The Society for News Design is excited to announce that Lauren Leto is joining our lineup of speakers for the SND Charlotte workshop on April 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C.
Leto is co-founder of Texts From Last Night. Her latest project, Listen, is an app that helps users manage their texts and calls. In 2012 she wrote Judging a Book by its Lover, published by an imprint of HarperCollins.
SND.org editor Aviva Loeb asked Leto about her entrepreneurial spirit and insight on creating products that promote conversation.
SO, YOU STUDIED POLITICAL THEORY AND CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY IN UNDERGRAD, WENT TO LAW SCHOOL, DROPPED OUT, AND HAVE BECOME SOMETHING OF A SERIAL FOUNDER EVER SINCE. HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THE ENTREPRENEURIAL BUG, AND WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE THIS PATH? I’ve always worked hard and made stuff. I’ve just been the kind of person who “does it.” You have an an idea and you do it. Particularly when it comes to starting companies, it wasn’t so much, “I want to start companies,” it was more like, “I have an idea, we could implement it.” When Texts From Last Night started to do really well and make money, at that point I was like “I’m never going back to working for other people.” Once you get that taste of, “I can create my own destiny” you’re gonna keep doing that.
TEXTS FROM LAST NIGHT, WAS BORN DURING A TIME WHEN SHARING YOUR EXPERIENCES ON THE INTERNET WAS INCREDIBLY POPULAR (FML, DAMN YOU AUTO CORRECT). WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE LIKE SHARING THEIR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES WITH TOTAL STRANGERS? The great thing is, it’s anonymous. There’s not much that is painful or unsafe about it. The thing that I think is really interesting is this shared experience [that’s created] when you’re reading it where you’re like, “Oh, I’ve been there, I’ve had a moment like that!” Then, when you have a moment like that again, you’re like, “Oh I should submit that.” I think people want to know, “Does this qualify? Is this a Text From Last Night?” At our peak we had about 5,000 text messages a day and we only published around 30 to 50 of the funniest ones. So it was a high barrier to entry. People would send them because they were like, “Ahh, I have these moments, too.”
YOUR NEW COMPANY LISTEN IS A PHONE NUMBER THAT ACTS LIKE A USERNAME, TREATS YOUR TEXTS AND CALLS LIKE A SOCIAL FEED, AND PRIORITIZES COMMUNICATION ACCORDINGLY. HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS IDEA AND WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING TO SOLVE? With phones, the whole thing used to be, someone calls your phone number and it would ring a box in your house, and if you weren’t around to hear that box, it’s like it didn’t happen. Now it’s changed to, someone calls or texts your phone number and they’re literally able to pinpoint what’s in front of your face, probably right this second. But there needs to be a hierarchy of quality when it comes to [managing that]. It’s no longer a synchronous thing. You’re never going to respond to those Amazon delivery updates, so why are they being displayed above five text messages from your mom just because they came in after the texts from your mom?
IT SEEMS LIKE CONVERSATION HAS REALLY BEEN AT THE HEART OF MOST OF YOUR ENTREPRENEURIAL ENDEAVORS. WHERE DOES THAT INTEREST COME FROM? I think it just comes from within me. It’s what I like. I [recently] went through a bunch of my old journals from when I was a kid; I used to print out my old AIM conversations, which is kind of crazy, and highlight and make notes around them. It’s something that for whatever reason has always been an interest of mine. I’ve also always really liked fiction, which, of course, is heavy on conversation to understand the meaning of what the story is.
WHAT IS THE KEY TO BUILDING A PRODUCT THAT PROMOTES CONVERSATION? Whatever you are doing, you have to give people a way to see themselves in the product. When it comes to Texts From Last Night it was like a combination of the very embarrassing moments where people were like, “Oh thank God, someone else had a night worse than my night,” or “a moment worse than my moment”. I think as a reader of a blog you feel better about your own personal decisions and that’s kind of a shared experience for everyone. And with the area codes, you can be like, “This is totally how people in New Jersey act.”
SIMILARLY, WHAT IS THE KEY TO BUILDING A PRODUCT THAT STICKS? Moving fast. The product itself is evolving. You might hook all the users for one reason. But then there will be a trillion others. We made Texts from Last Night and before Texts from Last Night there was only FML but after TFLN there was a million others, like Damn You AutoCorrect. Being able to move fast and be like, “Ok this worked, how do we use that and apply it to the product to inform our next feature?”
WHETHER IT’S THROUGH CHAT BOTS OR VOICE INTERFACES LIKE THE ECHO, NEWS ORGANIZATIONS ARE INCREASINGLY BUILDING CONVERSATIONAL PRODUCTS. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE THEM? DO YOU THINK NEWS PRODUCTS SHOULD BE MORE CONVERSATIONAL? I don’t think conversational UI should be applied to everything, because sometimes it actually make tasks harder. However, I do think that when it comes to news, one of the things I would most like to see is more context around the news. I don’t want just a list of links of what I need to see today. It would be great to be like, “Overwhelmingly, critics are saying X, Y, Z.” If I’m going to have a conversation, then I want it to be a two-sided conversation.
LAST QUESTION: TELL ME ABOUT THE BOOK YOU WROTE, “JUDGING A BOOK BY IT’S LOVER.” I wrote this blog post called “Stereotyping People by Favorite Author” that took off and informed this book. I wanted it to be a celebration of all the different things people love about reading. People shouldn’t judge other people for what they love to read is what I want the sentiment to be, but at the same time I try to make fun of more what the so-called literati all go over when it comes to books and reading. It’s a bunch of personal essays about growing up as someone who reads, which I think a lot of people can relate to. And also snarky comments on current authors. It came out in 2012. We tried to write it to be very of the time, so I feel like it’s already aged so much in terms of other books that have come out.
About SND Charlotte
• Don’t miss your chance to UNITE & REBEL, register today: Register
• Book your hotel room (before they run out!): Use the SND discount link
• Check out the lineup of speakers we’ve announced for the workshop. What a team!
• Don’t miss the Think Before You Make pre-conference day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center