Sept. 12, 2022

Will the ‘Anti-Instagram’ Blow Up Social Media?

Poparazzi CEO/cofounder Alex Ma on authenticity and connection


Nora chats with Alex Ma, the CEO and cofounder at Poparazzi, an app that allows you to build your friends’ profile pages instead of your own…in other words, be your friends’ paparazzi. Alex talks about how his obsession with connection on social media led him and his brother, Austen Ma, to create something more authentic than Instagram. Poparazzi hit 5m+ downloads one year after it launched in June 2021, and shot to number 1 in the app store. This article from Exploding Topics served as some of the source material for the list of social media apps in "Bullish or Bearish." For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual

 

Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Olivia Meade   

Video Editor: Sebastian Vega

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop

VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer 

 

Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm

Transcript

Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now, let's get down to business.

Here we are again, talking about the technology that has a death grip on our brains and our lives, and that is social media. My therapist put it best: She compared the existence of TikTok to psychological warfare. I was her fifth client in one day who had complaints about the impact the app has on our lives, our productivity, our newfound addictive behavior, and it is still up for debate whether TikTok is a net good or bad for society. But it's clear that other social apps are trying to be more like it, precisely because we spend more time on it. Take Instagram reels, for example. In fact, social apps seem to be copying each other when they figure out what is grabbing users. This makes me wonder: Is it actually possible to innovate and create something new in the world of social media, or are developers just going to riff on the same themes until our brains rot into doomscrolling oblivion? 

Our guest today is Alex Ma, the 29-year-old CEO and cofounder of an app called Poparazzi. He's actually managed to find a new angle. On Poparazzi, users don't curate their own profile page. Instead, they upload photos of friends, and their own profile pages are developed when their friends post photos of them...as if your friends are your own personal paparazzi. Alex told us that he became obsessed with the problem of how to actually connect with friends on social media. Remember, most of us follow and watch strangers on TikTok, not our actual friends. He and his brother, Austen Ma, wanted to create something more authentic than Instagram, which, as we know is all about portraying the best possible, sometimes filtered version of yourself. So what if you couldn't post pictures of yourself? Poparazzi is you, seen through the lens of your friends. This idea is resonating with a lot of people. Poparazzi hit five million-plus downloads in June of this year. That's one year after it launched. It even hit the top of the app store charts at one point, an experience Alex called "a dream and a nightmare" for their then-three person team, who had to keep it all running.

But as Alex told us, this success did not happen overnight. They built 11 or 12 apps that all failed before they arrived at Poparazzi. What I found most intriguing is that there is not yet a clear path for monetization on the app. Is there value to only focusing on growing users before thinking about how to bring in revenue? Well, Alex is focused on building a loyal, engaged user base, but he does have some creative ideas for how to monetize in the future, and surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly given recent scrutiny, he wants to monetize without going the advertising route, like your Metas and your TikToks of the world. If he solves that puzzle, it could really change the game for how we consume and are consumed by social media. We'll get into all of that after the break. Alex, welcome.

Alex Ma:  Thank you for having me. Nice to meet you.

Nora Ali: Nice to meet you as well. We like to start this podcast with a little icebreaker. It's called OG Occupations. So I would love to know, Alex, what was your first-ever job? Your first occupation?

Alex Ma:  My first job was actually right out of school and I actually was doing something very different than I am now. I worked in investment banking, which is something that surprises a lot of people, but yeah, I was in SF and I worked at Deutsche Bank in their investment banking practice. So that was my first job out of school.

Nora Ali: Same, same. Also investment bank. Started there, and now life is better, isn't it, Alex?

Alex Ma:  Yeah. I'm so far from that life, it's crazy, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. So yeah.

Nora Ali: Doesn't it always until you do it? But I'm sure you learned a lot. You learned how to work hard. That's what I always say.

Alex Ma: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Nora Ali:  All right. Let's get into Poparazzi. It has been described as the anti-Instagram. Is that something that you embrace? Is that something that you're proud of? I guess, how would you describe Poparazzi and why do you think people call it the anti-Instagram?

