About This Episode
Today’s guest in this episode of Brilliant Thoughts, a SUCCESS magazine podcast, is a very stellar and brilliant woman. She’s one of the youngest published chemists in the world at 19 years old, a data scientist, was a metabolic chemist at Pfizer, and a graduate of Hampton University, Cornell, and MIT–and she is the owner of an app called Squad–Isa Watson.
We talked about social media, its usage in today’s day and age, and how the social part has been taken away from it. Her insights were remarkable, and by the end of our interview, I was feeling wonderful. Let’s dive right into it.
The Squad: Its origins
Squad is a fun and private social app, available on the iOS app store, that allows you to build your voice-only world and share it with only the people you vibe with. As the reviews say, it is an app that brings the “social” back to social media.
Unlike social media, where your posts are available to all that you allow in your privacy settings, Squad is a private social app–it is very intentional in building worlds exclusive to you and your friends, where you can engage and communicate through voice.
The idea for the app came from Isa’s realization that social media has moved away from its original purpose of “connecting people” and has become more of a personal branding tool where everyone posts their highlight reels, instead of talking about their lives.
“This highlight reel just amplified this [epidemic of] loneliness that we were already experiencing… especially among the Millennial and Gen Z generations,” Isa says.
The social media landscape is at an inflection point. We are moving away from wanting to stand online posturing all day to actually wanting to experience joy in our everyday friendships, but in a fun and easy way. And that was the impetus for creating the Squad.
“Here's the thing with social media platforms: when you're venture-backed and you're so focused on growing at all costs, then you're just growing and growing and growing without a lot of intentionality around the habits that you're creating,” she shares.
For Squad, their focus is on the users’ psychology and well-being. “You want to make sure that people feel comfortable in these worlds that they're creating in the app. So that they can just have a happier, less lonely, more fulfilled life,” Isa continues.
Aside from being a social app that is intentional about engaging people, it also boasts the privacy of its users. As a voice-only app, the conversations are deleted after 24 hours.
“It's supposed to mimic a real-life conversation. The reality is that, when I'm talking to my friends, it doesn't live on the Internet, for the entirety on the Internet. So, everything–all voice messages, all calls–delete within 24 hours. Because that's how humans communicate,” Isa says.
From Idea to Creation
Isa had a high-profile job at JP Morgan, working directly with C-suite executives. One of the things she learned is that entrepreneurship is personal. When it came to putting herself and her purpose in life first, she decided to take the plunge and leave her high-profile job to start Squad.
“...The first thing I did was really just a kind of prototype. I think that is really important as an entrepreneur all the time. You don't necessarily need millions of dollars of funding to get started. What you need is the validation of an idea,” Isa shares.
She worked with platforms like InVision and Figma to create the mock-ups and actually handed her phone to different types of people across different demographics to watch how they reacted to the experience. After that, she sought funding, got the validation, and built a really strong team to create the app. Today, they are now a venture-backed company.
“It took me hundreds, hundreds of meetings for anyone to really, really take me seriously and create an opportunity. And finally, I got in front of the right handful of people who ushered me in. Now, you fast forward a few years… and, my reputation precedes me,” she says.
Even with investors telling her that social media is a saturated market, Isa pushed through, believing that people are looking for something new–and that she could give them just that.
Your “village” will keep you going forward, despite the rejections
Isa’s journey wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were a lot of roadblocks and rejections she had to face head-on. Luckily, her childhood experiences and upbringing helped her become the “negatively motivated person” that she is today.
“...If you tell me I can't do something, then that's when all my power ignites.” –Isa Watson
Despite being the type of person who refuses to absorb that doubt, it took a “village of people” around her to help her keep grounded and get through the challenges she faced.
“I think that it was really about the village. It was really about staying grounded and centered… I engaged in self-care, I was meditating three times a week in the morning, working out more–I was investing in me,” she shares. “I wouldn't have been able to get through that period if I didn't balance that, and I think that is something that far too many entrepreneurs do not talk about. The struggle is real behind the scenes, and the investment that you have to make in yourself is huge.”
Her friends, mentors, and even her therapist helped her balance and navigate through the challenges and rejections that she had to face to create Squad.
“I do think that it's OK to doubt yourself, [sometimes]. There are definitely times I had my doubts, but not for any super sustained period that I would say, [“This is it, I’m done.”]… Especially during the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty and I couldn't even see a day ahead—I was just navigating one day at a time. I came out on the other side of that, significantly stronger, revived, and refreshed, but I absolutely think that it is normal and quite frankly, OK for people to feel that,” Isa shares.
Change is inevitable
Her parents raised her in a way that prepared her to pivot in the face of change.
“My parents always put me in very different situations and they always taught me that my growth and my capacity to succeed were going to be based on my capacity to learn. And the reality is that change is inevitable. Pivots are inevitable,” Isa says.
We live in a world where “you either pivot, or you die.” A lot of businesses have a hard time pivoting, and nearly every successful business at scale has pivoted.
Most people don't talk about the fact that Groupon started as a charity donation site, or that YouTube was a dating platform, or that Slack was a gaming company. Everybody pivots.
