Q&A with David Cohn, founder of Spot.us moving to Circa

David Cohn has been busy. After three years developing Spot.us, a non-profit for community-based reporting, he’s handing over the reins to the Public Insight Network and moving on to a new project, Circa. I met David Cohn last year while I was interning at the San Francisco Public Press, where we used Spot.us to fund the housing and homelessness beat that I reported on. Cohn was in Istanbul when I emailed, so I sent him the questions for this Q&A and he was nice enough to send me some video clips recorded on his iPad. Ah, technology!

Was there a Eureka moment when you started Spot.us three years ago?

There kind of was. At the time I had worked a lot in distributed reporting, or sometimes called citizen journalism- I was doing that with Jay Rosen. I was also the research assistant for the guy who coined the phrase “crowd sourcing” a guy named Jeff Howe. So I was researching a chapter on crowd funding. The Eureka moment was when I was reading a friends blog, it’s late at night, it might have been three four in the morning and I thought he was writing about crowd funding for journalism. I remember my heart started beating fast. I was like man that was a really good idea; I wish I had thought of it. I couldn’t sleep that well that night and I woke up in the morning, not that much later maybe 8 o’clock and I realized he wasn’t talking about crowd funding at all, he was talking about something completely different.

The non-profit model seems like a natural fit for Spot.us, what were some of the benefits and drawbacks of using the non-profit business model?

The main reason I did it was just because the nature of what we were doing was asking people for money—money for what I would call a common good or communal good. The best way I thought to get people to do that would be quick and easy via a tax deductible donation. So that was one of the benefits, was to earn peoples trust in giving donations. They weren’t purchasing something, they weren’t getting exclusive access to anything, it was for the common good. The main downside was non-profits and for-profits all have to raise money. I think it’s a little bit easier to actually to raise money when you are a for-profit. I’m learning that a little bit now with Circa. People are ready to give $50,000 or $100,000 if they think it’s going to come back two or three fold, whereas non-profit people are willing to give you $100,000 if they think it is for is a cause they believe in. Which is much more nebulous and there are fewer types of people giving in that philanthropic sense.

You are no longer involved with Spot.us as of March, following the Public Insight Network acquisition it in November. Is it hard to walk away after three successful years?

Certainly it’s a little difficult. Spot.us is something I started from scratch. I started it when I was turning 25 about to turn 26. As a result I feel invested in it. It’s sort of my baby on the web. At the same time I think it was just time for me to move on personally.  I’ve been working on it over three years, and on the web that’s a long time. It was the longest time I had ever worked on a project or any organization. I am always interested pushing boundaries and the boundaries I was interested in pushing on Spot.us had been pushed. I was also really happy Public Insight Network was there, there was no reason to shut us down, and there was money in the bank.

Was it difficult to transition? How did you prepare to hand over the reins?
The transition was about six months and I also stayed on for another 4 months so it was almost a full year.  All in all, the main thing was just that the spirit of Spot.us remains and that they are going to honor the spirit of it.

Will the integration with the Public Insight Network change anything about the way Spot.us will fundamentally work?

In truth its not up to me that’s the point. I think that Public Insight Network may change certain things American Public Media may change certain things. If they do change it I’m sure they are doing it because they earnestly think its stuff they have to change to make the site better. That’s certainly fine. Any organization that goes from two or three people which is what Spot.us has been for two or three years to an organization the size of American Public Media which is very very large, $110 million non-profit, they are just going to do things different— that’s the nature of the beast. So I think there are things they are going to change and I look forward to seeing it. I hope it’s going to make it better than it is now.

 What was it like being your own boss?

There’s certainly a lot of freedom but what you gain in freedom you give up in relief— or you gain in stress. There is no complaining about the boss. If something’s not going the way you want it to, there’s nobody to blame but yourself and you just have to get up and go and do it. That’s the downside but that’s also the upside.

What do see for the future of online community-based reporting?

