Andrew: You’re doing it in a pickle.
Russ: I literally had all my pickle gear stolen this morning out of my garage. So, this is the only pickle-branded item I have.
Andrew: So you’re going to do this whole interview dressed as pickle?
Russ: It’s either that or no branding, which I’m super–I had to file a police report this morning.
Andrew: And you can’t bring yourself to just be in a t-shirt, jeans or nice button-down shirt?
Russ: I actually feel more natural in a pickle outfit that I do just in a button down or something.
Andrew: How could you? There’s something over your head right now and it’s foreign. It’s not even the usual pickle outfit.
Russ: I was the pickle. This is the real pickle outfit that we use that I bought on Amazon when we first launched.
Andrew: Okay. This is the one that’s on your homepage. It’s the official one and you feel more comfortable in that than in jeans and a t-shirt?
Russ: Yeah. I don’t even own jeans, actually.
Andrew: You own a t-shirt.
Russ: I do, but I’m going to California tomorrow for the month and my suitcase…
Andrew: This isn’t about comfort. It’s not about California. You want to get the attention, isn’t it?
Russ: It’s about branding.
Andrew: It’s branding. You’re that hungry. I’m actually leaving everything we’re talking about right now in the interview.
Russ: Well, it’s the only ammo I had in my startup when we started was just being silly and branding. We had no money. We’re self-funded. We had nothing.
Andrew: I see. And this was part of your hustle, that your company is called Design Pickle and you know that if you’re dressed as a pickle, the people who are watching are going to think pickle. They’re going to at least be drawn in and they’re going to be drawn in and they’re going to go check out what you are and you need to hustle so you can get more customers. That’s what I’m looking at here, right?
Russ: Yeah. Well, at the end of the day what we do is really kind of boring, actually. It’s just graphic design.
Andrew: No. I think there’s something very exciting about the graphic design that you’re doing. The fact that you’re turning it into a service that people pay you on a monthly basis for, I think that you’ve productized your service in an interesting way and that was going to be my hook for the intro. Now that we’re actually in the interview, it’s the hook. I should introduce people to you.
Your name is Russ Perry. You’re the founder of Design Pickle. It’s a flat-rate design shop. People pay you a monthly fee. They get pretty much all the design that they want, right?
Russ: Yeah. That’s the model right there.
Andrew: What about self-respect? How many people will not take a job dressed as a pickle handing out flyers because they can’t handle the pickle part, not the flyer part or dressed as a sandwich or dressed as a hotdog or whatever? Do you feel any of that?
Russ: No. You used the term the best. It’s the hustle. It’s doing what’s necessary to grow and to scale.
Andrew: Because you want it so badly?
Russ: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: I get that. The reason you want it–I should say my two sponsors are–speaking of want it so badly, my two sponsors for this interview are Toptal, the company for hiring developers and Acuity Scheduling, the company that will help people actually book meetings with people properly. While I’m at it since we just jumped right into it, I didn’t want to start off with the proper intro. This is for Joe, our editor. There’s my clapboard. I’ll do it one more time.
You’re a guy who used to work at Apple.
Andrew: I imagine when you went to Apple you would dress in slacks or jeans or something, right?
Russ: Yeah. It was a t-shirt. I worked there twice, actually. I worked there in college and a little bit after college doing sales and marketing, product launches and then worked in house at an agency and went back into the retail side doing like training and working with people in the retail stores.
Andrew: The reason that you gave that up had to do with your daughter being born and you needed more time. What happened?
Russ: So Apple was a sweet gig, actually. I had been there about four years, five years and in any corporate job, you start to enjoy the perks and the benefits and all of that. I had–I lovingly call her my oops baby in college. So, after college when I was working at Apple, I wasn’t married. It was just a relationship that I had. I was like having to request time off to go to take time with my child.
It was this sort of macro like moment where I remember just sitting there like filling the request off form and I was like, “This is crazy. I shouldn’t have to ask permission to spend time with my daughter,” which I already had a limited amount of time with her in the first place. I kind of knew Photoshop. I kind of knew Illustrator. I knew the design programs. I set off launching my own agency, which was crazy at first but made that work for about eight years.
Andrew: For how many years?
Russ: Eight years.
Andrew: Eight years. This was a standard consulting company. People pay you for your time. Today what you’ve got is something that’s much different. Let’s just jump forward a few years to where you are today. Design Pickle is generating how much in revenue?
Russ: Last month, we did $130,000.
Andrew: $130,000, so that’s even more than when you did the pre-interview with our producer.
Russ: Yeah. We’ve been growing pretty fast.
Andrew: You told our producer at the time that you were under $100,000.
Russ: Yeah. We had a really amazing May. Well, it’s May. It’s still this month. We’ve still got one more day left, but yeah, we broke $130,000.
Andrew: $130,000? Damn, dressing up like a pickle makes sense. Here’s the part that I said is genius. You’re not just doing a consulting company, you productize it, which means you have consistent revenue, which means your customers know how much you’re paying from month to month, which means you can disappear.
The pickle costume is probably bringing some business in and if you disappear all that hustle and your brain power is going to go away, but if you need to take a month off to be with your daughter, the business isn’t going to go away and people will still get their design work, am I right?
Russ: Design Pickle is like the complete reaction to my agency. So, at my agency, I couldn’t get a day off. Every time the phone would ring I would be worried about a client who had an issue. I had very few clients. Everything was an original project. It was everything done from scratch with no system or process. So after closing Design Pickle, or after closing the agency, I just was like I want a recurring revenue model business. I want to know exactly how we do things and I want to be able to step away if I need to and know the world isn’t going to come crumbling down around me. That’s kind of where things started.
Andrew: And that is where you are today. You’ve achieved it. Let’s talk about how you got to that. When you first started out with your creative agency, you had a couple of guys from Argentina who you were partners with. You started pitching your business to people and there was one time you pitched it to an executive team and all they could obsess about was the tech–you talk about it. You’re smiling.
I’m adjusting my lights. Anybody who’s listening to us, I know a lot of people only listen. They don’t want to view. I urge you at some point to just come back to Mixergy just to take a look at the video of this guy in the costume, this hustler. But while I adjust my lights off camera for a second because we jumped in this interview before I could do that, tell me what happened with that experience.
Russ: So when we were selling HubSpot and the technical product and everything?
Andrew: This was HubSpot. You’re willing to talk about the name of the company?
Russ: Yeah. So kind of the tail end — correct me if this is not the story you’re telling — the tail end of our agency, we really started to look at how can we generate more consistent revenue with what we were doing.
Andrew: Go for it.
Russ: So, my partners who were in Argentina who I still have a great relationship with, we were always hell bent on being generalist agency. So, we would do everything for everyone, whatever you needed under the arms and the umbrella of marketing and branding. So, we decided that we were going to try to sell HubSpot and become like an inbound marketing reseller, which was amazing. I love HubSpot. They’re an amazing company. They did a great job supporting us. We started selling deal after deal, like $100,000 deals, $250,000 deal.
Russ: But the problem was that we were not technical as a company. I had sold over $1 million in revenue in 2014 in the beginning part of the year. By the time summer had hit, we had $750,000 of that million pull out because we couldn’t implement. We were a bunch of creatives, a bunch of designers trying to do everything for everybody and it was impossible. I had told my partners and I was like, “We’ve got to specialize. We’ve got specialize. We’ve got to find a niche. We’ve got to find a niche.”
