How did focus help a designer create a profitable design shop?
John T. Meyer is the CEO and co-founder of Lemonly, a visual marketing firm that specializes in infographics, data viz and UI/UX design.
Lemonly did the one and only infographic that Mixergy ever used and I’m proud to have worked with them.
John Meyer, Lemonly
John T. Meyer is the CEO and co-founder of Lemonly which is a visual marketing firm that specializes in infographics, data viz and UI/UX design.
Andrew: Hello, freedom fighters! You know me; I’m Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of this here website and Internet property, Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And here at Mixergy, I have a problem where I have to say to every guest the exact same thing over and over again. Make sure that you don’t have anything funky behind you, make sure that you have a good Internet connection, all of that stuff, and I actually put together a list.
Today’s guest is looking over his shoulder; he’s got a nice background, for sure. I put together a list, and the list looked good, and I sent it to every single guest, and then I met today’s guest, who creates infographics. We started talking, and I said, “Do you think it would help to turn this into an infographic?” I think he looked at my list and said, “If you don’t want people to puke, you might want to make it look a little nicer”, and so he did.
His company, Lemon.ly, created an infographic for us, with all of the things we tell guests to prep them for an interview or, frankly, for being on a webcam anywhere. As I talked to him, I found out about how big his business is, how interesting his company is, and I said, “You’ve got to come here and do this interview. Tell the audience about your business and how you grew it”, and that’s what this interview is about. One of the things you’re going to see is how focus helped him build a successful design shop.
John T. Meyer is the co-founder of Lemon.ly, which is a visual marketing firm that specializes in infographics, data visualization, and UI/UX design. Before I say welcome to John, let me say thank you to Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law for sponsoring this program. He is the entrepreneur’s lawyer; you can check him out at WalkerCorporateLaw.com. Welcome, John.
John: Hey guys. Thanks for having me, Andrew.
Andrew: Thanks for being here. Do you have an example of an infographic you did that you’re especially proud of?
John: Sure. SO we’ve done, in about two years, a little over 300 infographics. I think my favorite one came in this past April of 2013; we partnered up with Major League Baseball and did an infographic for opening day. Opening day, ever since I was a little kid, has been one of my favorite days of the year. As a Minnesota Twins fan, it’s the one day where everyone’s in one place, hope springs eternal, and everyone’s really excited.
So it was really great because once, I was probably about 15 and realized I wasn’t going to play in Major League Baseball, but it was fun to go to work with them in a different capacity. One of our employees took a picture of me signing the contract for that proposal because I figured one day I could show my kids, which don’t exist right now but my Major League Baseball contract.
Andrew: I have all this list of questions that I want to ask you, including what your revenues are, including “Why infographics?” which I’m sure a lot of the people in the audience are wondering, “Aren’t we over infographics? What’s the use of them?” and I know you’ve got an interesting answer for all of that, but first.
I have a coach that teaches me to do a better interviews, and he says, “Don’t just jump into the revenue question. Take some time to get to know the guest, and let the audience get to know them, so that they care about the guest, and then ask those bigger questions.” So why don’t I start off by getting to know you, by getting to know your background. You said your dad is an orthodontist, and you said that influenced you?
John: Yeah, he still is, he’s still practicing at 60 years old. He’s been in his practice for over 25, over 27 years. When I was a kid, I didn’t think he was an entrepreneur, because he had to go to lots of years of school: Dental school, then orthodontist school. [inaudible] When I became an entrepreneur, I realized he really is, because he has employees, he has an office he has to take care of, he’s got to do payroll, he’s got to hire and fire and he’s got a client base; in his case they’re called patients, in my case they’re called clients, but it really is very entrepreneurial.
So sometimes when people ask, “Were you born with it? Or did you kind of develop it?” and I think I saw it every day, in front of me, but I maybe didn’t realize, at the time.
Andrew: As a kid, were you entrepreneurial, or were you more of the kind of kid who was into design?
John: More entrepreneurial than design, I would say. I always liked it, I could always like things that looked nice and were pretty; like the baseball card trading idea type, like “let’s get all of the guys together, and organize our games in the back yard, and how can we make this cooler or make the best yard games in the whole neighborhood?” I was always thinking about ideas and connecting people, which we didn’t get into, but that’s a really big strength that I have, but that’s really,
Andrew: What do you mean? Give me an example of how you did that, as a child.
John: As a child, I think, probably, I’m the third out of four kids. I have two older siblings and a younger brother. My mom always called us, it was the “big kids” and the “little boys”, because we have a sister, brother, and then two brothers, well, myself and a younger brother. So Paul and myself were always the younger brothers, as my mom always referred us to.
And so I think we were always good friends and kind of. . . Sometimes younger boys and girls, some in the back yard, some across the street, around the cul de sac. . . And so I always tried to organize things and just put people in touch, which is. . .This is pre-social media. We had to [??] grass roots, you now. Get [??] together. And so I like just connecting people and seeing what happens when that happens.
Andrew: For what? What kind of connections did you make?
John: As a child, or. . .
Andrew: Yeah. As a child. When you were still expressing the person you were going to be, when you were just playing, what kind of connections?
John: Well I liked seeing. . .Actually, that’s a really great question. Yeah. I just liked seeing kind of that serendipity that would sometimes happen. You know, I’m from South Dakota, and in South Dakota we always joke that we’re always two connections away from knowing everyone. It’s not even Kevin Bacon, like six degrees. We’re just two degrees because we’re small. There’s only about 800,000 of us. It’s a little state.
And so you start making those connections, and you kind of peel the onion back and you dig a little deeper. And that person knew this person or went to church with them, or someone went to a potluck with their Grandpa. You know, just random, random stuff.
And so I think I like that moment of. . .When we all talk to each other, I shouldn’t say we all, but a lot of people do the general, “Hi. How are you? What’s your name? I’m Andrew. I’m John.” And they shake. And just the basic pleasantries. But then when you finally make a connection, you see their eyes light up or their face changes. It’s different. And I really love those moments in life, I guess.
