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Naysayers are swarming on Clayton Christensen and his “gospel of innovation”

Clayton Christensen

Updated 6-24.

If business school professors were pop stars, Clayton Christensen would be Beyonce. His 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is wildly influential — in particular, it has been both the theoretical underpinning and rallying banner for would-be digital disruptors of legacy media.

Most recently, Christensen’s thinking is central (and repeatedly cited) in the leaked 2014 Innovation Report young digital staffers of the New York Times produced this spring.  They argue that the print newspaper on which the company built its reputation needs to be de-emphasized and that, borrowing from upstarts like BuzzFeed, the Times should embrace a newsroom culture of aggressive digital development.

This month, however, Christensen has begun to gather some formidable detractors as well as acolytes.  The lead critic is fellow Harvard professor Jill Lepore who unloads a long debunking article in the current issue of The New Yorker.

The core of Christensen’s view is that big and established companies often go wrong trying to improve their dominant premium-priced product as nimble challengers whittle away at market share with much cheaper alternatives. Lepore concedes that this “dilemma” — the frequent futility of sustaining improvements — explains some business failures.  But that’s all she concedes.

Otherwise she finds Christensen building a broad general theory on the back of a few  handpicked case studies, many of which are factually and logically flawed. Thus the disruption framework is not a reliable predictor for success and failure, either for incumbent companies trying to survive and prosper or for hot new ventures crashing into a market.

Turning to the example of the Times’ Innovation Report, she writes:

It includes graphs inspired by Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma,” along with a lengthy, glowing summary of the book’s key arguments. The report explains, “Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent—The New York Times.”

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

The New Yorker piece is getting broad pickup (“The emperor of ‘disruptive theory’ is wearing no clothes,” headlines Salon).

The New York Times led its business section June 1 with an article on the Harvard Business School’s forays into online instruction.  How best to do that is cast as a strategy battle between Christensen and Michael Porter, another faculty star, who thinks a best-of-the-best company “must stay the course.” For the business school that would mean offering limited high-end online courses — a pattern the school is so far following.

Christensen, predictably, thinks the long-established on-campus instruction model is expensive and dated, so he would prefer the b-school wholeheartedly “disrupt itself,”  specifically offering free MOOCs (massive open online courses).  “Do it cheap and simple,” the Times quotes Christensen as saying. “Get it out there.”

Concurrently with Lepore’s article, the business blog Statechery (hat tip to Millie Tran of the American Press Institute) offered a similar rebuttal.  Author Ben Thompson dwells particularly on the number of times Christensen has been wrong in predicting that Apple and its high-end, elegant digital devices are heading for a fall.

Christensen, to my knowledge has not yet replied to the critics, and I doubt he will.  As the week goes on, however, writers for Vox and Slate have weighed in critiquing Lepore’s critique.

For his part Christensen steams along with his work, which in recent years has been done with co-authors and applies the disruption theory analysis to broad fields.  That began when Christensen, who has had a number of serious illnesses, spent his considerable time in hospitals on a theory for fixing the health care business.

In the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, he and a co-author take on capitalism itself.  They say that the world is suffering a glut of capital and that, especially in large corporations, investments are much more likely to go to money-saving process improvements rather than bold new product development  (“trying to cut your way to prosperity” as we often say in the news business).

In an admiring profile in Harvard Magazine (“Disruptive Genius”), Christensen even stands his ground on Apple.  Less expensive Android-based systems are now slowing the sales growth  iPhones and iPads and “killing Apple,” he claims.  “So I got it wrong; then I got it right,” he tells his interviewer.

My own take (regular readers won’t be stunned) is a sort of middle ground.  Big thinkers, even if they may be over-generalizing, are valuable in shaking up assumptions  — in Christensen’s case, the conviction that top companies with smart managers will stay strong and crush competitors.

Newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines had that sort of market dominance in the golden years of the 20th century.  Now both are fighting for their lives in the digital era, lest they become as Richard Nixon put it in the context of the wind-down of the Vietnam War “a pitiful, helpless giant.”

But I will applaud Lepore too, on the grounds that big thinkers and their big ideas need to be challenged and debated.  Christensen has mostly been lionized, leave it at that.

His skills as a writer help explain that level of acceptance.  While dealing in difficult concepts and occasionally slipping into business theory jargon, his writing is typically confident, clear and accessible.  That can sweep a reader along without a lot of pauses to  reflect on what Christensen may be leaving out.

Slowing down to analyze his paper applying disruption theory to the news business, for instance, I thought Christensen made the common mistake of an exclusive focus on holding and building audience with only passing attention to the importance of finding new ways to serve advertisers well.

At a Nieman seminar in 2013, Christensen said that he had been thinking about just what journalism and news does for its consumers.  He came up with three benefits: (1) find out what is true among competing claims. (2) help busy people unwind at the end of the day and, especially with ethnic publications, (3) generate pride, recognition and respect for a community.

The list is good but narrow.  It doesn’t really hit on the powerful appeal to users of being “in the know” (an old marketing slogan for my hometown Tampa Bay Times) whether for water cooler conversation or one’s own satisfaction.

I think Lepore misportrays Christensen as a dogmatist.  His less noticed follow-up book, “The Innovator’s Solution,” explores an obvious question left dangllng from The Innovator’s Dilemma.  How exactly do you makes an established organization good at innovation? Christensen explicates essential best practices like leadership from the top or heterogeneous project teams.

Also Christensen has started to consider instances in which disruptive theory may not be relevant. Hotels, for example, he told Harvard magazine, are not vulnerable to technological challenges and may occupy a particular spot in the basic-to-luxury spectrum indefinitely if management is attentive to sustaining improvements.

As for newspapers and the future of journalism debate, Christensen remains a justly  influential figure. His consulting firm, Innosight, worked on the American Press Institute’s 2005 Newspaper Next report – a disrupt-yourself wakeup call touting new business models that got a respectful hearing but not much action at the time.

The report has aged well, and a decade later the need for rapid digital transformation has become more orthodoxy than heresy. Though foot-dragging remains an issue.  Just this week, my favorite media analyst, Frederic Filloux, slammed French news organizations for half-hearted stabs at digital, and a lingering view that because their work is important, print newspapers will endure as businesses indefinitely.

