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From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia it’s The Build, conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges.
Media. Every few years, the .com bust in 2001, the recession in 2008, there’s a rough patch for college grads, across a variety of disciplines, and that was the case for Christopher Wink, an aspiring political reporter, who faced a harsh job market after graduating from Temple University. News rooms were scaling back, media outlets weren’t hiring, so he and a few friends from the campus newspaper launched Technical.ly Philly, a blog that chronicled Philadelphia’s emerging start up community, and over the past few years, that portfolio project has grown into a sizable business of its own, operating in even more cities, supporting the careers of dozens of journalists, designers, event producers, and other media professionals. Along the way, the team has become both champion and critic of technology’s impact on communities. In this episode, Christopher shares his journey from beat reporter to startup co-founder, and how he’s getting ready for even more changes to the publishing landscape.
It’s the story of Technically Media, coming up next on The Build.
Joe Taylor Jr.:
I’m Joe Taylor Jr., this is The Build, joined today by Christopher Wink, co-founder of Technically Media, our upstairs neighbor as of a couple weeks ago, welcome.
Thanks so much for having me.
I want to take us back to around the time of what we now call The Great Recession. It didn’t seem like it was going to be as wild as it was at the time, but you’re going to school at Temple University, you’re majoring in journalism?
Actually, political science.
Political science, but you and your crew are working at a student newspaper. It’s you, it’s Brian James Kirk, it’s Sean Blanda. Tell me what you guys are thinking about as you’re heading towards graduation.
Yeah, so spring 2008, we were heavy into the Temple News, a college newspaper of Temple University. I was still in a really traditional pathway. My goal was to be a big city politics reporter, in a city like Philadelphia, but not even necessarily in Philadelphia. I wanted to be in a large city at a newspaper covering city politics. Graduated Temple, did a fellowship at the Harrisburg State Capitol in Pennsylvania covering state government, the very normal track record. From there I was supposed to get a midsize newspaper job, and begin my long and most surely illustrious career in the newspaper industry.
But, as you said, we were 20 years into print media’s reckoning with digital forms, made even faster by a recession that then sped up what was already happening way faster. And it was really apparent to me, and a lot of colleagues at… We had a really good group at the Temple News at that point, we were right out of college, and we were all saying, “This is not working the way it’s supposed to.” So, Sean and Brian, after I came back from that fellowship and a little bit of traveling, we said, “We already have access to a big city, we spent four years in this wonderful city Philadelphia, we have contacts, let’s do something big here,” and so began the pursuit of what that would be, but we wanted to cover a community that mattered, we wanted to do journalism, but we wanted to experiment a lot with how we get it done.
Sure, so somebody gets around to installing some blog software, you go get a domain name. How did you land on Technically Philadelphia as your first project?
Today, the company is Technical.ly Media, and we publish a couple brands, one of which is Technical.ly, but in the beginning days, it was… I think a $75 WordPress template and a $10 domain, and I still remember being on a phone call, Sean, Brian, and I had all been back and forth about names, and in truth, Technical.ly Philly, which was the domain we were about to purchase the domain, none of us were in love with it. One of the foundational points of view that I often encourage people is that it often matters, I really believe names truly do matter a whole lot less than what you do with that name.
We had thrown a bunch of ideas, Technical.ly, and at that time Technical.ly Philly, fit in the idea that we wanted to cover technology but not exclusively. We wanted to approach journalism, but not in the traditional form, so all of these ways, the idea of, “We’re technically a news site, we’re technically covering tech.” It fit as a brand, and even though we knew people would struggle saying it, as proved true, we went with the domain, and the most important point though for me was … We talked about it, and it is an important decision, but ultimately it matters what you do with it way more.
I wish we had planned for scale that very first day, even if we would have stayed exclusively in Philadelphia, which we didn’t. I think tacking Philly or any city name on the backend of something for me is unnecessary, you can get that done another way, so fortunately, we bought a .ly domain years later when we re-branded as Technical.ly, my co-founder Brian moved forward using Technical.ly, and that worked out swimmingly, but those are some name tips I always say, “It doesn’t really matter, just do great work with it, but at least have a mind for scale in the future.
Tell me a little bit more about how you landed on the technology vertical as the topic that you wanted to cover. So, if your interest was politics, was that where you thought the audience would be, is that where you thought the sponsorship support would be?
Yeah, I mean we were thoughtful about it, we tried… There’s a graveyard of WordPress installs that we had from that era. We were taking lots of different conversations. Actually, years later we’re now publishing a thing called Generocity.org, which covers social impact, including some nonprofits. Amusingly enough, in 2009 one of the other ideas we thought about going through was covering impact in nonprofits. We had the Philanthro-Philly… the even more challenging to spell and pronounce Philanthro-Philly brand was one idea. We had something that was going to cover underground music in Philadelphia. We had talked about something in the lifestyle space, so we had lots of different ideas we were talking about. Brian, Sean, and I were also had lots of little side projects, we were trying to find what might work. The rule we had, and another piece of advice I always say, is just know what do you really want? We wanted to use journalism as a tool to make some community better.
