Entries by Alex Rawitz

Looking Back At Matter

Looking Back At Matter

Lots of memories and post-its in this place.

When we began our journey with Matter, either 19 weeks or a lifetime ago depending on how you measure time, we knew nothing — especially not how little we knew. That only became apparent over time, as each passing day brought crucial lessons on how to build a product, work as a team, compose a business plan, or any other of the thousand-and-one tasks entrepreneurs must master. Naturally, these thousand-and-one tasks raised a million-and-one questions, but none bigger than this:

Were we serious?

There are many other ways to phrase it, from the cliched (did we have what it takes, whatever ‘it’ is?) to the existential (why are we doing this, again?), but at the core of this question was the uncertainty that underlies any entrepreneur’s story. We quickly became familiar with the murky zone between extreme doubt and extreme confidence in which Founders spend most of their time. Having our fates at once seemingly within our hands and subject to forces we couldn’t see took — well, takes — some getting used to. Like anything else we’d ever done (so, basically school), we expected that after a while, we’d settle into a rhythm within the entrepreneurial lifestyle, and that the proper path would kindly reveal itself.

Something like this, say.

We’ll, uh, let you know when that happens.

It wasn’t that we wanted to stop learning these difficult lessons — far from it. But we needed to find a way to be open to all the new information we were receiving without being overwhelmed by it. To stop thinking of what we were doing as a learning experience we could master, and instead start seeing it as what it was: real life, with all its unknowable consequences and implications.

The shift occurred one day during a discussion about our purpose. We had always known that we wanted Verbatm to be a home for important content. The convenient term we would hide behind instead of explaining what we actually meant was “substance.” The stories on Verbatm, whatever they would end up looking like, would have Substance. End of discussion.

But finally, we had to ask ourselves: what did we actually mean?

We found that, like anything worth defining, substance was a word that escaped easy definition. On the one hand, it meant the weighty ideals traditionally associated with the titans of the media industry — authoritative content produced by outlets held to the highest journalistic standards. Verbatm certainly aspired to maintain this legacy. But we also recognized that times (and technology) had changed, and our definitions had to change with them. While we in no way wanted to discount what substance has meant historically, we also had to assess what it meant to contemporary media consumers.

You kids, always staring at your phones.

Ultimately, the substance we wanted to promote, the kind that our customers wanted to see, was anchored in the human experience. It served as a personal framework through which an abstract and seemingly impersonal issue can be understood.

In other words, just as a substantive story informs, it must also explore a question that resonates with its readers. Just as it captures something that’s true about the way the world works, it must also capture something that’s true about a single lived experience.

Just as it broadens the mind, it must also touch the heart.

When we framed our goal like this, something clicked. Building a platform where these kinds of stories were told proved convincing not only to our users, but to ourselves. Here was a “serious” task we could fully invest in. It didn’t matter that our certainty of accomplishing this task was every bit as hazy as the rest of what startup life entailed. Even failing was a noble goal, so long as we tried.

We finally understood what it meant to take the leap without knowing whether we had a parachute. In other words, what it meant to be an entrepreneur.

We knew we were forgetting something.

Verbatm’s latest iteration, as a mobile microblogging system, only emboldens the spirit of that conversation. By allowing Millennials to create and share powerful multi-form stories crafted from their own media, we will create a world in which everyone will be able to more freely express and follow her passions. We will judge our adherence to substance, not only by what a reader learns, but by how she feels about what she learns. How, hours after the fact, when our app is closed and modern life’s endless tide of information begins to ebb, she remembers what she saw and can’t let it go. It’s the emotional resonance lent by first person narratives that lies at the heart of this principle and makes it real.

People will come to Verbatm, as they have come to media since the dawn of humanity, to be informed. They will stay, and build a community that lasts, because they care.

And best of all, it will look pretty, too!

This sentiment rings as true today as it did back when those titans of the industry were just toddlers. However the mediums (heh) have changed, the goal of media — our goal at Verbatm — remains the same: to forge a connection between consumer and creator via content that informs and inspires.

It is a connection borne of understanding, authenticity, and empathy. A connection that lasts.

And what could be more substantive, or more serious, than that?

What We’ve Learned In a Month (and a Year)

What We’ve Learned In a Month (and a Year)

Plus, an Announcement about Beta Testing!

One year ago today, we were just embarking on this adventure, laying the groundwork for what would become Verbatm. The concept was murky and the company was months away from being established, but a general semblance of goals and structure was emerging. We worked in public spaces on Stanford campus from when they opened in the morning till the janitor kicked us out at night, refusing our offer of equity in exchange for letting us staying late. We crashed with friends, squatted in lounges, and fled residential education staff. In three weeks — August 29th through September 18th, 2014 — I moved six times and spent the night in eight different places.

Silicon Valley’s latest hip accessory

We wanted to see what this new, unfamiliar path entailed — partially to be assured that things would get better (turns out I really enjoy having secure housing), partially to prepare for things getting worse. So the team began taking meetings with people who had worked at startups previously, in capacities ranging from founder to employee #50 to concerned onlooker. From this wealth of knowledge, a treasure trove that we’re so lucky to have received, one discrete theme was hammered home time and again:

It gets worse, they said, their knowing smirks hinting at the horrors to come. It will take over your life, they insisted. Metaphors ranged from running through a brick wall to trying to crash-land a plane — fun stuff. “Hardest thing you’ll ever do” was thrown around with distressing consistency.

