Entries by Ben Werdmuller

Enough is enough. It’s time to support startups that respect our rights.

Surveillance is not a requirement. We’re looking for scrappy entrepreneurs trying to build something better.

It’s hard to avoid the headlines. The personal information of tens of millions of people was scraped by a political consultant campaign, using the API of the world’s largest social network. There was no data breach; there were no hackers. The information taken from the API as designed, which was there in the first place to support a targeted advertising business model with a goal of growth at all costs.

This event wasn’t alone. It would be naïve to assume that there had only been one solitary personality test that used this data. Aggressive data gathering has become commonplace. Even in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook again drew fire for storing facial recognition data without consent. And Facebook is far from the only tech company guilty of such activities.

It would be easy to blame the tech industry for these abuses of trust — and we should. But at Matter, we know that there are entrepreneurs and startups who are actively trying to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. There are ventures engaged in the business of supporting democracy. They’re out there, fighting against the tide to build something better. They know that technology, used well, can empower communities, not undermine and divide them. They know it’s not just about good intentions: it’s about deeply understanding the implications of your work. And we know this because they apply to join our program every single day.

A community changing media for good

Our five-month, immersive accelerator in San Francisco and New York City helps entrepreneurs de-risk their businesses through a culture of rapid, prototype-driven experimentation. We help you understand your users and your venture holistically, test your core assumptions, and land on something that resonates, is feasible, and is a viable business.

That’s important for every venture — but it’s particularly important when you’re mission-driven. You can have all the goodwill in the world, but if you’re building something that aims to do good, you have a responsibility to make it viable. If you want to make an impact tomorrow, you should want to be continuing to make waves two years from now. We want to help you do well while doing good.

We believe the seeds of the next great media institutions will be planted by courageous entrepreneurs who make the leap to build ventures that speak truth to power, close the empathy gap, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

This moment is too important to let slide. We’ve always made it clear that we’re looking for the next generation of ventures that will remake the technology industry into one that supports inclusion, empathy, and safety. And now it’s more important than ever.

A human-centered program that aligns you with your users

Recently, Anil Dash wrote in 12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech:

We can be thoughtfully skeptical and critical of modern tech products and companies without having to believe that most people who create tech are “bad”. Having met tens of thousands of people around the world who create hardware and software, I can attest that the cliché that they want to change the world for the better is a sincere one. Tech creators are very earnest about wanting to have a positive impact.

Wanting to make a positive impact is one thing. Ensuring that you do is another.

Matter’s program gives you the tools to holistically understand your user — and your venture. Our version of design thinking aligns you on a fundamental level with the people you’re trying to help. Rather than harvesting their data, or engaging in an ad blocking arms race with them, we can help you find business models that meet their deep, unmet needs, while allowing you to grow and reach profitability.

The Matter Nine program

Matter is all about testing and experimentation. The pillars of our program are Design Reviews: closed, safe spaces where you can get feedback on the vital characteristics of your venture. You will tell the story of your startup in the form of a narrative, and receive gloves-off, honest feedback from a panel of experts and invited attendees.

Nothing leaves the room; everybody understands that your venture is a work in progress; you decide which feedback you want to act on (after all, it’s your venture). But at the end of the session you have far more data than you had before.

Then, together with a community that will keep you accountable, you set goals that will guide you to the next Design Review.

In between, you meet one-on-one with members of our network of hundreds of mentors, hear the stories of invited speakers who have been down this entrepreneurial path before, participate in workshops around vital topics like revenue models and user journeys, and test and share with your fellow entrepreneurs as part of a weekly event we call a Shareout.

This is all in service of helping you to perform rapid tests, get feedback quickly, and use what you learn to propel you forwards at an accelerated pace by aligning you with your users. We’ve proven that the model de-risks startups and helps them find success. And in today’s climate, we think it’s more important than ever that the ventures that shape the future will support democracy and help to build a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society.

Apply today. Applications are still open. You need a team, a working prototype, and a deck. We’re excited to meet you.

Voice and ambient computing — for good

Ten years ago, with the introduction of the iPhone, the transition to mobile computing began in earnest — a transition that changed the way all of us access the internet, learn about the world, and think about becoming informed. 85% of Americans get their news on a mobile device.

