How I joined the dot.commies: Blame it on the caffeine ... On a post-prandial high, a group of old-media financial hacks vowed to launch their own news service on the internet. - with little knowledge of the web and no commercial nous. Matthew Lynn descri

How I joined the dot.commies: Blame it on the caffeine ... On a post-prandial high, a group of old-media financial hacks vowed to launch their own news service on the internet. - with little knowledge of the web and no commercial nous. Matthew Lynn descri

by MATTHEW LYN
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Like all the best internet ideas, it started over a tall latte in Starbucks. I had just been having lunch with a couple of friends, who also happen to make their living as financial journalists. It was one of those leisurely lunches people in the same trade enjoy. None of us had any pressing deadlines, so we were happy enough to while away a few hours drinking coffees and moaning about the random collection of fools and jack-asses whose careers were unexpectedly flourishing all around us.

In the back of my mind was an article I had just read. It was written by Michael Lewis, an author who is best known for his classic description of greed and ambition in the financial markets, Liar's Poker. Called 'A Sad Story from the New Economy', it told how Lewis had been among the journalists approached by the founders of TheStreet.com to help start a financial news service on the web. It had been suggested he write a column every week, for which he would be paid with shares in the company.

Writers, however, have a lot in common with builders; they keep irregular hours, they miss deadlines and, when it comes to money, they like to get paid in cash, preferably up-front. Shares and other promissory notes are not a currency they are used to dealing with.

Lewis turned TheStreet down, telling them that he had proper work to do for proper newspapers that paid proper money. The sting in that tale hardly needs to be spelt out; the shares he had been offered for a few columns would have been worth tens of millions of dollars, whereas the words he wrote for the papers were worth just a few thousand.

A thought kicked around my mind for a few weeks. At first I thought it might pass, like most wild ideas, but this one seemed to take up residence; it had unpacked its cases, and was hanging pictures on the walls. Why not start up an internet company, much as TheStreet guys had done in America? It seemed to me there were two frustrating things about Lewis' story, both of which must have caused him a lot of pain. One was that he'd lost out on a fortune himself. The other was that he had been forced to watch a lot of people in the same business - most of whom are probably a lot less talented than him - make a pile of money. The second, if he was being honest about it, probably hurt a lot more than the first.

'We should do something on the net,' I announced, looking up from my latte.

At the time, last summer, I already had several other things to do, none of which suggested setting up an internet company as a logical, rational or even particularly sensible career move. I was writing a profile every week for the Sunday Times business section, I was writing a column every week for Bloomberg (which was where I had read the Michael Lewis article), and I was writing thrillers; a couple had been published so far, and I was working on the next one. I was also renovating a house, and my wife was expecting our first baby. Whatever this web lark was likely to involve - and so far I didn't really have a clue - it wasn't going to take up too much time, I hoped.

'Good idea,' answered my two lunch companions.

Our first thoughts were pretty chaotic and disorganised. Although we had all quickly become addicted to e-mail, and used the web occasionally at work, and had glanced at sites such as ft.com or some of the American financial news sites, none of us had much idea what an internet company might do, nor how it might pay for itself. But we had enthusiasm and plenty of ambition, and on the internet that seemed to count for a lot more than experience or capital.

We also knew something about spinning an intriguing story, and that seemed to count for a fair bit as well.

There was, in retrospect, nothing either very clever or very original about our first plan. It consisted mainly of taking what we were already doing - which was producing broadsheet newspaper business sections for an intelligent, interested audience - and turning our work into silicon and pixels rather than paper and ink. We would carry all the breaking news of the day, edited and written by people who already knew about the subject, and we would carry columns by a collection of city editors and reporters, all of whom we assumed would be happy to write for us for a bit of cash and a pile of share options. Internet options were already starting to gather an almost mystical aura, and we assumed that, like the dust from a magician's wand, they could magically transform anything or anybody they touched.

