Because he walked away from two previous opportunities, Sam Odio committed to sticking with Divvyshot, the photo sharing startup he launched and eventually sold to Facebook. Those experiences, he said, “really taught me a lesson about believing in myself, believing in the ideas, and giving a business at least two years of hard work before I decide to move on to anything else.”
He didn’t realize how big an idea he had with Bluwiki, until he saw a competing wiki company build a big user-base. He walked away from an online business selling Iraqi Dinars and didn’t realize how big an opportunity it was until he came back to it and realized over a million dollars in revenue from it.
So with Divviyshot, the man was determined to leave his mark. This is the story of how he’s doing it.
Andrew Warner: Before we get started, as we speak, big money is being Paypaled over to me from thee three companies that I have to tell you about.
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All right, here’s your program, guys.
Andrew Warner: Hey everyone, it’s Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Last year Sam Odio launched Divvyshot a photo-sharing site. Earlier this year Divvyshot sold to Facebook in a deal that many call a talent acquisition. I invited him here to Mixergy to hear the story of how he launched, grew, and sold Divvyshot. Sam, welcome to Mixergy.
Sam Odio: Hey, guys. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: You bet. Sam, first question. If you give me a Macbook Air, what kind of coverage would you like for a Macbook Air?
Sam: Hopefully, a Mixergy interview. Wasn’t that our agreement?
Andrew: Would you be willing to give me a Macbook Air in exchange for an interview a month for the next year?
Andrew: All right. That’s a reference to Daniel Brusilovsky who apparently asked you for a Macbook Air. You apparently refused. There was a whole interview I did here on Mixergy. I don’t want to rehash it. You were a little nervous that I would bring this up. I figured, ‘You know what, I don’t really care. It’s been so long.’ If you have any final statements that you want to make about that, go for it, and then we’ll move on.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, I don’t mind talking about it. I just didn’t want the whole interview to be about that drama. Regarding the issue, you know, Daniel, I believe Daniel is a good guy. I still talk to him occasionally. I feel pretty bad about the whole situation. I think there are things he could have done differently, and I think there are things I could have done differently. My biggest regret is not just making it clear to Daniel immediately that this wasn’t okay. Instead, I ended up going to Mike at TechCrunch and that ended up kind of screwing Daniel over I think. As a friend, I probably should have just immediately said, ‘Listen, Daniel, this isn’t something you should be doing.’ I didn’t have the balls to say that.
Andrew: Why not? Why didn’t you have the balls to tell him that? Why is it easier to go to Michael Arrington?
Sam: You know, that’s a good question. It was kind of like it just happened so quickly. He was interviewing me for Divvyshot and he brought it up in passing. At first, I thought he was joking about it. As it became more and more serious, of course, your mind goes to the worst-case scenario. I don’t know how many Twitter followers Daniel has, but I definitely don’t want him on my bad side. At least, that is what I was thinking at the time, that I didn’t want this guy on my bad side. I definitely struggled with a way I could get out of the situation without pissing him off. Basically, being fair to him and handling the situation in a way that was fair to him. Looking back to it, it seems like it should have been easy to just say, ‘Hey, Daniel, this isn’t okay.’ In the time when you are struggling for coverage and this guy is the key to all the fame and success that you might want . . .
Andrew: Is it fair to say also that by going to Michael Arrington somewhere in the back of your head you said, ‘Maybe I’ll curry favor with him. Maybe Michael Arrington will see that I’m a decent guy trying to run a business here, that I’m not trying to pull one over on anybody, and give me favorable coverage in the future.’
Sam: I don’t think so. Actually, I was somewhat paranoid that by going to Michael Arrington he would kind of side with Daniel and twist the story into something that cast Divvyshot and me in a very unfavorable light. I was extremely afraid of that in going to him. Ultimately, I talked to my brother and my girlfriend and they just said, ‘You absolutely have to do this.’ I was very lucky to have that support. Michael actually handled it very well. I think that out of everybody in this situation, I was most impressed with how Michael handled the situation.
Andrew: I have to say absolutely, too. Didn’t he also speak at Daniel’s conference a few days after?
Sam: I don’t know. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what he said there. As far as dealing with him personally, he was very, very professional about the issue, and as soon as I sent him the chat logs from Daniel, he immediately took it very seriously.
