A Q&A with Versa founder and CEO Keya Dannenbaum. The New York City-based startup, which offers a paid ‘contextual op-ed platform’ for news publishers, announced in late January the closing of a $2 million Seed funding round. Investors include Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network, the Knight Foundation and Quotidian Ventures. It was founded in late 2011.
SUB: Please describe Versa and your primary innovation.
Dannenbaum: Versa is a media technology company founded on a deep belief in a thriving press and an informed, engaged public that is pioneering a new category of sponsored content—the contextual op-ed.
As a company that has spent years working with media, we have experienced first-hand the pains of the modern digital news outfit; namely, the demands of the 24/7 news cycle and precipitously declining ad revenues. We also observed that many of the new business models for online news, for example, niche partisan sites and native advertising, were propagating some worrying outcomes with respect to the civic role of journalism.
Our innovation is ‘Featured Perspectives,’ or the ‘contextual op-ed.’ It’s the only technology-driven platform that gives thought leaders and issue experts the ability to attach commentary directly to a developing news story. For publishers, it generates a premium revenue stream with a sponsored unit that lives alongside the news, and it gives readers access to diverse, high-quality opinions on a single article page, in real-time. Win-win-win.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Dannenbaum: We work with thought leaders, experts, advocates and executives who can offer topical expertise and quality opinion content; and we work with news publishers who are looking to be innovative with business models while preserving the independence and integrity of their newsroom.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Versa from the competition?
Dannenbaum: Featured Perspectives is pioneering a new category of sponsored content—real-time, contextual, and written to be conversant with a particular news article. As a product category, there is nothing like it on the market today.
SUB: You just announced that you’ve completed a $2 million Seed funding round. Why was this a particularly good time to raise funding?
Dannenbaum: For two reasons. First, it was the right time for our company. We brought Featured Perspectives to market a few months ago, and the moment was right to expand out of beta.
Second, the ‘future of journalism’ conversation is at a really interesting place right now. Native advertising is mainstream, tech moguls are putting large sums of personal money to back media ventures and journalists are turning personal brands into breakout concepts. It is an incredibly fun, energetic, ripe time to be in this space.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funds?
Dannenbaum: We are so excited to have these new resources in place to fuel the growth of both sides of our network—both publishers and contributors.
SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?
Dannenbaum: We participated in a couple of back-to-back early-stage incubators as our first steps to establishing this company. GoodCompany Ventures, which was focused on for-profit social-good companies; DreamIt Ventures, which was a tech accelerator with a typically sharp emphasis on building and iterating and failing fast; and Project Liberty, the first, I believe, in-house incubator at a newspaper, in this case at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Each of these was an important building block in our earliest days, and helped build the foundation of who we are as a company today.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Dannenbaum: Well, in Latin, ‘versa’ originates in the verb ‘to turn,’ or shift your gaze, as in ‘vice versa.’ And, ‘versa’ is also the building block of the word ‘conversation’—a fairly fundamental feature of an active and mindful public, we thought.
SUB: Do you have plans to seek additional outside funding in the near future?
Dannenbaum: Not in the near-term, no.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Dannenbaum: Asking ‘what has been easy’ would generate a far shorter list! But the challenges are precisely the reason to do this. I can’t think of any other job in which I’d get to problem-solve this deeply or consistently, every moment of every day, alongside such an incredible and high-performing team who loves to tackle the uncertainty, discovery, solution cycle as much as, and sometimes even more than, I do.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Dannenbaum: Featured Perspectives, or the ‘contextual op-ed,’ is a sponsored content unit. It generates off-the-charts engagement and impact on readers, which allows us to sell it at a premium, the revenue from which we share with our publisher partners.
SUB: What are your goals for Versa over the next year or so?
Dannenbaum: The Featured Perspectives platform is completely vertical agnostic. We are starting in the news vertical, both with respect to publishers and contributors, in large part because that is where our roots as a company are, and where we’re seeing the exciting early traction. But our long-term goal is to gain ubiquity in those initial target segments and, from there, grow the platform to include a far more expansive set of content categories.