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Ben Rooney

It was hard to avoid the message at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The GSMA, the organizing body, was keen for everyone to believe that Near Field Communication might finally be about to have its day.

NFC has been a decade in the making, and has always been about to be “The Next Big Thing.” It is a contactless radio technology that can transmit data between two devices within a few centimeters of each other. Coupled with a security chip to encrypt data, it promises to transform a wide range of consumer experiences from simple ticketing to the Holy Grail of replacing your cash and payment cards with just your smartphone. The key word there is “promise.”

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If 2011 was the year social media arrived as a force in Chinese culture and politics, then 2012 was the year social media supercharged one of contemporary China’s finest forms of cultural and political expression: the Internet meme.

To be sure, the Chinese Internet has been a fertile producer of memes for quite some time. One of 2011’s great Internet moments — the Ministry of Railways spokesman’s haughty and ultimately career-ending effort to explain the burial of passenger cars after a deadly high-speed train crash in Wenzhou — is still going strong a year and a half later. And of course there’s 2009’s “grass mud horse,” which appears destined for immortality (and even a modicum of global cross-over) after being adopted by dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

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Venture investors still have a healthy appetite for early-stage consumer Internet companies, but those startups are having a harder time raising follow-on financing.

Overall the amount invested in consumer information services was off 42% in the first nine months as the difficulties of newly public Internet companies such as Facebook and Zynga cast doubt on the business models and valuations of social media companies.

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Fish image via Ivelin Radkov

The story of Zite has been a whirlwind. We launched on March 9, 2011, and closed our acquisition by CNN on Aug. 30 of the same year — just under six months later.

But acquisition was not our original plan. We never built the company with the intention of getting acquired. When we launched Zite, we were thrilled to get such a great reception from the press and hundreds of thousands of new users. Our goal was to use that influx of users to secure series A funding to build a team and compete effectively in a crowded market. But fate intervened, and we got an attractive acquisition offer from CNN, a company that believed in our vision. In hindsight, I can see that there were a few really smart things that we did that made us an excellent acquisition target.

My goal for this article isn’t to give you a silver bullet for getting your company acquired, but rather to offer some insight into what I think are the key reasons that Zite was able to move from launch to transaction in such a compressed timeline.

  • Have a huge product launch — It doesn’t matter how good your product is if people don’t know about it. Once we believed we had the right product, we marketed it very hard. We spent much more money on PR surrounding our launch than was fiscally prudent at the time (we were risking future payroll) because we realized that we had one chance to tell the world that Zite was awesome. This paid off in spades: On launch day, we had print articles in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, plus dozens of other fantastic pieces. This yielded us top billing in the App Store for free applications, and 125,000 downloads in the first week.
  • Put your best foot forward — We focused much of our product design on the first minutes of the user experience. We knew that if a user never saw our amazing personalization technology, we’d lose them, and they’d think we were just a “me-too” news reader. We put our technology front and center by designing a simple, intuitive set-up experience that yielded immediate delight and serendipity.
  • Have technology that is incredibly difficult to replicate — You’re not going to get bought if the acquiring company thinks they can build the product themselves. Zite had the advantage of almost six years of R&D (we were formerly called Worio), but until we became Zite, we were a technology company with a product problem. Instead of continuing to use the technology on a failed product, we pivoted to Zite. We also seized the opportunity to launch on the iPad, which is the perfect delivery device for the technology.
  • Have a clear vision — We had a vision to change the way people consume information. Zite (the product) and personalization are components of that vision, but we proved that we were not a one-trick pony, and we were excited about innovating on news delivery.
  • Disrupt the market — CNN noticed Zite after we received a cease-and-desist from major media companies, including Time Inc. (which is a cousin of CNN, since both are owned by Time Warner). My boss jokes, “If all of the media companies were able to get their lawyers to send you a letter, then you must be doing something right.” At the time, we weren’t sure how we would work with publishers, and publishers weren’t sure of the value of Zite. We’re now on solid ground with publishers, since they have realized the value of Zite as a discovery engine — but at the time it was a great boost to our visibility among the exact same executives who would later give us an offer for the company.

I want to stress that none of the above points are a guarantee that your company will get acquired — let alone be successful — but they certainly influenced CNN’s decision to buy Zite and, ultimately, our success to date. Look for ways you can integrate these tips into your start-up, and even if you aren’t acquired quickly, you will certainly build a better long-term offering for whatever market you choose to address.

Mark Johnson is CEO of Zite. He was an adviser to the company for almost two years, prior to taking the CEO role. He brings a strong product and technology background, with experience at several successful search start-ups: Powerset (natural-language search, acquired by Microsoft), Kosmix (categorized search, acquired by Walmart), and SideStep (travel search, acquired by Kayak). Most recently, he led product at Bing in San Francisco.

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Technology companies used to condemn what critics call “patent trolls,” ventures that profit from innovations they themselves often had no hand in creating. Now, some of those companies are taking pages from the trolls’ playbooks. To bring in extra cash, some big names in the tech industry are spinning off their patents into separate entities, with the aim of pressuring other companies to license the technology and suing when they can’t reach deals.

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Not so long ago, there was a familiar product called software. It was sold in stores, in shrink-wrapped boxes. When you bought it, all that you gave away was your credit card number or a stack of bills.

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