I had the pleasure of interviewing Julian Ilson, Founder and CEO of the new friendship app We3. Julian has been starting or growing B2B technology companies for almost decade, but decided to solve a deeply personal problem with his latest venture: the challenge of making genuine new friendships as an adult. Julian grew up in Mexico, but now lives in Montreal, Canada.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was always fascinated by the ability of new technologies to instigate societal changes. I remember how the growth of peer-to-peer content-sharing sites ushered in a new conversation about ethics and intellectual property. Or how Facebook made people show their true selves on the Internet, and got us to share every moment of our lives without the any concern over privacy.
Growing up, I knew there were a lot of problems in my community, and I thought technology was the fastest way to make change happen.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In the spring of 2010, I was in Nanjing, China, on a last-ditch mission to secure an equipment deal that would allow me to manufacture an advanced composite material in Canada. The core technology was a formulation that was developed by an agency of the Canadian government — the rights for which I had managed to acquire earlier that year. Canadian government officials had warned me to be extremely careful of industrial espionage, given the infamy of my prospective hosts on this matter.
Going to China was never a part of the original plan. In fact, it was our final hope, after multiple attempts to produce the material in Canada had failed. If this didn’t work, the company would be forced to fold, and the technology shelved indefinitely.
Hours went by on the Chinese factory floor, testing different temperatures and speeds, but we were failing to replicate the laboratory results at full production scale. Until one of the technicians, eager to go home after a long day that had stretched into the night, picked up a sack nearby containing an unknown substance and added it to the mix. Like magic, it started to work. Flabbergasted, I asked him what was in that sack, but my excitement and desperation must’ve signaled that this was a perfect opportunity to make some serious money. So he requested USD $20,000 in exchange for the name of the chemical.
The company was already insolvent at that moment — the fate of the company was hinging on this test run. So when he wasn’t looking, I took out my iPod to illuminate the Chinese characters on the sack and took a picture with my flash-less phone. With my heart racing, I remember feeling like James Bond and a petty thief at the same time.
In the end, the chemical ended up being a cheap lubricant that severely damaged the properties of the material, so I had to shut down the company right after the trip. However, the irony of the whole situation, I will never forget.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
At We3, we are trying to synthesize and mass-produce the all-too-rare “chemistry” that you feel when you have a strong, almost instant connection with someone new. When everything goes well after that, it becomes the foundation of a great friendship. To get there, we are quantifying hundreds different aspects of human psychology and behavior to arrive at an ultimate predictive formula for awesome new friendships.
Most people met their best friends through no deliberate effort of their own. We didn’t choose where to grow up, or what school we went to — and yet these friendships are a cornerstone of what brings happiness to our lives. I could think of no better use for our latest discoveries in Artificial Intelligence than to put them towards helping everyone in our society lead happier, healthier lives.
How do you think this might change the world?
As a society, we have grown more socially isolated over the past 5 decades, and it’s making us deeply unhappy and unhealthy. Just fifteen years ago, a quarter of Americans lacked a close friend. Today, nearly half of us are reporting that we feel alone sometimes or always. And the effects on our mental and physical health are profound — worse than obesity and on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Absent any major shift, these trends are only expected to get worse. People are becoming more geographically mobile, increasing the likelihood that we’ll be living apart from friends and family. New models of working (telecommuting, the “gig economy”) are creating flexibility but reduce in-person interaction. Lastly, and most importantly, the rise of social media as the platform through which we interact and maintain our friendships is actually isolating us from our communities. The ad-supported business model rewards attention-capturing products and individualized entertainment, weakening our resolve to meet in person and bolstering the perception that others might not want to either.
We3 has the potential to reverse these dangerous trends, and my team is 100% committed to getting there.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Perhaps. Maximizing the quantity and perceived quality of friendships at the individual level could come at great societal cost. Humans are social animals, predisposed to like and care for people who are similar to us across various factors, including race, socio-economic status, and religious affiliation. However, succumbing to these evolutionary tugs and segregating ourselves into increasingly impermeable communities is a recipe that will exacerbate the social challenges and inequities our highly interconnected world faces.
This is the main reason why We3’s has been designed to largely ignore these superficial factors when deciding who to match together. We hope that by doing so, we can chip away at the prejudice and bias that exists in all of us, and steadily break down the walls that have kept so many communities apart.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Growing up in Mexico, I always had my “crew” — a tight group of friends with whom I predictably hung out every weekend. But I moved to Montreal in my late teens and was forced to rebuild my new crew over and over again. The university friends I had made, all ended up leaving the city because of career-related opportunities. I was working from home more often than not, making it more difficult to interact with new people. I could see the macro-level forces making the challenge more difficult, but the true insight came from a bit of introspection.
