Sick of hitting paywalls? Get your teams all the news they need with NICKLPass

This is one in a series of stories that highlights each company in the 2019 class of the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars. Visit LIFT Labs to learn more about this world-class program for connectivity, media and entertainment startups, and get information on applications for the next class.

Sumorwuo Zaza is tackling one of journalism's toughest problems: monetizing content. In the old days, people bought physical newspapers and magazines and those revenues, combined with advertising sales, made publishers profitable. But the digital age ushered in an expectation that content should be free — and today's news consumers are reluctant to pay for subscription-only content. Think about it: How many times have you navigated to a news story online but didn't read it because it required a subscription?

The paradigm leaves readers frustrated and publishers churning out clickbait content just to survive. And it's shrinking newsrooms. In the first five months of 2019, 3,000 journalists have been laid off or been offered buyouts — the worst level of attrition since 2009.

Zaza knew there had to be a better way, so, he built it. His company is called NICKL, and it offers a pass for individuals and teams to access news, information and resources online. One pass with NICKL unlocks news articles from a growing number of publishers. Readers get personalized subscriptions and only pay for what they read, while publishers get added revenue and access to new audiences.

"Publishers are trying to get to consumers but having trouble sustaining themselves," Zaza said. "In order to do that, they're pivoting to paywalled and subscription models. Unfortunately, that has had a negative effect, where everyone can't access the content they need."

Since knowledge sharing is so crucial for organizations and teams to succeed, Zaza is targeting NICKL to companies with 100 to 10,000 employees.

"If you're on a team and you have 10 articles you need to read and share with teammates and everyone hits a paywall, they can't get the news and info they need to do a better job or be a better teammate," Zaza said.

A Better Way to Monetize Journalism

It's no surprise that Zaza went into entrepreneurship in the media space. His father is a freelance journalist and his parents started a political party in the West African nation of Liberia. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in government, Zaza landed at the Huffington Post, working directly with Arianna Huffington. That's where he got a crash course in the modern news business, learning that even sites that generate millions of page views have trouble generating revenue. The problem is even more compounded for smaller publications that can't attract enough readers to sustain themselves on advertising alone. But Zaza believes he has a solution.

"Using our model, you could potentially have one journalist create content on a weekly basis," Zaza explained. "If they got 10,000 people to pay them $1 per month, that would be $10,000 that could sustain their work on a consistent basis. So it allows the journalist to focus on the product they do best — writing and content — as opposed to figuring out how to distribute things on Facebook or Twitter."

In nearly three years, NICKL has gotten some major traction and has signed on 80 publishers, including the Los Angeles Times. But Zaza has his sights set much higher. That's why he traveled from his home in Brooklyn, New York to Philadelphia to participate in the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars. As he met with mentors inside and outside of Comcast and the Techstars network, Zaza learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurship. One lesson he gained? Never lose sight of your initial vision.

"I'm not going to be the best salesperson," he said. "I'm not going to be the best marketing person. I'm never going to be the best engineer, I have a great team in those areas. But the thing I can bring is clarity around the vision and why we're doing all this hard work, spending long nights and weekends building this product."

He says the LIFT Labs Accelerator provided "the best of both worlds" — an environment where you're free to vigorously pursue your vision while getting feedback from experienced executives and experts.

"I have a ton of founder friends and entrepreneur friends in New York City and they would love to ask a big company like Comcast, 'What pain points do you have? How can we help solve them?' " Zaza said.

In this case, Zaza has was able to ask leaders in procurement and communications these very questions. He can now narrow in on how his product might help save a company money or make it easier for employees to access important content.

While Zaza is excited to disrupt the journalism business by making it easier to consume and distribute news, he really aims to build a valuable institution in the process.

"I think we've done a good job making NICKL a fun place to work, a place that hires diverse, innovative people of all different backgrounds," he said. "This concept of an 80-year institution has gotten lost, but it drives me. I'm ready to build a company that's here for the long run."

Disclosure: Comcast and NBCUniversal are parent of CNBC.

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