We cared a lot about local and community, those were the themes. In truth, yeah, I was the least tied to technology. My co-founder, Brian, particularly, had done some tech reporting specifically. I had done some business reporting, so that was my lens to it. I was always interested in economics and economic development, and that kind of always related to policy, so that was where my interests were.
My co-founder Brian had a lot more of the tech lens, and I didn’t care. I cared about people, and I cared about place, and I cared about making that place better. Another lesson though for me was always … I was ready to go. I wanted to do a project with people I thought were smart, and so tech? Sure, let’s do it. As long as that community is doing something interesting, and we had a test, we said, “Let’s try it for three to six months and see if there is something there.” I had done a little bit of reporting, and some freelance work, so we had tasted it, but we said, “Let’s dive in and see what happens,” so you can do that lean test as a good way to get there.
Tell me a little bit about the first moment that you felt like you were getting traction, and you felt like “This is going to work, this is going to be a business.”
It goes probably for any business, but particularly in media, and news media even more. The first example of “this might work,” is when people you don’t, or you haven’t established personal relationships with, know that it exists. The early days were going with a steno pad to existing tech meetups or business events and looking like a 22-year-old saying, “I have a blog, can I interview you for it?” And getting a lot of “all right son” kind of looks, but within six to eight months we had the first glimmers of… there was Twitter chatter among people who would say, “Who’s doing this Technical.ly Philly thing?”
Or people would say, “I’m reading this, and we don’t know who these people are.” It’s a very modest first sign of traction, but it was being shared in ways that extended outside of “I met you, will you read this because I put your name on a site?” And became “I am reading this because I read about someone else.” That was the first sign, but again, we kept it very low-cost, we were still freelancing to really pay the bills, we kept costs… You know, a $10 domain, $75 install, we didn’t spend it out, it was a really lean test, but we found that there was interest, and people saying, “I like this, do more of it,” was a good sign of the future that would come.
I think you touched on something that often comes up in conversations about the technology press, that sometimes folks are a little less trusting of a publication that comes from within a community. So, the fact that you all came in perceptually from outside the established community, and really started covering things like meetups, and evolving companies. How do you maintain your editorial credibility when you’re very much inside a community that you’re trying to cover?
Yeah, I mean we fight for it all the time, and I think it happens a lot in tech press for lots of different reasons that we can get into. If you’re covering a neighborhood, or a topic, or any beat, it’s really beat reporting for me is the actual lens, you’d better get really close to sources. There’s not anything that’s really strange there, except for whenever you look at a young company that’s starting up there’s only three of us, there’s only four of us, so the distance isn’t there. You’re looking at every part of that company. There’s not that editorial wall at the beginning as clearly defined, though we had ways that we approached it.
I think you’re right that we came from it, we weren’t primarily technologists, we weren’t business owners, we weren’t economic development marketing folks. Within six months of when I was there, I was covering state government and bonus allegations from state legislators. Bonusgate scandal was still hot when I was there for anyone who geeks out about Pennsylvania state politics. My lens was like I was covering a state legislator when I would speak to an entrepreneur. Yeah, I think we came with a very different lens than a lot of tech press, if you look at a lot of tech press specifically.
I think probably unlike a a neighboring other topic, so much of our community is really web native, and so could launch a blog, launch a great podcast. The lines are way grayer in and around tech and creative communities because that line of self-publishing is so easy, and it’s one of the most vibrant parts of the community. So much of tech press comes from, “Oh, I’m a technologist, and now I’m covering it,” or, “I’m a founder, I’m covering other founders.” Which are valuable, we just came from a different approach. We had no assumptions that everything was good, we had no assumptions that this community was helpful, we had no assumptions that it was working. I came to some of those conclusions, but only after a lot of meaningful reporting.
We just participated in a round table hosted by 1776 and the US Chamber of Commerce, we were talking about some of the indicators that a community is healthy, and growing, and vibrant enough to support digital careers. One of the things that kept coming up was the idea that you had the ability to showcase the stories. Kind of a running gag I have with some entrepreneurs is that we’ll observe startups that go through a lot of personal turmoil to essentially generate the same amount of annual revenue as like a Subway franchise, and you really have to ask the hard question about “What am I doing this for?” And so, for folks that are very committed to a vision or committed to the idea of why they’re building their business, you have to speak to something that’s more than just the revenue. How are you observing the shift to entrepreneurship being just beyond digital, but this idea that Philadelphia is a lot more tolerant of that kind of risk than it was say in 2008?