Alex Ma: I think it's something that is a double-edged sword for us, but at the same time, I've always seen Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, the big players as the inspiration. So for us, obviously, we're trying to do something different and we're trying to address and fix a lot of the problems that we see with social media. But I'm a daily active user of Instagram. I love Snapchat. I love TikTok. I love Facebook. I pay very close attention to what they're doing all the time. On top of that, I'm a consumer and user as well. So yeah, it's definitely not a term or narrative that we're pushing. It's something that I think our community and our users talk about. We embrace it, but at the same time, it's not a message that we're necessarily pushing.

Nora Ali: Yeah. So you're not trying to take Instagram down. These social platforms can all coexist. You can open up multiple apps in a given day, but explain to our listeners how exactly Poparazzi works and how you are trying to bring in more quote unquote "authenticity," a word that is overused, but we're all trying to see more of that on social media. So how is Poparazzi achieving that?

Alex Ma:  Yeah, so Poparazzi's a little bit different. I just think, broadly speaking, you are kind of competitive in the sense that a consumer only has so much time in the day and anything is really competing with Instagram from a time perspective, in the same way that a Netflix or whatever is competing with Instagram. But I think for us, we're a little bit different, in the sense of the value that we bring to our users. Poparazzi, or the ethos behind Poparazzi, has always been about authenticity, but it's the real you by your real friends. So on Instagram, on Twitter, you're building a following and you're trying to paint this picture of yourself. It's a very self-interested platform and people have started businesses off of it. They've created entire lifestyles off of it, being influencers and stuff like that. But it's really about you portraying a version of yourself that can benefit you. I think over time, it creates this feeling of inauthenticity, and we wanted to create something that felt more authentic, and we felt like the best way to do that was to almost not allow you to post yourself.

And so on Poparazzi, we say, "The real you by your real friends," but it's different because your friends are the ones that are creating your profile. So you can't post a selfie. You can't post a photo to your own profile. Your friends are the ones that create your profile, and vice versa. So it's just a different value proposition that we bring to the table. It's you through the lens of your friends, versus you through the lens of yourself. We actually think that's a lot more aligned with kind of just social norms. I think there's a disconnect between an influencer and the average Instagram user, because most people just aren't that comfortable promoting themselves. So I think Poparazzi is a cool way to be like, "Okay, what do Alex's friends think about him?" Even for me, what do my friends think of me? And can I examine my life through the lens of other people? So the main thing that's different about Poparazzi is that it's a friends model, which is different from Instagram, which is like a follower/following model. Then on top of that, you just can't post yourself. That's the biggest differentiator. It's a big feature change, really, but that one change completely changes the product, because it changes the core of what Instagram was doing and kind of allows us to create our own differentiator/value.

Nora Ali: I know this was not the first app that you attempted to create. We'll get into some of the other apps that you had made before, but what inspired you in the first place to get into the app creation business? Why'd you quit banking and then get into app creation?

Alex Ma: I've always been very active on social and on the internet. I think the internet was such a cool way—as a kid growing up in Chino Hills, it's not a really big city—to feel connected to the world and feel like you could access all this information. You're a DM away from everyone. So always been super interested in social. To me, social media apps or social media platforms create and rewrite the social fabric of society. I don't think people realize this, but on very subconscious level, we live our lives with Instagram and it changes our behavior. I wanted to make a dent and build in that space that I was really passionate about. My brother and I—my brother's my cofounder—and we started our journey, I think, summer or late 2018, and yeah, Poparazzi wasn't our first app. We had built a bunch of stuff before Poparazzi, and we were just obsessed with this problem of, how do we connect people authentically? Because I think Facebook always talks about connecting people, right? And I think social media, at one point it was always been about just connecting people. Let's just see how many possible connections you could make. But after college, I moved to San Francisco and a lot of my friends stayed in LA. I just felt like I was seeing everyone's lives on the internet, but not really connecting with them. It almost felt like social media was a wall. We had this thesis where it was like, "Oh, can we try to make social media feel more like a window into someone's life, versus a wall?" It's designed—initially I think by all the creators—I think it was all very positive intentions, but like to bring people closer. But I actually feel like social media pushes people apart, because your facade on Instagram or your facade on Twitter actually drives a wedge between people. So we were like, "How do we close that gap?"

