When Oliver Mooney stood up for his final presentation of the Irish Times Digital Challenge, he had a confession to make.
“I love working with data,” he declared. “It’s such a nerdy thing to say, but I’ve been doing it now for over a decade for customers all over the country, and it’s about time I admit it.”
He then showed the front page of the The Irish Times’ business section and its three financial charts on the top right-hand corner — in this case, the first ones done with his product, GetBulb, on September 5. He calculates that because the charts ordinarily take 15 minutes to draw by hand and then check the figures six times a week, GetBulb has saved the paper two weeks in effort a year. It takes just “seconds” to do what took a quarter of an hour before.
GetBulb was the winner of the eight-week Irish Times startup challenge and for that, it gets 50,000 euros (about $63,000) in investment. The idea behind the challenge was to bring startup innovation directly into the Times by inviting five upstarts to compete for the prize from working within the institution. Now that the contest is over, both the winning startup and the paper have lessons learned to share.
Dr. Johnny Ryan, author of “A History of the Internet and the Digital Future” and the chief innovation officer at The Irish Times, always described the digital challenge as inviting “disruptors” into the newspaper world. And it certainly shook things up.
The winner: Data
For GetBulb’s part, the startup is already getting interest from publications and beyond. The power to represent data simply is worth something in a media world that is as much in love with data as Mooney.
“At the moment, The Irish Times’ online arm doesn’t have any of the print graphics — they recreate everything, and they use generic plug-ins that make them look like any other blog or site,” he said. “Now, with GetBulb, they can convert their print into interactive online stuff using exactly the same processes, no extra work involved.
“It just makes print design relevant again. It makes the traditional skill that the newspaper had in presenting visually work in the web. It lets you do graphics for both print and the web in seconds. It was a really strong appeal to The Irish Times in particular.”
Mooney’s background is data analysis, and it was while working on a report on the education system and admiring the size of data visualization teams at The Guardian and The New York Times, that he wanted to make the process easier.
“It was kind of jarring because I didn’t think it had to be that hard,” he said. “I didn’t think you needed to have a team of that many different skills to create this kind of graphic. The tool should be able to do all that work for you, in particular some of the design work. It’s very hard to find a designer good at presenting data visually. So if we can offer a library of tools that helps people to do that, that’s a real contribution to people’s work.”
Watch GetBulb’s demo video with its copy-and-paste ease and some journalists might worry it’s too good to be true. And that’s why Mooney is already getting interest in the product.
There is also a personal mission, however, to make sure Ireland can still define itself, he explained.
“When Ireland went into default, all of the graphics on that were created by people like the BBC and The Guardian,” he said. “There was no Irish media company that was able to create the kind of graphics you needed to do to tell that story in time for the print deadlines.
“And it really brought home to me that we were losing the ability to tell our own story.”
Looking back at the process, Ryan said the contest did challenge how the paper does its job.
On one level, the print team were enthusiastic about GetBulb, despite being busy preparing for the first design relaunch in 20 years on November 5. But it didn’t get that kind of traction with the online team. Even Mooney admits it was like dealing with “two separate companies”.
“Now that GetBulb has won and now that we’re kind of identifying a few projects that we can work with them on, we’re going to test on both sides and start to use it fairly regularly for combined print and online,” Ryan said.
“When it started, people might have been of two minds. There may have been people who thought, ‘Do we really want to let non-Irish Times people in the building?’ Now that this thing has happened once, I think the idea inside now is, ‘Why didn’t we do it bigger?’,” Ryan said. “Right now, with the level of interest and enthusiasm inside, what I’m seeing is, in round one we had people who were kind of pressured into cooperating with startups, whereas now they’re very enthusiastic about doing it next time.”
Ryan has three big lessons he has taken away from the challenge.
1. Don’t try to sex it up internally
The startups benefit from being in the same “crummy conditions” as the rest of the newspaper world. When the air conditioning sends people to sleep at 4 p.m., it sends the startups to sleep too. When the phones and WiFi are down, they suffer too.
“So you feel our pain and we feel yours,” Ryan said. “These people come in, they get a separate bunch of desks, but they suffer the same pain as the rest of the company. And that for them is called being in the market. It’s about not building an accelerator or an incubator — it’s about building a validator.”
