With its founding in 2015, Civil Co. set out to curb online harassment and abuse with a novel combination of technology and behavioral science.
By integrating human moderation into how content was submitted, Civil Co. created large-scale online communities that were essentially abuse-free.
The company delivered this innovation through the experience of a real-time peer review. Each person coming to a participating media brand’s site to contribute an opinion was asked to rate the civility of three other comments as well.
The lack of civility in our global town square is hard to ignore. And while it may feel more intense of late, one study conducted months prior to the 2016 election found that 74% of Americans agreed that manners and behavior have been on the decline in our country for decades.
Users – the media consuming public — sensed a market need, and one that certainly existed at scale and that was fueled by lots of emotional intensity. Yet Civil Co. could not generate the sales to prove sufficient buyer demand and, as a result, the viability of their business model. Potential buyers were not compelled in large enough numbers to pay for the software.
I first met Aja at a New York Angels pitch session in 2016 as the startup had moved from proving out its prototype and was beginning fundraising to complete product development and start the path to scale, so I followed the ride, to its peak and then to the wind-down last year. Recently we reconnected. The text of our conversation follows, reflecting lessons about purpose and passion, connecting with user needs, validating the business model, and also why courage, leadership, and optimism matter in the pursuit of innovation.
How did you come up with the idea for Civil Comments, the Company’s core product?
I was working at the time for TED.com, managing their online community and moderation team. So I saw first-hand the challenges in handling harassment and abuse in these environments. When it became clear that none of the “standard” approaches for managing toxic online behavior were effective, I started to look at the problem from non-standard directions. Eventually I realized I needed to stop thinking about why people treat each other so badly online, and instead start looking at why people treat each other so much better in face-to-face situations. Starting with the assumption that everyone is capable of being a jerk, and that offline society is filled with systems to limit these impulses, made it clear what was missing in online community interactions.
Most people with an insight or idea about a market need struggle to move from zero to one, to translate what’s inside their heads into action. How did you get from zero to one?
Ah yes, the challenge of making something new. The struggle is real, and if there are shortcuts, I haven’t found them yet. I’m the kind of person who can be relentless about making something happen. When I first started, the walls between where I was and where I wanted to be were immense. Day after day, I kept knocking down each obstacle, until I started to see daylight. Teaching myself to code and build large-scale web apps was a particularly difficult hurdle that took years to overcome, but really accelerated the time it took to start seeing my ideas in action.
How did you go about getting insights about users and potential buyers of your product? What are your favorite techniques?
In the beginning, we were working on problems that I had personally experienced managing online communities at a large online media company, as well as larger social platform experience from other members of the Civil team. We used that hands-on intuition to build and ship the first version of the platform, and then quickly got it in front of as many real-world users and potential buyers as possible. Once we had a working product out in the world, we began iterating based on their direct feedback. Nothing beats the insights gained from watching real people using something you built.
What’s your view on the role of purpose? What was Civil’s purpose, and how did that show up in the team’s work?
Civil’s existed to prevent online harassment and abuse by designing real-world social structures into the tech we use to communicate online. Not a day would go by without us seeing examples of how needed our solution was, and that was a huge motivator for the team and me. Even though we found ourselves in very stressful situations, selling new tech to print-based media companies and dealing with the internet’s unpleasant underbelly, we loved what we were doing, and it felt like a real joy and privilege to get to work on every day.
You ran on a slim budget with a tiny team. How did resourcefulness play a role in doing the most for the least – not just money, but also time and talent.
At our largest, we were a team of seven people. Everyone had to wear several hats, of course, and we all pitched in and did whatever needed doing on any given day. Since our customers and users were counting on our software running 24/7, we didn’t have room for downtime. At the same time, we needed to make new feature development and iteration the highest priority. We had to be careful not to burn out our engineers, so we invested early on in tech processes and infrastructure that would reduce the maintenance and operations overhead. Cleaner code, smarter deployment strategies, automatic fail-overs… we made plans for tech failure from the start, so we could spend our precious engineering time improving the product rather than constantly putting out fires. That kept us going a lot longer than we could have otherwise, I think.
Civil was unable to get the traction needed to sustain investor interest. What have you learned from the experience that you would like to share with other change maker’s?
While we were unable to get the business to sustainability, it was a life-changing and ultimately very positive experience for the team and me. We remain incredibly proud of what we built at Civil. When I think back on when we were just getting started, I see how much I thought I knew, but didn’t fully understand. I remember sitting in the audience at entrepreneur events, listening to speakers share their difficult experiences, eager to heed their advice and avoid their painful mistakes. Now, at the other end of the journey, I’ve learned that the pain and struggle is part of the process.
A lot of time and energy is spent trying to avoid mistakes, but when you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before, mistakes are going to happen. Nothing new ever comes in to this world without making a mess. When you embrace this, you can move past any fear, and focus instead on all the things you can (and must) do to keep moving forward.
What’s next for you and for the challenge of online civility?
As difficult as it is starting something new, I know there’s nothing else I’d rather do. I’m looking forward to getting back in the ring, and applying everything I’ve learned from this incredible experience at Civil.