The demography, technology and business pressures driving massive change in journalism (and journalism education too) are not going away.  Figuring how to put Christensen’s theory to practice will remain essential, though I will grant Lepore that his big idea is better treated critically than as gospel.

Update:  Christensen did reply in an interview with Bloomberg/Business week, published June 21.  Also Clark Gilbert, CEO of Deseret Digital Media and a former colleague of Christensen’s, critiqued Lepore’s article in a post on Forbes.com.

  Read more


Friday, May 31, 2013

Crowd funding concept

13 ways to get your journalism project crowdfunded

While handwringing over financial support for journalism is nothing new, it’s been especially fraught recently. From the Nate Thayer/Atlantic dustup to the possibility that the Tribune papers may be sold to the Koch brothers, everyone in media seems worried about funding the Fourth Estate.

One hopeful sign for such worriers: Crowdfunding has become a way to support journalism projects from one-off articles to the wholesale launch of new publications.

Back in 2008, crowdfunding platform Spot.us launched to support reporting, and has helped publish stories on partner sites ranging from The New York Times to Cleveland Free Press. Since Kickstarter’s launch in April 2009, 816 journalism projects have sought funding on the site, with 36 percent of them succeeding.

It’s not just individual articles that have gotten support. Matter, Tomorrow, The Big Roundtable and Homicide Watch have all launched publications or paid for programs by appealing to the Internet.

But while raising money via crowdfunding can be a big part of a launch plan, it isn’t a sure bet. If you’re looking to try crowdfunding, keep these tips in mind.

1. Choose a topic that works.

Crowdfunding campaigns demand time and publicity. That makes them a poor fit for breaking news, or investigative pieces that require some stealth.

And since you’ll need many people to support your cause, projects with a larger geographic scope are more likely to attract funds.

“You could say one percent of the people that would be interested in a story will fund it,” Spot.us founder David Cohn told Poynter. “If the topic is about Stockton, Calif., let’s say the population is — I’m making this up — 300,000. You’d have to get in front of a lot of eyeballs, and they’d have to be Stockton eyeballs. If you do California, it’s easier to get in front of the same number of California eyeballs as Stockton eyeballs.”

Cohn also said stories about a topic with wide appeal do well: “The number of people interested in environmental issues is even greater than the population of California.”

2. Consider the audiences.

Aside from Kickstarter and Indiegogo, there are journalism-specific crowdfunding sites such as Spot.us, Emphas.is for photojournalists and Vourno.com for video journalism. Cohn advised considering which audience you want to reach: While Kickstarter has a big audience, it focuses on creative projects of all stripes, including music, film and fashion. Audiences reached via the journalism-specific sites may be smaller but a better fit for your project.

But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Andrea Seabrook, a former NPR reporter who crowdfunded DecodeDC, a blog and podcast covering news from Washington, D.C., said by phone that she chose Kickstarter for its credibility:

“My natural audience as a public radio reporter were a bit older and not familiar with Kickstarter, but even when they were like, ‘Wait, what’s that?’ their kids knew it, and it was something they could search for and recognize was credible right from the beginning. … You’ll always be associated with that [crowdfunding] organization, even if you never do a thing with them again — so you need to think about that in terms of your own brand and the credibility of your work.”

3. Read the fine print.

Investigate how each site handles money raised. Kickstarter is “all or nothing” — if you don’t reach your goal, you won’t receive any money. Indiegogo, on the other hand, allows you to accept however much you raise, or opt for all or nothing.

Kickstarter says the all-or-nothing method prevents project creators from having to deliver projects which don’t attract enough funding. The company also believes that its deadlines for crowdfunding projects encourage backers to rally and push a project past its goal line. But you should weigh these potential benefits against the ability to take whatever money you raise, even if you fall short of your goal.

4. Factor fees and other costs into your budget.

On top of the budget for your journalism project, you need to take into account fees. For instance, Kickstarter collects a 5 percent fee from a successfully funded project’s total, while Indiegogo collects 4 percent on projects that meet their goal and 9% on projects that fall short but choose to take whatever funding they receive. Payment processing fees take another 3 percent to 5 percent out of the money you collected.

“And then, if you’re a for-profit like I am, you have to consider taxes that you’ll pay on that income, and the amount of money that the rewards cost, and the postage.” Seabrook said. “Postage is really expensive for sending out rewards.”

5. Establish your credibility.

Anyone funding a project wants to be confident that their money will be put to good use and a project will actually come to fruition. Toward that end, backers will want to know where you’ve been published, just like an editor who’s weighing whether to give you an assignment.

“Don’t just have an idea — make a prototype of it,” Seabrook said. “We had three episodes up by the end of the campaign, and that helps a lot — it gives a sense of the integrity and the worthiness of their money.”

Similarly, Cohn said stories on Spot.us that already had a publisher on board got funded more quickly and often exceeded their goals. “It was a stamp of approval,” he said, “and there was maybe a little bit of excitement for the donors that would get to see the story published in the newspaper or magazine.”

6. Make a professional video.

Getting on camera may seem daunting, but both Cohn and Kickstarter find projects that include a video appeal are more likely to be funded. “Be yourself and put yourself out there,” Cohn said. “Keep it real in that respect. Also, know who you’re talking to. Kickstarter has a fun, creative community, and Emphas.is is more about serious journalism, so you want to talk to that community.”

Seabrook learned from something she didn’t do right: “My video is pretty terrible production-wise. … I showed it to a few friends in the industry before, and they counseled me not to put up my campaign. They said you shouldn’t put up something that is less quality than your own work.”

Because of the poor quality of her video, Kickstarter didn’t feature her project — a better video, Seabrook speculated, could have led to a featured spot on the site and brought in more funding.

“If you get featured it’s a huge bump, because they send it to everybody’s inboxes,” she said.

7.  Create rewards that narrow the distance between you and your audience.

People don’t want to hand over money and have no contact with a project until it hits newsstands months later. If they’re excited about a project, they want to stay involved during its creation, whether that means getting a peek behind the scenes or actually helping to bring the project to life in some tangible way.