Andrew: Is the first business you built out of school, was it Motsus? Am I pronouncing that right?
John. Oh, Gosh. It was called Motsus.
Andrew: Motsus. Like matzo, the stuff people eat in Passover?
John: Doesn’t mean anything.
Andrew: Doesn’t mean anything.
John: It was just a made up word. I was 21 or 22, I think. I was sitting on an airplane. I think I still have that piece of paper in a notebook. I was just writing down. . .You know, at that time I was thinking so much about Google, and I kind of made up this word. I was in my dorm room my senior year of college. I started this little business that was kind a little bit of. . .I didn’t really know SEO, but search engine marketing and a little bit of kind of very beginning days of social media. I was just trying to help some small South Dakota businesses get noticed.
What was funny was I went home to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was going to school in Iowa. And I came home to small town, you know, 20,000 people, and where people know me, and they know my parents. And I had that, you know, neighborhood reputation we talked about. And I thought, “This is going to be easy. I’ll just go up to people, and they already trust me, and there’s credibility. And they’ll just say, ‘Yeah. We’ll pay you to help us get online.'” And actually, I found the exact opposite.
I found that they were so excited to see me, and they were very supportive that I was trying to become an entrepreneur. But they just remembered me as that little kid, like I was still just a teenager or even a boy. And I felt like actually the credibility thing became a little difficult. And I was selling online exposure and marketing before people really knew that it mattered. So that was interesting.
Andrew: I see. And so what about you? Did you feel uncomfortable talking to them about your business? Did that maybe keep you from expressing what you were trying to do fully?
John: I think I certainly had doubts about myself, and as soon as you. . .[??] That first started as a sales job, before I could even do the work. I was the one-man band. Once you start getting those no’s, and you start getting people asking some questions, you start to doubt yourself a little bit. And being that I hadn’t graduated yet, hadn’t had a real-world job, I definitely think I doubted. I think we might have made. . .when I say we, me, Motsus. . .maybe $150. So that was my first foray into entrepreneurship. And you can definitely call it a failure.
Andrew: Did it feel like it at the time, or was it one of those things where it just kind of trailed off?
John: Both, I think. You know, I treated it like a failure a little bit. I felt I could have done better, but then you know, I got a job right out of college. I got a great job, a corporate job. I’m coming out of college, and I kind of just let it fade. But I found that what it did do was it kind of fed my entrepreneurial bug, you know. Even if I was working on it after hours at work or on the weekends, and not making anything, I loved it still.
I really didn’t know it at the time, because from then it became. . .I blogged about the Minnesota Twins, was kind of how I got my creative juices going. I’d write blog posts and podcasts about the Twins. And so that’s what I was doing when I was working in corporate America. But now that I look back at Motsus until today, I always had something to kind of drive me, or something to feel what I really want to do.
Andrew: I was wondering, actually, the job that you got that’s a corporate job, very impressive, at Accenture.
Andrew: And I was wondering if maybe what happened with Motsus led you to go and get a job so that you can maybe get your footing back, get some confidence, learn about business, and then go and start it again. Am I reading too much into this little bit of information I have?
John: So my answer is going to be yes. I started Motsus the summer before my senior year of college. I worked with a local entrepreneur in [??] Iowa where I went to school, and so I kind of. . .I was an employee, making a very minimal hourly wage. So then when graduation day came, I had these two options. I could take the corporate job that my parents and everyone told me I should go for, or the entrepreneurial, just-go-for-it kind of job.
And I think maybe I was a little unsure at that time, at 22. And after kind of not doing so well with Motsus, I went to Accenture, and it didn’t last that long because I quickly learned it wasn’t for me. But I can confidently say it was worthwhile.
Andrew: Why, do you think?
John: I think I kind of learn how to kind of be myself but still kind of play the game that other people want you to play. You know, in corporate America it seems like there are these rules. You’re supposed to just kind of learn them and follow them. And I felt I was able to play their game but still be John Meyer and still kind of be myself. You know, at the end of the day when I finally left, I just felt like. . .
I worked at the [??] headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There were probably about 5,000 people that would go to work that every day. Maybe about 1,500 of them were Accenture. And I just started feeling like, “If I don’t show up today, no one will notice.” You know? I’m not like a key cog in this wheel, or I just don’t feel like I’m playing an important role. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to kind of control my own destiny. But I think it gave me that confidence that I. . .at that time, when I finally did, I was 23 when I left.
Andrew: I see. I went to take a job, I remember, in college. And I did it because I just couldn’t make entrepreneurship work, and I felt like there were just so many roadblocks in my way. And I thought, “I’ll do it like a failure.” But at least I can have a place to ease my mind and to stop worrying all the time about self-definition and about what’s working and what’s not working.
And it helped. It really, to be in an environment where I knew exactly what I needed to do to do a good job, and to know what I could do to exceed what everyone’s expecting and then get that instant reward. It gave me confidence again. And it gave me an understanding of business that I didn’t get otherwise. And then I was able to go and start a business.
John: Well, and I think you go to all these conferences that your entrepreneurs talk about passion all the time. Right? How it’s all about finding your passion. And I don’t disagree with that. Passion is huge. But you don’t sometimes know what your passion is until you know what your passion isn’t. And running a support email inbox and taking people through software support at a corporate level was not my passion.
Andrew: Is that what you did at Accenture?
John: Yeah. So Accenture wrote Best Buy some. . .I’m going to explain this kind of in layman’s terms. . .but basically some software that helped them do returns. They found at that you could buy a TV in North Dakota and then take it to Missouri and return it and maybe even make some money based on different state tax law and different little loopholes.
Andrew: You mean their customers found that out?
John: Customers did. Yeah.
Andrew: Yeah. I interviewed a customer who found that out, who did it over and over, actually. Who was it? It was Jeremy Shoemaker.
John: An entrepreneur did that?
Andrew: Yeah. OK. So you guys wrote software to prevent that?
