You began your career as a journalist at PBS’s Frontline. You’ve called public media a mission-driven innovators’ playground, but you left because you felt that it had lost a lot of its entrepreneurial spirit. What happened?
My mentors, Michael Kirk and David Fanning, founded Frontline back in 1983. There was this opportunity at that moment to create new programming, to serve an audience in a way that they weren’t being served by commercial outlets.
Right now Frontline looks pristine and almost perfect, but it was actually a mess when they launched it. Their first film almost got them pulled off the air because there were so many errors in it.
Today we look at Frontline as this revered institution that’s been around forever and we forget that there needs to be a place where innovators have a chance to create what might become an institution in the future.
It’s not because I don’t believe in non-profit approaches. There are a number of reasons, but it comes down to a mantra in design: Constraints drive innovation.
The constraints that you choose will affect your outcome. So if you think about the media industry, one of the biggest challenges is business model innovation. How is great media going to be paid for in the future?
One of the biggest challenges is business model innovation. How is great media going to be paid for in the future?
What we wanted to do was place strong viability constraints on ourselves as well as on our companies to take that question really seriously. We gave back grant money and told our backers to invest in us instead, because we thought those constraints would help drive our entrepreneurs to answer the really tough questions.
You’re a big proponent of “design thinking” [PDF]. How does it play into the way you approach storytelling and entrepreneurship?
Design is a process for coming up with something new, making something better that is viable, feasible, and desirable. It’s something that most importantly, meets a real human need – not just an assumed one, and is also a way to figure out whether you can actually create a solution for that need.
At the heart of it, design thinking is a process to guide you through the non-linear journey that it takes to discover that.
It’s also about being prototype driven. It’s embracing imperfection, which in my experience with older institutions of media, is where they’re lacking the most.
And I’ve seen it be effective. Jane Chen and her team from Embrace Global used design thinking to build a social entrepreneurship venture that has won every single award you can think of and it all started with a design thinking approach.
Akshay Kothari built Pulse from scratch using the design thinking process to discover faults and then turned it into a company that was acquired by LinkedIn for $120 million. It’s really powerful. You can apply design thinking to almost anything.
The aim of Matter isn’t just to create scalable and disruptive media products, it’s also as you have said, about building complimentary teams. Why are teams so important to you?
At the end of the day, startups are a human experience. They might be the rawest human experience there is. People are putting their hopes and dreams on the line.
When we select our teams, it’s 90 percent the people, and ten percent the product or what they’ve built so far.
Ultimately the question is: If you’re backing someone in a mission-driven way, and you know that what they’re working on is going to change over time, how do you know that it’s going to ultimately fulfill the mission if you don’t know exactly what the final product is going to look like? What it comes down to are the people who you’re betting on.
Marc Andreeson wrote this year that he’s excited about the business potential of news. You’ve spent the last several years helping people build business models in the media space. Do you agree?
I do agree. There’s a huge opportunity right now to create the future institutions of media.
I hope a lot of brands that I admire can find a way to strengthen and reinvent themselves for the future, but I don’t think we should bank on that. The biggest challenge in media institutions is cultural, it’s really hard to experiment and it attracts the innovator’s dilemma.
There are a lot of things that are helping keep the ship afloat right now that clearly aren’t going to be a part of the future, but which distracts institutional media brands from making the bold moves. Certain media organizations can get kind of myopic.
I love them to death, and I hope they can survive, but at the end of the day, I’m betting on entrepreneurs to play a greater role in the future.
Applications are now open for Matter Four. What are you thinking about as you gear up for the new cohort?
Matter is quite young. We opened up our doors to our first entrepreneurs just a little over a year and a half ago, but we are at this point where the flywheel of our ecosystem is really starting to spin.
Every week we have media executives from around the world knocking on our door on a Silicon Valley tour and trying to figure out how they can take some of this soil and plant it back home.
We’re not only focusing on Matter Four but also thinking about how we might expand our ecosystem. We’re figuring out how to react to that incoming demand, and it’s exciting.