A shocking thing happened when Brian Pipa and Tom Davies launched Teenormous, a search engine for tshirts. Social media juggernaut Gary Vaynerchuk launched a similar site with his brother AJ, and the Vaynerchuks got links from mega-blogs. Meanwhile, Teenormous was either ignored or seemed like a copycat.
Despite the competition, Brian and his co-founder kept working on Teenormous. Good thing they did, because today the site is responsible for over $750,000 in annual tshirt sales, and that number keeps growing. Meanwhile the Vaynerchuks seemed to have abandoned their site for other opportunities.
Listen to how they did it. It’s a story that would make Gary proud.
The FULL program
About Brian Pipa
Brian Pipa is the co-founder (along with Tom Davies) of Teenormous, a site that scours the internet looking for t-shirts from online t-shirt sites. Teenormous catalogs and index them all in one place for you so that you can do searches like “show me all blue Nintendo t-shirts that cost between $10 and $20“. The results you get from a Teenormous search come from all over the net and they are t-shirts you can actually buy.
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All right. Here’s the program.
Andrew Warner: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And this is the program that ambitious upstarts who are building their companies listen to in the background as they’re coding away, as they’re making sales, as they’re answering email. And I know why you guys do it, because you want ideas from entrepreneurs so that you can bring them back to your business and grow them. I know why you do this because you’re inspired by listening to success stories. Most people would be intimidated by listening to all these success stories. They’d say, “All right. Now I feel like a loser for not having done nearly as much as the people who Andrew has on his interviews.” But the people who listen are the opposite; they get inspired because they get to see what can be done, because they know that they can pick up an idea and use it to grow their company, and hopefully come back here and do an interview the way today’s guest is.
So imagine this. Imagine launching a new company and discovering that a high profile entrepreneur launched a competitor too and he’s getting massive attention for his company. Joining me is Brian Pipa, co-founder of Teenormous, a t-shirt search engine, and that’s what happened to him. But, as you’ll hear in this interview, he grew his site despite the competition and is now generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue. I’m going to ask him exactly how much in this interview, so you’ll get to hear that. I’m also going to ask him how he did it. How he grew to hundreds of thousands of dollars in t-shirt sales despite the heavy competition. Brian, welcome to Mixergy.
Brian Pipa: Thanks for having me, Andrew.
Andrew: So how much revenue are you guys generating?
Brian: Over the past 12 months or so, we’ve done roughly [interference] a million dollars in sales.
Andrew: Actually, we just lost the connection a little bit. Can you repeat that number?
Brian: Yeah. Over the past 12 months, we have done actually a little over a quarter of a million dollars in sales.
Andrew: You said a quarter of a million. You mean three-quarters of a million.
Brian: I’m sorry. Three-quarters of a million.
Andrew: Three-quarters of a million. And the reason I know it is a lot of times when people tell me their numbers before the interview, as you guys did, I check out the numbers. And Brian and I did a pre-interview where we went over his commissions and his revenues and we looked at his traffic. I just wanted to make sure that what I was bringing to the audience was 100% true. And from everything that I saw it was. And I also agreed, by the way with Brian, that I’m not going to reveal all the details that he showed me. All I want to do is just make sure that what we’re putting out here is honest. So you did it over how long? How long has Teenormous been around?
Brian: It officially launched about two years ago. The beginning of September two years ago.
Andrew: Okay. Now I don’t want to make this interview all about the competition. I want to find out how you did it. But when you launched, there was a competitor. Who’s this hot shot entrepreneur? Can you tell people who he is?
Brian: Yeah. Three days after we launched . . . well, we launched and like most sites we launched and it wasn’t complete by any stretch of the imagination. But we said, “Let’s get this out there and get things rolling.” We launched on a Friday, and Monday morning we found out that a competitor launched, which was a very, very similar site and the competitor’s site was backed by Gary Vaynerchuk who everybody has heard of.
Andrew: And as a result of Gary Vaynerchuk being, he was more than just a site advisor. He was a partner in the business. He was promoting the business. I was listening to him talk it up. I was watching him on Twitter. I was watching him on a video on his site talk about it. All that power meant that he was getting a lot of attention from sites like what? Do you remember?
Brian: TechCrunch, BoingBoing. All the big ones. All the ones that you say, “Oh wow, if I could just get a link on these sites I’ll be made.” And their site got links to all these big sites and we were like, “Oh, my goodness. This is exactly what we’re doing. This is a bigwig. We’re done for. We can’t compete with that. We don’t have connections where we can get cool links and stuff.” So for the first week or so, we were very disheartened thinking, wow, we’re done for. But we said, “We think we can do this and we think we have a good product and just because there is a competitor doesn’t mean you have to give up.” There’s competitors in everything and even if you get a small piece of the big pie, maybe you share the piece with another person or another site. At least we thought the t-shirt industry was a big enough market that it could support two or a dozen sites. So we stuck with it.
Andrew: Was there a time when you thought maybe we should just move on to another idea, Gary’s got this business all locked up?
