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Sprinting for the finish line: Matter Five’s journey.

But no one said a marathon can’t be made up of sprints — those short, sharp bursts of energy that bring you closer to your ultimate goal. Over the course of nineteen intensive weeks, our entrepreneurs have been running tirelessly: pitching ideas, building prototypes, getting feedback and iterating on their ventures. Here at Matter, we believe sprinting from milestone to milestone is the best way to achieve a long-term aim.

The greatest milestone on this trek for our six company cohort is Demo Day. In the topography of the program, it’s like the Knife Ridge separating them from the Everest Summit — a perilous yet potentially rewarding last leg of the journey.

 

Our entrepreneurs must step up to the plate, present their ventures, and demo their products before an audience of investors, partners, CEOs, media, and peers, knowing a strong pitch could open doors to much-needed investment or the deals with large media customers that will propel their companies to the next stage of development. To succeed, they need to summon all their smarts and charisma. They also need a perfectly-honed pitch, which is the vehicle for communicating their vision. As Matter Managing Partner, Corey Ford, says: “The pitch is the best way of bringing together the multiple variables that make up a venture.” And the best way of delivering that pitch is to practice, practice, and practice some more.

Amid all that practicing, I snagged a few minutes with members of each of the teams to ask about their key takeaways from the Matter experience.

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Metta has had one of the most fascinating, circuitous journeys to Demo Day. Their idea morphed from a consumer-facing content-discussion platform to an enterprise-facing one. Then, they jettisoned the concept altogether in favor of Pinstacart, an interior-design service based around users’ Pinterest boards. Finally they rejected that and instead planted their flag in almost virgin territory: Virtual Reality.

Metta, an app for creating and viewing user-generated VR video, is the product of the founding trio’s quest to do something they’re really passionate about, according to co-founder Jacob Trefethen: “We thought in our first sprint, look at the whole world of ideas, pick one that looks promising and then go crazy on it,” he says. “The truism we ended up learning after that is that’s not enough — you actually have to really care about what you’re doing on a level that connects with you somewhere deeper.” Through the Matter program, they ended up discovering that their passion lay in VR, and in developing the industry’s first ever social network.

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The Motherly founding team, on the other hand, says it has “circled around” its original idea — to create personalized journeys to motherhood for millennial women —which was born out of the co-founders’ own maternal experiences. Jill Koziol and Liz Tenety only dreamed up Motherly a few months before joining Matter Five, and it’s been full speed ahead ever since. “But our confidence and security are much higher now,” says Jill, after the Matter program provided them with extensive opportunities to talk to potential users, test their concept and elaborate on it.

Through their Matter journey, Team Motherly realized the huge opportunity that there was to build network effects into their business. They’ve created a community where each additional millennial mom adds value for the next. They’ve also added an enterprise subscription model focused on retaining female talent in the workplace. Jill said she had never dreamed they’d end up offering this feature, which she now believes will be crucial to Motherly’s success.

Matter, she feels, has “created an environment where you can fail safely”, so she’s learned just to go for it: “If you are not at least a little bit embarrassed by your startup when you launch, then you launched too late. […] If you polish that rock too much then you miss opportunities for greatness.”

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Sean McIntyre, Head of Product at Redivis, worked with his co-founder Ian Mathews on their crowd-sourced data visualization repository full-time for six months before entering the Matter program. Sean says they had a “high level vision” of what it was to become, but were less sure how to direct their next week or month. He feels Matter helped them refine a nebulous idea and approach its execution in a series of well-defined sprints.

Sean admits to initially being skeptical of what was asked of him during his first week of the program. At Bootcamp, he was told to completely set Redivis aside. Teams were reshuffled and given brand new projects to work on. “I thought, we’re supposed to be learning these things in the context of what we’re [already] doing,” he says. But he soon realized this technique was a crafty tool for teaching the Design Thinking Process that’s core to Matter’s approach: “A lot of those processes are about breaking down things to the bare essence — that’s harder to do when you have this baby you’ve been working on for a long time.” So instead he practiced on a completely different scenario before setting out to rework his existing venture.