This was the closest I could get to accomplishing that, which was great on the sales side, but what we failed to realize was the technical just complexity of implementing those types of programs for clients. So, I had client after client pull out and I was just left with nothing. At the end of 2014, literally no revenue.
We were a $3 million agency. We were going to be a fraction of that by the end of the year. That’s when I called my partner. I Skyped him actually from Indianapolis at the GenCon convention there. It was just like, “I’m done.” I can’t be a generalist. I can’t reboot this from nothing. I hate this business model. I’ve got to get out.
Andrew: And you were crying?
Russ: I was crying, yeah.
Andrew: Crying on Skype?
Russ: Yeah. I was in a room. If you know GenCon, it’s a board game convention. So, here I was at the Marriott surrounded by nerds. I’m crying. I’m trying to get a Wi-Fi connection. I’m telling them I’m out. I feel like I’m going through a divorce. I felt so responsible because their job was to do the design. My job was to sell and manage the clients. I just felt like such a failure at that point.
Andrew: And you were a failure, wouldn’t you say?
Russ: Yeah. I was. Hindsight is 20/20, but yeah, at that point, I had 100% failed.
Andrew: Yeah. You’re obviously not one right now, but you had at the time. What I’m wondering is you had a daughter. Have you had another one since the daughter?
Russ: I actually have two more daughters, a four-year old and an eight-month old.
Andrew: Ever since I had my son, the fear of failure became not just about me but about my son, this feeling of, “If I screw up, I could screw up his life and for the rest of his life, he could be resenting me. He could feel anger towards me. People resentment for their parents for things their parents didn’t even do or were mild. If I screw this up financially I can cause real problems here.” Did you go through that now that it was becoming a reality the way I do when it’s just in my head?
Russ: Yeah. Andrew, I was… I’m getting teary-eyed thinking about it right now. Here I was, at the time I had two daughters, I was married. I had gone through a lot of marital problems with my agency. I was traveling all the time. The lifestyle was really destructive at times–entertaining clients, going out late, all these kinds of things.
Russ: Drinking a ton. I shared in the pre-interview I really struggled with alcohol with all of this.
Andrew: How bad did it get with alcohol?
Russ: Like kicked out of the house bad. That was 2013.
Andrew: Not even that long ago. What did you do that got you kicked out of the house?
Russ: It was basically an affair with someone I worked with.
Russ: More of an emotional affair, but affair as in affair.
Andrew: Meaning did you see each other naked?
Andrew: And when you say emotional, what do you mean?
Russ: It was me spending all my time with somebody, me just getting wrapped up–drugs and alcohol make you become a different person.
Andrew: What did you become with drugs and alcohol?
Russ: Just a selfish, greedy person. So here’s the thing you’ve got to understand with my journey with drugs and alcohol. I always hid it with the business and with my agency in a lot of ways. I would always use the business as an excuse, “I’ve got to go out. I’ve got to spend time with this client or travel here.” I realized I was putting that before my family. I want to get the timeline correct because actually it’s really important to frame up 2014. All of those struggles were in 2012 and 2013. I had gotten sober October 21st, 2013 was like my first day.
So, here I was almost a year later. My marriage is getting repaired. I’m on the up. I’ve been sober for almost a year and now I’m losing my job effectively. So the fear and the pressure of like, “Fuck, this is where I was and now… I just got through this huge challenge and counseling is going great and now I have to go back and say I failed and I have no job.” It was like the scariest thing ever. I’m like getting goose bumps right now thinking about it just because of that fear.
Andrew: When you put on the pickle costume right now and do things like this–I don’t mean to exaggerate the significance of the pickle costume, but frankly it takes al little bit of guts, it shows determination–is it because of not wanting to ever go back there again or am I just super-imposing my world view on you?
Russ: So it’s a weird turn of events, but actually in high school I had a job as a mascot. It was just me being a fun high school kid and it was the best job ever. This is truly a symbol. Yeah, it’s funny and it’s silly, but it’s really a symbol of me just being authentic now and being like, “I don’t care about being in a pickle costume.” It literally doesn’t faze me. I could walk around and it’s like not an issue. It’s not about trying to be silly even though it’s totally silly. It’s about me now being comfortable with who I was.
I think before when I had my agency, I was trying to be an agency guy. I was trying to be all these other things and not listening to me, even from getting to a partnership where I always would listen to my partner and I always would like, “What do you think?” And I wouldn’t listen to the voice inside of me. Then I would go to alcohol and drugs to sedate my stress and anxiety and all the things that people use those substances for in not a recreational way. It was just this huge boiling pot of just being inauthentic.
Andrew: I see. How is being in a costume like this expressing the authentic you?
Russ: To me, when I am being authentic, it’s just like a deep, relaxing breath. That’s how feel in this costume. Honestly it’s a symbol that I now have my own voice and I’ve put my life first. I’ve put my family first. I’ve put everything . . . like the whole idea of Design Pickle came after I identified what I wanted in a lifestyle.
Andrew: So you started with the lifestyle, not the product.
Andrew: What’s the lifestyle you identified for yourself?
Russ: So, I hired a bunch of coaches. September 1st I was unemployed, 2014. I was just like, “I’ve got to figure this stuff out.” So, one of my coaches and I worked together creating what I call the decision making filter. It was basically like a list of things about my lifestyle. So, things like I could see my family, I don’t have to travel, I have a remote team, I have a recurring revenue business model simple because I know what the stresses are of an accounts receivable-type business model and I never wanted that again. I never wanted to be worried about a huge client payment that’s late. I’d rather have thousands of small payments that on average pay all the time.
Being able to travel with my family–we’re doing that tomorrow. We’re going to California for the whole month. We’re just going to get a house there and everything is going to be fine. I don’t have to visit a client. I don’t have to take any meetings. I can do online stuff wherever I need to for the business. All those things were in place before I even had the idea of Design Pickle.
Andrew: I see. Anything else that was on that list that’s important to talk about?
Russ: No. Creating the list what I realized is the list was . . . like I had such a clear mind in creating that list, shedding the agency business. The agency business was such a burden to me that a lot of people asked, “Hey, Russ, you closed your business and you had no job. It just has been really easy for you to come up with something because you had all this time to think about things.” To a certain point they are, but the agency was such a distraction and getting that removed from my mind allowed me to create this really simple, healthy list that I held myself accountable as I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next.
Andrew: Yeah. The agency business is so easy to start. It doesn’t take much. You do the work yourself. So it’s not like you’re selling hardware that you have to buy ahead of time. But it can be so draining and so hard to exit from. I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs who wanted to do what 37 signals did with Basecamp and transition from consulting to products and just had a hard time doing it.
Two of the best courses that we ever did on Mixergy were two people who did exactly that and then talked about how to do it. A guy named Brian Casel, who turned . . . you know him?
Russ: Yeah. We’re a client.
Andrew: You’re a client of his?
Russ: Yeah, of Audience Ops.
Andrew: Right. He’s got a new business now. But his previous business, he said, “I’m not going to design websites from scratch. I’m going to create a business that’s a service business that’s a productized service.” People pay him monthly and then he created websites for them. The other guy is Brennan Dunn. Do you know him?
Russ: Not personally.
