I was checking my email and I got a message that said “StartupPlays is shutting down.” I immediately I opened it up, forwarded it to the Mixergy team, and said, “Could you get the founder of this company to come on here and talk about what happened?” Because I want to learn from both successes and failures in business.
Scott Annan founded StartupPlays, where successful entrepreneurs create step-by-step guides to accelerate startups. Today his vision evolved into Accel.io, a site that offers high quality actionable content by experts and it’s always up to date.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. You know me, right? I’m Andrew Warner, and you know the site, Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart.
And I was sitting here at home of the ambitious upstart checking my email and the other day I got an email that said “StartupPlays is shutting down”. Immediately I opened it up and I forwarded it to the Mixergy team and said, “Could you get the founder of this company to come on here and talk about what happened because I want to learn from both successes and failures and everything in business?”
And so today we have both, thanks to the Mixergy team and to the founder of StartupPlays.
Scott Annan, who you see up on your screen, founded StartupPlays, a site that offered checklists for startups. Today his vision evolved into Accel.io, a site that offers high quality actionable content by experts and it’s always up to date. I invited him here to talk about how he did and my buddy Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law was good enough to fund this like he’s funding all these interviews here.
So if you’re a tech entrepreneur and you need a lawyer, check out Walker corporate Law and I will tell you more about him in a moment.
But first, Scott.
Scott: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Andrew: Was StartupPlays a failure?
Scott: It’s a complex question and I think it wasn’t a failure in our minds. It did exactly what we hoped that it would do, which was to prove out a number of different theories we had around paid content, around enabling people to earn money based on their expertise and allowing people to take actionable information and apply it to real world situations.
So StartupPlays from that standpoint was successful in that it helped, you know, over 20,000 people achieve things that I believe wouldn’t have achieved in the same level of results without StartupPlays, but we just had bigger ambitions and finally decided that trying to support StartupPlays while we were doing something much larger wasn’t the right approach for us.
Andrew: What was the original idea for it?
Scott: The original idea was that there was a lot of crap on the internet, there was a lot of link bating, there were a lot of opinions on the internet and trying to find actionable content that you were able to use as you’re trying to solve a problem was really difficult to find.
And so, you know, being an entrepreneur, a mentor of many other entrepreneurs, it was an area that I knew was a very acute pain for entrepreneurs. And so we said, you know, wouldn’t it be easier if everybody had friends like Andrew Warner and Dan Martell and Steve Blank where we can send them an email saying hey, remember that pitch that you used last week? Can you just shoot that over to me so I can just use that as a template and we’re able to save time and still use something that’s kind of market proven.
So that was the inspiration behind it.
Andrew: I know what you mean, Scott, that I’m not a cook but I needed to make brunch for a bunch of people here at my house the other week. And so I went to the Art of Manliness and I got an ingredient list and I got a recipe and I got a picture of what the end product would be and if I followed it exactly, and I followed it fairly close, I ended up with something that tasted good and it worked.
And there isn’t something like that for startups. It’s mostly link bait like you said. But is it even possible to bake a startup the way I might bake the casserole or is it just something that’s too nuance and too different for everybody for us to be able, or for you in your case, to be able to give a set of ingredients in a checklist?
Scott: Exactly [?] the reason that we approached StartupPlays the way we did. I can go on at great length to what I think our problem with a lot of online courses that are currently offered where a course suggests that, you know, once you leave you’re going to have the foundation or the knowledge or the tools in order to go achieve something.
What we wanted to do instead was create guides. They were just like if you were going on a trip somewhere, you want a guide to help you see a direction that you can go on in. So rather than saying this is how you should do it, it’s here’s how I did it and if you can use some of this, if some of this saves you time, if the list of tools that you use or the spreadsheet I used or my approach, you know, helps you then it’s effective. But the idea isn’t to turn it into a recipe where you’re saying here is where we’re going to guarantee success.
And the people that used StartupPlays were kind of on both sides of the spectrum. They’re a lot of new entrepreneurs, you know, who might be technical let’s say and they’re looking at how do I get my first customers and I don’t even know where to start, you know, so where’s a process that I can use as a starting point. But actually, most of our users were actually very, you know, are multiple entrepreneurs who started many businesses and they saw it as a short cut frankly, as a way of saying yes, hey man, I’m familiar with that company or that person. I saw how they did that and I’d love to just use that as a template, as a starting point for doing what I’m doing.
Andrew: And it was really beautifully done. One of the things that I liked about it was that it was a checklist. And then each checklist had details and I think maybe even some had some items on the checklist had sub- c1hecklists for them. I can take notes on each part of the process and I can save it and so on.
But the very first version, what was it, before you got to that?
Scott: So actually that was the very first version. If you want to talk about failures, I had a failure before that which became kind of a genesis for StartupPlays. It was called WebCollaboration.com and it was basically an online team wear.
Andrew: Like Base Camp.
Scott: Similar to Base Camp and so it had, you know, file management, messaging, a number of different things and amongst that was project management. And basically we ripped apart that whole platform, we used just the project management side, pre-filled the projects to be like templates so it was exactly like you said. It was just a checklist that would expand with more [??]. So it was actually a tool that hadn’t worked that we repurposed to this.
Andrew: You know what? Now that I see you and I have that in my notes but now that I hear you explain it, I totally get it because when I looked at a startup it did look like a Base Camp project that I might have set up for my team and now I get what you were doing.
Why did you feel comfortable after having that setback with Web Collaboration saying I’m now going to create a site that teaches other entrepreneurs? Why wouldn’t you say let me go and build a success of my own before I go and build a site that teaches other people how to be successful?
Scott: This is something that is, according to my philosophy, I don’t believe I’m teaching anything, this is a really important piece. What I’m doing is connecting people who have experience with people who are looking to gain experience or are looking to benefit from that experience.