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Aishwarya Varhana, co-f0under of independent publishing tool Verbatm, says that one of the big lessons she learned also came during that early design Bootcamp: “what will make or break you is the strength of your team.” Aishwarya says learning how to give constructive and productive feedback has been vital to communication flow between the four Verbatm team members.

During one-on-one feedback sessions, they try to use the “when you do X, I feel Y” formula, rather than assigning intention to one another, and that has smoothed the path to candid conversations. “Our team comes from different cultures, from different parts of the world” says Aishwarya, “so when you communicate with “I” statements, you don’t make assumptions and don’t project your own cultural values on to others.”

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Justin Womersley, co-f0under of Huzza, a live-streaming platform for musicians, says the human-centric aspect of Matter’s approach to entrepreneurship has been really key for him. It was the process of interviewing singer-songwriters, engaging with real people and finding out what they needed, that caused him and his co-founder Nick Smit to rethink what Huzza should become. They pivoted from being a “Bitcoin for Music” to a “Twitch for Musicians”: “Through the customer research and design thinking that Matter makes us do, our epiphany was, let’s stop doing this tipping, supporting model, let’s do just live streaming because that’s what the artists want to do and that’s what the fans want to watch.”

For Justin, Matter’s infamous Design Reviews have been the most useful component of the program: “You put a stake in the ground and get feedback from 50 people and they’re intelligent people from different backgrounds.” He says Matter has created a friendly environment in which its teams can practice pitching to informed audiences without fear of crashing and burning — so they have never been afraid to test out something completely new: “It’s just a cool space to experiment.”

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Before we would just give ideas, immediately shut them down and judge them,” says Jenny Bai, co-founder of Mingyian, a multi-channel network connecting Chinese millennial fans with U.S. artists through micro-events hosted on Chinese social media. “I didn’t realize how much we were dampening our creativity.”

Jenny and her co-founder Rebecca Eydeland say Matter has helped them to bring stability and structure into the company-building process, including teaching them when to flare (being generative with ideas) and focus(selecting from them according to a set of agreed-upon constraints). Rebecca says that every entrepreneur is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but by “codifying best practices and making us work through them”, Matter forced them to raise their game.

And the pair kept returning to the concept of empathy, one of Matter’s core values. “I’ve noticed that when you’re trying to build or market something or talk about a a story there’s always a disconnect because you stop becoming a human,” says Jenny. “You always have to go back and make sure the thing is true to who you’re building it for.”

And that’s a lesson that’s stuck. No matter how quickly any of our entrepreneurs have sprinted for the finish line (including Team Metta who built a fully-functional Alpha in less than a month) each one knows that it’s only by intimately understanding their users that they’ll ever win the gold medal.

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?

The three questions that should haunt every start-up

Scalability.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve heard all about scalability. But there’s how you think about scalability before you meet Max Ventilla. And then there’s how you think about scalability after you meet Max Ventilla.

“If you’re not creating something that scales, that gets exponentially better with scale, and gets better over time at an accelerating rate, then stop what you are doing.”

And with that, Max Ventilla, the founder and CEO of AltSchool, had the attention of the Matter Four entrepreneurs during our weekly Speaker Series.

“It’s not like everything in life needs to be about scale. I have a tremendous admiration for artists and writers and what they do does not scale,” he clarified. “But in 2015, if you are building products that use computers and the Internet, or you’re trying to raise venture capital, and you’re not creating something that scales, that gets exponentially better with scale, and that gets better over time at an accelerating rate—I think you’ll lose to things that do.”

Let that sink in. And then ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Am I building something that scales?
  2. Does it get exponentially better with scale?
  3. Does it get better over time at an accelerating rate?

If not, whether you are a start-up or an existing institution, your days are numbered. Because someone out there is doing what you do and has answered yes to those three questions.

Does this rattle you? It rattled me at first. I run what one might call a boutique start-up accelerator; intimacy is a key part of our differentiation. But that same approach meant that I couldn’t positively answer all three of those questions—yet.

But don’t fret. Max has some actionable wisdom for all of us on how we can set up our ventures for scalable success by starting with first principles.