This year, a new transition is well underway. It could bring a new level of convenience and control to our lives, or it could represent the normalization of ubiquitous surveillance. It’s too early to tell — and the outcome is up to us.

Smart speakers — the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod — will have a place in over half of American households within the next four years. (Right now, 18% of Americans aged 12+ have access to one.) But that’s just a small portion of the change; between wearable devices like the AirPods, and installations across phones, tablets, and computers, over a billion devices in use today have voice assistant functionality. Speech recognition accuracy hit 95% last year, it continues to improve at a rapid pace. Half of all searches are expected to be conducted with voice by 2020.

Assistants don’t necessarily need to communicate with words. Just as my Apple Watch sends me a haptic tap in order to tell me I should think about taking cover from the rain, a whole new set of calm technology principles are guiding the design of apps that inform us without seizing our attention or forcing us to look at a screen.

However they communicate with us, assistants will change the way we interact with information — and how it is proactively reported to us. Some will come with us in our ears, on our wrists, or, yes, through our phones. Others will be in our homes, offices and cars — built into our ambient environments — and will recognize us as we enter a space. This presents new, exciting opportunities for services that interact with their users conversationally.

The challenge will be to build tools that provide the right information to the right person at the right time, securely, while respecting their privacy.

Last year, as part of a murder investigation, Arkansas police demanded that Amazon turn over Alexa recordings from a suspect’s home. The company resisted, but as Wired reported at the time:

Amazon’s effort to protect the data your Echo collects by invoking the First Amendment is commendable, but the company has failed to address the real problem: Why is all that data just sitting in Amazon’s servers in the first place? The brief Amazon filed in the Arkansas court confirms that the company saves the recordings and transcripts of your dialogue with Alexa on servers where “all data is protected during transmission and securely stored.” So should we just trust that Amazon’s servers are impenetrable?

The issue is not just that this information might be used in ways we don’t expect. People behave differently when they know they’re being observed, and are less likely to exercise their right to free speech. This is particularly true in more vulnerable communities — exactly the people whose voices should be amplified and empowered by new technology.

A world of always-on microphones and intelligent cameras has the potential to make us all more informed — but it also has the potential to build a new layer of surveillance that creates a chilling effect and suppresses free speech. Ethical technologists can help ensure that these new technologies are open to all voices and respectful of our privacy needs. By being intentional about how we design products and signpost their stewardship of our rights and data, these technologists can harness these new technologies while protecting users and safeguarding freedom of speech.

We want to support those technologists. If you’re using voice or ambient technology to create the next generation of apps that will make us more informed, close empathy gaps in our society, or make the world more inclusive, we want to hear from you. Applications for Matter are open now.

Build the media platform of tomorrow.

Matter is looking for scrappy entrepreneurs who will change the way we share and learn forever.

The way we learn about the world is transforming.

The next wave of internet platforms is coming into view. Four years from now, over half of us will have an intelligent assistant in our home, and over half of all internet searches will be voice-activated. Blockchain technology has brought decentralization into the mainstream, making new kinds of media businesses possible. Meanwhile, the pendulum is swinging away from targeted advertising to revenue models that respect user privacy, and from a hands-off approach to innovation to regulations that outlaw surveillance.

This wave of change comes at a time when media is more important than ever before. The decline in media has led to a global democratic recession. Representation of people of color in newsrooms has stalled. Just 16% of Americans say they trust what they read in the news, while our society becomes more divided than ever.

Each new wave presents new opportunities. These changes will bring about shifts in consumer behavior, and open up new kinds of markets. While social networks and mobile apps all contain entrenched incumbents, apps for intelligent assistants, all-in-one VR headsets, or decentralized infrastructure do not. There’s everything to play for — and there’s also the opportunity for these ventures to help create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society in the process.

We believe the seeds of the next great media institutions will be planted by entrepreneurs who harness waves of technological change to build human-centered ventures that speak truth to power, close the empathy gap, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

Entrepreneurs like you.

It’s your turn to Matter.

This year, we’re looking for interdisciplinary teams building scalable, for-profit ventures that change the way we tell stories, learn about the world, and empathize with other peoples’ lived experiences.

