First Contact Transcript

Episode 30: Evernote Founder Wants to Save Us from Boring Video Calls

Read the transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeartRadio.

Phil Libin: It’s very natural, whenever something like this happens to focus on the negative, because there’s so much negative. It’s actually much harder, but I think ultimately more productive to also focus on what’s better than it’s ever been and how do we, how do we lean into that? How do we fix the problems but also how do we just like lean into the stuff that’s already better and make it exponentially better? That’s where that innovation comes from. So much of innovation comes from taking advantage and, and, and further exploring the things that are possible now for the first time ever.

I think we all kinda cringe these days when we hear the word ‘unprecedented.’ But there really is no better way to say it – we’re living in unprecedented times.

And while it’s easy to get hung up on a lot of the negativity around us, Phil Libin also sees opportunity.

Our new hyperconnected lifestyles have revealed weaknesses in the tech we use every day. But new problems lead to new solutions.

That’s where innovation comes from.

Phil is probably best known as the co-founder and former CEO of Evernote. These days he heads up a company called All Turtles, whose latest project mmhmm – yes that’s right, it’s called mmhmm – wants to save us all from the Zoom apocalypse.

But before we get to Phil – I want to tell you about something new from Dot Dot Dot. It’s something I’m really excited about. It’s our first newsletter called The Gray Area.

Each month The Gray Area confronts the complex issues facing technology and humanity – issues that aren’t black or white. And each edition of the newsletter will feature an unfiltered opinion from a big name in tech.

Our first contributor is not so coincidentally today’s guest on the show, Phil Libin. And if you’re listening to this, it’s out right now!

So don’t miss out. Sign up at Dot-Dot-Dot-Media-Dot-Com/Newsletter.

Ok, so let’s start the show. I’m Laurie Segall, and this is First Contact.

Laurie Segall: I’m excited to, to interview you. You’re a long-time entrepreneur. Serial entrepreneur as they say in the business, right? You are a co-founder of Evernote you now co-founded All Turtles which we’ll get into and we have Mmhmm which is, I’m not just saying that for our listeners but that’s a part of All Turtles and we’ll get into that too. But you’re just a fascinating uh, entrepreneur and an interesting voice and, and I’ve known you throughout the years. And we always start these interviews with our first contact and how we first met and, and I am racking my brain to try to remember how we first met. Do you remember that?

Phil Libin: I don’t but I was prob- I want to say that it was like, at some conference probably overseas somewhere?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But I- I don’t know why I think that. Yeah.

Laurie Segall: And it must have been… I mean it must have been when you were full-time, too, with Evernote, because I always knew you as Phil from Evernote. You created Evernote which you know, was, was very successful and, and was huge for productivity so I, I think that’s… it’s always interesting to see founders do very different things throughout their careers too, cause you’re in a whole different stage of your career now too.

Phil Libin: Uh, yeah. Yeah it’s um… I think I started my first company in, in 1997. So I guess I’ve been doing this for, you know, 23 years. Did I do that math right? Yeah I did that math right. 23 years. I’m old. Yeah. 

Laurie Segall: By startup standards that’s- that’s significant.

Phil Libin: Yeah, yeah.

Laurie Segall: What was your first company in 1997?

Phil Libin: It was called Engine 5, because uh, it was originally going to be five of us, but then two people chickened out, we’d already bought the domain name, so we just kept it as Engine 5. Uh, we were one of the first kind of dot com companies. I remember walking around saying, “Dot com dot com” a lot. We built uh, shopping carts for some of the first like, eCommerce uh, sites. Like we worked for Etoys and Barnes and Noble and stuff like that. Back in the beginning of the, of the kind of commercial internet. And honestly it, it, it feels… it feels like we’re going through a similar thing right now uh, with uh, kind of the emergence of video as a fundamental thing for everyone.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. I’m always fascinated by – and we can get into this – these moments of disruption. And how it certainly seems like there’s so much change happening right now because of the pandemic, because we’re all kind of glued to our screens to some degree. It certainly feels like there’s a lot of disruption which is um, part of why  you’re doing what you’re doing. But going back I, I read something about when you were younger you came here, you lived in the Bronx? Right? You, you grew up in New York in the Bronx and you said something about how you just got into computers. You weren’t cool enough to hang out with the gangs? Or something?

Phil Libin: Yeah the gangs- the gangs wouldn’t have me. 

Laurie Segall: Like I just- I also like I want… because people can’t actually see you, so I want them to envision you right now like, you’re just like this… I mean, I don’t want to say nerdy but like you- you have like-

Phil Libin: You can say nerdy.

Laurie Segall: You know? Like you’re kind of like a nerdy guy like with glasses like … so that was a very funny statement to, to be coming out of your, your mouth. Can you tell- what- where did you come from? What was it like and, and how did you get into, to this idea of computers as a kid who just couldn’t be accepted by the gangs in the Bronx?

Phil Libin: Yeah well, I was born in what used to be the Soviet Union in uh, in a city that used to be called Leningrad and now St. Petersburg and uh, came over as refugees with my family in 1979. Uh, I was eight I think. Uh and yeah we settled in the Bronx in uh, right in the middle of it, a place called Parkchester which was uh, pretty… you know, it’s a pretty, pretty rough neighborhood uh, back then. And um, yeah I think I… I just got lucky. I remember kind of begging my parents for my first computer, you know? I think I saw my first computer in junior high school and then I probably got one when I was you know, 11 or 12 or something like that and uh it’s like an old Atari 400. and that was it. And then you know, for the next however many decades it’s been I’ve been a dedicated indoorsman, sitting at home hacking around on my, on my computer.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And it definitely let me survive the Bronx because it would have been tough otherwise.

Laurie Segall: Why? What was… I mean god it must have been extraordinary to come to New York during that time, like 1979 right? Like that just must have been a really interesting time I- I can’t even imagine.

Phil Libin: Yeah, it was, it was… I mean, it was so different, obviously, from what I was used to.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But I- you know I- at that age like, at eight, it’s easy to adapt to anything so I didn’t really… I didn’t really think too much about it.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But yeah it was, it was fascinating. The neighborhood was um, you know, was extremely diverse. Um, you know school was very unpleasant until I got to, until I got to high school because basically, you know, I’d barely spok any English I was, I’m kind of um, as a kid I was very like, punchable. You know? I was kind of like-

Laurie Segall: What does that mean?

Phil Libin: I was like, I think I, well… I had a combination of being… of thinking of myself as being smart and so I was probably pretty smarmy and pretty condescending. But I also didn’t speak English very well, and I was also very physically uncoordinated. I was exactly the kind of kid that would like trip over my own shoelaces. And we were poor so I didn’t have… like you know, it was easy to kind of make fun of you know, whatever clothes I was wearing or something.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So it was just like a combination of things. So school was very much uh, not great. But you know, I had, I had a computer. I had a few really nerdy friends um, and yup. That was good enough. And then by the time I got to high school, I went to Bronx Science uh, which was kind of this like nerd magnet school and so things started-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Things started getting a little bit better. After that uh yeah after that I kind of followed the, you know, the typical nerd trajectory.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Had a lot of good luck.

Laurie Segall: What was it about computers, or what was it about that world that was interesting to you?

Phil Libin: I remember it being s- like the idea that I could write something and it did something, was kind of amazing. I’d like- just like, learning to program when I was, you know, a little kid like the, the- it literally felt like magic, right? It literally felt like casting a spell. Like I would like say these words and write these symbols and then like, stuff happened. It was like the feeling of agency that I could actually like, make things happen uh, was, was, was you know, pretty significant and really, really pretty uh, you know addictive. Uh and of course at that time like, no one really knew what they were doing so it was easy to like be teenager and know how to program and do it more or less as well as professional programmers of the time since there was relatively few and so yeah I was able to get part-time jobs pretty quickly and it was just a very, very fortuitous thing. Like if it wasn’t for… I have literally like, had I been born 50 years earlier I have no idea what I could have possibly been doing.

Laurie Segall: And you went on to… I mean I think I think I said you sold your first company for like, $500 or something when you were, when you were really, when you were very young. Very, very young.

Phil Libin: Yeah that was- yeah in high school.

Laurie Segall: In high school.

Phil Libin: So that was before Engine 5. So like in high school I started a company and we called it uh… we called it Perseus Data Systems uh because uh, we took out the Dungeons and Dragons, you know, D&D’s and Demigods book and we just kind of flipped pages and-

Laurie Segall: Uh-huh.

Phil Libin: We were going to call it Hermes first, because like Hermes was fast, but then we were like, “Nah, that doesn’t sound right. Hermes sounds sketchy.” So we decided Perseus Data Systems was the name. But yeah we sold that for 500, 500 big ones which is just 500 ones. But yeah.

Laurie Segall: But like in high school, that’s a really big deal. Like, you must have seen like, “Whoa, I’m onto something pretty big” because $500 for an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley now is like nothing but like $500 in high school is pretty big deal.

Phil Libin: Yeah, I mean I was working at Carvel Ice Cream at the time, like my, my, you know, my summer job or like my part-time job was like scooping ice cream at Carvel and I got fired from that. I couldn’t… I wasn’t, I was not competent enough uh-

Laurie Segall: Why’d you get fired? What’d you do?

Phil Libin: Well I couldn’t make the… I lacked the physical dexterity to make the soft serve cones. Uh, cause you know, when you’re making the soft serve cones you have to like… you’ve got the cone, you’ve got the soft serve machine, but you can’t just like put the ice cream down the middle of the cone because then you wind up giving away too much ice cream. You have to like twist the cone at an angle so the ice cream just goes around the edge but doesn’t go inside the cone. You’re kind of cheating the, the customer out of… you know, they think they’re getting the full cone but they’re not. And I just, I lacked the physical dexterity to like turn it in time so I always wound up like giving away twice as much ice cream and I got fired over that. But I pretended… I- in my brain I resigned for, for ethical reasons because I wasn’t cool with like, cheating people out of half their cones. So that’s what I told myself. I’m like, “No. This is- this is unethical I’m out of here.” But really I got fired because I just couldn’t- I couldn’t do it.

Laurie Segall: That’s amazing.