“I like the idea of thinking from first principles. I don’t think it’s something that entrepreneurs do enough,” says Max. “To avoid an incremental approach to start-ups, start with first principles.”

Does it scale?

So, how does Max Ventilla, who is building AltSchool, which he believes can fundamentally transform our system of education, approach the question of scale in his work? By forcing everything through the lens of whether or not it can scale as early as possible.

“For scale, in our case, what we do is we systematically look at the alternatives — great educational programs that you couldn’t create one hundred of — and we said, ‘Well why can’t you?’” explained Max. “We go down the list of why the existing alternatives don’t scale as well as the ideal and then we systematically design something that doesn’t have those aspects.”

Its not only important to think about how it might scale but also why it might scale now. Why is the world ready for your innovation right now and what will fuel that innovation?

Luckily, Max believes humanity is at a moment of exponential change and entrepreneurs are positioned to leverage the new fuels that are driving that change.

“I feel incredibly privileged, and the people in this room should feel very privileged, to exist at this time in history and to do the things we do.” says Max. “Digital technology is the fuel that will re-write all major industries,”

Max elaborated: “I think that we are at incredible moment in history where you’re seeing something similar to what happened in World War Two where you had this crucible of activity, global war, for a sustained period where millions and millions of people threw themselves at this problem. They created a whole new set of fuels that they then leveraged to literally reinvent the economic canvas.”

“There’s a new set of fuels right now — engineering, the cloud, mobile, large scale data mining, algorithms — and a war didn’t generate them but rather prolonged activity and investment around the Internet over the last couple decades. That has brought these new fuels to a point where we can take them and we can do absolutely amazing things with them.”

“It’s like I’m a painter, and it’s Florence, and it’s the 1750's.”

Does it get exponentially better with scale?

After challenging himself to think through how he can make seemingly unscalable things scalable, Max then forces himself to look at each aspect of his venture to see how he can design a system that gets exponentially better with scale.

“I think you need to be fairly intentional and force yourself to think through that lens,” says Max. For example, you can challenge yourself to look at everything through the lens of network effects, where a product gets more valuable to each person who uses it when more people use it. In other words, a way to make that product get exponentially better with scale. But you have to challenge yourself to see the potential of creating network effects where they’ve never been applied before.

“There may be many things that don’t, on the face of it, seem to have network effects associated with them.” says Max. “But if you force yourself to think through that lens of, ‘What would an approach be where if I increase the number of students, facilities, videos, vendors, etc. in our system then the end user experience gets exponentially better?”

“For example, facilities seems like something that doesn’t really have a network effect associated with it. But we forced ourselves to ask the question, ‘Why is the student experience better or cheaper if you have 100 buildings than if you only have 10 buildings?’ Let’s think about how we could make it better and cheaper. What if you were part of a school system and you always have the option to go to any new location that opened up? If I go from 10 facilities to 100 facilities, I’m going to decrease the average proximity to every individual family. That’s good.”

Does is get better over time at an accelerating rate?

Beyond forcing the lens of scale and getting exponentially better over time with scale, Max believes that you must build a venture that gets better over time at an accelerating rate.

“The job of the CEO is to maximize the long-term acceleration of the company,” says Max. “It’s not about distance traveled. It’s all about sustained acceleration.”

How do you build a company that sustains acceleration? Harness the power of evolution.

“In terms of accelerating improvement over time, the only thing I’ve found that does that is evolution,” reveals Max. “In situations of complexity and uncertainty, there is nothing more powerful than a Darwinian process, where changes get introduced and you have some mechanism to rate and select for quality.”

To build a company that drives continuous change, you need to “create a different start-up DNA,” says Max. You need to be asking yourself: How do I build evolution into the way that I run my company?

It starts with inverting the org chart. Instead of a top-down organization, build a bottom-up one.

At AltSchool, Max flips the traditional idea of the CEO role on its head. “It’s not me telling people what to do. It’s people telling me what they need from me.” As the CEO, says Max, “if you’re controlling every change you’re going to be a bottleneck on changes.” Evolution doesn’t take a top-down approach and neither should you. “In the world at large, we don’t have bodies that decide when some cultural change or some financial change is allowed or not allowed.” It just happens.

