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Aww Shift

Jan 3, 2023

In today’s episode, our guest is Isa Watson. She is an entrepreneur, author, skydiver, and classical pianist. She is the co-founder and CEO of Squad, the fun way to build a world of your closest friends--away from social media. Named top 100 MIT Alumni in Tech in 2021, Isa is a physical scientist turned social scientist, building the next generation's social connection tool.

[3:50] Why should I listen to you? 

You should listen to me because I have a great smile. 

[4:38] Do you mind walking me through your human experiences as we progress through your book?

I don't know many, and I didn’t grow up on social media in the same way that a lot of kids today did. I came from a big Caribbean family. I grew up in North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My dad was a computer engineer who migrated to the US, and his mentality was if you can’t build it, then you shouldn’t be using it. From the time I was seven, my dad would buy me the parts of a computer to build them, and that morphed into me loving building things with my hands. I worked in the research labs at UNC Chapel Hill for a chemistry professor starting at 14 years old. I became one of the youngest published chemists in the world at 19 years old. I fell into Wall Street after, but I pivoted to finance via my MBA at MIT. I also started a tech company called SQUAD, and our thesis is that the future of social media is deeper. 

[9:05] How can someone relate to the emotions you felt in those moments when you realized that you were a different person online? 

It's interesting because it wasn’t just that I liked who I was online; I was a much broader person with broader interests. What happens with the feedback mechanism is that you get feedback online from the people who engage with you. You allow them to narrow the mental model of who you are as a person, and that can be an incongruence. I’m human; I've evolved, and I am not the same person that I was five years ago. But there is some kind of permanence on the internet sometimes that makes people expect that, and for me, it became jarring. I got off all social media for two years because it was something I had to resolve. 

[10:50] What do you see about people who try to be someone they are not online?  

Another thing that we do is confuse our online friends with our real friends. We assume that the person that is liking our content all the time and consistently gassing us in our DMs is one of our friends when they are not. One of my friends told me that she doesn’t interact with any of her friends on social media, and I think about that too. I rarely interact with my friends on social media, so I don't think it’s a necessity in the way that a lot of people think.  

[13:05] What is the name of your social media company or brand? What is the thesis, and what do you see this thing becoming in time? 

With Squad, we say that we are the easiest and most fun way to talk to your close friends every day. You can only have up to 12 people in your squad, which reinforces the idea of staying connected. We released a new version, a new take on the phone experience. A lot of our users describe Squad as a corner of their phone where they can go to disarm and just be with the people they want to be with. But the whole idea is that you get a lot more joy from being consistent with a handful of people as opposed to trying to broadcast to a ton of people you’ll never laugh in the same room with. 

[17:48] Where did you get the idea from in your internal conversations about creating another solution that the rest of the world could have access to? 

After my dad died, I realized that I was in a kind of friendship deficit, and it was because I had underinvested in those relationships. I also think that friendships are active and not passive investments. One of the things I did was rejigger my core friend group, and I started to invest in the handful of people who were bringing me joy, and I felt the most aligned when I did that. I realized that where I was three to four years ago is where a lot of people are right now, and they are experiencing this friendship deficit because they assume that they are grown up. They are spending time with people that they are just rolling with, and so that was when I realized that, and we did a lot of focus group work. We have taken a big research and experimentation approach to build this product. It was something that was filling a need and a gap that is continuing to grow, and I’m personally excited about it. 

[20:10] Who do you think SQUAD is meant for? 

Our user base is about 60% women and 40% men. The whole concept of friendship is rooted in vulnerability, and so for me to be your friend, you have to see me, and vice versa. I think that we have this concept of masculinity in this country and around the world where there is a kind of conflict with the whole notion of being vulnerable. 

[22:00] How did you break the addiction of not going to the mass media and just talking to 12 people? 

The interesting thing about it is that you can continue to create content for mass media, but the people who try it and have some elements of success at it also realize how lonely it is. There was this article that I released where I talked about the impact of social media on teenage friendships and the fact that they don’t understand the concept of friendship. So I think that is kind of introducing it to them in a big way that they are actually getting a lot of joy from. I think this is like giving them a feeling that they are enjoying. 

[23:30] How did you choose the other 11 for your squad of 12? 

For me, it’s like having best friends. They are the people we pin at the top of our text messages. People really get uncomfortable with making choices when they feel like they could potentially hurt somebody’s feelings, but the reality is that we have so much access to people all the time.

[26:35] What are some of the dynamics that people have to navigate when it comes to anchoring and creating real relationships? 

There is some hard work that goes into being vulnerable. I struggled with this for years. One of the things I talked about in my book is the fact that we have become excessive validation seekers at the hands of social media, and the thing about validation is that we need it in some way. Friendships don’t just happen; they require big investments, and I think that there are things like vulnerability and understanding that you need in a friendship. I also think that changes over time. I tell people all the time, to take one block of time out of their schedule every week or two weeks, whether it’s like brunch, and fill it with a row of friends. 

[36:20] What are your thoughts on the NFL? 

I don’t know much about how that works. I don’t know much about it. 

[39:48] What promise did God make to the world when he created you? 

He promised to give the world a little bit more inspiration in your life. 

Key Quotes

[30:05-30:07] Friendships require intentionality. 

[39:25-39-28] If you don’t use a tool, the tool will use you. 


How to connect with Isa Watson