#7. Are you for Reels?

Instagram Reels vs TikTok

Earlier this week, Instagram launched their TikTok alternative - ‘Reels’ - in India. Given India’s sudden ban on TikTok, Reels has been released at the opportune moment when an entertainment vacuum has opened up in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

Following the ban on TikTok, there’s been a surge of activity with app developers rushing to create their Indian-made TikTok clones. On Twitter, there have been screenshots of app store rankings supposedly showing who the winners are from the ban - namely other video-creation apps such as Triller, Byte, and Indian apps like Chingari.

This flurry of activity can be justified by the fact that TikTok’s second largest market is India, and now 200 million of those users are up for grabs. Whoever can rush to meet the needs of the creators and the consumers, could in theory win big - not just in India, but in other markets that might follow on with a TikTok ban (e.g. USA). The longer that a ban remains in place, the greater the chance that these TikTok refugees find a new permanent digital home for their creation and entertainment needs.

Instagram’s entrance into this space makes intuitive sense. On the business side, Bytedance poses an existential threat to Facebook’s grip of the world’s attention, and in turn its market share of ad-revenue - this is a chance for Facebook to fight off that threat:

Pando: The rise of TikTok and understanding its parent company, ByteDance

On the product side, Instagram already has a large global audience and significant creator tools (especially in the ‘Stories’ format), to provide a safe bet for people looking to entertain and be entertained in a post-TikTok world.

But moving beyond intuition, is the execution of Instagram Reels compelling? Have Instagram correctly understood the appeal of TikTok and executed accordingly?

What’s special about TikTok?

Before we go into Instagram Reels specifically, it’s worth just highlighting what makes TikTok special.

When I think about TikTok, I think about the history of television and the major disruptions that have taken place around the visual medium.

  • Black & White TV —> Colour TV
    Colour gave a sense of realism that B&W lacked. Colour is how most of us saw the world and lived in it. To bring colour to a TV screen was to reduce the psychological distance between our own lives and the stories we watched.

  • The rise of Cable TV
    Before Cable, TV content was broadcast through the airwaves. TV was dominated by a handful of big players. When regulations were eventually loosened to allow cable networks to compete with the big broadcasters, consumers benefitted from an explosion in the number of channels that could be watched, and higher quality programming of content.

  • The Internet (Piracy Sites —> P2P filesharing —> YouTube)
    With the emergence of the Internet and home computer devices, we saw people get access to visual content from all corners of the world (legally and illegally). YouTube then saw a huge disruption to the monopoly that TV networks had on creating and distributing video content to people.

  • Netflix
    Netflix and other SVOD platforms became a high-quality alternative to watching TV from set-top boxes at home. Netflix created original programming, distributed it via the internet on a subscription, and leveraged deep user data to get a deep understanding of consumer preferences. The rise of Netflix gave rise to a phenomenon called ‘cord-cutting’ where people started to cancel their traditional cable subscriptions completely.

I would argue that TikTok deserves to be next in line for consideration as a major disruption to Television.

The impact of TikTok on Television can be considered in 4 ways:

  1. TikTok’s tools have made it easy enough for everyone to be an actor, producer, dancer, entertainer, creator, curator, director, writer, all at once.

  2. TikTok has created a global distribution mechanism for these creators to be given exposure, recognised and appreciated.

  3. TikTok is a new TV experience where consumers are algorithmically served up compelling visual stories that are short and engaging. The cost of investment in a piece of content is extremely small (< 60 seconds) but the psychological return is optimised to be big (e.g. something that makes me laugh).

  4. Although TikTok marketplace has not been fully launched across markets, TikTok created a potential monetisation engine for its creators by connecting them to brands for campaigns, as well as to consumers via in-app purchases.

In essence, TikTok has made it possible for everyone to be a TV star, provided the world a TV channel to watch the best content being created, and was working on an engine for those stars to be paid.

Instagram Reels

Some of the commentary I’ve heard around Instagram Reels (including from people working within the company) outlines the bull case for Reels as follows:

  1. Instagram has a good track record at copying formats from their competitors - remember stealing stories from Snapchat and the negative impact it had on Snap?

  2. Ultimately, TikTok is just a ‘content format’ of music and video, and Instagram is now opening up that format to its users

I don’t buy this line of thinking.

On the first, Instagram did indeed copy Stories extremely well from Snapchat and stole the thunder from an emerging competitor (momentarily). But there was a compelling use-case to Stories. With Instagram's core mission being to connect friends and family through the photos they take, the permanency of the feed was acting as a bottleneck to the velocity and frequency of those connections. Stories opened up that bottleneck by reducing the pressure of posting visual content. Snap’s story format ported across to Instagram extremely well. But the success of Stories doesn’t make Reels a sure bet. In fact, Instagram’s big product releases have had a mixed track-record. For example, IGTV’s effort to own ‘long-form’ video was poorly executed (and remains so).

On the second point, to consider TikTok merely as a ‘content format’ is worrying. While it is true that TikTok & Musical.ly gained their initial traction by providing amazing creator tools for syncing videos to music, the attraction of TikTok has evolved far beyond that. As I outlined above, TikTok is not just about the creator tools: it’s about the efficient content distribution mechanism that distributes fame beyond follower numbers and social circles; it’s the personalised TV station that is serving up engaging pieces of content that don’t rely on your social circle; and it’s the monetisation opportunities available for the creators via the platform.

So when judging whether Instagram Reels is a good competitor to TikTok, let’s compare it across each of these categories.

Execution of Instagram Reels

1) Creator Tools: Instagram vs TikTok

The Reels creative toolkit is currently accessed via Stories.


In theory, Instagram’s creative tools are just as good as TikTok’s. Reel’s UX is pretty intuitive in terms of selecting songs, recording clips and stitching them together. Moreover, the fact that Instagram’s AR filter universe has been open to 3rd parties for a while means that there is a wealth of additional tools that creators can leverage in their videos. In contrast, TikTok’s AR filters are not open to 3rd party developers.

However, one thing to take note of is how messy and unintuitive Instagram is becoming for creating content.

Here’s all the different types of Instagram content and the distinctions that the product makes between them:

When it comes to video, the distinctions that Instagram have made are:
- is the content full-screen?
- how long is the video?
- is the content supposed to be permanent or ephemeral?

One inconsistency appears with Reels. Reels is embedded into Stories because it’s a full-screen format and Stories is where full-screen content is created and edited on Instagram. However, Reels is supposed to be ‘Permanent’ content, in contrast to the ephemeral content that is otherwise created in the Stories section. It’s not necessarily a ‘major’ point that will cause uproar, but Instagram is definitely losing its sense of simplicity and cleanliness. The experience (especially from a creation perspective) feels more cluttered.

Moreover, Instagram still gives navigational preference to posting content on the feed. Creating Reels is embedded deep within the stories experience. I imagine this alone will end up lowering the percentage of people who end up creating ‘TikTok’ like videos.

