Naomi Shah, founder and CEO of Meet Cute, a modern entertainment company that makes short-form audio rom-coms. Naomi joined Cascadia Report from her home in Portland, Oregon, to share her unique start-up story. Meet Cute makes short, audio romantic comedy podcasts that focus on “providing the happiness and hope that have become synonymous with the timeless genre,”. The opportunity to work at the intersection between entertainment and technology is what excites Naomi Shah about building Meet Cute.
Before starting Meet Cute, Naomi was a member of the investment team at Union Square Ventures, a technology venture capital firm in New York, where she spent most of her time talking to companies in the consumer and well-being space. Before that, she was a macro equities trader at Goldman Sachs and studied Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Human Biology at Stanford University.
Meet Cute started operations in 2019 and has gained a lot of attention after launching to the public on Valentine’s Day 2020. We started by getting to know the young entrepreneur, what they’ve been up to in the past year, and what Shah enjoys about working for her own business.
“I am the founder and CEO of Meet Cute, an audio entertainment company which makes short 15-minute audio romantic comedies. The idea is creating an entertainment company that is repeatable and predictable in the way that it makes content, which hasn't really been done before in entertainment where everything is hit-driven.
What I like most about my job and what we're doing is that it feels like we're pulling elements from other product and technology companies into this new industry of entertainment that hasn't really changed the way it's created content. I think that's really exciting - to be trying to build a company from the ground up in a very old industry that hasn't really changed its ways in a long time.”
Currently back home in Oregon, Shah has what describes herself as a ‘pretty complicated career path’, which started at Stanford University, California, where she studied mechanical engineering. She had a vision of becoming a surgeon, and took a minor in human biology, but ended up becoming more and more interested in product engineering.
“I ended up taking all of these product design classes in the mechanical engineering department, where you would literally go into the course with nothing but an idea and you would come out with a physical product that you've machined and built. I loved that process of going from just an idea to an actual product 10 weeks later.
After I graduated, I was really drawn to New York. I had only lived on the West coast my entire life, so I decided to move out of my comfort zone to New York and joined the trading floor at Goldman Sachs. This was a big pivot from what I'd studied, but still in the vein of pattern recognition and solving problems. There were a lot of things that I saw in finance that could have been interesting for me. I worked at Goldman on the trading floor, and I was on a very fast flow trading desk. About nine or ten months in, I lifted my head up and realised that it isn't really what I wanted to be doing. Super interesting problems in their own way, but I missed the creativity and problem-solving that I loved from my Mechanical Engineering and Product Design courses.
I found a perfect fit at a venture capital firm in New York called Union Square Ventures. They've invested in a bunch of companies that you‘d probably recognize. I liked the idea of being on a smaller team and actually getting to be a part of conversations where you're looking at what is going to be interesting in technology five or 10 years later, and then making the decision to invest in them.”
Moving from Goldman Sachs into the world of venture capital and having the opportunity to get a clear idea of the various markets and the technology industry provided Shah a broad perspective as a ‘generalist’. She describes the process of looking at the entertainment industry as ‘a little bit counterintuitive’ but also how she perceives entertainment to be the ‘precursor of wellbeing’. After looking for a company in the space to invest in, she realized that there was a unique opportunity to build something new and decided to make the jump to running and operating a company.
“In October 2019, a couple of the partners that USV sat me down and said, ‘you're spending a lot of time on this idea. We know that you really like venture capital, but have you ever thought about operating a company?’ I hadn't imagined myself in the entertainment industry, coming up with a new idea, and building a team around it. So, I took some time to think about it and decided that, early in my career, this is super cool to be bringing in things that I've learned from other product and tech companies into entertainment. I love the idea of focusing on one genre, romantic comedies, and making content. So I ended up spinning it out of USV and they were my seed investors in our first round.”
Taking the leap from investments and venture capital to entertainment may have come from spotting the opportunity in the space, but I wanted to find out what made Shah get into the podcasting industry and the fiction format in particular. What is it she sees in the future of podcasts, and how will Meet Cute evolve in that space?
“Audio is definitely hitting its moment right now. There are a lot of different mediums that people enjoy consuming content on whether it's short-form video on TikTok, whether it's anthologies as shows on Netflix. I think audio is really seeing that people can consume this content anywhere. It can be digested while you're doing many other things. For commuting or doing chores around the house, it's perfect. So, it fits into your day a little bit more seamlessly.
When you look at the top 10 or 20 podcasts right now it's still a lot of non-fiction, news podcasts, it’s more conversational. I feel like storytelling content is underserved in the audio market. There's this huge opportunity for scripted storytelling in audio, that's the gap that Meet Cute wants to fill.
I think that we're going to see more and more content created in the audio space and then taken into different formats and mediums. You're generating all these ideas through audio, then when people are engaged in that content, they want more of it. Or they connect to characters and stories, then you can take it into other formats and other mediums. I can imagine some of our stories being animated, or some of them showing up on screens very soon. I think we'll see happen more and more as this market grows”.
It’s a bold vision for the future of the brand - creating compelling content that could potentially make the leap from podcasts onto our screens - but it’s something that Shah says is based on a human desire for enjoyment and escapism.
“I always talk about this like today's news cycles and doom scrolling as something that takes a lot of people's energy away from feeling good, feeling hope, feeling happiness. Something that provides people a little bit of escapism, finding ways that you can turn off your phone for a little bit and escape into a different world is something that I think is very valuable for a lot of people.
People in the romance and rom-com world understand that well. I think that starting in this genre, it means that we can capture that audience that already appreciates that, but I'm hoping that we can also bring that to new audiences that will enjoy stories about human connection that end with the happily ever after that makes you feel good. You can trust that every time you listen to a story by Meet Cute, you will always feel that emotion of satisfaction and a ‘happily ever after’ every single time.”
