20VC How Roam Research Analyse Product Design, TeamBuilding, The Future of Collaboration Tools & Applying Tesla GoToMarket To Roam with Conor WhiteSullivan, Founder & CEO @ Roam Research



In this episode of "20 Minutes VC," host Harry Stebbings interviews Connor White-Sullivan, co-founder and CEO of Roam Research. Connor shares his journey from founding two businesses and working at HuffPost Labs to creating Roam Research, a revolutionary notetaking tool for networked thought, which Stebbings himself uses for show preparation. They discuss the importance of persistence, learning from failure, and the vision behind Roam Research as a tool that fosters better thinking by allowing users to build upon their past ideas and collaborate with others. Connor also emphasizes the need for grit and self-directed learning in his hiring philosophy and the company's mission to organize the world's knowledge in a more accessible and interconnected way, challenging the current paradigms of information organization.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Rome Research and Connor White Sullivan

  • Rome Research is a tool used by the 20 Minutes VC team for research purposes, enabling linkage and cross-references across episodes.
  • Connor White Sullivan is the co-founder and CEO of Rome Research.
  • Before Rome, Connor founded two other businesses and worked at HuffPost Labs.
  • Jeff Morris Jr. contributed questions suggestions for the episode.
  • Harry Stebbings expresses his admiration for Rome Research.

"I'm so excited for this episode today. Why? Well, we use this tool for all of our research here at the 20 minutes VC. It's what allows us to have the linkage and the cross references between one guest and what they say about a specific topic and how we cross reference that to another question we use in another episode."

This quote highlights the importance of Rome Research in the podcast's preparation process, as it facilitates comprehensive research and thematic connections.

The Role of Persistence in Success

  • Connor White Sullivan shares his high school wrestling experience, where he learned the importance of persistence and overcoming psychological barriers.
  • Connor emphasizes the value of proving doubters wrong and pushing past perceived limits.
  • He highlights the importance of tactical vision and the ability to adapt strategies while maintaining a long-term vision.

"It took me two and a half years before I won my first match. There was a lot of psychological doubt, sort of not expecting to win, like going in and sort of gritting it out and making sure I didn't get pinned."

The quote demonstrates Connor's dedication to wrestling despite initial setbacks, showcasing the value of persistence and resilience.

Balancing Vision with Tactical Adaptability

  • Connor advises founders on maintaining faith in oneself while being open to changing strategies.
  • He believes in the power of positive thinking and being prepared to seize opportunities.
  • The balance between strategic focus and flexibility is critical for success.

"So it's sort of like strategic focus and long term vision and grit, but then tactically being able to see that there might be many different paths you could go to reach that end goal."

Connor's quote encapsulates the need for founders to have a clear vision, yet remain open to different tactical paths to achieve their goals.

Founding Rome Research

  • Rome Research is a continuation of Connor's interest in solving problems of collective intelligence.
  • The initial idea for Rome stemmed from Connor's desire to improve how groups collaborate and make sense of complex information.
  • Connor's first company aimed to crowdsource policy proposals for local governments and was later acquired by AOL.
  • The founding moment for Rome was a progression of Connor's decade-long work on collective intelligence.

"In some ways, Rome's a continuation of the thing that first got me into tech, which was trying to solve problems of collective intelligence and how groups of people can really tap into the wisdom of the whole group."

The quote describes the foundational concept behind Rome Research, which is to enhance collective intelligence and collaboration.

Education and Entrepreneurship

  • Connor attended UMass Amherst but did not graduate with a diploma.
  • His early exposure to entrepreneurship began at the university, where he won business planning competitions that provided seed funding for his first company.
  • Harry Stebbings relates to Connor's non-traditional educational path, having left law school after four weeks.

"I didn't end up graduating with a diploma for a number of reasons, but that was actually where I sort of first got my exposure to entrepreneurship."

Connor's quote reflects on his educational journey and the beginnings of his entrepreneurial career, highlighting the significance of practical experience over formal education.

Rome's Purpose Beyond Notetaking

  • Rome Research is designed to aid in thinking better thoughts, not just taking better notes.
  • The goal is to enable users to collaborate with their past and future selves by building up thought structures over time.
  • Writing helps crystallize thoughts and improve understanding, which Rome aims to facilitate.
  • The long-term objective of Rome is to allow for compound interest on thoughts, making it easier to solve complex problems with less effort.

"The first step of it is about thinking better thoughts, right. The way we think about it is writing is a tool for thinking."

Connor's quote explains the core philosophy of Rome Research, emphasizing that the platform is intended to enhance thought processes and intellectual growth.

Building Off Other People's Belief Architecture

  • Discusses the value of leveraging existing knowledge and methods to enhance learning.
  • Emphasizes the importance of utilizing others' findings and materials for personal education.

