I Built An App To Help Fight Misinformation

$33
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
product
otito
from London, UK
started November 2018
$33
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
7M
alexa rank
51
followers
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Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?

Hi, I’m Timi Olotu, founder and CEO of òtító.

òtító is a library of factual claims that helps you steer clear of misinformation and use evidence to support your beliefs. It’s a media site where people can contribute evidence-based claims on any topic, as well as the sources of these claims. òtító makes about £25 per month, and has been used by people from 100+ countries and averaged 1250 page views per month since it launched in September 2020.

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What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?

I used to write political articles on Medium. Several of my articles went viral, and I ended up partnering with Medium, whose staff turned one of my most popular articles into an audio podcast. But, as my voice garnered more reach, I noticed the same divided atmosphere I was trying to tackle was being replicated in the comments section of my articles. Some people called me a genius, and others called me a Nazi. And the two groups fought among each other. I realized they were responding to their perception of me as a person rather than my ideas and the evidence underlying them.

I became quite dismayed at the fractious political landscape in the UK and the US. And I felt the lack of standards in political discourse was making this worse. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in law and politics, as well as a master’s degree in writing, I felt I had something to offer to help things improve. I also used to work at Facebook between 2018 and 2021 and saw from the inside the challenges of the Information Age.

People are terrible at being motivated by long-term gains; that’s why so few become entrepreneurs.

I concluded that people were only doing what the format of internet content had trained them to do—focus on individual identities (rather than specific messages), treat information tribally (rather than evidentially), and win arguments (rather than update their beliefs). I also concluded that the format of an article was the completely wrong way to achieve the goal I’d set.

So, I set about designing an editorial interface that would de-emphasize all the aspects of internet discourse that I felt were counter-productive:

  1. Less focus on who’s talking/writing, and more focus on the veracity of what is being said
  2. Less focus on whether the message triggers desirable emotions, and more focus on the strength of the evidence underlying said message
  3. Less focus on whether new information fits existing ideological associations, and more focus on integrating the most up-to-date and reliable facts into one’s belief system

Once I’d designed this interface, I realized it could work as a web application. I spoke to several politically engaged friends about the idea, and most of them reacted positively. Then I pitched the idea to Ryan Hoover (founder of Product Hunt), who liked it but needed some convincing that I could execute (the problem is huge, and he had no idea who I was before my cold email). He told me to hit him up when I had a live prototype, so I threw together some low-fidelity wireframes in Google Slides and tested them on a few more contacts, most of whom responded positively.

But, throughout òtító’s journey, people’s responses have always been (ironically) polarised between “This is a great idea, you should do it,” and “This is a great idea, but it can’t be done.” I figured the only way I’d truly know was to give it a go, so I decided to build òtító. This was around July 2018, not long before I left PatSnap (an AI unicorn), where I led innovation, research, and analytics-driven content team to join Facebook as a marketer.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

This was the basic order in which I tackled the creation of òtító:

  1. Idea validation by gauging and documenting responses to pitches
  2. Low-fidelity prototypes in Google Slides
  3. User experience tests on low-fi prototypes
  4. Tweaks to low-fi prototypes based on feedback
  5. High-fidelity prototypes in InVision
  6. User experience tests on high-fi prototypes
  7. Tweaks to high-fi prototypes based on feedback
  8. Building the minimum viable product/product alpha (angular.js)
  9. Unmoderated remote usability testing (URUT) on product alpha
  10. Entering closed beta (up till about August 2019)
  11. Running unmoderated remote usability tests
  12. Entering open beta (up till about August 2020)
  13. Running unmoderated remote usability tests
  14. Full launch (September 2020)

Rather than run through the countless insights that emerged at each stage, I’ll just highlight some key discoveries. One is that the word “truth” really sets off people (in a bad way). In retrospect, it’s obvious why. In the early days, I used to say that òtító helps people discover the truth by focusing on factual information. Almost everyone hated that. They would ignore everything else and attack me for claiming to have the “truth.”

I would explain that I wasn’t claiming to have the truth—everyone discovers their own truth, òtító just helps them along the way. But, they couldn’t move past the fact that I even mentioned the word. And it didn’t matter that they had projected their own meaning and fears onto my words. All that mattered was that they now felt negative about the product. So, I removed (virtually) every usage of the word “truth” from my pitch and the product’s interface. It made a huge difference.