Yeah, I think that’s true, we’re having a really vibrant conversation. It’s definitely a national one, as you’re alluding to, we get to publish in four other markets, we visit even more, so we at least try to have that lens. As we all know, it’s not a Philadelphia-only story, which I think is really important context to consider. We’re having a post-recession conversation about different career paths and trajectories, and what the distance between two traditional jobs on your resume looks like, and can be filled by. Yeah, the widening technology, let’s remember we’re interested in technology and scalable software because the rapid rise of wealth creation and job growth that it can have at its best case.
You’re right, there are far more small web dev shops or mobile app creators that are not producing any, perhaps even fewer jobs than a Subway franchise. I hope that nationally as we’re maturing through this entrepreneurship craze, we’re remembering that we’ve always cared about small business growth, there is nothing new about this. The types of businesses, and where they’re promoting themselves, that stuff has changed, but we think for the Technical.ly product primarily we are reporting just about the next generation of small businesses that are going to grow up in our community. None of the silicon, “We’re creating the next Silicon Valley,” kind of hogwash, just, “What is the next generation of companies?”
A lot of cities we cover still have huge digital inclusion challenges, there’s still income inequality, there’s still poverty and education issues, so this is not something that is benefiting everyone yet. The hope here is that we’re beginning the next generation of large companies that can be a part of that conversation. Yeah, I think it’s important to know that entrepreneurship and technology are not inextricably linked, it’s a type of technology, and not the best … It’s okay, we love when someone says, “Actually I want to start a bricks and mortar business, because that makes sense for me right now.”
It must have been fascinating, or maybe you’re at the point where you can look back at it and say, “Oh, that was fascinating.” Because you’re covering a lot of companies that are growing from one or two founders into pretty significant organizations, and you’re also having to learn how to grow your organization. So, tell me a little bit about what skills you had to develop to be able to scale from just the four of you at the time to, what do you have now? Close to two dozen, right?
19 full time, a half dozen part timers, and we’ll do three to four more hires this year, 2016, so yeah, really proud of that. You hit on something that has always been an interesting conversation, that we mostly cover small and growing organizations, and we ourselves were a small and growing organization. I am very open and honest that I don’t think we would be where we were if we weren’t covering whom we were. Every person I ever interviewed, and my co-founder Brian interviewed, everyone we ever spoke to has a little bit to do with our lasting seven years.
We would end every interview with small talk that would inevitably benefit us, we would take everyone thoughts and input them, we would constantly say when we were facing a challenge, “Well, I spoke to so-and-so co-founder a few weeks ago, and she said that this was something she was struggling with. But I spoke to this other person who is an investor and she said that this didn’t work because of X, Y, or Z.” We would use our sources to influence our own business decisions. It was vital because Brian and I were … and Sean at the very beginning, were young reporters who had never taken a business plan class.
We had no idea, it was a whole lot of Googling, and a lot of interviewing sources, so it was the only reason we were able to survive, was the guidance and thoughts of a community of founders who had … Who themselves in some cases first-time entrepreneurs and figuring it out. I think that’s something that is worth remembering that, gosh, no one has it figured out, but certainly a first-time founder, because there’s so many experiences that you would never know in any other setting. The decisions are hard, and there is no right choice a lot of ways, a lot of times, you just have to go with something and run with it. Yeah, we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t covering the kind of people we were.
At what point do you realize that you’re able to actually scale beyond Philadelphia and start to reset the same set of processes in other markets?
We’re still figuring that out to be honest right? Sean, Brian, and I co-founded technicallyphilly.com, a blog that covers the Philadelphia tech community. The original goal was, “We want to come on full time, and show that we can do it.” This was at the height of a news, and journalism, and media community nationally having a conversation about “Is commercially viable local reporting dead?” And we wanted to say, “No. We will use technology as a beat example, just one example, and it could take it anywhere.” We’re trying to do it with nonprofits and impact with Generocity, we hope we can take it to other communities. We wanted to just test it, so we came on full time, and if we started in late 2008, early 2009, we came on full time by end of 2010, early 2011. $28,000 salaries, or 30, something like that, but we were full time.
We were taking a salary from the company, and we were setting aside most freelancing to be our steady income. Really big deal for us at that point. We used to tease each other if we were making 30k, we used to call each other 30k because that was a big-time salary, that was blowing our minds out. So, 30k was the nickname we had like, “Oh yeah, 30k over here.” We came on fulltime, Sean said, “Cool, I’ve done the thing that I wanted to do.” He set aside, stepped aside, we’re really close with him, and then Brian and I said, “We want to try to build an organization.” So, we re-branded the primary product as Technical.ly so we could go to other markets, we wanted to try that. We wanted to see can we do truly authentic, commercially viable, local beat reporting? That’s what we wanted to show. Not journalism for journalism’s sake, but using journalism to do something for good, to make our communities better.
