Some reflections on a summer at Matter. (written on the way to demo day)

(This piece was originally published on my Known site at Known is a simple way to publish on your own site and syndicate to your social media profiles across the web — click here to learn more.)

When the garage door rose at 421 Bryant and a beaming Corey Ford welcomed us inside, I didn’t know what would await us over the next eighteen weeks. What I found was an unparalleled support network, new tools that changed the way I thought about my nascent business, and a community of amazing entrepreneurs that I’m proud to call my friends.

Matter’s tagline is “change media for good”. That mission was appealing to me: our media shapes us as a culture in profound ways. In a democracy, the population must be informed in order to vote effectively. Yet at the same time, the media industry we depend on to do this is undergoing a radical change, largely at the hands of the Internet. The opportunities — both socially, and for new kinds of businesses — are great.

I share a core belief with Matter: if you’re doing something good, you have an obligation to make it sustainable, so that you can keep doing it. But whereas I had internalized it as an abstract idea, Matter has taken design thinking and its community and created a concrete framework to make it happen.

Here’s how it works: after a bootcamp in the first week, you spend a little over four months researching, prototyping and refining. For two days each week, you have the opportunity to meet with outside mentors; once a week, each startup shares something with the class. At the end of each month, there’s a design review, wherein you spend seven minutes pitching your company to a panel of investors and entrepreneurs. It’s a confidential, safe environment, but the feedback is real, and panelists and audience members are encouraged to give “gloves off” advice. Based on that, you sprint to the next design review, and ultimately, to demo days in San Francisco and New York.

The first week’s design thinking bootcamp was an intense but rewarding introduction to the methodologies we’d use for the rest of the program, but it also taught me another important thing: I was horribly out of shape. Previously, I’d been sitting at my computer for most of the day, often without leaving my apartment. Now we were being asked to jump onto our feet, do guerrilla user testing in the street, build lots of prototypes at breakneck speed and energetically improvise a fictional startup together in just a few days, all in the middle of a heatwave — and I was exhausted. I left the office each day barely able to walk.

Of course, it was exactly the kind of shake-up I needed, and it’s become a core part of Known’s DNA: jump on the phone with someone, give yourself a ten minute timebox to brainstorm ideas, keep the creative energy flowing. If I have one criticism of Matter, it’s that it’s sometimes hard to actually build software in an environment when uptempo music is playing in the background and people are running around, but that’s not what it’s for. Matter is not an accelerator that encourages you to sit in a room and build something for three months. You’re there to build, but you’re building the story of your startup.

The walls are covered in whiteboards, the furniture is deliberately makeshift, and you’re encouraged to make the space your own. I don’t think it’s an accident that the office — actually a converted garage — feels more like a workshop. Tables were dragged, posters were erected, rooms were occasionally literally covered in paper — all in the name of testing lots of tiny prototypes, and creating a successful proposition through failing faster. “Hey, do you have five minutes?” someone would often ask me. Of course, I’d say yes, as we all would, and I’d be catapulted into someone else’s app experience for a short while, possibly through the medium of Sharpies and Post-Its, giving my feedback and thinking aloud as honestly as I could.

There’s a widely-accepted maxim in software, and particularly in open source: scratch your own itch. That’s certainly the mindset I walked in the door with. Although that can be helpful in the sense that it may reveal insights, user research is important if you want to reach people who aren’t exactly like you. It was a hard transition, at least at first; here, the technology itself has little value unless it’s meeting a deep, and scalable, user need. Halfway through the program, I was doing some pretty existential self-questioning. But ultimately, it was rewarding. As I write this, on my way to the New York Demo Day, thousands of people have used Known. Our initial focus, developed through extensive research, is on university educators, which has turned out to be a perfect decision: our first pilots are running right now, and we have more scheduled in the Fall.

Perhaps because everyone is there to make a difference, it’s also a wonderful group of people. Every single person in Matter has been a joy to work around, and one of the best parts of the whole thing has been seeing our fellow startups develop. We’re in it for each other, and I think we always will be. I’m heavily emotionally invested in the outcomes of Educrate, Musey, Louder, LocalData and Stringr, and in the ongoing success of Matter itself. One of the hardest challenges is going to be transitioning to working without my friends on the tables around me. It’ll be quieter, for sure, but they have been an incredible network of supporters. I hope to spend as much time with them as possible.

I can’t imagine having found a better home for our startup. I believe the future is very bright for Known, but it’s brighter for having been a part of this community.

Matter’s fifth class is open for applications: you should go take a look.