Andrew: Okay. He talked about how to do that too, how to systemize your business. You did it. Now you know what you want out of your lifestyle. Did you then start to think–what’s the next step? How do you go form that to actually coming up with this productized design shop?
Russ: So, one of the other things on that list which I think is important to mention is that I wanted to use my experience that I’ve created. So, the reason being is that I didn’t want to go off in a direction where I had to just like learn a completely new industry. For some people, that may be the case for them. But what that allowed be to do is it allowed me to now evaluate opportunities and ideas with a really objective sort of like filter. I would call it the decision making filter.
I’m an entrepreneur. So I had no shortage of creative ideas. Well, every time one popped in my head . . . and I had probably three or four as I was going through this process. I would run it through that filter and unless it passed everything, I would let that idea go. I wouldn’t’ be stressed about it. I was also consulting on the side. This was kind of what had ended up creating Design Pickle was my consulting business.
But the consulting was the cash flow that allowed me to not stress out and not worry about paying my electric bill. Then as ideas came in, I came up with kids products, I came up with other agency models. I came up with reselling printing services. It was like nonstop now that I wasn’t running this agency and I had all this bandwidth. But I would repeatedly run it through that filter and sure enough, one or two things wouldn’t pan out and then I would just let that idea float away.
Andrew: Okay. And then how did you end up with this? When I saw it by the way, I imagined what you saw was some of the other people who I interviewed who have businesses around WordPress, DesignCurve. You pay them a monthly fee and they do all your WordPress work for you. I’ve seen a lot of people use them as a model and say, “What else can I apply that model to?” Is that what you did?
Russ: No. This is what I’ve seen a lot of. I’ve seen a lot of people do that. We have clones of our service who literally like copy our website directly. I built it off of one selfish reason and that was when I was consulting, I was so annoyed about having to manage the small design projects for my consulting clients.
So here I was with my Argentine partners. I had full-time staff down there designing quarter-million dollar branding projects. And then fast forward 30 days and I was being asked for my buddies, who I was fortunate enough to get a job from to design a business card or a flier for a tradeshow.
So, to say I had a little bit of an ego is very truthful in that scenario. So, what I did is I was like, “What if I have a helpdesk system and what if I just have them email into that and then I kind of put some people on the back end of that to manage it?” That’s what I did privately. My clients, I never revealed it to them until those engagements end but after a while that started working and I started to scale it a little bit and I was like, “This is actually working pretty well.
Then I read a book by a guy who’s founded a similar business, Dan Norris with WP Curve. They do WordPress updates. I read his book “7-Day Startup” and I was like, “This is my business, but I’m doing design and he does WordPress.” So I had already created it and it was already running, I just didn’t realize there was a market for these kinds of businesses.
Andrew: I see.
Russ: So that’s when I put on my agency hat and like whipped together a brand. I liked pickles and the URL was available and then we launched in January of 2015.
Andrew: Okay. Let’s talk about how you got your first customers. Did you just take your glove off? It’s getting hot?
Russ: It’s hard to wave and I’m worried about it flying off. I kind of talk with my hands a little bit, so I don’t want to hit the mic or knock it over. I could put it on for full cartoon effect.
Andrew: Those are really big gloves too. My two sponsors, the first is a company that will help you hire your next great developer. I was actually talking to Tim Sykes just recently and I said, “Tim, I’ve got a sponsor named Toptal.” And right over his shoulder–this is a guy who I’ve interviewed now for the last eight years almost every single year–over his shoulder, the guy who runs his company said, “We’ve used them. We’ve used Toptal.”
The reason that he and so many other people have used Toptal is because when you’re looking to hire a developer, it can be a really rough process. It takes forever to do it. Then when you find someone, it can’t just be an okay person. You need someone who can think better than you could. You need to tell them where you’re going. They need to amaze you with how they’re going to get there. And that’s a tough, long expensive process.
What Toptal did that’s so revolutionary is they created this team of developers ahead of time. I say it’s revolutionary because you know Andreessen-Horowitz, right? Everybody in this space knows Andreessen-Horowitz. They invested in this company. The reason they invested and the reason so many people have had their businesses changed by it is because they now have this model where you go to Toptal.
You tell them you’re hiring a developer or you need a developer. You tell them a project. You actually get on the phone with them and say what language you’re working in, how many hours you need. Do you need a team? Do you need someone to work part-time, full-time, whatever?
They then go into their network. They find the right person for you and you start working with them. That person will not come to your office. That person is probably in a part of the world that’s less expensive than the city that you’re living in, which is part of the benefit of working with them. But they can work with you like they’re part of your team.
The reason that Toptal can say that is because they take some time to understand your culture and understand the person who you’re working with. They will match you up almost like a love affair. Love is supposed to be forever. This is supposed to be as long as a project, if that’s what you’re looking for.
I want you to go check them out. If you’re hiring a developer, go to the special URL they’ve setup for us because they really want to win over Mixergy listeners. They want us to start talking about them, which we are. So they say that they’re going to give Mixergy listeners 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for the first 80 hours. Think about that. That’s huge, 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks. Who does that, two-week trial period? That’s a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks, I should say.
Go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. Russ, do you know them?
Russ: No, but I wanted to plug Toptal and what they do that is so smart and most people underestimate. It’s your time trying to find somebody. Anybody can go and find developers or designers or whoever online. It’s super easy to do that, but like when you have a service like Toptal–and I say this because this is kind of what we do for design–that saves an incredible amount of time sorting and that’s what most people don’t realize in these new kind of marketplaces and services where they’re providing a dedicated service like development that does that part for you.
Russ: That to me is like the game-changing of these productized service companies out there is they’re taking away the sourcing challenge that we sometimes get lucky with and we find an awesome person, but then other times you play the lottery trying to find them and then you burn up a ton of cash or time or both.
Andrew: And then what do you do? That person now is on your staff and you’re stuck with them or that person is running away with your project. With Toptal, if you have a problem–frankly, we’re all human beings, there are always potential problems–if you have a problem with Toptal with one of the developers they set you up with, you go back to Toptal. They’re there as an intermediary.
And if you have a problem with them, you come back to Andrew because I will not let you end up with a problem. Seriously, if it’s with one of my sponsors, we turn away so many sponsors. You hear me talk about the good ones for a reason. I will give out my email address and if you have a problem, you email me, Andrew@Mixergy.com. I will introduce you to my person at Toptal and you’re welcome to use that for that or you can use my email address if you ever have a problem with any of my sponsors. I want to know. Andrew@Mixergy.com if you have a problem.
All right. But I don’t believe people are going to have problems. I just want to hold every one of my sponsors up and say these are the best and if they’re not, I need to know it. So now you have this thing. What’s the first thing you do? Do you start looking for customers or is this when you started to reach out to all your friends and ask them if they can help promote your idea?
Russ: This was like get any email list I’ve had. Export my LinkedIn database, get those emails and just start announcing. I put together a launch strategy, if you will, which was one week we launched and I was writing guest blog posts for anybody that would give me space and the topics were crazy. I wasn’t even writing about Design Pickle. It was just like, “Hey, you run an HR company? What can I write about HR so that I could have a byline of the founder of Design Pickle and check them out?”
Andrew: Give me a couple of examples. What’s one place where I can go see you or an article by you from back then?