John: Yeah. And I didn’t even write. You know, I didn’t even write it. It was already written by the time I got there. So what I would do is Store number 705 in Tampa would call and be like, “OK. I’ve got a TV that’s still within in warranty, but it is opened out of the box. Remind me, what do I do again?” I’d be like, “Okay. F1 and then. . .”
Andrew: Oh, I see.
John: Yeah. So. . .
Andrew: So that’s not exactly the kind of job that will really prep you for life, but it will tell you what you’re not ready to do.
John: Yeah, it will tell you that, and it will just . . .you know, you do get job because you’re a “good student.” You have a good GPA. You interview well. But then you feel like you’re using 10 percent of your brain capacity and not really thinking.
Andrew: All right. And then you went and started working with your brother.
Andrew: Why your brother?
John: Yeah. So that story goes, my brother was living, my older brother was living in Norway at the time. He was on a rotary scholarship in Norway. He went to grad school and ended up staying there. He was there for about four year. And he was home in South Dakota and found a little pamphlet at the local Chamber of Commerce, a pamphlet for a grant. South Dakota was giving a $15,000 grant for people who wanted to start technology-based businesses in South Dakota.
John: They were having a problem with a lot of brain drain, I guess. A lot of the talented young people leave the state, because if you grow up here usually [??] you want to get out of here, unfortunately. So, they were looking for people to start technology businesses which hopefully would scale, grow, and hire more people.
So Scott came to me. He was kind of living Visa by Visa about every six months, and Norway didn’t know what his next move was. He said, ‘We should go do this. We should go back to South Dakota and try to start a business.’ It was just a perfect storm. I was kind of sick of Accenture. My dad told me I should make it 12 months. I made it 11. Then I quit, and we came back to South Dakota and started 9 Clouds.
Andrew: I see one of the first versions of your site, here.
John: … [??] …
Andrew: It looks beautiful. Who designed it? Usually if I look back, it’s embarrassing, and the person gives the reaction you just gave me. But I don’t think in your case it’s earned.
John: I don’t know which one you found. You probably didn’t find the original, which was like a Tumblr blog that we made in five minutes.
Andrew: Is that was the first one was? No, I’m actually looking at 9Clouds.com back in the day.
Andrew: Back when there’s a link at the top that says speaking…
Andrew: … and there’s a photo of the two of you, and it says, ‘Scott and John are dynamic speakers that showcase and teach the power and potential of online technology through humor, practical examples, and brotherly banter.’
Andrew: Why speaking, by the way?
John: So, what happened in South Dakota is we started in 2009, and we [??] more [??] that’s too much credit. [??] really, and now we were like there’s two of us instead of one of us. We wanted to help people get online, and now by 2009 compared to 2007 or so when I started [??] social media was really kicking off. So, we have Twitter and Facebook, and blogging was well- cemented.
Andrew: And Flickr, and WordPress.
John: Yeah. We had everything. Well, the start of everything that we know now. We felt that … we realized really quickly we could not sell until we educated. So, [??] South Dakota business or a mom and pop shop to say, ‘Hey, we should get you online. You know, your customers might be looking for you today online in 2009. It’s possible.’
They were like, “What? What do you mean online looking for us?” You know, the internet. So, we had to do a lot of teaching. [??] somebody said we’ll take any Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce, and we’ll just come speak. We enjoyed doing it. We kind of [??] the brotherly banter, I guess, and we called ourselves the bro-founders of 9Clouds. Brothers and co-founders. So, that was the way we got our name out.
Andrew: And that was the top of your final … and then you’d get people to buy web design work from you. Is that right?
John: So, 9Clouds now is very … it kind of started there, but it’s very inbound marketing. So, think of like [??]. Creating content to fill that top of the funnel, and then using the data to drive them down the funnel to purchase.
John: … [??] … [??] Facebook friends, Twitter followers, website traffic is all great, but the business is [??] dollar signs. How do we get them from A to B?
Andrew: I see. What about digsandbox.com [SP], what was that?
John: Okay. [??] you do good research.
John: We’ve got a lot of skeletons in our closet. So, that was our attempt to … it was kind of like Treehouse or SkillShare before those [??] do way better than ours. It was just an online learning platform, a lot of videos and some blogs. We were trying to do like [??] package up what we did at 9 Clouds into a product. You know, a subscription product for 27 bucks a month.
Andrew: Why didn’t that work? I’m obviously very interested in that model. Mixergy follows that model. I see others with that model. I want to learn from when it works, and also from times that it doesn’t. Why didn’t it work for you?
John: I think, and this is [??] about your model, but you have [??] the audience. You created the eyeballs [??] by putting in all the hard work through all the interviews. Then, when you added that course it was just another set-up, whereas I think with DigSandBox we tried to go right to purchase before we even had maybe all the trust and all the social capital from these customers. So, we were …
Andrew: I see.
John: [??] doing 9Clouds, but I think we made a little bit of an error, too, in branding it. Something different. We were thinking national that this was going to be something across the country that people would subscribe to. But at that time, our roots and our exposure was really kind of regional, and we try to do a lot of different things. We tried to go after Mom and Pop on Main Street, but also universities.
We thought if we go get a university to sign up for this, like Marketing 101, we can get 30, 40 subscriptions at a time. You know, a whole class would sign up for it. And that was a whole other level of complexity. The university didn’t want the students to have to use their credit card, or you know, just the purchasing experience alone was a mess.
Andrew: You know, John, I just finished reading the book “How to Twitter, ” and there’s a section in there about how Ed Williams started a design, I think t was a design company. But he was so distracted by all kinds of other projects that he eventually had to close down his design company. Were you at one period in your life distracted by lots of different ideas? Would you say that? Am I drawing the same conclusion properly? I am.
John: I would say was, am, and probably will be, unfortunately. And I’m trying to get better. And that’s, I guess if we take the next step in the story, two years into 9Clouds, one of our first employees was a designer, and we did a couple of infographics thinking that maybe that piece of content would help our client. And we guessed right. The analytics were off the charts up to right, and we saw just the power of what an infographic could do. And I said, “OK. This is interesting.”
