Early Days—Episode 13: Surf with Swish Goswami

Conversation with Swish Goswami, co-founder and CEO of Surf.

Antler in the US

March 15, 2023
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The transcript

TYLER (Host): Hey everybody, I'm Tyler and this is the Early Days podcast. I created this show as part of my work as an investor at Antler. I wanted to talk to the world's best founders and pick their brains on how they went from zero to one, building some of the most important companies in the world.

All right, we're live. Hey Swish. How [are] you doing? 

SWISH: I’m doing well.

TYLER: How are you up in Canada?

SWISH: I am good. I'm good. I am pretty happy that it's only snowed once thus far in the last few months. So it's been pretty good. It's been a pretty warm winter. And by warm, I mean still near zero degrees, but it's still not below, thankfully. Yeah, it's good. 

TYLER: It's all about perspective, right? You talk to a Canadian and they’re like, yeah, it's only five degrees—amazing winter. Yeah. 

SWISH: Oh, it's an amazing summer if it's five degrees—even two. Just kidding. 

TYLER: Yeah. That's fantastic.

Well, I'm glad you're staying warm up there, and super excited to have you on. I know we talked…it must have been more than a year ago, during COVID. I remember I was sitting in my living room, still fully working from home, and you and I had a first conversation. We talked about what you're building, Surf, and I always thought it was really impressive back then. I was always really impressed with just how deep of a thinker you were. 

So to kick us off and give people some context, you are the CEO and founder of Surf, which is sort of a future web browsing platform that's incorporating new incentive systems into the way people use the internet. Would love just a quick elevator pitch of like, how do you explain to people what Surf is when you talk to them? 

SWISH: Yeah, I think the best way I'd describe it. We have, for the last 15 years as consumers, given our data to Amazon, Google, Facebook—big tech companies, for free, without any sort of compensation back. And what we're trying to do with Surf is allow you to earn something back for the data you already share. So when you're browsing the web, you know, keep Surf on because you could earn points for the data you're sharing. And then with those points, you can use them for items, gift cards, discounts. You can enter your points into giveaways and you can donate your points to charity. Essentially, you can get your data to actually finally do something useful for you. 

TYLER: Yeah, that's awesome. And I mean, I have so many questions about it, right? But how did you arrive at this particular problem? You're a smart guy. There's a lot of things you could probably build. Why was this the problem? The one you were like, I have to build a company around this? 

SWISH: Yeah. Actually, initially, when we were building out Surf, it was previously called Trufan. So we rebranded the company at the start of this year. And we actually didn't even think about this specific problem right away—like three and a half, four years ago, when we started Trufan. Our initial goal to build a platform that helps any brand or influencer find either top fans on social media. So we connected directly to the Instagram and Twitter API. We showed you all your followers. We built a lot of really cool filtering and segmentation capabilities for you to drill down into an audience that you actually care a lot about engaging with or retargeting. 

And I think through the process of building that out—through the process of also seeing, you know, all the changes in third party data with the Instagram API changing—we were like, Okay, why are all these changes happening? And one of the key things that we were pointing to was privacy regulation—you know, GDPR in Europe, CCPA in California, your cookies. You have ad blockers that are rising globally, paid ads losing effectiveness, and you have the Apple iOS changes that came into effect late 2021. But we were kind of being teased throughout 2019 and 2020 that something would happen. You know, that Apple will now require mobile apps to ask you for permission when you download the app. 

You know, so with all of those things, I started thinking, Okay, you know, privacy is clearly the future, we're going to live in a privacy conscious world, whether we want to or not. And in that world, data collection will likely be incredibly disrupted. Because A, the way we were getting data from people was that a lot of companies weren't even asking for permission, let alone giving people something back. And B, a lot of people didn't even know what they were signing up for in the first place. So I just thought being able to fix those two issues together with one solution might be [it].

TYLER: Yeah, it always makes me think of the South Park episode with the Apple Terms of Service. Keep signing off on these contracts, and they don't know what they're giving away. 

SWISH: Literally nothing. Literally no one—no one—knows anything about what they're giving away. And I don't blame them. I mean, who wants to read a 13 page Term of Service? 

But at the same time, you know, we do hear about the instances like Cambridge Analytica. We hear about the Facebook data leaks. We, I feel like people generally hear about all these situations and are like, Oh my God, I want to do something about my data, but there's no easy way for them to manage their data, or at least earn from it. And so that was the goal with Surf. Like, we didn't want to just build another complicated dashboard for you to look at all your data and have an analog to be able to kind of say, Oh, I want to share my data here. I don't want to share my data here. Like we didn't want to make it convoluted. We wanted to make something incredibly simple for people to just download right away and get started. Like, you know, earning points. They can passively do it. They don't have to take surveys, or watch ads, or click specific links to get rewarded. And then if they don't want to share some types of data, they can easily do that as well. And it's all in plain English. You know, there's no convoluted terms. There's no weird marketing jargon in the product. It's something that any person could come on and immediately start earning with.

TYLER: Nice. I love that. Every time we talk, you're so enthusiastic, and you're so charismatic about what you're building. Like I would love to know more about your story. How did you arrive here? Actually, how did you decide to become an entrepreneur? You know, was it something on you that you wanted to do early on, or you figured out along the way? Like, what's Swish's story?

SWISH: I think for a while I wanted to be an entrepreneur, in the sense that I remember even just being 10-years-old and being really interested in business. I have a folder back home in Calgary, Alberta. And, you know, this folder is one of my most prized possessions. It has just random ideas that I wrote down. Like, here's a business I'd love to start. Here's another business. Some of them are science fiction. Some of them are unrealistic. Some of them like, I assumed a budget that was just, you know, unlimited.