Brian: Not really. We were pretty confident in what we were doing and what we had. And we said, “You know what? Let’s just let this motivate us.” If you get into a business, a market, and you’ve got no competitors, you’ve got nobody pushing you. So in this case, a month or so after we were looking at the traffic stats from Alexa and theirs was just a crazy high and ours was still low. And we’re like, “You know what? Let’s see if we can match that. We can do that too.” So it was a motivating force for us. And actually, in hindsight, we really think it was really a good thing for us because we were doing this part-time. We had our day jobs and we said, “Wow. We’re going to have to put a little more effort into it because we’ve got a competitor. We don’t know what their rate is of pushing new features and stuff like that, so we’re going to have to do everything we can.” So, without them, we may have just coasted and gradually added features and more t-shirts and stuff. But with them, it really did motivate us and saying, “Let’s get this thing done.”
Andrew: What’s the revenue like in this business? You’re a search engine for t-shirts. How do you make money?
Brian: Our original goal for the site was to become the best place to go to find t-shirts. So part of that, a lot of t-shirts have affiliate, where if you send somebody over to the site and they buy, you get a cut of the sale. So that’s what we assumed was probably going to be our biggest revenue source. So we made a conscious decision at the beginning to say, “It’d be great if we could make money off of every t-shirt and every merchant that we have listed.” But we thought it was more important to be the place to go to find t-shirts. And if we have t-shirts on there that don’t make us money, that’s fine. We still become the authority, and by becoming the authority the traffic will come from that.
So back to the revenue model. About half of our merchants on the site right now have affiliate programs that we’ve joined and so we’ll get a cut of the sale. So if we send somebody over to them, we get a cut of the sale. And the other half we don’t. And that’s one thing: we really like to help the little guys. T-shirt companies come and go all the time. There’s some big ones, Snorg and Threadless and stuff, but the small guys just come and go all the time. So we really like to try to get the little guys in and see if we can help get them some traffic and get some recognition. So the main source is the affiliate sales.
We weren’t sure if we wanted to put AdSense on the site. For us, it’s okay. Most t-shirt retailers, they’re not going to put ads on the site because those ads are going to end up pointing to their competitors. In our case, they point to t-shirt merchants, which is what we’re here for is to send people to t-shirt merchants. So we have put AdSense on and that makes us a decent amount of money. Not great. We’re still [interference]. We’ve actually sold some ads too, which we feel like Teenormous would be a good fit for a lot of advertisers given the demographic that’s buying t-shirts. But because it’s just the two of us and we’re essentially just developers, we haven’t really gone down the marketing route of trying to get ads bought on the site.
Andrew: And how does your traffic and selection now compare to Gary’s site?
Brian: We use Alexa, essentially. We use Compete.com and QuantCast. But essentially we just look at Alexa and just see what the Alexa rankings are. So our Alexa ranking now is, I think last time I looked it was 78,000, with the lower being better for Alexa. And I think the last time we looked there’s was like 500,000. But I do have to say it looks like Gary and AJ have gone off and done some other things since then. They are at VaynerMedia and stuff. So I suspect they’re not putting their full effort into their site, so take that for what it’s worth. We’re at a level we’re real happy with right now.
Andrew: I’m looking at Compete right now and you guys have something like eight times the amount of traffic they do, and their site has stalled at under 10,000 monthly users. Now, I’m not saying this to put down Gary. I’m not saying you’re a better businessman than Gary is or that you kicked his butt or anything like that.
Brian: We’re not saying that either.
Andrew: I think that’d be a fun way to present this, but that’s not me. I want to learn how you did it. The reason that I’m saying it is you had an opportunity here to say, “Screw it. Gary’s got this locked up. I’ve got to walk away.” A lot of other entrepreneurs if they would not have exactly said that, I believe they would have felt that and they would have brought that feeling into work every day. And their site would have just gone down, down, down, down. And either Gary would have stuck with his and crushed them, or Gary would have moved on and they would have been crushed internally because they had an opportunity and they missed out on it. I’m fascinated that you guys didn’t do it. And I’m curious about how you did grow your site and how you kept getting more and more users over. So why don’t I ask you about the beginning. How did you get users to your site in the beginning?
Brian: Well, we actually didn’t have a plan for getting users. We were naive. We’re two developers who thought, “Let’s make a cool site and people will just show up,” which is not necessarily the right way to do it. But we said, “Let’s get a t-shirt search engine out. Let’s have the most t-shirts, the best searching. And once we get it to that point, let’s see if we can just try to spread the word.” We didn’t really have a plan for what “spread the word” meant, but that was the plan. So it turns out that when we launched, we had 15,000. We kept adding shirts, and we kept tweaking our algorithm for the search results, which was very interesting to figure out when somebody searches for a term, how do you know what to show them? How do you know what’s relevant? How do you know what they’re interested in?
But basically a lot, a huge majority of our traffic is from Google. It’s from searches, people searching for Transformers t-shirts or Star Wars t-shirts or whatever. A lot of people would say, “How are you ranking in Google for these terms, for Transformers t-shirts and Star Wars t-shirts?” People have asked us that. And honestly, we don’t really know. We talked to an SEO guy that’s a friend of ours, and he gave us some hints on some things to do for the site to help it rank. But honestly we don’t know. But over 75% of our traffic is just straight Google searches. We haven’t gone viral. We haven’t made cute videos that everybody passes us around or anything like that. We’ve had some big StumbleUpon hits where people have found some of our lists of funny Star Wars t-shirts and funny math shirts and funny science shirts and they pass those around to their friends. But in general, it just kind of happened. We’re not sure how unfortunately.
