Michael Beckerman, founder and CEO of The News Funnel, talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his company’s customizable newsfeeds, his recent acquisition and his popular Second Time Around blog.
An entrepreneurial spirit and unquenchable thirst for knowledge led Michael Beckerman to launch his first company while barely in his 20s. “I was reading the papers very early in life and always had a love for news—my dad would talk about what he read in the newspaper every day, and my mother was a writer,” he says. “I enjoyed writing too, and when I learned about public relations, I thought it was something I could do. I started Beckerman Public Relations with nothing: no clients and no financial backing.”
During the course of 25 years, Beckerman’s small regional startup became one of the top 50 independent PR agencies in the country—with offices in New Jersey, New York and Washington D.C. “We were really cooking by the 2000s,” Beckerman adds. “We had a couple of niches—one being real estate—because I always felt it was important to be a specialist and have a competitive advantage. Then, between 2007 and 2008, I got the itch to start something new. I liked to build things, and I was never scared of risk, so I came up with a plan to exit my firm without completely exiting. I set out to acquire smaller PR agencies. One was owned by a guy who became my partner. I bought his firm, and we agreed that I would keep ownership and stay involved from a strategic standpoint while transitioning out and he would run the day-to-day operations. I wanted to ‘skate where the puck was going to be,’ as Wayne Gretzky would say. [Laughs] I knew technology would have a profound impact on the PR and media industry, and I spent years thinking and studying and strategizing, and came up with this idea to build a platform of content for a particular industry because that’s what I knew. I wanted to help people stay current with their industry news without being overwhelmed.”
In 2012, Beckerman launched The News Funnel, a news aggregation service that, in just two years, has become one of the most comprehensive databases for real estate information on the Internet. The site currently covers 32 markets and utilizes about 3,000 sources of news aggregated from the media, bloggers and real estate companies, and offers users tools to create customized newsfeeds based on their personal preferences. “The site is really getting traction, and although we have a long way to go, I am very excited about our future,” Beckerman adds.
Opportunist: Where did you get the idea for The News Funnel?
Michael Beckerman: It was born of a simple idea about refining the news and making news consumption more relevant and easier to digest, as opposed to such a broad category. When you look at Twitter and Facebook, for example, you see that the idea of a customized newsfeed has been around for years.
One day in 2008, a client in my PR firm asked if we would mind faxing articles to him every morning. I thought OK. You’re paying us a lot of money for the services we provide … so, sure, we will do what you ask. He was interested in real estate news from New York and New Jersey, some specific office buildings and three or four companies. So I said, ‘Look, what if I built a technology that did that for you?’ I also knew at that time print was starting to take it on the chin, because very often I would call a print publication only to find out there were no reporters left to cover our beat. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that all trade media would eventually be digital, and I believed that if I could organize it for people, we would have a product they would want and would use. I haven’t cured any diseases or anything. [Laughs] It’s a simple formula.
By 2010, I was ready to leave my firm in my partner’s capable hands, so I started to go out and learn how to build a news platform from scratch.
Opportunist: Did crowdfunding play a role in your launch?
Michael Beckerman: We did not use crowdfunding in the traditional sense. I first invested my own money in building The News Funnel, and once I saw that I could get it built, I went out and raised about $2.5 million from a group of technology, media and real estate professionals. That enabled us to market the site, scale it and refine it.
I knew that because of where I was in life—someone who had already built one successful company rather than someone just starting out—I would be able to find the types of investors I wanted to reach. These were people who could add value and networking and ideas, and I didn’t go to venture capitalists as a target. I had very specific goals and I used my network and very quietly handpicked people who (a) had a good long view of what I was trying to build and who understood it; (b) geographic diversity and (c) what I refer to as the NAR ‘no assholes’ rule. [Laughs] I was very careful about building a group of investors whom I could tap into. We are still fundraising, and this remains a big part of my job.
Michael Beckerman: We gather trade news and information from trusted industry sources and then we let users craft that information into a custom feed that is unique to their geographic markets, their industry segments and areas of interest.
Opportunist: Who collects all of this content?
Michael Beckerman: It’s automated. We spent several million dollars building a tool that reads articles that come in from the media and determines what they are about. It’s built on scoring technology. For example, in order to fit a specific category, an article must include several keywords that meet our criteria before it gets passed along. There is a tiny bit of human curation—not so much in reviewing the articles as in the sources, and ensuring the different feeds from those sources are working properly.
That is what has taken years to build and perfect. We can adjust the technology and the tuning. There are a lot of crime stories related to real estate, for example, but people don’t want that information so we can adjust it as best as we can to exclude crime stories.
Opportunist: What does The News Funnel offer professionals in the real estate and public relations industries?
Michael Beckerman: If you’re a professional in any of our markets across the country, you can access The News Funnel via your desktop or our mobile app and build your newsfeed to your own specifications. It will stream to you 24/7 whenever you want to check the news.
