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NewsLabs (YC W10) folds months after launch, regrets big promises to journalists (poynter.org)
104 points by ilamont on June 29, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments

I'm Paul Biggar, one of the founders.

There's a lot of speculation and reading between the lines going on here. There is really no information to go off, and jumping to conclusions based on that email is a little unfair. (By contrast, the journalists to whom that email was addressed had tons of context.)

I'm in the middle of writing a "what went wrong" piece, which I'll link to here, but I'll ask you guys to hold off judgement until then.

I apologize if my comments sounded like I was jumping to conclusions. With respect to the passion dying, I was just giving an example of something that happened in my past experience. By no means was I hinting that is what happened to you. I just wanted to make that point that people can't blame the founders, especially when they don't know the full story.

I upvoted you and I agree people should not make comments with just half of the story. But come on this is the internet. It's near real time now, and people will not wait for someone to tell their side before they can come to a conclusion. You guys should have taken a day to handle the outcome before sending the email. That being said, I think you guys had something going. Good luck on your next projects.

I don't think you have any clue what really went wrong. This was doomed the moment you decided to switch to Ruby on Rails. Yeah, I remember that thing you (or maybe your co-founder) wrote about that on here. When I read that idiocy, I instantly knew that this company would fold. Any startup with a founder so completely clueless as to make that type of decision is doomed to failure. And this has nothing to do with Rails or Django or whatever. It has everything to do with your line of reasoning for making that switch. That type of thinking is indicative of a far greater a problem. It shows you lack the basic ability to look at situations and interpret them correctly.

dude, seriously? honeymoon right after launch = guaranteed fail OR I want a "lifestyle business." How did you guys pass the PG sniff test??? #YCadmissionFAIL

I don't mean to be a total dick, but when you're doing a startup and OTHER PEOPLE ARE DEPENDING ON YOU, going on a vacation of any sort right after you launch is just plain irresponsible.

People like you give the rest of us who are busting our ass and putting everything on the line to make our companies work a bad name.

Some things are more important than money, companies, startups etc.

Don't be so quick to pass judgement if you don't know the full story.

It's not the fact that he left the money/business for the honeymoon. It's the fact that he, presumably, screwed investors, his cofounder, and their customers by doing so, all people who were relying on him in some manner or other.

I'm usually very reticent about making snide remarks about a startup as it deadpools, but in this case I'll make an exception.

As someone who's working in this space (and was not fortunate enough to have been granted the imprimatur, mentorship, and network of YCombinator), it pisses me off that this company garnered so much hype and is now giving up so quickly. It'll now be that much harder to get print journalists to put their faith in new business models for their work.

From the start, I thought the promises NewsTilt was making were great but it wasn't at all clear how those promises were going to be fulfilled. On the strength of YC's reputation, I assumed that there was some "secret sauce" that differentiated them and made their promises credible. According to this e-mail, I was wrong. And now, mere months after being given what I'd consider to be the chance of a lifetime, they're just giving up. Not evolving, not making changes, just giving up. What a joke.

Have some passion about what you're doing or just don't bother.

I don't really understand the hating going on here in the comments. (All comments, not just yours, _pius).

Shit happens. Family dies or gets sick. People get married and shit hits the fan. Things change. You don't always want to air out your dirty laundry in front of the press, either.

As fellow entrepreneurs, you'd think that we'd be supportive and say things like "Holy, crap. Thinks must have really hit the fan for them to close up shop so soon after launching!"

I happen to know the founders. We had breakfast and talked a bit while they were in YC. And, they had a hell of a lot going on. I certainly don't know everything that's going on with them, but I'm happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Really, HN. How about a little support for guys that gave it a go instead of complaining about their supposed "lack of passion".

And now, mere months after being given what I'd consider to be the chance of a lifetime, they're just giving up. Not evolving, not making changes, just giving up. What a joke.

Companies (or people!) who make bold promises, get the press excited, and then fail to deliver make it harder for us all to get our stories across.