Andrew: I want to dig in deeply and see if maybe I can figure out a little bit of how you did it. One thing I imagine is you have a broad selection. How many t-shirts do you have on the site right now?
Brian: Right now, it’s just under 150,000.
Andrew: Just under 150,000. You know a little something about search engine optimization, right? You know how to structure the URLs so that Google knows to read them. How do you do that?
Brian: One of the things we were told was that Google doesn’t like search parameters in the URL. That if you have the question “q=transformers”‘ that it’s much better to have that look like a static URL. So that was one of the things we did. And we coded the site from scratch in Ruby on Rails, so we pretty much had control over every aspect of it, the URLs and just every part of it. So that was one of the tweaks that we did. So that anytime you do a search, if you look at the URL, it looks like it’s just a static page, just looking at the URL. Our SEO guy told us a bunch of things that we did, so I imagine that’s one of the things.
Andrew: I see. What else.
Brian: We don’t [interference] combination is.
Andrew: What about the titles? You’ve created titles that Google likes to see, right?
Brian: Right. Actually, I don’t think we did as much on the titles. If you search for “Transformers t-shirts,” it says essentially just “Transformers t-shirts.” I don’t think it’s super heavy, keyword laden. But yeah, we did that. One of the things we did do was use the Google keyword tool and research when people search for t-shirts what do they search with it? Do they search “buy t-shirts”? Do they search for “t-shirts online”? What are the other words that go with t-shirts? So we have “Tee” in our domain name, Teenormous, and then whenever you do a search we tack on “t-shirts” to the end of your search that comes from the URL but we used the keyword tool to find some other words that people associate with t-shirts such as “buy” and “online” and stuff like that. So we made sure we put some of those words in to show Google that if you’re looking to buy t-shirts Teenormous is a good place to go.
Andrew: One of the problems that I have when I talk to entrepreneurs like you is to you this stuff just feels like it’s everyday. You don’t think that you’re spending all day long doing search engine optimization. It doesn’t stand out for you. But this is helpful to see, and it’s interesting to know that you’ve done so much without going nuts. So I’m actually on Teenormous.com right now. I did a search for “Transformers” because you talked about it and I see the URL is Teenormous.com/search/transformers_t-shirts and the title of the page is “Transformers t-shirts” and then I see funny, vintage, custom, cool, women’s, men’s and kids.
Brian: Right. So those are some of the keywords that we found and we threw those in there.
Andrew: Okay. What about some of the information here on the web page itself?
Brian: So at the very bottom, if you look at the very bottom of the search results, there’s a little paragraph there. A lot of sites you go to you’ll see this blurb that people read it and they go, “That’s obviously for Google.” So we have one of those below there that’s got some of those keywords in there.
Andrew: I see. “Teenormous is the place to find all the latest and coolest t-shirts, hoodies . . .” I guess “cool t-shirts” and “hoodies” are words that people search for. “Jerseys for sale on the internet in one convenient location. Shop our selection of funny, vintage, custom, cool and sports tees and buy today. We search the internet for t-shirts so you don’t have to.” What about getting links to your site from other sites? How have you done there?
Brian: We haven’t really done anything to try to get links. We are getting links. We’re getting natural links. It’s funny, once you start ranking in Google for terms, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you get into the first couple pages of search results on Google, people see those and then they’ll start linking to you. And t-shirts are kind of nice because people like to share those with friends. You’ll find a cool shirt that’s got something funny on it and you’ll post it on your blog or you’ll send out an email saying, “Hey, George. Look at this cool, funny t-shirt.” So it’s kind of built into t-shirts that t-shirts are fun and people like to share them. So we’re getting links on Facebook and StumbleUpon and Delicious and stuff like that, but we haven’t really done a whole lot to try to get links other than just making the site better.
We do have some lists, which a lot of people like to share. So we have lists of the funniest science t-shirts and the funniest math t-shirts and stuff like that. People like to share those so those have gotten some good traffic, especially on StumbleUpon. But we really haven’t gone out of our way to get links or buy links or convince people to link to us. It’ just kind of happened naturally, which again I think is partly due to t-shirts are just very linkable. If we were selling screws and screwdrivers, your friends aren’t sharing, “Hey, check out this cool screwdriver.” T-shirts are fun.
Andrew: Yeah. They are inherently viral. And I see that you don’t have any share buttons on your t-shirts. You’re not doing a Facebook like button. You’re just keeping it really simple.
Brian: Well, our original goal was we were looking at the Google model of just simple. Let the t-shirts be what’s on the site. We don’t need to have fancy Web 2.0 shadows and reflections and spinning stuff. Our original idea for the site was much less than it actually is now, and right now it’s really not terribly fancy. But we just wanted the t-shirts to be the star of the site. But we worked with that a little bit and we’re like, “This is just too plain. These are t-shirts and they’re fun and they’re graphics.” So we actually did jazz it up a little bit. We’re actually in the process right now we’ve hired somebody to revamp the site for us completely. Just the design of it, the layout, and the look.
Andrew: And I see what you mean about the current site. It’s very clean, it’s very simple.
Andrew: How did you get the t-shirts in your search engine in the beginning?