"so with other people, being able to build off of other people's belief architecture, or other people's evidence that they found for certain things, or what material was effective for helping them learn a thing that you're now trying to learn."

This quote highlights the concept of collaborative learning and the benefit of drawing upon the collective intelligence and experiences of others to improve one's own understanding and skills.

Rome's Product Philosophy: Simple but Not Easy

  • Harry Stebings points out the correlation of ideas from the past with the present in the context of Rome's product design.
  • Connor White Sullivan describes Rome's balance between simplicity and challenge, inspired by Excel's user experience.
  • The "low floor, high ceiling" approach allows for easy entry but offers advanced functionality for power users.

"Rome is simple, but not easy."

Connor White Sullivan explains that while Rome is designed to be straightforward to start using, mastering it can be challenging, which is intentional to encourage user growth and skill development.

Learning Curve in Product Design

  • Connor White Sullivan compares Rome's learning curve to Excel's, aiming for accessibility for beginners and depth for advanced users.
  • A steep learning curve is seen as beneficial for rapid advancement in proficiency.
  • The product is intended to scale with the user's growing needs and ambitions.

"A steep learning curve is a good thing, because if the mountain is steep, then it takes actually a relatively short amount of time to get to the top of it."

This quote illustrates the philosophy behind Rome's design, where a steeper learning curve enables users to quickly reach higher levels of proficiency, despite the increased effort required.

Onboarding and User Innovation

  • Initially, Rome required onboarding calls for new users, but it wasn't monetized from day one to encourage user innovation.
  • Connor White Sullivan personally engages with users to understand their needs and uses of Rome.
  • The community actively creates resources to help new users, and there's an emphasis on not limiting users to one way of using Rome.

"we did require every person who came in to go through an onboarding call, but we weren't charging from the first day because actually we wanted to be able to lean on end user innovation and see how people were using it."

Connor White Sullivan discusses the initial strategy for Rome's onboarding, which was designed to foster a community-driven innovation ecosystem rather than immediately monetizing the product.

Building a Software Cult

  • Connor White Sullivan attributes the cult-like following of Rome to his outspoken presence on Twitter and clear articulation of Rome's principles.
  • He emphasizes the importance of integrity and resonating with a specific audience.
  • Having a "nemesis" like Tiago Forte has helped define and strengthen Rome's identity and community.

"I've been pretty loud and opinionated about the principles that I stand by and what I think is true and just sort of put out a frequency, and some people resonate with that frequency and some people don't."

Connor White Sullivan explains that by being vocal and clear about his beliefs and the principles behind Rome, he has attracted a dedicated following that shares his vision and frustrations with other tools.

Go-To-Market Strategy: The Tesla Approach

  • Rome's go-to-market strategy is likened to Tesla's, focusing on starting with a niche market and expanding over time.
  • Connor White Sullivan discusses the challenges of funding and the strategic decisions made to target an ideal early user base.
  • The initial users were from communities that value complex thinking and require sophisticated tools for their work.

"Tesla's business plan was build a sports car use that money to make a more affordable car. Use that money to make an even more affordable car."

Connor White Sullivan draws a parallel between Rome's go-to-market approach and Tesla's business model, implying a gradual expansion from a premium niche product to a broader market.

Early Company Strategy and Product Development

  • Roam Research started by working closely with a few organizations that provided enterprise licenses.
  • The initial product was complicated and unintuitive but saw potential in a niche market of researchers.
  • The strategy was to build features desired by these early users, leading to contract renewals and sustained development.
  • This approach allowed Roam to evolve to a point where it could be launched to a broader audience.

"And as long as we were building features that they wanted or that they would use, we'd keep getting the contract extended for another month."

This quote emphasizes the importance of directly responding to user needs as a strategy for early-stage product development and company survival.

Differentiation and User Adoption

  • Roam Research takes an approach opposite to Notion, focusing on users willing to learn complex tools.
  • Their target audience includes writers, investors, founders, and CEOs, who serve as aspirational figures for others.
  • Success stories and increased productivity from using Roam drive the next wave of user adoption.
  • Roam aims to start with "elite intellectual athletes" and then make the tool more accessible for a broader audience.

"So our strategy has been, let's go to the people who are willing to learn to use a power tool..."

This quote captures Roam's strategy of targeting power users who are willing to invest time in learning the tool, which in turn attracts followers and drives wider adoption.

Hiring Philosophy

  • Connor White Sullivan emphasizes hiring for grit and the ability to learn independently (autodidacts).
  • He spent a long time carefully selecting team members for Roam Research, considering it his life's work.
  • His hiring process involves looking for individuals who can persevere through difficult challenges and continuously improve.

"I hire for grit and Autodidax."

This quote underlines the core qualities that Connor looks for in potential team members, highlighting the value he places on perseverance and self-directed learning.