I will say I do believe I am bullish about the future of community reporting. I think journalism is healthier than it has been before. The journalism industry isn’t necessarily as healthy as it was before, but I do believe there are more acts of journalism than there have ever been before in history. One follows the other, there’s been lot of disruption but there will also be a lot of new business models and things to build upon them. It’s important to keep in mind we’re in the top of the second inning or maybe the bottom of the second—it’s way too early to call any game.

Did you learn any lessons from Spot.us that you’ll take into your next project?

I think there a ton of lessons. I like to break it down for lessons for me personally and lessons for the larger journalism community. On that second one, there’s a few things there. One is the specifics around community or crowd funded reporting are low hanging fruit. It’s very possible. It’s not hard for news organizations to try or individuals to try. I don’t think that it is the saving grace of how to fund journalism, but I do believe it is low hanging fruit and it will actually continue to grow. Now there is this sense of entrepreneurial journalism more people are into it, studying it, preaching it and practicing it, which is fantastic.  Spot.us was an early example of that, this sort of fail early, try an idea and see what happens kind of attitude, which I think is benefiting the larger community.  Me personally it is sort of impossible to list all the many things I learned. Obviously everything from running a non-profit, dealing with taxes, having a payroll, managing the development process, working with freelancers, and that’s not even to touch the editorial lessons, working with all types of different journalists and news organizations, so it’s sort of countless.

Can you tell me anything more about Circa?  

While I won’t say anything too specific I will that it’s going to push more boundaries— a totally different set of boundaries from Spot.us, which is about transparency and participation in the process of journalism, particularly around the finances of journalism,  and exposing that in a way it hadn’t been exposed before. Circa is going to push boundaries more in how we think of and understand the process of journalism and the consuming habits of people with journalism. It’s really early to tell so we’ll see.


How to knock a business pitch out of the park

Crrrack. The ball whistles through the air landing far over the fence, and the crowd goes wild… Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that, but I think a couple people at least clapped.  Last Thursday, I successfully pitched three months worth of brainstorming and work on Fantom ‘fit to a panel of entrepreneurs and investors as the final piece of the entrepreneurial journalism course. It was intimidating to sit up in front of strangers (especially ones who have all been very successful) and present to them an idea, my baby, delicately placed on the chopping block.

I knew my material well, so that part didn’t scare me. But these presentations are about so much more than your concept. They want you know know the market size, your target customer, and exactly how you plan to launch your product. In my case that meant answering questions like: Where am I going to get an initial stock of photos for people to tag and identify? How am I going to build an app? What will it look like and how will it be used? And maybe most importantly, how much will it cost?

I tackled these problems one by one and kept hearing the wise words of Gauri Manglik, the intelligent young co-founder behind Fondu, in my head: “the reason I succeeded was probably because I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know”. The more I plotted out exactly what I needed to do, the more I thought, “sure, I could do this!” Ignorance really is bliss.

When the time came to do the presentation, I really did find myself asking what I had been so worried about. It came together, I got some really good pointers and ideas on where to take Fantom ‘fit from here. The key thing I learned is that you don’t have to have all the answers, having the right questions can be just as valuable.

Q&A with Denise Oliveira, founder of Prequels

Denise Oliveira has always been a proactive self-starter. Whether it’s creating a new product or testing the waters of a new industry, she always enjoys a challenge. She founded Prequels, a company that allows people to have their story told, designed in a unique layout and then given as a gift at events.

For now she has focused on weddings, where couples and their families are interviewed separately and then the stories are compiled with photos in an arrangement guests can take home with them. She’s also got big plans to expand. 

After growing up in Brazil, where couples she knew stayed together a long time before they got married and their families became intertwined, she moved to the US and realized at the weddings she attended, the families and friends barely knew each other. It gave her the idea to help people tell their stories so these events could feel more intimate. 

How did you come up with the name?

I wanted the sense that when you get to these milestones in life it’s sort of a culmination of what came before it. The wedding is more than a party, it’s the celebration of a relationship that’s been built. Or when you retire, it’s not just an event, it’s the culmination of a career. So that’s where Prequels came from, it’s about thinking about what came before.

Who was your first guinea pig?