By 2012, we’d expanded to Baltimore. 2013 we went to Brooklyn. 2014 we went to Delaware, and end of 2014, early 2015 we went to DC. Then in 2015 we began publishing Generocity.org, a second brand. That was kind of the march, slow march, we want to enter small business mode. My definition between startup and small business, is small business, you know what your core product is, you’re now executing it at a small scale and wanting to grow it to medium size business. Startup is, “We’re trying to figure out who we are, and what our real model is.” We’re in that transition, we know a lot of what our core business is, we do a lot of events as a big portion of revenue, but we feel like it’s not, it isn’t really meaningfully scalable in terms of great margins to feel like we’re long-term sustainable. So, we’re experimenting a lot of other ways to bring in revenue that still relates to mission.
That’s why we have some startup in us still, we still don’t think we have that business model totally tightened, but, that growth has been exciting. Particularly in the last year, probably a lot has happened. Maybe a year, year and a half ago, we were probably eight people, and so now we’ve more than doubled, and we’ll continue to grow. The answer is we didn’t know scale was going to work, but we wanted to test the thing, and I feel like you should see every step of entrepreneurship as a hypothesis, and we get it wrong. We are obsessed as an organization and a publication that failure is okay as long as you’re learning from it. We failed, we still fail, we still struggle. We try to talk to our team about it, but yeah, I mean it’s working, we bring in revenue in other markets, we’re trying to be as authentic as we can in a local setting even though we’re headquartered in Philadelphia.
We always have at least a reporter and a freelancer corps in those communities we also publish in, and trying to be as genuine as we can. Because there’s a lot of distrust. People take local media as a real intimacy to telling local stories, and there’s such an inherent hypocrisy when people say, “Oh, well where are you headquartered?” Even though most of our newspaper chains because of consolidation aren’t, most often, headquartered in the place that they’re covering. There’s a lot of things that we’re still learning about how we understand local, but that’s the place we’re in, and it’s a really exciting conversation to be had.
The thing I observe is that your structure is very similar to the old foreign correspondent bureaus that TV had in the ‘60s or ‘70s, because you have boots on the ground in each of the markets that you’re in, are those writers that you recruited from those communities, or did you actually dispatch somebody to those places to get good stories?
Thankfully, and encouragingly, they are from those communities. Among people who care about local news, which is absolutely a small community, we have a bit of a reputation, there aren’t a lot of multi-market local beat reporting. As we happen to cover tech, and now with Generocity social impact on nonprofits, but across any beats, this is not a thing that happens a lot. Particularly ones that are doing original reporting, which we are doing, we’re not just doing aggregation. We do some of that, but we’re doing original reporting, we’re putting phone calls in, we are doing a longer form pieces of journalism about our communities. There isn’t a lot of that.
The models that we are still figuring out what’s the right mix, how much do we have to put into a community for them to really know that we care about them? It’s not a play, you look at our margins, you can rest assured that we are not profiteering on the backs of other communities. Every model has been had before, and so there is a great opportunity to learn lessons from what has worked in the past. I think we are trying to do that, but I’m not sure if we talk all the time, do we need to have more people and figure out a way to make more people more money each of these markets to support more people in each of these markets, or not. We often say in our newsroom, we say, “Philadelphia is not the model. We were headquartered here, so we have 18, 19 and growing full timers here who are servicing on multiple markets.
Because of that just proximity, because so many of us that are headquartered here, we have a different relationship with this community. We also grew up here, and so people can cheerlead us definitely. In Baltimore I have been there for three years, in Brooklyn 2 ½, or working on three. I think there are people that still have that relationship with us. I hope, because I frankly still see them as advisors, and people who help shape us. I hope they have a similar sense of ownership of us, of Baltimore is our first market, Baltimore matters a lot to us, I care personally about Baltimore. I talk about the Delaware Tech community a lot.
I meaningfully follow what happens in Brooklyn and DC, and how their relationship between their tech communities and wider business communities evolve. We care about these places. I hope that they care about us, and that we are not just throwing up a template, and just regurgitating. There are people who we recruited from those local communities, to report in these local communities. Just trying to find with scale, a chance to make this sustainable for the long term. I want commercially viable local reporting to survive. That’s a thing that’s still very much in flux.
I think that’s a huge challenge in a lot of communities, the idea here in Philadelphia there is a writer named Tara Murtha, and when she was part of an alt-weekly that essentially shutdown almost overnight, we went from a city that had a number of very thriving alternative weeklies, lots of places where you could have community reporting, and within a space of about five years, that has just dwindled to almost none. The thing that I think was very surprising, is that she and a lot of other reporters were openly posting their salaries on Twitter.
To the point you made earlier, I don’t know that folks go into journalism with ideas that they are going to become millionaires. They are often thinking about the impact that they can have, or the kinds of stories that they want to tell. When you are recruiting, when you are thinking about writers that you want to add to your roster, or talent that you want to bring into the organization, what are the indicators for you that someone has the right skill set, and the right attitude, and the right expectations about what it is that they are getting into?
