issue # 36
a special issue - reflecting on one year of building startupy
Happy Saturday, my delightful email friends.
Somehow, it’s been almost a year since I decided to jump into startupy full-time, and six months since we launched our beta. This is a rare-ish issue where I share reflections on the past year of building startupy.
Thank you to all 25,000 of you for coming along on this ride. Startupy would not exist without you, and I am so appreciative for every response, email, curation, connection, thoughtful observation, and word of encouragement.
We (our team) is taking the next week off to spend time with our families and recharge. See you in your inbox 1/8.
Six months ago, we launched startupy with an experiment we called Season Zero. The product was/is still janky, but we shipped it anyway. We wanted to test whether this radical idea – a community-curated knowledge graph – could actually work.
If you’re new to startupy, our mission is to build a more human and nourishing Internet. We’re building a platform where curious humans come together to curate and interconnect the best knowledge humanity has on offer, and we’re building it because our search engines and social networks are letting us down. The right idea, or the right combination of ideas, can change the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. But our modern Internet increasingly drowns out the signal, leaving us with a firehose of noise.
Which brings us back to our Season Zero experiment. The TL;DR is, it worked. We struck a chord with fellow frustrated citizens of the Internet, and got enough traction to validate our hypothesis. Here are some highlights:
We hand-selected and onboarded 250 founding curators – an eclectic cabal of wholesome, creative, intellectuals.
Our community collectively curated more than 10,000 unique pieces of content and added over 88,000 connections between them.
Over 25,000 people accessed the startupy knowledge graph.
And most importantly, we built an incredible team.
In addition to the surface level wins, we also had many of our initial assumptions challenged. We came away energized and confident in our vision, but thoroughly humbled by how much work we have ahead of us to properly execute on it.
We also came away knowing that we don’t want to build a typical startup, meant to sell or exit within a matter of years. Instead, we’re doubling down on building a new kind of institution, meant to enrich our digital landscape for decades to come.
With that in mind, I want to share the lessons we’ve learned so far, and how we’re weaving these learnings into the next big chapter of startupy, coming in 2023.
First things first, names matter, and ours is holding us back.
Our early vision was to curate and interconnect the world’s best startup knowledge. Hence the name startupy. But in the years since, our ambitions have expanded. Startupy is no longer about startups, but about the full scope of human knowledge. We want to dramatically improve how the Internet intermediates our relationship to ideas.
Throughout Season Zero, as we got our product in front of people outside of our immediate circles, it became clear that the name is holding us back. Our curators often ask, “does this type of content belong on startupy?”, and potential customers ask, “will I get value out of this even if I’m not in the startup world?”. Even for people bought into the big idea, our name causes friction.
At first, we toyed around with various ways to salvage the original name. But we came to realize that path would forever be an uphill battle. Too many people have instinctive, emotionally-charged reactions to the concept of startups, and combatting that dynamic would suck time and energy away from building something great.
The good news is, we’ve landed on a beautiful new name and are excited to share it soon.
Strategy is simple. Execution is complicated.
It’s easy to explain what we’re building and why it matters. It’s also easy to break down our strategy:
Build a way for people to curate the things on the Internet they love.
Enable people to connect those things in interesting ways.
Help people rediscover, search, and explore their own and other’s curations.
Turn more people into curators.
But each of the bullet points breaks down into dozens of product and UX decisions, and each decision comes with a surprising amount of nuance and complexity.
If you're interested in the nitty gritty details, believer members get access to the startupy files, where you’ll find a trail of documents that reveal how we’re thinking about the next chapter of our product.
The real lesson here is that we’re no longer in the business of building an MVP. We’re striving for maximum fucking love.
Playing soulful long-games brings us joy, and creates a competitive advantage.
In startup culture, it’s hard to escape the story that growth right now = success. And trust me, there’s a lot we could be doing to make our numbers go up; we could be running giveaways, chasing newsletter sponsors, writing viral tweet threads, shipping half-baked features so that we can launch on Product Hunt, etc...