Just another day at the office

And we, in our infinite wisdom, thought that sounded pretty cool and went for it. How you interpret that decision will tell you all you need to know about us.

We say all this not to glorify ourselves, nor to claim that working on a startup is better than other ways of life and we’re better people for doing so. Indeed, a large percentage of the population in Silicon Valley is very compelling evidence against such an argument.

No, this is an extremely roundabout means of context. Namely, this is to say that we didn’t believe those people until now.

Maybe, like so many of the best and worst and most memorable things in life, it’s something you can’t understand until it happens. When we got that advice we were already working so hard, with so much to do each day — how could it possibly get harder? To add another metaphor, how could there be another peak beyond the one we were climbing, and a whole mountain range past that?

How would we summon the strength to make it where we wanted to go?

No one told me there would be hiking

Well, a year has passed and we still don’t entirely know. But we’ve discovered that wondering if we’re going to make it quickly becomes counter-productive — at best, it’s not going to get us there any faster, and at worst such doubts can become self-fulfilling prophecies. After awhile, we’ve learned that simply putting one foot in front of the other, concentrating on the individual tasks that constitute the grand vision, is not just the soundest strategy, but the only one.

And that’s why we want to take a moment to celebrate a few of those accomplishments, while still acknowledging all the work yet to be done.

Our last month at Matter has been a blur of movement, meetings, and complications — hard work, and ultimately, hard-won progress. We’ve instituted procedural and structural changes that have greatly improved team communication and dynamics. We’ve made valuable connections and partnerships with individuals and agencies that will help further our mission. We’ve conducted multiple rounds of needfinding and user testing, which have helped us refine our product and purpose while clarifying our mission. We’ve implemented overhauls of the creation and consumption of articles on our platform, reconstituting the fundamental identity of how Verbatm is experienced.

We’ve also run through approximately 10,000,000 post-it notes.

The Verbatm we’ve built in this time is the strongest yet expression of the reason we’re subjecting ourselves to this life. It’s the culmination of the concept sparked in the cafeteria, the tenuous notion we worked toward in lobbies and side rooms and lounges, the hazy dreams I saw when I closed my eyes on a stranger’s couch. As ragged as bringing it all to fruition has made us, holding (something reasonably close to) our product in our hands and the sense of real progress it evokes has given us more than enough energy to carry on.

It’s by no means done — not even close to being halfway there — but we’re far along enough to have reached one key milestone, and that’s what we’re excited to announce:

On Friday, September 11th, one day after Matter’s Design Review One, we’ll be launching a beta. We’re ready to share Verbatm with the world, to push it out there and see what people do with this thing that thus far has only existed in lines of code and paper prototypes and hours upon hours of discussion. And we’d love for you to be a part of it — send an email to betarequests@myverbatm.com if you’re interested, or sign up on our website or Twitter. We can’t wait to see what you create!

As we continue to move toward a tangible, real product, we won’t stop imagining ways to make what we have even better. I’m still thinking about Verbatm when I close my eyes at night. But just a year on from those foundational weeks of excitement and uncertainty, I’m (thankfully) in my own bed, and my vision is far clearer, less dreamlike. It’s no longer of what Verbatm will be, but what it will become.

We do dream journals differently

That vision is out there, somewhere amongst the peaks we can’t even see yet. All we have to do is keep climbing.

Ready for anything

Verbatm, Word for Word

Verbatm, Word for Word

The Verbatm Team: Aishwarya Vardhana, Iain Usiri, Sierra Kaplan-Nelson, and Alex Rawitz

It started with two friends chatting over dinner. Where it ends, though currently unknown, promises to be a bit more dramatic.

In the early months of 2014, with a tumultuous year of global protests that would come to define our vision still in store, my friend Iain and I had a talk at one of the twenty buildings on Stanford’s campus named “Arrillaga.” Having gone through Structured Liberal Education (SLE) together freshmen year, a residential program that teaches students about the history of old dead white men, Iain and I were used to discussing big issues. But that day, instead of the Euthyphro Dilemma or the Categorical Imperative, Iain and I were grappling with something a bit more contemporary, and — dare I say it — cool: how the media failed to both adequately address the perspectives of millennials, and to convey those views in an aesthetically engaging manner.

Okay, so SLE kids might have a slightly different definition of “cool.” But I digress.

Let’s give some context. At the time, there were ongoing riots in Venezuela, and the American media was (surprise!) doing a poor job covering the story. This problem exacerbated by the Venezuelan government’s iron-fisted control of that nation’s own media. A mutual friend of ours had shared a Youtube video describing the situation, asking for us to pass it on to more people. The situation was shocking: thousands were being arrested, dozens had been killed, a regime was on the verge of collapse, and the average American had no idea. Iain and I wondered, given the emotional stakes, why there wasn’t more information out there. Why didn’t people on the ground have an easy way to spread photo, video, and written accounts of the situation on mobile? Even grimmer, why was a suffering nation’s best recourse a not-even-viral video that people around the world could pat themselves on the back for watching and then forget about?

