Media commentary currently is full of skepticism for news companies pursuing technology as a business, but the conversation has arguably missed the mark.

Earlier this week, Guardian CEO Andrew Miller – head of one of the most forward-thinking old media houses – proclaimed: “The idea we will survive by becoming a technology company is garbage”. Whether or not he’s right, the likely truth is that successful tech startups do not achieve ‘hypergrowth’ simply because their core product is technology.

The lesson media companies can learn from tech startups is not that they should all start building a platform for this or a CMS for that. The value is in understanding and emulating how successful startups go about crafting product, and the processes they have for building hypergrowth companies.

In September, Stanford University launched course CS183B which promised to deliver 1,000 minutes of video content to a global audience on the topic of “How to start a startup”. The free online course, organised by Y Combinator president Sam Altman, reveals lessons learnt from the startup accelerator that has funded more than 720 companies. Rather than theory, each lecture contains insights and strategies that have been practiced and proven; every speaker has been involved in the creation of a $1B+ company, and none of the advice has ever been on the record before.

In Altman’s opening lecture, he establishes that all the advice is geared towards starting a company where the goal is hypergrowth. Clearly, not every lesson will be applicable to all media houses – after all, growing an audience from scratch isn’t the problem facing old media companies – so I’ve selected five of the most relevant points from the lectures, because what media company doesn’t want to put their next product on the path to hypergrowth?

1. A few lovers is better than lots of likers

While laying the foundation for the course in the first lecture of the series, Altman shares a mantra repeated regularly within the accelerator:

“It’s better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like.”

Why? He’s seen time and again that it’s much easier to increase your number of users than the amount that users like your product.

(credit: Sam Altman, Stanford University, YouTube)

Given the current atmosphere of frenzied experimentation at many top news organisations, this important bit of insight can help publishers to frame their experiments and make the right choices about which products to scale up.

Altman offers another way of looking at it:

“Making something that people want, but only a medium amount, is a great way to fail, but not understand why you’re failing.”

2. Treat new users like you’re dating

So if hypergrowth starts with a product that users love, how do we build for that? Kevin Hale, Founder of Wufoo and Partner at Y Combinator, shares some great advice in Lecture 7. Hale begins by giving companies a model to understand users’ relationships with their products.

Have you ever noticed how when people discuss their romantic relationships, what they say often revolves around how they met, or their first date? Hale calls these “origin stories”, and argues that we talk about products in much the same way – people usually recount an aspect of their first interactions with an app or service.  

So, using romantic relationships as a basic framework, Wufoo characterised relationships with users in two ways: new users = dating, existing users = marriage. Hale emphasises the importance of first impressions, pointing out that just like with people, the pass-fail threshold is so much lower during the dating phase. So, it becomes imperative to focus on the “firsts” a user has with your product if you are to hook them in and move them towards lasting loyalty.

(credit: Kevin Hale, Stanford University, YouTube)

“Something about 1st time interactions means that the threshold is so much lower in terms of pass-fail.“ – Kevin Hale, Partner at Y Combinator

3. Seize your opportunities to seduce

Can you think of some of the “firsts” your users experience with your products? Most apps and news sites have some pretty obvious firsts, many of these moments occur during a reader’s first visit to your site: how quickly the page loads, how easy the site is to navigate, how adapted for the device they’re viewing it from it is, etc. etc.

Any competent product team in the media business has hopefully already optimised for these obvious firsts. However, Hale argues that companies that are really good at product go a step further and also focus on the less obvious firsts.

He calls these “opportunities to seduce”, and recommends following a blog called Little Big Details for inspiration. Two of its recent posts are about The New York Times (font size scaling on tablets) and the BBC (most popular articles). Hale also highlights how something as mundane as the sign up form can be an opportunity to seduce – like the below example from e-commerce site Cork’d with its playful hints.

(credit: Kevin Hale, Stanford University, YouTube)

4. Empower customer support to reduce the knowledge gap

So, once you’ve managed to seduce users with a carefully crafted series of firsts and a delightful experience, the next challenge is to entice them towards becoming loyal and perhaps paying customers. Hale points out that inadequate customer support is the reason people often don’t make it further down the funnel.

(credit: Kevin Hale, Stanford University, YouTube)

The goal, as Hale puts it, should be to develop a strong customer support strategy that effectively minimizes the knowledge gap. He points to Mailchimp as an example of a company that has fantastic customer support materials, highlighting that companies tend to invest heavily in their marketing materials to attract customers, but often neglect the support materials that should be there to reduce churn. Just think about how much effort is put into the design and UX of paywalls and conversion pages for news sites versus their forlorn help pages.

5. A final thought from Facebook’s VP of Growth

To explain why focusing on customer support is worthwhile, Hale makes the point that “there’s almost no difference between a 1 percent increase in conversion rate and a 1 percent decrease in churn. They do exactly the same thing to your growth.”

Facebook’s VP of Growth Alex Shultz takes an even stronger stance on churn in lecture 6: “Retention is the single most important thing for growth.”

The importance of user retention is certainly gaining appreciation at media houses with subscription models. The traditional approach has often been to make it next to impossible to unsubscribe, requiring dissatisfied users to jump through hoops to cancel their service. Yet more and more, we’re seeing publishers like Sun and Times publisher News UK invest resources to build compelling member benefit offers aimed at legitimately keeping subscribers happy. That said, whether these efforts actually drive usage of the core product, and how much they reduce churn, is worth a closer look.

Widening perspectives and shaping strategy

The debate is ongoing about whether media companies should be tech companies, and whether tech startup alumni like Omidyar, Bezos, and Hughes can create media businesses that thrive instead of merely survive in this digital age.

And while the commentators and academics continue their tweetstorms, there’s an incredible opportunity for media companies to learn from successful tech startups right now, not by focusing on what they build, but on how they build, and their processes for creating hypergrowth products.


Garrett is european director of business development at Wochit, and tweets from @GarrettGoodman.