You can pick your news profile by location, commercial real estate segment such as office buildings, apartment buildings, etc., choose an area of interest, such as beachfront, green development, architecture or finance and get access to thousands of sources. If an article meets your profile, it is included in your feed.
A PR agency or individual company that wants to contribute news can go to the site and sign up as a company and upload content specific to the agency or company. Then those blogs and videos can now be in the newsfeed along with various news outlets. This gives them a select distribution platform.
Opportunist: Are there any other services offering the same thing and, if so, what sets The News Funnel apart from the competition?
Michael Beckerman: I have seen lots of pieces of what we do, but none that really focus on the level of curation that we do, or that allow for the self-publishing or the focus on one industry.
Another unique feature about The News Funnel is that we actually syndicate our newsfeed to third-party sites, such as Globe Street, the number one commercial real estate site. Why would Globe Street want our news? Well, it makes sense because it makes it more engaging for their readers and expands the amount of content on the Globe Street site. There are about 50 other websites that we syndicate content to for free. If a company wants to keep subscribers on a webpage, that page needs relevant streaming news and we do that for those companies.
Opportunist: How does the website derive revenue?
Michael Beckerman: We have just started offering our revenue products and, again, it’s not anything new or unique. It’s just sponsored content. If a company is uploading a press release and wants to ensure a prominent position we can promote that news in a variety of places on the site. It’s always free to users because all this information is free elsewhere, so we would never charge our subscribers. We also have several other really unique revenue products we are slowly rolling out.
Opportunist: Are there any recent developments you can tell us about?
Michael Beckerman: We announced today that we have acquired our first website: The CRE App Review. It’s a small site with an impactful voice in the marketplace and a very loyal subscriber base. It reviews commercial real estate, technology and applications and that is the type of site that we are hopefully going to be acquiring more of in the near future. Within the news category in our industry, we are looking to acquire other digital online news sites—particularly content rich ones like this site.
Opportunist: Where do you see The News Funnel in three to five years?
Michael Beckerman: As a digital media company that has a portfolio of platforms that can customize news for both professionals and companies in half a dozen or so large key verticals in the energy, higher education, hospitality, sports, financial sectors or whatever additional industries we decide to go into. They all have very similar characteristics and our technology would apply to all of them.
Opportunist: Have you set any goals for the remainder of the year and early 2015?
Michael Beckerman: To really push our mobile app and market it as aggressively as possible because it’s such an amazingly simple and effective tool. We also hope to close another acquisition or two. As we continue syndication, we will push to get our newsfeed on other sites—whether tech or traditional media sites—and expand the number of companies using the site. The remaining months of this year we expect to remain pretty aggressive in terms of looking for other sites to acquire. There are so many great ones out there that we discover all the time and that’s a pretty big part of our growth.
Opportunist: We understand you write the Second Time Around blog.
Michael Beckerman: Yes, I have been writing my blog for about two years. I was always talking about why people should be reading and blogging and creating content, and so I decided to start putting my money where my mouth is. [Laughs] I am now on the other side of the media landscape after having served on the PR side for so long. While doing my research, I started writing all my thoughts down for my team and investors, and I thought perhaps it would help if I created a blog to talk about my lessons learned, successes and breakthroughs. I continue to be on this path of discovery where I am so full of ideas and genuinely excited about what I am learning that I enjoy sharing this journey with others. I literally spend a couple of hours a day in the early morning and again late at night reading about trends in media and technology. This is my second time building a company—my theme with this blog—so I tell people about what I’m discovering and when I come across content trends, I add my two cents worth to try and make it beneficial to the reader as opposed to self-serving.
Opportunist: Do you have any plans to write a book?
Michael Beckerman: Yes, I would love to. However, I feel I must continue this current journey I’m on before I have something substantive to talk about. I am not a college graduate—I had a little bit of college but not much—it’s not something I’m proud or ashamed of. It’s just my journey. I wanted to go out into the world and find things outside of the classroom. And I think that’s what I would love to write about. What it takes to be a true entrepreneur, and all of the mistakes and lessons I have learned along the way, so maybe someone out there can avoid making the same ones or find the courage to take the journey.
I think my message would be geared toward business in particular—I would never preach about life—and would be about making a commitment to rediscovering and learning through tools and taking risks with your career. That can lead to such exciting discoveries about yourself and the world. I was somebody who had a good career path and was doing really well with my company, but was looking for what’s next. This process, while incredibly hard and stressful, has been so extraordinarily rewarding. I would recommend that anyone venture into something unknown because it’s well worth the risk. What I am learning every day is inspiring. I am 50 now, so it’s not like I’m a young kid who can afford to take risks. At my age, you’re not supposed to, but it’s incredibly rewarding. I am excited to wake up every day and see what’s next on this journey.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @lescstone.
Follow The News Funnel on Twitter at @TNF_RE
Download The News Funnel’s mobile App at the Apple App Store
Follow Michael’s blog: Second Time Around
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