The CEO needs to build an organization that is like an evolutionary operating system that maximizes the quantity and impact of trials, minimizes the costs of failures, and is “savagely user-driven”.

As Max put is, “Process is king.” Not the CEO.

Think of every problem as two lines crossing.

One process that Max believes in deeply is the challenge of thinking of every venture as two lines crossing.

“Think of every problem as two lines crossing in the right amount of time.” says Max. “Not too quickly or it’s too easy. Not too long or you’ll run out of cash.”

For example, he used the idea of two lines crossing in his previous company, Aardvark, which enabled users to quickly get qualitative answers to questions that Google has such a hard time answering. His two lines were simple but powerful: human and machine.

The process Max and his team used to build Aardvark is by far the best example I have found of building a start-up through the Wizard of Oz prototyping technique. Quite simply, it’s an unscalable way of validating a need and a solution by pretending that the solution actually works. Instead of technology making a product or experience work, it’s actually a person behind that computer pretending that the technology really works. This way you can quickly learn if the need is real and then, if it is, learn what approach works the best to solve that need. When you start building the technology, you know you are building the right thing.

The key here, though, is that Max started with the first principle that the human line and the machine line need to intersect within 12 months. Start unscalable, but always with an eye towards making it scalable.

Design with change in mind.

What I realized at the end of Max’s talk, is that the challenge facing any start-up or existing institution is not to invent the next big thing. The real challenge is to build the organization with the culture and the processes that continually enables it to invent the next big thing.

That’s when I knew we weren’t totally off-track at Matter. We may currently be a boutique start-up accelerator but every day we focus on the right things — building an organization with a focus on the culture and processes that continually enable it to adapt to where the world is going and teaches our entrepreneurs and media partners to do the same. As I’ve said from the beginning, Matter is a prototype and always will be.

As for the issue of scale, I’m grateful for the challenge Max has thrown down. It has haunted me ever since he first asked those three questions. We’re prototyping some experiments, such as our seed investing initiative, to challenge us to build Matter into something that scales, gets exponentially better with scale, and gets better over time at an accelerating rate. (Do you have ideas on how to build a more scalable Matter? Feel free to leave comments on the side of this paragraph.)

The world moves fast and change is increasing at an exponential rate. There is no end state. The only constant is change.

“Change is good for us. The more change, the better we will do. AltSchool is a bet on change more than anything else.” says Max. “It’s is a bet on a process that delivers exponential improvement through network effects and through this kind of evolutionary process.”

The old adage, “start with the end in mind” is wrong. Instead, start with first principles and design with change in mind.

6 honest reflections on being an early-stage startup founder

This piece was originally published on my Known site at werd.io.

I previously co-founded Elgg and served as CTO at latakoo, but Known is the first time I’ve been a CEO. Candid reflections have always been important to me to learn from; maybe someone will find these useful, too. If not, then, well, my first point applies:

Writing is an important way to organize your thoughts.

In many ways, as a founder, your job is to be the company storyteller, the company cheerleader, and the person who will fix the sink if the plumbing breaks. There are so many strands that I’ve found writing — and in particular, blogging — to be a great way to order them into a coherent narrative. A lot of times, when I post here on my own site, I’m thinking things out in public. You’re all a part of my thought process. Congratulations?

This is one reason why I’m adamant that you should hire people who can write well. I don’t mean their spelling or punctuation, particularly; I’m talking about their ability to convey information. That also speaks to the kind of order they will bring to other tasks. It’s a core skill.

Related to this:

The elevator pitch is more important than I thought it would be.

We were part of the third class at Matter, an awesome values-based accelerator in downtown San Francisco. Throughout, we were encouraged to condense our story into a seven-minute pitch. The pitch itself wasn’t the thing; the process forced us to create a coherent story for our company, mostly for ourselves, which would itself inform our company’s decisions. Who would buy this? What was the concrete problem we were trying to solve?

It’s harder than you think to condense this into seven minutes. We live and breathe our startups — how can we cut and edit that down to a seven minute story? Help! we all thought to ourselves, while nibbling slack-jawed at our accelerator’s complementary snacks. We need more time!