So, even though the creator tools are in practice similar, creating Reels is far away from Instagram’s core creator experience and is now competing with a number of other content creation formats in the app.


2. Content Distribution Mechanism: Instagram vs TikTok

This is where things begin to get really messy:

Instagram is still prioritising content distribution with your immediate followers.

There is a ‘TikTok-like’ vertical scrolling feed for discovering Reels that is embedded within the Explore screen. Otherwise, each individual piece of ‘Reels’ content is primarily distributed to followers through snippets on the home feed.

The big pull of TikTok for creators is that it pushes content to people around the world without the constraints of a social graph. It enables more people to get a hit of fame. By focusing on the content and not the creator, a given piece of content theoretically has a similar likelihood of going viral irrespective of if a creator has 100 followers or 3 million followers.

This distribution mechanism means that:

  • the most compelling content is surfaced for consumption

  • the democratisation of fame encourages more people to become creators

  • the ‘slot-machine’ element of content going viral keeps people creating

With Instagram not prioritising the discovery of content outside of your social graph, the potential of Reels to compete against TikTok is lowered.

One may argue that Explore is Instagram’s discovery engine. Apparently, 50% of users go into the Explore space monthly. While that sounds great, the general use cases around Explore tends to revolve around these:

  1. ‘Place of Last Resort’ - exhausted content from stories and the feed, and then you tap on Explore to fill up more time.

  2. ‘Accidental tap’ - self-explanatory

  3. ‘Extremely high intent but low frequency events’ - for instance, wanting to see content around Black Lives Matter explicitly, but these tend to be rare instances.

While 50% of Monthly Users going into Explore might sound high, on TikTok 100% of daily users are exposed to content outside of their social graph just by virtue of landing on the For You feed.


3. Infinite TV Channel for Consumers: Instagram vs TikTok


TikTok is a philosophically different product to Instagram. Instagram has been built under the assumption that we’re most interested in the pieces of content from our friends, family and the pages we’ve vetted as being good creators.

TikTok assumes that we don’t care about the creator per se, we just want interesting content irrespective of where it comes from. Opening TikTok immediately lands you on the best content from the world that is personalised to your tastes and preferences. Each piece of content is optimised for delivering a huge emotional return on investment for a few seconds of your attention.

One more subtle UX point. When you open Instagram, there are two main elements competing for your attention: your friends who have posted content on their stories, and then a feed or permanent content posted by your friends. There’s a choice that I need to make around what I want to focus on. On TikTok, there is no burden of choice - I just tune in. Opening TikTok is a transformative experience; opening Instagram feels like emotional work.

For Instagram to compete with TikTok from a consumption-lens, it would need a philosophical shift and a major restructuring.

4. Monetisation Engine for Creators: IG vs TikTok

There’s not a lot of product progress to make a valid comparison.

On the one hand, Instagram have started talking and introducing micro-features that enable creators to monetise aspects of their Instagram experience (e.g. selling items via Live, IGTV ad-revenue splits, shops for brands).

But TikTok’s efforts have been more advanced and ambitious. They’ve been working on a creator marketplace to connect brands to influencers directly, as well as enabling creators to monetise through Live Streams.

If TikTok gets banned, it feels like a lot of progress around helping creators monetise their followings gets lost.

Conclusions

On the one hand, Instagram Reels has mimicked TikTok in terms of the creator tools reasonably well. However, creation on Instagram is beginning to feel bloated. There are 7 different overarching formats of content to be created on Instagram, each with their own different spaces and flows. Moreover, Reels is deeply embedded within the Stories creation space, making it hard to find in an already busy interface.

Besides creation, Instagram are falling behind against TikTok on creating an effective distribution mechanism for content outside the social graph. This matters for creators, who are less likely to get a hit of fame. It also matters for consumers, who can’t just ‘tune-in’ to amazing content from the world as easily as they can on TikTok.

Generally, Instagram’s video experience has become extremely confusing and cluttered.

Right now, the three big product tensions that exist on Instagram are around:
- permanency vs ephemerality of content
- full-screen vs not-full-screen content
- social-graph vs no social-graph

If Instagram is set on becoming a TikTok competitor, the product will need to resolve these tensions in a better way. They may do this in the following ways:

  1. Release a separate app for Reels content: a direct TikTok competitor that prioritises content from outside your social graph, and focuses the creation process around this format

  2. Restructure the Instagram app: making the discovery of content outside your social graph better and more fundamental to the consumption experience, as well as simplifying the content creation process. In my eyes, this could be around removing the distinction between full-screen and not-full-screen content, and also not making a distinction for the length of videos (i.e. get rid of IGTV).

Bonus: Ideas

If Instagram seriously wanted to test competing against TikTok in India, I think it would be interesting to try this approach:

- On the home feed, create a separate feed between content from the people you follow and content from Reels
- The Reels feed behaves like TikTok’s ‘For You’ feed that algorithmically serves up the best Reels content from creators around the world
- Centralise the content creation process and offer Reels as a content-format option.

With this experiment, Instagram would be competing with TikTok on the ‘tool creation space’, as well as the global distribution channel that surfaces the best content and offers creators a hit of fame.


Quick Notes:

- Experiment: if you want to talk about this piece, hit me up here
- Apologies for any typos
- I mocked up something cool for Clubhouse


#6. Music Monetisation

In a world without touring, how can music artists make money?

In the beginning of April, I posted a few quick ideas around how Instagram Live could help artists monetise their audiences in a world without touring:

It unexpectedly ended up getting the attention of the Head of Instagram (Adam Mosseri), the VP of Product at Instagram (Vishal Shah), Taylor Lorenz (NYT reporter) and some of you reading this!

In the last few weeks, Instagram have actually introduced some monetisation features for creators, namely:

  • Paying for Badges during Live Streams: fans who pay for the badge will appear differently to others in a live stream, and creators in turn generate income

  • IGTV Ad Revenue Share: when a user taps on an IGTV video, they'll see an ad and the creator will receive 55% of the ad-income

When I put out these ideas and wireframes for Instagram, I admittedly hadn't thought too much about music monetisation. But I did know that a world without touring was going to disrupt the status-quo for making money from music. In today's world of music streaming, music is a loss-leader: the amount of revenue generated from streams is minimal, but touring is where serious money is made. If touring is no longer a source of revenue, suddenly we'll have a lot of big artists scrambling to find new revenue sources.

And scrambling we've seen. For example, after building a concurrent audiences of 300,000 people for his 'Quarantine Radio' Instagram Live Stream, Tory Lanez ended up striking a partnership with OnlyFans to host the series for a $30 monthly subscription (since dropped to $15 per month). A back of the envelope calculation suggests this could be making at least $5k-$10k in monthly subscriptions for Tory Lanez. Not world changing but nevertheless interesting.

Since my Instagram tweet, I've had a chance to meet some amazing entrepreneurs and VCs thinking about this problem more actively:

How do we enable music artists to make more money in a world without touring?