I usually play down what I'm doing and underpromise, but it seems reaching way beyond your limits and impressing journalists is the way to go for coverage (Sam Sethi's exploits that TechCrunch covered so deftly come to mind here, too.)

Exciting the press just for the sake of PR can backfire on YC anytime soon

Drop me an e-mail when you launch and good luck!


"As someone who's working in this space"

Do you mind saying where?

My own pre-launch startup.

Let me recap:

* One of the two cofounders was on his honeymoon for the month of May, right after launch.

* The other cofounder had difficulty managing everything on his own.

* Cofounder comes back from the honeymoon and decides to leave for good.

* Remaining cofounder doesn't want to run it on his own.

In my past life, I've been both of these guys and frankly, it is hard to blame either. If the passion somehow died for honeymooning-cofounder, you can't expect him to give his very best on this startup. On the other hand, if your cofounder leaves, you have very little incentive to do everything on your own. Part of working with a cofounder is each person doing what the other most probably dislikes (usually biz vs. tech). What's the fun if you have to get better pricing AND write efficient code? Most people like one or the other.

I think the take-away from this and my own life examples is to start small, not try to get too much publicity early on, work on finishing the product before making promises, and most importantly, be honest to yourself and your cofounder.

Wow. Maybe it's because I've never been either of those guys, but I have trouble rustling up as much compassion as you seem to.

One of the two co-founders schedules a launch right before his honeymoon? Who does that?

And, after just a couple months, the passion dies? What kind of commitment does that show?

I agree with your take-away, though. Don't try to get hype, until you actually have something solid to hype.

> One of the two co-founders schedules a launch right before his honeymoon? Who does that?

Life. Nobody knows what happens next. I have no idea how/what/why this transpired but it wouldn't be far-fetched to imagine that the wedding/honeymoon was planned well-in-advance. And the success of the startup was a last-second thing. Sure, the honeymoon could have been postponed but then again, maybe he wasn't certain about the startup, the other cofounder, or his life in general. Truth is, nobody knows other than the guys themselves. That's why I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Because I've been there. And because if you are in a position where you have to choose between commitments you've already made and dreams you wish to pursue, you have to say "no" to someone.

Maybe the passion did not die. Maybe there were other reasons that the founders do not want to share. Maybe it was personality issues, financial issues, or even health. Who knows? The reason I am giving them the benefit of the doubt is that they came out clean and apologized. That is action and it was direct, honest, and to the point.

Definite props for the act of apologizing; less so for the reason sounding so shallow.

Sure, weddings are planned well in advance. Product launches should be, too.

Maybe there were other reasons. Shit happens. But, when shit happens so fast as to lead you to shut down two months after launching, we're deep into the "failing to plan is planning to fail" category.

I'd have to agree with michael_dorfman here, a honeymoon that lasts 'most of May' doesn't sound like the responsible thing to do in the midst of launching a startup.

"And, after just a couple months, the passion dies? What kind of commitment does that show?"

You ever break up with a girl because you just couldn't bring yourself to want to be with her even though you and all your friends agree that she (on the outside) feels like the perfect girl for you? How long could you talk yourself into staying with her for the sake of commitment? 50%+ of marriages end before the "death do us part" part. ;-)

Commitment is hard, and it's hard to talk yourself into doing a startup you no longer love when you can't bring yourself to WANT to. You owe it to your partners and customers to stick through low spots to see if you can beat the funk, but you don't owe anyone beyond that.

Your analogy simplifies things too much. A co-founder leaving isn't at all like breaking up with a girlfriend. Many other people are affected in the situation.

I think marriage is a more appropriate comparison. Divorce affects your immediate (investors, employees) and extended family (users, partners, other stakeholders). It's a decision I know I'd think about a great deal more than a break up with a girlfriend.

Right, which is why I talked about marriage in my analogy. A deeper commitment means that you ought to give it some time to see if you can shake the loss of passion.