If only we’d known.

Seven minutes is an acre of time. It’s a boundless ocean stretching out to the horizon, rippling gently beneath a benevolent sun. You can fit lifetimes in seven minutes. And in front of a captive demo day audience, to boot!

No no, my optimistic, accelerator-cheese-string-eating past self. You have got it very wrong. Try fifteen seconds.

“What is Known?”, someone will ask. Ignore the existential double meaning of the question, because you have about fifteen seconds to convince the person in front of you that your idea is compelling and different. If you succeed, they might ask you a follow-up question: something easy like “are you making money?” or “doesn’t WordPress do that?”. Be ready.

In fact, the existential double meaning does matter, because your answer, despite being tweet-sized, will depend on all the research and insights you’ve gathered, and everything you know. It’s likely to radically change over time as your understanding of your business improves. Your fifteen second description is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a tip that encapsulates everything below the waterline.

Arguing with investors is a clear indicator that you have work to do. On yourself.

This is something I’ve avoided, but I’ve seen other founders do this more times than I can count.

Here’s what happens. A startup founder takes a meeting or walks on-stage at a pitch event. They’ve brought a presentation that they’ve slaved over, had sleepless nights over, maybe even wept over in the darkness of their shared office space at 3am, and they are proud of it. It is, as far as they can tell through their sleepless haze, the perfect encapsulation of what they’ve worked on so tirelessly. It is beautiful. Were it journalism, it would surely win the Pulitzer.

And the investors tear it apart.

At least, to the entrepreneur, it feels like that. In reality, they’re asking important due diligence questions: trying to pick holes in the story, and figuring out, within the constraints of the space and time they have, whether this startup is a smart place to put their money. They most often want to help the entrepreneur, by asking them to strengthen their argument. But it flies directly in the face of the founder’s conviction, not to mention all of their single-minded hard work, and it hurts. So they misread the situation and become defensive. They might even get visibly angry. And that’s where it all falls down.

An early-stage investor is like a cofounder (or at least, they should be). They probably have a lot more experience with young companies than the founder does, and can offer pertinent advice based on things they’ve learned from other companies. Who would want to work with someone who gets angry when presented with that experience?

It’s okay to correct people, of course, but the right way to do it is with your facts, and all the great research you’ve done. Your faith means nada: all startup founders have faith that they’ll succeed. You’ve got to show investors that you have the skills, the knowledge and — ideally — an unfair advantage.

Take care of yourself.

Here’s what I have experienced personally: the crushing feeling of having your work swept out from under you by that investor experience. There’s a tight line to walk. Investors really do have a lot of experience, and really do want to help you. Most of the people I’ve met are driven by helping entrepreneurs, so the advice they give comes from a good place. But at the same time, you have to stay true to yourself, too: sometimes you do need to take a leap of faith to create something new. Whether anyone comes with you is all on you.

That’s hard. Running a startup comes with intense highs and lows, sometimes within the same 30 minute period. Often that 30 minute period will be late at night, or on a Sunday, or at 6am. By its nature, it’s incredibly unhealthy, both mentally and physically.

When you’re terrified about money, and worried about your own lack of sleep, and there’s a strange new pain somewhere in your body and you’re not sure when it started happening but it’s probably stress-related but maybe it’s something that will kill you, and people have started looking at you strangely on the street, it can be very hard to make stable, considered decisions. But that’s what you have to do. You have to be calm, and you can’t let criticism go to your heart.

Take time away from your startup. Go to the gym. Eat well (not string cheese). Consider drinking tea instead of coffee (you don’t need higher cortisol levels). Enjoy the countryside. Go for walks. Be with your friends. Do what makes you happy. Above all: remember that it’s a business, not your entire life, and any criticism or praise you receive is not a commentary on you as a person.

Those things will make you a better person, a better entrepreneur, and a better decision-maker.

And for god’s sake, stop eating the string cheese.

Don’t tilt at windmills.

Fail hella fast. Don’t spend years on something that isn’t going to succeed for you. You only get one life. If something isn’t working after you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time and effort on it, move onto something that does. Don’t get so emotionally invested that you can’t let go. (This applies not just to startups as a whole, but to features, target customers, user flows, logos … you name it. Repeat after me: this is business.)

