This is part of my series of interviews with founders I met through TechStars, the program where start ups like Shane’s get their funding, mentorship, and so much more.
Andrew: Coming up, check out how today’s guests and I discover that we used to do business together, and find out why his mom shut that company down when it did business with me. Also, do you ever feel like you have to keep moving, building, growing, just to prove someone else wrong? Well, a positive thing happened to today’s guest when he had a little bit of that feeling. Be sure to catch that, too, because it will influence the way you think about negativity and all the challenges that come your way.
Also if you’re working hard on a really small business, and I mean working long nights, stressing, agonizing, putting in the time and energy, listen to today’s guest make a case of why you’re doing it wrong, and how changing his thought process allowed him to go bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger with each of his businesses. You’re going to see it and hear it all, and so much more, coming up.
Before we get started, I want to congratulate Mixergy fan, Brad Mills, for creating this, Nuvia Cafe. He says he did it while listening to Mixergy interviews, based on what he learned from those interviews. Can you imagine the first time, by the way, that an idea that he had became this box of coffee or this cup of coffee, that he could taste, that he could feel, that he could see out in the world? That’s what Mixergy’s about, interviews for viewers like Brad and you.
By the way, if you want to check out his website, it’s nuviacafe.com. That’s where you can buy it. And this whole thing is sponsored by Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. Do you need a lawyer who actually understands the start up world that you live in? Go to walkercorporatelaw.com. I’ve known Scott Edward Walker for years, so tell him you’re a friend of mine. It’s also sponsored by Shopify. Does anyone you know need a beautiful online store that increases sales and is easy to set up and manage? Send them to shopify.com. It’s the platform that shop online stores run on.
All right. Let’s get started. Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. I was smiling, because I realized, you know? If you didn’t watch any of the past interviews, you probably don’t even know why I keep addressing the audience as freedom fighters. And the reason is, every time I ask an entrepreneur, just about every time I ask an entrepreneur who I’ve interviewed, what’s the best part of having done it all? You know, at the end of the interview, after they tell me about the highs, the lows, the times they couldn’t make payroll, the times they were sleeping on the couch in their office, I say, all right, so now that you went through all that and you did it, what’s the best part? They always let out this exhale, and they go, freedom. I can do whatever I want now.
So freedom fighters. That’s who we are. And as freedom fighters, here’s a big question that I think will drive this interview. I want to know how a writer ends up creating a publishing machine. Shane Snow is the co-founder of Contently, which is a marketplace where publishers can find writers, and they also create software that makes it really easy for publishers to coordinate the articles that they have written for them. This is part of my series of interviews with founders that I met through Tech Stars, which of course is the program where start ups like Shane’s get their funding, mentorship, and so much more.
Shane, welcome, and thanks for doing this interview.
Shane: Thanks, Andrew. Yeah. Happy to be here.
Andrew: You had a pivotal client that shaped the kind of customers that you go after. Can you tell the audience about that?
Shane: Sure. When we started the company, like you said, we want to match freelance writers with publishers and provide publishers with tools to help them create content that makes a difference. So that was our mission, that’s when we started out. I was a freelancer. I was writing for a bunch of places, not having a good time, but realizing that there was a lot of great talent out there who couldn’t get gigs. So we were pitching, we thought we’d be the New York Times freelance agency arm something. The technology they used to get freelancers in Alaska when they didn’t want to fly people there. So we were pitching to these media companies like CBS and other traditional publishers like that, and as everyone knows, the business models there with the advertising and the digital revolution, are making things pretty tough on the guys, which essentially meant they wanted to pay us very little, pay our freelancers very little.
We were kind of struggling with the rates that they were wanting to pay that were pretty abysmal, and we ended up striking a deal with a nontraditional publisher, mint.com, which is owned by Intuit. So they’re a brand, they’re a corporation. Their goal is not to sell ads, but to get people to sign up for Mint. And they said, “Hey, look. Here’s the rate we’re paying’ and it was twenty times what CBS wanted to pay us.” And so that right there was sort of this seismic big moment for us where we realized there’s a huge opportunity in another space we haven’t even thought of that will pay multiples of what the original opportunity we thought. And so that shifted the whole direction of our business. And it’s been really exciting and, of course, tumultuous, ever since.