I want to share a framework I've been using to think about this problem as a result of all these conversations. As always, I don't want to pretend this is exhaustive, but I'm hoping it might inspire a new way of thinking about the problem, and inspire new opportunities for technologists and musicians alike.

Music & Monetisation

If we were to unbundle a music artist, what are the different assets that they're offering?

  • Music Produced = the music that an artist has recorded and released

  • Creative Talent = the raw talent that a musician has in creating music, performing live and marketing themselves

  • Community & Connection = the sense of connection a fan feels towards a specific artist

  • Cultural Identity = the outward manifestation of your sense of connection with an artist (i.e. how you tell the outside world that you're a fan of Travis Scott)

Taking each of these assets, we can look at what the current monetisation strategies are and imagine future monetisation opportunities.

1. Music Produced

At present, the main methods for how recorded music generates money is:

  • Music Streams: e.g. Spotify paying out subscription revenue based on aggregate play counts, or YouTube sharing advertising revenue with artists

  • Licensing to 3rd Parties: when a song is used in an advertisement, used in a Netflix show, or even played on the radio, the artist receives some money (as does their record label)

  • D2C Purchases: when a fan pays artists for their music directly. This tends to happen on Bandcamp with smaller, niche artists, or Patreon / SuperPhone memberships where die-hard fans pay to get exclusive songs

If we were to think about ways in which recorded music could be monetised differently in the future, here are some interesting ideas:

Equitable Streaming Revenue Distributions:
At present, Spotify calculates the revenue generated for musicians by pooling total subscription revenue (minus its ~30% cut) and then distributing it by aggregate play counts across the platform. This allocation mechanism ends up rewarding artists that are huge, whose songs are easily repeatable (and short), and end up in massively-consumed playlists. There are calls for the platform to change its payout mechanism to one that is based on the artists that an individual listens to. In theory, this would help niche artists who have a loyal fanbase. Read more about this here.

Licensing Marketplaces:
Right now, if you're a brand running ads and you want to use a specific song from an artist, there is a long, cumbersome process to come to a licensing agreement with the artist and the label. One interesting way to create monetisation opportunities around recorded songs is enabling advertisers to use songs in the ad-creator process on Facebook / Instagram / Snap / TikTok. This way, brands could pay artists for using their song on a 'per-impression' basis.

The biggest risk for artists is that their songs are used by advertisers they don't want to be associated with. But in a world where TikTok enables individual creators to be able to create videos around any song, I think we've reached a point of consumer maturity where we can disassociate music artists from endorsing third-party content where their music is used. We already live in a remix-culture with consumers - is it time to take this to brands and advertising?

Unbundling Songs:
Each song can be deconstructed to its vocals and its instrumentals. The instrumentals can then be further deconstructed into its drums, synths, specific instruments etc. These are called 'stems'. To get access to the stems of a song for the purpose of a remix, you generally need to need to have access to the artist or the label. In a world where music creation is easier than ever (and becomes even easier in the future), I can imagine more people wanting to pay to be able to 'remix' or synthetically collaborate with their favourite artists. Creating a marketplace around this will make each produced song a scalable digital asset that can continually generate value from aspiring artists.

AI deepfake audio personalisations:
This is more of a wacky idea, but I've been thinking a lot about how musicians create more scalable digital assets that can be spun out to create potentially infinite value. As artists generate data around their vocals, audio deepfakes could eventually be used to personalise specific songs. For instance, maybe someone would want to pay to get Drake to change a lyric to mention the name of their ex. Or perhaps Coca-Cola would pay to get Drake to shout out their soft-drink instead of some expensive champagne.

2. Creative Talent

Music artists generally monetise their creative talents across the following:

  • Songwriting / Production: For example, Beyonce, Drake and Kanye West employ camps of writers to help write songs on an album. These writers get a songwriters credit and some of the royalties, but not much in terms of mainstream exposure as an artist in their own right.

  • Commissions for Live Events: I want to differentiate this from 'touring'. I'm considering commissions for live events as paying for an artist's ability to perform, versus fans paying to be in the same physical space as an artist. These commissions include things like paying to have someone perform at your wedding, or companies paying for a musician at an off-site.

  • Side Hustles: to keep the lights on, music artists might give music lessons to children, aspiring musicians, or teach at music schools.

How could creative talents be monetised in the future?

Monetise Expertise:
In the same way we've seen creator tools enable more people to monetise their talents in the passion economy, I imagine we'll see similar tools arrive in the knowledge sector.

In the music space, I can imagine established songwriters charging aspiring songwriters for review sessions. Or established producers charging aspiring producers for beat critiques. For early entrants into a space, a lot of people would pay to get access to talent, especially if they don't have the relevant networks to get in front of that talent. This is especially relevant as a space becomes democratised and more people become entrants.

Cameo for music-making:
Right now, you can pay to get someone on Cameo to shout out a message. What about if you could easily commission artists to make songs for you? It could be a cover song, it could be a song specific to your life, or maybe a birthday gift for a partner. At present, Cameo has created a marketplace that gives people access to fame, but not to a person's core talent. I think that's why a lot of the celebrities (and musicians) on Cameo tend to be ‘has-beens’: to be on Cameo is to give a negative signal about your earning capacity and the state of your career.

I did some analysis on the musicians on Cameo and the estimated revenue they generate here, in case you're interested.

Marketplaces for Collaborations:
At present, the process for collaborating with an artist is cumbersome and messy - you need to find the email address of a manager, reach out, negotiate a fee, and then actually make the song. There would probably be something interesting in creating a specific marketplace around this behaviour. Brett Goldstein kind of did this using Fiverr. I can imagine people paying for collaborations for two reasons: 1) to pay for musical talent on a song; 2) to pay for access to a music artist's community and get noticed.

Artist Curation:
We've seen Apple Music pay for influencers and artists to curate their own shows and playlists. On the other end of the spectrum, paid newsletters like https://flowstate.substack.com/ have become popular by curating interesting music finds. I wonder if there's more to come in this space with consumers paying for creative talent to curate interesting music around specific niches - whether it's going deep on a genre, or finding new undiscovered talent.

3. Cultural Identity

Last week, I put out a twitter thread about niche communities and potential product offerings:

One element of that was 'Identity' and people paying for one of the following:

  • expressing your outer-identity inside the niche-world

  • expressing your niche-identity to the outside-world

  • status boosters within the niche-world

In the context of music, when I talk about 'Cultural Identity', I'm focusing mostly on expressing your niche-identity to the outside-world.

The most obvious manifestation of this is artist merchandise. For artists like Travis Scott, Chance The Rapper and Kanye West, merchandise has become a huge value creator. In fact, Chance the Rapper can remain an independent rapper purely because of the success of his merchandise and touring.

At present, that merchandise has existed in the physical world - buying t-shirts, hoodies, trainers, which you then wear to signal to people your cultural identity. The merchandise drops tend to have limited supply, so there's even an element of status-boosting within the world of Chance The Rapper fans.

