The Virtual Startup: Taking Flight

A year ago, I wrote about the launch of Gourmet Live by Condé Nast. It was a fascinating project for many reasons, ranging from the fact it was bringing back a brand name that lots of people missed, to the tech innovations the team came up with. (For example, I thought/feared Flipboard was going to launch with some of social/game mechanics that Gourmet Live had, but a year later it seems like almost no other reading apps have incorporated those elements.)

Today, the app's doing well, the editorial content is great, and lots of people are reading and buying stories. The team even released a big upgrade to a whole new version that adds iPhone support. (Go get it!) It's a nice case study of how a great app gets built. And the project was particularly satisfying to me because our team at Activate got to collaborate with folks both inside and outside Condé Nast to build Gourmet Live as a sort of "virtual startup". If you caught the "Redefiners" presentation we put up a few weeks ago, you already know the idea — even the biggest, most established companies can adopt some of the principles that tech startups innately obey, like giving enough freedom to really run with their ideas, or being much more iterative and resourceful with a product launch. Good, common sense stuff.

So that's the end of the story, right? Well, no. What happened after that is even more interesting.

Real Startup Guts

Some of us who worked on Gourmet Live were outsiders (not Condé Nast employees) and part of the virtual startup idea is that you can assemble some folks on a team who are there for the duration of the project, in order to tap into talent that's outside the walls of your organization. As Bill Joy said, "No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else."

You might have heard what some of these folks have been up to over the past year: At Activate, we have been doing lots of strategy work for Condé Nast and our other clients; Elizabeth Spiers became Editor in Chief of the New York Observer; Garrett Murray's Karbon has created a ton of other cool apps for the likes of Yelp and Fast Society; Paul Ford's been all over the intersection of web culture and editorial genius, revealing "Why wasn't I consulted?" as the fundamental question of community on the web; and Andre Torrez and the Simpleform team launched the wonderful MLKSHK (which you should go support.)

But what about the Condé Nast folks who made Gourmet Live happen, and who've kept it vibrant and evolving in the year since its launch? Gourmet Live as it stands today is their baby entirely, especially as it evolves to new platforms like the iPhone. People like Chris Gonzalez, Don Eschenauer, Juliana Stock, Melanie Rivera, Rob Haining do awesome work (think Hall of Fame iOS apps like Epicurious) and if they followed the usual pattern of big companies, they would have gone back to doing just that after Gourmet Live was done.

Interestingly, though, these folks maintained the intensity and focus of launching an ass-kicking iPad app as a virtual startup and decided to do it again. The end result is called Idea Flight, and it's pretty great.

Idea Flight is based on a simple idea: In a meeting where everyone has an iPad in their hands, there's a better way to share documents than printing and passing out handouts. From smartly pulling files out of Dropbox, to simplifying the ability for people in a meeting to connect via LinkedIn, to thoughtful human touches like letting a meeting's leader decide if people can flip ahead in their reading materials or not, there are wonderful design choices. If you have meetings with people who have iPads, you should download the free app.

What's just as compelling as the Idea Flight app is what it shows us about what's possible in big companies. While it's a Condé Nast release, it's not based on any of their well-known magazine titles, it's a new brand that's aimed right at a new target audience of professional users. It uses the strength of the company as an asset, but was still built by a small team and launched at startup speed. And that team is made up of real people who are actually blogging and tweeting about their work, acting like regular iPad app developers, instead of the oddly common conceit that pretends apps are made by some formless corporate entity.

All Startup Everything

As interesting as Idea Flight is, it's just the first of what seems like a whole wave of virtual startups that are doing genuinely interesting projects despite, or perhaps because of being part of giant media companies. At the most recent NY Tech Meetup, we saw a great demo from Manilla. The sign-up flow, features and basic idea all seemed compelling (and it was a Made in NYC startup, like Idea Flight!) so I didn't even notice that Manilla's actually funded by Hearst. Now, Manilla seems to be more like Hulu, a standalone startup, whereas Idea Flight is maybe more like the Nook team at Barnes and Noble, and lives within the parent company.

There are lots more examples, and the few examples of acquisitions where big media companies didn't suck the life out of acquired startups (successes like MSNBC's acquisition of Newsvine and Condé's nab of Reddit come to mind) also demonstrate the point: Big organizations aren't always a lost cause. In the case of Reddit, there's even the unprecedented example of a founder actually returning to a company after having sold a startup, in order to help guide a thriving community.

Closer to my heart, I've always been extremely thankful that AAAS, our benevolent parent organization, lets us run Expert Labs as a virtual startup under their august umbrella.

Why it matters

Aside from giving room for the independence (and egos) of a bunch of creative people who would normally chafe at corporate boundaries, why is the idea of a virtual startup actually important? Isn't this just indulging people who are trying to avoid the rules most of their coworkers have to abide by?

That might be part of it, but I think it points at something deeper: We have to make our big organizations more responsive. Big media companies, government agencies, institutions of any kind — they all shape how our culture and society work. And right now, the only option that creative, inventive people have today if they are not able to work within existing organizational structures is to leave. That's a loss for the organization, because they're watching a talented person walk out the door. But it's a loss for that person, too, because big companies and organizations have a scale and breadth and reach that can impact truly large numbers of people in a meaningful way.

So that is perhaps the final reason that I want to advocate for a conversation around what works, or could work, in forming virtual startups within big organizations: The world needs to make big institutions work better. That's more likely to happen if they can see startup-style innovation as something that's compatible with company culture, instead of in fundamental opposition to it.

Further reading

  • A nice Ars Technica interview with Rob Haining, who developed the Idea Flight app, along with a bunch of other popular Condé Nast apps you probably have on your iPhone.
  • Redefiners: This is the presentation our team made at Activate to explain a few key concepts about how big companies can grow, and grow smarter. We dive in to a lot of these ideas around slide 32 in the presentation; Somewhere around 100,000 people have seen this slideshow already (to our amazement), so I'm starting to believe that people are finding these ideas useful.
  • Mathew Ingram's cry that this is no time for incrementalism, over at GigaOm. I don't agree with 100% of Mathew's assertions, but his firm declaration that big media companies don't have to accept timid strategies was dead on.

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