Phil Libin: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: That’s amazing. If it’s any consolation I was like, the worst waitress ever in high school so… But you- I- it looks like you went on to accomplish some pretty, pretty great things. So let’s-

Phil Libin: Medium things.

Laurie Segall: Yeah, yeah… great things. So you went on and you uh, you co-founded Evernote, and I want to get on to kind of the whole disruption happening in media right now and why you have a cool background and all that kind of stuff but what year did you launch Evernote?

Phil Libin: Uh, 2008. Uh-

Laurie Segall: 2008?

Phil Libin: Yeah, we launched the Beta… so Evernote was uh, there was two companies. Uh-

Laurie Segall: Yeah,

Phil Libin: I had just sold my second company, or was still in the process of selling my second company and we were in Boston with my team and we sat around trying to figure out what we wanted to do and we decided we wanted to … we actually had this really good uh, discussion about this. We, we said, my first company was this eCommerce company, and with the same team after we sold that we started the second company which was a security company that sold to like, big banks and governments and we were- we were sitting around in 2007 saying, “I’m tired of thinking about what the customer wants. Like I just don’t care. I don’t care what banks want. I don’t care what governments want. I don’t care what eCommerce stores want. I want to make something for ourselves. Like, what do we want?”

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So we just made a list. This was the same co-founders and some of them said uh, “Oh we like video games. We should make a video game company.” And we got excited about that but then I was like, “Ah, there’s already so many great video games and I really don’t have time to play them, like I don’t think we really need more video games. Like that’s not our role.”

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Then somebody said, “Oh we really like this new social media stuff.” And I remember getting excited about making a social media company, but then I said, “Oh, but there’s already MySpace and no one can beat MySpace. Like we just- we’re too late.” So we decided not to do that. And then we said, “Well what about productivity? We like, like feeling productive” and like, existing productivity was basically Microsoft Office and it hadn’t changed in 30 years and it wasn’t on smart phones and so we thought okay yeah, that’s, that’s good. So we started working on it in Boston and then there was this other team in California led by Stephan Pachikov who is this brilliant uh, Russian American kind of… an entrepreneur and inventor and he had a team of people working on this like, cognitive prosthesis idea and so there were two companies that we kind of blobbed them together in 2007 and relaunched uh, kind of what was the modern Evernote.

Laurie Segall: It’s always interesting to hear how these things come about, right? Because yo- you’re right we have like a hero narrative and it’s all this kind of stuff but it’s like you guys were sitting in a room being like, “All right we’re sick of hearing what banks want. We’re sick of hearing what, you know, what other people want. Like what could we do?” And you’re sitting here being like, well no one can compete with MySpace, let’s do productivity. Right? 

Phil Libin: Exactly. 

Laurie Segall: I know that sounds, you know like, in some, in some way shape or form like that’s kind of the birth of Evernote, is like you couldn’t compete with MySpace. You know.

Phil Libin: Totally. Yeah, we were like no- “No one’s going to beat MySpace. It’s too late.”

Laurie Segall: Right. Which, which like… technically like wasn’t really true, I mean, well- actually not technically. That wasn’t true. Facebook came along and like, annihilated MySpace but um-

Phil Libin: Yeah wi- like in a few months. Basically.

Laurie Segall: Yeah like, a few months later.  But aren’t you- I mean, but technically, are you glad that you didn’t, you didn’t create like, Facebook? They have all sorts of issues, but um… or, or maybe who knows? You could have created the next Facebook. But Evernote ended up being a pretty interesting app at a pretty interesting time because 2008 was a fascinating time for, for startups and tech and I, I, I feel very near and dear to 2008, 2009 because that’s around when I started covering technology and, and it was such an interesting time for technology and, and I- you know, because I, I think we were in a recession, there was a lot of constraint. It wasn’t really that cool, to go to Wall street and there was a lot of creative people, I would say, like yourself who were having to d- who were doing different things and who were seeing that there were a lot of broken systems to some degree. And I, I think that a lot of interesting-

Phil Libin: Yeah,

Laurie Segall: -a lot of interesting things came about a- at that time and, and it seems like Evernote was something that kind of popped out of that time. A lot of different- a lot of different technology came out of that time.

Phil Libin: Yeah it was uh, I think you know technology follows these S-curves. Something big happens as a big disruption and then there’s like a ton of activity and a ton of investment and huge amounts of innovation and then things kind of slow down and people start talking about, “Oh, is the innovation over?” And you know, and things kind of get, get to a flatter point and then right away there’s like some other new disruption. And it kind of follows these patterns. I can definitely trace those back since the start of you know, I started working probably like the mid-90s, like 93, 94 and there have been a few of those cycles. Like first there was PCs, just computers. Then it was the internet. Then it was mobile. You know? Then it was AI and now it’s all this. It’s, it’s the hybrid world. It’s video. It’s the post-pandemic reality.

Laurie Segall: That’s what you think it’ll be, I mean and so let’s break that down. I mean I- you know, mobile. I remember mobile was such a big thing like I- like you know 2008 we had the recession, you had the- the iPhone had come out. The app store had launched. You had a bunch of entrepreneurs creating all these ideas and, and coding them into the hands of millions of people. And, and that was such an extraordinary thing. And then we’ve heard a lot about AI and where it’s going to go and, and whatnot and you think the next iteration, really is, is video in some, some capacity and how we’re communicating with each other. Like right now, people can’t see us but we’re, we’re looking at each other over Zoom and you have a cool background that’s much cooler than my background which is my staircase. But you have like a cool virtual background that’s not one of the Zoom backgrounds. It’s, it’s through your company that we’ll talk about but, but you think that’s kind of the next area of disruption because out of these periods come disruption.

Phil Libin: Yeah, well first of all your real background is much cooler than my real background, cause I’m just sitting in my tiny apartment like, in front of a green sheet. Uh, so, yeah. And, and I’m kind of glad people can’t see us because uh… it’s like close to 100 degrees in San Francisco and we can’t open windows because you know, the air’s on fire so- I’m, I’m definitely not looking my best right now. Um but uh, but yeah. I think it’s exactly right. I think um, you get these massive disruptions and uh, everything changes. It’s very natural, whenever something like this happens to focus on the negative, because there’s so much negative and to focus on the problems and to, and to, to think how we, how we might be able to get close to what we used to have before. And it’s actually much harder, but I think ultimately more productive to also focus on what’s better than it’s every been and how do we, how do we lean into that? Well, what are the superpowers that we were all just given because of the pandemic and the emergence of video and obviously there’s a lot of problems but there’s also some glimmers? There’s some things that are better than they’ve ever been. How do we fix the problems but, but also how do we just like lean into the stuff that’s already better and make it, make it exponentially better? And that’s where that’s where that innovation comes from. So much of innovation comes from taking like, taking advantage and, and, and further exploring the things that are possible now for the first time ever.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And there’s just like examples of that. Like once, once I started thinking about it in those terms I can see examples everywhere, and then yeah. We can just, we just double down on, on, on the ones that we think are going to be the biggest.

More from Phil after the break. And make sure you sign up for our newsletter it’s called The Gray Area and it’s out today. Go to dotdotdotmedia.com/newsletter to make sure you don’t miss it.

Laurie Segall: I wanna go back to finishing off Evernote. Because I do think we tell a bit of a heroes story. With Evernote I mean, you know, I just, I always hate to, to interview people like you who are, on paper, pretty successful, uh, very successful and, and in Silicon Valley and-

Phil Libin: Moderately successful.

Laurie Segall: Uh, like whatever, you’re successful in Silicon Valley standards. And part of the inside baseball crew. And, and, uh, you know, and, and people come and, you know, and, and pitch you ideas for funding, and you’re doing all sorts of different things. But, but, you know, being an entrepreneur is really, really hard and, and very difficult, and there are all sorts of problems that come along with it. Um, so before we get into kinda the, the disruption that’s happening now, you’re, you’re a much seasoned entrepreneur now. What would you go back and, and say to yourself back, back then? What do you wish you knew then?

Phil Libin: Well, I- I certainly didn’t create Evernote. I, I co-created it with-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … with several other really, really brilliant people. And I was, I think, very, very privileged to, to be part of that crew for a long time. Um, I think seasoned entrepreneur is an interesting way of- of putting it. And I only realized this very recently and I wish I had realized it sooner. Um, imagine like, let’s just say that you’re a skier, let’s say you’re great at skiing, I am clearly not, like I skied once in my life, and never again. Uh, but let’s just say you’re, you know, you’re a great skier and you’re like in your twenties and, you know, you’re skiing, I don’t know, moguls. Is that a skiing thing? I, I’m not good with sports.

Laurie Segall: I’m, by the way, I’ve skied once in my life too. I’m, uh, you’re not in, uh, you’re in safe company here.