Photojournalists and writers can create rewards from what’s left on the cutting-room floor — photos that don’t get used or scenes that get cut from a longform piece. Or consider offering backers a postcard from a reporting destination, exclusive access to a blog that details the weeks or months of work, dinner and drinks after a big reporting trip, or an acknowledgement in a forthcoming book.

You could also go the traditional swag route: Seabrook created DecodeDC T-shirts, mugs and tote bags, and ordered extras for the show.

8.  That said, make sure the rewards don’t take over your life.

Your main goal is to finish your journalism project, not to spend a significant amount of time fulfilling rewards. “My biggest error was promising personal postcards to a huge group of people — 800 postcards,” Seabrook said, adding that supporters are still asking her where their postcards are.

9. Have rewards at a variety of price points.

According to Kickstarter, some people don’t have the money to substantively support a project, but appreciate the chance to chip in something and spread the word. The site recommends including a reward level of $25 — the most common pledge.

10. Choose a campaign long enough to build momentum but short enough to feel urgent.

Kickstarter says 30-day campaigns are strong time frames for projects, while campaigns longer than 60 days tend to languish.The site no longer allows campaigns longer than 60 days.

11. Devise an outreach strategy.

Before your campaign goes live, talk it up with journalists and bloggers who might write about it. Reach out to “social influencers” who can reach interested Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Tumblr communities so they can help you get the word out. And get friends and family to agree to back the project the moment it goes live. Securing a significant chunk of your funding early will give other backers confidence to sign on.

12. When you launch, get the word out any and every way you can.

“The amount of energy you can put into spreading the word will have a bigger impact than anything else,” Cohn said. He cited the statistic that non-profit news organizations only get donations from readers and listeners after having contact with them seven times.

“You have to be prepared to reach out a few times,” he said.

And be prepared to ask people one by one for support — it’s easy to ignore a mass email. Cohn said that reaching out to individuals sounds really hard but actually isn’t: write up your core pitch, then tailor the beginning and end for each person.

Seabrook said it’s important to give a campaign everything you have.

“If you don’t make it the first time, it’s a lot harder to go back” and ask for money again, she warned. She recommended contacting everyone you know, as well as organizations with which you have an affiliation, such as your alumni organization, and asking them to help get the word out on social media.

“Get people who have a lot of pull and clout on Facebook and Twitter and contact them personally and say, ‘I need a retweet or a repost,’ “ she suggested. “I said, ‘Please, I’d rather you repost and retweet than give me money.”

But, she cautioned, be creative, not annoying: “Be interesting, be funny, don’t say the same thing all the time — show people your wit and your value, especially as a journalist. Put up links people will want to see, and roll out bits and pieces of your project as you go along.”

13. Funding is just the beginning.

Offer your backers regular updates that offer insight into the creative process, or even access to the project itself. For instance, Seabrook has hosted Google hangouts and created a section of DecodeDC featuring interviews that haven’t aired yet and extras from previous episodes. That section is exclusive for high-level subscribers.

Most importantly, don’t underestimate the amount of work your campaign will take.

“It is a full-time job the entire time the campaign is running,” Seabrook said. “Imagine how much work it’s going to be and then double or triple it.” Read more


Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013

hand with money

8 ways to increase the chances that you’ll get funding for your media startup

Journalism skills and a good idea are essential for bringing your media startup to life — but they don’t entitle you to financial support from a foundation or an investment from a venture-capital firm.

“Assuming that you can get funding because you have journalism skills and an idea is not very persuasive in this particular environment,” said Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, which funds entrepreneurial projects. Instead, she said in a phone interview, media entrepreneurs have to prove to investors and grant providers why they and their idea are worth it.

So how do you prove that? Here are eight tips:

1. Partner up

Being a jack of all trades and master of none isn’t the best way for journalists to approach entrepreneurship. Instead, media entrepreneurs should build a multidisciplinary team that’s capable of accomplishing their goals, said Corey Ford, CEO of Matter, a startup accelerator and early-stage venture-capital firm that invests in media ventures.

“One or two journalists working together to build something usually leaves a big hole in the team,” Ford told me over the phone. To fill that hole, find developers, business people and others whose skills complement those of the journalists.

“Multidisciplinary teams are going to be more successful,” he said.

2. Know your customers

Aspiring media ventures and entrepreneurs should work to identify their consumers early in the process and ensure that their proposed products are in line with what those consumers want or need.

“You really need to be able to describe the specific customer you’re designing for,” Ford said. He also recommends testing ideas out on potential consumers to see how viable they are in the real world.

“You’ve got to validate your ideas,” Ford said. “Get them out of your head and in front of people.”

3. Figure out your business model

Whatever your idea is, you need a viable strategy for keeping it alive. “You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to take your idea and turn it into a business,” Schaffer said. “Often, that doesn’t receive enough consideration.”

4. Find a good fit

Part of finding funding for your media startup is deciding which investors are the right ones to pitch. “Like any good story, you need to know who your audience is,” Ford said.

Before seeking funding, Ford suggests determining your business goals and finding sources of funding that have similar goals. For example, a business with high growth potential may be more successful seeking venture-capital funding, while a proposed non-profit would do better going after foundation-funded grants.

“Before you raise money, know who you’re trying to raise money from and whether your team goals align with that firm’s goals,” Ford said. “You don’t want investors who are a mismatch to what you want to accomplish.”

5. Show don’t tell

Making a strong pitch on paper may not be enough to win over potential donors. Creating a prototype that shows what you plan to do with a donor’s financing can be more persuasive.

“We find it a lot easier to fund projects when you can see what the vision is,” Schaffer said. She suggested budding entrepreneurs consider launching proof-of-concept projects or websites to help donors see what they’re pitching.

“Once you have that proof of concept, it’s a little easier to raise funding,” she said, noting web entrepreneurs can often launch such sites “with a little bootstrapping and sweat equity.”

6. Do your homework

Schaffer said she’s astonished by the number of applicants who apply for funding without having done proper research.

