How does a founder who can’t raise any funding go on to build a profitable business any way?
I met today’s guest at a conference where I was invited to interview some of the top venture capitalists. He was in the audience, and when he told me his story, I had to have him on Mixergy so you could hear what he did.
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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 and the place where over 700 entrepreneurs have come here to tell you their stories to teach you how they built their businesses. In this interview, we’re going to find out how a founder who wasn’t able to raise money went on to build a profitable business anyway.
I met today’s guest at a conference where I was invited to interview some of the top venture capitalists. He was in the audience and when we talked and told me his story, I said, “I’ve got to get this guy on here so that you can hear his story, too.” Jeff Yan is the co-founder and CEO of Digication, which allows faculty members at colleges, K-12 schools and professional organizations to create and manage course content as well as to share and view student contributions. Jeff, welcome.
Jeff: Hi, Andrew. Very nice to be on Mixergy.
Andrew: Thanks for being on here. I know you’re a fan and it’s always great when someone who listens is here to share their story. One of the things that I heard about you, and this is from your conversation with Jeremy Weisz, our producer, you said, “One of the best parts of having done this is,” let me quote from, you said, “I do not wake up with cold sweats and worry about paying the bills anymore.” Do you remember one of those times when you woke up, freaked out, worried, concerned?
Jeff: Yeah. It doesn’t happen anymore, but it’s still very fresh in my memories. You literally get up in the middle of the night and whatever you were fearful of, has happened in your dreams and you weren’t sure whether it’s real or not and sometimes it is. It’s a horrible feeling.
Andrew: What kind of things? What’s one specific thing that woke you up that made you say, “My life is in trouble now?”
Jeff: This is going straight to the most painful moments of this whole journey. Probably one of the worst things that I’ve ever had to do, in terms of paying things, not being able to pay for things, actually, is, there’s some point we had taken some friends and family money and we thought that we were doing well but then we had spent the money but without getting the revenue that we needed. We had hired people, there was payroll and, of course, that’s probably one of our biggest expense. There was one time, we always somehow make it through, but there was one time I couldn’t do it.
Andrew: Let’s hold off on finishing that story. I want to save that for the time in the story where it fits in properly, but that’s a painful story and I’m so glad that you’re willing to talk about that because it’s something that entrepreneurs aren’t willing to talk about. The fear of not being able to make payroll and in your case as you just suggested, you weren’t able to do it. I want the audience to find out what happened at that moment. How you came through it. We’re also going to talk about how you got your first and second customer and the shocking thing that happened soon afterwards and we’ll find out what you’re able to do now that you built up this business. How big is the business?
Jeff: We have students from over 4000 schools, both in K-12 and in higher education. That is in all 50 states and we don’t disclose our revenue to the public and I know that, Andrew, you always love to get those numbers.
Andrew: Didn’t I get it from you in private?
Jeff: Maybe. I don’t know.
Andrew: Yes. 100 percent and I wrote it down in my notebook and then I ripped it up so that nobody could ever see it. I didn’t even scan it into Evernote. You are profitable, right?
Jeff: Yes. We’re in the seven figures in revenue.
Andrew: Seven figures in revenue. Profitable. Paying yourselves salaries, at this point?
Jeff: Oh, yeah. We’d have to. It’s been too long.
Andrew: How long has it been?
Jeff: We actually started the business, technically, about ten years ago. It’s over ten years now. In the beginning, there were many years we didn’t pay ourselves anything.
Andrew: One metric that we can share with the audience is, over 4000 colleges across the country are customers of yours?
Jeff: Yeah. We are very proud of what we have done. It’s both K-12 schools and colleges, so literally from elementary schools on up.
Andrew: Let’s go right into the story. Actually no. Before we go into the story, can you give me an example of how somebody would use your product?
Jeff: This is one of those great examples that I love. Oftentimes there are professors that really care about learning and there are professors that don’t. There is a professor that I met recently at Bronx Community College. Right there in Bronx, in New York, she’s teaching a community college, her name is Professor Julia Guarneri. She teaches Italian and she gets these students that come into her class, never speaking Italian before, this community college students, it’s a two year associate degree college and she would create these podcasts, actually.
Not too different from Mixergy, in some sense. She’d play these podcasts of her producing her own Italian podcasts and she put them all into these, what we call an electronic portfolio, sort of portfolio of her own work. Then she gets her students to go in and look at them. And that’s what she uses Digication for. What is actually different from just making a course website for a student is that she then gets the students to use the platform to also make their own portfolios of their own achievements in Italian. The students themselves, what I care about them being able to do is to be able to learn through experience and doing projects. I’m very much against the lecture and then test, that learning method. I think that those are not very good.
I think if you think of entrepreneurs, all they have to do is to keep reading things and listening to things but never going out there and starting a company themselves. I don’t think that they’ll learn much about entrepreneurship where you have to go through it by experience. I think that’s what we allow for the students to do. They create their own portfolios of their own work and then they share it back to their classmates, their professors and what’s interesting is that they then also share it with their parents, their cousins, their people from home.
This is a true story. One of her own students, who then told me, it was someone who’s a first generation college attendee immigrant, first generation immigrant in the United States, English is the second language, created her own portfolio and was able to share that back to her parents back at home. Them being able to see, “Hey. My kid is in United States and writing something in a website that has the school’s logo on it.” It was so huge for them.
Jeff: That’s a, sort of, big win for me. And so that’s the kind of things that they do.
Andrew: OK. All right I’ve got a sense of what it is. I’ve got a sense of why the teachers and understand of why teachers want this, and why students would want it and parents, too. Let’s go back and see how you built this up, how you got those customers. Because I know that getting 4,000 colleges to sign up is not an easy thing. I want to know how you were able to get all those customers. You grew up in Hong Kong.
Jeff: That’s right.
Andrew: You left when you were 13-years-old. You told Jeremy that you hated life. What was it about life, and maybe even school specifically, that you didn’t like Hong Kong?
Jeff: Yeah, I think that it took the mentality of just forced memorization to an extreme. I think that we see a little bit of that in the United States today. Many people would say that our education system is broken and I agree. But I think that in Hong Kong it was more broken. We were memorizing things to the tee, but what’s surprising that a lot of people didn’t know is that we were memorizing things not even in the language that we spoke.
And so it was a British system, I was in a public school, mind you, so this is the majority of folks, of students, had to do this. I would take a history course, for example, and at the time I didn’t speak much English. And our books were in English, our exams were in English, except that neither the teacher or the students spoke much of it. And so the whole thing was about memorizing and whoever can memorize more words wins, right? And so I knew, even though it was sort of the norm, I knew in the bottom of my heart that this is a waste of time and this is painful and this is so stupid and so useless. And I didn’t know why I had to comply to it.
Andrew: And so you left, not because you were frustrated with it, my guess it that your parents saw a different opportunity and that’s why they left.
