The Interview with Clyde Rathbone on his latest venture
Most people know Clyde Rathbone from his time playing for both The Brumbies and the Australian Wallabies.
Since hanging up the boots in 2015, Clyde has been very much focussed on his start-up, Karma. Developed with his brother, Dayne, and Monish Parajuli, the social media concept attracted plenty of attention and more than enough criticism.
The initial concept. A social media platform that allows us to write long form letters about the people making a positive difference in our lives and the world.
The Shaker sat down with Clyde to discuss the challenges in transitioning from one career to another and how listening carefully can improve and enhance your business.
Thanks for your time, Clyde. Give us the Karma pitch.
Karma is a place to share human stories through long form letters about the people who impact our lives. Our mission is to help people have meaningful human connections online.
Social Media Technology has created a hyperconnected world, but so many of the experiences we have online lack real meaning. Karma exists to help us use Social Media technology in a way that connects us with our deepest human values. The site, karma.wiki, recently went live and we’ve already helped our community create thousands of profound experiences. The next step is to invite more people onto Karma so that we can begin to reshape what Social Media is, and how we use it to improve our lives and the lives of others.
So, how is this different to what was launched in late-2014?
The main difference is that Karma now exists! When we first discussed Karma with the media is was still an abstract concept, just a bunch of sketches on a whiteboard.
In that state, we didn’t have the language to convey what Karma could be – This inability to accurately articulate what we we’re going to build created a few problems for us in the early days. That first brush with the media motivated us to put out heads down, build the product and validate the concept.
In 2017 Karma is a much more mature company. We’re now open for anyone to join so it’s tremendously exciting watching the community grow and embrace what Karma represents.
There was a lot of initial pushback against the concept. What did that feel like?
There’s a cliché that being an entrepreneur is like being on a rollercoaster. Well, it certainly felt like it back in 2015 when we were riding high and excited about the project and all of a sudden people were questioning the impact of our mission.
The critical media stories made it difficult to have positive conversations about Karma, but given the current state of social media, I can certainly empathise with the fear people had about the concept as it was presented by the media. The irony was that whenever we had time to have detailed conversation about Karma it was always well supported - but the way the news-cycle functions doesn’t often lend itself to a nuanced investigation of ideas.
We also realised was that it was going to be difficult to change people’s minds without being able to point to an actual product and demonstrate the power of the idea. In hindsight, as difficult as that time was, it became really valuable for Karma’s development. It reinforced how broken social media is, and it only strengthened our resolve to pursue what we had originally intended.
What does Karma do that is so different?
There are some key differences between Karma and sites like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Those platforms are essentially all about you. You post to your wall, you share your pictures - you essentially create and curate your profile and broadcast it to the world. These platforms utilise highly sophisticated algorithms that encourage addictiveness and that train us to be self-obsessed. This is a real problem because the latest research suggests that the more we use these platforms the worse we feel.
Karma is about turning our attention away from ourselves and towards others. It’s a place to be mindful of the people and relationships we’re most grateful for, and to express this gratitude through long form letters.
In Western culture, we don’t spend a lot of time thanking, recognising or celebrating people. And even when we do we rarely do it publicly, which is the best way to amplify the effect it can have on the recipient.
Human relationships are complex, they can’t be captured in 140 characters - but they’re also the thing that matters most to us. Karma is a practice of gratitude, of mindfulness, and of writing. Another thing that makes Karma different is that it hosts content that will retain its value deep into the future. Generations from now family members will be able to read Karma letters and learn about their ancestors.
Going back to the early days, it can be tough to face criticism of an idea that you truly believe in. As someone who has worked towards acceptance of mental health issues, how did it feel to be accused of potentially causing them?
It was a huge eye-opener. Mental health advocacy is something that is really close to my heart, and the idea that people thought we were creating something that could be harmful was completely shocking.
We knew we could build a platform that would be powerful mental health tool. The was because we identified key technical features that would protect our community right at the very beginning of the Karma journey. We’ve never allowed anonymous content on Karma, and of the thousands of letters we’ve received we’ve never had to moderate a single one. This is a testament to the technology that Karma is founded on and the community of users who care deeply about the culture they’ve built.
We’re now working with organisations like the Rural Adversity Mental Program who view Karma as a powerful mental health tool. We’ve also received countless messages from people who tell us that their Karma letters are the single best gift they’ve ever received. We’re extremely committed to ensuring that Karma remains a place for thoughtful, compassionate people.
I can see Karma even assisting sportspeople like yourself. More than the trophies, having fans upload to the platform could provide a really valuable resource for those transitioning out of their playing career.
I think transitioning through any major life event can be destabilising. Karma can make the process much smoother by allowing us to view ourselves through the positive impact we’ve had on others. It’s hard to overstate how important this can be. Letter recipients often say they didn’t realised how impactful they’ve been. Which highlights that Karma letters can play a significant role in helping people recognise their value to others. Knowing that we matter to other people is the foundation of positive psychology and one more reason why Karma is an important project.
Did the difficult period you experienced on your first retirement play a role in the initial concept of Karma?
After I retired a second time it was very important to me that I find work which aligned with my values.
I had the loose idea of wanting to make people feel better about themselves from my work in the mental health space. But until Dayne and I discussed how Social Media could be improved It hadn’t occurred to me that there could be a technological solution for the feelings of isolation many of us have experienced.
One evening over dinner Dayne and spent hours talking about Social Media. How it was an incredible technology that had huge room for improvement. And how by shifting the focus from ‘self’ to ‘others’ it could transform the kinds of experiences people could create online. That chat over dinner remains the single most exciting conversation I’ve ever had, and to see the initial idea emerge into a reality is enormously gratifying.
For those thinking of developing their own ideas, describe the process of moving from the light-bulb moment to committing time and funds to the business.
The process took less than 24hours. After the initial conversation with Dayne I went to bed. He stayed up until daybreak writing this manifesto about how we could build Karma. By that afternoon both of us had decided that our lives would be completely committed to this project. That was nearly three years ago and it’s been one incredible journey.
About 6 months later Monish Parajuli joined our team as the senior software engineer and quickly convinced us that he was Co-founder material. Today Monish is like an extra brother to Dayne and I and it’s been such a privilege working with him. Of all the things I feel grateful for about this journey the people I get to work with must rank near the very top.
What’s been the biggest lesson on your journey as an entrepreneur? What would you do differently?
I do get asked this a lot. I think that the main learning is that working on an important problem is both a lot harder and more fun than I expected. I’ve learned that it absolutely matters to have a mission that matters for reasons that are bigger than any single individual.
If you gave me a billion dollars this afternoon, I would get up early tomorrow and keep working on Karma. Being able to align your work with your values and passions changes everything. It makes all the work seem more than worth it.
In terms of what I would do differently, I’d certainly delay speaking to the media until the concept was more refined. That said I’m largely really encouraged with the progress we’ve made these past few years.
What do the next 12 months look like?
Very exciting! Now that Karma is live we’re able to invite people to our community and enable them to use their time online in more meaningful ways.