📖 Matter

The reading app taking the world by a storm!

Hello Folks 👋,

Writing a research-based newsletter every week is hard. Behind the scenes, it is a mess of unstructured data, press releases, tweets, and blog posts. To tie it all together and deliver on your weekly dose of First 1000, I religiously rely upon a small set of tools. Tools like  SubstackNotionGrammarlyRoam Researchand Figma are why First 1000 still exists.

Today we are diving into the latest addition to my indispensable toolbox: Matter.

My relationship with Matter started six months ago when I received access to their beta through On Deck. On the surface, Matter is the next evolution of reading apps, providing a seamless experience to queue and read articles. But as my relationship with the app evolved, I realized that Matter is much more than that. Matter is akin to a knowledge management system; it builds upon and expands my information diet in ways I didn't know were possible.

I hopped on a call with Ben Springwater a few weeks ago and discussed the product, their journey so far, and, of course, how Matter got their first 1000 customers.

We will be covering:

  • Origin story

  • Market Landscape

  • Go to Market Strategy

  • First 1000 customers

  • Matter The Product

  • Road Ahead

Origin Story:

Ben Springwater and Robert Mackenzie met during their time at Nextdoor. Ben joined Nextdoor right after graduating from Stanford Business School. Rob had been at Nextdoor for over 5 years, building much of the company's infrastructure and creating their growth team.

During Ben's time at Nextdoor, he tinkered around with side projects around content discovery. One of those was Tiny Bookstore. Tiny Bookstore aimed to improve the visibility of indie authors that he believed deserved a larger audience. While the project never materialized, he embodied much of its ethos in Matter.

Matter as an idea was born out of casual conversations at Nextdoor between Ben and Rob. Both quickly bonded over their love for reading, being power Pocket users, and their mutual frustration about how basic our current reading stack is. This line of the conversation went on for years before Ben and Rob decided to take the plunge, build a company and change the way we discover and consume content on the internet.

Market Landscape:

I spend a healthy portion of my time researching content for this newsletter. Outside the research process, however, I used to read email newsletters primarily. That was, of course, before I discovered Matter.

Newsletters were my shortcut to finding high-quality content, resulting in my inbox slowly morphing into my content hub. 

The rise of newsletters is a tiny part of a more considerable shift around discovering, filtering, and consuming content online. On a more macro level:

  • Content supply is getting unbundled with the meteoric rise of individual creators.

  • Trust in institutions is dwindling. [Pew Research]

  • We're consuming knowledge in more formats than ever before: Tweet Threads, newsletters, blog feeds, podcasts, news sites, etc.

The problem of finding and consuming content online is not new. A slew of companies emerged a decade ago to tackle this problem and help us organize, discover, and consume content from around the internet.

Companies like Instapaper and Pocket provided a better online reading experience by having a distraction-free minimalistic home to store content we encounter while browsing and read it later at our leisure.

Others like Google Reader and Nuzzel tackled the other problem of content discovery. Sadly, though, most of these content discovery apps have been sunsetted.

One plausible hypothesis why the previous generation of either content consumption or discovery apps didn't have an enduring success is that they were centered around RSS feeds. RSS feeds are problematic for multiple reasons.

First of all, they emphasize the where, not the who. I can subscribe to an RSS feed of a newsletter, but I won't easily receive the author's contribution to the other online publications. I inherently care much more about the individual than the institution, making this problem even worse for a publication like the WSJ or NYT, where hundreds of contributors exist.

The second problem that arises from building around RSS feeds is that it is just one of the numerous ways people consume content. Not every newsletter has an accompanying blog with a public RSS feed. Platforms like Twitter have recently abandoned native support for RSS altogether, and paywalled content, more often than not, doesn't have a straightforward mechanic to generate an RSS feed.

With the previous generation of companies failing to meet the shifting media dynamics, email rose as a new home for content. But, email is not a suitable alternative for many reasons. It was not built for consuming long-form content and offers no mechanics for discovering or retaining information. Email also places an unhealthy emphasis on recency, and much of the most insightful content written online has been around for many years, if not decades.

This opens up the field for a new kind of content consumption and discovery app. One that is centered around the individual creator not the institution. One where you can discover and consume content seamlessly in all its different formats. One built from the ground up to address and capitalize on the changing dynamics around discovering, consuming, and retaining information.

Go To Market Strategy

Matter was created to address two broad questions:

  • How we read ?

  • What we read?

