It took a lot for Chris Altchek to walk away from his Goldman Sachs investment banking job.But an email that came in at 2 a.m. last January, while he was still sitting at his desk, changed everything. It was from a writer in Tunisia, who was reporting from the ground as the uprising in Tunis escalated.
It was exactly the type of breaking news that would add credibility to Altchek’s startup, PolicyMic.com.
After that, he and his co-founder, Jake Horowitz, decided their site was good enough to launch on a larger scale. They consulted some of their friends at Google, The New York Times and “other smart, politically-active friends” — aka their advisory board — who all said there was a demand for a site like PolicyMic.com, which not only provides political news coverage from around the world, but encourages its readers to debate one another (via a unique comment system, explained below).
The two came up with the idea a few years ago, between summers at Harvard (where Chris got a degree in social studies) and Stanford (where Jake majored in Middle East history).
“Jake is my political nemesis, and we’d have these major debates, but it was extremely healthy,” Altchek tells us. “We then decided there had to be another outlet for people to share their views.”
PolicyMic was born.
A year and a half later, they raised $150,000, hired editors, and rented out a house in Harlem, where they both live and work. We spoke with Chris about his startup — and if he ever regrets leaving 200 West Street:
Take us back to the early days. How did this come about?
Jake was a journalist in the Middle East. He’s liberal. I’m more right-leaning. We would have these great debates. We initially launched PolicyMic as a nonprofit in November as a side project; but the tipping point was last January when we got an email from a writer in Tunisia about the revolution.
Then you put in your notice at Goldman?
Right. I left my job at the end of February, and started full time with PolicyMic in March. We initially hired two editors and two developers.
How did you expand your staff?
Bootstrapping a startup is not glamorous. We held meetings at Starbucks and Le Pain Quotidiens all over New York City. We hit up JournalismJobs.com, AuthenticJobs.com and Mediabistro.com. Right now we have 15 (unpaid) interns.
What makes PolicyMic different from other news sites?
The major news sites are not attracting young readers. The average Huffington Post reader is in their 30s. For The New York Times, it’s mid-40s. People in their 20s are on Facebook most of the time.
Our site is different because it offers two-way dialogue. Commenters are given points (“Mics,” or a form of currency) by other readers, based on how smart their posts are. The more “Mics” you get, the more you can write on the site. This discourages angry commenters, and rewards people with intelligent, substantial posts.
[From PolicyMic: Gaining more Mics increases your level on the site, allowing you to write longer comments, increase your reach, and eventually become a published pundit.]
What’s your inspiration?
We’d like to be a combination of Quora, Twitter and The Economist, which has a great debate platform. We’re also intrigued by DailyKos, RedState.com and the Huffington Post.
We’re not focused on getting one million uniques. That form of measurement — and the ad-revenue-based business model — only works with higher-scale sites. We’re focused on quality content. We’re going to use a different type of licensing plan to generate revenue.
So how do you measure the success of your site?
By the quality of comments and the number of profiles created. Right now we’re up to 855 profiles, with 7,100 comments in less than two months.
What’s your budget?
Last January, Jake and I both decided to raise up to a years’ worth of funds: $150,000. We each committed to raising $75,000. I contributed my Goldman bonus, and we spoke with all of our family and friends.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs?
Number one, be sure to pursue a project you’re passionate about. Second, the clock is always ticking. A lot of things happen in a really short period. Third, only work with people you really like. Team dynamics are incredibly important. You’re with these people all the time.
Lastly, corporate training can be invaluable for this type of project — you learn how to present, interact with lawyers, corporate speak. Also, there was the financial cushion. That made launching this incredibly less stressful.
Do you ever regret your decision to leave GS?
It was great training; if I had stayed on track with my peers, I’d have gone to a private equity firm, making six figures. But this was a fun adjustment. I work just as hard as I did at Goldman.