Unlocking innovation with design thinking: Matter’s Corey Ford

After an early career as a television journalist, Corey Ford switched his focus to media entrepreneurship. These days, at Matter, the US-based venture capital firm he co-founded, Corey and his team are focused on seeking out and mentoring the media innovators who are transforming the industry for the better.

Ahead of his keynote at SCALE17, we sat down with Corey to discuss design thinking – a core component of the accelerator program at Matter – and why failure is a crucial part of the process.

Tell us a little bit about your work at Matter. How does your program work?

At Matter, our mission is to support entrepreneurs and media institutions to build the future of media together. A strong media ecosystem is the bedrock of democracy, but it is now under threat economically, politically, and culturally. Matter is a place where innovators can experiment, discover, and build the next great media institutions.

We support media entrepreneurs by investing in them and supporting them through a rigorous, design-thinking-based, 20-week accelerator program in both San Francisco and NYC.  After a rigorous selection process where we only select 2% of applicants, we select six early stage media startups to be based in our SF space and six to be based in our NYC space. The program begins with a week-long boot camp focused on how to build scalable media ventures through a human-centred, prototype-driven process called design thinking. The teams then have four one-month design sprints and each culminates in a Design Review, where the startups pitch their ventures to a room full of mentors well before they are ready. The whole idea is to create a safe space for them to fail and get feedback so that they can quickly incorporate those learnings. The program ends with a Demo Day in SF and NYC where the teams get exposed to investors and media companies.

At the same time, we run a parallel accelerator program for our media partners, like The New York Times, The Associated Press, and McClatchy. They select internal projects to run through the program. They have their own boot camp and then they come to Matter every month to experience the progress of the entrepreneurs at the Design Reviews and then have their own Design Reviews to get feedback on their own projects from the entrepreneurs. It’s the mix of entrepreneurs and media partners that make the journey especially impactful for our partners.

You started your career as a producer working for the likes of National Geographic and PBS FRONTLINE, before going on to work as a design strategist. How has your background in design and journalism informed your career?

I started my career at PBS FRONTLINE and learned from the best in the world on how to leverage the power of character-driven narrative in order to tell impactful stories about the most important events going on in the world. I loved my job. But I recognized that the media world was about to change very dramatically and we were not ready to change with it. I wanted to learn how innovation worked so I left one of the best jobs in broadcast journalism to head out West to Silicon Valley. I landed at Stanford Business School and soaked up any much knowledge as I could about innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership. While I was there I stumbled across a little academic start-up called the Stanford d.school where they taught a process called “design thinking.” I had never heard of it before but I immediately saw that it was a creative process that you could use to start a company from scratch.  So I joined the d.school to help develop a model to apply design thinking to early-stage entrepreneurship. From there I got the opportunity to build an incubator for Eric Schmidt’s VC firm based on these principles.  After two years, I got the opportunity to build my own venture capital fund that combined everything I’ve done in my life – media, design thinking, and venture capital.  And that’s what Matter is.

When I left journalism and film, I thought that the skillsets that I had built and learned from the world’s experts in visual storytelling were not going to be relevant in the world of business. I was completely wrong. The number one skill that helps me be effective with my entrepreneurs is my knowledge of character-driven narrative. It applies directly to entrepreneurship.

At what point did you decide to combine design with entrepreneurship?

When I was at Stanford Business School I was learning a ton. I was at the heart of the world’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. But I felt like the curriculum came up short. All of the case studies would start with an entrepreneur who had already developed her idea. But, having come from a creative industry, I wanted to know how you go from having no idea to having the idea that you start your company around. This became kind of an obsession for me. That’s when I stumbled across the Stanford d.school, which teaches a process called design thinking. At the time they were only really applying it to projects with corporate partners, but I immediately thought that this process could be used to start a company from scratch.  I joined the d.school to work on combining design thinking and entrepreneurship and I’ve basically been working on it and implementing it ever since.  It’s the foundation of what we do at Matter.

Matter VC co-founder and managing director Corey Ford

What do you look for in the startups you work with at Matter?