Founder Dating and Team Building

  • Connor took his time to find the right co-founder, someone who shared his dedication and drive.
  • He met his co-founder at 42, a peer-to-peer coding university, where the co-founder demonstrated exceptional learning ability and work ethic.
  • The co-founder's willingness to seek out challenging experiences and excel in them was key to his selection.

"He had dropped out of college as well because he wasn't impressed with the seniors in the engineering program he was in."

This quote illustrates the co-founder's dissatisfaction with traditional education and his pursuit of a more challenging and growth-oriented environment, which aligned with Connor's values for Roam Research.

Living with the Team

  • Connor decided to live with his team to foster a family-like environment and to work towards a shared vision.
  • He believes in creating a company culture based on truth-seeking and close personal bonds.
  • Even as Roam Research moves towards being a remote company, there is value in team members spending time together to immerse in the culture.

"I mean, it's a family, right?"

This quote reflects the philosophy behind Connor's decision to live with his team, emphasizing the importance of strong relationships and a shared mission in building a successful company.

Roam's Mission and Comparison to Other Tools

  • Connor envisions Roam Research as a tool to map the world's knowledge, enabling personalized learning and collaboration.
  • He sees Roam as more than just a business; it's a philosophy with the potential to transform how people learn and work.
  • Roam is often compared to Evernote and Notion, but Connor suggests that Google might be a more comprehensive comparison in terms of knowledge organization.
  • Roam aims to provide a personal layer on top of the web that allows users to connect information and share their insights.

"We think a lot about research is know, not just search."

This quote differentiates Roam's approach from traditional search engines by emphasizing the importance of understanding and connecting information, rather than just finding quick answers.

Future Vision for Information Organization

  • Connor White Sullivan advocates for a future where information is organized by human insights rather than solely by algorithms.
  • He emphasizes the value of individual connections made between ideas that precede AI recognition.
  • The goal is to enable people to make their unique insights explicit for others to follow.

"So, yeah, that's the future that we want to have is one where it's not algorithms that are determining how the world's information is organized."

This quote underlines the desire to prioritize human-driven organization of information over algorithmic methods, highlighting the importance of individual intellectual contributions.

State of Collaboration Tools: Bundling vs. Unbundling

  • Connor White Sullivan discusses the current state of collaboration tools, noting that many lack the paradigm of reusing ideas across different contexts.
  • He mentions the use of various tools for organizing thoughts, but points out the limitations due to the lack of a generic enough underlying paradigm.
  • He expresses support for graph databases as they better represent relationships between thoughts, projects, and people compared to traditional SQL databases.

"But none of them have a paradigm of reusing ideas in different contexts, taking the same data and showing it in different contexts."

This quote indicates the need for collaboration tools that allow for the reuse of ideas in various contexts, which is not sufficiently addressed by current tools.

Quick Fire Round: Personal Insights

  • Connor White Sullivan shares his favorite book, "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler, and describes it as influential for his work with Rome.
  • He identifies his superpower as a combination of wild vision and grit, and his weakness as organization.
  • Connor White Sullivan expresses a desire for more investment in ambitious ideas with higher risks and less immediate traction.

"How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. It's an algorithm of thought that changes how you read all other books."

This quote explains why "How to Read a Book" is his favorite, as it provides a framework that enhances the reading of all other books.

Investment and Support for Rome

  • Connor White Sullivan recounts receiving his first investment from Richard Meadows, a business journalist, after showcasing an early prototype of Rome.
  • He also discusses the challenges of securing investments and the change in interest now compared to when Rome was in its early stages.

"First check was a guy named Richard Meadows, who's famous for eating only pizza for a year."

This quote introduces the first investor in Rome, providing a brief background about him and his unconventional claim to fame.

Vision for Rome and Impact on Global Knowledge

  • Connor White Sullivan shares his long-term vision for Rome, which includes enabling individuals from any background to learn and contribute to the global knowledge graph.
  • He criticizes the current state of peer-reviewed research and knowledge storage, expressing a desire to revolutionize these areas.
  • In the short term, he hopes to make it easier for people to access and advance the frontiers of knowledge.

"I want to make it possible for people to chart an efficient path to the frontiers of knowledge and then push that frontier further."

This quote captures Connor White Sullivan's ambition for Rome to facilitate efficient access to knowledge and to contribute to its advancement.

Personal Reflections and the Future

  • Harry Stebings expresses his appreciation for Rome, stating that it has structured his thoughts and improved his social interactions.
  • Connor White Sullivan appreciates Harry Stebings as a user of Rome, recognizing the value of reusing knowledge to push thinking further.

"You're exactly the kind of person who you're talking to tons of brilliant people, and the fact that you're able to reuse that knowledge and use it to push thinking further, you're a perfect user, so I'm very thrilled to hear that you've been using it."

This quote highlights the mutual appreciation between Harry Stebings and Connor White Sullivan, with a focus on the reuse of knowledge as a key aspect of Rome's value proposition.

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