Media entrepreneurs have to pay attention to what kinds of projects foundations fund and make sure their projects fall within those foundations’ guidelines. She noted that getting considered for funding requires both a strong presentation and an idea that fits the foundation’s current call for proposals.

Schaffer also suggested surveying the competition, obtaining necessary web domains and trademarks and ensuring your team is eligible for programs.

Several organizations already are in place to help with that process. “The reason why we exist is to help foster new organizations,” said Kevin Davis, CEO of the Investigative News Network, a foundation-funded non-profit aimed at supporting non-profit public-service journalism. “We want to help make sure these organizations can take advantage of what’s been done before.”

7. Show you’re worthy of investment

“You’re going to want to be able to answer questions like how much money you need and how you’re going to spend it,” Davis said by phone. “You have to be able to show your plans, show your contingencies and demonstrate you are worthy of that investment.”

Ford said as an investor he wants to know how much money an entrepreneur needs to get to the next point, what that next point looks like and if an entrepreneur will be able to use investment funding to get there.

8. Plan for the long-term

Keep in mind that money from buyouts disappears quickly: Investors will demand returns, and foundation funding may run dry within a few years.

“Foundations are not equipped and are generally unable to provide sustaining support,” Davis said. “It’s a short-term revenue solution.”

Whatever your source of funding, it’s temporary. To survive, entrepreneurs should be thinking of how to create sustainable ventures even as they’re launching their businesses. Read more

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

How startup sites can take advantage of emerging revenue streams

As journalism entities move beyond ads in pursuit of new revenue streams, events have proven a popular target. People who won’t pay $15 for a digital subscription, the theory goes, may pay $20 instead for wine, cheese and a panel of journalists.

Staging events isn’t a simple endeavor for small organizations structured around news. But for many up-and-coming media organizations like GeekWire, an independent tech news site and online community in Seattle, events are an important part of increasingly diverse streams of revenue.

Rebecca Lovell

During a live chat this week, we’ll discuss events and other emerging revenue streams with Rebecca Lovell, Geekwire’s chief business officer.

Lovell, who oversees the site’s advertising, events, sponsorship and other business initiatives, answered chat participants’ questions and shared thoughts on a variety of topics, including:

  • What separates successful events from those that flop
  • Lessons learned about new revenue streams
  • How to overcome challenges that growing news startups face

You can replay the chat below.

Interested in learning more about generating revenue for startups? Consider applying for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists.

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=0d0b551b23″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=0d0b551b23″ >How startup sites can take advantage of emerging revenue streams</a> Read more


Friday, Apr. 27, 2012

3 ways entrepreneurial journalists can successfully pitch their projects

Ever tried telling your life’s story in a minute? Melting years down into seconds is tough. Summing up a long-simmering passion project can be equally hard.

Whether you’re pitching a new journalism project to a friend or to a financier, you often have to pack your message into a few fleeting moments. To persuade people to invest, collaborate, or even just try out a site requires a special kind of compact communication.

Journalists have ample opportunity to present new ideas. Some 2012 journalism conferences, like the Unity 2012 Convention, feature sessions expressly for startups. Beyond online competitions, like the Knight News Challenge, journopreneurs are increasingly finding alternative outlets for presentations ranging from library talks to Hacks/Hackers Demo Nights.

Whereas slides were once expected, a backlash against traditional PowerPoint presentations among journalists and funders alike has opened the door to more inventive approaches. Here are tips on three approaches for anyone preparing to pitch a project.

Illustrate the impact of your project with evergreen multimedia

Video is a powerful pitch tool. When investigative journalism project Matter raised more than $140,000 in March on Kickstarter, its primary tool was a great video about the need for better science coverage. Similarly, Honolulu’s Civil Beat has used a sleek video to convey the value and impact of its news site.

Honolulu's Civil Beat Introduction Video

The mini-vid has become a new persuasive craft form. Most of the best such videos, like great presentations, answer the following key questions: What’s the problem you’re solving and why is it important? How does the proposed solution work and what’s distinct about it? Who’s leading this and how can others get involved?

Creative pitch videos can take on myriad forms, from animated explainers of the sort popularized by Common Craft and GoAnimate, to simple Webcam recordings and fancy micro-documentaries. Excellent pitch videos are often more informative than slick. One example is this video by Blank on Blank, which publishes otherwise-lost interviews. Here’s another from Colorado’s I-News Network, which received a Poynter entrepreneurial journalism prize in 2010.

Those that are less successful, like this one for MyNetworkOne, often try to stuff too much in, or misfire at humor. When you’re prepping your own video, start by picking a few pitch videos that inspire you. Make a list of their key attributes. To get you started, here is a sampling of 20+ demo videos I gathered into a channel on Vimeo as well as a separate playlist on YouTube. Both include non-journalism projects to illustrate a range of styles.

Make the most of spontaneous pitch opportunities

Sometimes visuals are impractical. When you bump into someone at a conference, you often have to pitch quickly with words alone. No slides. No videos. In these personal pitch situations, it’s crucial to have persuasive snippets ready to go. Here are four components to help get your idea across quickly and effectively.

  • The first ingredient is a brief value proposition that sums up your projecThe Value Propositiont in one to two sentences. “For parents with school-age children, K12Update is a subscription news and photo service that provides a daily stream of photos and news shared by their children’s classroom teachers.” Trim unnecessary details. Don’t get into mechanics until asked. Just clarify the basic value — what it’s useful for.
  • The second key ingredient is a brief founding story or other anecdote that illustrates both the need for the service and its utility. “At the PTA meetings, parents kept saying they wished they saw more of what their kids did in school, like the art projects they were producing. Now they say they feel more connected to what’s going on in the classroom.”
  • The third step is where it’s easy to stumble. Don’t spend time on further details until you stop and listen for clarifying questions. If there’s an empty pause, probe for questions. “What’s your first impression?” or “Does that make sense?” or “How does that relate to your own experience?” Those kinds of questions let the person you’re pitching to signal what s/he is most interested in. That, in turn, increases the chances you’ll find a point of mutual interest.
  • The last part of the personal pitch process is the follow-up. Given that we’re exposed to hundreds of ads each day, we grow accustomed to blocking out messages or quickly forgetting them. That’s why advertisers insist on ensuring recall by running the same ads seven times. When it comes to personal pitches, follow-up with a brief email. Keep it to five sentences or fewer. Refer to something specific you discussed and remind the recipient of your idea, its name and its value. Include a relevant URL and a single phone number and email address. (Don’t give people multiple contact numbers and addresses because that burdens them with figuring out which one to use.) Close with a specific question if you have one (i.e. Would you be interested in serving as a pilot tester?) to simplify their response.