I personally with even organizationally, we have an important ongoing dialogue with our industry’s history. To the point where I don’t want it even to be an industry, I want it to be a strategy. I think newsgathering, and acts of journalism for me are strategies that can help make community better. They shouldn’t be an industry, but nevertheless, there has long been an industry, and we have a relationship with that industry, because there are lots of standards and ethics, and perspectives, and history, and experiences, and models that we want to incorporate and do. There are some that we want to dismiss, because we think that’s what is going to hold back this from developing in the future.
I always want to be careful, because I am deeply respectful, and I honor the traditions of the newsroom and the aesthetic that it evokes for most people like me who grew up with the intentions of becoming a pretty traditional city politics reporter for a local newspaper. Like, that’s a city newspaper, that was a Metro daily newspaper, that was exactly where I was 10 years ago in my mind. I think there are a lot of things that kept that industry from surviving into a new era. Here’s something that again, if you care about journalism, you might find interesting, if you don’t, you can fall asleep for the next 20 seconds. I’m a believer that the reason we celebrate and had this wonderful mid-20th century, mid-late 20th century blossoming of journalism, people remember that we really didn’t have nearly as independent objective and strong-willed a press.
Any other time in history except for like 1940 to 1990, somewhere in there we had just the really remarkable string of objective challenging independent press. Wonderful time, not a given that that was always going to be. Whole lot of factors went into that. One of them was really heavily profitable newspaper companies that they had a monopoly on information gathering, and sharing, and so they were the best advertising game in town for any business that wanted to get the word out. It was sweet, sweet, sweet. All of that profit helped let companies experiment. I’m a believer that if you care about independent press, what we need are commercially viable options, so I want some nonprofit journalism institutes to exist, and that’s great that they do, but I also want local media defined models that can sustain them, and it can’t just be because gosh, I want you to. The margins are rotten, you are like under 5% margins, almost surely, we certainly are.
Reporters are not going to get wealthy. We think an independent press is an important strategy for making communities matter, and that’s something that you have to have a reporter who gets that, and most do at this point. For us, they also, and this has been a long preface, but what I was getting to is we always look for reporters who are willing to challenge the norms. Just because you are a young reporter, does not mean that you have a mindset toward the future. Frankly, J schools are full of twentysomethings that think, and still want to walk into a 1978 newsroom where the margins are incredible, you can do whatever you want, the goal is to make someone in your community mad just to show them how independent and powerful you are.
That all of this hubris that I think our industry was ultimately what helped us fail because we took it all for granted, and gosh, how important we were. We only hire reporters who dismiss that, and want to understand their role as part of a community. We think, and one thing that we’re challenged by as you look to earlier, we think that we should be part of our community. That doesn’t mean we can’t be challenging, we most certainly are, and have been, and continue to be. But, you have to be willing to be part of a community, we say when we introduce someone to our team if your community is failing, you are part of the reason why it’s failing.
Too much of our industry I believe kind of says, “Gosh, everything is broken, you guys should really clean that up, let me help you by putting a bunch of disparaging quotes into a story, and tell you go figure it out.” We are responsible for it as much as anyone. Independent press is supposed to be guiding communities, and so when things fail, we should take responsibility for them too. Our reporters got to know where our industry came from, you’ve got to be willing to challenge how work gets done, because some old traditions are the reason this industry is being held back from sustaining. You’ve also got to be good, we are challenging as all hell, we are snooty. We will tell you that your lead sucks, we will tell you that you don’t have a healthy skepticism, or you are too cruel. We are constantly challenging each other, so you have got to be damn good too.
Speaking about challenging the community, not everything is good news. What do you tell folks that get a little riled up when you are covering something that isn’t always shiny, happy, growth, when you are talking about maybe an exit that has gone wrong, or talent that is leaving the community because of a list of gripes and reasons?
That happens a lot to us, we say that ultimately, we do believe that our communities are thriving, so we are only fine-tuning great communities by offering what the shortcomings are. It is a lot harder in a community that is not winning. There are those communities that aren’t, that is a different, bigger challenge. We are blessed that mostly we’ve chosen places that things are working. We say, “Hey, we are being challenging to make you better.” We talk internally a ton, we are accurate, relevant, and productive in our reporting. That last word, every newsroom has accurate and relevant, we think that we are unique because we add the word productive to whatever reporting we want to put out. We want to make sure whatever we are doing has a point.
When we challenge companies that are crumbling, when we’ve reported on talent leaving as you alluded to, which we do it all of our communities, and it is the most common criticism we get, is that every time somebody notable from a community leaves, we do an exit interview. What was your time like here, why are you leaving, could something have been different about this place that could have kept you here? Every single time, there will be a series of tweets that are like, “All you ever do is report on people leaving.” We say, “Every other story we do is people coming, is to people working.