Nora Ali: This idea of a window into someone's life instead of this wall, I mean, that's a great point, because most of the people that I know who create TikToks don't even want their friends to know they're making TikToks. It's almost like you're finding this community of strangers and it's not for friends to connect. So time spent is this metric that...the Facebooks of the world, they say, "Oh, that's not that important to us. We care about community and engagement," but literally time spent is how they monetize. There's more eyeballs, more time, more advertising dollars. So what is your success metric? What is the equivalent of time spent for Facebook, for Poparazzi, for you to know that it's doing well?

Alex Ma: We're still very early in our journey. Pop's just crossed our one-year anniversary mark. We're a very small team still. We're kind of figuring out how to get to scale. We're not nearly at the size of an Instagram or Facebook or even Snapchat, but I think from our perspective, the business models that Facebook and Instagram and even Snapchat have adopted has caused a lot of the discord with the community and the users, right? Because if your monetization model is advertising—it's a great business, by the way, it prints cash and the margins are insane. It's an amazing business. But over time, you have to optimize for time spent in the app. TikTok, their number one metric is time spent. Instagram's moving into video and reels because if you give people algorithm feed, they'll be in the app for longer. If they're in the app for longer, then they can serve ads. There's more ad space. So I totally get that. These platforms have to make money.

I don't know where things will shake out at the end of the day, but I believe that a lot of the problems with social media 1.0 come from the way they make money. I don't think it's something that has longevity. It almost feels like the advertising model is detrimental to the product experience. I think there's other ways to monetize. I draw a lot of my inspiration for building and everything from kind of like streetwear and like other industries. I think there's a way to monetize a brand that people love through merch or partnerships or whatever, or content even, rather than monetize the attention. Because I think if you're going to monetize attention, you're going to have to build features and do things that negatively impact the consumer experience. Over time, you build this almost tension, where it's like, people roll their eyes whenever they see an ad, or whatever. Again, it's a give and take. Some people don't mind seeing the ads and, you know, to have a free service, that's totally fine, but we believe that we can build a brand that people love that's not optimized on time spent. You can build a successful business that doesn't require people to be on your app 24/7, every single day.

Nora Ali: I guess what Mark Zuckerberg would push back and say is, "We serve you ads such that we can provide the service for free," and then there's tons of discourse on how, well, if you're giving up your personal data and your own time, that's actually not free, but that's a whole other debate we can get into another time. But I know you said you don't quite have it figured out yet, the monetization model, but what are some of the hypotheses or maybe things that you're exploring? I loved your analogy with the streetwear model. What are some of the things that you plan to test out when it comes to making money for Poparazzi?

Alex Ma:  Yeah, I mean, that's not the number one priority for us right now. I think we still have a lot of work to do on the product front, and, you know, growing that and getting it in the hands of more people and kind of growing our brand. I think the way that we are envisioning what monetization will look like comes after building an amazing brand and amazing product that people love and are obsessed with. But I think there's a lot of ways to do it. Content is a really interesting way to monetize, whether that's on TikTok, Instagram, different platforms. I think merch—I think one of my favorite companies is Line Friends. They're like a messenger based in Japan and Korea. It's really big in Asia actually. They sell stickers. They upsell stickers, they sell plush toys. There's a huge Line Friend store in Hollywood. So they've created a brand and service that people love and they give that away for free, but they monetize through all these different partnerships. I think they had a really big partnership with BT21, the K-pop group. They've found different ways to monetize that don't really compromise the product and don't incentivize them to keep people in the app for no reason. People come for the service, they love the service that they provide for free, and then they can monetize in different ways. So I think there's a bunch of ways to do it. We're just not quite there yet, but we've thought about it a lot.

Nora Ali: Well, that's good. But I mean, it sounds like your investors must be very nice, patient people, because aren't they asking, "How are you planning to make money?" Or do they just trust you to build the loyalty, build the customer base, and then the money will come?

Alex Ma:  Our investors are very sophisticated and great investors and they expect us to make money at some point, but they understand the stage that we're at. A lot of our investors were early investors in Snapchat and Discord and all these other platforms, and at the stage where we're at, it doesn't quite make sense to think about monetization just yet. We have to get to a certain scale and a certain size where it even makes sense to start thinking about that. But I think they've seen the cycle run through. It's like we are just not quite at that stage yet where we are feeling that pressure. We're feeling pressure in different ways to like grow the user base, but monetization isn't the number one thing for us right now.

