Event Recap: Matter 5 Demo Day
At 9 in the morning on December 9, a line of venture capitalists, journalists, and the talking heads of the tech world stretched down a long block in SoMa from the door of Folsom Foundry. Some investors could be heard grumbling about both the line and the early hour, but although it was drizzling lightly, nobody appeared likely to leave.
Those queued were awaiting entrance to the Matter 5 Demo Day, the semiannual presentation of projects from what is now the 5th cohort of startups to graduate “the world’s only independent accelerator focused on media,” as Managing Partner Corey Ford referred to the program in his introduction.
As one might expect from an incubator focused on media and run by a former Frontline producer, the Demo Day was exquisitely carried off. Folsom Street Foundry’s rustic-industrial space has high, raftered ceilings, under which stretched three large screens over a shiny hardwood platform. The large space was full of fit, well-groomed young professionals sporting badges with the names of investment funds and research firms. They watched attentively through the hour-long program, as first Ford and then presenters from each of the six startups in the Matter 5 cohort spoke. Presenters wore headset microphones and stood under towering projections of their ideas, spotlight shining upon them in the dark room. The whole performance was so well-rehearsed and seamlessly produced that even when the headset failed to register a signal at the beginning of Metta VR’s presentation, the process of grabbing the hand mic seemed almost pre-planned.
Showmanship aside, Matter is a rare bird in the world of incubators. Their topical focus, tiny cohorts, and highly structured program mean that their graduates come out fully indoctrinated in their brand of design thinking, and remain close to the community long afterward. But taking a white-glove approach to startup education doesn’t guarantee success. With only six startups in each cohort, Matter certainly isn’t taking the “lots of little bets” approach that characterises programs like YCombinator and 500 Startups. If 9 out of 10 startups fail (a questionable statistic anyway), Ford & Co. are certainly taking a risky bet.
But even with such a tiny sample set, a few themes emerged over the course of the morning. The first was evident in the printed program: of the six startups included in the single-page overview, three specified that their product is targeting some variety of “millenials”. While I have to say that the best thing about hitting my thirties is that media dollars are finally being spent in large numbers to try and attract my attention, my generation still makes up only about 20% of the audience.
One of the issues with targeting “Millennials” is that it’s often not clear what the difference is between meaningfully optimizing for the distinct needs of a younger generation and simply slapping the latest Bootstrap template onto old content and calling it a redesign. While I agree that new refinements in information design are making knowledge easier to come by for my generation than ever before, I wonder why the founders of Mother.ly decided to apply these gains to the most heteronormative content platform I’ve seen in a long time. I’d argue that if there’s something outside of a comfort with technology that sets the Millennial generation apart from its predecessors, it’s an understanding of the domestic sphere and of personal identity that is no longer wedded to biological sex or the traditional social roles ascribed to the genders.
While Matter’s foray into subscription content platforms perplexes, another portfolio company has good reason to foreground its generational targeting. Verbatm is a mobile-first blogging platform that actually makes mobile-first make sense. CEO Iain Usiri presented their vision of a mobile storytelling community that embraces longform with a short attention span, allowing authors to contribute images, video, text, and other media to a gradually-unfolding “story” over time, and making it easy for readers who stumble upon content to locate the installments that preceded it in series. On Verbatm, readers follow stories rather than authors, which makes it easy for multi-faceted individuals to tell all of their stories without alienating those segments of their audience that signed up for something else. Verbatm launches in January, and this voraciously reading and professionally writing Millennial is excited to see where it will go.
My other favorite pitch came from Huzza, a self-proclaimed “Twitch for Music.” Where Twitch has proven how successful livestreaming can be, according to CEO Justin Womersley, the gaming-dominated platform doesn’t provide a comfortable space for musicians. That’s where Huzza comes in. Womersley says that early users on the music-optimized Huzza platform have been seeing audiences ten times the size of their audiences on Periscope, and earning revenues greater than they earn from live gigs by connecting their Shopify stores to their livestreams and enabling the audience to purchase from them while they listen. In a world where live performances have replaced declining album sales, Womersley and his co-founder Nick Smit point to the success of Patreon and Snapchat to argue that authentic experiences are the meat of what audiences are willing to pay for.
Other demos in the Matter 5 cohort came from Metta VR, a mobile platform for discovering and sharing events on mobile and in VR. Redivis, a crowdsourced database aimed at journalists and academic researchers, offers free visualization tools to attract them to the platform, like a flower in search of bees for their pollen. The event concluded with a presentation from Mingyian, a mobile-first content platform looking to capture Chinese superfans for western brands and celebrities.