But the cool thing is just looking at all those ideas saying, Okay, well, I was incredibly excited to build something of my own. I think for me, though–because I debated a lot in high school, and I debated on the national team for three years in Canada—I actually thought that the path to becoming an entrepreneur would actually first be me becoming a lawyer. I thought if I was a lawyer, I'll kill it, I'll make a lot of money, and then I can use that money to go and start a business. That's the way my mind worked. And when I came to college, A, I realized I did not want to be a lawyer. But B, I realized that you didn't actually need that much money in order to get started, or at least take the initial leap, which is, you know: think of an idea, conceptualize it, maybe even mock it up.

There's so many tools now that are non-technical that you can use to visualize an idea very easily, and then get feedback. Even that first step of just getting feedback from people, Hey, this is a great idea. I think it could look like this. I think this is something you should check out that also sounds like your idea, at least getting to that phase is something anybody should be able to do with literally $0. 

So I just wanted to be able to get moving. And I think that's where in first and second year of college, I started playing around with a bunch of ideas. And in my second year, I got the opportunity to move to New York and work on a project that kind of led me to Surf eventually. It was an Instagram account for basketball fans, @Dunk. I did it with my friend in New York, Elliot, who was also my roommate. We lived together for a year and a half. And we built this big Instagram account for basketball fans @Dunk on Instagram, and grew that to 2.7 million followers. And that was the reason—to the process of working with brands like Warner Music and Sony Music and 2K—I started thinking about what tools these brands needed in order to understand their audiences. And that's kind of how Trufan was [born]. And obviously through the process of building Trufan, we started to listen to customer feedback. We started to look at where the market was going. And we started to think a little bit more about zero party data. 

TYLER: I love that. So you were going into your junior year of college, and you got an opportunity to move to New York and build out this NBA fanbase. How did that come across your desk? 

SWISH: I was really keen on networking in first and second year of university. But the way I did it wasn't by asking people for coffee. I interviewed people. So I had a big following on LinkedIn around my second year of college, because throughout my first year, I was writing probably two articles per month. And I was part of the LinkedIn Campus Editor Program, which was very new at the time. So like the LinkedIn Campus Editor Program—they were like amplifying every single post that I wrote, you know, to like, millions of students. So it was incredible. I just started churning out more and more content. And again, the content I wrote about was success stories. You know, various types of people. I wasn’t just interviewing entrepreneurs. I was interviewing musicians, architects, and people from various vocations. It was really cool to be able to write their story. Write what they regret about their college experience, write what they were really excited about coming out of college, write about things like mental health—which a lot of college students can easily relate to—and put that all together in like a two to three paragraph article and share that. 

And through the process of doing that, I interviewed Elliot. Elliot was in Sweden at the time. He hadn't even moved to New York. And I wrote about him because he had actually built a few other accounts before that were quite prominent as well. And actually the reason I even found out about him was through Gary Vaynerchuk. I saw him on a video with Gary and they were talking and Gary was like, You know what, why don't you come to New York and work for me. And so Elliot actually moved to New York initially to work for Gary. He was Gary's head of social strategy. Then after that, you know, I got in a call with him, and interviewed him a few months later. He was like, Hey, man, I have a business idea. What do you think? Do you want to get on the call? 

We got in the call and he told me, like, I want to make @Dunk a full-time business. Like right now it's a hobby, but you know, our page is growing dramatically. I need someone to come on who can understand, you know, how to hire a team, how to fundraise, how to get top line sales going. Because I don't know how to do that. And so I was like, You know what, I'm in, let's do it. And we went to work together. 

TYLER: And 17-year-old Swish was like, I know how to do all of this. So like, I can figure it out. I mean, honestly, at that time, like, I didn't know, you know, what I didn't know either, right? So it's kind of like, I was so naive, but I was also so optimistic that I could figure it out. And candidly, at that point, I was so sick and tired of college. Like I just, I knew I picked the wrong degree. I knew I did not want to study what I was studying. 

TYLER: What was that? What were you studying?

SWISH: It was conflict resolution. And it's not like I'm not interested in that type of stuff. Like the reason I picked it is because, A, it was a really good degree for law. B, I was part of the Munk School of Global Affairs, which was a very small aspect of U of T. My class size was like 30 people because it was a very selective program. And I liked that because I came from a high school, my graduating class was 45 people. In junior high, my graduating class was 60 people. I wasn't used to a campus of like, you know, 2,500 or 3,000 people in one class, if not more. So that was the reason I picked it. 

But I definitely knew that, you know, there was no way I wanted to be a lawyer, which just kind of made studying that degree not as useful and exciting for me anymore. So that's why for me, I was just looking for an excuse to even get out of school and just try something. You know, and my mom, you see, you know, we're first generation Canadians who are immigrants from Singapore. I come from a South Asian family. So being able to talk to your parents about dropping out is almost like signing your own debt certificate. But it was still a good conversation. And she kind of gave me a one year ultimatum. She was like, If you can go and become financially independent and stand on your own two feet within a year, you can keep going

And so I just went to New York and the first thing I did was to start really looking at my life and figuring out what decisions I needed to make to make sure that by the end of that first year, I did not have to go back. 

TYLER: For all of our Asian listeners, their palms are sweating. They're hearing you talk about talking to your mom about dropping out of college. It's just like an involuntary reaction. Yeah. Yeah, go ahead. 

SWISH: I'm just saying one of the ideal things that happened in my circumstance is that my parents were actually going through a divorce at that time. So there were bigger fish to fry. So they're like–

TYLER: All right, quick, they're distracted. I'm going to drop out of college.