A mantra that’s commonly (rightly) repeated for startup founders is, “you are not Steve Jobs”. In other words, you need to do user research and testing. You need to build prototypes to get feedback on, so you can make better decisions.

But, okay, time out. Here’s a quick question which should be easy to answer with no thought at all: what is success?

Does success mean building a unicorn or a dragon? (That’s startup-speak for a company worth at least $1bn, and a company that returns $1bn to a particular investor, respectively. Yes, I know it’s ridiculous. Have you been here?)

Does success mean building the dreaded lifestyle business? (That’s startup-speak for a company that allows its founders to live comfortably but will never be described in terms of mythical beasts.)

Does success mean making a positive impact on the world? (That’s startup-speak for “won’t get funded”. I kid — these kinds of startups can also make a lot of money, and Matter, as well as Better Ventures, Double Bottom Line and a few other social impact investment firms are orientated to this. I’m glad they exist.)

It’s actually really important that you know the answer to this. All of these approaches lead to different approaches and decisions, different ways of describing your company, and, frankly, different companies. If you have a cofounder (and you should), you should probably be on the same page on this. If one of you wants to build a unicorn filled with ninjas that morphs into a dragon, and one of you wants to build a lifestyle business with a focus on social impact, you will reach a point where it’s not going to be pretty. Founder breakups are like marriage breakups. You don’t want it to happen.

Above all else: know where the money is coming from.

A lot of people have been seduced by Twitter’s strategy. Here’s the in-a-nutshell version of what they did: they built a prototype in a couple of weeks, with the simplest possible features, and let it loose. Over time, the community created its own norms — things like replies, hashtags and retweets — and the company thought about those and figured out how to make them into features. For a few years they didn’t even think about money. They concentrated on growing the company, and to do that they paved the deer paths. Lovely!

What’s mentioned less often is that to make this happen, Ev Williams personally bought back the shares that had been invested in his company. That money had previously come from selling Blogger to Google. Unless you also have millions and millions of dollars, it is not a strategy that you can repeat. And even then, Twitter partially became successful through a series of smart decisions — putting screens up at SXSW, for example, which took money — and a series of accidents.

To “you are not Steve Jobs”, I would like to add: “you are not Ev Williams”.

The startup landscape has changed since the mid-2000s. It is expected that you will have built something with traction off your own back. Unless you’re a unicorn developer (which in this case doesn’t mean you’re worth $1bn, but means you can build quickly, can design well and are good at gathering user feedback; stay with me) you will need to bring in other people. That means you’re going to need to commit your own money, or be oozing with leadership charisma, or both.

Here’s an aside, if you aren’t a developer: you can’t find a technical cofounder. Technical people get asked to join startups on a very regular basis, and it’s become a bit of a running joke. Join a company that will eat your life and pay you very little money in exchange for a tiny amount of equity that amounts to a lottery ticket? “What a great deal!” said no-one, ever. If you want someone technical to join your team as a cofounder, you have to prove that you’re worth joining. Most of all, you have to prove that you’re not going to lean on them to make your whole product for you — and that means showing that you have skills to bring to the table. Show your research. Build wireframes. Maybe even learn to code a little. And demonstrate, however you can, that your technical cofounder will be an equal rather than — as I heard someone once describe their technical colleagues — “our back-room technicians”.

Once you have your working prototype — which, to reiterate, you’ve built with your own skills and/or money — you’re going to need to know where your runway is coming from. Are you going to try and make revenue immediately? Are you going to raise investment because you’re creating a consumer startup? Either way, you don’t have space to bimble along like Twitter did, finding itself along the way.

Are you going to grow with help from investment? Then make sure people will invest. Are you going to bootstrap through revenue? Then make sure people will actually pay.

There is never enough time. There is never enough money. Somehow, as a founder, you have to make both.

Bonus seventh: don’t trust pithy thought pieces on entrepreneurship.