Mission-driven teams who demonstrate the right mindset to be able to successfully navigate the fog of entrepreneurship. We have a very intense application process. Only 2% of applicants get selected and there are four stages. We have to believe that these entrepreneurs are a mission-fit. Do we believe that what they are working on has the potential to create a more informed, a more empathetic, and/or a more inclusive society?  And do they want to build a viable, scalable, for-profit venture to maximize that impact? Ultimately, though, it comes down to the team behind the venture.  The only constant in early-stage entrepreneurship is change. So, while the idea and product matters, we know it’s going to change. So you have to make a bet on the people first. We give our applicants a project that tests whether they can make hypotheses about their ventures, identify the venture’s key risks, knock down doors to find the right people to test those hypotheses on, synthesize and communicate the insights that they learn from those interactions, and decide what to do tomorrow with the imperfect information they have. That’s what it takes to truly be a successful entrepreneur. Can they navigate ‘the drunken walk of the entrepreneur’? That’s what we look for.

What have been some of your personal highlights from Matter’s startup accelerator program so far? Some of your biggest success stories?

The biggest highlights for me are the moments that look small on the outside but demonstrate the huge personal growth that our entrepreneurs go through. I love it when I come into the office and I learn that one of our entrepreneurs has decided to kill a feature, or part of their business, that used to be absolutely precious to them. It means they are truly learning and being iterative. We call it “killing your puppies.” I know that sounds gruesome. But the idea is that in order to make something great you have to make tough decisions to move on from ideas that you used to think were brilliant. Only through failure can you truly achieve innovation.

In terms of successes from an external point of view, the first investment we ever made got acquired by Buzzfeed. This team, GoPop, came to Matter with no previous knowledge of user-centered, prototype-driven design and no experience building on mobile. They learned that through our boot camp, ended up killing their initial product, building a new one from scratch, raising two consecutive rounds from one of the top seed investors in the world, and then were acquired by Buzzfeed to lead mobile product for them (having not had any experience in that before Matter.) Other stories include having one of our companies, Huzza, acquired by Kickstarter and turned into its live video platform, Kickstarter Live. We also have the fastest growing media company targeting Millennial Mothers. We have 61 companies in our portfolio to date and I am very proud of what each of them has achieved (and the failure they had to go through to achieve that success.)

Behind the scenes with Matter in New York

Who are some of your main supporters, on the publisher side or elsewhere?

Our investors are strategic media partners who both gain the financial upside of a venture capital investment but also gain the ability to transform their culture through our partner program. We began with three partners: KQED, Knight Foundation, and PRX. We’ve now grown to 12 partners, adding on The New York Times, The Associated Press, McClatchy, AH Belo, CNHI, Google News Lab, Google for Entrepreneurs, tronc, and Tamedia.

There is perhaps no industry more in need of innovation than the media and advertising industry. In your experience, what makes a media startup truly innovative?

I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why we built Matter, because the media industry needs to develop an innovative culture.  Their job is not just to come up with the ‘next big thing’. It is to develop a culture and process that constantly enables them to meet users where they are at, leverage emerging technologies, and seek new business models.

The world is changing at an exponential pace and the media companies that will survive and thrive are those that have the culture and processes to keep pace with it. So, what makes a media company truly innovative is its culture and processes. And the best way to diagnose if it has the right culture is to look at what failure looks like in the organization. Is failure a dirty word?  Or is failure embraced as a way to learn and evolve faster?

As well as looking at the relationship between design thinking and innovation, you’ll also be telling our SCALE17 audience about why failed experiments are important. Can you tell us about a time you failed miserably and bounced back?

Some of the most motivational books I’ve ever read have been by Seth Godin. He talks about fear a lot and I think it’s relevant here. He says if you aren’t feeling fear in your work, you aren’t doing anything interesting enough. So your job is not to avoid feeling fear. You should actually seek it. But your job is to be able to stand in fear, call it by its name, and continue onward. So when it comes to my own work, it always feels like I am on the verge of failing. Building Matter hasn’t been easy, and we are still proving our model out. Next year it could look like a failure. We’ve certainly bet on many companies that have failed. But you never will have the chance to innovate until to step into that fear and risk failing. But it’s not about seeking big failures, it’s about seeking lots of little failures so that you have the chance to achieve something big AND to make adjustments as you go.

Lastly, what can we expect from your talk at SCALE17? What do you hope the audience takes away with them?

I hope they take away the same thing that has been a part of everything I have ever worked on. I want them to recognize how creative and powerful each of them is. There is so much potential wrapped up in every human being and I hope to make them realize that they can unlock that potential. It starts with building a culture where it’s safe to experiment, take risks, fail, learn, adjust, iterate, and ultimately succeed.

Catch Corey Ford’s opening keynote on unlocking innovation with design thinking at SCALE17 on October 26. Details: www.scale17.co

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