And this is in 2011 when if you do Google search trends and type in the word “infographic,” the launch of Lemon.ly is right at the birth of kind of the curve of the word “infographic” online. I’m not taking credit for it, just coincidence, but I think that. . . So then what we did is we spun that off. So let’s just do infographics all the time. And so Scott went and took 9Clouds, and I took Lemon.ly, and then it took off. And. . .
Andrew: And that’s the interesting part about the story, that for a duo that would pursue different ideas including this sandbox idea where you were teaching, including. . .Gee, I don’t see that many, but you did have different ideas that you were pursuing. You just suddenly decided this is so special that even though it’s related to 9Clouds, I’m going to spin it off into its own business and concentrate on infographics. Why? Why that idea, separate?
John: Well the first lesson, I think, I never wanted 9Clouds or Lemon.ly to be one of those companies that, you know, you go to the Services page and it’s just a vomit of bullet points. You know, we do, SEO, SEM, video marketing, website design. . .
Andrew: I know what you mean. I’ve seen those companies. Yeah.
John:. Yeah. And I just think if you say you do everything, you probably do nothing very well. And so that was the first thing. I was like, “We’re not going to say that 9Clouds does infographics.” Because one of the biggest problems we already had was, “Nine Clouds. Oh, I’ve heard of you guys. What do you do again?” And that was just a constant uphill battle to answer that question, partly because of the education piece, and partly because maybe we didn’t know ourselves.
We thought we did, but we were trying to do whatever the person needed who would give us the next check, you know what I mean? And I think with Lemon.ly I was like, “This is interesting. I’m seeing these infographics popping up here and there. I think we’re pretty good at them. Let’s just try to go at this all out.”
Andrew: Is your brother still doing 9Clouds?
John: He is. Yeah. And both of the companies still work under one roof. We share an office, and I guess you could kind of say we’re advisers to each other’s companies.
Andrew: But it’s separate ownership now.
Andrew: I see.
John: Yeah. Separate entities, and there’s a little bit of ownership in each one, kind for their adviser role. We both want the best for each other, but I think it was good for our brotherly relationship. It was good for our co-founder relationship.
Andrew: That’s the other thing I was wondering. Maybe one of the reasons why you guys decided to split is that you had this area that you wanted to concentrate on and have your own business, and this became a natural place to split.
John: I think you’re right. Yeah. You know, we’re the two middle brothers of four. We were competitive. We have a lot of pride in our work. He moved to [??] where we’re originally from. I’m here in Sioux Falls. He got married at the time. And it was just like, it seemed like the right time to maybe say, “Let’s both be CEOs, and encourage each other.”
Andrew: I see. But through that you ended up with what, I’m guessing in retrospect, was a good decision, which was to say, “We are going to focus on taking data and making it more pleasing and therefore more accessible. We’re going to do infographics and products like that.”
Andrew: So because of that, you ended up with something better. By the way, what is NineCloudsAcademy.com?
John: So we didn’t completely kill what was the big sandbox. So Nine Clouds Academy is kind of a variation on that.
John: But now we realize, you know, kind of like I said, I think we tried to re-brand the sandbox as national brand, but people in the Midwest here do know 9Clouds. So, 9Clouds Academy … and we did the same thing. Let’s keep cutting those [??] points to what our service offerings are. So, if you can’t afford the inbound marketing package, which is a couple-thousand bucks with like a six-month commitment per month, then you can just join the academy for 27 bucks a month. We were trying to nurture those …
Andrew: Twenty-seven bucks a month, and then we’ll teach you how to do it yourself.
Andrew: Got it.
John: That’s the [??] and then 9Clouds will do it for you.
Andrew: I see. So, even though you still are the kind of person who has lots of ideas and pursues them, one of the things you’ve decided to do is separate those ideas into their own entities. Sometimes it means a separate business, other times it means just a different brand name.
John: [??] and I think it also goes back to maybe the childhood part. I’ve now realized, OK. You’ve had a lot of good ideas, and a lot of bad ones, too, but you can’t actually feed them all. But maybe if you find the right people and put them in place [??] and so I think I’ve realized now as we’ve grown, because it was just Scott and I, and now we’re 12 at Lemon.ly and 4 at 9Clouds.
You’ve got to start empowering others and let them kind of do what they’re good at, and give them the reins of control. I think that’s kind of part of [??] you hit it on the nail. Starting these things and letting people excel in what they’re best at.
Andrew: All right, so now you have your own business on its own. It has to survive on its own. You know how to design this stuff because you’ve been doing it through 9 Clouds, but you need customers.
Andrew: Where’d you get your first customer?
John: Our first customer actually … I was on Facebook, and Adam Hofmann, who still works for this start-up called Zaarly, posted on Facebook there was a conference down in Omaha called Big Omaha, which is [??] one of our big conferences here in the Midwest. He said, “I need someone to make a T- shirt design in like 48 hours.” [??] on Facebook I said, “Yeah. We got it. Let us help.”
So, he emailed me and we all of a sudden turned out some T-shirt designs with some little place cards, like [??] cards, and stickers, which were actually printed in Omaha. We then left Sioux Falls and picked them up when we got down there.
Andrew: This was your first customer at Lemon.ly?
John: This was technically the first Lemon.ly customer, yeah.
Andrew: Here you were with a design shop that was going to focus on infographics, and the first thing you take was a T-shirt. Was it … why did you do that?
John: [??] totally saw right through me. [??]
Andrew: I’m wondering why, and by the way I’m just trying to understand. I know that businesses are never exactly like the case studies that you’re supposed to study in school where they teach you exactly how to do things. It’s not anything like the business books. That’s one of the reasons why I started Mixergy. I want to understand the reality of it. So, why did the first company that you worked with … why was the first product a T-shirt?
John: I saw a lot of potential with Zaarly. You can say what you think maybe about Zaarly now, but at that time they had a lot of hype. They hadn’t even launched yet, and they came out Startup Weekend. I thought this could be a potential client, and also the people that work here are people that could be referral sources to other clients.
