Tech journalists spend a lot of time thinking about the future. Which company will become the next Instagram? What’s the next product to change the face of gaming?
“This event was off the charts”
Gary Vaynerchuk was so impressed with TNW Conference 2016 he paused mid-talk to applaud us.
The journalist-launched journalism startup is a relatively established concept, with Time’s Dan Fletcher and the Beacon crowdfunding platform being one recent example. But now, journalists are also pushing into other areas, a trend that will only continue as the news business continues to evolve.
The Next Web’s former Latin America editor, Anna Heim, is one such story, recently leaving the news desk to co-found the MonoLibre ESL-learning solution.
In the coming years, expect to see more crossover from the journalist community to ventures covering an even wider range of interests and areas. Journalists specifically carry three natural advantages within the context of the startup economy: Access to the investment community, an inside understanding of product-market fit and a ready handle on media distribution being chief among them.
In fact, it’s a wonder more haven’t jumped ship already.
Super Angel-Investor Ron Conway says he knows around 5,000 people who refer deals to him, and that’s the only way to get to him.
Most tech journalists will have developed a professional network of investors and experts ready to be flipped into active business partnerships if it ever comes time to make the transition to the startup scene. Capital and insight are ceilings for most budding businesses.
But tech journalists, by the nature of their profession, are already fluent in both. And when a contact, or a contact of a contact, can’t come through on the money end, the social proof of having swam in these waters can be a reliable in.
Heim explained to me via e-mail that working in journalism made it much easier to talk to investors and get on their radar.
“Don’t get me wrong, nobody is going to give you a blank check just because they have been reading your articles — but it helps get a foot in the door,” she wrote.
“If I am not already in touch with an investor I want to talk to, I probably know someone who can introduce me to them, and if not, I can still use my writing skills to send a carefully crafted email and a good pitch deck.”
“Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market” – Marc Andreessen
Tech journalists are essentially paid to familiarize themselves with the inner workings of the markets they’d be trying to penetrate as entrepreneurs. Maybe it’s not necessarily the case that the people writing about the marketplace always have the right ideas to take part in it, but that firsthand knowledge makes for a valuable addition to any founding team.
Heim says she actually came up with the idea for MonoLibre during a demo day she was sent to cover. She was watching foreigners deliver presentations to the room and realized that a lack of English fluency and public speaking confidence was a serious limitation for many founders within the globalized startup economy.
From there, the rest was not much different than pursuing a story.
“Once I had identified the opportunity, the whole process to validate it was very similar to my role as a journalist: do online and offline research about our market, talk to competitors, interview potential users and know what to ask them… and of course take lots of notes.”
“Product is important but having great product distribution is more important” – Reid Hoffman
Strong press relations is the most obvious benefit of including former journalists in high-level positions, and for startups especially, that’s nothing to be sneezed at.
According to LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, distribution for a startup is more important than that product itself. Even a bad idea with good exposure – the thinking goes – will catch on quicker than a good idea no one’s ever heard about.
Most startups display a surprisingly poor understanding of what public relations is: how coverage helps companies grow and how to go about getting it. Press attention can make or break an emerging venture, and you would expect any startup with a journalist at the helm to have a well-integrated PR strategy, if not the collective ear of a contact list full of former colleagues.
So, why don’t we see more journalists pursuing startups?
At least on paper, then, journalism is a natural stepping stone for startup entrepreneurship. But it’s still a bit of a leap to say that the two fields are an exact fit.
Journalism doesn’t necessarily prepare you for much of the day-to-day bootstrapping grind. Making a compelling argument in print is obviously much different than being able to deliver it in person.
And while Heim happened to be an editor at TNW, other journalists might have trouble assuming the responsibilities of management roles, especially working alongside the young, relatively inexperienced hires typically drawn to startups.
Then there are things you learn in the newsroom that can actively hamper your ability to function in a startup environment. Most of news – and especially tech – media works on a frantic, short-term deadline schedule. The sort of long-haul commitment required to bring bigger projects to life is something of a foreign concept for people trained to get information out as quickly as possible.
By inclination or training, many journalists simply might not have the experience to submerge themselves in one single area for years on end, or any underlying desire to do so.
As Heim pointed out, the opposite is also true. The point of journalism is to be objectively right. Reporters are required by ethics and practice to stick to what they reliably know.
In startup entrepreneurism, on the other hand, the most dynamic ventures are often defined by a willingness to go out on a limb and fail. By the time an idea can be proven, someone else may already have jumped on it.
Journalism, as an industry, is in the midst of a transformational shift. The unceremonious eulogizing of the past few years has proven premature: Newspapers are not going to die. But traditional outlets really are changing, and have been for some time.
That’s going to encourage a new generation of journalists to look for different outlets for their time and talents. And a new generation of entrepreneurs should be pretty excited to have them.