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Sari Azout's guide to building slow
Sari Azout's guide to building slow

Profiles and Q&As

Sari Azout's guide to building slow

Startupy’s founder shares her playbook on growing slow, from turning down opportunities to choosing to focus on product over growth.

Written by Meghna Rao

Photography by Giovanna Elia

Sari Azout is the founder of Startupy, a company that lets people curate, organize, and connect things that they’ve found on the internet publicly. What makes the company distinct is that curators can interact with each other in a social network.

"We have an opportunity to build a more nourishing, a more human, a more curated Internet," Azout tells me over Zoom. "For me, success is more about nailing a feeling, not a checklist of features."

Startupy, which has raised $2.4M, is Azout's moonshot, a long-marinated idea that's come to her after years spent in venture capital, media, and investment banking. But it’s a different kind of moonshot — she emphasizes that they're not racing to the market. Rather, Azout is using this experience as a way to learn how to build slow and intentionally, and doubling down when it's the right time.

"The plan is to slow down until you have a strong foundation and product-market fit, and then you pump the pedal," she says. "It’s about knowing when to scale — we could take all of the money we’ve raised and buy Instagram ads and put a ton of paid media behind growing memberships, but that would defeat the purpose of the long-term game we want to play."

Azout shares Startupy's playbook on growing slow, from turning down opportunities to choosing to focus on quality over fast growth.

Where did the idea behind Startupy start for you?

I’ve always hung out at the edges of the internet. I grew up in Colombia in South America, and I’d watch TED talks. They would keep me connected and inspire me to do more. So in some senses, the story of my career and life has been finding an insight that changes how I take action.

When I worked as a consultant, I’d hear from companies and executives that they wanted to understand how an industry was changing — even executives, in these high-flying jobs would Google and wouldn't come up with answers. But when I’d go out to get smart on the space, I’d find that information was already there — it just wasn’t evenly distributed.

So that’s the answer of how it started. Startupy a slow-to-marinate idea that started as an Airtable. Everytime I’d see a marketplace business, I’d remember that Andrew Chen piece. The structure of that database evolved naturally, and eventually it became interconnected. Here’s the company and these pieces will help you understand it.

That sounds like a very individual research process, a far cry from the super interactive, super friendly place that Startupy is in today.

Yes, the isolation was a major part of my thinking. The first thing I realized is that search is deteriorating in quality. The vast majority is hidden gem blog posts from operators and people that aren’t optimizing for SEO.

The second is that a lot of curation is stuck in single-player environments. You might have Roam or Notion, but I still can’t see what you’re thinking.

So a lot of emphasis on community.

A big part of the building-slow play is definitely community. I’ve been thinking about search, curation, community, and knowledge networks for a long time, and I’ve been thinking about it in public in very authentic ways.

So many people have been on this journey with me. It’s been a slow process where we've had a ton of conversations, and all of the people that bought access to the database were invited to discuss their product decisions. Which means the short answer is authenticity.

People can smell that this is my life’s purpose. In some ways, the community saves us — it’s going to take some time to really hit the nail on the head with the product.

What was your initial pitch to investors like?

The pitch was something like, here's my unique insight:

  • user-curated knowledge is stuck in single player tools like Notion, Airtable, Roam
  • search is deteriorating in quality
  • we need less "second brains" more "collectively curated knowledge networks"

I had a janky prototype at the time but a very high quality community of people attracted to this mission. More than 500 people had paid to access "my second brain" and I'd sprinkled the Internet with a lot of writing, so it was clear I was being thoughtful about this problem.

I'm curious about the slow growth thing. As I grow older, maybe I’m just growing more cynical, but it feels like the world moves so fast and there’s so much competition that you inevitably have to cut corners.

And the thing is, I do share that sentiment, but it depends on the kind of business you’re building. If you’re building an Uber for laundry, the interface is established. There’s a precedent for the go-to-market. You’re not reinventing the wheel. There are a lot of these companies, where you’ve identified a niche and can just go after it. It’s a mercenary business.

Then, there’s another type of business where it’s art and psychology, and it takes a point of view on human interaction and the information out there that’s missing, like TikTok. That’s not the kind of thing where somebody woke up one day and said that there’s a market opportunity for this and that. The threat is less competition and more getting the product right.

How do you know when to scale?

