How Phittle, a Micro-Payment for News Website Was Born.

Founders in Costa Rica 2012

By Sam Litvin, Founder at Phittle

It was an average morning and the year was 2012. I was going through my morning routine, scanning Google News, catching up on the latest news in the world. An article caught my interest. I clicked and a screen covered the article like a drape over a stage. The screen demanded I pay for the news article. It was just a link, without cost associated with it just like other links but when I landed on the site it asked for money. Now the article was not necessary for my life, I could find the information elsewhere, and if I couldn’t, I felt that I could easily do without this information. I stormed out of that site, clicking “Back” without even a seconds thought. Who do they think they are? Asking for $35 a month for a year. That’s $420 dollars per year for one article? I don’t think so.

I felt insulted to be asked to pay for something I rarely use. I felt betrayed by Google News which wasted my time by sending me to that site. In fact, I think that was the day I stopped using Google News and switched to Facebook and Twitter where the choice of news was smaller but such insults far more rare. And yet, at the same time, I felt that I would have gladly paid, had they asked me nicely, had they asked me for 10 cents instead of $35. I would have come back and bought more, possibly far more than $35.

I knew that if there was something like Uber, who I gladly use, which is convenient and cheaper than a cab, on which I spend considerably more than I ever spent on cabs, and to which I have an inconvenient alternative: bus and car. I felt that there could be something like iTunes which made it easy to buy songs I never bought before, just like Paypal which I use to make purchases that I otherwise wouldn’t make, that if something like that existed, I would gladly buy news.

It was also around this time that newspapers were in the news for cutting their staff, for handing out flip phones to their writers making them take pictures (being a photographer, I can’t imagine someone giving me a pen in order to replace a writer). It was clear that journalism was under attack while I was being bullied and guilt tripped into buying a subscription and in spite of my love for news, I wasn’t having any of that. I would not be ticked, I would not be pushed into a purchase I knew to be wrong for me.

So I figured someone would make this invention, but two years went by, and those same paywalls were still up. By this point I learned which sites to go to, and which ones to avoid. I became an expert at clicking “back” and I became a natural at learning how to get news which did not waste my time or insult my intelligence. At this time I was also an engineer, equally adapt at hitting back when I came across engineering and scientific publications which demanded high prices just to see an article and high subscription costs and arduous subscription sign-in process. It was at this point that I had enough.

I contacted my good friend Matias, an expert web-developer with a full service in house engineering team and together. I met him while traveling in Costa Rica, working on a photography book of Jewish diasporas. I met him on a bus heading to a tiny Israeli town and we quickly became good friends.

It was 2013 when I got the idea to let him in on my idea. He was intrigued and for the next four months we talked back and forth via skype about; testing it, looking for what else was out there, what worked and what didn’t. Finally, after all of his questions were answered, it was time to stop thinking and start acting and we set out to change the way people buy information online. And this is when Phittle, (Philosophy+Little) was born.

We know Phittle had to do three things well:

  • It had to make buying news easy.

  • It had to make sign-up process fast.

  • And it had to make news better through Phittle.

We also had to hold ourselves to a set of principles of no outside advertisement to respect readers and journalists, we could not sell individual user data and keep user reading preferences private, and we had to uphold journalistic standards and support journalism, science and creators of all on-line content to the best of our abilities.

After several months of programming, we achieved in a prototype all that we planned to do.

  • Phittle allows you to create an account in a couple clicks using Facebook, Google or Email.

  • Phittle lets you buy through micro-payment or set-up a monthly payment plan.

  • And Phittle allows you to have access to the articles you purchase for later reading, sharing and reference.

Phittle also allows for creation of third party tools to help readers glean information from the news they read they couldn’t before. After all, computers are not paper, they can analyze, search and compute. Computers can help us know so much more than paper ever could. Why not harness that power in an ethical and moral manner?

That’s Phittle in a nutshell. It is made to be the way we, the readers read news, made to respect the reader and the journalist, made to uphold the free press and the democracy it supports.

That’s Phittle, it’s a hell of a journey and we hope you will join us for the ride.

Later, I’ll tell you the tough part. What happened in the first year.

This article was originally published on the Phittle Blog.