None of us had any idea how much it would all cost, nor how it would pay for itself. Were it not for the fact that we had all given up nicotine for latte, we would have scribbled our ideas down on the back of fag packet; instead, we covered a few sheets of paper with some fairly random thoughts of what our business might look like - although a cigarette box would have captured the cavalier spirit of the thing better. We recruited another member of our team, Bill Bloom, who was then an assistant editor of the Sunday Times business section, and the man who masterminded the task of getting the business and money sections out every week. Our ranks strengthened, we headed out confidently into the world to meet the venture capitalists.

An advantage of working as a business journalist is that you get to meet a lot of important people; a disadvantage is that you have absolutely no experience of selling anything, particularly yourself. Usually, they sell themselves to you. Our first port of call was Stephen Grabiner, whom I had profiled at the time he moved from running Express Newspapers to setting up OnDigital. He had just landed at the venture capital firm Apax.

Another member of our team also happened to know him, so he seemed a natural person to talk to.

There is a particular type of high that comes from asking someone for between five and 10 million to spend on a quixotic and possibly doomed project. For a moment, you half expect them to crack up laughing, then start calling for the bouncers to send you hurtling down the street. But then, so long as their faces remain straight, your confidence starts to grow. Ten million, you think to yourself. Should have asked for twenty.

In retrospect, Grabiner was remarkably polite that morning. Maybe we amused him. Or, perhaps more likely, he thought we might write something horrid about him if he didn't at least hear us out. Our plans at that stage were still impossibly vague and uninformed. We didn't know who might want to use the site and why. We didn't know who the competition was likely to be, or what its plans were. We didn't know what anything might cost.

But at least we had the beginnings of a good idea, and the simple process of talking it through with somebody who knew what a serious investment proposal looked like helped to knock our thoughts into shape. Grabiner stopped short of reaching for his cheque book - a couple of miles short, in truth - but he was encouraging enough for us to leave the meeting feeling that it was not complete madness to press forward.

That weekend, a story broke that a couple of journalists from the Financial Times, Robert Peston and William Lewis, were looking to lead a breakaway from the FT in order to start a rival internet newspaper. Ironically, the story was written by my business editor at the Sunday Times, John Jay, who remained unaware that a couple of his staff were cooking up something similar. The first thought among our crew was that we had been beaten to the punch; the market might want one group of journalists to launch itself onto the internet but it was unlikely to want two. But then, the FT team appeared to lose interest, possibly because their cover had been broken too early. Our plan, if we had the nerve to stick with it, was still on track.

Soon afterwards I resigned from the Sunday Times. It no longer felt right to be working part-time on that paper while trying to raise finance for a different project. But, more importantly, the rounds of meetings convinced me that something would happen, although I could not yet be sure what.

I didn't need the money enough just to clock in for the monthly pay cheque.

The next few months were consumed by a long round of endless meetings, some of which were fun, some of which were quite boring. There were weeks when not much seemed to be happening, and confidence started to ebb away.

Then there were weeks when lots of things seemed to be happening and it all became exciting again. Throughout, the hardest thing was to maintain the belief that it would actually happen, and that if we raised the money we could make it work.

Along the way, one of our team dropped out. We had noticed that he didn't seem to be taking the project very seriously; but then he doesn't take very much seriously, which was one of the things that made him a good founder in the first place. I asked him over lunch one day whether he was really interested, and he replied that he couldn't get that excited until he knew the money was there. That seemed to me a classic Catch-22; the money wouldn't arrive unless we got excited. We pressed forwards as a threesome.

There were a lot of brick walls to confront, but one of the most frustrating was the unthinking conservatism of the average journalist. Most probably regard themselves as political liberals, but change probably comes more naturally to the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association than it does to the average inhabitant of a British newspaper. Few journalists seemed to have any idea what the internet was doing to the trade they worked in; their coffee remains truly unsmelt.