Experience is important to learn from, but seriously. You’re your own person. You have your own experience, your own goals, your own creativity and your own special sauce that you’re going to bring to the table. There are few communities that are as much about peer pressure, community norms and cargo cultish received wisdom than tech entrepreneurship. Through all of this, you need to maintain your own strong personalty — and the strong personality of your venture.

Let me be clear: this is the best job I’ve ever had, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Go out into the world and succeed, whatever that means for you, however it makes sense for you. Make a dent in the universe.

And don’t eat the string cheese.

Now it’s your turn to Matter.

Last week was a big week at Matter.

On Monday, we reflected on our first two years. On Tuesday, we announced our four new media partners. On Wednesday, we revealed our new class. And on Thursday, we announced our first exit. On Friday we rested. Kind of. Not really. We did this:

Matter Four had their first Design Review on Thursday and here we are on Friday, as a class, deconstructing all the feedback each start-up got so they can decide what to implement and what to ignore as they begin their sprint towards the next Design Review on their way to Demo Day.

It’s a new week. And now it’s your opportunity to join us and carve your own Matter-Driven Narrative:

Applications for Matter Five are now open!

Yes, we just started Matter Four but we are already getting the ball rolling on selecting Matter Five. In the past, we’ve separated out running the program and running the application process. Not anymore. We believe that we need to design our process so that we can meet entrepreneurs where they are at, when they want to connect.

So, from now on, we will have a perpetually open application cycle. We’ll still start our programs at fixed times of the year, but you can apply at any time. And the sooner you apply, the sooner you’ll get feedback from us and establish a relationship to turn dots to lines.

The Process

Applications are now open. First, fill out this short survey right away and then submit a more detailed application via AngelList. Done!

From there we will review your application via one of two methods. My preferred method is to write the names of the applicants on post-its and see which ones my two daughters, Ella and Kaia, select to sing Frozen to. (They are both Elsa. Will you play the part of Anna?) But what we will more likely do is have a group of readers who represent Matter, our alumni, and our community to read and rate your application.

If your application piques our interest, we’ll invite you in for an initial 30 minute interview involving a 10-minute pitch and demo.

If we like what we see, things will start to get more serious. We’ll want to see how you go about building your business and test whether you can navigate the fog of entrepreneurship. We’ll give you a mini-project that lets you experience what it’s like to be in Matter by quickly testing the desirability, feasibility, and viability of your venture. You’ll complete the project and then share the results in a one-hour deep dive with our team.

If you make it past that gauntlet, we’ll ask for due diligence materials to prepare for a final investment decision and we’ll invite you to have a coveted slot at our Finalist Interview Week in May. (It’s 2 hours for you, a week for us.)

After that week, we’ll select six media start-ups to form Matter Five. If you are one of the “lucky” (aka “scrappy” aka “make your own luck’) teams, then you’ll do what it takes to prepare yourself to start the program in San Francisco in July. We’ll kick it off with our week-long Matter Boot Camp and Retreat and then start you on four one-month sprints that culminate in Demo Days in SF and NYC in November.

It’s a competitive process so you need to bring your A game. Last class had a 2.2% acceptance rate. But there is one thing we guarantee: If you fail, you will fail forward. We’ve intentionally designed this process so that each step accelerates your venture, regardless of the outcome.

The Program

At Matter, we provide intensive mentorship, space, and a $50K investment to help you build a scalable media venture through a human-centered, prototype-driven process rooted in design thinking. Our secret sauce is our culture of embracing fast experimentation and our community of entrepreneurs, media executives, and investors who help push our venture forward along the way.

We support you through a 20-week process that kicks off with a bootcamp and then consists of four one-month sprints to Demo Days in SF and NYC. At the end of each sprint is a Design Review that enables your team to get actionable feedback to implement in your next sprint. Each week you are supported through speaker series, mentor office hours, internal workshops, one-on-one coaching from the Matter team, and the intentional serendipity that occurs by working at the heart of a community of media innovators.