Andrew: And I’m actually looking at your website right now and I see huge brand names. Impressive. American Express, Rack Space, these aren’t companies by the way, that are known for being media outlets. General Electric, American Heart Association, Boeing, Bank of America, UNICEF. Yes, you do have publications, like I see the Atlantic on here but for the most part, what you discovered with that conversation with Mint, is that brands do want to create content and they’re willing to pay for good content. And so, what do you guys do? Do you find the writers for them?
Shane: Yes. So, there are a couple of challenges that brands have. Everyone used to be, when we started the company it was kind of people were like “Yeah, brands can use WordPress or Tumbler, whatever.” But now everyone is almost a cliche. Everyone’s a publisher now and every brand is thinking how they can shift their advertising money into creating content, sort of skipping the intermediaries. And so they have a couple of challenges as a brand. Their core competency. So Pepsi, for example. They’re really good in making sugared drinks and Frito Lay and stuff. They’re not necessarily equipped to build a newsroom at a media company. And so the challenges are finding talent and then organizing talent and actually getting that content in front of people.
And so those are some areas where we help. Initially the company basically what’s about first and as an extension of that becomes media companies are, in media you have a lot of certain moving parts. [??], assignments, revisions, tracking, changes, [??] and pushing out to different platforms because we kind of built this platform on top of that. But at its core, if you boil down contently to one sentence it really is a market place for creative talent for journalists.
Andrew: OK. I’m looking at a piece that I pulled out of a Techron article from late 2011 and it says, “Contently is doing a million in sales per year as of this month and is doubling its transaction volume every six weeks.” Is that true?
Shane: At the time that was accurate. That was last year sometime .
Andrew: October, 2011.
Shane: Yes. So we’ve grown a lot since then. It’s hard to keep doubling every six weeks because eventually you surpass the world economy. But we have been growing by leaps and bounds and it almost feels like you’re chasing a shopping cart down a hill and trying to keep your hands on it. Only in this case the hill is going up. So doing good so far.
Andrew: And when did you guys launch?
Shane: Officially, we formed the company in December of 2010. But we launched various beta versions and iterations. The current version we have with the current model around May of 2011.
Andrew: So within a year you were doing $1 million in sales.
Andrew: And the article also says that the average journalist makes $43,000 a year. You guys were hoping to help them earn $60,000. Is that what’s going on now or are you still on your way there?
Shane: So what we determined, these brands who are becoming publishers and are starting to produce editorial content, they want journalists to tell real stories and not just put brochures out on Twitter, because they know people won’t share it. These brands are realizing that they have a competitive advantage in that they have bigger budgets than media companies that they’re essentially competing against and so they’re willing to pay for top talent.
And so we looked at the statistics one day and realized that the average journalist salary in America is in the $40,000 range. My sister is a reporter in Idaho where it’s much lower than that. Some people are reporters in New York where it’s a little higher. You don’t make a whole lot as a journalist and we calculated the writers who are writing full time for our clients through our platform and the ones who were essentially making $60,000 and above, which is pretty awesome. And for me that was a big win because I am a journalist and that’s part of my motivation for starting the company.
Andrew: So I want to hear how this business came about, where the idea came from, how you found customers, how you grew so quickly? But before we start that, you told me that you noticed something. As a guy who is a journalist who also launched several businesses, you’ve noticed that even as your ideas have gone progressively bigger, it’s almost, almost as hard, about as hard to work on a big project as a small project so you might as well go for the big ones, right?
Shane: Yeah, absolutely, and I’ve been saying this a lot lately as I’ve realized, since I’m kind of one of those guys who, I think a lot of entrepreneurs are like this, in high school you’re selling baseball cards, or as a kid you’re selling lemonade, and you’re finding creative things to do. I started internet businesses back when they were first starting when I was kid, and each business that I grew got progressively better and progressively bigger, and what I’ve realized with Contently is you’re working just as hard. You’re putting in 80 hours a week, whether you’re trying to build a business that’s worth $1,000,000 a year or $100,000,000 a year.
Andrew: Can you give me an example, because I think for most people that difference seems really big, the idea that at Contently you have to raise. What did you raise? Two point three million dollars total, somewhere around there? So you have to raise more money. You can’t just pick up the phone and get a Bank Of America on the line and sell them the way you might if you were doing a smaller business, so it feels like sales is harder, and the quality of your work needs to go up. Most people I think would hear that and just not understand what you mean by, “Hey, it’s just about as hard to work on a big project as it is on a small one.” Why is it the same?
