What happens when a developer builds a successful company on Twitter…and then gets blindsided by Twitter?
Since then, Twitter built photo sharing into its product by partnering with Noah’s competitor.
Noah’s response? He grew revenue and launched other products, including a Twitter alternative called “Heello, which is relaunching soon.”
Andrew: Coming up, have you ever worried that a giant competitor is going to separate you from your users? Well, it happened to today’s guest. Wait until you see how he grew his business after it did and what you might be able to do to grow your business. Also, when you hear my first set of questions around revenue with today’s guest, if you feel like “Did Andrew didn’t push you enough?”, I want you to watch the very end because I think that last set of questions is going to put a smile on your face. Finally, what’s Heello and should you lock your name on that site before someone else does? All that and so much more coming up.
Three messages before we get started.
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Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Walker. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. What happens when a developer builds a successful company on Twitter and then gets blindsided by Twitter? Noah Everett built Twitpic into the most popular way to share photos on Twitter.
My last interview with him, we made headlines all over the tech world when he announced that his company generated over $1.5 million a year and that he was offered well over $10 million for his company. All that for a boot strapped company and he told the story in his last interview.
Since then, Twitter built photo sharing into its product, competing directly with Noah using one of Noah’s competitors. Noah’s response? Well, you’re going to hear about it today including how he launched Heello, which is kind of like Twitter in that enables conversations but also has some features that Twitter does not have. So I want to hear about Heello. I want to hear what happened to Twitpic and I want to hear about what happened to Noah since then. Noah, welcome
Noah: Hey, how you doing?
Andrew: So top of the world last time. Now has the bottom fallen out and now you guys are dead or something different?
Noah: [??] but no. Actually things are great. I think it’s been about 2 1/2 years since the last interview and had a great time doing that and no, actually things have been great.
So just to kind of follow up. I think our last interview, I think we had it on [??], just on Twitpic and now I’m past $35 million and we have our own mobile apps out now for iPhone Android. They’re doing very well. Kind of shifted focus from not relying solely on third party developers to integrate our services but provide an experience to our users directly on those platforms.
Andrew: What about revenue?
Noah: Revenues are great. We actually did double the revenues since we last spoke. And our users are also [??] as well. I think our peak years were around 2011 and so what kind of go into with what Twitter launch now. They’re a pretty [??]. Twitter’s a great platform, it’s a great company, a great bunch of people to work with so there’s no animosity like someone said [??] Twitter created. So we actually didn’t find out about Twitter launching their photo service. I read about it on tech blogs so we were kind of blindsided. We would appreciate it to have had a heads up, maybe a few months before hand maybe would have been kind of [??] just like that.
But actually no. People said it was going to kill us but we really didn’t [??] all. We kind of shifted from a page that’s translated to API calls and in fact we’re seeing the most API users ever on Twitpic right now doing over half a billion API calls a day on Twitpic.
Andrew: So wait. When you say revenues doubled, you mean last year 2011 revenues were $3 million.
Noah: Yes. Approximately, yes.
Andrew: Now, when you say you were blindsided, MG Siegler at TechCrunch said that your competitors were told that Twitter was talking to Photo Bucket, but you weren’t right?
Noah: Yeah, correct. I think we contacted them on that just to kind of correct that because we didn’t know. And like I said we understand that Twitter controls the platform and odds of us…
Andrew: Just because you were small that you were, one of the things that I admired about you in the last interview, and so many people in the audience were drawn to your story, one aspect of it was, it was a small bootstrap operation that built something big, you know? It felt like one guy with a vision, with a passion for building it, and then a small team that coalesced around that vision, could take on the world. Is that do you think what scared Twitter away from partnering up with you the way they partnered with Photo Bucket?
Noah: It could be. I don’t know, like we didn’t really take the traditional route, you know, VC funding and having that certain structure set up, or being based in the Valley. So, I don’t know, could be. I guess we’ll never really know. But in the end things have still worked out great for us, and like Twitpic grew so fast, it was the first company I ever started. It’s like trying to drive an oil tanker by yourself, you know, it’s going to have some bumps and stuff like that. Try and dim this back up. But I’ve learned a lot in the past two and a half years. Like you say it’s probably the best business (?) go through, through the highs and extreme lows. That’s one thing I think founders should learn when they start the company. There’s going to be really, really great days, you’re on top of the world. The next day you’re going to feel like you don’t even want to get out of bed, you know.
Andrew: And you talked openly last time about that. You said, hey there were times where even back before Twitter competed with you where it felt like things were just falling apart, and your customers were upset with you and Twitter seemed unhappy with you and you had to find a way to get yourself back up. So let’s go back and just hear what life was like just before Twitter made this change. The integration happened on June 1, 2011.
Noah: Like I said things were great and we were seeing some of our highest numbers ever and we read about it on the tech blogs and that’s how I found out about it.
Andrew: You wake up one morning and you see the horror that many entrepreneurs have which is your whole business changes overnight without you having any say so.
Noah: Oh yeah, man, it was definitely, my heart sank, you know, you kind of got that cold feeling kind of come over you know. And then you kind of sit back and take everything in and obviously you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. So you kind of have to ignore what the blogs write when stuff like that happens, you know, because they’re (?) paid views and some of the….
