If You Build the Tech Internally, You Own it

In an era when a lot of technology gets outsourced or bought from outside vendors, there’s still plenty of market opportunity from having something built from scratch with internal resources. The challenge, of course, is figuring out what that might be—and resourcing for it.

Nearly a year ago, the controversial but hard-to-ignore media conglomerate Gawker Media—staring down a massive settlement in a case involving Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel, and a whole lot of money—sold its assets to Univision in a bankruptcy auction.

It was not an ideal situation for Gawker Media, which sold its well-known sites and technology below their market value, but as far as places to land go, Univision was probably a better fit than most. While Univision doesn’t share the taste for tenacious legal battles that Gawker did, you could look at its work on the millennial-focused TV network and website Fusion and see some direct parallels there.

Now, not all is sunny post-mergerville. The company has lost some big-name journalists in the past year, and Business Insider—which has gained a reputation in media circles for writing well-reported takedowns of news companies—wrote a piece speaking to the seeming chaos at the renamed Gizmodo Media Group, with concerns about the original firm’s ethos fading over time, as well as the leadership exodus the sale caused.

But on the other hand, Univision has benefited significantly from the merger in one sense: It was well-known that Gawker Founder Nick Denton had spent millions of dollars building Kinja, an internal content management system (CMS) for Gawker Media’s sites. It was a model that it had pioneered long before competitors like Vox Media had gained notoriety for similar reasons. (In the case of Vox, the company’s Chorus CMS likely helped lead to a recent deal with sports-media guru Bill Simmons.)

And Univision is taking advantage of what it has under its own roof. Earlier this year, it moved Fusion to Kinja, along with its black culture vertical The Root. These sites, as Poynter notes, used to be on WordPress before—and Business Insider says they saw sizable traffic bumps after moving to the new CMS.

The new, proprietary platform is a bit of an upgrade, one that is built for elements like affiliate links on Amazon and robust commenting systems. Such elements had been well-tested on sites like Lifehacker and Kotaku for years.

The company is also taking advantage of Kinja’s perks to bring one of Univision’s other acquisitions, Onion, Inc., onto the platform later this year. That’s right—real news from Gizmodo and Fusion will soon be running on the same CMS as The Onion and Clickhole.

Lauren Bertolini, the COO of Gizmodo Media Group, told Poynter recently that this approach has led to benefits both on the editorial and e-commerce front.

“Every time we make a tool to benefit the editorial team, the e-commerce team benefits from that also,” Bertolini explained. “One of the things we built in Kinja early on was this idea of insets. If you drop a link into Kinja from The New York Times, we create an inset that has the headline, the thumbnail and the little short summary text.”

It probably would have been nice to see where Nick Denton and company ended up with Kinja, but on the plus side, at least Univision sees the benefits.

When You Should Build Internally

This strikes me as a good reminder that can be lost in the vendor-driven world of associations: Having your own technology, created by your own team internally, can be a huge asset if done correctly—a competitive advantage.

Now don’t get me wrong. Vendors have their place, and they often can be great for building out customized things. But with the barriers between the creation of technology becoming lower than ever, there’s plenty of discussion to be had about what an organization could do with technically minded staff members on the payroll—and where their skills could come in handy.

If you were Univision or Vox Media, what would your most valuable nonhuman asset be for building your business? That’s easy. It would be the tools to build your content and display that content to the world. Other news companies are starting to figure this out: Newspapers like The Washington Post, which once hired vendors to build robust content management platforms, are now building internal tools so impressive that outside newspaper chains are buying from the Post—making it both a competitive advantage and a revenue stream.

For an organization less focused on content, a CMS might be more of a commodity and therefore something to shop out. And there are cases when the complexity probably outweighs the advantages of taking it in house, like an association management system (AMS).

But there is probably something under your roof or coverage area that would create a unique competitive advantage if done well. For an association, it might be an online community platform. It might be a meetings app. It could even be something intended as a member benefit that goes far beyond that modest goal.

A great example of the latter that I can point to is TechHelpline, a service of Florida Realtors. The service, which I wrote about last year, came about over a natural challenge for Realtors: They often work independently and remotely, which means that tech support can be hard to come by. The idea started with the Florida organization but has since become a sizable model for associations around the country. Serving half a million real-estate professionals in North America, it added more than 50,000 users in the first six months of 2017 alone through deals with state and local real estate associations.

This service clearly wouldn’t have come to life had someone in Florida not pointed out the problem and the association ceded the potential market opportunity to someone else. But because it decided to build its own service, it reaps the business benefits.

I’m not saying every association will have an opportunity like this, but in an era in which nondues revenue is becoming an increasingly important part of the pie, it could prove beneficial, if not essential, to consider how direct ownership of a piece of technology can prove a long-term winner for an organization.

The hard part is finding the right one—and building the knowledge base around it that can push it forward.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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