Shane: I think there is an important clarification in that. You do have to work differently when you’re working on a bigger scale, and in a lot of cases that is new territory for you. So, for me, you know raising money from venture capitalist was new territory. That was difficult. But, whether I was working, so I had a website I had built that essentially was like a Kayak for online printing companies. If you wanted to print out 5000 brochures and you needed them tomorrow, if you went to Overnight Prints it might cost you $5000, and if you went to Printing For Less it might cost your $1000, so there was a huge gap. I built this search engine for prices for that.
It was a nice little business. I earned affiliate fees. I was staying up until 3:00 a.m., coding, tweaking UX, on my own, building this thing and putting in a lot of hours and keeping myself afloat. Well, you know, I (?) for the first year, we were staying up until midnight or 1:00 a.m. or whatever, coding and working on customer deals and all that. You’re putting in the same amount of work, it’s just different work. The nice thing about building a big business is you can hire people to distribute that load. You can’t build a big business as an individual person, but by turning into a real company, it really ends up being I’m just as stressed now as I was when I was working on other projects.
Andrew: You mentioned some of the previous businesses, and I’m about to ask you, but first I’ve got to ask you, what is that over your shoulder? Where are we right now? Don’t even move the computer. Maybe at the end if we remember it, you can give people a panoramic view of the office that you’re in or the room you’re in, but for anyone looking at the video, where are you right now?
Shane: I’m in the old server room which is also our storage/trash room/phone-call booth room. We moved into a new office about a month ago, and whoever was here before had this insane server set up with these wires. Yeah, and I can turn the camera. There’s an enormous switchboard of old. This is kind of a step up above the trash room, but . . .
Andrew: [laughs] And I’ve got to tell you it’s really quiet, and it’s nicely focused.
Shane: Yeah, and they have AC in here to cool down the server, so it’s nice.
Andrew: I’m pretty much in a similar room, too. I had to look around at tons of offices in this area until I found one that didn’t have a loud air conditioning system, that didn’t have any outside light because, God forbid, I have light on one side but not the other, it looks kind of funky on video. It’s funny the things that we do as we’re building up our businesses. Speaking of starting out, as you were saying earlier you were starting lots of businesses, and before we started this interview, you started telling me about this business that your parents made you shut down, and it was such a great story, I said, “Hold off. Keep it fresh for the interview.” Now we’re in the interview, tell me what is this business that you had, and why did your parents make you shut it down?
Shane: OK, so I kind of worry about telling this story sometimes because my dad probably will see this at some point, and may be . . .
Andrew: Oh, good. Do this, and maybe your kids in the future and grandkids, and we’re all judging you.
Andrew: They should see this. What is the story?
Shane: The story is I was 16 years old, and a friend of mine who is now actually my co-founder at Contently. We were buddies in high school. We were in the Math Club together and the Computer Club, and he started building an e-greeting card site. It was basically publishing happy birthday cards that he would send an email forward. I thought, “Well, I’m a writer, and I can do design. I should start a competing e-greeting card site.” I did, and we kind of traded traffic, traded emailing lists. Basically, the business model was, if someone wanted to send a greeting card to a friend there was a little check box that said, “I want to receive offers from publishers or whatever.” Back then, you would make a quarter per person who would do that. It was an insane amount of money. That was before the bubble burst, right?
I started doing this company that was called Fantasticcards.com. On Saint Patrick’s Day there would be dancing leprechauns you could send to your friends. I started making a lot of money to the point where this one month I got a check that was larger than my dad’s paycheck, and he’s a mechanical engineer. My parents, at that point, kind of were shocked. That started the discussion of, “What are you doing? How legal is it?”, not understanding the internet very well, the early days of the internet and internet business. Basically, they decided, “We want you to learn the value of hard work. We don’t feel good about this. You have to stop internet businesses until you go to college.” Then I got a job at the gas company, and that really sucked. The story I was telling you is that this business, Fantasticcards, that made some money and was really fun, I kind of had this chip on my shoulder after that where after I left high school, I said, “I’m going to start another internet business because I couldn’t do that business.” You know, because . . .
Andrew: I’m going to show my parents they were wrong to shut me down. I’ve got all this potential.
Shane: Right, right. Exactly. They believe in me, and they are very supportive right now and everything, but I think that kind of gave me a little bit of a bug where I might have pursued other things, but I was like, “No, I’m going to make this happen, and it will be sort of an, I told you so.”
Andrew: Hey, was the company that paid you 25 cents per mail in, called Mailbits?