Andrew: Okay. All right. Let me say this, I don’t really care. It’s been so long. I think that anyone who rewinds to the beginning of this interview will notice two things. Number one, I didn’t land my joke properly, my whole Macbook Air joke properly, the first time. Number two, you felt the need to say something about this and to clear the air. As far as I can tell, the air has been cleared. You have blogged about it. People have talked about it. It is so far in the past, who really cares? Maybe it means that I am a bad interviewer that I am not pushing ahead on this one little piece of gossipy type story, but it is just not me. I want to find out more about how you built the business. Let’s move on past that. Cool?
Sam: Yes. Sure.
Andrew: All right. Cool. Divvyshot. You launched Divvyshot in 2009. It wasn’t your first company. You’re a guy who launched a lot of companies before then.
Sam: Yeah. I played around.
Andrew: Starting with, I see that in college you were organizing some sort of entrepreneurship group get-together. Kind of like Michael J. Fox. I think Michael J. Fox was in charge of the entrepreneurship club but was trying to merge it with some sort of finance club. It sounds like that was you, right? The guy who was always into business.
Sam: Yeah, I have always kind of been into start-ups. I played around with a few different start-ups basically since high school. I started my first company when I was 17 years old. That was probably a horrible failure but it definitely taught me many lessons.
Andrew: What was the first company that you started?
Sam: Senior year of high school I started a computer consulting and repair firm. Basically, everyone else was getting these jobs at fast food chains or as servers in restaurants or whatever, and I saw Geek Squad or the equivalent at the time charging $70-$80 per hour. I thought, ‘That’s an insane amount of money.’ My other option was to basically get a job at minimum wage. I figured I could undercut them and deliver better service.
Andrew: Why did that go so badly?
Sam: Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. When Geek Squad charges $70 an hour you don’t really make the calculation, you don’t really realize how much work goes into the business behind the scenes. It think that for every hour I was able to charge there were probably ten hours of work that went into behind the scenes website maintenance, advertising, support calls, etc.
Andrew: Okay. Wow. I see that. All right. That business was a failure, you say. I’m not so sure I’d consider it a failure, but I get what you mean, it didn’t work out. Was OdioWorks the next company?
Sam: OdioWorks was the company I started senior year in high school. That originally was doing computer consulting.
Andrew: I’m sorry, let me stop you there. The connection is a little bit bad. Do you have something running in the background?
Sam: You know, I don’t, but let me see if I can close some of this stuff out.
Andrew: Okay. While you’re closing it out, I’ll say I think you launched OdioWorks with your brother and you were 17 years old at the time?
Sam: Yes, that was the computer consulting business. I was 17 years old. My brother sat me down. He saw that I was somewhat interested in computers. He said, ‘Sam, we’re going to do this in a day. We’re going to get this company registered. We’re going to get you some press. I’m going to teach you how to market your business. You’ll take it from there.’ That’s how it went.
Andrew: Okay. What did work at OdioWorks?
Sam: Well, the computer business eventually was servicing clients in about seven different cities. That was about freshman year of college. As I said, it was just an incredible amount of work. I probably wasn’t making much more than minimum wage. I remember getting this call around 1:00 a.m. I was hanging out with my friends in a dorm room. I remember getting the call and it was somebody looking for computer support. They weren’t really looking to pay anything. They just wanted someone to help them with their IT issues. Those are the kind of calls I had been getting over the last two years. I finally decided after taking that call that I had to figure out something else. This just wasn’t sustainable. I wasn’t going to be able to fix computers for the entire U.S. That’s when I got into the currency exchange business.
Andrew: This is the one that we talked about in the conversation before the interview started. This is DinarProfits.com.
Andrew: Was that the biggest hit you had within OdioWorks?
Sam: Yes. I sold the computer consulting and repair website to a friend and started this currency exchange business. As far as revenue, that was by far the business that generated the most revenue. It ended up paying for college and funding later businesses like Divvyshot.
Andrew: What was the business? How did it work?
Sam: We would essentially get the Iraqi dinar from the Middle East and resell it to customers in the U.S. Because the dinar was such a thinly traded currency, you can’t trade it electronically like many other currencies. That’s the void that we filled.