Phil Libin: Okay. But let’s say like, you know, we all have friends who are good skiers and they’re, you know, let’s just say in their twenties, they’re, they’re like going all out, and they’re, they’re doing, they’re jumping and they’re doing kinda crazy things. And, you know, you kinda know that they’re, yeah, they’re sorta screwing up their knees a little bit, but, you know, it’s worth it, because, you know, it’s- it’s fun and they’re really good at it. And, you know, you got to be a little bit careful. But, um, no one expects that by the time they’re in their forties or fifties that they’re skiing the same because people are like, “Well, yeah.” Like knees are hardware. So of course there’s gonna be wear and tear and they’re gonna, you know, like, yeah, by the time you’ve been skiing for 30 years, you know, maybe you’re 50, you’re a much more experienced skier. You’ve got 30 years of experience, but you’re just not gonna be as good, you’re not gonna be able to do the same stuff.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: ‘Cause just physically, you’ve kinda been banging up your knees for 30 years. And that doesn’t surprise people because, again, people think that knees are hardware. But somehow people think that your brain is software, right? They think like, oh, well, you’re running a company and you’re doing all this extreme stuff, and you’re an entrepreneur, and it’s all high stress. And it’s endless days. And you’re doing it in your twenties, like, sure. Now, now if you’re doing it at 20 years later, like it must be easier because you’re experienced, right? Well, yeah, it’s, you’re more experienced but you’ve also been beating up your brain for 20 or 30 years. And, you know, your brain is, is also hardware, just like your knees are.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And the, the stress and the damage accrues. And you have to, and- and there’s ways to mitigate it but you have to be very intentional about mitigating it. And you can’t do the same things as an entrepreneur in your, in your thirties, and your forties, and your fifties as you could do, you know, in your twenties. It just doesn’t, it doesn’t work the same way. And we’re, no one is taught that.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Like we’re sort of taught to assume that like, “No, no, no. This is, this is what you do, you go all out and, you know, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a completely, uh, all encompassing pursuit.” You know, being a startup founder. And, um, yeah, and if you’re on your fifth company, I’m, I’m currently on my fifth startup, mmhmm, it’s my fifth one. Then it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’ve d- done all this before so it should be easier.” And in some sense it is because I’ve done a lot of it before. So I kind of know, you know, where the- the ski jumps are. But a lot of it is harder because I’m, you know, 23 years older than the first time I did it. Uh, and I didn’t realize that. I didn’t think of it like that, I didn’t think of the, like, the brain is no more, you know, software than your knees are until, until pretty recently. And I, and I kinda wish I would’ve. And I think then I would’ve, uh, you know, I woulda just been more mindful about, what am I doing to take care of my brain and how do I, how am I managing stress and relationships, and everything else kind of in a more, on a more day-to-day basis. And I think a lot of founders don’t do that. Uh, and I think I woulda been a better CEO and a better founder had I taken that seriously earlier and not been quite so cavalier about, uh, what my limits were.

Laurie Segall: So how do you do that? Asking for a friend.

Phil Libin: Well, not very well, uh, yet. Uh, you know, I guess the first step is just being aware of it.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And like not brushing it off because I very much used to brush it off. I was very much like, “Yeah, that’s, that’s not a thing.” Like work life balance, like, “What the hell is that?”

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Uh, so just being aware of it, uh, is important. And then, uh, you know, look, I, I’m in San Francisco, uh, a few years ago there was a law passed that required all CEOs and VCs to get into meditation, like we had, there was like a mindfulness bill, there was like strict penalties for not meditating. So, you know, I followed the law, I started meditating, I became, you know, more mindful, uh, I, uh, a few years ago I decided to take my health seriously. I think when we first met, I was probably 90 pounds heavier than I am now. Um, so, uh, you know, I had to do, uh, I had to start taking that seriously and figure out how to, how to get into like a, some, some amount of mindfulness, an amount of wellness-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … an amount of, you know, fitness. And just, uh, doing things that I never considered important before because I never cared about myself. And I still don’t care about myself that much. I’m still primarily motivated by the impact.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But what I didn’t realize before is that like the impact I could have is directly based on what kinda shape I’m in.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And if I don’t care about myself, I’m just gonna be in very bad shape because like running a company, especially a startup, is very much physically damaging. Uh-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … and so unless you take care of yourself it’s just, it’s- it’s not, it’s not the way to maximize your impact. So I guess if I had to, everything to do all over again I would’ve, I would’ve had that realization when I was 25, not when I was 45. Uh, but then, uh, it’s interesting, I actually think like the pandemic has caused me to professionally adopt all sorts of behaviors that I never had before, which I’m hopeful will last, uh, post-pandemic because I think they’ve been really useful.

Laurie Segall: Like what?

Phil Libin: Um, okay. So like, well, this is in the spirit of like not focusing on what’s not as good-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … but focusing on what’s better. So I thought, okay, man, um, I make… this is gonna suck, working, you know, remotely because I make so many important decisions-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … just like going on a serendipitous coffee walk. Like I’ll run to someone at the office- and I’ll be like, “Let’s go, let’s go walk for coffee.” And then we’ll walk for coffee, and we’ll make some important decision. And I was very much like an in-person, person, impromptu like that. And, oh, I can’t do that anymore. How, like how’s things, how are things gonna operate? And I really miss that. And then what I realized just in the past few months is, well, I can’t do that anymore because I’m not physically around people to go for coffee walks. But actually making important decisions by randomly running into someone and then walking for coffee is not a great way to make decisions, because like everyone else feels out of the loop and it’s not properly documented.

Laurie Segall: Hmm.

Phil Libin: And the people who don’t happen to be remote aren’t like full citizens. And so the fact that we couldn’t do that forced me to say, “All right. Well, I guess I have to like communicate much more in writing.”

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: Like over slack over video. We have to like make plans, we have to stick to plans.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: I can’t, I can’t rely on the people who I like, therefore they’re the people that I go coffee walking with. You know, like that can’t be the- the… like I have to, I have to be able- to work with and make decisions with people who I wouldn’t normally go for a walk with just because, you know-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … I just didn’t mesh as well. And that’s harder, it’s like harder for me, ’cause I’ve had to change, you know, 20 whatever years of- of management style. But it’s so much better, right? Because obviously like if, like forcing myself to do this right is much more scalable habits and, and hopefully even after the pandemic like I am going to be doing a lot more, you know, written plans and, and thinking about how to communicate and doing stuff like that.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Because it’s clearly a healthier way to run a company.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. We all, to some degree, become more accountable in writing, and then, you know, uh, in, in this form of communication.

Phil Libin: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: To some degree.

Phil Libin: Well, like, um, you know, we live in Figma now, it’s like, I love Figma, it’s like my favorite part about, you know, going to work everyday. It’s like getting on Figma, seeing what everyone’s doing, seeing what everyone’s done from the night before. Like it’s great. And we have a lot of like creative meetings in Figma. And at first I thought, man, this isn’t gonna be as good because, uh, we used to do a lot of like brainstorming in person, we would like cram into a conference room, and we would like put, put, you know, sticky notes on, on whiteboards, and like do all sort of stuff like that. And we can’t do that in Figma, well, we can do, you know, something similar. But I thought, like, the creative brainstorming isn’t gonna be as good because we’re just gonna miss that like in-person vibe. And, and it’s true, we miss the in-person vibe. But what I noticed is like all the sudden, oh, man I’m getting a lot more out  of like the relatively shy employees this way.

Laurie Segall: Huh, yeah.

Phil Libin: Because I guess it turns out that like I can be an overbearing ass at an in-person meeting. And it’s, and I’m not quite-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … you know, that’s harder to do when we’re like in Figma, and voting on things by putting dots. And so all of the sudden like, I’m noticing the contribution of people who were frankly like wallflowers before.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And like that’s amazing, right? Because like it turns out their talent and their productivity is not correlated to like how willing they are to interrupt me, the CEO, in person and say, “No. I think that’s wrong.”

Laurie Segall: Yeah. 

Phil Libin: So, you know, we’ve like put up, put up a structure to allow that and all of the sudden, like, yeah, I just feel like productivity has just gone like way up. Uh, so like that’s good. That’s a, that’s a positive effect of this world. So how do we, how do we do more of that?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So all sorts of things like that. In fact, I think my, my work style. I, I’ve never had a period of- of this much change. And I think the vast majority-

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Phil Libin: … of it has been for the better.

Laurie Segall: Wow. That’s, um, that’s great. I, I feel like I’m medium, like  I think it’s, it’s actually kinda dot, dot, dot. It’s to be, to be determined, right, on, on my end, right? It’s, it’s a, it’s a constant struggle. Sometimes I’m like, “This is amazing.” And sometimes I’m like, “Well, you know.” I’m not 100% sure of because especially in a creative world you sometimes rely on those in-person interactions. And so I think that’s, uh, it’s probably a good way to segue into what you’re doing now because it’s, you know, it certainly feels like the video, the way of like traditional video and how we interact and, and the, this idea of remote work, it seems to some degree broken. If the future is remote work and, I’m not, I’m not sure what the future of remote work is, I think to some degree we’re all gonna want human connection when things open up again. But will things ever go back to nor, quote, normal. Uh, you know, I, I don’t know if we will have a, quote, normal. We’ve really seen that we can do a lot of things easier over video and whatnot. And I think that’s kinda the, the premise for what you’re launching, um, with mmhmm, right? Did I say it correctly?

Phil Libin: You did.

Laurie Segall: And so, you know, so first of all, tell us, tell us a little bit what it is. And it, it’s under the umbrella of All Turtles, which is, you know, something that you launched, uh, a while back. Which, which I love that you kinda compared it to, to Netflix, right? This idea of like the, the Netflix model.

Phil Libin: Right.

Laurie Segall: Um, so and that’s a lot to kind of pack in there. So, so maybe we start with, with All Turtles and, and it’s this idea that, you know, if we’re looking at technology, um, you kind of talk about tech being a little bit broken in how they, they do things. And you kinda like the Hollywood model and, and that’s how your, your next iteration, All Turtles, kinda came about. And mmhmm is under that. So let’s, let’s start with All Turtles.

Phil Libin: Well, uh, yeah, so we started All Turtles about three and a half or four years ago. Um, so basically after Evernote, I thought I was gonna semi-retire. And so I, I became a VC, I, I became a, um, a managing director at General Catalyst, which is a, an amazing fund. But I realized after about two years that I just wasn’t like, just wasn’t very good at being a professional investor, I don’t think I’m that good at it, uh, and, uh, I didn’t enjoy it very much. But I think I didn’t enjoy it because I wasn’t particularly good at it.

Laurie Segall: Hmm.

Phil Libin: Basically people would pitch me and I would get excited about the idea. And, um, uh, Hemant, my- my partner at, at General Catalyst, um, at one point took me aside, like in the beginning and he’s like, “The mistake you’re making is you hear these pitches, and you’re excited about what you would do with this idea. But that’s like a terrible way to make investment decisions about it. Because you’re not gonna do anything with this idea, you got to get excited about what these founders are gonna do with the idea.”

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And I was like, “Yeah. That’s actually totally true.” Because as a CEO, like I hear a good idea, and like I don’t really care who proposed it, like I can, like I can think of all sorts of things, I can like assign people to work on stuff. But totally not how, how venture works. So that and other reasons I wasn’t that good at it. So, uh, started All Turtles, which is a, a product studio. And the idea was, uh, we just wanna build worthwhile products for the world with as little nonsense as possible, as little of the, the nonsense that the Silicon Valley style, like VC startup treadmill produces. Just a lot, you know, a lot of the myths that go around it don’t actually make any sense.

