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Posted on: Friday, 17 September 2010 by Rajiv Popat

The story of NewsTilt and why the young startup nosedived its way into failure and eventually shut down sends a chill down your spine as you read it.

As you read the post which describes one of the founder's view of why the organization failed, you start reading between the lines and you start finding dark gaps which give you a glimpse into what the real reason for NewsTilt's failing might have been. Embedded between the lines of the posts you find chilling comments passed with an innocent, matter of fact tone which make them all the more scary. For example, Paul (one of the founders of News Tilt) explains:

Since we needed to build so quickly, as soon as we got some money we wanted to hire another technical person. Nathan had a friend he wanted to hire, who was exactly the kind of great programmer he could work well with. However, it took some convincing to get him to try working on a news website, and he wasn’t sure he’d stick with it. We were sure we’d be able to convince him to stay, and we even waited two weeks for him to move to work with us.

Unfortunately, we were never able to excite him about the project, and we quickly realized he was never going to be intrinsically motivated the way we need for a first employee. There was a point when I was over in Cambridge with Nathan and the other developer, and I noticed that the developer wasn’t working on a Sunday. Now, we aren’t the kind of people who think our employees owe us 90 hours a week, but startups need that kind of work ethic from very early employees–exactly the reason that intrinsic motivation is so important. If your first employee doesn’t love what you do, doesn’t wake up each morning dying to work on HIS product, you have likely chosen poorly, and that’s exactly what we did.

As you skim through the article you begin to understand that the problem with NewsTilt wasn't any of the reasons mentioned in the post. The problem with NewsTilt probably was the fact that the founder believed that by jumping into an unknown domain and hiring idiots who work ninety hours week can make you a shitload of money. Take for instance this quote from the post:

Somewhat surprisingly, the journalists we picked were too good. We made a big deal of only hiring the “best journalists”, something we spent a great deal of time getting right. We had a guy with a Pulitzer, one with an Emmy, and overall a great deal of talent writing for us [3].

In hindsight, this may have been a big mistake. The kind of writer we actually needed was one that was hungry to succeed. Someone who would write five pieces a day, and who wanted nothing more than to be a big-time journalist. We needed a young Perez Hilton or Michael Arrington, people who wrote for 18 hours a day in order to make their names.

Instead, we got journalists who were already successful in their day jobs, and who already had families and other commitments.

Not to mention of course that these journalists were working for free. If this post does one thing, it bring out NewsTilt as a company which expected everyone, their employees and their journalists, to sacrifice their personal life and give in eighteen hours a day behind an idea and a domain that the founders themselves did not know anything about.

Paul explains why his idea was great and that Google could have made it work:

Google could have made this work. I believe that if Google applied the same model they could probably succeed. They have the tech ability, they have the traffic, and they already have a massive news property. They also have have a big problem with whiny news organization, and an elegant solution would be to kill them off by enfranchising their journalists to be their own bosses.

Of course Google could have made it work. But then again, Google is okay with giving twenty percent personal time from their normal five day work weeks to their developers, leave aside expecting them to work Sundays. Besides, Google is also not pointing fingers at their developers for not working weekends when their products fail. Not to mention that most successful developers work less and say no to meaningless slogging.

Let's face it. NewsTilt probably failed because of a lousy founder who wanted people to stop having a life and work ninety hours a week for an idea that he himself did not know deeply.

The entire post runs into pages and by the time you are done with reading it you realize that Paul could have done a way better job with the post by just saying  "I fu@#ked up. I am sorry". It would have been way better than whining about the developer not working weekends and the journalists having families. But then again, saying "I fu@#ked up" is hard.

Besides, realizing how bad you are at something requires the same skills that you need to become good at that thing.

Paul as a founder has a terrible blind spot that most readers of that post can see rather easily.

Go on. Read the chilling story of NewsTilt and it's failure and as you read it be sure to read between the lines and learn exactly the kind of attitude you should avoid while leading an organization, startup, business or even your small team at work. That and when you make mistakes, stop pointing fingers at others and accept the fact that it was you who fu@#ked up. After all, it is always your fault. Seriously.