Stretch beyond PowerPoint

When you’re in front of an audience, demoing your product or service is often the best way to illustrate how it works. Getting an audience member up front to participate — or just having all those present try it out live — can be engaging. Number-crunching spreadsheets don’t always have to make an appearance, though mastering key facts and figures around your business helps bolster your credibility.

For elements that are difficult to demo live, check out tools like Projeqt, Jux, Hype and Prezi, which can help you create a free, immersive presentation. Or try other resources I’ve gathered into this Delicious.com stack of new storytelling tools.

If you must use slides, leave behind default PowerPoint templates by working with more design-friendly slide tools like Apple’s Keynote or Web-based tools like SlideRocket. Google Presentations, part of the Google Docs suite, offers a new range of clean designs after a recent upgrade. Include a single prominent image or a few key words per slide.

Guy Kawasaki suggests a 10-20-30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30-point font. When you see slides like this one, this one, or these, you’re reminded that visuals can be confusing, distracting, or superfluous. Keeping each slide simple means the audience can focus on you and your message.

In live settings, refer to a Twitter hashtag to spread the responses beyond the live audience. Alternatively, use a tool like Todaysmeet.com or backchan.nl to set up a private backchannel that those present can use to ask live questions or comment on your presentation. That ensures people don’t have to sit on their hands or wait passively for you to finish talking to engage with you. To further draw out those present, try using Socrative.com or PollEverywhere.com to offer up live polls or trivia questions, or to probe for live feedback.

After public demos, gather the most noteworthy comments, Tweets and images into a Storify summary, like this one, to further distribute the impact of your presentation and to serve as a digital scrapbook. Keep a private list of takeaways from each presentation you make. Note that a particular joke got no laughs, or that your first example generated lots of nods of agreement.

Try to keep a record of every question you’re asked after pitching. Questions provide a valuable window into what people are most interested in, and can highlight elements of your pitch that might be unclear.

The late, great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich said that he kept careful track of each performance early in his career so he could consistently improve his stage presentation. Whatever pitch you’re giving, chances are it’s not your last. Keeping a presentation journal can help you consistently refine your message.

Jeremy Caplan, director of education at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, will be teaching in Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists. You can apply for the camp here.
Read more
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Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

Tips for journalists preparing to launch a startup site

When you’re getting a journalism startup off the ground, you face a number of decision points. Who do you partner with? How do you bring in revenue? How do you get the word out about your project? We’ll discuss these and other key questions facing entrepreneurial journalists in a live chat with paidContent founder Rafat Ali, who is now working on his new startup, Skift.

In a live chat, Ali answered questions on specific decisions, including:

  • Fundraising strategies
  • Whether to provide original content on your site, vs. curating and aggregating
  • Hiring staff

You can replay the chat below for tips and insights.

Interested in learning more about generating revenue for startups? Consider applying for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists.

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=843bc60032″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=843bc60032″ >Tips for journalists on preparing to launch a startup site</a>

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Thursday, Mar. 01, 2012

Practical tips, resources for entrepreneurial journalists with legal questions

Entrepreneurs leading new journalism ventures confront numerous legal questions. How and when should I determine the appropriate legal structure for my business? What contracts should I use with partners, employees and investors? What legal issues should I be prepared for and, as a journopreneur, who can I turn to for low-cost or pro bono guidance?

I’m not a lawyer, and this post isn’t intended to offer specific legal advice or replace the professional insight of a lawyer. The resources below are offered simply as a starting point for anyone launching a project who anticipates having to grapple with legal questions as the project develops.

Seeking pro bono help

One of the best places to begin, if you’re starting up a media-related project, is the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The center describes itself as “a network of law firms, law school clinics, in-house counsel, and individual lawyers throughout the United States willing to provide pro bono (free) and reduced fee legal assistance to qualifying online journalism ventures and other digital media creators.”

Not every journalism or media startup will qualify for OMLN’s free legal assistance, but you can quickly assess your eligibility with this FAQ. OMLN considers a number of factors, including your available resources. If paying legal fees would significantly deplete your organization’s resources, you could still be eligible for pro bono help if you’re a for-profit with under $75,000 in annual gross revenue or a nonprofit with an annual budget of $250,000 or less. (More details here.)

Law for journopreneurs 101

If you’re looking for information first, rather than professional legal guidance, the Citizen Media Law Project, also sponsored by the Berkman Center, has outstanding resources. The online legal guide has clear, well-written sections on everything from forming a business to dealing with online legal risks and securing your intellectual property.

The section on choosing a business form for your new organization is particularly helpful if you’re not clear on the relative benefits of, say, a sole proprietorship versus an LLC or some other legal structure. Download the Citizen Media Law Project’s one-page overview summarizing the characteristics, tax implications and various pros and cons for legal structures journalism entities might consider.

To keep up with new resources, tools and information, follow this Quora discussion about legal resources for startup companies.

Free contracts and templates

If you’re more focused on contracts than on sorting out your legal structure, check out Paperlex — a new startup that helps you manage common contracts. Though the full service is still in beta, micro.paperlex.com offers free freelancer contracts, talent releases and non-disclosure agreements.

Founder and CEO Alison Anthoine says she plans to add additional contracts for photographers, videographers, designers and developers. She describes Paperlex as a Web-based contract management platform for news organizations.

“My goal is to empower small businesses and entrepreneurial journalists not to have to rely on lawyers to do all of their legal work,” Anthoine said by phone. “There will always be things you need lawyers for, but a routine agreement isn’t something you should have to call your lawyer about.” Contractual.ly is an alternative platform aiming to take the pain out of managing contracts.