Nora Ali: Well, let us know when you do have the solution and we'd love to hear back from you. We're going to take a quick break. More with Alex when we return. Okay. We've been talking about growing the user base, and I would love to hear more about your approach to that. I know you've leveraged other social platforms, even TikTok, to promote Poparazzi. So I was looking at the Poparazzi TikTok account. The first video had 2.1 million views. That was in February of 2021. In it, someone just lists out "three reasons why I think Poparazzi is going to be the next big social media app." What is your strategy...before we get into the details of that particular post, what is your strategy in promoting Poparazzi via other social platforms?

Alex Ma: TikTok and Instagram, these are kind of the new places where our customers and our users are spending time. These are tools that are available to us that weren't available to, say, a Facebook or Instagram when they were launching. But for us, that's where people are spending time. When we think about how we grow and where we want to meet our users, we just kind of take a step back and think through, "Okay, where are they spending time?" Obviously, they spend time in school, but launching at schools is a very tricky process because, A, it's not super scalable, and B, you run into a lot of issues with admins and all that stuff. So school's not the best, most effective place to launch, but they're spending a lot of time on Instagram, and particularly TikTok. So our strategy with that was really, let's meet our users where they are. 

In terms of content, all the content that we've put out is stuff that's user generated. Sometimes we'll put some spend or boost some content that is doing well. But a lot of the videos that have gone viral were videos that our users made to try to get their friends on it, et cetera. TikTok just works in such a magical way in the sense that like someone could post a video for their friends and it shows up on the For You page, and all of a sudden, like, millions of people are seeing it. I think our kind of overnight success or meteoric rise to the top of the app store really came from a handful of viral TikTok videos. For better or worse, like, caused us a ton of stress. I remember being number one on the app store last summer and it was like kind of a dream and a nightmare at the same time, because we were a three-person team and it was really hard to keep things up and running and moderate concept, just a bunch of different things that we had to juggle. We raised money, we built out the team, but yeah, it's like TikTok can take your business, whether it's an app or a small restaurant or a business, and blow it up overnight, and you kind of have to be ready for that.

Nora Ali: Yeah, I mean, that sounds very exciting and also very terrifying, because if someone tries to use the app and it doesn't work the first time they try to use it, they might bounce and literally never come back. So I can imagine the pressure that you were under.

Alex Ma:  Oh, yeah. We were so stressed that first day that we launched, I think because we had like a preorder and when we had launched, everyone was downloading the app at the same time. I think there was a moment we were getting 2,000 downloads a second or something crazy like that.

Nora Ali: Oh, what?

Alex Ma:  And we couldn't authenticate any users. You know how when you sign up for an app and you have to type in your phone number, you get a code?

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Alex Ma:  Like one out of every 100 users were getting a code.

Nora Ali: Oh no.

Alex Ma: So it was so stressful. It was so stressful. It's like, "Man, we just built this thing. We spent all this time building this project and no one can even get on, and they're only going to try once and they're never going to come back." It was a very stressful experience, but yeah, we got through it. Just good memories looking back, but...

Nora Ali: Yeah, for sure.

Alex Ma:  ... yeah, it was really intense.

Nora Ali: With the virality from TikTok, you also get people, almost inevitably, who argue in the comments in TikTok. So I was looking through the comments in Poparazzi's first TikTok. One comment said, "Social media is dead. There's no next big thing. It's Twitter and Insta till the death of the internet." Then other people obviously followed up things like, "I mean, that's what we thought until TikTok." So people are debating what the future of social media is, and it feels like there's the big incumbent players who control everything, they copy features for the smaller platforms. But do you think there is space for an app like Poparazzi to get huge, or is the idea just to operate in more niche spaces, maybe Gen Z is looking to these smaller apps, and eschewing big tech, to some extent? What are your thoughts on the growth and the place of a smaller social media app amongst the big ones?

