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Andrew: Hey everyone it’s Andrew Warner, founder of mixergy.com home of the ambitious upstart, and the interview you are about to watch will explain to you my reason for being why I even do interviews like this. Before I even talk about this interview, before I even introduce you to Josh Fraser, the person who I’m here to talk to, I want to tell you about a time where a buddy of mine was laughing at some guy at a bar. He said, “I was watching this guy Andrew, and he went over to talk to this girl and he got shot down.” I go, ìyou loser, you wuss, I would much rather be the guy who got up and got shot down than the guy sitting on the sidelines and just analyzing and evaluating the person who took a shot.î That’s why I think entrepreneurs should dissolve that. I much rather would be in the ring, take my chances, really fully live life, and experience it, than be on the sidelines and put down the people who are taking a shot and people who are experiencing it. Today I’ve got with me a guy who got in there, who is still in there, whose taking a shot, his name is Josh Fraser he is the co-founder of Event View. I usually say, Josh, what is the company name, what is Event View, but today I’m going to say what was event view and then we’ll talk about why it’s a was and why it’s not an is. So what was event view Josh?
Interviewee: Event view was our attempt to solve a problem, and that was people spend thousands of dollars to go to conferences, and they fly across the country, and one of the main objectives for going is to meet and network, and what’s crazy is that most of the time, before hand, you have got no idea who else is going to be there. You don’t know who you should set meetings up with you sort of go in blindly handing out business cards, hoping you’ll get lucky and stumble into the right person. So Event View was our attempt to solve that problem. We created a social network around the event where even before you came you could see everyone who was going to be there, set up those meeting ahead of time, and really make the most out of your time there. We went for a few different pivots so we….
Andrew: We’re going to get into all of that in this interview. I’ll just ask for one more piece of information about the business, and then we’ll go into the story. How much money did you guys raise?
Interviewee: About half a million dollars.
Andrew: Half a million dollars, and we will talk about the investors and so on, but before we even get into that and your story I want to know why you’re here, why is it you guys closed the company and you’re talking about it publicly, why you’re here on Mixergy going into the details of what happened. Why?
Interviewee: Well, I’m really excited to be on Mixergy. I really wanted to make sure I came on here, and I think you were talking your Paul Graham interview about who you wanted your tribe to be, sort of the hacker news guys, and that fits really well with who I wanted to talk to today. There’s really two groups of people that I really want to talk to, and I really want to pay attention to. First group is the people who are in the start up right now; you’re living it, you’re going through it, and what I want to say to you is I hope you can learn something from our mistakes and that you can take something away that can help you from making some of the mistakes we’ve made. Now, I realize that sometimes you just have to make those mistakes for yourself and nothing I say will make any difference, but hopefully, there will be something here that you can take away a ringing voice and the pitfalls we’ve made. The second group of people, are the people who are on the fence, the people who are considering launching out on their own, starting their own start up and there are plenty of examples of what the success story looks like, if you could become … you could have this amazing exit, but what you don’t see a lot of times is what the worst case scenario looks like when you pour three years of your life into making something happen and then at the end of all of it, you’ve tried lots of things, and you just can’t get anything to work and you just close a door. What I want you to get out of this story and conversation today is even in that worst case scenario, even if some people would say you’re a complete and utter failure, take your company completely bankrupt, even that case is not that bad, and that’s the big take away I want for people who are on the fence and I want you to look at a story and go wow if I can’t decide whether to start the startup or not I’d say go for it and that’s the biggest take away I want for you guys to have today.
Andrew: My goal here is to find out the story and to find out what went right and what went wrong along the way, but I’m noticing that you’re happy to have gone through it you’re talking about three years of hard work and an end that wasn’t the ideal end obviously and you’re smiling the people who are seeing you on video are seeing this smile throughout.
Andrew:….and you’re smiling. People who are seeing this on video are seeing a smile throughout. Why are you so happy to go through this? Are you high, my friend?
Interviewee:[laughs] No, I smile a lot. I think, you know, I’m incredibly lucky. We decided to have an open funeral, open casket. We wanted people to sort of learn from our mistakes, but the reality is that it’s not that bad. I learned a lot, I made a ton of incredible connections throughout this experience, and I’m ultimately in a better position now than I was three years ago when I-
Andrew: Talk about that. Why are you in a better position now for having taken the shot and failed? Aren’t you now, I don’t know what to say, dead meat? Aren’t you now, I don’t know what it is- What, why are you in a better position now?
Interviewee: Well, I’ve learned a lot technically. I’ve learned far more from having to sort of jump in and learn just from doing it, than I would have ever if I’d just taken that high-paying job at some company and worked out of a cubicle for three years. I mean, I’ve definitely, it’s been a lot of hard work, but since it was my own company I worked harder at it and I learned a lot more as a result. Also, made tons of connections, you know, from investors we have and mentors we have. Those people are still friends, and they’re, you know, they’ve told me- many of them have told me, hey, I’d invest in you again. What’s important is that you learn from your mistakes. And so that was, you know, another reason for us being so open about the mistakes we’ve made, is because we want them to know that we actually learned something. And that, you know, I can take those lessons that I’ve learned, and I can go do this again, and go do another start-up, and avoid a lot of those mistakes we made the first time.
Andrew: And I do see that you’ve had incredible backers. TechStars, we’ll talk about. David Cohen, Dave McClure, Brad Feld – people who are superstars in this industry, have backed you – and that’s just a small collection of names. All right, let’s go back in time to what you did before you launched this business. Who were you back then?
Interviewee: I launched this basically straight out of college.
Andrew: And what was your passion, what were your interests in school? Did you know that you were going to go and be an entrepreneur? Did you have something else in mind?
Interviewee: Yeah, the story really starts when I was like ten years old, and my dad went out and bought me an Apple IIe computer and a programming book. And it was at that time when I really started falling in love with creating technology and programming. I did that all through high school, you know, programming, webmaster for lots of organizations in town. I got to college, and I didn’t really make that good of grades in college because I was always sort of not paying attention in class, ’cause I was actually working on outside projects for contract work, and making lots more money doing that than if I’d gone and taken a side job at Pizza Hut or something like that. And so that was actually sort of the spark for Event View – it was some contract work that I was working on for a conference in South Carolina. This innovative conference organizer came to me and said I’ve got this idea, I want to have a social network around my event. Can you build this for me? And so we did that, and it was a huge success, everyone loved it, everyone was using it. And that was when we were sort of looking for an idea, my college roommate and I were saying, you know, let’s do a company together, let’s do this, and really got the bug for entrepreneurship. And that was sort of the best idea that we had, was sort of to take this social network and turn it into a product for other conferences around the country.