At Matter, we provide immersive mentorship, space, and a $50K cash investment to help you build a scalable media venture through a human-centered, prototype-driven process rooted in design thinking. Over our 5-month, in-person program, we help you perform rapid experiments to get feedback and iterate quickly, aided by our community of hundreds of mentors, our alumni, media executives and investors. And after those 20 weeks — once you’ve taken part in demo days in both San Francisco and New York — we will continue to be the wind at your back, helping you to fundraise and continue to build your venture.

Our partners are companies like KQED, McClatchy, the Associated Press, the Knight Foundation, the New York Times, and Google News Lab. Our alumni are some of the most dedicated entrepreneurs in media: companies like Hearken, NewsDeeply and SpokenLayer. They’ve been there, done that, and are ready to pay it forward.

Now it’s time for you to join them.

Applications are open.

Starting today, applications to Matter are always open. Although our accelerator program runs at fixed points during the year, we think it’s important that you are able to apply when it makes sense for you. That said, you’ll have a much better chance of being a part of Matter Nine if you apply by April 30.

It’s easy to get started. Just fill in this form, taking care to include a link to a deck. Then, if we like what we see, we’ll invite you to pitch your venture to us. After that, the next stage is a design thinking project that gives you a taste of what the Matter program is like.

It’s a competitive process, with an acceptance rate of around 2%. Our next twelve startups will walk through the garage door on August 13: six based in San Francisco, and six based in New York City. Each will join a vibrant community of inspiring individuals working as part of some of the important teams in media. You can be one of them.

We’re excited to meet you. Let’s change media for good, together.

New realities are new opportunities

Mixed reality and immersive storytelling are new ways to build empathy with audiences. They could also help publishers find sustainability.

At Matter., our mission is to help create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society by investing in the next generation of media institutions. That means investing in products that establish new kinds of media habits. We invest in teams that harness emerging technology to build these new media experiences.

Technology is at a crossroads. Again.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone ten years ago, we began the march towards ubiquitous, mobile computing. It felt like a technology revolution back then; today, carrying an always-on device in our pocket seems like a completely normal thing to do.

Ten years from now, we may have dispensed with handheld devices altogether.

When Amazon introduced Alexa, its voice-powered operating system, nobody really took notice. Its flagship Echo device looked like something from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and The Verge remarked that it had come “out of nowhere”. A year later, Quartz called it a sleeper hit, and Amazon sold over 3 million units. This year, the install base has more than doubled, and the system is built into everything from headphones to smart lights, and Ford is integrating it into its cars.

Perhaps most importantly, its Flash Briefing feature has changed the way millions of people get their news:

As I force myself out of bed to shower, brush my teeth, and get dressed, the Flash Briefing goes onto play a 90-second mini culture podcast from Slate, an update on the presidential race from The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, and some local Boston news from the NBC-owned NECN. Some mornings, I’ll even ask Alexa to pull up a stream of WBUR, the local Boston NPR affiliate.

Because Alexa is based on advanced voice recognition, and will soon be able to distinguish between individual voices, media apps on the platform may be operated through natural conversations. Linear, broadcast stories may give way to branching, adaptive, conversational experiences that adapt to the user’s preferences. The art of the traditional storyteller — where a story’s performance changes based on its audience’s responses — becomes a crucial new technology skill.

This model isn’t limited to Amazon’s platform: Google and Apple have their own models for these interactions, too. And that’s before we even talk about Apple’s rumored, secret mixed reality project.

Layered reality

Disneyland has been experimenting with augmented reality for a few years. Three years ago, they began to display Star Wars animations to smartphone owners who pointed a special app at logos throughout the park. This year, Disney CEO Bob Iger discussed how virtual reality wouldn’t be a possibility at their parks, but augmented experiences were likely:

Iger, speaking at a USC Marshall and Annenberg event in Santa Monica on Thursday, instead talked up the possibility of launching high-tech augmented reality attractions. Those will still probably involve headgear, but the devices will blend the real and digital worlds.

Iger noted he spends each Tuesday afternoon at a Disney engineering lab sporting a head-worn device that enables him to hold a light-saber and duel with a stormtrooper.