Another thing I learned is that I had significantly underestimated the novelty of the app’s design. I studied formal logic during my undergraduate degree, and I’m regularly called “hyperlogical” by those around me. I took it for granted that people conceptualize their thoughts in terms of axioms, hypotheses, and evidence. Not so. I quickly realized that most people’s beliefs comprise an indistinct mix of feelings, assumptions, and hopes. So, òtító can’t just present factual claims, it needs to give people a model of how to interact with them. This realization led to one of the most impactful improvements to the site (in terms of signups): a “How it works” page.

Describe the process of launching the business.

For the full launch in September 2020, I redesigned the homepage to address the most common user concerns (e.g., “What exactly is this app, and how does it work?”). I focused on PR, pushing out a press release via ResponseSource, and search engines. I had spent the beta periods really honing the app’s suitability for search engines. I had also experimented with advertising but I figured it wasn’t the ideal channel for early growth because it required regular monthly investments (which isn’t ideal for a bootstrapped company). With PR, any coverage I get will remain live in perpetuity, and likely contribute to the site’s domain authority, which will help it attract more search engine traffic.

Also, I decided to experiment with user donations. òtító doesn’t run ads and hasn’t taken on external investment. Even though there’s been considerable, unsolicited interest (including from VCs like ZhenFund, Sequoia’s China arm). This is because I strongly believe part of the reason most large media organizations end up being complicit in the spread of misinformation is that aggressive pursuit of ad revenue. Ad revenue is the most obvious and prevalent form of monetization for media companies. But, part of what I want to experiment with is new models of monetization (not just new models of media). So, I don’t want to take on investment that would force me to adopt the kind of short-termist, eyeballs-at-any-cost mentality that’s prevalent in the media today. My goal is to monetize òtító through advanced features and analytics, but until I can execute on that, I decided to experiment with donations. Within the first six months of launching, the site had gotten five donors.

Immediately post-launch, I also revamped the homepage to incorporate all the most critical and recent pieces of user feedback I was receiving. You can probably tell that I iterated a lot but none of it was arbitrary—I’ve implemented Google Analytics, Tag Manager, and Search Console on the site. I’m constantly checking to see that the changes I make, based on qualitative feedback, have a measurable and positive quantitative impact. If not, I roll back the change. Those homepage changes had a positive impact on the user contributions and sign-ups. Currently, about 5% of registered contributors/editors (201) actually add content to the site. I’m looking to aggressively drive up that number. The rest of the content is added by outsourced researchers, whom I pay.

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I basically finance the company through contributions from my monthly salary (from my day job). To run the company in maintenance mode costs about £80 per month, but over the past year, I’ve spent an average of £1000 on òtító (which are recorded as “director loans” in the company’s accounts). Most of that has been on software development (I do all of the product development, marketing, user research, analytics, and partnerships work and a fair amount of content writing/research). It’s quite a bit of money and some would say too much. But, while òtító makes very little money today, the overall upward trajectory and pieces of unsolicited positive feedback I’ve experienced strengthen my conviction that I’m on to something. Some ventures are worth undertaking even if they don’t make you loads of money, very quickly, simply because of the importance of the problem they address.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

There have been three main sources of traffic and user signups for òtító (check out this Google Analytics report spanning June 2020 to May 2021):

  1. Search engines
  2. Referrals from other sites
  3. Social media (paid and unpaid)

Search engines (in particular, Google) provide the highest quality traffic (in terms of conversion rates from visits to signups), but the volume of traffic isn’t particularly high. It is extremely difficult to gain traction in search engines as a completely new website. Especially if you’re not focused on a niche, like marketing or paleo eating (which òtító isn’t). òtító’s information architecture aims to make it extremely friendly to search engines. Each claim is, essentially, a focussed answer to a specific question, and each topic is a collection of the best answers to a broad area of inquiry. The search engine experiment is still ongoing (there’s a lot more I’ve done in the background), but time will tell if these decisions are efficacious.