Russ: Back then, I don’t even know if some of them are still up. You can search for ElevateHR.com and just search for Design Pickle on their blog and see if one can come up.
Andrew: Was that helpful? Is this something that you actually would recommend to someone?
Russ: It’s hard to say because we were cash flow positive the first month through our sales. So, yeah, I think it is helpful to put all your effort and energy into creating enough momentum that you can actually have some cash after launching that you can then reinvest, which we did right way reinvesting into which would be the debut event of the pickle and that was the Infusionsoft Conference 2015.
Andrew: Before we get into that, you said you were cash flow positive. But what are your expenses in a situation like that? Was it just you doing the work at first?
Russ: No, no. So, I was lucky enough to float a lot of my–reinvest my consulting income. I had grown my consulting to have enough of a cash flow positive and a net difference profit that I’ve started to invest that into building and paying my team here or in the Philippines, the designers that I was hiring.
Andrew: So, at first you were doing your own design shop, standard stuff, making money while you were considering and discarding a lot of ideas. And this was you taking on design work, you doing the design work yourself, turning it around to your clients and then hiring people in the Philippines to do it? What’s the evolution there?
Russ: The consulting was basically I was unemployed. Who wants to hire an ex-agency guy? My jobs, I had about five clients and it ranged literally from designing business cards to helping with a brand to whatever. So, during that time, that’s when I hired my initial two contractors, a project manager and a designer. They were both in the Philippines. I first hired the project manager because I didn’t want to manage designers.
I said, “I want someone to manage my little small creative projects.” I did the rest of it. So, any kind of writing, strategy, planning, that’s what I was doing. But the small creative tasks went into this little subcontractor ecosystem. That scaled just slightly and that’s, again, when I kind of read the book by Dan Norris and figured out I could brand this little ecosystem that I created and try to sell this service like a product, try to sell it like a product.
So, when we launched, I just had still one project manager and one designer. She’s still with us today. Her name is Gia. She’s awesome. We just put it out there with a Stripe plugin, WordPress plugin. Everything was cobbled together on my own. I didn’t pay for any developers. I just figured it out. We got, I think, 36 people to sign up the first month.
Andrew: What were you charging at the time?
Russ: $195 a month.
Andrew: $195 a month and what would someone get for that?
Russ: Whatever they needed designed.
Andrew: All the design work?
Andrew: Couldn’t somebody say to you, “Hey, Russ, redesign my whole site?”
Russ: We’ll go into the FAQ disclaimer part. We focus on the day to day production graphic design. The rule of thumb is can you easily explain in an email. If you can easily explain the visual graphics or the output or the print files, we could do it, but the things we stayed away from, from day one was website UI, UX, really complex layout, like a vehicle wrap, things that just have too many moving pieces that you’d be able to facilitate.
Andrew: So can I come to you and say, “Every day I need a new Instagram image and a new Facebook image,” and they’re two separate ones and you guys will still do it for the same price?
Russ: Yeah. I’d recommend you send in a week’s worth at one time rather than one request a day.
Andrew: So can I say, “In a week, I need to do 20 of these?”
Andrew: And you’ll do it?
Russ: Same price.
Andrew: How do you know if it’s for me or for one of my clients?
Russ: So, I don’t and we don’t really care how you use it. Where you start to hit the throttle–everyone asks like, “Russ, what about unlimited…” Come on, there’s a catch. It’s simply in the turnaround velocity. So, you get matched with a dedicated designer and they just have so much time in a day. So, if you just have one or two things a day, then that’s usually pretty manageable. If you start loading up your clients’ work and other people, then your timelines will just get extended and then it’s a matter of how patient are you. At a certain point, you need stuff faster than we can deliver it and that’s kind of your equilibrium with our system.
Andrew: So you for $200 were essentially hiring a designer in the Philippines, am I right, for your customers?
Russ: Yeah. We were taking that–like we were talking about with your sponsor, we were taking that sourcing problem out of the equation. But what most people–so, people have tried to copy us all the time. That’s the fundamental business. Anyone can do what we are doing and hiring a Filipino and resell their time. What we developed behind the scenes and now is managed by a custom app is the creative process.
So, there’s a lot more than just us hiring somebody and allowing them to design for you. It’s the revisions. It’s the back and forth. It’s tracking the volume. It’s timing and all of that. So, first of I was all manual and we’ve since created custom software to track all of that.
Andrew: When you were doing it manually, what was it like?
Russ: It was just us and the back end of a ticketing system reviewing things and setting due dates.
Andrew: What’s the ticketing system you used for it?
Russ: We launched with and still use Freshdesk.
Andrew: Freshdesk–people use it for support, helpdesk software.
Andrew: I see. The reason you wanted it was opposed to standard Gmail was what?
Russ: There’s just a workflow. The workflow that we adopted was much more like a customer support-style workflow. So, that’s why we adopted one of those tools. That was the accidental discovery I had when I was consulting. In an agency, you use like a Basecamp or you use these other project management software. I would never in a million years think to use a ticketing software in an agency space.
But when I was doing my consulting in between the agency and Design Pickle, I just happened to use one because that to me was the easiest and the cheapest. What I found out was that it had really powerful implications for a new kind of workflow that most creatives don’t use.
Andrew: Okay. So, what about with design? There’s so much of it that’s personal taste that you want to spend some time on Dribbble and other sites looking for the right designer because you’re looking for someone who has your aesthetic or can elevate your aesthetic, right? So, if you’re just giving them someone who’s just a guy who you work with, how do you create that match in personality and sensibilities?
Russ: Yeah. So, the other part of this question which is usually in my Facebook hater comments is like, “You’re destroying design with what you’re doing. I get a degree and I have an education around the design process. How do you do that?” And the truth is we don’t do everything with design. We kind of expect our clients to have a brand they like, to know what they want and to be able to communicate that clearly. A lot of people don’t fit into one of those three buckets or all of them and if they don’t, then they’re not going to be a good fit for our service.
Andrew: But what I mean is that I’m looking at your Instagram account. I’m assuming that everything on your Instagram account is created by your designers, right?
Russ: Correct. It’s raw, unedited, like this is the real work. It’s not the best of, it’s just here’s a livestream.
Andrew: Yeah. So there are a couple here that I really like. I really like the Funk Scales for Soloing. I guess one of your clients needed that. I like the Content Marketing to Grow Your Email List book cover. That’s pretty good. But the one with the guys who are all wearing suits and then there’s a one guy who’s in a t-shirt. That’s not my personality. Now, I randomly get assigned one of these people. How do I know if it’s a good fit?
Russ: So, we wouldn’t randomly assign you. We right now have 33 full-time employees. So we would look at our team, your brand and match you, like dating.
Andrew: You would do that?
Andrew: Someone on your team.
Russ: My operations manager would. So, then it’s all about do you guys work well together? Everyone’s good at the Adobe apps. Everyone knows how to design, but it’s more do those design styles fit. Most of the time we match correctly, sometimes we don’t and you just let us know and we match you with a different one.
Andrew: Okay. So your first designer in the Philippines . . .
Andrew: How did you find Gia?
Russ: On Upwork or oDesk or whatever it was called.
Andrew: So I guess the same thing. You went to Upwork, oDesk, etc. You found somebody on there. What was the deal with that with Gia?