Laurie Segall: Like what? ‘Cause can we just talk about all them right now? There’s so many myths. Like, uh, you know, I feel like there’s just a lot of stuff that just gets said and thrown around, and then people just start believing it and-

Phil Libin: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: … and it’s just like a self fulfilling prophecy. So just name a couple.

Phil Libin: Yeah. Well, and- and, you know, because, uh, the conventional wisdom doesn’t get to be, isn’t true, right? It didn’t get to be conventional because it’s true, the conventional wisdom like gets to be conventional because like it’s easy to repeat while sounding smart.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: So there’s like no, no correlation between like how often people say something and how true it is.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: In fact, sometimes it’s- it’s inverse.

Laurie Segall: Like, like what’s your least favorite one? Just c- come on, Phil.

Phil Libin: Well-

Laurie Segall: Like what, what’s your, which, which one do you hate the most?

Phil Libin: Uh, well, the- there’s a whole category that I call focus.

Laurie Segall: Uh-huh.

Phil Libin: Uh, and like focus is a thing that only exists like in hindsight.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Phil Libin: Like if you’re successful you’ve achieved exactly the perfect amount of focus. If you’re not successful then either, oh, man you just didn’t do enough, you were like too narrowly focused and, you know, you’re like the TAM, the Total Addressable Market wasn’t big enough in what you were doing. Or, oh, it’s like too diffuse, you did too much stuff.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And so like you, you can only have the right amount of focus in hindsight.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And yet the most common advice VCs give entrepreneurs is to focus and I’m like, “Boy, that is such a not useful piece of advice.” Because like unless you’re coming back from, you know, 10 years in the future telling me like-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … it’s just not useful right now.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: You know, another one is typically it’s hard to invest in anything unless you think it could be a multi-billion dollar idea. And so entrepreneurs are very much incented to pretend that all of their ideas could be multi-billion dollar ideas, otherwise it’s, you know, it’s hard to get investment. And that’s weird, right? Why, why should that be the case? Why should it be that, the only worthwhile ideas are ones that might be worth, many, many billions of dollars?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Um, it makes sense for VCs, like the way that VC math works, it totally makes sense. But that’s not good for the world, that’s not good for founders. You know, I, I did, I did this back of the envelope math, when I was starting All turtles, I did this back of the envelope math, and I looked at… now this was back in like 2017. So it’s changed a little bit since then, the industry has gotten a little bit better but not, not by much probably. But I did a little bit of math and I said, “Okay. What makes you likely to get a top tier Silicon Valley series A round done?” Like just, you know, just top tier VCs, you know, the top 20 or 30 of them, uh, in Silicon Valley? Top tier A round, what does it take? And I did a little bit of math and it turns out there was basically six factors that like contributed, that predicted like how likely you were to get a good, a good A round from a tech VC in Silicon Valley. So if you were male, white, or south Asian, between the ages of 21 and 27, with a computer science degree, or engineering. Like basically with a computer degree, from Stanford, and you still live  within 50 miles of Stanford. If you were those six things, you have like some, some odds, let’s just, normal like you have to say one. 

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: Like you had some chance.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Obviously still really hard, and there’s nothing wrong with being those things. But like if you were all six of those things, let’s just say your, your odds are normalized at one.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: For every one of those six things that you weren’t, your odds dropped off by an order of magnitude, by, by-

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Phil Libin: … by two to 10X for each thing, for each of the six things. So a lot of the deals that wound up getting done, all six things were true. And, you know, sometimes, pretty often it would be five out of six. Sometimes four out of six.

Laurie Segall: Wow.

Phil Libin: Almost never less than that. Like the number of deals that only three out of those six things, things were true are fewer, very low. So if you were a, you know, 40 year old woman in Tokyo, that had studied architecture, you know, you could be a Mozart level genius, but you’re not, you’re not, you’re not getting into the, the startup ecosystem. And there’s a lot more people like that than there are the people that meet these six things.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And so that’s like a massive, massive, massive inefficiency. And again, I’m not like faulting the VC industry for focusing on that. And, and a lot of them are getting a lot better now.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Because it makes sense. Like you can, you can, you can make a lot of money and there’s a lot of great innovation that comes out of those things. But how, how could that possibly be more than 1/10th of 1% of the total possible important innovation in the world?

Laurie Segall: Right, right.

Phil Libin: Uh, so we, yeah, so we basically made a studio to try to, to try to, to not have that, that, that kind of lens, to try to take a much broader lens. And, uh, yeah, we’re working on it for about almost four years, it’s been really hard because it’s a new model.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But, you know, now, now we’re starting to see some successes, so it’s starting to feel pretty good right now. And, yeah, mmhmm is our second, spin out. So not, we, you know, we work on things that we don’t, when we start it we don’t really care about is it gonna become a startup, or is a big company gonna own it, or whatever. Like we don’t, we don’t focus on the legal en- entity of the product first. We just wanna make the, the product. But then some things will then become individual startups that spin out and, you know-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … we’ve done a couple of those now, and mmhmm is the latest.

Laurie Segall: Well, it is interesting, you talk about, those numbers are staggering. Unfortunately, like I could, I could act shocked and I, I wish I had like more of like a appalled, whatever. But it just like, you know, you cover this stuff and it isn’t even surprising, right?

Phil Libin: No, of course not, right.

Laurie Segall: Uh, you know, which is, which is, which is u- upsetting but it’s just not even surprising. And, and it’s interesting, you know, and there’s a lot lost because the types of products that are developed just aren’t as interesting. And, and aren’t as widespread and you know, won’t impact, I think the world in, in the same way when they’re developed by the same, um, just those factors. You know, when you, uh, those types of, of people. And I think it’s interesting, when I was looking through the portfolio of the, the folks on, under All Turtles, like I, I think Replika is under there. We’ve done a lot on, on Replika.

Phil Libin: Yeah, yeah.

Laurie Segall: Um, which is founded by Eugenia Kudya, who’s a fascinating entrepreneur from, from Russia who is creating these AI chat bots that people are befriending, and they’re helping with mental health, and there’s all these interesting ethical issues. But it- it’s such a fascinating, fascinating, um, use of technology that could not be more human, that I almost feel like, it would take such a different type of entrepreneur. Uh, uh, you know, and, uh, she’s the exact type of entrepreneur, I think, that that is so interesting. And so, uh, uh, it was cool to see that in your, in the portfolio under there. And, and I, and I do think what you’re talking about with the Netflix model was, was interesting, of, giving people the ability to just go kinda create, um, and, and looking at almost like Hollywood as the model for, you know, helping people create different companies.

Phil Libin: Yeah. Uh, we kinda thought about it like this, like let’s say, a thought experiment, let’s say that, um, you are one of the most naturally gifted and talented musicians in the world. Like you are a Mozart level genius musician, you know, one, literally like, you know, one in a million, right now. Well, um, what do you, you don’t have to make a music company.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: You just play.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And the platforms exist, like YouTube and others, where if you’re really like Mozart level genius, like, yeah, your music will reach, you know, millions of people and, uh, you can focus on what you’re amazingly good at.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Let’s say you’re one of these like, again, one in a million super brilliant, you know, writers. You don’t have to like start a publishing company, you can write. And those platforms exist where you’re gonna, you know, be able to- to get to a big audience. But if you’re like a Mozart level, one in a million genius like product creator, you have to start a company first? Like we tell you like, “Oh, yeah. That’s a great idea. Here’s the Wikipedia page on how to start a startup. Uh, here’s what, for an AI evaluation is. Go raise some money.” Uh, and like first become a mediocre CEO of this like fragile little thing called a startup, and then we’ll talk about your product idea. What the hell? Like why? Why, why would that be the way that- that we wanna make things in the world?

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: It’d be like Stanford saying like, “If you want to work in the physics department of Stanford, you have to be a world class brilliant physicist, but you also have to like play the clarinet at like a professional orchestra level.”

Laurie Segall: Right, right.

Phil Libin: Thems the rules. And like, you know, if we did that we would get a lot of amazing physicists at Stanford who were also world class clarinet players, because there are people like that. But like not most of them.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And so-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … so why do we just, why do we like glom these two totally unrelated things together?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Some people are, are great at being early stage CEOs and are brilliant product people. But for the most part those are not directly connected. So yeah, so, so when we said Netflix model, that’s what we meant. It’s like, if you’re one of the worlds most brilliant like filmmakers, let’s say you just graduated from, you know, film school, and you’re a really gifted filmmaker, and you wanna make a movie, you’re not like, “Okay. Right. So what do we do? So first we have to start a film company. And we have to get some money from seed investors. And then we have to like hire an HR team. And then like, we can like start making our movie, right?” That’s not, no, like what you’re thinking is like, “Okay. I got to pitch this to Netflix. I want my movie made at Netflix, or at HBO.”

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And so the, like these full stack studios attract by far the best talent, they make really creative stuff. It’s not like they’re making derivative cookie cutter things, I mean, of course they are.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But also they make really original stuff, totally globally, totally worldwide. Like every, in every, like in, in dozens of countries in the world. And we just wanted to do the same thing. We wanted to like, we wanted to do that but not for movies and TV shows, we wanted to do that for tech products.

Laurie Segall: Right. Which is really interesting. And, and also kinda gave birth to, I say it again, mmhmm. So talk, talk to me about it’s, let’s like set the scene. It’s, um, March, maybe, April? You know and we all start communicating and having to switch to remote work. And, and it happened almost abruptly and, and it was clumsy and weird. And we had a lot of feelings, and we’re all battling our mental health and, and, you know, and, and things are getting lost in context and we’re all having to deal with this kinda new way of work. And the Zoom apocalypse is upon us and, and half the population figures out what Zoom is for the first time. And all these things are beginning to happen. Um, and then what is going on in your head? We don’t have to make this the perspective story. But like the aha moment for you, is what?