So what actually ended up happening is that T-shirt became an infographic for Zaarly when they had their first million dollars in transactions on the platform. That infographic got on TechCrunch.
John: And the snowball started. It started very small, but that’s kind of how it started.
Andrew: Did you get customers from being on TechCrunch?
John: I believe we did. Some I was able to track a little bit clearer than others. But yeah, we did. Then, we [??] Mashable. We did an infographic for Boomerang, the little Gmail plugin.
John: [??] on Mashable, and [??] tell the [??] TechCrunch kind of the bump in the [??] and the leads. Then we started getting better at converting these leads and telling the story on what was the power of an infographic. Then, like I said, it just started to go.
Andrew: I’m looking at the Zaarly infographic. It’s called ‘Across Z- Nation.’ Beautiful design here on TechCrunch. I don’t see Lemon.ly anywhere on here. How did people know that Lemon.ly was the designer of it?
John: Yeah, so that’s an interesting point. Some of our graphics do say created by Lemon.ly, and others don’t. I think it goes back to that really quick, fast response and delivering exactly what Adam needed, which was a T- shirt. But we [??] lucky and blessed to have a lot of word-of-mouth. People like our clients are really good to us, and I think we’re really good to them.
They tell people, and I don’t think … they don’t just say, “Oh, you need an infographic? Just find a designer on [??]. . . my designs are. . .I know a person who graduated with a design major.” They say, “Well I know a company that just specializes in infographics.”
Andrew: I see. So it wasn’t so much people going from this website, TechCrunch, clicking over to your site, and potentially buying. It was them going to Adam and other people at [??] and saying, “I really like your infographic. Who did that?” And then the recommendation comes in.
John: Yeah. It may have been a Twitter mention or something like that, like a shout-out. But no, it wasn’t right away. It wasn’t a direct link.
Andrew: I see.
John: [?/] at Mashable, we did have a link that time, and obviously it made a difference. We definitely noticed the difference.
Andrew: What did you do to start turning those eyeballs into potential customers? You said you started to get better at it.
John: Yeah. I realized. . .so our philosophy is that everything we try to design, we try to design with the story in mind. So we really focus on the narrative when we talk about infographics. So even the top. . .well, I can’t remember how tips we’ve got in our Mixergy one about how to not suck and how not to look ugly on camera. But we kind of flow it as a story, you know, and really say, “Okay. What’s the problem?”
People look bad on webcams. And how do we tell a narrative with that? I recognized it’s the same thing when we sell it. And you know, when I speak I always like to say, “Sell your story, don’t. . .” Or no, sorry, I screwed up. “Tell your story. Don’t sell it.”
Andrew: Tell your story. Don’t sell it.
John: I think maybe it’s that people part of the business, which I’m just convinced that’s how it all works, is relationships and people. And we tell a story. . .
Andrew: What do you mean? How did that play out? Sorry. I was just asking the question as you were answering it.
Andrew: So, yeah. How do you tell it?
John: Yeah. So you’re on a phone call or an email, and I tell people. . .I walk them through this, the power of an infographic. So I say, “You know, humans are very visual creatures. You know, our brain processes images 60,000 times faster than plain text. You know, with visuals we remember things. It’s just like the reason you can remember people’s face but not their name when you go to a conference. ‘Oh, you look familiar. I can’t remember your name.’ You know, that’s okay. That’s how we’re wired. It’s not just you.”
So you know, we kind of set the tone around the power of visuals, and we kind of explain that infographics are a great way to not only have comprehension and understanding, but they’re also very compelling. They jump off the page. Social media is a great platform to share it. Pinterest and Facebook are very visual. People will tweet this stuff because they want to share it with their friends.
And then we go on to explain the different type of infographics. You have what we call brand infographic and an editorial infographic. So brand infographic is a visual press release. It might look heavily Mixergy or like [??] when they were announcing. . .
Andrew: This one is very. . .I’m going through it. I don’t know how TechCrunch even published it, because. . .not how they published it, but it’s just all about how great Zaarly is and random facts about Zaarly. But I guess the reason is it would make news on its own if Zaarly crossed a million dollars in jobs posted in just under a month. So that’s news. Right? That a company from nowhere suddenly has a. . .Sorry?
John: For context, that’s what the story was about.
Andrew: Right. And so they could either tell that story on its own or tell it with an infographic. And so I could see how they would put it on there. So that’s what you mean by a press release type. . .
John: It’s a brand [??]. You know, they tend to be a little less shareable or “viral,” to use the overused word. But you know, Apple will get people to share a commercial or an ad. It doesn’t matter what. . .You know, they’re obviously the extreme. The other graphic would be what we call an editorial. So that’s based on a survey, based on data research, based on a top ten list.
Like in our case, sure it says Mixergy and Lemon.ly at the bottom of that graphic, but we can say that data’s based on what? Your 900 interviews with entrepreneurs?
John: So you know, that’s more. . .Yeah. It’s telling an editorial look at how not to look ugly on. . .So, yeah, that’s maybe more soft data, as we say.
Andrew: I get the distinction between them. I get how something like that would be more likely to spread, you know. But I’m still not sure how you’re selling it in the early days. When someone sees one of your infographics on Mashable, how do you close that sale?
John: Sure. Well I think the portfolio is huge, like any design company. We had to put out the best work we could. And Amy, the co-founder and I are a good team that way. We’re . . .I really run the business end and get the clients and manage the team. And she makes sure that everything kind of comes out of our doors or our email inboxes looks really good. So I definitely stand behind our work. I think that having that portfolio right away . . .So we did a couple for free. We did one for the local newspaper down the block here for $300.
John: Which was in the [??] that actually got printed, like a printed infographic. That was one of our very first ones. I think we had to have that portfolio, too, so we were willing to do whatever work we could at the beginning.
Andrew: Okay. So, because infographics spread and you did some free ones for the paper and other well-known brands, your logo got to spread along with the infographics, and then you got some inbound calls.