But for us, this way of operating feels antithetical to the future we’re trying to create. We’re striving for a calmer, more human Internet – one that’s less demanding on our attention, yet richer with connection and insight.
All of which is to say, we believe that slowing down, truly engaging with the complexity of this problem set, and slogging through the messy middle will lead somewhere more magical.
It’s important to note that we’re able to run our business this way because of the early capital we raised, and our choice to stay lean and pursue financial sustainability over rapid growth. We currently have over three years of runway, and plan to optimize for sustainability so that we can continue building for decades to come.
A token is no substitute for a great product, culture, and community.
When we shifted startupy from a personal database to a multiplayer experience, the biggest question on our minds was, “how can we incentivize people to contribute to a shared knowledge graph?”. At the time, web3 hype was taking off, with lots of promising rhetoric around users becoming owners of the platforms they contributed to. It sounded perfect, at least in theory.
But it never felt right to rush into the web3 space. Instead, my friend Joey Debruin and I started a podcast called Tokens, but How. We interviewed some of the smartest minds in crypto to learn whether tokenization and blockchains could effectively align incentives around the creation of a shared knowledge graph.
Ultimately, I came to the realization that we had the wrong mental model for the product. Instead of a shared database you contribute to, startupy is first and foremost for you. It’s a tool that helps you collect the pieces of the Internet that matter to you, and then connect the dots between them in novel ways. But unlike all of the other personal knowledge management tools and platforms, our superpower is the collective graph. It’s like building your own personal library, which happens to be plugged into a global network of other smart, curious librarians who augment your ideas. You get the focus and utility of a productivity tool, with the aliveness and connectivity of a social product.
Once we landed on this insight, it became clear we didn’t need a token at all, we just needed a great product and a strong base of early believers. We’re still energized by the prospect of community ownership. But how and when we explore that path remains an open question.
We're part of a larger movement to restore humanity to the Internet.
Mike Caulfield wrote: “The predominant form of the social web — that amalgam of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Reddit, Instagram — is an impoverished model for learning and research and that our survival as a species depends on us getting past the sweet, salty fat of “the web as conversation” and on to something more timeless, integrative, iterative, something less personal and less self-assertive, something more solitary yet more connected”.
The Internet as we know it today reliably brings out the worst in us. Our platforms incentivize the shallow and new, and our algorithms amplify outrage and despair. The result is an information landscape that keeps us fearful, hopeless, and disconnected.
But we've also experienced, in brief flashes, a more beautiful and nurturing Internet. We've stumbled into communities that have enriched our lives. We've used tools and tech infused with spirit and soul. We've found oases amidst the barren digital desert. We know, deep in our bones, that a more beautiful Internet is possible, and that the seeds of it have already been planted.
Over the last year, we've met many like-minded builders, investors, and creators, all of whom are chipping away at this larger puzzle of revitalizing our digital landscape. None of us sees the full picture yet, or has the entire solution. But we all feel this deep intuition that the Internet of the future can bring out the best of us instead of the worst. And we're all working, in our own way, to bring it to life.
Like the folks at the Browser Company, we believe that optimizing for feelings is a key part of this puzzle. We're building something that's not only useful, but that helps us relate to ideas, people, and technology in new ways. We're trying to weave a series of emotional shifts into the fabric of this product.
How can we build an interface that reliably makes us feel how we want to feel? This question is our north star, and we believe that if we keep chipping away at this question, not only will we build a magical product, but we'll play an important role in this larger movement to revitalize the Internet and help humanity flourish.
If the ideas above resonate with you, you’re invited to come grow this new world with us. Believers get an early look inside our brand new interface, coming in 2023.
Until our next dispatch, I just want to end with a thank you – to all our members, season zero curators, believers, and investors – for giving us the motivation to crank away at this work. It gives us a deep sense of fulfillment.
Sari and the startupy crew