And I think that this may seem subtle but it’s important. What we do is provide a platform that enables people to take their experience, turn it into a process that allows other people then to use. I would say that, you know, besides Steve Blank and a couple of other people who view StartupPlays as authors, who are actually instructors, most of the will tell you they are not instructors at all. They say I’m not an instructor, all I did was went through a process where you asked me a whole bunch of questions and I answered in a sequence that now looks like a process on the other side. And I will tell you the [??] love it.
Andrew: I got to write a note to myself about how you create it the place. I want to make sure to talk about that because you did take people who are entrepreneurs who weren’t really experienced teachers and you turned their experience into teaching tools.
But let’s stick with the original concept here. Another part of your belief was that we don’t need more tools, we need ideas. That’s counter to the way most people think today and I’m in agreement with you but I want to hear you talk about that so that the audience can hear it and frankly so that I can see if we really are in full agreement on that.
Scott: Sure. I think that we’re becoming more and more a tech society. You know, I was working with entrepreneurs and we were looking at automating a lot of things that frankly a) don’t need to be automated or b) automating for a process. I think that when you look at most of the business tools that are out there, it’s really business automation and at the core of business automation is process.
When we first came with the idea of StartupPlays, we thought of all kinds of different names and we thought of all different ways of marketing, just like any startup would and the one thing we kept coming back to is that these were startup processes. My gut feeling was that nobody was going to buy a startup process. It sounded boring and crappy and, you know, corporate like. But basically that’s what it is. It’s a process that you actually look at, somebody who’s going through from nothing or wherever they were and ended up at a destination that you want to end up as well.
So I think that for us it wasn’t about creating another tool to automate something, it was in order to be able to educate people on that process and then using any tools they wanted to.
Andrew: Sometimes I feel like a second class citizen. Not that anyone else makes me feel like that way, I do, because I’m not creating software, I’m creating ideas or content. But then I say there’s way too many checklists, like a to-do list app out there. There’s way too many even web browsers out there, there’s way too many apps for the app store out there. The world doesn’t need another one of those. The world needs the way to make it useful, what’s already there and I’m comfortable doing it even, and I believe it, even though at times I’m a bit of a hypocrite unfortunately. Look at this. I have both an iPhone right here and I happen to also have Android because I want to see how they both work. But, frankly, I just need one.
Andrew: The first thing you had the software. It was already built. You just re-purposed it. Did you do anything to see if the market even cared about this before re-purposing it or before promoting it?
Scott: Yeah. That’s exactly it. There are a couple of things that led to. We had this tool. Basically it’s, like you said, similar to Basecamp. We were working with startups. We were working with small businesses, large corporations. We had quite a few customers. But, you could tell it just wasn’t going to take off.
We keep going and selling this software. People say wow it’s cool, look at all the features inside it. Now, how do I use it? What’s the process? How do I make use of this in the best way?
What we realized is that we were selling people the tools or a hammer, and what they wanted was the deck or they wanted the fence. So, what if we started selling people the blueprints? How about instead of selling them, you know, here’s the tool to manage building a fence, let’s just sell them the plan for the fence.
So, that was the initial concept. The second problem with web collaboration is we didn’t have a targeted customer. So, we were selling to anybody who would buy. As you know, and many of your guests who come on know, it’s really difficult to launch something without a targeted focused market. It’s expensive trying to market to just about anybody.
So, we said let’s start with an area that we’re familiar with, which is startups, with people who are open to sharing their content or their knowledge – which is other entrepreneurs – and with people who are a bit more tech savvy and kind of on the early side of adoption. That’s why we chose that we were going to create templates on how to do things specifically in the startup space.
Andrew: Sorry. The connection is a little funky. I just want to make sure that you said… What did you do to validate? Did you express that?
Scott: Right. That was our intent. We decided we would focus on a very small segment which is the startups. Then, we set up a splash page and we put up a bunch of pictures of successful entrepreneurs, without their permission, and said get step by step how to guides from people like – and then we had all these pictures on there of people that you could get processes from.
Andrew: Did you get those people’s permission?
Scott: We didn’t get their permission. We put them up there. Then, we moved things around. We tried different people’s pictures, and we really looked at what was it that would be the effective of [Inaudible 0:02:33] to sign up.
Andrew: I see. Interestingly?
Scott: …both on the website and in person I would explain the concept of StartupPlays. It would go something like this. I’d see you, Andrew, at some kind of meet-up. I’d say hey I’ve got this new idea. We’re going to sell templates for startup things. It could really help you.
You’d say oh that’s interesting, but I don’t really get it. I’d say well, it could help you with things like how to raise money, how to get your first hundred customers, how to be great in SEO. Inevitably, what would happen is I’d hit a certain topic, and the person would say that one, that one right there. Do you have that? That’s what I need.
Andrew: And that’s how you’d know what to build.
Scott: We’d know what to build. But, that’s when we also realized that people didn’t give a shit about the platform. They didn’t care about my new startup or that it was going to have processes or plans. What they cared about is they have this pain, and the pain’s acute enough that the person would put money down right there right then if it could help them solve that problem.
So, we learned that in person.
Andrew: I see.
Scott: We learned that on the website. It really had to do more with the topic than it did even with the people that were authoring the content.
Andrew: Let me explain something to the audience and to myself and acknowledge this here in the interview. If I sound a little bit clueless because, like, maybe I’m not paying attention to Scott, it’s not because I’m not focused on Scott. It’s because we’re having a bad Internet connection today.
But, thanks to Glen at Ecamm, the guy who makes Call Recorder, we were able to get Scott a copy of Call Recorder – the software that plugs into Skype. We’re recording his side of the conversation from his computer. We’re recording my side of the conversation from my computer. Our editor here at Mixergy will merge them together. If I seem clueless it’s because, frankly, there are some parts of this conversation I can’t pick up on because of the bad connection.
But, thank you Ecamm for actually… This is, I think, the first time that they gave it to me for free. I’d been paying for Ecamm up until now for all my guests who needed it so that we can get a better connection. So, thank you Glen for giving that to us.
