Matthias Wagner is a founder of Changemakrs, a site that culls inspirational quotes. This month, the site launched a feature that enables users to log in and collect and share favorite quotes with others. We caught up with Wagner to talk about motivation, misattribution, and the wisdom of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
FAST COMPANY: Your startup brings together inspirational quotes. How do you stay motivated?
MATTHIAS WAGNER: That’s why I built it initially. I was building an iPhone app with some friends, and it was really hard. I was totally frustrated, and was thinking, “Why am I doing this?” I needed inspiration, so I went on the Internet, but I couldn’t find anything. It was the Facebook IPO day, and all there was was Facebook news. I thought, why didn’t somebody build something simple, with cool pictures of somebody inspiring and their best quotes? I spent 20 minutes, found a picture of Steve Jobs and some great inspirational quotes, and liked it myself one time on Facebook. That went viral. Within 48 hours, 2 million people had gone to my site.
That was in May. How did you grow over the last five months?
In the beginning, people were saying, “That’s a one-hit wonder, it’s not reproducible. It’s just a funny story.” I thought maybe they’re right, but I decided to play around with it. I launched other sites, one for Einstein, one for Lady Gaga, one for Yoda, and it turned out that all those worked, too. I got huge numbers on those sites. We started to dig into why, and we realized that while the Internet is full of quotes that people share on Facebook or Twitter, it’s always out of context--there’s no single place you can go to find all those cool quotes in one place. That was the point I was like, “Okay, maybe we can make this a product.” We’ll let everybody create a profile and put up their favorite quotes, and the quotes you like will show me who you are, your mode of operation. You can go to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s site and see how he thinks. You can also see who else likes Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes.
Are your users driven, entrepreneur types?
We have a lot of professional athletes, a lot of designers. Also regular people, like my sister, who go to college. High school kids, musicians, all sorts of people. We have the whole demographic.
You must think a lot about quotes.
We have a lot of discussions about who owns a quote. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “Hasta la vista, baby,” he didn’t necessarily write that. A scriptwriter probably wrote that, and he may have heard it from his neighbor. Personally, I feel quotes probably don’t have an owner. Even if Obama says, “Yes we can,” that was probably written by a speechwriter, and maybe it was taken from a book that's 200 years old. We also started to realize that the best quotes are two to three lines. A quote works best when you can quickly get the words, and spend the rest of your time thinking about what’s in between the lines.
“Yes we can and you should try really hard and please help us” wouldn’t have the same oomph to it.
There’s another Arnold Schwarzenegger quote, “If you want to be a champion, you gotta be a champion.”
It seems like you’re really into Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I became a fan through the site, to be honest. Somebody recommended the documentary Pumping Iron. I went and watched it, and I realized what an interesting guy Arnold is. You start to understand how he thinks, how he goes through life, what his attitude is. Through quotes, you can discover a lot of people you underestimated before or ignored.
Should more startup founders take Arnold as a patron saint?
It worked for me. I learned kite surfing this summer, and whenever I went back in the water, I thought, “If you want to be a champion, you gotta be a champion.” I was kicking myself in the butt. It was a simple anchor.
After the killing of Osama Bin Laden, a Martin Luther King quote went viral--only it turned out not to be from King. Does misattribution matter?
We feel it matters. We feel we need to have a lightweight system to prevent that and guard against the quality. We try to overlook most content, and users can report misspelled or misattributed quotes. Sometimes someone says, “Mark Twain didn’t say that quote about summer in San Francisco--it was somebody else.” You can also claim ownership of your profile if other people quote you. You can say, “I never said this,” and remove it from your profile. We see some bloggers doing that.
Mark Twain probably can’t claim his profile, even if reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
For historical persons, we maintain that as best we can. We’re thinking of enabling a feature where users can link to an article or book or song to provide full evidence of a quote.
We’re in an era of shortened attention spans. Is this the perfect moment for quotes?
I love to read books, but for me, a book has to get to the point. I don’t have time in my life to spend on five pages of somebody describing a tree. That’s beautiful and cool that they took so much energy and creativity to describe a tree, but I want the story, I want the information. That’s the thing about tweets and Facebook posts; they get to the core of the message. Maybe that’s our way of fighting information overkill, to compress information to the core.
How many users do you have signed up through the site?
We’re not sharing that now, but we’ve had unique visitors in the millions.
How will you monetize?
One idea I mentioned--by providing context, for example from a book or a movie. Maybe we’d get a share from Amazon if people bought that book. Another idea involves brands. Brands are all about telling stories. Maybe Red Bull can put up sites for the athletes they sponsor. The idea is to keep the site banner ad-free.
Any words of inspiration for me as I write up this article?
...To infinity and beyond. I don’t know.
Well, thanks for your time. Be the change you want to see in the world.
Likewise. Thanks for reaching out. Bye.