Six business lessons from TBD’s early demise

TBD, one of the most ambitious local online launches of 2010, turns out to be a victim of crib death, reduced to an arts and entertainment niche site barely six months after its launch last August.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but looking back, it is pretty easy to see a number of things that went wrong or were flawed from the get-go.

BRANDING MATTERS.

Why trade the brand equity of a successful television station for a vaguely clever but meaningless acronym? Parent Allbritton Communications announced two weeks ago they would bring TBD back into the resurrected site of its TV partner WJLA.

In Staci Kramer’s excellent launch interview with CEO Robert Allbritton for paidContent, Allbritton confessed that coming up with a name for the venture had been an agonizing aspect of the year-long planning phase. Good names specific to Washington D.C. were taken. One might now wonder whether the abbreviation for “to be determined” betrayed some fuzziness about identity and purpose, maybe even some desperation.

The name was meant to signal newness and a site that would be ever-evolving, but the result wasn’t exactly the equivalent of Groupon or Politico.

EFFECTIVE AD SALES ARE PARAMOUNT.

Asking a legacy television (or newspaper staff) to carry the load on developing digital advertising is a recipe for trouble. That sales team is unlikely to be expert on the digital option. Getting leadership and compensation right is brutally difficult.

Looking from the outside in, it appears Allbritton stumbled out of the gate, by failing to give the financial lifeblood of the venture strength and independence.

FILL AN EXISTING NEED.

A fresh report on Washington, D.C. with hyperlocal and community engagement aspects sounds like it might be appealing. I really wonder, though, whether the typical metro resident feels starved for local news.

The jury is still out and not much liking what it sees on AOL’s Patch.com. But Patch’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood build out, 800 sites and counting, better fits what AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong calls “white space” — territory not yet covered or not very well covered by existing ventures.

PEDIGREE DOES NOT EQUAL STRATEGY.

I was among those impressed with the site’s editorial leadership — Jim Brady in charge, Steve Buttry doing the community piece and Erik Wemple as editor. And all that from the parent company that brought you Politico!

In retrospect, that expensive talent went behind a concept that didn’t jell. TBD never had — never even had the chance to have — the cushion of print sales that generates more than half of Politico’s revenue.

TBD’s chief competitor, The Washington Post, made the same stumble several years ago when it hired online star Rob Curley to oversee digital product development. In 2007, Curley and the post launched a new website for exurban Loudoun County, Virginia. The area turned out to be just too big for hyperlocal. Neither content interests nor shopping patterns fit a one-size-for-all site. LoudounExtra closed in 2009 and Curley moved on to Las Vegas.

BUILDING OUT BIG IS A RISK.

I thought the critical mass of TBD launching with a staff of 50 would be a plus. That was part of what worked so well for Politico.

But local digital advertising, especially tied to a news product, has been a notoriously tough sell. Some of the big advertising opportunities — mobile and tablets — remain emphatically future tense.

TBD’s effort to sell ads against its network of 200 blogs was discontinued in December.

So it is fair now to conclude that TBD was living beyond its means from the start.

FAIL FAST.

Much of the commentary today suggests that Allbritton Communications bungled the details (doubtless they did bungle some) and did not give the ambitious site time to find its footing.

Robert Allbritton told paidContent’s Kramer at launch that Politico had taught him, “You’ve got to have some staying power to make it work.”

So is that a broken promise? I don’t think so. Anticipating that a venture may take three to five years to prove itself a success, does not mean that early results don’t matter. I’m not privy to the key business metrics, but I’m sure that ad revenues were far from on track.

In that respect, credit Allbritton with an investment in the digital future, and an honorable real-time rollout and failure from which others may learn. And for quitting when it was time to quit.

Still TBD’s truncated run is a big disappointment for those who are hoping that a business base for ambitious local online journalism is close at hand.

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  • http://twitter.com/filtize Filtize

    Focus wasn’t clear and as you said they started too big without an Identity.
    Sad though as there are few startups created in DC area and tbd’s failure will not help ..

    http://www.filtize.com/

  • Anonymous

    according to the newsonomics.com link you provided, it actually launched with a staff of about 100, not 50: “TBD has added 50 new positions, all additional to the approximately 50 jobs ported over from the former NewsChannel 8.” that sure does seem like a lot for what was essentially a startup, especially if at least half weren’t selling ads/sponsorships/etc.

  • Anonymous

    You hit on a big weakness in every digital strategy. It´s hard to find and train salespeople to deal with all of the low-cost, high-traffic competition. Selling a brand against those numbers is tough. You´re right on target with the comment about building out big. A staff of 50 was like a noose around the neck just waiting to be tightened.
    I had been hoping these folks could solve the local ad revenue problem, but Google and Yahoo have such powerful automated sales systems, it´s tough to compete.

  • Anonymous

    I think this captures TBD’s self-inflicted problems very well. I was in the audience at ONA in DC when the TBD staff presented their ideas for the site. I was far from the only one there who felt TBD had failed to define a mission, describe an identity or lay out a credible path to revenue. It is no wonder they failed so fast. The apparent successes, including Politico and Texas Tribune, are aimed like lasers at a single subject area, possess personalities so well defined that they appear possessed by OCD and have a honed battle plan for raising revenue—even if that plan is just to raise a lot of charitable donations. TBD, as you point out, apparently felt that all these essentials could be determined later. But, of course, there is no later for start-ups with flawed business plans. It’s a shame. I hope everybody finds work.