The award was announced today (Monday, June 18th) at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference in Boston. The award is the first of three Knight News Challenge grants to be bestowed this year, rather than an annual event, to more closely match the pace of innovation.
Farano is an entrepreneur in residence at StartX, a program to accelerate the development of Stanford’s top entrepreneurs through experiential education.
He first came to Stanford in 2010 as a Knight International Fellow from France. He was the co-founder of cafebabel.com, a multilingual pan-European news magazine and pioneer in collaborative journalism with more than 10,000 contributors. He also was a partner at OWNI.fr, a media startup focused on database and crowdsourcing journalism.
We talked to Farano recently about his latest project, the legacy of his Knight Fellowship, and journalism today.
First, tell us about Watchup, the proposal that won you a Knight News Challenge award. What does it do?
Watchup is an iPad-only app that lets you catch up on the news through high-quality video channels. With Watchup you can create a video playlist in a snap. Just tap the news videos that matter to you, press play and sit back to watch what’s up in the world. That easy!
How does that help journalists or journalism?
From the journalism industry’s perspective, Watchup is going to fix the distribution problem on tablet devices. News organizations are producing an increasing amount of premium video content for digital consumption. The issue is that discovering that content is painful. With Watchup we have created the fastest interface ever to search out quality clips and create a video playlist.
You know, you could almost say that Watchup is like Hulu for news. But with three differences: We are focused on the news vertical (video only), we were born mobile, and we are an agile startup with a good dose of Stanford DNA.
What prompted you to apply for a Knight Journalism Fellowship? How did you hear about it?
It was a beautiful day in the fall of 2009 when my longtime mentor and friend Alberto Ibarguën (president of the Knight Foundation) encouraged me to apply for the Knight Fellowship. I was looking forward to opening a new chapter in my life and Alberto took me to a Paris restaurant where we had a delicious lunch. I’m glad I hadn’t drunk too much Pinot Noir to listen attentively to his precious advice. My year at Stanford happened to offer me the most transformative experience of my entire professional life.
What did you expect of the Fellowship?
I thought about it as both a more experimental, hands-on MBA and an ‘Erasmus 2.0’ (the name of the student exchange program that let millions of Europeans spend one year abroad). In 2001, Erasmus inspired me to start my first venture, CafeBabel.com. In 2011, the Knight Fellowships made me a born-again entrepreneur.
What did you learn or discover here that either reinforced your thinking or changed it?
I just fell in love with the Silicon Valley mindset by meeting with inspiring entrepreneurs like Storify’s Xavier Damman. Rapid prototyping and quick iterations, think big and act small, building a minimally viable product rather than wasting time with long product development phases, customer development… Stanford made me feel pumped and willing to change the world — again.
Did your fellowship project goal change? If so, how?
Yes, I applied with a project that ended up being too theoretical. It was great to see how flexible the program was when I said that I was thinking about experimenting with augmented reality. “Just do it,” said Pam Maples, the Innovation Director. In a couple of months, along with Gene Becker, we built Quadmented, a time-machine-like tour of the Main Quad on campus with historical pictures and multimedia material that helped tell the story of the world’s best university. You can see it here.
But you didn’t stop there, right?
Exactly. While I started realizing that I wanted to start a venture again, I came to the conclusion that I could not yet build a big company with augmented reality. Both the technology and the interface were not yet mature enough for that.
So, I started focusing on new ways to augment the news experience on tablet devices.
Could you draw a specific connection between anything during your Fellowship and the birth of Watchup?
Totally. I fell in love with the iPad. I realized that there was a dramatic media consumption shift toward mobile platforms, and I started screening all the possible ways to distribute and design news experiences on those devices. Watchup is a direct product of that experience, although we started working on it much later.
Tell us about StartX and how you ended up there.
A: Right after the Fellowship, which ended in the summer of 2011, I became an entrepreneur in residence at StartX. I was just keen to help first-time founders of amazing companies to succeed. StartX is the Stanford startup accelerator. Three times a year, we select 10-15 of the best companies that Stanford students start. Think about that. While Stanford’s acceptance rate is 6%, only 9% of the students who apply manage to make it into StartX. But 80% of our companies end up getting funding!
Also, StartX is a big and warm community. I like to call it a “mafia” in the familiar sense, of course. While the accelerator takes no equity, it concentrates all the best resources startup founders might need in one single accessible place. It’s the genius of Cameron Teitelman, StartX founder, along with the key contributions of his staff, that made all this possible. If you want to change the world, you should apply for StartX!
What were some of the biggest influences on you during your Fellowship?
I learned a lot from Professor H. Irving Grousbeck at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business about smart ways to manage growing enterprises. I studied American history, which helped me understand this country more. I also enjoyed my d.school (Institute of Design) boot camp a lot and that really helped me stay focused on customer acquisition. But design thinking should be conceived more as a method than a religion. There are a few situations when you rather want to follow your gut. Also, I enjoyed all the input that the Knight Fellowships staff gave me, along with interactions with the other Fellows, especially Jigar Mehta and Wendy Norris, who also fell into the trap of starting a company.
Were there any surprise discoveries, about anything?
Yes, that I could learn golf! Although I guess I’ve already forgotten now, sadly.
What did you learn about the future of journalism during your explorations at Stanford?
I not only learned that the Santa Clara Valley (a.k.a. Silicon Valley) is the physical place where the future of journalism will be set, but also that the journalism world hasn’t been able to influence that debate — yet. My bet is that the new (innovation-focused) path the Knight Fellowships has started following will help it play a crucial role in redesigning the new media landscape with all the companies and the new projects that hopefully will arise from there.