Ep. 262 - Naomi Shah, Founder of Meet Cute on Trends in Audio Storytelling and New Media Formats & Moving from VC to Founder

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Naomi Shah, founder of the venture backed modern media company Meet Cute. Naomi and I talk about some of the innovations and trends in the world of audio and new media formats, as well as her insights for moving from the world of venture capital to becoming a founder. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript with Naomi Shah, Founder of the venture backed modern media company Meet Cute

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Naomi Shah. She is the founder of the venture backed modern media company called Meet Cute

Naomi Shah: Thank you. It's so nice to be here. 

Brian Ardinger: I'm excited to have you here on the show because you've got a hot new startup that we want to talk about. You've got to innovate a company, innovative story. So, what is meat cute? How did you come up with the idea to start a new media company at the age of 24? 

Naomi Shah: So, Meet Cute, just to start with, with what it is I do every day, is an entertainment brand. We make original scripted, romantic comedies. And these are audio stories that are completely written by a network of over 500 creators. Directed, produced, and voice acted professionally. And we distribute them on Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you get your audio. 

And really what we're trying to do with Meet Cute is show that you can create a lot of scripted content and create trust with an audience because of the consistency of how often you release the stories, the types of stories, and really become the best storytellers in original scripted content. 

Brian Ardinger: You've got an interesting background to go down that particular path. My understanding is you started out as a macro equities trader at Goldman Sachs. You studied mechanical engineering with a minor in human biology at Stanford. Then you just started working at Union Square Ventures. How did you go about kind of that diverse background to end up where you are at? 

Naomi Shah: It's a really good question. I actually will start even earlier than graduating from Stanford and that is when I was growing up, I saw both my parents working on a company together. My mom was the president. My dad was the vice president, and it was always part of our family dinners, our family vacations. We always heard about what they were working on. 

It was this like subliminal informal look into what it's like to run your own thing. To be a founder. And to manage people and to bring people along with the vision that you have. And I never really knew how that was going to play out in my life. But I did know from a young age that was impacting the way that I wanted to go to school, study, and then start my career. 

And so, at Stanford, I went in wanting to be a surgeon and I left with a mechanical engineering degree. And so that kind of explains why I was a mechanical engineering major with a minor in human biology.

And what fascinated me about human biology and why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place is I was really interested in the research process. Like how you ask a question, how you create a research project to answer that question, how you're very analytical and then how you convince people to listen to what you have to say.

And so, in high school, and actually in middle school, I ended up going down this path of working on a lot of research. Presenting it at a lot of conferences. So, I did a TED talk when I was 15 and it was my first foray into, wow, you can have an impact on the world, that's a lot bigger than the immediate community around you.

Fast forward a few years, to your point, I went into finance. I was really excited about pattern recognition in public markets and how it affected trading decisions. But I really was looking for something a little bit more creative. I always felt like I had this creative side of my brain that I couldn't really exercise day to day at work.

And that was because my resume was very technical. It was very based on engineering and data and math, but I loved creative writing and I loved storytelling. And that was something that I felt like was part of my personality that I couldn't bring to work every day. 

So, in venture capital, it gave me a look at how founders would kind of marry different skill sets together. Make that the foundation of how they run their company. And I was really excited about that whole process, but really hadn't seen myself as an operator just yet. But I spent a lot of time at USV, which is the venture capital firm I was at right after Goldman. Our company was focused on human wellbeing. So, what are things that we do for fun?

And one of the things that we do for fun is we consume content. We read books; we listen to podcasts like this one. We go to concerts with our friends. And I realized that there was kind of a gap in the market where there wasn't a lot of original scripted stories being created in a really scalable way. Where venture investors felt comfortable taking that risk and investing in a company that was working on that problem.

Instead, it felt like you had Hollywood investors that were used to taking out risk profile and venture investors were like, oh no, we only do software and product. And so, I wanted to find a way to bring those two things together, which I felt like there wasn't really a company working on that out there.