Russ: It was like, “Hey, we’re starting this company.” At that time, it was my consulting. It was like, “I have this consultancy. I need help with this straightforward design. Can you help us?” And it was like, “Hey, I’m available.”
Andrew: I see.
Russ: So we worked together for about two months, and then eventually it was like that’s when the idea of Design Pickle came and it was like, “We have this other idea. Are you down, Gia? Do you want to be a part of this?” And Gia’s like, “Sure.”
Andrew: Where’d you get your–sorry, go ahead.
Russ: I met her for the first lime last month in April.
Andrew: We’re going to get into that. You actually went to the Philippines, which I think is interesting. I see you had your person. You had design. Your customers came from you emailing as many people as you could. You went back. If I was in your inbox and for some reason you and I haven’t met before, you haven’t emailed me. But if I had emailed you maybe in 2010, I would have gotten an email when you started Design Pickle?
Russ: Maybe, if we were LinkedIn contacts, 100% you would have.
Andrew: Okay. So you went to all your LinkedIn contacts and you email them and said, “I’ve got this new business. If you need design work on a monthly basis and you’re willing to pay on a monthly basis, I’m the guy?”
Andrew: Who else?
Russ: That was it. I actually had so many people respond but not like, “Hey, I want to sign up.” more like, “I don’t believe you. This seems unreal. Is this a scam?” And I was definitely–people who have known me long enough when I ran the agency, let’s just say there was a phase in my life where I would have hated Design Pickle.
I would have thought . . . I was the guy saying like, “You are destroying the sanctity of the industry.” I’ve turned over a new leaf since then, but there was a lot of people who were kind of pissed off at me. I had old employees like blast me in private messages on Facebook like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
Andrew: Why? What were they upset about?
Russ: I don’t know. For me it’s change of an industry and it’s change of a model and any time that happens, people freak out and they worry about their own security, their job security and that was the biggest reaction I got was mainly like, “You’re somehow devaluing graphic design by outsourcing it.” I would tell them like even to this day, most of our designers have university design degrees. They’re not from US universities, but that doesn’t mean they’re not educated and learning and talented designers.
Andrew: I wouldn’t have believed that anyone could be that upset except I remember when I did my first interview with the founder of 99designs. I got so much hate mail. I’m someone who loves it when people hate something. I want to understand where that passion is coming from. I remember calling one person up just to understand his passion. He wouldn’t come on the phone but his wife did. She said he gets upset about this and that’s why he left the post. She was almost a little embarrassed about it, but she couldn’t get him to come on the phone with me either. So, I do that because–
Russ: It’s crazy. I wrote an article on Medium, kind of like my op-ed on the topic. I would just imagine being in the manufacturing industry in the 70s and 80s when all that stuff started to go away or the textile industries. We see the globalization has happened and we’re kind of in the hotbed of the service based globalization right now with everything going on.
Andrew: Right. But I disagree with that. I disagree with their worldview. I get it. I get that what they’re thinking is that one of the reasons why design is so elevated right now and people are willing to pay more is that companies like Apple have taught us the importance of design and the power of it. If we now get to a world where people don’t care about it, then first of all it takes away a lot of the passion that some of these guys have for design, but also it could reduce the amount of money the people are willing to pay for it.
But I disagree. I think we’re still loving design so much that now someone is not hiring Design Pickle necessarily to do the kind of thing that they would have hired someone on Dribbble to do, but to do the kind of thing that they would have hired no designer to do, that they would have done in Microsoft Paint or Microsoft Word and screenshotted.
Russ: I’ve had probably–I’m just going through in my mind–I can count 50+, maybe close to 75 people happily cancel Design Pickle now because their business is to the size where they can hire the full time in house person or part time. So, we’ve become a bridge for clients between their needs that didn’t used to exist. Like you said, they would do it in PowerPoint. They would run the risk of trying to find one of the international contractors themselves and frankly there’s a lot of not great talent out there you’ve got to sort through.
So, to see that happen makes me super happy because it’s like we’re building design confidence with people that now they can go out and their businesses have grown now enough because of the work we’ve done ideally that they can now afford that where they couldn’t when they first started with us.
Andrew: All right. Second sponsor is Acuity Scheduling. You know, Russ, earlier today I came in for an interview with someone and I sat down and I didn’t even run to work because I needed to make it in by 9:30 to interview him. I sat down, I called him up and he said, “Andrew, I can’t believe it. I forgot about the interview.” And I looked at my calendar and he was on the calendar, 9:30 Pacific and he knew it. He apologized. He had it on his calendar, which is why he knew to be ready to apologize. I said, “Why did this happen?” Like you, Russ, knew to show up here.
What I realized was with that guy, I actually–I keep saying that guy just because it’s like a generic term–with that person, I put the calendar event on my calendar because we knew each other and I added their email address and boom, they were added to the calendar and everything worked. What I usually do though is I let people book the dates themselves. I send them a link to my calendar with all my availability. They pick the time they want. Once they do that, they give me their Skype name so I always have it. They give me their phone number so I have it as a backup. They give me their email address.
So, for some reason if I’m sick, my assistant can email them and tell them that I can’t show up. And my system will email them and say, “You have an interview with Andrew in two days,” remind them. “You have an interview with Andrew in one day,” remind them the day before, an hour before, “You have an interview with Andrew coming up,” in addition to putting it on their calendar.
The software that I usually use–and I use tons of different software for all this stuff–but the software I usually is the one that you Russ scheduled this interview with. It’s called Acuity Scheduling. It’s not magic. It’s smart business. So, Acuity Scheduling is what I recommend anyone who wants to get their appointments to actually show up used. It’s not just getting them to show up, it’s getting people to book the appointment in the first place.
It happened with this guest. We knew each other and over the phone we could go back and forth and pick a time. Most guests I don’t have that patience. Russ, I’m sorry. I like you a lot, especially not that we’ve talked for about 40 minutes. I really like you now that we’ve talked for 40 minutes, but I don’t want to go back and forth with you saying, “Are you available at this time? Are you available at that time?”
So, with Acuity scheduling, I connect my calendar. I mark off the times that I’m available to do an interview and I have a link that I can give to Russ. That’s how simple it should be for anyone who’s listening to me. In fact, I go one step further because I really want my look and feel to be part of the experience all my guests feel. So, what I do is I don’t just take the link, I take the embed code. I embed it on my site. People don’t even know that it’s Acuity Scheduling. They think we created something special just to book our guests. Anyone can have that. You can go even further. You can then when someone makes an appointment with you add them to your email system, add them to your CRM, have an automated email go out, have automated workflow using Zapier. They have tons of integrations. This is really good software. If you’re selling something and you want people to talk to you ahead of time, use this and let them book a time with you. If you’re selling something–Russ, maybe even this is something you could use. I’m thinking about imagine you sign up a new customer–
Russ: Honestly, I love the design of Acuity. I’m a design guy at heart. We use another software–I’m not going to name a name that’s not your sponsor–that’s a freaking nightmare to configure and use.
Andrew: I think I know what you’re talking about. I use one that’s a nightmare too. It’s got a lot of features and the feature bloat drove my team nuts. It’s hard to shift from one to the other. It’s not bad design. The one we use in addition to Acuity drove my team so nuts that no one else would change anything in it. I had to go do it myself. If I have to do it myself, I’m no longer running a business. Now I’m running my own job. I have to allow this to be something that other people can use. That’s a good point.