We encourage you to learn about Matter through the experiences of our current class and our alumni. Read the reflection that Jesse Shapins, the CEO of a start-up in our first class that just got acquired by Buzzfeed, wrote about what he learned while at Matter. And read founder Ben Werdmuller’s thoughts on his Matter journey as he travels to Demo Day NYC. Hear from our entrepreneurs and see the space in action by checking out our feature in TechCrunch’s series, Incubated. You can also follow the stories of our founders, team, mentors, and partners in our new Medium collection, A Matter-Driven Narrative.

Who are we looking for? In short: Multi-disciplinary teams building scalable media ventures ready to move to SF for this 5-month, intense, collaborative experience combining design thinking + entrepreneurship + media.

The Criteria

So, who are we looking for? In short: Multi-disciplinary teams building scalable media ventures ready to move to SF for this 5-month, intense, collaborative experience combining design thinking + entrepreneurship + media. We define media loosely and think of it more like “the connective tissue of society” rather than content. And we are great for both pre-seed and seed-stage ventures, and have investment structures that work for each.

First, we are looking for early-stage media ventures that are changing media for good. That means you are a venture that has the potential to make society more informed, connected, and empowered. We believe the future of media that matters is being created right now by entrepreneurs like you and it will be created through lots and lots of experiments. Matter creates a culture and community where those experiments can happen. Everything big, starts small.

You might be a standalone platform or you might serve existing media institutions. We support both. We’ve invested in companies covering the spectrum of media experiences — from reading, to listening, to watching, to interacting — and we are just as interested in new monetization models as we are in distribution and creation.

We are needs-focused and solution-agnostic. The verbs — to inform, to connect, and to empower — are what’s important. The resulting nouns — your solutions — should be unexpected. Surprise us.

Second, you are a pre-seed or seed stage venture with an early-stage, functioning product. We like teams who have a history of working together. Start-ups are a roller coaster and we want to have some assurance that your team won’t blow up for preventable human dynamics reasons like most other start-ups do. We believe the best teams have a unique combination of skill sets across business, technology, design, and storytelling. You’ve built an early stage functional prototype of your product or service. But, whether you realize it or not, we don’t expect it to be fully representative of what will come out the other side of Matter. You may not have raised any money yet or you may be in the process of closing $1.5M in seed funding. Our program and our investment structure can work well for both scenarios. Overall, we want to make sure that you have the skill sets to rapidly execute towards your vision and the mindsets to successfully navigate the fog of entrepreneurship.

Third, you are a venture. Not a project. Not a non-profit. Not a team at an existing institution. You are a start-up venture. You’re probably still figuring out your business model but you are very serious about eventually cracking it. What media needs more than anything else is business model innovation — and we’ve set up our constraints to help drive that innovation. You seek a path to greater long-term impact by pursuing a scalable strategy that will attract for-profit investment. You understand that you’ll have to eventually generate lots of revenue for other early stage investors to take a risk on you. You may not be a Delaware C-corp now, but you are on the path to becoming one because you know, for better or for worse, that’s the only language that investors know how to speak. We’ll make sure you are set-up structurally to be investable to future investors, before we close the deal with you. (But we’ll help you figure out how to get to there.) And if you want to form a Delaware Public Benefit Corporation, we support that structure as well. (And we encourage other investors who also support Benefit Corps to publicly declare it so that the investment path for a Benefit Corp is more clear.)

Fourth, you’ve got to be here. Do you have to be living in San Francisco right now? No, but you will need to move your team here by the start of the program. Acceleration happens through culture and community. Our community is grounded in our space located in the heart of a pretty innovative neighborhood. It’s up to you to figure out how to get here. If you have to battle immigration, figure out how to win. So far, we’ve had teams successfully make the leap from Israel, Hong Kong, Finland, Canada, Argentina, the UK, Ireland, Boston, New York, Chicago, Raleigh, San Diego, LA, and, of course, right here in the Bay Area. Just be the scrappy entrepreneurs that you are and you’ll figure it out. There’s a community waiting for you. Does this all sound hard? Sure it does. But you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t up for the challenge, right?

For even more information make sure you check out our application and FAQ pages at matter.vc.

Ready to change media for good?

Take the first step on your Matter-Driven Narrative now by filling out this short survey and then get started on your more detailed application on AngelList.

Good luck! Now it’s your turn to Matter.