And that led me to starting to come up with the business model for Meat Cute. At first, from the investment side of the table, where I was looking for that company to invest in. And eventually I took that leap of faith into founding and said, if we're not seeing this company out there, let's go be the ones to create it.

Brian Ardinger: So, as you were in venture, kind of looking at particular companies, did you ever think that you were going to jump to the other side of the table or was it something that came about based on your interactions with founders and that? 

Naomi Shah: I think it was a little bit of both. I think it kind of goes back to growing up and seeing that that was possible. I did see my mom as a leader, and I knew that at some point I wanted to follow in my parents' footsteps in some capacity. Where it's you have an impact outside of just the immediate people that you touch. And I think that that's really what inspired me with founding is that you can have an impact on millions of millions of people who use your product or listen to your stories.

And that was really exciting to me. Another thing that I'll say besides seeing my mom in a leadership position early on is that I'd always seen myself on this path of, okay, I'll go to school, I'll work for a few years and then I'll go back and get my MBA. And what I saw when I was in venture capital, Is that so much of the learning that comes along with founding is just natural.

It's baked into the process of struggling with how to figure out HR and how to negotiate contracts and how to hire people and how to inspire people like that. And I thought, okay, like I always saw myself on this really traditional path where it felt like if I went to business school, I could do all of these things.

And being at USV and interacting with these founders, I started to see a different path for myself, where I thought, I don't have to go down this, what I felt like was a safe path for me. And I could step off that path and do something a little bit different that felt riskier in the moment. But I knew that it was a risk worth taking because all of these people before me had done. And you just learn on the job and that's just part of the CEO gig.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned a little bit about experimentation and that. When you started Meet Cute, what was your initial thesis and then how has it pivoted or changed based on what you found out in the marketplace? 

Naomi Shah: It's so interesting how these like subtle pivot tap in, and sometimes you don't even realize that they're happening, but you're learning with every single day or every single story that you make. At first, we wanted to just test, can we make a 15-minute story in audio. No one had done that before in a way that you could start, tell, and end of story, in 15 minutes, in a cohesive way. 

Everyone is used to 90-minute films or 22-minute TV shows, but we wanted to do it in audio and bring people in and capture audiences to the point where people felt like they were listening to a movie in their ears.

And we wrote our first story. Our head of development wrote the entire script. We found a producer to make it. And we put it out there in the world when we just started sharing it with our friends and family. And we said, hey, we're working on this thing. We'd love for you to listen to it and give us feedback.

That was probably the moment where we were like, okay, we're doing this now. We actually have content out there in the world with our name on it. We have conviction in short form audio content. And then the next step for us became, okay, we know we can make one story. Can we make hundreds of stories? And so, to our investors, we said, our goal for the next year is really to prove that we can make stories at scale.

Anyone can make one story if they put their mind to it. But we want to tell hundreds of these stories consistently and give people something to look forward to every single day. And so that was kind of like this subtle change in the way that we thought about ourselves, where we no longer were just proving the idea of storytelling. We were now proving storytelling at scale. 

So, the next challenge for us became, can we grow a creator network, large enough to tell so many diverse stories within this set container. And for us, our container was we were audio only. So, we had to engage an audience without any visuals. 

We wanted to tell 15-minute stories. We found that a 15-minute story broken up into five three-minute chapters, really engaged people and people wouldn't leave in the middle of the story. They would stay until the end. And then finally, as we were making so many diverse stories, we learned that there were certain categories of stories or certain techniques that we could use to engage audiences even more. 

So, with every story that we put out there, we captured listening data, engagement data, and use that to turn it into the cycle where it fueled our development. So now we were taking our learnings from the stories that we'd already put out there and pulling it back into development and making more of those stories.

The idea is we're no longer just a hit driven company where we're making all the decisions. Our listeners are the ones that are teaching us about what's right, and what's wrong. 

And so today to bring it to present day, what we're working on is scaling this storytelling engine, this incubator to millions of listeners, to get more and more feedback on our stories and then make each story better. And that's really towards that goal of becoming the official source of romantic comedies, the best storytellers out there. That's what we think sets us apart. 