Andrew: What goes on in your head when that happens?
Noah: When I first started Twitpic any negative review I read or saw it really, really affected me. You know I’m a fairly wear my heart on my sleeve kind of person. Over time I’ve learned to take it for what it is, you know, and understand that their mechanism for making money is getting readership. And sometimes that the titles or the content used can not be in the best light or use exaggerated terms just to get those patrons, I understand that. But the thing is my Mom uses this term, kind of like you know the dogs keep barking but the train keeps on going kind of thing. You know it doesn’t really matter in the end. What matters is that you’re satisfying your losers and making them happy.
Andrew: You were able to snap back that quickly? No. There was a period where you were doubting yourself, wasn’t it that day?
Noah: Yeah. It’s up and down all the time in your mind sometimes trying to figure out like why? What I usually do in the mornings is I’ll get up, grab some coffee, get in my car and I do about, I’d say, a 30 minute loop around Charleston, over the islands. And kind of just enjoy the scenery, kind of get my mind clear. And key is to keep that vision in front of you at all times. Because there’s things on all sides of you trying to pull you away or get your attention on this, and, in the end.
Andrew: What was that vision?
Noah: Well, my vision with Twitpic is building the best photo sharing site possible and doing it in a way where we never lost or honor or integrity. Running a business where you could sleep good at night, you know. And that vision kind of morphed, I guess we’ll talk more about that here in a minute, into (?) and that whole thing.
Andrew: And so you’re saying the thing that brought you back to sanity, that kept you from freaking out over what happened with Twitter is that you said, I am building a great photo sharing site. It’s not about Twitter integrating me or my competitors. I’m just going to build the best site that I can and if I do then people will partner with me and users will want to come onto my service.
Noah: Exactly. And we had the benefit of being the first photo sharing site out there for a couple of years. And also the brand Twitpic, it’s kind of like the Kleenex of tissues, you know. No matter what service a user uses to post a photo to Twitter, it’s usually referred to as a Twitpic, so that brand recognition is great for us. Plus the celebrities have used us, like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and a slew of others. Kind of helped us with some staying power.
Andrew: What about the idea that when you have some money in the bank you have security that keeps you from worrying about being tossed out of your house, about losing, about not being able to pay your employees. What impact did that have?
Noah: I get this from my father. My father always instilled in me from an early age to never get into debt, and if you do have bills that you’ve got to pay make sure that you can pay those bills with the minimum amount of money, or a minimum wage job, you know. It’s kind of what my dad always taught me. So I kind of took that same thinking with Twitpic. We, make sure we never got into debt, invested wisely, and also making sure that we were very frugal with our spending and stuff like that.
Andrew: What kind of investments? What do you mean by investing wisely?
Noah: Oh, by investing in an office space or employee benefits or comforts, new equipment stuff like that.
Andrew: I see. All right, this happens, how do you, what do you say to your people? How many people were you at the time?
Noah: Ooh, two and a half years ago, it all blurs together.
Andrew: No, when you and I first talked two and a half years ago you were one other person, your mom was working in the company, I think your dad was working in the company.
Andrew: And then when Twitter made this change you weren’t more than half a dozen people, were you?
Noah: Yeah, I think we’re around six or seven. We’re around five right now. So still a very, very small team and I’m impressed with how much the team’s accomplished. I’m very proud of them and how well we work together. Very, very efficient and it’s like a really close group of friends basically working together and there’s no corporate structure at all since really having a corporate structure at this size would be, you know, stupid.
Andrew: I don’t know, a lot of people would have actually. They would have seen the revenues went up, they would have brought in a big team, they would have looked for ways to double down, triple down and keep on growing in the photo sharing act. They might have even thought to take on Twitter, with better photos then Twitter, with better photo sharing. But one thing that I noticed is, in addition to you holding back on crazy spending, the other thing I noticed is traffic has gone down. In fact I’m looking at compete and it seems like in October of last year, October, 2011 you had roughly 4 and a half, maybe 5 million people a month on the site. And according to compete, I know it’s not completely accurate, it’s this month dipping down below 2 million.
Noah: Yeah, so what you’re not seeing there is this. Like I said when Twitter did their functionality, and also another feature that Twitter launched too is the gallery functionality and the inline photo viewing of the tweet.
Andrew: right, people aren’t coming to your site, right?
Noah: Yeah, our page views translated to API hits. And so people are still engaging with Twitpic but in just different manners. That’s why services like Compete and Alexa don’t track that. So it looks like our traffic has gone down, and page views have gone down, but it translated to API calls and we’re, like I said, we’d rather be the vine that grows on the tree then nothing at all, you know.
Andrew: Yeah, and I have seen people use Top See, different reporters use Top See and other services to figure out how many shares are going on with each of the different photo sharing apps. But the reason that I bring this up is because you’re ad based. When Twitter shows inline a photo that was taken with your app and is posted on your site, they show it on their site, there’s no ad that goes with it, there’s no revenue.
Noah: Correct. And you know what we’re fine with that and thankfully we built our site in away that I’m just happy that people are using it, that we’re integrated into the platform and that Twitpic is still a big player in the world market of photo sharing and the things that happen.