Alex Ma:  I'm very optimistic, and I think that there's going to be new entrants and new players that will really be able to compete. Look, I think Facebook does a really good job. They understand their business super well, and they do a very good job of either copying or acquiring or drawing inspiration from new things that come out. But at the end of the day, I think consumer behavior changes so quickly, and it's changing quicker and quicker with meme culture and the internet and all that stuff. Just think about the memes on TikTok. If you're on vacation for a week and you come back, the internet, it's a completely different place.

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Alex Ma: It's not where it was a week ago.

Nora Ali: That's true.

Alex Ma: If you missed three days, you're completely in a different world, right? And so I actually think that people always talk about the rate of technology adoption and change in technology, but as social founders or people that build in this space, I think a lot about consumer psychology and how consumers behave with each other. That's changing super rapidly too. I'm pretty bullish that consumer behavior is changing faster than a big player like a Facebook or Instagram can move. So it's almost like there's no TikTok without Instagram first, but I think TikTok was a massive jump and leap in innovation from Instagram. For example, on Instagram, organizationally, I feel like they were building for an interest graph, but the way that they built their interest graph was through a follower model. So you had to follow people over years to kind of build your interests.

TikTok was like, "Yeah, let's not make people follow people at all. Let's just learn what people like through watching 10 to 15 videos, and let's push that up." So that was a huge innovation, and that's something that, when you get it right and you learn that consumer behavior and you can jump the gun on these big players, it's really hard for them to catch. For what it's worth, I'm pretty bullish on Instagram reels. I think they're doing super well competing and stuff, but I just think there's always going to be room for new entrants, because I would always bet that, A, consumer psychology changes faster than the big companies can keep up, just because they're so massive and it's really hard to innovate at that scale. Two, I just believe that a smaller team like us that's very opinionated, we can outbuild a Facebook with 10 people in a room with the right philosophy and the right execution, just because there's nothing holding us back from pursuing it full-time. So I'm pretty bullish on a new entrant being able to come.

Nora Ali: So I guess there's fewer layers of approval, then, for you. If you want to test out a feature, say, at Facebook, there's a lot of people who have to approve it. As you alluded to, at Instagram, Adam Mosseri, he made this announcement recently about the company's focus on video. You said you're bullish on Instagram reels, but that announcement from Adam was faced with a lot of skepticism because people are just saying, "Oh, Instagram's just trying to catch up to TikTok." So we are seeing, obviously, a lot of copying in the world of social media. So let's say Instagram were to add a feature where there's a separate tab and all you do is take pictures and post pictures of your friends. Would that be good for your business? Is that something you would want to see, or is that something you would not want Instagram to do?

Alex Ma: I think, as a creator, seeing something that you've designed or you've built in the hands of millions of people using is like the ultimate goal. Whether we do it or Instagram does it, like obviously I would like to be the one that does it all. At the end of the day, I think like I just want to see my work out there changing people's lives and changing the way people use social media. I think it'd be really tough for them to do, because our platform is just so different. It's not about you, it's about your friends and vice versa, and you can't post yourself. Every platform—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever—it's all you posting yourself.

So I think for someone to copy that feature, it means we've already been wildly successful. They're not going to copy something that's not wildly successful already. So I think we build with a very unique perspective and a very unique philosophy. I think our team is pretty rallied behind that. It's something that we just want to see in the world and we're focused on making that a reality every single day at Pop. We're just excited for the opportunity to do it.

Nora Ali: Well, what if they came to you with an acquisition proposal? Is that something you've considered?

Alex Ma: I think there's always something that's worth considering. If there's more resources that can be put behind it or something that can just allow us to accelerate our development or accelerate everything that we're doing, that's something that we're open to. I'd never say, "No, we're not going to consider..." Everything's situational. It just depends.

Nora Ali: We'll have to wait and see. Another quick break. More with Alex when we return. Okay, Alex, I'm going to go back to that TikTok video that Poparazzi posted, because I just love reading comments on TikTok. So one of the comments said, "It would literally be an app for roasting people." Another comment said, "Now, this is going to get very blackmaily very quick." So broadly speaking, how do you protect users? Do they have control over what gets shown on their profiles, or are they just being very trustworthy of their friends and the people they're connecting with on the platform?

