Tips from the Pros: Circa’s Matt Galligan

January 21, 2014 Herbert Lui

Image by Silicon Prairie News

Why do we still consume news like it’s 1899?

Serial entrepreneur Matt Galligan first heard this question in a presentation by Cheezburger (yep – the cat videos) Founder & CEO Ben Huh. It piqued his curiosity. As he started collaborating with Huh, refining his own ideas on media and news, Galligan realized he had the makings of a solution. That solution is now the mobile app Circa.

AllThingsD gives us an idea of Circa’s success: according to Flurry, users stay 50 percent longer in Circa than in other news apps. Of users who open the app more than once a day, more than half return twice daily for their breaking news. Galligan even mentioned in an interview with Jason Calicanis that there are users who, between Monday and Friday of a given week, had opened the app more than 100 times. That’s a whopping 20 times per day.

Prior to starting Circa, Galligan had already sold two previous ventures — Socialthing to AOL and Simplegeo to our friends at Urban Airship. Having raised $1.65 million in funding, Circa is looking to change the way breaking news is consumed on mobile devices.

Digg co-founder and Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose interviewed Galligan on his Foundation series. Galligan shares his mobile product expertise with Rose:

Find Ideas by Scratching Your Own Itch

How do you determine the direction for your mobile product?

“None of the three companies that I’ve founded have anything to do with each other – other than than the burning desire to solve a particular problem,” explains Galligan. Most of the time, these problems can be observed in daily life. If you’re an entrepreneur, take note of problems you wrestle with day-to-day. As Galligan was pondering the state of breaking news, he’d realized that most news articles were too long for the mobile device, where he did most of his reading.

Galligan’s idea to fix news wasn’t originally his problem. After he sold Simplegeo to Urban Airship, Galligan was examining a few ideas. None of them resonated with him, until he listened to Ben Huh’s presentation on his in-depth examination into the news landscape, entitled The Moby Dick Project. During the presentation, Huh had suggested any audience members interested should contact him if they were interested in collaborating; Galligan took him up on the offer.

This demonstrates that if you want to examine opportunities for a mobile solution, you’re not limited to to solving your own problems. Chat with the teammates who work with customers regularly in order to understand recurring complaints or challenges they’ve observed. For example, meet up with different areas of customer support – each helping clients with different technical or service challenges – and see if there’s a chance to leverage mobile technology.

Stay Focused with a True North

While brainstorms and whiteboarding sessions stimulate creativity, they can also overwhelm you with potential features and ideas. Stay focused by keeping the original problem in mind. When Galligan was building Socialthing, a solution that would connect disparate social networks together, he would refocus his team with this tactic:

“I think that a good formula to building a company is solving a problem; but constant repetition of that problem. So at my first company, we literally wrote it on the board: ‘Does this make social networking easier?’” If the answer was a No, then the idea would not make the cut.

As interviewer Kevin Rose observes, this question served as Socialthing’s product equivalent to the “True North.” Former chair and CEO of Medtronic, Bill George, originally used the term True North to describe a business leader’s inner compass; by repeatedly asking your team whether a certain feature helps solve your overall problem and benefits your audience, you are effectively aligning them to the direction of the product.

“So at my first company, we literally wrote it on the board: ‘Does this make social networking easier?’” (Click to share.) Use this True North to guide the product in the right direction and filter out unnecessary and overwhelming tasks.

Make Use of Warm Networking

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Galligan rarely cold e-mails people. Instead, he always networks through mutual friends. (The exception to this rule was when Galligan cold e-mailed Jack Dorsey when he was trying to integrate Twitter into Socialthing, and both companies were similar sizes. Galligan and Dorsey chatted on the phone for an hour.)

“By going through warm introductions and having qualifying statements…the person vets you and says, ‘Hey, I think these guys have a great idea,’ or ‘I like this guy but I’m not sure about this idea but maybe with a little work it’ll get there,’ and in almost every circumstance that I’ve ever had a warm introduction, something has turned out good about it. Either that has turned into a business relationship, or a personal relationship, or something like that.”

“…in almost every circumstance that I’ve ever had a warm introduction, something has turned out good about it.” (Click to share.)

Not all of this was planned; Galligan found the CTO of his first company when his softball league teammate (and fellow Best Buy Geek Squad agent) offered to help out Galligan’s side project for free.

Remember, your network is your net worth. If you’re looking for initial team members or co-founders, consider the people you already know. Take networking seriously – and don’t feel restricted to building relationships just at formal “networking events.” Build relationships everywhere, from your jiu jitsu class to random family friends…or even your teammates at softball league.

Start a Team of Like-Minded Individuals

When he and Huh had refined the initial idea of Circa, Galligan set about building a team. The process is relatively straightforward on paper: find talent and convince them to contribute to your idea. Unfortunately, the tactics to achieve these goals can be more complex.