In the case of a 3-5 month old startup, though, with no employees (dunno about investors), I imagine it's a bit closer to a girlfriend than a marriage.

Does YC see a problem with founders being the technical developers?

When I saw their bio when this was announced a few months back, I did scratch my head a little. One was a PhD in computer science, the other was a researcher at ARM.

None had a media background.

I just wish people stop thinking that journalism is a technology problem.It doesn't matter how good your platform is. This hacker culture of thinking everything can be solved with guru developer skills needs to stop.

Here are some qoutes from that letter:

"If I could rewind and start again then I believe the pitch for NewsLabs should have been simpler and much more realistic: we will build you a technology platform and strive to work hard for you as programmers... but we cannot magically generate you an online brand or guarantee traffic."

"It seemed like we had the right parts (your writing and our technology)..."

This is why Mark MacLeod, in a recent post on his blog startupcfo.ca, said that one of the traits for a successful founder is domain knowledge:

"Lets look at domain knowledge first. This is not about having studied or otherwise artificially gotten to “know” the industry. This is about coming from that industry, having lived it, knowing the players and knowing the pain firsthand. There is no substitute for this. You can’t fake it. You either come from the space or you don’t."

This advice that a successful founder has domain knowledge runs contrary to what's said of PayPal though.

From a recent thread in HN: http://primitus.com/blog/why-did-so-many-successful-entrepre...

PayPal had a strong bias toward hiring (and promoting / encouraging, as Keith mentions) smart, driven problem solvers, rather than subject matter experts

I doubt there's a hard and fast rule.

"This hacker culture of thinking everything can be solved with guru developer skills needs to stop."

Why? I don't see a downside to self-assuredness, even downright arrogance, when it comes to tackling problems. Sure, maybe every problem can't be solved by every person who tries, but why should you or anyone else care if they are willing to give it a shot?

He isn't saying that hackers shouldn't try to solve problems. He's just saying that they should go about solving them with more understanding and in a more intelligent manner.

No, but (s)he does seem to be of the opinion that they shouldn't be trying to solve this one:

"I just wish people stop thinking that journalism is a technology problem.It doesn't matter how good your platform is."

Maybe that's true. Maybe the Newslab guys were doomed to fail from the beginning. However, who's to say they shouldn't have tried? There's nothing wrong with trying out an idea no matter how slim its chance of success might seem to be.

I didn't mean to imply that they shouldn't have tried.

I'm just concerned about some VCs think that one of the main criteria is having technical founders.

Historically, this hasn't worked in journalism.

TechCrunch, HuffPo, Drudge, Business Insider...none of these were started by technical founders.

I don't feel like you're comparing like with like here. TC, HuffPo, Drudge, etc are all content providers/aggregators. Newstilt on the other hand were going to provide services and software to journalists of which it seems aggregation was only a part.

From this outsider's perspective at least they seemed to be in a good position starting out. They had seemingly recruited established journalists and other people from the industry who were able to tell them what they needed.

I don't think it's far fetched to think that a startup like this that marries software and journalism could form the basis of a successful startup. I do think this could be done with mostly if not entirely technical founders. I think others are betting on that too: http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/admissions/page.aspx?id=5...

"Lets look at domain knowledge first. This is not about having studied or otherwise artificially gotten to “know” the industry. This is about coming from that industry, having lived it, knowing the players and knowing the pain firsthand. There is no substitute for this. You can’t fake it. You either come from the space or you don’t."

And yet there are plenty of successful stories of founders who excelled because they had no prior experience in the industry and saw things differently than all the other experienced industry joes.

> None had a media background.

With utter honesty; this was my biggest concern with the whole thing. I believe that the guys actually had a different idea when pitching to YC and they were "redirected" onto this idea.

I believe that the guys actually had a different idea when pitching to YC and they were "redirected" onto this idea.

Interesting you say that, given how well the idea matched the first RFS. [1]

For better or for worse, I got the same impression about NowMov.

