Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, where I’ve done over 1,000 interviews with proven entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses, and I do it for an audience of people who are also entrepreneurs. We’re all here listening to these people tell us how they built their businesses, so we can learn. My goal is for you to learn and use, and then after you use what you’ve built to create a great company have you come back here and do your own interviews so that I can have you share and teach my audience too.
Joining me today is an entrepreneur who really did not have a tech background, had a hippie background, that I’m so excited to talk about. But what is even more interesting is the thing that she did to get into the tech world, to get into the startup world, something that I think just shows what she’s made of. I’m waiting and I’m eager for you to hear that story. She launched the company, sold it about three years later. Actually, exactly three years later.
Today, she’s here to talk about how she did it. Her name is Trina Chiasson. She is the founder of Infoactive. I got Chiasson right, and then I paused on Infoactive to make sure I pronounced that right.
Infoactive makes it easy to build interactive, mobile-friendly infographics with live data. She today is working with Tableau Software, the company that acquired her. This interview is sponsored by Acuity Scheduling and HostGator. I’ll tell you more about them later. First, Trina, welcome.
Trina: Thank you, Andrew. So excited to be here.
Andrew: Third year anniversary of the company, you went out running and you got a message. What happened?
Trina: I got an email that we had signed the last bit of paperwork and we had closed the deal. I was doing interval training, and I just had sweat pouring down. It was this beautiful sunset, and I get an alert on my phone and it was just a magical experience.
Andrew: What did you sell for?
Trina: Well, we sold the company to Tableau, and we brought our team from Montreal down to Palo Alto. Now, we’re working on a new iOS product here at Tableau.
Andrew: I see. What I meant was, how much did you sell for?
Trina: Oh, I’m sorry. It’s an undisclosed amount.
Andrew: Okay. Is it more than $2 million?
Andrew: It is. Okay. Did you do it for shares in the new business, in Tableau, or was it for cash?
Trina: It was both. It was a combination of each. Yeah.
Andrew: Wow. What would your hippie parents have said? You’ve got to tell people about this hippie background, because frankly I’m so driven. I’m very much like Alex P. Keaton from the old TV show “Family Ties”. I think that’s what it was called. But I love the hippie lifestyle. My wife grew up in that kind of background, I think. What was it for you? What was it like?
Trina: It was an interesting experience. When you’re a kid, you assume that what you’re experiencing is the way that everyone experiences life. You assume that the things around you are just pretty normal. My parents were part of the Back to the Land Movement, and they went out to the woods of Maine and they built a log cabin in the middle of the woods.
Trina: When I was a really little kid, I mean, we didn’t even have flush toilets. We had this extra-special technology that we called “five-gallon buckets.” I don’t think I ever met an engineer until I was in my 20s. So I definitely grew up in a non-tech background.
Andrew: You said that that brought out your creativity. How?
Trina: Yeah. For sure. Because you live in the middle of the woods and you have to find something to do, and you’re kind of bored. So we would go into the woods. We’d build forts. My dad was a carpenter, so we had lots of cool tools and things to play with in the basement. So I was just always building stuff from a very young age.
Andrew: Then, you got into nonprofits, but there was something about the whole tech startup world that drew you in. What was so interesting about it?
Trina: I was interested in the tech startup world, because I was living in Chicago at the time and I saw all of these people starting companies. It just seemed like a really interesting thing to do, a really cool, creative outlet. At the time, I was working for a nonprofit organization and I was managing online campaigns for the organization. From that, I became curious about these Hackfests that were happening on the weekends, and people that were building software and making the internet a better place. I really wanted to be a part of that.
Andrew: So you would actually go these Hackfests, hackathons, even though you weren’t a developer?
Trina: I would. I would go to Hackfests and I would try, and there wasn’t much that I could do. I was getting really frustrated by my lack of [inaudible 00:04:24].
Andrew: The thing that you did that amazed me was you got into an apprentice-… Why do I struggle on that word? Apprenticeship. It was the way that you got in there. What’s the company that offered it?
Trina: It’s a consultancy called 8th Flight in Chicago.
Andrew: Eight Flight?
Trina: 8th Flight, like the number 8th Light.
Andrew: Okay. 8th Light.
Trina: Yeah. They’re pretty amazing. They’re so good at what they do. They’re incredibly principled with their software development. Every line of code they write is pair programmed, every line is done with test-driven development. I found them, I think, fairly early on when they were trying to get their apprenticeship program running and off the ground, and I went in and I said, “Hey, I will help you figure out how to do this apprenticeship program. I’m going to come in every single day. I’m going to ask questions of your senior software engineers.” I was just incredibly determined.