Shane: Yes, it was.
Andrew: I ran that company. I probably signed those checks.
Shane: Are you kidding me?
Andrew: That’s the business. When you said a quarter, I especially knew that must be us.
Shane: Oh, wow! Yeah. Well, nice to meet you. Thanks for the checks.
Andrew: [laughs] I can’t believe you shut it down, and I can’t believe I allowed you to shut it down without trying to buy out that business.
Shane: Yeah, so Jo, my co-founder, his was called Fungrams, and his was like four times the size as mine, and he kept his going for a while, and so . . .
Andrew: I think people don’t get the size of these businesses. We were writing checks out for a lot of them were just teenaged kids at home. I remember one guy getting $100,000 for a month.
Shane: Oh, yeah.
Andrew: It was unreal the size that these guys were making, and I was foolish for not going in and buying them for a few months worth of revenue.
Shane: Yeah. It’s true. Joe one day showed up to high school with a brand new Nissan Pathfinder.
Shane: Everyone was like, “What happened? Does he sell drugs?” Yeah, it was just that month he made a ton of money on Mailbits.
Andrew: Some people also were doing some funky stuff with it where we had people, we were just dealing with so many different people. Some of them were really clever about the way they collected email addresses, some went over the line with it. Some people would take our checks and wipe out the amounts and change it to something higher. It was such a crazy group of people who we were working with, but if it worked like it did for you, you got to keep building it.
Shane: Yeah, it’s interesting. You know I think, so Joe, my co-founder at Contently, he went on the start a business that is in a similar sort of vein where you have a lot of random people trying to defraud you, which ended up being lessons learned for us as we build our current business on how do you, from the beginning, think about how to prevent that kind of stuff, because it’s definitely a challenge.
Andrew: So, can you say how much revenue you brought in for a month?
Shane: With Fantastic cards? I think my best month was $6000 or $7000, and that’s when . . .
Andrew: That’s when your parents shut you down?
Andrew: Cool. All right, by the way I keep telling people about Bradford and Reed, what we used to do, and how we would pay people a quarter. It’s so cool to have somebody come on who was actually generating that quarter in sale in affiliate commission every time someone sent out a card. All right, I’m seeing some hesitation as I tell you this. What are you feeling about this? About this part of your life?
Shane: About the Mailbits . . .
Andrew: About the whole Mailbits connection?
Shane: No, it’s pretty awesome. It’s funny because I want to know now. I’m hesitating because you should talk with Joe and actually bond with him, because he made like an absurd amount of money that I think he didn’t want people to know about.
Andrew: I wonder what it was? I don’t remember Joe standing out.
Shane: It was pretty cool. Basically, the strategy was build up a big mailing list, and then whenever you had a new card you emailed everyone so you have 20,000 people on your mailing list, and 500 of them are bound to send it to their friends, and then they send it to their friends, and it was a pretty good business. I think some good early lessons in viral mechanics there as well and dealing with large groups of people.
Andrew: Yeah. Unreal. I would love to meet him, too, and talk about what was going on in those days. All right, on with this story. You had that business. It’s so cool, by the way. I love to do interviews with guys from those days and see what they’re up to now, and see what they ended up even doing with the revenue. All right, so you had this business. Your parents shut you down. Do you start another business soon afterwards?
Shane: So, yeah that was when I was 16. Like I said, I ended up working for the gas company, and I was a pizza delivery driver until I turned 18. Then I moved out and went to college. Then, in college, I basically started up a web design shop for small businesses. That was a time when it was kind of rare to have a website if you were a local business, and basically I went door-to-door and sold people on like, “you need to have business, and maybe you can sell your products through PayPal.” I did that, and I ended up hiring a couple of friends as designer/developers kind of on a contract basis, and that basically put me through college.
While I was doing that I was always thinking of what are the sort of passive income type of opportunities. While I’m hustling and building these websites for people realizing I’m helping them make money, why don’t I build something that helps me make money beyond the hours that I put in? I kind of did a lot of exploring around that. I had a lot of little e- commerce sites, some of which are still around. One that still makes money somehow is, no one sells saddles online apparently. I (?) and I was like, “What are things that people can sell online that are high dollar?” I made this site that basically is about saddles, and . . .
Andrew: Saddles for horses?
Shane: . . . For horses, yeah.
