Is there over-investment in media simply because entrepreneurs lack knowledge of more interesting fields?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Vocativ is dead? The most recent post is from August 25th. For a news site, that is a long time ago.

In June they announced “Vocativ Announces Exclusive Focus On Video” which might have been a desperation play. Unless they post something else, I will assume they are dead.

I did a job interview there back in 2014. They were created by some guys who had just gotten their Ph.Ds in Machine Learning. That seemed like a very positive thing. Advanced data analysis can be applied to many fields of great importance. But I had to wonder, why were they using those great skills on something as tired as the news industry? Was it possible that they were unaware of all of the other industries where they might have applied their skills? That is, perhaps they lacked a connection to those with domain specific knowledge in important, high margin fields which can be revolutionized with Machine Learning?

The Vocativ office seemed intensely stressful, but not in a fun way. There are fun kinds of stress, after all, that is why people play sports. And I’ve worked on many projects where we were so excited about the work we were happy to work 70 hours a week. But this place did not suggest the good kind of stress. And the bad kind of stress carries with it the whiff of desperation.

They were using PHP for almost everything, except for the team in Israel that was doing the Machine Learning and which was probably using Python or Java. The New York team was focused on the actual website and mobile experience, and everything was in PHP, using some framework.

As I said in my recent post Pixable, content is hard. I’m not sure why people keep trying to go into this space. The margins are non-existent. If you have smart people who can do advanced Machine Learning, there is a wealth of high margin activities that one can go after. So why not go after the high margin stuff? Why go after the low margin stuff?

One possibility is there is a lack of imagination that arises from a lack of domain specific knowledge. If you read this blog much, you know I later went to work at a place that was using Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing to automate the input of data to Salesforce. That is potentially a high margin activity. But to think of using ML/NLP that way, you need to have some domain specific knowledge about how enterprise sales works. If you just got out of school, and you have a Ph.D in Machine Learning, but you lack domain specific knowledge in anything else, then you might look around and decide to apply ML to the stuff you can see. And the stuff you can see is media. So people with great skills end up working on terrible projects because they don’t have a connection with someone who has the domain specific knowledge in those particular fields that are both high margin and can be revolutionized by Machine Learning.

I know Primary Venture Partners is trying to play an active role in introducing great engineers to great entrepreneurs. This seems like an area where they could do a lot of good. The more they can steer brilliant people towards the areas that have the highest margin, the better off we will all be.

[ [ UPDATE 2017-09-21 ] ]

I just saw this article, “Why So Many Journalists Got Laid Off at HuffPost and Vocativ

At Vocativ, the bad news arrived in early-morning emails summoning staffers in an “all hands” meeting at which Chief Operating Officer Danna Rabin announced to stunned employees that the venture’s online print journalists were being abolished effective immediately in favor of an all-video operation.

It was left to Vocativ editor in chief Ben Reininga, who will also be leaving after an indeterminate transition period, to console his staff.

“This sucks,” a clearly upset Reininga told his charges, adding that he only learned of the company’s plan for summary execution a week ago, according to witnesses. “I love you guys. Thanks for the work you did. It’s been a blast.”

…“The company didn’t seem to be making any money; there’s no ad sales team,” this person said, noting that it’s difficult to figure out how the privately held company could earn a profit despite several production deals with various mainstream media outlets, including making Showtime’s Dark Net, a series helmed by the Tel Aviv-based Kovachi’s adult daughter Adi.

Vocativ, which had yet to gain traction journalistically in the way that HuffPost has done, “is a vanity project for an Israel billionaire,” the ex-staffer insisted. “I don’t think anybody is wailing in the street. People are pretty depressed, but resigned. I think we all know what we were doing here. This was a billionaire’s whim. But a billionaire’s whim can be taken away at any time.”

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