Andrew: Ok, and your co-founder is Rob Johnson?
Andrew: You guys met back then. Let’s, let me see if I understand this. What was that first version like? What did it look like? What features did it have? What did the design look like? How long did it take you to make it?
Interviewee: Sure. So we came from- So we had the idea, and of course I built it under contract, so applied to TechStars, got in, and the first thing I realized was that we had to start all over, because I didn’t own the rights to that code, so-
Andrew: Actually, before then we get back to TechStars, I want to know what it was like that you just built it for one conference. What was it that was so exciting about it that you felt like, there’s a business in this. What was it that worked so well that you got a sense of what the future could be?
Interviewee: So, what happened, we built this social network, it’s got basically the sort of features that you’d expect for a social networking site. But it was geared towards conferences, it was, here’s the people who are attending, and we tied it in with the registration, so to register for the conference you had to fill out your profile. So that guaranteed we had a hundred percent participation in the community and we had pictures, profile pictures, for everyone, we had little bios for everyone. And you could just browse through and see who was going to be there….
Interviewee: And you could just browse through, and see who was going to be there. We had tags, so you could see common interests, and stuff like that.
Andrew: OK. And so, did you build a whole social network from scratch, just for this one conference? Or did you use something open source? You did.
Andrew: OK, so what were the features that you built into this thing? You talked about profiles and pictures. But what about, did you have a wall? Did you have friending? Did you have messaging? What else?
Interviewee: We had messaging. And that was about it. We tried to keep it really simple because we knew that it was, sort of, people were seeing us for the first time. And they were only going to use it for a couple weeks, going up to the conference. And that would be it. So there wasn’t really any point of trying to teach people all these new features. It had to be super-intuitive. They had to come to it and know how to do it right away.
Andrew: OK, and since you mentioned HackerNews, for my friends from HackerNews, what did you use to develop it in?
Interviewee: Lampstack PHP, MySQL, did it by Java script.
Andrew: OK. All right. And this was your creation? I see what went into it. What was the feedback now from the users?
Interviewee: So that the big moment for us, when we were like, “Wow, there’s something here”, was when we actually went to that conference. And there were people walking around with Microsoft Word printouts, with pictures and sections they’d copied out of people’s profiles and sort of pasted together. And they were walking around the conference with these printouts, looking for the people that they wanted to meet. And we’re like, “Wow, we didn’t give them that functionality.” That wasn’t anything we built. They just did that on their own. And just talking to people at that event, they were saying, “This is great. Why doesn’t every conference have this?” And yeah, so that was the fresh spark.
Andrew: I see. I get that. I want that. In fact, I tried to build that into Mixergy, when Mixergy was organizing events. I started building these profiles for guests and all that. You guys went for conferences. I went for smaller events. And it was just too… I even got too deep into it.
Andrew: And didn’t get any results. OK. So now you’ve got this idea. You decide to go to TechStars. What is TechStars?
Interviewee: TechStars is a program very similar to Y-Combinator, for people worth money worth that, but about mentor ship. It’s about giving young entrepreneurs a chance. And so basically, they take a little bit of equity, give you a little bit of money, and give you tons of advice, connections, for a summer. So it’s a three month program. And they just, for three months, report in to you. They select ten teams. It’s located in Boulder. And now they have Boston. They’re in Boston, too. But ten teams, they just absolutely pour into you for a summer. Help you refine your idea. Help you out along the way, as you try and figure out.
Andrew: How do they help you refine your idea?
Interviewee: As you’re going through it, they sit down with you. And a lot of it is connecting with people who really know the space that you’re in. So for us, you know, first thing you did was you connect us with Frank Norlin, who’s conference organizer for some Defrag Conference, [Blue] Conference. And so, you know, here we are getting a chance to get real-time feedback on our ideas and on our product from someone who would ultimately be one of our best customers.
Andrew: I see. OK. What makes TechStars special? Right now, to me, it seems like TechStars is the place you go if you don’t go to Y-Combinator. But I’m hearing positive feedback on them. I’m not hearing that people are upset. I’m not hearing that people aren’t getting what they’re looking for. Or they don’t seem disappointed that they didn’t get to hang out with Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston. So what I’m trying to find out is what’s that magic there?
Interviewee: It’s mentorship, mentorship, mentorship, mentorship. That’s the entire focus. That’s everything they do.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of how they sharpened your idea?
Interviewee: The mentors?
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. Tell me a few examples.
Andrew: Well, I know that when I talked to Y-Combinator, I could see that those companies were shaped by Y-Combinator. They had their eyes open to an new opportunity. And I could feel that that’s happening with TechStars. I just know of a few good examples. And I was hoping you could help me out.
Interviewee: Yeah, absolutely. So actually, when we came into TechStars, we wanted to build the event registration company, and the social networking part, as well.
Interviewee: So, we wanted to do both. And so we came in, and the reason for that was, you know, the 100% participation thing. They said that if we put the two together, we can ensure that every attendee fills out a profile. If we’re separate, we don’t get that. So that was our thinking, at least. But as we came in, we started talking to one mentor after another, after another, who said, “Why are you doing the registration part of it?” With the registration stuff you’re dealing with credit cards. You’re dealing with all of these complicated features. The bar is really high. There’s always companies that are already doing a lot of stuff in this area.
Interviewee: There’s all these companies that are already doing a lot of stuff in this area so why you just don’t focus on the part you’re passionate about which is the social networking part. And that was one very clear thing and we ultimately changed and said, ìOkay, screw the registration part. Let’s just focus on the social networking part.î And that was because of Tech Stars. That was because of the advice and the mentors that came in and said, ìNo, no, no. Trust us. You don’t want to do that.î
Andrew: And did people have to re-register with Event Vue. I know I’ve used you but I don’t remember. I think so; actually, now that I think of it, after I registered with Event Bright I think I got an email that said, ìWell, we’re all talking online before the conference. Click here to go to our Event Vue page and register.î That was the way it worked, right?
