Last year's CRUNCH Incubator winners, Susannah Luthi and her partner, Niree Noel, are finally seeing their hard work pay off.
After having successfully reached their Kickstarter goal this past May, Connu and team were inducted into the coveted, San Francisco-based Matter, a startup accelerator and early-stage venture capital firm, with a vision to change the future of media.
Appreciating Susannah & Niree's avant-garde publishing platform, Matter voted to accept Connu into their program, and out of a deluge of submissions and over 50 semi-finalists, Connu made the cut, along with only 6 other startups.
Susannah, who leads the hectic life of a startup founder, took some time out of her frenzied schedule to tell us of their incredible journey from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab's CRUNCH Incubator to working in the rigorous accelerator program at Matter.
"If you are going to start a business that makes a viable product," Susannah advised, "it's all about the right contacts, the right time, and the right tools, then you can really build something."
A Story of Success
Susannah does not have a tech background. With an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a Master's in Arts, Susannah knew very little about the startup world. Nonetheless, Susannah had a vision.
Susannah started at USC Dornsife in '06 pursuing a Master of Arts in Professional Writing. During her time as a Master's student, she wanted to do something heuristic to hone her practice as a writer. Director Bridget Mullins was very supportive of the idea.
What first began as an intriguing passion project, soon became an exciting business opportunity. With an aim do to fiction publishing what Pitchfork what did for indie music, Susannah set off.
The publishing industry is a mess--Susannah recognized that, and with no stable market, she saw an exciting opportunity to satisfy a need in fiction publishing.
Other than thousands of splintered literary journals, there is nowhere for readers to go to for trusted content.
Susannah partnered with two other students in her master's program, and started sketching out an app, starting in mobile first, because she had always been interested in that space.
Incubating An Idea
Susannah had heard about the Annenberg Innovation Lab, but didn't know who to talk to. A close friend, and previous CRUNCH Incubator winner, Ryan Harper, referred Susannah to Erin Reilly, Director of USC Annenberg Innovation Lab.
After contacting Erin, Susannah pitched her idea, and Erin grilled her on the feasibility of her model and idea. Erin recommended Susannah submit her proposal for the Lab's Digital Design course, which would aid Susannah's team in incubating the idea.
Susannah, Niree, and team created a remarkable prototype during their time in USC Annenberg Innovation Lab's 10-week Digital Design & Incubation course.
Through the CRUNCH Incubator, Susannah and her team learned how to build an app, refine user experience, and focus on the bigger picture.
She learned about prototyping, talking to people (Susannah is an admitted introvert), testing with potential customers, and questioning all assumptions-- even the most basic presumptions.
"Yes there was pressure, but most of it was self-imposed," said Susannah, describing the atmosphere of the Incubation course, "I knew this was our chance to make it something, and if we couldn't, it would go anywhere."
The experience Susannah had in pitching to sponsors during the incubation course was extremely useful (Reilly used to make them literally take an elevator and practice their pitch).
Admittedly terrified of public speaking, Susannah prepared for her pitches by practicing three times a day. She is thankful for the experience, and continues to use the basis of her USC pitch today. She has since pitched to Google Acquisitions, and various heads of investing firms.
"It was nice to be in a supportive environment," Susannah says of USC Annenberg Innovation Lab's Incubation course, "We got a lot of interest with the Kickstarter campaign."
Through CRUNCH Incubator, Susannah was fortunate enough to find an invaluable mentor, to whom she was introduced by Erin Reilly.
"It didn't feel like we were in academia, Erin really pushed us to create something great: a sample business model from outside the university. In academia you don't get that very often."
Susannah and her partner, Niree, were not well acquainted prior to the outset of the project. Susannah admired Niree's exceptional talent and brilliance, and knew she would be a perfect fit for the project.
Through this grueling 2 ½-month development, Susannah & Niree honed their idea and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds to get the venture off the ground. Connu victoriously reached its Kickstarter goal in 30 days. Shortly thereafter, Connu and team joined Matter, the startup accelerator and early-stage venture capital firm.
Like a beautiful butterfly, the partners launched Connu from the cocoon that was USC and flew all the way to San Francisco. However, the journey was anything but idyllic.
Susannah and team went through quite the crucible this summer, living on couches, and working day-and-night just trying to get their venture off the ground.
"The real work is just starting now," says Susannah, "The pressures in the past have definitely made us stronger team members today."
Overcoming adversity is what success and entrepreneurship is all about, and Susannah and Niree have it in their blood. (They are Trojans, after all).
Life at Matter.
Work-life balance is integral in a startup to avoid burnout. Susannah used to think that if she wasn't working, she was failing, and slowly came to realize she needed to fix that mentality. Susannah no longer writes work emails after 10pm. Over-working leads to a loss of perspective, which can hinder the creativity behind innovating a strong product.
With financial pressures relieved, the two can focus on their product: performing assumption testing, focusing on customer needs and wants, and showcasing the crux of what Connu is all about: forging connections with yourself and other readers.
Life at Matter is very intense, and community oriented. There are seven companies around one stage, and they constantly check in with one another. Each of the seven firms started in the Matter Bootcamp, designed from a Stanford incubator program.
At Matter Bootcamp, each member was told to forget about his or her respective company for an entire week. Forming teams of three, they were tasked with creating their own company and a prototype based on conversations with customers... in three days.
The iterative process is designed to intuit new tricks and ways to think about building company--without thinking about it.
After a very intense week, all the teams spent their subsequent one relaxing in Tahoe. By the end of the retreat, everyone bonded and cliqued. (They continue to have weekly poker nights.)
"Everyone is brilliant, media-focused, and challenged to change media for good, it's great atmosphere," said Susannah.
Connu is set to launch Beta very soon (Nov 4th was draft head date). Apple recently rejected their app based on their paywall system, and all that was needed was a tweak and a resubmission. Susannah is proud to announce, "Connu is back in queue". Look for more news on Connu in the next couple weeks.
We are so proud of Susannah and Niree, their amazing venture, and the tireless work they put in to making it a reality.
Susannah offered some parting wisdom for women looking to make a splash in the tech scene: "Be tough. Do not let any of the condescension creep in or burly culture distract you or depress you. Find a strong female mentor who has been through it before."