So I went in every single day for four months. I got home at the end of the day, I was doing homework assignments. On the weekends, I was reading books. I just dedicated every ounce of energy I had into learning to write code. I said, “I want to do this.” There was this gap between “hello world” and writing software. But I could not figure out what was this middle part right here. Right?
Trina: This was 2011, and since then the ecosystem for learning on your own on the web has actually improved a lot. But at the time, I just couldn’t figure out what this gap was. So I went in and figured it out in this apprenticeship.
Andrew: The part that I admire is that you said, “I’m going to help you by being your guinea pig, and by helping you figure out how to create an apprenticeship program.” That you were not saying, “Pick me because of what is good for me,” but, “Pick me because what I will do for your program.” That’s the approach that I really was drawn to when I read your story.
Trina: Mm-hmm. Yeah, and it was a lot of fun, I think for both myself and for the team.
Andrew: What’s in it for them to have an apprentice? Why am I like [inaudible 00:06:27]?
Trina: It’s okay. It’s okay. Apprenticeship.
Trina: Yes, apprentices. Yes.
Andrew: What’s in it for them to have all these people go into their office and learn, and then disappear on them?
Trina: Well, a couple of things. For one, not everyone disappears on them. A lot of people will stay on and become employees at the consultancy.
Andrew: I see. Okay.
Trina: So it’s a really great way for them to train engineers in their philosophy around writing software. Because there are a lot of really great engineers that just don’t have the same philosophy for writing software. So they were finding that in some cases it’s actually easier to start fresh from scratch with someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or has some experience but is willing to relearn what they know. The other thing is that they also believe that to be the best software developer that you can be, you have to know how to teach people. If you can’t explain the concepts to someone else, then there’s a good chance that you don’t fully understand it. So they think it’s a really good training opportunity for their own employees too.
Andrew: I see. You know what? I’ve heard that medical schools do this. It’s the “learn one, do one, teach one,” concept, where they teach you something, and then you have to do it, and then you have to show it to someone else. Because until you can show someone else, you won’t realize what you don’t know. That’s what you’re talking about here, and that’s what they got out of it. You said, did they do pure coding?
Trina: Yeah. They do pair programming.
Andrew: Pair programming. That means that it’s like… I think I’ve seen it. It’s two keyboards with one computer, and it’s both people programming at the same time. Am I right?
Trina: Yeah. One person is driving, and the other person is basically in the passenger seat. They will talk to each other as they’re writing code. It helps to make the architecture more solid from the beginning, because it helps to have a second brain thinking about what it is that you’re developing. So their philosophy is that this is a faster way to program, because you make fewer errors and you solve problems faster.
Andrew: Is it harder, though, to get lost in your work when you have someone looking over your shoulders and kind of side seat driving?
Trina: I think it’s more fun, actually. I think it’s more effective. It can be really frustrating to get lost on a problem when you’re just by yourself. But when you have someone else that’s there with you, it’s easier to solve these problems.
Andrew: Okay. Then, you were working for a nonprofit where you had to pull together a bunch of data. What data were you pulling together? This is what ended up leading to Infoactive. What’s the data?
Trina: Yeah. So before the apprenticeship program, I was managing these online campaigns for nonprofits. In the nonprofit world, you have donors and you have to show your large donors how you’re making an impact.
Trina: More and more of these donors are demanding data to show, “What is the ROI of this donation that I gave to this nonprofit? How many people are being affected? What is the impact?” So to the extent that you can quantify and show your impact, it’s a much better way to attract donations and keep those donations coming. But as a small nonprofit, you can’t afford a developer, a designer, a data analyst, people that would be required to turn your data into effective visualizations and essentially stories for these donors. So our data was coming from all over the place. It was coming from Google Analytics, from Twitter, from Facebook. We had an online social platform for young people, so it was coming from that. It was coming from spreadsheets from on-the-ground events, where a certain number of people showed up in x city for this number of hours.
I was trying to take all of this data from these different sources, and then I would put it into Excel and get the right aggregations that I wanted. Then, I would make these charts, and then I would tweak them in Illustrator. But then, to get the branding right, I had to put it into Photoshop, and then I’d have to export that as images and put it in a PDF, and then put it online. Then, “oh, shoot,” it wasn’t mobile-friendly and “oh, man,” another day of Google Analytics came in and all the numbers changed. But I already had the whole process down, so it was just super easy to just filter it through those eight different steps. It wasn’t easy at all. I said, “There has got to be a way to make this easier.”
So I decided to do the least easy thing I could possibly do and build software to make it easy. With four months of coding under my belt, really the only reasonable thing to do is to start a software company. So that’s what I did.
