Thought Leader was ahead of its time and enthusiastically received by the country. Essentially a group blogging platform, Thought Leader allowed readers to comment on and debate issues raised by contributors to the site. It was a dynamic combination of all the internet theory we had studied, involving a mixture of journalists, non-journalists and readers all on the same platform, on the same level as each other. There were two key factors in getting profiled on the platform: algorithm (how popular your article was) and editorial consideration (what the editor thought of it). This was a revolutionary approach. At that time it was unheard of to let readers write on the same level as journalists and allow algorithms to set the news agenda of the day.
Thought Leader was one of the first commercial media sites to use WordPress — a free, open-source CMS — for a major editorial product. WordPress was then mostly thought of as a limited blog platform. Frankly, we had some doubts about the platform, but we pushed on anyway. It turned out that it fit what Thought Leader was doing like a glove.
The speed with which our new sites were created and the quality of our products were quickly recognised by the industry, and M&G Online was regaining its status as an innovator. Vincent Maher pioneered the country’s first semantic tagging, a form of artificial intelligence, linked up with an innovative technology called Reuters Open Calais. This service would automatically read Mail & Guardian articles and assign them contextual tags that would allow us to cross-link stories, enhance the site’s search engine optimisation and enable readers to find content more easily.
Vincent and I were rare beasts in that we not only came from a content background, with journalism degrees, but also understood product development and the technical aspects of web development. We were keen bloggers too, bridging the gap between the formal publishing world and the informal micro-publishing world — the blogsphere. Amatomu and Thought Leader were direct results of this crossover. Amatomu was a blog aggregator that ranked the best and most-read blogs in the country. It brought a disparate self-publishing community together under one site and allowed users to discover new bloggers and read quality blog content. At the time, it was enthusiastically embraced by the online and blogger community, and was responsible in itself for spurring on a growing blogger scene.
Thought Leader was a different product. It was a more sophisticated evolution of Blogmark, which was now defunct. We invited only well-known and quality writers to blog on Thought Leader on a variety of topics, but crucially we retained editorial control, unlike the “free-for-all” on Blogmark. Editorially, the Thought Leader site improved steadily over time. In 2008 Thought Leader was recognised as an “honouree” at the reputable international Webby Awards and was named “blog of the year” at the South African Blog Awards. The M&G Online was being talked about at web conferences and industry events. Traffic and revenues continued to soar. At one stage, the site was ranked among the top-five online publishers’ sites – a great feat.
The site’s new-found success began attracting the attention of some big names. Helen Zille, the Western Cape premier, stormed into our reception one day to complain about an online article. I was too busy to see her, so I sent a journalist to sort out the issue. A year later she was elected head of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Meanwhile, the shareholder mantle had passed from MWEB to 24.com, a new publishing-focused entity that incorporated News24.com. A disjointed combination of MWEB and News24 staff was assimilated into the new operation. We hoped relations would improve, as we were now dealing with a focused technology and publishing entity as opposed to an internet service provider (ISP) that lacked a publishing culture and understanding.
But things did not get better. It became clear that 24.com was naturally focused on establishing itself, and M&G Online was pushed further into the background.
It was an irony: the M&G was but a 35% shareholder of a site that carried its brand name, but the 65% shareholder seemed to show indifference to the business. We acted as though we were 100% shareholders, but had only the power of minority shareholders. Not a month went by in which chief executive Trevor Ncube, financial director Hoosain Karjieker and I did not discuss options to improve or get out of the deal.
The website sale agreement, drawn up back in the 1990s, was a shocking piece of legal work. Not only did the agreement sell an overwhelming majority of the site to a shareholder that was unable to add significant value (an ISP that did not understand online publishing or the M&G), but it also effectively sold all M&G’s online rights. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this meant that even if the M&G were to build its own corporate site, in all likelihood it would own only a minority stake in it.
Such were the historical circumstances we inherited. Walking away from the site meant facing a five-year restraint of trade — an option none of us wanted, because the M&G Online business had been showing real promise and was backed by talented, committed and passionate staff. We truly felt we had the best online editor and news editor, online sales agent and technical strategist. Few would have disagreed with us — in fact, the M&G Online management team was openly known in the industry as the “dream team”.
This was a difficult time for me. I had a good relationship with Russell Hanly, then the chief executive of 24.com, and with second-in-command JP Farinha, who hailed from MWEB. I knew them both from my early iafrica.com days, and together we had founded the Online Publishers Association in 2004. I had also bumped into Hanly at a digital media conference in Prague, and we had struck up a pretty good friendship and mutual respect. But there was an unavoidable structural tension that made the work relationship difficult to manage.
The slow resolution of key technical issues related to the site infuriated me. For a week we had to endure HTML errors on article pages while we worked the phones and the hierarchies, struggling with the 24.com technical team to get the site fixed. Civilised conversations became less civilised. Phones were slammed down. It was a fractious, uncomfortable relationship.
The final straw came one day when, just before we were leaving the office, we noticed that the site had stopped displaying articles. The bare structure was there — the navigation, the page elements — but there were no articles. It was an empty shell.
The site’s database had been “accidentally dropped” — a tech euphemism for “deleted”. That this could have happened on a major international site astounded me. I spent hours making phone calls to get technical staff to understand the urgency of one of the country’s top publishers showing a blank site. I know I am no saint, but I do my best to control my emotions. That day, however, I snapped. I was furious. It was unthinkable that a major site and business could be subjected to something so careless. We had tried so hard to build the site into a successful business, despite the obstacles in our way. And then this: someone accidentally deleting the site.
It took a day to repair the damage, although a week’s worth of articles was lost forever. We thought we had put the worst behind us. But then, 48 hours later, the unthinkable happened again: the database was deleted a second time. We were enraged, and the M&G began consulting lawyers. It was the final straw for us.
During this time, 24.com was experiencing its own technical difficulties. Its website was struggling under an outsourced legacy CMS, and the MWEB ISP culture in the organisation was not conducive to agile development focused on online publishing. We agreed we needed to buy back M&G Online; 24.com confirmed it would sell the site. There was no other option.
This is an extract from How to Build a Startup, published by Tafelberg. Matthew Buckland, who died this year, was a new-media pioneer and entrepreneur