Phil Libin: Yeah. So we were, I, you know, we sent everyone home and went into quarantine in early March.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Phil Libin: Uh, and, um, uh, at that point I think we had eight or nine things going on at All Turtles.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Phil Libin: And, um, you know, the worlds the world’s falling apart. Uh, economy’s in free fall. And, uh, we had an all hands meeting, which we never really used to do before, but we decided, okay, well no we are working over video, so let’s do all hands. So we, we did an all hands meeting and I said, look, um, my priority right now is not to fire anyone. Like what I’m going to optimize for is I don’t want to lay anyone off. Like I just don’t want to lay anyone off during the pandemic. And like that’s very much not the advice that a lot of, you know, entrepreneurs are getting, uh-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … back then. Uh, but I’m like-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … and, and I get it. I get that sometimes the right thing to do is to immediately lay people off because you kind of have to survive. Like I get it.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: I just don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like doing it. I’m like, I’m like, I’m old enough, I’ve done this enough. Like, you know, we had very little money, but I’m just going to try to optimize for not laying people off.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And, you know, it kind of got the team around that. And started to say, look, these are the things we’re working on, let’s figure out what to double down on, what to pivot, we can’t assume that we can get any more investment. So assume that investment markets are totally done so basically we have to get to profitability, and then we just all go heads down. And, you know, the team does really well on a bunch of different projects or the teams. And we’re just working. We’re just heads down every day, uh, and it’s, it’s hard, it’s tedious, everyone’s got different, you know, different, uh, life uh, circumstances obviously.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But we spent a few months doing that. And then in early May I think, I’m just sitting around just bored because of how tedious living on video is. It’s just like, “Oh, I’m so tired.” And everyone-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … looks so crappy, and it’s like, um, and, um, I had this green towel, um, camping towel, but a green camping towel, like it was pretty small. And so I just hung it up on the wall behind me. Like, it didn’t-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … cover the whole frame. It was just had like a type of stupid towel hanging behind me. And I just started experimenting, projecting, like i- in Zoom, just like using the Zoom green screen  functionality to just put like different pictures on this camp towel behind me-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … just to like liven enough the meetings a little bit. I think the first thing I ever had there was like the, like the, the super frowny picture of Anthony Fauci-

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Phil Libin: … like glaring-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … like have over my shoulder as I would talk. And, you know, and like I started having meetings with this and I would show art back there and people would like it and they would laugh. And then I got Steve who is one of our engineers and our, my co-founder at, um, uh, and we started you know hacking around with it, uh, and pretty quickly it just became obvious like that this was, this was the thing. So within a few weeks it went from, you know, the two of us kind of part time hacking around like really as a joke-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … to kind of being like, no, I think actually like everyone who sees it really wants it and asks like, well, what are you doing? How can I start doing it? And so we decided to make it into a, into a product and it took off from there, but yeah, it’s been really, really fast.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. And and, described exactly what it is because you did a demo for me, which is kind of cool and, and described exactly what it is. It’s kind of like this interactive experience of all the things we’re frustrated with, with Zoom, kind of trying to optimize to make it seem a little bit better. Is, is that a safe way to say it?

Phil Libin: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: I feel like it’s downplaying it. So, so you do a better job of it.

Phil Libin: No I mean, like the one, the one second pitch  is, is, it’s like instant weekend update, right?

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: It just lets you uh, very quickly do this uh, very familiar style of, you know, being like John Oliver or like a newscast-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … or like somebody on, on SNL. So it just lets you choose what room you’re in. Like your phy- your, your, your-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … your physical room and you have like lots of different options. I’m sitting in this like little cartoon paper world with cute ducks and, you know, clouds and uh-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … and trees, but you know, I can be, uh, I could be in something that’s a lot more, um, kind of fancy and realistic-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … if I want to have a fancy bookcase or…

Laurie Segall: I know, I should say like for our listeners, like, first of all, you just had like the weekend update kind of box that like we see on SNL. And then now you’re, you look like you’re in, like you know people have like these Zoom backgrounds where their heads disappear and it’s like kind of upsetting in the middle of like a presentation… and no one wants to say anything, but like, you seem like you’re in like a beautiful apartment that like none of us could afford in New York City right now. That’s kind of like what I would describe it as. This is like a fun game. I feel like every background I can just describe it to our listeners. 

Phil Libin: Yeah, so, do this one.

Laurie Segall: Oh no. Um, you look like you’re like a Grateful Dead fan. 

Phil Libin: Yeah, yeah. This one, this one was maybe not, not for early in the day, but yeah.

Laurie Segall: Or, or you look like, I mean, what, this looks like the smart drug phase of Silicon Valley in your background.

Phil Libin: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Right?

Phil Libin: Yeah, yeah.

Laurie Segall: Um, it’s kind of like a, um, a, I don’t, like stained glass church windows with a little psychedelic effect. How was that? 

Phil Libin: That’s quite good. Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Thank you.

Phil Libin: Man, we should get you like write the descriptions for, for these things.

Laurie Segall: You know, creator, storyteller nonetheless.

Phil Libin: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: All right. Yeah.

Phil Libin: So I can basically, I can choose, you know, I can choose backgrounds. Uh-

Laurie Segall: Oh, really cool.

Phil Libin: … this is, uh, a scrolling kind of Game of Thrones style, you know, paper map or-

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Phil Libin: … something. Uh, I like-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … I think this one’s my favorite. I think like this one it’s like nice and calm-

Laurie Segall: Well-

Phil Libin: … paper waves.

Laurie Segall: Yeah, right?

Phil Libin: Uh, and then I, and then just have a screen and uh, the screen behind me I can just show kind of whatever I want to show. I can choose where, you know where it goes, what site it’s in, uh, and I can do presentations like this. So if I’m, um, you know, if I want to present a slide rather than having to share my screen, I can just, uh, you know, I can shrink and I can fly around the screen and I can, you know, point to things-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … you know, this way. Um, so just makes it really easy to, um, make this really visually compelling, uh, communication. And I can do that by myself. Uh, we have a copilot modes so two people can do this kind of at the same time, I can make recordings that are interactive. And so it’s a, it’s a, it’s a way to liven up everyone’s performance over video-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … either like in a, in a Zoom call or, or, you know, on a video call or when making content, when making videos or as a replacement for sending boring PowerPoint slides around.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: That’s the, that’s the main idea.

Laurie Segall: It, you know, what’s interesting is it’s not cheesy, um, if that makes sense, right? Like you know, to, to some degree, like you talk about you’re shrinking and people might not know what that looks like, but, but it seems pretty seamless. This sounds like geeky to describe over, over like a podcast, but there is friction when you’re sharing your screen and everyone’s awkward, and in these video boxes, and I think maybe the tech person or the tech journalist kind of always says like, okay, something’s broken here. Like everyone’s awkwardly waiting, people are hoping that they don’t share anything awkward on their screen, right? And when you do that, it, it certainly looks like you’re experiencing something different, right? And new, and, and can you do that in a seamless way. So I can understand, you know, the, the point behind it, and so I think this is like, it’s interesting to see all the things you can do with it, right? And, and this idea of like if Zoom is going to be the future to some degree, and who knows if once this is all over if we’re going to be on Zoom at all, but I have a feeling it will be on Zoom to some degree. Um, you know, what is the upgraded version of media and, and interactivity? And, and that seems to be what you guys believe that, that, Mmhmm which I want to get into why you named it Mmhmm, because I feel, I don’t know why. I just feel awkward saying like Mmhmm into the mic many times, but, um, but you know, why you guys believe that this is kind of the future of how we interact with each other in, in the remote environment, right?

Phil Libin: Yeah. I think that the, I think that the initial idea and like the very first product, like the, what exists now, is basically, it’s really, it’s really simple. Most people who are good at their jobs in, in many, many industries are also good performers. So, you know, if you think about like the best teachers you’ve ever had, like those teachers like knew that they were performers and were good at performing. And like the best doctors are performers, obviously the best journalists are also performers. The best bankers or the best you know, entrepreneurs, like all of us have to perform, right? All of us have these like multiple times a day, these like little micro performances where we say like, “Hey, like, look at me, I’m doing a bit over here.” Maybe we’re just doing it for our kids or our friends-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … or, or our boss or whatever. And, what’s happened is now that we were all forced suddenly to do it over video, none of us knows how to perform anymore. And so we’ve just lost a lot of the effectiveness of everything because you lose the basic like showmanship and the basic personality if you’re just an anonymous head in a box on video. And you know, like your, the, the gestures don’t quite work the same way, and you can’t like point if you’re like showing slides, if you’re doing it in-person, you can like, you can like practice like how to, how to point to things and then how to like shrug. But if you’re performing over Zoom and you’re like just doing a presentation, people, you either asking people to choose between looking at you or looking at your slides and not both at the same time. So you just lose like all of that basic showmanship capabilities. And it just made everything worse, like shockingly worse, because all of a sudden we went from a world where people who were kind of at the top of the game inherently knew how to be somewhat memorable to, well, none, none of us know how to do this now.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And so we were just trying to fix that. We were just kind of trying to say like, there’s actually no reason that stuff over video needs to be boring. In fact, like obviously we have TV, right? We have Saturday Night Live. We have movies. There’s plenty of… There’s is whole industries of people that know how to be quite entertaining over video, it’s just that the rest of us don’t. And actually those, those people don’t either over Zoom, because it’s a very different tool set. So let, can we just, can we just improve people’s performance? Can we just in- re-inject personality into this? And so we, we thought, you know, we thought a lot about, uh, Mmhmm and what you did in the product. We were like, and we decided specifically like we are not a communication product. We’re not a collaboration product. We’re not like where your team gathers to do work. Like we’re not trying to replace Figma or Slack or any of these other things. We improve your performance. Like what, what you do in Mmhmm is you perform, you have a micro performance. And we’re very focused on that. And, and there’s just not a lot of people doing that, uh, surprisingly-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … I think there’s going to be now. Um, so that, that’s, that’s it, like that’s the basic idea, right? It’s like we were all boring on video, but we, and, and being boring is bad because it’s like makes us ineffective in our jobs. That’s part of why, you know, online learning is so difficult, but there’s no reason-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … that, that, that, that education over video has to be boring. Like I was, um, you know, back, back in the real world, I was on the speaking circuit. I would once in a while, you know, through some poor set of decisions people would pay me to go and give a talk about something, usually entrepreneurship or something, something, right? And, you know, I’m, I’m okay at it. Uh, like I was, I was an okay professional speaker. And uh, was talking to my speaker, my speaking bureau uh, a few months ago, and they were like, “Man, yeah, like online, like the whole industry is just dead. Like no one wants to pay for, um, for, for people to give speeches online because they’re like, they’re boring and it’s like they’re not engaging, and like you can’t compete with like people’s kids running around and you can’t hold their interest.” And I’m like, “I can.” Like-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … you, you can’t because you suck at speaking over video, but like-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … when I do it it’s okay.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And like, you know, those people had the same kids running around last year when they were watching the final season of Game of Thrones and they had no problem, like HBO had no problem holding their attention.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: So let’s just like, let’s just not try to replicate the old style, let’s do something native to this medium and it can be quite good. And when I give a speech now about, you know, naming or branding or whatever, like it’s much better than I used to do it in-person, because I can like fly around the screen and point to things with my head and show graphs, and I couldn’t do these things, in-person before.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So, so that was really the idea. It’s just like, let’s just make people entertaining again so that the world can start being effective and not like-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … dreary. And then from there, it obviously became a much bigger thing because I think you’re right, I think this is a once in a generation transformation of the entire world.

