When Readup first began, there were so many things that my co-founder (Jeff) and I didn’t know about what we were trying to do. We had no clue how we were going to grow, what the community would look like, or even how the platform would function. We did know that social media was a mess, trolls were too powerful, and journalism was in peril. So we started to pay really close attention to these problems, and we began to design and implement some solutions.
Along the way, we always gave ourselves unlimited freedom to explore new ideas and take things in new directions. Sometimes our thinking followed a logical progression, but often it did not. (I can barely wrap my head around the fact that we introduced “Post” in the middle of 2019, several years after launching our first beta. I mean… what on Earth even was Readup before you could post articles?) But alas, somehow we found our way to where we are now. And, despite the countless detours, there are a few things that have remained remarkably solid since the very beginning.
First and foremost, our core values. We treat the community with dignity and respect. Always. In other words, like humans. It’s a huge honor that people give Readup their time and attention and we take that gift seriously.
Here’s another thing that has not changed since day one: We have always known that our proprietary read-tracking technology, and specifically the binary output that it can produce — Person A read Article X; Person B did NOT read Article Y — is the key to the entire system and our unique way to create value for readers, individually and as a community. For this reason alone, I never use the word “pivot” when describing the way that Readup’s vision has evolved.
And, finally, our plan for making money has always been crystal clear: People will pay to use Readup.
But we didn’t know exactly when it would be time to flip the switch from free to paid. And then, quite suddenly, we knew. It happened a few months ago. We were locked down. I was struggling to fundraise. The Social Dilemma was released and it felt like everyone I have ever known was emailing me like, “Bill, it’s a commercial for Readup. Why didn’t they interview you?” (For a while, I kept a tally. At fifty I stopped keeping track.) And, suddenly, the whole world was waking up to a fact that we have always known: If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
In the business world, honesty and simplicity go hand-in-hand. Financial markets, for example, are confusing as hell. That’s why they breed corruption. They might not be “pure evil” as I have been known to say in the past, but there’s something about abstraction and unnecessary complexity that just feels inhumane. Globalization, accelerated by the internet, has created a lot of murkiness, a lot of legalese, and a lot of people are capitalizing on that murkiness. Ambiguous language is the soil in which Doublespeak grows. We turn into automatons when we stop trying to understand. And a lot of people are checking out. ‘Humane’ isn’t just the future of tech, it’s the future of everything. Some really big stuff (politics, the press, academia, etc.) are all poised for major disruption in the coming years. And trust – which is real, deep, and slowly earned – will disrupt entire industries that previously relied on loyalty.
Screw loyalty. We don’t want you to be loyal to Readup. We do, however, want you to trust us. And, since trust is a human experience, let me tell you a little about my background:
My first job out of college was at a B2B startup that sold “solutions” (consultant-style buzz-speak for “people, technology & expertise”) to corporate legal departments. Around the same time that I was finally legally allowed to consume alcohol, I started managing a multi-million dollar book of business, but I was completely unable to explain exactly what I did to friends from my hometown, including Jeff. On the one hand, that gave me a boost of confidence. I was in the big leagues. On the other hand, I felt like there was something fraudulent, something “fake,” about the whole charade.
A few years and several jobs later, I decided I needed a major reset. I moved to New Hampshire and worked at a rural gas station-general store. I ran the dairy department. Farmers came in and sold me milk and eggs. I marked up the prices (a reasonable amount) and sold them to customers. The simplicity of the whole arrangement — “honest” work — was a revelation.
For a while, I was just completely disenchanted with tech. But, over time, I have come to see that it’s possible for tech companies to be radically transparent, real, and honest. But it takes a lot of work. And a lot of writing! And it might never be quite as simple as “Give me five dollars and I’ll give you a gallon of milk,” but, conceptually, it’s good to have an ideal to chase.
I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about gifts, in both personal and professional contexts. (Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass are two books that have impacted me greatly.) For a few years after that B2B job, I was a Product Manager responsible for community development at Couchsurfing, a global community where millions of people shared freely (and quite personally) without any expectation of reciprocity. That’s what makes gifting so beautiful.
But when you give someone something for free with false intentions it’s certainly not a gift. And taking something without asking is also bad. Social media companies have perfected these dark arts. They might not charge you to create a “free” account, but they’re taking something that’s a whole lot more valuable, and they’re not being forthright about it. They’re taking your time, your attention, and, by extension, your sanity.
People love talking about how 1984 and Brave New World have come true. Indeed, they have. I’d like to add another title to the list: Catch-22. The word “paranoia” refers to a fear that some unknown threat is taking advantage of you. If you’re using social media, that paranoia is justified. If social media makes you feel crazy, it’s a sign that you’re not crazy. And if social media isn’t making you crazy, you’re crazy, because you’re asleep to a very real threat. Either way, you’re crazy. It’s the ultimate Catch-22, our current dystopian reality.
In a matter of weeks, Readup isn’t going to be free anymore. We’re positioned to be the first real alternative to the entire surveillance-powered social media industry, but that’s actually not how we’re going to promote ourselves. Instead, we’re going to talk about all of the incredible features that make Readup so enjoyable and enriching. And, beyond that, we’re adding one final (huge!) selling point to the entire proposition. Here’s the new elevator pitch:
Readup is fixing social media and saving the journalism industry. It costs five, fifteen, or twenty-five dollars per month. You choose how much you want to contribute. Readup keeps half. The other half will be evenly distributed amongst the writers whose articles you read fully. It’s the easiest way to support writers directly. And Readup will show you EXACTLY where all of your money is going, down to the penny.
What do you think?
In next week’s blog post, I’ll dive deeper into how and why we’re (1) allowing you to choose how much you want to pay and (2) giving half of our revenue away, starting from the very first penny we earn. (Hint: Writers are humans too. We rely on them more than we realize and they’re getting skinned right now. Another hint: Our motivations are not not selfish. Obviously.)
We’ll always have fond memories of these “free days” where we built something cool and gave it away, but we’re extremely excited for Readup 2.0, and it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of gifting and sharing.
And remember: anybody who creates an account before the paid version goes live will be able to remain free for life. This is our gift to the people who made Readup possible. And, if everything goes according to plan, it will be a pretty cool thing to brag about when half the planet is on Readup. Let’s do it!