Jeff: Well, actually, this is interesting, I think that no. I was the one who was more frustrated with it than my parents were because I think they just thought that, neither of my parents had a lot of education. I think it safe to say that my dad didn’t even go to high school. He didn’t make it there. They grew up pretty poor in Hong Kong and when they were kids it was a family of seven living in a 100 square foot apartment. And so they had it pretty tough and…
Andrew: And so they see, well you’re frustrated and to them, they think, well this is a great school system. He’s so lucky to be there.
Andrew: So what did you do to let them know about your frustration and what was it that you wanted from them?
Jeff: I, one day, I was so, I hated to so much, one day I was about 12 or 13, I came home and I brought three brochures to them. And these are just things that I found in a library somewhere. I don’t know where I found it. And I said to them, “I’m going to one of these.” And they happened to be schools in England. Now, mind you, I had never been to England. I didn’t know anything about England. I don’t know anything about the education system, but the brochures looked pretty good.
Andrew: That’s some great marketing material. They could make you change your whole life like that?
Jeff: Yeah, well no. I was, I think, I was one of those, it just couldn’t be worse, right? I just thought that I got to go somewhere. And there was this, sort of, culture that says, “Things in the Western world are good.” So, it could’ve easily have been the United States, it just happened that the sections I picked from were English.
Andrew: So already we can see that you’re a guy who’s determined to come up with new ideas. Already were seeing that you’re a person who’s going to convince other people to say yes. They said yes, right?
Jeff: They did and I don’t know why they did, to be honest with you, because it’s very expensive. It’s a private school and I think it’s got tuition like college today. I really don’t think they could afford it. I still don’t know how they did it, but they sent me there.
Andrew: All right and so you kept on going through school. You eventually were training to be an architect and that’s when you discovered something that eventually led to this business. What were you discovering, as guy who was going to be an architect, about being an architect?
Jeff: Well, one of the things that were very interesting about studying to become an architect is the classes that we go to. So I went to an Arden design school. I went to Rhode Island School of Design, and I’m still very involved with the school today, because I love that school. I went through this program, it’s extremely rigorous. We get these really talented kids coming into the program and we work extremely hard. I’m talking about, for a lot of us, we would pull a couple of all nighters a week, on average, throughout the first 2, 3 years of school. That’s ridiculous for a freshman coming in. We didn’t go party, we didn’t do any of that. We just worked.
The reason that we did it is because we didn’t have lectures, we didn’t have books, we literally were given projects to do, day one. We accomplished projects after projects and all these things that we do is we go through a process where we go through these critiques. We will do the project, we will tell each other the story of how we did the project and what we did and then it’s a very rigorous conversation between peers, as well as the professors, and they will invite others to come in as critics, to come in and talk about our work. That had become such an amazing opportunity for me to experience something that I felt has tremendous ownership to learning and accomplishing things that it really changed everything that I thought about education.
Andrew: You decided you weren’t going to be an architect. Part of the realization, as I understand it, is you’re putting a lot of money into learning to be an architect that you end up at a low paying job for years and it’s not until maybe ten years later that you break even on the education. Meanwhile, you’re exhausted and you’ve had tough ten years. Am I right?
Jeff: Yeah. I think that what happens is that architecture is one of those things that, when I was growing up, it’s one of those professions where it’s a professional degree.
Andrew: You’re almost trained as a kid to admire it, where there aren’t a lot of people being trained to admire entrepreneurship. No one says, “Grow up to be an entrepreneur.” Maybe a few people do but they do say, “Grow up and be a doctor or a lawyer.” Doctors and lawyers now are not loving their jobs either [??]. Let’s go on to where this idea came from. Where did the idea for Digication come from?
Jeff: I was, at the time, teaching. After I finished school, I ended up teaching at the school for a number of years and I also ran a program there, and for my students, I’ve always been a computer person and had done some self taught programming. I’m a little bit of a self taught programmer, not very good, but that’s what I did. With our students, some of the things that we were teaching them was to use technology in their classrooms. On the other hand, we didn’t have much technology in the classroom itself. This is in the end of the .com times, 2001, 2002. At the time, I was thinking about buying something for our students and I didn’t find anything and I was also teaching a ton, along with my co-founder. I’ll tell you this.
At the time we were teaching together something like 12 courses a semester between the two of us, which was a lot, and the courses that we teach are, these are what’s called studio courses, they actually go from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., or 5:00 p.m. Then, what I would do at the time, I would go from 9:00 to 5:00 and then I’ll take an hour break and then I will pick up an evening class, as well, to teach, which is from 6:00 to 9:00 or 7:00 to 10:00. It was crazy, the amount of work that we were putting into this and on the side, we said, ‘Let’s just build something that will help us but will also address our philosophical differences.’ All the education tools out there are all about being able to deliver content. Ours is not about delivering content as much as it is about the student producing their own content.
Andrew: Even before you launched Digication you were thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way for students to be able to participate, to create and not just sit back and take information in.’ By the way, as someone who does Mixergy Premium where we do courses with entrepreneurs, I keep thinking, ‘How can I get more of that?’ Because I know that it helps and I know that we’re not doing as good a job there as we could. You tried three different applications. I want to start getting into this story of Digication and how you got customers and how you built that first version but can you real quickly, tell me about the three applications you built before it and why they didn’t work out. Why are you smiling? Because I’m asking you to tell me about your most painful moments quickly?
Jeff: No. I feel really silly for having done those things, to be honest with you.
Andrew: Even better then. Definitely talk.
Jeff: At the time, while we were teaching, I was trying to make ends meet. We were trying to be able to pay rent and definitely were eating Ramen and Burger King or whatever. The problem was that we kept seeing what the dot.com people are doing and we kept thinking, ‘I know we’re late but we can still do something.’ I had dreamt of building literally, not just working versions of what became today’s Adobe Connect. Some working prototypes of that.
We had some working prototypes and then we had another one that was essentially what Get Satisfaction is and we actually even had at the time, a company that eventually was bought by Autodesk. I’ve used it for their community and then we also wanted to build a mobile phone photo app, but remember, at the time, the phones didn’t have cameras. The first one that we built for it was a Motorola phone that you have to plug into this little camera attachment, I don’t know if you remember? It was actually a little camera attachment that you put into the back of the phone and then you can take pictures.
Andrew: I understand why that business didn’t work out. No one’s going to connect a camera to their phone. You were clearly ahead of your time but the Get Satisfaction type site where people can interact and give feedback to the companies that they work with, or the Adobe Connect product, which is basically webinar software where people can interact with each other but also learn from a teacher, why didn’t those ideas work? Why do you laugh when you think back at those ideas?
Jeff: We were very naive in that we think that business is all about just, “If I can build a product that was 90%, I can just spend time collecting money the rest of the time.” Later on I realized that building a product is still in my mind a most important thing but it really is only, at best, half, maybe a third of the battle. You still have to do all those other things.
