Former RTÉ broadcaster Mark Little hit pay dirt yesterday when he sold his social media news agency, Storyful, to News Corp for €18 million, pocketing about for himself in the process. Not bad for a start-up that celebrated its fourth birthday earlier this month.
As Storyful director Bill Liao put it yesterday, Little "put his whole life on red and spun the wheel" when he quit presenting Prime Time to launch a company with a business model that few could understand.
Such a move would be considered risky at the best of times. Little took the plunge when Ireland’s economic collapse was at its most intense, fear-inducing juncture.
Liao, a partner of Dragons' Den star Sean O'Sullivan in investment firm SOSventures, met Little when Storyful was "just an idea". "I watched it get better and better over time. It's real power is its truthiness – and I know that's not a real wo- rd – because Storyful helps you get to the truth faster," he says.
Storyful is a collaboration between tech geeks and journalists who, between them, scour the internet for content related to breaking news stories, verify the material’s authenticity, and then sell it to large media organisations. “We discover and verify the most valuable content on the social web. We help the world tell its stories in the first person,” says Little.
Its client list includes the New York Times, Yahoo, AOL and Al Jazeera.
Practically no debt
Little says the company raised a total of "about €3.5 million" from investors, with practically no debt. "We were very careful in that regard. We probably wouldn't be still around if we had much debt."
Ray Nolan, a serial tech investor, was an early backer who held a 20 per cent stake. He chaired the company until the deal was signed yesterday. SOS, which also held about 20 per cent, came on board "about two years ago", according to Liao.
Staff, including Storyful chief executive Little, held about 50 per cent. ACT Ventures and Enterprise Ireland held the remaining 10 per cent.
Storyful received a number of unsolicited approaches several months ago. One of those reportedly came from its client, Yahoo. Another came from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, with whom Storyful entered exclusive negotiations around October, represented by Investec Corporate Finance.
Liao says there was no prospect of any of the investors remaining on board with News Corp in a minority capacity: “News Corp didn’t want to share the lollies.”
Following the deal, Storyful’s Irish operation will remain intact. It will add “about 10 more” to its 32 staff here, and will hire more sales staff for the US. “The acquisition was a career choice. I’m happy to still be with the company in three to five years’ time,” says Little. “I’m not a serial entrepreneur. I had a vision and this is it.”