Ignore your focus groups, test relentlessly, and other lessons from NU's entrepreneur conference

Some of the the Knight Lab crew spent some time yesterday at the 2013 Entrepreneur@NU Conference yesterday, and I have to say, while we didn’t hear anything ground breaking, the team members in attendance agreed that it was inspiring to be around so much energy, so many new ideas, and so many folks who had built something new.

It was also a good reminder of the trends in technology and startup culture that we try to keep in mind as we discover and work on new projects.

A few thoughts and ideas we liked to be reminded of and wanted to share:

  • Maybe it’s best to ignore your focus groups. Neal Sales-Griffin, a Starter League co-founder, told a story about how he spent a lot of time doing market research before he launched his company and found plenty of folks who said they’d like to apply to the Starter League. But when it actually came time to put money down and invest the time, not one showed up. His lesson: You can talk to people all you want, but the only way to know if they’ll buy is to build a product and see if people sign up. Might the same be true for new content verticals, mobile apps, or other news features? An interesting lesson.(By the way: even though no one from his research groups showed up, more than 600 people have learned to code with Starter League in the last year. Pretty awesome.)

  • Most businesses don’t create new products, said Chris Gladwin, CEO of Cleversafe, but that doesn’t mean they’re not innovative. “Most businesses, the way you reach the market is the real innovation,” he said, “not the product.” The relevance to the news industry here is clear. But just for fun think about Dell, anything involving music, and GrubHub or Seamless. Among these three, there isn’t a new product in sight, but man are there a ton of businesses that made it easier to buy computers, music, and takeout. If that’s not a lesson for the news industry, it’s hard to imagine what is.

  • Test and adjust your strategy. Again, not a new idea, but Mike Samson from crowdSPRING drove the point home with a story about how his company kept changing the way it made money. His team used A/B testing techniques relentlessly and eventually built an award-winning company. He emphasized its value repeatedly, pointing out how this testing technique can be applied to anything from messaging, to payment amounts, to design, publishing schedules, and story promotion, etc.

  • Money. There’s nothing wrong with asking for it. You might be surprised what people will pay for, said Brad Morehead from LiveWatch Security. What’s more, the price people will pay isn’t always directly related to how difficult something is to produce. This is a lesson LiveWatch learned again and again when developing new products. Sure, the news industry is a different animal, but it’s a good lesson and maybe it’ll spark some creative thinking around what people are wiling to pay for.


So that’s it. We sure enjoyed the time we spent with folks outside of our typical cast of characters (lovable though you are). Thanks to Northwestern for a great event!

About the author

Ryan Graff

Communications and Outreach Manager, 2011-2016

Journalism, revenue, whitewater, former carny. Recently loving some quality time @KelloggSchool.

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