Brian: That was kind of one of the funny things. When you’re first starting out and whether it’s t-shirt search engines or any site where you need data or information or help from some other person or site, when we started out, we got no traffic. So we sent an email to a t-shirt guy and said, “Hey, we’ve got this t-shirt search engine. How would you like to be listed?” And Crickets, they are like, I’m sure they’re thinking, “You’re nobody. I checked you out real quick. You’ve got no traffic. Why would I care about you? Why would I do any work to help you?” And it’s not a knock on them but it’s honestly. Somebody comes to you and they’ve got nothing to offer and at the time we had nothing to offer. Most of the time people just wouldn’t reply.
In a way that was good because what we ended up doing was we found sites that we wanted their t-shirts because they were good t-shirts and we felt we’d be incomplete without them. So we actually wrote some code that will go out to any t-shirt site and pull the data in for us. It takes a little bit of tweaking. For each new site, we have to do half an hour, an hour’s work to get it tweaked just right so it works for that site. But once you do that one time it’s automated. From then on our code will just know how to go and grab t-shirts from that site. So that was one thing. We did that and we sent it out to sites. We picked some sites that we wanted there stuff, and we went out and got it.
The other way is with the affiliate marketing. A lot of them have data feeds, which is essentially a text file that has all the data for their site. So we wrote some code that would parse that data file and put it right onto our site for us.
So when we first started out, those were the two ways we’d do it. We’d go and just grab the data from the site. We’d tell them we did it, but again nobody ever said, “Don’t do it,” or “Great. I’m so happy you did it.” Nothing. But it was for our users. It was so we had good t-shirts. So when we first started out, we’d do the scraping, scrape the data off the site, and then we’d do the data feeds. And now we’re at the point where we do have traffic, we get probably two or three t-shirt merchants a week calling us and saying, “What do we have to do to get on your site? We would love to be on your site.” And we have a page on the site that explains, email us here, tell us about your site and we’ll see what we can do.
So those are the three ways to get on is the data feeds, [interference] if we really want you in, or you can give us some data, you can give us a data feed to get in. So those are the three ways right now.
Andrew: All right. We talked about how you created the product. We talked about how you got customers. What about the first version of the site? I’m always fascinated by what the first version of an idea looks like.
Brian: Right. When Tom, Tom is my business partner, when Tom and I were talking about this and this idea came up of let’s make this cool t-shirt site, we originally . . . it wasn’t going to be a t-shirt search engine. It was going to be a t-shirt community. So we were going to have a bunch of t-shirts on there, but it’s going to be more about the community. It’s going to e rating t-shirts and sharing t-shirts and you have a closet of t-shirts you own and just interactions and you get points if you do stuff on the site. The typical social media social stuff. And that was our idea and it was just the two of us. We’re just two developers and we have full time jobs and families. And we didn’t have a lot of time to put into it. So we realized that if we waited to launch the site until we put everything into it that we wanted we’d never launch. It just wouldn’t happen. We don’t have the time and it would never get launched.
So we said, “Okay. Let’s think about this a little bit differently. What is the bare minimum we need to get a site out there that’s usable, functional, and is worth visiting?” And we decided the center of all this community stuff is the t-shirts themselves. We’ve got to have t-shirts in order for people to interact with them. So we said let’s just make the best darn search engine we could for these t-shirts. So let’s figure out how to get the t-shirts in, how to load it up and focus on t-shirts. So version one of the site actually is fairly close to what you see now. We’ve made a lot of tweaks and algorithm tweaks and brought a lot more merchants and t-shirts in. But essentially, it was a t-shirt search engine when we launched, and it was only 15,000 shirts. And I say only. We thought only 15,000 was nothing. That’s a drop in the bucket. There’s hundreds and hundreds and probably thousands of t-shirt merchants, and we thought 15,000 is really not that much. And that’s one of the reasons we didn’t go all out to promote the site at the beginning just because we thought, okay, the search is really good. The results that come back, we tweaked the algorithm and we thought they were pretty good but we only had 15,000 shirts and it was just a search engine. So that was the version 0.1 of the site that we launched with.
Andrew: So in retrospect, now that you have all the time to build this out and the experience to know how to build out all those features that you envisioned in the beginning, I see you haven’t. Why haven’t you built all those features?
Brian: We still working part time on this. This is still our hobby. We still have the day job. We still work 9 to 5 at the day job. We’re still trying to squeeze out time to work on the site. One of the reasons is that you could probably say that we’ve become a little complacent because the site’s getting traffic. It’s making us a couple dollars. We don’t have this huge push on us to say, “Hey. Go make it social. Go add all these cool things to it,” because it’s kind of working right now. We’ve got all the t-shirts in, it’s a great search engine. We don’t have a lot of motivation, I guess, to do it. We want to do it because one of the things we think we can do is by doing that we can take it to another level. We’ve kind of leveled out at our traffic level. Revenue’s doing great. But we feel like if we added some social stuff, people would keep coming back to the site to see what’s the hottest shirts, what’s the newest, the hottest, the greatest and stuff. Right now, we’re just a really good search engine for t-shirts. So I hope that answers your question.
Andrew: Are there any features that you envisioned in the beginning that you’d need that maybe seemed critical at the time but now looking back, you say, “I’m so glad we didn’t build it.”