Interviewee: Yeah and one of the things we did was we worked really hard to build integrations with the registration companies. Like Event Bright.
Andrew: Eventually it was all together.
Interviewee: Yeah, so well…what we did was we automatically pulled in the information you filled out in Event Bright so when you got into Event Vue your profile was already half way filled out with your name and your company, that sort of stuff.
Andrew: Okay. All right. So you joined Tech Stars; they give you all this mentorship. They also give you money. How much did they invest?
Interviewee: Um, I think it was 5K per founder.
Andrew: Okay, all right. So $10,000 for, I think you said, three months, all this mentorship, you’re fully focusing on it. You have to rebuild the product from scratch because you want to own all the intellectual property behind it. You launch and I think I read on your site that you had one non paying customer for a tech conference. Right? At your launch?
Interviewee: Yeah it was actually an interesting story. Noah Kagan was…
Andrew: Get out!
Interviewee: You know Noah?
Andrew: Absolutely I know Noah Kagan. He was doing the…what was the conference? The Community Next conference?
Interviewee: Yeah. So Noah comes to Tech Stars as a mentor and we sit down with him. He says…you know, we show him some of the stuff we’re working on and he says, ìMy conference is coming up in a month. If you can have this product ready to go in two weeks, I’ll use it.î Now at that point we’d still been focusing on the registration part. So we just decided the day before to scrap every bit of code we had for the registration side of things and to switch to the social networking side. So all we had was like some raw mock ups at this point. But Noah Kagan was like, ìBuild it in two weeks and we’ll use it.î And so we pulled all nighters for two weeks straight and had a product ready to go. And that turned out to be really important when it came to the end of the summer and we were trying to raise funding, you know, we were the first company out of Tech Stars to get funded, and that was having a customer we could point to and having a working product was really important and really helped us to get that investment.
Andrew: Okay. What did that product look like? The product that you whipped up in two weeks?
Interviewee: Very minimal. It was very hacked together but it worked. Again, simple profiles, messaging, not a whole lot of events features at all but it worked.
Andrew: And it looked, I think, like the Community Next website, right? It didn’t feel like users were moving over to your site or am I wrong?
Interviewee: That was a feature we added in later on. So at that point it was sort of a separate site. Later on we added white labelling to make it fit with the design of our site.
Andrew: Okay. All right. So now you’ve got somebody that you can point to. You’ve got users. In fact, let me stop there for a second and ask what kind of…percentage of conversion did you get? How many people from the conference registered?
Andrew: 42%. Okay. So how did that feel to you? That’s a lot less than 100%. What was it like?
Interviewee: A lot less than 100% but it was better than zero. So what was important was we had… what we went out and sold was, ìHey. We got 42% off a product we whipped up in two weeks. Give us money, give us runway to do it and we’ll get that up to 70%.î Which we eventually did for some events.
Andrew: Wow. All right. So then you got Noah Kagan, you’re out there running with his conference and then based off of that, as I understand it, that you did get an angel round.
Interviewee: We did.
Andrew: How much money and from who?
Interviewee: We raised about a quarter million dollars in our first round from a series of angels including Brad Feld, David Cohen, Dave McClure, Wendy Lee and lots of other people from Boulder, a few people from the Valley and some people back in South Carolina where [INAUDIBLE].
Andrew: Okay, did these guys each kick in, I think, $25,000 a pop? That was the idea, they each put in 25,000 that way they get to watch your business. Some of them might eventually invest through their venture firm, right?
Interviewee: Sure. And we didn’t end up taking any venture money but that was, you know, we got some great angels on board.
Interviewee: You know we got some great angles on board.
Andrew: How hard was it to get the angles, what was the experience like to get those angles?
Interviewee: We were really lucky because of TechStars, I mean TechStars really opened that door for us, and I’m aware that we’re incredibility lucky like say we are the first people at TechStars to get funded.
You hear these horror stories about funding dragging on and on and on for months and months and months.
It wasn’t that way for us we were incredibility lucky, and what happened we got a few key people on board early on and it was our lead investors getting Brad Feld and David Cohen to say yes I’m willing to put money into you.
That said a lot it made it a lot easier for us to go and get our investors onboard.
Andrew: I’m going to get Brad Feld here for an interview I think he and I exchanged a couple of emails, he’s really nice and I’ve heard a lot of positive things about him from entrepreneurs.
I got to get him on at some point.
What about Dave McClure another person who I need to get on here, I think he and I talked about having him on but haven’t yet, what was it like to get him as an investor?
Interviewee: Dave McClure is an incredibly smart guy, what he brought to the table was this obsession with measurement and you know.. knowing how to create an addictive user experience.
And knowing what are the key things you are measuring and what are the key things that matter.
Supper detailed oriented so he would really he was tough on us, he probably was harder on us than any of the other investors we had.
Andrew: What did he tell you to measure?
Interviewee: It was find a thing that was most important and then measure that.
Andrew: What did you find?
Interviewee: So I think that, that’s a good question, I think he’s focus was how do you get people to use a product, how do you convert people, how do you get people to use it.
I mean the initial one was key.
Andrew: So your saying that 42 how do you get it as close to a 100 as possible that was a key measurement, you also said that you wanted to make it as viral as possible, what ideas did he have for virility?
Interviewee: I think he encouraged us to not focus on monetization, we sort of came at it a starting goal of getting money and he’s focus was screw getting money get a million users first and then we will worry about money.
Andrew: Ok, alright so how tough was it to convince him to invest what was that experience, my understanding 25000 just he hears from you from somebody he trusts, he talks to you for a minute and he says done right?
If they’re in I’m in was it that way?
Interviewee: No well not with Dave McClure, Dave McClure is a little lot harder, I think my co-founder Rob met him at a conference and Dave McClure was actually really critical of our product when he first saw it.
And we stayed on and said we’re going along and just kept getting his advice and then he’d give us some feedback of as ‘A’ I think you should do this and we go implement it and we just stayed on and we sort of won him over with our persistence.
Andrew: Ok, You talked about a few mistakes in your post driving people, not investing in driving people to event what did you mean by that.
I think what you were referring to there was that you weren’t helping event organizers get more attendees that you stopped focusing on that and started focusing on getting the already existing attendees to register for your product.
