Today, I’d like to introduce you to our new collection on Medium called A Matter-Driven Narrative and kick it off by reflecting on the first two years of Matter.
It’s a play on “character-driven narrative,” the storytelling device that enables us as humans to take complex, abstract issues and turn them into simple, sticky stories. We use character-driven narrative all the time at Matter to help our entrepreneurs make sense of the multi-variate challenge of launching a venture. Fortunately, they have the advantage of leveraging a human-centered process that naturally generates a character-driven narrative.
A Matter-Driven Narrative will be the spot where the Matter community will gather to tell stories on their journey to building the future of media. You’ll hear from the current class, our alumni, our mentors, our partners, the Matter team, and me. Follow the collection here.
I’m excited to begin writing in public. I’ll take a prototype-driven approach to this and won’t be afraid to ship imperfection. My intention is to open up the Matter experience to a wider community so that we can scale our impact beyond our four walls. I also want to expose you to the incredible members of our community who are building tribes that I think you’ll want to join.
To kick-off this collection, let’s reflect on where we’ve come over the last two years.
When we launched Matter two years ago, all we had was a vision, keys to our “garage” in SF’s South Park neighborhood, and a hypothesis that we could catalyze a culture and community that would change media for good by mixing design thinking process, early stage entrepreneurship, and the future of media.
I was driven by a quote that Clay Shirky wrote in a blog post back in 2009 when the bottom was falling out of the journalism industry. He wrote, “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.”
“Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.”
Matter would be the place where those experiments could happen — not only for the journalism industry, but for entrepreneurs taking unexpected, disruptive approaches to building a more informed, connected, and empowered society.
We’d seen other vertically focused accelerators be built underneath the roof of a corporate parent and trap themselves from the beginning in the culture, decision criteria, and Innovator’s Dilemma of that company. We wanted to do it differently. We would be independent, 100% about the entrepreneur, and allow the needs and opportunities of society — not the needs of legacy institutions — dictate what should be built. And we could be the nexus for all mission-aligned media innovators and companies, not just one.
Everything we did would come down to culture and community — a culture that embraces being human-centered, prototype-driven, and failing forward and a strong community that supports our entrepreneurs along the journey that I call “the drunken walk of the entrepreneur.”
We didn’t know if it would work. And we knew there were lots of reasons why it might not. But as I stood on the precipice of launch, I remembered a quote that legendary Stanford business school lecturer Irv Groesbeck had written on the whiteboard when I first entered his entrepreneurship class.
“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, providence moves too,” it said, quoting The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would have come his way… Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
So, like any good entrepreneur, we committed, made the leap of faith, launched Matter, and allowed providence to move. Or, as I like to say, we began to create “Intentional Serendipity.”
Like any good design thinker, we decided not to make one big bet but rather many little ones. Instead of trying to raise a huge VC fund just on a concept, we decided to do what we teach our entrepreneurs to do — to prototype it! We’d raise enough funding to get Matter off the ground and test three class cycles over two years, learning and iterating as we went. From there, we would gather our learnings and decide to continue it, expand it, or kill it. Until then, our job was to build, learn, and iterate.
Our boldness attracted our first supporters. PRX, Knight Foundation, and KQED decided to make a bet on us. Like any good early-stage investor, these founding media partners believed in the vision, gave us the autonomy to experiment our way towards it, and took the leap of faith with us.
It paid off — both for our entrepreneurs and our media partners.
Our Entrepreneurs: Succeeding and Failing Forward
Over the last two years, we have invested in and supported 19 companies and 51 entrepreneurs over 3 cohorts who have accelerated their ventures (and, most importantly, themselves as innovators) over the course of our unique 5-month program. Since we launched, a strong community of mentors has organically grown to support our entrepreneurs with the feedback, connections, and wisdom they have shared through 196 mentoring sessions to date.
As expected, some of our start-ups have succeeded, some have failed, and most are still in the early stages of the drunken walk.
This week, we’ll have a big announcement coming up about one of our companies. While I can’t share any more details right now, I can say that it feels like a big validation for the Matter process and the intense training we give our entrepreneurs. We’ll soon reveal more here at A Matter-Driven Narrative.
While some of our companies are thriving, some have not done as well. But that is the nature of this high-risk, high-reward, power-law driven business, where all it takes is one hit to succeed. It also misses the bigger point that while their business venture may have failed; it does not mean that the humans behind it have.
We wholeheartedly embrace the mindset of “failing forward” here at Matter. To “fail” is to try, not succeed, AND not learn from the experience. To “fail forward” is to bet the world is going one way, give it your best shot, and then the world ends up going the other way. But in the process you have intentionally deepened your learning in that space and you are ready to apply that learning going forward.
Regardless of their outcome, I hear one consistent message back from our entrepreneurs: The Matter experience has been one of the most intense and most impactful learning experiences of their professional lives and they are better positioned to be a successful innovator, whether in this venture or the next, because of it. I’m just as proud of those human outcomes as I am about the financial ones.
As our companies continue to build and grow their ventures I’ll invite them to share moments in the journey here in this Medium collection. They are all building and leading their own tribes and I encourage you to join them. They are just at the beginning of the impact they will make.
Our Media Partners: Outside Innovation
By creating the world’s first independent start-up accelerator focused on media, we not only built a place where early stage media entrepreneurs could thrive together. We also created a culture, process, and strong point of view on experimentation that changed our media partners much more than we ever could have done if we tried to do it directly. We were able to be their “Outside Innovation” strategy.
KQED is a case in point. They became a Matter media partner so that they could disrupt themselves. Through our soft influence, they have begun to do just that. We open our doors to our partners and allow them to be influenced by the process we take our entrepreneurs through. This video shows in their own words how powerful the experience has been for KQED.
“How do you teach an organization to experiment, to fail fast?” reflects Mark Perry, KQED’s Board Chair and a retired partner at New Enterprise Associates. “Watching six companies try new things, realize quickly what’s working and what’s not is very educational and, frankly, inspirational to the people in our organization and helps them realize that they can bring that kind of experimenting culture within KQED.”
“How do you teach an organization to experiment, to fail fast?”
We took about 50 employees from across KQED through a boot camp that taught them the same process our entrepreneurs use. KQED then asked us to bring the Matter process to the Board level, where we helped them re-think their audience as they developed their 3-year strategic plan.
While cultural impact is hard to measure, Matter’s “soft” influence has led to some “hard” outcomes for KQED, including revamping the process with which they create, launch, and grow new properties. This new process, based on the same process we teach our entrepreneurs, was most recently used on the expansion and relaunch of KQED’s The Do List.
So, if we can do it for San Francisco-based KQED, can we do it for other media organizations located around the world?
We are about to find out. Follow A Matter-Driven Narrative as we reveal where we go from here…