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In this episode, Susan engages in a candid conversation with Elijah Meeks, Co-Founder of Noteable, exploring his transition from studying ancient Chinese civilizations to co-founding a tech company.

-Elijah Meeks

Topics covered in the interview

From philosophy to co-founding a tech company

Elijah’s Netflix experience

Flexibility in Notable

How Notable was founded

Elijah Meeks’ Bio

Elijah Meeks is known for his pioneering work in the digital humanities while at Stanford, where he was the technical lead for acclaimed works like ORBIS and Kindred Britain. After that, he joined Netflix as its first Senior Data Visualization Engineer, where he created the charting library Semiotic and brought cutting-edge data visualization techniques to the A/B testing platform and analytical applications for stakeholders across the organization, including algorithms, membership, people analytics, content, image testing, and social media. He is a prolific writer, speaker, and leader in the field of data visualization, the co-founder and first executive director of the Data Visualization Society, and the author of the bestselling book D3.js in Action.

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Show Notes

Read Full Transcript

Susan Sly 00:00
Well, hey, everyone, I am so excited about this episode and the founder that you are going to meet today is amazing. He has worked for Netflix, he's worked for Apple, he worked at Stanford, and he is a co founder of a company called Notable. And that company recently had gone from almost obscurity, I would say, to being much more well known because of a collaboration with open AI, which many of you will know is ChatGPT. So in this episode, and the second episode, this is going to be a two parter because we went so long. In the first part, we're going to talk about how this founder went from being having a philosophy degree, post grad in history, to going into data visualization, which is just such an interesting field, essentially, imagine taking massive amounts of data and making it something beautiful that people can understand and interpret. And then in the second episode, we're going to talk about AI and where it's going, and the philosophy around AI and the philosophy around, can you really regulate it? And it is one of the most fascinating interviews that I have done all year. And we honestly could have kept on going. So I'm excited for you to meet this founder. His name is Elijah Meeks. And he is a co founder and Co-CEO of Notable and so you are absolutely, if you love technology, if you love philosophy, if you are a person who's thinking oh my gosh, you know, How would I go about founding a company or Co-founding a company and I'm not a technologist, this is going to be an incredible episode for you. So with that, let's go ahead and get started with this episode.

Susan Sly 02:02
This is Raw and Real Entrepreneurship, the show that brings the no nonsense truth of what is required to start, grow and scale your business. I am your host, Susan Sly.

Susan Sly 02:18
Wel, what is up Raw and Real Entrepreneurs wherever you are in the world, I hope you are having an amazing day. And as you heard in the intro, I mean, this co founder is amazing. And in fact, we were talking, okay, we were kind of geeking out. We were talking about data visualization. And we were talking about AI and different forms of AI. And I thought we better get into the show. So as you heard, he's absolutely incredible, with a background at Netflix and co founder of Notable that is doing a massive collaboration with open AI or as some of you may know it, ChatGPT. And what you might not know about this particular founder is we were having a conversation about how you go from a philosophy degree and in studying environmental history, the environmental history of China, to becoming a data visualization specialist, a tech co founder and Elijah, how did that happen?

