bring you down to earth with a few home truths.
If you overcame that stage, the next sessions covered the arcane art of raising money for a start-up, how to find a co-founder and how to build a technical product, or hire a technical team. The most useful advice – in that it had broader uses in project management as a whole – involved techniques of feedback, testing and product redevelopment that came with the start-up approach.
Oh yes. My made-up on the spot start-up – one-off direct advertising packages to plug in to stories trending fast on social media – aims to give micro-media outlets a better chance to raise some money from their brief moments of online fame, when they have a short advantage over less well connected mainstream competition.
You buy the packages six at a time, and slot your story, image or video in. Once they pass a certain number of hits in their own right, they qualify for inclusion in a market for potential advertisers who have pre-bid to be attached to sudden unexpected trending stories boosted across Facebook and Google.
For journalists and advocacy groups working for years on specialist issues in far-away countries, an election, a revolution, a scientific breakthrough, brings them to the world’s attention. A simple direct plug in advertising package will make the most of these sudden, unexpected income generation opportunities, in the few minutes, seconds even, they are out-trending the New York Times online.
It’s called plug.direct and if you have £100,000 to hand, I have equity for you. See you at TechCrunch. Maybe.
Hacks/Hackers London gather regularly. Don’t miss.