SWISH: Let's go, exactly. It wasn't scary because I think my mom was already like, You know what, fine, like do your thing. Here's one year. I have so much more shit that I need to focus on. So I'm like, Fair enough

TYLER: Whatever you want, Swish. 

SWISH: Yeah, Whatever you want, whatever you want, go, go. 

TYLER: That's hilarious. So, so you went to New York. You and Elliot built out @Dunk and you end up dropping out of University of Toronto?

SWISH: Yeah, I did. Yeah, I did. 

TYLER: And you parlay. So how did the parlay from @Dunk into, Trufan?

SWISH: Yeah, so we're approaching the second year of Dunk. And, you know, I think the one great thing about that partnership with Elliot, among many other things though, but like the one main thing that I really enjoyed is that Elliot was super creative. I was obviously very business focused with, by the way, a ton of things I didn't know at the time, but obviously just very keen on learning and talking to people. And we actually did have a pretty decent advisory board of people. So like Gary, for example, was on the advisory board. Brandon Steiner from Steiner Sports was on the advisory board. So we had people around us feel like we were literally soaking advice from. 

But one of the great things about that partnership is that, you know, in the process of building together and because we were also roommates, Elliot was also teaching me a lot about the creative side. Like, you know, here's how you run a really big social media account. Here's how you post, here's how you engage in a viral way. Here's how you entice a discussion or conversation to happen. I actually took a lot of those principles and even applied it back onto my old LinkedIn account that was obviously growing at that time, as well as on Instagram. 

And it was kind of vice versa. I also taught Elliot a lot about the business side, right? I taught Elliot a lot about, you know, just even the smallest things like payroll software and how to manage that. You know, hiring—like what sort of questions you ask, like what is the procedure to hire people, you know, like when it comes to fundraising. Even how to create a tracking list, how to go about building a pitch deck out, how the pitch deck should look, how to even pitch. Like these were small things that I think we taught each other really well over the course of two years. 

But I did feel at a certain point that @Dunk wasn't necessarily a business that I wanted to scale with because there was no recurring revenue in the business. You know, with @Dunk it was like, we would go and work with Sony Music, but they wouldn't come on for one year as a customer. They would just say, Hey, we have this artist that we want to promote. We just signed them. Let's do three posts, you know, on this account, right? And it just felt like, you know, there were some months where our revenue was great. There were some months where I'm like, Oh my God, we're burning way too much money. And there are other months where I'm like, Oh, we're back, you know, I'm feeling great. But it just kind of felt like a roller coaster. And I really didn't want to deal with a business model like that. I wanted to deal with recurring revenue. 

So I started thinking a little bit more about, you know, If I was to build a software product, what would it be? And I thought, again, going back to the problems that I saw with customers we had at Dunk, one of the key issues is that they didn't know who their audience was. Like they'd come to us and they wouldn't know if they had influential people following them on Instagram or Twitter. They wouldn't know on a week by week basis who were the most engaged people that were liking and commenting on every single one of their posts. And I thought kind of focusing on that problem initially might be cool. 

TYLER: That's awesome. I think a lot of people listen to this show because it's like, aside from Trufan, how did you actually get it started? I mean, what did the, what did the first couple of weeks look like? Like, what did you do to start the company? 

SWISH: Yeah, we put together a team fairly quickly. I put together an initial team of five people. It's actually funny, you know, a lot of people don't know this, but Nick Sharma—who's obviously like one of the best direct to consumer e-commerce guys out there, he's incredibly big on Twitter now. He runs his own company, Sharma Brands. He was actually someone I had poached to be our CMO of Trufan. And this was like, four and a half years ago. So at the time he was working for Hint Water, and he hadn't left Hint Water yet. So, yeah, we put together this initial squad of members. I found my co-founder, Onik—he was very technical. 

So I knew having him on board would be great to kind of build out version one of the product. And we just got it started with the product first. We knew with this type of business, it didn't matter if we were like the most charming people or if we raised the most money. We really just had to get to product market fit first. Like, we had to actually confirm whether or not the problem that we were tackling actually existed and whether, you know, companies were willing to pay for it. Which is actually, by the way, the definition in my opinion of product market fit. It's not as much about, do people find your idea useful? Are they willing to pay for it? That's the second part that a lot of people miss out on. And you need to be able to validate that before ideally you go and raise money. So that's what we did. We had a couple of beta customers lined up. 

And after about six months of building out the product with those customers and getting their direct feedback, we then decided to go and do a fundraise. We raised about 750,000 from about 27 investors, all angels. We did a purely angel round. And we were asking for checks like anywhere between 10k all the way up to 100k. So there was like a crazy range. But we were just getting going. We just needed capital to be able to hire a couple more people, mainly on the engineering side. And we moved the entire company to Vancouver, and we were building out of the suite office that Ryan Holmes came on as an investor, and kind of gave us access to his entire office space, which was nice. So that's the initial story for how Trufan got off the ground. 

It is worth noting—like things I missed out on saying—product delays definitely happened throughout our first year. We had a lot of failed hires. We had people who I thought were going to be committed to the company that weren't committed. Or people that generally weren't interested in what we were building. And we had to quickly get to them. 

We also had a trademark violation four or five months into the company. Our initial name when we started was Superfan, and we had to change it to Trufan within three or four months because we got a cease and desist letter from a company that said we couldn't use Superfan as our name. And again, you know, I was 20-years-old and did not want to fight this, especially because our lawyers were like, It's going to cost you a lot. So we were like, Yeah, fuck it. We'll just change our name. I'm sorry. We'll just change our name. 