Shane: People found it in search, and they click through, and they buy it from some saddle shop, and I make $100 or something. Saddles are expensive. There are a lot of sort of little things like that. I had this, and now we’re getting into embarrassing territory, so at one point I told my friends I looked at Google Zeitgeist that came out one year on what are the most popular search phrases, and the most popular how-to that year was, “how to kiss”, and so I bought the domain how-to-kiss.net. Please don’t go to it, it’s embarrassing. Actually, it’s pretty funny. I went there, and I told my roommates, “OK, I’m doing this school project. I need to take pictures of you kissing your girlfriend for this school project website of how-to-kiss.net.” The embarrassing part of that is I’m also on there with my girlfriend, and basically it’s like this fairly silly tutorial on, if you’re a teenager, how do you approach a girl? I made this site, and it’s generated $500 a month since then.
Andrew: Five-hundred a month since then doing what? What kind of affiliate programs?
Shane: As for e-books on how to improve your dating, or whatever, how to be more confident, and stuff like that. There are lots of these little things. That one was kind of funny because it’s a little bit embarrassing, and I kind of tricked my roommates into it. I told them it was a school project because I was too embarrassed to say I was trying to make this into a business. I eventually told them, and we all had a good laugh.
Andrew: You know what? This site looks pretty good. I was really expecting something super-cheesy. I think this looks good. Which one are you? Are you the open-mouthed kiss, the French kiss, the playful kiss or the goodnight kiss?
Shane: Actually, I don’t know which one I am. I’m the one kissing the girl with the blonde on top of her head.
Andrew: Oh, I see. So, she’s got dark hair with blonde dye on it.
Shane: That’s us. We’re actually married now, so it . . .
Andrew: Get out!
Shane: . . . it worked out for the best.
Andrew: I was going to say, she looks great.
Andrew: Congratulations to you!
Shane: Thank you.
Andrew: I see it leads . . . somehow I clicked by accident. I’m on my iPad where if I put my finger down something’s going to get clicked. I ended up on ebon pagan site, so I guess that’s one of the affiliate or one of the ads that you’ve got on there.
Shane: I literally haven’t looked at it for years. People once in a while send me an email saying, “Can I buy it?” I’m kind of worried about it getting picked up by a sketchy adult (?), so I just leave it alone. I guess, to the point, all of these things were sort of progressively more interesting or more potentially passive or bigger ideas that eventually proved that, for me, what I was trying to do is figure out ways to make money with less and less effort that were legitimate ways. I guess that’s kind of what entrepreneurship is, is turning effort into money and then getting a machine rolling, getting people in and sort of creating from nothing. Even with the web design thing, basically what that turned into was an infographics business where, not only was it infographics, I was doing a lot of design for people, and eventually I hired some designers to work with me, so I didn’t need to do the design and other designers were doing it, and I basically was the HR guy. I set up that with some automation. Anyway, I’m kind of rambling at this point, but . . .
Andrew: Here’s what I noticed about you. I kind of felt like I was spying on you because as I looked around I kept finding little businesses that you were launching, some that launched, I think there was one that even had a splash page coming soon which tells me you were just testing it out, I guess that’s what it was. I found a whole bunch of businesses that you were building up, but I also found a lot of articles. I have a screen shot in front of me from Fast Company of all the articles that you wrote for them, and Mashable, all the articles you wrote there. As a guy who’s so entrepreneurial that it feels like he can’t stop launching businesses, how do you also have this side of you that just feels so much like a writer, like that’s what you were meant to do?
Shane: You know, that’s the funny thing. When I went to college I really liked internet business and I really liked being an entrepreneur, but really what I wanted to do, sort of in my heart, was be a journalist. I really loved reading, I really loved writing, I wanted to write books, I wanted to write for magazines, and I didn’t study journalism in undergrad mainly because I was convinced that you couldn’t make an income, make a living doing that. People had said that. There was this point in my life when I – after undergrad; I went to undergrad in Idaho – I decided that everybody sort of needed a change of scenery and so I moved to Hawaii just because. I was like, “I’m working on the Internet. I’m going to move to Hawaii.” It was kind of a scary thing to get out of my bubble that I had been in.