Andrew: I see.
John: … [??] …
Andrew: First year, do you remember what your … mm-hmm?
John: We got lucky where it started to become a buzzword, too. I know some people think, like you said, kind of a lucrative [??] you know [??] infographics kind of gone by now? Aren’t they passe? Some people are calling us just knowing they wanted an infographic, even if they didn’t know why. I’m not saying that’s a good reason [??] wait a minute, wait.
Let’s talk about why you want one, or what’s it going to [??] most importantly [??] any agency [??] would ask what’s the goal of this infographic. We had people theoretically knocking our doors down just wanting something, because maybe their boss told them that they should [??] or they saw an infographic.
Andrew: I do remember those days. Infographics were so big that blogs about infographics would be featured on Hacker News on a regular basis. Today, I don’t know that they allow stuff like that on there, but back then it was so exciting.
Andrew: See, and you tapped into that. Was it luck or was it this … you weren’t studying the market, were you? Saying, “Infographics are the future. We have to get into that.”
John: Yeah, I think it was luck. I think we got lucky. I’m convinced when you put yourself in situations you can create a certain amount of luck. I started going to conferences and meeting great people, like yourself, and getting to do an infographic with Mixergy.
Building those relationships, jumping on a Facebook post to say, “Yeah, we’ll make you a T-shirt” because now you trust us. There’s another maybe six or seven [??] six infographics or so out there that we [??] Zaarly, and Zaarly led us to other clients. I really think it was luck, but I think we created some of that luck.
Andrew: What was your revenue the first year? Do you remember?
John: Let’s see. We would have launched that in August of 2011. Maybe a hundred-thousand from August to December.
Andrew: A hundred-thousand. Was that enough for you to live on?
John: Yeah. It was just two of us at the time. It was Amy and I. We started doing a little 9 Clouds work, but my goal was to get us as quickly as possible to cut the tie, just so we could really focus on Lemon.ly.
Andrew: Yeah. I see. Then, the second year. Do you remember where that was?
John: I bet 2012 probably about 350 or 400.
Andrew: OK. Wow.
Andrew: Now, I know your prices. You’re not charging that much. How many sales do you have to make to get to that level of 300 or 400-thousand?
John: [??] I think we’re on the upper end of the market, I suppose. We’re not the most expensive. We do an infographic for about $4000 today, and so you can divide that pretty easy math.
Andrew: At $4000, we’re talking about over a hundred clients.
John: [??] a hundred … that first year we actually, and this is [??], but we made an infographic annual report about our 2012, and we were [??] here in 2013. We actually broke down all the colors we use, like what color we use the most.
John: We made pie charts versus bar graphs versus kind of spatial analysis [??] our tendencies lie, like how can we get smart and stay creative? [??] 145 graphics in 2012.
John: Not 145 separate clients, so I mean …
Andrew: But it’s that many infographics.
John: Yeah. When asked how we sell and how we grow, it became an agency model where you had to have [??] clients, and also some retainers. Marriott is one of our biggest clients, and we’ve done I know 40 or 50 infographics for them.
Andrew: How did you get Marriott as a client?
John: They just filled out our form one day, our internet form, in late 2012. We later learned that actually we did an infographic for them about New York, and probably our biggest competitor did one for them about San Francisco. We didn’t learn that until later until we saw that Marriott graphic come out, and we realized who did it. So, we were totally having a [??] competition, like an open competition. Thankfully, we won that business.
Andrew: [laughs] One of the things that I remember when I did interviews with entrepreneurs who had Facebook apps and tools that created Facebook pages was they would grow really fast, because on the bottom of all their apps and pages they would have a link back to their site.
And because those pages naturally spread, then their company naturally spread and they got more traffic from it, and it seems like a simpler model. If you can create a model where your logo is on the product and the product is naturally viral then you’re going to get out there and Marriott will see you and hopefully others will, too.
John: It is a little of a domino thing, too. We have [??] and we have Planters Nuts [??].
Andrew: Sales force, yeah. I see a long list here.
John: So you see, Marriott might have been the fight stop and then show them we can play with the big boys. We can go to some big branch and go to the boss and say, “We [??]. So I think you need to be kind of need that social capital and once you get that credibility people see it’s a big deal to be on Mixergy and I believe that to interview you.
Andrew: I did a post where I said you were with an infographic with us. Did you get any customers from that?
John: We had two calls already. We asked them how they found out about us. Sometimes they just say the Internet which is always a little hard to check.
John: But two of them were from Mixergy.
John: I should have said I don’t know the status of that, but…
Andrew: Those two are. Thanks for remembering Mixergy.
John: Yes. Thanks for you, too.
Andrew: I asked you about how you set up your company. I asked you why you did it this way. I asked about how you got customers. In a moment I want to find out how you created on command because frankly that’s really hard, so how you keep creating, but let me quickly…
Let me spend some time here. Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. I keep holding up his mug, but there may be a better way to do it is to do this. There he is. There’s his site. One of the things that I like about Scott is that he has a package that helps new entrepreneurs get started. He sets up their company for them, and then he’s there for them as they have their major business life events, like selling, like raising money, and so on, Walker Corporate Law.
I saw a lot of nice things about him, but look at all of these people and so many others on WalkerCorporateLaw.com who have said that they use him, that they like him, and that they vouch for him. Check out WalkerCorporateLaw.com. Hey, how did you set up your company as a LLC or a C-corp?
Andrew: Me too. Do you remember why you chose that?
John: Someone said it was a good idea, but that seemed to make sense for us and yeah.
Andrew: I wish I could remember the reasons why I set up an LLC, but it was totally a decision on my account. They made it sound ridiculous not to. I thought about the different angles, and it made sense but I can’t remember.
John: Yeah. Me, same thing. Someone more [??] told me the same idea.
Andrew: I will tell you that I’m really not one for all of these details about companies. I don’t need business cards right away. I don’t need an office right away. One of the things I’m obsessed with is if I have an idea or I’m going to pursue something it’s going to be incorporated or LLC’d, somehow structured properly so that I’m protected financially that if someone slips and falls in my office or any issue it doesn’t come back to me personally. I like to be protected.