The incubator YCombinator has an excellent startup library of documents and tip sheets. For those considering early-stage Angel funding, YCombinator also provides free equity financing documents, so you know what you’re signing away when you bring in investors.

The term sheets were developed in partnership with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a firm specializing in startup law, among other things. The firm teaches a live legal issues course at General Assembly, a New York coworking and education hub, and has a term sheet generator that will assemble a venture financing term sheet based on questions you answer online.

Additional resources:

  • Docracy.com provides a range of other free legal documents, including consulting contracts. If you want to make sure a name you’re considering is not already in wide use, try Markify.com, which searches existing trademarks and domains.

  • If you’re wondering about the kinds of contracts you’ll face if you seek out venture capital funding, check out the National Venture Capital Association’s free model legal agreements. The NVCA.org site also includes a good overview of venture capital, as well as stats and research.
  • Chris Cameron’s ReadWriteWeb collection of useful legal resources for startups includes some relevant blogs, articles and tip sheets.

Join Jeremy Caplan, Mark Briggs, Bill Mitchell and Wendy Wallace for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Journalism Entrepreneurs, May 18-19. You can join by webcast or in person for the workshop in St. Petersburg, Fla., with additional coaching available. Read more


Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

Cheap & useful tools that can help entrepreneurial journalists be more efficient

When it comes to tools, entrepreneurial journalists have the advantage of being free. Free of the obligation to use a news organization’s clunky software packages. Free from layers of tech bureaucracy. And free from having to get approval to try new tools. That freedom, of course, comes at a price. No longer is someone else footing the bill for your digital toolkit. That makes a different kind of free all the more attractive. Free tools.

Fortunately, software developers have turned the world of tools upside down in recent years. Gone are the days when you had to fork out several hundred dollars — or more — for a suite of communication/productivity/office software. If you’re running a small, straightforward project, you can get by with easy-to-use software tools that are free or just a few bucks a month, and most work seamlessly across platforms and devices.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the most useful, easy-to-use tools for any journalist developing a project without a big budget or a lot of time to invest in learning new tech.

Tools for storing & organizing information

Once we’ve wrestled down mounting piles of email, most of us start our day with ideas, notes and lots of random stuff to take care of. That’s why the most crucial information tools are those that let you store information, organize it and act on it. The most flexible, powerful resource I’ve come across for all that is Evernote.

Here are some examples of how journalism startups can use it:

  • In addition to organizing Web research, reporting notes, source info and other raw material, Evernote helps for recording ideas in audio, picture and text form. It also lets you arrange major projects or clients in discrete notebooks. You can share those notebooks with your team so everyone can add notes and access information whenever they need it, from any device.
  • Every account comes with an email ingest address, which means you can just CC Evernote on important contracts or other emails that you’d like to organize in a project notebook. I regularly CC Evernote on contracts I sign and send by email, and documents I know I’ll refer to later (travel details, receipts, etc.).
  • Gathering quick snapshots with Evernote’s mobile apps enables you to remember people, places, notes scrawled on scraps of paper and other loose tidbits that might otherwise fall through the cracks. You can access Evernote from any Web browser or through free software and mobile apps.

Here’s an example of an Evernote notebook with about 50 recent Web clippings I’ve made of tips for startups.

Google tools for creating content

Microsoft Office was once a must-have for any journalist, but Google Docs has basically made it obsolete.

For free, Google Docs provides far more functionality. Not only does the Web-based Google suite include excellent Word processing and spreadsheet tools, but the recently upgraded presentation service, Google Presentations, now rivals PowerPoint, though with fewer bells and whistles.

Here’s my overview of Google Docs, and here are a few Google Presentations that will help you see how they look when posted online:

The most under-appreciated tool in the Google Docs suite is Google Forms, which has allowed startup organizations of all sizes, including ProPublica, to create free embedded surveys that process results automatically into a spreadsheet for analysis, charting and publishing. (Here’s a free template I created as an example of a simple, free Google form for keeping track of invoices. You can freely duplicate it and adapt it for your purposes). Here’s how startups are using the Google Docs suite:

  • To collaborate internally on content-in-progress from disparate locations without worrying about e-mailing attachments back and forth.
  • To publish Web-based documents, spreadsheets and presentations to share through social media or to embed on sites/blogs. Instant easy publishing means new means to reach and impact readers, advertisers and potential investors or donors.
  • To distribute surveys to gather reporting information and client feedback.

Tools for handling invoices

You can create simple invoices with a word processor, but if you want to track your payments more professionally, you may want to try something different.

InvoiceBubble is a free and simple-to-use option I’ve tested and recommend. It’s a simple Web-based service that lets you create and send invoices and track client payments.

FreshBooks is a more fully-featured service that’s much more expensive ($20/month), but if you invoice a small number of clients, you can use the free version with much of the same functionality.

Tools for distributing files

Sending stuff across the Web has long been a nuisance. You can’t email files larger than 25mb, most of us can’t afford to spring for a private server, and it’s not always clear which sites are reliable for distributing your important files.

A few services have succeeded recently at streamlining the process of sharing big chunks of content, such as photo, audio and video files, and large design files. Ge.tt lets you upload material to a private storage page that you can then share access to through a short link.

WeTransfer is another useful service. It doesn’t require you to log in, and you can send any number of files that total up to 2gb to up to 20 email addresses at a time.

If you prefer a solution that is anchored to your computer, Cloud App (Mac only) puts a little cloud icon on your menu bar.

Any file you drag onto the icon is then uploaded automatically and the short-link to that file is posted directly to your clipboard.

And if you’re not yet using Dropbox, it’s become one of the most popular free file-sharing tools in addition to serving as a great way to back up your files.

Tools for backing up your work

When it comes time to protecting your work, a large local hard drive can provide a serviceable initial backup. Alternatively, Mozy, BackBlaze and Carbonite, among others, will back up all the stuff on a given computer to the cloud.

It’s also worth thinking carefully about how best to backup your Web-based social and blog content. Backupify will back up your WordPress files, your Tweets and even your Google Apps.