I think we’ll feel it. If I was currently a customer of this company or a curator of this company, I'd know that there are a lot of things that we still need for this thing to get sticky and work. It has actually meant turning down really great opportunities. People reach out to us about partnering, but we’re just not ready for it.

I really would love for Startupy to be around 30, 40, 50 years from now. For that to happen, what do I need to do today? It’s definitely not turning on Instagram ads or partnering with this one person. It’s building a foundation and an amazing team, and spending an extra month doing a hundred interviews to find the perfect designers.

How do you keep your team motivated and engaged with a slow rhythm?

Our team is currently all product designers and engineers. We’re working tirelessly to build our new interface. I don't think for the team it looks "slow" — it just looks like a place where nuance is embraced, where we can be thoughtful about how we make product decisions, where we think things through before making decisions.

We want people to give a shit, inspired by a memo from Alexandr Wang. We believe it’s more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours. And we want to avoid defaulting to the norms of our industry.

How many people do you have working for you guys?

I really believe in small and mighty teams creating a lot of value, so we have three senior engineers, one head of product, one designer, and myself. We’ll probably grow our engineering team but the challenge is just the ocuntless nuanced product decisions, which is a very new behavior to create.

How do you stretch your money, your $2.4M, when you can't necessarily prove to VCs why they need to fund you for web2-style fast growth?

Look, products like Figma, Google Earth, Roblox ll took a very long time to build. Moving fast and breaking things, which is the web 2 playbook, is a kind of mental laziness. In many cases the founders moving really quickly haven't thought very clearly about the strategy, it's more of an "I don't want to think about it anymore, let's just do it, let's just add a follower count, or a like button, let's just gamble and see what happens."

For a product like ours, there are network fundamentals and many details we need to get right to deliver on our mission of building a human-curated graph of the best knowledge on the Internet.

I think back to an interview with Jack Dorsey where he said he wishes he'd had more time to think about the potential impact of a retweet button.

And so for us, taking our time to answer the foundational questions is critical. It's the classic Abe Lincoln quote — If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.

We are prioritizing long term sustainability over short term growth. it is easier to identify and measure metrics for short term wins than for long term investments. But the key with investors is to have a compelling vision for the future everyone is aligned on.

Do you ever worry that you'll hit the pedal to grow at the wrong time? Or that you'll "miss the boat"? Do you have a framework for ensuring that doesn't happen?

I don't worry about competition. I worry about getting the network fundamentals right. You see, there's currently nothing on the Internet like this. There are big social networks. There are single player productivity tools. But there is nothing that marries the utility and knowledge management of a single-player bookmarking or productivity tool with the sense of aliveness and connectivity of a social network.

What's Startupy's roadmap like? What do you hope to achieve in the next year, two years?

We have a brand new interface rolling out next year. It's our vision of a human-curated graph, thought from first principles. We're very excited.

Oh, and a new name: Sublime. With the launch of the new interface, we will officially be renaming to Sublime Internet. It's a name that reflects the full scope of our ambitions. This is not about startups, it's about the full scope of human knowledge. We want to dramatically improve how the internet intermediates our relationship to ideas.

But throughout Season Zero, as we got our product in front of people outside of our immediate circles, it became clear that the name is holding us back. Our curators often ask, “does this type of content belong on startupy?” And our potential customers ask, “will I get value out of this even if I’m not in the startup world?” Even for people bought into the big idea, our name causes friction.

At first, we toyed around with various ways to salvage the original name. But I came to realize that path would forever be an uphill battle. Too many people have instinctive, emotionally-charged reactions to the concept of startups, and combatting that dynamic would suck time and energy away from building something great.

Let's say this moonshot fails, if Startupy becomes something you don't want. What will it look like? And how do you hope to avoid this?

Right now I lose sleep over the fundamentals — the network structure, the data model, the foundational details. They’re not easy decisions. They’re often more psychological than technical. For products like ours, it’s very important to think about the incentives that the platform naturally provides. We have to look deeply at the dynamics in the network itself to make sure they are conducive to a more empathetic, a more nuanced, a more nourishing, a more insightful internet. For example, the dynamic of a system like Twitter makes it easy to harass and abuse through the service. It leads to anger and outrage. The dynamic of a tool like Instagram makes it harder to be honest for example. The dynamic of Google makes it easy to game the system with SEO manufactured garbage.

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