After the Huffington Post was acquired by AOL last year, HuffPo chief technology officer Paul Berry estimated 15 percent of his time was spent dealing with corporate politics. A year later, that figure had zoomed to 85 percent while 15 percent of his time was devoted to building technology. Now, just a few months after leaving the Huffington Post position he held for more than five years, he’s back to creating things again on a full-time basis.
Berry left the Huffington Post in February and got to work on a new incubator called SoHo Tech Labs, which reunites some of the top former executives of the Huffington Post. Along with Berry, there’s HuffPo co-founders Ken Lerer and Jonah Peretti, former CEO Eric Hippeau, Greg Coleman, former president and chief revenue officer and Eric Ashman, the former CFO. Others from HuffPo’s tech group including Ben Regenspan, CTO of the lab, have migrated over as well.
Channeling the HuffPo spirit
Berry isn’t just assembling a cast of familiar faces. He’s conjuring up the same spirit that helped the Huffington Post become a top online publisher. The idea is to channel the same virality, fast iteration, worldwide development and emphasis on analytics and apply it to a handful of startups that can get up and running with head-spinning speed.
“Our thesis is the social and mobile infrastructure we have today didn’t exist at this scale a year ago. That’s why we’re seeing the rise of Instagrams and Draw Somethings. The speed at which disruption can happen is unprecedented,” said Berry, in a sit-down interview at his office in the former Huffington Post space.
SoHo Tech Labs has already gotten two startups off the ground: CasaHop, a house exchange service that soft-launched last month and Rebel Mouse, a social publishing platform that is still shrouded in secrecy. Two more are in the works with the company prepared to push out up to eight companies this year. It’s not a factory, insists Berry, CasaHop’s CEO, but the pieces are in place to help manufacture startups with almost machine-like efficiency.
Working as a team
When ideas come in, Berry can turn to Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed, to shape it with an eye toward virality. Hippeau helps with business strategy while Lerer, general partner at Lerer Ventures, works on lining up funding and lends a hand with design and branding. Ashman is responsible for setting up the equity structure on the projects while Berry ensures that the technology evolves in a straightforward manner. All of the projects out of SoHo Tech Labs will be built off the same platform, based on Python, NoSQL, MySQL, JQuery and other technologies. The benefit is that all the companies in the lab can avoid duplicating their work by sharing code easily, plugging in the necessary components needed to build a viable product.
As a project spins up, Berry can tap a team of more than 20 developers along with three designers spread around the world to help get it up to speed. That was one of the key lessons from HuffPo’s growth: it relied on an international tech team that was constantly handing off projects to each other, ensuring that improvements and updates happened quickly. Under this entire arrangement, startups should be able to get an minimum viable product for $50,000 to $80,000.
The key for any SoHo Tech Labs startup is a viral kick, something that can spread quickly via social channels without paid marketing. Berry said the startups out of the lab will also offer an easy entry for newcomers but should also include deeper functionality for people willing to invest. And the companies will be very mobile, either at launch or soon thereafter.
Not a HuffPo competitor
So what kind of startups is SoHo Tech Labs building and will any of them eventually challenge the Huffington Post? Berry said the plan is to build platforms, tools and social sites, not to compete with HuffPo. Berry is sensitive about this subject and knows that the issue is valid, especially considering many of his team came over from HuffPo. Berry, for his part, took his time with his exit, making sure HuffPo was able to prepare for his departure.
“I understand there might be some nervousness (at the Huffington Post) but this is a new space. This is a small group of core people who were not happy at AOL. It’s different working for a small company,” Berry said.
With Berry, it’s all about getting up to 60 miles per hour as fast you can. That also presents a problem for Berry, whose projects are moving along at a nice pace, but aren’t ready to hit the road. Few things irk him more than not being able to gauge how an idea can fare on its own. But it’s good to be back with the old team, trying to see if a small group of people can create some magic again, Berry said.
“The emphasis is on scrappy,” Berry said. “It’s about doing something fun and scrappy and hoping it goes crazy.”