Here’s a list of some more of my favorite tools. What free or low-cost tools do you rely on for your projects? Share your favorites in the comments section.

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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

4 ways to start researching the market for your new journalism venture

Journalists love to dive in. Once we’ve got a topic in mind, we rush off to report, write/record, edit and publish. When launching a new venture, though, whether a local or niche site, an app, a network or something else entirely, it’s useful to add a fifth step early on: market research.

In addition to surfacing opportunities you may not have thought about, market research helps clarify the characteristics and interests of your community. It also arms you with business information that’s useful when you’re pitching your product or service to advertisers, sponsors, investors or potential partners.

Before ponying up for subscription services, spend some time with the free resources I’ve outlined below. They’ll help you get a preliminary handle on your intended market.

Size up your audience

Start by gathering basic qualitative and quantitative information about your community and your competitors. Get a quick overview of the businesses in your target ZIP codes. Find out what other sites your intended audience is already visiting, what they’re searching for and where they are. Get a rough picture of how those already out there are faring. There are some free tools that will give you a quick snapshot of the products and services already out there.

Start with Google Ad Planner, even if you’re not focused on ad research. Though developed for advertisers assessing audiences, Ad Planner is handy for quick market assessments for anyone launching a product or service. For example, if you’re contemplating starting a regional business news site for Hartford and New Haven, Conn., you could use Ad Planner to home in on that subject matter and location and then find out what sites are already popular.

If you used Google Ad Planner to look up information about a New Haven/Hartford business-interested audience, here’s what you’d find.

Ad Planner also provides a snapshot of audience characteristics for existing sites, including age, gender, education and income breakdowns. This is useful for getting a ballpark picture of your potential audience. Ad Planner relies on a gigantic mass of Google data to develop its estimates, which are approximations. Check Google’s fine print to learn more about how the data are gathered, and the limitations. Bottom line: the service provides a useful starting point as you’re learning about your audience.

Google AdWords is another tool that’s worth a quick spin as you’re performing a real-world check on your idea. You can run some of your key topic words and ideas through the tool, which helps provide a quick snapshot of what people are searching for. It can hint at what topics readers may consider to be closely related to the topics you have in mind.

If you’re planning on supporting your site with ads, Google AdWords can also give you a quick initial take on the degree to which advertisers value your subject matter as determined by the market price for related keywords.

To round out your starting information, use a free resource like Melissa Data to get local maps, a list of the number of various businesses in a given ZIP code, and any other information that will help refine your understanding of your community. For an exhaustive list of other online market research resources, visit ZenithOptimedia’s Marketer’s Directory, pointed out to me by my CUNY Journalism School colleague, Barbara Gray, a star research librarian.

Find out more about competitor sites

If you’re aware of existing competitors in a particular market, spend a few minutes running through their stats on Quarkbase, Alexa, Quantcast and Compete. Quarkbase provides basic background information on a site, as well as recent tweets about it. It also lists some of the pages within a site that are popular on social networks and that are blogged about. It will even tell you some of the tools that your potential partners or competitors are using.

Alexa gives you some useful information about a site’s audience trends over time, its most popular sub pages, and what people have searched for to end up on that site. Quantcast tells you what other sites a visitor to an existing site frequents, what percentage of visitors are “addicts” versus “passers-by,” and the demographic makeup of the site’s audience.

None of these services can guarantee the accuracy of their information, so think of them as a good starting point for your research, not an end point.

Conduct surveys to gain insight into your community

After gathering community and competitor information, you can gather some real-world insights about your community with qualitative surveys. It’s easy to craft, deliver and collate such surveys using Google Forms.

Create questions that help you understand the relevant media consumption, preferences and behavior of those in your intended audience. Google Forms (part of the free Google Docs suite of Microsoft Office-like Web applications) lets you include multiple-choice, checkbox and scale questions, as well as open-ended questions that give your respondents a chance to express their ideas, questions and suggestions.

As with most survey services, you can then email your survey, post it through social media or embed it on a site or blog. Responses automatically populate a spreadsheet that you can use not only to find and graph patterns of preference or behavior but also to collect and assess more open-ended qualitative suggestions.

Polldaddy, SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang and Poll Everywhere are good alternative survey tools. Poll Everywhere has a distinctively useful feature — respondents can respond to poll questions by texting. That’s handy if you’re reaching out to an audience that thrives on texting, or if you’re surveying an audience in a live session or event. For those with more money than time, services such as AYTM and Lab 42 will conduct quick market research for you.

Get answers to questions about your market

An increasingly useful stop in the initial phase of market research is Quora.com. You can pose an open-ended question about your market, audience or idea and let experts voluntarily reply with thoughts, facts, stats, suggestions or data.

Beyond its value as an outlet for seeking guidance, though, Quora is an increasingly useful living reference for market examples. (Here’s a new Quora board I created with questions and answers for entrepreneurial journalists.) Some Quora questions take awhile to generate responses, while others do not get answered at all. For quick searches of the broadening database of existing questions and answers, though, Quora can be quite handy.

The reason I’ve become such a fan of Quora, which I recently wrote about for the Daily, is that its community rating system has ensured that you can quickly search, retrieve and act on information you find on the site. That’s because the thousands of answers to all sorts of questions are filtered well enough that you can quickly find highly-ranked answers written by people with relevant expertise.

To simplify what can seem like an arduous task, start an afternoon of initial research with these simple Web tools. Depending on how much you already know about your community, you may end up spending additional hours, days or weeks digging into market and audience data. A little market research is useful even if you take the popular “lean startup” approach — launching a project and refining it as you go, rather than waiting until it’s a finished product.

At the very least, spend whatever time it takes to get a qualitative and quantitative initial overview of your community. Doing so will lay the groundwork for both strong community coverage and a solid business case for your project.

What market research resources have you found helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments section. Read more


Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011


4 lessons for hyperlocal media from inaugural Street Fight Summit

Deals don’t mean dollars. That was a point of consensus at the inaugural Street Fight Summit in New York City Oct. 25 and 26. Over two days, the summit’s 60 presenters and panelists analyzed their adventures in the trenches of hyperlocal media. Some panels addressed the evolution of daily deals and the looming impact of location-based services. Other sessions focused on the economics of local publishing and lessons learned by successful and failed independent journalism ventures.