However, as we've seen with the Travis Scott x Fortnite collaboration, people could pay to unlock a Travis Scott digital skin:

Similarly, in Animal Crossing, Yaeji revealed the digital equivalents of her physical merch.

As we spend more time in digital worlds and we look to express our cultural identity in those spaces, the opportunity for digital merchandise from musicians opens up.

4. Community & Connection

The present forms of monetising this asset:

  • Distribution Network: both brands and artists may pay a big artist to essentially tap into their audience and their sub-niche. In 2019, Tory Lanez was reported to charge $75,000 for just a feature. Equally, a post from an influencer with 1+ million followers on Instagram can set a brand back at least $10,000.

  • Physical Touring: in the pre-covid world, touring was the big revenue driver for the world’s biggest artists. For instance, in 2016, Beyonce made 88% of her revenue from touring - $62m from touring, vs $1.9m from streaming revenue. On the secondary market, ticket prices for her Formation Tour were reaching over $400. What are people paying for in that experience? They’re paying to be in the same physical presence as the artist - they’re paying for that deeper sense of connection that goes beyond just listening to recordings on your iPhone.

In a world without physical touring (or in reality, maybe a world where concerts are smaller and discouraged for a while), an interesting question to ask is if there are other ways for artists to monetise that sense of connection and community?

Here are some ideas:

Digital Live Concerts:
While under quarantine, we saw James Blake performing for fans on Instagram Live, and Diplo DJ for people in Fortnite. Right now, these experiences weren’t monetised, but they could be.

The most obvious ways this could happen:
- private live sessions where you have to pay to get access
- public sessions where fans can send tips to an artist

Virtual Experiences:
As mentioned earlier, Travis Scott created a whole virtual experience for fans in Fortnite that culminated in the release of a new song. Elements of this virtual experience were monetised in the form of skins for your avatar.

Just today, a startup called Wave announced a $30m dollar fundraise to create virtual concerts with digital avatars of musicians. The key difference between virtual experiences and digital concerts is that while digital ‘live’ concerts is a digital parallel of a real-world behaviour (just with a screen in between), virtual experiences are an experience that is scalable and can be divorced from the artist themselves.

For instance, it might be possible to create virtual concerts of Travis Scott’s new album without Travis Scott ever needing to be involved in the process. His avatar becomes an offshoot of his physical body and becomes a digital asset that can be moulded, manoeuvred and designed in any way that a designer wants: this album, next album and albums beyond.

Similarly to digital live concerts, virtual experiences could be monetised either with tickets, or with ancilliary items (like in-game skins).

Deeper Connection:
We’re seeing glimpses of people paying for deeper, exclusive connections to music artists. On Patreon, die hard fans are paying to sustain an artist and get access to certain privileges. On Ryan Leslie’s Superphone, he’s helping setup deeper connections between fans and artists, and creating monetisation opportunities around that connection.

I think there’s potential for this to be further modularised: Li Jin talks about this in the need for an ‘Influencer Stack’ in the West. We could see all touch-points on social media platforms become monetisable between a fan and an artist. For example, imagine paying your favourite music artist to comment on your photo, follow you on Instagram, do a duet with you on TikTok, shout you out on Live, do a 5 minute video call with you etc. There’s a long tail of influencers and music artists who have a base of die-hard fans that might be willing to part cash for a deeper interaction - the only thing they need is an efficient platform to do so.

Summary

It’s worth thinking about the monetisation opportunities for music artists relative to their scale:

For instance, Cultural Identity is currently only a monetisable asset for artists with a lot of fans. Although there are now services that exist for making selling physical merch much easier, there’s still a lot of potential for enabling artist to monetise the cultural identity of a fan base when it’s much smaller.

Or when it comes to music produced, streaming revenue is currently lop-sided towards the biggest artists, and even then, they’re not making huge sums of money - e.g. Beyonce made an estimated $1.9m in streaming following her 2016 album release. This is one of the world’s biggest artists. There seems to be a big opportunity in helping artists generate make more revenue from the music they produce. This may require working within the mental-model constraints of streaming being here to stay, and the average consumer seeing music more as a commodity.

When it comes to community and connection, how do we enable the long-tail of musicians to be able to start monetising a fan’s desire to connect? Patreon is a positive-step, but there are also issues with a subscription-model creating pressure on artists to create exclusive content for these subscribers. I think there’s a lot of potential for one-off interactions that can be monetised to a wider base of fans.

And finally, artists tend to monetise their creative talent when they are at the early stages of their career, purely because there may be no other monetisation opportunities available. There could be new markets being formed around enabling musicians to sell their creative talent to a wider base of people, or to make the process of doing so more efficient than it currently is.

What I’m hoping is that with this framework, we can begin to laser-focus on what a musician is selling at present, what they could sell in the future, and build technology to bridge the gap.


Personal Notes

  1. I know some great entrepreneurs working in this space so if you want an intro, hit reply to this email

  2. If any of this sparks any thoughts (agreements or disagreements), I’d love to talk with you. I come at these topics with a lot of ignorance and try to think through these things from first principles. I’m also curious about how this looks to people actively working in this space.

  3. If you’re wondering what I’m doing after HaikuJAM, I’m currently advising on product for quite a few companies, learning from people working in different spaces, and thinking out loud on Twitter. I’d say I’m in ‘thesis-building’ mode and I’m actively seeking rabbit-holes to jump down. I’m not sure where this is leading, but it feels like something interesting will come out of this exploration!




#5 - Clubhouse

$100m and beyond?

Long time, no speak - let’s get straight into it!

If you’re on Tech Twitter, today we saw a new rupture in the ongoing culture war: Clubhouse raised $10m at a $100m valuation from A16z, despite it only having 2000 users.

If you haven’t heard of Clubhouse, think of an audio-only HouseParty that is currently only available to a select group of people: VCs and Silicon Valley darlings.

Going one level deeper , it’s a social network for spontaneous voice-chats in groups. People can jump into rooms to listen in and contribute to mega-exclusive conversations. Clubhouse is kinda like the Davos Summit for the Tech elite, made into an app.

Clubhouse voice chat leads a wave of spontaneous social apps ...

The response to the fundraising news has been divisive:

For the people that aren’t waving their hats in support, their criticism of Clubhouse’s fundraising can be generally categorised along one of these themes:

  • No Business Model: no revenue and no public plans for monetisation

  • Low Traction: "it only has 2000 sign-ups!”