Brian Ardinger: I'm curious, how much did you look back to old technologies like radio and the old radio shows of the past? We've kind of come full circle in some ways. Obviously with different types of distribution models and that. But talk about what did you learn and take from the past and how are you evolving that into the current day.

Naomi Shah: I think radio plays are one of the best analogies for Meet Cute. Some of our listeners, you know, even though they're listening to us on podcast apps, they're like this doesn't really sound like what I imagine a podcast to be. Where podcasts are generally conversational, and they're more interview based, or news based. 

We're really taking that older analogy of taking a radio play and turning it into something that people in the digital era can consume on whatever platform they're on, making it super accessible to people whenever and wherever they want a story. 

But to your point, there are so many historical analogies that this works and that consistent storytelling in a tight format is what people actually crave. Another really good example of it is you look at pop music where every single pop song is about three minutes long. 

And there's a reason for that because not to go too far into this rabbit hole, but when records transitioned to the 45 RPM record, there was only enough room on that physical record for three minutes of music.

And what that meant is that as you created a cheaper way to make records, you also needed to fit the content into that physical constraint. And so, it's interesting because people relisten to music over and over again, because it's only three minutes. And so, you listened to an Ellie Goulding song or Lady Gaga song on repeat, and you don't feel like you're wasting your time. But that behavior hasn't really translated into audio storytelling yet.

And so, by changing our format to be something that we know works. With repeat listening, we found that actually our listeners keep coming back to Meet Cute stories and tuning into one chapter that they resonated with or the happily ever after, or the Meet Cute moment, in the same way that they would listen to pop songs.

And so, they think that it's really fun to say let's build a next generation of storytelling, but let's look backwards at what's worked and what's engaged audiences to do that. Last example, P & G invented the soap opera literally to sell soap. And it was this really interesting tool for branded content that didn't feel super on the nose as an advertising tool. It was a story. It was something you could escape into. 

And I think that that's a really interesting analogy for Meet Cute. We're we're trying to create escapism and that can be a vehicle for so many things. Like the message, like a social message, or it could be a vehicle for a brand to talk about what's important to them. But through the context of a story, which is a lot more emotional than a pure advertisement, or like the news cycles. 

Brian Ardinger: P & G built itself on that soap opera platform and change the way they sold soap and became a massive company around it. So, talk about your business model and is it more of the traditional advertising model? What are you seeing and what kind of expectations do you have for the future? 

Naomi Shah: Yes. So, I think we're in a really unique position because we see ourselves as the intersection of technology and Hollywood. So, technology and media, let's put it that way. Where on the technology side, we'd love to test business models, like let's create an engaged community that cares about this content and wants more access to exclusive content and create opportunities to deepen that relationship with the community that we're building. 

So, we're using things like. Let's engage people with shoulder content and other podcast feeds and exclusive interviews with guests. And then let's release more content in a subscription form. We just launched on apple podcast subscriptions, which is the tried and true business model on the technology side. 

On the media side, advertising to your point is an incredible way to be able to bring other companies and other brands into the mix, into the storytelling process. And so that's something we're definitely exploring. 

We're also exploring how do we engage with our communities outside of audio? So we've gotten a lot of interest from production companies and streaming platforms to start bringing this content into video and licensing our audio to other platforms that need more content. 

Because while we love being the sole distributor of our content. We realized that there is constantly a lack of content in the world. People always need to tell more stories. And so we can be that source of stories for other people. 

And so I love it because that really allows us to say let's form a relationship directly with our listeners and our audiences and be that direct to consumer entertainment company. But we don't have to stop working on creating stories for the industry and bringing our stories to audiences in ways that Meet Cute might not be the right platform for. 

For example, we're not a full in-house video production studio. So we want to partner with the right people there to tell our stories in the best way possible for video production as well.

Brian Ardinger: Well, you brought up video, you know, what made you decide that we're going to start tackling the audio format first versus new platforms like Tik TOK or YouTube, that seemed to be getting a lot of traction because of the video format. 