And it's funny, my mom actually came up with the idea of Trufan. She spelled it differently. She didn't spell it in the cool way. She spelled it T-R-U-E-F-A-N, like true, like full word. And I'm like, no, no, no, we're going to take the E out. And so I kind of take credit for the name now. There you go. Thanks, mom. 

TYLER: So Swish, this is like part of what I went back to, right? Just your enthusiasm and this sort of endearing charisma you have. You're a college dropout, you had like been part of building an NBA fan account. And you go and approach these computer science grads from Stanford, and Sharma, who's now one of the best marketing minds. And you just kind of breathe through that—you just reached out to these people and got them all to join a company. That's no small feat. What do you credit your ability to attract really strong people to? Because at the time, like objectively, if you look at it, it's like, I mean, building the Dunk account was really cool. But you didn't have a phenomenal CV.

SWISH: No, no. I mean, I had to really get to see if, again, if I wanted to go into academia, right? Like I had a lot going for myself there, like in terms of debate and what I've done there. And I knew that that might be something that also gets a lot of people potentially to [notice] me, because debate actually opened up so many channels for me. Because of debating on a national team, I met an incredible amount of smart, smart people—people who did not just also go on to be a lawyer, but went on to be diplomats, or they went on to, for example, be consultants, or work as bankers. I also felt like it opened up my channels in terms of winning awards. I did win the United Nations Outstanding Youth Leadership Award. I won top 20, or 20 in Canada.

And like, you know, at that age, I think people look at those types of awards, as like, Okay, this is like a really good sign of somebody [being] smart. They know what they're talking about, and I'm willing to really believe their vision because I feel like they're qualified; like they know what they're saying. So I think that is one aspect to it. 

I think the second aspect is just me being a good person. I mean, again, like, like you mentioned, like, I didn't really have an entrepreneurial win. I didn't have, you know, an exit or anything that I could say, Hey, guys, look, like credibility, you know, I built something before. I didn't have that. But I think for me, what I did have–like when I went up to people like Nick, for example–I literally told them, Hey, this is going to be my first rodeo. But I know a lot about the space because I've been thinking so much about this problem. I have all this research that I've done. But more importantly, I also have all these customers who I know I could immediately go to and say, Hey, can you test out our product? Because again, I  did a really good job networking. So I think the network, as well as the honesty of me just admitting to people like, Hey, I don't know everything, that's what's going to make this fun kind of helped a lot of people feel like, Okay, you know, we do want to definitely come on board and potentially see how this goes. 

TYLER: Yeah, I love it. Yeah.  That is a big problem that I know a lot of young entrepreneurs run into–credibility. I mean, I bet you've interacted with a lot of younger founders as well. I don't know if you have any advice for them generally, when it comes to credibility. I feel like the number one question I typically get from young entrepreneurs is like, How do I get seen as the credible person? How do I raise money when people feel like I don't even know anything–when I'm a college student, or whatever?

SWISH: Yeah, for sure. 

TYLER: I mean, so there's two aspects to it. There's credibility and there's vision, right?  And like, what you just talked about is like, you just overly focused on vision because you didn't really yet have the credibility. N

Number one is like vision is very rare. True vision is very rare. And number two is kind of–I don't know if these are correlated, or what the order of correlation is–but partly because vision is so rare, it's very, very attractive, especially to high performing people. And the reason is that you don't often find somebody where you meet them and you're like, Wow, I'm 100% confident that they know where they're going, and they know how to get there. And like, that is a really important first step in building anything, right? It's having a plan and actually being able to lay that plan out in a way that is inspiring and also makes sense. Like, This is how we're going to do this. There's going to be a lot of learnings along the way, but here's the general path we're going forward. 

And it's sort of like, it inspires this innate interest that humans have in adventure. We don't exactly know what the journey is going to be like, but we know which direction we're going. So if you rounded up a bunch of people and you were like, Hey, do you just want to walk around aimlessly with me? It's like, no, you wouldn't get a whole lot of people. But if you're like, Hey, want to round a group together and go to the top of Kilimanjaro? Some percentage of people who are really into adventure would be like, Hell yeah, I’d definitely do that. It sounds like a cool thing to try to do. 

You don't really know exactly what every day is going to look like and how to get there and do this, and that. But being able to have the vision piece–people are really attracted to that. And so what I would say is for founders where it's [their] first rodeo, like you said, you don't have the credibility. And oftentimes that's a good thing. Like having credibility is oftentimes really dangerous. Credibility without vision is very dangerous because people will follow for the wrong reasons. 

SWISH: Right. Aimlessly. 

TYLER: So two things I think my advice to founders would be: One, first of all is assess whether or not you want to be the visionary, right? So being a visionary in a company is a very specific role. I think, personally, it should be the CEO. It doesn't always have to be, but generally I think that's what the CEO's role is. It’s to make sure that we know where we're going and that I'm moving the obstacles we need; I'm putting the right people in the right places to actually get us there. But mostly I'm just making sure we're all heading in the right direction. 

So what I would say is decide if that's actually the job that you want. And I think there's a lot of tests that you can do [from] growing up as a child. What kind of things are you attracted to? Do you like structure? Do you dislike structure? Because if you're not someone who's naturally inclined to want to be the visionary, you're much better off finding someone who is, and being on their executive team. And you'll be a lot happier because you'll have someone who can. 

What I would say is the downside of the visionary is that you're–and I'm just gonna say CEO because like I'm very opinionated about like the CEO should be the visionary—but your job is to face the existential right? Your job is to like stare into the abyss and be able to hold the line of This is what we're doing despite there being lots of existential dread about like it. Is it the wrong thing? Are we doing it correctly? Is there an opportunity here?

