Mar 14, 2017

It’s a startup, stupid

BYPankaj Mishra

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either a well-wisher or someone who’s just keeping a friendly vigil on us, ensuring we’re on our toes all the time. And yes, there’s a possibility you’re a reader of FactorDaily, keeping tabs on what’s brewing in our story factory.
Whoever you are, thanks for being a part of our journey. We appreciate it.
First, the headline.

Our CTO and head of design, Titash Neogi, is moving on (I know, it sucks)

When Jayadevan P K and I quit The Economic Times to start up FactorDaily last year, we knew for sure it would take more than journalism to create a world-class media product. And that’s how we discovered Titash — an amazing human being and an awesome technology thinker and creator. Avinash Raghava of iSpirt had connected us. Titash, Jayadevan and I hit it off at our first meeting at Koshy’s in Bengaluru.
Bon voyage, Titash. Here’s wishing you a fulfilling journey ahead in your new pursuits.
Now that the headlining is done, let’s move on with the story.
Over the past year, FactorDaily was born on Medium and LinkedIn, acquired a web face in May 2016, and we shipped innovations such as newsbots and Slack bots to stay ahead of the game.
We experimented a hell of a lot, and we failed at some of our experiments miserably. In our second or third month, for instance, we decided to become a pure video news and stories platform. Absolutely no text. Yes, that’s how crazy we’ve been in trying out new things.
In the spirit of building a truly successful media startup, here are our top failures:
1. #FailFast: We gave up all the scriptwriting and drama involved in narrating impactful stories in the video format soon after realising that the readers we are targeting can be served better by offering a mix of formats across video, text, audio and visual elements. As we build a new video storytelling engine, all that experience is becoming useful.
Learning: As long as the mission stays intact, we shouldn’t hold back on experimenting with ways to get there.

2. #StayUnique: We started reviewing technology gadgets only to realise that no matter how much you pack it in, the segment is commoditised beyond repair. And we didn’t seem to have a truly differentiated, Walt Mossberg-like approach or personality to pull it off.
Learning: If you don’t have a really differentiated feature, don’t force something just because it’s trendy.
3. #DNAfit: We’ve had our share of hiring mistakes.
Learning: Be careful in hiring early team members with extensive reference checks. People who join startups early are crazy and not the usual incumbent talent. Hire them for what they can be, and not who they already are. Spell out ethical boundaries clearly in a code of conduct and ensure compliance ruthlessly without any exceptions. Tough decisions during early days help establish the core culture.

4. #PrepareWell: We have struggled to get a strong design language across every touchpoint for FactorDaily readers. Early on, much before we launched, we had the opportunity to work with a design veteran who demanded we spend a couple of months in getting the elements right. At the time, we thought it was stupid to invest so much of time upfront. But, later we realised how valuable it could have been.
Learning: Don’t take shortcuts. There is much truth in the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Apart from these, there have been several other failures, please get me drunk with some buttermilk and I will tell you more. 🙂
So, what’s been working for us?
When we did this video interview with Tanmay Bakshi, the world’s youngest IBM Watson programmer, we were actually sceptical about how much views can it actually get. “May be 10 to 15,000,” I remember saying this after finishing the shoot.
As I write this post, the video is close to 200,000 views on YouTube alone with some 342 comments from the viewers. It reaffirms our faith in producing quality content in the video format.
Here’s what else has been working for us:
1. Mission intact: First of all, despite all the maddening developments around us, our mission to tell stories from the intersection of technology and life in India hasn’t changed one iota. If anything, we are encouraged by endorsements from all around that we have received.

2. Awesome team: Despite the early hiccups, we have a very talented team going — a group of madhatters who want to be a part of building something world class. It’s a reflection of the maturity of the team that, besides the code of conduct we run our work lives by, we have ESOPs for every FD-ian, a generous leave policy including six months paid maternity leave, a sexual harassment policy, and flexi hours.
3. Growing community of FD readers: FactorDaily stories now reach over a million people every month across our website, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other channels. Nearly half of them are less than 30 years of age, and are from outside the technology and startup ecosystem. This proves our original premise that technology is going mainstream and that technology news is not consumed only by geeks.
4. Financial backers who believe in the mission: Early on, we found investors — Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma — who we trust and who believe that a credible technology media startup can be built by serving India’s next generation readers. In the last few months, we were very happy to find that belief also resonated among brands willing to advertise on the FactorDaily platform. (More on that later.)

On our part, we’ve always practised journalism religiously, as you can see here, here, here and here among several instances of stories that were critical of the companies and people backed by FactorDaily’s investors. Not even once have we received a call asking us to reconsider a story or to influence what we write about and how.
Thank you Prashanth Prakash, Karthik Reddy, Sanjay Nath and Vijay.
4. Adult supervision: Last year, we convinced Josey Puliyenthuruthel John, an editor, reporter and newsroom manager of some 25 years, to join us. He’s been a mentor for me over the years, especially since I worked with him during my first stint at Mint. As we look ahead, getting Josey has perhaps been among the wisest decisions we made — he’s just the adult supervision we need to build FD into an institution, brings world-class editorial strengths, and believes in FactorDaily’s mission to be the voice of change and disruption as technology goes mainstream in India.
5. We are making money: We made some money to cover about 40% of our running costs during the first 12 months of our existence. Our first customer was BBC London, then Careernet came on board as a long term partner for FactorDaily’s #FutureofJobs series last year, and we are now working with one of the world’s biggest enterprise software companies on some interesting ideas. We work with brands that share our values of storytelling, bring credibility and passion, without interfering in the journalism we practice. In fact, we’ve walked out of a couple of deals because we felt the brands we were speaking to were not in sync with our approach.

We believe journalism should be open and free for readers on the web and elsewhere. If there are insights to gain from, why not make it accessible to more folks. As for making money, we continue to believe that there are ways to build revenue products without compromising on the integrity and quality of journalism.
And if our first 12 months are anything to go by, that faith has only become more solidified.
6. Get someone you can trust to manage finances early: Deepak Kaushik and Asma Bibi, two Wipro veterans who now run Finaks, have been part of our journey much before we launched. They helped set up the company, managed statutory requirements, managed investors and all the paperwork that came by. Now, they are running all of our finance and HR. Thank you Deepak and Asma.
Finally, we will miss Titash and his regimental sense of engineering he applied around us — from office hygiene to story deadlines and even the early morning breakfast meetings.
As I look ahead, our mission to build a world-class technology media startup looks even more exciting than before, thanks to all the learnings so far and some great feedback from the reader communities we serve.
FactorDaily will be among the most important and impactful media startups of this decade globally, and it’s a life mission for each of us around here.

FactorDaily’s journalism is produced by some of the best brains in the story-telling business. If you like our body of work – deep reportage, domain specialist write-ups, data stories, podcasts and the like – consider supporting the FactorDaily journey.

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Pankaj Mishra is a writer of FactorDaily.