Andrew: So the problem was you knew how to build it, which is phenomenal that you could build something like Adobe Connect, even on a small scale it’s phenomenal. But you’re saying what you didn’t know how to do was hustle and close sales and really drum up the business that’s going to allow you to make money off of this and then give you money to apply back into the business. We’ll find out how you learned that as we continue on with your story. You eventually came up with Digication. What did the first version of that look like?
Jeff: The first version was a embarrassing thing. Both me and my co-founder, Kelly who is now also my wife. We, at the time, were teaching together and there was just so much that we had to do and we had some vision of what can be done but no one’s ever built anything like it before, and just remember that blogs weren’t popular. We took a version of what’s called PHPbb, which stands for PHP Bulletin Board, which I don’t know if they’re still popular today but at the time it was one of those fairly popular bulletin board software, basically online forum discussion for software. We took a version, it’s an open source [??] project, we took a version of it, we installed it on our own servers and we just hacked at it. We just turned it into something that a student can use. We implemented a way for people to attach files, they can put a roster of students into the format of a course. That sort of thing. It was so hacked that it didn’t actually always work. We took it to our classes and our classes are small.
Andrew: Classes that you were teaching?
Jeff: Yeah. The classes we were teaching.
Andrew: By the way, you’re recording our interview right now and your video froze on my side. Is it OK on your side?
Jeff: Yeah. My video is still going.
Andrew: I can’t see you but I can still hear you so if we talk all over each other at times, it’s because we can’t see each other. At least you’re recording a good version. You had your own students and you can test with them. You had your own beta testers everyday.
Jeff: Now it’s the thing to do. MVP, Eric Reese’s [SP] work. I love that, by the way but at the time we didn’t have a term for it and it was embarrassing. I would go to the class and I would tell people to log in and do whatever and students can’t log in and I’ll tell them to reset their password and that’s broken because I broke it while hacking this thing. I would literally go and open up a terminal, that was one of those times where I had the projector, the first times that classrooms had projectors. So people would see me going into a terminal, firing up SSH connection to my server and going straight to the my SQL database and finding the row and changing the password right there. Which was really a hack.
Andrew: Did you feel like giving up at that point when it was so visible to every student who was supposed to respect your authority that the software wasn’t working? Did you say, “Aw. Maybe I just shouldn’t continue. This makes no sense.”
Jeff: Yeah. There were many times that I felt like, “Why am I doing this?”
Andrew: Why did you continue? Considering the fact that you had to do this work and have it done in front of the classroom and possibly lose their respect because you’re their teacher and they’re constantly looking for your faults, I feel, sometimes. Why didn’t you give it up?
Jeff: A couple of things. One is that the school that I was at, we have an extremely amazing culture where I don’t think that professors, they are respected but we don’t think of them as they can do no wrong. In fact, one of the things that I like to use as a term to introduce ourselves is we are an elite learner in the room. We’re there to learn as much as they are but we [??].
Andrew: It was OK for you to not, in fact not only OK, it was expected that you wouldn’t be the know it all in the front of the class. You were the lead learner. You’re just as curious, just as eager to learn and grow as the student so that created a culture where you could take risks and everyone wouldn’t look down on you for doing it. In fact, they would be inspired and feel like, ‘This is a place where we can experiment because if the professor is experimenting, the instructor is, then we can too.’
Jeff: It’s a very important part of leading by example, too. If you always do no wrong then it’s a lot of pressure for the students. I think that the second piece was that, I don’t think that they really had a lot of trouble with it aside from the fact that when I felt like I was having a lot of trouble, they weren’t the ones having the trouble. Then the thing that really made me keep going was to see the results.
Andrew: We talked about what didn’t work about it. I’m curious, what did work?
Jeff: What worked was that students started to be able to have these really interesting and meaningful conversations that had substance online.
Andrew: For example?
Jeff: For example, they would upload a piece of work that they did, whether it be a three dimensional model or a CAD drawing or what have you. Then students are able to have the, remember I talked about a critique process that we have where we will gather people, will tell the story of what they did and then they will discuss? They’re over there having those discussions online virtually and at a much more continuous basis as opposed to once a week. Suddenly that changed a lot in a teacher’s mind, what we could do. Now if we can get students to be engaged everyday of the week as opposed to three hours of a week, it gives us a lot of opportunity to go in and get them to do more, or to get them to go further.
Of course, for some professors that’s a horrible thing. Now they thought, “I used to only have to work three hours a week, now I have to work this many more.” For me, it was not like that at all. The satisfaction of seeing the students coming out of this group as a collective, being able to learn a lot or produce a lot is just so great that I would never think about how much work is that equivalent to. I think that’s what the culture was like and that’s just how it was.
Andrew: By the way, that’s the great thing about this whole startup culture, that entrepreneurs are willing to come here on Mixergy and tell stories about their failures. It’s not just interesting and not just humanizes them, but it also creates a culture and a feeling within the audience that this is acceptable. It happens to everyone and it’s just part of the fun and part of the process. I read stories about bike riders who ride across country or cycle from one end of the earth to the other and they’re just as proud, I feel, of their falls and how they got back on their bikes and the scrapes they got because of it as they are about hitting that final destination. It does, as in your case it did, it opens everyone else up to experiment and to take risks. I’m understanding how this works. I’m understanding the issues with it and what was working about it. What about the business model? You were thinking constantly, “There’s got to be a new side business that I can build that will become my business.” Where did you think the revenue for this business idea would come from?
Jeff: It went through many iterations, actually. In the beginning we didn’t know. We had actually used, in my classroom for two, three years, we had some other professors who had come to us and said, ‘Can we try it because I heard about it from your students.’ We said, “That’s fine. It would never go anywhere but whatever. We’ll just let them do it.” Over time, I’d fixed more of those problems and so things were a little bit more stable and we actually ended up rebuilding it many times.
Obviously, we’re no longer using PHPbb, but at the time, it was really just a hobby project. I really thought those other things I was doing were going to be the big winners, things like the Adobe Connect-like project, ‘They’re going to be the big winners. Not this.’ What was interesting was that in about 2004, a few years into this, at Rhode Island School of Design a whole different group of folks that I didn’t know, professors, got together and wanted the school to purchase some sort of digital systems for running online classes and they are existing [SP] players at the time and they had, in their fields. I invited a couple of the leaders to come in and present it to them and these are companies that were already making, the bigger ones probably making $100 million plus revenue.
Someone then, on that committee, knew about our work and said, ‘Why don’t we get Jeff and Kelly to also chime in.’ We didn’t know what was going on. We went in to show them what we had and they loved it and they thought it was much more appropriate, given the difference in philosophy, what the other people were doing and what we were doing. The school said, ‘We’ll just buy this.’ We didn’t know what to do, frankly. We somehow scrambled some contract together. Also, at the time, SaaS was experimental, it’s not being streamed. It wasn’t looked at as a ‘Yeah. That’s what we want.’