Laurie Segall: So what does that mean for how we communicate when you say this is a, a once in a generation transformation of the world, what as a tech entrepreneur do you think will be completely transformed?

Phil Libin: Well, um, so I think the main change, uh, is this, right? Is that everything is hybrid, and, you know, for your listeners I just put up a slide that says everything is hybrid ’cause you know, I’m very literal. So everything is hybrid from now on, and, uh, really hybrid I think like this, like imagine, the spectrum of in-person to online, right? There’s like some stuff that’s in-person, some stuff that’s online, and then there’s a different dimension of live or pre-recorded. So if you kind of cross these two things, you’ve got to, you’ve got a two by two, you got four quadrants, right? In-person, live, online and recorded. And in the before times, you know, eight months ago, almost every experience fit neatly into just one of these quadrants, right? So for example, like music concerts were in person and live what and like doctor’s visits, were it person and live, but like YouTube videos were online and prerecorded.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And it was pretty rare for something to exist in more than one box once in a while, but pretty rare. And the big change now is because we’re doing so much stuff over video, the boundaries between these boxes is melting away and-

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … we can rebuild every single experience as a combination of live plus in person plus plus pre recorded plus online, we can

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … we can remix each of those things. Um, and this is a massive transformation. Uh, and it’ll continue after we emerged back, you know, blinking into the sun, uh, because it’s better than it ever was before. Like for example, for healthcare, right? Like if I had to, you know, make an appointment to see a doctor before, you know, eight months ago, I’d have to like pick up the phone and like be on hold and then like schedule an appointment and then drive to a doctor’s office and then sit in the, in the lobby and wait, and then like finally get in person and, and, and talk with the doctor who was like trying to get me, to get rid of me as quickly as possible, because you have to see, you know, 50 more patients. Why? Like I’m never doing that again, right? It’s obviously much better to just be able to like hop in online and not drive and you know, not have to wait and, you know, get a lot more attention, uh, and have things explained to me kind of correctly. And also like the doctor doesn’t have to explain everything to me live. I can just click around and do stuff myself. And if I need to come in in-person for something, you know, lab test or something, then I can do that, otherwise things could be mailed to my house. Like that is the hybrid experience and it’s better than the, than the only in-person experience. And I think the same thing is true for education and for sales, for like all these other things.

Laurie Segall: It’s better, right? It’s better if you can still maintain some sense of humanity because what I think we all struggle with right now is, um, you know, this, this experience right now, um, this is great because we have the things in the background and I can see you more animated and whatnot. But, um, man, if I were able to see you in person, wouldn’t it be extraordinary. We haven’t seen each other in so long, you know? And, and so how do you replicate and it not replicate because you talk about not wanting to replicate that, right? But how do you recreate a new experience that feels, uh, rewarding and human and how do you utilize technology to do that? Because right now, I think, and we’ve, I’ve talked about this for a long time, but technology does make us, and we were in a moment where technology we’re all questioning does make us feel lonely or worse. You know, we, we’re looking at mis information. We are looking at like a time where kind of the pendulum has swung one way and we are at a moment in the pandemic where we’re relying on a lot of these, these platforms to make us feel better and they’re not necessarily bringing us more human connection and if anything, it’s kind of quite the opposite.

Phil Libin: Yeah. I think, I think that’s right. I think there’s, um, I think there’s kind of two really important philosophical concepts of what you just said. One is, yeah, you’re totally right. Like it’s not about replicating the old reality. Uh that’s, that’s a really big thing, right? If you think about replicating the old reality and with a new set of limitations and technologies like it’s always going to be disappointing because the old reality was built using the old technology and limitations and you can’t replicate it. So, if you, if, if, if your success is like, how close can you get to the old reality, you’re always going to fail.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: S you can’t replicate it. You have to, you have to redesign it, right. You have to do it native to the new reality.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: The example here is, um, you know, if you imagine like, um, uh, imagine, um, some of the very first movies ever made, like the earliest films, you know, from the teens and 20s, 1920s, they had, they hadn’t had film cameras, but they hadn’t been meant that anything else about the movies and so what they knew was theater. And so they were just trying to replicate the re- the old reality, which has actors on a stage. And so they would just like film actors on the stage. And early films are really weird because that’s all they knew. They had invented like close-ups into camera shots and cutaways and editing. But a few decades later you had the first like native to cinema directors and they invented all the stuff and we have movies. And movies were a totally different thing than theater, but for awhile, people were thinking of them as like, “Oh, it’s a very poor substitute for theater.”  I used to go to plays here and like now they converted it to, to a movie theater and they show these movies and it’s just an inferior version of theater. Well, yeah, because they were just trying to replicate theater. It took a while for it to become a totally new thing. And the same thing happened with television and obviously the same thing happened with, you know, with, with Smartphone, right? So when we started 2007, 2008, Smartphone were a new thing and existing companies knew how to make desktop apps. So like Microsoft knew how to make Microsoft Word and so the first generation of Smartphone apps were like a shrunken down version of Microsoft Word to fit on a smaller screen. But obviously, like, that’s not that isn’t what anyone wanted. And so –

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … it, it took a few years for things like Evernote and Dropbox and Uber and Airbnb to come around to be like, these are native. We’re not trying to replicate computer PC applications on your phone, we’re trying to make a totally new thing that couldn’t be done before. Same thing is happening with video, right? Like Zoom saying, okay. So, uh, meetings, right. Meetings where a bunch of boring people sitting in a boring room together for an hour with an agenda, and, um, they can’t all be in the same room together. So how do we get as close as possible to replicating what we know, which is meetings? How do we get as close as possible to a bunch of boring people sitting in a boring room, but with computers? And yeah, like it’s never going to be as good, but that’s, that’s –

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … the wrong design goal, right? You have to be like, “Well, what the hell were the meetings, therefore, in the first place, how do we, how do we re-imagine them totally differently?”

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So, yeah, this is always the, the, the, the friction, right? Like it’s never going to be as good as it was before. And we’re always going to feel sadness for the things we’ve lost and that’s fine. That’s supposed to be that way at the same time. In many ways, they’re going to be better than it’s ever been, but those ways are different and we need to like lean into those.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: Something can be great and terrible at the same time. Like great and terrible are not opposites. Good and bad are not opposites, right? Like something could be very good and very bad. They don’t average out. They don’t cancel each other out and like the world we’re living in right now is very bad and also kind of good in some ways, but, not like not in a way that you can average and come up with like an average score. Aand so it’s both. So like, yeah, like I, I miss seeing you in person and, and –

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … I hope that we do see each other in person, you know, at some point when –

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: … we can come back out into the real world. But I also think that this conversation right now we’re videos, maybe the best conversation we’ve had.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So like, it’s, it’s, it’s both good and bad.

More from Phil after the break, and make sure to subscribe to First Contact wherever you listen to your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. 

Laurie Segall: When we look to the future, um, even of this platform, right? You’re, you’re absolutely right. Like, I, I think maybe when we think about disruptive technology to some degree, we have to mourn what we lost and then think about all the amazing things that can come. And, and so, you know, I’ll take this two ways first, where will we see this go, right? Like, because this can be sure for remote work, but as even a journalist or someone who was on CNN for a decade, right like I could see people building a channel over this. I have a friend who’s a magician, who’s doing zoom magic right now. I could see that. I mean like, where, where are you seeing this is in beta, it’s closed beta right now, but people can sign up to, be a part of it. But, but where do you see this going? You know, this layer that you’re building on top of video, like where do you see the promise of this?

Phil Libin: I think, um, I think for people, for, for, for individuals, for consumers, I think we’re kind of creating this big, new industry that we’re calling, uh, PVP for Personal Video Presence. The idea is, um, videos like, if you think, you know, eight months ago, how many of us had to conduct important part of our days over video, it was pretty, very few people.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But now just about everyone has to do like something important over video just about every day.

Laurie Segall: Sure.

Phil Libin: And that’s going to continue even after we come out of lockdown because these hybrid experiences are going to be better, right?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So there’s always going to be something that we’re doing on video and mm-hmm, elevates that we make your performance over video better. We are the thing that sits between my face and the rest of the world during those times where I’m interacting with the rest of the world over video. And I think that’s going to be a ubiquitous thing. Everyone is going to be doing this at least a certain amount of the time and hopefully not just as a substitute for it in the real world, because right now it’s a substitute because we can’t see each other in person but hopefully over time, we won’t be a substitute. It’ll be in addition to –

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: … b- because it’s better. And for, for companies, for organizations, I think it’s an even more profound transformation. I never liked using the word disruption. I dunno, I dunno why it just feels like…

Laurie Segall: I think everyone in Silicon Valley says it, right?