We’ve had a few. We had a couple Micah and Aidan. Micah is studying to be a Protestant minister he’s going to Union Theological Seminary and Aidan studied in the graduateacting program at the New School and before that had a career in the circus- a very dynamic couple who have come from different walks of life and have created this amazing bond.

Who is your team?

I am the lead person and I have a partner who has a creative writing degree. He will do some of the interviews and its great to have another person to bounce ideas off of. We try to look at it from the other persons point of view and in that way we weave everything together.

How many clients have you had so far?

We’ve shared four on the website. I just got an email from someone in Missouri who wants to give it as a gift to her nephew, which is something we’re encouraging. This is a great gift for a grandparent to give to a couple or for bridesmaids to get together and give together to the couple.

What have been some of the hurdles in starting a business?

For now there haven’t been many surprises, it has been pretty much what we’ve expected. One thing that we didn’t really expect but hasn’t been a hurdle, is how many drafts you go through to get the product the way you want it. The design is really special and it took longer than I thought. You look at the computer but once you get it professionally printed the colors look slightly different so you go back and redo it. A font might look great online but once you print it it’s a little funky.

You also give the stories back to the customers.

Yes. We want them to read it over and make sure they’re comfortable with it. We use our discretion to leave out certain things they might tell us that we feel might be best left out, but we let them read it over to make sure that they agree that it’s an expression and reflection of who they are.

Do they give you a lot of edits?

The edits have been minor, very minor.

Are you going to expand into other areas?

Yes, we haven’t yet. But I’ve started the preliminary work to expand into baby announcements. Also retirements, graduations, sweet sixteen. Wherever there is a story to be told.

What is the best part of being your own boss?

The creative license. The space to really dream and to realize that these ideas can be implemented. That said, its definitely been important to partner with people who give feedback. There’s definitely been a lot of exchange with graphic designers and brides and other writers because I also don’t want to be isolated. It shouldn’t be what I think will work it should be what couples want.

Do you do the graphic design yourself?

We partner with a professional designer. For the ones we’ve done, we designed the templates. Going forward couples can use exactly what we have, make a few changes or come up with a whole new look depending on the feel of their ceremony.

What’s the worst part of being your own boss?

I’ve always had incredible bosses, I’ve been really fortunate in every job I’ve had. I’ve had wonderful mentorships, my bosses have become friends. I’ve always had access to their wisdom. So I’d say, the disadvantage of having the immediate access to these sources of inspiration and wisdom. It takes a little more effort to get to the them.

Introducing: Fantom ‘fit

Last week I launched Fantom ‘fit, a website for the project I’ve been working on all semester as part of an entrepreneurial journalism class with Adam Penenberg.

The idea is based on a reoccurring problem. I’m inspired by high fashion glossies just like the next design-obsessed woman, but I’m living on a Campbell’s-soup-grad-school-budget. When I see something I actually want to buy, it’s not in a magazine, it’s on the street.

The problem is there are only two ways to figure out what it is. You can ask. But you might be too embarrassed or (especially in New York) people won’t want to tell you where they scored their unique clothes because they don’t want you biting their style. The second option is to search online, but that’s usually a big time suck, personally I rarely find what I’m looking for.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one with this problem. The team from the Lean Start-up Machine had us test our customer assumptions out on the street and of the over 20 people we asked, every single one of them had this problem.

The solution I developed is now functioning as a Twitter account and a blog, both called Fantom ‘fit, where followers can tweet or email photos of items they see out on the streets that they want to purchase for themselves. I RT and post the photo on the blog to see if anyone else can identify it while I get to work doing my own research. If no one can find it in a week (users can also debate in the comments section and give tips on whether they think it’s vintage or one-of-a-kind) , the post will be updated with alternative and similar items.

Here’s how it works:

How Fantom Fit works on Twitter

See. It’s like magic minus the messy fairy dust.  The skirt, available at Urban Outfitters, was found thanks to a savvy Twitter follower. I had done my own searching, punching in every linguistic variation of “midi teal cheetah print skirt” the English language had to offer, only to turn up tens of thousands of results, none of them correct. Once again, the human eye triumphs over computers! This sort of image labeling is how Google Images improved their labeling system and now scientists are even using it to identify solar storm data.