Andrew: You were actually taking possession of the bills. Were you shipping them out to customers?
Sam: We were taking possession of the bills and shipping them to customers, yes.
Andrew: People were just banking that there would be such a great recovery in Iraq that owning the physical bills would be valuable.
Sam: Yes, that’s what they were hoping for. In the first Gulf War the Kuwaiti dinar fell dramatically and then rebounded. Everybody is hoping that as the Iraqi economy recovers the Iraqi dinar will do something similar.
Andrew: Okay. Where did you get the idea to do this?
Sam: I was reading an article actually, in the newspaper, about the opportunity. I just thought, ‘This is something I could do.’ At the time, I only had $500 in the bank. You need about $1,000 to buy enough dinars to actually resell them and make a cut. I talked to all my friends trying to convince everybody to go in 50/50 with me. Finally, I was able to convince my roommate. We both put in $500. I ordered $1,000 worth of dinars. In an afternoon, I set up a website.
Andrew: How did you get your customers for the business?
Sam: We advertised, mainly online. As it happens, I was going on vacation abroad a couple days after we set up the site. I couldn’t be there for the first week of the business. When I came back, we had sold our initial inventory five times over from its online advertising. That is when we realized, ‘There might be something here.’ Before that, we had no idea.
Andrew: What was the ad?
Sam: It was just a Google ad. If you were searching for Iraqi dinar, we would come up ‘Buy Iraqi dinar,’ kind of thing.
Andrew: Wow. All right. That’s incredible. You realized, ‘There’s a business here.’ How do you grow the company?
Sam: Well, that’s probably one of the things I regret most, is not throwing myself into the company as much as I should have. We basically would take the previous month’s revenue, buy more dinars, and repeat that every month essentially. We were able to grow the company for about six months. Then we decided that the opportunity had passed and nobody was interested in this anymore, so we actually shut the company down. Approximately, I am just guessing, approximately six months after that, I started things back up again. It was after we shut the company down that we grossed about 99% of the revenue. My biggest regret around that project is just not throwing myself into it and focusing on it. I doubted myself. I doubted the validity of the business.
Andrew: What do you mean by after you shut it down you got 99% of the business?
Sam: We shut it down about six months after starting, but I left the website up because I was only paying $5 a month or whatever. I continued to get a few orders. Finally, I decided I’d have another go at it and that’s when things started to take off.
Andrew: I see. You brought it back after neglecting it for a little bit.
Andrew: That’s when the real money came back in because you were throwing yourself into it.
Sam: Exactly, yes.
Andrew: Why? Why did it work? Can you be more specific about what throwing yourself into it meant?
Sam: You know, there are many low hanging fruit around business. The opportunities aren’t that exciting, but they are there, and you just need somebody to pick that fruit. Expanding advertising onto other search engines. Just optimizing the AdWords ads, for example. Spending time with Google SEO. We could hire a Google SEO analyst for $2,000 and that would probably have something like a 50X return, right? It just requires somebody to take the time to find an analyst, to get suggestions, and to implement those suggestions on the website. Eventually, I ended up completely rewriting the website in Python and Django and focusing on SEO optimization myself. Just kind of doing the things I knew. That worked. It doubled the revenue. Just things like that, which can have a pretty big impact on revenue. In the first six months, I was in school and I just really wasn’t taking advantage of those opportunities.
Andrew: Your LinkedIn profile said that the business that you ran, all these little companies that you ran from 2002 to 2008 grossed $1.5 million. How much of that came from DinarProfits.com?
Sam: That’s a little outdated. All the revenue. Almost all the revenue came from DinarProfits.com. Maybe 5% came from the computer consulting business.
Andrew: And Bluwiki. Was there any revenue in Bluwiki?
Sam: There was never any revenue with Bluwiki. I essentially started Bluwiki just because I thought there was a need in the market. I started that in 2004. Again, that was another situation where I didn’t throw myself into the business. There were other companies that started around the same time in 2004 like PBwiki that did much, much better. Those two experiences really taught me a lesson about believing in myself, believing in the ideas, and giving the business at least two years of hard work before I decide to move on to anything else.
Andrew: I see. How long were you at Divvyshot?
