Mack Male is a local journalist and co-founder of Taproot Edmonton. Taproot is a source of curiosity-driven stories about our city, cultivated by the community. They are building a new way to do local journalism and a new way to fund it, because the business model that used to support local journalism is broken. Taproot wants to replace what is being lost with something that is sustainable and responsive to the community we serve. Mack also co-hosts the podcast Speaking Municipally which follows everything happening with City Council.
Mack started his first company in Edmonton in 2000, during the height of the dotcom boom, and later launched a service called Podcast Spot in 2004, before the word podcast existed (they described it as a combination of a blog and internet radio). By the time it launched, the term podcast existed but was fairly unknown, and the platforms were very complicated and difficult to use. In the end, Mack believes the service folded because the timing was off (probably 10 years early), but when they folded, Mack worked with his biggest competitor to help his customers migrate to their platform so that they would not be left unsupported. Mack and his co-founder were both coders, so when things didn't go well they always knew that they could fall back to coding. They had some awareness that this wasn't going to work, and they applied for Venture Prize. Through this process, they realized they had been neglecting the business side of the company. Although Ventre Prize was a great experience, it did delay the launch of their product because they shifted their attention too far away from the necessary coding that still had to be done!
Now, Mack is working on a digital platform for journalism. There is a lot of innovation in the space so he believes that their timing is much better, and they are hyper-focused on the local markets. Unlike the traditional approach to digital journalism (get laid off, take package payout to start a blog, hope to make money using ads), Taproot worked to innovate on their business model. Specifically, subscribers don't just get access to content, they get to decide what the content should be.
One of Mack's three points was keeping your eyes open and adapting to change quickly. With the podcast company, their back end would automatically transcode the video files to be optimized for every type of device (which was a major issue back then), but this caused issues such as bandwidth and storage requirements. Just as they got their storage and bandwidth issues worked out for launch, Amazon launched S3 - Simple Secure Storage. This both solved their problem, and lead to significant wasted money and time trying to solve the same issue. Mack is unsure if he could have predicted this, but one learning for him is to always be learning, and taking notes of all the books that he reads.
The last thing Mack talked about was time - a person's most critical resource. Mack shared a story about building a really cool robot to help promote Podcast Spot in 2005. The robot could be remotely controlled and included a built-in mic and webcam that would post to Podcast Spot automatically. Ultimately, it didn't do anything for his business. He said he could have literally done anything else that would have helped the company more, but it was a fun and memorable experience. He is trying to bring this lesson to work every day. Although it is a great skill to say no to things, he loves saying yes because good things always come from it. With Taproot, they had experimented with a chatbot as a way to serve members' curiosity, but they decided to focus on their roundups - including the headline Tech Roundup - because those were getting traction and could help the business grow.
Also unlike other news organizations, Taproot focuses on their customers as customers, not solely as readers. The site needs revenue to stay operating, and if they want to have an impact they must grow revenues. Taproot is unique in Edmonton in that they pay attention to all the startups in town and everything that happens in the ecosystem, and share those stories. Mack said that Taproot serves as a sort of connective tissue for the entire community.