When Limerick native Paul Quigley set up NewsWhip in Dublin with Andrew Mullaney, they first wanted to create the ‘BuzzFeed of Europe’. Since then, they’ve pivoted twice and now NewsWhip is a data science tool embraced by some of the world’s busiest journalists and newsrooms.
One question I always love to ask people who left high-flying careers to become entrepreneurs is what was the moment, what was the spark that urged them to enter the start-up fray?
For Paul Quigley, who had several years under his belt as a lawyer working for a prestigious New York law firm, it was his 30th birthday.
“I realised I wasn’t jealous of the lifestyle of the law firm partners. It was a career where every year you got more money and more status and it would be hard to step off. And that was the trajectory I would have been on if I just kept doing it.
“On the day I turned 30 I was working on a Saturday and I had billed 14 working hours and my friends turned up outside the skyscraper, I had a toast and went back in. I decided there was more to life.
“Plus the start-up life suits me, you can’t blame anybody else. It’s all on you.”
‘It’s going to become part of everybody’s job now to find data that matters in the moment, not flitting about looking for signals for what’s important’
– PAUL QUIGLEY, NEWSWHIP
And, so, in 2010, Quigley returned to Ireland and he started NewsWhip in Dublin with Andrew Mullaney, who at the time had been working on a different start-up.
Today, NewsWhip is a fast-growing data science company with five core products that employs 26 people in Dublin and 11 in New York; a new expansion plan will grow the company’s global workforce to 50 people.
NewsWhip recently took on a U$1.6m investment from a number of investors, including the Associated Press, 500 Startups, Tribal.vc, Matter, Social Starts, the SaaS Syndicate and the UK Technology Syndicate.
The art of the pivot
After returning from New York, Quigley struggled for ideas. “I used to like wasting time on the internet and asked myself ‘why not turn that into a job?’ Initially, I wanted to found a ‘Buzzfeed for Europe’ but we realised there was a space for technology to see what was most trending – what the social trajectory or velocity of stories would be – and we changed tack.”
His advice to other start-ups is to not be afraid to pivot if you believe it is the right thing to do.
“You don’t know at the start if you have a product that others find useful. We sell to the busiest people in the world, journalists, and you have to respect their time and give them something they can use and that can give them a useful outcome. At the start [we didn’t know] if people would find the social signals we identified as useful or distracting.
“But we became adept at detecting what is trending and delivering in real-time to people who need to know. Our staff aren’t journalists, our staff are data scientists and machine learning experts. So, at first, we wanted to be the Buzzfeed of Europe, the second pivot saw us become a business-to-consumer destination for what’s trending and the third and final pivot is what we are today, a B2B provider of data intelligence.”
Quigley says that what inspired this final direction was, ultimately, revenue. “We had to get people to pay for it, ultimately. It wasn’t about selling only to the journalists, it was about selling to their management and convincing them that, instead of just clicking around the internet, this tool would help their reporters identify bigger stories in a fraction of the time. Management speak in terms of helping them understand the benefits, saving time and resources on one side and more reach to audiences on the other, is what ultimately works in selling to a B2B customer.”
Quigley and Mullaney’s strategy worked and now there are more than 300 companies using the platform.
The future of news, NewsWhip believes, is data science. “Google or Facebook aren’t content companies. The most interesting companies on the web are, however, able to arrange content so that it is useful for people. Organising and making it easy to find things is what Google does at its core, for example.
“For NewsWhip, it is about identifying what people are sharing across the web and surfacing that in such a way that it will be useful.
“It’s going to become part of everybody’s job now to find data that matters in the moment, not flitting about looking for signals for what’s important. There is going to be a split between passively consuming content through Facebook or Twitter or using tools that push the things you need to know right now. There’s simply too much noise out there, so we are a work tool that helps media cut through that noise, cut down the time, and present what’s happening so they can have a maximum audience impact.”
The key will be an artificial intelligence agent combining predictive and analysis and machine learning that Quigley jokes “will hopefully be no Clippy”, referring to the annoying assistant that was spawned in Microsoft’s Office 97.
Return of the native
Quigley will be in Limerick tonight (25 January) to speak at a Bank of Ireland Start-up Grind Limerick event where he will tell other start-up founders about his own start-up journey and will impart advice and insights.
“Initially, NewsWhip 1.0 was just myself and I pitched to Andrew Mullaney… and he agreed to build it. We got on well and decided to commit and do a start-up together.
“What I found the most jarring experience of being a start-up in the internet/software world was there is nothing like being stuck, when version 1.0 isn’t working.
‘The future trend is for urban living and I think Limerick could really be a thriving urban scene. The city centre needs to kick back into action’
– PAUL QUIGLEY, NEWSWHIP
“It is hard work but you also work hard in the corporate world too, which mostly involves covering ass and getting a brief super perfect 24 times because two people can’t agree on the use of the Oxford comma. But, in the start-up world, you focus on what is relevant, and important stuff, and that way work isn’t as exhausted.
“The hardest lesson is you have to build or make something that is really useful. Not just telling a story that you think others will find useful. There are no shortcuts, people will either get value out of this thing or not.
“But, at the start, you just don’t know. You have to build it and, while doing so, convince others to believe in you and that it will be useful. Now that is a tough piece of by-location. It’s a balancing act. Sometimes you just want to get to a destination and relax. But you can’t, in the start-up world you have to always stay sharp.”
Quigley, who grew up in Castletroy and was in school with Irish rugby star Paul O’Connell, believes good times are ahead for Limerick. “The future trend is for urban living and I think Limerick could really be a thriving urban scene. The city centre needs to kick back into action.”
The future for NewsWhip is just as ambitious: “We want to build a robust set of data in real-time that shows where humans’ attention is at any given moment.”