After that, it was like this light bulb went off where I realized, “Hey. If I can move to Hawaii, I can actually do anything I want. There’s no one stopping me from going anywhere or being anything or doing anything.” And that’s when I decided I really wanted to pursue a career in writing, because that’s what I always, deep down, really loved. I started blogging, I started hanging out with writers, getting into social media, and that eventually led me to journalism school which brought me to New York where I decided I wanted to pursue a career. It stuck on me to begin writing for (?) and Fast Company and Wired and Gizmodo and all these places. I think because of my entrepreneurial ADD I was never satisfied to write for one place. I wanted to write a million clips for every place. I sort of established a really broad network of connections within journalism, and then when the entrepreneurial bug kept gnawing at me I realized that I needed to marry these two things that I’m passionate about – the future of journalism and being a freelancer where you can sort of make your own way and be an entrepreneur and a writer and also have an internet business.
Andrew: They’re such different worlds, though, because as a writer, your revenue comes from the next article. You just have to keep working and pumping stuff out. As an entrepreneur, you have to build a business that’s sustainable, that runs without you. In fact, you’ve built one website that you mention now that still produces hundreds of dollars a month even though you haven’t touched it. You don’t even know which of the kissing couples you are it’s been so long since you’ve been on there. Why did you go on to write? Is it just that you’re so passionate about it? What was it that got you to go to that world?
Shane: I think this is pretty universal. I guess I can’t speak for every writer, but most writers know that that’s not the most lucrative career. If you want to make a ton of money, you don’t become a writer – unless you’re really delusional and think that you’re going to be a best-selling James Patterson. Which I think it takes a good kind of delusion to do that. You need to have unabashed confidence. There are a lot of people who can do that, but it’s rare. Most people go into writing because they really care about writing. They love the craft or they love the subject matter. They’re passionate about issues and about helping people understand and be educated. I think that’s really what drove me.
It’s really sort of two-fold, I guess. Writers like seeing their own work. They like seeing something that they’ve created be consumed by lots of people, which is sort of a similar, shared trait with entrepreneurs. Another shared trait is you’re kind of on your own as a writer a lot of times, hustling, digging up information or (?), pestering people. You don’t go into it thinking you’re going to become a billionaire. I think because of that writers in general are happy just to have the next thing and to be able to sustain that work and that lifestyle. The thing that’s happened in recent years with the tumult of the media industry, a lot of people are getting laid off and they’re going to different careers. They realize that they can’t fund their dream of being a writer, so they’re going to do something else, maybe write on the side.
One of my big motivations with Contently was to help those kind of people A) have an outlet for an easy way to get work on the side through Contently but also B) people who wanted to fund some passion project of theirs, they wanted to write a book that, by definition you’re not making money until it sells, they wanted to do some non-profit thing or report some long-form thing they’re not going to get paid for but it’s something that’s very important, but if they had steady work on the side, they could actually fund that. That’s what we see a lot of people doing with Contently is day- to-day, writing a few stories a week to make a few hundred bucks so that they can then work on that novel or that long-form article that they’re passionate about. I think that’s really cool. I really do think it boils down to having that drive to wanting to do something important and loving the output itself.
Andrew: What’s the scrappy thing that you did?
Shane: OK. So with Publishers we did this thing that we called internally manual automation. I don’t know if that’s a real term. It might be. We built sort of a façade, like an interface, that really had nothing behind it other than it would email us and tell us what was happening and then we, in the back end, would actually use our admin tools or have our developers manually put in the stuff. With Publishers there were a lot of things that we wanted to prove and sort of define. For example, how much effort a publisher is willing to make, what are the kinds of things that they want, what are the kinds of things that they don’t want to do? We didn’t want to build features unless we needed them, and so we basically built an interface that showed you what was going on and let you put in assignments and pick writers and all that but it didn’t actually hook up to anything.
We really spent a week’s worth of effort versus six months worth of effort with developing this thing so we could then test it. Basically we had a bunch of stressed out co-founders and early employees. An order would come in, and we’d say, “OK. We need to put this writer.” We’d call them on the phone, and we’d say, “Hey. So-and-so, can you do this story? OK. Cool. We’re going to log it in the system.” We did a lot of that. Even to this day we do that with certain new features that are coming out. If there’s a feature that’s on our roadmap that we’re planning on building, we usually validate it through that kind of method. We offer it, and then see if people use it.
Andrew: For example, what’s a feature that you tested that way?
Shane: For example, one is the ability to add multiple approval steps. So if you’re a publisher and you have two layers of editors that you want stuff to pass through before you approve it, or if you want it to just be you and the writer, no editor in between. We originally set it up so it was writer-editor-publisher, and that was fixed. We wanted to test this idea of what if people wanted to skip the editor or what if they wanted to add other editors or put the lawyer in there or whatever.
