Jereme Monteau is a genuine wave-surfing, rock-climbing, trail-running West Coast green techie. The 33-year-old lives in Oakland, Calif., and holds down the fort as the lead developer at ShortForm, a cool startup centered around giving people the ability to program their own video channels. He landed at ShortForm a few months before it launched last year and engineered its transition into version 2.0. Before that he built Transit and Trails, an innovate website that pairs hiking trails and campground locations with transit maps and schedules, allowing anyone to plan a car-less outdoor getaway.
I have known Jereme since college when we played on the ultimate frisbee team together. His basement ping-pong table was also an excellent getaway from my dreary single off-campus apartment. I was impressed by his technical ninja chops then and knew he would go on to do some very cool things. He is a super smart guy and a good one to have on the side of the environment. Here are seven questions answered by Jereme Monteau.
MNN: I'm a huge fan of Transit and Trails, the site you helped develop that tied hiking trails and other natural destinations to the public transit system. What were some of the challenges of bringing that together?
Monteau: It's interesting because T&T potentially has all of the challenges of a traditional startup project plus all of the challenges of a nonprofit project. Ultimately we are trying to shift the way people think about getting outside, which is a very hard thing to do. Our approach is to make it really easy for people to see all of the amazing outdoor resources around them and then show them how to get there on public transportation systems. Oddly when people think about getting outside the first thing they do is get driving directions and figure out where they are going to park. So, fundamentally T&T has the challenge of breaking people out of that thought process. It can be easy sell in places — this the Bay area, where we have great public transit systems (more than 50 train, bus and ferry systems across the nine counties) and an abundance of publicly accessible park lands. There are a few other places, such as Portland, Seattle and Vancouver that have similar potential. But outside of those areas, it will be harder to convince people because they don't have the transit and natural resources. But hopefully that is going change and sites like T&T can be a catalyst.
On the technical side there are challenges in acquiring and integrating data for the trailheads, trips and parks, as well as with the transit systems. Luckily there is a little company called Google that has made huge leaps on the transit side with Google Transit. They have created a standard data format for the transit agencies to submit their location and schedule information called GTFS. Unfortunately it is not a completely open system, so there still seem to be data ownership and liability issues that prevent a universal transit routing technology from being developed. So at Transit & Trails we have worked directly with the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (www.mtc.ca.gov) and their 511.org website to provide detailed transit routing that covers almost all transit systems in the Bay Area. Our partnership with 511.org has been crucial and that is something that probably couldn't have happened if Transit & Trails wasn't an initiative of the Bay Area Open Space Council.
But despite all of the challenges, Transit & Trails is an amazing project that I continue to be so very proud of. Yesterday we lead a guided hike with nearly 20 people that covered 15 miles across three regional parks and was completely accessible via public transportation. People are really excited about getting outside without cars! We recently launched an iPhone app that allows people to locate trailheads and trips around them as well as add new trailheads and photos from their phones! Adoption has been great and we are already seeing some great new trailhead data come in from the app. So we are very excited about the potential of scaling Transit & Trails nationally, which will have it's own set of challenges.
What's the deal with Shortform?
I'm one of those developers with a serious entrepreneurial streak, so I love being involved in projects from the very beginning. One of my colleagues and great friends, Tom Collier, approached me about a year and half ago when ShortForm was very early development. At that point there were a handful of folks working on the project and they were in the process of incorporating and raising a round of financing. I met with the CEO Nader Ghaffari a couple days later and loved the pitch of building a better way to consume online video. So a few months later I was putting in notice at my comfy job at a successful cloud computing company and joining the team at ShortForm.
ShortForm is a new way to distribute online video that allows anyone to become a VJ and curate a channel of videos that they can share with the world. There are over 35 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube *every minute* and a lot of it is really great, but sometimes finding the signal amongst the noise can be challenging. There are a few sites out there taking an algorithmic approach to surface content but we have decided to make it easy for real people to decide which content should rise to the top. In this sense we are democratizing the process that Hollywood has controlled for so long. By focusing on a fun design that makes it easy for people to find and create channels of videos with are providing a better way to interact with online video.
We have had a really exciting year since we incorporated! We have served over a million unique visitors in that time and the last couple of months have been particularly busy. We have built a great team of people and we are located in a bustling innovation hotspot called SoMA Central in San Francisco. Just last week we were featured on TechCrunch in a very complimentary post that highlighted many of our recent successes including the launch of our embeddable widget and a contest we are running with one of College Humor's properties called Very Mary Kate.
Some of our success is owed to other startups like Zoom Culture that lead the charge in online video. Now that more and more people have smartphones that are capable of producing HD video I believe we are about to enter an explosion of online video creation, much like the explosion in online photo sharing that happened with the rise of digital cameras and camera phones. We are all very excited about opportunity ShortForm so keep an eye out for some really great stuff coming soon!
Jereme hopping on the bus after a Transit and Trails trip.
What's wrong with technology?
