Interview: Corey Ford, CEO of Media Accelerator Matter Ventures
You can’t throw a rock in Silicon Valley without hitting a media start-up. But within that field, new and untested business models are the most important link to journalism’s future, said Matter Ventures CEO Corey Ford — and they need a space to grow.
Ford comes to Matter, formerly known as Public Media Accelerator, from Runway, the accelerator inside of Eric Schmidt’s venture capital firm Innovation Endeavors.
Matter (not to be confused with the similarly named long-form journalism start-up) has funding for at least two years from its investors, KQED and the Knight Foundation, each of which put in $1.25 million. A third partner, the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), will act in a more advisory role.
But as Ford recently told AllThingsD in an interview at Matter’s new working space in San Francisco, that doesn’t mean the entrepreneurs who apply to the accelerator between now and January 6 are applying to work for PBS or NPR.
In fact, just the opposite is true — although it’s possible some of the projects that come out of the accelerator could be of interest to public media companies, since Ford took over in April he has placed the focus squarely on sustainable for-profit business models:
AllThingsD: Why change the name from Public Media Accelerator (or Public Media X) to Matter Ventures?
Corey Ford: It’s a fundamental shift that we had to do. I started in April, but we were announced to the world as Public Media Accelerator before then, before we started developing what this is. At Stanford’s D-school (design school, where Ford used to teach), you come up with a problem statement to be “needs-focused and solution-agnostic.” You don’t want to embed the solution in your problem statement.
ATD: You want an abstract goal and a variety of solutions.
Ford: Right. The shift wasn’t because we don’t like public media. I mean, we love it, I used to work in it, and I care deeply about it. But, in order to innovate within this space, you can’t start from an institutional perspective. I know it sounds very Silicon Valley-y, but I think of this as a disruptive playground. It’s about the entrepreneurs.
ATD: So, why “Matter”?
Ford: I needed a name that had a value-based filter, something that created meaningful signals in the ever-increasing noise out there. Something that matters. The other thing about the name is that we are unapologetically about for-profit scalable entrepreneurship. There can be a false dichotomy between mission — “you have to be a non-profit” — and “you have to be money-hungry.” There’s a middle ground.
ATD: So the groups that you accept will all be for-profit entities …
Ford: … seeking a sustainable, scalable business model. What we didn’t want was people building a media property and just having their business model be, “Well, it’s good media, so foundations should fund it.” That’s fine, but there’s already other people doing that.
ATD: This is an overgeneralization on my part, but there are two big camps among media start-ups: aggregators pulling from existing content that’s out there, and those producing new content. Which are you looking for more?
Ford: It’s an open door. The best ideas are gonna be ones that we can’t predict and put out a call for. The whole world is much smarter than we are. We’re a platform to attract entrepreneurs. With that in mind, this could range from participatory platforms to, potentially, B2B-type services for existing media companies.
ATD: So, not necessarily making new journalism …
Ford: … but supporting those that already do. So, for example, if someone could redesign the pledge drive to help them have a deeper relationship with their audience and collect money in some way … Ultimately, at the end of the day, business model innovation is the thing that really needs solving. It’s up to the entrepreneurs to figure it out as they go.
ATD: How will your partnerships (with KQED, the Knight Foundation and PRX) work? Back when this was Public Media X, I had it in my head that this was somehow KQED’s accelerator.
Ford: I’m super-grateful for our partners. But KQED and Knight and any other partner we bring in will never have control over our investments or our entrepreneurs. That’s fundamental to the strategy. KQED can learn by being close to what we’re doing because, by definition, it can’t operate from a disruptive perspective. And if the entrepreneurs are working on something that may be interesting to KQED, they now have an instant audience that they can test it on, if they want to. But you can never cross that disruptive line.
ATD: You still want the entrepreneurs to have freedom.
Ford: Yes. What I say to partners is, “My job is to support entrepreneurs. They could be building something that looks very threatening to you, and if they do, I will be the wind at their backs.” You have two options then. Say, “I’m scared, I don’t want to be close to it,” or do what I think is the smart thing and say, “I want to be close to this because I can learn a lot from it.”