Deeper Connections In The Social Media Era: Trust
Despite being more connected than ever, it’s increasingly common for people to feel alienated from one another. Social media has largely served to dehumanize, turning even our closest friends and family into little more than text on a screen. On platforms with millions, we ultimately remain alone in our homes.
I recently spoke to Jiali Zhang and Ria Shah, the co-founders of Trust, an app that is seeking to add connection back into the experience we have on our phones. By allowing users to record voice messages to share with others, Trust aims to return a human touch to how we communicate — a novel idea in an impersonal age. Jiali and Ria share what motivated them to start Trust and the hurdles they’ve faced as women in technology.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Jiali Zhang: We are Trust, and we are completely virtual! While our roots are in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, our team members are spread across the U.S., Asia, and Europe.
Juetten: When did you start?
Zhang: Trust started as ‘HearHealth’ in October of 2019 as a platform for sharing perspectives and experiences to surface social data for healthcare. We quickly realized that we were building a product that served more than just patients and providers, so we pivoted to a social product for communication – expanding our user base beyond healthcare.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Ria Shah: Catching up with people we love is always a time crunch and when we do have time, we often don’t have the energy. This leaves experiences unheard and over time, we begin to define relationships and people by the few experiences we do know about them. There are too many ways to connect yet not a single way that makes it easier to catch up with our people in a way that makes us feel connected and tuned into their emotions and perspectives. Without enough time and energy to ask meaningful questions within the relationships in our own lives, we have less capacity to understand perspectives that are not our own. Inevitably, this has spurred an erosion of trust in our society and a cascade of systemic issues.
We see the ramifications of this in healthcare where social experiences drive 80% of health outcomes, but healthcare professionals have little to no access to their patients’ lived experiences. There is a need for sourcing more authentic data, not just for uses in healthcare, but across industries looking for ways to reduce bias in AI & big data. As we thought about ways to solve this problem, existing social data just didn’t meet the mark. Our social media feeds are not true representations of the people we know, and it definitely doesn’t give us real insight into their broader life experiences. So, we created something that allows us to share about ourselves and understand others better.
We’ve stripped dignity from certain experiences by neglecting data on experiences, especially those of people who have historically had less ownership and today, less opportunities to be heard. This means peoples’ lives and health are determined by experiences we don’t even have data on. As rapidly as we’ve advanced technology like data science – giving us a way to see the unknown – we’re missing the fundamentals: better data. We don’t have an equitable data source of experiences representative of all communities.
We’re building an App that makes listening to our people’s experiences easier – reducing the friction of not having enough time or energy to catch up. The App is called Trust and offers everyone an easier way to communicate authentically with the people they care about. Our core value of listening is central to the audio social platform, which lets users hear life’s stories – either prompting experiences from those they care about or telling their own. The App is a convenient way to foster trust in our modern day relationships, which at scale can help communities access the healing they deserve. As time-consuming as it may be to ask each other to tell stories, it’s what we do when we’re together. We just haven’t leveraged technology to reduce barriers to what we want: human connection.
The Trust App is just the first step of our larger vision to adopt hyper-local insights on perspectives and experiences that ensure more authentic social data. By way of our simple solution to building trust with each other through active listening, we encourage one another to share our whole experiences, enabling more holistic data for less biased technology and a more trusting future.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Shah: Our users are people who want an easier, more authentic way to stay connected with their people. We foresee monetizing by offering users – either individuals or organizations – an option to pay for premium features. These features will enhance their experience on the App like unlimited listening to public stories. At scale, Trust has an opportunity to offer organizations a novel service: build trust with their stakeholders who are Trust users, such as cohorts of patients, students, consumers, etc. by obtaining insights on more authentic experiences impacting their bottom lines.
Currently we are preparing to fundraise and launch a beta version of the App to our own circles of family, friends, and peers.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Zhang: Long before we came together as founders or even friends, both of us had worked with advocacy groups for vulnerable populations in our community – myself with an organization supporting the homeless in the greater Seattle area and Ria with a programming group for LGBTQ+ youth in inner city Baltimore. Through our separate though parallel experiences, we witnessed a fortress of trust within these communities that often was not extended towards individuals or entities beyond the community.
We learned that community leaders helped to facilitate the building of this trust through authentic connection, primarily by the simple act of listening. Following their examples, each of us lent open ears to the myriad of voices from these communities and slowly but surely, gained their trust as well. We were not only moved by the life stories we heard, but more importantly, recognized the power of listening in discovering shared experiences, building true connection, and eventually, trust.