Andrew: You know what? I still identify with the problem you’re talking about. You expressed it really well on the homepage of one of the early versions of your site, where it was just this ugly mess of spreadsheet data. It’s just that’s the way it is, and we want to make it look good. But man, we don’t have time to do it. We can’t hire a firm to do it. I get the problem. Why did you decide to turn it into a business? Was it you just always looking for a startup, and you finally came up with a startup idea?
Trina: Yeah. I mean, it was a problem that I wanted to solve. After hacking and learning how to code a bit, I thought, “Actually, I can solve this problem and it seems like an interesting problem.” It’s kind of this creative, interesting intersection between math and art, and my brain kind of works that way. So it just really fit my personality on some level.
Andrew: I see it.
Trina: I also saw it as a very real problem that other people were validating.
Andrew: How did you validate it with other people?
Trina: Well, in the very beginning stages, I talked to everyone that I possibly could about this idea that I had.
Andrew: You just kept saying, “Is this a problem you’re having?” Or what did you say to them, actually, instead of me feeding you the answer?
Trina: Yeah. I asked them how they visualized their data and what they worked with, and what sort of tools are available to them. For the most part, they were struggling.
Andrew: Yeah. For the most part, I don’t visualize my data. I just say, “Here it is. Here’s a spreadsheet,” and I pass it on to someone else and it doesn’t look that great. I figure, “All right. They’ll just spend more time looking through it.”
Andrew: Right? That they’ll make sense of it. I spent some time. I read it. I found what I needed. They’re going to go and find what they need to. That’s just not the right way to do it. But that’s the only way that I knew how before I found out about your company.
Trina: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s what a lot of people do. But for a number of applications, people need something that’s a little bit more beautiful, something that’s a little bit easier to maintain that they can feed live data into, that’s nice and responsive, they have a lot of customization options. That kind of thing.
Andrew: One of the examples that I saw on your Kickstarter page was surveys. We survey people, we get all the data, and it keeps getting updated, the data does. But we can’t update our visualizations unless we have a tool that does it. That was your vision?
Trina: Yeah. That was a very large use case. A lot of people did that using Google Forms. They put a simple Google Form online, and then we connect it to the sheet’s API. As more answers would come in, it would feed right into the infographic.
Andrew: You went to Startup Weekend to help incubate it? Is that right?
Trina: Yeah. So when I was first getting started with four months of coding experience under my belt, I was trying to find a co-founder. Coming from the nonprofit space, and before that the woods of Maine, you can imagine that it’s very difficult for an unfunded startup with a nontechnical founder with no entrepreneurial experience to convince someone amazing to quit their job and start this company. So I was getting frustrated and I just decided, “Hey, I’m just going to go to one of these Startup Weekends. That sounds interesting. Let’s see what happens.”
Trina: So I hopped on a bus and went to Madison, Wisconsin with my laptop in my bag. I didn’t even know where I was going to stay that night. I pitched the idea, and to my surprise there were about 20 people huddled around me all like, “This is awesome. I want to work on this.” So we ended up with a team of eight that weekend, and then five of us wanted to continue after. Then, after about a month or two, I whittled it down to just one co-founder, and then the two of us moved it forward.
Andrew: How does it work there? Who ends up owning it if there are five people who walk away from Startup Weekend saying, “I like this project?” Is it still yours because you came up with it?
Trina: Yeah. That’s an interesting, probably a legally grey area right there. I mean, it was only a few days of work in that initial phase. Anyone who had really, really wanted to push to continue this could have. But most people have their jobs and their lives, and it takes a special personality to quit all of that and jump into a very risky idea.
Andrew: Beyond finding that one person, what else did you get out of being in Startup Weekend, where the whole idea is to start a startup in a weekend? What else did you get out of it?
Trina: We got a lot of creative ideas, a lot of early feedback, a lot of starting points, a whole list of to-dos for things that we could do to push this project forward and validate it. That was really helpful. We also got kind of a metaphorical framework that is probably the only thing that stuck through Startup Weekend all the way to the end, which was that…
Andrew: What’s the metaphor?
Trina: We used a metaphor in our codes around plays. So we had a stage and actors, and scenes and acts.
Trina: These were all coding concepts that helped us to kind of imagine the platform and think about how it worked.
Andrew: I don’t understand. Can you help me figure that out? How does that work?
Trina: Sure. So the central canvas was our stage. Right?
Andrew: The canvas of what?
Trina: Of Infoactive. So you log into the site…
Andrew: Got it.
Trina: …and you load your data.
Trina: First thing, the program is going to look at your data and it’s going to draw the first scene for you on your stage, and a scene is a chart.
Trina: Then, you can drag other scenes on, and you can separate these into logical areas. So a lot of infographics will have Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Right?
Trina: So those would be acts.
