Aug 9, 2022 - Economy

Exclusive: Column raises $30M, expanding beyond public notice

Illustration courtesy of Column

Column, a public benefit company that provides software to streamline the placement of public notices, has raised a $30 million series A investment round led by Lux Capital, a venture firm, its founder and CEO Jake Seaton told Axios.

Why it matters: It's a rare injection of high-growth capital into a company that services local newspapers. The money will help Column expand its services to improve public information systems and transactions beyond public notices.

  • "We're really excited about how they're solving a unique problem," said Lux Capital's Shahin Farshchi, who will join the board of Column alongside Seaton and Nancy Gibbs, the former Time editor-in-chief who now serves as Column’s public benefit director.

Catch up quick: Seaton, the fifth generation of a local newspaper family from Kansas, launched Column in 2020 to make it easier for local newspapers and community officials to place public notices, or bulletins that update citizens about legal or regulatory proceedings, like ordinances or municipal budget votes.

  • Legal requirements to place public notices in local newspapers have made them one of the most reliable revenue streams for local newspapers for centuries.
  • But even today, many public notices are still placed manually, and there wasn't a great database to track them.
  • Now, according to Column, many of its hundreds of local newspaper clients have seen a 50% reduction in operational costs of managing public notice placement and publication.
  • "If you could cut in half the amount of time that it takes for newspapers to place these notices, or for law firms and governments to submit them, it would really lubricate the whole operation, and everyone benefits," said Gibbs.

How it works: Column provides its software for free to newspaper publishers and charges a processing fee on top of the transaction paid by governments, law firms and businesses that are placing public notices.

By the numbers: In the past year, Column has processed hundreds of thousands of notices across newspapers in all 50 states through its platform, representing tens of millions in transactions and at least one public notice transaction every minute, a spokesperson said.

  • The team now includes 50 full-time staffers around the world, up from around 10 at launch two years ago.
  • Seaton declined to disclose the company's revenue or valuation, but said that the scale of the company's early success led to its decision to raise money and "really try to go big on the opportunity that we see here."
  • Farshchi said he expects Column to focus on building out its public notices business in the next year, but after that, "it's my expectation that they will build the kernel of several other businesses that are sitting on top of their core product."

Between the lines: In addition to Lux Capital, the funding round also includes new investments from previous seed funds and angel investors, including former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, Reuters News president Paul Bascobert, former Stripe chief operating officer Claire Hughes Johnson, News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern, and others.

Details: The new capital will be used to expand Column's offerings to digitize other outdated public information systems, like government procurement officers placing project proposal notices, or trustees placing sheriff sale notices to manage virtual property auctions.

  • Most public transactions, be it a foreclosure or government contract, require public notices as a first step. By digitizing that process, Seaton hopes Column can increase the efficiency of those later transactions and make money from them.

Be smart: The expansion could also help Column withstand any regulatory changes to the public notice system.

  • Over the past few years, some state legislatures have pushed to move public notices onto government websites to save money, although most have been unsuccessful in doing so.

What's next: This fall, Column will publicly release the first-ever API, or digital interface, for public notices, which will provide machine-readable access to 60+ notice categories.

  • The "Column API," as they're calling it, has already been used privately to power public notice databases across 18 states, but by making it available publicly, Column can now work with researchers, reporters, governments and businesses to build tools that utilize public information/disclosures.

What to watch: In addition to its product expansion outside of public notices, Column is also working to incorporate better language translation to serve newspapers in different communities in the U.S. and around the world.

  • The company is currently in talks with newspaper groups in the U.K. and Canada to bring its services there.
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