Inside the New York Times timeSpace Incubator

August 27, 2013

1:00 pm

When Brian Muller and Blaine Sheldon took the elevator up to the ninth floor of the New York Times Building this April, they weren’t too sure what to expect. They had been selected as participants in the very first New York Times timeSpace incubator.

“You may call it an accelerator or an incubator; right now we are calling it an experiment,” their website reads.

Muller and Sheldon were representing OpBandit, a media software startup that can change your publication’s headlines and images in real time depending on which are performing best. They were the smallest startup in the program, working alongside Mahaya and Delve.

The perks of the program were New York Times quality. They got to pitch to NYT CEO Mark Thompson. They rode in the elevator with Bill Cunningham, and had beautiful conference rooms to meet clients and investors. They talked to NYT departments about using OpBandit. And they’ll be top of mind if the company decides to start making seed investments.

Day to day, they spent their time working and meeting with NYT groups. They got advice from the legal counsel, and learned about the best metrics to track from the analytics group. The strategy team helped them refine their pitch and communicate their value to customers better. And the R&D team, an innovative group tasked with predicting what publishing will look like in 10-15 years, shared some insights on the future of news.

More in the style of Y Combinator than TechStars, the incubator gave the teams lots of autonomy and responsibility. The program heads would check in every now and then to see how things were going, and OpBandit could ask for advice or introductions to someone outside the NYT. But mostly, they relied on their own initiative.

“It was a very freeform structure, maybe more of a Montessori-type environment,” says Muller. “A lot of it was self-directed. It was choose your own adventure.”

The Times hasn’t committed to doing a second run of the incubator, but if they did, the OpBandit team hopes they’ll sprinkle in a little more structure to the “choose your own adventure” package. Although they’re close to the Mahaya and Delve teams, more planned social activities would have cemented their friendship earlier. And, now that the NYT knows which departments are most useful to startups, they could help arrange meetings and pitches earlier. Basically, a little schedule would go a long way.

For now, OpBandit is privately testing with publications like The Daily Muse, Slate, and Skift, and is aiming for a public beta in the early fall. And when they go after customers or try to raise funding, that little New York Times “experiment” will definitely be a point in their favor.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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