How one journalist’s passion turned him into an accidental entrepreneur

Journalist entrepreneur Jeff Kofman

Last week, we profiled Trint, a revolutionary new way of converting audio-video to text. The company was co-founded by Emmy-award winning journalist Jeff Kofman. But when Jeff became CEO of Trint, he had absolutely no experience of running a company, sourcing finance, or hiring or managing people.

He’s been on a steep and amazing learning curve. This week, we catch up with Jeff and talk to him about his journey, what he’s learned, and what advice he has for other brand new entrepreneurs.

Accidental entrepreneur

Jeff, when you started out in journalism, did you plan to become eventually become an entrepreneur?
I did not plan to be an entrepreneur. I call myself the accidental entrepreneur.

If you had told me 10 years ago that I was going to be doing this I would have said you don’t know me. Not a chance.

But that’s one of the really fun things about life. It surprises you in really great ways.

This is such an interesting challenge after 30 years of journalism to be inventing something for journalists and for many others that solves a big problem in the digital age. I’m working with such a smart team and a team of brilliant developers; it is just such a thrill and it is such hard work.  You know it’s very humbling how hard it is.

Was the idea for Trint like a light bulb moment? How did it happen, and where were you at in your life at that time?
I had already accepted a buyout from ABC News and I knew I was going to leave. I was teaching university courses on media studies.

A friend said: “Well if you’re teaching that you should really come with me to Mozfest and see where the cutting edge of media innovation is.” It’s one of the biggest annual conference of media coders in the world.

The friend introduced me to this team of guys who had done a prototype of a product that involved text alignment with audio. It made it searchable and you could manipulate it. They were unbelievably smart. That was the prototype and it hadn’t been turned into a product yet, and they didn’t at that point have a strategy for doing that.

I remember saying it’s an interesting idea and we should try to develop it.

I was just so passionate I just thought: “Wow! This is the future. Either we figure out a way to do this together or we’re all going to go our separate ways never see each other again”.

I imagined us sitting in a cafe five years from now and seeing someone on the laptop doing what we envisioned and saying: “Oh yeah, I remember talking about that back a few years ago and we didn’t do it.” And I didn’t want to be that guy.

And so we got together and started building in December 2014. We got some seed money to just to get out of the gate. And it proved to be more difficult than we expected to actually make it work or make it easy for users. But that’s pretty common when you’re inventing something new.

But even in the early stages some of our early testers at CTV and National Public Radio gave us enough positive feedback that we felt that what we were doing was worth pursuing.

It took us over a year to get it to work at a level that we thought was respectable and usable. And then it took us longer to sort of build out the product around the website and all those things that I’ve now learned you have to do.

That sounds pretty intense. What kind of hours are you putting in these days?
It’s overwhelming how many hours I work. Today I was up at 6:30 a.m. for a call with an investor from Tokyo who is looking at putting some money in to us. Then I was talking to investors from Dubai and another investor in Connecticut.

Later, I was talking to a conference organizer and then to a corporate broadcasting fund that’s looking at investing in us. And then I was just talking in Silicon Valley to a company that we’re looking to doing some collaboration with. Also, I spoke to a candidate for our new developer role. That’s sort of my typical day. It’s really, really busy!

Make decisions quickly and live with the consequences

Which skills from your training and years in journalism have been helpful for you in your role as an entrepreneur and leader of a startup? 

Being a war correspondent is really good training for being a startup entrepreneur because you can’t panic when you’re in a war zone.

You’ve got to just stay calm when things go bad. And I sort of joke that when you run a startup every morning you wake up and wonder what landmines you will discover in your path that you’ll have to navigate around.

It pretty much just like that. There are constant challenges and issues. It doesn’t matter how good or smart you are, you’re always going to face those technical problems, human resources problems, banking problems, or logistical problems.

One of the things that I learned as a foreign correspondent going to very difficult places under deadlines was how to make decisions quickly and live with the consequences.

Sometimes you just have to say we’re going to turn left, and you don’t really know if the right turn would have been a better road. But you still have to hit a deadline and you just do it.

And I’m fortunate I absolutely reach out for people’s wisdom and talk to our team about things.

But ultimately I’m a real believer in making decisions fast and living with the consequence because in a fast-moving company like this indecision is often worse.

The other thing is that nobody survives in journalism if she or he doesn’t isn’t prepared to admit what she or he doesn’t know. Anybody who fakes it in journalism is going to get caught out.

And I think it’s a really important early lesson in life. For example, I still find Excel spreadsheets really intimidating. I know that so I have a terrifically smart business and chief revenue officer who’s who’s really good at Excel. He’s done phenomenal analytics and I just look at them every day and think Jason’s part of this team because I could never have known how to do this.

So you have to admit what you don’t know and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and know things that you don’t. But I think that it becomes intuitive for journalists to just ask questions and seek answers.

Learning to manage

How hard has it been identifying the right people to work for Trint?
It’s really challenging as a first-time manager-CEO to run a company. A lot of investors steer clear of first time entrepreneurs and I can understand why. You make a lot of mistakes and you learn.

My approach is to employ my journalism skills which is to ask questions and to be honest about what I don’t know. That has served me really well by finding smart people to turn to for advice in terms of hiring.

Very early on I realized that you’re hiring two things: skill set and attitude. This team is not only very skilled but it shares a passion for the product. I’m just not interested in hiring someone who is embarrassed about being excited. Or embarrassed by enthusiasm. I want people whose eyes sparkle when they talk about where it’s going to go and where it’s taking them.

The right attitude in a small company culture is really critical.

What about learning and developing management skills?
You make mistakes. I’ve made lots of mistakes but I’ve learned. We are sponsored in London by Cisco and UCL (University College London), which  is one of the leading computer science universities in the world.

Early on I felt I needed to learn some management leadership skills and UCL offered to put me on a course. I learned so much; it was really great to learn a vocabulary of management and leadership skills and understand how to know when to step in and when to step back. That course really changed my approach and whatever mistakes I make today there are fewer of them I think because of what I learned.

Managing people is a constant challenge and I think a manager and leader’s role is to help people get the best out of themselves. It’s not to do the job for them, it’s to help them do their job and to help position them so that they feel a sense of pride and ownership in the work they’re doing.

Advice for journalists who want to start their own businesses

What advice do you have for the journalists who have a great business idea and want to take it to market?
One of the things about being a startup entrepreneur is that everybody has a brilliant idea.

Ideas are easy. It’s the execution that’s hard. It’s the product market fit (a term that I’ve never heard of before) that matters.

You need to ask: Is this really an idea that the world will want and will pay for or that you can actually find a way to financially support? Because a lot of ideas maybe are good ideas but they’re not financially viable.

Unless you’re going to run a charity you’ve got to be able to actually make a business case for your idea and you’ve got to actually believe that your business case is real.

You have to be very harsh on yourself, ask some hard questions, and give yourself a reality check. You need to know your idea is a product or a concept that the world needs, wants, and will pay for; because you’re going to be running a business.

Some journalists think that ‘business’ is a dirty word. Get over it. Journalism is a business and business creates jobs. Trint has created jobs. That’s what our economy is run on.

It’s so easy to say I’ve got an idea. It’s not so easy to validate the idea and prove that you’ve actually got an idea that the world needs, wants and will pay for.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist and content marketer. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. She is a Director at Gocontentmarketing.com and is available for freelance assignments. Contact her via the contact form or Linkedin.

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