Journalists, Bloggers Have a Sorry History at Startups

    by Mark Glaser
    December 17, 2007
    i-c584caecfa56f35d908efd6b1859a00c-Scoble at Le Web.jpg
    Robert Scoble at Le Web

    As a journalist covering a particular business, there is a temptation to believe that we know enough about that business to actually become a full participant in that business. We have been writing about it, we see what works and what fails, so we should know enough to try our hand at it too. But more often than not, we don’t succeed.

    The latest example of that came from popular tech blogger Robert Scoble, who left his cush gig as Microsoft evangelist to be a videoblogger for startup PodTech. While Scoble might not qualify as a traditional journalist, he fits in the mold of someone who was writing about the media revolution around him — on his blog and in the book he co-authored, “Naked Conversations” — and felt he knew enough to take the chance on a startup. Now he is leaving PodTech as it struggles with a new business focus, and he might end up at Fast Company, according to TechCrunch.

    Other writers and journalists have tried and failed, most notably during the dot-com boom times. Back then, even CNN anchor Lou Dobbs left the network for the startup Space.com before returning to CNN. And yes, I caught the fever and worked at email newsletter startup Topica back in 1999 and 2000 before returning to freelance writing. More recently, blogger-journalist Dan Gillmor left the San Jose Mercury News in late 2004 to help start citizen media site Bayosphere, before that venture failed.


    So what’s the big draw to the startup world? As Gillmor told his colleagues, “I am jumping off a cliff with the expectation of assembling a hang-glider before I get to the bottom.” Even though he didn’t get to assemble the hang-glider in time, Gillmor did land softly as director of the Center for Citizen Media and now a founding director of the new Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University.

    For me, I was drawn to the idea of going to a tech startup to see how such a company operated from the inside. I had actually briefly been at an earlier pre-Internet startup called MusicNet in 1993. Startups mean that you’re in on the ground level, not only with the chance to shape something special but also to profit if and when the company becomes successful. It’s part of the American dream to help start a company that goes on to revolutionize its field, as Google or Microsoft have done.

    Of course there are many journalists who have succeeded in creating online businesses based on their writing. Rafat Ali has been successful with PaidContent and its network of sites, while OJR’s Robert Niles points out that Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo and Markos Moulitsas at DailyKos have built businesses around their political blogs. But that seems to be a different animal than actually building a startup around something other than your writing, as Editor & Publisher’s Steve Outing did with his recently failed Enthusiast Group.


    Knowing Less Than We Think

    Perhaps the problem is that we think we know more than we do. I can’t speak for other journalists or bloggers who have made the leap and failed, but I can say that the odds of a startup becoming an iconic company — or even a profitable one — are pretty slim. Topica is one of those rare dot-com startups that has actually survived to this day, though it hasn’t lit the world on fire.

    Going back to Scoble’s old 2006 blog post, in which he described why he left Microsoft for PodTech, helps give some insight into why he jumped ship at the time:

    Yesterday I was talking with Amanda Congdon, one of the co-founders of Rocketboom. Her videoblog is now seeing about 300,000 viewers a day. That’s, what, a year or so old? Did you know that advertisers are now paying her $85,000 per week? That’s almost as much money as I made in an entire year of working at Microsoft.

    Now, I have no delusions that I’m either Amanda or Cali [Lewis of Geekbrief.tv]. I’m not half as cute as either of them, for one. Nor am I as smart. Or as visionary. I’ll just have to work harder (which is going to be very tough, since Amanda tells me she and her team are working nearly around the clock right now to put together their three-minute videoblog).

    But I had the same smile on my face when I told Cali I just quit my day job too to work in this new media industry.

    Yes, there’s a certain excitement, a certain freedom, a certain thrill in jumping off that cliff with the hang-glider still being built. As writers and journalists, we are constantly viewing (and reviewing) the world of other people, the real doers and shakers who are changing the world. We feel like our own fame and respect is built on the accomplishments of others. We might bring an important story to the public’s attention, but it is rarely our story.

    Going to run a business or work at a startup gives us as writers a chance to be part of the story, and not someone who is merely latching on to someone else’s story. But in that process, that excitement, we can also lose sight of who we really are, what we really know. At Topica, I realized that being at a startup could be a lot of fun, a lot of hard work — and also a loss of personal identity. I had to put my own creativity into the context of the business, and it had no validity on its own.