There's all these questions that come up. Number one is to be able to stay steadfast in your vision. Number two is to shield your team from that. [You have to be] able to turn around and say Guys, you don't have to worry about any of this, right? Like you can completely take any of the existential questions off your plate and just focus on getting us where we need to go and here's the next step and then this and that but I think a really good CEO lets their team achieve 10x productivity, 10x happiness, 10 times better products, 10 times faster growth because their team is able to operate in an environment where they're not defaulting back to the existential questions every day of, like, What are we doing? Is this actually going to work? 

So because of that I think it's a disposition. Some people really like facing the existential and staring into the abyss. Some people really don't. I think that's totally fine. 

I think it's also important that I don't personally see the CEO as a step higher on the hierarchy than the executive team. I just see it as a specific role, and it’s because of the function of that role that everyone technically reports to that person. But really what that person is doing is just making sure that everyone can operate in the safety of the vision of the company, and each of us, individually, don't have to think through all the existential questions of what we're doing. 

SWISH: Yep, exactly, I agree. 

TYLER: So first and foremost I would say is deciding whether or not you like that role, or you would rather be given a firm set of objectives and just work towards accomplishing those objectives [while] getting positive and negative feedback along the way, etc.. So first, decide if you want to be the visionary, or not.  To that, I think it determines how you would go about joining the founding team of a company. In your case–my case, as well. Like I fit sort of the visionary profile. I really don't like being told what to do and I don't like constrained environments, right? I would much rather wade into the existential than just be told like here's what you need to do this moment. The biggest point of leverage you can have is becoming very good at painting a vision; Inspiring and attracting other people to that vision.

Going back to what I said before. Number one is inspiring; Being able to attack from a high level the question of why you’re solving the problem that you’re solving. You can tap into the moral imperative of it—it drives the world forward, it makes the world a better place for some specific set of stakeholders. 

Then I think about specificity. So the other end of the spectrum is being able to convince people that it's not just this like pie in the sky vision. Anybody could say like, Hey wouldn't it be great if energy was free? That's highly aspirational, but not specific. So it has to be aspirational and specific at the same time. Then I think really smart people will buy in and say, Yes I do think I would love to have that impact on the world. And two, It sounds like you really know how to get there and that gives me a lot of confidence that this is a good opportunity. 

SWISH: Yep and I agree. One of the things I've realized is beyond just being a gatekeeper of vision, one of my key tasks on a weekly basis is just securing alignment. That word, alignment, has become very much synonymous with what I see my role of CEO as now. My goal literally every week is just to make sure that, especially among our executive team but even just broadly as a team, we are all aligned on what that vision is, where we need to go in the short term, and where we're trying to go in the long term. [It’s] ust making sure people don't fall out of sync or get overwhelmed by any means where they can't actually see what the goalpost actually is. So that that has become probably the biggest part of my job–just making sure that I over communicate; just making sure people continue to stay focused on the north star.

TYLER: Yeah, exactly. So one thing I like to think about is, would you rather go on vacation with three other people, or 30 other people? Which one? 

SWISH: For me, probably 30.

TYLER: Okay, why? 

SWISH: Why 30? I think I'm a little bit more comfortable when it comes to just being able to bounce around people. I don't know, I just also think like the story itself would be more fun. There’s way more stuff you could probably do. It also depends if this is like 30 people I don't know versus three people I really know. Obviously I'd pick three people but I'm just assuming I know all of them generally well. If I could bring 30 people out on a trip, I mean, it would be pretty legendary. What about you? 

TYLER: Probably the same. Yeah, but I think it's an interesting thought experiment. It's very reflective of the dynamics of a team as it grows. So if you were to go on vacation with three other people– so there's four people–the amount of things that you can do increases dramatically.

SWISH: Yeah.

TYLER: The speed at which you can make decisions increases dramatically. There's just [fewer] stakeholders. So I think a lot of people would get stressed just thinking about like being on vacation with 30 people and just like you'd never be able to make decisions. You'd never be able to all agree on what you're doing for dinner. Even if you did agree, you'd never be able to get reservations. 

I think it's like very it's very indicative of what it's like to scale a team where there's a lot more work that goes into just making this group work together effectively. You can't just rely on automatic alignment, [as] with a small group of people–versus a big group of people and it's the same thing with a team. It's like if you have three people on your team, the four of you can sit down and make decisions really fast, and the the bandwidth of information sharing is very, very high. Whereas with 30 people, it's a much heavier lift.

There has to be real infrastructure in place to make those decisions, and to create a culture around decision making. With a team of four, you don't necessarily need a culture of decision making because you just kind of discuss things and come to some pseudo alignment where everyone feels comfortable enough to move. Are we gonna let everybody vote? Does everyone's votes count equally? Is there some sort of hierarchy here? Who has more say than others? Like, that stuff needs to be in place for a team of 30 to operate.  

SWISH: I agree. Hopefully this is the beauty of startups as opposed to going on vacation, but you don't obviously have to go right to 30 people, right away. So maybe you incrementally go from, Okay we'll take four people out. Now we'll take 10 people out next year. Okay we'll do a group of 15, now 25. Over time the leaders of that group will appear–people that will probably lead decision making in some way, and try to obviously still make it consensus-based. But still, you know, make the final decision at the end of the day, and set the itinerary–get people committed to going. That person or, you know, generally a smaller group of people, will appear hopefully over time. 

