Cambrian House: Failure or evolution?

Erick Schonfeld put up a post at TechCrunch last night about Cambrian House — the Calgary-based crowdsourcing software company — and how it was heading for the dead pool after failing to raise financing and being forced into a “fire sale” of its intellectual property and other assets. Since I know co-founder and CEO Michael Sikorsky, having interviewed him a few times (he was also on a panel at the mesh conference last year), I thought I would give him a chance to respond before jumping on the “Cambrian House is dead” bandwagon. According to Erick’s description in the TC post, what happened is that:

“After unsuccessfully trying to raise a new round of capital, it is our understanding that the startup has negotiated a fire sale of its intellectual property, assets, Website (and whatever community remains after the sale) to Spencer Trask, an old money, New York venture firm.”

Erick goes on to say that the Cambrian deal started with talk of an investment, then devolved into a simple asset sale. He adds that Spencer Trask is “basically buying the Cambrian House platform and its community for a fraction of the $7.75 million that investors have already put into the company” and plans on taking the assets and rolling them into, a startup that is planning to take a crowdsourcing approach to venture capital, and that Toronto venture consultant Sean Wise will run VenCorps and “whatever is left of Cambrian House.”

The story Michael tells — which he has also put in a comment on TechCrunch — is different in several key ways: For one thing, he says Cambrian was able to raise money, and that the company turned down Spencer Trask’s original offer, not the other way around (as far as I can tell, Spencer Trask also isn’t related to the financier who backed Thomas Edison, although the company says it was “inspired” by him). He also says that Cambrian hasn’t sold any of its intellectual property, and will continue to develop the assets that it has, including several of the ventures that came out of the Cambrian fold.

At the same time, however, the Cambrian CEO admits that “our model failed,” in the sense that while Cambrian came up with lots of good ideas, there wasn’t enough follow-through in terms of developing them and turning them into companies or products, primarily because the crowd never stepped forward to do the developing. That’s the idea behind hooking up with Spencer Trask and Vencorps, he says — so that the venture company can locate willing entrepreneurs and match them up with worthwhile ideas, or at least that’s the theory.

Does this mean that crowdsourcing startup ideas doesn’t work? I don’t think so — but it shows that simply coming up with good ideas isn’t always enough. Someone has to execute them.


I got some more responses from Michael in an email, so I thought I would add them. Aidan Henry has also posted on Cambrian, as have others.

Q. There has been an asset sale to Vencorps/Spencer Trask of some of Cambrian’s assets?
A. YES. In particular: we sold a specific instance of our platform targeted exclusively at the Venture Capital industry.

Q. But not the IP or the existing community?
A. YES. However, we are encouraging our community to move to VenCorps because it represents the next iteration of the model. And, we obviously have a vested interest in it.

Q. And the idea is that Vencorps can better find teams to follow through on some of the ideas that the CH model brings forward?
A. YES. By evolving the model to VenCorps we accomplished the following: a) a scrub of our CH brand. a lot of people found it hard to type, hated the vikings, etc. b) no ideas without teams will be funded.

Q. Does CH continue as a corporate entity and if so what does it do?
A. YES. CH INC. continues, almost looking more like a VC or a holding company – take your pick. We have our handful of portfolio companies to manage which all use crowdsourcing, and one of them, chaordix is all about licensing/selling crowdsourcing platforms. An overview

Dave “DigiDave” Cohn, the one-man editing and assignment desk behind several projects — including Off The Bus (a joint venture in “crowdsourced” political reporting with The Huffington Post) and Assignment Zero (a joint effort with Jeff Howe of Wired magazine) — has a great overview of all the different projects that Jay Rosen’s brainchild is or has been involved in, including: Reporters with thirteen news organizations have agreed to try using the Internet — including tools such as blogs and wikis — to build a network of sources that can help them become smarter about their beat.

OffTheBus.Net: In which motivated individuals agree to keep tabs on an election campaign and file reports to The Huffington Post and NewAssignment. A lab experiment aimed at using a wiki to turn legal jargon into plain English.

Assignment Zero: The project with Wired looked at the phenomenon of “crowdsourcing” through interviews and feature stories, and while it wasn’t a big success it was a learning experience according to Dave and Jay.

Polling Place Photo Project: A lab experiment that saw people from all over the U.S. track what their polling place looked like on Super Tuesday, and this year was copied by the New York Times.

Some great ideas from Jay and Dave and the rest of the NewAssignment team — and plenty to look forward to in 2008.

In China, citizen journalism gets you killed

It’s romantic in a way, the image of “citizen journalists” with their trusty cellphones, capturing news events around the world and allowing everyone to see instant photos or videos. But it can also be very dangerous, as a story out of China shows. As reported by CNN and at TechCrunch, a man who took pictures of a confrontation between townspeople and a company dumping waste was beaten to death by private security guards.

Although many stories describe Wei Wenhua, 41, as “a blogger,” he appears to have been a construction company official who merely started to record the fracas on his cellphone. A group of more than 15 “chengguan,” or private security contractors — sometimes referred to as “city inspectors” — reportedly attacked him and he was dead before he reached the hospital. In a press release, Reporters Without Borders calls Wei the first citizen journalist to die in China.

Help us create a great mesh 2008

The mesh team — that’s Rob Hyndman, Stuart MacDonald, Mark Evans, Mike McDerment and yours truly — are doing our best to come up with some really great content for the next mesh conference in May, but we wanted to ask you for some help as well. Many of you helped by telling us what you wanted after mesh 2007, and now we wanted to get some of your thoughts about 2008.

Ever since the first mesh conference — which kind of snowballed out of a conversation that the five of us had one night over beer and steak at The Paddock restaurant in Toronto — we’ve been fortunate to have a whole pile of smart and resourceful people helping us with ideas and execution, and we wanted to expand that group to include pretty much anyone with a great idea for a panel or a speaker or a concept.

Rob has posted some more thoughts on the mesh blog. The bottom line is that if you have anything at all to suggest — ways we could improve over last year, or just a wild idea you have for next year — please drop a comment either here or on Rob’s post. Mesh on!

NYT’s Keller: Still not quite getting it

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, gave a long and passionate speech in London last week at a memorial event hosted by The Guardian — the full text of which is here — and in it he said many valuable and wise things about the practice of journalism (although he kind of glossed over stuff like Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, but whatever). However, he also said a couple of really dumb things about blogs and social media. Those dumb things are ably skewered by Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine, who Keller referred to in his speech.

In a nutshell, the NYT executive editor says Jeff and his ilk are of the view that bloggers and “citizen journalists” can more or less replace traditional journalists — and then Keller goes on to say that can’t possibly happen, because journalists like those at the Times have standards, training, put themselves in harm’s way in pursuit of the story, etc. etc. The only problem with all that, of course, is that hardly anyone — and especially Jeff Jarvis — is arguing anything like that.

As Jeff notes — and Dan Gillmor does as well — Keller’s argument is a straw man, designed to pump up traditional journalism at the expense of some pseudo-horde of random “citizen journalists” who want to take their jobs. Why can’t we admit that in some cases, people who haven’t been anointed with the title “journalist,” either by someone at a journalism school or by an editor at an established news outlet, can at least help to produce journalism? Why is that so hard?