  • VC Bias: VC’s love using the product and they’re massively over-biasing on how others will use it

  • Opportunity Cost: the world needs money flowing to solutions that will save the world, not a toy for VCs

  • Founders Selling Shares Already?: with each co-founder taking home $1m each, something stinks

On the other hand, the response from people congratulating the company tends to follow one of these themes:

  • Social Is Back Baby: with the world looking to connect in new ways, we’re seeing more fun solutions being developed to help people connect. This fundraising is money flowing into that space, which will help encourage more products in this space

  • I Love This Product: if you couldn’t already tell from the screenshots that users have been sharing of the celebs in their room, some people just want to remind you of how fun and valuable the product is in their lives

  • Forget The Valuation: $100m valuation is inconsequential. Ultimately, this is a small bet from A16z which could have an outsized return, and for the founders, they get enough runway to run through the idea-maze for building spontaneous-social products (either as Clubhouse today or as new product iterations).

  • Founders Are Nice: okay, cool.

All of the points are interesting in their own right, but I think there’s one big thing missing from the responses.

Clubhouse Possibility Space

Instead of asking the question of whether Clubhouse is worth $100m or not today, a more interesting question is this: How could Clubhouse be worth a lot of money in the future?

The un-nuanced take usually assumes that in order for Clubhouse to realise its potential, it needs to reach Facebook / Instagram level of scale and then figure out monetisation - probably through ads.

I want to dive into the possibilities a little more.

Let’s consider the Clubhouse possibility space along two axes:

  • Exclusivity: does Clubhouse keep the app an exclusive experience or does it open it up to everyone in the world?

  • ARPU (Average Revenue Per User): does Clubhouse try to generate a lot of revenue per user ($100+ per month) or a small amount of revenue per user (e.g. Facebook’s ARPU per month is c.$2 globally)

Soho House as Software

Clubhouse’s beta network comprises of high net-worth, well-connected, leaders of industry: startup CEOs, VC partners, exited entrepreneurs, etc.

Most people talk about this with the intention of criticising the company and the size of the opportunity.

But what about if Clubhouse’s exclusivity persists over time?

I’d be curious to see what Clubhouse’s retention and engagement figures are with this cohort of tech influencers. If usage is persistent over time, maybe it’s worth seeing Clubhouse less as a ‘fun consumer toy’ and more of a ‘critical tool’ for people who make a living on collaborating, collectively sensemaking and connecting individuals to opportunities.

For a class of people that are paying $30 per month to make managing emails faster, $200+ per month on gym memberships or a Soho House membership, is it farfetched to imagine them paying $100+ per month for exclusive access to a private, rich, persistent flow of information and thoughts that no-one outside the club gets access to?

With people like Naval using the service, the existing beta list creates its own gravitational pull for a second-wave of users to want to join and bask in the privilege of association. I think we’ve seen this with Superhuman: onboard the first wave of influencers, and then the aspirational class will pay to follow on.

With a post-covid world reducing the chance for serendipitious socialising, does Clubhouse provide a solution that tech-darlings are willing to pay big money for?

Media Production House

If Clubhouse can’t, or doesn’t want to, charge its members, another monetisation opportunity it could have is becoming a media production company that packages and distributes the conversations of the tech intelligentsia.

Yes - this goes against one of the big draws of Clubhouse currently with these individuals feeling like they have a private space to express their true opinions, maybe in a way they can’t on Twitter without being harassed.

But equally, on Clubhouse, there will be hours and hours of content continuously being generated from the ‘world’s greatest minds’. It’s a podcast that is just being generated in real-time continuously. It’s easy to imagine that this content could be curated into paywalled content that outsiders pay to get access to.

With people paying for Masterclass lessons, people may also want to pay to access the lucid thoughts of the tech elite.

Tiered Memberships for Speakers and Listeners

If Clubhouse wanted to open up the experience to more people while also trying to protect the quality of interactions, one possibility is to introduce subscription fees for speakers and listeners.

For people who want to just listen in on these high-powered conversations as they’re happening, pay $x. For those who want to speak and contribute to conversations, pay $y. Make y>x as ‘speaking’ is where you could unlock the most tangible value.

It could be an interesting middle-ground for monetising a larger base of users, while extracting value from the people who really want to engage in conversations with their tech heroes.

Global Conversational Space + Ad Platform

Finally, the other approach that Clubhouse might opt for is to become a massive social platform.

Clubhouse could become a persistent audio-space that everyone can use - whether to connect with friends, family, colleagues, or with others by interests.

Clubhouse’s social-listening experience can exist beyond just conversations and move into listening to music or podcasts together. If this happens, it will be interesting to see if this begins to bite into time spent on other media platforms like Spotify and YouTube.

With the rise of airpods, Clubhouse could become a central hub for that always-on listening behaviour. Users of Clubhouse could seamlessly shift between participating in conversations with family, listening in on a conversation between Rick Rubin and Kendrick Lemar as it’s happening, participating in a group chanting session, and then finally joining a curated lo-fi music room for deep work. All without interacting with a screen.

If Clubhouse owns this behaviour, interesting advertising opportunities emerge. The platform will build up rich profiles on the interests of each user: what conversations they listen to and the interest of the people they interact with most. With automated transcriptions of every conversation taking place, the information profiles on each user become much richer than just looking at the behaviour of clicks on existing social media. Finally, there could be interesting AI applications for personalising in-ear advertising: the generation of text and text-to-audio transcription is much further along than personalising videos at scale. See this.

If this behaviour emerges, I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook come knocking for an acquisition.

Final Thoughts

With the Clubhouse fundraising, there’s a lot of gut-reaction to whether this looks like frivolous VC spending or if there’s something of more value.

What I hope to do with the above breakdown is not necessarily paint an exact picture of what Clubhouse will do, but rather what they could do in order to generate a lot of money (for themselves and their investors).

The biggest point I want to emphasise is that Clubhouse doesn’t need to achieve Facebook scale in order for it to be immensely valuable. The exclusivity doesn’t need to be a problem that needs to be solved. There are ways to make a lot of money if you provide a very real need to a cohort of people. And if that cohort of people happens to be deep-pocketed VCs and successful entrepreneurs, and they’re extracting immense value from the experience, why not charge them a great deal for that?

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PS:

I’m conducting a social experiment. I’ve opened up my calendar for the next week for 1:1 conversations with people I’m connected to. No agenda - just sharing notes, observations, learnings. Interested? Click here

#4. When technology becomes air

Hyperpresence, the metaverse and imagining utopia

Life News:

🙏🏻 My co-founders and I made Forbes 30 under 30 Asia this year

❤️ Here's what March looked like at HaikuJAM

Preamble (feel free to skip):

Hi. It's 11:10 AM. I'm currently sat on the balcony of my flat in Mumbai, windows wide open, feeling the breeze hit my skin. The air is clean. Birds have found an opportunity to fill the silence of the missing cars.

The optimist in me thinks that once this is over, we may have shifted the Overton Window on ditching private car ownership and non-essential car travel. Two billion+ people are experiencing what a city is like without noise and cars, albeit from within their homes. Maybe we'll invest heavily in public transport (and smart, urban-friendly last-mile transportation). Then again, probably not.