Matter built a reading tool with powerful queuing, highlighting, and an overall fluid reading experience to address the first question. To the second question, Matter built a network of readers who could curate content and provide social context around their recommendation. Both worked harmoniously to create the magical user experience I have been shouting about to anyone who would listen!

But before the product came to life, Ben & Rob needed a high leverage test to validate their thesis that people indeed crave higher quality content.

The validation test they ran was a roundup newsletter curating content recommendations from public thinkers on Twitter. As they received signal and validation of the newsletter, the team moved with full-steam to build the Matter app

The Matter app was built on a number key number of fundamental beliefs:

  • 99.99% of the best stuff on the internet was not written recently

  • What you read is inconsequential at the moment but has a massive impact on aggregate.

  • Our default content filters are suboptimal at best. We miss out on the best content online because we never come across it.

  • Trust recommendations are crucial to improving our content filters and information diets.

  • People save more content than they can consume.

In the very early days, the unique selling point of Matter was its single feed of highly curated reading recommendations, which they bootstrapped off of the Twitter social graph of public thinkers. This very early Matter feature was, in fact, the productized version of their round-up newsletter.

First 1000 Customers

Matter released the Alpha version of their product on March 9th, 2020. The first dozen users were close friends of Ben and Rob.

Beyond the small group of friends, Matter needed a constant stream of the right users. Users where the highly-curated recommendations feed- the very first feature they developed -would resonate the most. In addition, they wanted users who would be of additive value to the platform. Users that can curate content that meets their very highly-set bar for recommendations.

Broadly speaking, Ben and Rob looked for users who are:

  • Power readers

  • Actively engaged in the world of ideas

  • Online and community-oriented

  • Have roughly, as a group, an affinity towards a set of ideas, themes, interests

These traits also served as a filter to how deeply they understood the problem space. A deep appreciation of the problem often translates into having an extremely high threshold for the solution. If Matter was able to meet that threshold, chances are, the end-product would blow away the minds of regular Joe's like myself.

They found their early adaptors on three large online communities and worked with the leaders of these communities to introduce the product to their respective members. Anyone who was not a member of these online communities was not welcome! The 3 communities were:

These groups were large enough to bootstrap Matter to a few thousand users. In particular, Ben & Rob chose these 3 because their members had a high level of affinity to the traits they were looking for in early adopters. At the same time, these communities had a high density of people with a wide range of viewpoints ensuring the platform was built on a foundation of thought diversity.

From the community leaders' point of view, Matter was a benefit they could offer their members. The benefit is having early access to valuable content and the opportunity to play a formative role in the design of the product and recommendations engine. As Ben would describe the process, "It was simple and straightforward, there was a sense excitement of having something that was built specifically for them!"

Matter the Product

Subsequently, Matter expanded their access to YC and On Deck. Both share many of the same characteristics of the original communities; they are cerebral groups of people who are constantly trying to learn and up-level themselves. This allowed Matter to systemically widen their target audience before opening the gates to everyone, which they did a few weeks ago.

Matter product continued to expand in their year of private development. The product differentiation features are subtle yet extremely powerful:

  • Curating a feed of people (v.s. websites): In Matter, you follow authors across the web and not the publication.

  • The social graph of highlights: You can follow and discover what people you admire find interesting.

  • Multiple modes of consumption: You can save tweet threads, switch seamlessly between audio and text on any article.

The result of crafting a product experience with the highest demanding customers addressing the fundamental changes accompanying the rise of alternative media is a product that people loved. Strong word of mouth would soon kick from the very early days. Back when they only had 1000s users, as you can see below!

Road Ahead

It has only been a few weeks since Matter launched their product to the public. As the company evolves to become the go-to place to discover and consume content, it will undoubtedly face a lot of challenges. The two I am most curious about are :

  • Measuring quality

    Measuring quality is hard. Insights, information density, and the author can somewhat be proxies to a high-quality piece. These signals, however, are relative and differ from a reader to the next. Building a product for the masses will require a more nuanced approach than manual editorial curation.

  • Hitting the right balance of personalization 

    The way I see it, success for Matter discovery is surfacing insightful content I wouldn't have otherwise discovered- preferably from obscure sources- that is tangential to my core interests and challenges my world views. This is no easy feat to pull off.

For everything they have achieved so far, I am cautiously optimistic about Matter team's ability to pull this off!

Until we meet next week 👋,

Ali Abouelatta