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Can you build a business on the Web by linking to stuff other people have made?
Duh. Next question: Since everyone on the Web is linking to stuff other people have made, how do you build a new business doing that in 2014?
For the past seven years, the digital media veteran has been hand-curating a list of stories he likes — about media, business and culture — and passing them along daily to friends and followers. His MediaREDEF newsletter is an eclectic mix of stuff that’s newsy and thoughtful, which includes things you might have found — like Steven Levy’s Mark Zuckerberg profile — and ones you probably wouldn’t — like this essay on “Hip-hop architecture.”
Up until recently, it has been a hobby, but now he says he’s finally ready to launch a company.
He has the first part down. Hirschhorn, who has built one of the Web’s best address books (via stints at Viacom, Sling Media/Dish and News Corp.), has a very long list of people who have helped him round up $2.25 million in seed funding. Bloomberg Beta led the round, along with investment shops like The Chernin Group and Greycroft Partners.
There are many bold-faced names chipping in as well, which gives you an idea of Hirschhorn’s readership. A sampling: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mark Cuban, Troy Carter and James Murdoch.
The next step is to figure out how to turn Hirschhorn’s daily emails, and tweets, and now a website, and shortly an app, into money.
Hirschhorn freely admits that he hasn’t solved that one. But he thinks it will involve charging his readers money to see his links.
This will seem heretical to a large part of the Internet: Lots of people believe the Internet should be free, for starters. And even people who are comfortable with the idea of charging for things on the Internet might blink at the notion of charging for a list of things other people have made.
That’s fine, says Hirschhorn, who figures that he’s not going to have a “massive scale play” here and compares his curation service to a concierge service. “It’s really about insiders and influencers and people who look at that aspirationally.”
And those people, he figures, are willing to pay. “I think there’s a moment right now where people who become dependent on a service don’t have a problem paying,” he said. “It’s a matter of how you explain the paywall, not the price.”
He’s also going to build out some verticals. He recently launched a fashion edition of his link-letter, and sports is coming up. The money he has raised is supporting a six-person team, and that will grow bigger as he moves into other content categories.
Which may well be the biggest hurdle for Hirschhorn: I bet he really can sell a bunch of subscriptions to his main newsletter, because Hirschhorn has a really excellent network, and people like being in his mix. But they may not necessarily climb on board for the newsletters he doesn’t run.
Hirschhorn hired former journalist Adam Wray to manage his fashion letter, and he’ll have to bring someone else in to do sports. He says he’ll work with the curators he hires to imbue his sensibility, and says the same software he’s built to help him surface stories will help them, too.
“There’s a lot of jazz in what I do,” he said. “But there’s also a lot of science.”