Protesters in Venezuela, March 2014. Credit: Daga95, Flickr

That was the ‘a-ha moment.’ Even with all our era’s advances in technology, even with all our networks meant to connect and inform, even post-Arab Spring and post-Social Media Presidential Election, there were voices and that were still going unheard. Channels for individual media elements — 140 characters here, a grainy video there — did exist, but where was the platform where cohesive, first-person accounts and commentary could thrive?

Long after the dining hall had switched over from dinner to late night service, Iain and I kept returning to one central issue: there was no means by which both content creators and content consumers could express their experiences and address an audience in a manner that made them feel valued, heard, and empowered. To tell their stories in their own words, Verbatm. (Yes, that’s where the name comes from).

From our initial conversation, which quickly spiralled into chains of texts and the first several of infinite follow-up meetings, Iain and I realized that this was a mission we wanted to fully devote ourselves to. It represented the best possible method to parlay a Stanford education into precisely what this amazing gift is meant for — empowering the voiceless. And over the course of that year and beyond, between activism from Hong Kong to Ferguson and violence from Iraq to Baltimore, the need for such a media outlet became more sadly apparent with each passing day.

We knew we needed someone to help bring our vision to reality and began to assemble a team, starting with a designer. We got that and far, far, faaaaaar more (seriously, think lightyears) when Aishwarya joined us. Instead of someone who merely made our orders look pretty, she took full initiative in reimagining the product from start to finish, crafting the Verbatm we are today. Moreover, her long history of activism — including work with the Black Lives Matter and Campus Sexual Assault movements — validated the meaningful spirit of what Iain and I set out to accomplish, making it flesh and blood rather than theoretical. Along the way, she taught us the invaluable lesson of the design thinking process: the build-you-up, break-you-down, always-be-testing, user-focused methodology that has guided us ever since. In just a few months, the product was every bit hers as it was ours, and the three of us incorporated as co-founders.

Sometimes the process is as messy as our handwriting

After a Herculean effort from Iain to build our mobile platform, the time came to hire another engineer (the time may or may not have come thanks to Iain’s repeated begging for sleep and time to contact his family). Aishwarya quickly contacted Sierra, an engineer she had worked with at the Stanford chapter of the NAACP. Drawn to both Sierra’s insatiable passion for social justice and her incredible talent for coding and managing technical tasks, we brought her in for an interview and left wondering why we hadn’t already hired her. As a member of the team, Sierra is vital toward our continued progress on creating our building and viewing experiences — the way in which our multimedia pieces are assembled and viewed — the key features that define Verbatm.

The next milestone in our history came with our acceptance into Matter. Naturally, when we heard that there was an accelerator right in our backyard that helped media companies build an informed, connected, and empowered society via the design thinking process, we were willing to do whatever it took to join. The program was virtually made for us, and with each hurdle cleared in the interview process, our excitement mounted.

For the record, I never thought we would make it, a fact my team loves to remind me of. It wasn’t because we had nothing to offer, but because Matter offered us so much. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be wrong; Matter took a chance on us, validating the strength of our vision and team over the fact that we still get carded. Today, we’re so excited to be a part of this incredible cohort, and we know that the knowledge and opportunities to be gleaned from the program will be instrumental as we continue to grow.

The team hard at work in the Matter space

We know what you’re thinking — we’ve set some lofty goals for ourselves. Truth be told, most of our answers haven’t been reached, and sometimes we can’t even agree on the questions. But on the days when it’s just not coming to us, we remember that it’s all part of the process, put our heads down, and keep on iterating. We’ve come a long way in just a brief time. While there’s still so much to do, and even though the target refuses to stand still, we know we have a team around us that’s built to succeed.

Yes, in the immortal words of that song from a few summers ago, we are, in fact, young. If we had a dollar for every “you’re how old, exactly?” or “aren’t you a little young for this?” we’ve received, we’d be well on our way toward closing a successful Series A.

But where others might look at our youth and see immaturity and naiveté, we see opportunity (and, granted, the occasional instance of immaturity and naiveté). Most people can agree that the current media infrastructure is woefully inadequate, if not outright broken. When it comes to such an entrenched force, change usually comes from without. Our team sits at an ideal position: raised on a media system starved for iteration, fluent in the society-shaking movements already underway, creative enough to dream up new changes, and dedicated enough to make it all happen.

These are our ‘dedicated’ faces

In order to transform the media space into something stronger — something that lasts — we must expand its base. Instead of a top-down apparatus offering the same old content, we must recruit from the bottom up, crafting a system where all voices are heard. And of course, because that system also happens to look great and be super fun to use, these changes will catch on all the quicker.

Yes, it’s quite the construction project. But we would go so far as to say that no one is better equipped for the task. To borrow from one of the team’s sources of inspiration, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And Verbatm is a tool for change the likes of which the world has never seen.

Sure, big talk for a bunch of kids who can’t even rent a car. But to borrow from another source of inspiration, everything big starts small.

Sometimes, it even starts over dinner.