Back in January, Robert Scoble suggested that Apple was working with Carl Zeiss on a pair of augmented reality glasses; they’ve certainly been exploring mixed reality for at least ten years. The latest iteration of the iPhone contains augmented reality capabilities, including a 3D, infra-red face scanner. Meanwhile, Rony Abovitz’s secretive Magic Leap promises to be “the world’s next computing platform”, and teases some impressive experiences on its website — which it may or may not live up to.

Immersive and ambient

Our portfolio companies are already beginning to explore ambient and immersive technologies.

Aconite is a mixed reality storytelling platform that uses a combination of augmented reality and game mechanics to engineer real-world experiences. Their app acts as an enchanted looking glass that peels back the real world and reveals layers of story hidden just below the surface. Bookstores become venues for mystery scavenger hunts, and cities reveal narratives from hundreds of years ago. And while a frequent complaint about smartphone use has been that they isolate us by forcing us to look down at our screens, Aconite’s stories bring people together and connect them with their surroundings.

As mixed reality devices grow in popularity, Aconite’s storytelling platform will be there. When many publishers and app developers will scramble to adapt to these new models for content, Aconite will have the expertise and the technology to help them. It’s the best kind of moonshot: one that aims squarely for where the virtual puck will be, not long from now.

Together with ventures like SpokenLayer, which is the engine for many publishers as they adapt to audio-first platforms, we’re excited to be exploring these new frontiers for content.

New business models

New content forms are also new opportunities to try new business models, free from user expectations. It’s hard to apply a new business model to a well-known product form, like a news website or a app. It’s much easier to apply one to a new kind of product that nobody has seen before.

Ambient computing is in its infancy — so there’s everything to play for. The new technologies that are revolutionizing storytelling may revolutionize sustainability, too. All it needs is the right startup to run the right experiment.

Are you next?

The seeds of the next great media institutions will be planted this year by courageous entrepreneurs who make the leap to build ventures that speak truth to power, close the empathy gap, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

Applications for Matter close at midnight on October 27. If you’re building new kinds of platforms for storytelling, you should apply today.

Join Matter Eight

We’re looking for scrappy entrepreneurs set on creating a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society.

Media is the bedrock of democracy.

It’s the way we learn about the world. It connects us. It empowers us to make stronger decisions by arming us with information. The stories we hear through the media define how we relate to the people we share our society with — people whose lived experiences we may not otherwise have been exposed to. As America’s Founding Fathers knew, a free press is a vital component of a functioning democracy.

But that free press is under threat, culturally, politically, and economically.

When Matter was founded in 2012, our media was already struggling with falling revenues in the face of the internet. We built our accelerator as a supportive community where media entrepreneurs could build their ventures through a human-centered, prototype-driven process: a safe space where experiments could be performed quickly and founders could fail fast by getting feedback early.

Because viable media companies are so important, we wanted to give founders building these businesses every chance of success. Today, Matter companies like Hearken and NewsDeeply are changing the way media is created. Our process works.

In 2017, this mission is even more important. Just 32% of Americans say they trust the media — and just 16% say they have confidence in the news they read online. Earlier this year, the President of the United States called the news media “the enemy of the American people”.

Our society has become more divided, yet representation of people of color in media companies has stalled. Fewer than 1% of funded tech startups are run by black women. Particularly in a world where white supremacy is on the rise, we need to hear these voices — and feel their lived experiences — more than ever.

This isn’t solely an American problem: around the world, the media faces similar existential threats. In a world that is becoming more divided, and where authoritarianism is on the rise, the stakes are high. The decline in media has led to a global democratic recession. There is work to do.

That’s where you come in.

We believe the seeds of the next great media institutions will be planted this year by courageous entrepreneurs who make the leap to build ventures that speak truth to power, close the empathy gap, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

Twice this year, we’ve brought together our partners — media pillars like the Associated Press, the New York Times, McClatchy, KQED, and Google News Lab — and converged on core themes we believe will make a difference. (We’re not limited to these ideas — if you don’t fit into these categories, you should still apply! — but they have helped us decide where to look.)