It's been 42 days since I last published a piece. As the effects of the pandemic have ramped up around the world, I've been trying to figure out what I could say that could give any value. Doing a product breakdown of an individual start-up felt quaint compared to the magnitude of what we're facing. I'm not a scientist so I can’t bring about a deeper understanding of the virus. The best I've really done is stay a little ahead of the curve with what's about to happen and make sure that I, my family, friends and those around me are well prepared.

Today, I'm getting out of this funk. As Zoom and HouseParty have filled our social-distancing with digital togetherness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how these platforms are low-fidelity prototypes of a Metaverse where we share persistent, digital spaces with people we know.

In this piece, I want to explore the journey of consumer-internet: from past, to present and to possible futures. I will touch on what futures Zoom and HouseParty are hinting at. And most importantly, I wanted to explore the concept of digital utopia: asking ourselves what future we want to end up at, instead of thinking simply iterating what we have.

This is going to be an experimental piece for me. The thinking of what's being presented isn't fully refined and definitely rough around the edges. However, it's a framework I've been intellectually feeling around for a while. I want to touch on it in some ways and maybe there'll be something interesting in this for you :)


Pervasiveness of Consumer Technology

When I think about the overarching themes of consumer technology over the last few decades, there are two dynamics that come to mind:

  • Fixed stationary point —> increased portability:
    When we introduced the personal computer, we had a fixed stationary device for immersing ourselves in the Internet. While we missed out on the potential of always being connected, the physical constraint meant that the technology was used with greater intentionality versus our current interactions with smartphones. This of course has its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Increased portability —> flickering states of presence:
    As Internet-connected devices have become more portable, the navigational interfaces compete against our experience of the physical world - whether it be our surroundings, the people around us or even our internal selves. To carry a smartphone is to carry optionality to warp out of the physical world. While academic evidence around the impact on cognition and memory is mixed, the constant flickering between digital and physical states already feels exhausting and inefficient.

Generally, what we have seen over time is that the Internet has become more pervasive in our daily lives. And the form-factors of how we connect to the Internet has had a lot of secondary consequences to the way we interact with our physical environment and the present.

If we were to map this journey out over time, we'd see something like this:

The blue-shaded section is what I'm most interested in exploring because I think it's the point where "technology becomes air."

When Technology Becomes Air

By "technology becomes air", I mean to describe a point in time when the digital world and the physical world are not states you flick between, but instead become an omni-state you live and breathe in.

In this state, we'll experience hyper-presence : "an accelerated form of social, psychological and cognitive availability due to the rise of interactive and distance-based media technologies. These technologies allow for the experience of presence to extend beyond the physical self and into the space of the cell phone or web."

Thinking about how this would "feel" is an exercise of imagination. But let's take the example of birds. Birds are able to see the Earth's magnetic fields because of a protein in their eyes. If humans were to want this capability, there are two ways we could go about this. Firstly, through genetic engineering, we could try to grow this protein in humans. Secondly, and perhaps closer to where we are right now, we could download an app. Currently, our app experiences take place through a screen that we lift out of our pockets. But it's not farfetched to imagine this technology meshing itself directly into our visual field (e.g. contact-lens computing or brain-computer interfaces).

I think technology becoming air could manifest in two different ways:

1) VR Metaverse :

A global, virtual persistent space shared by many. A digital playground in which we spend a large portion of our life. While there is still a phase-shift between the physical world and the VR world, there is a clearer demarcation of the two states, and a deeper immersiveness than our existing digital experience. Read more in this great piece here from Scott Broock and Mike Seymour.

2) Invisible Computing / Brain Computing Interfaces

Invisible computing could take the form of a contact-lens display system that overlays an AR experience over our environment. Alternatively, a Brain-Computing Interface would allow us to manipulate interfaces with our thought. Either way, there would be a deeper meshing of technology with our bodies and our environment, without a secondary-detached device to mediate the interaction.

The smart contact lens may arrive within a few years
Example of what an AR contact lens interface could feel like

With respect to the latter (let’s call it all Invisible Computing for the sake of brevity), it's easy to imagine a dystopic scenario of your field of vision being bombarded with ads and distractions. This is a great illustration of such a possible dystopia:

However, I think technology, the Internet and a visual interface need to be disentangled. We're seeing Airpods providing an interesting example of that: a portable voice interface that overlays audio over your current environment. With Invisible Computing, we may eventually not need video or audio feedback to our technological interactions. Perhaps eventually the feedback becomes so subtle as to merge with our current environment. Or more interestingly, merge with our thoughts and sensations as extra sensory capabilities. As technology embeds itself within our brains and bodies, technological output may begin to feel like intuition (or gut-feeling).

Consumer-Social

Things become even more interesting if we look at the social-space through the lens of the increased pervasiveness of consumer Internet over time.

I think consumer-social can be split into two categories (although over time, I think the two will merge):

1) Social-Consolidation: this focuses on the accumulation of the people you come to meet in the physical environments of your life over time. Let's take this to include: family, school friends, college friends, colleagues, and friends of friends.

2) Social-Discovery: this is where technology connects you to someone you don't know.


1. Social Consolidation

As everyone knows, life under quarantine has been dominated by two apps: Zoom and HouseParty.

What I think hasn't been given much thought is how much these apps are a precursor to the Metaverse - or a low-fidelity prototype of what our social life in VR could look and feel like.

The combination of our real faces gathering around a shared activity space is the first taste of the Metaverse for the mainstream. If we transition to VR, this experience will simply become more immersive: a wider world, an infinite range of possible shared activities, fully-body avatars instead of just floating heads, tactile sensation as your avatars interact with each other and the shared digital environment.

As consumer and enterprise blur (e.g. in the case of Zoom), I envision the same could happen in VR. Imagine it as a digital sandbox where people can collaborate together, learn together, work on fun projects together, explore sensory digital experiences together. I think it's no coincidence that we see (and will continue seeing) virtual environments that facilitate work also facilitating leisure. Tools that are built for consumer delight help make work more fun; wherever work feels more fun, social play will become more convenient.

Speculating one-step further: what could social consolidation look like in a world of Invisible Computing? One of the problems with social interactions taking place over screens is that we miss out on non-verbal cues that invite someone to ask how you are. Secondly, the lack of spontaneity in digital interactions reduces social interactions to becoming check-in sessions: a performance, a pressure to report or be interesting.

HouseParty is fascinating in the sense that it broadcasts a message to all of your friends that you're available to talk when you come online. But availability is not everything. Imagine being able to get a spidey-sense that one of your friends is not feeling too good and would appreciate a chat. Or maybe seeing someone in person and getting a smart-read that something may be off. Maybe AI could give you hyper-presence in terms of knowing the best way of approaching the elephant in the room. I'm not exactly sure how this looks. But when I think about digital utopia and achieving transcendence - I think there is infinite potential in fostering intimacy, empathy and reducing the need for social performance.

2. Social-Discovery

So far, social discovery has tended to live either in the context of finding romantic partners, or within gaming contexts (e.g. think of World of Warcraft Clans).

