Building things that don’t scale

I’m a nerd. I wear it as a badge of honor as I think most people my age do these days. Being a nerd is cool! Or maybe that’s only something nerds say…

Anyway, this is what I mean by nerd. I love documentaries. I am an avid listener of the Slate political gabfest, Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, and Vox’s The Weeds podcasts. I watch CSPAN (seriously). I recently bought this book:

When I bought this the bookstore guy said to me as I paid “Wow, this looks like a real page turner…” To which I said “Um hell yes it is.”

Anyway, you get it. I geek out over politics and policy.

Because my friends (yes I have friends despite all of that) know this about me, 80% of our in-person or texting convos end up including some sort of question about politics.

“Yo, Rebecca can you just explain what the hell is going on in Syria?”

“Reebs, so what really are the chances the Donald becomes the nominee?”

“Becca, be real with me: Is Obamacare good or bad? What’s even in it?”

Anytime I get one of these questions I feel the same way I imagine anyone feels when someone actually wants to talk about their favorite subject: super pumped.

But let’s take a step back. Why are my friends asking me? There are plenty of other, better, political minds out there writing countless articles, producing videos, and recording podcasts about the same issues. Why aren’t they just consuming that content?

It’s all about friction.

What’s easier: Searching “What is going on in Syria” and digging into the thousands of links out there to try to find one that breaks down the full situation. OR asking someone you trust knows enough on the issue to explain it to you.

I think the answer is obvious. Digesting information when it’s in a conversational format is so much easier and interesting. We do not write in the way that we actually talk to each other, so when you explain an issue to someone out loud it’s automatically easier to digest that information.

Also worth mentioning, when someone talks to you about an issue that they are super interested in, they make it interesting to you and their enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.

I was hanging out with my friend David and we were talking about this. What could we build that allows the nerds of the world to explain important issues to people in a fascinating way. We knew it had to be scalable, and it had to be built on top of some existing behavior already ingrained into our daily behavior.

Then we had a bit of a lightbulb moment 💡

What about text messaging? We thought about it for a bit and decided to try an experiment. We set up a Google Voice account for my phone, and sent a text out to 50 friends:

So “Purple” here was just me on the other end of Google voice manually texting each person. “More” was the first Purple “command line”, but at this point when someone texted “more” I just sent them more information manually.

The cool thing about this? We didn’t build a single thing and those 50 people were incredibly engaged with the service, asking questions, and telling their friends about it. Soon, we had grown to 100 people and Google voice was getting pissed at us:

“Your message was not sent because the SMS limit was reached. Please try again later or try sending to fewer contacts.” — Google

Ok, we have to build something

At this point we decided to build our own messaging system to send and receive texts. We also moved from the simple Q&A format and started covering live events, like the debates, Hillary’s Benghazi hearing, etc. Users would text “subscribe” when they wanted to follow live updates on an event, and could text Purple questions as the live update feed came in.

Side note: By the way, this is my dream job. To just be talking to people about politics all day and try to make the different issues under that umbrella interesting and accessible? Yes please.

Ok back to the story. So yes, this is my dream job and I loved doing this, but we kept growing and we needed to add a bit more automation to make my job a little easier. Enter Purple words.

David built a way for me to create “Purple words” which we would text in all caps to our users indicating that they could text that word/words for more information. I could pre-write a text associated with that Purple word, and voila, my job just got easier.

Once we had Purple words at my disposal, we found that we could create stories: a series of texts that played out like a conversation and explained an issue. Like this:

Then it struck us: Woah, this is an entirely new way of thinking about content, and we could create a whole host of stories using this conversational format.

And it all started with a dinky little Google voice experiment, doing something that didn’t scale.

Purple is a conversational content platform that put your own personal politics nerd in your pocket to keep you informed for the election :)



Entrepreneur and Creative Product Leader, recovering political junkie

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Rebecca Harris

Entrepreneur and Creative Product Leader, recovering political junkie