Anyone, by the way, you should have Ecamm on your computer if you talk to your team on Skype. Even if you don’t do interviews like me, get it on your computer because if you ever explain something on Skype to one member of your team, you might as well hit record and have it available so when the next person needs the same explanation you won’t have to go through it again. You can just say here, I recorded it on Ecamm. You can just listen to how I explained it to the other person and you’ll understand it. If you have any other questions come back to me. Ecamm is a great business tool.
Did you ask permission for the people whose names you had on your site on that landing page?
Andrew: No. Did they complain?
Scott: Just one person, extremely nicely. We actually had Brad Feld [??] up on there and we had talked a few times and he sent me a nice note and said “Hey, Scott, this sounds interesting what you’re doing. Would love to learn more” which is great and why Brad’s such a great guy. So we exchanged emails, then we jumped on the phone and he said this sounds awesome and I can see it being a really great resource, but can you please take my picture off because it’s causing some confusion for some people. So that was the only person who said anything.
Andrew: That is the way to send a cease and desist request.
Scott: Exactly, exactly.
Interviewer: Then you got on Tech Crunch. By the time you got on Tech Crunch, did you already have plays set up?
Scott: No, no. We didn’t have a single play done. That was part of our validation, so part of our validation was would the media care and then if they did, what kind of traction would we get on this site. So we had all kinds of AV testing set up already on that website to see whether people would sign up. And interestingly, we had quite a few sign ups. Quite a few sign ups at a good conversion rate. The one thing that people kept saying, the people that signed up, that ended up being the best customers is they signed up because they were intrigued.
And I think that’s a really interesting word and it’s helped us a lot along the whole time. People didn’t sign up because they knew what it was and wanted to get their hands on it. It was because they were intrigued enough that they wanted to continue in the process and learn over time. It was from that that we developed a really big seed list of people who are interested and we got to know as well what topics they were most interested in.
Andrew: I see. This is Alexis Tossis [??] who wrote that article. No, actually she wrote another article. So as you were saying this, there are people who are just pissed hearing that. Because they’re saying “What, this guy Scott got on Tech Crunch with no product that’s fully baked. And I’m building software that Tech Crunch is ignoring daily.” So I’ll ask you, what did you do to get Tech Crunch to talk about you?
Scott: Well, first of all, Tech Crunch and Tech Crunch readers don’t care about your software. What they care about is an interesting story. What they’re interested in is an interesting solution. So pitching anybody with software is pretty stupid. What you want to pitch on is what the benefits are, what you big vision is, it’s something that’s worth writing, worth reading and worth signing up for.
And so, I think that there’s time where if your start-up is all based on a very proprietary and complex technology, then sure, you’re going to have to get that to a certain prototype before you start making promises that you can deliver something. If it’s not, then you should be doing a lot more market validations, spending more time figuring out what the real problems that you’re trying to solve before going out and building something.
Andrew: So you’re saying, tough luck guys, it’s not about having software at all, let alone the best software, it’s about having a good story and we did that. We explained the reason we exist in a way their people cared about.
Scott: Yes, and I’d say the story, and by story I don’t mean pitch or some way of being able to sell them, I think it’s like I said, market validation is figuring out if it’s something that’s even worth writing about. Imagine spending a year or I guess in six months, building world class software to find out the reason Tech Crunch won’t write about it is because it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares about that software.
Andrew: Was Dan Martell [??] the first entrepreneur to create a play? He was. What do you give him? Do you give him a share of the profit, did you pay him up front, did you just say do it as a favor? What was his incentive?
Scott: We’ve never paid anybody upfront. Anybody who is published on the product receives a revenue share, based on sales. Dan Martell, who as I’m sure all of your listeners know, is the CEO and founder of Clarity FM, which is a great service. And he’s such a great guy to other entrepreneurs. He said, yeah, I looked Scott, this sounds awesome, I just want to see you succeed, don’t worry about every paying me a cent, let’s just get this thing done. So, yeah, that’s the setup. Dan’s never taken a cent, but that’s the way that we work with all of our entrepreneurs and all of the offers, it’s a profit share.
Andrew: Steve Blank, did he get a profit share?
Scott: Steve Blank is free. So he doesn’t get a share.
Andrew: He just did it for free and he gave it for free?
Andrew: What’s his incentive for doing that?
Scott: Spreading the word. You know, and I think for a lot of people that was the point, in fact, most of the entrepreneurs could care less about the money, what they cared about, when you think about it from a platform standpoint, as soon as you put a dollar figure on it, in one case it raises the value of the content that you’re sharing, it’s a great way of branding yourself as an expert, and if I’m running a start-up, I better be an expert in my, in my domain. So it’s, for that it’s a way of being able to share process and share their expertise in their domain. So that was the, you know, the main, you know, the main reason.
Andrew: I believe it, I mean frankly, people always assume that my guest for my interviews and the people who lead the courses want to be paid. It’s the exact opposite, people will pay me if I will have them on to do interviews. And I have to say no, because it’s not about getting paid. It’s about creating good content.
On the other hand, I’ve also interviewed people who afterward said, I made, whatever $15,000 from doing this interview and I want to give you a cut. And I always say no, and one time that I was validated in saying no was this guy who offered me, I think it was $12,000. He came back and said can I pay you a share of it. And I said no. I felt like a fool. And then he comes back months later and said, can you remove this part of my interview because I don’t think.
Scott: Right. Right.
Andrew: I should have said that. And then I realized that’s why I don’t, that’s why I don’t accept payment. Then you’ll owe me, I mean then I’ll owe you. Then you’re going to feel entitled to get whatever you want from me.
Andrew: And I’m not giving you that permission. Alright. So this sounds like a beautiful model. They’re experts. They have good ideas. They’re also brands within their space. You know Dan, and Steve Blank. Absolute brands. People will come for them. Why did you decide then to charge, instead of offering it for free and making money off of advertising?
