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Lessons from co-founder John Cook

GeekWire was perhaps the first Vox. You’ve likely heard of Ezra Klein’s ill-fated attempt to get the Washington Post to invest more than $10 million in a project independent of the main Washington Post website. As the story goes, Klein was reportedly frustrated with the Post’s failure to take his business plan in stride as an attempt to innovate technically and editorially, so he left with colleagues Melissa Bell and Matthew Yglesias and started what we now see at vox.com, now part of the vibrant Vox Media startup empire.

GeekWire, the tech industry online news site with a specific focus on Seattle tech companies, has a similar origin story—one that begins five years earlier from deep in the bowels of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And today, it’s got the backing of a well-known Seattle entrepreneur and a calibrated business plan that looks far different than any traditional journalism organization.

What lessons does GeekWire offer, then, for the news industry?

In 2008, GeekWire founders John Cook and Todd Bishop were tech reporters for the P-I, and were already more than comfortable blogging, breaking news and publishing online, and essentially moving away entirely from print for their tech audience.

“Tech news (readers) were early adopters. We saw the writing on the wall 10 years ago that print was not the way to deliver content to our audiences,” said Cook.

So they wrote a 30-page business plan proposing that the P-I create a separate vertical for them to spin-off; a site within a site. But the P-I was hamstrung – it wasn’t ready to make an investment in a project that would be a distinct spinoff run by journalists.

The pair was also frustrated with the speed of innovation at the newspaper. Cook tried to tell the P-I to “make the print product worse if [the P-I] wanted to survive and invest in online.” But culturally, it seemed like the newspaper wasn’t ready to listen.

So Cook and Bishop took their site elsewhere – to aSeattle business news publication. Theyfound a similar cultural problem: an old school traditional publication that couldn’t understand the reason for an aggressive online outfit.

Today, GeekWire is committed to aggressive, fast-breaking news. The day I visited was the Amazon shareholder meeting, it started at 10:30. By 11:30, there were four stories on the site by two writers covering the event—more impressive when one considers that Amazon doesn’t let journalists bring their computers into the room.

Becoming a startup: Tech beat writers covering VCs start a startup

After some ribbing at a dinner for startup CEOs in Seattle, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington urged the team to go start something on their own. Jonathan Sposato, who Cook described as the only entrepreneur ever to sell two companies to Google (Phatbis and Picnik), was at the dinner and told Cook to come to him if he ever wanted to start something.

Thus, those who covered entrepreneurial business were going to start an entrepreneurial business -- a startup -- just like the startups they had been covering for about 20 years. And because of their good reputation, they had plenty of potential for backing.

Cook and Bishop could have looked for multiple investors as a show of strength, given their connections. But that might have meant thinking more carefully about having to deal with potential conflicts of interest.

Instead, they stuck with a single investor, Sposato, who provided them the funds to get going, and who remains close to the daily operations of the company, serving as a business advisor and sometimes even host to the galas that GeekWire puts on for the tech community.

There’s a reason for this approach – one that other news startups, and startups more generally, ought to think about, as Cook explains:

“We have covered a lot of ventures. … We know you have to return your capital. We know what happens when you take the capital and you give up your ownership … and a [venture capital firm] wants a return [in a way] that might not be in the best interests of the startup.”

In other words, startup money often comes with strings attached – most prominently a demand for return on capital – and news startups would do well to remember that the fount of money does indeed come with conditions. Not everyone will get so lucky as to have a generous VC benefactor working with their team giving the company time and space to grow. GeekWire does.

GeekWire is proud of its industry stature – the site is usually in the top 25 of tech news blogs, surrounded by Buzzfeed and Business Insider, two companies that have staffs of a couple hundred, rather than a half dozen. The team made the tactical decision not to take a lot of VC money aside from one small seed round and Sposato’s initial investment.

Developing the editorial vision

On the surface, GeekWire hasn’t done anything truly editorially innovative. The site looks much like any another online news tech site. The team is covering breaking news, scoops, trends and the like.

But recall that this could be considered a fairly old online journalism site, born from a vision in 2008 (Buzzfeed began in 2006; Business Insider in 2009)—and as a niche product, deserves some cachet for the reputation it has been able to build. In many ways, it operates as a traditional newspaper (with a real online site) might operate; Bishop and Cook are old-school breaking news reporters with a long history of journalism in their past. They aren’t aiming to do anything to radically different than when they were at the P-I—just as long as it’s done faster.

At the same time, the site has made some editorial changes that make it a kin of most of the online sites we see proliferating today. There is a list (GeekWire 200, the “leaderboard” for Seattle startups), tweet and Ustream embeds, podcasts, graphics, and comments of the week. There’s still long-form reporting to be found on the site as well.

The innovative feature here is not necessarily in the approach to the writing or reporting of journalism, or even in the online presentation of journalism. The innovative approach here was to move beyond the coverage that they could offer in the P-I through a single, dedicated product that could be self-sustaining outside the model of a traditional journalism outlet.

From media company to media events and something else company

GeekWire offers lessons in how a media company can diversify its approach to bringing in revenue. At first, its strategy looks a little bit like the plan that Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s Re/Code has in mind – using events to support online journalism – but there’s more. GeekWire has a diversified revenue stream. Companies or individuals can become sponsors of the GeekWire, which means the sponsors get advertising on the site and at events. GeekWire hosts an annual summit on innovation and economics, an awards dinner, and a gala each year.

They’re working to build up the offerings and potential profit from their job board, which given the audience, may be an ideal place to advertise to potential employees. And the company has partnered with a startup health insurance company, AllTech, which is offering GeekWire members a more favorable rate for health insurance for their startups. GeekWire is also creative about using its potential as a content provider to generate revenue. A partnership with KIRO Radio adds to the bottom line. And GeekWire has stories “sponsored” in much the same way as NPR, with a donor funding a particular type of stories that would otherwise not be done – in this case, there’s a fund for nonprofit and community-based tech stories.

GeekWire long ago entered the native advertising debate. There is short, grayed out advertiser-written copy on the site, clearly marked as “sponsored content.” Cook says he is careful about how many sponsor posts are on the site and for how long as he doesn’t want to dilute the value of the GeekWire brand. At this point, the sponsored content is limited to a few paragraphs.

There’s a whole pie to the sustainability of this enterprise: advertising, events, membership/sponsorship, sponsored content, and partnership, which Cook expects will keep the company in the black until the end of 2014. And, as he said, “it’s growing.”

Takeaways from GeekWire: 

  1. Innovating inside traditional companies may be impossible – if you have an entrepreneurial news idea, consider breaking out.
  2. Venture capital comes with risks. Know that someone is going to expect a return on that investment.
  3. Work with a backer you can trust.
  4. Consider what your editorial innovation may be – or if you need one.
  5. Develop a variety of streams of revenue – from partnerships to sponsorships to advertising to events.

Nikki Usher  
   
Nonresidential fellow


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