Andrew: People back then wanted shrink wrap software that they could put on their computers or software that they could hire a company to come in and install on all their systems. They weren’t ready to pay for something that was on the web. What was on the web was Yahoo!, which was free. That’s what you were thinking. That’s the mentality of the time.
Jeff: Especially schools. They are thinking, ‘This is our student’s account. We can’t just put it on the web.’ We somehow convinced them because we were cheap.
Andrew: Because your price was low.
Jeff: Our price was much lower than everyone else’s. We didn’t know that, we were pretty naive.
Andrew: What did you charge for the whole school to use it?
Jeff: It was $12,000.
Andrew: To me, $12,000 for a bulletin board system that’s hacked, but still a bulletin board system, seems like a lot of money.
Jeff: It really had gone beyond that a lot by then, but just know that our competitors were asking for $100,000.
Andrew: How’d you know what to charge then? If they were charging $100,000 how did you know to charge 12 and not 13 or 11 or even $99,000?
Jeff: We didn’t. We didn’t know what the right answer was. We thought something along the lines of, “We put a lot of time into this. We never thought we were going to get any money out of it.” Maybe if we want to look at it like a contract work, how many hours we put into it. If we were to charge $100 an hour, it would have been that much. I’m not really sure. We just came up with a number. We didn’t expect that money. That was something that we already built. We had never had that happen to us before. No one ever come to us and said, “Hey, you did something two years ago. Can we pay for it?” We were going to give it away for free.
Andrew: This was still considered a hobby where the others were real businesses.
Andrew: So you closed this sale. Then what happened? How did you get sale number two?
Jeff: Some of the professors started to talking to other professors in other schools and there was this school specifically from L.A., this is another art and design school, Otis College of Art and Design. They called us up one day and said, ‘I’ve heard about this from a colleague from your school and I’d like to take a look.’ And I just showed it to her, I did a screen share, I showed her what we have and she really liked it and she said, “Well, give me an account.” I did. I gave a couple of accounts.
Then she just called me back the next day and said, “Can you come over here this Friday?” I said, “OK.” We flew there. It was exciting because it feels like we are doing something good. We went there on Friday and they had gathered a bunch of people together and we presented it to the group and they said they loved it. Actually, some professors came up to the podium and took over the computer. They pushed me onto the side and said, “No. I want to show people what I did in these last two days.” They did this thing and it had a little bit of the, “If I could do it, anyone could,” feel to it. I think at the time they loved it and, literally, the next Monday we signed a contract.
Andrew: That’s number two.
Jeff: That’s number two.
Andrew: Number three happened how? What happened after number two?
Jeff: This is when we thought, ‘We have a business going on here. This is hockey stick. This is it.’ This is where we raise money and we have the proven product, customers, the whole thing. This is when we took some friends and family money and we thought we needed a little bit ramp up time, but then if we close a sale once a week, that’s not bad, 10, 20K, whatever. The next sale didn’t really happen. The next real sale, we had a lot of small, tiny little pilots, free or very little money, but the next sale didn’t really happen, I think, for another year and a half.
Andrew: A year and a half. So you had, boom, a sale that comes in, 12,000 bucks unexpected, turns your hobby into a [??] and boom. [??] comes in, they pay and they’re so excited they play with your computer and then, cricket. Crickets for a year and a half. Unbelievable.
Jeff: Nothing. It was horrible.
Andrew: Looking back, what do you think you did, I hate to say wrong, but what’d you do wrong?
Jeff: I definitely did a lot of things wrong. I think that our sample was just completely skewed and it wasn’t that we went in and talked to customers that we would have had to talk to to get our third, and two a [SP] hundred sale. We just took whoever that came to us and we didn’t know how many of them really exist in the world. It turned out that there weren’t many.
Andrew: You mean the target that you had in mind wasn’t as nearly as big as you thought it would be?
Jeff: No. No.
Andrew: So what was the target that you had in mind? All friends of yours and your wife’s? People who you were related to in business? Was it that mistake? I’ve made that mistake or was it something else? What was the small target that was way too small?
Jeff: I think it’s too small and too big in different situations because we have, for example, at times where we thought, ‘Every school, every student should use this,’ in our mind. Then we realized that that was wrong and then we realized, “Maybe we should just have all the art school do it. So we should go in and talk to them.” Didn’t realize that these two schools that came to us, they were ready to talk to someone as opposed to, “We have to go and tell them that they are ready.” It’s actually something, believe it or not, even though it was a mistake at the time, it had become useful for us. Today we actually have zero outbound sales, so we don’t have any sales people from Digication to go out to customers and cold call them and say, ‘Hey. Can you guys use this system at your school?’ We don’t do that.
Andrew: You’re saying that the reason you didn’t make any sales for the first year and a half, or after your second customer, is you were waiting for people to call you, which was a mistake. But it ended up working in your favor because somehow, and we’ll find out how, companies did start coming to you and you got good at converting them once they came to you.
Jeff: It had shortened this 18 month long sales process into less than a month now, so we do less than a month’s sales cycle.
Andrew: I see. So it wasn’t that you were failing for a year and a half. It was just that that was the sales cycle. It was a long sales cycle.
Jeff: That’s how long it takes. Yeah.
Andrew: All right. You know what? We’ll save the question that I was going to ask you. Which was, why do you have a good microphone? Why do you have better lighting than me? Why do you have a pop filter, when I don’t have it? Why do you have such a good setup? And that has something to do with how you got customers. But first, let’s go back to something you said already so that we can continue the narrative. Which was, you went to your friends and relatives and you said, “I could use some money to get me over this little hump. I will then get funding, and I will have this great, insanely successful dot com, etc.” Where was the money that they were going to give you? Where was that going to go?
Jeff: Well, we thought this money would go into public relations, and then . . . We didn’t really need a whole lot of . . . We were going to pay some salaries of the developers that we had. But then, we didn’t need it for very long because obviously money would just come in. We’ll just be busy accepting checks, which didn’t happen. That’s where we thought we were going to go. But, we did spend a bunch of money on public relations. And it was the wrong time. We got a little bit of press, but schools weren’t ready. Like I said, it was just one of those things where having inbound . . . we only process inbound sales today. When we have inbound versus outbound sales, the percentage conversion rate is so different, that we can’t even think of it as being the same kind of business process at all. And so, at the time, the only experience that we had was inbound sales, which were the two schools that came to us. And they were already convinced that they needed something. So when they seen a solution, they jumped at it.
Andrew: Don’t public relations then get you inbound sales because people find out about your great new business? They either get it themselves, or they tell their teachers, or they tell whoever is the decision maker, to go sign up for Digication, and boom you get sales. Why didn’t that work?
Jeff: It would have, if we were only going after the students or maybe the professors, and they can pay maybe thirty bucks and then it’s done. But we were, sort of, trying to go after the schools themselves. Schools are one of those entities where everything takes a long time. Just to get people in the room together, it takes a long time. Forget having to make any decisions. They have to form committees for everything that they do. Also, when people are spending 5 or 6 figures, it has to go into a budget line. It has to be approved. It has to do all these things. It is not just someone whipping out a credit card, and paying twenty bucks for a Flicker account. And that’s what makes a big difference. So, even when they are interested, you might get credited and validated, but it still takes eighteen months before they actually have anyone who was convinced in the beginning, to come back and say, “Now, I’m ready.”