Andrew: Why is that useful? Help me understand it. Not because, I just don’t, I feel like I would be pissed if that happened. I know you’re a religious person, is it okay for me to say pissed? Are you a religious person?
Andrew: You are right? So I’ll tell you I was frustrated. If I were in your place and suddenly saw that I was getting all these API calls, my photos were being put on Twitter but nothing coming back to my site, no revenue coming in. I’d be upset. Now I may not show it in this interview because I’d want to be friends with Twitter because I was hosted on their platform and so on. But I’d be upset. Is there any benefit that I’m missing here that you’re seeing for all these API calls?
Noah: I mean, we collect stats and analytics on the kind of traffic that’s coming to the site, and what we did is we engineered a really nifty back end to help keep our bandwidth costs down when that happened. So even though the ad revenue potential went down our costs went down as well just from some cool thinking we did on our end. As far as pissed, no, not pissed. I’m just happy that we’re being used and I was watching, ironically I was watching the Katy Perry documentary last night, like a little documentary about her life, you know. And they were showing like as they were following around with cameras little tweet boxes that showed up like a tweet she posted out. And one of the tweets had a Twitpic link in it, and, you know I’m just sitting on my coach and I’m thinking, wow, we built something that’s been used worldwide in many spectacular events in many people’s lives and it’s just like, you know, kind of have to step out of your cave or tunnel sometimes to kind of see the big picture. I’m just so happy and thankful for what happened, for the history we had behind it.
Andrew Warner: Alright, this as I said came up in middle of 2011. Middle of the previous year you announced something called Heello. Excuse me, Heello. It’s kind of like hello but it’s Heello, H-E-E-L-L-O. So this is way before Twitter was partnering up with your competitor. Why did you launch it back then?
Noah: Yeah, we launched it in August, 2011.
Andrew: Right, but, August 2010 you had it under wraps. I think I did a blog post. Why even start building this thing? And it wasn’t until a year later, a couple of months after Twitter started to use your competitor, that you brought it out to the world. But why launch it so sorely?
Noah: Right, so actually when we announced Heello in 2010 the original product for Heello was completely different. It was actually going to be a product based around e-mail and more, laptop keeps going dim, sorry. A more kind of focused on business users so to speak, you know. And so we kind of sat on that idea for a year, because basically we launched the company name, it’s a completely separate entity from Twitpic. And then as time went on, you know we liked the idea a lot but it just wasn’t as exciting as some of the stuff in the social scene, you know. And so we kind of got bit by that bug with Twitpic. We changed our product idea when the announcements came in in mid 2011 about Twitter coming out with their own product, and so, we kind of thought why don’t we just build something that we really want to build and try it out, you know. So we actually built the first version of Heello in literally in around two months, two and a half months.
We, our team did an amazing job because we really, really rushed it out the door. And the reason why we rushed out the door, there was a potential contractual issue that could have affected us launching Heello, a certain event that happened. I can’t really get into more details with that. But that didn’t happen so we pushed it out the door anyways so we kind of missed or didn’t add a lot of things we want to ad. But the underlying platform is the same that we’re using now. And so we actually when we launched Heello in August 2011 we actually did 1 million users in two weeks. We were averaging about 100,000 users a day, so we still had a great response. And we got a lot of great feedback and data around it, and that kind of brings us to what we’ve been working on for the past six months with the new Heello.
So the environment with Twitter and its developers has been changing over the past year and a half, year. And I understand why, I mean Twitter has what, over a half a billion funding now, and they’re model for revenue is advertising. And so I can understand why they’re locking that down.
Andrew: I want to tell the story a little bit more slowly if you don’t mind, because I want to get every bit of it. So I understand, before you weren’t looking to create a Twitter type site. You were thinking, hey, let’s find an easier way for people to communicate using e-mail, and you had this vision. But there was no urgency about it so you said I’m going to launch it but you didn’t really launch it, you were just tinkering with it.
Noah: Right. It was kind of like I said, we launched the company, the name, the brand, and we had an idea for a product that we were going to toy around with. But the more we sat on it, it just didn’t really excite me. You know, you kind of have to feel it in your gut. And so like I said fast forward to 2011 and that’s when we got the idea for what Heello is now.
Andrew: And that’s when you said, contractually we have to launch this quickly and because Twitter is in our space me might want to create an alternate platform in case we can’t use their platform in the future, or who knows what could happen, right?
Noah: Sure. And my experience has been solely in Twitpic and social apps. We’ve got a lot of experience with doing that, a lot of experience with scaling. So we thought, well, why not use these skills to build something that we kind of had, like I said, toying around was a fun idea for a while but just spitballing about it.
Andrew: Okay. All right. So you launch it quickly. What was missing from it?
Noah: The UI was really missing a lot of like the features we wanted to add. One of which was the mobile apps that were launched and the check in functionality I just wanted a different…
Andrew: You originally wanted to have check in, also?
Noah: Yes, we actually had the data there, but really a check-in’s kind of pointless if you don’t have a mobile app because you know if you check in from your computer you’re going to be in the same spot. So, when that’s kind of morphed a little bit and so our mobile apps are about 70 to 80 percent done. The new website itself is around the same percentage done. We’ve been using actually the new version internally. So the goal is to let users share what they’re doing and what we’ve identified as the four most common ways or pieces of data to share, text, photo, video and location, or check in, you know.
