Matt Galligan

Matt Galligan

CEO & Co-founder of Circa. Co-founded SimpleGeo & SocialThing. Musician, photographer & craft beer enthusiast.

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON January 05, 2016

Discussion

Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
Hey everyone I'm Matt Galligan, co-founder of Circa, SimpleGeo, and Socialthing. I've seen some big ups, some big downs, and hope to share my experiences, that they might be helpful to even just one person.
Josh Barkin
Josh Barkin@joshbarkin · Co-founder @ Janis.ai
Hi Matt - I heard at your LAUNCH talk that investors wanted to put Circa within the same category as Buzzfeed, WSJ, etc.. but you saw those news apps as in a different category. What key metrics mattered to you for Circa and what were the metrics that investors focused on to benchmark Circa with other big players in the News space?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@joshbarkin Thanks for the question, Josh. And thanks for watching my LAUNCH talk. It was good to get that all off my chest… All the "traditional" news outlets relied on advertisement to sustain, and thereby needed page views to get those advertisements to pay off. So therefore page views were their #1 metric. Because Circa was a mobile app for most of its existence, and because our goal was brevity we clearly weren't going to focus on how many "pages" someone viewed. The core metrics we were paying attention to were Daily Active Users, Retention, and the average number of sessions per day and per week. We focused a whole lot on retention because we believed that very soon page views would be going away, as a metric. That would be especially true if we began to consume our news away from the "home page." You're now seeing that play out with stuff like Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, etc. In my opinion, retention will be the #1 metric very soon. With Circa we got to the point where we were seeing the average user logging in 5 times a week, and of those people were logging in twice a day. We'd see retention for people that followed stories north of 60% even three months later. Definitely very, very high on the spectrum vs. other news outlets. We knew that if we could just spend the next phase of the company on user growth, and could maintain those metrics, we'd see a lot of success. Hope that answers your question!
Vincent Chang
Vincent Chang@flyaturtle · Evangelist
@mg Wow, your active users were quite active! That's such an encouraging thing to hear about users getting more engaged over time instead of less. What was your overall engagement rate, DAU/MAU? Did you have any issues in getting new users to activate and get engaged initially and what did you do to get them addicted?
Josh Barkin
Josh Barkin@joshbarkin · Co-founder @ Janis.ai
@mg Thanks Matt! Circa was a fantastic mobile-first news UX and I appreciate you sharing your lessons learned. Happy New Year and all the best in 2016.
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@flyaturtle @joshbarkin They got addicted on their own! As soon as we saw people start following stories, they were HOOKED. So the goal became far more about how we get more people to follow more stories. Our DAU/MAU ratio was about 1:4. So pretty solid!
Charlie O'Keefe
Charlie O'Keefe@charlieok
@mg @joshbarkin I was one of those addicted users ( https://twitter.com/mg/status/43... ). I hit a point where I was trying to find some kind of balance between staying informed on stories I considered interesting (which apparently was a lot) and not spending too much time in the app to the detriment of other things. Unfortunately, there seems to be a diverging of interests between a user who wants something useful and media companies who want more and more of users' time as a metric they are optimizing for. The pull of the endless scroll is hard for me to resist; I really want to reach 'the end' of a list of updates before moving on. If it's pulling me in too much, I'm starting to seriously reconsider whether this app is something I should keep using. Ten stories a day instead of 100 would have been awesome :) I'm wrestling with this now with Pocket and their 'recommended' tab.
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Hi, Matt! Circa was a beautifully designed app with a unique approach to news/editorial curation. In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@rrhoover Thanks man! And ohhhh what a question. What would I have done differently? 1. Do less news. Focus on quality over quantity. What would the experience have been like if we focused on 10 stories a day rather than 100? I'm thinking a whole lot better. We could have also had a more lean newsroom that way, which may have been a big longevity benefit. 2. Focus more on user growth. We spent too much time on retention, less on user growth. 3. We should have kicked off monetization stuff earlier. Probably a solid year or two earlier. Even if it would have been experimental. 4. We should have spent more time on fundraising from larger funds, than amassing all of the angel funding that we did. It was tougher at the end of the day to keep the show going when there weren't enough VC funds with skin in the game.
ian kennedy
ian kennedy@iankennedy · SmartNews, Partnerships
@mg @rrhoover The quality vs. quantity question brings up a point about how you were going to scale Circa. I always imagined the Circa newsroom as a huge mailroom sorting stories into a larger and larger number of storylines followed by your readers. Ultimately you would have so many storylines that things would collapse as you spend all your time sorting new incoming stories. How were you going to keep things going? Was automation part of the future of Circa?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@iankennedy @rrhoover We had a lot of really cool things that we were working on to help our news production. While it wasn't necessarily full-blown automation, we were building slick tools for our journalists to stay on top of stuff way easier. Beyond that I do think that we'd have found our way towards "robot journalism." But we'd have likely stuck to the stories where statistically-driven news would have been the use case. Think financial news, sports, etc.