Andrew: How much did you raise?
Jeff: It was a little over $200,000.
Andrew: Wow. You got $200,000 from friends and family. That’s pretty impressive.
Jeff: Yeah. It was . . . I think we had . . . I mean we believed in it, and they believed in us.
Andrew: It went to hiring some people too, and for you and Kelly to quit?
Jeff: Yeah. At the time, I had pretty much stopped teaching around 2006. And Kelly actually had kept teaching up until last year. The last few years it wasn’t for the money anymore. She likes the idea of being in the classroom still.
Andrew: What happened when you went after the next round of funding?
Jeff: That’s funny actually, now that I think about it. We found some good members along the way. And someone had encouraged us, “You guys should go raise some money and you probably will get a real angel round. Maybe you should go for a series A. You can try it.” So we spent time putting a deck together. At the time, I was on the east coast. It was really the Boston area. And Boston [??] at the time. They want the deck. They want financials. They want all those things. They want a swat analysis. They don’t want to hear the Silicon Valley picture. Not a coffee shop picture. They want something formal. So we put all this stuff together. It took forever. And, neither Kelly nor I had any business background, so we were just learning it along as we go. We put this together, we presented to a couple of groups, some angel groups.
One of the angel groups, at the end of the presentation, someone came to us and said, ‘Now, you guys know that we, collectively, we as all investors, do not invest in husband and wife teams right?’ and we were just like, “Oh, huh. Well that’s that.” And it sort of crushed our spirit to be honest with you. I think we probably could’ve been, we should’ve been and could’ve been more persistent and we just don’t know whether that was a gospel truth or not, but we sort of felt like it might’ve been. I think if you talk to a lot of these today, they will tell you that there’s a certain level of truth in that.
Of course, there are some success stories out there like the Flicker founders, etc., but it is true that they don’t like to invest in husband and wife teams. We just thought, “Well, you know, that’s that.” We just didn’t have time to do any more of this. We had wasted so much time to find out that they just by principle were never going to invest in us.
Andrew: When people outside the valley, the experience you have, that’s pretty typical. But when you hear about guys like Rafael Corrales who I interview from Learn Boost, who’s in a similar space than you, when he comes up with a term called ‘the party round’ of funding where he’s not going to take funding from any one venture capital firm. He wants it from multiple, like a party, so that if any one person doesn’t do him right, he has all these other. When I was in that situation it drove me crazy. I’d try to go and get funding from people and they’d want the business plan. They want these endless conversations. They’d want a big piece of the business. And boy is it different in the Silicone Valley world versus the real world, where there asking for swat analysis. Strengths, weaknesses, limitations and opportunities, right?
Jeff: Yeah, and you’re right. I think that Silicone Valley certainly is different in that regard.
Andrew: It’s a good reason to pick up and move there if you’re looking to raise money. I’m not saying that you guys should have but it makes sense when people do it.
Jeff: Yeah. And we now do you have a Palo Alto office.
Andrew: A what? A Palo Alto office?
Jeff: We have, yeah. That’s where I am now.
Andrew: Have you guys raised money since then?
Jeff: No, we have not. And actually we do have a lot of VCs talk to us. And I’m not interested right now. We’re profitable and frankly I’m so excited about our business that I don’t actually know what investing to do for us next. And actually I think that’s one of the reasons I think we talked. I think I came to you to ask for some advice and I think the most important part of it is that we consider very value driven company. Sort of like if you’re thinking about Tony Shay’s [SP] values, but our values are very, for me, it is very well changing. It is about changing the way that every human being views education. I think currently, most people that go through education, and have sort of a love-hate relationship with them. Sometimes you’d think that when you learn something, you’ll love it, but then most people, when you think about education, going to class, having to write papers, you hate it. It’s just; you’re bound by the social norms to have to write that paper. You don’t want to write that paper. It’s dumb. And I think that that has to change. I think that the engagement of education, it could be so different.
Andrew: Sorry. Well speaking of education, let’s make sure that we educate people on how you got customers.
Andrew: I promised the audience that they would learn how to do that. One thing, before we get to the customers, you didn’t get customers for a while there and you had a tough conversation that you needed to have with your employees. This was what you started talking about earlier, where you just couldn’t make payroll. What do you do when you can’t make payroll?
Jeff: Well, in my case, I don’t know if there’s a formula, but it’s obviously a very tough thing to do, at least for me. I felt like I had taken money from friends and families who trusted me.
Jeff: And this is not easy money for any of these people.
Jeff: It’s not like, “Hey, you know, here’s a check. Just do whatever you want.” And there’s that. There are the employees that we had convinced to come join us, taking probably a pay cut from what they could’ve taken from a more stable, longer established business. They have to work extra hard and there is a lot of risks involved. When I realized that one day that, you know, there’s just one month that I know that I couldn’t do payroll and I was really, I was really just hurt and disappointed with myself and I remember what happened was that I had asked everyone to go to a conference room and they did. We all sat there and I had sort of prepared some information that I wanted to give everyone, just give them the honest truth, right?
Jeff: That we couldn’t do this, this is why, we’re waiting for this money, etc, etc. And I started speaking and I actually just burst into tears, and it was, it was still one of those times when I think about, I still feel horrible about it because I know that some of these people that work for us, you know, they might need that money for rent or whatever, right? I mean they weren’t rolling in it either. And I felt like such a failure because, you know, we had tried for so long and had come up with, you know we thought that we had it but then we didn’t really. But there’s nowhere, nothing that tells me that we are going to get it. And at the time I also had my first born on the way, my first child. And so Kelly was actually out of the office and she was, I think she was in the hospital at the time, and I was thinking, you know, I have a child coming and I’m broke. I have no money. Because every dime that I had I would have given to the employees. And I just burst into tears and I don’t even know if I was able to ever convey what I wanted to say, but ultimately I was able to tell them that I couldn’t pay them, and I don’t know when I could. And I think that I projected that we should be able to next month.
Andrew: And their response to that was?
Jeff: I think that they were shocked by it and, I mean not by the fact that we couldn’t pay, I don’t think they were actually that shocked by the fact that we couldn’t pay them because they know that we didn’t have new customers coming in. I think that they were actually really understanding and they actually came to me afterwards, one after the other and said that, hey it’s OK and we understand, we’ll get by, no worries, and just pay me when you can.
Andrew: Wow, unbelievable.
Andrew: That you built that kind of relationship with them, that that’s their response instead of screw you man, you’ve got to pay me.
Andrew: Which I get. I mean they did the work, I understand that they’d be entitled to it. Alright, let’s talk about customers. The last big item on my agenda here for this interview. How do you get four thousand customers? Tough customers to get, people with long lead cycles?
