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Feb. 3, 2017, 10:50 a.m.

How local publisher Technically Media is trying to diversify its business with a focus on community

The company, which publishes tech sites in the Mid-Atlantic, wants to grow beyond its core events revenue model while keeping community at the heart of what it does.

Last winter, Christopher Wink and Brian James Kirk, the cofounders of Technically Media, realized they’d made a mistake.

The Philadelphia-based company, which publishes local tech sites in five Mid-Atlantic markets, had crossed $1 million in revenue for the first time in 2015, finishing with about $1.1 million. It had also grown by making its first outside acquisition, Generocity, which covers social impact issues in Philadelphia. Things were looking up. Heading into 2016, the company projected an 85 percent growth in sales revenue.

They quickly realized that their projections were off.

“We were wrong. It was unrealistic,” Wink said. “Fortunately, we didn’t do any layoffs. By February, we were like, ‘Oh gosh, that was a mistake.’ We brought on what was long overdue — two business hires that were not on the sales side but were on budgeting and projections. We got the kind of experience we never had. We reset our projections and remained really tight. We hit the projections after we reset them, but we were on a course that was unrealistic. It was the first time that I really felt that our lack of experience came crashing into us.”

After tweaking the projections, Technically ended up finishing 2016 with $1.67 million in revenue. “We are profitable, and narrowly so,” Wink said. But it also came away from the experience with a renewed focus on growing sustainably — doubling down on its commitment to diversify its business model while maintaining the community focus that defines its sites.

Wink, Kirk, and Sean Blanda founded the company in 2008. They’d all recently graduated from journalism school at Temple University. Unable to find jobs in a journalism market that had been decimated by the recession, they decided to launch their own site.

They started working out of each other’s apartments; the company now has about 20 full-time staffers and office space in a historic Philadelphia building around the corner from Independence Hall.

From the beginning, Technically has eschewed traditional online advertising. Events produce the bulk of its revenue — 73 percent last year, down from 85 percent in 2015 — and from early on, the company has seen events as a way to attract sponsors and grow readership.

“There’s a lot of community events that happen in this space, so it made a lot of sense to move in that direction,” Kirk said. “It had a lot of editorial value, because we so often think that events programming is like live editorial — you’re making news. It was a very natural pathway, and it was the first revenue focus where we actually saw real potential.”

But over the years, Technically has developed three other primary lines of business as well, which it calls Studio, Creative, and Talent.

Studio, which generated 18 percent of the company’s revenue last year, is a consulting service of sorts that aims to let Technically use its expertise on behalf of clients. Last year, for instance, Technically worked with Comcast to put on the Tomorrow Tour, a number of events around the country — in cities such as Miami, Detroit, and Chicago — that focused on local entrepreneurship.

The events were outside Technically’s typical markets, but they relied on its strengths. “We did the work of inviting 2,000 entrepreneurs and people involved in these communities,” Kirk said, adding that they produced special content for all the events as well.

Creative is Technically’s sponsored content arm, which accounted for 5 percent of the company’s business last year. The last 4 percent of Technically’s 2016 revenue came from Talent, which is what it calls its jobs board.

Last year, it developed a new hiring platform that mixes paid job listings with Technically’s editorial coverage. In addition to describing open positions, the pages feature statistics on the hiring company, details on its culture, and interviews with employees. The company sees the platform as a way to digitally replicate some of the success its had with in-person job fairs and other events.

“There’s something interesting about being a jobs or opportunity discovery engine, or being the hub for that,” Kirk said. “You read our editorial to find out about the companies or the people that are doing interesting things in this professional area. You’re coming to our events because you’re looking for professional development or connections that can help you in your career. You’re literally coming to this jobs platform to look for new opportunities. That’s very transactionally real. For us, in our industry, it feels like we’re capturing a unique way to present that information on both sides.”

This year, Technically projects the Talent sector of its business to grow to 9 percent of revenue. It also forecasts that Creative will increase to 10 percent of its business. Meanwhile, the company planning on events revenue falling to 65 percent of its income and Studio dipping to 15 percent.

Even as it’s grown its business, Technically has kept journalism at the heart of its operations. It maintains separations between the business and editorial ends of the company, but Technically sees the journalism as the way to continue to grow and sustain the audience it needs to make money.

“It feels cheesy. I’ve heard so many people say community is important, but it drives everything that we do,” said Technically associate editor Juliana Reyes, who was the company’s first employee. “It’s great because they read our stuff. They come up to me and events and say they read that story, or they read about an event, or a company that’s hiring and they apply. Things like that when you see the actual effects of your reporting.”

The company wants to continue to find ways to better integrate its journalism with its revenue-generating products. That’s the thinking behind products like the jobs platform: People are already using Technically’s stories on companies that are expanding to apply for jobs, so why not try to find a way to formalize it?

The company wants to get to a point where “the business we are cannot be done without the beat reporters we have,” Wink said. “As opposed to, ‘Oh gosh, I think journalism is neat and we’re going to do it even though it causes us business problems.’ I want the mission to be so deeply ingrained that you could not cut it out.”

It might be easier, he said, for Technically to grow its business if it didn’t have reporters aggressively covering companies that its salespeople were also cultivating. However, the company wants to find revenue-generating mechanisms that are improved by the journalism.

Because the company operates in different markets, the way it does that has manifested itself in different ways in each city. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Delaware, for instance, Technically runs big annual Tech and Innovation Week events. In Washington and Brooklyn, the company stays away from those larger events, because other players in the market already put those on.

“We’re trying to have the most profitable services we can provide our community that deliver on mission and fund our work,” Wink said. “We think each brand will have a slightly different mix in that basket, but it’ll be the same basket of goods. It’s just more apples in one community and more oranges in the other, but we’ll still have apples and oranges in both.”

When it’s entered a new market, Technically has assumed that it’ll take at least 18 months to build up the business, and it’s working under the same assumption with Generocity, its social impact site, which it acquired in September 2015. The company believes that the focus on journalism and community building can also serve local industries beyond tech. Generocity is its first attempt to prove that, though Kirk said that the company has had to maneuver some differences between tech and social impact.

“The buyers are so different,” Kirk said. “That’s been the biggest challenge, particularly in a community that is not like the tech industry that is flowing with venture capital dollars. We picked a topic that is more about the bottom line and more focused on mission. It’s a challenge and figuring out what we have in our portfolio to provide to that community does take some time to figure out.”

For both the Technically sites and Generocity, Kirk said the company has had to work with its clients to shift their expectations.

While much of online advertising and marketing is focused on reaching as large an audience as possible, the products Technically is selling — from its sponsored content to its job postings and events — are focused at specific niches.

“That is one of our challenges as a really focused niche local product…we just don’t have the big audience,” Kirk said. “On the flip side of that, what we know and what we think is cool and interesting is that we’re developing really deep relationships with people that we think are important to these communities. That’s where we need to focus. That quality instead of the quantity.”

Photo of Technically’s Philadelphia office by Brian James Kirk.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2017, 10:50 a.m.
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