We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this special series, we talk to the CEOs of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job description and understand what they have learned in the role.
What if there was a way to quantify how much a reader knows about a subject? That was the vision for CRUX when it was founded in 2018, which works as a widget that measures how much a user knows about a given topic when visiting a news website or app.
The first publisher to use CRUX was Sifted, the FT-backed news website focusing on the European startup scene. As a membership-based organisation, Sifted saw a 55 per cent increase in engagement thanks to the tool. It works like a game: by reading an article, readers increase their overall knowledge score on the topic, and other articles will be recommended to bring that score up to the mastery level of 1000.
Co-founders Barak Ronen and Roie Amir's mission is simple: out with clickbait designed to artificially create engagement, and in with showing the reader how much progress they are making and what else there is to learn.
CRUX (not to be confused with a Catholic news site also called Crux) has eight employees and has raised about £1.2m to date, being backed by Founders Factory. Its revenue model is also interesting - it charges content providers and publishers with a fee based on increased engagement and revenue from using the tool.
Ronen, as CEO of the company, oversees most of the business. But he is mostly involved with seeing through the overall vision and strategy. That means veering into how product, customer and partner relationships, funding, hiring and company culture all play into the broader goals.
But his roots are in journalism, having served as chief news editor for Israel's leading news portal Walla in the late 90s, before working his way up to different roles at Reuters and Dow Jones. All told, he has one decade of experience in content and journalism, and another decade in the business and tech sides of thenews and information industries.
Ronen talks to Journalism.co.uk about what it takes to lead his media startup.
How did you come up with the idea for your startup and what gave you the confidence to run with that idea?
There were two moments that made the idea take shape. The first was a long moment - I lived the transition from print to digital, and though I was always enthusiastic about the digital side of things, I was also very aware of what we were losing when shifting away from print. We were losing limited space, losing hierarchies, losing, in a way, the best data visualisation we ever had of how much we covered - which was how much we have read of today's paper, or of a book. Digital had no boundaries and had infinite information. It is great but it is also a huge challenge.
The second moment came when I got together with my co-founder Roie Amir, who is a search and complex algorithms specialist. We were thinking about information overload and how to fight it, and then realised the answer was hiding in plain sight: when humans talk to each other about knowledge - they always talk about it as a quantity "she knows a lot about AI; he knows a little about China; this article will tell you most of what you need to know about GDPR".
If humans intuitively perceive knowledge as quantity, how could we measure it? Between my understanding of content and writing and Roie’s code wizardry, it all started happening.
In terms of confidence to go ahead, we kept it simple. We built a prototype, tested the heck out of it and saw that even that initial version delivered great results.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
I think they are divided into two broad categories: allocations and ambition setting.
Allocations are any moment where the company needs to decide between two or more important options: should we hire this person or the other for a new role? Should we opt for this or that approach for a product feature? As CEO I am trying to also constantly ask 'what’s the missing option, what are we not considering, but should be?' Ambition setting is more quantitative - if we are going with option one, how far should we take it? How much should we invest in it?
If a decision 'belongs' to someone else's area of expertise in the company I prefer they take the call, and I will weigh in only if there is a compelling reason to do so. If it is squarely on me I like to consult people I trust with relevant experience and knowledge. And I keep an internal eye on our long term vision - supporting the big plan is key.
How do you deal with stress?
I laugh and I run. The stressful things that happen in the life of a seed stage startup are the stuff of legend. Being able to see and even enjoy the humour and the absurdity in some of those moments is a way of transcending the less joyful bits. If that fails, a good run in the park can work wonders.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and your specific business? What is your problem-solving process?
We are a startup serving media companies, and media as an industry has been undergoing systemic changes and challenges continuously for the past 20 years. It is exciting but also tough. Media companies can be complex in terms of stakeholders and the challenging industry environment can sometimes translate to a more conservative approach to innovation.
But you can - and should - find allies in less expected places. For instance, we found that journalists are a lot more open to innovation and to do things differently than many in the industry gives them credit for.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
Imagination - the ability to see what is not there yet, but will, or at least can be. Prioritisation - an understanding of what is important and what is less important. Honesty with others and with myself. Recognising and speaking the truth is not always easy but it is very important. Communication - as a CEO you act by communicating to other people in the company, to partners, to investors. You have to be able to convey your vision. I am working on these skills by practising them and by taking advice and guidance from people I trust. It is important to have honest advice-givers and I am lucky to have a few.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when becoming CEO?
Metaphorical thinking. The ability to frame your thoughts, actions and vision as an analogy to something else, more simple, more familiar, more intuitive. Being able to frame these crisp metaphors is a hidden superpower that anyone can tap by simply asking about anything: 'what is this like?'
Metaphors help guide you in the right direction when you are stuck on product or vision development; help bring people together around an initiative; help communicate to investors and customers.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to become CEOs of startups?
Two bits of advice: one, trust your instincts - it does not mean you have to react instinctively, but if you have an instinctive reaction to something this is an important bit of data. Your instincts will tell you something important about whether you should or should not go for the wild startup ride.
Two, do not do it alone and do not compromise on your co-founders. Not a week goes by without me thinking how fortunate I am to be working alongside my co-founder. A good partnership is a real source of strength.
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