An experiment in startups working with news media companies: looking back at The Irish Times Digital Challenge

(This post also appeared in The Irish Times on 4 October 2012.)

LAST FRIDAY, at The Workman’s Club on Wellington Quay in Dublin, an Irish technology start-up company called GetBulb was announced as the overall winner of The Irish Times Digital Challenge.

GetBulb has produced a system that can rapidly create data visualisations suitable for both high-resolution print and for online interactive graphics in seconds. This start-up could, quite literally, change how media organisations across the globe approach design.

GetBulb is one of five early stage digitally-focused businesses that entered The Irish Times building for eight weeks as part of The Irish Times Digital Challenge. The other start-ups were: MyiFli, a mobile advertising and content service; PicTurk, a platform for photography awards; KnockOn.ie, an amateur and club rugby community; and Storyflow, a widget to find and show related links in a graphical way on a news story.

A wide range of early stage businesses applied to The Irish Times Digital Challenge, which was announced in May 2012. From these a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capital partners, and senior Irish Times personnel selected five finalists to enter the building. As the overall winner of the Challenge, GetBulb has won a €50,000 prize in the form of a convertible loan note from venture capital firm DFJ Esprit.

The objective of the programme was not only to launch new products and identify new technology, but to position The Irish Times at the heart of Ireland’s vibrant start-up community. Building long term, mutually beneficial relationships with the next wave of disruptors is a key part of The Irish Times’ future.

The toughness of the environment in which The Irish Times Group operates is forcing the organisation to change and rediscover its inventive streak. In 1994 at a time when few readers were using the web The Irish Times was among the first half dozen papers in the world to launch an online edition. It is now picking up where it left off.

According to Kevin O’Sullivan, editor of The Irish Times, “the challenges facing the newspaper industry are forcing us to be innovative, and to think more like a start-up than we might otherwise do. This may be no bad thing. In fact, it may mark the beginning of a renaissance period for news media . . . that is provided the relationship is genuine and sustained.”

Ireland is a good environment for this kind of collaboration. Much as the 1970s and 1980s produced a generation of garage bands, some of whom achieved global recognition, Ireland is now producing a wave of garage companies like GetBulb that have the potential to make a world impact. A glamour is building around tech entrepreneurship in Ireland that draws more young people into the sector, and the country is sufficiently small that investors, founders, and coders can easily meet. However, this smallness has a down side.

Just as the garage bands who went before them had ultimately to break in to the American market to reach significant numbers of listeners, Irish start-ups generally have to target larger markets to grow to a global scale. Under The Irish Times Digital Challenge, however, start-ups have the opportunity to access The Irish Times Group’s several million unique users a month.

NDRC LaunchPad, ranked as Ireland’s top tech incubation programme by the Kauffman Foundation, ran an incubator inside The Irish Times building as part of the Digital Challenge. It worked to help refine the start-ups’ offering and business model. As Gary Leyden, director of LaunchPad, said: “It has been fascinating to observe the dynamic between the start-ups and The Irish Times. The Digital Challenge allowed these five start-ups deep access, and gave them time to ensure that their product fixed a big enough problem.”

The start-ups worked down the hall from the people they needed to convince of the value of their offering. Whereas start-up incubators and accelerators play an important role in preparing early stage companies to go out to the market, a start-up working directly inside a large organisation also benefits from daily insight into how their offering can be best shaped to appeal to the client. This is a form of direct market validation that goes beyond the norm in the world of start-ups.

The Irish Times also made a range of supports available to the five start-ups, including €10,000 in marketing for each start-up, along with professional services from Amárach Research, Arthur Cox, and KPMG, and a small stipend provided by Enterprise Ireland. Later this month each of the five Digital Challenge finalists will present to investors and the media at the 2012 Dublin Web Summit.

Working with start-ups also had an impact on The Irish Times. Introducing highly motivated external start-up teams into the 153-year-old media organisation and giving them license to engage with anyone anywhere, inevitably prompted the people they interacted with to think about their jobs in new ways.

Liam Kavanagh, managing director of The Irish Times Group, says the “Digital Challenge required us to come out of our comfort zone. I was conscious that the organisation could have rejected the digital disruptors when they arrived, which would have posed serious difficulties. If we did not embrace this challenge then it would have said serious things about whether the organisation could change. I took the risk. My faith paid off.” [You can read more of Liam’s reflections on The Digital Challenge in my recent post at the HuffPo].

It is now clear that working with start-ups can produce dramatic results. GetBulb’s data visualisation system has been used to produce parts of the business section in the print edition of the paper. KnockOn.ie is planning a national roadshow in association with the paper. The Irish Times Amateur Photography Awards has launched, using PicTurk’s system. Storyflow’s widget has appeared on irishtimes.com and will shortly launch on Entertainment.ie. MyiFli is being used to promote home delivery of the newspaper and by The Gloss magazine as a new advertising platform. Launching such a breadth of initiatives in eight weeks is a record. This can be a model for other media organisations struggling to adapt to the digital future.

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