Anyone out there who’s listening who wants to try this, see if I’m full of it or really if it can change your business, what you should do is go to AcuityScheduling.com/Mixergy. They will give you 45 days for free.
The idea that I had for Russ and I’ll just share it with you because someone else could steal it for their business is this. Someone signs up. They get an automated email that says, “Hey, thanks for signing up. I want to get to know you so that I can onboard you properly. Here’s my calendar. Pick the time you want and schedule a meeting with me.” Boom. Now you’ve got a customer who’s onboarded right. If you get them right the first month, they’re going to have a good experience right away and they’re signing up with you for life. Russ is smiling because you probably have figured this out.
Russ: Yeah. That’s our process. But it’s through a gnarly, gnarly link that’s not branded that costs an incredible amount of money, one of the top most expensive software I’ve used every month is my scheduling software.
Andrew: And it creeps up. All right. Anyone out there should go check out AcuityScheduling.com/Mixergy. They give Mixergy people a big, big, big free trial period. Acuity Scheduling, I’m grateful to them for sponsoring.
Hey, Russ, when you held up your hand during that spot, I saw like four bumps on your hand. What’s going on there?
Russ: This is from my post-Memorial Day workout. I work out at a CrossFit gym.
Andrew: Hold it in the center of the screen so anyone can see it.
Russ: I did 100 pull-ups yesterday and this is the aftermath.
Andrew: Oh my god. That is like six pieces of your skin are torn off, am I right?
Russ: Yeah. It was pretty . . .
Andrew: From doing how many pull-ups?
Russ: It was part of a workout called Murph and I did 100 pull-ups.
Andrew: How many do you do in a row?
Andrew: 100 pull-ups?
Russ: Not unbroken. I would stop and rest and do 2 and do 5.
Andrew: What’s the most you can do in a row?
Russ: Gosh, like 20 maybe? But they’re not strict. If you want to get into details, it’s called kipping, where you kind of swing your legs and pull yourself up each time.
Andrew: Wow. I’ve never beaten my hands up that much from doing pull-ups.
Russ: Strict pull-ups–I’m moving a lot because I’m leveraging my bodyweight. If I was just to do strict–these are not very big arms. These are pickle arms. I would not have these blisters. But I’m like shaking around on the bar a lot.
Andrew: I see.
Russ: So, that’s what causes it.
Andrew: I do really like that about CrossFit. I had a chance to interview the founder of CrossFit early on and I said, “The founder of a gym? I don’t think so. It’s not really a good fit. It doesn’t seem that big.” And then I started to notice how big it was getting and how big it was and man, was I kicking myself. I had no idea how big it was and how big the founder built his little empire. It’s not a little empire anymore. It’s giant. It’s a movement. I went through it. I get it. I get the passion.
But let’s get onto you because I’m more passionate about your business than I am about his because you’re here.
Russ: Thank you.
Andrew: You then told me that you had this big coming out party at a conference. You took the money you made. You reinvested it. How much money did you take and what conference did you reinvest it into?
Russ: We took pretty much all our sales since launch, which was somewhere dependent on . . . we printed things like business cards and all sorts of stuff. It was about $3,500 including pickle suits, pickles, a pickle cart, all this stuff. We sponsored very, very last-minute the Infusionsoft conference they have here in Phoenix, where I’m at, ICON, ICON 2015. We were so late, though, we had no booths available.
So, what I did was I negotiated me to be in the lunch area, which was tile and I was like, a puppy that wasn’t allowed to leave the tile area and I was allowed to hand out pickles at lunch for two days and that was my sponsorship. We wrapped the pickle with our marketing collateral.
Andrew: Literal pickles at lunch?
Russ: Yeah. I have some around here. I had these boxes that are actually . . . these weren’t the ones that were handed out, but now we use Mrs. Klein’s. They’re a local Phoenix pickle manufacturer. But they come pre-packaged in a plastic bag. You don’t need to refrigerate them. We just handed those out. It was so nuts. It was like I was handing out like $100 bills. It was a frenzy.
Andrew: Why do you think?
Russ: People love pickles. They either love pickles or they hate them. The people that love them were like, “Hey, I heard you’re handing out pickles. My friend got a pickle. Can I get a pickle? I love pickles.” So, we just handed them out. Even the cleanup crew was like there are pickle wrappers everywhere. We went through about 650 pickles in two days.
Andrew: I see here on your site. Did you generate $50,000 from it in business?
Russ: Yeah, long term with the account and the lifetime value.
Andrew: Lifetime value of customers.
Andrew: So how many customers is that?
Russ: That would be . . . We have about 25.I’m a creative guy. At that time, our lifetime value was a little bit higher. It’s leveled out now, 50k divided by 2,500. That was about between 20 and 30 clients that we generated.
Andrew: That’s fantastic. I see a video of you right here. It’s on DesignPickle.com/ICON of you walking around with that push cart of pickles.
Russ: Yeah. I wasn’t planning on buying on that cart, but I got hustled by the ice cream store. So, I ended up having to just buy it.
Andrew: What do you mean you were hustled by them?
Russ: So that’s a Mexican Popsicle cart. There’s this like–it’s kind of like the Costco for ice cream truck guys here in Phoenix. You go down and can buy 20 cases of Sonic the Hedgehog popsicles or whatever. I called them, I’m like, “Hey, do you have a popsicle cart?” They’re like, “Yeah, $25.” I go, “Really, to rent?” They’re like, “Yeah, it’s $25, you can rent it.” I went there and saw it, confirmed $25. I came down the day before the conference and I’m like, “Okay. I’m here to get my Popsicle cart.” They’re like, “It’s also $250 minimum ice cream purchase.” I was like, “What?”
Here I was like taking this cart to the convention center. I had no refrigeration. Don’t know what I’m going to do. I was running through scenarios in my mind of like showing up at a park but then that would get creepy just handing out popsicles. So, I ended up just saying–this was literally the argument in my mind. I was like, “How much to buy it?” It was like $620. So, I was like, “Well, if this Design Pickle thing doesn’t work out, I could at least rent out this Popsicle cart to parties or something and make my money back on it.” So, I just bought it on the spot.
Andrew: That’s a good price for that thing. You painted it white and then…
Russ: It was painted white. I just printed out foamcore things and taped them to the side and that’s that.
Andrew: And it’s you with your costume at the conference spreading the word and getting new customers.
Andrew: All right. What’s the next thing that helped you grow? That gets you a handful of customers. We’re talking about a few dozen. It doesn’t get you to where you to where you are right now, which is well over $1 million annual run rate.
Russ: Yeah. So, from there, it was just starting to invest in Facebook advertising and getting the word out about our service using serious ads, using silly ads. I tested a lot of stuff last year, everything from webinar sales funnels to free trials. We had a free trial for a while and that really didn’t work out at all. That was kind of a disaster actually. At the end of the day, it’s a copout answer, but doing a good job was what has helped us grow the most because we retain a lot of our clients.
Andrew: Let me dig more into that. I want to come into what you did with Facebook. It was you personally testing Facebook ads?
Russ: Yeah. I signed up for a course online on Udemy.
Andrew: Which one?