Sites like Product Hunt, Beta List, and Indie Hackers, where I’m active and post about òtító, tend to send a steady stream of visitors and signups. Social media is a high-potential, high-difficulty channel for me. Whenever a topic is trending, I’ve noticed that if I can throw up a topic and share links to it within live social media conversations (rather than just in a feed), I generate a high volume of highly engaged traffic. To be honest, I think I could 10x the performance of òtító if I were to do this regularly. But, it’s hard to do because I have a day job. I rarely have time to regularly check social media and create topics on issues as soon as they’re trending. But I’m cooking up ways to get around this issue.

I mainly get users back into the app through a monthly (sometimes weekly) newsletter. As the percentage of user contributions has increased, I’ve realized this isn’t good enough. I want to improve that by adding trigger-based emails to the app, so users can get notified when there are updates to claims or topics they’ve created or followed. Currently, about 10% of people who have visited the site, return to use it.

òtító is a bit of a weird one because my current focus isn’t on maximizing revenue—it’s on maximizing value. Of course, there’s a relationship between the two. The more money you have, the easier it is to increase value… and the more value you provide, the easier it is to monetize. Since I’m not VC-funded though, I need to incrementally drive up value until it crosses a threshold, after which further monetization becomes significantly easier.

Information has been shockingly devalued by the Internet. People are almost offended by the idea of having to pay to access information. Why do that when I can just go to Reddit, Wikipedia, or YouTube to freely consume content about the topic I want? This is why news and traditional media outlets are struggling so much and are aggressively pursuing advertising, even as its returns continue to diminish steeply. My current focus is on demonstrating the unique utility of òtító’s media format, then there are plans to monetize by releasing paid features that help users extract more insight from that format.

One unique thing about òtító is its value is not only in the content you consume but also in the informational signals being generated by the way people interact with that content. This was deliberately built into the design of the app. I don’t want to give too much away, as this is competitively sensitive information. However, I can say that I thought very hard about informational network effects and how they can generate emergent value.

How are you doing today, and what does the future look like?

As a UK-based company, you can see òtító’s accounts on the Companies House website and in particular, our accounts for the past financial period. I spent about £1000 a month on the app in the past year, again, mainly to pay for software development. Good software developers are expensive but very worth it. Since I only know HTML, CSS, and a bit of Javascript, I have to pay a professional. I tried to go cheap in the beginning and it cost me dearly—in terms of time, money, and reputation. There were frequent delays and frequent bugs that hurt the user experience. I decided that if I’m gonna do this, I have to do it well (otherwise, I should just pack it in).

When I’m not paying for dev work though, òtító costs only about £80 a month to run. I also pay about £13 per year to GoDaddy for the domain. I create a lot of the content myself but when I choose to use outsourced researchers, it costs about £150 for five topics. So, if I were to triple the amount I’m getting from donations (£25) and stop any further development work, òtító would pay for itself. Of course, I’m not going to stop improving the app. But, I deliberately structured things such that, if I needed to, I could afford to run the app for many months with very little money. Everything on top of the £80 baseline is extra that I choose to invest because I’m fortunate to be able to afford it.

One immediate goal is to get donations to £100, so the app is paying for itself. Another goal is to have 50% of the content on the site come from user contributions. That would mean I never have to pay for outsourced content (to supplement dry periods). It would also represent the greatest level of validation for òtító’s media format. Right now, I know that òtító is great at inspiring people, getting them to stay on the site, consume content, and signup, but if it can also get people regularly coming back to add factual claims, I’d have proven all levels of utility. At that point, I’d actually be happy to take on investment because I’d be trying to scale value, not prove it.

Some topline stats since the full public launch (01 September 2020) are:

  • Average monthly visitors = 226 users
  • Average monthly page views = 1226 pageviews
  • Average pageviews per session = 4.2 pages/session
  • Average session duration = 1 minute 52 seconds
  • Average donor lifetime value (so far) = £29
  • Average Bounce Rate = 2.1%
  • Contributor signup rate = 3.6%
  • Registered user log-in rate = 3%
  • Newsletter subscribers = 281 people
  • Newsletter open rate = ~ 60%
  • Newsletter click rate = ~ 5%

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

If you can’t code, just pay a developer to build your app, don’t try and find people who’ll do it for free or even for equity. People are terrible at being motivated by long-term gains; that’s why so few become entrepreneurs. The first few developers I had working on òtító weren’t paid. These were people who reached out to me online and we're super-excited about the idea and being involved in fighting misinformation. I offered them (significant) equity in the company in exchange for work.