We don’t give it a brand name, or a title, because it’s everything else, it’s 85% is things that are working, and we just talked to someone about why they’re leaving.” It’s fascinating to us, people often find us refreshing because there is a lot of positive there, but I don’t think it’s healthy. I am a very strong criticizer of only positive news sources, I consider them dangerous tricks of disclusion. If you can’t read something negative about your community, you are being lied to by that publication.
As a side note, I’m going to steal dangerous tricks of disclusion as my next quizzo team name. Thinking about though the cadence of stories that comes through, you’ve got people coming, you’ve got people going, you’ve got profiles of companies, what makes a story newsworthy in the beats that you are covering, thinking both about technology, and social impact, knowing that companies will spend lots of effort coming up with pitches and press releases, and maybe 98% of them get disappointed to find out that maybe their thing is not as newsworthy as they thought. What’s your threshold for whether something goes into the mix or not?
For us, that someone else could meaningfully learn something from your story. Particularly on the Generocity side, we are pushing a lot, and experimenting a lot, and we want it to be only a place that you can learn from. We don’t do the big check photos. Meaning if you can picture that’s for us is the test of in or out. Is it the photo of a nonprofit leader and a corporate executive holding a big check that says, “See, we gave $10,000 to the boys and girls club.” Which is great, but not what we do. We want somebody to be able to learn something from it. That I think is the running theme, it’s the shortest answer for them all. For any brand we do, is what can you learn. With a little more taste to that, you’re an interesting person that had a different path to somewhere, and so it might spark someone.
You are approaching an existing problem that we know about in a slightly different way and so it might spark something in how a reader might understand. You got to be able to say, “Ah, it’s interesting.” At some point you have to have that feeling. We don’t always do it, we are not 100% there, but our intention is that you read a story on Technical.ly, or you read a story on Generocity, and you’re going to say, “Ah, that’s interesting.” That probably for me is the money phrase, and what you are saying or the hope is when you go, “Ah, that’s interesting.” Is you are taking a moment and rewiring a little synapse, you’re saying, “That’s not how I would have thought that would have been done. Is that good?
It doesn’t have to mean that it is, doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but do you take a moment and say, “Oh, how does it impact what I do?” That is exactly the kind of press we want. We take that local lens though for the added benefit of you can meet these people. For us, we think that’s the fun and the sex of local news, is that everyone you’ve read about is attainable. Approachable. Accessible. That for me, is what is thrilling about local news, that you can open something up and say, “I can meet anyone here if I really need to. If it’s really important, or I really want to. I can meet anyone here.” And so gosh, so if you say, “That’s interesting.” And it lingers, then gosh I hope you will meet that person, and we were a part of that.
That’s a great segue into the concept of Philly tech week. You’ve just kind of completed your recovery period, and then you’re getting ready to roll into the other similar projects that you are rolling out in other markets. Not only are you reporting on your community, you are actually a convener setting up opportunities for people to pull each other into rooms. Walk me through the evolution of Philly tech week, and what do you consider success for an event like that?
Yeah, so every April and May we organize Philly tech week, we organize Baltimore innovation week, and Delaware innovation week in the fall, we do events like them, but broken apart in DC and Brooklyn, and increasingly we’ll be in other places too. One real mission check for us was when we did our first events in 2009, the very beginning we didn’t want to be an advertising model, because we did not want to be beholden to just getting the most clicks. That was always the thing we ran from, and I think still is one of the most interesting approaches we’ve done from day one, that I think is also one of those reasons why we are different. Is that we have never really cared about the most visits to a site, we care about the most relevant visits to our site.
That means people who want to come hang out. More precisely, entrepreneurs and technologists on the Technical.ly side of things, and nonprofit leaders and mission minded creative class people on the Generocity side. Philly Tech, we came out of an idea in 2010, we’re a couple years into reporting this community, through a lot of good pieces, we were the beginning of trying to tie together the more small business IT class with a kind of independent software crew. We were seeing that each of those communities saw themselves the tech community, and no one was collectively saying something. We wanted to just rally and cry, a safe space everyone could come to, and I felt like we were really well positioned for it, because we covered all these people, it was our job to have relationships with all of them.
We felt like it was a mission check, we frankly still see it as an act of journalism, we are convening a bunch, we are putting together a narrative with a lot of different sources, and each event for us is still an act of journalism, we still see it as they are active, meaningful, honest conversations about topics, that is a living, breathing article you are looking at, and we train our reporters to use events as multi-source interviews. Yeah, it came out of a need needing to have a rallying cry, and it also frankly is now one of the ways we fund our work, that we sell sponsorships to that. For us, I guess when it’s mission aligned, and helps fund your year-round reporting, that is a wonderful place to be.