Sam: I had been working on Divvyshot for about 18 months when we . . .
Andrew: So, why not give it the two years of hard work?
Sam: I felt like it was a pretty good opportunity actually, coming over to Facebook. I think that, yeah, I was pretty happy with it. That is actually a good example of my new philosophy if you want to call it that. There were many times during the first year when I doubted myself and my friends around me doubted the validity of Divvyshot. Even those on Hacker News doubted whether Divvyshot had any merit. I told myself at the time I was going to give myself two years, and I think we basically turned it around. I brought on Paul and Michael, two employees, well, you can basically call them cofounders. They were very, very talented. Together we were able to turn this into something that was getting decent traction and had promise.
Andrew: I read that you invested $100,000 of your own dollars into Divvyshot. True?
Sam: That’s approximately true, yes.
Andrew: And this came from the previous companies, I guess from DinarProfits.com mostly. How much profit did you pull out of this business, Dinarprofits.com?
Sam: Honestly, I don’t even know the exact number. Our gross margin was around 30%, and I think we did about $3 million total in revenue over a couple years. The last year, 2009, we did over $2 million that year alone, so I am pretty sure the total was higher than that.
Andrew: Roughly $3 million gross profits based on what you’re telling me would have been $1 million. From there you deduct just salaries and things like office . . .
Sam: Advertising, exactly, that kind of stuff.
Andrew: Oh, you do deduct advertising from gross profits.
Sam: Yeah, I would. Maybe that’s not . . . I’d have to look at the books.
Andrew: So, we’re saying basically, bottom line, about $500,000 was what came.
Andrew: Maybe. Over several years.
Sam: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: Okay. You take $100,000, you put it in. What portion of your overall net worth is the $100,000 that you put in?
Sam: At the time, it was a pretty significant portion. I, you know, had also paid for college and graduate school. Therefore, $100,000 was a significant portion. I could have put in maybe $100,000 more, but if I were to do that, then I would be absolutely broke. That would probably be stretching it. Then you are talking about going into your IRA, savings accounts, everything like that, and touching all the money you don’t want to touch.
Andrew: Did you still have student debt when you left school?
Sam: I had a little bit of student debt that I ended up just paying off when I left school.
Andrew: Okay. So, this business did really well for you.
Sam: Yes, I was pretty fortunate. I was very lucky.
Andrew: Your experience gave you the understanding of how to buy ads, SEO, and so on; gave you profit; funded your next business, which was Divvyshot.
Andrew: What was the idea behind Divvyshot? What made you launch it?
Sam: The idea was that it is actually really hard to share high resolution photos. For example, my girlfriend and I, we attend about 40% of the same events. She’s taking photos and I’m taking photos, but our photo libraries are not connected in any way at all. It’s really hard for her to get my photos, for me to get her photos, and for us to keep our photo libraries in sync, and we’re living in the same place. When you are talking about five or six people that attend an event together and are living all over the country or all over a city passing around a thumb drive or something like that isn’t really feasible, right? The long-term goal for Divvyshot was establish software that would interconnect these libraries. I actually call them silos. Net them together and allow them to seamlessly talk to each other, I guess you could say.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s still a problem even to this day. Olivia and I will go out to the same event, take out our two different iPhones for photos and a Canon that she has for photos. We’ll have three different buckets of pictures.
Andrew: I won’t be able to have access to her pictures. She won’t have access to mine.
Sam: My philosophy is that all those photos should be going to the same place.
Andrew: Right. We should each have a copy of it if we want it.
Andrew: That was the original idea. What’s the first thing that you did?
Sam: The first thing I did, I built a website in Python and Django. Essentially, it was a photo-sharing site where you can invite your friends to contribute to a particular album, and then any of your friends who are contributing to that album could also download a zip of all of the high-resolution photos from that album. That was really the first product that we launched to 1,000 users in March 2009.
Andrew: How’d you have 1,000 users when you launched?
Sam: We got some TechCrunch coverage, and we released 1,000 Alpha accounts. Those went within 12 hours.
Andrew: I think it might have even been 700 accounts that you released.
Andrew: I think that TechCrunch article said that you had 700 Beta accounts available.