Trina: Then, when you finally publish your play, it becomes a performance. So it was a nice metaphor that we used throughout our…
Andrew: I see. “This is what we’re doing. We’re helping people put together their performance, and these are all the steps that go into that.”
Trina: Yes, exactly.
Andrew: Okay. After you came out of Startup Weekend, you went to an accelerator. Why an accelerator in Montreal, and which one was it?
Trina: Yeah. So after Startup Weekend, my co-founder and I were working on this idea. We’re having lots of interviews. I’m still doing some consulting, and I decide that I really would like a few months to explore this idea fully. To do that, I wanted to go to a city where I didn’t know anyone for the soul purpose of exploring this idea. Also, I had never started a software company before and I figured there were probably some things that I didn’t know about starting a software company. So I’d heard about these accelerators where there are lots of people who have done this before and I said, “That might be useful.” So we applied to this one in Montreal and we got in, and we said, “Let’s go. Let’s go for three months and see what happens.”
Andrew: Is that FounderFuel?
Andrew: They put in how much, $100,000?
Trina: At the time it was $22,000. I think they’ve since gone up to $50,000. I think all of the accelerators have been buffing up their [inaudible 00:17:33].
Andrew: [inaudible 00:17:33] to $100,000 now. But I see it. It was you and Daniel who were both in the program?
Trina: Yeah. Yep. It was me and Daniel.
Andrew: All right. I want to find out what you got out of the program, and then how you got customers and how you built up, and why you went to Kickstarter and what happened at Kick-… So many questions. First, I have to tell everyone about my sponsor. It’s a company that will actually host your website, and once they do they’ll be there if you have any issues. It’s called HostGator, and one of the incredible things about HostGator is that I’ve interviewed so many people here on Mixergy who I’ve said, “My sponsor is HostGator. Do you have any experience with them?” and they said, “Yeah. I launched my first site on HostGator. Yeah. My site is actually still on HostGator.” It keeps coming up.
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What did you get, Trina, out of being in the incubator? What did you learn? How did it shape the product?
Trina: It pushed us forward a lot. For one, it got me to quit my other consulting gigs. There’s something very powerful about dedicating all of your energy to one thing that really helped push it forward. It introduced us to a lot of mentors and advisors, our initial support network. It introduced us to other engineers in Montreal. At the end, we had offers for the first bit of funding, $150,000, that would help us to get things off the ground. We also had connections to people that could work with us and we had also validated an idea. We realized that this was a thing that was worth pushing forward.
Andrew: How did you validate it?
Trina: Talking to lots of people. Right?
Andrew: To see that they wanted it?
Trina: Mm-hmm. The wonderful thing about the accelerator is that all of the advisors and mentors have networks of people that they know, and they know a lot of people who are working with data and interested in data, and interested in visualizations. So you just get introduced to a lot of people. I’ve had hundreds if not thousands of phone calls with individuals over the past few years about their data visualization problems.
Andrew: You finished the program and you’re onstage in front of 1,000 people presenting your idea, showing them this company that you’d built. What was their reaction?
Trina: Awesome. They loved it. They had one of the pamphlets, and they had a list of the names of the companies, and they were passing around the little program. People, they started this game where they were putting little stars next to the names, and our company had the most stars next to it.
Trina: So that’s pretty exciting. People loved it.
Andrew: Why? What did you do by then that others hadn’t yet?
Trina: At the time, it was really difficult to create interactive visualizations that you could click on and explore, that could bring live data into the product. I mean, I spent so many hours Google searching for ways to do this when I was working at the nonprofit. That’s why I decided to make it happen. Nowadays, data visualization is a really hot space, and there have been a ton of startups that have come into this space, all with their very specialized products. So it’s grown very quickly in the past few years, but at the time there really weren’t very many options.
Andrew: I’m wondering why you went to Kickstarter. That’s the next thing you did, right?
Trina: Well, the next thing we did, we were building in Montreal for a while, and then actually I went to the Reynolds Journalism Institute. So they offered a fellowship program to me to work on data visualization projects with the idea that we could work together to help journalists. So I was working on Infoactive, but also had a whole network of journalists through them.
Andrew: What were you doing for them? You were working on your business, on Infoactive. What were you doing for them while you were doing that?
Trina: And collaborating with them, essentially.
Andrew: I see. To help them find ways to take their data and make it more visually appealing and easy to consume.
Trina: Yeah. To take our technology and apply it to the space of journalists.
Andrew: So they paid you and gave you space and introductions to help you take your software and bring it to their journalists?
Andrew: Wow. How’d you get that?
Trina: Meeting them at South Buy, when we won the award for Best Bootstrap Startup. They loved it and they said, “Hey, you should talk to us. We’re interested in bringing more innovators and entrepreneurs into our networks…”
Andrew: I see.