Scott: Because I believe that content, good quality content. Premium content can and should be paid for. Right now there are. I mean just millions of experts who are really good at producing good quality content. Who are getting paid for that content because the idea is that everything should be free? The Internet should be free.
And yet, there’s a whole lot of content producers who aren’t making any money. And frankly to live in a world where those people can’t continue to provide great content and can’t continue to share great ideas would be a, a real waste. And, you know, personally I’m not a big fan of having corporate sponsors. You know, to be able to pay for that content and some of the same ways, and for some of the same reasons that you mentioned, as far as, you know, having some kind of agreement with some body where it means that you can or produce certain content or other content.
And I think ultimately that we’ve lost this idea of a transaction that’s between the consumer and the person producing the content. And so, having that direct relationship between the two of them. That I’ve paid you for your service or your knowledge, I think is a beautiful model. And I’m happy to, you know, bring it back and hopefully popularize it.
Andrew: How did you know what to charge for a play? A play is a set of checklist. How did you know what the right price would be for it?
Scott: So we had absolutely no idea what the right start point would be. In fact if you look at Startup Plays and you look at the history of our pricing, it’s been all over the board. Dan Martel’s guide has gone, you know, from $99 to $400. We’ve tried all kinds of different pricing models. And this was my point with Startup Plays. Is that, you know, entrepreneurs were a great, a great testing ground. You know, not just from pricing but on format, on delivery, on expectations of what should be included and. You know, so as, as guinea pigs entrepreneurs are great.
But I want to point out that I’ve got a ton of respect for entrepreneurs and theses guinea pigs. So at no point did I feel like I was duping anybody, or feel like through these tests people were getting a raw ride. Both me and the team, we reached out to all the entrepreneurs individually. We would, you know, give them additional contact with other mentors. But it really enabled us to have this group of kind of hyperactive people who were really interested in the subject matter to do just tons of barrage of test to figure this information out.
Andrew: Did you ever settle on the right price?
Andrew: All right. Now you have a product. You have a price that you’re still trying to figure out. But we’re all still trying to figure things out as we build. It’s time to get people to come in and buy. One of the things that I saw that you did especially well was that you created a white label product where anyone including Mixergy could have a store of plays. How did that work for you?
Scott: It didn’t work well actually. I allowed the, the concept. But I think that there’s a big difference between running a store and, you know, running your website. As I’m sure you’ve learned a lot with running your courses now. And there’s a lot of people that’s not, those two different kinds of skills aren’t necessarily there. And when you have something that’s free that you can put up on your website, you know, what we saw is that a lot of people weren’t putting, you know, necessary the effort that we were into promoting those, you know, the content. And, ultimately it didn’t work out that well.
Andrew: I’m disappointed. I was really hoping that that would’ve worked out well for you. That a site, let’s use TechCrunch as an example because people know them, but I was thinking a smaller site than them. Would create startupplays.techcrunch.com or startupchecklist.techcrunch.com and pretend it was their new product and . . . [??] . . .
Andrew: . . . their store, sell to their people with their own credibility and pocket a percentage of the revenue.
Andrew: I’m disappointed it didn’t work. I understand why. What about this. You also gave away plays to bloggers and had them write about them.
Andrew: How did that go for you ?
Scott: That was mixed to be honest. And the reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, you know I was talking about market validation and saying that as we, you know, when I was talking to somebody saying here’s the different guides that we have, there’s a hot point and if you got a guide that was something that you were, that was a hot topic right now, you were really looking to solve that problem, then I can always guarantee that you would fall in love with these guides.
If it was something that you already knew, you would be pretty blah about it. You know, and so the difficulty with bloggers is that you had to get the right content in front of them at the right time in order to make the content, you know, kind of blow their minds and make it, you know . . . [??] . . .
Andrew: And they had to blow their audiences minds. Because . . .
Scott: Exactly. Exactly.
Andrew: Huh. Okay. What about this? One of your biggest sources of traffic and maybe best source of customers, I’m imagining, is Zfurl.com [SP] the affiliate program you built. Did that do well?
Scott: Not terribly, actually. It’s a similar affiliate . . . [??] . . .
Andrew: . . . I hope I didn’t lose you again.
Scott: . . . what we saw was that, it would be. [background chatter] ZFurl [SP] wasn’t great, it was a good product so, it wasn’t the product obviously. I think that, you know, a similar thing is that . . .
Scott: . . . this was a, the guides were based on when you had a problem, [??] the right time so, the authors all did a really good job and so they would cause a lot of conversion. Then we just did a lot of outreach, you know, and . . . but as far as third parties and these other groups, none of them were, none of them were sand dunks. [background chatter]
Andrew: What did you do? One of the things we talked about earlier is, you took entrepreneurs, who know their business well, who know one skill especially well, like how to get traffic, who, they don’t know how to break down their ideas well enough to teach it. But you had a process for enabling them to teach it. What was that process? How did you do it? And you’re still doing it to this day, right?
Scott: Correct. Yep. And we’ve automated . . . [??] . . .
Scott: . . . all of that now. But originally it was very manual. So I’ll give you a great example. We worked with Adrian Salamunovic, and he’s the founder of a company called CanvasPop and DNA11. The guy just gets massive amounts of PR. He’s been on Conan O’Brien, his art there, he’s DNA art was a featured of one of the CSI shows. I mean just brilliant at being able to get PR. And so, we sat down and basically, you know, I would say let’s start from the beginning and, like anybody, he would be kind of rushing ahead or he’d run all over, this is important or you should know this. And I just keep saying ‘OK. Slow down and come back and then what?’.