Brian: It’s funny. When you’re dreaming up your site, you come up with 30 features that you’re like, I’ve gotta have this, gotta have that. And we pared it down so much. It turns out, at least for us, all we needed was a good search engine and that was enough. Our plan is to actually come back to the social aspect of it probably summer of next year. We’re hoping we can quit our day jobs and start doing this full time. That’s our goal. And that was our goal from the get-go. Becoming multi-millionaires would be wonderful but that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was we’ve coded all our life for other people. We wrote programs for other people. With this, we coded this for ourselves and it’s making us money and we’re hoping that it can provide for us so we can just do this full time. And then once we do this full time, then we can all these great features because we’ll have time to do it. Right now we’re still pressed for time and we’ve automated a lot things. But we just don’t have the amount of time we want to do stuff on it.
Andrew: We talked in the pre-interview about some of the other ideas that you guys came up with and some of the other products that you launched. Can you tell people about that? You and Tom, your co-founder.
Brian: We wanted to have all the social stuff on the site, and we ended up just making a really good search engine and it’s done pretty well. That got us thinking. And since we wrote all the code from scratch in the back end, and we did it intentionally so that it would work for anything. It wasn’t specific to t-shirts. It was just a search engine for some things, some niche. So we said, “Let’s see what we can do. Let’s pop another one out that’s something else.” We’ve done that four times now. So we’ve launched four other sites in different niches just to see, like we talked about, we’re ranking pretty well in Google for things. So we’re like was that a fluke? For some reason it just work for t-shirts and it’s not going to work for anything else? Is this a one time thing and we need to put all our money and investment into Teenormous, or can we do some other ones similar that will also work out?
Andrew: So how’s that worked out?
Brian: So right now we have four out there, and a couple of them are doing so so. A couple of them are doing pretty good. So we think it’s possible that this might work for us. It’s taken Teenormous two years to get where it’s at. So a couple of sites have only been out for less than six months. So we’re comparing it not to other sites in the niche, but to Teenormous growth of how the growth was from day one to month three just to compare.
Andrew: What other products did you launch?
Brian: We did a costume one. We did a personal check site. We did a purse site. We did that one for the ladies. It’s a purse search engine called Trendy Purse. T-shirts are mostly guys, not completely but kind of guys. So our wives were like, “You’ve got to do a purse search engine for us.” So we’re like, “Okay, sure.” So we did a purse search engine. And we just launched a toy site two weeks ago, and we just got the initial stage of it up. It’s not complete by any means. But we’re just trying it out to see if it works for other things.
Andrew: Cool. Now what I’m finding is that entrepreneurs who aren’t funded often will just toss out a bunch of different ideas and then one of them happens to hit. Did you guys have any other ideas that you launched before you launched this business?
Brian: Tom and I met at our day jobs. We both got hired by the same company and we were both remote, we were both remote workers, and we both worked here within the area, within 20 miles of each other. So that’s how we met. But before that Tom had done a wish list site. He had done it with Ruby on Rails which is just a development framework. And both of us have backgrounds in Java programming. So he did the site with Ruby on Rails and just thought Ruby on Rails was wonderful and great. And he made a couple of bucks on it, nothing to write home about but he was making some money with the affiliate sales. I had a blog, actually a candy blog that I did. And I’ve done that for five years, actually, and still have it. So that was my venture into just playing around with the web and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It helped me get used to how AdSense works and affiliate sales and stuff like that. So those were our two ventures by ourselves before this, and then when we both got hired at the same company and started talking to each other, the ideas started flowing and we seemed to be a good fit together. So that’s when we came up with the Teenormous idea for the search engine.
Andrew: What’s the biggest lesson that you guys got from the two previous companies that you worked on separately? What’s the big “aha” realization?
Brian: One I would say is people were always amazed when I would talk to them about my candy blog, and they just thought that was really cool. And then when I told them it made money, they were like, “What? You make money with that?” So I think one of the big things for me was just that you hear all these stories about people making money online. Somebody’s got a blog that just gets crazy traffic and they sell ads for thousands of dollars a month and they’re just rolling in the money from doing online things. So for me it was like, “Wow. I can make money online.” I wasn’t really trying that hard to make money online. Again, I wasn’t making a lot but it was a car payment every month. So I think that was my aha moment. It was like, “Wow, I can do something online that makes me money.” A lot of people think at this point in the Internet there’s no money to be made. Everybody’s come up with all the ideas and everybody’s got all the money and there’s no way somebody can start from ground zero and make money online. But for me that was like, “Yeah, I can actually.” There are things to do and they’re still [interference].
Andrew: And it looks like the power of affiliate programs is another thing that you guys noticed.
Brian: Yes. That was one of the things that brought us together was I was making some money with the affiliates sales on my candy blog, and Tom was making some affiliate money on his wish list site. So that was one of the things that we were talking about. I’ve always loved t-shirts and I was telling you I’ve got a blog post on my personal blog from like six years ago or something where I bought a screen printing kit and I printed up some t-shirts for myself. And I used to review video games and I’d get the free t-shirts at the conferences and stuff. So I’ve always loved t-shirts. We both got together and we both noticed you could make some money on affiliate stuff. And we just tossed around a bunch of ideas, and we ended up saying, “Hey, let’s do a t-shirt search engine.” Of course we wanted the t-shirt community but, you know.
Andrew: I think affiliate programs are just undervalued, underappreciated online. You sign up for an affiliate program, you know exactly how much you’re going to be paid, you know exactly what you need to do to get paid. You don’t have to have a sales department. You don’t have to learn how to work up the courage to call on a stranger.
