A startup called Matter, which aims to build a better reading app for today's internet, is launching out of private beta testing and announcing the close of its $7 million Series A, led by GV (formerly Google Ventures.) The app enters a space where technologies for saving articles to read later, like Instapaper and Pocket, have lagged behind how people are now consuming online reading -- through newsletters, personalized recommendations in other apps or through suggestions from peers on social platforms, for example. And people don't only want to consume reading material as text -- they want to listen to articles as audio, highlight key points and discuss with fellow readers.
The frustrations with the current set of reading apps drove Matter co-founders Ben Springwater and Robert Mackenzie -- who met while working at Nextdoor -- to take on the challenge of building a new tool for online reading.
"There were all of these pain points and frictions around reading online, and the media ecosystem was changing -- you have the rise of newsletters, you have the rise of individual creators, alternative media -- and also that there was all this potential around what you could do to e-reading. It's still just words on a screen, but there's a lot more you can do and overlay to that," explains Springwater. "It just became more and more apparent to us that there was an opportunity to build a better reading product," he says.
The co-founders began the development of Matter in early 2020, after raising an angel round, and later participated in startup accelerator Y Combinator's summer 2020 batch.
At the outset, one of Matter's larger goals was to help people make better decisions about what to read.
Today, there are many places where people discover new material, from news headlines, to Twitter and other social apps, to newsletters hitting the inbox, and more. But there isn't an app that's working to create what Matter calls a "recommendation" graph, where the best material is filtered, curated and brought to the forefront.
This is what Matter is aiming to do. On the app's homepage, you'll discover recommended content that comes from a set of articles recommended by a group of "public thinkers" on Twitter who often share interesting news and links. From their tweets, Matter's team curates their recommendations further, to hand-select the best articles to share in the app. Matter users can also feed in their recommendations to the app, which the team then curates, sending a subset of those suggestions to the homepage, as well.
Image Credits: Matter (Matter's homepage)
Like other "read it later" apps, like those offered by Pocket or Instapaper, Matter users can install a Chrome extension to build their reading list in the app, or they can make a recommendation directly in the mobile app itself. Users' reading lists are private by default, but you can choose which articles from the list you want to post publicly to the Matter community.
This sharing feature makes Matter a bit of a social network, as users can also highlight articles as they share, in addition to highlighting privately.
"You can think of it as like a lightweight way of broadcasting what you're reading," says Springwater of the highlighting feature.
If someone follows you in Matter, they'll see your highlights and annotations overlaid on the article when they read the same article. This sounds similar to what digital publishing platform Medium offers across its own website and app. But Matter makes the option available across all the reading material being shared. These highlights are also saved to users' profiles, so you can visit someone you follow and see what sort of things they had made note of and shared.
Image Credits: Matter (a user's private queue)
Users on Matter can follow others, in a model similar to social networks like Twitter. This allows you to track the shares from people whose suggestions you generally like. The feature recalls the recently shuttered app Nuzzel, acquired by Twitter when it bought Scroll earlier this year. Nuzzel had a small but devoted following for its Twitter-based reading recommendations. While not entirely based on Twitter, Matter's idea to follow people, and what they read and share, feels similar.
A commenting feature enables discussions on shared articles, but to what extent you'll see much action here may depend on who you follow. During Matter's private beta, moderation hasn't been an issue. But it's one the company will need to address as it scales to a broader audience.
The app also addresses a number of other pain points associated with online reading and the current crop of reading apps.
It gives you tools to get your newsletters into Matter in a couple of ways, for instance -- either by having you set up filters to forward mail or by using a special email address just for Matter.
It offers a way to listen to individual articles as audio, but in a far less robotic-sounding voice than is available in some other reading apps. It lets you sync other accounts where you collect reading material, like Twitter, Notion and Readwise. It allows you to view and save the full, paywalled content, if you're a paid subscriber to a news site or newsletter. And it offers weekly roundups with Staff Picks for those times when you've been too busy to keep up.
Image Credits: Matter (listening to audio)
In time, Matter also wants to add more personalization to its service, which will involve investing in semantic technology on the back end to understand the topics in articles being shared. But the startup is weighing how exactly to bring this in.
"There's a limit to how heavily we want to lean on personalization because there's a balance that needs to be struck between narrowing in on someone's interests and giving them more of what they have indicated they want through the signals they've given you, and introducing enough novelty and serendipity," explains Springwater. "People's interests evolve and you're never going to be able to zero in on them completely," he adds.
As Matter exits private beta, the app will be open to anyone who wants to download it from the App Store.
In addition to GV's investment, led by M.G. Siegler, investors in Matter include Outliers, Shrug, James Beshara, Calvin French-Owen and many other angels. And, from its $2 million seed, Stripe co-founder and CEO Patrick Collison; former Stripe product manager turned investor Lachy Groom; and Eventbrite co-founders Kevin and Julia Hartz invested.
It will also use its Series A funding to invest in further building out the Matter experience and scaling, hiring engineers and designers, and building web and Android clients.
"The first generation of read-it-later services were amazing, and perhaps no one was a bigger user of them than myself. But they were also built in a different era," said Siegler about GV's investment. "The content we now consume in a number of different ways, on a number of different devices, required an updated vessel purpose-built from the ground up," he continued.
"On top of that, there's more content than ever before to read, and more of it is great than ever before. But we need an effective way to surface that content. This was the initial premise of Matter and having watched Ben and Rob build this from the ground up, to today's robust app built by a growing team, has been awesome to watch. So we jumped at the chance to give them more resources to keep at it without slowing down. I'm excited to see how others will use Matter and how the service will grow with more people powering it forward," he added.
Matter's iOS app is currently free, with plans to monetize via a consumer subscription model in the future. The app is launching into public beta starting today, meaning there will no longer be an invite requirement to try it out.