Andrew: People with, how do you get them?
Jeff: Well one of the things that we did was we had a, we had always been an academic right? So we treat out customers as just colleagues in academia. And something that’s interesting is that over time we’ve basically just instead of working on features and working on things that they all thought would be useful, we actually came back and said, well what you suggested was a, at least internally, was actually a hack to patch something that didn’t work. And so something instead, you know, for us it was important to go to the root of the problem. Such as, when I said, you know, students don’t have the navigation and the engagement to do certain things, let’s fix that.
Let’s not go in and try to implement more rules so that they have to be bound by your rules in order to pretend to be engaged. Right? And so we did a lot of that, and it’s actually tough for us because where we have to tell someone that they’re wrong, and their assumptions are wrong. And especially with schools that had long established traditions, it’s a tough conversation to have. But over time what we had done was that we just sort of stuck at it, we were very stubborn not to sort of do what we know is wrong but would have useful for pleasing a customer. The customers ended up doing something really interesting. They ended up taking these things, the ones that believed in us, taking these things and implementing them into schools and then they started talking to each other.
Not only that, they then went to talk in conferences and people had written books and articles, etc. about it. What’s really interesting is that, in the beginning, that didn’t happen for the first 18 months, maybe even 24 months. Once that started happening, we got a credibility and then the inbound sales started to come in and, of course, once they do that we have to have good enough product and a support structure, etc. to actually support them.
Let me make sure that I understand this. You’re saying that you gave them things that they used to try you out and to fall in love with you before they bought?
Jeff: No. We usually do something, what we call a pilot program but they actually still have to pay us something.
How do you get into a school where you get them to even try a pilot program and pay you for that pilot program?
Jeff: It’s, a lot of time, about aligning the vision. That vision of what we believe students should be doing and that there area a lot of schools that don’t believe in that vision.
Andrew: How do you find the schools that do and then convince them to try it? Are you cold calling at first?
Jeff: We tried cold calling, it never worked for us. We were never able to get through to the right person.
Andrew: What did work?
Jeff: We participated in a number of conferences, trade conferences, if you will, in the field. We spoke with people at the conferences and we practiced pitching our ideas hundreds of times during the conference.
Andrew: From the stage or in the audience when you’re talking to people one on one?
Jeff: Both. We’ve spoken at some sessions, because we have had real students using it, we had a lot of examples that we could use to show. In the beginning, I must say that when we showed it, people looked at it as, “This is crazy, but is really interesting, but Our school would never, ever be doing this because that’s not what we do.” It went from there to people, in the last conferences that we go to, people would no longer talk about what it is and why we need it they wanted to know what the best practices are in implementing.
Andrew: Let’s break this down and make sure we fully understand it. If conferences are what got your early customers, I want to understand that, an then i want to know what you did to speed up the sales cycle. You go to conferences after you got your first couple of sales, as a guy who speaks at a conference, you’re supposed to be the authority but don’t you feel a lack of confidence at that point?
Jeff: No because we believed in what we know very deeply and we, in fact, really deeply believe that we know what we know is, at least for us, is fact. That we know that this is better.
Andrew: How do you take that passion and make it useful for an audience and not sound like a sales pitch?
Jeff: I never did. That’s, I think, one of the things. I still work, both me and Kelli [SP] still work with a very large number of people that are inbound coming to us directly. The reason is that we treat them as colleagues and we are a vendor and it’s not about sales it’s as much about us sharing with them our best experience and how successful students [??].
Andrew: If you’re on stage and you’re saying, “Look. This is my vision for how students can learn better. This is my vision,” is what you’re saying. How do you take that and make it into a sale to someone in the audience? Otherwise they might just sit there and say, “This guy has a good vision. I agree with him. I see he has a product. Maybe we should be looking into it. What’s coming up next? Where’s lunch? Who should I have dinner with tonight?” They have all these other thoughts going through their head.
Jeff: For us, I don’t know whether this will work for other fields but in the education world it has worked really well, is that we just led by example. Much like what we believe in, in terms of how we think learn. For example, all the conferences that I go to, I rarely show a PowerPoint slide, very rarely. All the sales calls that I do, I rarely show a PowerPoint slide. I talk to them like I’m talking to you right now. I’m also going to share with them real examples of what students have done. And so when then schools actually start to see real examples of…
For example, we have this student from Yale University. Like I said, this is not just out of community colleges. They are also in some of the very high end schools like Yale, in this case. So there’s this music student. His name is Jordan Cuspa [SP] and he created a public portfolio for his own work. He published it to the world. He had gotten mentioned in some article, some review somewhere. He wants to be a composer. He’s in the graduate school for being a composer and musician and someone in New York Times found him. And Google’d him and found his portfolio and started listening to all the things that he had ever done. Then he contacted him and then he said that he wrote him up. And then the next thing he knew, someone from the Smithsonian had come to him and invited him to be a resident composer at the Smithsonian.
Andrew: I see, so you tell that story and people in the audience, they want that for themselves and that’s what sells your product.
Andrew: And the same thing as what you’re doing as when you’re talking to other guests who come to the conferences. You’re getting to know them and you’re also telling them your success stories of the students who’ve used your program.
Andrew: Got it. All right, that’s really powerful to know. All right, so now you’re starting to get inbound because of the good work you’re doing outside. When people come in, how did you initially convert them, or try to convert them, and what did you do, well we’ll get to what do you do differently now that makes for a smoother sales process. But what’d you do in the beginning when you were still trying to figure things out?
Jeff: I think that in the beginning we had always taken the position that we are not even doing it for the money. We are just trying to help and trying to learn from the experience. So we would come up with any plans that seemed reasonable between the school and us. And we would convince them to do a pilot, which is something that’s small. And then they’d do that. But we work really hard to make sure that those pilots go well. We have a tremendous retention rate. We only see about five percent of schools that drop off at every annual cycle, which is very high.
Andrew: I see. So at first you weren’t really pushing for a quick sale. You were just letting the sales happen as they needed to.
Andrew: But what you were looking for were examples of people that you could then use to close more sales in the future.
Jeff: Yeah, and I think in many ways, the reason that we do so much sales is because I don’t look at it like sales. And maybe that really the core of what the real reason is. So when a school would call us up, they ask us to present, we don’t go in and talk about Digication as a company and what we have done. We go into: here are some examples of what students have done. And they tend to really identify with that a lot more and so from the very beginning, the conversation is about how I can help them to do the same thing with their students because I know that their students are good too.
They’re all doing, every teacher has seen amazing things in their own classrooms. The student came from nothing and then now they can do this and that, but that’s never been shown to the world. If I can show them that, it’s about sharing that. And then as long as, it’s almost like when I talk about money and how much it costs and the terms, it’s just, sort of, a side conversation. It’s not the core of the conversation, at least for us. And that has worked tremendously well, because we focus on, I think, focus on really how we can help them.