  • Amplifying diverse voices that aren’t always being heard, and creating media teams that better represent the demographics of their audiences.
  • Building secure technologies to protect freedom of speech and expression.
  • Rebuilding trust in journalism.
  • Allowing individuals and media companies to own their online identities and relationships.
  • Moving beyond targeted advertising to new business models.
  • Harnessing emerging technologies like augmented reality and intelligent assistants to create new models for content, understanding, and empathy.

The Matter community is dedicated to this mission. Our partners are some of the most recognizable names in media around the world. Our alumni are experienced entrepreneurs who are ready to help the next generation of media startups. And our network of hundreds of mentors are ready to provide personal advice and honest feedback.

It’s your turn to matter. We’re looking for teams of scrappy entrepreneurs working on scalable media ventures that can help support a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. You need to be able to execute: you’ve built something in-house and you’ll be working on your venture full-time. And you understand that human-centered businesses that test their hypotheses early by talking to real people are more likely to succeed.

Apply now.

Applications are open until November 8 . The earlier you apply, the better: our process is designed to help you focus your company before the program even starts, and we want to spend as much time with you as possible.

Matter Eight starts on January 29th, 2018.

We begin with a rigorous design thinking bootcamp, giving you the tools you need to anchor your business around real user needs. Then we move into four month-long sprints, each culminating in a Design Review, where you pitch your venture in a safe space with fresh-eyed experts from our community and get feedback as you build momentum towards Demo Day. You’ll be based at our space in either San Francisco or New York City, but you’ll be exposed to our communities in both locations through our interwoven, bicoastal program.

The Drunken Walk, S2-E7: Jane Metcalfe — Co-Founder, WIRED

Jane Metcalfe is the founder of NEO.LIFE, an online publication that makes sense of the neobiological revolution. Previously, she co-founded WIRED. As well as WIRED Magazine, the group owned HotBot, the internet’s fastest search engine at the time, invented the banner ad, won numerous awards, and practically invented online publishing. Most importantly, it put a human face on the technology revolution and the people who drove it.

In this talk, recorded live in front of an audience of Matter Seven entrepreneurs in San Francisco, Jane discusses building a team packed with world-class talent and giving them the space to do their best work — as well as the role of media in transforming how the world sees entire industries.

The Drunken Walk, S2-E6: Max Ventilla — CEO, AltSchool

Max Ventilla is the founder of AltSchool, a collaboration between engineers and educators to help build the future of education. He’s also an accomplished serial entrepreneur whose journey has taken him through Aardvark, Google and beyond.

In this talk recorded at Matter in San Francisco, he discusses building a service culture and creating systems that put your user first. Max has spoken with each of our accelerator classes, and true to form, this session is full of actionable insights for early-stage entrepreneurs.

The Drunken Walk, S2-E6: Max Ventilla — CEO, AltSchool

Max Ventilla is the founder of AltSchool, a collaboration between engineers and educators to help build the future of education. He’s also an accomplished serial entrepreneur whose journey has taken him through Aardvark, Google and beyond.

In this talk recorded at Matter in San Francisco, he discusses building a service culture and creating systems that put your user first. Max has spoken with each of our accelerator classes, and true to form, this session is full of actionable insights for early-stage entrepreneurs.

The Drunken Walk, S2-E5: Lindsay Stewart & Brian McNeill — Stringr

Lindsay Stewart and Brian McNeill are the co-founders of Stringr, a startup that took part in Matter’s third class.

Stringr allows media organizations to connect with professional and amateur videographers in order to source great footage. In this fireside chat with Roxann Stafford, our Director of Program in New York, they demystify the B2B sales cycle. Lindsay and Brian are the epitome of scrappy entrepreneurs, knocking down doors and breaking barriers in order to build relationships and grow their business.

The Drunken Walk, S2-E4: Niles Lichtenstein — CEO, The History Project

Niles Lichtenstein was inspired to found The History Project by the memory of his father, and the moments they shared together.

He and his team took part in Matter’s fourth class; in this episode, he talks about his startup’s journey from a very personal product at Demo Day to its current position as a way for enterprise organizations to keep track of their institutional histories.

Niles is an accomplished, highly focused founder with a gift for storytelling, and we’re proud he’s a part of our community.