Brian: Inventory is the big thing for us. We’ve got 150,000 t-shirts, but we have no inventory sitting in our house that’s going stale and we’re going to lose money on. There’s nothing to lose.
Andrew: You’re just making sales on behalf of someone else. Keeping a commission. Really simple. You focus on the part of your business that’s important. How do you make the search engine work? How do you help Google find you? How do you maybe make it more viral?
Brian: Right. It’s funny I read just the other day a site that had an affiliate program; it wasn’t t-shirts, it was something else. I read an interesting thing that they said. They had said, “We’re not experts in search engine optimization. We sell widgets and we know those so we’re perfectly happy to pay somebody else via affiliate sales to do our search engine optimization for us.” So if some other site comes along and has their affiliate links and is making money, they were perfectly happy to pay you that, because if you rank in Google, then they rank in Google. Interesting attitude.
Andrew: I’ve seen that a lot. You guys watch your competitors get into TechCrunch, like you said, Boing Boing, Lifehacker, but you guys weren’t in those sites. What do you say to someone who’s listening to us now who can’t get themselves, who can’t get their company into all those blogs?
Brian: When that happened, when our competitor was getting those links, we felt like, wow, we need to do the same thing in order to be successful. We need to also do that, because we could see, like I said, looking at Alexa graphs and stuff that estimate traffic that they were getting just tons of traffic And we thought, wow. We need to do that too. We need to get all these links. We tried. Of course at that point, since a very similar site had just posted on these sites, I could see that they then wouldn’t want to post another one. So we got nothing. We tried sending email to TechCrunch and Lifehacker and just everybody and most of the time didn’t get any reply.
So that again was discouraging because we thought, “We have a good product. Why won’t you tell anybody about this for us?” That was another case of it being very discouraging. But we said, “That’s okay. We’ll keep going. It’ll happen. Let’s just keep going.” A lot of people think that you get those links and you’re made and it does make you for a time I think. It doesn’t keep you going. That’s not a strategy. A strategy is I’m going to get on all the big sites, and then boom I’m going to retire. You can get those sites and that gets you some attention but you’ve got to keep working. For us, we just didn’t get the links but we kept working.
Andrew: And your site wasn’t a big hit immediately.
Brian: No. It just steadily grew. It’s very slow. It’s interesting if you look at the traffic graph that it starts off obviously at zero, and it’s just a nice gradual growth up, up, up to where it is now. But yeah, it definitely wasn’t any overnight sensation. A lot of sites come on and they just hit a nerve and everybody goes nuts and everybody links to it and everybody signs up and boom, they’re got instant traffic. Ours hasn’t been like that. It’s been very steady growth. I mean for us we just would always look at the previous month and say, “Did our last month do better than the one before? Yes, it did.” We had more traffic. Maybe it was only 200 more visitors but it was more. So that encouraged us to keep going, that it’s gradually growing. We read a lot of stuff about Google and aging sites. So the longer the site’s there, the more Google trusts it and you can climb in the rankings and stuff that way. So we just kept at it.
Andrew: Brian, if you saw that your revenues from month to month were going down, what could you do about it?
Brian: Yeah. That’s a good point. I don’t know what we would do. For us, revenue and traffic are completely linear. If the traffic goes down, our revenue goes down.
Andrew: What do you do to increase your traffic? It sounds like you guys just built this thing and it continues on its own. But you’re not playing with any levers to grow traffic are you?
Brian: No, no. We’re not. We had some ideas about things to do to get traffic. We’ve read some stuff about buying AdWords that specifically target your niche. So AdWords was one thing we had thought about, but AdWords you’ve got to spend money to make money. We know that. Everybody knows that. But we were just very hesitant. We weren’t sure if that was going to actually translate into revenue for us or sales. So AdWords was one thing we had thought about trying. We thought about contacting blogs and trying to get blogs to link to us because we know if Google sees lots of people linking to you, it increases Google’s trust of you and therefore you can rise in the Google rankings and stuff like that. And we did. We sent a few emails to some blogs and bloggers and stuff and got mixed results. We got a few links here and there but nothing fantastic.
And again the problem goes back to us not having a lot of time for marketing and advertising and stuff. We’re just two developers who really know how to write code and are learning as we go this other stuff. So we were hesitant to go into any marketing or mass link buying or link acquiring or whatever just because we weren’t sure about that. And we did a lot of research. In our spare time, when we’re not coding, we’re trying to find out information about what works and what doesn’t. And all along the site’s just going up and up and up. We’re very fortunate that we didn’t have to do that. Unfortunately, I can’t really tell you why we didn’t.
Andrew: What’s inspiring to me about hearing that is it shows that if you don’t know everything, you can still build a successful company. There’s so much we can do today and so many blogs and teachers who tell us about how to do SEO and about how to do design better and about how to improve topography. And it sometimes feels like, “Wow. There’s so much I don’t know. There’s so much other people have mastered and I haven’t’ mastered it. And unless I could do all that, I’m going to be a failure.” And what’s inspiring about your story is it shows you don’t have to know how to do all that. You don’t have to know how to do social media, you don’t have to know topography and SEO and all that stuff. Just need to know a little bit, and then you can learn the rest as you grow and you can get pretty far on what you know if you do it really well.