2. Involve everyone from the beginning
Ryan forgot to tell the head of advertising the first day the startups came into The Irish Times office.
“Instead of teeing up the appropriate people the way I should have, I just landed these startups on them,” Ryan said. “And that’s both good and bad. Really, the way we’re going to do it next time is to have everyone fully involved. And if that’s possible, which it is for us, that is so much better than having to pick up the pieces post-hoc.”
3. Make sure the startups are winning, even if the relationship breaks down
As well as having free legal advice and support to the startups, there were a number of other experts brought in to push their business potential and find solutions. The challenge was about making them all viable, even if there was only one ultimate winner.
“You want to set it up so if the startups feel in any way aggrieved, they can walk away with any winnings that they’ve gained. That’s really important,” Ryan said.
The good news and the bad news
Despite some initial use of GetBulb, The Irish Times still has to improve its systems sufficiently to be able to integrate their first digital challenge winner.
“GetBulb is a really big deal,” Ryan said. “And we’re not at a point where we can fully use it or fully exploit how big a deal it is.
“So, we’ve identified this thing which I am very confident will be used by a lot of news media organizations in the next two to five years. I have very little doubt about that.
“I know that they can now raise significant revenue; they can grow their operations; they can hire sales people; and they already have a great technology. So that’s 10 out of 10. That is what success looks like for us. But our own internal situation is that we’re not yet ready to leverage that. We will be, but we’re not yet ready. So, it’s a question about defining success.”
Ryan views Ireland as unique in having a large tech community per capita, but within a small community that allows collaboration and reaching across sectors that are next door to each other.
The paper had been profiling startups for some time already, well before issuing an invitation for firms to set up shop inside the organization. On the level of reaching across the “ecosystem” of Irish media and technology, the challenge was a success.
“The digital challenge did what it should do — it found this great startup. We know it’s a good thing,” Ryan said.
“Now we have to slightly adapt to how we do things to combine print and online design so that we can use these kind of tools. And there’s a lot of wins for us in doing that. Part of this process is not just about launching new products and new services. It’s partly about finding problems and challenges in your own organization.”
What next for GetBulb and The Irish Times?
Mooney says they currently envisage three different pricing models for the product: a per-graphic offer for occasional use for perhaps 3-5 euros; a monthly fee for the “one-man band” smaller firms of around 25 euros; and quarterly licenses for bigger offices such as The Irish Times. They would also be able to resell the graphics, adding a new potential revenue stream.
Mooney also wants to see what stories can be enhanced with GetBulb to make sure the product is useful and can then continue to grow and find new funding models.
But it’s not just about the money.
“A startup is one of the most challenging things you can do,” he said. “The ambition to make money is fine, but you don’t create a startup to make money. Hopefully you will make a living from it, but you do a startup because you believe in the problem you’re trying to solve as well.
“If it works in the media world where the demands are much higher, the time limits are much shorter, it’s going to work in the business world. The business world doesn’t have much time, but they have more time than journalists have. So if I can get it good enough for journalism, it’s going to be more than good enough for a lot of business demands. It pushes me to hone the tool to make it as good as it can possibly be. Media companies like The Irish Times are real anchor clients for me because it demonstrates to the wider world that [GetBulb] works there.”
At the paper, Ryan is brimming with ideas and plans through 2013 that he insists on keeping under his digital hat for the moment. But there will be another startup challenge he says, and he wants it bigger.
Until then, Ryan said he hopes The Irish Times can help extend GetBulb to newsrooms around the world, as well as their own.
“GetBulb is both an amazing achievement for us to have found — it’s a big deal,” he said. “But it’s also an indictment, because we should be using this thing today, properly. There’s a useful downside to this process as well.”
“The Irish Times knows it needs to come up with some way to survive in a changing world,” Mooney said. “And similarly for startups, we’re trying to find our market. We’re trying to find who best can use what we offer.
“There was like a great meeting of minds, and The Irish Times really did try to push our development as companies. They really were invested in our success because it helped with their success. They have to learn and change and grow, but doing it in such a way that it made sure it was beneficial for both parties.”
Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.