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In late November, Broomfield-based Noodles & Co. announced that it had signed with FEED Tribes, a Boulder outfit that's developed a system allowing members to pay for products using their cell phones. Both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran business stories about this agreement -- but neither mentioned the connection between FEED Tribes and Bias, a defunct publication, website and text-messaging venture owned by MediaNews Group and E.W. Scripps, the corporate parents of the Post and the Rocky, respectively. According to Eric Elkins, a new-media expert at Metzger Associates, a communications concern that has a stake in FEED Tribes, the concept "comes from taking a streamlined and fully funded version of Bias and laying it on top of a mobile payment method."
Elkins should know: He created Bias with Nathan Warren, who's assisting FEED Tribes on a contract basis. And this new venture will benefit from the lessons learned at Bias, which died this past July -- a death Elkins attributes, at least in part, to the gutlessness exhibited by his superiors at the Denver Newspaper Agency. "I felt like nobody had the balls to let us do what we wanted to do," he says. "We watched the creativity die on the vine."
Bias's roots reach back to 2004. Then, as now, the newspaper industry was searching for ways to reach twenty-somethings -- so DNA employees Elkins and Warren developed a product they thought would appeal to this group. Central to it was a lifestyle-oriented website that nightlife lovers could join anonymously; after doing so, they'd be allowed to share their experiences with peers on the site, with the most entertaining of their observations earmarked to run in a bi-monthly magazine available in the sort of clubs and eateries they frequented. Moreover, they'd receive text messages inviting them to participate in exclusive events at which they could meet and mingle with fellow members.
Then-DNA chieftain Kirk MacDonald bought their pitch, and Bias debuted in June 2005. From the beginning, however, the conservative, family-friendly culture of the Denver dailies clashed with the edgy style that the Bias boys knew they needed in order to be taken seriously by their target consumers. The DNA tried to distance itself from its unruly progeny by setting up a spin-off operation, Bias Media LLP, and moving Elkins and company into separate offices. But the battles over taste continued. "Suddenly, we weren't allowed to use the word 'fuck,' and then 'shit,' and then we weren't allowed to even allude to certain things," Elkins says.
Despite such censorship -- not to mention what Elkins saw as understaffing and inadequate financing -- Bias grew to more than 7,000 members. The text-messaging component proved particularly effective when it came to gathering crowds at happenings such as St. Hooky's Day, an October 2005 bash at Public House where Bias types were invited to blow off school or jobs in favor of rest and relaxation.
St. Hooky's Day went so well that Elkins decided to submit a proposal for a ballot initiative that would make the celebration an official state holiday. The Rocky wrote about this quirky mission in April -- but rather than regard the article as great publicity for Bias, Elkins says his DNA overlords made him rescind the proposition. "That was pretty symptomatic of what we had to deal with," he allows. "It was run by fear from day one. They were like, 'Oh, shit, who's going to be offended? Scripps and MediaNews are going to see this! They're going to shut us down!'"
The DNA did just that shortly thereafter -- but Metzger Associates exec Doyle Albee, who'd worked with Bias, remained a believer. The firm hired Elkins, and Albee asked about purchasing Bias's assets during a meeting with Harry Whipple, who succeeded MacDonald, and Dan May, then the agency's chief financial officer. "Although we weren't offering to write a big check, we said, 'If we can grow it, we'd be happy to share the profits -- and if we can't, you haven't lost anything. We're willing to take all the risk,'" Albee maintains. "But nothing came to fruition."
"Doyle is putting that in a nice way," Elkins interjects. "What really happened is, they stopped returning our phone calls."
Luckily, there was another option. "An old Metzger client had this mobile-payment idea," Albee says, "and we thought if we put one and one together, it could equal 27 in this case."
That was the start of FEED Tribes, now accessible at www.feedtribes.com. Site visitors can set up a FEED Tribes account that's linked to their bank; when they go to a participating business and send a numerical text to FEED Tribes, they receive a transaction code that's good for one use only, and for fifteen minutes. Once the code is given to the person at the register, the amount of the purchase is subtracted from the connected bank account -- like a debit-card transaction. The cost for this service is expected to be less than twenty cents a pop no matter what the size of the purchase, a price far lower than businesses typically pay in credit-card fees.