Alex Ma: Yeah. So that video, I'm pretty sure those comments are from people that haven't used the app yet. They're just assuming how it works.

Nora Ali:  I'm sure they are. Yeah, of course.

Alex Ma: Yeah, I think with the name and like the branding, it's definitely a very edgy kind of thing, but I think they know, once they use the platform, how much control they have over everything. So on Poparazzi, first of all, you have to approve the Poparazzi. So not anyone can just add to your profile. Someone has to add you as a friend first, before they can pop you, right? So you're approving who can and can't add to your profile. You can't add to your own profile, but you get to decide, "Okay, these 30 friends of mine get to add to my profile, because I'm tapping into my inner circle."

Nora Ali: Hopefully they're your real friends.

Alex Ma: Yeah. And then they're the ones creating this almost reality TV, behind-the-scenes view of my life. I get to choose that. Secondly, on a per content basis, our view is that the person in the photo owns the photo or co-owns the photo. So on Instagram, if I posted a story of you doing something that you didn't want, you couldn't take that down unless you asked me to take it down. If you're tagged in the photo, and you have to tag someone on Pop, you can't post the photo without tagging someone. That person that's tagged has complete control over that photo. They can delete it, they can remove it, et cetera. The brand I think was, we wanted something playful, something edgy. Like, roasting friends is like definitely a fun use case. But at the end of the day, they're fully in control over what actually shows up and who can take photos of them.

Nora Ali: So you can actually delete it. It's not just like a matter of untagging yourself. If you're in it, you can delete it.

Alex Ma: Yeah, you delete it.

Nora Ali: That's amazing.

Alex Ma:  You delete the photo. Yeah.

Nora Ali: We've all been tagged in things we don't want to be associated with on Instagram and Facebook, so that's great.

Alex Ma:  When you're tagged in something on Instagram or Facebook and you untag yourself, it still lives.

Nora Ali: I know, exactly.

Alex Ma:  It's still on their profile, so yeah. Yeah.

Nora Ali:  So you're giving us the power back. Thank you, Alex. So I do want to touch a little bit on the other apps that you had tried to make before you found success with Poparazzi. What generally is your process when you're trying to make a new app, seeing how you can adapt to user behavior? And give us some examples of what some of those apps were.

Alex Ma: We've always been very kind of mission-driven, and some people don't build in that way, but that's just the only way that I know how to build things. My brother and I, we've been on this journey for a while and I think we've built a lot of things and most of our shit just didn't work. So who knows, maybe we're really bad at building product, but that's just what I know. From our perspective, we've always been excited about creating authenticity, building for authenticity. There's a lot of levers that you can pull to create authenticity. You can try to create more intimacy, you can try to create...you know, there's different things that you can pull. So, well, we started off as TTYL, which was an audio social network. This is like before Clubhouse, pre-pandemic and everything. But we built an audio social network because we felt that audio was a medium that could make people feel closer, and it was real-time, it was more intimate. We kind of really had a strong thesis around that. And for the first year or year and a half of our journey, we were the audio social company that was experimenting in that space. So we built four or five different iterations of TTYL, and realized that it wasn't going to work. We kind of had to change our strategy a bit. We were kind of thinking, like, this is a random number that I just made up, but if one out of 20 social apps takes off or really makes it, because you see new social apps every year, let's just do it 20 times. So me and my brother were like, "All right, let's change the strategy. Let's actually try to build..."

Nora Ali: The statistical approach. Yes.

Alex Ma:  Yeah. "Let's try to build 20 apps, and if like 20 of them all flop, then maybe we're bad at what we're doing and we should try to do something else, but let's try it 20 times and let's create this mindset and this environment or this permission to fail and to fail often and to fail fast." Because I think with TTYL, we were really scared of failing. We're like, "Oh man, this is the first company I've ever raised money for. I don't want this to fail or whatever." But then I was like, "Okay, what if the strategy was to fail? Then we give ourself the permission to do it." So we kind of went on this journey for a while. It was me and my brother. I hired this designer from Facebook, Nick Sarath, that he joined our team really early on. And he's been very instrumental in all of our iterations, and we just grinded it out. We were building a new app every 45 to 90 days. And at the end of that 90-day period, we would assess, do we want to keep it or do we want to cut it, or do we want to iterate on something new? We just repeated that, and it was a grind. It was like running without knowing if there was ever going to be a finish line. It was definitely a grind. We built this app called Typo, which was a live texting platform. So you could message your friends and they could see you typing as you were typing. It would also record your face at the same time. Yeah. 

