What inspired you to create Are.na?
We were first motivated to build Are.na out of personal necessity. Three of the founding members were web-based artists and we wanted to build up a body of research that justified why we made our work in a certain way or with a certain meaning. We needed a place to be able to save any kind of content, use that content to build up ideas, and allow our friends to access and build on these ideas.
What is Are.na and how can it change the way we experience the world around us?
Are.na is a visual organization tool that is designed to help you think and create. It’s an online platform where you can save any type of content (images, text, links, files, etc), organize it, and collaborate with others.
It’s a “social-ish” platform but we don't have ads, likes, or any kind of “suggested” content. The whole point is to carve out a space for focus and mindfulness online. Since we don’t depend on advertising revenue like other social networks, we don't profile our users for the benefit of marketers.
We have a freemium subscription model instead. Free accounts can save as much content as they want as long as its public. If you want to save private content, you have to upgrade to a paid plan. Our model lets us focus on designing a useful tool and social space for our members— not on selling their attention or data to a third party.
Our hope is that by building a platform centered around finding and contextualizing information, we can help promote a culture of curiosity and self-directed learning on the Internet.
There are many visual organization tools kicking around and creative, idea-driven people will never stop searching for the most effective of the bunch. What makes Are.na unique?
Are.na comes from the perspective that inspiration is, at its best, interdisciplinary. If you have a visually-oriented profession, your decisions are always going to be informed by a mixture of conceptual and aesthetic input. The same thing goes for pretty much any kind of ideation. Are.na helps you develop a habit of registering those moments when you come across something that "catches your eye," so to speak, and to build up context around them over time so your ideas become clearer.
Are.na is unique because it lets you structure the associations that your mind makes between ideas. By providing a space where you can save stuff and build conceptual connections at the same time, it turns browsing into a creative process and lets you learn from other people in expressive ways. If you’re using Are.na in public mode, it also allows other people to join in on that contextualization, which in turn helps you see stuff you’ve saved from new perspectives.
What brought you to Republic? Why does equity crowdfunding appeal to you? What has been your favorite part of this process?
We became interested in crowdfunding because we love the idea of our community being part-owners of Are.na. Are.na’s history feels like one big group effort and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to make this more formal. Raising on Republic is a natural fit for our mission and it means that not only are we supported by our members through subscriptions, but they can now own part of the platform.
At your most optimistic, what do you see Are.na accomplishing?
We have an informal (and admittedly slightly cheesy) mission statement, which is "making smart cool". At the moment, social networks are mostly about personality projection. We want to create an online space that is more genuinely inquisitive and curious.
Think about going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia. In some ways, this is one of the best possible activities you can do online. You're naturally following your curiosity and learning new things in the process. Why not leave breadcrumbs for yourself to pick up later? Or even better, leave some breadcrumbs for someone else to pick up.
On the web, we have access to more information than we could ever possibly consume. There’s this general feeling of increasing velocity: the more we try to keep up with real-time information, the faster it comes at us. We find ourselves in this situation largely because the content-side of the web is supported by advertising. The business model puts platforms, publishers, and users in a big free-for-all to get the most eyeballs on the most ads, and so the result is an ecosystem that relies on addiction to keep the clicks coming in. But that doesn’t have to be the case. As much as the internet is dominated by powerful platforms, it’s also made up of people with the power to make their own decisions. Anyone can make a habit of using the web more mindfully to learn new things and stay curious. We want to help people get to that point.
Since starting Are.na, what achievements or milestones are you most proud of?
Business-wise, it was a big deal for us to be able to cover our infrastructural costs through premium subscriptions. The next big one is being able to cover salaries.
Our values really depend on developing an alternative business model, so it was important for us to have a functioning monetization strategy in place from the very beginning. Most social platforms choose growth at all costs from the very beginning. But, when you only start thinking about revenue, after your platform has scaled to millions of users, the answer is always going to be advertising. That’s just not the kind of business we want to build. Our success as a business relies entirely on people who love Are.na enough to pay for it, and so getting to 400 paying customers was a big deal for us.
On a personal level, it's just been overwhelmingly flattering to see the kind of community that has formed on Are.na. They are some of the most thoughtful, creative, and intelligent people I have encountered online.
Besides using Are.na, do you have any other life tricks that help you better organize your ideas?
This is a hard one, because I actually do all my idea management work on Are.na at this point. The other side of idea management is keeping stress and anxiety at bay. For keeping a clear head, when I can, I go for walks early in the morning in Prospect Park.
What is your favorite book?
People on Are.na are going to laugh at this answer, but it has to be the architecture and urban design book, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. The goal of the book was to give an ordinary person the conceptual and practical tools to improve their surroundings (in the home, in the neighborhood, in a city, etc). In Alexander’s words “At the core is the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This idea comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.”
Is there a particular entrepreneur or start-up that inspires you?
There are honestly so many. For starters, through promoting open-source software, GitHub is such a good example of a platform that is both undeniably good for the world and a really solid business. Their mission is baked right into their business model, which is incredibly cool. Basecamp is also incredible. David Heinemeier Hanson and Jason Fried are the exemplars of building “real” online businesses, as opposed to raising a massive amount of funding and being pressured to exit early. We see Are.na being a long-term business in the same way that Basecamp is. We also use Basecamp for project management internally, and deeply appreciate their attention to detail with the product. Kickstarter is another great example of an Internet business that is mission-oriented, thinks on a long term scale, and at the same time does very well revenue-wise. They’ve also started to issue dividends to their early investors, which is something we see ourselves doing.
If you had $1 million that you could invest anywhere except Are.na, where would you put it?
I would unhesitatingly invest in Github. It’s a well-run business, the software is well-crafted and designed, and they’ve successfully helped the open source software movement become mainstream as a pure function of their business.
What has been the most challenging part of getting Are.na up and running?
I think the hardest thing has been building a platform that walks the line between being flexible and open-ended but also understandable and immediately useful.
What is the best piece of advice you could give your younger self?
I used to be self-conscious about the amount of time we’ve been around, especially in the context of the typical startup advice to “fail fast.” But now I’m extremely proud of the fact that we’ve been around for 7 years. Our product and community had time to develop at its own pace, and we've created something truly special and nuanced. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
What is special about your company's dynamic?
We all have backgrounds in creative fields (art, design, architecture, music, etc.) so we tend to approach the problems we solve from a cultural perspective, rather than a purely technological one. Creative people are early adopters and tend to be sensitive to how things are presented to them, especially on the Internet. We understand that perspective, because we come from those backgrounds.