Media

Pulse founders prep for next step of delivering news to millions (interview)

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Pulse, the beautifully-designed Android and iOs app for perusing the news, is the quintessential “lean startup”.

It all began at Stanford University when grad students (Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta) set their sights on improving the news-reading experience.

After interviewing hundreds of people about their digital media consumption, Kothari and Gupta built a quick and dirty iPhone app, launched it in a few months, and succeeded in catching the attention of investors and the press. With a small infusion of funds, the founders rented space in a converted garage in Silicon Valley.

They recently relocated to a fancy office in San Francisco, but have remained loyal to Eric Ries’ “lean startup” ethos: rapid product cycles, emphasis on customer feedback, and scientific experimentation.

As a result, they have vast stores of data about how people read the news. Today, the company announced that users have read four billion stories on one of the mobile or tablet apps since the 2010 launch.

With readers consuming an average of ten million stories a day, the founders see an opportunity to help publishers and derive relevant insights from the data. I caught up with Kothari for a chat about the host of new features, the company’s stellar growth, and where Pulse fits into the rapidly-evolving digital media landscape.

VentureBeat: Four billion stories! That’s insane growth in just two years. 
Akshay Kothari: It’s a bit surreal. I still remember the first day we launched the app, when we were still in school (graduate students at Stanford). 123 people bought the app on the first day, and around 1,000 stories were read. Today, we see 40,000 new users join the service, and 10 million stories read every single day, and that’s growing really fast.

VentureBeat: Readers are voraciously consuming news — and yet publishers are still in trouble. Why the disconnect?
Kothari: Well, not all publishers are “in trouble”.  Many established publishers that have been willing to experiment with new distribution and monetization models have been successful. Publishers who are struggling are those that don’t see the writing on the wall with declining print circulation and cheap web banner CPM rates. A lot of publishers haven’t figured out how to adapt to a digital, increasingly mobile world.

VentureBeat: Tell me a little bit about Pulse Insights, launching today. Where did the idea come from?
Kothari: Over the last two and a half years, we have witnessed a pretty interesting shift in how people consume news. Gone are the days when we would only read the morning newspaper or watch the evening news. Today, people check news every few hours. They are always connected. In the last year, wes started to convert this data into information. Every time we launch a new feature, we can look at data to figure out how we did. Every time a new publisher joins us, they get a dashboard of all their activity. Slowly, but steadily, we learned more and more about our users. With Pulse insights, we are sharing this with the world, hoping that this project will benefit the entire ecosystem of news publishing.

VentureBeat: Does Pulse want to help publishers and digital media sites connect with readers? Or vice versa? 
Kothari: Pulse is user-centric at its core – we’re striving to elevate media consumption to foster informed discussions in the world.  Helping users find relevant content and then facilitating their engagement with this content is our top priority.

VentureBeat: Will Pulse Insights be available for free? Do you plan to make money from it in the future? 
Kothari: Yes, Pulse Insights is free and will always be free. We use data to guide pretty most of our product and content development. We think that democratizing access to this same data will help others (publishers, start-ups, advertisers) take advantage of shifts in consumption behavior and emerging patterns. We’re seeing great monetization traction with our brand content solutions for advertisers and our premium subscriptions offering – we will remain focused on these efforts to drive revenue for Pulse.

VentureBeat: With Pulse Insights, are you guys riding the ‘big data” trend?
Kothari: We’re big believers in data. The broader emancipation of data that’s happening across industries is super exciting and we’re excited to be a small part of it.

VentureBeat: How can startups like Pulse help traditional publishers stay relevant?
Kothari: We position ourselves as a resourceful technology and design partner for publishers.  We help them understand how their content is being consumed and who is consuming it.  We’re also a powerful distribution driver for publishers.  Last but certainly not least, both our brand content solutions and our premium subscription product is driving real revenue for publishers today.

VentureBeat: Your founding story is classic….
Kothari: Pulse was started off as a class project in the Launchpad class in the d.school (Stanford’s famous design school). The only requirement of the class was to launch your product publicly. No business plan, no pitches, no proposals – just focus on the product and launch it! We pushed Pulse out in 5 weeks. The first version of the app was really barebones – there was no backend, there was no catalog (of thousands of publishers) – Pulse only allowed you to add 10 tech websites. But, we got a ton of feedback – and we made daily tweaks to the product.

The turning point was the WWDC conference when Steve Jobs highlighted it as the first of a few iPad apps he liked. That literally changed us from a class project to a company.

As mentioned above, our relationship with publishers is quite strong – except for the NYTimes misfire very early on, there hasn’t been a single publisher who has backed off. (At 22 and 23 years old, the founders found themselves at the center of a legal dispute with the New York Times. Read more on the legal snafu here.) Most publishers are excited to integrate even more deeply with us.

We’ve grown from working in a cafe to a garage to a shared office to a stunning headquarters in the financial district of SF. To be able to work on all aspects of product, culture, hiring, marketing and revenues along the way – has been a dream run. I’m looking forward to taking Pulse to even bigger heights!

Akshay Kothari Photo: David Paul Morris, Bloomberg / SF