I’m hard at work to expand this into a website with a forum and galleries. I’m going to build a web app to make the service convenient and portable. Eventually, users will get rewards for identifying objects in photos that can be redeemed in an online shop or at retailers worldwide. My hope is that users will be able to rack up points and build a reputation and connect with other stylists and fashion-savvy street-style spotters from around the globe.

Right now you can help me in several ways. Check out the website and let me know what you think. This baby is still, well, a baby. All feedback is welcome. I am a team of one right now, making it all the easier to pivot if need be. Also, please follow Fantom ‘fit on Twitter and send in your photos! The more followers it has, the better the chances the photos people are tweeting will be identified. I promise, this account WILL NOT spam you. Lastly, please tell anyone you think might be interested in this project. Tweet about it, post it on your Facebook. This site is especially geared toward fashion-lovers, photographers, bloggers, stylists, designers… anyone who has a keen eye for fashion and style.

Building a Lean Mean Startup Machine

Lean Startup Machine Customer Validation for Fantom Fit

Last week, the team from the Lean Startup Machine came to my entrepreneurial journalism class to share their tools and help us test out the riskiest assumptions about our customers and steer our business models accordingly. It was a great chance to learn about our customers and receive feedback outside the classroom.

My idea, is for a fashion app/website that allows users to upload street photos of people wearing things they want to buy and other users to help identify the products seen in the photos. Users will get points when they correctly identify items and score points redeemable for discounts and gift cards at retailers worldwide. [UPDATE: You can now visit Fantomfit.com and follow Fantom ‘fit on Twitter to learn more!]

First we defined what all the assumptions about a Fantom ‘fit customer were. What do we believe is true about this customer? We assumed the following:

1. Under 40

2. Fashion-conscious

3. Has mobile phone

4. Want to BUY the product

5. Make purchases at least once a month

6. Visit Everyday

7. Will tag photos for 20 percent off

After we decided on this list we voted on what we each thought was the “riskiest assumption” meaning, the one most likely not to be true. The votes tallied, the riskiest assumption was that customers actually want to buy the products they see people wearing on the street. The next step was to develop a short list of questions we would ask strangers out on the street to test whether this was true. These were the questions we asked: (You can answer these poll questions too and see how online customers answers compared)

We polled 25 people in the area near Astor Place and St. Marks in Manhattan. Every single person responded yes to the first question. What was more surprising was that each of them could also recall a specific time that this happened and the majority were within the last several days.  I knew I was onto something, but we were all surprised at the huge response.

Survey-takers also told us that the only way they could figure out what the products were was to ask or do an exhaustive Google search. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t.

The best part was when the survey-takers were asked for a better solution, some of them actually said (unprovoked) an app that could upload photos might work better. A cluster of six stylish high school kids near St. Marks came up with this and when we told them that’s exactly what were working on they wanted to sign up. Brilliant!

Overall this was a great way to test out our ideas in the real world and it reinforced some of the assumptions I had about my customer. The next step is to assess the riskiest assumptions in order and test each of them the same way. If the assumption isn’t validated, it presents an opportunity to pivot the business model and reassess how the product can better meet customer needs.

OPEN CALL: I need your photos


Pictures like this one are perfect.

Even if it's a little blurry. That's OK. We'll work with it.













Does this sound like you? You see someone walking down the street, on the subway, or sitting at another table in the room and you love what they are wearing. You desperately want to stop to ask them where they got it but maybe they look too busy or intimidating. Maybe you’re just too timid or scared.

If this does sound like you, next time, snap a photo and send it to me. I promise to help you figure out what they were wearing and spare you the time it would take to hunt it down online. Tweet submissions to @NinaFrazier or email to NinaFrazier AT Gmail.com 

So please, go. Snap, snap. Click, click. Why are you still reading this? Spring has sprung and there is a whole new seasons worth of fashions about to be bestowed upon us.

Tip: If you’re using an iPhone, you can take pictures of people on the sly by setting the volume down button to take a picture. Then just hold the phone to look like your talking on it when you’re actually snapping away.