That's one thing i've even noticed with our team. I think a lot of people generally are very quick in an early company to associate executive members right away. I actually feel like it's possible for some roles. I think obviously having a COO is not a bad idea right away, but I think for certain roles–a CFO for example, or even like a CMO– I would wait if possible. I would wait to see, maybe a year or a year and a half later–when your company’s identity is actually formed, the product's actually in a place where you're selling it to people, and when you actually are in need of a marketing budget or you're actually in need of a CFO. It might be good to then look at your existing team and say Okay, over time, who has come to the top now? Who is gradually–because of not only their skill set, but because of their role and how other people perceive them in the company–have elevated in their position? Try to see if you can bring those people into the executive team, as opposed to hiring out of an executive team right away, and appointing people right away.

It can actually make it really tough for you to hire really good  players later on. They just feel like, Hey, there's no room at the top. There's no room for me to join this executive team. The CEO is buddies with all the executives, and their not somebody who's likely going to change their opinion anytime soon.

TYLER: Yeah. I think it takes a company a while to figure out who you are. It’s not obvious from day one. I mean look at you. Once you became Surf and focused on data, it still took a long time for the company to really figure out who it [was] and what your culture was. You go through this theoretical executive committee, and you hire all those people but you still don’t really know who you are. So now there's lots of voices and lots of opinions all trying to figure out who you are. I’ve seen teams get really off base because they weren't the right people, or they were hired [prematurely]. I think there's something to be said for like hiring senior people prematurely.

SWISH: Right, right. Like you said, the longer you wait if things are going well–which is the assumption–you focus on growing the company, and really figuring out who you are: figuring out your product, figuring out your sales. Really, deeply understanding your customer fundraising. The longer you wait, the higher quality candidates you can bring on board when you are ready. 

SWISH: Yeah, I agree.

TYLER: And then to say, Hey we really know who we are, we want to bring you on to help us figure out what's the next stage of marketing for Surf. So Swish, where is Surf now? We talked about getting it off the ground, but where you are today ? This will come out in December of 2022– 

Swish:–Yeah, I can’t believe it, but we’re at over 250,000 users now for Surf. So i'm very excited about that. We're successfully now in three countries, so we're in the US, we're available in Canada, and we just launched a few weeks ago in the United Kingdom. So we're available in the UK. The goal, actually, by the end of next year is to be at 1.3 million users. We're hoping to be expanding to six more regions in 2023, so Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Philippines, India and Brazil. That’ll be across the entire year. We're going to be focused on expanding to a couple of other regions that can help us accelerate user growth, along with a number of other measures we're going to be doubling down on. 

We're growing quickly in a sense of, like, right now [we have] 27 people full time. We're excited to hire a couple more people on our sales team, and get our mobile solution out so people can earn points for their mobile browsing data, not just their desktop browsing data.

So, expand to a few more regions like I mentioned, and double down on our paid marketing budget. That's pretty much it. I think going into 2023, we're really trying to focus more on growth across the company. And that’s exciting because for the last three and a half, four years, we've just been trying to figure out who we [are] and what is the billion dollar vision. How do we build everything–the team, the product? I think we’ve done a good job of establishing that foundation to hopefully springboard off from.

TYLER: Yeah, I love that. So to get into the technical details –solving the like third party data problem. So the internet that we live off of, right now, is essentially free in exchange for what we're giving away. In the beginning, it was like our user data–like what were we actually doing on the internet.

But over the last 10 to 15 years, thousands and thousands of data points have gotten laid over that, and as the devices that we carry around are more sophisticated, there's just more and more data being created–both primary data, but also who I’m getting close with. 

But [there’s] also thousands of data points around like insight second and third level data, which is  based on where you are and what you're looking at. I think one thing that people get really freaked out about is like, I just talked about this thing and then I got targeted for it. A lot of that is actually insight data from who you came close to. So, for example, if you and I were to spend a few hours together, our devices would see that we spent a few hours together. Some of the things that you've been retargeted for would show up for me and vice versa. What they're guessing is that you may have talked about some of the things that are top of mind right now, and then it appears to be, like, Oh my god, they're listening to my conversations. That's all built off of a world where the internet is free and everything on the internet is free because we give all this data away that's incredibly valuable to advertisers. So the world that Surf is building, like what does that world look like in comparison to the current paradigm we're living in?

SWISH: I think you nailed it. I think when we initially talked about it,probably a year ago, you mentioned that we’re living in a participation economy. That’s something we're really excited about trying to build out in terms of data–this idea that for the last 15 years, people have shared their data, but typically, they don't know what they're sharing. Sometimes brands didn't even ask them for permission–they just took their data and then didn't get anything back for it 

We felt like, Okay the data we're sharing clearly it's quite personal. You know what I’m looking at, what I’m browsing, who I am, where I’m located. Is there a way for me to have the ability to control what it is? Can I earn from it?

And so again, that’s what Surf is trying to do. We're trying to help you in any aspect of your digital footprint, not just browsing data. I think that's what we started off with, but it doesn't just stop there. It could be app usage data, it could be purchasing data, it could be fitness data, it could be geolocation data. Whatever is attached to your digital footprint, we think that people should have the ability if they want to to earn from it and to share it. So that's what we're trying to do with Surf–build it as a data partner for people, and build it as a vehicle for people to monetize their data if they want that option. 

Do I want the entire world to use Surf? Absolutely. Do I think the entire world will use Surf? No. Am I fine with that? Yes. Because it's totally somebody's choice if they want to monetize their data. If you want to be ultra private–if you want to use DuckDuckGo–I’m not trying to convince people to not be private, or to not double down on their privacy. But I’m hoping that people do see that there's a happy medium as well here. You can focus on your privacy, while also potentially getting something back for the data you do want to share. So that's what i'm trying to build–that happy medium that, again, hasn't existed for for quite a long time.