There was a lot of things that we built. There was a lot of things that we built and most of them were probably not great ideas, but we were acting on instinct and acting on inspiration. I think we were just focused on moving as fast as we could, because everything that we built, every time we built something, you know, we learned something from it or we learned how to build a friend finder, we've learned how to market the product better, et cetera. So yeah, it's been a crazy journey. I think a lot of people thought Poparazzi was an overnight success, but it really was, I think, probably the 10th or 11th app that we built before it took off.

Nora Ali: Wow. When you were deciding to yeet an app or iterate on it or whatever, was that an internal testing decision, or did you test it with users and outsiders?

Alex Ma: It's tough because I think at our stage, consumers don't really know what they want. Well, they all know what they want, but they're not going to be able to communicate or articulate that. So you have to read between the lines a little bit. I would say that was my sole job because I'm not an engineer. I mean, I do some design and stuff. My biggest role in all of this was deciding when to push on something and when to cut something. We had to make the call to cut stuff, and, you know, team did not like cutting things because there's always this feeling of sunk cost and we put all this time into it, but we were looking for a breakout and that was our process. There's no formula for it. It was very, just a gut feeling. Sometimes we would look at the data and it wouldn't look great and we would decide to keep pushing. Or sometimes we would look at the data and it would look promising, but we would cut things. So it's a very holistic view on something, and we're just acting on instinct and gut feeling. Thankfully, I was able to build a team around me that was very, very supportive of whatever we wanted to do. We had an investor group that was also extremely supportive of that journey.

Nora Ali: Yeah, I guess to that end, if you're giving yourself a chance to fail 19 times out of 20 and you're paying a designer, how are you sustaining yourself during this? Was there a fear that you would run out of funds?

Alex Ma: Oh yeah, of course. We were literally on the brink of running out of cash and then Covid happened, which there were a lot of things that we built that we couldn't launch because of Covid. But there were also a lot of things that were ideas that were inspired because of Covid. So it was definitely a weird time. Before we launched Poparazzi, we were almost out of cash. So we came down to the wire. So yeah, we were very worried. We were running off of the seed round that we had raised for TTYL. Our investors were very supportive and were like, "Just keep building, keep going. Not that we don't want our money back, but it's just like, we believe in you guys still." They were very supportive, so that allowed us to keep going. But yeah, we were tight on cash. We almost ran out of cash.

Nora Ali: I mean, that's a testament to finding the right investors, because they believed in you as founders and producers, and not just the one idea. So that's great. Sounds like you've come to a good place since then. Okay, before we let you go, Alex, we have a fun segment. It's called Shoot Your Shot. So I would like to know, what is your moonshot idea? This is your biggest dream, your wildest ambition. It could be professional, personal. It is your chance now to put it out in the world and shoot your shot.

Alex Ma: I feel like this is a pretty big moonshot, the thing that I'm working on now, but...

Nora Ali: Yes, but anything but that, Alex, you have other things in life.

Alex Ma: I love playing golf. It's something that I do very, very frequently. I'm actually obsessed with it. A, I would like to get to scratch. I'm currently like a...

Nora Ali: I don't know what that means. What does that mean?

Alex Ma:  Okay, well, just you can shoot under par. You're pretty good.

Nora Ali:  What does that mean? What is the equivalent for another sport?

Alex Ma: I don't know. There's actually not really a parallel to being a scratch golfer, but it means you're good, and...

Nora Ali: Yeah, yeah.

Alex Ma: Yeah. I think it would be really cool to build a new golf club. I live out in LA and a lot of the clubs out here, it's like extremely exclusive. They're impossible to get into and it's not about money or anything like that. They're just very exclusive, kind of old money. I want to build a new generation club where it's more culture-forward and forward-thinking, because I think the game of golf, I loved when I played it competitively growing up and stuff, but it's not the most inviting sport. I kind of want to make it a little bit more accessible and more fun, too. I'm building a digital space right now, but building a physical space with trees and lakes and stuff would be pretty cool. So yeah.

