Meet David Cohn who is leading Advance Local’s Innovation Lab

The upcoming June 18-20 San Francisco Regional Innovation Mission will make a stop at Advance Local’s Alpha Group, the company’s innovation lab. We’ll visit with David Cohn (founding editor of Circa), who is charged with leading the Alpha Group. Cohn will share his learnings and best practices for building a successful innovation lab within a legacy media enterprise. We caught up with Cohn to learn what he’s working on.

Q: For those who are unfamiliar, can you describe the Alpha Group: what is it, what it does, and why it was created? 

The Alpha Group is a small team within Advance Local which has a specific goal of creating new products, projects and ideas to build new audiences and revenue streams. Our job is to build MVP (Minimal Viable Products) and slowly grow these into independent products that require their own staff. If the projects are viable, we hire staff for them. As we staff up our products we take on more of an advisory role, akin to how an early investor might work with a startup. We go on then to build more MVPs. Some will work and get built as I described above, others won’t and we will shut them down and try to make those “teachable moments.” You could describe the Alpha Group as an internal incubator.

Q: What methodology or process do you apply to determine the projects and new products that you focus on? Are there specific problems that you’re looking to solve? 

There aren’t “specific” problems we are trying to solve, but we do stick to our strengths as an incubator inside of a larger media company. We also hope that as we work on more and more projects, we can build an ecosystem where the emerging organizations can help each other, share valuable insight, resources, etc.

We are mostly looking for opportunities/markets where we think an audience is underserved or we can build a better product.

Another important thing that we keep in mind is that sometimes the newest innovations start off as games, toys or oddities. Twitter, Flickr and other huge success stories began as distractions or amusements and later became world changing. While not everything we do is big J “journalism,” it is all in the ‘information’ space. We start by thinking about what we would want as users and go from there to validate our ideas and the potential markets we envision.

Q: Tell us more about how the Alpha Group is structured within the larger Advance / Conde family. Are you completely independent? What role do they play in assessing and/or influencing what initiatives you focus on? 

We are, relatively speaking, pretty independent. We have our own offices, our own processes, our own roadmaps, etc. Because we are working on MVP’s to start, we can basically get going on our ideas. We share updates and communicate the areas we are working on with the organization’s leadership team regularly. Once we have an MVP in the market, some basic findings and a more clear path forward, we work with the leadership team to get approval to move forward on the initiative assuming it is performing well.

Q: One of the challenges in local media is giving innovation the necessary runway and resources

to succeed (even if success means “failing forward”). How does Advance approach this with Alpha Group? In other words, how much runway do you have to build new products and initiatives, and what KPIs does the parent company use to measure progress?

The organization has been very supportive of the Alpha Group. Part of this is just about creating the right environment and conditions. Except for the lead of Alpha Group, the rest of the team came from “outside” the company (meaning, we weren’t part of the company before Alpha Group). We pride ourselves on building great teams to take our products to the next level which means we add value to the organization from a human capital standpoint as well. Also, the Alpha Group is kept pretty distinct from other parts of the organization. Which is to say, Alpha Group has a distinct set of expectations outside of what the rest of the organization is responsible for. Truth is, Advance Local is doing extremely innovative things on their own so we try and explore distinct opportunities that would be of benefit to the organization versus duplicating efforts. Our KPI’s are around the products we build, which are distinct entities and have distinct KPIs. We set them out with the staff that we hire and we do work within a similar performance management system that the larger company uses against those.

Q: You’ve mentioned The Tylt. Tell us more — how did you land on the idea, and what is it designed to do? 

The Tylt was the first big project from The Alpha Group that “graduated” (to use a term) into its own organization. The Tylt now has a staff of 15 and growing. The Tylt was really the brain child of Mike Donoghue, who leads Alpha Group. The original question was: What does it look like to ‘win’ a debate online. Or, what kinds of conditions can we create so that a real debate can happen where it doesn’t feel like a losing proposition to disagree with somebody online. Members of the Tylt community can vote on our site, or use hashtags associated with one side of a debate in social spaces like Twitter, Facebook, etc – and those hashtag uses will also count as votes. In this way, we can also keep track of who are the most influential people on one side of the debate or another. The Tylt reaches 55 million+ people a month and is growing, working on publisher partnerships, improving the proprietary technology that keeps track of votes (we call it Signal) and building out its biz/dev future. I helped start the editorial side of The Tylt’s operation, but today I often tell the team I am their Ringo Starr. “I’m the least talented one and should just be happy to be in their presence.”

Q: Aside from specific products, what are a couple of big ideas in media that you are watching closely? 

For the last 6-9 months members of the team have been interested in Blockchain. Projects like Po.et, Steem.it or Civil are examples of the application of blockchain technology to media.

I think we take a “nothing’s off the table” approach. We share some skepticism on certain technologies. For example, I think our group isn’t very interested in VR. That’s not to write off that technology, it’s just not something our group is super interested in. But we also disagree on the immediate value of other technologies. We’re pretty good at having open and honest conversations. That’s very important because there is no crystal ball here. It’s also important to note that on the Alpha Group we all have different strengths and backgrounds. I come from the content side of things, with some strong experience in product. Another member of the team comes from a UX/UI background, another is an engineer and another has a biz/dev background. We rely on each other circle back to the group and bring their perspective on what they think is interesting and each of us respect the other’s expertise.

You can register here for the June 18-20 San Francisco Innovation Mission.