Sam: Oh, yeah, I think there were only 700 left at the time, by the time the article went out.
Andrew: I see. So, you really did cap it at the 1,000. Did you turn people away?
Sam: We capped it at the 1,000. Yes, but I think that was probably a good idea because the website really wasn’t a compelling product at the time.
Andrew: I’ve talked to people who have said that getting an article in TechCrunch sent zero users to their site and people like you who say they got more users than you even planned for. Why do you think you got so many?
Sam: I think the idea that there were a limited number of accounts definitely encouraged users to shore up. Scarcity generated a certain level of demand. That being said, the quality of the users we got from TechCrunch, they weren’t particularly valuable.
Andrew: What do you mean? I’ve heard that before, too.
Sam: Part of it is just Divvyshot’s target user base is different from the TechCrunch readership. I think most users were just signing up to have an account in case this was something interesting. Maybe 1/20 or 1/10 users ever returned. That’s just something to keep in mind when you are launching to TechCrunch.
Andrew: I’ve heard that a lot here in interviews. At what point did you get Paul and Michael on board?
Sam: I think it was around September 2009. I had been working on the website, entering on the website. At the time, we were also doing an iPhone application. The iPhone application had not yet launched. It was kind of a come to Jesus moment. I had some very close friends telling me that I should just shut down the business that it wasn’t going anywhere. I had [interference] into it.
Andrew: You already spent the $100,000 that you plunked into it?
Sam: No, I put about $30,000 into it.
Andrew: Oh, okay.
Sam: At the time, I had to decide whether to shut it down and cut my losses or turn it around, bring two or three more people in, and really try to make this into something big. That was when I remembered DinarProfits and Bluwiki. I remembered making a promise that I’d give this at least two years. I told myself, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ I put another $70,000 into it. I hired Michael and Paul, and I told them, ‘Listen, this $70,000 is really only going to pay your bare bones salary for the next six months. So we have six months to hit this out of the park. If we can’t, if we can’t get traction from users or traction from investors, than I’m not going to be able to pay you guys anything more.’ They were comfortable with that. I brought them onboard. We busted our butts for the next six months building something that was more compelling than what we had.
Andrew: How do you get guys who are willing to work with that little job security?
Sam: I think they were kind of looking for something like that, where they had an ownership stake. They also had a decent amount of equity. That’s why I basically call them cofounders. That’s the opportunity that they were really looking for.
Andrew: What size equity? Together, so we don’t reveal either one’s.
Sam: Total, I gave them 15% of the company.
Andrew: Okay. This is so interesting. Mark Schuster says this. He says, ‘Go launch something a little bit. Then get somebody on board and call them a cofounder even, but don’t start off with that team of people where you have to divide the pot right away in half or in thirds.’ This way you ended up keeping a bigger share of the business. Of course, you put in more money into the business than most entrepreneurs do, most dot com entrepreneurs would.
Sam: Yeah, I think that actually makes sense if you are willing to take more risk, trying to get something started, a proof of concept started, getting some TechCrunch coverage, and 1,000 users or whatever. I think that makes sense.
Andrew: Okay. You get them on board. At what point do you go to Y Combinator and get funding from them?
Sam: I actually got Y Combinator in early 2009.
Andrew: Before you found Paul and Michael?
Sam: Before I found Paul and Michael, yeah.
Andrew: So why Y Combinator? How are we doing by the way on time? I see that you have to run because you have some kind of fire going on at Facebook.
Sam: Yeah, I probably have to run in about two minutes.
Andrew: Two minutes? We don’t even have ten minutes here?
Sam: Yeah, I’m sorry.
Andrew: All right. Let’s push forward. How do you get into Y Combinator when you are a single founder without even employees? We know that Y Combinator believes in cofounders.
Sam: Y Combinator does. I applied with one other person. His name was John, John Devor, and we were originally going to do the project together, but John had another business on the side that was taking off and doing very well for him. It was called The Little App Factor. He ended up focusing on that, and I just kind of forged ahead by myself. That was actually another come to Jesus moment because that was about two weeks into the project.
Andrew: Okay, you sold and you had 40,000 active users. How do you get to 40,000 active users from the 1,000 users who weren’t very active?