I don’t think it’s always going to be that same form. With Philly Tech and Baltimore Innovation, because those are great things that do an important role, we see them as an open house for a community, it’s where you can discover things. We’re constantly offering other events, and kind of doing other services, I think one of the other reasons that I would say why we’ve still survived is we didn’t stay satisfied. Our only egg in a basket isn’t Philly Tech week. We’re trying to always add to them. Since seven years for Philly Tech week. I think that will last long, long into the future, and will become … I hope is already the tradition that defines a community. We’ve got to keep moving. If you are a shark, and you’ve only got one thing, so we are always saying this is the next thing that we are going to be developing. That still will be an anchor part of who we are. I think that’s what every business has to be thinking about.
Speaking of the next thing, so Generocity wasn’t homegrown, it already existed, and you pulled it into your organization, and your technology stack. Where did that come from, how did that even happen?
Yeah, so generocity.org was founded by Frank and Sandra Baldino, kind of wonderful, regional philanthropists who wanted to convene people who cared about mission across from young creative class, to neighborhood groups, to kind of high net worth individuals, and wanted to find a place where they all came together, and for four to five years, they assembled a great team that was doing interesting work, I just couldn’t bring all the pieces together in building up that sustainability strategy. It really hadn’t had found the right way to grow revenue, they had done a lot of great experiments, but it wasn’t always with focus.
It didn’t have that next step, and Sandra kind of felt like it wasn’t … She wasn’t at the place where she was going to lead it to that next stage of what it needed to be. At the exact same time, we were saying, “Technical.ly has been a wonderful experiment, we’ve learned an incredible amount of lessons, we want to do other brands.” Wanted to test our model, but two, also to help keep conveying to people that we don’t see ourselves only as a tech publisher, we see ourselves as niche media company, that we can take any kind of slice we want to do meaningful, really narrow communities and convene them, and strengthen them.
We were looking for and talking about, and trying to fund raise for meaning sponsorships, not outside capital. Another brand. Sandra I had known for a few years via Generocity, and we had a great conversation, she was looking for a home, we were looking for a next brand, and so for lots of technical reasons, it was being published by a nonprofit, and we were being published by a for-profit. There is a kind of complicated mechanism, but we essentially took over, we acquired that brand. We hope it will be the next in a portfolio of brands that would help us be seen as a business publication in its broadest sense.
It also seems to reflect a shift I’m observing in Philadelphia which for centuries has been dominated philanthropically by a handful of very wealthy families, and now we have this idea of a social impact company, or even a B Corporation, or I thing that is not a non nonprofit, but does things for the community, and that’s okay. How do you see what you are doing in terms of community impact, do you structure your business in a certain way to make sure that you don’t lose sight of that goal that you’ve expressed?
I see the corollary, we covered and grew Technical.ly while we ourselves were growing. We talked to a lot of young companies as we ourselves were a young company. Now, we are doing more with social impact, and frankly we always were, but didn’t always use those words to describe it. We are a business that constantly as our team alluded to, puts mission over profit. Time and time again we are making those decisions, I think somewhat reflects just personality. I clearly from wanting to be a news reporter, I do not optimize for income. Frankly, I have no problem for those who do, I want wealth creation. On Technical.ly we cover lots of very capital focused people. Wealth creation leads to foundations, and universities, and a whole lot of meaningful work.
Please understand that I do not discredit wealth creation, just for me wasn’t the primary means of approaching it. I wanted to do something that had primarily kind of some greater good. First and foremost. It has been fascinating to be in that, I think you’re right that this has always been something that was natural to some people, we’re just getting all the vocabulary and the terminology straight. It is still something we do a lot of reporting on and how people use these phrases. You are right, we approach Generocity reporting with a lens that attacks structure, which is all a nonprofit or for-profit is. Can imply things, it can mean something, we like non-profits because they are ultimately not owned by individuals, so no one can secretly be taking profit out of it.
Nonprofits can be well compensated. I know lots of nonprofits who their executive leadership gets paid far more than I do. The logic here is there are poorly run off mission nonprofits, and there are incredibly on mission lean focused, hungry, meaningful for-profits. There is a reason why we have a nonprofit, and for-profit binary in our minds, but it lacks nuance, and accuracy in the world. I think we are having this really great conversation, I care more about what you do, and it fits so much with the history of the news industry, which is a really nice narrative for us. Meaning I think that newspapers produce some of the most meaningful and important investigative work that the industry has ever had from the ‘60s, to the early ‘90s because of incredibly profitable newspaper companies. Profit allowed for experimentation in missions they can take risks.
They couldn’t be threatened as nearly as much by someone who wanted to sue the heck out of someone for slander or liable because they had well commentated legal staffs. I believe that wealth creation with the right intentions is incredibly important ally to the nonprofit sector. Yes, I want us to, and we are baking into our company culture, the intention that we have to do a damn good thing. I think the best way that that happens is if we suddenly changed or pivoted, our entire team would leave. If you speak to our team, I think most of them if not all of them have that, “Yeah, we ultimately think we are challenging and making a community better, and we think that that community matters a whole lot for this city, a city’s future, and so that’s why we matter.”
