The Lucky Titan

Building Better Online Communities With Daniel Liebeskind

September 23, 2021 Josh Tapp
The Lucky Titan
Building Better Online Communities With Daniel Liebeskind
Show Notes Transcript

Daniel Liebeskind is the founder and CEO of Topia, a fully customizable spatial-based virtual gathering platform that launched in May 2020. Topia found quick success by Summer, hosting over 25,000 people as a co-sponsor of Burning Man, providing virtual event spaces for Fortune 100 companies, IPO celebrations, and music festivals, as well as hosting birthday parties, reunions, and workspaces. In May of 2021, Topia announced a $5 million seed round led by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
Daniel's mission is to build better, more human ways to communicate online. With Topia, he and his team have built a company that fosters community, relationships, and creators. Daniel believes the next big tech companies will embrace the metaverse and give rise to confluencers, the next generation of social media influencers, who will earn money by bringing people together around shared ideas.

Josh: What is up everybody, Josh Tapp here again and welcome back to the lucky Titan and today we're here with Daniel and I'm gonna butcher his last name Liebeskind and is that correct, Daniel? 

Daniel: That's pretty great. Yeah,

Josh: I did okay? 

Daniel: Pretty, pretty good. 

Josh: Yeah, I suppose the names are always difficult for me but but Daniel, I'm really excited to have you here and I want to just let everybody know who you are because this is a conversation I've been looking forward to, this guy is the founder of topia, which if you haven't heard of it, at this point, I'd be surprised these guys have really taken the market by storm when it comes to community and gathering. These guys have really kind of worked their way into, what I would say is they've kind of written the wave from Coronavirus, where everybody realized, oh, we're going to have to be online at some point anyways, we're going to be conferencing but they really created a more engaging way to actually have meetings with other people and interactions with other people so I'm excited to talk about the platform but these guys also just secured their seed round for $5 million with I can't remember his name Alex, or Alexis ohanian. He's the founder of Reddit. I can never pronounce these names but he was the founder of Reddit just read it to just started a seed round with these guys so it'll be exciting to see what comes here in the next year, especially with this amazing company so Daniel, say, what's up to everybody and let's hop in. 

Daniel: What's up, everybody? Josh, thanks for having me. It's such an honor to be here and look forward to talking.

Josh: Yeah, me too. And I'm excited to kind of pick apart your platform a little bit here and talk about, you know, the story, obviously, we like to know how the heck did you I mean, you started this in May of 2020 and now you're, you're hosting Burning Man. Is that what it is?

Daniel: Yeah, so we're co-hosting Burning Man where the browser based version of it and we did did this last year, as well, we had about 25,000 people come this year, it starts on the 29th, August 29 and we're hoping there's gonna be a lot more we have way more features performance, we actually have a lot of really cool things that are happening throughout the week and an event system now so it should be really interesting and for anybody that hasn't been to Burning Man, this is an amazing, really accessible, very safe way to experience the community experience, the vibes, the energy, of Burning Man and so I encourage anybody to check it out, it's gonna be wild. 

Josh: Love that, well, and to be able to land, that big of an event is proof, honestly, that you've built a spectacular platform and I wanted this because a lot of the people you know, and this is mostly consumed via audio so walk us through what the difference would be between using topia and using zoom.