Great question. There are some really great things about technology but also some downsides to be cognizant of. I live in a area where technology is king so sometimes I think I have a very skewed perception. But I've also spent a good amount of time in places where technology takes a back seat to the basics like clean drinking water and roof that doesn't leak. I think that has been great for my career in tech. There is a fantastic video of comedian Louis CK called Everything is Amazing and Nobody's Happy that I think highlights how technology has spoiled us a society and actually has cause people to become cynical and impatient. We are so inundated with technology today that it's easy to forget how amazing some of it is. GPS and online mapping built into our phones can tell us where we are on the planet with 10-meter accuracy and we get angry if it doesn't do so in less than two seconds. As Louis CK would say, "Just give it a second, it's going to space! Is the speed of light too slow for you?"
A trap of technology is the tendency of people to think it's a panacea, capable of solving any problem. So people will end up spending large sums of money building systems trying to solve a problem but fundamentally they don't understand the problem itself. I think some of the harder problems can only be solved by people. Education is a big one. Online video has huge potential to make learning easier and more fun, but nothing will ever replace the combination of good teachers in schools and good parents at home. Technology often has a role to play in any solution but is rarely the whole solution and trying to solve a problem without recognizing that is a big mistake.
What's the difference between green and greener?
Green and greener have become overloaded words. They have become tags for things that are associated with being less destructive and more sustainable. It means being conscious of the impacts the decisions you make have on the environmental system you are a part of. Being green seems to imply using less energy for example while being greener probably means not consuming that energy in the first place.
It seems that in the last 10 years, these words have lost their impact. People seem a little jaded with the concept of green, which is a little sad. But on the flip side it seems that some so-called green practices have actually permeated our lifestyles — CF light bulbs for example.
I've seen cloud computing companies use green messaging in their marketing to position their services as more efficient than others or as a way to save energy, which is hilarious to me. While computer hardware has become more powerful the software that runs on it has become more and more bloated and less efficient, requiring more CPU cycles to achieve basic tasks like serving up web pages. I haven't run the numbers of anything, but I would guess that the power it takes to serve up your average website today is a much larger number than it was 10 years ago.
Regardless of the words we use to describe it, it is promising to see people trying to live a more examined life. In general we seem to be more concerned with their impact on the planet on its populations than we were 10 years ago.
Does the world need saving?
The planet itself will probably be fine. But certainly there are some big problems that need to be addressed. The scale of these problems is intimidating and can lead to cynicism and helplessness. But there are a lot of people out there trying to make things better. Transit & Trails is my tiny little attempt to make an improvement in our system. I hope that more people can find issues to become passionate about and apply their skills to. A big part of that is not waiting for people to give you the go ahead. If you see an opportunity to get involved with something, then you have to do it! Even (or perhaps especially) if it hasn't been done before or it seems crazy. I'm a firm believer that it's better to try and fail than not try at all.
Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?
It seems like I learn about a new person every day who is doing something amazing. Working on Transit & Trails has put me in contact with a ton of people doing amazing stuff. I'm so incredibly impressed with the work of my colleagues at the Bay Area Open Space Council (openspacecouncil.org). They are able to affect change at a massive scale with a tiny team of people by helping organize to the larger conservation nonprofit groups in the bay area. I have the utmost respect for these folks because they have dedicated their careers to protecting our outdoor resources for everyone.
As for individuals, one of my favorite artists, Chris Jordan, is using his talents to raise awareness about the imbalance of our consumption and plastic pollution, a gigantic problem that receives far too little attention. He creates amazing images that depict the gigantic numbers behind the statistics on things like the number of plastic bottles used as day or the barrels of oil consumed every minute. People have a hard time grasping the scale of what's going on in the world. Hearing or reading the number 15 million is much less powerful than seeing a 10 foot by 10 foot image of plastic bottles piled as far as the eye can see. He is also working on a documentary movie about the plastic pollution on Midway Island, one of the most isolated pieces of land in the world. I highly recommend people check out his work. You hear these crazy numbers every day, but seeing them visualized by Chris Jordan will blow your mind. Check his site out at www.chrisjordan.com
(Shea's note: I invited Jereme to come up with and answer his own question here) What do you do for fun?
I've been incredibly fortunate in my career but I'm also really stoked about the adventures I've had in my spare time. Maintaining a balance between work and fun is really important to me. Whatever I do, I like to do full on! I've always really enjoyed anything that gets me outside and into the woods, mountains or oceans. Trail Running, surfing, snowboarding, skiing, hiking, climbing — you name it and I've probably tried it, even mountain biking (yeah it's been a while). I'm lucky enough to live close to the amazing East Bay Regional Park (ebparks.org) system. There are endless miles of amazing trails to run nearly out my back door. I spent five years or so climbing as much as possible. (Good thing because I ended up meeting my amazing wife, Ariel, at the climbing gym.) After my second big run at a startup, I took most of 2006 and 2007 off to surf and run. My soon-to-be wife Ariel and I drove from Berkeley to southern Costa Rica (11,000 miles round trip) over three months. We were married in July 2008, and I convinced her it would be a good idea for me to hike 160 miles on the John Muir Trail with my friends Ryan and Lech. The summer after that Ryan and I launched Transit & Trails!
These days my lovely wife and I are filling every spare moment thinking about and preparing for the arrival of our baby boy in June!