Trina: “…and having more innovators help journalists.”
Trina: Yeah. The other thing that we did with them was we wrote an open source eBook about the intersection of data and design, and co-branded that with them. But that wasn’t until a while into the fellowship.
Andrew: What does it mean to have an open source eBook?
Trina: Okay. So I went to the Reynolds Journalism Institute. We decided to do a Kickstarter. The Kickstarter was more for the awareness than it was for the money, and it was because we were seeing that there was a large community of people that wanted to be involved in this project that didn’t have a very good outlet to be involved. So we wanted to, A, continue validating that the thing that we were building was worth it.
So we wanted people to actually pay money for it and preorder subscriptions. If you’ve preordered a subscription and you’ve put money down, then you are going to tell us the truth about what is working for you and what is not working for you. So that was a powerful thing. But it also brought in a large community of people that we wouldn’t have had exposure to otherwise. We were being contacted by very large companies that said, “Hey, I have this huge problem at my company,” and they found out about us through Kickstarter.
Now, the other thing that Kickstarter did for us, and it was incredibly successful in terms of the number of people that became very involved with this project, a woman in Chicago named Diana, who is a biostatistician, sent us an email. She said, “Hey, I love Infoactive. It’s really cool what you’re doing. I have one question. How are you going to explain data and statistics to people that might not have very much experience with it, but need to know some amount of information about data cleaning, data collection, etc., before visualizing their data?” I said, “Diana, that’s a fantastic idea. We’re about four people. What can we reasonably do?”
Somehow Diana and I came up with the idea of crowdsourcing an eBook about the intersection of data and design. We had no idea how this was going to work. But we put out a call for volunteers, a call for applications, and we were blown away when over 100 people filled out this very long application form, and all of the details about their life history and why they were interested in this project. These people were incredible. They were managing analytics programs for giant corporations. They were journalists and academics, and they had neuroscience Ph.D.s. We had an amateur cat yodeler. We had all kinds of really interesting people who wanted to contribute to this product.
We whittled that down from, I’d say, 100 initial applications to the first version of it had 55 volunteer contributors. That’s a lot of people to manage, so we actually had project managers of the volunteer pool who would manage certain sections of the book. In six months, we produced a 300-page open source eBook about the intersection of data and design.
Andrew: You created the table of contents and started to assign sections of it to other people. Is that how it worked?
Trina: Yeah. Diana and I created that together. Yeah.
Andrew: I see it. I’m seeing it here on infoactive.co. It’s still up on the site.
Trina: Yes, it is.
Andrew: On GitHub too, right?
Trina: Yep. It’s on GitHub. Since we’ve released, some volunteers in China decided to make a Chinese version. So a Chinese version exists. Spanish and French have been in progress for a while as well.
Andrew: So how did you know who to assign it to? If there was a cat yodeler, it’s interesting, but how do you know what the cat yodeler should be doing?
Trina: We stalked everyone on LinkedIn.
Andrew: To see if they were the right people to do it.
Andrew: Then, how did you get the voice to stay consistent?
Trina: Yeah. That’s another great question. So one of the things that we did really well in this project was we had a very clear set of guidelines going into it. So we had one chapter already written from one contributor before we started assigning chapters to everyone else. That chapter, we thought just had the perfect voice. Then, we thought about all the ways that it could have… All the different voices that could come out of this. We put together a style guide that said, “Hey, we’re going to use American spellings for consistency. We’re not going to talk in the first person. We’re going to keep the tone light, no heavy language.” Then, we had a very large collection of editors.
So we had ESL editors who were making sure that people that speak English as a second language could understand what’s going on. So making sure that the examples aren’t too specific to a U.S. audience. We had technical editors to make sure that all the concepts are technically correct. We also had tone editors, who were editing for politefulness, delightfulness, making sure that themes are coming through. So we used a few themes throughout the book. Coffee was one of them. Food was another one. We wanted a theme that could be relatable to a lot of different people. There were a few examples in the book that were about, say, alcohol and cigarettes, and we decided to cut those out and make them about coffee and food so that high school teachers would feel more comfortable sharing this with their kids. So it was a group effort. I think they did a great job.
Andrew: It must have been such a fun project for you to work on.
Trina: Oh, it was so fun. I met amazing peop-… It’s unbelievable how strangers on the internet can just really rally and make your day. I was just blown away by the level of commitment by some of these volunteers. Because you start out with a group of 100 or so, and then there are always just three or four that just rise to the top and go above and beyond. It was really incredible to see that group effort.
Andrew: I see it on the Acknowledgement page, you don’t just list the contributors. You’ve got really nice info about them. It’s a really well-designed Contributor page, with their photos, of course…
Trina: Oh, thank you.