So we started telling people we could do that. Eventually people take you up on that, and then you have to fake it. We set it up manually. We sort of hack it for their account and then start working on the actual product as a version of that so they could set it up themselves. Then what happens is you get a lot of people using that, and all of a sudden you’re way behind on technically what you’re doing. That actually becomes a good excuse for raising more money and hiring more developers and all that. I feel like people are using this, but we just haven’t built the tech yet.
Andrew: I see.
Shane: So that’s an example of one of those. Even today, someone asked, “Can we send payments to international writers if they’re (?) ?” So we right now work with only U. S. and Canada writers, but they said, “We have our own writer we want to put in the system. Could we pay them internationally?” We said, “Yeah.” And then we figured it out. We basically contacted PayPal and asked, “How do we set this up so we can do it automatically?” It’s pretty funny. At this stage it’s pretty fun, and it’s kind of what you have to do in order to test that stuff.
Andrew: All right. I want to do a quick plug, and then I’m going to ask you a question about those greeting cards and a spin around your office.
The plug, of course, is for mixergypremium.com. People have been asking me what’s the difference between just coming to Mixergy and mixergypremium.com? With mixergypremium you get courses. Courses are taught by real entrepreneurs who focus on just one thing, and they make sure you understand that one thing and how to do that one thing before the course is over. In one course, it’s by Sara Hatter, we did how to do customer support. We got a lot of emails at Mixergy, more than I could handle. I wanted to learn this course. I asked Sara to come on and teach it because she’s fantastic at it. She showed us how to get people answers before they even ask, how to redo our whole support area (we’re just about ready to launch it) and we did it just based on what she taught in that course.
That’s the whole idea. How to do customer support taught by someone who does it. How to get publicity taught by someone who does it. How to automate sales, which we’re doing a course on soon, it’ll be taught by an entrepreneur who does it fantastically well. It’s all there at mixergypremium.com. Sign up. If you’re not happy, I give you 100% money back guarantee. Mixergypremium.com. I always have to have the call to action at the end of that. So I’m actually looking at your partner’s fun page site. That’s what those things are called. They’re called ‘fun pages’, not greeting card sites. At least internally, we call them fun pages. He has fun games, he has a nice looking site over here. It looks like you’ve had a bunch of friends in the space. What’s the craziest fun page site that you created?
Shane: Oh, man. That I created. I don’t know. Which sites are you actually on?
Andrew: FunGames.com. That’s what Joe had listed. Oh, FunGrams. I mistyped it. That’s what he had on LinkedIn and I got it wrong. Let me go to FunGrams.com.
Shane: Yeah. I think he actually let it expire and someone else bought it.
Andrew: Ah, that sucks. That’s kind of what happened to mailbits. I wonder what’s on there now.
Shane: I’m sure you can find it on Archive.org.
Andrew: Someone took out mailbits off Archive. I’m so glad, before I gave a presentation, I took a bunch of screenshots. Oh, I see what they did to it. They’re linking to app. So, I guess FunGrams is not a good example. What’s yours? What’s one of the crazy ones that you did?
Shane: One of the crazy ones. So there was one that got recycled a lot. I didn’t make it, but I made like, an adaptation of it. It was back in the day when, I think everyone had Internet Explorer or some terrible, terrible old browser. What would happen when you get a pop-up alert, that you see once in a while, you couldn’t exit the browser. You had to hit OK. There was this card that was like 150 of those in a row, basically making fun of you, and it was, ‘Trick your friends,’ with this thing. So you send them this card that was like, ‘Hi,’ and you click OK. ‘Bet you didn’t know…’ and you click Ok. ‘But this is 150 (?),’ and then it proceeds to write snarky things at them.
Andrew: These would actually be on Windows. A real pop-up would come up, and there’s nothing you can do about except click OK.
Shane: You can’t. You have to shut your computer down. It was pretty infuriating.
Andrew: At the end of it, or somewhere throughout, they could pass it to their friends, and really drive their friends crazy like this. And if they did pass it to their friends, you earned a quarter.
Shane: Right. Exactly.