Andrew: OK. No, here’s my hesitation that a lot of people are just being nice and they don’t ask for the sale. They want to be supportive and they want to help and then they don’t get the sale. And then they kick themselves and they say, ‘I should’ve done it.’ Why did that process work for you but doesn’t work for others?
Jeff: I see. I think that we have a compelling enough product. If you don’t have a very compelling product, or if what you say your product…
Andrew: So what did you do to your product that made it so compelling that even when you weren’t pushing it, even when you just said, ‘Hey, you know what? This is what it does.’ People said, ‘I got to have that.’
Jeff: Right. So I’ll give you an example, alright?
Jeff: So in community colleges, so let’s take another New York school, La Guardia Community College, OK? This is in New York, in the Queens, a two year community college and they have 12, 15,000 students, something like that. Every year they struggle a lot with retention, meaning students that are attending these schools have, they are not even coming back to school because, also having two full time jobs and a family of five to support on the side. These are the typical students. Their retention rates are very low, sometimes in the 60% or lower. By using this electronic portfolio system, they’ve been able to do something where they were able to raise their percent by 12% in a year.
Andrew: That’s bottom line money for the school and that’s what the school is there for, so they feel both pride and they have more money. I also noticed that you keep using case studies and say, “Look. This works, not because I tell you it does, but here’s a story of a school that got a benefit from our product, from Digication.” I can see how that’s compelling. What’s that thing? What’s the thing that you do that gets students to stay in school longer and for colleges to end up making more money on those students, but also getting to educate them for longer?
Jeff: I think I said it in the beginning a little bit, which is, we don’t believe that students are slaves of the professors. Learning is a very sacred thing that one person can have and I like to be able to put that into the student’s hand and that belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to the school. Sometimes schools feel that, “We need to give you a test.” Then the test proves that now you’ve learned and now we will approve you I think that is a very wrong mentality. I think that’s a mentality that kills the spirits. I think that the mentality should have been, “Hey, students. I am so happy that we’re able to help you do this. In fact, let us do it with you, together.” The students should be able to lead the learning process. They should be able to say, “Hey, I’m taking this writing course and I really am becoming a better writer. Look at what I’m doing now versus what I did even a month ago.”
Andrew: And the way that they do that is because you let them post on your site their writing and as they improve they get to see that progress.
Jeff: Absolutely. Then they can also share that with their classmates and parents and all of that. If you think about, this is something that I find to be really true. If you think about when you went to school and you wrote a paper, the paper probably had an audience of one person, which is whoever is correcting it. Then a lifespan of a week because it took that long for it to be corrected and handed back to you. You don’t have that paper anymore. It’s gone. You don’t even care, you don’t know what it is, you don’t remember what you wrote, but think about these students. When they post these things on their own portfolios, from the moment that they even starting to conceive of the paper, the paper is supposed to have a lifespan of forever and it’s supposed to be read by all these people that might care about them that are around them, that are their friends, their colleagues or people that they might meet later, that they don’t even know yet.
That entire motivation is different and has changed. We took something that really was almost taking something that people actually didn’t like and we put it back into their hands and say, ‘No. You should like this because it is that important.’ They actually do. People get a lot of joy out of learning, I think. They just don’t know it because they don’t experience it enough times in their lifetime, because our education system doesn’t allow them to do it.
Andrew: I get what you’re saying and I’m inspired by that and my pause right now is that I’m realizing, ‘I need to do more of that. I need to find ways to get that into Mixergy.’ This interview is useful, but how do I add the Jeff Yan philosophy, the Digication philosophy to what we do at Mixergy? Because I believe in it and it speaks to something that I believed for a long time and I still haven’t found a way to do it and you do it everyday. What were you going to say? I’m sorry. I interrupted because I was so moved by what you just said.
Jeff: I know a lot about electronic portfolios and the world of education. But I think that at Mixergy, for example, for me to come in and talk to you, I know that there’s limited time for you to be able to do these kind of things, is one type of portfolio in my mind. But I think that the journey of, I know a lot of entrepreneurs will blog about their journeys of entrepreneur etc., but imagine if they could a lot of those kind of documentations on Mixergy as a platform as opposed to them doing it on their own in one blog as, a lot of time, as a marketing blog. And that the purpose of these blogs is to share with each other supports and words of encouragement or help or criticism or what have you.
Andrew: So if we do a course, for example, on customer development phone calls and we say, ‘These are the questions you should ask and here’s how to find the right people to ask them, and so on.’ You’re suggesting having a place where people can come back and do what? Commit to doing together or have a place where people can come back and share their successes and failures from doing?
Jeff: I think it’s almost like a… instead of just… yeah, you could say sharing the success and failures. But I think it’s almost this documenting it even without knowing whether it’s going to be useful yet, right? Because when you’re in the midst of doing a project, if you have to wait to know whether you’ve succeeded or failed, it’s actually a little bit late. I think that while you’re doing, is when it’s actually important because that’s when you have to make decisions. That’s when you, actually, don’t know whether you’ve got it right. And…
Andrew: So what do you document along the way?
Jeff: Oh, me personally?
Andrew: No, I mean what would, let’s suppose I did this. I’m inspired by you, by the way. I’m now taking attention completely off your story because I’m so inspired by this that I want to find ways to do this and also, if you think about what the guys at 37 Signals have said about how teaching is the new marketing. Everybody, I believe, should be teaching something. They should be teaching. I saw this video online about how to taste coffee, what the differences are in coffee. And it’s basically Starbucks, not promoting Starbucks, but they’re teaching me how to appreciate coffee. And guess what.
When it’s time for me to think about coffee and high quality coffee, I now think more highly of Starbucks as a result of it. So teaching is way more exciting, way more useful than advertising and it can convert. So if we’re all selling, I think we should all, if we’re all teaching, I think we should be learning from you. And I know I’m only in the business of teaching so I should especially learn from you. What is there to show along the way that people could get excited about? Are we just talking about typing up: this is what I’m about to do and then afterwards saying, “Well, I took the first step.” And that’s the thing people should be putting online as a portfolio, to use your word?
Jeff: I think so and there’s actually a process that sometimes we do that I think it’s quite useful. It’s a two step process. One is called story telling and the other is called conversation. And story telling is a process where we take something that’s just in progress. Again, we don’t know yet whether it’s to succeed or fail, but something that you can literally say, “Hey, all right. You guys started taking this sales process, right? And that one week has gone by. Tell us what you have done, not as a check list but really tell us what happened this week.” Someone may be able to tell that story, if they would be able to pair it with someone else or to, sort of, just get solicit feedback from others.
What’s really interesting is that the others will often find what we call tacit knowledge out of that person’s story. And that tacit knowledge, what tacit means is it’s something that you actually know but you didn’t know you know, because you did it, and for someone else to listen to that, they’re able to listen in an empathic way where they can see, “Oh, that’s the tacit knowledge of this person because they’re doing something that I didn’t even think to do, but from my point of view is very important” Just like what you’re doing to me. You’re having me tell you a story of what I did and then you are trying to extract from it something that’s important. And, yeah.
