What happened in the first week of the Walkleys Media Incubator

One of the most exciting things about the Walkleys Media Incubator is how diverse the projects are, so it stands to reason that their journeys since the incubator kicked off are unique as well. We’re only one week in and some have already upended their projects and surged ahead.

Such as Matt Sharpe’s team, who are working on Pitchmi: a tool to simplify both the journalist and editor side of the pitching process. In an email, Matt told us they have had an enormously busy first weeks and even got their first signups.

“In just one week we have: rewritten our business case; created a startup canvas; launched a brand-new website along with a logo and design; spoken to a few editors and writers to get some initial research and validation; set up an online signup form (and already have more than 20 signups in just two days); created an online survey which we will be sending out shortly to a wider group; created a Facebook page; commissioned an explainer video for the website; and continually refined our idea through discussions and collaboration with other longlisters.”

This kind of momentum is exactly what we were hoping the incubator would enable, by connecting the projects to a series of training sessions and mentor conversations across both journalism and business.

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Kris Lawson, one of our grant winners in 2016 at last year’s shortlist workshop. He is also in the 2017 longlist incubator with another project.

Our first incubator week focused on how to prove people will actually want or need to use your project. By testing your plans and assumptions, you are more likely to find out if your project will work before you invest too much into it, or for some projects, before you even launch it. (You can read more about the plans for the program here.)

We tackled this in the first incubator session, which was led by BlueChilli’s Alan Jones. He spoke about how to test your idea, why testing matters and why being ruthlessly focused on particular types of users or markets is so important.

“If you were a large profitable media company, you might be able to invest millions in developing products and services for a variety of different customers and markets — but you’d be unlikely to be in the Walkleys startup program,” Alan said as he introduced the lean canvas model, a process to guide how you develop your startup or project when you have limited time and funds.

Key to this, he said, is understanding why your product is appealing. This can be challenging in media startups, given that they often sit somewhere between critical information and entertainment, however nourishing for the soul it may be. In startup land, this is often referred to as identifying if your media startup or product is a headache tablet (for a short-term problem) or a vitamin pill (to enable change).

“Most of the startups out there — media startups included — tend to fall into one of these categories,” Jones said.

“It’s important once you’ve got that sense that you start to look for customers who are going to be seeking that kind of pill you are offering, because the call to action for your product is going to be very different. If I’m publishing The Guardian, I want to to develop a long-term relationship with the customer or reader, and slowly derive some value from that over time. Whereas if I’m developing a software platform that is a great research tool for media professionals, that might be more of a headache pill — for those who say only have two hours before deadline and need to find information.”

Defining what your project offers your target audience is really important. But you also need to test your assumptions about this. Alison Croggon and Robert Reid found this out firsthand over the past week.

The veteran theatre critics are working towards launching Witness, an in-depth site for theatre reviewing and the creative community around stage plays. You can sign up for updates here.

“It was a full-on week, and really helpful. For us, our major takeaway from the first session was doing some formal information-gathering,” Alison said.

“Both Rob and I have had a lot of informal discussion over the past year about the various concerns that people have about performance criticism, which is basically why we started thinking about the project, but some focused data from our target audience is definitely a good idea.”

The pair put together a survey for a group of carefully selected colleagues to identify how often they visit the theatre, what kind of content they consume, what kind they enjoy and how much they would be willing to pay for high-quality unique content and community. It’s early days but they have found the responses useful as they continue to plan their project. Sometimes the best insights can come from a conversation or two, so it’s important to get out there and ask as many people as possible to increase your chances of discovering great insights.

Launching a project is a huge task, and finding an ongoing way to bring in revenue to sustain your project is an even bigger one. One of the best working definitions of a startup company (a jargon-laden industry if ever there was one) is a company in search of a reliable and repeatable business model.

To help the teams explore the many ways to bring in revenue, we were very lucky to have inkl cofounder and CEO Gautam Mishra run our first ask-me-anything session. As an official program mentor, he had his work cut out for him — more than 100 questions were asked over 90 minutes.

Inkl is essentially Spotify for news, gathering stories from top sites such as the New York Times, but Mishra also brought his experience as former head of strategy for Fairfax Digital to the incubator. He led the charge to set up Fairfax Media’s paywalls and did the initial work for a long-form video project you probably know now as Stan. One of his clearest messages was not to rely on advertising if you want to build a sustainable commercial or not-for-profit business.

“Anything you can do with ads is almost certainly going to be a temporary return,” Mishra said.

“There are absolutely new formats and innovations in how you do ads, and if you keep coming up with those you can maybe make it for six to 12 months. But if you want to build a 10- to 20-year business on the back of advertising, it will be almost impossible for you to do that.”

Another key theme in the conversation was whether there was a future of printed journalism, given the terrible news about Fairfax Media this week.

Incubator participant Daniel Seed is betting print can still work. His project Stringer Press is a not-for-profit hyperlocal news source for Logan in Queensland, and he believes it needs both a print and online option to reach as many people as possible.

“Digital literacy, access to technology, and a distrust of mainstream media are significant issues in Logan,” Seed said.

“The core principle of my entire project is providing better representation of the voices in my community and driving a socially responsible business structure. I feel a print edition has something inherently trustworthy about it and provides a connection to hyperlocal news an online version cannot.”

Since the first two sessions with Jones and Mishra, Seed has focused his attention on putting together solid revenue models for his project. The remit of the Walkleys Media Incubator and Innovation Fund is broad, but we are especially keen to support independent ventures that hire journalists and transform news.

“I’m putting serious thought into the lean canvas model, and a recalculation of break-even points for different revenue models,” Seed said. “The incubator sessions so far have really provided me with some clarity on focusing on the current problem I am trying to solve, rather than being distracted by future plans to solve other problems.”

Problem-solving is a fundamental skill for founders, as is being self-aware and smart about how they invest their time. Several projects have switched focus slightly, each for different reasons.

One interesting shift was by Yen-Rong Wong, who entered the incubator with an ambitious plan for launching Inexorable Press, a collaborative space for young people of colour to create work to diversify the Australian arts and publishing industries.

Wong and her team still plan to do this, but they have decided to focus on developing their anthology, Pencilled In, a bit more before they begin to invest time in developing the Inexorable Press.

“Even though Pencilled In was going to fold into the Press anyway, I realised I was still thinking about them as separate projects,” Wong said.

“I feel like if I split my focus between two big projects, I’m going to burn out or I’ll end up delivering two mediocre projects as opposed to one amazing one.”

“I realised that I wanted to focus on building on the foundations I’ve already put down. And then in the future I can expand it to make the Press the best it can be.”

The Walkleys innovation longlist will this week take part in a second incubator session with BlueChilli about business models and how to acquire users and customers. Also this week they are able to opt in for three additional mentor AMA sessions this week with Kate Golden about non-profit news organisations; Annie Parker on startup goal setting and planning and Tran Ha, former MD of Stanford’s media experiments team.

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