Andrew: …with some information about them, links to their social profiles. Actually, just Twitter. What did you guys used to talk about, to talk and communicate while you were all writing?
Trina: We used just the Google infrastructure. So we had a project management site that was a Google site, and then we had a series of Google Docs that had the style guide, the tone guide, the sample chapter. Then, we created a folder structure with the different sections of the book and the different chapters, and then certain people that were allowed to edit the different chapters. That worked pretty well for us.
Andrew: That’s really cool. Man, that sounds like so much fun. All right. So that and the Kicksta-… The reason I’m hung up on the Kickstarter program is that I keep hearing that Kickstarter programs are not right for software makers, because software is so hard to predict. Because it’s too easy to fall behind with your delivery for software. What are your thoughts on that?
Trina: I think that’s absolutely true, and I think that hardware… This is just how I feel. I don’t have any data to back this up. But I feel that hardware projects tend to do a bit better on Kickstarter, because it’s something very tangible.
Trina: Infoactive wasn’t really a consumer product. A lot of things that do well on Kickstarter are things that you can keep in your house. Right?
Trina: Whereas, Infoactive was a little bit more B2B, to small businesses especially. But yeah, I was amazed by the level of support that we [inaudible 00:30:35]…
Andrew: You did great. You did $55,000 raised for software. You also offered some services in there, right? I think people, as part of their rewards, could also get some custom work from you guys?
Trina: Yeah. We did a few custom infographics, and part of that was to help us really expand our idea of what the software could be as well. So in those custom infographics, we also were able to reuse some of the components that we built to build those graphics. So we would build those the hard way, by building reusable components. But doing it in a very custom way, and then taking those reusable components and putting them back into the software.
Andrew: I see.
Trina: So that was actually a really great exercise for us in kind of breaking out of our backlog and really focusing on a customer, and how do we actually solve their problem.
Andrew: What’s one thing that you did for a single customer that you ended up then building into the product? Do you remember one specific thing?
Trina: Yeah. We built new, well what we call “scene types”, which are chart types. So one of them was a static number. A lot of people want to say, “90 people did this.” But we wanted to build it in such a way that you could still filter and explore. Because the idea with Infoactive is that you can drill down on data in a number of different ways. So every new scene type that you build has to come with sum, an average, a percentage, and the count of unique values. It has to connect to all of the different values. So that was one specifically that we built.
Andrew: I see.
Andrew: I see. By that one big number, you mean someone might need, “This is the number of total customers that we have today.” Then, you click and you want that to also be interactive, so I can see what about them?
Trina: Exactly. So for example, one of the numbers was the number of tweets and the number of Facebook posts. Then, you could click on the specific people who tweeted or the groups of people that tweeted, or you could click on the day.
Andrew: I see.
Trina: Then, you would see the numbers kind of filter down from 3,000 to 30.
Andrew: Got it. To see how many tweets per day, and get a sense of how we built up to this big number that we’re focusing on here in this one scene?
Andrew: All right. Let me tell my audience and you about my second sponsor. It’s called Acuity Scheduling. Trina, I’ve got to tell you, having done these interviews, one of the interesting things that I’ve discovered is that there are a lot of software companies that actually talk to their customers, which sounds a little funny, because you’re talking to so many of your customers and have since the beginning. But what I mean is that at some point, people get into this, “I got it. The software is up. I’m going to look at my data, and that’s how I’m going to understand what my customers want.”
But there’s a handful of people who I’ve interviewed who will email the people who do the trials and say, “Thanks for signing up to the trial. Can I get on a call with you and help you understand how to use the software better?” Then, they send a link and the customer or potential customer at that point gets to click the link, find a time, and actually get on a call with the customer. One of the people who did this is the founder of Baremetrics. Baremetrics is software that I use when I wanted to understand how many customers we have. Where are they coming from? What’s the churn? That’s a lot of data to be given. As soon as I signed up, the founder sent me an email saying, “Hey, Andrew. Can I help you out? Do you want to get on a call and understand this process?”
I initially was going to say “no,” and then I realized, “I could use some help with my churn. I could use some help understanding what my churn is.” So I took him up on the offer, and I don’t think I talked to him at all about his software. Instead, what I talked to him about was my churn and what I could do, and he gave me some feedback. Then, I understood that now I have this software that tells me what my churn number is, and some ideas from him about how to reduce churn. Then, after I became a customer of his, and I’ve been a customer of his for a long time, I got an email from him again saying, “Andrew, do you want to just do a follow-up call to see how you’re doing?” I said, “Sure.”
