Anatomy of a Failure: Lessons From the Death of NewsTilt

NewsTilt, a Y Combinator-funded media startup that launched in April to much fanfare, shut down just two months later. How did things go off the rails so quickly? Co-founder Paul Biggar has written a long and thoughtful blog post about how and why the venture collapsed, and there are some useful lessons in it — not just for anyone thinking about a journalism-related web startup, but for startups of all kinds. It quickly becomes clear that virtually everything about NewsTilt was either wrong from the beginning or quickly went wrong, including Biggar’s relationship with his co-founder, and the company’s relationship with its customers or users:

Following the launch, everything started going to s***, and a huge number of challenges to the success of the company had arisen. The biggest of these were the lack of traction from launch, that we had lost the faith of our journalists, and because there were communication issues between Nathan (my co-founder) and I. This combination also killed our motivation. As a result, I made a carefully thought out decision to shut down the company, and return as much money as we had left (about 40%) to the investors.

One of the more glaringly obvious flaws in the company’s makeup is what appears to be a lack of interest in the problem NewsTilt was trying to solve. While the company had an idea of what it wanted to do for journalists — namely, to provide a platform for them to find an audience and theoretically build some kind of business around their content, similar to what True/Slant tried to do before being acquired by Forbes — neither of the founders had any background in journalism. Worse than that, Biggar admits that neither had much passion for the idea either; the startup evolved out of a plan to develop a better commenting system for newspapers.

The NewsTilt co-founder describes plenty of other problems: he and his co-founder didn’t communicate well, they didn’t have enough funding to develop many of the features they had promised to the journalists they signed up, they pitched the company the wrong way to users, they made some bad hires, and so on. But for me, the lack of passion for the problem is the biggest red flag in Biggar’s post-mortem. If the founders of a startup aren’t passionate about what they are doing — so much so that it keeps them up all hours of the day thinking about it — then success seems unlikely, if not impossible. According to his co-founder, Biggar was on his honeymoon for most of the month of May.

NewsTilt’s founders seem to have taken on the challenge of helping journalists find an online audience because they thought it was technically interesting, or because there was a potential market for it. But as David Cohn — who has built his own journalism-related startup called — noted when NewsTilt’s closure was first reported earlier this year, technology won’t necessarily solve what is essentially a social problem in the media industry. As he puts it: “I think… the folks at NewsTilt put too much emphasis on their tech-wizardry and the idea that they would build tools for journalist and all of a sudden POOF – journalism would be solved.”

Unfortunately, as Cohn points out, there is no magic bullet that will suddenly save the media industry, or transform ordinary journalists into independent-thinking online media businesses. And as NewsTilt discovered, there is also no amount of funding or technical wizardry that can replace a passion for the problem you are trying to solve. The most positive thing to come from Biggar’s analysis is that at least he failed quickly.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): What We Can Learn From the Guardian’s Open Platform

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Alex Proimos