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Oct. 14, 2009, 11:07 a.m.

Philadelphia tech site tries to put its news startup theories into practice

Technically Philly looks like a prototype plucked from an entrepreneurial journalism textbook. The website offers targeted coverage. The founders nurture their community, online and off. In-progress revenue streams are smartly diversified across advertising and services. 

But what if you did everything right, implemented all your ideas, and the business still didn’t catch on? That’s the concern for Technically Philly’s founders, Sean Blanda, Christopher Wink and Brian James Kirk.

Blanda is blunt about their prospects. “Our biggest challenge in the next few months is that we’re going to roll out all of our ideas for how a niche product can be profitable, and we’re going to know if Technically Philly will work as a business,” he said. “We’re looking for evidence this business is sustainable.”

This stark but common refrain is the same one that sends squeamish entrepreneurs back to their imperfect-but-secure employers. But the guys behind Technically Philly didn’t have jobs to cling to; all three confronted a desolate market when they graduated from Temple University. (Blanda has since landed a full-time gig; Kirk and Wink are freelancing). Barring an unexpected media turnaround, their path will be walked by many others. 

Sensing a community’s rise

Technically Philly traces back to a technology column Brian James Kirk wrote while in college. Blanda, noticing the column had a following, pushed Kirk to expand the idea into a full-fledged site. Kirk resisted initially, but a catalytic event gave the idea new life: Ignite Philly, a tech confab for Philly’s geek contingent, drew an overflow crowd at a local bar. “There were more people at Ignite than there were for concerts,” Blanda recalled. This in-person manifestation of Philly’s tech corps reinforced the trio’s sense that tech was on the rise within their city. Looking about, they saw no one directly serving that constituency. In February, Technically Philly launched to fill the void.

The founders came armed with a set of journalism and marketing theories they’d developed as undergrads. The theories themselves weren’t particularly novel, but basic concepts — like a commitment to community engagement and using content to both inform and market — separate Technically Philly’s efforts from the top-down approach indigenous to mainstream media organizations. With all three founders in their early 20s, Technically Philly wasn’t encumbered by fealty to traditional models. They’re building a business, not saving one. Whether their efforts will work remains an open question, but Technically Philly’s traffic has grown steadily since the February launch and revenue is starting to trickle in. 

What they’ve done and what they’re doing

When I asked Blanda to dive into his lessons learned, I was struck by Technically Philly’s attentiveness to the business side. All that harping on business education for j-school students is paying dividends. Maybe that’s why journalism programs are at capacity.

So here’s what Blanda says the Technically Philly founders have learned thus far:

Original content is worth the effort. Around two thirds of Technically Philly’s content is original; the rest falls into the curation/aggregation domain. As trained journalists, Blanda said it’s second nature for the Technically Philly staff to pick up the phone to do an interview or follow-up on a particular point. But that still separates them from much of their online competition. There’s nothing wrong with reuse — especially if the new content creates additional value — but the act of talking to someone differentiates a site.

Get into the community. The independent journalism route isn’t a great fit if you can’t stand real-world social contact. Blanda said there’s no substitute for getting out and meeting the audience you aim to serve. “Be a part of the community you’re covering. Be in it. I need to walk into an event and people go, ‘That’s the Technically Philly guy.'”

Overcompensate for time, then overcompensate some more. It took far longer than originally estimated for Technically Philly to gain traction or revenue.  “I remember we drew out a plan and we said, by April, we’ll sell our first ad,” Blanda noted. “We just sold our first ad in the beginning of September.”

Learn sales (or buddy up to a salesperson). Because no one ever clicks the “Advertise with Us” link, you’ll have to proactively sell your product. “The one thing I will beat over the head of anyone who wants to do this is sales,” Blanda said. “I think sometimes we get caught up in thinking too one dimensionally, that ‘I wrote this product and I make money.’ But there’s an in-between there that obviously the industry is struggling with.”

Address sustainability from the beginning. With a small staff and limited time, there’s no room to focus on certain parts of a business while ignoring the others. A site like Technically Philly needs a constant balance between content creation, community development and revenue generation. Blanda: “We’re providing value by working on the job board. Or we’re working on ads. Or we’re working on e-commerce. Technically Philly can’t publish content if we’re not a sustainable business.”

Despite frustrations and concerns, there’s no expiration date circled on Technically Philly’s calendar. “Time isn’t as important as our list of ideas,” Blanda said. “If the list gets thin and we decide that we’ve thrown all of our best ideas at the product, only then will we reassess the situation.”

One of their unaddressed ideas is expansion. The group submitted a Knight News Challenge proposal for Newsadelphia, a project that aims to provide the business and technical infrastructure needed to grow other Philadelphia-oriented sites. If they receive funding, Technically Philly will become the flagship in a larger network. And if funding remains out of reach, they’ll continue to follow another tenet of entrepreneurship: Roll it out, take a look, try again. 

POSTED     Oct. 14, 2009, 11:07 a.m.
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