Andrew: Often, they would send it, not to one friend, they would start typing in one friend, but they would send it five, six people. On average, it would be somewhere like, five and a half people. Then those five and a half people would come to your site and go through this, and many of them would send it to their friends, and the cycle would just go and go and go. Hopefully, if you built your business right, this was the part that we weren’t involved with. You collected some email addresses, which allowed you then to bring them back and say, “You know that crazy thing that we did with the pop-up? We have another crazier one with I don’t know what.” So what else? What were the other ones that you did?
Shane: I started getting into urban-y versions of flash. So I started making these cartoons for like, every holiday. So any holiday that came out, I made like, a dancing frog cartoon or some disco dancer thing. I may have some of them somewhere still. Stick figures like high-fiving each other. You wouldn’t believe. Back in the day, that was hot stuff. That was original meme material.
Andrew: Right. And the way people would send it is via email. There as no Twitter, there was no Facebook. You know what? The one that always stands out in my mind is, there are a couple. The first one that I ever saw, I thought this person was clearly ripping off our affiliate program, back before I even knew that greeting cards would work well with this [??] program. This woman was making thousands, and all her site was, was this big giant cross, with, I think, a big Jesus on the cross, with these Christian words underneath it. Then a button saying, “Click this to tell a friend,” and, of course, when people clicked it, came to our forum. She would earn a quarter.
I didn’t realize how big, giant the Christian market was. That opened my eyes to that. The other one was, and I would love to say his name, but he’s a lawyer now. I don’t know if he wants connection to any of this stuff. But, it was Mission Impossible. The movie was coming out. Everyone was talking about it, and he found smiley faces that looked like spies. It was, “My mission is to make you smile today,” and then a bunch of smiley faces, and a bunch of text, trying to make you smile. It was great stuff.
Shane: Those are the best. You know this company, SomeECards that came out?
Shane: Might be a New York company, or something. Something like that. But when they came out a couple of years ago, I was like, ‘This is the greeting cards thing again,’ but theirs are more witty and well-developed and not really the fun pages. But I was shocked that there’s a market for that still.
Andrew: You know what though? They’re all aiming at hipsters. What I found was the better market was mothers, fathers. They were much less cynical. They were much more willing to experiment. They were much more willing to buy from advertisers. There’s a reason why we get paid $25 a pop and send you thousand of dollars, because people would end up doing things like buying a magazine through us.
Shane: Yeah. That’s really [??]. I just remember a lot of happy, sort of like, [??] and jig, smiley face kind of things that were like, ‘I just wanted you to know that I care about you.’ It’s actually kind of nice, because some of that stuff, especially back in the day, when there was a lot of fraud and all that weird stuff that happened. Selling people dancing smiley faces that cheer each other up. Like actually kind of felt good and especially as a [?] senior. Like I may be making a dent in the world and I’m making a lot of money. And so, it was pretty cool.
Andrew: Yeah, I get great thank you notes. I still, well not so much anymore but years afterword’s, even in mailbits, I discover, excuse me, at Mixergy I’d get emails from people from old mailbits days.
Shane: Well next time it’s your for you birthday, I might make one up.
Andrew: Suddenly a dancing smiley face, can I go to your site and get someone to write those dancing pages for me?
Shane: You could. I mean it might be a little pricey for you, if you want [?] That would be awesome. I’m all for it.
Andrew: Oh, I’m so curios. I’ve got to find a way to get writers through you. I’m so curios to talk to your salesperson, see how we can buy stuff, how we can buy articles from you and stop with our headaches of trying to do it ourselves. I’m looking down my notes to make sure that I fit everything in. So the ones last thing I’ve got is, can we see the little environment you’re in right now, this closet that you’ve been talking about.
Shane: You can see this switchboard here and this way that is, I don’t know how many people were using the phone and then here’s the serves and then the cables go out, you can see them. So this is a serious operation. And then I guess down here you can see…
Andrew: Oh wow.
Shane: ….magazine, so we have a bunch of magazines and we have [?] we printed about 500 to many magazines so now we give them to everyone who shows up at the office. But yeah, that’s the tour.
Andrew: Well, the company’s already doing great. I wanted that visual for when you guys are insanely huge. When huge stuff happens in your lives, not even contently, but maybe 10, 20 years from now, I want us to both be able to look back and see the place where you did this interview and where you were as you were doing it with your business. I’m looking forward to reexamining this. I’m glad that you were on. Thank you for being on here.
Shane: Thank you. This has been a lot of fun. Yeah, I appreciate this.
Andrew: Same here. Thank you all for being a part of it and of course, David, from TechStars, thanks for introducing me to Shane. Bye.