[1] http://ycombinator.com/rfs1.html

It's a high risk, high reward game(duh). If these guys would have come out with some super crazy thing that took off, we'd be using it as an example of how it helps to be ignorant.

Most successful entrepreneurs in their 20s don't have domain knowledge. Ones that succeed usually do a kickass job of turning the industry upside down.


I see many, many developers going to battle about the technical merits of X versus Y. Platform A can't scale, but platform B takes too long to produce code.

You've got to understand the problem that you solve for your customers if you're going to write something that they need. You need to understand your customers if you're going to write something that they want.

I guarantee that your customers don't give a shit whether or not your product is written in Ruby, or Python, or PHP, or Java, or Clojure, or Scala, or even Brainfuck. Write it in Malebodge if that's what you're happiest working in.

But whatever you do, write something that solves a problem.

World Cup-related allusion: Which is why I'm not surprised at all that Argentina's team is playing its heart out for Maradona. The man may be a lunatic and borderline incompetent as an organizer, but he has the domain knowledge and knows the pain points of winning a World Cup as an Argentinian side better than anyone.

Paul was kind enough to include me in a prelaunch mailing list of journalists where he discussed his vision.

At the time I have to confess I was not convinced Newstilt was the right product at the right time. It was an interesting vision (in a nutshell: to have journalists establish their own brands and syndicate content more directly to publishers/websites) but I did forsee traction trouble:

- Firstly because I felt journalists would have difficulty "getting" the new concept EDIT: by this I mean there was far too little content coming into Newstilt, I'm guessing because the writers didn't see instant returns and therefore gave up. As the email says Techcrunch took dedication and unfortunately for Newstilt they needed dedicated writers aiming for the same vision, hard to find.

- But mostly because publishers and websites would be resistive and negative about this concept (or simply uninterested).

I actually think it is a good model. A few years ago myself and others tried to form a similar style collective for UK tech magazines. It was a very hard to sell and ultimately failed because it was so radically difference.

I suspect one of the major problems was that it is such a different approach to media that it put many people off.

I've come to the conclusion that, for this sort of thing to work, it has to be built by journalists with both the contacts and the ability to placate both of the above problems.

(also, taking a honey moon in the first few months of a startup is never going to end well!).

Good luck Paul and Nathan - I really was rooting for you and it sucks that such a cool model never got off the ground.

If its a good idea, then it will find its champion and its moment in the sun ... eventually.

Yes, it will.

Something like it is on my back burner still (after 3 years - which in my mind makes it a great idea).

One way it could work is for a site (or a collaboration of sites) like Tech Crunch to create a network for aspiring tech writers - and go from there.

pg has said (http://www.paulgraham.com/notnot.html) that "Not having a cofounder is a real problem" and that finding a co-founder should be the "first priority" for any single founder and that this is "more important than anything else". This is a fairly common meme in the startup world.

Newslab looks like a great example of how that meme gets it wrong. Many other things are far more important than finding a co-founder

In this case, it looks like one co-founder goes on a honeymoon and decides to drop out. Then the other co-founder decides that he doesn't have the passion to run it on his own. So the whole company collapses. I'm assuming that a more passionate person who didn't believe in the co-founder meme would have shown more perseverance.

Actually this case isn't a counterexample. Paul wasn't someone Nathan recruited; more the opposite.

What I have found in terms of co-founders is that people will join when you have traction.

At least in my circle, people aren't risk takers and wouldn't stop their own personal project to work on someone else project.

With so many people having problems finding co-founders, I would suggest they implement something and get some traction. After, find a co-founder who now you can offer less equity since they weren't there to share the initial risk then approach investors.

YES! Oh man, I want to thank you for saying that.

I would love to find a co-founder. I've bootstrapped a successful business, it's going quite well, and I've been doing it for 2.5 years now. I've simply refused to give up at every step of the way -- even though I've often wanted to. And if I have my way, this business is going to get quite big.