While it may be said that there is no ‘typical’ path for starting a business, Shah’s career to date has certainly taken some twists and turns that she would not have predicted. As a young entrepreneur, we wanted to find out what were some of the key things she’d learned on the way, and what advice she would give other young entrepreneurs that are just starting out.
“One of the biggest pieces of advice that I have definitely benefited from in the last year is that there are going to be things that are unforeseen and that you can't control. COVID-19 happened. My entire team was based in New York and we all split to five different States. But we didn't drop the ball on creating content, because we were so focused on this common mission that was bringing us together. What you can control is the impact that you want to have through starting a company or through creating a product for people. If you just continue to work on that, it'll shine through no matter what else is happening in the world. So right now, the global pandemic is something we can't control. But we know that these stories can make people feel good and so we're not going to drop the ball on producing them, no matter what.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up many challenges for people the world over, and fortunately, Meet Cute like many tech start-ups has been able to work around these by embracing remote work. On top of these, Shah has had to overcome the obstacles faced by many start-up founders. These challenges often play a vital role not only in shaping how you do business but can also provide valuable life lessons.
“As a young entrepreneur, I have definitely felt that there have been times where I need to come across older than I am, or more mature than I am in a way that might not feel genuine at times. I've reminded myself that it really is the ideas that you have that matter and not your age. Those conversations with myself I think are important. When I go into meetings with production companies and established entertainment companies and talk about Meet Cute they don't have to see me as someone who's young that doesn't have as much experience, but rather as someone who has new ideas that can potentially help them reconfigure their strategy and become more creative as a company.
I think it's easy as an entrepreneur to feel like you're never doing enough. One of the things that we constantly remind each other of on our team, is to celebrate incremental milestones. Because it's always those smaller milestones that create momentum or larger milestones. Celebrating as a team and looking back and saying ‘we've actually come so far in the last three months, we've tripled the number of listens, we've captured audiences we didn't think we would capture. We're doing partnerships with these really cool platforms.’ We've accomplished a lot.
I remember in February, when we launched publicly, it was Valentine's Day, and we did our first debut in the world. It was really fun to be able to pop a bottle of champagne with everyone. You can do it in some ways remotely, but I'm excited for the day when we can do that in person.”
Celebrating those wins and appreciating the progress they have made in a short time with Meet Cute has been key to growing Shah’s confidence. Coming from an entirely different environment, that confidence takes the form of being the most informed person in the room. It’s a role that Shah says that she now goes into those situations ‘armed with all of the information’ and is proud of the fact that ‘we have over 180 stories, and that's an incredible library of content’.
As a relatively young company, Meet Cute has attracted its fair share of attention from investors and the entertainment industry. We asked Shah where she sees the opportunities for collaboration and partnerships with businesses in the Cascadia innovation corridor in the future.
“We’ve spent the first 10 months of Meet Cute, really being heads down on creating this content and building up a library that when people come to our feeds, they can just binge listen to hundreds of romcoms at a time. One cool thing that we're doing, which I hope that brands in the corridor are excited about, is we can bring brands into our stories in an organic and natural way. So, a Nike or Columbia sportswear, just two examples from Portland, could be brought into stories in a unique way. There's a lot of creative collaboration that can go into those.
Media outlets that want to do some sort of cross-promotion or collaboration are exciting for us. With this volume of stories, we're creating a ton of diversity in our content. When you think of the traditional romcom, it's usually a straight white couple from LA and New York, and they're working at a PR firm. We have all those stories, like the classic traditional tropes of rom coms, but we bring in characters and put them in settings that are new and interesting to people today. For example, we have an entire slate of LGBTQ rom com that we think is an incredible showcase of not only voice actors, but also all our writers and producers and sound engineers that are working on these stories. We’re really excited about exploring how we can work with people, like partners, to share these stories and highlight diverse stories and human connection with more people.”
Finally, we asked Shah what three pieces of advice she would have for her 21-year-old self if she could go back in time knowing what she knows now.
1. Be creative. You have to be okay doing things that no one has done before. That's basically the opposite of being on a path in life. That might not be applicable to everyone, but I think that that was definitely something that I should have learned was okay at 21.
2. Acknowledge that there are certain things you can't control, but you can turn it into a positive. Finding a way to turn those things into a strength is really important and not to get caught up in it, and instead to reframe it as ‘here's how we can do something that no one has done before’.
3. Learn how to set those incremental milestones. Because I think that a big part of building something new is being able to look back and reflect on things. That's the only way that you'll learn moving forward. Having worked on this for about a year, I think that it's a really nice point in time to pause and look back and say, ‘what did we learn?’. Incorporating that into how we communicate, and work together is important and something that at 21, I wouldn't have thought was that important.
The team here at Cascadia Report love a good podcast, and we asked Shah to tell us a bit more about what makes Meet Cute’s offering so unique, and what platforms they have launched on.
“We want Meet Cute to not only be a podcast company. We really think of it as a storytelling company, in that we want to build the largest brand in romantic comedies. So, if that's the type of content that seems interesting to you, it would be great for you to listen to our stories, but we also do a bunch of really fun social things. On Instagram, TikTok, Twitter. We aim to be the go-to place for rom coms. So would love for anyone that's excited about engaging with us to come find us on those platforms.
We're basically everywhere that you can get audio. We're on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, the entire long tail of listening apps, and all the social channels, so it should be straightforward to find us. We also have a website MeetCute.com that links out our audio. We want to democratize access to content - there's nothing you have to pay for to listen to our content, there are no ads in front of our content. We really just want to create stories for people.”
You can find out more about Naomi Shah and Meet Cute here: http://meetcute.com