Well then what? We would really go through [??] step-by-step and we just, you know, as if I knew nothing. You know, starting from complete scratch. What do you mean when you say this? What do you mean when you say media calendar or, you know. And so we would really just make sure that we went every piece. And I tell you, at the end, it’s an amazing, amazing guide on how he gets PR and I would say that he’s got a huge personality. But his process works and, you know, it may seem intuitive if you follow it. It’s amazing. And the thing about Adrian, once he finished it, he said ‘You know Scott, this is absolutely amazing. Every one of my staff is going to get a copy of this. I know we had a process, I’ve never looked at it this way before’.
You know and so, it is, you know, pretty amazing. But it’s going through that kind of every step, really breaking it down on what you did. And again, as opposed to being an instructor, and you know, knowing how to instruct something. It’s being able to just say ‘Here’s how I did it’. And nobody selling them saying “And so, you know, you can do it too.” It’s like here’s a good place to start. If you’re not sure? Here’s a road-map that you can use that’s worked before.
Andrew: One of the things I’m thinking as I hear that is I’m admiring that he is so good at it and your process for extracting why and how he’s so good at it. I’m curious about it. But, I also realize I wouldn’t buy it and I wouldn’t go through the checklist to do it. But, if he talked about it at a conference I might download it to my iPhone and listen to it on my run or as I was getting ready for the day.
Is that one of the challenges – that it’s something you consume? I think you might’ve said this before, the content in this checklist breakdown format is something you’d consume if you absolutely needed it, but it’s not something you’d do for entertainment or for your curiosity.
Scott: Yeah. You nailed it right there. It’s not something you’d do for entertainment or curiosity.
We did a lot of work with Noah at AppSumo. Again, that didn’t work as well. I think that the reason is this isn’t something for curiosity or entertainment. This isn’t for what people call the wantrepreneur, the people who aren’t active entrepreneurs.
This is for somebody who’s saying I’ve got to do this now and would follow it along. The reason I’m so attracted to this is that I’ve got an attention span like a fish. So, I don’t listen to long podcasts. I don’t need to be looking at things in order to be able to get any more jacked up or more excited about what I’m working on.
What I want is fast access to answers in order to get to the next milestone or to go solve the next problem. That’s really what we were trying to implement. It was not about trying to entertain people, but help them actually take steps so they can solve a problem.
Andrew: So, that’s it. What else is there? Because frankly, Scott, I’m disappointed it didn’t work. When it first came out I was a little bit threatened. Because I thought oh this is so good, this is the answer. They break everything down into a checklist format that I can consume, that I can follow, that I can apply.
Then I said well, I don’t want to be threatened. I just want to be in admiration, and I was. I kept watching, and the fact that it didn’t work was disappointing to me because I felt like this is a good format.
So, help me understand why else it didn’t work. I feel like what’s wrong with my perception that I missed that this wasn’t a great idea, that I thought it was a great idea and missed the signals. What other signal is there? What else kept it from being the huge hit that I thought it would be?
Scott: Here’s the switch. Here’s the point that you’re going to want to point out to people before they listen to this interview. In my opinion, it was a success. What happened was that we used StartupPlays as market validation saying will anybody pay for premium content? Will anybody fall in love with this content?
We had a 24% repurchase rate. Somebody that would buy something would come back and buy over and over again. There are only four authors of all the people who came onto the product and shared their information that didn’t afterwards go and purchase content themselves, who saw the benefit in the platform. What we did was…
Andrew: So, why close it down then instead of just saying we’re going to keep StartupPlays going and, in addition, we’re going to create this other site that will allow other people to create their own plays?
Scott: Because we felt like we started doing a disservice to our users. Basically, we started focusing on Accel.io which includes all of the content from startup guides. And, we’re continuing to work with entrepreneurs at putting more great content in there in the entrepreneurship area.
But, we see that there’s opportunity in a lot of other areas, not just in entrepreneurship. So, what ended up happening is with a small staff we were trying to continue to run StartupPlays, continue to make promises, do outreach, and work closely with entrepreneurs like we had been while also trying to basically launch this new brand around Accel.io.
At some point we decided that we’re not going to do either world class if we’re trying to do both. We looked at all kinds of different ideas, Andrew. We looked for somebody to run it for us. We looked for all kinds of people and said, “Hey would you be interesting in running this site, because we’re off doing this Accel.io thing.”
Finally, as a small team, we just decided that we’re going to move people as much as we can over to Accel.io to get that same kind of experience. But, StartupPlays was something that was much more… We were much closer to the end user. We were doing a lot more for them as an early stage product. We just felt like we couldn’t do that anymore. We had graduated. We were moving on to something else that I think is going to offer a similar experience.
Andrew: At its height, how much money, or total, how much money did StartupPlays generate? What kind of revenue?
Scott: We did in just over a year just over a quarter of a million dollars.
Andrew: A quarter of a million in over a year.
Scott: In just over a year, yeah.
Andrew: Okay. I’m on Accel.io, which is Accel.io.
Andrew: I’m specifically saying the URL so people can check it out. But one of the things I’m seeing is that under the Discover Great Content I see some personal stuff but a lot of startup and business and business categories and then in the language section there’s ‘eat’, ‘listen’, ‘love Italian’. It’s basically all the startup plays here. What’s the, what’s so new about this that it was diverting your attention?
Scott: You know, we’re starting to do some larger deals right now with some larger content producers. We’ve got a bunch of different things that are currently in development so what I think you’re going to see is a much more full featured solution pretty soon. You know that has taken up [sic] a lot of cycles from us. So it is start up plays plus. And what you’re seeing right now is us going through that evolution but what you’re going to see is much faster growth in many more segments, so…
Andrew: What part grew so much that you felt you had to leave start up plays alone?
Scott: Um. Which part? …[??]…
Andrew: Which part of Accel.io grew so much, that you felt you had to, it was growing so fast that you had to move on past start up plays?
Scott: Uh, it was some deals that we have been working on with some big content partners I can’t talk about right now.
Andrew: Can you give me an example without using a specific name?
Scott: Some large associations and professional organizations. I can’t, I can’t give you any…
Scott: anything more, I…
Andrew: So you’re saying that they wanted a, a white label product or something similar and you built that for them or you started building it and you said that this was taking up so much of our attention it’s so promising that we had to leave start up play behind.