“[My parents] had experienced a lot of change in their own lives and they saw the value of being able to adapt. So, they just really, really nailed that into me as a child,” she shares.
Stop boxing yourself in
During her shift from chemistry to finance, Isa also went through a phase of self-limiting beliefs.
“I had people pull me aside and call me on the bull. They tell me that I was doing more harm to myself, coming and saying those types of things or even having those types of thoughts,” Isa shares. “I had one of my mentors tell me that the limitations that I put on myself are the limitations that other people are going to see, and the vision that I have for myself is the vision that other people are going to see.”
The question she poses to herself and to everyone else is: Do you want to have a high-vision future, or do you want to have a limited, boxed-in future?
Sometimes, all it takes is having really good people in your corner. And you wouldn’t meet these people if you didn’t show up, be yourself, and be in the same room as these amazing people that will one day help you stay grounded and move forward to success.
That’s how important genuine and intentional connection to people is, and that is why Squad is giving this opportunity to all its users.
The Squad’s evolution
When Squad was first created, it was originally meant to be a discovery tool to help people meet new people that they would like to hang out with offline. But what Isa and her team found after intensive user studies and research was: humans today are inundated with discovery tools, so much so that there is a “meeting-new-people" burnout among the masses.
What people crave instead of discovering new people is a space or a platform that allows them to be more consistent and go deep with people they already know.
“A true friendship is one where you pour and receive,” Isa says. “When you're in discovery mode all the time, all you're doing is pouring out because people don't know you well enough to pour into you.”
The “epidemic of loneliness” that Isa saw in people today seems to have stemmed from the fact that, with social media being an integral part of our everyday routine, we have acquired passive habits of not being intentional about maintaining our connection with other people.
There is a phenomenon called participation inequality that was first studied by Will Hill at Bell Communications Research back in the early 90s. It is called the 1-9-90 rule, and it is a phenomenon that is very much observed in the current social media landscape today.
The 1-9-90 rule says that most users do not actively participate in social media. In fact, only 1% of users are active contributors to content (producing 90% of the content on social media). Of the remaining 99%, 9% are intermittent contributors, while 90% are lurkers who rarely or never actively participate and just consume content.
This social dynamic defeats the original purpose of why social media was created: to connect people and foster a sense of belonging in a community. “...Sense of belonging that you get from social interactions only works if it's a participatory system,” Isa says.
“What we learned is that people don't need new friends,” she shares. “They just need an easy, safe, private, and kind of habit-inducing way to go deeper with the handful of friends that they already have.”
That is how Squad evolved to what it is today.
The keys to building a great social media environment
According to Isa, the most important thing in building a great social media environment is to have an elevated awareness of how social media makes people feel.
We’ve become accustomed to the endless, mindless scroll through feeds, but studies show that it is detrimental to how we feel about ourselves, especially for young girls.
“[They] feel a lot worse about themselves because you're comparing your messy life to someone's highlight reel,” Isa says.
Social media is a tool for us to be entertained. It isn’t supposed to become our lives.
The second key is for social media to leverage more connection features like DM (direct messaging). These features allow people to actually engage one-on-one with someone, as opposed to just consuming their highlight reels.
Studies done by Dr. Brené Brown show that we currently live in a world of scarcity. Most people go to bed feeling like they haven’t gotten enough work done, or wake up the next day feeling like they haven’t gotten enough sleep.
“We are in this perpetual feeling of it's never enough. And on social media, consuming someone's highlight reels. Does it make it any easier to feel like enough?” Isa asks.
This scarcity mindset, compounded with consuming other people’s highlight reels, amplifies the negative emotions and feelings of inadequacy that we have. So, Isa’s advice to help us stay grounded and alleviate our reliance on social media, which feeds the loneliness we already experience collectively as a race, is to disconnect from social media an hour before going to bed and an hour after waking up. Allow yourself to transition into your day and be grounded in reality.
What will social media look like?
When it comes to the transformation of the social media landscape, Isa believes that we will see a divergence among the different social media platforms “because where they sit essentially right now is not an experience that the majority of people are getting joy from or happily connecting with,” she says.
She thinks Snap will move towards the AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) route. Facebook will probably dive deeper into the metaverse after its corporate rebranding to META. Twitter will probably change the way that it allows conversations to happen between strangers.
“It is not this one central, all-connection. I think it'll be a myriad of experiences that are very different that they'll have to adapt to in order to just survive,” Isa says.
As for TikTok, Isa believes that it isn’t the other social media apps that should feel “threatened” by TikTok, but the entertainment apps like Hulu, Netflix, and Disney+. TikTok caters to short-form entertainment and is slowly shaping that space. “I think that TikTok will even start doing more short form content, allowing influencers to have like mini shows on [their platform],” she says.
YouTube’s strength is in providing evergreen content that is informative and entertaining, especially instructional videos and “How To’s.”
What’s next for the Squad?
As for Squad, Isa plans to continue moving towards the direction of allowing users to connect with their friends on a deeper level and sustain that connection through their auditory world-building.
They are also planning to incorporate Roblox (or something similar) into their app for friends to enjoy.
DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.