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Alex Ma: That'd be cool.

Nora Ali: I love it. I would love to go to the opening of this new age golf club when it's ready. I can't wait. Okay. Very last thing. It's a quick little game. It's called Bullish or Bearish, and this is the social media startup edition. So I'm just going to read you some relatively newish social media startup descriptions and you tell me if you're bullish or bearish on them. So here we go. Okay. First up: Yubo. It's a Gen Z-focused social media platform that eschews influencers and ads and does not sell its user information. The platform brings in revenue through upselling its customers, as opposed to more traditional methods. According to Fast Company, there are no ads on Yubo, and more importantly, no influencers. Instead, users hopscotch between small video chat rooms, where they're encouraged to meet new friends, play games, and drop money on add-ons. I feel like you'd be bullish on this personally, but what are you, Alex?

Alex Ma:  Bullish. Yeah.

Nora Ali: Yeah. Sounds like similar vibes to Poparazzi. It's like, we're not monetizing your data. It's about authenticity. It's the friend graph.

Alex Ma: I don't want to bet against anyone. I just, I'm bullish.

Nora Ali: This game is not going to work, then. You're bullish on everything.

Alex Ma:  Also, I feel like I know a lot of the people in the space, so it's like, yeah...

Nora Ali: Sure, sure, yeah.

Alex Ma:  ... bullish.

Nora Ali: I got you. This is an opportunity, at the very least, for us to learn about new social startups, anyway. Okay. Next up. S'More, which stands for "something more," centers around meaningful dating and combating a superficial approach to finding a relationship. Users only get to see a blurred version of a potential match's profile pictures—that is, until they start chatting. The more time you spend messaging each other, the clearer the person's photos become. It emphasizes forming emotional connections and it has raised about $2 million in seed funding in 2021.

Alex Ma:  That's a cool idea. It's something that we've thought of at some point too.

Nora Ali: Yeah?

Alex Ma: I've never built anything like it, but I think it's a cool idea. I'm bullish on it.

Nora Ali: Great. It kind of reminds me of Banter from Ted Lasso. I don't know if you watch Ted Lasso, but it's like, you don't actually see the person. All you do is banter and chat with them, which I think, yeah.

Alex Ma:  Yeah, that's cool.

Nora Ali: That's cool. Don't judge a book by its cover.

Alex Ma:  I think it's interesting. It's like putting the person first. I think with most dating apps, almost all of them, you kind of have to judge people by how they look, and this is kind of a different approach. So it'd be interesting to see how that shakes out. I'll try it out.

Nora Ali: All right. We're bullish on S'More.

Alex Ma: Yeah.

Nora Ali: All right. Last one. And you knew we'd ask about this one. BeReal. It's this French social media app launched by GoPro alum Alexis Barreyat in 2020. So you already know this, but for our listeners, the app's intention is to create candid photos and authentic content where users receive a notification at a random time once a day saying, "Time to be real," and this opens up a two-minute window for the user to post a picture of what they're currently doing. The purpose of this is to capture an authentic, unfiltered snapshot of a user's life. Bullish or bearish on BeReal?

Alex Ma: I'm bullish.

Nora Ali: Do you use BeReal?

Alex Ma: I have it. I don't use it every day, but I use it every once in a while and I have a lot of friends on it. So I think they're doing well. I don't know the details or anything behind it, but they've been number one for a while, and they must be retaining and doing pretty well, so I'm bullish.

Nora Ali: Yeah. All right. And other social platforms are trying to sort of copy it a little bit, so that's a good sign. In the words of Alex Ma, it is validating. Amazing. Okay. Well, you're just a bullish kind of fellow, and we're going to leave things there. This has been a very wonderful conversation. Thank you, Alex, for joining us on Business Casual.

Alex Ma:  Thank you. It's nice to meet you.

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, shoot me a DM and I will do my best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or call us. That number is (862) 295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and review. It really, really helps us. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Olivia Meade. Additional production sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Kate Brandt is our fact checker. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.