Brian: Totally. I have a college degree but it’s in computer science, it’s in programming. We’ve learned so much of business in the past two years it just blows my mind. It makes me think, wow, I wish I had gotten a business degree. But then I think, would that really have done anything for me? I don’t think it would have. Maybe I would know more about how to balance books or something, but I don’t know if that would have really translated to more success than what we’ve got now. And yeah, our original thought was we know how to code, so we’re going to run this business and 90% of the time we’re going to be dealing with code and 10% of the time we might be dealing with some other money or marketing or advertising or whatever. And once the site’s out there, it turns out it’s almost completely the opposite. It’s 90% business stuff and only 10% coding because of what we’ve got right now of the t-shirt search engine, it’s there and it works and we don’t really have to code a lot. But we’re dealing with merchants all the time and percentages and commission rates and dealing with the merchants saying, “Why aren’t my t-shirts first in the results? Why am I on the second page?” And just all kinds of business related stuff. But we’re learning as we go and it’s been fun. But rarely do I ever feel like wow, I’m just over my head. We just figure it out.
Andrew: Yeah. I think you learn so much more about business by doing business than you ever could just by reading about it or going to school to learn it. There’s nothing like actually having to figure it out because you’re the guy who’s responsible for figuring it out. You said in an email to me that you expected it would be 90% code and 10% business. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s now 90% business, 10% code. Do you ever feel like maybe you need to have a business person there? A business co-founder who handles all this BS stuff so you can spend 100% of your time developing the site? You’re nodding yeah.
Brian: Yes, yes. It’s one of those things we say. We haven’t limited time anyway. If it takes me [interference] some kind of non-coding business stuff, that’s half my night that I didn’t get to do other things. So yeah, we’ve struggled with that. “Wow, it would be nice to have somebody that really kind of knows what they’re doing in the business realm.” And even other things that aren’t coding that you have to do; keeping track of emails and stuff. We’ve thought maybe we should do this virtual assistant thing and have them help with emails or just all these different things. We actually did about a week ago we hired somebody to help us out with some of the writing, the email type tasks and stuff. So we’ll see how that goes but it’s one of those things. You have a business and nobody can do it as good as you. Even though we don’t know what we’re doing, how do you give up that trust? And there are so many people in the world that are out to screw with you and do you give anybody access to things and what are they going to do and are they going to take a Teenormous.com email address and email people and ask for money. There’s just all these things that how much control do you give up? But we’re at the point where we feel like we are ready to try to give up a little bit of control.
Andrew: The other thing we talked about, well, I guess we brought it up in this interview that the company wasn’t enormous right away. What I’m wondering is if it didn’t hit right away, if it took a little time, why didn’t you give up on it? Why didn’t you say, “This thing obviously isn’t a huge hit. We’ve got a competitor who seems to be doing phenomenal business. Why don’t we go try something else?” Why didn’t you decide that?
Brian: Within the first month of us launching, I want to say we made $100 and we were just flabbergasted. Obviously $100 isn’t a crazy amount of money, but for us it was really encouraging that in the first month we could make $100. As the months went by and the revenue just kept increasing, not by leaps and bounds, but it kept increasing, and we thought, “I wonder where this is going to stop. Is it going to stop at $200, or is it going to keep going?” So for us that was very encouraging despite the fact that somebody else might be doing something similar and making a ton of money. For us, again like I said, it’s probably hard to believe, but our goal wasn’t to become multi-millionaires. We just wanted to do it for fun, see what happens. And our big goal was, wow, if this could support us and our families, we would be totally happy. So it’s just the fact that it was making money within the first month. For us, that was a sign that wow this might work. So it was that that encouraged us.
Andrew: I see. I think even the founder of Fresh Books told me that when he didn’t have the big wins, he looked at the little wins to keep him going. It was how many people are using the program, if it wasn’t how much money are we bringing in because they weren’t bringing in a lot at the beginning. What about families? Are you guys both married? Do you have kids? What’s the situation?
Brian: We’re both married. I have one child and he has two.
Andrew: So how do you build . . . I just got married recently. Just being married takes up your time. I can imagine that on top of that having kids takes up even more time. Then you have a full-time job in addition to it. It takes up even more time.
Brian: Oh, yeah.
Andrew: Then you also need some time to yourself to just veg out. How do you do it?
Brian: It took us like a year and a half from when we first said, “Okay, let’s do this thing. Let’s make a site.” It took us a year and a half to get to the point where we could launch the initial version of it. And that was with, Tom had a baby, his wife had a baby during that time, so he took some leave for that. I’ve got my stuff. We were working on a good week 15 hours on the site. And in a bad week, we wouldn’t work on it at all. So we really had to force ourselves sometimes to work on it because yeah, there’s just so much other stuff. There’s family and, like you said, time to relax and stuff. But there just wasn’t that much time, so we kept plugging away. And I think one of the keys for us was that there was two of us. If it was just me, I probably would have thrown in the towel and said this is too much work or this is too hard or I can’t find time to do it. But because there was two of us, we could egg each other on. So if Tom managed to squeeze out ten hours of work one week, he wouldn’t rub it in my face. But I would feel bad. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I wasn’t able to do anything this week.” Then I say, “I’ve got to make that up.” We’re not keeping track of hours or anything, but it’s good to have somebody to kind of urge you on. So that kept us going. And he’d say, “Hey, Brian. Look what I did. I added in searching like this. Look how cool it is.” So I’d run [interference], “Oh, wow. That’s great. Let’s add this to it.” So we kind of just worked off each other. I can’t imagine doing this by myself. I just don’t think it would have ever happened. I’m amazed when I hear about people that do things like this by themselves. For me, I don’t think I could have done it.
