Naomi Shah of Meet Cute: “Democratize access to entertainment”

By making diversity & inclusion a core value, we push the creative boundaries of stories. Diversity is what keeps storytelling fresh, and truly makes our stories better. A rom-com about drag queens? There’s a Meet Cute about that. A rom-com about gamers? There’s a Meet Cute about that. A rom-com about differently-abled protagonists? There’s a […]

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By making diversity & inclusion a core value, we push the creative boundaries of stories. Diversity is what keeps storytelling fresh, and truly makes our stories better. A rom-com about drag queens? There’s a Meet Cute about that. A rom-com about gamers? There’s a Meet Cute about that. A rom-com about differently-abled protagonists? There’s a Meet Cute about that.

As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Naomi Shah

25-year-old Naomi Shah is the founder and CEO of Meet Cute, a modern entertainment company that makes short, audio romantic comedies. A year ago, she wouldn’t have imagined running a rom com storytelling company….

Before starting Meet Cute, she was a member of the investment team at Union Square Ventures, a technology venture capital firm in New York, where she spent most of her time talking to companies in the consumer and well-being space. Prior to that, she was a macro equities trader at Goldman Sachs and studied Mechanical Engineering (with a minor in Human Biology) at Stanford University.

Meet Cute publicly launched on Valentine’s Day 2020 just before the pandemic and was able to pivot the business to produce podcasts virtually during shelter in place. To date, the company has produced and released over 200 romcoms for the platform. Both inspiring and entertaining, Meet Cute provides an “escape” packaged in a very digestible format, one that has provided comfort and human connection at a time when we need those things more than ever.

Focusing on modern romance that reflect our times, the episodes feature characters with a diverse range in age, ethnicity, backgrounds, love interests and is not exclusive to hetero stories. Meet Cute has built one of the largest and most diverse networks of producers, actors, and writers to tell moments of human connection within scripted romcoms. In their creative network, they have many communities represented including Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian, LGBTQ+, as well as geographic diversity (over 20 states) committing to the belief that diversity leads to better stories.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Over a year ago I would not have expected to be running an entertainment company. Last year, in my second year on the investment team at Union Square Ventures, I was spending time on the wellbeing category of our portfolio, and within that looking for new media company models to invest in.

As I spent more time researching media models so that when we saw the right company to invest in, we’d recognize it immediately, the formation of Meet Cute had started. All of that work became part of Meet Cute’s earliest business plan. Last fall, a couple of the partners at USV sat me down and asked if I could see myself operating a company and stepping off the path, I was on in venture capital. It was a leap of faith, the first time that I couldn’t see what the path looked like one year out. But now I’m realizing that feeling is why people found companies at all. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time because every single decision is new.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting story is from the week that cities started shutting down in March 2020. It was a whirlwind. To paint a picture, I was onboarding a new employee virtually the day we went completely remote. All of us were booking flights to head to places that were safe to quarantine, and nobody knew how long we’d be in separate cities for. We were drafting contingency plans for running the company (and all of our productions) remotely, the whole time asking ourselves. “how do we continue to deliver scripted stories to our listeners when they need them the most?” At that point, we were producing all of our stories in studios in NY and LA.

Fast forward 8 months and over 80% of our library has been made completely remotely. Why is that significant? That week forced us to take on constraints that increased our creativity and efficiency, without dropping the ball on delivering high quality audio. In fact, I think our sound has only gotten better. We were also able to work with talent in other geographies, and cast a wider net when it came to casting for our characters. That, to me, is interesting because it democratizes access to creating content in an industry where there are high barriers to entry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Lots of funny mistakes, but the one that comes to mind requires a bit of context — all Meet Cute stories are exactly 15 minute in length, broken up into five, three-minute chapters. In the early days, we were releasing each chapter as a separate file on our public feeds, so each story had 5 unique links. What we realized is that the podcast platforms were not built for scripted storytelling content. As people were listening to stories, the order of the chapters would sometimes get jumbled up, confusing people who were expecting the classic narrative arc of a rom-com.

While we loved the idea of breaking up our stories into little three-minute chunks, we quickly pivoted to 15-minute stories, with little sounds denoting each chapter instead. The result? Much stickier listening and more people completing stories through to the happily ever after, and even re-listening to parts of the story. The lesson in that is to not be too precious and listen to what users are telling you through their behavior. User experience is everything.

Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?

We have released over 200 stories in the last year, with themes ranging from In our creative networks, we want as many communities represented including Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian, LGBTQ+, as well as geographic diversity (in ~20 states and outside the U.S.). We work with hundreds of creators (writers, producers, sound designers, and voice actors), and over half of our creative network is female and/or non-binary.