Russ: Just like a Udemy Facebook course. I searched Facebook courses and just found the highest rated one and just took it. I think it was like $25 and I sat through eight hours of Facebook training. My whole thought process was if I’m going to manage somebody, which we now have an agency that does it for us, but if I’m going to manage somebody, I better know how to do it. So, that’s why did it. And then I just got into the ad builder and the manager and started uploading things and testing things.
Andrew: When you were doing it, what was the thing that worked for you?
Russ: In terms of the best ads or…?
Andrew: Or the best approach.
Russ: Well, I’ll tell you what didn’t work at first. That was like they say A/B testing. When I first started, I did like A/Z testing. I had so many variants of everything and not enough ad budget to test anything. I was simply just there was too much, divided the pie too thin. So, one I started literally doing AB testing two options, A or B and that’s it and taking the best one and then doing another test and taking that and doing another test.
That was the game-changer for us to start to create enough of an understanding of what our audience was looking for. At the end of the day out of all the clever things we did, from me dressing as a pickle to series videos to other launch campaigns we did similar to information marketers, the best performing thing was just take a look at our product. Here’s what we do. It was the most straightforward, simple ad.
Andrew: What do you mean by, “Take a look at our product, here’s what we do?” It’s the video of you showing the product?
Russ: It was a call to action to register for me doing a weekly webinar, which I still do, just talking about the product and answering questions.
Andrew: So essentially, well, it’s not even a webinar because you’re not teaching. You’re just answering product questions.
Russ: Just validating is what I found out. People that weren’t sure or unclear or didn’t trust it, they just to see me talk and I’m real and here’s where we’re at, that was it. It’s not even a demo. We don’t even have–we have an app, but you use it mainly in email. I’d get to the product demo segment of the demo and it would be like, “Well, here’s my Gmail. Here’s the email. Here’s my request.” That’s it. Now you get your file back. The demo is over. It was super underwhelming as far as a demo is concerned.
Andrew: Okay. You said that doing a free trial didn’t work. Why not?
Russ: That attracted the wrong clients, 100% the wrong clients. So, when you’re at our price point, to go any lower gets you into really dangerous territory as far as the quality of the client. I just mean are they going to use it and are they going to value our service. So, we started to get people I the door that were really wanting to nickel and dime us. They would question everything. They were just super difficult people, which is crazy because here I was giving them something for free and they valued it way less than the people who would sign up and pay for it full-price.
So, we just eliminated that all together and actually at the end of 2015, we eliminated all our like major discounts and promotions and sales. We don’t do that. We do it twice a year that we market for upgrading our plans to annual. But last year we would do like 30% off for Memorial Day or this day or this deal or this deal and we just got rid of all that for this year and it’s been awesome.
Andrew: You do offer 14-day free trial, which seems like a much better way to go.
Russ: And it’s risk-free trial. It’s not free. You pay for it upfront.
Andrew: Right. You’re paying but if you’re not happy you don’t have to–by the way, I’ve got to stand up. I’ve been sitting down all freaking day here.
Russ: You do some pickle-jacks.
Andrew: What is that? Pickle exercise?
Russ: I have a standing desk, which has been awesome. You’ve got to get one.
Andrew: I’ve got to button the bottom part of my shirt here. I am so freaking hot just sitting here all day. I’ll tell you what I did. I’ve decided I’m going to book a bunch of interviews back to back and then take a couple months off in the summer to not record interviews and work on other parts of the business and talk to customers. I actually have a couple of customers who are flying in just to–I’m flying them because they were such active participants in our online forum. I want to spend time with them.
Andrew: But the tough part is I’ve been recording interviews from 9:30 I sat down for it. And you know the interview ended up happening a little later to right now we’re at 4:30 p.m.
Russ: Am I the last one or have you still got one more after that?
Andrew: Actually after you one of my interviewees is a little upset about something he said and he wants to see if he can edit it out, which I don’t edit, so we have to talk about it.
Russ: Just say, “Hey, the guy before me talked about his affair on camera. You’re cool.”
Andrew: Right. What happened to that affair? How did you break it off with that woman?
Russ: Just transparency and honesty, just saying that this was a big mistake. There’s no way you can really get around that. I invested a lot in my wife and counseling, which I highly recommend.
Andrew: Why did your counseling work? Mine has never worked. I’ve never gone to counseling that worked. Why do you think yours worked? We’ll get back to the Design Pickle business in a moment, but why not?
Russ: I don’t know. I’ve always found it’s worked great. I’ve had the complete opposite experience. I go to counseling and I’m like–like I want to go to counseling now with my wife and we have no issues. I want to go and talk about stuff. But I think for this, like I genuinely fucked up, like I genuinely made some terrible decisions. I’m not shy about that. I talk about it. I realize that that’s not what I wanted my life to become. I wanted a different trajectory in my life. So, I was willing to do whatever it took to change my trajectory period.
Andrew: The other thing I noticed when I was looking to see where you were getting your traffic was Digital Marketer is sending you a bunch of traffic. What’s the deal there?
Russ: I love them. They are a client. They signed up. We do a lot of their Facebook ad design. We just got mentioned at their last conference last February at Traffic & Conversion. Molly Pitman is one of our clients. She just was like, “Hey, you should use this tool.” And it actually allowed us to stumble upon our now kind of perfect target audience and that’s that sort of solo entrepreneur, scaling entrepreneur realizing they need to not do everything themselves. We’re actually partnering with them for their new conference coming up in September. So, if any of your listeners will be there–I will not be the pickle, but we will have some with us.
Andrew: You’ll have someone dressed up in the pickle?
Russ: I actually just had an interview this morning and she was a mascot in high school. So, I think she got the job.
Andrew: I think they’re also linking to you from your site. I think what they do is they’re sending you a substantial amount of traffic from what I can see using SimilarWeb.
Andrew: I think what they do is they show what’s worked for them for marketing and then other people are supposed to learn from them and then kind of follow along. Here’s the other place where I’m seeing you get traffic. Again, as always I’m spying on you using SimilarWeb. I freaking love SimilarWeb. Any time I’m talking to someone about their business, I want to see where they’re getting their traffic. If I’m talking to a customer of mine and he’s having some trouble as a member of Mixergy, I want to go see where’s he getting his traffic, what’s he not using.
It looks like the other thing they’re turning onto is Bench. Bench is sending you traffic because there’s a blog post here called “Work Less, Grow More: Everything Small Businesses Should Automate in 2015.” I think you’re listed here, right?
Russ: Yeah. So my friend is a guest writer for Bench. He plugged us in one of his articles. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving. So it’s a love/hate relationship with guest blogging and guest content because Digital Marketer does it. They mentioned us. The Bench article, but that’s why I hired Brian and Audience Ops so they can improve our content game. It works, but it’s hard for me to get my head around.
Andrew: Brian Casel, his new business is he’s going to create your content for you, place it in other sites, right?
Russ: Yeah. They do some outreach, but you can always pay more for more.
Andrew: Okay. They’re the content marketing guys.
Russ: Yeah, totally.
Andrew: Here’s another one, unSeminary.com, do you know them? That seems like it’s sending you some traffic but not huge.
Russ: Yeah. So, that’s a sponsorship that we did. It’s a website, private community for pastors, like Christian pastors. So, they have a blog and webinars and everything. So, we’ve been a sponsor with them.
Andrew: Are you a Christian?
Russ: I am. Yes.