Interviewee: So we had this challenge that was we had two different people we had to please.
We had to please the conference organizer because they were our paying customer and we had to also focus on the attendee and getting them a good experience.
Or else the conference organizer would view the entire thing as a flop. So we had two different audiences that we had to sort of take care of the entire time.
And so that was always a challenge for us on how do we, we need both which one do we focus on?
And I think we really nailed the user experience for the attendees but we didn’t focus on the needs of the conference organizers until later on.
And the main thing that we realized that conference organizers care about is how do I drive more sales to my conference.
And that is it how do I sell more tickets and the social network for their event is it’s a vitamin not a painkiller.
It’s a nice to have product and so that was always the tension for us on how do we address their biggest painkilling.
Andrew: I see that makes sense they are
Andrew: Yeah, they’re always worried that they’ve put money into their conference and no one’s going to show up and they’ll be embarrassed and they won’t make enough money to cover their costs and so on. What they’re less worried about until event day or maybe a day or two before ñ no. Until event day they don’t care so much about how connected their guests are because they have bigger issues. I see that. Okay. All right. Let’s see, let’s go on. So how did you get organizers ñ oh. And sorry. The business model was about getting event organizers to pay you to use this service. And it was a fee of I think it was a buck or so per user, per attendee?
Interviewee: Yeah, exactly. So we had a set up…$500 set up fee and then $1 per attendee.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s why I didn’t use you guys.
Andrew: I wasn’t bringing in that much. I think I was…I wanted to do it for even free events and, yeah. Five hundred bucks wouldn’t have made sense for the smaller events that I was doing. But you guys were doing it right. How did you get those…I mean, the product was right. How did you get the organizers to use you?
Interviewee: So it was direct sales which turned out to be a bad idea because we have…the event industry you’ve got extremely long sales cycles because people start planning events six, nine months out in advance. And then because it’s so nice to have you get a very small amount of money at the end of it. So that was one of our fatal flaws is the math doesn’t work out. Having direct sales for long sales cycle and a small amount of money, it doesn’t really work. But that’s what we tried.
Andrew: But you ended up getting some conferences. You got IBM to use you. Tech Web, IDG. These guy s aren’t getting freebies; these guys are paying. How’d you get them?
Interviewee: That was largely to Rob’s credit and his tenacity of getting on the phone and working hard to get in a room with those guys and sell them on it.
Andrew: Okay. All right. And the idea was that once you got a few people to use it and their users got comfortable with it, maybe their users would demand you guys. Maybe they would say, ìHey, this is what we need in order to have a good conference. Without that I’m just walking into rooms full of strangers. Add Event Vue.î
Andrew: Okay. And were you branding the site when you were white labelling it?
Interviewee: So part…Minimally. So we had, with the white label we had their brand be front and center and then our logo was tiny [INAUDIBLE] at the bottom.
Andrew: Okay. So other organizers would know that this is how they could get the feature and users wouldn’t necessarily know, they would just say, ìHey, I went to this Tech Web conference, they had this feature. Give it to me, figure it out yourself.î Okay. Than you got another round. How did that happen?
Interviewee: So we really went in on the promise of these big deals we had with Tech Web and IBM and IDG. And we went in, we said, ìLook we’re in the door with these guys. All it takes is one signature and we can get hundreds of conferences.î I mean, that’s what we were shooting for, that’s what we really felt we could do and that would have made our company if we had figured that out. But what happened we just never… These deals sort of dragged on and on and on and on and on and we were never able to get that across the board deal that we really needed. But that was sort of the promise we went into round last Christmas when we ran in and got that.
Andrew: All right. For every conference you would pull in $50,000, right?
Interviewee: Roughly, yeah.
Andrew: Roughly. And how many people were out there who can organize 100 conferences or more a year.
Interviewee: I mean, there’s lots and lots of conferences out there. So there wasn’t a lack of conferences but it was hard to reach them with direct sales for the amount of money we were getting for each customer.
Andrew: Okay. I know you guys were also working with Twist Up in Los Angeles. Was that…I guess you don’t remember the conference?
Interviewee: No. I don’t remember that one.
Andrew: Okay. Mike Macadin? It was a smaller conference; friend of Noah Kagan.
Interviewee: I don’t sorry.
Andrew: All right. Who invested the next round?
Interviewee: It was basically the same investors. So we went back to all our angels and we said that, you k now, here’s where we are. We just need you to double down. And they did.
Andrew: Okay. So each person kicked in another 25,000?
Andrew: All right. I’m looking at the chat board here and I don’t know how they got distracted with the conversation. Now they’re talked about a denial of service attack on Facebook. Guys! I’m counting on you for feedback. I’m counting on you for direction. You guys have taken me in the wrong path. So let’s see what’s next here.
minute 30 to minute 35
Andrew: and I’ll come and talk to you. Got to pay rent on my office here. Oh, it’s your office, absolutely. Alright, there we go. Actually I got a pretty good deal on my office, I’ve got to find out a way to talk about it without losing the deal. We’ll talk about it later. Alright, raise money, okay. What was going on after you raised the money? I think you still had the obstacle, you still had to win over a large set of conferences, you still had to find a way to make money off of them, you still had to deal with sales forces, with your sales force going end, what happened internally?
Interviewee: Yeah, we were still trying to figure out how to make this business scale. And about the time, you know the second round, right after that, we sort of came to the conclusion, this isn’t working. And so that’s when we came up on our first pivot, and that was let’s address this pain point when it comes to organizer as head
Andrew: Actually before you come to the pivot, I’m sorry,
Andrew: how did you know you weren’t on the right track?
Interviewee: The math wasn’t working out, so
Andrew: How, what kind of math were you doing that wasn’t working out?
Interviewee: Well, it was how much are we paying the sales guy to try and do that and how much money are we getting in and you know, our expenses were higher than our income. And there was a big enough gap that we were, you know, skeptical, that we could ever make that come together.
Andrew: I see, okay, sorry, now my chat’s taken over by, I’ve got to give somebody in the chat room the ability to kick out spammers. Apparently there’s a Bollywood lover’s website that we all need to know about. Why couldn’t you guys do that math before you got the next round of funding? Why didn’t the investors before they give you the next round sit down and say, ìlet’s do the math here, you guys are spending this much on your sales people, this is how much you could hope to bring in, this is the size of the conference market, this is how fragmented it is?