Daniel: Definitely, yeah, so zoom is, it's all about either panels broadcasts aren't one to many, in that only one person at a time can talk, right and you can, you can have breakout rooms, but it requires somebody to facilitate actually moving people into the breakout rooms, you don't really have the agency to control that on your own and so in topia, what we have our big, essentially game worlds so there are these customizable worlds that can be really beautiful. They can be interactive, you can play multiplayer games, you know, you can watch a YouTube and Twitch streams, all sorts of content and you have the agency to actually move around so you just click it's very easy. My 95 year old grandfather had his birthday party in Topia, and he was able to like move around, get in there move around, you just click in and as you get closer to other people that are in this big Canvas, your audio and video fades in and when you move away, your audio video fades out. So you can form these small groups, you can have one on ones, small groups. So there could be 1000 people in this world, which may happen at Burning Man, which, by the way, is called build a burn for events looking it up so there could be 1000 people on the playa, but you're hanging out with three people, right and then somebody can be broadcasting. So we've had a lot of companies using this and maybe the CEO comes on broadcast to the entire world where there's a q&a where somebody can walk up to a microphone podium, and suddenly they're broadcasting and you can be listening to this broadcast, but still hanging out with two other people, right and so you can consume the content, think clubhouse, where it's a panel but in the audience, you can still be interacting, just like in real life, you can be whispering to the person sitting next to you while you're watching somebody speak on a panel, you can do that sort of stuff in topia, and in the context matters, right us hanging out at Burning Man is very different from us working out in an office is very different from us hanging out at a bar and so for us, it's about creating that context, creating experiences and interactions that enhance human connection and really help people have experiences together form new memories and it's really hard to do that in, in video chat, It's also very hard to do that in existing social media, It's social media is more about broadcasting content and less about creating new experiences, new memories, new friends, having serendipity, synchronous connection, those kinds of things.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that You've built that, you know, we were talking about this in the pre interview but, you know, you and I are both believers that we need to remake the internet in a way that's more people friendly, it's really built around, like, let's provide real value to people and value that, in my opinion is providing more truth to people, you know, and I like to illustrate this with the story from my wife, you know, she, we get pregnant, our first child and she gets a pain in her stomach, and she starts to Google it and the answers ranged from anything from, oh, you worked out too hard, and you're having a cramp in your side to your baby just passed away. Right and I mean, how scary is that, you know, not knowing which answer and I know, that's kind of an extreme example, but the same thing happens all over the place and what I love about what you guys are doing is you're saying, Let's create a place where it's not even just being the person on the pedestal, but just being there participating becomes way more valuable, because it creates a new networking practice in the in the business world, which is what I love about it, is if I hop on the clubhouse, and I don't get into the speaker panel, I'm just sitting there going, Oh, there's all these amazing people in this group, and I can't communicate with them.

Daniel: Right, exactly, that's exactly right. Yeah and, you know, you're also bringing up the information that exists in the internet right now and, and, frankly, you know, in a lot of social platforms, the information that exists are, is the stuff that's served to you reinforces your existing beliefs so you know, in your, in your specific example, sometimes it's hard to find real information, hard to actually interact with other humans and, you know, when you hide behind a username, it's challenging to get a sense for is this person authentic so even if you, you know, put that on that question on Reddit, and you're getting a bunch of information, you know, a bunch of responses, who knows who you're really getting that information from, right and so it's also the realness of conversation, sometimes this is a little bit of a tangential, but sometimes, through asynchronous text, communication, things can get really toxic really fast, to have echo chambers of information just being served to you that reinforce your belief, your existing beliefs, and then you have toxic things like disagreements that turn really nasty really fast and one of the things somebody from our community actually said this the other day that they witnessed, two people get into a topia world that didn't know each other had very opposing political beliefs about something and they had a really high level, very intelligent, very interesting conversation, rather than that, if it was a text based conversation would have been incredibly toxic, right would have been really nasty right off the bat but because they were connecting face to face in this like sort of serendipitous way, right, they didn't schedule a zoom meeting with each other, they just happened to be in a topia world and they had a really beautiful conversation and other people that were listening got to participate in that in a very non echo chamber way right and so things like that are also happening that are, I think, very healthy for the future of the Internet.

Josh: Yeah, I love it. You know, I've got your website open up here on the side, and you have a bunch of people waving on the camera, it keeps distracting me what that somebody's saying me right now, I love it, see what a cool way to engage with people, especially for those of you who maybe haven't really done a lot of networking, and you're saying, hey, how do I get somebody really cool on my podcast, for example or how do I get somebody to partner with me or maybe a potential client? You know, where do I find these people, but I mean, you're saying Daniel, like, go hang out in one of these topia worlds and see what you can find and if you're a gamer, it makes even better, right, you can play games while you network.