Andrew: You launched it, I remember being on there, you were on there, I think your dad was on there, too, right?
Noah: On (?) yeah? Yeah, mom and dad.
Andrew: It was kind of cool. Your dad was there, he was chatting with people, I was there I was following you. I remember Michael Arrington the day that you launched this he said, in the comments of TechCrunch, I just got @ Michael Arrington. There were a lot of people in there and I remember you being on there that day trying to get the conversation going but it didn’t fully coalesce, right? People weren’t chatting with each other. At that point do you just pull away because you said, hey I tried this idea, it wasn’t there, I’ll wait and see if there’s fire in me or fire in the universe for this before I go back?
Noah: No, so what it was, was I kind of stop using the site because it wasn’t really useful for me. That’s a good indicator, if you yourself aren’t using the site or the product you built then something’s wrong, you know. Because at the time the core functionality wasn’t enough to differentiate itself from Twitter. And also the need really wasn’t there as much as it is now because of the environment changing. So I kind of took a step back and kind of really locked down what are we trying to build here, what are the key features that I want to do? And so for the past six to eight months we’ve been working on this new Heello, a simplifed UI, we posted some screen shots on the blog. And also kind of helping the apps make it sticky which one of the key things of a mobile app if you can’t take it with you then it’s not useful.
So especially with how mobile is exploding in the past few years, it’s going to overtake everything else by 2014 or 2015. So, same plan kind of in place, we just didn’t execute it right then and there, you know. One of my favorite quotes that I heard someone say, I forgot, I think it’s the Linked In founder, I’m not for sure. It said if you’re not embarrassed by your first version of your product then you’ve lost (?), you know. And we believe in getting the core product out and then iterating, iterating, iterating.
Andrew: Though you didn’t iterate, iterate, iterate. Here’s the thing, I remember from our first interview. By the way, before I even go into that. I’m sensing a different Noah in this conversation. I feel like maybe the world has burned you a little bit. Like with the photo licensing deal that Tech World came down on you. With Twitter going with your competitor. I feel like there’s a more cautious Noah sitting in front of me right now. Is that happening, are you feeling that way?
Noah: I mean, yeah, I’ve definitely gone through some things. Like with the deal saying that we were selling users photos, that was a big eye opener for me because our intention was not to sell photos and we weren’t taking any money from users photos. We were such a small company and basically we were finding that celebrity photos were being distributed or taken off of sites, obviously not with their permission and stuff like that, and used in very irreputable or irrepairable means, you know. So we used the company who has the department, the legal departments to like track down who’s doing it and say, hey stop doing this, and get our means to get those photos and stuff like that. But like I said, we never took money for photos or selling photos at all.
Andrew: Was there any plan to take money?
Noah: No, no, never. We, and what sucks is when I found out we had to change our terms of service to make that feasible and then we just got ripped apart which made me realize that even though your intentions may be good, what’s being portrayed, the blogs will pick up on it and users will pick up on it too. So we posted a blog post that said, your data is yours, we’re not selling your photos, stuff like that, you know. But when stuff like that gets out on the web it kind of goes around like wildfire, so yeah, definitely a learning experience. Like I said being in the best business school, you know, trial by fire. As far as a different Noah I’m hoping that’s just with age. I was like 24 when I last interviewed with you, I think, 25? And I just turned 28 so.
Andrew: You just turned 28, so you would have been 25, 26 maybe.
Noah: Okay, yeah. As far as being more cautious, I think so, not as naive as I used to be. Not saying that naive is a bad thing, just, you know, understanding what we’re responsible for and how we should portray things to make sure that we’re not making people think one thing and really our intentions have been good, you know.
Andrew: so going back to what I was saying about that first interview. I remember you being a guy who before Twitpic was just tinkering around. Just trying a bunch of different things. I’m looking to see where some of them were. There was EchoPic became Twitpic, before that you had something else. It was just you testing out ideas. Was that what was going on with Heello where you said, hey I’ll put this out there. You tested it out, the world wasn’t enthused, you weren’t enthused about it to keep tinkering and so you didn’t put it out there to see what people thought and then iterated, iterated. You just said, hey there’s not that much enthusiasm. I’ve got other stuff going on here with Twitpic, I better focus on Twitpic.
Noah: Yeah, and well one of the things, too, is we’re trying to run two companies and two products with such a small team you have to learn [??] put your focus. A lot of it was [??] we got a million users in two weeks and then we saw, “People aren’t really sticking around,” and so we had to [??], take a step back and see why am I not using it all the time and why are they not sticking around to use the product. Obviously identified the mobile apps was one of the key aspects and then thankfully, seeing over the next six months, seeing how the new trends in the web and stuff like that. “Why don’t we adopt those for the new version?” Plus trying to keep Twitpic running smoothly as we were scaling and keeping our bandwidth costs down. It’s a mix of a lot of things.
Andrew: You’ve got Helpmint, another site going up that launched a few months ago that you need to keep that going and growing with your customers.