TYLER: So can we just double click into sharing the data, and companies paying for it? How does that actually work? You've got sephora, right? So how does this new interaction work with, say, Sephora? 

SWISH: Yeah. Sephora will come on, and they'll provide a reward. They'll provide a discount, or they'll provide a gift card. They'll live in our marketplace. In order to get it, you ought to get to use your Surf points. The user of Surf will browse like they normally do you know–like every time you open your laptop and start a new internet session. We don't show you ads, we don't require you to take surveys, we don't require you to click specific links, we don't require you to go and buy something, first, in order to get points back. We're not a cashback program, and we don't require you to do anything actively except browse. So, as long as you're just browsing like you normally do, and as long as you're sharing data with us in terms of where you're going on the internet, you will get points that you can then use for those rewards, directly.

I think what's really cool is customers like Sephora actually are not data customers. They're reward partners for us. So we do have these two types of enterprises now that interact with us. There's a small overlap, but there are customers that come on and they don't really care that much about our behavior data. They care more about just getting in front of our user base. They want to provide rewards that allow them to see Surf and the customer acquisition channel that's hopefully cheaper than paid ads. That's why they're offering $20 off the next purchase code, or a $25 gift card. They're trying to hedge their bet against paid ads. 

And then you have, secondly, these data customers, like the Netflixes and the Amazon Prime Gamings of the world, that are excited to understand user behavior data on the internet. The one thing that I don't think I've mentioned throughout, that I probably should mention, is all the data we do share with companies is anonymized. So that's another big reason why I think we've grown so quickly on the user side is because when a user comes on to Surf, they don't provide their first and last name. We don't know who they are. We ask them for general high level demographic info like their age, gender, and location so we can bucket them appropriately, but we don't ask for any personally identifiable info. We don't care who an individual user is. We care about them more as an aggregate as a collective, and try to sell their data based on that. 

TYLER: Gotcha, gotcha. Cool. I guess one of the biggest challenges with like switching the world over to this new paradigm is the chicken and the egg problem. Users have to opt in to switch over to this via the browser they use, and the data that's collected. Then advertisers have to agree to switch over simultaneously–it has to change in lock step because advertisers don't want to switch over until there's actually useful data for them to use and to purchase.

I mean, I've worked in e-commerce for the better part of the first chapter in my career. I think one thing that people really underestimate is how unusable the internet is without user data. One thing you talk about is retargeting, and a lot of retargeting is actually quite unsophisticated. It's like, you went to a website and there's a cookie in your browser history and there's there's a Facebook pixel, or whatever. You're just targeting that one specific Facebook pixel. It's not very sophisticated. What a lot of people don't understand is that almost every website you visit–especially when it comes to shopping on Amazon, for example–it's all curated. I visit Amazon.com, and you visit Amazon.com, and we'll see very different things. The sorting algorithms and the pages that you land on–the whole internet is really curated to you, specifically. I think a lot of people would be quite overwhelmed if they were just thrown into the raw internet–if none of the websites knew who you were or anything about you, it'd be really hard to use the internet.

SWISH: A hundred percent agree.

TYLER: And so there's this like fine balance between there [being] real utility to having things be known about you when you're browsing the internet, but there is a world where that data is yours, and you can decide who and who doesn't get to see it. You can opt in and you can opt out at any time, right? They put the legislative blocks in place because they saw the technology problem of all this stuff is still being stored in third party databases. If I call a website right now and I'm like, Hey via CCPA, I demand that all my information [be deleted]. Let's be honest, the real answer is we're gonna say yes on the phone, but we've got no fucking idea how to even do [that]. Even if we could, we wouldn't be able to fully delete and find every single thing we have about you, because it's all obfuscated across many different databases.

SWISH: Yeah, for us, we had to go through so much pain in order to be able to do that. We built our entire system on elastic search on our back end, and if anybody listening has experience with elastic search they'll know that everything is clustered-based. So for us, if somebody emailed us saying, Hey, we'd like to delete our account as well as delete every single piece of history we've ever shared, the problem is we first have to then identify what cluster that individual is a part of. Past finding the cluster, we then have to go deeper into the cluster and understand Okay, what age gender demographic do they fit? and then we have to go and delete them. So it is quite a tedious process. It is something we can easily do, you know, compared to other companies like you mentioned. But I can only imagine some companies where they don't even know where to start. They don't even understand their data infrastructure, let alone figuring out how to go and delete somebody from it. 

TYLER: Yeah, it would be impossible. It's a standard that very few companies could ever actually live up to. I mean it's like the legislation is meant well, but it's an example of the difference between legislation and then what's actually feasible. 

Anyone who works in this space [knows] there's a very clear picture of what the future looks like and what the ideal scenario would be, which is like all of your first party data is local to you, it's stored on your local device, and there's zero knowledge proofs that roll up to anyone who's asking for your data and you can set broad rules.

The challenge is that the entire internet is built on a different paradigm. You can't just turn the internet off and switch over one day and turn it all back on. It's actually a really tricky problem.

It seems like one of the ways you guys are getting around this is through your point system, which is like, We can pay you in points to start to adopt new behavior, and then slowly bring on partners who are willing to redeem those points. That's sort of an incremental way to move people in the right direction because that's a better world for everybody. It's a better world for advertisers because then you're like, Hey, people opt in if they want to see your product. It’s relevant advertising–like, advertising if it's super relevant is actually really valuable to consumers. The ideal world is [where] I only ever see brands that I really, really want and need their products, and brands only ever spend on impressions for people who meet that criteria. But in exchange, the brands don't have to ever store my personal data–which, by the way, they don't care as long as they're getting served to the right people. They don't want to store that data

SWISH: No, they don’t.