A key question threaded throughout the conference was how best to turn local consumers into reliable revenue streams. The most valuable insights for independent publishers in attendance centered around new opportunities for better serving local businesses. Over the course of 20 sessions packed into two days, four themes emerged.

1. Local businesses need hand-holding, full-service partners. Local news sites may have an opportunity to fill that function.

Faye Penn, the founding editor of Brokelyn.com, a blog based in Brooklyn, NY, came away from the conference with new interest in LocalVox.com, a platform publishers can use to help local businesses with everything from a landing page to social media and search engine optimization. She said it’s increasingly clear to her that the path forward for independent publishers is a challenging one.

“At all of these conferences, everyone is looking for an answer that no one really has,” she said. But for Penn, who says she has 60-70,000 unique visitors each month and has earned enough recently to hire an editor, the idea of selling a streamlined service to local businesses is promising.

Photos by Shana Wittenwyler Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine, interviews Foursquare’s Evan Cohen

David Pachter, CEO of LocalVox, said that local businesses suffer from an information and skills gap. “They’re looking for an easy, affordable, online marketing solution that lets them feel like they’re accomplishing the transition to online marketing without spending a fortune,” he said, during a panel about alternative revenue models for publishers. LocalVox enables businesses to buy a suite of services for $250 a month, an amount Pachter said they can more than earn back through better local search results and a stronger Web presence.

Patrick Boylan, editor of Chicago’s Welles Park Bulldog, told me he was intrigued by the partnership model presented by BlankSlate.com, which helped raise the advertiser count for its first partner, Brooklyn’s seven-year-old blog Brownstoner.com, up past 400. BlankSlate manages sales for Brownstoner, allowing the editors to focus on content while outsourcing the sales process and splitting the revenue. Blankslate developed a service for Brownstoner that enables local businesses to establish an initial Web presence through the directory at $25 a month. Revenue also flows in through real-estate ads and other services for local merchants.

2. Geo-tagging may soon be as important as SEO for local publishers.

Numerous presenters described the imminent impact of location-based services. Alistair Goodman, CEO of Placecast, said it’s a matter of months before businesses will be bidding for passer-by attention. “We’re approaching a time where you’re going to be able to bid on a user on a street corner at a particular point in time in real time,” Goodman said. Placecast already allows businesses to target customers with relevant mobile ads based on their location and the time of day, the weather, the traffic, and other factors.

Given the developing opportunities for targeting readers interested in particular local content, DNAInfo.com has already made a concerted effort to geo-tag every piece of content it produces. Leela de Kretser, DNAInfo’s editorial director and publisher, said the news startup is on track toward its business goals, and that its sole investor, Joe Ricketts, believes in the long-term profitability of the news business. She and numerous other panelists emphasized that local sales efforts require a major effort to educate merchants on their online marketing options. The influx of short-term daily deals opportunities has added a complication to a market where merchants were already struggling to grasp the available advertising channels.

Panelists described local merchants in major cities as generally bewildered by daily-deal merchants and their persistent sales calls. If you’re a small business getting called upon three to four times a day by a wide range of deals startups, you may struggle to figure out what’s truly in your best interest. To combat this confusion, panelists argued, merchants need the guiding hand of a trusted local publisher to help them cut through the clutter and develop a coherent marketing strategy, reaching their local public through a combination of search, mobile and social advertising.

3. The Daily Deals honeymoon is over.

Rather than just diving deeper into the deals game alongside the 800 deal sites that have launched over the past few years, Perry Evans, CEO of Closely.com, suggested that publishers and marketers adopt a new tact. Instead of focusing on dangling dangerously low-margin deals at new price-sensitive customers, why not reach out for repeat buyers by aiming special deals at those who have already bought something, to convert them into loyal buyers. Closely provides a customized dashboard for businesses. Evans likened it to a HootSuite for merchants. It allows them to vary the discounts they offer depending on their inventory or how busy they are, and to offer existing customers customized coupons.

The economics of daily deals have changed, said Yipit co-founder Vinicius Vacanti. Whereas Groupon could spend just $2 in marketing costs to acquire its early customers, it now has to spend between $8 and $12, given the changing dynamics of online advertising, Vacanti said. And given that only a quarter of those on its email list buy something, that signifies a cost of $40 per paying customer.

Groupon can’t make enough on the one or two deals that the average customer buys into, given that it splits revenue with merchants, who have already marked the price down by 50 percent. To compound the problem, merchants are finding that, as one panelist put it, signing up for a deal is like taking a high-interest loan. You get lots of money up front for the advance purchases, but then you have to deliver a significant amount of service/product to a subset of customers who are price-sensitive and historically less brand loyal than others who find the merchant through other channels. This rationale is what has led some, including Seth Priebatsch, of the mobile gaming service Scvngr.com, to criticize what they call the “Grouponzi” phenomenon.

4. Hyperlocal publishing is as much about sales as about content.

Carll Tucker, CEO of Main Street Connect, said he sees great potential in mid-size, non-urban markets where 150 million Americans live. The 52 sites in his network of local news outlets now work with about 400 advertisers who spend an average of $8,000 a year on advertising with his sites. His sales team aims at hospitals, realtors, and car dealerships, among others, all of which need brand advertising.

For Shawn McGinness, the business manager for St. Louis Beacon, the key lesson from the site’s early progress has been to focus on a few goals and capitalize on internal strengths. The Beacon, which was founded in 2008 and now has 20 employees, including five on the business side, has a $1.5 million budget. McGinness says the Beacon made the mistake of diluting its early focus among too many projects and has since refocused its efforts around a few profitable efforts, including offline events. His three primary tips for independent news organizations were:

  • Ignore everyone else, because what works (or fails) in one place may not in another.
  • Focus on a unique value — what your organization does well.
  • Start out with small projects and gradually improve and expand upon them. 

Click here to see his slides. If you’d like to read more about the Street Fight Summit, I curated 300+ Tweets, photos, slides and other materials from the conference.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Joe Ricketts. Read more