I clicked the link, I booked a time, and he and I got on a call together and he helped me even further. Now, I do not cancel, because I know how to use the software, it’s helped me tremendously, and frankly I’ll also feel a little guilty if I cancel even though there are other people who are now offering free versions of what he’s selling. That’s the power of getting on a call with your customer. You get to understand what they’re going through, why they signed up. He knew that I was signing up for churn. You get to understand how to help them, and you get to win them over. He does that and so many other people who I’ve interviewed have done that. If you want to do it easily, Acuity Scheduling will make it so simple that people can’t resist scheduling with you.
All they do is they give you a single link that you can give out to anyone who you want to get on a call with. You email it to them. They click it. They see your calendar complete with availability. They click the time that they want to have a call with you. The second page after that, they’re asked what their name is, what their phone number is. You might even ask what their Skype name is if you want to do a screen sharing. Boom. You’re off to the races with them. It’s on your calendar, it’s on their calendar, and no one ever forgets. The calendar reminds you both. Acuity Scheduling, created by a Mixergy fan. He’s creating a special URL just for us to give you a lot of free time with the software.
If you want to try it out, go to acuityscheduling.com/mixergy. Acuityscheduling.com/mixergy, try it out, guys, to talk to your customers before they sign up, talk to them after they sign up. Use it to schedule real in-person meetings with people. It works for anything. If you want to meet with someone, this is the way to do it, acuityscheduling.com/mixergy. I’m grateful to them for sponsoring.
Trina: I use Acuity. It’s awesome.
Andrew: You do?
Andrew: What do you use it for?
Trina: We were using it for scheduling beta customer interviews.
Andrew: What’s your beta customer interview process? What do you talk to people about? How do you understand?
Trina: Oh, well I’m really grateful that I had an amazing UX researcher advisor for the past two years, who really helped me understand how to do effective interviews and how to make people feel comfortable in interviews, and also how to make myself feel comfortable in interviews. Because people will sometimes get on these calls and they’ll say, “Oh, this is wrong and this is wrong, and you should do this and this, and this,” and it can be overwhelming. She taught me to really think about it in a curious way. “Why do you feel this way? What are the problems that you have? What are you trying to solve? Oh, why did you click on that thing there? What were you trying to do when you clicked on that thing? What were you hoping would happen?”
So when I get on calls with people, I just really try to understand their background. “What is it that you were using before? What led you to use this product that you have in front of you? How does that compare to other products that you use? What problems are you trying to solve?” Through talking to hundreds of people over time, you begin to see very clear patterns.
Andrew: You know what? By the way, that’s really good advice. I want to pause on that for a moment, because you’re right. When I talk to people about anything, they always want to pound you with advice because they want to be useful. They want to tell you what’s broken, because they want you to fix it all because they want to be helpful, and frankly because you’re telling them that you need their help, and so they want to actually start to find the problems that you should be fixing. Then, you walk away feeling like you’re a piece of garbage like nothing works. Like, “Why am I even building this? There are too many problems.”
But you’re right, to get at the motivation, “What were you trying to do? Why are you clicking that? Why are you using this? How are you using this? What’s it replacing for you?” that underneath motivation is really useful. Do you remember one thing that you learned from all those conversations?
Trina: Yeah. I think, what you just mentioned there, it is really helpful to approach it as a social scientist and just say, “Huh. That’s curious.” It really helps to kind of take a step back and not put yourself personally in the middle of it. Another thing that I learned from doing those interviews, a very effective way to do those interviews, because what you mentioned is true. Everyone comes into these interviews and they want to tell you everything that they think. Right?
Trina: They’re waiting for the call. They know it’s going to happen.
Trina: They say, “Okay. I had this list of 100 things that would be awesome.” They’ll start going down these routes like, “Oh, I think people would like to do this, and I think people would like to do that.” It really helps to refocus it and say, “Wait. But would you like to do this? Would you like to do that?” Because one of the things that’s a red flag for me is when I start hearing from a lot of people, “Oh, yeah. This would be really useful for my sales people,” and then I’m not hearing from any sales people. There can be a very large disconnect there. So I really like to keep it focused on the individual, because I’m trying to find out, “Is this product useful for this type of person?”
Andrew: Yeah. Right. Otherwise you get into hearsay, where it’s inadmissible in court to say what other people have told you. It’s not admissible here in these kinds of conversations, because they don’t really know what their sales people need. Right? That’s why you need to have a conversation with their sales people to really understand what their sales people need.
Andrew: Like the sales manager may be in front of you, you want to understand what the sales manager wants.