With HaikuJAM, we've been obsessing about creating a digital context to foster intimacy and meaningful connection - our mechanic just happens to be collaborative writing.

Just today, I came across Online Town https://town.siempre.io which is a combination of Zoom and a Pokemon universe where you end up video-chatting to strangers you interact with in a virtual avatar environment. The magic about this kind of environment is that the context for the connection doesn't need to be tied to people playing a mission-based game. The context for conversation is literally just sharing the same spatial environment. These types of virtual spaces are recreating the serendipity of talking to a stranger while queuing for coffee.

When I think about transcendence as a technological outcome, I think a lot about how technology can bring about meaningful change in the way that we view the global human community.

One of the problems with consumer-social today is that a 'digitally diverse community' is not mapping to a tolerant community in the physical world.

For example, this is a jarring contradiction I highlighted with these Young Indians rioting against Muslims, while being statistically likely to be one of those "cute" TikTok users:

A globally connected social media has not spilled over into healing distrust between insiders and outsiders. We’re nodes connected on a network graph, but not connected by spirit.

Going forward, could the Metaverse do this? Possibly. I think the Metaverse has the potential to unlock each human from their physical-world identity and enter a new paradigm where interactions between strangers start with a blank slate. For instance, what generational prejudices exist towards an avatar that has purple-blue skin? Giving a space for people to explore multiple identities could allow people to live many lives and make even richer, more intimate friendships around those strands of identity. According to this line of thinking, the further an avatar is from human form, the further we can detach ourselves from our existing heuristics for judging people.

Beyond the Metaverse, I think in a world where the physical and the internet mesh together in one state of hyperpresence, technology could do interesting things to facilitate social discovery. For example, imagine turning on a beacon saying that you're open for a conversation with a stranger over coffee. As you meet, you get a peek of a profile preview just to overcome the initial awkwardness. Maybe there are AI suggestions for topics to explore - mutual interests or potential learning points.

I think if we don't ask ourselves the question of what our utopia looks like, we will end up building iterative digital experiences that aren't genuinely trying to uplift the human condition. I'm a firm believer that technology has the potential to change the way that humans see each-other in a positive way. I don't think it's a given that building a virtual world or a social media platform will merely hold up a mirror to what our society is truly like. I think we can build new societies based on new rules.

Final Thoughts

Our existing form-functions for consumer technology compete with our being present in our physical surroundings.

I think the next wave will consist of technology becoming air: either a Metaverse in which we live, play, work and collaborate for extended periods of time; or Invisible-Computing that gives us a state of hyperpresence within our physical surroundings.

Thinking about the next potential form-functions may open up interesting avenues of exploration in consumer technology. For instance, I think that Zoom and HouseParty are low-fidelity prototypes of a Metaverse where we share persistent, digital spaces with people we know. On the social discovery front, there is more to be done with creating digital contexts and 3rd places that foster intimacy and togetherness.

The Internet has the potential to bring about human transcendence from our learned identities. We ought to be fighting to build technology and experiences that genuinely bring about togetherness, not reflect the real-world fragmentation we live in.

For anyone who has managed to get to this end-point, I think a useful exercise is to ask yourself what your utopia looks like, ignoring constraints or received wisdom. And when you think about what you want to work on next, do it from a point that works backwards from your Utopia. If your utopia is big enough, it will be something worth fighting for.

#3. Meet MeetCute

RomComs are (no longer) dead?

Preamble

For obvious reasons, the last few weeks have seen me revisiting a genre that was assigned to the mental dustbin for a decade - RomComs.

The first movie was on Valentine's Day. My girlfriend was travelling with a friend, so after work, I found myself rewatching Notting Hill for the first time since entering adulthood.

Notting Hill was released in 1999 - before 9/11, before the Iraq war, before smartphones, before Facebook, before the global financial crisis, before Brexit. Watching Hugh Grant fret about falling in love with a Hollywood celebrity, all the while managing his struggling travel bookshop, made me nostalgic for a simpler time. That was a time when one's main concern could be grappling with true love. In today's political climate, that feels rather quaint.

The second movie I watched was Before Sunrise. It's about a couple of strangers who meet on a train and end up spending the day together, falling in love, all the while knowing that their time is limited. It's a beautiful movie that revolves around the dialogue these two strangers have as they walk through Vienna together.

I first watched Before Sunrise when I was 15. It tapped into this pre-existing notion that there is a magic to be unlocked by bringing strangers together. In my eyes, strangers colliding represented something that ought not to happen, happening. It has unbounded possibility - in learning, serendipity or love.

This is captured perfectly in a short-scene when a homeless man offers to write the strangers a poem, and if it stirs something in them, they could give him money.

Daydream delusion, Limousine Eyelash
Oh, baby with your pretty face, Drop a tear in my wineglass
Look at those big eyes, See what you mean to me
Sweet cakes and milkshakes, I am a delusion angel
I am a fantasy parade, I want you to know what I think
Don’t want you to guess anymore, You have no idea where I came from
We have no idea where we’re going, Lodged in life,
Like two branches in a river Flowing downstream, Caught in the current
I’ll carry you. You’ll carry me
That’s how it could be
Don’t you know me? Don’t you know me by now?

I actually didn't remember this scene at all from my first viewing, but watching this scene 13 years later made me fall in love with this movie even harder.

Watching these two movies reminded me of the promise of a good Romantic movie.

In a society where feel-good interactions are scarce and optimism for the future is low (environmental catastrophe, political catastrophe, economic catastrophe, etc.), RomComs are a reminder of the magic that exists when strangers meet. Its renewed resonance probably points to a deeper spiritual hole in our lives.

Romance Is (No Longer) Dead?

The Rom-Com genre has undergone an interesting journey over the last few decades. Here are a few of the most interesting developments I found.

1. Movie Producers & Audiences fell out of love with RomComs

Over the last 2 decades, RomComs have seen a declining market share of tickets sold - from 10% in 1999 to 2% in 2019 (US Box Office only). If you were to look at the top 20 grossing RomCom movies of all time, only 1 is in the last decade - Crazy Rich Asians which comes in 14th place. Over the same period, Adventure & Action have scooped up market share (think of the rise in superhero movies).

2. The way people in relationships have met has dramatically changed in the last two decades

For relationships that started in 1999 - the peak of the RomCom genre - the most common way for people to meet was through mutual friends. Over the last two decades, meeting online has skyrocketed (from low single-figure percentage points to over 40% of current relationships starting online.) Over the same time period, meeting in a bar or restaurant has increased from 20% to c.27% of relationships. The cynic in me would say that most of us have resorted to meeting new people through the safety of a screen, and if meeting IRL, we need copious amounts of alcohol to deal with an increasingly unfamiliar context. Does this not translate across to cinema well? Or perhaps we haven't had the right writers / storytellers tell the stories that we're more familiar with today?

