First Look Media has forgotten the number one rule of startups

When you start with a commitment of $250 million before you even have a website, it’s probably inevitable that expectations will be dashed at some point, but First Look Media — the brave new journalism venture financed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar — has gone from promise to disappointment in record time. Highly-regarded writers and editors have quit or been let go, projects have been halted, and a wide range of grievances aired in all too public a fashion.

Chris Lehmann has another in a somewhat depressing series of articles about the organizational intrigue at First Look, in which he details the often bizarre lengths to which the company seems determined to go to micro-manage the star talent it spent so much money attracting in the first place — including resisting a request to give the staff telephones, and requiring them to sit through interminable management meetings.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”These are not the kinds of practices and institutional routines that make for fearless independent journalism. Editors and reporters can’t gleefully target the corporate titans of the American scene, as Taibbi and Cook were charged to do, with one of them perched over their shoulders, insisting on voguish patterns of telephone usage and cross-tabulating what they’ve spent on taxis and meals with sources.”[/blockquote]

A previous story in New York magazine also had some details about the dysfunction at First Look, and a subsequent piece written by First Look staffers — including Intercept editor John Cook, who has since left to go back to Gawker Media, and star investigative blogger Glenn Greenwald — had even more depressing details, such as a requirement that some senior staff have their taxi receipts personally approved by Omidyar.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

The headline on Lehmann’s piece suggests that “maybe Silicon Valley shouldn’t manage journalists,” and I agree that’s definitely one interpretation of what seems to be happening at First Look. The kind of managers who understand rolling out tech services may not be well suited to handling the giant egos and contempt for rules that come with the kind of talent they hired, which seems like a fairly predictable outcome.

That said, however, I think the real problem is that someone at First Look — whether it’s Omidyar himself, or the managers he has chosen — have forgotten the most important principle when it comes to startups, whether they are technology-based or not, and that is: start with a “minimum viable product,” and then iterate on that as quickly as possible. Instead, First Look seems to have tried to build a management structure before they even had a product.

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When Omidyar first announced that he was going to create a new media entity with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill — before the name First Look had even been suggested — I thought the company’s approach was going to be much more of an “agile” one, to use a popular term from the software industry. It sounded as though Greenwald and his team would have a blog, and then other groups would have blogs (or magazines, as First Look called them) then a structure would gradually form around them.

A loose collective

That approach still seems like a smart way to go, as I tried to argue in a post at the time: A kind of loose collective of smart blogs or media outlets, run by writers and editors who specialize in one topic and have an existing brand or relationship with readers, with a corporate entity handling the back-office and administrative tasks, and the marketing/distribution side.

Instead, judging by what New York magazine and Lehmann and First Look writers themselves have described, it sounds like the company constructed many of the corporate processes and management functions that it believed it might need first, before there was even much to manage. That seems like a recipe for disaster, to put it mildly.

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If you look at the successful media entities that have emerged over the past decade, some of the best started with the most minimal products– Twitter was so minimal no one even knew what the heck it was supposed to be. Gawker started with a snarky blog, VICE magazine was a pop-culture rag and BuzzFeed began as a series of lists. Even more recent startups like Vox began with very little to show, and have tried to build on that.

Too much money

As I suggested above, First Look seems to have had an additional challenge, and that is the $250-million price tag that was put on the company right out of the gate. That kind of number puts a lot of pressure on a brand-new entity to come up with something that really blows the doors off, and may have encouraged the company to lose sight of its original goals.

In that sense, First Look feels like a journalistic version of a once-promising tech startup known as Color, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Bill Nguyen — whose previous company had been acquired by Apple — and funded to the tune of $41 million, only to implode in a fireball of missed expectations. Its vision and the founder’s track record seemed so appealing that it grew too quickly, before it even had a viable product.

Someone I know in the financial industry liked to say that weed killer works not by poisoning its victims, but by forcing them to grow too quickly — causing them to burn themselves out as they use up all their energy. I wonder what First Look Media might be like now if it had started smaller and tried to iterate over time, as it grew to understand what its readers wanted, rather than trying to come up with a company that could suddenly justify a pre-determined $250-million value.