Daniel: So definitely, and we also have twitch Twitch streams, embeddable, so you can actually, just for gamers, we actually you can create a whole world that's just streams of gamers, right or, or if you are a twitch streamer yourself, you can actually make a world of your own twitch stream bring people in, so instead of them communicating with each other via text, you know, texting, essentially, chat text chat in, you know, in Twitch, they can be in a topia world interacting with each other, really building actual community, right. And when you talk about building community, the importance of that is having a shared belief and then strengthen the bonds between the individuals, that's the key to building any real community, it's the other keys to like empowering your community to, to have leadership and to take ownership of themselves, things like that but it's really challenging to strengthen bonds between members of your community with existing online tools, it's the reason for example, that a lot of communities come together in annual dollars or quarterly retreats, you know, even a company is basically a community, right they have a shared belief as employees, their community of employees, they're trying to strengthen the bonds between each other and so it's really important to have actual synchronous new experiences form new memories together and strengthen those bonds.

Josh: Yeah, and I love that because that's that's the important part is the connection side of it and I want to ask you this, Daniel, you know that with with your story, and you know, now that we kind of understand what the platform is about, and you know how honestly how Successful, it's it's being where I want to ask you is like, who is the person that was kind of that pivotal person and helping you launch this company?

Daniel: Pivotal person? Well, you know, I think, right, definitely not it was me, you know, there's a lot of people that were incredibly helpful and instrumental along the way, you know, I think the first one was a group called reimagine and they were the first event that we built, topia for, and it was a, it's a group to really wonderful group that is a recognition of death through the celebration of life and they wanted to have an event, it was, you know, I've been building a version of topia in virtual reality and pandemic hit, I basically scrapped it wanted to build a browser based version, and got connected with reimagine, they wanted to have an event, and they want it to be more like real life more like Burning Man, right, more of a festival and zoom just wasn't going to cut it and so I connected with Brad, over reimagine, and was basically like, Look, if you can, if I could build something like this in three weeks, would you be our first customer? Like, can I build, build this together, essentially, and they were for it, you know, he was skeptical that I could actually pull that off, or that our team could pull it off because we had a small team at the time, you know, my co founder, basically, the founding team of topia and so, you know, we built something in three weeks prototype, and it was pretty successful and so, you know, they really went out of lead for us and then a lot of people that went to that first event, wound up wanting to have events as well so those people incredibly instrumental in our success, because then, you know, every weekend, basically, we started just having events every weekend, iterating, during the weekdays, we're building community to so people that were coming, that love we're doing started just coming to the events, right, and we, we had a discord community started growing, we were getting tremendous feedback so really, you know, in many ways, topia, what it is, is was not, it was not just like what we imagined we were going to build, we were very much getting, building this with our community so if people ever taken a risk, in the early days, by even having events for important things, for them, doing that in topia, instead of something that was, you know, more tried and true, like zoom, so they were taking huge risks, and that our community, you know, spending time actually giving us feedback and building this with us, and experimenting and pushing the envelope of what was possible and, you know, we have some amazing partners in our community that show up to our town halls and dark community meetups, a thank you to all of you for doing that and, you know, really pushing us to continue to go fast, and to build things that are useful to, to community and we're building a community platform, right, and we have our own community, we're trying to make this useful for them and so, you know, I think our that's, that's really the answer is like, people that took risks on us early on, and then our community still to this day, and hopefully going forward, building this with us really amazing.

Josh: Yeah, and I love the way you guys have done that, I mean, everybody talks about doing that, like, Oh, you know, pulling your audience and, you know, all the different ways like the Ask method, if you're familiar with that, that guy can't remember his name off top of my head anyways, but it's really all about how you're, you're communicating and interacting with your audience so I do want to ask you this, because where you have topia, or is this where you're getting feedback from people as within topia, you're, you're having people walk around and ask questions, are you, you know, are you able to communicate with them via email or how do you personally do it?

Daniel: Yeah, you know, we did have a little bit of an advantage in getting feedback from our community in that our platform facilitates that so especially early on, we would go into into events, and wouldn't tell anybody that we were involved in topia, we would just kind of like, bring up the platform itself and hear what people so people are like, oh, yeah, you know, it's really cool but the videos are too small, right? Like, oh, topia is known for having too small videos. Oh, that's great to hear, right, some stuff that people wouldn't necessarily tell you directly and so, you know, that kind of thing was really helpful, you know, even in topia, you can embed videos spatially into like massive theatre projections so people could use this similar way and like, put a demo of their product, get feedback, you don't have to say that you're the CEO, or involved in the company at all and instead, just kind of hear what people have to say about the demo that's playing right in your world so you could use this in a very similar way but that was massive for getting that unadulterated feedback, the critical feedback, people are like afraid to give you real negative thoughts on your product for a lot of different reasons, right, sometimes people don't even know exactly what it is they really want but the biggest problem with collecting we're doing user research and getting feedback because people are just generally good and nice and don't want to give you critical stuff about you know, this thing they know you've worked so hard on and so, you know, if you if you can find a way to just be one of them, right like they're just like talking to some other stranger about the flaws of the platform people have are torrents of information that