Two things interested me about the project we had embarked on. One, in truth, was the cowboy aspect. Butch Cassidy was once asked why he robbed banks, to which he replied: 'Because that's where the money is.' People set up internet firms for the same reason; despite everything, they seem about the closest thing to free money since the conquistadors stormed their way through South America. But the other reason was more high-minded.

The internet will provoke a big change in the way the media operates, and it seemed to me to be more interesting and more fun to be a part of the process of change than part of the resistance to it.

The internet may or may not kill off newspapers and magazines and television and radio, but it seems certain to become the primary source of news, comment and analysis for most people: at the end of the day, it's just a better mousetrap. The complacency within most traditional media is hugely comforting to those making the switch to new media. Most people recognise that it might be significant, but take refuge in the popular cliche that most new technologies complement the old rather than replace it. Sometimes that's true. But how many typewriters are used today? Or horse-drawn carriages?

Or working canals? Or gas lamps? Occasionally a new technology comes along that is so much better that it kills the old one completely.

To me, it seemed that making the jump was more important than making sure you jumped in precisely the right direction. Wherever you landed was likely to be a more interesting place than staying with the old media.

That decision is one that many people in many different industries are going to have to make over the coming years. My advice? Embracing the new is always better than clinging on to the old.

Our plans did not quite work out as expected, but then plans seldom do.

Halfway through raising the money ourselves, we stumbled across Talkcast, a new media company that had been formed in September with pounds 20 million in finance from shareholders, who included investment bank Durlacher and software company Autonomy. It too was looking to build a digital financial news business. It had money and infrastructure and some people, and we had people and ideas. It seemed natural to talk. It wasn't what we had been looking for, but that deal seemed to work very smoothly. I am now a shareholder in Talkcast, and working on bringing its financial news service to life. One of our team dropped out, which was a shame, given the amount of work we had put into the project together. The two former colleagues are missed. But others from good papers such as The Times and Daily Mail have signed up. We move forwards and sometimes even upwards.

It was an adventure, and like most adventures it was the unpredictability of the outcome that made it exciting. I was impressed by the willingness of the corporate people to take seriously a bunch of journalists with no commercial experience but with an interesting idea; my respect for the suits went up. I was depressed by the reluctance of many of my peers to embrace change, or to put aside tired hierarchies for the sake of creating something new.

But I wouldn't have missed the ride for anything. l

THE 10 DOT.COMMANDMENTS

One: Assemble your team with care. Because it is happening and cool, lots of people think they want to do something on the internet. Only a few will actually go through with it.

Two: Hone your plan. Your first thought is sometimes your best one, but not always. Write down five different options, then choose the best one.

Three: Do lots of research. The internet is no longer an empty space - it is heavily populated terrain. The chances are someone has already had your idea and implemented it.

Four: Reserve your domain name. Most of the best ones - including dogbreath.com and birdbrain.com - are already taken.

Five: Be stingy with equity. When the company is just an idea it is easy to throw shares around. Once the company is established, you'll resent having given equity away too cheaply.

Six: Start writing a business plan, doubling all your estimates of what everything will cost. Net inflation is rampant. Web designers and technical staff have seen their salaries shoot through the roof, and if you have dot.com in your company name everyone thinks you are loaded. Even the graduate trainees will want pounds 40,000 plus options.

Seven: Practise your spiel. Internet companies are all about projection, and moving the story forward. Your story will need to be told a thousand times. To keep it fresh, change it a little each time.

Eight: Make sure you have a Martha as member of the team - without a pretty twenty-something on board, your PR company will have no idea how to promote your company. Editors around the world are crying out for 'net totty' stories - don't fight them.

Nine: Leave your job, and devote yourself full-time to raising the money. As they say in Wayne's World 2, 'If you book them, they will play.'

Ten: Head down to The Gap to stock up on T-shirts and combat trousers. Dot.com entrepreneurs never wear suits. The new uniform will be useful for a job at Starbucks - if it all goes pear-shaped.

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