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Mark Little and the Storyful success story

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Mark Little has been a pretty busy man since News Corp acquired his three-year-old news startup, Storyful, for $25 million just before Christmas. The company sources verifiable news content from social media and citizen journalists.

Little, 45, is a former top current affairs presenter and US correspondent for RTE News, Ireland’s state owned television station.

One of the main questions we wanted to ask Little was why Irish companies appear to exit for $25-$50 million. Are Irish entrepreneurs aggressive or ambitious enough? Israel is held up as the exemplar to follow with over 100 companies listed on Nasdaq and several billion dollar companies.

“That’s a great question and we’ve thought a lot about this. I believe this is just the end of the beginning for Storyful. We broke even last November. And that’s why we sold to News Corp. We reached a place where we needed to scale fast and we needed money to do this.” Little said.

“So we thought hard about it and examined our options. We spoke with VCs and private equity people. The danger is you get an investor who doesn’t understand your business and you lose control. And that’s when News Corp came into the mix. Why not partner with one of the biggest media brands in the world? Their stable also includes one of our customers, the Wall St Journal - a trade name for excellence.

“This deal gives us access and a global partner. It was a really natural fit. News Corp has something to prove. We now have petrol in the tank.

“There really is no limit to this. Storyful can help brands, corporates, governments, basically anyone who needs to use social media to know what is going on.”

The founders of Storyful don’t lack ambition, vision or passion. It’s clear from speaking with Mark Little that this was a challenging decision for the team. They needed investment and weighed up all their available options. They decided for better or worse that a powerful partner was the best decision for Storyful the company.

So where did it all begin?

“I had an idea and a pain point that I had identified. Got the bug, basically. I wanted to change the world. The reason Storyful came into being in the last 4-5 years is coupled with the rise of social media and camera phones, which make everyone a potential journalist.”

Little is very passionate about this idea of how the rise of social media and user-generated content has shaped not only how we consume news, but also how newsrooms respond to stories. “News from noise” is how he phrases the Storyful proposition.

Storyful really came into its own during the Arab Spring and the protests in Iran. Hundreds of hours of video was uploaded on the internet, but news organizations had a hard time verifying sources. Storyful, the first news agency built for social, solved that problem by providing a verification service for this type of user-generated content.

After hearing Little deliver a polished elevator pitch about where it all began and conceiving the “news from noise” tagline, I asked how long it took him to get his pitch down to 1 minute.

“Ages and ages,” was the answer. “it’s hard to distill an idea to make sense.”

Little said the main thing the Storyful team learned throughout this was to “pitch a solution and not a product. Ours was ‘Sort news from noise.’ Newsrooms need social media and we offer them a solution to solve their problem at scale. We’re the new AP. User-generated content at the core of news means people get it. It’s driving and shaping the news agenda, from the Boston Marathon bombing to natural disasters.”

Their big break happened in 2010 with ABC news. “They were our first customer. They got scooped by NBC with an earthquake in Chile and they told us ‘we never want that to happen again.’”

I was also interested to discover how Little secured investment for his company at the beginning of the journey for such a new concept.

“This was a totally new market that we identified. So for that type of opportunity you attract investors who are disruptors, risk takers, people who have done similar things. Our first investor was Ray Nolan, (one of Ireland’s most successful technology entrepreneurs who built Hostelworld, Hostels.com and Boo.com). Ray and I hit it off. He got what we were trying to build and saw the potential. Ray is decisive, innovative and idealistic. When you have a crazy idea like we did you need to attract the right kind of investor, and Ray was that for us.”

As important as having a good pitch is, Little has one main piece of advice for startups - stop pitching and start listening.

“My business partner, David Clinch, an Irish guy who is ex-international editor at CNN, and I used our contacts to spend a lot of time in newsrooms around the world asking questions and understanding what the pain points were. There is a relentless demand for content and we help people sort what is reliable from what isn’t.

Storyful is one of the first acquisitions by News Corp since it was split in two by chairman Rupert Murdoch in 2013, after the News of the World phone tapping debacle, so there is a lot of pressure on Storyful to deliver. While remaining an independent brand in News Corp, they have to embed a Chief Revenue Officer from News Corp in their organization. Mark Little will also be reporting to a senior VP within News Corp. This is one of many challenges that the Storyful team will now face as part of a larger entity.

How News Corp and Storyful manage this new relationship once the honeymoon period is over is a story worth following as it develops.

 

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