Andrew: I see. I’ve seen entrepreneurs do that, too. In interviews they go, “You know what?” or at the end they’ll say, “Andrew, I didn’t even realize that’s what I did, but, you know, was you’re building a business, you don’t have time to sit down and analyze what works.” So, you’re right. People do start to recognize what they do well when they tell the stories and I can sometimes pick up on things that they don’t notice. So you’re saying, have people, have students, tell their stories, and not just tell them into thin air but, tell them to one other person at least, who could then highlight what they did right?
Jeff: Yeah, and it’s one of those things that it’s really just a very honest type of story telling. You’re not making it sound better or worse; you’re really telling it as it is, because these stories can create. It’s a tremendous learning experience, by the way, for both you and the person who listened and had the conversation with you and that’s what’s really interesting. I have found that the more students do these kinds of conversations, the better they are at picking up things and the better they are at looking at things from different angles. Because you have now seen, “Hey, given that same project that I also did, I approached it this one way.
That person did it a completely different way, in fact, in a way that I thought would never work, but they made it work.” And so for me to see all these perspectives, allows me to suddenly expand the way that I think about approaches to projects all together. And that’s where, I think, learning happens in the most exciting ways.
Andrew: It’s reminding me of when I was studying Neil Strauss [SP] in preparation for him being on Mixergy. And he’s the guy who wrote The Game and would go on message boards and read about how to pick up women and then he’d go out in the world and pick up women. Then he’d come back and he and other’s would file what they called field reports, where they would says, “This is what I did.” And step by step, walk though the process and they did it to teach other. But also, I guess, to learn for themselves and I’ve been thinking, maybe Mixergy needs field reports. Tell you what. Let me put this stuff out there.
If anyone in the audience is interested in learning how to learn like this, let me know and maybe we’ll do a course or an interview on it. Jeff, if you’re up for doing it, then I’d love to have you come on here and teach how to learn. Because I notice that there’s some people who pick up on information and use it and learn it in a way that the rest of us aren’t doing and I want know how they do that. I want to know, not just how to read all these books behind me, but how to process them and really learn and internalize and be able to use everything that in them, and the same thing for everything that I learn in life.
So, I’ll say this to the audience, if you’re interested in this, come back to Mixergy and let me know. If I see that there’s enough of a demand for it, we’ll make it happen. The other thing I want to say to the audience before I ask Jeff a final question is this. Mixergypremium.com, that’s where proven entrepreneurs teach things like, we talked about customer development. That’s taught by someone at KISSmetrics. We talk about how to do sales. All these courses are taught by entrepreneurs and you’ll learn how to do it. If you’re into education, if you’re into arming yourself and growing as an entrepreneur, those courses will just show you incredible results and you can see I’m passionate about improving them constantly.
So, just go to Mixergypremium.com and sign up and if you are already a member, all those courses are in your package. Go and access them now at Mixergypremium.com. All right, let me ask you one final question here and that’s: you’ve done it now. What’s the best part of being here, beyond not having those sweats? What’s the fun things that you get to do now that you were able to do, say ten year ago or eight years ago when you were really struggling?
Jeff: I don’t know whether the life of an entrepreneur ever gets to the point where you just really feel like it’s smooth sailing, that it’s all like that. But I will agree that we are not waking up in the middle of the night, worrying about paying that hosting bill and what not, or payroll. But what I do get tremendously anxious about and I don’t know whether you get this, Andrew. I think other entrepreneurs do as well, is that there are certain visions that you sometimes have about whether it’d be just a small feature or something grand. But you can say, “Wow. If that really worked out, maybe in five years time, people will be thinking about this in this other way or what have you.” And that vision just drives me absolutely nuts, right? In a good way.
So, I would sometimes go down, and that’s really something that I love. And I really do think that, for me, I have, we call it a value driven company in that we don’t like to, I don’t actually think about profits and bottom lines very often. And I think that as an entrepreneur, maybe, that’s not a very good thing. But perhaps I’m more of a social entrepreneur. Maybe I’m just someone who really is using entrepreneurship as a vehicle for me to do things. Which is, for me, it’s really to change the world, right?
The way that I’m thinking about changing the world is the relationship between someone who’s learning something to those that are able to teach them, because right now there’s this crazy, to me, crazy bias towards students in a school. I think students should able to almost, sort of, create their own curriculum at any point in their lives, doing whatever that they want. And I think everyone around them should support them to do so. And I think that’s what entrepreneurship is pretty much like if you think about that. That’s why I love entrepreneurship.
Andrew: And there is this thing that comes up in entrepreneurship, it seems like you are picking up on that, and that you are feeling it, too, that you see that you can take something that is in your mind and bring it to life. Then you start to feel like a superman or like you have a kind of superpower. I remember thinking back when we did the greeting cards, that this was just a freaking dream. Me and my brother just playing around with ideas on the phone, and then we suddenly put it out there and this whole greeting card thing blew up.
We were doing hundreds of thousands of greeting cards a day being sent through our system, why we can do anything, what’s next. We’d have all these crazy hair brained ideas we would want to go and implement. It feels good to know you could actually do it, instead of feeling what I think a lot of people do which is the world happens to them. And it’s frustrating. Frankly, for a large part of my life I felt that the world was just happening to me. It feels good to feel like you can make the world happen, that you can make things happen. And you’ve done that.
Jeff: Thank you.
Andrew: It’s weird. I haven’t been able to see you for the last half hour at least, maybe even longer. I’m staring at just a frozen image of you. I’m glad that you have this recorded on your side, and I’m glad that this conversation still worked even though we couldn’t, or even I couldn’t really see you. Let me say this, thank you for doing this interview. I really hope that people go to your website and get a sense of what you are working on, digication.com. And beyond that, I got to meet you and have this great set of conversations with you at Jason Calacanis’ conference. And I hope that other people get to meet you in person. And I want to follow up with you at some point and have more conversations about education. It’s and interesting topic, and it’s time that we have the tools now to do something to improve education online, to make it into this creator of superpowers.
Jeff: I really love what you just said and for those that really care about education and they want to connect with me I think that Twitter is going to be a great place.
Andrew: What’s your twitter handle?
Jeff: It’s @JefferyYan.
Andrew: Should I have called you Jeffery throughout this interview? I have got Jeff Yan.
Jeff: No, no everyone calls me Jeff. I don’t know why I still stick with Jeffery. It was one of those old school Chinese, instead of having to write your full name all the time type thing.
Andrew: Somewhere in the middle of the interview I said, wow, Skype says Jeffery and I have been calling him Jeff off of my notes. Maybe, I’m being a jerk here. All right, Jeff Yan, thank you for doing this interview, and everybody out there thank you for watching. Let me know what you think about more sessions, interviews, courses, whatever on education. I want your feedback. Thank you.