Scott: Well all-in-all, no. [sounds like] So they’re going to be bringing a lot of content onto a platform that needs to be more broad than just start- ups. And so…
Andrew: … I see
Scott: And so we were trying to have work there. We were, getting a lot more people who were starting to contribute on Accel.io; we were moving to a self-service model. Um, with Accel.io people were building their own content. So, it’s- it’s, I would say that Accel.io is where start up plays was, you know, in month four. Um, and we’re doing that very quickly and to try to do that while supporting or keeping start up plays going. It just seemed to me, you know it-
I don’t want to be doing anything that we’re not the best at. I don’t want to something that is pretty good, you know, it’s going along, you know, ho hum. I don’t want to be at the party with you and you say, “Hey I love that start up play” and I’m like, “Oh yeah that’s so last year, now I’m doing this Accel.io thing that’s way better.” That’s not cool. That’s not fair to startup plays. It’s not fair to people who’ve trusted us and who have continued to support us.
Andrew: Let me do a plug here for you: Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. Do you know Scott?
Scott: I don’t. No.
Andrew: He is the startups’ lawyer, I’m surprised he didn’t create a play. Scott is apparently on all the different sites. Every time I talk about him people say ‘well I already know who he is’…
Andrew: I saw him on Venture Beat, I saw him on Jason Calicanis’s podcast, I saw him here, I saw him there. Now you can say you saw him in San Francisco, um, I almost see him here a lot. And anyway, the reason I am recommending him is because he is a guy who knows his base. He’s a guy that can get you started soon and help, early on in your company’s life cycle and help you grow. How do I know that? Because that’s what he did for companies like MightyText which started off with his $2900 all-you-can-need startup package, they kept growing with him as they needed their convertible note. Seed financing, he helped them there. And he helped them with their stock option plan and so on. He’s the guy that helped them and many other entrepreneurs.
But I was just checking my notes to make sure that I didn’t reveal something that I shouldn’t have but I think we’re okay. I will tell you that you can check out Walker Corporate Law or, if you’re as appreciative that he is supporting Nexergy as I am you can just shoot him an email and say scott@walker, sorry, scott@walkercorporatelaw. In the e-mail say ‘Scott, thank you for supporting Mixergy.’ It’s scott@walkercorporatelaw. Get to know them if you need a lawyer. [makes sound] Is it frustrating that I keep saying it failed?
Scott: Um, I think that, you, anytime that you’ve been working on a project for quite a while and you’re sunseting [sic] it or going to the next level, um, you know, I guess in many ways it is a failure. As far as ‘it’: does ‘it’ continue to have legs? Let’s not continue to kind of read into it then. But I’m just excited about the next chapter and what we’re doing with Accel.io. To me start up plays was kind of a stepping stone to that so I’m fine with it.
Andrew: I have to tell you. I need to be open about my own challenges as an interviewer. I’m just disappointed that I used that word, because I knew right from the start that you didn’t think of it as a failure. What I’m expressing here is the prejudice that I’m bringing to the interview. The point of view that I’m bringing in, and I shouldn’t have a point of view in the interview. I should have an open mind in the interview and allow you to tell your story. I’m not doing it aggressively in this interview, but I did notice that when an interview doesn’t work out well and I go back and examine why and I look at the questions.
I have an interview coach that goes through the transcripts with me and helps me to understand, “What did I say that got people to open up?” “Where did they clam up?” “What could I have done differently?” I can see that often the challenge is when I have a point of view and I’m trying to guide someone else through my narrative instead of allowing them to express their own story as it happened. I figure as long as I’m asking everyone else to talk about their challenges I should talk about mine.
Scott: So. . .
Scott: I love that you’re using failure in one way though. Look, we created something that didn’t exist before that and it was called Startup Plays, and we tried to validate all kinds of concepts. There’s a lot of them that are there. You know, paid content, blueprints, something a bit different than what’s out there already.
You were passionate enough that you got the email and said, “Hey I want to get these guys here.” Even though I keep saying to you, “It’s not a failure, we’re going on to the next step,” I like to think it’s because of how much you like Startup Plays. That there’s something personally that you’re attached to. You know saying, “Hey this thing is gone now and you know I really liked it. That sucks.” The fact that . . .
Andrew: I like this model a lot. I love this idea of breaking down someone else’s process. I actually don’t believe that people will go step-by-step through a process, but the checklist format is a good one for explaining the concept. So even if you don’t go through and do every single item on the list, the fact that it’s broken down as a checklist makes it more approachable. Makes you understand the thought process behind it even more. I just like the way you guys did it. I also like the way you put your content together. I think I’ve got everything here. Did I miss anything that we need to know about how you did it? How about the transition? Have sales gone down now that you’ve transitioned people to a new domain?
Scott: They stayed pretty flat. They’re starting to go up now. Actually they’re going up quite a bit faster now. As we started doing the transition, Excel has been live, kind of in the background for a while. This is actually the first interview that I’ve done for Excel IO. I’ve always purposely been quieter where Startup Plays we started with PR. We started with trying to tell everybody to do market validation. Now that we’re doing Excel IO, as you pointed out, we need to get the content up in order to really be able to demonstrate the power of it. So we’ve actually been quieter about it, but things started transitioning over a three month period and now we’re starting to see it ramp a lot faster.
Andrew: You know one of the issues that I, another of my own issues. I keep bringing up my own issues, but I figure the more I bring up my own issues, the more I create an environment where people can talk about what’s up with them honestly. I feel that because I do interviews with entrepreneurs about how they built their business for an audience that’s going to learn for them and build successful companies, and ditto for the courses that I do. Because of that if I fail, it’s a complete failure of the whole structure, and that’s a lot of personal pressure. You know, if I just had a software app out there and it failed, fine. If I said these guys are building a successful company and then Mixergy fails, it’s a double failure. Does that ever weigh on you?