Elijah Meeks 03:17
I mean, it's a great question. And in fact, it reminds me of a tweet I saw from one of my students that I TA to philosophy class for and he was just finally graduated and was getting into tech. And he was shocked to see that I was giving some talk at some technical conference. Yeah, bachelor's in philosophy and history. And then I went into grad school and focused on the very early period of sort of Chinese civilization for what they called the San Dai period for three dynasties, the Xia, Shang, and Zhou. And what I discovered in my research as I was pursuing my PhD, which I never finished, so I'm one of these field academics, was that there was a very interesting environmental phenomenon that was happening contemporaneously with the development of sort of these early cultures in China. And to understand that I had to understand that it was a geographical phenomenon. So I had to understand how to map it, kind of how to place it in relationship with the development of different cities and cultures in northern China. And to do that I had to understand ArcGIS. I ran into the same problem everybody does who doesn't come from tech is that as I was sort of approaching these problems, they said, Oh, don't use ArcGIS use Google Maps. Later on, we built this database of Song Dynasty, which is medieval China. It's focused on my advisor was that her area of research, and they said, Oh, don't use SQL use access or whatever. And you know, this wasn't like advice to try to hamstring me. People thought they were being helpful, but what they were trying you know, what would have ended up happening was I wouldn't have developed the level of skill and understanding that would have positioned me as I did to transition into tech. So I went from doing maps, and then once I got to Stanford, where I was a professional research developer supporting research projects there in what's called the digital humanities so a lot of the stuff that your audience is probably familiar with data science, machine learning, GIS, network analysis, but instead of using it on modern problems, or technical problems, instead using it for literature, classics, we built something called the Google maps of the Roman Empire that allowed you to understand transportation networks. So I ended up doing complex mapping and GIS first, and then I ended up doing that analysis and visualization, and I didn't start making bar charts and pie charts until very late in my career. So I think it gives me a particularly different view into data visualization, I think, than a lot of folks who you know, might never do network visualization, right, because they're just working in Tableau and just doing what Tableau can you do.

Susan Sly 05:59
Were you always a very curious person, like thinking back to when you were a kid?

Elijah Meeks 06:06
I think that, you know, I'm definitely like, a real bright in the middle GenXer, and so I think that what defined that generation was sort of contrarian this, right, wanting always wanting to be iconoclastic, always wanting to be, you know, you always wanted to be some kind of a Quentin Tarantino character, right? That you couldn't nail down but at least surprising other skills. And so for me, you know, curious is probably correct, but probably in almost in a way to subvert the expectations of those around. So that like somebody, you know, expected me to be good at math. And so instead, I've maybe focused more on, I don't know, philosophy or art or something like that. And so I think that, you know, as kind of embarrassing, frankly, as it is, I think that's how I ended up taking the path that I did, because it was always, you know, even studying ancient China, I could have just gotten a history degree in China studied the text, everything like that. But there was something to me almost offensive, that people hadn't been using these tools, hadn't been using these approaches, didn't try to synthesize what I saw is like this really important environmental factors with social and cultural factors. And you know, and eventually, you do that enough, and you kind of feel like you can do anything. And, you know, that leads to challenges, but a lot of fun, a lot of fulfilling work, like just bouncing around through different sort of domains. And then, of course, I'm sure that factored into me feeling like after this mod pack that I could co found a company, because, you know, of course, I did all this other stuff.

Susan Sly 07:54
Yeah, it's interesting, you said that about being contrarian, because I'm a GenXer as well. And I think about, we were that first generation to have access to video games, as an example. And we were that first generation where they're, you know, the sheer capitalism movies like Wall Street, which I must have watched 16 times. And this exploring the edges, the beginnings of technology, and I was doing early coding in whatever year I graduated university in '92. So from like, '90 to '92, we were working on quantifying crime scenes and building algorithms, like mapping the crime scene, Elijah. And I thought, why would we do that? Why won't we be predictive? But doing a psychology degree and looking at technology from the user, not so much the creator, even though I had been coding, and I think that first generation and what we had at the beginning to, when I look at how many companies in all of the hundreds of interviews I've done, how many companies like Notable were founded in 2020. And this will be the next wave of Decacorns. This is my humble prediction about this. And so many of the founders are in Gen X. And I do interview 12 year old founders and I interview 30 year old founders, but there is this wave of founders that are in their 40s and 50s that founded companies during the pandemic. I want to, you mentioned something about like going on, you know, you're going on this journey from researcher to of course, why not co founder company. I want to go back to the Netflix days because Netflix, Reed Hastings, you're there I think four years, nine months in my creeping your LinkedIn. And what did you learn at Netflix that you brought into your experience cofounding notable?

