“Kickstarting a business: the creation of Matter” – Bobbie Johnson at Hacks/Hackers London

Hacks/Hackers London logoLast week’s Hacks/Hackers London meet-up was themed around the funding of investigative journalism, and featured a stellar cast including John S. Bracken of the Knight Foundation, four Knight-Mozilla fellows, Bobbie Johnson of Matter, and the Guardian’s legendary investigative reporter David Leigh.

I’ve seen Bobbie Johnson talk about Matter before at news:rewired — and blogged about it — and at Hacks/Hackers he had some further interesting things to say. Here are my notes…

“Kickstarting a business: the creation of Matter” – Bobbie Johnson

Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles funded the initial creation of Matter using Kickstarter. He described what they do as “Narrative journalism based around nerdy stuff”. The stories they publish, if they are not investigative journalism, are at least “bloody challenging” about science, technology, medicine and “the future”.

A lot of attention has been on how much money the pair raised for start-up costs through Kickstarter. Bobbie explained that the total they aimed for, $50,000, had been based on the fact that the previous highest total for an editorial Kickstarter campaign had been $55,000. So they opted for $5,000 less. Their figures weren’t totally random though, and Bobbie said that they had spent a long time wrestling with spreadsheets working out how to cost the business and make it viable. I must confess it was heartening to see “business model wrangling” feature as part of a Hacks/Hackers talk, where often excitement about an editorial goal or a technology technique can overshadow the brutal need to pay for things.

Bobbie actually said that one of the things that made putting the business case together difficult was precisely because “people don’t talk about this stuff”. They reckoned that one of their biggest potential markets would be Kindle Singles, but Amazon are so coy about sales figures it was hard to estimate what kind of volume of sales they might anticipate.

Another useful thing, Bobbie said, about the Kickstarter route was that it acted as a product litmus test. In some sense, he said, the amount raised wasn’t significant. The point was that they had identified potential readers or subscribers. And, if nobody had been willing to fund them, they’d have found out very quickly that there wasn’t a market for the product. Certainly more quickly than by raising a load of money in a more traditional route, and then flopping. The 2,566 people who pledged money were more imporatant than the $140,201 they raised.

They’d used this relationship with their new potential audience to help shape the product. Their plans to have associated revenue streams have been abandoned because it was clear from feedback that people just want Bobbie and Jim to focus on editorial, and they also found that there was a huge demand for audiobook versions of the story. “We’re text twats,” Bobbie said, “but plenty of people run.”

They are also offering some incentives for people who coughed up the cash, one being the chance to be an editorial “co-pilot”, and sit in on all the meetings and discussions about a story as it goes from original commission to publication. It reminded me a little bit of the way that a lot of the fading eighties pop stars who I still love to go and see live offer VIP packages, with entry into the sound-check and after-show party, and a guaranteed meet‘n’greet photo opportunity for besotted fans with cash to burn.

Bobbie said that their ambition was to build up enough of a subscriber base that they can break even, suggesting that a number in the low thousands should do that. He hinted at how much the operation takes of his time though, saying that the next story — “The ghost in the cell” — might get published on the Thursday or Friday immediately after Hacks/Hackers, depending on how late he stayed up that night. He also said it had been quite tricky to build the platform, as they’d discovered that lots of people understand how to process payments, and lots of people understand how the web works, but very few people seem to understand both.

Perhaps the most optimistic thing that Bobbie said was that Matter had, he felt, proved that you can have a “fuckton” of sources of material out on the web, but people will gravitate to and read “the good stuff”.


You might also be interested in reading: “‘Matter: Long-form digital journalism that breaks all the rules’ – Bobbie Johnson at news:rewired


The final talk of the evening was by the legendary investigative journalist David Leigh. I’ll be rounding off my blog posts about Hacks/Hackers with notes on that talk next…

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