John: Did someone explain how if anyone has an LLC [??] with an LLC you are protected. I want that.
Andrew: Right. If you’re willing to pay a few bucks to say to the state and to the country and the world that the business is separate entity from you, you get some benefits from it, like protection…
Andrew:…protection from predators and so on. Anyway, thank you, Scott, Scott Edward Walker. Alright. Being creative is hard enough if you have to design a web page. If you have to then create a product for someone else designed to be passed by yet another group of people, that’s really tough.
And then if you have to do it over a hundred times a year my imagination is from a distance that you, John, must have a process for going and creating this so that you can be sure your people can create it on time. Do you?
John: Yes. We use our equipment very carefully in how we make our Infographics. We start with the data. Then we say it starts with the data. [??] quantitatively lots of numbers. In the case of Mixergy one it can be qualitative information, too, but we take the data and then what we do is we make a [??] and a wire frame. [??] These are the colors, the fonts, the styles.
We really let the creativity time kind of run wild. We’d go to dribbble.com and grab little snapshots that we like. Or we might just go online and search for inspiration, and drop all of our ideas into a document. The wire frame, people who work online know what a wire frame is: Just a blueprint of the graphics. No design or style, it’s just gray scale.
Andrew: So first, I’m sorry to-… Actually, I’m not going to interrupt. I’m going to write it down, and then I’m going to ask you to break down this whole process. So sorry, you were saying, what was the next step?
John: With a wire frame, we show it to the client, and that’s kind of the way we can kind of start to scope the graphic. You can see kind of what it will look like; it doesn’t look like a fancy infographic, but you can kind of see “This is the order, and these are the colors and the look and feel”. Then when it’s good to go approved, we move into the design phase. That’s really where the designers have to get really creative.
And to your point: There’s a couple of things in place, I think, that try to keep creativity going. Because you’re right; like this year, we’re going to do 300 infographics. That’s a lot. We don’t want to be a factory; we’re just a small team of 12. So one thing we do is we have a weekly creative meeting. All of the creators get together and have to show their work. They have to present something, and they have to be willing to kind of get picked apart by the rest of the team.
People will kind of ask them questions, and challenge them a little bit, and give feedback. I think it’s a small team, and we’ve still be able to keep that culture treatment as we’ve grown from two in 2012 to 12 now. The other thing we do is we have a little thing we do every month called “My Little Projects”, and you have to present something on the last Friday of the month that’s completely unrelated to client work. So one of our employees ran, I think, three half-marathons this summer.
So she did an infographic about the “Rise of the Half-Marathon in America”, how it’s become that most popular race, or it’s grown the most. They sometimes become, when we talk about how do we market and how do we get clients, our most popular graphics. Like one of our most popular today is still “Pop-culture-inspired Halloween Costumes”.
So someone was trying to think of what they wanted to wear for Halloween, so they made an infographic about it, and it kind of went viral. One of our people, I think this is an interesting story, is a huge fan of Douglas Adams, the writer of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I didn’t know this but there’s a day in May called “Towel Day”, on May 25th, which is a shout-out to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Douglas Adams.
That one just went nuts, with a really specific audience, but people who can look and, maybe the science and kind of geeky people, and it did really well, and that was something I never would have thought to do an infographic about “Towel Day”, but that brought us clients as well. So I think that’s important, too; let them stretch their creativity so that every graphic feels new and fresh.
Andrew: Hey John, did someone copy your pop-culture infographic?
John: We have done three years of it now, so maybe you’ve seen a 2013 version.
Andrew: Is that an issue where one of your infographics does well, and then another company will copy it?
John: Not directly; we certainly try to keep tabs on what we see enough, so we’re doing hopefully innovative things, but I guess we’re not really worried about it too much. What has happened, since 2011, when it was just an infographic tweet that you read, I think that the bar has been risen a little bit. I haven’t seen as many infographics, but I think they’ve been getting better. At least, I hope they are.
Andrew: Let me drill down a little bit more into how you design. You start off with data. You intentionally ask your customer to send over as much data as possible?
John: If needed, we can do some research for them; it’s sort of an add-on service we have. But often it’s their own data.
Andrew: And how do you know what’s useful? By the way, the reason I’m kind of spending a lot of time on this, do you have a few more minutes?
John: You bet.
Andrew: Okay. The reason I’m spending a lot of time on this is: I’ve worked with web designers in the past. It’s a very unstructured relationship. They ask me a few questions like, “What sites do you like? What sites don’t you like? What colors do you like, etc.? What are you trying to do?” If they’re structured, they’ll ask me that many questions. Usually, it won’t even be that.
Andrew: And then we go back and forth, where they design something, and I don’t know how to express to them why it’s not right. So we just kind of stalled, and I worked with a lot of designers that way. You guys clearly have a process that’s designed to move me forward and get you what you need and to produce. And so, I want to really break it down. Data is one: Do you ever feel overwhelmed with data? Is there a way you deal with the data to make sure it’s usable?
John: So the first thing which I kind of skipped, when we’re getting that data ready, we’re going to send you what we call our “Getting Started Questions”, and we try to keep it simple, you know, we try to think back to high school or college when you wrote that research paper and your teacher asked you, ‘What’s the thesis?’ We say, ‘What’s the thesis of your graphic? Why are you doing this? What’s the goal? What do you want someone to understand when they finish?’
In this case, for Mixergy, how will it look good on a webcam? Those are the three main points. [??] more data than that, or more facts that you want to include. It’s not just three pieces of data.
Andrew: So, it’s a questionnaire to make sure that you get the data that you need. That, I’m assuming, just evolves over time. You find that you wish you asked a question of a client earlier in the process, and you go back to the document and you add it.
Andrew: You find that one question gave you the wrong information, and maybe you discover it a week into the relationship. You go back and you change it for the next client.
John: Exactly right.