Interviewee: Sure. So what had happened is, we knew the math didn’t work out for the one off conferences, sort of the Nora[sp] Kagan [sp] type events, one off, sort of one small guy doing his own show. We knew the math didn’t work for that. We thought we could make it work for the, you know, conference planners who put on hundreds of events. And it wasn’t until we sort of pursued that for a few months and we said, ìthis isn’t working we can’t get these deals done either.î
Andrew: Oh, okay, alright,
Interviewee: Does that make sense?
Andrew: I think so, I just wonder, though, I guess, the size of investment that you’re taking, the approach that these smaller seed, these smaller seed funds take, they don’t look at the size of the market, they don’t look at how fragmented it is, they’re just saying, ìgo out there and build it, we’ll figure it out afterwards. All you’re doing is getting a sense of it and maybe after you get a sense of it with conferences, you’ll decide that birthday parties are the perfect place for it,î
Andrew: and then we’ll pivot towards there. Right? So they’re just saying, ìgo out there and experiment. We’re giving you enough time, money and freedom to go and experiment, the market will tell us what to do.î
Interviewee: Sure, and
Andrew: Okay. So you’re, sorry.
Interviewee: our investors were very clear, they said, ìwe invested in you because we think you’re smart and because we think you can figure this out,î not particularly our idea or our market, they invested in us.
Andrew: Okay, alright, I see people, though, in the audience right now, maybe not now, I can’t read what’s going on in the chat room because of the spam, but I can hear people in the audience saying, ìUh, these guys are just getting money out of nowhere and I’m struggling every day here and I can’t get any funding.î So let me ask you this, why did you get into Tech Stars? Why did these investors like you specifically and want to back you?
Interviewee: That’s a good question for you to ask when you have David Cohen and Brad on your show, but I think a big part of it was I came in and I had a portfolio of work I could show them
Interviewee: and so there was no question in their minds that I could build stuff, and so they looked at, you know, when we came in, it was, ìhey can these guys, are these the sort of guys who can actually build stuff, are they smart?î And I had enough sort of experience up to that point that they had no doubt in their mind that I had the ability to do that.
Andrew: I see, so if we were going to give advice to somebody who wants to be funded by Tech Stars, and be a part of the program, it would be create something before you even go in there. Have something to show beyond an idea
Andrew: even if it’s not related to this idea, have at least a portfolio of projects that you’ve finished.
Andrew: Okay, alright. And you were saying about the pivot and I interrupted you.
Andrew: What was the pivot?
Interviewee: So the pivot was as feedback we’d been getting, over and over again, ìI want to, the thing I need the most help with is driving sales for my conference.î And so we said, ìlet’s address that head on,î and so we created this product, it was really cool, it was called Discover, and it was a job scrip widget that would lead on the organizer’s website, and you could click on it and it said, ìsee who you know
Interviewee: And you could click on it and say…it said, ìSee who you know who’s attending this event.î And then you’d click on it and then it would give you twitter, LinkedIn, your Gmail contacts, yahoo contacts and we’d do a match between the attendee list and your social graph. And we could show you, hey, here’s the people you know who are attending. And we’d encourage you to tweet about the event, share it with a friend. So the idea was we could use the people who already were attending as bait to drive other attendees to the conference. And so it sounds great in theory; the problem is we could never make it work. And that, for multiple reasons. But part of it was that so many different conversion points where we’d put this widget on a page and we’d have a million page views and then out of that we’d have 1% convert to sort of opening the widget. And then once they opened the widget we’d have 1% convert for clicking a button. And then we’d have 1% convert from that to actually buying a ticket. So when you do it you end up with the math where you have a million page views and you sell one ticket. And so we could just never get the traffic to the point where it really worked out.
Andrew: I see. And did you need people also to register or to… how would they connect to Facebook and LinkedIn and other networks for you to know who their friends were?
Interviewee: Yeah. So we used [INAUDIBLE] so we had…we got in our LinkedIn API early on there. So we the LinkedIn API. We used the twitter API. We never got in on Facebook but we did sort of email contacts as well.
Andrew: All right. I could see how that would be a good idea, now I see the problem with it. And it’s a good idea largely because I end up fanning website because they have that widget from Facebook that says look who’s a fan already. And the Facebook widget knows who I am, I guess, and knows who my friends are and it’s only showing me my friends who are fans. And I say, ìAll right. If those guys are fans, I got to join up too.î
Interviewee: I think it was an opportunity there. I’m just not sure what it is or how…we weren’t able to track it but I think we’re still…there’s still a huge pain point for a conference organizer. So there’s money to be made there if somebody can figure out how to get around those challenges.
Andrew: All right. So now you’ve gone though a few setbacks. How are you feeling?
Andrew: Why? I don’t mean today, I mean then. You went through those setbacks and you’re feeling optimistic?
Interviewee: Yeah. You have to be. You have to keep looking at it, still believing in it. So we just we kept going. And we…with everything we tried we said, ìThis is going to be it. This is going to be it.î You just have to. You have no choice.
Andrew: This is where people are going to say, ìAndrew. You’re becoming like Barbara Walters.î And somebody would say that. I don’t care. I want to know because we have to live with the way that we feel as we’re building these businesses. So I got to ask you. You weren’t feeling at the time like a loser, like a failure. You weren’t looking at all these other companies and hearing and seeing all these other start ups grow and say, ìWhy am I not heading in that direction? What’s wrong with me?î
Interviewee: Yeah, we felt some of that. I mean we…my class of Tech Stars I think we had four ñ so ten companies and four of them got acquired. Lots of big acquisitions. Intense Debate got acquired by…
Andrew: Who are they? There was Intense Debate was acquired by Automatic.
Interviewee: Automatic. We had the Social Thing guys acquired by AOL. We had Filter Box acquired by Jive Software. So we had lots of these big acquisitions happening and there was definitely this feeling of, ìWhy not us? What are we doing wrong?î We were working just as hard, what we were doing wrong? So we did have some of that.
Andrew: How’d that impact your ability to work?
Interviewee: I think it was a chip on our shoulder. I mean, it made us want to work even harder.
