Spot.us brings crowdfunding to journalism

There are plenty of efforts at “citizen journalism” underway in various places, including CNN’s iReport and Vancouver-based NowPublic, but Spot.us is a little different: In this case, the citizens aren’t the ones doing the actual reporting (although they can potentially do so under Spot’s model). Instead, they’re being asked to finance the reporting, by contributing to a kind of virtual tip jar. Founder David Cohn is a tireless young journalist who has been active with several leading citizen-journalism experiments, including Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net and the Off The Bus election-reporting joint venture with Huffington Post. But is “crowdfunding” really a viable model for journalism?

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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 VenCorps.com, 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.

Update:

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.

Does “crowdsourcing” work for investing?

TechCrunch has a post up about Wikinvest, a kind of “crowdsourced” investment encyclopedia, and how it has added a pile of interesting data about certain sectors such as airlines and so on — including revenue per available seat mile and other fun stuff (and yes, if you invest in airlines, that stuff had better be interesting). Coincidentally enough, I was just looking at Wikinvest.com earlier today, because I spotted the name on the list of panelists at Paul Kedrosky’s Money:Tech conference.

The first commenter on the TechCrunch post brings up one of the first things that jumped into my mind as well, namely: If investing consists of finding little-known metrics or tools or insights that you can use to spot trends or problem areas, how does it help you to have — or contribute to — a kind of encyclopedia that keeps track of all that kind of info? In other words, wouldn’t it make more sense to keep that kind of thing to yourself, rather than sharing it? If so, then you have to wonder who is going to be doing all the work of submitting stuff to Wikinvest.

In some ways, what Wikinvest seems to be trying to do is a little different than what Coinvestor.com or Cake Financial are doing. Like Motley Fool’s CAPS — which is quite well done, as far as investing-related social networks go — these sites capture your trading activity, your portfolio performance, etc. and let you talk about what you think about stocks. But Wikinvest requires you to actually help other investors by providing data that may or may be one of your special tools for assessing the worth of a particular sector, which is a whole different ball game.

That said, I like Wikinvest — it’s well designed, and I think it is a valuable effort. I’m just not sure how much of the data that gets contributed is going to be worthwhile. It almost seems like the more worthwhile it is, the less likely that someone will contribute it. On a somewhat related note, Michael Robertson — of Linspire.com and mp3tunes.com and dozens of other ventures too numerous to name — just launched a kind of encyclopedia for the VC business called Dealipedia.com.

Jay Rosen launches Beatblogging

NewAssignment.net creator and journalism prof Jay Rosen’s latest venture just went live: Beatblogging is an attempt to improve the coverage of specific news areas or “beats” by using social-media such as blogs and wikis. In effect, Jay and his team — led by the indefatigable David “DigiDave” Cohn — want to help beat reporters use “crowdsourcing” methods (like Jay’s project with Huffington Post, the political-reporting effort OffTheBus.com) to draw knowledge from various sources.

The list of 13 participants is at Jay’s site, PressThink, and also at the MediaShift Idea Lab site that is part of PBS. It includes Wired digital-music writer Eliot Van Buskirk, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle, a public-school reporter at the Dallas Morning News, a basketball writer at ESPN.com and a technology reporter at the Seattle Times. The San Jose Mercury News has some thoughts about why it’s taking part.

I think Jay’s idea is brilliant, and it will be fascinating to see how it develops. I wish there were some Canadian newspaper reporters taking part.

Quit reviewing us online, café says

Greg Sterling at Screenwerk has an interesting post about a local café in his home town of Oakland called Rooz, which has posted signs saying “No Yelpers” — in other words, no customers who plan to bitch about the service or the food on the Yelp.com customer review site. Greg asked about the sign and got this response:

“What I was told, in a nutshell, is that the café staff has encountered a stream of would-be critics “with attitude,” predisposed to take issue with or be critical of the business.”

Greg says the staff argued that some customers were being deliberately snotty in their reviews “for entertainment reasons or to impress the Yelp community,” and weren’t being respectful of the impact their reviews might have on a small business like the café. The response from some of the Yelpers in question (not surprisingly) has been unapologetic:

“How DARE you ban my opinion?? And for this, I shall not return. EVER. Not the best business plan in the world buddy.”

As Greg notes, it seems a bit odd to pick a fight with your customers, even the snotty ones who give your place lacklustre reviews on a site such as Yelp. Maybe this café owner has enough customers, and doesn’t need to attract any more.