Noah: Helpmint, I had the chance to meet Tony Hsieh from Zappos right when I first started Twitpic and we got to tour the office and hang out with him for a couple of days and I was so blown back by their big emphasis on customer service and one of the things he said, he didn’t care what they were selling in 20 or 30 years, whether it be shoes, or airline tickets, he wanted Zappos to be known as a brand with great customer service. That stuck with me and we wanted to implement that with Twitpic. Trying to respond as [??] as possible to users and with our [??] system. We found [??] bloated and more geared towards a corporate mindset, or that structure and we identified that support from users is a conversation, it’s communication. Users don’t care about ticket numbers, or issue IDs.
We thought, “Let’s build Helpmint out internally.” [??], there’s no ticket numbers, it’s just a conversation stream with the user. You can talk via Twitter, traditional email, or [??]. Traditional email support is very formal, when conversations on Twitter, which are shorter and also SMS are shorts. They’re not as formal, so we aggregate wherever those messages come from, from the user into a single conversation stream and instead of using terms like “needs action,” “responded” and “closed.” They’re more human terms in a very simple user interface. We’ve got a couple thousand [??] users right now and hopefully push that out more [??], get some of the new features implemented.
Andrew: You are right about the formality of customer support email. If you had trouble and walked into an Apple store, I see Apple behind you, so I’ll use them as an example. You said, “I have trouble.” And he said, “Mr. Everett, good sir, please come over here and fill out this form.” You go, ‘Dude, I’m freaking out over here and you’re giving me this corporate treatment here.’ I hate to even bring this up because I know I’m guilty of it because of the software I use. When you email me about a problem that you have, you don’t just get an email back saying, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” You get an email back that says, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it,” but surrounded by all this corporate, techie stuff, like, “Don’t write below this line or else it won’t get seen.” Why should a user not be able to write anywhere in an email? A ticket number. What the hell is the number going to do me? I don’t need a case number. That’s something that the DMV should give me.
Noah: Users don’t care how their issue is fixed, they just want it fixed as quickly as possible and be treated like a human.
Andrew: When you start giving them ticket numbers, instead of hiding it, but show that as one of the first things that people see above their answer, when you frame things that way, it just creates an impersonal barrier that no natural language in the email that goes back and forth can overcome. It just stays that corporate-ese.
Noah: Users have a natural animosity, or distrust, to internet support or companies because they’ve been so burned by bad customer service and bad support and they feel like they need to be angry, or aggressive to get a response. Once you respond to them in a human way and they know they’re really talking to a person, kind of brings that guard down. There was a study done at MIT with robotics and when a user was talking to a robot that had no human expressions with whatever they did, they had no empathy for the robot. If they put expression on the robot like a fake mouth, fake eyes and made simulated emotion, the user had empathy with the robot. Taking that same metaphor of, let them know you’re talking to a human being and be a human being, and be real. Don’t be so formal.
Andrew: We’ve got real human beings who are answering emails, but we’re surrounding them in this robotic, emotionless package. So that’s Helpmint, which is a product that you launched a few months ago. You’ve got Heello, which we talked about. I’m wondering why. Why do this? I know when I talk to Jason Fried of 37Signals and asked him why he started creating products he said, ‘We were in consulting, which is very labor intensive. You get paid per hour and we wanted to create a product where it wasn’t just about our sweat, but it was about the results that we were selling people.’ I did a bad job of explaining it, but I’m wondering why you need products when you’ve got Twitpic.
Noah: If I could [??] back, when I was a kid, I loved LEGOs. I’d sit in the floor, dump the bucket out and spend hours watching Saturday morning cartoons and building things with LEGOs. I like building things. I like taking on new challenges and, honestly, I can’t think of anything else I would want to be doing than building new products and trying to identify problems that I’m having, or someone else is having and fill that need. It’s fun. Despite the challenges and sometimes the hardship of it, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. To me, it’s not really work when you find something you really want to do. Also I see the impact [??] can have on a global scale for good things on this platform of the internet. That’s what Tivo, too, we want to provide and open communication platform for [??] body. Freedom of speech is a human right and a lot of people don’t have that from a government level, so we want to be able to provide a platform for that to happen.
Andrew: What’s your process for creating these products? Let’s take a step back with Helpmint. I want to spend more time on Heello than I have been so far. With Helpmint, I know you created a product to scratch your own itch, but how do you then know that it answers other people’s issues and that you haven’t created something that only you understand how to use because you’ve been so deep into it, but one that answers other people’s issues and is easy for them to use. What I mean is, how do you get in customer feedback on it in the beginning?
Noah: One of the first [??] we did is we put my mom on it. My mom, she runs customer service still.
Andrew: She’s Twitpic Mom on Twitter.
Noah: That’s [??]. I think her title is. I have my bio, it says, “Founder of Twitpic,” and then my mom, on her bio is, “Founder of Noah Everett.”
Andrew: Founder of the founder.
Noah: She does customer service. My mom and dad aren’t tech [??], so what we did is built a product and put my mom on it and she understood it and it flowed for her. That was step one. It makes sense from an interface standpoint and [??] it internally, we knew it worked for us. We went out and showed it to people who would use our customer service product and once they saw they were getting excited about it and said, ‘Yes. I would definitely use it,’ we thought, ‘Why don’t we put this out and productize it?’
Andrew: Then when you put it out there and productize it, who do you show it to first?