Elijah Meeks 09:59
Absolutely. As you know, by jumped ship from Stanford for Netflix and I received a lot of concern from the folks I work with at Stanford, you wouldn't be abe to make it. But no, no, it's if you're not going to survive, because it's much harder, right? Like, in the academy, doing the kind of work we're doing, and you do a lot of prototyping, you do a lot of sort of rough and like, you know, rough and ready for this stuff, right? And so could you really make it with serious software engineers, and especially at that period, because Netflix really had the reputation of being, you know, if you make mistakes, you're fired, that was, that was always Netflix reputation early on, it's gotten a bit more diluted, frankly. But, you know, to me, that seemed very normal, right? Like, oh, I'm gonna go work a real job. And if I don't perform, I'm fired. It's pretty straightforward. I didn't realize how important culture was until I got to Netfix. Before I got to Netflix, I thought, Oh, it doesn't really matter. I can work with anyone, I'll work anywhere. You know, at Stanford, I did a lot of consulting across in a lot of different areas of the university, a lot of different domains. And I thought I can, you know, I can do the same thing at Netflix, and it doesn't matter if somebody's got, you know, if not the healthiest attitudes, academia doesn't have the healthiest attitudes amongst, you know, the difference between like a full professor, and you know, a worker at Stanford is very, it's very. And so I got to Netflix, I thought, Okay, well, you know, they're just a bunch of hard nosed Wall Street types, right, like, I'm gonna see somebody give some speech about greed is good. And we're all going to be busting our butts for evil, but we're going to be well paid, and we're all going to be excited about it. And what I found instead was this incredibly cooperative, incredibly collaborative, incredibly healthy environment where people didn't, I mean, I'm sure there was politics, and I'm sure in different areas that maybe I would have had a different experience. But for me, didn't play politics, wanted everybody to succeed, knew that if we all hold on the same rope, we'd all benefit from it. And at the same time, we're very comfortable giving feedback, that was critical, negative feedback. And it was so empowering, it was so natural and comfortable. And that, you know, I wanted to bring that with me wherever I went. I knew that that was the culture that I wanted to work in. Now, that's the dream. The reality is two things, one, Netflix, and I have to really reinforce that during this period, because there was a period, when I went to Netflix, you probably know better than I do, because you just looked at my LinkedIn. But whenever it was 2013, I think something like that, was very much sort of peak Netflix culture deck. And peak, were a professional sports team. And if you're 10%, better than the other team, you're not going to win 10% more games, you're going to win 90% more games and all of that stuff. And Netflix since then, has gotten much larger, it sort of broadened its scope from being a tech company to be much more of an entertainment content company. And so, you know, I'm not speaking necessarily to modern Netflix culture, I haven't been there in five years. But I found it super exciting. But Netflix hired people who were gonna fit into that culture. And they were hiring during a particular period, like, you know, this is when it comes to having your psychology degree or, you know, having an understanding of sort of social sciences or stuff, you realize that it's not all what you can put down on paper. It's not all numbers. It's not all technology, that there are periods, when things are hot, there are periods when certain ethics work, by which I mean work ethic, not like ethical ethics. And there are periods when certain workflows are going to be more effective. And part of what we have to understand as we navigate sort of our individual careers or founding companies, is that it's not all just the accounting, like line items. It's not all just whether or not your code is great, or whether or not you know you're in this Gartner quadrant. You also have to understand, and I've seen COVID that you're a part of this society and culture that's going through these changes. And so you couldn't just recreate Netflix by declare, it's not like culture is not like war, and you can't declare it, right. So you couldn't just recreate Netflix by by taking the culture deck. And then the other thing I found out was that there are a lot of folks for whom stronger hierarchical structures and stronger pathways to advancement or getting the correct job title that that's really important to folks, it helps orient them, it helps ground them and allows them to focus in a way that maybe wouldn't have been so effective for me. But you can't just hire yourself, right? You can't just hire people who have your mindset, that's, that's not feasible.