Scott: I’m not sure that I understand. I think that what you do is you put yourself out there. I’ve got a lot of respect for what you do and what you’ve done, and for your brand and how you built it. People trust you because your intent is always to provide the best quality. If you get stuck somewhere, you start going down, you know, a wrong direction I like to believe that over time you’ve built up that trust. You’ve built up, you know, something in your brand that allows people to say, that’s not Andrew trying to screw me. That’s not Andrew who’s done something wrong. I think you should try to do the best thing you can.
Andrew: If all this worked, that means it didn’t work for him. That means it doesn’t work. It’s like a psychic. Remember the psychic hotline where they failed and you say, “Shouldn’t you have seen it coming?” I mean really if the whole thing worked, you should have seen it coming.
Scott: Yeah. I mean you should reach. You should try to do hard things.
Andrew: That doesn’t weigh on you?
Scott: Not really. You know I think if there’s not a higher risk of failure, if you’re not trying to do something that’s different, then you’re like a bunch of these other websites. Just copy everybody else, and frankly life’s too short for that.
Andrew: That’s a good point and I’ve got to just keep moving and I don’t allow it to slow me down, but I have to acknowledge that it’s one of the thoughts that’s in there. I’m now looking at different versions of your site. It was a beautiful site. Glad you guys are transitioning to something that you feel so optimistic about. If people want to check it out they should go to Accel.io. Does it hurt that it’s not excelia.com or something?
Scott: No, I like Accel.io. I think it’s a good site.
Andrew: Thank you so much for doing this interview. What do you think? How was it for you?
Scott: It was great. I enjoyed it a lot.
Andrew: I just said good-bye and Scott said that there was something that I missed, but he didn’t want to put me on the spot and I said let’s keep this recording and put me on the spot. What were you going to say? What did you have in mind?
Scott: Well, you know, one of the reasons that we implemented start-up plays, I started an accelerator in my hometown, Ottawa, Canada and was working a lot of early stage start-ups, and what I kept hearing them talk about was taking different courses that were both in the university and online. And I’ll tell you, I dropped out of school three times. I ended up getting a bunch of degrees, but I hated school. I hated it the whole time. I was running companies while I was in school. It was awful. It’s a part of what we did was start-up plays and what we did with Accel.io is a little bit trying to kind of challenge what is happening right now in our early education and I didn’t want to put you on the spot. I know that you run courses on your site. But how many online courses have you personally taken and completed?
Andrew: Fewer than five, but I call it a course.
Scott: That’s kind of…[??]…go ahead, I’m sorry.
Andrew: But I listen to audio. I do audio learning a lot. And the kinds of stuff that I put on Mixergy I listen to and would listen to if other people did it.
Scott: Right, ’cause there’s pros of wisdom there. There some good information. You can learn from other people’s experiences which is what people talk about. I find on Mixergy. The problem with courses, I believe that courses should fundamentally be either for accreditation, or protecting your ass in a corporation. But otherwise, you’ve got this old model and this just drives me nuts. You have this old model of being able to disseminate information which was in a physical classroom and it was the best way to do distribution. You had somebody who stood up in front of lots of people instead of going door-to-door to teach somebody something.
And now we have this amazing thing called the internet and all we’ve done is just taken the same model and we’ve put it online. So we’ve got one person who stands up in front of me and says, here’s the right information. Here’s how you need to do things and yet, what I see is the opportunities around people just sharing their knowledge. Sharing their experiences which is what you’re doing with mixer G and what we were doing with start- up plays. And what frustrates me with a lot of the online courses is it tends that the people who teach these courses aren’t the ones that use them.
And personally, I would rather be working in an environment where the people who are sharing their knowledge are also benefiting from other people sharing that knowledge as well. And so I think that we, with start- up plays, and with Accel.io in a large way are competing with online education, but I think that online education is just going to go down further and further. It’s a race to zero, but people think that courses should cost a thousand dollars because it does at their community college, so therefore, I’m willing to pay a hundred bucks. That’s actually a good deal, where you come from a checklist that looks more like a book.
Well, now I can get a book for five bucks, or 15 bucks, so I should pay a hundred dollars for it. But I think that the online education space needs to be shaken up and I don’t think, you know, I don’t think it’s a space that is the best way for people to get information so that they can actually act on it.
Andrew: I know what you mean. One of my frustrations is that not everything I want to learn needs to be as formal as a multi-week course. What we call courses are the kinds of things that I would want to just — sometimes I just, like the person who you talked about in the interview, and this is still recorded just for the record.
The person who you talked about in the interview who does PR well, I just want to hear him talk about it. I don’t even want to pay attention in a conference while he’s talking. I don’t want to have to take notes necessarily, though I’m a note taker anyway. I just want to listen to it while I’m brushing my teeth; while I’m showering; while I’m running into work if he’s energizing; or maybe if I’m taking the train back home afterwards. And that is interesting and useful. It’s like my dad used to own a store, and he and other store owners would sit around the dinner table talking about life and junk, and all that. Inevitably, there’d be a point where they talked about the guy who ripped them off, or the guy who bought a lot.
It wasn’t like they were each ripped off in the same way and needed to warn each other, it was just that if you hear how one guy got ripped off, you learn how thieves think and you could protect your store in the future. If you hear how they bought something, some Nike sneaker that Nike didn’t want to sell to them, how they bought it from another guy, they learned it, and when it was time for them to buy something, like a Reebok, or a shirt that they couldn’t buy directly, they knew how to do it.
That kind of knowledge sharing is useful, and that’s the kind of stuff I want to do on my time. That’s where I think the Mixergy, what we call courses are helpful. At the same time, I agree with you that maybe we need to think more interactive.
Maybe we need to think more practically. I don’t have that answer, and I agree with you that a lot of it is broken, and I agree with you that a lot of it is $1000+ courses that are. . . You didn’t say this, but I believe some of them are just selling dreams without any validity.