Noah: We got a beta list set up and had a few hundred people sign up for the beta. We released it. Emailed them. Got them on board. Basically made [??] say, ‘No. Try it out, use it. It’s free to use [??] first agent. It was really no cost associated with it. Have any questions, issues, or feedback, email us.’ That’s how we’ve been doing that when we first launched it. Tweeted [??] some blog posts. We haven’t really done any formal marketing, so to speak.
Andrew: Anything surprise you when you took it out to show it to people who weren’t your mom, who didn’t know your [??]?
Noah: Great feedback. Then users also find bugs that you’ll never find yourself, which is great. That’s why you want people on your product. Or features that we never really thought of.
Andrew: [??] blew your mind when they looked at the product?
Noah: One [??] things [??] we had to fix was making them understand how to get your account set up properly. Obviously users are not going to know what to do [??] into the product, so you’re going to need to have some sort of tutorial and guide them [??] get their product set up.
Andrew: The onboarding process. You said, ‘We created a product that’s easy to use but the customers needed an onboarding process to make sure that they understood how easy it was to use.’
Noah: [??] that last 20 percent of the product usually takes just as long as the first 80 percent [??] all those small details you don’t think about when you’re building the core product, [??] the tutorial screens, or the blank slide screens. Things you don’t really think about until you get users [??] it and getting that feedback where it’s breaking down for them.
Andrew: What about building it when you already have a product that you’re focusing on? How did you structure your team, as small as it is, so that you can build this new product, get user feedback, answer customer complaints, improve the product, while you’re still doing other things?
Noah: So we kind of, we get a product like Twitpic to a point where it’s stable and basically kind of put it in maintenance mode where all we got to do to keep the site viable is keep it up and running, keep it efficient and that’s basically it. And so what the platform, we had a lot of scaling issues early on with Twitpic because it was just me. I had no idea how to scale, you know. Finally we locked our platform down know where we can scale fairly easy and it’s not a challenge like it used to be. Even though our traffic is many, many, many times over what it used to be back in the day. So, that helps that that part’s solid now and really there’s no more features to really add without creating a bloated product, you know. So then we put the product in maintenance mode, basically, if you want to use that term, and then we go off and start building our new products. What we do is iteration so we start with iteration zero which is what’s the core product? And iteration one, then two, three, four, etcetera. And we track that in base camp and stuff like that. And everybody kind of has their own little niche that they’re good at, whether it be front end or back end or server set up or stuff like that.
Andrew: I see, and how. You know what actually? I was going to ask so many questions about that but I’d love to do at some point an interview just on how you launched Helpmint. I want to know how someone who has an internal problem can create a product that doesn’t just solve their problem, their unique problem, in a unique way that only they understand but creates something that translates to, that other people understand. It becomes a product that many other people use and buy. Okay, so let’s go back to Heello. I understand the main idea, I understand why you launched. In fact, tell me a little bit more about why you launched it.
Noah: So it was kind of, I was thinking beyond Twitpic. Twitpic we want to keep it integrated with Twitter. The branding is associated with it, the commenting system’s hooked into it. We really didn’t want to break that experience. So we locked ourselves in Twitter, we do have Facebook posting capabilities too for that, but (?) I think on a broader scale of what would we in a platform? And so we built the first version of Heello. And then during that time the developer community it’s been changing between Twitter and the development world because they want to lock that platform down in their experience, which we understand why because they’ve got to make money, keep the lights on. But it’s still, the developers still getting the short end of the deal.
So for the past six months we’ve been working on this new Heello which basically our goal it to trade an open, real time communications platform that has a really friendly developer community that developers can build on. Where there’s really they can build their own clients, any functionality, it’s a simple set of rules. Basically all the rules are saying, don’t do anything to harm the users, don’t trick the users, don’t sell or steal their data kind of thing. And other than that, you know, have at it.
So, we’re taking a hybrid approach on the revenue models. I personally, advertising is kind of, I used that for Twitpic and you know it pays the bills but I’m not a fan of the model anymore. Because obviously advertisers don’t have your users best interest in mind, they have their clients best interest in mind. And so the (?). So with Heello we’re going to have a hybrid approach where there will be an ad model, but the ads will be organic and native to the sites. They won’t be intrusive and also they’ll be managed by us in a self serve (?), that way you have a very, very high standard of the ads that come on the site. And then two a pro option, a pro account would be a small monthly or yearly fee, and basically you get no ads, a pro badge, early access to other features.
We’re still working on some cool features to give to users for pro accounts. (?) is kind of driven by premiums like, but nothing is really free so to speak. You know you’ve got e-mail which people think, well that’s free, well no there’s ads in g-mail and yahoo and stuff like that, and Twitter or Facebook, advertising is, you’re the product is so to speak, so.
Andrew: So you’re going to go hybrid. You want to get rid of the ads and have some other benefits and pay a fee and you’ve got a pro account. You don’t we’ll run some ads against you, nothing too invasive, and you’ll get to experience the product on whatever tool you want because we’re going to make Heello into a very developer friendly environment.
Noah: And then on the (?) developers we’re going to try to work out a way to where if we do show ads through their app, whether it’s somehow a (?) share program with the developers, that way your interests are aligned, you know. So, because I mean Twitter was built on the back of a very huge developer community. And I don’t think Twitter would be as large as it is right now, as quickly at least, without the developer community.
