Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Anatomy of a Failed Start-Up: Why NewsLabs Didn't Make It (And Why I May Not Have Helped)

When we last heard from Paul Biggar, back in March, he planned to help save journalism and make money along the way: His NewsLabs, later renamed NewsTilt, was going to provide a new digital platform for reporters.

It didn’t last long. In June, Biggar and co-founder Nathan Chong shut down their company, which hatched at Y Combinator, and returned their remaining cash to their investors.

Now Biggar is working for Mozilla, but he’s found the time to pen a 7,459-word autopsy of his former company. Say this for Biggar: He gets the importance of a good lede. Here’s his first graph:

Following the launch, everything started going to shit, and a huge number of challenges to the success of the company had arisen. The biggest of these were the lack of traction from launch, that we had lost the faith of our journalists, and because there were communication issues between Nathan (my co-founder) and I. This combination also killed our motivation.

Concise, right? Still, Biggar’s candor and self-reflection make the rest of the piece well worth your time, and he plans to post the whole thing on his personal blog shortly. You should read it there.

Not to get too meta, but I make a brief appearance in Biggar’s history. He thinks  the post I wrote up about his company ultimately hurt it. In his words:

Lesson: Be very careful how you are presented to the press

When I gave my demo day speech to investors, I explained that there were tons of customers out there; in 2008-2009, 30000 journalist had been laid off. When I gave an interview to AllThingsD a few minutes later, Peter Kafka focused heavily on the unemployed part of this. I didn’t quite realise the problem–it seemed like a minor detail that he was focusing on a bit heavily–until potential customers kept asking “what about solutions for journalists not laid off”. Even though our product was for all journalists, it had effectively been maligned by what I thought was a minor detail.

This also led to people thinking we were going to take advantage of them, and that we were just another content mill like Demand Media. Even when we made it clear that we were only making money if they did–taking a 20% cut–this kept coming up, even with journalists who we had signed up and were using our service.

As Biggar notes, he didn’t have a problem with my post at first. Here’s the subject line of the email he sent me after my story ran: “great interview!” And as he lays out in great detail, his start-up had many more problems than bad (or even neutral) press.

But it’s perfectly reasonable for people not to like the way I’ve written about them or their company. I work hard to be accurate and fair, but my story ultimately reflects my point of view, and not my subject’s. And sometimes there’s a very big gap between the two.

I do think that the video interviews I do, lousy quality and all, give my subjects the best chance at expressing themselves, since I don’t really edit them. You get to say whatever you want to say, and MediaMemo readers get to hear it.

And in case that doesn’t do the trick, people I write about always have the ability to get their point across, at length, in the comments section below each post.

I wish more people took advantage of it, so consider this an invitation/reminder to Biggar and everyone else I’ve written about, and everyone I will write about: If you don’t like something I’ve written (or even if you do), pipe up! You’ve got an open forum here.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google