“Sometimes, it’s like finding like-minded people. First, to really flesh out an idea is still really important. Even though I can’t put all the pieces together and start developing something, if it’s an app, I can at least put mockups together and have somebody walk through it. Or I can illustrate the big picture and big idea. If you can get somebody on board with that, then that’s step one. That’s a good start.”

In order to get buy-in from potential teammates, create something tangible that will help you communicate your idea more effectively than just a verbal pitch. This could be a set of mockups, wireframes, design concepts, market data, prototypes, or various other forms of information.

Don’t Create Barriers for your Minimum Viable Products

Circa’s presentation is primarily based on a process called “atomization” — news is broken down into smaller core elements, such as facts, stats, and quotes. It’s about making succinct points and offering coder-like version control on stories. When he first started building Circa, Galligan simply had an intern write news in Google Docs point by point. Galligan already knew the company would be lean, and relatively scalable because his new points would simply be building upon old points and wouldn’t require volumes of writing (like articles do). He didn’t let the technology stop his startup. Do you really need that much proprietary or new technology? If you’re a service-based startup, or what venture capitalist Ben Parr calls a traction startup, don’t let non-existent barriers stop you; be scrappy and see how much of it you can build manually. If you’re building a service, perform all the tasks in a process by hand before attempting to automate them. Entrepreneur Ben Ogle even highlights a startup that was an enterprise API – “When called, the API would just email the founders, they would do the work manually, then asynchronously return the result.”

When Dan Martell started Clarity, the only tools he needed were Skype and Paypal. Joel Gasciogne built landing pages for Buffer describing the product, and tracked how many links viewers clicked through to gauge demand. Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn didn’t need an eCommerce backend, fulfillment services, or inventory – he created web pages with photos of shoes from nearby stores and manually bought them by hand and shipped them.

Turn Off Marketing (Occasionally)

Solving a problem is crucial to telling a compelling story. And telling a compelling story is a prerequisite for getting press coverage. Although Galligan had a pretty wide-reaching team of investors who connected him with press, he wouldn’t have been able to secure it if his product wasn’t interesting. A week after the initial launch, Circa was featured on the iTunes App Store as the Editor’s Pick. For the entire week, it was widely exposed to users and featured on the front page. (Later, Circa 2.0 would hit #1 on iTunes App Store’s top carousel — one of the perks of a high-quality product.) Matt Galligan Super Article - Editors Pick vs. Download Store At this point, Galligan decided to hold off on marketing. He’d already gained a significant amount of users because of the press push and the App Store exposure; now, he wanted to remove the marketing so he could see if users would sign up organically. He also wanted to shift his focus to retention; without marketing, would new users desire this app, and — more importantly — come back to it? While Galligan was about to find out whether users really liked this product, this maneuver was risky because Circa would experience a slower growth period and Galligan could risk losing users without acquiring new ones. Fortunately, it worked out well; with “good growth and amazing retention,” Circa resonated with users and kept them coming back for more.

Know When to Let Go

Having done it twice, Galligan knows a thing or two about the price to sell companies for. However, his method isn’t related to a formulaic valuation of EBITDA or some other metric:

“The best advice I ever got around this specifically was when somebody told me, “You need to sell for the amount of money that it takes you to never worry about this problem again.” If you think about it, the whole purpose of you building a company is to solve a problem, right? If you’re going to just forget about solving this problem, then you need to be okay with that somehow. Money’s maybe one way of getting there.”

When Rose asked him to elaborate, Galligan responded:

“To give up your baby, how much would you pay for it?” (Click to share.)

While some entrepreneurs may suggest formulas and equations, Galligan’s method is much more simple and instinctive. If your valuations aren’t up to par, or if you feel like the problem still isn’t solved, then don’t sell your company.

Closing Thoughts

Using these techniques, undoubtedly amongst many others, Matt Galligan has created an undeniably engaging product that resonates with a wide variety of people. Apple put Circa in the spotlight as the best News app of 2013. Likewise, Circa was chosen by Google as one of the best Android apps of the year. As VentureBeat points out, even Yahoo!’s ‘News Digest’ app – recently unveiled at CES – borrows product elements from Circa. Although it’s still early in its life cycle, Circa is hooking in and engaging users and disrupting media through news. Matt Galligan is not affiliated with Pivotal Labs. We just thought he had some interesting insights on mobile product.

If you’re interested in learning more about Galligan and Circa, watch the full Foundation interview, read our recap when Galligan spoke at LAUNCH Conference, or check out his interview with Jason Calacanis in This Week in Startups.

Matt Galligan and Kevin Rose just showed you how news is changing. Now, learn more about how TV is changing with our whitepaper on next-generation TV.

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