Phil Libin: I guess so. Yeah. Yeah. Uh, but it’s, it’s an even bigger transformation, which is, uh, we’re still calling it PVP, but instead of Personal Video Presence, we think it’s Professional Video Presence. And, and this is like similar to, you know, where we started this conversation. Like when I, when I made, when we, when we started, my first company Engine 5 in ‘95 and ‘97, right. We were figuring out like, what percentage of companies would be on the internet and some people said, you know, 25%, some people said 2% and then we said, you know, probably 100%. And the same thing is happening now, right? Like eight months ago and there’d before times what percentage of every like school, gym, restaurant, you know, club, business, store, like what percentage of all of the organizations had to conduct themselves over video at least some of the time, it was like very, very few –

Laurie Segall: Right, right.

Phil Libin: … but now close to a 100%. And so just like in the late 90s and early 2000s we went from 1% of organizations being on the internet to a 100%.

Laurie Segall: Yeah, sure.

Phil Libin: We’re going to go from like 1% of the organizations being on video to 100% very soon.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And it’s going to change everything. It’s going to change. Uh, again, the way that we get healthcare and the way that we have meetings and some of the changes will make us miss the before times. And some of the changes will be ridiculously better than they were before because of the way the human brain works. We tend to focus much more on, on like the feeling of I’m missing something-

Laurie Segall: Nostalgia.

Phil Libin: Nostalgia is very strong.

Laurie Segall: And by the way and now it’s such a moment for nostalgia too. 

Phil Libin: Yeah, exactly.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So we will definitely like those of us who remember it will definitely miss like the good old days and we’ll remember them as having been better than they really were.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But we’ll also like very gratefully accept all of the improvements. And like, those will pretty much go without comment, like yeah, like the full that, all of the stuff that’s better will be just be like automatic.

Laurie Segall: You know, I remember, um, being in, in the newsroom and being part of the, before I even started covering technology, I was doing breaking news at CNN. And I remember the iReport days and when Twitter was beginning to get big and, and  it was amazing ‘cause it’s 2008, 2009, and everyone was able to be their own news reporter to some degree and it was the democratization of information. And it was just such an incredible time. You know, a plane went down to the Hudson and someone tweeted a tweeted that infamous image of, of people walking across the plane in the Hudson and getting to safety. And, and, and these were the days where we saw the power of disruptive technology, um, to, to let us all be journalists to some degree. And so when you, when you talk about, you know, letting us all be professional video folks, right? My head goes, wow, this is incredible because, you know, we can all to some degree be professional, when it comes to zoom and when it comes to being able to represent ourselves better and be more professional and almost like, I, I think like almost have like a news channel or my background and, and look much more slick. You know, I, I also go to the unintended consequence, right. And I think about, okay, so what are the things you’re thinking about as you’re building out? You know, it’s not necessarily like a platform its software to go on the platform, right? But, um, you know, I just did a whole, uh, I did a whole investigation into QAnon, right and spent a lot of time in the community, um, went to a rally and, and, you know, really it’s, these are folks who believe in that they are the news. And so not to say worst, worst case scenario, you have these folks who have these millions and millions and millions of people online who are getting kicked off of Facebook and Twitter, who decided to create their own … people online who are getting kicked off of Facebook and Twitter, who decide to create their own, you know, their own Zoom channels, and they’re using slickly produced software from you guys to, to look even more relevant as they’re putting out conspiracies that aren’t true, but you know, so, so this is where I, I play devil’s advocate in asking; what are you guys doing, and what are you guys thinking about as your building this early on? Knowing all we know now about what tech companies have struggled with over the last you know, five, ten years with the rise of misinformation, and with, you know, these um, these struggles over free speech and hate speech, and the spread of the conspiracies, and all that kind of stuff. I’m sure you’re having conversations about it.

Phil Libin: Yeah a, a lo- lo- a lot of them. I think the important thing to acknowledge is that we don’t, we don’t know yet. We don’t have all the answers, but we do have a particular point of view, and we have, we have at least identified the questions. And one thing that I’m really committed to is; I hate this notion that technology is neutral. That technology … “Oh, technology is neutral, it can be used for good, it can be used for bad”. I don’t buy it. I think that’s, that’s kind of lazy. Um, I think it’s, you know, passing the buck.

Laurie Segall: But I also think … that’s a big deal that you say that, and I say that as, as someone who’s talked to many different founders throughout the years. Like, as long as I’ve covered tech, like, you talk to entrepreneurs who are building platforms, and they say “Tech is neutral, it can be used for good or bad. It’s a reflection of us humans.” Like, you know, and they build platforms on this. “We’re just the pipes.” And, and that’s you building something, saying like “Hey, that’s lazy.” Like, that’s a … I don’t know. That’s like a pretty big deal to, to kind of come out in a strong way and say that.

Phil Libin: I, I mean, I, I, maybe. It’s, it’s how I’ve felt for a long time, and it’s how I think a lot of the people that uh, that I work with feel. Uh, so it’s certainly not new to, to the ethos of All Turtles, of, of kind of how we started it. The whole point is, look, technology, okay. Fire is neutral, right? When it occurs in nature. It’s neutral, it’s just fire. As soon as you like, make a product that uses fire, that’s not neutral anymore. You’ve expressed an opinion about how you want fire used in the world, right? Like, technology is not a naturally occurring thing, it’s a, it’s a very intentionally built thing, and whenever you do something intentionally, you have a point of view. You can try to conceal that point of view. You can try not to think through it enough, because you maybe don’t care, but like, you have a point of view. You have a, you have an actual effect, right? Any technology that’s been high impact, by definition has like moved the world in some way, and it’s absolutely the responsibility of the creators of the technology to say; what direction do they want the world to move in, by releasing this product of this technology, intentionally. Like what do they want? And then, how do they know if it’s doing that, and how do they know if it’s doing something else that’s you know, maybe unintentional. But it’s their responsibility. It’s our responsibility as technologists to worry about the intentional and unintentional uses, and the effects of our products. Not just on the people who use our products, but just as much in the people who don’t use our products.

Laurie Segall: So like, when you’re in the closed door meeting with mmhmm, like what is, what are you thinking about, is like the unintentional use of the software that you’re building. Like what is the jam session of worst case scenario?

Phil Libin: Well, I mean, the one that’s top of mind is exactly what you said, right? It’s like, how do we, what if people start using this for really harmful things, like uh, spreading, uh, spreading further division, intolerance, you know, conspiracy theories, things that are, you know, bad for science, bad for society. I mean that’s the, that’s the, that’s the, easy one to think of. Um, there’s probably lots of other things that we don’t know about that we haven’t thought of. So the, the question isn’t just to like, identify the things that we think might go wrong and try to prevent them, but how do we have a structure so that we can identify things that go wrong that maybe we haven’t thought of ahead of time? It’s the … I call it the, the digital canary. You know, it’s like the canary in the coal mine, right? How do we build digital canaries that are the early warning signals for uh, something that’s happening as a result of our product that, that we don’t like, and then how do we stop it?

Laurie Segall: How do you do it?

Phil Libin: Well, so we, we, we, we made some rules. We started with three rules, because three is a good number, to kind of guide us, uh, in this. They’re similar to the rules … at Evernote, I published our three rules of data production. These are similar, they’re just gonna refine them a little bit. They’re basically uh … they’re all written to be tautologies, they’re all written to sound like very obvious, like A equal A, because I think like, the whole point is all of these rules are very obvious, and the fact that not every company does them is kind of the problem. Like, they should be really obvious. Um, so the first one is, is, it’ just “Your data is your data.” They’re all written like this, they’re all A equals A. So, “Your data is your data.” Uh, which means that uh, it’s not our data. It’s your data. So, if you entrust us to hold on to your data for some amount of time, uh, to run the service or whatever; we have to treat it as like this valuable thing that you have trusted us with. But it’s not ours. We don’t own it, it’s not up to us what we do with it, it’s up to you. Which basically means that we’re gonna try everything possible to keep your data private. We’re gonna try everything possible to keep your data safe because it is a valuable thing that you have entrusted to our care for a temporary amount of time. Um, the second rule is “The product is the product.” Right, again, this sounds almost stupid sounding, right? To say “The product is the product.” Yeah, because for so many companies, they don’t know what the product is. Uh, and you know, there’s the common saying where “If you’re not sure what the product is, then like maybe you’re the product. And what we’re saying is like, no, our, our users aren’t the- our product. Our product is our product. Which basically means that we’ll never sell your data, and we only allow for … everything we do at All Turtles, it’s only direct revenue. We don’t have anything, um where we make … where we’re monetizing your data, or we’re selling advertising. Not that there’s inherently something wrong with that, but that every time you do that, the product is something other than your product, you wind up with these structural business model conflicts.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Like, Facebook makes money because it wants you to stick around long enough to click on things, and the way to get you to stick around longer is to get you into a heightened emotional state, and the easiest emotional state to generate algorithmically is outrage. It is much easier to like, algorithmically generate, you know, tribal outrage than it is to generate, you know, love, and a feeling of like, blissful joy. So the business model is like keeping you in a heightened emotional state, therefore there’s just gonna be a lot of, a lot of shit spread around that’s like very negative, because of this fundamental conflict, right? Whereas like Wikipedia doesn’t have that as a business objective, like they don’t care how long you stick around. They just want you to like learn something, and of course it’s a vastly different experience.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: And remember when Wikipedia came out, we would all like laugh about like, “Oh.” Like I remember Stephen Colbert doing joke about like “How’s anyone gonna trust this. Like anyone can edit it.” Right? But it turns out it’s the most trusted site in the internet. Even though it’s like, anyone can edit it-

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And it, you would think it’s totally susceptible to, to all of the manipulation that happens at Facebook and Twitter, because it’s like much smaller. Like, I’m gonna say something that I have no idea if it’s a true statement, but it sounds really good, so, you know, someone could fact check it.

Laurie Segall: Well, it’s very, that’s very, that’s very 2020, if it’s any consolation.

Phil Libin: Yeah. Yeah. But I’m admitting that this- I have no basis for this, other than it sounds good.

Laurie Segall: Fact checkers beware.

Phil Libin: I’m gonna say that Facebook like spends more money on … or at least used to, before the pandemic … like spends more money on office snacks than like Wikipedia’s entire operating budget. And yet, like Wikipedia-

Laurie Segall: We don’t have this confirmed. To our listeners, we don’t have this confirmed. But all right, okay.

Phil Libin: We don’t know, we don’t know, it might be true. Sounds like it’s true.