Andrew: They couldn’t stay up. Would they be able to stay up and keep the photos active the way that you kept the photos up?
Noah: I don’t know, I mean I’m not for sure. I mean I know that they had scaling issues up front like we did too, you know. And I don’t think.
Andrew: What do you think about app.net, Dalton Caldwell’s idea?
Noah: I think it’s a great idea. I think I saw that come out about two months ago when he launched it, and it kind of, I was happy to see it because it kind of validated what we’re trying to do with Heello as well, you know. And users should have options to use, and so our approach is a little bit different then what Dalton’s doing. Right now his is a pure pay model and we’re going to try to take a hybrid approach where it’s a free account too. Because there’s going to be users in maybe in third world countries or, that don’t have the means to pay for an account and we don’t want to leave them out of the service. And also help developers build our platform where there’s a lot more user based potential.
Andrew: what about the idea that you’re creating a destination site and it seems like he’s not looking to create a destination.
Noah: Yeah, from what I understand I think his goal is kind of to build a, it’s a platform, if I understand correctly, a platform for developers to build on. It’s not so much a consumer product, if in fact I’m getting it right. But I still think it’s along the same lines of what we’re trying to accomplish too of alternatives for users and developers to use, you know. Look at how many micro economies have been set up on these platforms of Facebook and Twitter that allows developers like us and other developers to make a business and to make a viable business where we’re making enough money to you know have a company.
Andrew: He has a lot of the technorati, as users of his stuff, as fans of his personally. And it seems like you don’t have that audience specifically, but you have a broader audience. Like even on Twitter you have 4.5 million people on Twitter.
Noah: Right, yeah, followers.
Andrew: Followers, right.
Noah: Yeah I think, it helped validate it on our end too to see well these are like the, like you said the technorati. If they’re on board with it that means there’s a need there, you know? And what’s funny is like when we launched Heello last year we got mixed reviews. Some were like, oh it’s just a Twitter clone, blah blah blah, which a lot of the features did match. But it’s amazing how the environment has changed in a years time where now which basically what we’re trying to do is basically the same functionality with some new features but now everybody’s on board with it. So it’s funny how the tides change so quickly and opinion has changed so quickly on the blog side of things.
Andrew: Yeah it is. Now if you say, hey, we’re just a plain vanilla Twitter clone, people are interested.
Noah: Yeah, because now everybody’s, the blogs have been blasting Twitter for what they’re doing. And that’s another thing to realize too. You can’t really go by what you read in the blogs and go by their tune, you know. It’s like a flock of birds, they’ll switch directions on you as quickly as possible, so.
Andrew: Partially I think one of the things that people are upset about is Twitter’s new rules which apparently will mean that you can’t have. Well actually what’s it mean for the comments that you have under your photos? Do they have to change, do they have to have, do they have? Well what does it mean for them?
Noah: For us the new change really didn’t affect us on the limit side of things. Like I said we’re posting end to Twitter. We’re not really using the API call that they’re limiting to 100,000 users. And also the comments on Twitpic.com well that’s also on our site and it’s a commenting system. So that doesn’t really affect us when it comes to…
Andrew: And those comments go to Twitter?
Noah: Those comments do go to Twitter, yeah, from the user that posted it. So the data lives on both sides. So the tweet goes to Twitter, they control that, and we have the comment on Twitpic which, you know, we’re not affected by the new rule on that.
Andrew: I see so you don’t have to have that whole structure, that structure for a tweet.
Andrew: I see, okay. What else do I want to know? What did I miss? Think about the way you were a few years ago back when, let’s say three years ago, before we even talked. You’re an entrepreneur, you’re building your business. What would you want to know of Noah Everett of today?
Andrew: What would you tell your old self?
Noah: I’d tell myself to don’t sweat the small stuff, and even when it looks so bleak and bad that it’s going to get better and kind of get out that tunnel vision you know. I started looking at life this way. The average American lifespan is around 80 something years, so by the average I’ve got about 60 years left. I live and make decisions now based off, if I’m on my death bed looking back at my life how am I going to feel about myself? And are the loved ones that I care about around me and stuff like that, you know. And it kind of makes the small things you’re dealing with, the issues you’re dealing within, not seem so bad, you know. Because think of a really big issue you might have had four or five years ago was huge then, but now is not a problem anymore. Time heals, and so I tell myself just to stay focused, it’s going to be okay-
Noah: – just stay true to what you feel in your heart and your gut and don’t waver from that.
Andrew: It looks like you’re traveling a little bit, a year ago you went to Amsterdam. Are you dating someone now?
Noah: Yeah, dating someone here in Charleston. Yeah, I went to Amsterdam to speak at the conference there, got a chance to meet Mark Zuckerberg’s sister [??] Amsterdam is a beautiful city. I got to tour the area. I accidentally stumbled upon the red light district unknowingly, just walking around and that was –
Andrew: That’s really close to the coffee shops, it’s close to the main drag there in Amsterdam-
Andrew: – … did you go in, by the way? Into any of the places in the red light district?