But, I'm not running the sort of thing that YC would be interested in, and my sporadic efforts locally to drum up support have accomplished little.

Have you considered asking HN?

Yes, but I'm following the same pattern that everyone does when they start getting in their own way: there's a laundry list of stuff I want to get in order before I start shopping on sites like HN.

However, skmurphy contacted me privately yesterday as a result of the comment, which was awesome. :-)

I think getting to be profitable is more important than finding a co-founder. It does indeed sound like neither really believed in the idea passionately.

Actually, doesn't that prove that having a co-founder is as important as pg argues? You need co-founders for moral support as much as anything. Having your co-founder leave puts you in a bleak situation; it kills morale. Not to mention there were probably external factors about their business and market that lead them to believe more and more that they picked the wrong idea or executed "poorly".

Having more "passion" as a single founder doesn't really make you better off or more likely to succeed. IMO, its a buzzword, because everyone wants to be successful and will claim they have dieing "passion", but at the end of the day all that matters is results.

What I think happened here: They picked the wrong market/idea or executed poorly. They weren't seeing results they wanted; they lost morale. Eventually one of them figured out it wasn't going to work out, didn't believe or have the patience to iterate their idea and decided to leave. The startup was finished. This is probably what happens to 99% of failed startups.

Actually, doesn't that prove that having a co-founder is as important as pg argues?

Not really. I don't think it proves or disproves it.

You need co-founders for moral support as much as anything. Having your co-founder leave puts you in a bleak situation; it kills morale.

Coming to rely on a co-founder and then having him or her leave you is certainly a morale killer. Single founders don't have that problem.

What a single founder lacks in support, he or she has to make up in resilience if they're going to get very far ...

TheAwl has a solid little write-up about this: http://www.theawl.com/2010/06/another-journalism-changing-st...

"It is very difficult to get readers regularly returning to any site; it takes a blend of pumping out the content and getting linked by high-profile sites both in and out of its immediate topic — and a not-insignificant amount of luck — in order to do so. Internet behaviors can be very entrenched things!"

There must be some backstory -- out of money, irreconcilable founder differences, etc. -- which will only come out if the principals want it to. Without that, speculating on their "boredom" or "impatience" or "seriousness" is unfair.

That's it? They lasted 2 months? Did they get bored?

It seems like the guys had the product prior to joining YC. it could more than a year in the making.

I'm curious to know how long they worked on the product before YC.

In their Reddit AMA I think they said they originally were going to sell a white label Disqus commenting system to newspapers as their product, only to find out that building it would be easy, but selling it would be extremely hard. So they decided to go with the True/Slant/Examiner/Associated Content/Demand Media model of getting a whole bunch of people publishing in one place to pool their collective Google juice.

My sense, from comments made here and there is that they hadn't really been working on the site itself all that long when it launched. Some of the features they said were on the way seemed pretty core to me (letting writers sell their work directly, for example).

I think this is right; in the early stages (post YC funding) when they were doing a QA mailing list wwith some journalists they were just building the product.

(in fairness it appeared very fast and iterated really well from what I saw/heard)

I think one problem they had early on is that technology is not the answer to an editorial and writing problem.

Many people on the newslabs lists questioned their experience in journalistic and publishing oriented endeavours - the founders' answers to quality and editorial concerns weren't very convincing - and always came back to technology. Ideas like building mass-comment moderation systems, crowdsourced editing, etc - don't work if the people moderating don't have literary taste.

But it was a good try - and I hope that other people tackling this problem space would think about some of the questions raised by the newslabs contributors.

Seems like they wanted to build a brand overnight and then give up when it didn't happen. I've never even heard of them, personally. Is there more to the story than what was in the post?

I still think the offering of: we handle technology+monetization for journalists/online publishers is a very valuable proposition.

I totally agree. One of the big problems with that though is its nearly impossible to bootstrap an audience on the web. That's why Kevin Rose pimping Digg on Tech TV was such a coup. He had product/market fit AND could drop an audience on it.