Susan Sly 15:22
Yeah. And to the, to the point that I remember reviewing that whole culture deck from Netflix, and there was, I got excited about it. And it's, it's, uh, we'll have to put it in the show notes, the link to it, this just, you know, it's essentially goes through their values. And then Elijah was just watching for this, I'm addicted to being a student, and a teacher, I always feel to be the best teacher, one must be the best student. So I finished MIT and now I'm back at MIT doing a year long Chief Digital Officer Program. And as one of the things we're doing, we're right, I'm writing a paper on the Apple, it's an Apple video from 2012. And it's essentially, there, why join our team kind of video. And there's, of course, you know, there's a bit of the like, oh, okay, you know, small teams, great purpose, you know, all of that. But there's, there's this, this belief of the people in the video that run through it, and then buy in because by the time you qualify to work at Netflix, or Apple, both of those companies, I can't speak to Netflix now, as I haven't looked at anything recently. But to your point, you had to be in the top 10%, of whatever it is you were doing. And that's why those companies are there. However, one of the things that, to your other point, which is excellent as well, is that the pandemic really kicked culture's ass, because suddenly it was like, we, we, we to me, me, me. And I don't know that we will ever go back to we, we, we, because we're seeing so much, especially with startups, where employees are demanding, you're like, Okay, you're gonna get me for $180,000 when I could be getting 300,000. But I want to work from home, I want more options. I want this flexibility. I'm never going back to an office. And we're seeing that. And I want to talk about how you ended up founding Notable, but since we're on this topic, how, what kind of culture do you have it notable when it comes to things like, work flexibility? And are you seeing, because now with this moonshot that you have to attract the right talent who are going to be able to deliver on the promises, Are you finding yourself needing to be more flexible with what you're offering to employees?

Elijah Meeks 17:56
Well, I mean, we were the, the pandemic was fortunately timed for us, because it happened as we were founding the company. And had it happened a little bit later, we'd be sitting there in some lease in some office in some terrible part of Palo Alto. And instead, we just went, you know, fully remote from the beginning. And there were some challenges there, right, because we all know those stories of people working multiple jobs, and just checking in. There's this inherent fear. You know, some of these executives just look at their real estate holdings, and they realize, like, we're gonna lose money, we need to, we need to use these offices that we've purchased. But I think the real fear is, I think we all just assume that if somebody's working from home, they're just not going to work as hard. It's not even that they're going to be less effective, because they can't walk over to a desk and check on somebody. Because frankly, we all have slack and zoom now. We all know how easy it is to check in with people. It's just that somehow, you know, whether it's distractions, or other reasons, they feel like it's just, you're not going to get as much work. And I don't think it's going to go back. Like I think that especially if you look in a period of your student of history, then you know, that there are times when trends are heading toward a certain direction, and then a massive event sort of seals the deal. And that's what I think happened with COVID is we had more than enough of these technologies and experiences in place. That it was about time we moved out of the sort of, work from home don't work, you know, Yahoo cancels all the work from home folks, when they decided working from home doesn't work anymore. And then some other company decides that working from home does work and it was sort of back and forth for the last 20 years. I think that we're not going back to that. I think it's going to be tough, even when you know, and I've only read about it, you know companies that are saying okay, you can come in just for two days a week, you can you know, these people who say that they come in, badge in, eat the food there, don't meet with anybody and then badge out just so that they've sort of officially shown up, that can't last not not in tech. Tech, even though it's gotten a little bit more ossified is still focused on winners. And ultimately, you're gonna see that working from home works. And it affords you the opportunity to do to have higher performance than not. And that's just going to, that's just going to win. That's my guess.