Scott: Yep. Yeah. It’s what I saw. I think that’s why you do podcasts and I do guides. I think that what I want is. . . Just like when I’m stuck in Germany and need to figure out how to get to France, I can open a guidebook and figure out how to get there. That’s what I want when I’m stuck, whether it’s in my business or personal life, is a guidebook. I can jump in there and say, “OK. What do I do next?”
I don’t want to be inspired. I don’t want to hear people’s opinions. I want to know, “What’s something that I can do next in order to get closer to my goal?”
Andrew: You know what? I’m starting to have more respect for those other courses, the ones where there’s more of a community around them, where there’s more than just what you and I offer. Not that I’m starting to, I’ve always respected them, but I’m getting an even bigger appreciation for it.
Sam Carpenter came to Mixergy to talk about how to systemize a business. I read his book backwards and forwards. I’m implementing his ideas in the company, right down to having the operating principles, like he says, but sometimes I just feel alone in doing it. I wish that there was someone else I could go to and say, “You’re doing it in your company, too. Sometimes I feel like my employees don’t respect the system process. What do you do when that happens to you? Sometimes I feel like I’m misleading them by sending them in a direction of documenting too much. Did you ever do that? What is too much?”
Peer conversation, I feel, is missing, and it’s missing from my book experience, and frankly, it’s still missing from the Mixergy experience. If you were to say that we fall short, that’s one area, I think, where we fall short. If you took our course — Sam Carpenter didn’t teach one– but if you took one, you might feel alone and want someone else to share your experience with and I feel like I need that.
Andrew: What do you think of that? You don’t have that either. If I’m going through one of your checklists, if there’s an issue, can I talk to peers?
Scott: We do now, with the [five] form now, as I was mentioning. . . Yeah, so the way that it’s set up is that you can talk to your peers. You can pose questions directly to the author. You can post in the discussions, as well. Then we have other people who are using the guide, as well as our staff, that are listening in. We invite the authors to come back.
The other thing is that it’s not. . . You know, part of the problem with video and audio is that it’s stamped and it’s stuck there forever. With the guides, there’s always updates. You don’t have to wait until three months from now there’s a new version that has just been released and you have to buy it again. As people ask questions, the author makes updates to the content and improves the content the whole time. You know, it is much more interactive than reading a book or a static course.
Andrew: You’re right. If video has five minutes that are out of date, you have to go and pretty much re-shoot the whole video, or else it feels like there’s something spliced in the middle. With a guide, it’s much easier to change it.
That’s why we need to focus more on — maybe we do — more on concepts than specifics.
Andrew: We shouldn’t be telling you, “Go into your GoogleAds account and click this button,” because this button may not be there tomorrow when we publish the interview, let alone a year from now when someone finds it.
Scott: Sure. Have you thought about. . .
Andrew: We have to understand our medium better.
Scott: Have you thought about, like if you came to me and said, “Hey, I want to do a guide on one of the topics I explored with one of my guests,” the first thing I’d say to you is, “Andrew, your interviews are way too long.”
Again, because I’ve got such a bad attention span. I’d say, “Look, just cut them up into a whole bunch of little segments, and then you can always replace segments, as opposed to having it all spliced together.” Part of the reason why I think that’s good is, I keep mentioning this, going from offline to online, we’re so used to consuming information saying well that’s now there forever but I think that it’s not only okay but pretty cool if we did this interview, we spliced it up into 50 different prices that made sense logically and in some of them you’re wearing your blue shirt, in other ones you’re wearing a red sweater and one of them you got a longer beard or then no beard, the idea that it’s constantly updating.
And some of this information is newer and some of that didn’t make sense anymore and rather than adding more and more crap on the internet, and more pages more work for poor Google and Bing is that instead we say, why don’t we just keep some of this stuff up to date all the time? We can, technically we can so why do we just keep adding more and more layers on top of it?
Andrew: I think it makes sense, I just think that there are 2 different formats and they just need to operate separately, that to this day if you go back and listen to my interview with Seth Golden about tribes, no part of it should need to be edited out. If you go back and listen to our interview 10 years today from now when startup plays are no longer up it’s just redirecting to Accel.io, it should still make sense and should still hold up.
And there’s room I think for that, for us to capture this moment in time where you’ve just figured something out and you’re explaining how you figured it out and we want to encapsulate it and we want to hold it as it is but I think there’s also another model which says we need, and another format that says we need to adjust every section of this and keep it up to date and a good example of that is stock exchange. Where the top question today should not be the top question tomorrow and it should be voted on by multiple people so it’s kept updated and that’s different from this model.
And it’s something that I have to respect that there are boundaries here within Mixergy, this shouldn’t be the most up to date piece of content on the internet which means that we have to think longer term. But, your model, I think, is more future oriented, which is to say there’s this whole new medium out there, and it’s not just on the computer, it’s also mobile and we have to keep it updated and if we do then people should be able to use it as a guide, the way… [??] yeah.
I mean when I give my people a guide to how to use PipeDrive to keep track of all of our guests, I give it to them, similar to the way you do. Step by step, screenshot by screenshot and if PipeDrive changes one of the step I have to go and do a newer screen shot.
Scott: Sure. Sure.
Andrew: I’m glad you’re recording your part of the conversation. If it feels a little bit like it’s not a natural conversation with more back and forth and more interrupting it’s because I feel like I’m on CB radio. For some reason our connection today isn’t that good but I’m really glad that Glen gave us a way to record your side. We will have to piece it together.
Andrew: Cool. And maybe sometime also at a conference we can debate this more publicly and go,. like, more at it because I do think there’s a place more for an argument here.
Scott: Yeah, yeah, that’ll be a lot of fun. We should definitely look at doing that.
Andrew: Alright. Thank you for doing this. I hope I get to meet you in person.
Scott: Absolutely. Thanks a lot, Andrew.