Andrew: I see. So when you saw that he was working and you felt motivated to work too or you felt obligated to work to keep up with him, how would you get the job done? What I find is sometimes just taking my computer, going down, my building has a business center which is beautiful and completely disconnected from all the distractions, I get more done over there or I come here, I get an office even though I could work from home and that helps me. What were some of the techniques that you used?
Brian: My daughter would go to bed every night at 8:30. And my wife is one of those people that needs her sleep, so she would go to bed at 10:00 let’s say. And I’m a serious night owl. I used to stay up, of course when I was younger, I would stay up till all hours of the night. But I would have no problem staying up till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. So I would get going maybe at 10:30 here at home in the bonus room by myself. And if I really got going, getting stuff done, I wouldn’t have a problem staying up till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. And then other nights you get in there and you’re just not as motivated and do a little bit and then say, “Ah, I’m going to call it a night. It’s 11:30.” So I got half an hour of work done. Essentially. I was just working in the wee hours of the morning a lot of times. And I’ve to wake up at 7:30 to go to the day job. So some nights I’m getting four a half hours of sleep, but I’d try to make it up on the weekend and stuff. But now’s the time to do this. Let’s do it. We can sleep when we’re dead.
Andrew: Right on. Now’s the time to do it. Let’s do it. I love that. All right. This is an inspiring story. People keep asking to hear about stories like yours; about bootstrapped entrepreneurs who are building companies, who are doing what they love, who are fitting it in somehow with all the other obligations in their lives and making it work. I’m so lucky to have you do this interview. So first of all, thank you for that. And guys, thank you in the audience for pushing me to have interviews like this. I know why you want them, and I’d love to do more. Unfortunately, I can’t find guys like Brian. It’s hard. They’re out there, they’re working, they’re raising their families, they’re doing a lot, and it’s hard for me to find them. They’re not out where I can connect with them. So Brian, thanks for doing it. And by the way, we met because you listen to Mixergy interviews. How do you listen to them?
Brian: I was saying I’ve been listening to them either on the website. Most of the time I prefer to listen to the MP3s if you have them. A few of them you don’t have the MP3s.
Andrew: Really? I’ve got to get those up. I thought I had one for everything. I’ve got to make sure. Okay.
Brian: Maybe you did and I missed it. But then some other ones I’ll just . . . it’s in a browser, I’m at work, and they don’t like you to download stuff sometimes. So I’ll just pull up the page and hit play and minimize the browser and go about my business and just listen to it in the background. And then if I hear something, that you’re showing something or you guys are laughing or something, I might pull it up to see what’s going on. But it’s usually in the background.
Andrew: Cool. And what’s the benefit to you of watching or listening to these interviews?
Brian: You just never know when you’re going to hear something that really hits home with you. Somebody may talk about something and maybe the whole interview is interesting but it doesn’t really apply. And then they’ll say that one thing and you say, “Oh my goodness. I could do this with my site.” Or, “I could do this in my business. That’s a great idea.” It’s just you might hear something. And the stories are interesting too. A lot of times I’m like, “What can I get out of this for me? To make me better. To make my site better or my company better.”
Andrew: I know there are a lot of points like that in the interview. I know there are for me; I’m sure there are for the persons listening to us and I’ll tell you why. A couple of things. First of all, you have a great story. But there are a lot of people who I interview who have great stories who don’t tell it as well as you do. One of the reasons why this was an especially good interview is because you put work into it. You said, “I’m coming on Mixergy. I want to teach people based on my experience.” You did a pre-interview with me so we can talk it through a little bit. And then you did something that is just fantastic and I love you for doing it. You put together some points. You said, “Look, here are a few some big lessons I learned. Here are a few things that were challenging to me that now I’ve overcome.” You said, we talked about what happened when the business wasn’t big immediately. We talked about not getting links from sites like TechCrunch. We talked about better to launch early and paring down the features. These are all great, great ideas that you connected to your own experience so that it didn’t sound like it was just a cliché but it was connected to something. And it was only possible because of the time that you put into this interview. So thanks for doing the interview, number one. Thanks for being open with your information, number two. And thanks, most importantly, for putting in all this work behind the scenes. People may not know that you did it. I want to make sure that they’re aware of it. So thanks for all that.
Brian: I appreciate it.
Andrew: Guys, thank you all for listening. Please check out the website. Let me spell it again. Teenormous is T-E-E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S. And I know the transcribers are going to get it right for you, so you can always look at the transcript.
Brian: And we actually own all the other domains [interference] of it so hopefully if you get anywhere close you’ll get there.
Andrew: I love that. All right. And if you’re like Brian and you’re building a great company that no one knows about, I’d love to do an interview with you, especially if you’re a bootstrapper who’s working quietly, not talking at conferences, I want to know and I want to have people here to do an interview. Thank you all for watching and I’m looking forward to hearing from you guys. Bye.
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