Startups and “The Future of Informing”: Q&A with Matter’s Corey Ford

Startups and “The Future of Informing”: Q&A with Matter’s Corey Ford

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ventures, and who take the idea of a sustainable, viable business model quite seriously. We don’t like to frame what we are looking for in the nouns of the past, but in the verbs of the mission of what they are trying to accomplish, so they can look like something completely different from what we ever expected. To inform, to engage, to empower are the verbs we wrap everything around.

A newspaper might inform, but we are not framing this around the future of the newspaper. We are framing it around the future of informing.

X: Typically, though, the companies that have gone through Matter so far aren’t media operations that are doing the actual informing. They’re mostly providing technologies to support that. Is that fair to say?

CF: In terms of the companies coming in, you could break them down into two categories: B2B and B2C. There are companies that very clearly have media institutions, content creators, et cetera as their end user, and their job is to support them. ChannelMeter and Beatroot are examples of that. Then you have ones that are more standalone platforms of the future. They may or may not need or care about existing media institutions. Zeega is an example of that, even though NPR used them.

And so we have these clear buckets. Part of our strategy is that we actually think this ecosystem should support both. There should be companies where a KQED can say, ‘Hey, that is something that can help me solve a problem.’ Media companies can meet innovators here and work together with them. Hopefully the entrepreneur gets distribution and a large customer, and hopefully the media company gets a great product and an amazing team working on a problem that needs solving.

But fundamentally we also need a category where people are truly working outside of the innovator’s dilemma. That means not having media companies as their customers. Having that element services a fundamental purpose of our original mission, which is enabling other media institutions to have an outside innovation strategy through Matter. This is a place where people can experiment without the traditional boundaries of the point of view of an institution, and through this community they can get exposed to that.

The relationship with KQED has been great. The cross-pollination that happens between the KQED leadership, their employees, and their board and the Matter culture and experience and process has been tremendous. We have an open-door policy with the station. Last night, at our “design review zero,” we had probably 20 people from KQED in the room. I led 50 KQED employees through a one-day Matter boot camp so they could really experience that. KQED held a board retreat here, and I facilitated that. And we have had KQED employees be inspired enough by what we do to apply to Matter.

X: Technology has been a hugely disruptive, some would say destructive, force in the media business over the last 20 years. I can imagine some people who work at traditional media companies like newspapers looking at the Matter portfolio and saying: ‘Oh, great, even more Silicon Valley startups out to destroy our business.’ Do you ever run into that attitude?

CF: We’re investing in people above all else. It’s easy to say you are investing in Company X that does Y, but that is just the surface. It’s the people behind it who are truly important; even if all of the startups fail, the experience will propel them to be leaders in the space in the future.

But we cannot be afraid. This is a place where disruption can happen. If anybody here builds something that a media institution that we love is afraid of, or that threatens to destroy their business, we will be the wind at the entrepreneur’s back. We have to. If we don’t, then it’s not a truly innovative place.

Do we want to [destroy old media]? Is that our goal? No, it’s to create a win-win relationship between entrepreneurs who are unburdened by that point of view and institutions that we care about. But you can’t help existing institutions by starting in a place of fear and protection.

It’s more likely that something is going to come out of here that helps newspapers than hurts them. And in the event that something comes out that does hurt newspapers, well, there’s a likelihood that [the entrepreneurs at Matter] are creating something new, and when that old ship sinks, there is a new raft they can get on. Just because an institution dies doesn’t mean the people within die.

X: What’s your favorite example of a Matter portfolio company that does these things: forging a new path while also benefiting existing media institutions?

CF: They are all my favorites. But SpokenLayer is a good example. Will Mayo is the founder and he’s dyslexic. He grew up “reading” the New York Times and magazines and getting all this great informative content via his dad reading into audiocassette tapes. Through that very specific pain point, he came up with a vision for building a spoken layer across the Internet. When great information is trapped in text, it can be liberated through audio, not just to serve people who can’t see the text, but also to enable publications to form deeper relationships with their audiences.

X: How did being part of Matter help Will Mayo?

CF: On a number of levels. First, and this is true for everyone, he became a better, more efficient innovator, by learning how to validate with users, test prototypes, and kill things that weren’t working. I also think he grew tremendously as a leader. He established relationships with a number of media brands that he is now doing deals with. He also discovered a fundamentally great strategy. He changed his strategy during the session, by about 90 degrees, to position himself in a really interesting slot between content creators, voiceover artists, and distributors of content. Where at first he was just a service model for magazines, now he is in this very interesting spot to make the vision a reality. They can actually become the central marketplace, the plumbing that actually does liberate text into audio and either brings in new readers or listeners or deepens the relationship, in a way that people who are worried about sinking ships can connect with.

X: Most accelerators these days teach companies the basic lean startup techniques, such as how to iterate rapidly and listen to customers. What would you say are the specific, unique advantages that Matter can provide to media startups? Is it about connections to a network of partners and investors in the media world?

CF: I want to push back on that point you just made. I don’t think all accelerators achieve that. We have a really high-touch experience that does that deeply. Our experiential learning is super, super deep. I would not concede that you get that just anywhere, to be blunt.

But second, you are also surrounded by media entrepreneurs, loosely defined—these other teams with interesting skill sets. There is magic in that. Most of the design work on SpokenLayer, for example, is being done by people from other teams within Matter. So the connections there are important. Also, lots of the investor relationships that get developed for people who are interested in media get developed because these entrepreneurs are part of Matter. So it all comes together.

Ultimately, this is what I am driven by. The fundamental human transformation that goes on here is the true thing that is going to last. Matter lasts beyond demo day in the people who we have produced.

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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