Susan Sly 20:26
And I love that, tech is focused on winners. And it's, I was reading a study Elijah talking about productivity, and basically, it's a binary situation in that you are either more productive in an office, or you're more productive at home. I know for myself, I am, I would say, 1.6 times more productive at home, because I'm extremely self disciplined. And so I just get so much done. In the office, people are asking me questions, and then I'm, oh, someone didn't stock the staff ridge. So I'm going to do that, you know, like, oh, yeah, it's just for me, it's not. And I'm seeing more and more companies, with valuations like Notable where it's fully remote. Yeah, we might get together and have a team thing. But we could do a hackathon while we're all on Zoom, we could problem solved, we can hang out. One of the founders I had on the show founded a company called Kumo Space. And so think of it like remote work but you're in a virtual office. And it's kind of like, we're all hanging out in the virtual space. And we know where each other is. And we can go in private rooms and chat. So we badge in or whatever we do, and we're going to see more technology like that. So going back to when you founded Notable what, how did you come up with the idea? And you know what, like, I love those origin stories. Is it like pizza around a table at a bar? Are we at a meetup group? How did it happen?

Elijah Meeks 22:03
So of the four of us who found in notable, I have the least experience with computational notebooks, Jupyter Notebooks, you might run into many of them as too. I'd always been a front end developer doing JavaScript, TypeScript kind of development with data visualization. And never really used notebooks, which are a data science tool. They're meant for prototyping and stuff like that. And when I was at Netflix, there was a lot of investment in notebooks, to allow notebooks to be artifacts ETL. So you'd run your ETL and each step in the ETL, it would emit a notebook. So you'd have this computational artifacts repeat that process, this time had these kinds of results. And they found great value in that. And there was a blog post about it that was incredibly popular from the Netflix tech blog. And for me, I had just given a keynote at a conference called Tapestry in Florida, where I was talking about third wave data visualization. So I offered up this, this premium that said that there was the first wave of data visualization, what we think of sort of as Tukey, kind of charts, charts for busy executives, right, that was the first wave. And then there was the second wave, which was basically BI tools, grammar of graphics, influenced compositional tools, whether that was d3 or Tableau or whatever, gg plot. And that was the second wave data visualization, because you know, sort of procedural approaches that allows you to, to do all this cool computational. And then I said, Well, there's this third wave that's coming. Because we're seeing a convergence of a lot of different things. We've seen a convergence, not just at the technologies, as technology has matured, it became hard to tell the difference between a BI tool and what data pipeline tool was because they had a lot of same features. But there's also a convergence amongst audiences, right audience expectations. Were no longer, I'm a tableau worker, or I'm a data dog worker, right? Like, there was these expectations that somebody who might be a back end engineer would want to produce dashboard. Somebody who was an analyst might want to run models. And that to me pointed at some future, that feature was going to be a collaborative document. And the only question in my mind was what was going to be the raw material for this new collaborative data driven document? And so you can say, well, maybe it'll be specialized tools like ArcGIS. But they'll give the capacity for people to do code in their ArcGIS does this with something called Arc pi allows you to type python in a little window. You know, Tableau has escape hatches to write code in it. So is that how it's going to be , a GUI first tool that's going to give code as an escape hatch? Or is it going to be a code first tool that's going to become designed for broader audience via UI elements? And to my mind, it was going to be that the latter and the best raw material for that was computational notebooks. You take a computational notebook, and you look not just at the technology, but the workflows around it. And if you could add UI elements to it, that allowed you to comment on it, and schedule it and store secrets and do that kind of stuff, and create data visualization using the UI, then I think you have this, this modern analytics tool that has the best of these, these different worlds that you had two separate tools for, 10 or 15 years ago. And so one of the one of the folks that I worked with at Netflix, got a hold of me, and, and said, Hey, would you, you know, we're thinking about this startup. And I thought, oh, yeah, well, I've done a little bit of notebook work, I did more work with notebooks when I was working at Apple, because it was the only way to use Spark. And so I actually, my nine months there, I got a little bit more familiar with notebooks. And I was on board. And what I loved about it was that I said, Oh, this is great, I'll be able to sit in a cave and just do data visualization, I won't have to do anything else, I'll just work on the sort of, we've got a BI moment in the product, whenever you instantiate data, it gives you this UI, to let you explore it graphically. What I learned, which I'm sure everyone has told you, about you, you're self employed is that if you're a founder, you do not get to sit in a cave, and only do one thing that is not. And so, you know, ultimately, the HR director was reporting to me, a front end team is reporting to me, you know, you end up working on other things, UI related, you end up talking to people about, you know, sales and funding and stuff like that. And then you also, what I ended up doing was once open AI became hot as I started working more on the AI elements, and how that was interpreted by the notebook and how we, we got to somewhere that was obviously taking incredible new technology,