Andrew: Interesting, that you’re seeing these setbacks and you said, ìOh, we got to find a way to do this. We can’t let these guys show us up.î
Andrew: I see. Interesting. All right. Sorry. So you’re talking then about the next step after that.
Interviewee: So we pivoted to that, figured out fairly quickly that it’s not working. We did about half dozen test events and we tried a bunch of sort of A-B testing on our widget. We tried different variations on it and we just couldn’t get it to drive enough tickets that it was going to be sustainable. So, and this is the point where we really started to embrace the whole philosophy of fail early. Learn and fail early. So if it’s not working, kill it off as soon as possible and move onto something else. So it took us a while to sort of embrace that philosophy but at this point we were like, ìIt’s not working. Let’s kill it. Let’s figure out what’s next for us.î And so we moved on from that very quickly and we said what do we focus on now? What we decided to do was take the most popular feature out of our community product, which was this thing we called ìchatterî. And that was bringing in the live conversation about the event from all over the web. And so we decided, hey. What would happen if we stripped away all the sort of complex state of our product, having to set up profiles, having to sign in, having all these features? Why don’t we just focus on that one feature that people will love the most? And let’s just do that. And the way we sort of stumbled upon that is we had some issues with our chatter functionality and we had a couple big conferences going on and some of our customers called us up and cussed us out about this functionality being broken.
Interviewee: But at this point, you know, we were like, “It’s not working. Let’s kill it. Let’s figure out what’s next for us.” And so we moved on from that very quickly. And we said, “What do we focus on now?” And one, you know, what we decided to do was take the most popular feature out of our community product, which was this thing we call “Chatter”. And that was bringing in the live conversation about the event from all over the web. And so we decided, “Hey, what would happen if we stripped away all sort of the complexity of our product, and we set up profiles on the [side A of event]. Having all these features, why don’t we just focus on that one feature that people love the most. And let’s just do that.” And the way we sort of stumbled upon that is we had some issues with our Chatter functionality. And we had a couple of big conferences going on. And some of our customers called us up and cussed us out about this functionality being broken. And while this was sort of a really awful time for our company, we’re like, “Oh, crap. What do we do?”, that was good because it let us know what we were most passionate about. And so it was that sort of experience then we said, “Wow, there’s something here. Out of everything we’ve built, this is the most important part.” And so we put out Chatter, and we said, “Let’s focus just on that.” And so it’s a real-time stream. It actually is you go to EventVue.com, that’s what’s live now, this real-time stream, which it pulls in all the conversation that people are saying about the event, based on the hash tags that they’re using on Twitter. And stuff like that.
Andrew: OK, but there are lots of sites that do that. There are lots of services that will allow you to just pull in conversations based on a search term, including I think a Google, I mean a Twitter widget that does it.
Andrew: Why was this different from all of that?
Interviewee: There were a few things that we did better. Ours was faster, so Tweets showed up a lot faster than, say on Twitter Search, even. So you pull up Twitter Search and you’re going to be hitting refresh every two seconds. Ours just sort of flows in. We added commenting, so this was huge for people who wanted to sort of have deeper conversations at events. But you can’t do that. It’s hard, you know. All our people complain that, you know, you’re over Tweeting at an event. And all of your followers are sort of shut out, already. You’re over Tweeting. So what we did is we created a, you know, much better user experience where people can go in and actually have those deeper discussions surrounding the event.
Andrew: I see. OK. Then what happened?
Interviewee: So that was, at this point, we’re getting close to running out of money. I mean this is. So we sort of figured out lots of things that didn’t work. And when we switched to Chatter, we said, “We have no idea if this is going to make money or not. But we’re going to switch to it because we know this might work, and we know everything else isn’t working.” And that was really our thinking that had us pushing to Chatter as a main product. We launched that just earlier this month. And we just didn’t get the traction we needed. We were short. You know, we were out of money. We started doing contracting work to stay alive. And we just couldn’t make it work. And so we made the hard decision to shut it down.
Andrew: What kind of support did you have in TechStars throughout? I mean after that second round of funding, as you were trying to figure things out. What kind of support did you have at all?
Interviewee: Yeah, we had tons of support. And what really happens is you’re, you know, over the summer, at TechStars, you’re introduced to all sorts of incredible mentors. And it’s really your responsibility, at the end of the summer, to foster those relationships, and to keep them going. And so that’s what, you know, we tried our best to do. That was, you know, the real value from TechStars. And so there were a lot of people who really stayed engaged with us, and gave us advice, and mentorship, long after our TechStars program was over.
Andrew: Do you have an example of somebody you were able to go to after the second round, when you no longer knew what to do, and you needed some support?
Interviewee: Absolutely. The people who were are investors were the most engaged. So people like David Cohen and Dave McClure were like super-engaged.
Andrew: Do you have a specific example of how you went to them, and they were able to help you out?
Interviewee: Sure. You know, for example, when we switched to the Discover product. We spent a weekend. We were up in the VCIR Conference. And we were sharing a condo with David Cohen for the weekend. And we just stayed out late one night just brainstorming, saying, “Hey, this isn’t working. What can we do differently?” And that was really where we came up with the idea to switch to Discover, and to do that. So that was, you know, hands-on. You know, staying up late just cranking out ideas until we came up with something.
Andrew: OK. All right. Let’s look back and see what some of the mistakes you made were, that the rest of us can learn from. And I feel a little bit like I’m using your blog post as a crutch here, and that I should find ways to go deeper. The problem is that , I thought you went pretty deep in that post. I thought you ended up with a lot of helpful insight, and a lot of clarity about what happened. Usually when somebody, you know, goes through a situation like this, they just disappear. They don’t want to think about it. And they can’t think about it until years later. And by then, I think the experience isn’t fresh anymore. And they start to superimpose other feelings and other beliefs on top of it. So I don’t think it’s as helpful to them as it is to others. You did it now. And it’s really helpful. How? How are you able to do that? How are you able to go so deep, and so public about this?
