There's No Place Like Home

By Jake Seaton, CEO · November 05, 2020

Column is a public benefit company building collaborative software to enhance the working relationships that notify the public square. Our technology is used by local journalists, municipal officials and law firms in small communities across America. In order to get started, we moved the entire company to Manhattan, Kansas.

When you tell someone that you've decided to start a technology company, the next question they ask is almost always:

"So ... when are you moving to San Francisco?"

Generally considered the "capital" of the technology industry, Silicon Valley is stunningly beautiful and has presented many young founders with the opportunity to change the world. However, when I started Column, my team and I moved back to my hometown of Manhattan, Kansas (population 55,489) — otherwise known as "The Little Apple."

Let me explain why.

My family has been in the local news business for the past five generations, beginning with The Manhattan Mercury as our flagship newspaper in 1915. Today, we also own news businesses in communities across Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Oklahoma.

In each of these communities, the news business serves as the central hub for the creation and distribution of information to all of the people who live there. Newspapers tell the stories, promote the businesses and record the decisions that stitch together the social fabric of these places. There is nothing else quite like them in town.

Public notice is a vital part of that information ecosystem. Dating back to the Continental Congress, public notice requirements are based on the principle that some decisions and transactions are impactful enough that notifications should be proactively distributed to the public by way of the trusted media sources they consume.

Today, the process of notifying the public that takes place in many newsrooms across the country is painful and inefficient. Column is building an operating system to facilitate that process and the exchange of public interest information between journalists, legal professionals, government officials and their communities that it underpins.

In order to build a solution, you first need to understand the problem. We wanted every member of our team to not just understand the problem, but to feel a part of the communities who face it, to work in the contexts in which it occurs, and to share the lived experience of the intended users of our platform.

So we moved to Kansas. Like any good startup team, we lived in my parents' basement. We set up shop in the break room of The Manhattan Mercury, right next to newspaper staff, and watched as notices, invoices and affidavits changed hands through email, fax and postage. We met with the county treasurer and the paralegals next door and learned about the placement process for governments and lawyers. We frequented local businesses and got to know the owners. We hosted events for lifelong residents of Manhattan, and for college students who were just passing through.

We traveled east to west along I-70 and north to south along I-135, stopping in town after town to drink coffee with publishers, visit old printing presses and sit down with government officials. These are the people who care most deeply about their hometown and the people who live there. They know everybody around. They spend their days telling the stories of the community and working to plan its future.

I personally visited every one of my family's newspapers, traveling in a great circle from the Flint Hills of Kansas to the Nebraska panhandle, through the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Bighorn Forest of Wyoming, up the Western Slope of Colorado and back all the way across the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains to the Little Apple.

For me, these months threw the divide between America's coastal cities and its rural communities into sharp relief. Since leaving my hometown to attended college at Harvard in Boston, I'd spent two years building a political technology company in Washington, DC, and briefly worked for Google in San Francisco. In each of those places, life took on a sensation of velocity, and my work advanced the relentless technological change that people often call progress.

Many of the people I have met since founding Column don't call it that. For many of the communities that now use our platform, there is a sense of having been left behind. The rise of the internet and big tech has sucked much of the nation's talent and capital to a few affluent ZIP codes and shuttered the main street businesses that might have otherwise enabled them to stay.

Take the local newspaper, which for most of our nation's history operated with a hefty 30% profit margin driven primarily by advertising. That has fallen to nearly 0% amid competition from Google, Facebook and Craigslist, which have allowed local businesses to connect more directly with their customers online and changed the news consumption habits of an entire generation.

Subtler but perhaps more insidious, Amazon has gradually migrated market share of commerce onto the internet, bankrupting local retailers, reducing sales tax revenue and putting the customers of newspapers out of business.

The people in these communities often have a general distrust for technology and the internet, as well as a distaste for change. Some Column users have performed the same tasks the same way every day for decades before using our platform. Still others don't have internet access, or cell phone service, or email.

At Column, we don't view these as obstacles, but as design parameters. I founded Column to build technology for the public benefit of communities like these, and starting in Kansas has enabled our team to develop the empathy with our users that will make our product worthy of their trust.

From a newsroom in The Little Apple, we've started a movement to modernize a system that is shared by every state in America and many other countries as well. As a public benefit company, our charter purpose is to build technology to increase the utility of public interest information and support the distribution of that information by journalists who serve their communities. We believe that Column is laying the foundation for a new operating system that will enhance the working relationships between stakeholders in local communities.

In order to build something that ambitious, we couldn't simply follow the yellow brick road to Silicon Valley or New York City. We needed to immerse ourselves in the communities we serve, so that we could align our values with their needs. We needed to understand that there's no place like home.

© 2020 Column, PBC. All rights reserved.