Andrew: See, I should have known. I imagine that’s why you felt so guilty about having extramarital relationship that involved no nudity.
Russ: I think religious affiliation or not, most good people would feel guilty about it.
Andrew: Maybe it’s where I’ve lived my whole life, New York where I grew up, LA after that, Santa Monica, frankly, Buenos Aires, I don’t think people would consider that to be a problem. They would say, “What’s the matter with this nerd? Why didn’t he do it?”
Russ: It is true. I think tying it back to alcohol, I was a really strong Christian growing up and really fell away from Christianity as my alcohol intake increased. So, I found that those two things couldn’t coexist and were being displaced by one another and so I decided that, I found out, I discovered, it was a decision. I didn’t decide, “I’m going to quit drinking and become more Christian.” But I found out afterwards there was a lot more room for my religious journey after I removed that from my life.
Andrew: I see. It looks like you’ve done some Google ads also that have worked for you. How effective has that been?
Russ: We’re like two months in and the verdict is still out, but we just launched an initiative to get a handle on that and trying to get in front of people who are looking for graphic designers.
Andrew: I see. I’m looking at it. You guys bought first class service graphics, logo designer portfolio. You’re doing pretty well with traffic. It looks you guys have hit your stride. What got you–I can see here that you told our producer–when did you guys talk? You talk a little while back. You talked to our producer and you said that you were very excited that you hit $89,000 in monthly recurring revenue and the exciting part about that is that it’s $1 million a year if you extend that out. And now you’ve done even more than that. What’s helping you grow so much?
Russ: It’s just hustling every day. Every client that comes in the door we onboard, we treat really well. I do believe we’re solving a really pain in the ass problem, which is like getting this seemingly simple graphic design content in a really reliable way. To us, to do that well, we have clients who come in the door and literally say, “You’ve changed my life.” And what we’re doing is Instagram images for them. But it was such a hassle for them to get that done that we’ve been able to solve it in a really streamlined way.
Andrew: I see.
Russ: But we’re taking some big gambles in advertising.
Andrew: Like what?
Russ: Just advertising. We’re going to be scaling that up. My vision is to help 2,500 clients. We’re almost to 350 active clients. I know that that’s going to require a lot of eyeballs to find those folks.
Andrew: Where did you find the rest of your designers?
Russ: Well, we found them on Upwork for a while until I started to get really nervous about the terms of service violations I was having because I would recruit them but not pay them through their system. Sometimes I have grey morality, but then I come around to it eventually. So, now we have local operations in the Philippines running recruitment on local job boards. We actually do targeted paid advertising to the Philippines as well on Facebook.
Andrew: I see, reaching designers how happen to be on Facebook and the Philippines.
Russ: Yeah, just saying, “Hey, want a design job? Here we are.”
Andrew: Are they all working out of the same place?
Russ: No. That’s a huge benefit for them is they can work from home. So, when I visited the Philippines, I found out about how gnarly and terrible traffic is. Most people, most designers don’t own a car. In fact all of them, I think maybe 1 out of 30 own a car. So, commuting is a huge problem for work there. So, giving them the work from home environment has been a big help for recruitment.
Andrew: When you went there, how did you get to see all of them together?
Russ: Well, we were fortunate enough that 90% of them were either around Manilla or Cebu City. So, I just flew to Manilla and we did a day event there and then I flew down to Cebu City and did another event there. That’s what we did.
Andrew: I know pretty much we ran out of time about five minutes ago, but let me just close out with I want to understand the internal software that you built for yourself to allow you to manage all these designers and customers and make sure that people are matched up properly and that if you have a designer with extra time he goes to the next person but you don’t overwork them?”
Russ: So, the software is really just to manage our engine of inbound requests coming in and the rest of the process, we were only in the alpha phase of that software. Once the request hits our system, the rest of the process from assigning it to the designer to matching designers, that’s all manual. We realize we’ll run into some scale issues, like we projected around 1,000 clients. Our system will hold until then. But we’re kicking off a big software project by this year actually to replace Freshdesk, which would allow us to automate a lot of that other stuff too based off of volume and capacity and bandwidth.
Andrew: I’m looking to see anything else here that I didn’t hit on, but I think we’ve hit on everything here. The website for anyone who’s interested is DesignPickle.com. What’s to keep somebody from just copying this idea right now? I know you’ve had other imitators. Why wouldn’t it work? Can’t somebody say, “I’m going to do the same thing?”
Russ: Yeah. You join about a half-dozen folks who have done that.
Andrew: So why wouldn’t it work for them? Why wouldn’t it work for somebody to listen and say, “Aha, I got my thing. I’m going to go do it?”
Russ: Culture. When I went to the Philippines, I looked in the eye of every one of our designers and I met them, I heard about their family. I connected with them. We talked about the challenges we have as designers. It was real and it was human. Nobody touches us on that level. There are a lot of agencies trying to SaaS-ify their business.
There are a lot of guys who live in Singapore trying to resell stuff having a lifestyle business. But when you work with Design Pickle and you work with my team, it’s the core values. It’s the vision. It’s the mission. We’ve built that from the ground up and I’m really proud of that.
Andrew: I would be too. The site is Design Pickle. I’ve mentioned two different people, two different entrepreneurs who are longtime Mixergy fans who have done this–taken work they’ve done themselves and systemized it so they could sell a productized service, basically take a service and make it into a product so they could come up with a consistent price, come up with a consistent result and then hire other people to do it. Anyone listening to me should find a way to go meet them in person.
One of them is Brian Casel. Russ is working with him right now, Brian Casel. Fantastic person. The other is Brennan Dunn. Find a way to meet them in person if you’re working on this. Or second best, we have courses by each of them on Mixergy Premium. Just go to MixergyPremium.com, sign up. And just listen to them reach you how to do this step by step.
Really, if you’re in the hell of service, you don’t have to live like that. There is a way to systemize it and to package it and sell it and you don’t have to think so linearly and say, “Russ did this for design. I’m going to copy it exactly and I’m going to create Design Hotdog or something,” right? You can look at this and say, “I can learn from this. I want to know how he did it and then I’m going to go systemize my own product and turn it into a productized service.”
It seems like a much better way to live. I can see the big smile on your face. I can see that you’re proud of the work you’re doing and you’re willing to get dressed up in a costume to support it. You wouldn’t have been this excited before.
Russ: No, never in a million years.
Andrew: All right. Go check it out. Guys, let me know what you think. Of course, my two sponsors are–do you remember who the two sponsors are? Did I make enough of an impression? It’s okay if I didn’t?
Russ: Acuity Scheduling and . . .
Andrew: What was the first one?
Russ: Acuity Scheduling and . . . I didn’t write it down. I wrote down Acuity Scheduling.
Andrew: That’s okay. The second one is called Toptal–top as in top of the mountain, tal as in talent. If you’re looking for not a designer, if you’re looking for a developer, go check out Toptal.com/Mixergy or if you’re looking for an easy way to book calls with your potential customers and existing customers, go to AcuityScheduling.com/Mixergy. I just got a Skype message from the past guest who wants me to edit. I’m going to go call him right after you.
Russ, I’m grateful to you for doing this interview. Thanks for coming on in the costume and everything.
Russ: Hey, it was really powerful getting to share this with you guys. Thank you for the opportunity.
Andrew: You bet. Bye and bye, everyone.