Interviewee: You know, we decided to have an open funeral, open casket, open everything, because we really wanted to help other people. We wanted to stop other people from making the same mistakes that we’ve made. We don’t want the other people out there to sort of fall into the same traps that we did. And, you know, it’s one of those things that’s really scary and really terrifying going into it. And after you do it, you have a sense of relief of, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” And my encouragement to anyone else that sort of finds themselves in my shoes. And 90% of the startups do. I mean, 90% of startups fail. So my advice is, you know, have that open funeral. Go and be open about it. And not only does it help other entrepreneurs that come after you, but also, it gives you a chance to prove to your investors, and to people who have been around you, that you’ve actually learned something. I mean the big thing that investors say is, you know, “We’ll invest in you again, as long as you can show us that you’ve learned something.” And so we said, “If that’s the case, let’s not leave any doubt about that. Let’s put it out for the world to see. Hey, here’s what we really screwed up. Here’s what we learned, as a result.” And we’re not going to let our pride get in the way of sharing that with other people if we can be helpful to them.
Andrew: I’ve got to clip that section out. And next time I’m trying to do an interview with somebody who is reluctant, and who is a little afraid or embarrassed because of the period in their life that they’re going through, I’m going to show them this clip. I’m going to say, “Just watch this. A minute and a half will tell you everything you need to know about it.”
Interviewee: [Laughs] …the incredible part, we’ve been blown away by the support we’ve gotten. I mean, we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from entrepreneurs who have thanked us for it. With other startups and other companies and not as often as jobs. I mean, the support we’ve gotten has been absolutely mind-blowing, and we’re super grateful and blown away by the support we’ve received from this community.
Andrew: I, you know I got to say, I see it over and over in the fact that people are even doing interviews with me here on Mixergy and being open, all over the place. Even people who are successful come back and do interviews, in many cases for them it’s especially hard, because they might be revealing who they are to their competition. What’s working for them to people who hope to compete with them. But, I’m really glad that we have a community here in the tech startup world of openness, of helping each other, supporting each other, of even people who will blog their numbers. I’m doing it now, and others have done it too, before me, to say, ìthis is what it is.î And I think it helps us when we do that because it helps us understand ourselves and our situation better. I think it then creates a feeling in our environment and the people around us that they should come and help us, too. I mean, how many other people saw Fred Wilson’s list of all his different stat pages, learn something from that, and felt a sense of obligation? If Fred Wilson ever said, ìI need somethingî, how many of these people would jump in to help him and say, ìall right, you know what? You help me, I’m going to jump in and help you.î How many people are watching you right now who if you ever needed something, had an idea, needed feedback, needed support for your new, your new business, would jump in there and help you out? Hard to count.
Interviewee: Yeah, it’s hard to say.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s phenomenal. You been supported by other people. I know you’re going to come back here in the future and you’re going to talk about the people you support and helped out, or helped you go to the next stage. This is just a great, great environment to be in. I would so much rather be in an environment like this that fosters creativity and risk taking than be in an environment like Wall Street, where I started out my career. Where it was, you sit at a desk next to somebody, and if you have a client or you have some idea, you should never let him hear you. We all saw the movie, ìWall Streetî I think it was, where not Bud Fox but I think the other guy in his office, sat under his desk to make the secret phone calls. Or maybe I’m thinking of the book ìLiars Pokerî. But there’s a culture of that on Wall Street that doesn’t exist here in the tech startup community. All right, I’m always embarrassed when I look at the transcript, and see that I went on for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph after inviting somebody else here as a guest to talk. So, let me turn it back over to you.
Andrew: So,let me turn it back over to you. Let’s talk about some of the mistakes you listed here. One of them was, you didn’t make it self-serve and allow anyone to come and get it. Talk more about that.
Interviewee: Yeah, so the big challenge in the event industry and selling a product like what we had, long sales cycle, small amount of money at the end of it. So, direct sales is not a good sort of approach. Problem is, we didn’t know how to reach these people. We didn’t know how to get in front of a conference organizers and convince him to use our product, because it wasn’t a replacement item, budget item. I mean, this was a whole new market. They never had, the average conference organizer never had a social network for an event before. So, it was this long education, we had to teach them what social networking is. It’s this long sales cycle. So, our challenge was, how do we reach these people? How do we let them know this is here, because they’re not searching for it? We can’t, we tried Google AdWords, and it didn’t work, because conference organizers didn’t even know that they needed this product. It hadn’t crossed their mind before, and that was a challenge. So, if we were to do it again, I think we would focus on making it self-serve and spending tons of money on marketing and sort of bigger ways of sort of reaching a lot of people at one time. Because direct sales doesn’t, the economics don’t work out.
Andrew: Why didn’t you make it self-serve? Why did you decide to go direct sales?
Interviewee: We did it because we, it was always our goal to go self-serve, but it always one of those things that always got pushed back in parting, because it was one other people a customer said, ìhey, if you add this feature, I’ll sign this contract.î So, it was one of those things that sort of got pushed back and got pushed back. And we always meant to come back to it, but we just never got there.
Andrew: I see. Once you go down the road, you got to please so many current customers that you can’t adjust and find the new ones, even if there’s a bigger pull somewhere else.
Interviewee: Sure, and we really didn’t have evidence that going self-serve would definitely make a difference. We weren’t able to drive that many people to our site, so we didn’t have good evidence that, because people weren’t looking for us, this was the bigger problem, right. So, self-serve wouldn’t solve, that alone wouldn’t solve it, because we also needed it for …
Andrew: It looks like we’re losing, it looks like we’re losing our connection here. So, we lost our connection, and we’re back. We actually lost our connection and lost it again and lost it again but I edited it all out. So, for the people who’ve been listening to the recorded version, here we are again. Let’s see, so you were saying, you weren’t getting enough traffic to your site to say, even if we converted a small percentage of them to customers, it would be worthwhile? I see.
Interviewee: The challenge was, we were a non-replacement budget item. We were trying to create a new, we were going into this market and we were trying to sell people on something that never really existed before they didn’t know what they needed.
Andrew: How would you have been able to predict this? There are people in the audience who are saying what they would have done, and other people who are saying, ìthat’s 20-20 hindsight.î What 20-20 hindsight? How would you have known that this would have been an issue? What do you think?
Interviewee: I think, you know, getting out and talking to conference organizers. I mean, we did a lot of that, and I think what we should have done more of was sort of testing whatever people would, testing stuff before we built it.