With most publishing startups, you have to survive the whole first year until Google un-sandboxes your domain and you get legit Google traffic. Until then you have to find other ways to build numbers, Reddit-baiting, cutting deals with other publications etc....notice none of these are technical problems?

So you can't really sell publishers on traffic, you've got to offer them something else. Then at that point, how are you better than Wordpress.com?

Is it impossible to boostrap an audience on the web? I feel like that's where most successful online publications have come from. Techcrunch came out of arrington's boredom and Pete Cashmore started mashable in scottland at 19. I think it's all about baby steps. If your goal is to get 1 million visitors fast that won't work. It's the first 50k or so.

Technology is the less important than traffic/content/readerbase, but it's certainly something you do not want to deal with. Wordpress.com is certainly great, but I wouldn't be running that if I were trying to do something professional (I would use Wordpress though).

That's not exactly bootstrapping though. Those are both examples of organic growth that happened over YEARS. That's very do-able if you are making content people actually want to read.

That's definitely bootstrapping. Arrington and cashmore didn't raise a single time. Sure their current success took years, but even where they were at 6-12 months afterwards could show they were on the rise.

If you're not making content people don't want to read then you're doomed regardless. It's like making an app people don't want: push it and fund it all you want, you're probably fucked.

They bootstrapped their business, but not the audience, i.e. they didn't magically start out with a built-in audience through a deal or prior celebrity, they had to build that up over time.

To my mind, bootstrapping just means making something from nothing, which is exactly what they did with their audience.

"Is it impossible to boostrap an audience on the web?".

It is nearly impossible unless you spam.

more explanation please?

This is what I understood: "Is it possible to grow an audience organically on the web and reach ramen profitability within a year or so"

My answer: It is not likely to happen. Getting traction is the single hardest problem for startups that are neither technically challenging, nor game changing. By organic audience I mean users acquired through WOM, and press coverage.

You can spam (just like Facebook and Myspace did) and get your product in front of more people and hope they click SIGN UP.

I know most people find sending an unsolicited email as a huge ethical issue, but quite frankly a spam email sent to the potentially right user can be helpful to both her and your business.

Agreed for a lot of parts. I'm talking more re: content+online media such as gizmodo.

Here are some previous posts about NewsLabs that might be interesting reading in light of this announcement, in case anyone is unfamiliar with what they were about...



I think this serves to remind everyone that you need to have the will to persevere for your start up to thrive during the first few years when things aren't going your way. If you're only in it for an instant hit, you're not building a business properly.

Perhaps it's just confirmation bias because I'm interested in this space, but aren't most news startups that rush to market cursed with obscurity or death?

Newsvine is the only interesting and semi-successful one that comes to mind over the past few years, and the executive team there is crazy experienced and of great provenance. All the other good news "startups" I know of have had to grow quite slowly over a long period of time or are heavily leaning on exposure in fields like politics or tech.

I wrote an analyis of the newslabs model back in March prior to their launch:


From my analysis I couldn't see the financials working out (obviously that wasn't the cause of their failure in this case; but I presume the financials not working didn't help the situation).

Don't think I've heard of that one. Any great loss?

Was a YC W10 company

Someone should stick that up in the headline. If we're going to do it for the good news about YC companies, we should do it for the not so good news, too.

I'm assuming there was something else happening behind the scenes to cause both founders to jump ship so quickly. They made a very strong (positive!) impression on me with their rhetoric and claims here as well as over in a Reddit AMA they did (http://www.reddit.com/r/iama/comments/bwrew). I'm surprised to hear they fizzled so quickly after all the big talk.

At least we're allowed to comment on this YC company story. I still can't get comfortable with the no-comments-allowed YC stories here on HN.

Those are just job advertisements, and I still think it's a mistake, as the comments would be a great place to ask for questions/clarification that might benefit others and keep the same questions from being repeated in private email.

That's a shame. Looks like they didn't take it very seriously though.

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