Noah: No, I was too afraid! Not really my cup of tea. Honestly, I wasn’t looking for it and all of a sudden you walk into the street and bam! There it is, so-
Andrew: You know what? I wouldn’t have believed it if I’d just heard it, but that is pretty much what it is. You’re just walking around and suddenly there are women in the windows. You don’t need to go in for the action, there are women in the windows! It’s, that whole concept is freaky! What state has women just standing in the windows like that?
Noah: Yeah, for a guy like me that grew up in a conservative home and stuff like that, it’s definitely a different world. But I love Amsterdam, it’s a beautiful city, beautiful people, and it’s just great.
Andrew: So what do you do for fun? What do you do when you’re not working?
Noah: I like [??] awesome Charleston right here on the water. I don’t own a boat yet, but I’d like to buy one eventually and get into boating. I’m living Downtown Charleston now, just enjoying the historic city. We had a huge amount of rain yesterday with Hurricane Isaac so a little bit of flooding, but that’s gone now. Playing Xbox, still love video games [chuckle].
Andrew: When you see that Instagram gets purchased for a billion dollars by Facebook, what do you think?
Noah: Man, I was excited! I was actually, you know … to see a site like that be purchased for that amount of money is great. It validated Twitpic again, you know? It’s not photosharing, videosharing it’s not a dying space. I thought it was great and I think anybody else in the photosharing space would have been probably thinking the same thing too.
Andrew: What did you learn from the way that Instagram built their business? I know that you’ve got filters on your app. I actually saw Katy Perry use a couple of your filters, I think.
Noah: There’s a funny story behind the filters. So like I said, Instagram was basically a mobile app, and then with a website behind it. We early on took a different approach, we were a website and then we kind of go into mobile apps. So we had to shift our thinking to say well, you should have our mobile app. We’d been working on our mobile app for Twitpic for … since 2011, and the filter was actually a side thought. I think we added the filters within about a week of launching as a quick side note. We thought, “Well why don’t we just do that and then see if users want,” We’d been getting requests from users to have a filtering aspect, I just said, “Well, we’ll give them what they want.” And they love it, and they, and we can also post video and [??] from the apps as well.
Andrew: What else did I want to know? Here’s another question: one of the things that all the bloggers picked up on in our last interview is that you had an offer for eight figures. I asked you, “A little over ten million minimum?” You said, “Well over ten million.”
Andrew: Do you regret not taking that deal back then?
Noah: Not at all. Because, and we still had offers and bought out in the years since. No, I don’t regret at all because … A) it’s been a school for me to be running companies like this. And its fun to run a company! I think entrepreneurs shouldn’t build companies to have the end result be bought or sold. You should build companies to build something that’s sustainable and to build something that’s solving in need of a problem. No, don’t regret it at all. Financially everything’s been great, so …
Andrew: Revenue financially, 150,000 a month, roughly?
Noah: I haven’t checked recently. Somewhere around there.
Andrew: Somewhere around there? All right. What did you think of the first interview? You’re a guy who’s done the interview, and you’re back … what’s the impact for you? I know what the impact is for the audience.
Noah: Yeah, I enjoyed it. I was definitely nervous. Funny thing is, since then, I didn’t think it was going to get as big as it did, and I’ve met probably 20 or 30 people that I’ve met at conferences, or in Charleston, or wherever, and I go, “Hi, I’m Noah. It’s nice to meet you.” And they go, ‘Oh, yeah! I saw you in that Mixergy interview!’ So I was kind of taken aback at how people were watching this, and picking up on it! I’m a computer nerd, I’m kind of introverted so I don’t really get out a whole lot in these kind of things, so the response was great. I’m very glad I did it and honored that you asked me again to be on. When I got the email from you to do it again, was like, “Sweet! Yeah, of course I’ll do it!” [chuckle]
Andrew: Cool, and I know this won’t be the last time. I’m looking forward to getting to know you over the years, and hopefully at some point we’ll get to see each other in person.
Noah: Yeah, well you’re on the East Coast now too, so we’re not too, too far from each other.
Andrew: No, not far at all.
Andrew: Well, cool, bud, thank you for doing this interview. Thank you all for being a part of it, and you know what? I’m on Heello, I actually have Andrew Warner as my name there. If you guys are on Heello, go over to it and add me first of all, let me get some good followers quickly. Or listeners.
Andrew: And second, just say something to me, and say something to Noah. I want to hear who’s out there, at least interact with what Noah’s built. I think that’s the best way to get a sense of what the product is. I do my best Noah, in these interviews, to give people an understand of what the product does, but sometimes five seconds of playing with the product gives you way more understanding than an hour of me yapping about it.
Noah: Yeah, and I think also you just should keep in mind, the version that’s up right now is still the old Heello, and the new-
Andrew: I’m going to publish this after the new version comes out, so people see it for real.
Noah: OK. Awesome. Great.
Andrew: You’re going to publish it when? What date?
Noah: We don’t have a set date. We’re going to try to get a preview of it out in the next month?
Andrew: All right, so maybe we’ll publish before.
Andrew: All right. Well guys, check it out, Heello, H-E-E-L-L-O dot com. Go check out the site, add both of us, say hello, and if you see Noah at a conference, say hi there, too.
Noah: [laugh]. You can check out new.heello.com and kind of see the preview of the new version as well.
Andrew: Ah, good point. All right. Thanks for doing this interview.
Noah: Thanks, Andrew.