Joe Cardillo
Joe Cardillo@joecardillo
@mg I wonder what your thoughts are on how early startups in general vs. news startups should proceed when it comes to monetization? It seems like the same sort of bind that any social platform faces, where waiting longer to monetize means more potential user growth but you are basically speculating on any real value
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@joecardillo @rrhoover It's pretty simple actually: you're either going for completely bonkers user growth or have a monetization strategy off the bat. If your monetization relies on users, then you'd better have a strategy for how something grows insanely fast. Or you go with the slow-burn and give users incredible value early on, reason enough for them to pay for it. "Back in the early days" is such a hilarious thing for me to say, but when we started Socialthing it was considered a major milestone if you were able to get to 1mm users. Now I'd say that's table stakes, and well within the first year of a company. The internet has grown up, everyone has a powerful computer in their pocket, access is cheap…expectations are now very, very different. Grow fast, make money on day one, or die. That's a harsh, but basic way of thinking about it.
Анна Савина
Анна Савина@bruno_and_magda · Senior editor at Insights.VC
Hi Matt! Thank you for the AMA! What are the main lessons you have learnt developing Circa? Why do you think it failed? What are the most interesting media formats you see today? Newsletters, explainers, apps like Buzzfeed News or maybe something else?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@bruno_and_magda Actually you should check out last week's This Week in Startups video podcast (http://thisweekinstartups.com/ne...) as it was the talk that I gave at Launch Mobile a few months back, a post-mortem on Circa. All of the reasons I feel like we failed, etc. The most interesting media formats I'm seeing today…well, I'll give you the pessimist's view for one: I'm really not that intrigued by anything out there right now. Nothing's pushing any real boundaries, trying bold new things. But I do think there's still opportunity. Many of the things that we did at Circa will find their way into apps and experiences again, so that I'm excited to see. As far as media in general though, I'm absolutely loving Podcasts. I think there's just so much more to be done there, and I'm watching companies like Gimlet Media like a hawk. Fascinated by what's possible there.
Willy Simonsson
Willy Simonsson@wiillyson · Founder of Sodio
Hi @mg, interesting to hear about your fondness of podcasts. With your hawk eyes, have you seen any particular problems/opportunities within podcasting that you'd be intrigued to jump on? Maybe podcasts is you next thing even?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@wiillyson @bruno_and_magda While I love podcasts, I doubt that's my next move. ;) We have to move beyond just listening for it to be effective. TV now has the "second screen" where people are in real-time interacting with others about their favorite shows. I'd love to see podcasts evolve where they can be more interactive in some way. It will take an innovative company (perhaps someone like Gimlet, NPR or PRX) to do effectively, but there's something to be done here. Right now podcasts are simply time-shifted radio. There is more to be done.
Adam Kazwell
Adam Kazwell@kaz · Product manager/observer
@mg @bruno_and_magda a wedge (http://cdixon.org/2010/12/27/the...) for podcasts, or specifically a podcast app might be finding a way to reproduce the highlighting behavior when reading a book....how can I quickly signal what parts of a show are worth listening to? Overcast allows you to share to a specific point in a show, would love if it surfaced aggregated activity to highlight which parts of a show were shared most often.
Adam Kazwell
Adam Kazwell@kaz · Product manager/observer
@wiillyson checking out Sodio now ;)
Nic Miller
Nic Miller@millerniclas
@mg Hi Matt! Advertising is still central for most media businesses. But there are most certainly issues when it comes to advertising and news. For example: bad advertisers, bad ads, the issue of ad-blocking, user experience disruption, creation of clickbait and most importantly the loss of trust from the reader (eg: native ads). Where do you see the ad-free subscription model going in the industry of news? And why wasn't this an option for Circa?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@millerniclas If I were to be completely honest, I think ad-free is a total pipe dream, or at the very least will be reserved for super premium content, such as a tech publication like The Information or like Politico Pro. I think that the example that I *always* looked towards was the structure of magazines. Magazines are a perfect blend of content, advertising, and advertorial. Think Wired Magazine. If you were to rip out 100% of the ads in it, it would be a considerably less interesting product. The same could be even more applicable to examples like Vanity Fair, GQ, etc. All of the examples that you give describe symptoms of a larger problem. Ad-blocking, UX disruption, Clickbait, loss of trust, are all clear indicators that the content provider itself is probably doing a very poor job, sacrificing a positive user experience for money. Those kinds of outlets will very quickly get flushed out. However, I think that outlets that focus on the user first will find that none of those above issues will really happen. In Circa's case, that's what we were pushing for. Subscription models for headline news will likely never work. We've even seen where the New York Times tried to charge for its NYTNow app (most similar to Circa) and it eventually went free. When information is freely available in many places, it's doubtful people will pay for it. That's why I think premium options will be reserved for premium, exclusive content.