Interviewee: A lot of times, so for example, creating, instead of trying to, for example, going fully self-serve. We should have put up a splash page that sits sort of, look like you can actually buy it. And then walk them through the entire process. And then sort of at the last step, you say, ìha, I’m kidding, you’re not actually there yet.î Right? But we would have been able to track those numbers and say, ìhey, this is worth investing in or no, it’s not.î So, I think we should have more sort of tricks like that to figure out what we should actually build before we invested the resources and the time and tech support to go build it. We should have done as much as we could to sort of figure out concretely what people would actually want this stuff, who would actually pay for it. And that would have actually made a difference.
Andrew: I see. OK. What about learning from conference organizers? How could you have done that better?
Interviewee: I think talking to a broader selection would have been good. We had a couple conference organizers who were really engaged in and we got a lot of advice from. And I think a lot of times we could have benefited from broader, so talking to more conference organizers, instead of one or two, really, really deep.
Andrew: How could you have done that? Because, now we’re getting at something that somebody was listening in my audience right now and starting a business can do it.
Andrew: We can send them out there to talk to their customers much more often. How? How could you have personally done it, and then we’ll let them figure it how they can do it themselves too.
Interviewee: Sure. I think it’s just getting out there and working your network and going in and sending those emails and just having the tenacity to go in and find those people we’re not… you know, conference organizers, they’re super busy they don’t necessarily have a lot of time to just go and sit down and chat with you and so you have to really work hard get their attention and to sort of prove that it’s worth spending time with you. So it really comes down to hard work and just being really diligent about making those connections.
Andrew: Is it possible… see, do you think that now knowing what you know about conference organizers that you could have said, “Every day I’m going to call a different one of them and I’m just going to get on the phone for half an hour and find out what their issues are.” Would that have been a possibility… or could you have said, “I’m going to start a conference organizer’s blog where I just record what issues they’re going through and what ideas they have as a way of getting to know them. Every day, I’m going to do what Andrew does but I’m not going to bother with the Skype, I’m just going to do it over the phone every day I’m going to call a different conference organizer, I’m going to ask them about their issues, I’m going to ask them who they know, I’m going to ask them what’s working for them and blog about it just with text, and that way I get to know more of them and get to learn their issues.”… would that have helped?
Interviewee: Absolutely. I wish we had done it.
Andrew: Okay. Alright. What else? What else would have helped?
Interviewee: Staying away from the event industry.
Andrew: Staying away from the event business in general, you mean.
Interviewee: In general. I mean, now… part of it was we hit it really bad time, so not only all the challenges talked about, we hit it right when sort of when the macromarket was tanking and kind of (?) something specific was (?) really really struggling. Some conference organizers stole our stuff, like what?… saying sales were down forty percent. So going in and having that conversation trying to sell a nice-to-have product when (?)… so it wasn’t just us, our competitors were in the same boat with us, they were struggling just as much just to make something out of this business.
Andrew: Do you think you could have gone after a different market with the same product? I mentioned earlier birthday parties, could you have done that, smaller networking events, maybe giving them not as much of a polish, but the features that you had for connecting, and getting to know guests before the event?
Interviewee: Possibly. I think that’s sort of one of the side effects that we should have had if we made it self-serve… is that when you make your product self-serve is, you sort of open yourself up to have… those different sort of cases. So (?)… see this example a lot from other companies where people start using your product in an unexpected way and you go, “oh okay let’s do that”, right, and so that’s something we probably benefited more if we had gone with self-serve… we could have… some, you know, birthday parties could have jumped in there and started using it and since they didn’t have to ask permission in order get on the phone with us, then we could have learned from that. So I think that’s sort of one of the side effects of not going self-serve… and I think because we didn’t do that… it’s hard to say sort of what could have happened there… I don’t know.
Andrew: Okay. What about… That’s interesting actually, that’s something that I noticed a lot, you’re right, that people tossed their programs out there, tossed their products out into the world and they end up finding users who do different things with what they created than what they expected and they just discover a market. What about you say… that you didn’t focus on learning and failing fast until too late? I thought you did. You created a product within two weeks, experimenting a lot… How you done more of it?
Interviewee: I think just being willing to… I think we hung on to stuff too long. So for example, our community product, we really really wanted to see it work and so we hung on to it kept fighting even though like I said we’re at little evidence to suggest we could sustainable business out of it. But we kept fighting, we kept working on it, when really we should have made our (?) faster. We should have moved on and said, “hey this isn’t working” sooner, we should have just, you know, let go of stuff that wasn’t working faster.
Andrew: You said that the community wasn’t working fast enough and you guys stuck with it?
Andrew: I see. Okay. Alright, what about this: if anybody else is going through a similar situation, has some questions for you, how accessible are you and if you say, “Andrew, I just need some time for myself right now, bug off”, that’s fine, or “Andrew I need some time for myself, I’ll come back later and I’ll let you know”, that’s fine. Is there a way for people to get a hold of you now?
Interviewee: Yeah. I’m super accessible.
Interviewee: Yeah, I’m certainly accessible. So Josh Frasier on Twitter. My email address is email@example.com. You can find my blog at OnlineAspect.com, as well.
Andrew: Let’s say that again, just for the transcribers to be able to type this out clearly. It’s, what’s the blog name?
Interviewee: And, yes. That dot com has all my current information on there, as well.
Andrew: OK. All right. Well, any last words? Well, actually, here. One last from me. What’s next for you guys? What’s next for you personally?
Interviewee: Right now I’m looking at catching up on sleep, some reading. I’d like to go travel some. Take a little bit of a break. And after that, I don’t know. So I’m having, like I mentioned, I’m having lots of job offers. And lots of people. I’m going to sort of look at those, but at the same time, I’ve also got a little bit of an itch to go do this again. So we’ll see. It’s too early to say.
Andrew: All right. Well, cool. Well, thank you for coming to Mixergy. Thank you for being so open here. I hope you come down to Buenos Aires while I’m still down here, and you’re traveling.
Interviewee: Love to.
Andrew: Love to get together in person and talk. Guys, thank you for watching in the audience. Thank you for watching the recorded version of this interview. Come back to Mixergy. Give me your feedback. What did you think of this? I keep getting better and better, because people like you, who are watching me right now, will finally say, “Andrew, I have this idea in my head. I’ve heard you say, ‘Give me your feedback”, all the time. I’m finally ready to give you my feedback.” And that’s what makes me better. So come back and do that. I’m Andrew Warner. I’ll see you in the comments.