Laurie Segall: Okay.

Phil Libin: Um, again, right-

Laurie Segall: I have been there, and they do have lots of good snacks.

Phil Libin: They have great snacks, yeah.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. Go ahead.

Phil Libin: My brother used to work for Google in the mid 2000s. They had so much food at Google.

Laurie Segall: Like, oh my god.

Phil Libin: Oh it was the best, yeah. Uh. Uh, right. But like Wikipedia, because it doesn’t have the structural conflict manages to be one of the most trustworthy sites around.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So, so that’s the second rule, right? Your product is the product. Uh, “The product is the product.” And then the third rule is “Our community is our community.” Which basically means that it is our responsibility, like we are inviting people in, and it is our responsibility to make sure that people are using us for the stuff that we want in the world, and not the stuff that we don’t. And here, the, the idea is; we have to have a strong point of view about what we want, and we have to spend a ton of money, and time, and resources, promoting and highlighting, and sponsoring, and curating the stuff we want. Like we want to spend 100 times the amount of resources on making sure that there’s worthwhile, beautiful, important things made and shared with mm-hmm, like we have to actively spend money and time on that. And I want to spend 100 times more on that than I do on getting rid of the stuff we don’t want. But that’s also equally important. Like we also have to like get rid of the stuff we want, because it’s our community. 

Laurie Segall: So does that …

Phil Libin: Sorry, go ahead.

Laurie Segall: I was gonna say, does that mean you won’t let uh … there are people on the no list. Like that means as people begin to sign up, as you begin to open up, it’s automatic no if you find out they’re in QAnon community, or they are, you know, members, neo Nazis. Is, is there a point- you talk about having a point of view early on, so what does that actually mean?

Phil Libin: Yeah, I hate neo Nazis, and I’m not gonna let them on the platform, if it’s in any way possible to do it. Like, that’s … I mean, it doesn’t have to get more complicated, right? Sometimes we can’t prevent it, obviously, right? Like, we’re not, especially like if you’re just using mmhmm the way that you and I are using it which is; we’re just on a Zoom call, right? And I’m using it, like because of rule number one, “Your data is your data.” We’re not spying on that, right, so we don’t see what everyone is doing like internally, so if neo Nazis want to use it on their, you know, internal Zoom calls, we’re not gonna find out about that.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: You know, we’ll make is against the terms of service, so you know, if they want to follow the, the law, they won’t use it for that.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But, as soon as someone posts something publicly, or shares it, or we find out about it, then yeah, if, if at all possible, we will stop it.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: But, you know, it’s not a magic solution, but we’re also not gonna pretend that we owe freedom of speech to Nazis. We don’t.

Laurie Segall: Right. And, I mean, but then there’s also, I mean the technology has run in to problems like even look at QAnon. There’s a lot of gray area here, right? Of like what is acceptable and what’s not. You know, what crosses the line and what doesn’t. I think this is where tech companies are, are running in to trouble. I, I think Facebook got into a lot of trouble for not cracking down early on, and then if technically some of the stuff didn’t fall into the wheelhouse of against their terms of service, right?

Phil Libin: Yeah, but look. Let’s just say, there’s always gray areas, but I often think the gray area is a little bit exaggerated. So let’s say, you know, you’re having, you’re having a house party. You’ve invited people to come to your house, you’re having a house party, and you haven’t set like that many rules about what people are allowed to do and what they aren’t, because like, you know, there’s gray areas. Who’s to say?

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: But then you find out that there’s this like one guy, like in the house, and they’re doing some like really depraved shit, whatever, use your imagination. But it’s clearly not cool, and you’re like “Yeah, I didn’t make any rules, but I’m clearly not cool with this.” So you’re gonna throw that person out.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And you’re not gonna be like “Well, I didn’t specify ahead of time exactly what it was and what it wasn’t.” And maybe next time you’ll have like better rules, but of course there’s gonna be gray areas, and of course there’s gonna be some edge case where it could go either way, but there’s a lot of things that can’t go either way, that are very clear. And if you’re hosting a party, it is very much your ethical and legal responsibility to be accountable for what’s there, right? If you’re driving a car, you are legally responsible for, like, the activity of your passengers. You don’t get to say like, “Well, it’s, it’s a gray area.” Well yeah, it is, but you were driving the car, so you’re responsible. And so a, a part of it is just that step, right? So of the technologists acknowledging their responsibility for the community that they make, like very specifically, and not pretending that we don’t have responsibility for it. We do have responsibility for it, and yes we’re going to get it wrong sometimes, because there are gray areas, but if we acknowledge our responsibility, we can at least get it right most of the time. And so I think that’s like a big part of it. And I think Facebook is starting to do a lot better with that, but it didn’t start out because there was all sorts of like libertarian nonsense. Um, but uh … Sorry, I can go on a long rant about that, but that, that feels like-

Laurie Segall: But it, but, but it did, it is, it is super funny, because it- I mean what you’re trying to say, or what you, what it sounds like you’re saying is like, take responsibility. If you don’t think it should be on there, don’t put it on there, and don’t hide behind the fine print, is what you’re saying. To some degree?

Phil Libin: Yeah. And, and don’t pretend that you can’t even take responsibility because how could you even imagine ahead of time what people are gonna do. Like just take the responsibility, and, and … but the flip side of that is that the rest of the world shouldn’t expect perfect performance from you. Of course, you’re gonna sometimes get things wrong.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: But you’ve taken responsibility, you’ve done absolutely the best you can. And you gotta be serious about that.

Laurie Segall: Then to play devil’s advocate, there’s the whole other side of this, right? Which is; these Silicon Valley folks, they just have too much power to decide what stays and what goes, so what say you to that?

Phil Libin: Uh, I mean yeah, that is the other side, and I find that side much less compelling.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: Just because I don’t think that’s responsible for nearly as much of the problems of the world. Uh, I’m all in favor if governments wanted to legislate stuff that may even supersede what the tech founders do. But you know, frankly, like if I’m running a private company, and I’m staying within the laws, then it’s gonna be up to me what- who I allow and who I don’t, based on my ethical and moral responsibilities to the world. And if somebody doesn’t agree with my moral and ethical responsibilities, then hopefully there’s like lots of other options. But yeah, I, I, I, I get that argument, but I kind of call bullshit on it. But, but that’s just step one. Like acknowledging responsibility is just step one. Step two, which I think Facebook also didn’t do that much of, in the beginning, and they’re still kind of lame about this, I think, is; Facebook didn’t spend billions of dollars putting out the things that they wanted. Like, like making … they didn’t have a strong point of view about “This is what we want to see on Facebook.” And like, “Here, let us, let us spotlight it, let us create it, let us sponsor it.” Like, “This is the stuff that’s good.” You know, Instagram actually wound up doing that pretty well, in the, in the beginning, right? Instagram said like “We want to be the place for really beautiful photography.”

Laurie Segall: Right.

Phil Libin: And they, they, they spotlighted it, and they curated it, and they spent money making it, and that’s why like, in the beginning at least, Instagram was like a lot of really high quality beautiful stuff, whereas like Flickr and everything else just became like a cesspit of you know, ugly images. But you know, they didn’t keep up with it very much, but they at least tried. So, so the second step is like; you know, again, I’m hosting this party, I have an opinion about the vibe that I want, and it’s my responsibility as the host to like, to push it in that direction. I’m not gonna be like, “Okay, everyone do whatever they want.” No. Like I, I wanted a particular theme for this party. I’m gonna, I’m gonna highlight the things. I’m gonna like buy some of the food, I’m gonna you know, I’m gonna like do whatever’s necessary to get the vibe in the right direction. And I think, I think that companies ought to spend, again, 100 times more on that than on the negative.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: Because what you spotlight is what you get.

Laurie Segall: Yes.

Phil Libin: If you set the tone of this as a place that is not for neo Nazis, you’re gonna get fewer neo Nazis, just because like, they don’t want to hang out at a party that’s very much not welcoming to them either.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Phil Libin: So, that’s, that’s also part of it, right? It’s just like yeah, that’s your responsibility. Make sure you don’t have a business model that contradicts that responsibility. By”Oh yeah, I say I don’t want conflict, but I make money where there’s conflict.” Like, if there’s ever a conflict, like if there’s ever a disconnect between the way you make money and what your values are, and you’re a for profit company, like, your values don’t matter. It’s always going to go towards how you make money. So make sure there’s no conflict, and then, you know, make sure we actually promote the stuff that we want to see, and the last thing is to get rid of the stuff that we don’t want to see, which hopefully we don’t have to spend billions of dollars a year on, because we done all the ethics correctly. But if we have to, we have to.

Laurie Segall: Okay, cool. Um so uh, really quick, because that’s super interesting, and I’m glad that we got in to it. I do want to- I, because I’ve been saying mmhmm, and, and, in an awkward way for a long time. So like tell me. You are a naming person. I feel like you do brand stuff really well. Where on earth did mmhmm come from?

Phil Libin: Well, you know, it, it, uh, it came out of All Turtles, as the studio, and for years, people would ask me like, “Why did you call it All Turtles? That’s such a strange name. Why is it called All Turtles?” And I was like, “Hold my beer.” Like I just wanted, I wanted a name that would make people stop asking me about why All Turtles is such a strange name, so, so we came up with mmhmm, and total success. No one’s asked me about All Turtles, you know, since then. Um, look, the real reason is um … it’s actually kind of exactly what you said. It’s uh, it’s word that everyone can say unintentionally. Everyone can say mm-hmm without thinking about it, but if you try to say it intentionally, it’s actually … there’s friction. Like even I have to like pause for a second and consider like how I’m gonna pronounce it, and which syllable I’m gonna want to inflect. And so, it’s almost like every time I say the name, it’s almost like a little micro performance.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Phil Libin: I have to perform it. And uh, the app is for performing. It’s for improving your performance, and so like, to get you started, like just thinking of the name’s a little performance, and I think it’s kind of beautiful, so, that’ why we named it that.

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First Contact is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media, Executive Produced by Laurie Segall and Derek Dodge. This episode was produced and edited by Sabine Jansen and Jack Regan. The original theme music is by Xander Singh. 

First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.