TYLER: They want to move on. They don't care and that's the thing. There are very few companies who are actually using that data for nefarious reasons–Facebook being the most recognizable one, and maybe a few others who even have enough data to impact elections, etc.. The reality is most of your data is being used by small businesses who run on Shopify and they're trying to find their customer base and maybe you know their custom made dog socks and there's 15 000 customers for them globally and the faster they could find those 15 000 customers the better for the business the better for their customers right and like if you could build a world where it's like we don't want to store your data we don't want you to have to call us to delete your credit card transaction data that stored in our database and this and that blah blah the internet could function a lot more effectively it's just a process of like how do you switch it over

SWISH: I agree.

TYLER: It’s tough because, like you said, there's also a participation bias. A lot of people don't think about that one of the reasons why the internet exists is because you give all your data. And a lot of people don't care–they’re like, I don't care if google knows where I am. And, yeah, I think if you live and work in tech, there’s an availability bias of like, it's really dangerous to let Amazon listen to what's going on in your house. But most people don't care.

SWISH: No, most people don't care. We built our product for those people who didn't care because we thought we could have a lot of good like privacy focused messaging on our website, and try to entice people by being like, Well, you know let's look at all the history of privacy and how privacy is unfolded and let's take a look at why regulation recently is actually a step in the right direction. But frankly, nobody cares. So we thought, Okay, why don't we first incentivize people through rewards because everybody wants savings wherever they can get them. Like, Honey and Air Miles have gotten big because they just help people save money on everyday purchases. So we felt, Okay let's start there and then start educating people over time about data. But, I agree, there are so many good benefits of your data being utilized by companies, whether it is for highly relevant advertising or a personalized internet experience. 

One thing I definitely feel is if people were in control of their data, when situations like the Cambridge Analytica data leak occurred, at least people would have some sort of mechanism to fall back upon where they can do something about it. When Facebook, for example, would send us a notification saying, We had a massive data leak and you might have been a part of it, it's like, What do I do about it? I can't do anything about it other than just delete my account. I think just having some ability of ownership would be nice, even if people don't utilize it. I think just having the feeling of I own my data, there is some sort of benefit to that as well. It's a little bit hard for me to measure right now, but hopefully over the next few years I can measure that a bit more accurately.

TYLER: For sure. Now's a very relevant time to talk about the actual utility of the blockchain. I personally am a Bitcoin maximalist. I think the only currency that's ever going to be valuable on the blockchain is Bitcoin. And other than that, I think zk-rollups are probably the most apparent utility for the blockchain. which is solving the problem instead of trying to convince people to do the right thing with the data, just create a system where they don't ever have to have it so Cambridge Analytica can't happen. Because you can't pull that information out of a yes or no binary answer to a question–it just doesn't work. Even if you did try, the users whose data you're trying to pull would be alerted by someone querying your block and asking all these questions. 

SWISH: I like that a lot. I've been thinking a little bit more about it. I mean, it's not a part of our immediate roadmap, but definitely something we've thought a little bit about. If we take our existing system and decentralize it, it can be built more for a query-based system, as opposed to even a dashboard. Right now, we have a dashboard with visualizations and graphs. But is there a way that instead of building that, we could just build a query system for enterprises where they would just come on and ask any key question they care about? Let's say you care about how many people in Toronto, Canada have listened to the new Taylor Swift album in the last month. Instead of having to slice and dice the audience, myself, and kind of go through this data and try to figure it out on my own, I could just go into this query based system and put a question in. It'll populate with any relevant data from the source, and again the source, like you said, are people who literally have the ability to know when they're being queried and get compensated every time they are being queried. They can also decide to just get away from it all together if they want that granular control.

That’s just something we’ve thought a lot about–that potentially. I don't feel like it's part of our immediate roadmap, but it's definitely on our mind share every single time we have an executive call, or almost every week.

I appreciate that. I do have to jump, by the way, in a minute or two if that’s fine–

TYLER: No worries. I mean, we’re already at an hour and 10 minutes, which is awesome. Like I said at the beginning, just pretend we’re having dinner and time flies.

SWISH: No, literally. It flew. I literally looked and was like, Oh, fuck. I’m already 15 [minutes] late. This is incredible. I loved what we got into.

TYLER: Yeah, man. Me too, I really appreciate it. I appreciate you telling the story of how Surf got off the ground, I’m really excited to continue to follow you guys.

I’m a big believer in you, and what you're building. So I'm really excited to continue to see you do great things. I appreciate you coming on and sharing the story, and I wish you guys the best of luck.

SWISH: Yes, I’ll keep you in the loop, obviously, throughout. I just–I very much treat you like a domain expert when it comes to everything we're building, her. I just think especially your eyes towards consumer is great, so I’ll keep you in the loop. By the way, if you are ever in Toronto, please let me know. I’ll let you

Know if i'm coming down to New York. But please, let me know if you're ever ever in Toronto. 

TYLER: Will do. I appreciate that, Swish. We'll talk soon.

SWISH: Awesome, thanks.

TYLER: Alright. Cheers, bro.

Hey, everybody. It's Tyler, again. Thanks so much for listening. If you're interested in building a venture backed company like the one you just heard about ,we would love to help. To learn more about our founder studios that we run around the world, please find more information at antler.co.

About the author

Antler in the US

With offices in Austin, Boulder, and NYC, Antler backs founders in the US from day zero so they can find co-founders, test ideas, and rapidly launch startups.

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