Naomi Shah: So, audio, what I love about it is that it's such a unique format that has the constraint built in where you can't see the characters. And at first, we were like, oh, that's really tough. It's hard to engage without seeing the characters. But that's just because people haven't done it before. And what we're trying to do is really create more intimate connections with characters and plots and narrative arcs, where people start to visualize the stories in their head.

So, if like the main character Natalie goes on vacation, we want the person listening, the audience member, to say, oh, what was my last vacation? Like, let me put myself in Natalie shoes and it becomes a very intimate experience. And I think audio is an incredible way to engage in a deeper way with listeners and really have them be a part of the storytelling themselves.

The other thing is audio super accessible. So, you don't need to sit down and watch something. You don't need to take time out of your day. It can really go along with you in whatever you're doing. So, we have found that our audiences actually don't listen to Meet Cutes in the traditional entertainment viewing times.

Meet Cutes are consumed throughout the day from like 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM, when you're getting ready for school, getting ready to walk to your classes, getting ready to get lunch ready for your kids. These are the times that people really incorporate Meet Cutes into their daily routine. It almost feels like a meditation or an escape because it's so consistent. It's so predictable, you know exactly what you're going to get at the end of it. 

So, it's been this really interesting shift in what we thought entertainment behavior was or entertainment consumption was, where we're seeing people develop new habits because they haven't had cinema in audio before. And we wanted to start to push back on assumptions about what that looks like and create new behaviors around it.

Brian Ardinger: As a founder, I always like to get founders opinions and insights into what recommendations can you help other folks who are out there, whether they're within a corporation, trying to spin up a new idea or an entrepreneur. What are some best practices, resources, or advice that you would recommend for folks trying to get off the ground?

Naomi Shah: Great question. And I relied on so many people that came before me for advice. I would say, getting off the ground relies so heavily on conviction in your idea and standing by your idea in the face of other people telling you, I think you should do it this way, or I think you should do it that way. 

While it's so important to take advice from people. If you are not certain in what you want to build and the vision for your company or your project or your idea, I think it's really easy to be taken off track and to do things in a way that's already been done before. And that's not the reason that you go into founding, you go into founding to do something that no one has done before.

And so actually through the fundraising process, because I just went through that in the pandemic, I learned that in meeting hundreds of really smart people, you have so many opinions coming to you every day. And it's really important to like take time, block off your calendar and like reflect on what you're hearing, because some of those things will actually help you shape your vision for the company.

And you have to filter out the noise because there are going to be conflicting opinions that might not be the vision for your company. And it's really important to take time to reflect on that. Otherwise, you could find yourself in a completely different place that you didn't want to end up. So, I think having conviction is probably the number one piece of advice.

And the second thing is finding people who are going to support you no matter what. I think that can be in the form of team members, it can be in the form of investors, can be in the form of people outside of your company who are your personal board of investors. Without those people, sometimes founding can be really lonely and really a little bit isolating. 

And I think that with those people, you find that you have sounding boards or people who will tell you, okay, you don't need to overthink that, focus on this instead. Having those people in your life makes, makes you feel like you're not alone on this journey as you're like climbing up the mountain and trying to figure out what this vision is for five years for the future or 10 years into the future. So, I would say people and having conviction are probably the two most important building blocks in the early stage.

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Brian Ardinger: Oh, they're fantastic building blocks. And I want to really thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation, telling your story and giving some focus, some insight in what it takes to really do something innovative. 

So, thank you for being on the show. If people want to find out more about yourself or Meet Cute, what's the best way to do that? 

Naomi Shah: So great to be here. Loved, loved this conversation. Finding out more about Meet Cute, were on every social platform. So, Instagram, Twitter, Tik-Tok. And the best way to learn about what we're doing is to tune in to some of our stories on any podcast platform, where you listen. Subscribe on apple podcasts.

I am also super available to talk about anything entrepreneurship, business related, entertainment, podcasts, and you can find me on Twitter or on LinkedIn as well. Just feel free to DM me. 

Brian Ardinger: Naomi, thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Look forward to continuing the conversation and best of luck in the future for you.

Naomi Shah: Thank you so much, Brian, 

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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