Yeah, I know a bunch of your team, and I know that they are not the kind of folks that would take kindly if you asked them to start making clickbait articles tomorrow. That leads to I think one more question about the future of the organization. Thinking about the tracks that you’ve played, the platform you’ve built, now let’s say you have a crew, and somebody comes to you and says, “I’m going to chase this story, this is going to be deep, dire, investigative report, and it is going to come out and be 10,000 words.” Are you able to support that, is that something that is in your future? Tell me a little bit about where you want to see this grow.
Yeah, so first I always say I don’t want to be a part of an organization that produces journalism for journalism sake. I go back all the time in our editorial mission, accurate, relevant, and productive. My always check is, if we are doing a piece of journalism as productive, that challenges an ecosystem to be smarter, to expose fallacy or lie, to educate a group of people to find something instructive and learn from it. Yes. Absolutely, we can support. That is very much on mission. I like experimenting with what the form of journalism can be. Not everything has to be a 700-word article with a nut graph, and a high quote, and a lead, and the kicker. We do those, but we did in Philly and Baltimore, we did a Merrill questionnaire for the Merrill campaign so which we convened members of our community, we got questions together, we vetted, curated and put them the list.
We got Merrill contenders to respond to them, we published them. We’ll hold those answers to the ultimate victors. That for me is an act of journalism in its most core sense. I think frankly, maybe more important than a lot of things we’ve done. Clear, holding a community, making sure our community knows someone that they are voting for has a certain set of priorities. That was not a 700-word inverted pyramid story, but was an act of journalism. Yes, I want to do it, if that format of a 10,000 word piece, yeah, if that is the best way to tell that story, absolutely. We have those examples of ongoing stories we do, we often do a lot of mini ongoing pieces that may be their all four to 500 words, and then collectively get to that 10,000 words at the end maybe. We have done them, we have a legal budget, we have had those experiences, we always are in pursuit of trying to find a way to make sure our communities know that.
I think one of these times we’re going to just have to find the right way to disclose, but people don’t like some of the things that we do, and when you are a small independent publisher, covering highly profitable software companies, or wealthy investors and entrepreneurs, or even large philanthropists, unfortunately people use legal recourse for I think unnecessary means, because the great secret is to intimidate a less profitable press, you don’t need to win a case. Just need to be able to throw a case or a threat of a case and make us take on litigation. Fortunately, now we are at a place where we are more and more able to defend those. Yes, we are set up to do it both with our staff, we are set up to do it with our mission, and we are set up to do with the protection to know that as long as we are hitting our goal of accurate, relevant, and productive, we can stand by our work, and we will, and we have. One of those reasons they are is because of our legal budget. Yeah, we are ready to do those pieces.
How big you think you want this thing to get, do you grow to the size of something like Vox Media? Do you grow even to the size of something like what remains of the Philadelphia media network? Philly Inquirer, Philly.com?
There is two ways in our path that we grow, more communities, and more topics for those communities. We’re definitely still in experimentation mode of what is the best path to sustaining it. Our job as to what we do to sustain it, I do, I think there is room for grow, I think we can do something to be in lots more places. I don’t know if that number is, but as you know reason why we couldn’t be in 30 or 40 markets, and have a half-dozen or more brands that collectively we cover business publication, and have that team. I think that is possible. We are at this stage entirely bootstrapped, which is the right way to do it, because we figured out a lot on our own.
We have no intentions, we are in the process of raising outside to speed that, but I think when I’m asked that question of how big do you want to get, it’s really determined about whether we decide that the right thing is to remain bootstrapped, and slowly growing, one or two steps each year, and do it safely, and sustainably, or we think we have something profound here, let’s just replicate it rapidly. The difference between that is going to be some of those conversations, and decide how big we can get. The reality is we think we are doing something meaningful, we think we are doing something that is not being done well elsewhere in the country, and elsewhere in the world. We think it is something worth sharing.
What are you most looking forward to about the next five years, what’s a challenge you can’t wait to take on?
I’ve never realized how much I would love building a team. I am so excited to walk into our office and have 19 people, and go to other cities, and have a team that is made up of people who are getting to do something they love, and I’m part of that team. More people who can do great work is probably honestly the thing I most care about. I want to have a big team of brilliant people who I can be around. That is not something I had ever … Nothing I grew up thinking, or knowing about, and not even when we started, that wasn’t the thing I was optimizing for. I wanted to do journalism, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to ask challenging questions, and write beautiful stories, and share meaningful ideas. I still love that, and I still find time to do that, and I find lots of other outlets for it, because it is something that I care most about, but in this function, I care about building a team that wants to do good works, and works well together.
Christopher Wink, Technically Media, thanks for joining us on The Build.
Thanks for having me.
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