3. In the post-MeToo era, RomComs have aged pretty badly

I was watching a scene from The Notebook where Ryan Gosling hangs off the ferris wheel and threatens to let go if his love interest doesn't promise to go on a date with him. Once upon a time, this was considered romantic. Today it feels like psychological abuse and manipulation. There are so many examples of this. But a genre that has normalised stalking, harassment and ignoring consent, doesn't live in today's world the same as it did a few decades ago.

As a side point, in the context of India (where I am based right now), I feel that Bollywood has also had a toxic effect on the way young men treat women and what they think is acceptable behaviour. So many Bollywood "heroes" get the attention of their love interest by harassing, stalking, ogling - and how this has bled through into real-world interactions rarely gets much discussion.

Meet MeetCute

Image result for meetcute podcast

In light of all the above, it was interesting coming across a new podcasting company called MeetCute. It caught my attention for three reasons:

  • Andy Weissman from USV was an investor and I've been a fan of his tweets & essays on music & culture (in fact, I think it was through him that I discovered Trapital which studies hip-hop through the lens of business strategy, distribution & innovation).

  • The name sounded cool. I hadn't actually heard of it before but I recently discovered that "meetcute" is a phrase to describe a scenario in which "two individuals are brought together in some unlikely, zany, destined-to-fall-in-love-and-be-together-forever sort of way." It's the 'aha-moment' of a RomCom movie.

  • I was intrigued by MeetCute's focus being purely on RomCom.

In spite of the above, I definitely didn't quite 'get' it at first.

Granted, one wouldn't associate me as being their primary target audience. But if RomComs were seemingly dead, why was MeetCute purely focusing on it?

What’s To Love about MeetCute?

It's only been since revisiting Notting Hill and Before Sunrise that I can appreciate the genre in our current societal context, and then understand why MeetCute is fascinating.

  1. MeetCute is an efficient & consistent emotional-transformation experience

    MeetCute structures itself into series. A series is comprised of 5 episodes, each 3 minutes long, that explore one "meetcute" scenario. The company describes its series as a "MeetCute to Happily Ever After" in 15 minutes.

    What I like about this is that the product grounds itself in taking a listener on a specific emotional journey - from two people meeting to a happily-ever-after.

    There's no variety in the outcome: there are different "meetcute" scenarios explored, but there is consistency in the emotional journey.

    To ground a product in emotional-transformation is something that gets overlooked in conversations around product and community in the consumer space. But to reliably deliver an emotional experience to someone is its own moat - the product is forever associated with how it made you feel.

    This is something we've found with HaikuJAM. Our tagline is "write together, feel better". What we so often find is that even if people disappear from HaikuJAM, they eventually come back when they want that 'emotional-delivery' - e.g. I'm feeling down and I want to express myself to feel better.

    What's interesting about delivering this in a podcast experience with minimal time-investment is that the emotional fulfilment of the product isn't something that gets tainted with the typical issues of mobile apps. Namely - this is addictive, this is taking over my life, and eventually, the feeling that my life would be better without it.

    Whenever someone wants to tap into the magic of a RomCom, MeetCute can do that for you in 15 minutes. It's a powerful hook.

  2. A fixed narrative structure & closed-ended storytelling experience is a breath of fresh air against the winding, confused, made-for-addiction, Netflix-approach to storytelling

    Netflix doesn't make me feel good. I get lost in a Netflix series but I don't feel good for doing so. The twists in the meta-narrative of a Netflix Series tends to keep me engaged (and addicted to a series), but the actual details of a story tend to end up being bloated, confusing and ultimately exhausting.

    Storytelling in a fixed-structure format where you know the beginning and ending of a series is 15 minutes long, and it's not designed to make me wait for the next series, makes for an interesting consumption experience.

    It feeds into the first point around efficient emotional-transformations. A MeetCute series is designed to be a small space of magic that delivers on making you feel good. The simplicity makes the feel-good transformation undiluted.

  3. RomComs resonate more deeply in a world where serendipitous meetings are rare, people are meeting online but not necessarily happy about it, and dating-app fatigue is driving people to seek out "meetcute" scenarios.

    I didn't expect to feel the nostalgia I did when watching Notting Hill and Before Sunrise. But the RomCom scenario of just serendipitously meeting someone, fumbling through conversation, and then putting your pride on the line when asking to take things further, feels like an impossible magic today.

    RomComs have the opportunity to remind us of something we've lost. It's been interesting seeing a lot of my friends abandon dating apps and turn to real-world physical contexts with the hope of meeting people - e.g. joining Salsa clubs.

    Because the ideal scenario of a RomCom are so far away from today's experience, they could have a deeper resonance. Especially if the genre is repackaged to modern consumers without the cultural baggage of the stories from two decades ago.

  4. Building a deep-community around an emotional-experience gives MeetCute leverage in production over potential competitors

    After being introduced to podcasts with Serial, what made me go deeper into the podcast format was Beautiful Anonymous.

    The premise of Beautiful Anonymous is that Chris Gethard (the host) has a phone call with an anonymous stranger for 60 minutes and everything is recorded.

    Before an episode is about to be recorded, Chris posts his phone number on Twitter / Instagram and people phone in for a chance to be heard.

    This approach creates a virtuous loop for being able to source stories: the community themselves are the story, and are a continual source of future stories. The chance of being the story incentivises new listeners to want to tell their story and phone up.

    Similarly, MeetCute are looking to source real "meetcute" stories from their community for a chance to have it turned into a script. The community in turn provides a repository of stories that MeetCute's team of writers and voice actors can turn into episodes.

    What's interesting is that MeetCute also retains IP on the scripts, and can therefore pitch it into stories for other formats - e.g. a Netflix series.

    In theory, this production process is community-driven, nimble, and a funnel for potential value-generation if a story succeeds and is sold to a producer for another media format. This is the approach that Wattpad are attempting with its community of fiction writers.

    The big 'IF' about this strategy is MeetCute being able to develop a strong community. Judging from a quick look at its Instagram and Twitter, and the stories its currently published, there doesn't seem to be deep engagement around people suggesting stories and having it successfully turned into a podcast series.

  5. Potential for the podcasts to create brand equity and serve as a funnel for other products and experiences

    If the Wattpad-approach to monetisation doesn't quite work, I think MeetCute could leverage dissatisfaction with existing dating apps and its brand positioning around 'Happily-Ever-Afters' to create alternative physical or digital world experiences that try to restore the magic in people meeting. There are people doing interesting things in this space - e.g. bighead.app from @Paari where people meet online behind anime avatars.

Final Thoughts

I love the idea of grounding products as emotion-transformation experiences. I think if a consumer experience reliably helps people feel better, it immediately stands out from the emotionally-draining experiences that monopolize most of our digital life.

While old RomComs carry a lot of cultural baggage of the pre-MeToo days, there is an opportunity to deliver the magic of a RomCom to a new generation of consumers. Doing so as a podcast that is 15 minutes long (in 5 segments of 3 minutes) is perfect for tapping into those small spaces of our day that could do with some more magic.

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