Josh: I love that you can actually tap into that I'm like, Man, that data potential for something like this is insane but being able to listen to those conversations, like you said, and un-curated way I mean, I know for me, that's what's getting me excited as man if I could get my audience over there and you know, have a username, they don't even know who I am, I just kind of wandering around listening to conversations, I came in, imagine the benefit to that for for us to be able to, that'd be like walking through an event room and just being able to listen to people and be like, Oh, I hated this about his speech, I hate the way this is laid out, I hate that every speaker is talking too long, or that they're pitching or whatever, I mean, that the value of that is just crazy. Yeah, and I wasn't even intending this to be okay, let's pitch topia the whole time but Holy cow, this platform, I'm gonna go buy it after this. So, um, so, Daniel, when it comes to, to kind of scale the next steps for you guys, because you have just entered that seed round, this is I think, for a lot of people listening, this will be something that would intrigue them as what are your plans, what's the next phase for topia?

Daniel: Yeah, so I know this is a marketing podcast but the reality is that we've actually been building we've been building topia with our community, for community, we haven't done much external distribution yet, you know, we've kind of had this flywheel of people get brought into an event, some percentage of them then create their own worlds have their own events bring more people in so we have a sort of organic flywheel but the next phase for us, I guess, to back up, the first phase, really, of any startup is build a prototype, build a proof of concept, show some product market fit, show that people actually love and care about what you're building, maybe you're bootstrapping but if you're planning on raising, then you raise right, then with that capital, you build out a distribution system and so we're in that phase, we're trying to build out a replicatable, scalable way of actually going to market and, you know, we're kind of in the early innings of that, of actually getting a top of funnel of figuring some of those things out and you know, to be fair, I guess that's we have done a lot of different experiments, things like Burning Man we did last year so those those, you know, we have been experimenting with things, but we haven't really systematically approach it in the way that we systematically approach building product, right and so building distribution, as a product is, is really where we're at right now and so I'm super excited about it, I think that there, we have a lot of really great ideas and a lot of people that are interested and so that's what probably our next six months are is to figure out not just marketing, but you know, what are the different specific use cases to go after, because one of the challenging things in topia is that there are so many different use cases, people use it for companies, for education for happy hours for high school reunions, going to college, for twitch streaming for YouTube, for you know, there's a million different things that you can use this for and so for us, the challenging thing, and for really any marketer is picking your lane, right and being specific, and going after a segment of this thing being successful in the segment and then from there, you know, expanding, but I think it's really important to focus, especially as you're, as you try to build out this distribution system and so that's really the phase we're in.

Josh: Yeah, I love that you've really generated I mean, honestly, the best form of marketing system, you could is that flywheel effect, because most, most of us, you know, in generating our own audience, that's really not a huge possibility, right, I mean, for a lot of the products that we sell, but you've actually created that and then like you said, being able to distribute it on a higher level, I mean, that's obviously scale is is the most difficult part and you guys are going to take off so fast. So I'm excited to see your your journey on it so with with you and your backstory, I know because it's actually really intrigued me. You've been in product development, you said you've done 30 something products even just in the past little past few years so what what made you realize that this was what was gonna take, what was that pivotal moment for you where you said, Oh, my goodness, this is it, this is the idea?