I quickly learned there’s a HUGE difference between excitement about an idea and commitment to an idea. These people repeatedly promised to deliver work but never did. When I chased them, there were always excuses. After the MVP build had been delayed by five months, I finally decided to terminate our relationship and pay a developer. Things moved thousand times faster and there was more accountability.

Always have contracts in place. One of the biggest mistakes I made was partnering with someone who was a friend, without putting a firm contract in place. When you’re in the early stages of an idea, everything is exciting. You’re the cool startup guy or gal. Friends want to get involved and fulfill their wildest fantasies. But, for 99.9% of even successful startups, most of the journey is not glamorous. It is complex, mundane, and emotionally demanding. To top it off, most of the progress is hidden. Most people don’t react well to this reality. They don’t know how to remain motivated, honest, and hard-working when there are no short-term rewards. This is where contracts come into place—they allow you to demand that the terms are kept or the relationship terminated. When you don’t have a contract with clear and objective requirements, you start bickering about subjective opinions. Just get a contract.

Finally, be clear about your goal as an entrepreneur. Starting a company can be about many things: financial independence, becoming wealthy, developing skills, solving a meaningful problem, and so on. You must understand why YOU are starting a company; otherwise, you’ll feel constantly disoriented. If Jimmy Wales weren’t clear about why he started Wikipedia, he’d have been demoralized by the fact that it doesn’t make more money. And if Elon Musk hadn’t been clear about why he started SpaceX, he’d have yielded to more conventional wisdom. There are many valid reasons for entrepreneurship, just be clear about yours. Not everyone has to create a unicorn, be a genius or retire at 30. Just be clear about what progress means to you and stay focused on that.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

The main paid services I use are:

For almost everything else, I use free tools like:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The most influential books in my life have been:

  1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which rewired my mentality about adversity and existential purpose
  2. Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman, which really expanded my conceptual problem-solving capabilities

The business books I’ve read and rated highest are:

  1. How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp, which surgically exposes the workings of business growth (at an economic level)
  2. Ogilvy on Advertising, which really shaped my thinking around persuasion

My favorite podcasts are:

  1. The Joe Rogan Experience, just because of the sheer breadth of topics covered and I believe everything you learn in life can help you become better at business
  2. The Lex Friedman Podcast, which is very AI and tech-focused, so I find it useful for expanding my awareness of different types of technical problems and understanding of their solutions

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Here are my top tips for new entrepreneurs:

  1. Don’t avoid failure —if you’re too scared of failure, you will compromise your ability to learn. Here’s a fun tautological fact... the realization that you’re wrong is evidence that you’ve learned something new. Yet, most of us are anti-learning machines. We do everything in our power to avoid confronting the reality of being wrong. But the reality that you’re wrong or have failed does not depend on your ability to recognize it. We all screw up. The quicker you recognize a failure or mistake, the quicker you can rectify it. Don’t be an egomaniac because it will trap you in failure instead of helping you grow from it.
  2. Listen to users but don’t obey them —if you think you’ve got an idea that can make you successful, that’s true only because most people (necessarily) can’t see the opportunity you do. If they could, the space would be too commoditized and the ability to generate value wouldn’t exist. That means you shouldn’t do what most people tell you, because they’ll steer you away from the opportunity that you can see but most other people can’t. What you should do is listen attentively to the problems they have, without adhering prescriptively to the solutions they suggest. It’s your job to come up with solutions, not theirs.
  3. Trust your intuition but only where you’ve educated yourself —intuition is powerful when you’ve fed it loads of useful information. You should trust Venus Williams’ intuition when it comes to tennis but not Formula 1 racing. Similarly, don’t blindly trust your intuition, especially if you’re extremely ignorant in the relevant domain. And you should be honest with yourself too. Don’t assume that your competence transfers from one domain to another. If you find yourself having to make intuitive judgments in a particular area of business, the answer isn’t to delude yourself or assume your decisions are good. The answer is to educate yourself so that your intuition becomes more finely tuned. And when your intuition is telling you something about a domain where you are highly educated, trust it.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I’m not currently hiring for any paid positions. However, òtító is always looking for contributors. If you like the sound of what I’m doing here, please visit the site, register as a user, and add some topics or claims.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Timi Olotu,   Founder of otito
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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