We both saw the necessity for a platform to amplify unheard voices and untold stories, and more importantly, serve as a vehicle for trust-building in a society that increasingly gives in to cracks of distrust. Our mirrored experiences not only drove us to start this project, but remembering the individuals and voices we encountered continuously motivates and grounds us during the highs and lows of this endeavor. At the core of building Trust as co-founders, we want to help people build trust as human beings.
Juetten: Did being female have any impact on your decision to launch and during your startup?
Zhang: Being two females studying in a male-dominant field and working in a corporate environment, we have felt at times that we were not being listened to. Even more so, we wished we could openly talk about our experiences, but hold back from doing so on existing social apps due to their more ‘light-hearted’ or superficial culture. On Trust, we are able to vocalize our thoughts and be assured that those within our Trust circles will listen, hear, and offer advice and comfort. We are also both lucky enough to have powerful women in our lives but often don’t have the time to sit down and ask them more meaningful questions. By prompting them to tell us their stories on Trust, we can. On top of our own frustrations and motivations, we saw that the women from the communities we worked with and their inspiring stories did not have a platform outside of their communities to be heard. With Trust, they can use their voices to tell their stories and the stories they prompt can be a testament to the value they harbor.
Juetten: Any challenges that you found are particular to female founders?
Shah: As women, we are prone to underselling ourselves and often hyper-aware of how we should act in order to be taken seriously – we do all of this which can crowd out our ability to just be ourselves. So one of our main challenges has been talking about Trust in a self-assured manner and channeling the strong belief we have in our vision to others – without worrying about sounding overly confident. Encouraged by a supportive circle of mentors and advisors as well as affirmation from beta users, we’ve found the courage to confidently talk about our work and its value while channeling who we are to lend credibility to our argument.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Shah: We are currently self-funded.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Zhang: One of our favorite startup stories is that of Atoms founders Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali. We first learned about them through their feature on Humans of New York. They started with nothing, coming from adverse circumstances, using KFC as their office and sharing a single laptop. Starting from a group of local craftsmen in a small village in Pakistan, they have become the first shoe company to provide quarter sizes, fixing the largest shoe shopping problem – fit. Despite their humble beginnings, they did not shy away from pursuing their vision, and despite their many setbacks, they were determined to try again. This courage and tenacity is a reminder for us when we feel underqualified to pursue our own vision and encounter our own rejections and failures – to pick it right up and keep trying.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Zhang: We measure success by the impact that we are having on users – whether it is at a small or large scale: we are successful if the people using our product see real change in their relationships and communities. As a team, we measure success by our ability to turn difficult situations into opportunities.
One of our favorite success stories is that of Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd. While most may know Whitney as the founder of Bumble and the youngest woman ever to take a company public, many may forget that the success of Bumble began with a nightmare end to another company she co-founded, Tinder. There, she was harassed by her then boyfriend, an executive at the company, dumped, and then ousted. Instead of letting the nightmare engulf her, it fueled her ambition. Whitney has faced the epitome of sexism both in her relationships and her work, but she found a way to turn those immense challenges around.
This is one of our favorite success stories because Whitney not only embodies the courage of a champion for healthier relationships and better work environments for women, she channels those qualities into her company to empower women all around the world to do the same for themselves. Her courage and grit is incredibly admirable and inspires us as we build Trust.
Juetten: Any tips for early-stage female founders?
- Remind yourself of the idea that sparked what you’re building. As females, we often stop for the many roadblocks we inevitably face. Solutions will evolve – you’re constantly going to be refining, enhancing, and changing the product – but continuing to remember the ‘why’ behind it is not only motivating, but helps you see your roadmap more clearly and define success by what truly matters.
- As women, we often are worried about asking for too much and shy away from asking directly. Be explicit in asking for what you need – it’s helpful in life and even more critical as a founder when there is so much happening and you need to move fast
- And this one is for all founders, not just females: embarking on a startup is a ‘marathon not a sprint,’ as a wise person once told us when we were formerly HearHealth. Get used to the idea that the battles are going to get harder but just as they are, you’re going to get stronger.
Juetten: What’s your next milestone and any long-term vision for your company?
Shah: Our next milestone is deploying our beta product and meeting success metrics. The long-term vision is simple: make trust building within relationships and across communities a simpler, more accessible, everyday occurrence.
Thank you to Jiali and Ria for sharing their startup experiences and we look forward to seeing the product when it comes out of beta. It’s difficult work running a company, so believing that what you’re doing and understanding that it might extend beyond the marathon to a triathlon, is critical to success. #onwards.