Sam: A lot of that was the work of Paul and Michael. Michael did a great job with the user experience and redesigning the website. Then, also, we got a decent number of users after we launched our iPhone application. We were featured in the app store. That probably got us 20,000 to 25,000 users.
Andrew: I see. Okay. When you sold, was it a talent acquisition essentially?
Sam: Yeah. You know, they brought us in, and basically our approach is to revamp Facebook photos. We’ll probably use some of the technology that we built at Divvyshot, but we’re porting everything to Facebook’s PHP code anyway. A lot of it was a talent acquisition, absolutely.
Andrew: How do they pay? They pay cash up front to pay back the money you invested in the business, a little bit of a bonus, and then you get the shares as employee?
Sam: Yes, most of the acquisition price was in shares. Then we also got cash. Yes.
Andrew: Did it cover the money that you guys put into the business?
Sam: Yes, basically, we were able to, we had enough cash to give our investors their money back plus a decent return. I got my money back. Michael decided not to come over to Facebook, so he got a nice cash payout.
Andrew: Who are the investors beyond Y Combinator?
Sam: Roger Chen was an investor, excuse me, Richard Chen; Jim Young; Gabor, I can’t pronounce his last name, Gabor Cselle was also an investor.
Andrew: Okay. How much money did you have in the business? Including yours, what was the investment in the business?
Sam: We were actually in the middle of raising an angel round and three of them had put in, I believe, a little under $100,000.
Andrew: That’s it? There was your $100,000, their $100,000, and that was it.
Sam: Yeah. They had put in a little under $100,000. We hadn’t actually used any of that. We ended up just selling to Facebook. They got their money back plus a return.
Andrew: What kind of return did they get, roughly?
Sam: They were really only invested in the business for, I think, under a month or so. They had signed a convertible note. I believe that the return was 1.5 times or something like that.
Andrew: For every $1.00, they got $1.50 back.
Sam: Yes, which is not bad for a month long investment. Obviously, they were hoping that we’d stay with it and go for the gold.
Andrew: The big question I have to ask you is why. Why did you sell to Facebook and go work at Facebook when you’re a guy who has had companies in the past that have done well, who is just getting going here with this one, who got angel investors to come and support you on Divvyshot? Why sell it?
Sam: This was a very unique opportunity. Ultimately, it came down to a decision that the team made together. It’s not every day that some little guy running some photo sharing company that nobody is really using has the opportunity to go to Facebook and shape what Facebook photos looks like for 400 million people. I am still getting used to the scale here. It was a very unique opportunity. Obviously, I am giving up control being at Facebook, but at the same time, I get to touch more people’s lives. That’s really why I had started Divvyshot is to build something that people use on a massive scale. I guess I’ve used Facebook as kind of a shortcut to get to that long-term goal.
Andrew: I see. Okay. So, they said to you, ‘You’re going to have, not complete control, you still have to answer to somebody, but we’re going to let you pretty much own the photos business.’ Is that true?
Sam: You know, I can’t go into too much detail about what it’s like at Facebook, but, yeah, there’s essentially a team of about eight people, and our focus is Facebook photos.
Andrew: Your girlfriend, after you sold to Facebook, did she seem to love you just like a little bit more? Did she seem just a little more, did she laugh just a little bit harder at your jokes afterwards?
Sam: She was very supportive. I think there was a certain level of relief that I sold given how stressful Divvyshot had been. Obviously, we’re hoping to spend the rest of our lives together and she was not looking forward to supporting me for the rest of our life. I think there was a little sense of relief.
Andrew: She was supporting you for a period there?
Sam: I think she was expecting to have to support me given the amount of money I was putting in.
Andrew: [laughs] I see. All right. All right. Well, I’m laughing like 50% more at your jokes right now. So, it helps.
Sam: [laughs] Yeah.
Andrew: Congratulations. I know you have a lot to do today. Thanks for coming here and doing the interview with me.
Sam: Great. Thank you.
Andrew: All right. The address is in Buenos Aires for the Macbook Air. I will send it to you via email or Facebook chat. We’ll do it that way.
Sam: [laughs] All right.
Andrew: Cool. Bye.
Sam: Take care.
Andrew: Thanks, Sam. Bye, everyone. Thanks for watching.
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