    But trying and failing is not necessarily a bad thing. Gillmor counts his lessons from Bayosphere as some of the best of his life. I’m sure Scoble wouldn’t trade in his time at PodTech doing videoblogs for anything else. And I’ve got notebooks full of hilarious notes taken at Topica company meetings for a future TV sitcom.

    Journalists and writers will always be lured into the world of the businesses they cover because they will want to try it out in the first person — succeed or fail. But they should just consider the shoddy history of those who’ve done it before they make that leap into startup land.

    What do you think about journalists that go to work at startups? Have any succeeded spectacularly? Would you consider making that step, and why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Photo of Scoble by Mathieu Thouvenin via Flickr.

    Tagged: business journalism
    • No different than any other person who leaves a big corporate job to join/start a small company.
      Lack of research and knowledge of how few small businesses actually make it to five years before failing.
      Journalists tend to talk to the successful entrepreneurs not the unsuccessful ones.

    • Scoble in fact is better known, more respected and much better compensated than he would have been if he had stayed at Microsoft. A guy named Mike Moritz has done okay as a VC at Sequoia after leaving Time Magazine as a correspondent. Doc Searls and JD Lasica are both ex-journalists who have done well in social media. So am I. I left journalism to practice PR and it worked out pretty well. KD Paine, the Measurement Queen is also a former journalist. If I worked at this, I bet I could make a pretty lengthy list.

    • Mac

      If the consequences are weighed and the risk is worth the effort, then I see no reason why journalists (or anyone, for that matter) *shouldn’t* give startups a shot. Even if the IPO never comes, the experience always has far-reaching benefits that may only reveal themselves years down the line.

      There’s no shame in failing responsibly.

    • Mark,
      Yes, it’s true that journalists do get caught up in the all the positive stories about successful entrepreneurs.

      Perhaps Scoble is better compensated than if he had stayed at Microsoft but I doubt PodTech turned out as he had wished. And sure, there’s likely a very long list of journalists who have taken on new professions such as PR and done very well. My focus was on journalists who have gone to startups — and in those, I think we have a weak track record. I’ll let JD speak about his experience at Ourmedia, and would like to hear more about Doc’s startup success.

      But Mac is right: There is no shame in failing responsibly. There’s nothing wrong with trying. As long as we can keep in mind those long odds.

    • We didn’t start Ourmedia.org as a business — it’s a public service and a community-minded effort. Shel mentioned my social media consulting business, which is doing well.

      Next month my partners and I are launching a new startup, Bid4Vid.com, a video services marketplace. It’s not journalism (which, alas, has become a commodity on the Net), it’s a business. Journalism is what I do in my spare time, in my books and on my blog.

    • In the UK Rick Waghorn’s MyFootballWriter is proving very successful – he’s now franchising it to other towns and trying to attract good football journos. Interestingly, they seem reluctant to leave the security of MSM.

    • If journalists were really jumping on The Next Big Internet bandwagon, why haven’t more set up shop in Second Life? :) Just a thought. I can’t blame Rob Scoble for his switch to the video blogosphere; sometimes, as you mention with Dan Gillmor, failing with grace can do wonders for your career.

    • Mark:

      Robert Scoble is doing what many other people talk about: making a go of it in a new business without the pre-made hang glider to save his biscuits. With a growing family and plenty of readership, almost any startup would enjoy instant social web status with Robert as part of their crew.

    • Interesting analysis. As a copywriter turned entrepreneur turned journalist-while-entrepreneur, I’ve found the skills of journalism have been a real help as well as a bit of a liability.

      A help, because I can get a read on an industry or marketplace pretty easily, and have a solid network of contacts.

      A liability, because sometimes too much knowledge is bad for an entrepreneur. It’s my theory that ignorance combined with zeal is the secret weapon of some entrepreneurs. Specifically, ignorance of competitors. This is why I work with others who are more entrepreneurial and less journalistic than myself – they’ll see, and believe in, an opportunity which I believe is already gone because there are one or two other players in the space. It’s easy for me to try and predict the end of the game without counting in what I can do with a whole lot of chutzpah.

      The solution? As I’ve hinted, it’s in working with others who are different from you. Knowing your strengths, and seeking complementary people to nullify your weaknesses.

    • Interesting analysis. I also have often got the impression that ex-journalists had a high start-up failure rate.

      I actually think that it is because ex-journalists tend to start content businesses like PodTech rather than platform/technology businesses like YouTube.

      The content businesses that become successful all seem to start off as side lines and grow organically (like Techcrunch), not through VC (like Blognation :-( )

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