Merrick
Merrick@mayorrock · Music Impacts Me | CEO
@mg yo, buddy. We've talked a lot about this stuff, but I don't think I ever asked: If you could go back and kill -- or not invested as much time in -- something that would have given you 3-6mo more, what would it be?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@mayorrock Hey buddy, thanks for joining in. Here it is: Less news. That's it. We could have focused more intently on just a few stories and likely not sacrificed the user experience. Towards the end we had maybe 3-4 people at any given time working on the news, as opposed to the 15 or so we had at our peak, yet readers didn't even notice. Focusing on less news, with a smaller, tighter staff, would have given us more runway and likely given us an opportunity to survive. But again, hindsight is 20/20.
Merrick
Merrick@mayorrock · Music Impacts Me | CEO
@mg Great insight though. Live/learn, right? Either way, I'm still very sad the product is gone. You did a great job and should be proud regardless of the outcome.
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@mayorrock Still very, very proud. Thanks so much.
Kingsong Chen
Kingsong Chen@kingsongchen · Dev
Hi Matt. What were some interesting ways that you grew the number of users of Circa?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@kingsongchen All of the user growth at Circa was organic. For 90% of the life of Circa we focused on what we felt like was the most difficult problem facing news: user retention. That too was one of our downfalls. We probably should have been happy when we got to a solid retention, and when we started seeing diminishing returns, turn our attention to user growth. There were a lot of things we were working on before Circa closed doors to get to positive user growth: One of those things was being able to allow any reader, no matter if they'd ever seen Circa before, to follow a story—our core feature. Because the app itself could even be a barrier for new users, the premise was that when you made it to the end of a story and saw something like "Want to know how this story plays out? Follow it with Circa and get notified." you might be more inclined to try it. We'd invite you to give us an email address or phone number to be able to notify when a new update dropped. The basis for this was to shift the goal to being less about blatantly asking for a download, and more about helping the reader identify the core value of the product first. Then when there was an opportunity to show them that value, such as with a news story update, we might then ask for the update. But alas, we'll never know how that would have played out. I do think though that there are ways that other apps could use this method…show the value first, then draw in.
Laura Gluhanich
Laura Gluhanich@lauraglu · founder, signal camp
@mg Hey Matt! Happy 2016! Lots of people here asking about Circa. I'd love to hear your biggest takeaways from creating then selling Socialthing and/or SimpleGeo.
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@lauraglu Building Socialthing and SimpleGeo was so much fun. I had the pleasure of working with incredibly talented people, on ideas that I was passionate about. Obviously when you're approaching a potential sale there's always going to be trepidation and big questions, but I always tried to keep the perspective that if we were able to find a larger audience for our product it would be a net benefit. We'd say "if we're doing this for the customers, ourselves, and our investors then it's a win." When Socialthing was acquired by AOL, it wasn't crazy in terms of the prices we see for acquisitions nowadays, but it was life-changing for me, my family, and for my teammates. But more importantly, that acquisition gave me some credibility that I was able to use to further my career in technology. I think plenty of people take that for granted and may not pursue a sale simply because it's not enough money. Getting credibility early on in a career is worth its weight in gold in the long-term. This whole "game" is a marathon, not a sprint.
Laura Gluhanich
Laura Gluhanich@lauraglu · founder, signal camp
@mg Great insights. I think we broadly tend to use the same metrics of success as VCs, which isn't necessary. A "smaller" win can still be life changing!
Sydney Liu
Sydney Liu@sydney_liu_sl · Co-Founder of Commaful.com
@mg Hey Matt! Thanks for doing the AMA :) Circa was such an elegant product. Was so sad to see it go and delighted to see that it will be returning to the world! What was the most surprising thing you learned about the product or from users as you developed it? Thanks! Sydney
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@sydney_liu_sl Hey Sydney, thanks for the kind words and the question! One thing that was always surprising to us was the sheer, vast differences in the reader behavior, or why they wanted to use Circa in the first place. We'd see everything from high school teachers using Circa in their curriculum to teach current affairs. They'd even assign stories to individual students to follow and learn more about. That was cool. We saw one parent who read a story about a potentially deadly infection that was happening in the Mountain States and after seeing bits about the symptoms, actually rushed their child to the hospital and confirmed they had said disease. Man, what an emotional thing to read about for us. We heard from people time and time again that they didn't read news before Circa—that we made it just so easy to understand and keep up with, that they actually found time to learn about their world because of it. That was always a powerful thing to hear.
