Across three years and 49 startups, Matter, its teams, mentors, and partners have worked to “change media for good”. Like the rest of the team, it’s why I joined. It’s what we’re passionate about. It’s what gets us out of bed. It makes us feel like this is the best possible place for us to be.
I also found it surprisingly slippery and vague — “change media for good”. Which is why, as we launch our second office and our sixth, biggest cohort (double what we’ve done at any one time before!), I wanted to take the opportunity to explore what our mission means to us and how it actually shows up in the companies we back.
There is another world. There is a better world.
Back when Corey and our founding partners were setting up Matter in the first place, they articulated a mission that still guides our every decision. Through our community, our accelerator and our investments, we’re trying to build a more informed, connected, and empowered society.
Seeking to deepen my understanding of what our mission looks like through our everyday activities, I decided to take a look back at our portfolio to understand the ambitions of the teams we have supported over the years — how they sought to change media for good. More than that, I wanted to use this as a way to internalize that mission in a way that could guide my own decision-making as we grow and look to the future. It’s navel-gazing in service of clarifying my own vision.
Like any design strategist with too many post-it notes and not enough understanding, I started looking for patterns from the ground up. Fifty-seven goals to change media for good clustered together to become 14 need areas became seven principles that show up in our portfolio.
And, because I’m incapable of leaving well-enough alone, I decided to try to map those seven principles to the existing mission. If it worked, we had a clear link between our founding mission and the traits and values of the organizations in which we invest. Thanks to magic (and a lot of time scribbling in notebooks and sharing it with others), it worked, and I’m excited to share the connection.
One minor caveat: I’m listing some of the companies in our portfolio as a way to better illustrate the values, not to fully define each company. I overwhelmingly found that each set of founders we’ve backed demonstrates two, three, or even more of the values. It’s part of what makes them special. Without further ado, here’s what it looks like to make society more…
Informed: Significant and Relevant
Freedom of the press, enabling a more informed and presumably more just society, is at the very heart of American society. There is good reason it holds a critical part of the first amendment to the constitution. The incentives of the present era (clicks and first to publish) don’t always reward or elevate the very best or most important content, subjects, creators, or publications. That’s OK. We do. In our portfolio, a more informed society shows up in two ways:
The first is to support companies that elevate, articulate, and promote significant stories and issues at a time when sensationalism, buzz, and SEO tend to attract attention. This shows up in News Deeply, creating sites that provide comprehensive coverage and community around individual topics shaping our world, from Syria to the Arctic. It’s in the DNA at Louder, the crowd-driven cause platform recently acquired by Change.org. And it shows up in Parlio, building thoughtful conversation around the most challenging and critical issues of the era.
Secondly, we get excited by companies that help support the creation and consumption of the most relevant and excellent media being made today. Nuzzel and This help find the best of what’s being shared on the web. NewsWhip helps organizations to discover and cover the most interesting news of the moment. Contextly helps readers to find the next thing they want to read in a single publication.
Connected: Inherently inclusive and community-creating
One of the many exciting things about the world’s media are their ability to bring people together around ideas, values, and stories. Of the many things that make us human, our fascination and joy in art and storytelling — and in the other people who love what we do — is almost certainly the most fun. There are two primary ways we seek to enable a more connected society, though we’re always on the lookout for more:
For too long, the creators, publishers, and audiences for news and entertainment have reflected too narrow a band of society. Consequently, the future of media is inherently inclusive. We look for great companies that reflect the diversity of society and amplify the voices of the quiet. It’s in Motherly, creating remarkable content for millennial moms by millennial moms. It shows up in Mingyian, providing Chinese fans an opportunity to connect with and shape the creative future of global celebrities. And it’s in Verbatm, providing individuals often left out of our discourse with the opportunity to tell their own stories in the actual places where the news is happening.
There are no effects that magnify a platform’s impact, power, or value like network effects. Tools whose value to their users increases as others adopt it tend to grow rapidly and stick around for the long haul. And those that are community-creating tend to realize the deepest and most profound network effects. We see this tendency in The History Project, enabling families, friends, and organizations to create rich time capsules of their shared experiences. It’s in GoPop, acquired by Buzzfeed, enabling playful storytelling and communication through visuals. We see it in Personal Heroes, celebrating the everyday people who make life better for us all. And it can look like Redivis, building a community of researchers and storytellers with a shared passion for data visualization and insight.
Empowered: Human-Centered and Self-Sustaining
Empowerment is ultimately about offering individuals, groups, and organizations choices and capabilities to determine their own futures, represent their interests, and exert influence within and beyond their immediate spheres. At Matter, empowerment tends to show up in two primary ways:
We seek organizations that are human-centered. They orient their offering to put their audiences, users, and customers in control. Being human-centered can look like harnessing the power of the social graph to curate the very best of the Internet, as Nuzzel and This do. It can look like Hearken, relying on the audience to shape what and how stories get covered. It’s in Huzza, allowing independent music artists (and even politicians) to connect and collaborate with their audiences in real time. It’s found at ChannelMeter, providing rich video analytics for publishers and marketers to understand their audiences more closely. It looks like Known, enabling educators and individuals to own, publish, track, and control their many content streams in a unified platform. And it can look like Metta VR, providing individual VR and 360 video creators with a distribution and discovery platform.
We also look for organizations that make media more self-sustaining. As you might have noticed, conventional business models in media aren’t running as smoothly as they once did. Advertising dollars continue to shift. Circulation and viewership is down. So we seek companies that offer new capabilities and revenue to news organizations and individuals alike to help media creation remain and expand as a profession. This looks like SpokenLayer, bringing audio editions and associated revenue streams to text-based media organizations. Eureka King helps publishers to increase the lifetime value of their readers through optimally targeted prompts across the web. This value resides in the Creative Action Network, helping artists get discovered and get paid while helping important causes get attention, revenue, and access to amazing artists. And it’s exemplified by Stringr, connecting a global network of freelance videographers to news organizations globally that want to hire them for real-time news-gathering.
Looking back to look forward.
Revisiting our portfolio and connecting our choices to our mission was an inherently self-referential process. I know that. But it was done so in service of looking back out at the world, understanding the impact we have had, the impact we want to have going forward, and to help me and the rest of the team to recognize the amazing startups who can realize that impact when we come across them.
But there’s one more thing. It’s something that tends to go without saying in Silicon Valley but can be a surprise when applied to media. Every company we invest in is groundbreaking. In addition to having great ideas, they push the edges of the possible through great technology and design. They explore and create new forms and combinations of storytelling and media. We don’t back great startups by the standards of the media industry. We fund great startups. Period.
If you are a founder of a startup built on these values — or know of one — we want to hear from you as we build Matter Six, the biggest and best cohort of media entrepreneurs ever. Our society needs to get a lot more informed, empowered, and connected. We’re counting on you.