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Exchanging thoughts on a Thoughtexchange investment

I’m very pleased and excited that Thoughtexchange is Voyager Capital‘s first investment in British Columbia out of our new Fund 5. The press coverage has been great, and the company’s mission and traction should always be the primary focus — but here on my personal blog I wanted to share a bit of why I’m so excited to be a part of the Thoughtexchange story.

It starts with a lunch conversation going into overtime, but it might be helpful to understand a little background on why the entire project of Thoughtexchange is so important and so timely, both for me personally and for our society.

I like to describe Thoughtexchange as an antidote to the ills of social media. Where social media have given us distraction, discord, and disinformation, Thoughtexchange enables a positive interaction that tends towards consideration, cooperation, and consensus.

Background – Ills of the Social Media Age

After the 2016 US election, several themes came together for me. Social media’s very architecture was a treadmill demanding attention in a way that drowned out signal in favor of noise (or manipulation). Personalization and prediction had been touted as panaceas, but instead became structural pillars reinforcing this architecture of negativity.

This is not just an annoyance but a major, maybe existential, threat: the biggest problems of our nation and humanity will more and more be solvable only through collective action, so a social media architecture that depletes our individual executive function and our interpersonal goodwill might very well prevent us from solving for climate or other planetary-scale challenges.

These ills are magnified in terms of speed and scale, far beyond all precedent, by the technology that our industry produces. If anybody has the power to help alter this course, it’s the relative handful of technologists, entrepreneurs, and investors making focused, reasoned choices about architectures and products that proliferate, not the atomized mass of consumers responding to what’s on offer. So it’s particularly incumbent on VCs and startup folks to act.

Yet, acting on this imperative presents a challenge for me professionally: my “hammer” as a VC requires me to deliver financial returns to our investors. So, we need to look for “nails.” As promising as any given open source or non-profit effort might be, we would have to turn away and work only on what could be powered by a venture investment. So when I started focusing in earnest in 2018, it was unclear to me that there even could be a for-profit approach that could serve this urgent need.

I was delighted, however, once I started looking, to find that there were many thoughtful and dedicated minds working on aspects of this problem. Some were tackling civility and content moderation. Some were approaching the issue of reputation and pseudonymity. But most were very early, establishing traction only with highly intentional communities of early adopters.

Encountering Team Thoughtexchange

That’s why when I sat down for lunch with Throughtexchange’s Dave MacLeod, I got very excited: “Te” (as they call it) was achieving some truly remarkable results with large organizations from industry, nonprofit, and education.

(I also want to express gratitude to my good friend Minh Le from Silicon Valley Bank for originally connecting us. Minh is a banker at the top of his game and a great person.)

Thoughtexchange’s benign social technology tends to create consensus and cohesion. It’s social media’s non-evil twin — the opposite of the FB/Twitter outrage machine. All this, and people were paying them real money! Hammer, meet nail indeed.

What’s more, the team at Thoughtexchange had managed to strike a very useful balance between being mission-driven and being a great business. Not every great mission is suited to a for-profit venture approach — in fact, few are. But “Te” had married a sustainable business model with the kind of aggressive growth plan that calls for venture capital — all the while sticking to their values and a sense of missionary zeal. Wow.

I was worried Dave thought he was dealing with a crazy man as, during our first lunch together, I got more and more excited and tried to tie in this broader thesis with its threads of fake news, filter bubbles, foreign election interference, leading up to existential threat to humanity. But that might not be so crazy after all.

It turns out that versions of these same dangers and difficulties face any large organization that needs its people all pulling together for the common good, be it a school district, an accountancy, a union, or an airline. Te helps them all.

The Commercial Pitch

If you’ve read this far, I feel like I should give you my best shot at the commercial pitch for Thoughtexchange.

For a senior leader in an organization facing open-ended challenges, Thoughtexchange can uniquely help you find the path ahead by relying on your best dataset and analysts — your own people.

Unlike a survey — which is great if you know that the answer is either A, B, C, or D, and you want to find out which one people prefer — Thoughtexchange empowers leaders when the set of possible answers isn’t even known yet.

This is particularly crucial for the hard, scary, “soft” challenges of large organizations, like changes in workforce composition, big digital transformations, and overhauling broken or problematic cultural issues.

And, leaders who use Thoughtexchange not only get better knowledge to map the way forward, they get teams and communities who are more engaged and respect leadership because of how Thoughtexchange makes them feel engaged and respected themselves.

A Cascadia Story

Finally, a story about Thoughtexchange from a Voyager Capital investor wouldn’t be complete without noting that Thoughtexchange is a classical Pacific Northwest story.

The company’s headquarters are located in far eastern British Columbia, in a ski town (Rossland, B.C.). It’s basically required to be an alpine skier in winter and a MTB aficionado in summer. And along with that stereotypical Canadian niceness, there’s a hearty dose of rural Western self-reliance and weighting substance over fluff.

Proof positive that great things don’t exclusively come from the S.F. Bay Area echo chamber, and a great case study in how Northwest companies can survive and thrive because of, not despite, their location and culture.