The secret startups

Om Malik

Trigger warning: this is a tech publication writing about tech media. There is no greater inside baseball.
Last night I was on a phone call with my boss talking about, of course, BetaKit. We have been working behind the scenes on some amazing new things for the site, and the latest word was that our plans were (soon) coming to fruition. I finished the call excited about what the next six months would bring for BetaKit.

Moments later I learned via Twitter that Gigaom was shutting down. Immediately.

BetaKit has a history of sorts with Gigaom. The site, and its founder, Om Malik, were inspiration for the original incarnation of BetaKit. Many of BetaKit’s founding members took to Twitter last night to express their sadness after learning the news.

GigaOM has played a personal role in my development as a tech writer as well. Many past and current GigaOM writers are people I’ve used as role models or mentors.

Despite the outpouring of goodwill, and the quality of Gigaom’s editorial team, it’s concerning that a media publication can go out of business due to an inability to pay its creditors 13 months after it raised $8 million dollars. I have no firsthand information on what happened internally at Gigaom, how things got so bad so quickly, why its investment team (which includes Malik) did not step up with additional funding, or why the publication didn’t choose to simply downsize rather than bow out. I don’t have any answers.

But I do know firsthand what Sarah Lacy (and Om, and Michael Arrington, and Jason Calacanis) knows: building a media company is hard.

Building a media company is hard.

I tweeted to Lacy last night that media companies are the hardest companies to build, but that’s probably not true. I mean, just try being a hardware-based impact startup – that’s hard. Chalk it up to momentary sentimentality.

But new media publications have it tough a way that few others do: they’re the only startups not generally considered startups.

Everyone knows how much money Vox and Buzzfeed have recently raised, but we often forget the number ‘established’ tech publications that began as bootstrapped independents: TechCrunch, Engadget, and yes, Gigaom. The list goes on.

Startups are hard. Really hard. Good journalism is really hard. And necessary. It’s also an undervalued product in the current content economy, as few have been able to figure out sustainable business models.

Media startups walk a finer and much more public line between ethics and monetization than most startups. What other startups would call smart business a media startup might (necessarily) view as a conflict of interest. Startups are encouraged to fail fast, pivot quickly, and make a lot of noise about what they might deliver at a later date. Media companies that know that every story published reflects the brand, and a bad story – whether it’s poorly reported or just wrong – can do far more damage than a hundred good ones. And while startups often face grave competition from incumbents or peers, few are personally threatened for doing their job.

I believe that many of the struggles new media outlets face would be impeded if both the broader tech community and journalists viewed them as the startups they often are. This would require movement from both sides to understand good storytelling, ethical journalism, monetization strategies, and product/market fit. In 2015, VCs need to understand the value of a free press as much as journalists need to understand burn rate; both apply to their jobs.

It hasn’t been discussed much on the site (expect more soon), but this is our approach with BetaKit. Bootstrapped and scrappy, BetaKit is working to deliver the right content each day to our audience. We understand that startups are hard, because we’re a startup too.

Douglas Soltys

Douglas Soltys

Douglas Soltys is the Editor-in-Chief of BetaKit and founder of BetaKit Incorporated. He has worked for a few failed companies and written about many more. He spends too much time on the Internet.

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