Junius
Junius@juniusfree
Hi @mg My question is related to product development. How will you spend your time if you've got one hour to solve a user problem/need? Thanks!
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@juniusfree Well first that's a pretty major constraint! Let's hope that doesn't happen often for you! If I only had an hour to try and solve a particular problem I would focus on the user story the most. What is it that is happening, and why. I'd spend 30 minutes on identifying the problem, getting to its root cause as much as possible, and then 15 minutes on reframing the problem such that a solution could be found, then 15 minutes on the solution itself. In all of the time that I've built product, or worked with other companies to help them, most people have an inclination to spend the most amount of time on the solution. But that's the inverse of what should be happening—spend the time on the problem and the solution might just find you.
Lejla Bajgoric
Lejla Bajgoric@lejlahunts · Intern, Product Hunt
Thanks for being here Matt! What have you found is the best way to bounce back after those "big downs" you mentioned?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@lejlahunts Truly fantastic question, Lejla. This last year was a pretty tough one for me but I managed to keep my head up and get out without much damage. In so many ways I tried to focus on the bigger picture, and not sweat the small stuff (even though so much of it wasn't very small at all). We have to constantly remind us how privileged we may be, even if everything seems against us. We may have our health, family, friends, anything. Focusing on what matters most in life is probably the best cure. But beyond the big downs, we must also temper ourselves even in the "big ups" times. Finding a way to have an even keel through the both the ups and downs will help us become more successful in managing ourselves.
Harry Stebbings
Harry Stebbings@harrystebbings · Podcast Host @ The Twenty Minute VC
@mg thanks so much for joining us today Matt. Big fan of yours, my question is; if you were starting your career again and could chose any sector to go into, what would it be and why? P.S Would love to have you on @twentyminutevc and share your story!
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@harrystebbings Really appreciate the kind words, Henry. If I were to start my career over again, I would probably go into health. It's something that I've discovered for myself in 2015 and I'm becoming incredibly passionate about it. For my entire life I've taken for granted how I have this incredible machine that is my body, and am now spending more time and attention on it. There's so much potential to unlock in the space, be it fitness, preventative care, nutrition, etc. Helping people become their best selves would be quite a fantastic journey to be on.
Zach Kahn
Zach Kahn@zkahn94 · Lead Podcast Marketing @ Vox Media
Hey Matt, thanks for taking the time. What's next for you?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@zkahn94 Hey Zach! I've been doing my own startups for over 8 years now, three of them. In that entire time I never took a real break. In fact, I've never gone on a vacation for two weeks. Ever. First, I think I need to get that done sometime soon. But after that I'd really like to join a company and try to learn some skills that I otherwise wouldn't have achieved in building my own companies. I'm ready to take a back seat for a little while and learn rather than needing to drive. The goal is to find some sort of company who's product and team I admire, and join them in a product leadership role.
Jeff Morris Jr.
Jeff Morris Jr.@jmj · Revenue Products at Tinder
@mg Hey Matt, I've had the pleasure of getting to know you over the years and have always been impressed with how thoughtful you are. What is your process for coming up with new ideas? Where do you find your inspiration?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@jmj Thanks Jeff! It really means a lot hearing something like that from you, so I greatly appreciate it. My process is super organic. I don't have any particular playbook other than I just want to solve problems. In the companies that I've founded, they've all been born out of a particular problem that I had. It's much, much easier to think through problems when you're the potential customer. But if I were to be working on a product where I wasn't necessarily the core customer, I would spend the most amount of time possible identifying with that customer. Who are they? Why are they experiencing this issue? And what can we do to find an elegant solution that most effectively helps them? As far as inspiration goes, it ranges so far and wide. Everything from trying out a litany of different apps, to looking for bottlenecks in existing experiences. I mean, how many times have we tried to effectively split bills at restaurants? Even stuff like that is inspiration. Not necessarily for a direct product implementation, but to help uncover thoughts that might have been lingering regarding another problem. The key to effective product design and problem solving is to be liberal in your exploration of solutions. Spending all of your time focusing on one thing is a quick way to unimaginative solutions.
Jeff Morris Jr.
Jeff Morris Jr.@jmj · Revenue Products at Tinder
@mg Thanks for the insights Galligan. Great AMA.
