Communicate Influence

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

Journalist entrepreneur Jeff Kofman

From journalist to entrepreneur

Last week, we interviewed journalist-to-entrepreneur Jeff Kofman, founder of Trint, a revolutionary new way of converting audio-video to text. 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, Jeff tells us what he’s learned, and what advice he has for journalists making the transition to entrepreneur.

Journalist to 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.

Running Trint 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 is amazing. 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.  

The idea behind Trint

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’d accepted a buyout from ABC News, and was teaching university courses on media studies.

A friend suggested I go with him to Mozfest, one of the biggest annual conference of media coders in the world.

I met a team of guys who had done a prototype of a product that involved text alignment with audio. This transcription service was searchable and you could manipulate it. 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 was just so passionate and 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.”

We started building in December 2014. But it proved to be more difficult than we expected to actually make it work or make it easy for users. Apparently that’s pretty common when you’re inventing something new.

Early feedback positive from journalists

However, 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.

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? 

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.

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.

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.

An entrepreneur mustn’t be afraid to admit what they don’t know

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.

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

Hiring people with the right attitude is key

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.

Develop your own management skills

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.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning writer, journalist, podcaster, and poet based in Toronto, Canada.

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