3 lessons learned from CUNY’s Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism program

On Sunday I was welcomed back to Auckland by angry grey skies, a howling wind, and “winter” temperatures that would have seemed positively tropical just three months ago. It’s great to be home. No more living out of a suitcase, cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet, or enduring the twice-daily ritual of forcing myself into uncomfortable proximity with total strangers on the subway. My neighbourhood here is impossibly tranquil, save for my dog’s occasional protestations at innocent passers-by. I miss New York terribly though. Its intensity and hustle are hugely motivating. It wills you to keep moving, keep achieving, keep discovering. I’m afraid of losing that momentum, but the change of pace offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on what I learned there. If you have an idea, build it. Two months ago (although it seems like yesterday) I wrote about the process of launching Kitchen Chapters. It had felt like a never-ending battle to get all the different elements in line before putting it out to the world, but forcing myself to do so before it was perfect turned out to be the best thing for it. Once the site was live, the deadlines for story production fell into place and I began to streamline my workflow. I even managed to find time to send out a weekly newsletter, which was well received and did wonders for directing people to the site. Having a living product gave me so much more confidence in my idea. I was showing the site to as many people as I could, getting valuable feedback and a self-populating stream of...

Launching a minimum viable product

“Better 60% done than 100% ready.” My classmate Sneha can frequently be heard uttering this (or the rather more piratical alternative, “F**k it, ship it”) on a Monday evening over coffee and what may just be New York’s best cookies. A small group of my Tow-Knight classmates and I have a regular catch-up at this time where we brainstorm, problem-solve, and keep each other on-track to meet our project goals. There’s also a fair amount of irrelevant discussion about politics and puppies but hey, what would life be without those. This gentle peer pressure was instrumental in helping me launch Kitchen Chapters last week. At this point it’s not much more than a very shiny-looking blog, but the main thing is that because it’s live, I can stop talking in hypotheticals and start getting meaningful feedback, building an audience, and working on the business strategy in earnest. The process went something like this, although it is important to note that most of these steps were happening simultaneously: Begin producing content. Organising, researching and conducting interviews, then writing and editing. Set up a basic site. I chose a free WordPress theme that loosely fit my desired aesthetic without needing extensive customization, which is an unnecessary cost at this stage. Start building an audience. I began to increase activity on my Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts: posting interesting links, participating in live chats. I discovered how time-consuming it is to manage multiple accounts, each of which has a different purpose. Adding to the challenge is the fact that my audience is split between New York and New Zealand, giving me an...

Conducting a user survey: trials and tribulations

Does time move faster in New York City? It certainly feels that way. February vanished in a blur of classes, guest speakers and site visits, and in just two weeks we’ll be halfway through the Tow-Knight program at CUNY. I only wish the weather would catch up… For me, February was about seeking out my potential users and finding out more about their behaviours: what media they consume, where they go to look for it, why they like some things and not others. In short, developing empathy that would help me identify opportunities in the market and problems I could solve. Jeff Jarvis is a great proponent of treating anyone and everyone as a user ripe for surveying. In this city of more than 8 million people, I wasn’t short of potential interview candidates. The problem, of course, is that New Yorkers are perpetually in a hurry. When they do find rare moments of peace, they certainly don’t feel like talking to a stranger with a funny accent who wants to ask probing questions about their reading habits. I abandoned that strategy after dismal failures on the A train and then at Penn Station. Ok, so perhaps places of transit weren’t the wisest choice. But Mother Nature made sure there was nary a soul in any public place of leisure. Success came with the friendly Kiwis I met at an event, and when I distributed an online survey through my personal networks. I have a clearer idea of how I can create something meaningful, and am now in the process of creating what is referred to in the startup...

Frozen – a true story

Last week had started so promisingly: on Tuesday I wandered past the Richard Rogers Theatre on my way home and popped my name into the If/Then lottery. Ninety minutes later, I was in the second row watching Idina Menzel belting her lungs out. It was exhilarating, dream-come-true, only-in-New-York kind of stuff. But I arrived home to find things were less Broadway, more Frozen. My bathroom had no water and the apartment had lost central heating. I used my roommate’s shower and huddled a little deeper under the duvet that night, hoping things would be fixed the next day. Unfortunately, the heating and plumbing issues were being caused by a frozen pipe, courtesy of New York’s unseasonably cold weather. A temporary fix had been applied to the shower, which required leaving it running at all times to stop it freezing again, but we were told nothing more could be done until the pipes unfroze. One glance at the long-range forecast told me that wouldn’t be any time soon. I was beginning to understand how Anna felt when Elsa told her she couldn’t defrost Arendelle. I set about trying to figure out how to run two small fan heaters in my room at once without tripping the extremely sensitive fuse. But no sooner had I managed that, than there was an ominous whoosh of running water from the corner of my bedroom. The previously frozen pipe had now given up completely and was rapidly leaking out of the wall heater. And so it transpired that I spent Thursday night being spooned by my classmate’s cat, and Friday evening dragging my belongings...

Why getting started is the hardest bit

Trying to launch a startup is a bit like waiting to cross Broadway during rush hour. I’m standing at the edge of the sidewalk, looking left and right, assessing my options. Do I take a calculated risk and step out before the white man appears, or do I wait for him to tell me it’s safe, but risk missing my train? When it comes to commuting, at least if I play it safe there will probably (hopefully) be another train not too far away. Entrepreneurship is a bit different. The longer I hang around waiting to be absolutely certain I’m not going to get hurt, the more opportunities whizz by. Of course – if you’ll entertain an extension of this rather flimsy metaphor – it’s not exactly wise to barrel head-first into oncoming traffic without a second thought. But I feel like I’ve spent enough time waiting. The past week at the Tow-Knight Center has been a blur of new business development tools: business model canvasses to draw up, audience personae and buyer journeys to be imagined (with the help of the consultants at RevSquare), and the intricacies of user experience-centred design to understand: “If a tree falls in the woods and no-one is there, it did not make a sound.” @younglucas on user experience #ej15 — Kim Choe (@kimchoe) February 6, 2015 It all makes perfect sense in theory, but actually filling in the blanks with specifics pertaining to my own project is hard when I still haven’t synthesised a hypothesis for it. Self-doubt is a cruel mistress, most commonly heard uttering things like: That idea’s been done...

What am I doing here?

There’s a snowstorm swirling outside. It’s not quite a blizzard – although one was forecast of such potentially catastrophic proportions it has pre-emptively shut down all of New York City. Still, when I step into the near-deserted streets of Harlem, the wind slices straight through my thick woollen hat. I inhale sharply in shock and snowflakes fly up my nostrils. Even though the cold is permeating further through the thick rubber soles of my boots with each step, I’m soaking it up – as it were. I have just four months to make the most of this incredible city and a little bit of snow isn’t going to get in my way! Invalid Displayed Gallery I’m a week-and-a-half into orientation at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I’m a Fellow at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Bit of a mouthful, huh. Classes begin in earnest next week. My 20 classmates and I are learning how to be both entrepreneurs and journalists – two things that don’t always sit comfortably together, but are becoming increasingly inseparable by necessity in a media landscape where digital rules, but doesn’t always pay. The amount of new information is daunting. Every day there are new content delivery platforms  and business models to grasp, as well as people to meet who are involved in media startups already doing great things. But what would New York be if not intense, inspiring, and full of possibilities? Follow the Tow-Knight 2015 Fellows’ journey on Twitter and...