Lisa Oberndorfer
Lisa Oberndorfer@oberndorfer · Reporter
Hi Matt! How do you feel about Sinclair re-launching Circa? Are you or anyone else of the original team going to be involved?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@oberndorfer Well, on that point I should be clear! Circa isn't re-launching. Sinclair had purchased our assets and trademark and are launching an entirely new experience (that I haven't seen) under the Circa brand. None of the original team is involved with what it is they're doing. I haven't seen it yet so I can't give you much of an opinion on that! What I can say is that I'll always be biased towards the Circa that was *our* Circa.
QueenLear
QueenLear@queenleariv · ConnectionAgent-Co-Founder @ButtonPoetry
Thanks for answering questions from curious folks! Much appreciated! You mentioned you've seen some big ups and low downs. Curious what might have helped you through the low points? Best practices? Any book recommendations as well?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@queenleariv Actually @lejlahunts asked a really similar question above! Check that one out. But as far as best practices I'd say definitely spend time on yourself, life, and your loved ones. One of the best therapies that I've found was just getting out and working out, which I had never done in my life. There's a book called Spark by John Ratey that I've been fascinated by and has inspired much of my newfound fitness. As cheesy as it may seem, you might also check out Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—it's a really interesting book about what may matter in life.
QueenLear
QueenLear@queenleariv · ConnectionAgent-Co-Founder @ButtonPoetry
@mg Thanks for the advice (and just saw that @lejlahunts asked as well... popular curiosity). I do think its funny that people usually tend to recommend Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a hint of apology for being cheesy or cliche. Great book! You've created wonderful things, wish you more of life's 'ups'. Many thanks!
ian kennedy
ian kennedy@iankennedy · SmartNews, Partnerships
Hi Matt, thanks for taking the time this morning. Circa was an early-mover in the "notification" layer on people's phones. Now every news app is sending notifications, some time-based, some topic based. What's next? Would you design Circa different if you were launching it today?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@iankennedy Thanks Ian. I think if I were to re-think Circa and go back to the beginning, I would actually focus even more on the notifications, perhaps even focusing on less news, but doing it even better. We got to the point where we were able to cover 100-150 stories per day with our small staff, but why did we even feel the need to write that many stories. 50% of our stories were followed by readers, which is awesome. But that also means that the other half weren't followed. We could have probably re-thought the user experience to go a little deeper on stories that were deemed more important by our user base, through what they followed. Honestly I think the way that 99% of notifications are being done is complete and utter crap. Even just the other day BuzzFeed News sent me this one: "Hello! Have 30 seconds to quickly catch up on the news? Tap or swipe for the day's top headlines." That was an instant app delete for me. That provides me absolutely zero value. ZERO. It's not a good user experience.
Ipsita Agarwal
Ipsita Agarwal@ipsitaag · PM. Engineer. Journalist.
Hi Matt! Thanks for doing this! :) Circa was certainly one of the most unique and beautiful products in news in the last few years. I believe that in news, innovation in product is as important as innovation in monetisation strategies. Paywalls don't seem viable, unless the content is very specialised. Native ads are hard to do well, without sacrificing user experience (or, in some cases, trust). What are your thoughts on monetisation of news? What sort of experiments on monetisation do you think are likely to work?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@ipsitaag That's a *really, really* tough problem, and it's one facing literally everyone in the news business right now. While native ads are hard to do well, I think those that do it well will ultimately be very successful. Unique content is critical when considering monetization. The less unique the content, the less likely a strong monetization strategy will be found. But beyond all of that, I think we're seeing other ways of making money…e-commerce, conferences, etc. all are now viable additions to content strategies. Diversification of business will be key moving forward.
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
Hey, thanks everyone for your great questions. This was a lot of fun. By all means, if you've got more to ask feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. I'm @mg. Cheers!
Aditya Gopal Ganguly
Aditya Gopal Ganguly@gopcruise · Developer, Practical Knowledge Labs
@mg Hi Matt, was a big fan of Circa. I am starting up in the digital media space, what advice would you give to someone starting up in this space? Further what should be the most important KPI for a digital media company? Do you see robots removing real writers in the near future?
Matt Galligan
Matt Galligan@mg · CEO & Co-founder Picks & Shovels
@gopcruise Go where the readers are. Don't try to create your own experience…growing an audience that way is *incredibly* hard…something we found out the hard way. Retention and reach will be the most critical KPI's moving forward. Building a churn machine where you see lots of folks in the top of the funnel, but don't come back, is building a leaky bucket. I do think that for a few examples, robots can legitimately replace humans. Financial news, sports stories, anything statistically-driven. No problem there. But when we start talking about more human problems, stuff where empathy would be necessary, it'll be a while before robots encroach there.