Andrew: I see.
John: [??] a lot of people would, at the end, say, “Oh, can we print this?” And we’d say, “Oh, gosh. We can, but it’s a little bit of extra work for us, because we didn’t know that. So, we ask up front, “Do you plan on printing this infographic?”
Andrew: Got it. Got it.
John: The form is continually being refined.
Andrew: I see. Do you see that other design firms do this?
John: I think a lot of the questions that I see are, like you said, a little bit hard to answer sometimes. [??] where we ask, ‘Do you want to be perceived as confident and [??], or do you want to be fun and playful?’ Like the voice and the tone.
Andrew: … [??] …
John: Sometimes those questions are hard to answer.
Andrew: Okay. And the mood board comes from just looking online and getting a sense of the colors that look right by doing, I guess, a search for … for what?
John: Yeah. That’s really where the hard part comes in, where the designer has to be an artist and feel like what’s the best [??] to represent this point. Sometimes the mood board gets circumvented by brand guidelines. So, if we’re talking about a brand infographic, and if we’re talking about PepsiCo, it’s going to have this font and it’s going to have these colors. So, sometimes that part gets skipped.
Andrew: Okay. What about the wire frame? To take data and come up with something creative to do with it, it’s pretty hard unless … do you have a structured way of doing it?
John: Generally, when you think of infographics on the web, you think of probably that long and narrow JPEG or PDF.
John: The main reason for this is so that other people can share them. [??] times the goal of an infographic is eyeballs, and the average blog width … we design them at a wider pixel width, but we often give them back at about 650 pixels, which is the average blog width. [??] is born on Mixergy.com, but Mashable decides to pick it up, we want it to look good on Mashable, too.
Andrew: Got it.
John: That’s why the average one kind of has that look and feel [??] header, maybe sometimes a little bit of copy to kind of set the tone of what this is about. But, no. We don’t follow a template or anything for the wire frame. I say to our clients, ‘We’re really good designers at Lemon.ly, but we’re also good editors.’ We’re going to go through, get the red pen, and say, ‘This doesn’t fit your story,’ or, ‘This doesn’t add any value.’
Andrew: Okay. All right. Let me see what else I want to ask. Maybe now is the time to ask what kind of revenues are you guys doing now?
John: Our team grew about [??] I guess in 2012, and from when we went from 4 to 12. Our revenue did about the same. It’s going to be over the million mark probably this year. I think what you’re seeing now is we’re starting to see infographics evolve. We’re starting to do motion and animation graphics [??] animator on our team, and also interactive ones.
We’re working on responsive, and how does this look good on your phone and your tablet. What’s the evolution of infographics? [??] going to stay in that niche of infographics, but we’re going to be, I guess [??] what infographics look like.
Andrew: I see. I know what you’re talking about. Some infographics just are tough to look at on a phone, and when you talk about motion, I think I get a sense of it when I go to your website to Lemon.ly. Do you own Lemon.ly.com, too, and Lemon.ly?
John: Actually, we would now direct you to Lemonly.com. We own that and are kind of in the process of doing all the redirects and SEO and … [??] …
Andrew: Ah, I see. I was wondering why there’s no traffic data for Lemon.ly, but there is for Lemonly.com. I thought maybe you got it already.
John: That was a recent change this fall. It’s funny how a .ly, just because I kind of like the name, I own the domain, and I thought it sounded fun, has now become our brand. Now, Lemon.ly.com is our brand and Lemon.ly is our name.
Andrew: Do you ever feel like maybe you should move out to a bigger city? Maybe come here to San Francisco?
John: That’s a good question. San Francisco is definitely the place I’d want to [??], or Seattle, somewhere in the upper Northwest. We have long, cold winters here in South Dakota, and I always wondered can you build a great company here in Sioux falls, South Dakota? Now I know you can. I know the talent is on par, and I just think the volume of talent is a little bit more difficult. We’ve got great people, just not as many, which will reflect, you know, it’s just math.
You know, we don’t have as many people in the state, so we’re not going to have as many great designers. Right now I get my fix by going to conferences and going to meet clients and do things like that. So I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I got married about 40 days ago. So I [??] my wedding ring. I’m still bumping into things.
John: My wife is a local news anchor here in Sioux Falls. So right now our life is pretty good here. So we’ll see. We’ll see.
Andrew: You know, one more thing. I actually meant to end it at that question, but I’ve got to ask you about this. You have said in the past that you get scared about once a week that you have no idea how to run a company. You told this to Ideamage.
Andrew: How do you deal with that? I like that you’re open about that. I get scared sometimes once a night.
John: Yeah. You know, you’ve just got to keep going. I think the best thing that Scott did provide, my brother, when we started was time with that co- founder, where now it’s Amy my co-founder at Lemon.ly to just keep you level headed. I think making sure, you know, when you sign Major League Baseball as a contract, or you get to be on Mixergy, the highs aren’t too high. And when you lose a client or an employee is moving onto a new opportunity, that the lows aren’t too low.
You know, I think you just have to kind of ride the roller coaster and enjoy it. Certainly stop and pause and look back and say, you know, we were two and now we’re twelve. And you’ve just got to trust in yourself. You know, I think I failed at Motsus, and I ended up okay. You know, I didn’t have too many battle wounds.
I think the more interesting question to me is, is this what I’m going to do forever? I think about that a lot. You know, I think I’m 28 years old, and so to say I’ll be doing Lemon.ly when I’m 50 is probably unlikely, but I have no idea what the future holds.
Andrew: Yeah. Well I hope you’ll come back and do more interviews as you keep growing the company. Congratulations on your success. The site is Lemon.ly, but now you can find it Lemonly.com or Lemon.ly. Thank you so much for doing this interview.
John: Thanks, Andrew. And I hope the Mixergy audience enjoys our graphic coming out soon.
Andrew: Oh, yeah. Oh, by the time this interview is up, it will be out, and I’m curious to see the feedback on it. Thanks for doing that, too.
John: You bet.
Andrew: Bye, everyone.