Susan Sly 26:55
which is, no, there's no, there's no cave where we get to just do whatever is in our zone of genius, I

Elijah Meeks 27:05
We should start a startup called Founder Cave. It sells founder caves, the founders don't have to do anything else. They never have to hear the word payroll, or our economic indicators or gardener, they can just go into their cave and do work.

Susan Sly 27:22
And it's, it is a one directional Faraday cage, so they can access the internet and they could do all the things they need to do, but no one could get in.

Elijah Meeks 27:34
That's right. That's it's gotta be.

Susan Sly 27:36
Yeah, I love that.

Elijah Meeks 27:39
Genius. Billion dollar valuation right now. Yeah, so that's so that's how it started. It was basically, I had just given this keynote, where at the end of it, I said, notebooks, it should be notebooks, this was just as observable notebooks was coming out. And observable is going to slightly different pitch. And, you know, we saw that that's the case, like, we saw the reinvestment in deep node, mode and count during their shift we saw, you know, companies like hex and notable get founded, observable, I guess, isn't that same period that they're a little bit earlier. And a lot of folks just realize that notebooks, notebooks aren't just for graduate students and data scientist, and I don't think that's gonna go away.

Susan Sly 28:20
No, and to your point, the trending is very much in this no code, I say, no code, no load, right? That we're going to see, especially with LLM that's not there yet. And for you know, the average person when you think of LLM, you're going to think of like ChatGPT. But we're going to start to see this place where someone with a great business mind, a philosophy mind, a psychology mind is able to create a tech MVP without having to write a line of code. And there will be multi tool interfaces or an AI, if anyone has heard me speak, if you're listening and you saw me speak, I often speak about multimodal AI, and these different forms of AI that are converging together to create an outcome. And we don't have to go down that rabbit hole because at some point Elijah is going to start his podcast again. And then we can geek out on that one. But in our founder cave, and since

Elijah Meeks 29:30
That's the name of my podcast, no, no, no stealing that.

Susan Sly 29:33
No, founder cave, and we'll bring, one of the founders that had on the show, not a tech founder is Jen Pelka, who founded Une Femme wines. So I'll get Jen and Zach to send over, I'm an investor in their company to send over some wine for us in the Founder Cave. And that is like, I'm so down with that.

Susan Sly 29:55
Hey, this this Susan, and thanks so much for listening to this episode on Raw and Real Entrepreneurship. If this episode or any episode has been helpful to you, you've gotten at least one solid tip from myself or my guests, I would love it if you leave a five star review where ever you listen to podcasts. After you leave your review, go ahead and email Let us know where you left a review. And if I read your review on the air, you could get a $50 amazon gift card and he would so appreciate it because reviews do help boost the show and get this message all over the world. If you're interested in any of the resources we discussed on the show, go to That's where all the show notes live. And with that, go out there rock your day, God bless and I will see you in the next episode.

Susan Sly 30:49
Are you currently an employee looking to start your own business? Maybe you've been thinking about it for a while and you're just not sure where to start? Well my course Employee to Entrepreneur combines my decades of experience as an entrepreneur with proven methods, techniques and skills to help you take that leap and start your own business. This course is self paced, Learn on Demand and comes with an incredible workbook. And that will allow you to go through this content piece by piece by piece, absorb it, take action and then go on to the next module. So check out my course on Employee to Entrepreneur.

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Susan Sly is considered a thought leader in AI, award winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker, best-selling author, and tech investor. Susan has been featured on CNN, CNBC, Fox, Lifetime, ABC Family, and quoted in Forbes Online, Marketwatch, Yahoo Finance, and more. She is the mother of four and has been working in human potential for over two decades.

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