When you think of the classic rom-com, you can kind of expect what you’re going to get. Meet Cute is rebuilding the genre to fit the social and cultural moment of today, and bringing in characters and settings that are more inclusive. Some of the themes and tags in our library of stories include: Queer, BIPOC-centered, Differently-Abled, Coming of Age, Nerd Culture, Second Chances, Relatable (“IRL”), First Loves, Tech/Dating App, Parents & Family, Nature, Seasonal, Self-Improvement, Pets, Sports & Athletics, Travel, Workplace, Weddings, Activism.

What’s great about audio storytelling is that listeners can imagine themselves, their friends, and their community as characters in the story so the experience becomes more real, and more intimate instead of just being served exactly what the characters and settings should look like.

Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?

Earlier this year, we released our first IRL Meet Cutes. We ask people to submit their real meet cute stories and turn them into 15-minute rom-coms. It is so much fun to watch these come to life.

We tapped on a friend to share his story, turned it into a Meet Cute (listen to Belle of the Ball here) and this was part of his feedback. It speaks for itself:

“OMG THIS IS AMAZING!!!! [….] you kinda scarily nailed my character and personality. It’s amazing how much of that you were able to draw out from a paragraph. My girlfriend and I listened to it together, quarantining in Mumbai (after meeting in London) and it was hilarious, lovely, scary, all at the same time. The story was done so well, and I can’t wait to show your (potential) future grandchildren this! You definitely caught the spirit of me fumbling my way through university romances.”

As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?

  1. Media reflects society and society reflects media. It’s important for everyone to see themselves reflected in stories, and not just in stereotypical characters.
  2. By making diversity & inclusion a core value, we push the creative boundaries of stories. Diversity is what keeps storytelling fresh, and truly makes our stories better. A rom-com about drag queens? There’s a Meet Cute about that. A rom-com about gamers? There’s a Meet Cute about that. A rom-com about differently-abled protagonists? There’s a Meet Cute about that.
  3. Diversity in media sparks conversations about different communities and backgrounds, and gives people a platform to share their voice and stories in a scripted format.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

  1. Invite experimentation and new ideas. Right now, the greenlighting process in traditional entertainment looks at what has been successful in the past as a model of what will be successful in the future. Meet Cute flips that question around and asks, what has entertainment not seen before? It leads us to rom-coms about open relationships, drag queens, LGBTQ+ relationships, and others that we don’t see enough of in the media today.
  2. Democratize access to entertainment. In dealing with the global pandemic, Meet Cute shifted all production processes to be completely remote. Over 70–80% of our library has now been written, produced and edited in a completely distributed fashion without any of our talent having to convene in person at a studio. This change allows us to work with a much more geographically diverse creative network and democratizes access to content creation.
  3. Building it into the business model. People often ask if Meet Cute has a writing room and other talent in-house. While we thought about that model as well, we decided that the diversity of stories that comes from our incubator-style model was more in line with our brand and business model.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is showing up every day, rolling up your sleeves, and working alongside your team. My favorite meetings are creative brainstorm sessions with the team. In those meetings, I like to question underlying assumptions of what media companies have done before that and encourage everyone to imagine a new way of thinking, that is uniquely Meet Cute. One example is the idea of “hit driven content”, which is what all entertainment companies pride themselves on. Instead, Meet Cute focuses on making the brand the hit instead of individual titles because all of our stories satisfy the same emotional need of hope, human connection, and happily ever afters.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be creative. You have to be okay doing things that no one has done before.
  2. Acknowledge that there are certain things you can’t control, but you can turn it into a positive. Finding a way to turn those into a strength is really important for a young company.
  3. Learn how to set incremental milestones. A big part of building something new is being able to look back and reflect.
  4. Question assumptions, both your own and those who came before you.
  5. The people around you — your team, your partners, and your investors — will help the company get through anything including a global pandemic and recession.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In today’s world, people need to find ways to take care of their mental wellbeing. As we were building Meet Cute, we keep coming back to the idea of content as an important part of mental health because people tell stories to feel good, and because it’s fun. If I could inspire a movement, it would be some social where people slow down and share small moments of human connection that make their days brighter.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mom always said to my brother and I growing up, “We’re all put on this planet for a reason, it’s our job to play our role to the best of our ability”. It seems simple, but it makes me want to keep pushing to grow. It also reminds me that even small changes, that impact a small group of people for the better, are important.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is a hard question. Ted Sarandos (Netflix) would be fun to talk to. Watching an industry transform from video rentals to streaming, completely changing the way people access content. Also, there have to be some good stories about content decisions at Netflix, especially around the time that Netflix shifted to more original content with shows like House of Cards. More than all of that thought, I think talking about building an entertainment company in the earliest days would be cool. There’s so much uncertainty and experimentation, getting to talk about those things — outside of what one could learn in books and interviews — would be pretty cool.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Meet Cute releases three stories each week and distributes on every audio platform, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts (links below). We also post about all things rom-com on our social channels as well as a weekly newsletter.

Links to listen: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud

Socials: Newsletter, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok

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