The Start of Our Startup

Last week Sean and I celebrated our first anniversary. The day arrived. I gave Sean flowers. He looked at me like I was crazy, a look that has become very familiar. We continued working as we normally do, and didn’t think much of it. But we were having drinks the other day with Cloudability’s Mat Ellis (who is like Portland’s Startup Statesman) and he said, “No, it’s an unusual story. You should write about it.” And so I will.

There are a few creation myths regarding startups. One is that a bunch of friends, usually from college and with degrees in computer science, get together and sketch something on the back of a napkin. Another is a group of strangers coalesce motivated by a singular desire for riches. A third involves some combination of ramen, teenage genius, and wizardry in a garage.  Ours is an unlikely meeting on Switchboard, the platform we would go on to build, and a pitcher full of sangria.

Last August I found myself in the position of being a full-time, volunteer human Switchboard for Reed College, my alma mater. I started a little philanthropic initiative with some friends. It was written up in Inside Higher Ed. I thought that’d be the end of it.

But then, suddenly, the floodgates opened and there was a tsunami of “asks” and “offers.” The asks were mostly from current students and young alumni: “I need a place to stay in Denver.” “I want to work in a bakery.” “I need advice on becoming an urban planner.” Alumni who graduated within the last 15 years provided most of the offers: “I have a place to stay in Denver.” “I am hiring at my bakery.” “I am an urban planner, and I’m happy to speak with recent grads.” 

These people, unbelievably, had no way to find one another.  The bakery ask comes through Twitter, and the bakery offer arrives via LinkedIn. Here’s what that workflow looks like: Mara follows and DMs aspiring baker Tweeter. “What is your email address?” Mara connects with and then sends InMail™ to hiring baker. “What is your email address?” (To do this, we had to make Reed Switchboard a person, which I understand is against LinkedIn’s TOS. Whoops.) With both email addresses, Mara sends introduction.

Now repeat this to infinity across TwitterLinkedInFacebook, email, phone, StorifyTumblr, even Instagram. That was my life for five months. Here are some examples of that sh*tstorm. We actually made a #fail comic which went over like a lead balloon because there is nothing funny about this. It’s just the dysfunction we have come to accept. 

Facebook networking fail
Twitter networking fail

By August it became too overwhelming, and so I tweeted out this plea for help. I foolishly thought the solution might be to just modify a Posterous site. LOL

The beginnings of Switchboard.

I didn’t know what had to be built. I had a faint idea it needed to have “asks” and “offers.” It needed to be archived, searchable, and easily shared on social media. Most importantly, the communication did not need to be funneled through me, an outdated database, a brick and mortar office on campus, or the existing imperfect platforms. The aspiring baker needed to announce directly to her community: “Hey, I want to bake. Hook me up.” And then, she did not need to surf feeds of useless data until her eyes fell out.  She needed to bake.

Sean graduated from Reed eight years after I did. He was a complete stranger. He answered my Tweet and offered to build Switchboard for free, which should give you some indication of his awesomeness, and how broken the system was. 

The beginnings of Switchboard

He was in California. I was in Italy.  He was a Classics major. I was a Russian major. I would write 3,000 word treatises with incomprehensible mock-ups in Illustrator. He’d reply with “Yup” and some simple, elegant code. We’d never met in person. We were bonded by the belief that our community could be stronger if social media just got out of the way and let people connect. We wanted to create something that was less social and more useful. Useful media. Is that a thing?

Kieran Hanrahan, an editor of Reed’s student newspaper, confirmed that yes, this could be a thing. And it is what the Young People want; the young people we so often call lazy Millennials when in fact we’re the lazy ones because we haven’t yet built them the right tools. Kieran and many other students evangelized Switchboard on campus. We were a rogue operation fueled by an obsessive desire to solve our own problem. And then the second unexpected thing happened which is that other communities started asking us to build Switchboards for them. 

Fast forward many sleepless nights spent chatting over Skype building this crazy thing for Reed. It’s February 2013, and like the culmination of some potentially disastrous technological co-founder experiment Sean and I decide to meet up in Portland for the first time. We crash at a former professor’s house. I sleep on the couch and give him the bed because he is a coder who can make things and I am an ideas person which is a good as worthless. I manage to get us lost every single day. Sean is a man of few words, and so I fill that silence with what he (affectionately?) calls “word vomit.” I drag Sean to office hours on campus in the library lobby so we can chat with students about how the platform can be more useful. This is that signature look I was talking about earlier: 

The beginnings of Switchboard at Reed College

Along the way, some other great Reedies join the Switchboard team.

Switchboard conference call

Miraculously, this experiment is sort of working. At the very least, we have solved our own problem that we discovered thousands of people share. And here we are at PIE, exactly one year after that Tweet. 

Switchboard's anniversary at the Portland Incubator Experiment

There you go, Mat. No napkin, no computer science degrees, or ramen or garage, or dollar signs in our eyes. Frustration. Sangria.