Whenever the Office star and executive producer B.J. Novak used to visit New York, he would ask his friend (and CollegeHumor.com cofounder) Ricky Van Veen for restaurant recommendations. "I’d think, I wish I could just go to List.com/Ricky!" says Novak. In 2013, he mocked up an app that would let users create and share lists of whatever they wanted. Novak then tapped Fab.com vet Dev Flaherty to help turn it into an actual company. Launched last October, Li.st has scored $2 million in funding from investors such as Ev Williams and OkCupid founder Christian Rudder. More than 250,000 entries live on the site.
Fast Company: Why do people love lists so much?
B.J. Novak: They are a natural structure of the way the mind works. We’re walking around all day with lists in our heads: Here are the reasons I’m happy today. Here are the things I want to say in the meeting. Here are the movies I want to see this weekend. These are the memories I have of childhood. Our minds work in list form, not paragraph form.
What was the journey like from idea to launch?
I pitched this idea to everyone I met in tech, and they’d treat it exactly the way I would react if they pitched me a movie or TV idea that sounded perfectly good: "I think that’s a fine idea, but I don’t think you understand what it takes to make a company." Sort of like I’d say, "That’s a cool movie idea—do you have a director? Final Draft software? An agent? Do you know what your budget is, and are you prepared to give it two years of your life?" The idea alone wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I hired design firm Two Toasters to mock up samples to show I was serious. Finally, I met a VC named Matt Witheiler, who said, "I think I have a cofounder for you."
Have people been using Li.st in ways you didn’t expect?
What has surprised me is the deeply personal direction it’s taken. There are a lot of eulogies on it. Stories [in list form] about sexual assault and eating disorders. Hopes. Wish lists. And especially memories.
How are Hollywood and Silicon Valley alike?
The top-level people always speak very casually and honestly. If someone is intimidating you with their language, it’s a good sign that they are not at the top.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.