Daniel: That's a great question. Well, you know, in many ways this has been my life's mission is to build something like this, I actually built something similar for the fitness space in 2015, where fitness instructors could create their entire fitness worlds, create their own schedules, teach live interactive, synchronous classes, where they could see participants help them fix their posture, you know, that sort of stuff, and then participants could see each other so emulating that experience of being at an in person, fitness class, but remote and If you do it, I could do it with my sister in Chicago, our instructor could be in New York, I'm in Los Angeles and so bringing that accessibility making it way more fun than just watching a stream, right, a one way broadcast from some famous fitness instructor way more engaging and so you know, that really kick started this, this mission of mine to build, in many ways a more synchronous internet, where you can have real experiences with people and have authentic connection around some context, In that case, it was fitness, in topia world, it could be anything, you know, people are teaching fitness classes, but they're also doing a lot of other things and so that kind of kick started that journey. I, you know, I've also been a community builder for a long time and involved in lots of different communities, and have a very strong passion for the idea of empowering creators to make livings very easily and figure out how to actually digitally market themselves, make it feasible to be not like the top 1% of creator, but instead of normal creator, and actually make a living from it and you know, and actually make it so that the next generation, the future generations think that creativity being a creator is a feasible life path in the same way that like finance, when I was growing up, was like the thing to be or a doctor, right and then it was being in tech, being a software developer and entrepreneur and I think what's coming as being a creator, right is it's already happening with platforms that exist right now, critter platforms that make it feasible to make a living, kind of overnight by just creating content and so you know, that's something that's been really passionate for me and so this has been a project that we're working on, in in some way or another for for many years and basically, when the pandemic hit, I'd already been building a VR version of this, I scrapped it, and started starting over for reimagine, like I mentioned already, as a browser based platform and built a demo really fast, you know, and sort of went from there so, you know, this has been this has been a journey, and even the products that I was building, as I reflect back, I didn't even realize at the time, but a lot of them were just pieces of what is now topia so it was kind of like honing this, this sphere of, you know, of capabilities of technologies of understandings, kind of finding product market fit around specific features of topia through different products and then, you know, kind of smashing it all together into one platform.

Josh: Yeah, that's brilliant and I love that, I mean, to just kind of see where your mind went on that and you know, how it is your life vision, I think we all kind of have that this is my ideal situation and most of us don't take that leap to say, I'm going to do it today and I think you just you wrote the market the perfect time. Everybody was saying, hey, let's, let's start meeting up, you know, we've got to meet virtually, and you've been able to do that. Man, I wish I had already talked to you. Lots of questions for you, man. Yeah. So let's just kind of wrap this interview up, though. First off, where can people connect with you.

Daniel: So if they want to find topia it's highly recommend going there at the bottom, we have all of our links, in particular, I'd recommend joining the discord. That's where our community lives people are making how to guides in engaging with each other, we also have a discover portal so at the top of the homepage, something that says discover, and so you can click on that you can see a bunch of different public worlds, there's about there's over 200 events that are happening every week, we actually have an event system coming out probably by the time this podcast airs and so you're able to actually find events that are that are happening right now, or that are coming up right now we do have a calendar of things that people can submit to so you can you can see things that are upcoming, it's a little bit harder to find things that are happening right now but you'll recommend checking out discover, check out the events, join our discord, create your tribe, creating your own world and we have templates, we have a whole marketplace, a lot of free content as well, where you can just basically port in entire worlds and customize them from there. And so start playing around with it and just check it out, bring your friends in. It's pretty fun, pretty interesting, free worlds, you can have up to 25 people concurrently, which is actually a lot and so you can use it for free forever, try it out, have fun, connect with each other, be human. 

Josh: love it. Well, I love that. So I want to ask you one final question, Daniel, just to wrap this up. So if you could give us one final parting piece of guidance as an entrepreneur from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, what what would you recommend?

Daniel: That's a great question. I think for topia and in general, I have been very much a product builder and less of focus on the building the marketing product and I think to a detriment in some ways, right? You really should be building these things together, they're equally important, your product without a without a marketing engine without a marketing product, you're not going to win with that right and not going to be successful, you're not going to actually have the impact that you want and reach all the people with your amazing product and, you know, we have been doing some of those things but my advice to anybody starting something is you got to be focused on both simultaneously, just building the right product and frankly, if you look back at all the products that have succeeded, they're not always the best in their category, they're just the ones that figured out how to distribute right so it's a pre-req, to have a good enough product, but then you have the impact that you're trying to have by distributing and it's really important for people to keep that in mind as they're building things.