“Take a risk. Go after your idea. Make sure you can walk into a room and tell a story.”
Storyful was founded in Dublin in 2009 by journalist Mark Little – by December 2013, the ‘first news agency of the social media age’ had been acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp in a high-profile deal worth $25M, retaining Dublin as their base of global operations.
Earlier this year, they generated further headlines when controversial News International CEO Rebekah Brooks was reportedly attached to the company – a move since dismissed as unlikely to happen. Late last year, Little stepped down from his CEO role (Rahul Chopra now fills the role) in favour of what he describes as his “dream job” within the company; these days, he operates from Storyful’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, located next door to the Newscorp building, where he discussed Storyful and Dublin via Skype.
What does your new role with Storyful entail, exactly?
Well, I started on December 15th – essentially I’m the Director Of Innovation. One of the things we realized early on was that everything in the company that had an editorial element also had a connection to business development, and to product development, so overall we’re just trying to create a space in the company that allows us to concentrate on longer-term strategic initiatives. That’s my job.
So, this position affords you the luxury of stepping away from the coalface and looking at the bigger picture.
Yes. For me to be able to take four or five special projects at a time, and just focus on the vision as opposed to the strategy every day – not to have to worry about the relationships with the parent company, or the operational duties of the CEO – that’s a great relief. Also, I now get to give my imprimatur to different areas of the company; in the past, I may have been just focussed on the bottom line every day. So it’s a combination of thinking about the bigger strategic picture, but also looking at the innovation that we’re creating, and trying to join the dots there, which is hugely exciting. And I get to be the brand ambassador, to get out there and talk about Storyful, the future of journalism and the media business… I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while.
How do you intend to expand Storyful, both as a company and a concept?
The first thing is to diversify the business. We started out as a social media newswire, which got us to point A. Now, we’re focussing on the fact that there’s huge value in video on the social web, and building an ethical model for the uploaders of all this very cool and compelling content that you’re seeing every day. (NB: Earlier this month, Storyful-managed YouTube content reached two billion views.)
Diversifying the business, scaling it globally, and then maintaining the ethics and culture that have informed us from day one – they’re the things I’ll judge our success by.
How has the relationship with Newscorp been?
It’s been great. From our point of view, the reason we joined Newscorp was because they provided the capacity to scale in a way that we couldn’t do on our own. We had interest from venture capitalists, and from other companies that were looking at us, but we just felt that Newscorp has news in its DNA. It’s a cultural thing in that sense. The other thing was that I was interested in innovation, and so were they – of treating Storyful as a startup within a startup, as much. And it’s been true to its word in giving us the resources to go after the really big opportunities. Storyful now has a global footprint way beyond anything we could have dreamed of on our own.
By any metric, it must have been a pretty steep learning curve…
I’ve learned that your company culture is very important: always making people feel like they’re part of something special that can change, and be agile… If you don’t have discipline, attention to detail and good management at the same time, you’re crashing into a wall. The big Catch 22 of the company that goes from small to big is maintaining the vision, while at the same time being very process driven, well managed, and disciplined. We’re balancing that at the moment. It’s a constant challenge. How to retain that sense of urgency, agility, impulse – while making sure the bills get paid, and that everyone’s on the same page. That’s been the most fascinating part for me.
And now you’re based in Manhattan. Is New York still the centre of the world when it comes to media and tech?
Even more so, I think. When we started out, I always thought that we’d have to have a Silicon Valley presence – we don’t need to. New York is essentially where media innovation is being driven. Having said that, there’s a lot of stuff going on in Europe, so I’m always being interested in being in places like London, Stockholm, Berlin – and Dublin in particular. We’re starting to see really innovative startups coming out of Dublin – I’ll pick NewsWhip as a great example of an Irish company on the cutting edge.
In 2009 the safest bets were property and banks – and how did that work out for us? Now, there’s a whole different definition of risk.
What does Dublin bring to the table as a unique tech hub? A reoccurring theme since we began Dublin Globe is to avoid this notion of Dublin aping existing success stories… To just be the best Dublin instead.
One of the most important things is not to be copying Silicon Valley – that’s the quickest way to redundancy and obsolescence. Silicon Valley was the particular heart of a particular phase of the social web, and social media in general, but now it’s moved on.
Personally, the things that Dublin has, through my experience with Storyful, would be that we’re in the right place physically – halfway between the United States and Europe – but more importantly there is a growing sense of risk taking that that wasn’t there when I started. Then, in 2009 the safest bets were property and banks – and how did that work out for us? Now, there’s a whole different definition of risk. And not just young startups, either. This is across the board. I was forty when I launched Storyful – you don’t have to be a twenty-five year old to do this. Take a risk. Go after your idea. Make sure you can walk into a room and tell a story.
That sense of storytelling is everywhere you go in Dublin…
Which is absolutely key for a young company. If you can’t tell your story in a sentence, if you can’t walk into a room and inspire people with your vision, then you don’t go anywhere. And I think Irish startups probably have an edge there. Also, there’s a great mix of finance in Ireland: Enterprise Ireland was an investor in the first stage of Storyful, and at the same time that was consistent with attracting private investment. There was no way we needed to choose between private and public. So that mixture is really effective. And a lot of the international companies, including Newscorp, are seeing the benefit of that.
What, then, do you perceive as the challenges facing Dublin?
I think we still have a huge way to go. Somebody said to me recently that for Dublin to be equal to Tel Aviv as a startup capital, you’d need to have twenty Storyful-sized exits a year – that’s not going to happen today or tomorrow, but there are at least twenty companies in Dublin that I see having the potential to exit at or above the level that we did. The other thing is that while Dublin is a great place to start a company, it’s not necessarily a great place to scale one – we need a better strategy for scale. We have an incredibly vibrant capacity for creating great ideas, but we need mentorship, the right mentality and education to help people turn a good idea into a great company. Encourage people to fail quickly, and to do it again, and again ‘til they get it right.
So what happens next? What are you excited about at the moment?
I can’t wait to see what happens in Dublin. There are so many interesting companies – I love CurrencyFair, my old mate Grainne Barron is doing interesting things at Viddyad, and Datahug are great, for starters. I’m excited by the innovation going on in venture capital, too, people who aren’t just investors, but mentors. I’m truly fascinated to see whether or not we exploit the opportunities we have right now. For me, the key is not to copy other people, or try to imitate what’s out there. Let’s try to create something completely new. If we have that attitude, then Dublin is an exciting place all of its own.