I realized the root of the problem was a personal psychological struggle. I wanted to meet new people but, despite being an extrovert, I was scared of putting myself out there. If I made it clear that I was looking for friends, surely people would think I was a desperate loser. If I invited another guy to hang out, surely I was also inviting them to question my sexual orientation, right?
So after putting my own insecurities as the focus of my attention, I realized that whatever was going to solve this problem at scale couldn’t ignore the awkwardness involved and stigma surrounding the process of making new friends as an adult.
We3 was then born as a privacy-focused matching tool that always connected people in groups of 3.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We need to break the stigma around making new friends and inspire a collective realization around the importance of friendship in our lives.
Increasingly, our work dictates where we live and who we interact with. Society’s expectations, coupled with our own ambitions, lead us to shape our lives almost exclusively according to our careers.
But we’re profoundly mistaken when we believe that following that path is what will lead us to maximize our happiness and fulfillment in life.
Almost every study ever conducted trying to understand the source of our overall happiness concludes that the single strongest determinant is the quality of our personal relationships.
They also show that friendships help us keep our brains sharp, our bodies in shape, our immune systems strong, and even they help us live longer. They also serve to counteract daily stress, anxiety, risks of heart disease and depressive symptoms.
You may not need a scientist to tell you that you’re happy when you’re around friends, but thanks to them, we have begun to realize the profoundly important role our friends play in our lives and the vast effects they have on our health and happiness.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
For now, we have focused more on refining the technology and the product. We are very close to where we want to be, and we will begin focusing on the marketing front soon.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mentor, Vincent Guyaux, has always been a source of inspiration. His positivity and enthusiasm are contagious. Moreover, the confidence he placed in me has always encouraged me to tackle bigger and bigger problems.
He first did this when I was still a university student. I reached out to him after he gave a guest lecture and asked him to be the Chairman of my company. I had no company yet, but I knew I was going to start something. He met me for coffee and we hit it off so well that — after signing an NDA on a napkin — he shared with me his idea for a new venture, and we went into business together. Ten years later, and we’re still close friends and business partners.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have yet to truly hit the ball out of the park with my ventures. But having gone through many ups and downs in the startup world, I’m always eager to help other entrepreneurs avoid the mistakes I’ve made.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Five might be a bit much, so I’ll start with one: Always focus on the scariest problem first.
Every startup begins with the belief or presumption that there is an opportunity in the marketplace, and that existing players simply don’t have the insight or capability to seize it.
When this presumption turns out to be true, you have a chance of building a successful business. But in many, if not most cases, this presumption is false, and the chances of succeeding are close to zero.
Therefore, validating whether or not your presumption is true should be your primary focus. However, it is easy to become enamoured with your title of Founder & CEO, so a conflict of interest emerges between your ego and your business: tackling this challenge head-on is necessary for the business to succeed, but it also precipitates the death of your startup if you find out you are wrong.
It was surprisingly simple for me to engage in self-deception when I was in this position. I was an entrepreneur — and I wanted to keep that identity alive — but ignoring the scariest problem just pushed back the inevitable.
What I learned is that you don’t need to be running an active company to be an entrepreneur. An actor doesn’t stop being called an actor when they’re looking for their next role. Being an entrepreneur is a mindset and a commitment to want to do something better. The sooner you realize your company has no future, the sooner you can start thinking about building the next one that might.
You are a person of great 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. 🙂
A deeper understanding of how choosing to live in the moment, with friends and family, is as much an investment in yourself as working hard or exercising. Too many people today sacrifice so much for a better future, but neglect the very people they hope to spend that future with.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can do what you will, but you can’t will what you will.” — Schopenhauer
It was late in life that I understood how much of my experience I’m directly responsible for. Turns out, not very much at all. I didn’t choose my parents or my upbringing, my personality or temperament. And yet most of my life I felt I deserved any success that followed me. (The corollary being that anyone who wasn’t doing well only had themselves to blame.) But the realization that the bedrock source of our choices is fundamentally mysterious made me more understanding towards the struggles of others and more humble to my own good fortunes.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
We’re hoping to avoid raising Venture Capital, so there’s nothing I would say at the moment. 🙂
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow what we’re doing at We3 at @we3app and myself at @julianilson on any social network (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn).
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
It was my pleasure.