Advice from venture capitalist Benoit Wirz

Oct 02 2015

A venture capitalist from The Knight Foundation talks to students in the Reese News Lab about what it takes to stand out as a start up. Photo by Amulya Uppalapati.

A venture capitalist from The Knight Foundation talks to students in the Reese News Lab about what it takes to stand out as a start-up. Photo taken by Amulya Uppalapati.

Instead of our average one-hour workshop each Friday afternoon, on Sept. 18, Benoit Wirz from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation stopped by the Reese News Lab to offer invaluable advice.

The Knight Foundation supports transformational and innovative ideas that promote the quality of journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. Wirz is the director of venture investments and manages the Knight Enterprise Fund, which invests directly in early-stage start-ups that improve access to useful information. Wirz said anybody of any age can apply for the Knight Enterprise Fund.

When asked what criteria a start-up must meet to receive the funding, Wirz answered that, five years ago, a company needed 200,000 monthly views to catch his interest. Now it’s one million. One million eyeballs need to view your product each month with hardly any money to invest to bring them there. That number shocked me as well as everyone else in the room. Yet, Wirz said if it’s a smaller platform, such as an app, his expectation is slightly lowered. Only slightly.

The traditional news model is dying; this is nothing new. Wirz said he’s looking for new ways to improve how we create and share information. Past Knight Enterprise investments include Change.org, Gimlet Media and Newsela, which publishes news articles at various reading levels so students can read and understand what is happening in the world — genius. These outlets have changed how people interact and find out about what is going on in the world.

This is what we’ve been working on in the Lab for a month now — trying to figure out ways to improve how we create and share information. And it is not an easy task.

It’s easy to get into the funk that every good idea already exists. But at some point someone sat around just like we are brainstorming great ideas. And luckily, there are companies like The Knight Foundation that help fund these budding ideas.

I’ve learned this week to not become discouraged. Even though every few days my group completely changes an idea by 180 degrees, and it seems we are always starting over from square one, we’re still making progress.


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