Trina: Mm-hmm. Yeah. One of the specific things that I learned from these interviews that I don’t think I would’ve known otherwise, is that I think a very large percentage of people, especially people that are new to data, don’t understand data aggregation, which is fine. We’re all new to it. It’s a very complex thing. Data is complex. People spend years of their lives learning about it, which is part of the reason why we wrote that book, to be a simple introduction to data. Because I’d like to create a world where it’s not so intimidating, where people can dive in. But yeah, people fundamentally didn’t understand the difference between a dataset that has maybe six values in it that are all aggregated, versus raw data that you can then filter and explore.
Andrew: What is the difference? Frankly, I want to sit here and act superior to them, like I understand data visualization because I’m doing this interview. But maybe I’m not getting it. What is it about data aggregation that we don’t understand?
Trina: So people would come to Infoactive and they would look at our videos, and they would see that you could filter down to different values.
Trina: You could click on things and say, “I’m interested in women in California, who drank dark roast coffee in 2006,” and you can compare that to men in Iowa who drank medium roast coffee in 2007.
Trina: But you can only do that if you have a sufficient quantity of data that’s not aggregated, that’s the raw data that has all of the rows and columns preserved. So each cup of coffee that was purchased is one row in the dataset.
Andrew: Got it. Okay.
Trina: Now, a lot of tools and services will try to make it easier for you to understand the data by pre-aggregating it. So if you download your data from Google Analytics, for example, often they will pre-aggregate it for you so that you’re not seeing each individual visit on your site. But you’re seeing that on July 23, you had 5,000 visits to your site. Then, from there, you cannot explore it again. It’s kind of like de-resing a photograph. You can’t make the photograph higher resolution once it’s already been brought down to 200 pixels.
Andrew: So they’ve told me specifically how many people have come to my site. I can’t go in and see those individual people once I’ve aggregated them and exported it as a PDF.
Andrew: But on the site itself, I can see it.
Trina: Yeah, exactly. I think another thing that people are often confused about is that data comes in different shapes and sizes, and they don’t have standard data. So people would come and they’d say, “Oh, I’m having so much trouble with this software,” or, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to visualize this thing.” I’d say, “Well, what’s your data look like?” They’d say, “Oh, it’s just a normal dataset.” “Well, where’d you get it?” “Oh, I got it from a government website. It’s just completely standard data.” It’s really funny, because you can download CSVs from five different Google products, and they all have different data schemas.
There are more than 700 different date formats in the wild. Imagine how difficult of an engineering problem this is to understand whether or not your data has the month first or the day first, depending on whether or not you’re coming from the U.S. or Europe.
Andrew: Did you do that? Did your software do that?
Trina: I mean, we did some things. But there are other things that are just incredibly difficult problems to solve. You only have so many hours in the day. We wanted to focus on the design and customization component, rather than on the data backend.
Andrew: So they had to preformat the data. They had to tell you month, day, year, or something like that.
Trina: Well, a lot of it would work. There are libraries that help you identify a good chunk of different date formats. So we accepted all of the most common ones. But even the best data tools in the world can’t necessarily identify all 700 different date formats.
Andrew: Where did you get the bulk of your customers?
Trina: That’s a good question. They came from mostly articles on the web that had been written about us. So they found out about us through Kickstarter or through ReadWriteWeb, or other articles when we pitched a self-buy that brought in a bunch of new users as well. Part of it was word of mouth. Then, they tended to be new to working with data, or they were working with people that were new to working with data. They wanted it to be much more simple. They didn’t need all of the bells and whistles. They wanted it to feel like a clean, comfortable experience.
Andrew: Why did you sell the company?
Trina: It was the right time for us. I had been working on this for exactly three years, and we realized that there was something that we could do together with Tableau that it would be hard to accomplish on our own. It was this one plus one equals three mentality. We had very similar missions and visions, where we wanted to help people at the intersection of data and design. We really wanted to help people that were new to working with data. We wanted to make it a more comfortable experience. Tableau’s mission is to help people see and understand data, and they were working on a new iOS product that is similar to Infoactive in a lot of ways.
I’d say our product focused on presentation, but could do analysis. Their product focused on analysis, but could do presentation. We said, “Hey, why don’t we join forces here. We can work on this iOS product, and then when the timing is right we can build a web version of it.” So that was kind of the initial conversations that started coming together. We had been talking to a few other companies then that had been starting to go down this conversation of acquisition. We said, “Before we get too far down a path with these other companies, we should talk to Tableau and see if there’s a fit here.”
Andrew: Was there some concern about burnout? I’m looking here at my notes from the producer who talked to you here at Mixergy. It seems like you were a little concerned about that.
Trina: Yeah. I mean, building a company is hard work. It’s really hard work. At the end of three years, I felt like I had accomplished most of the things that I wanted to accomplish with my first company. I’ll definitely get back into building companies again. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in life. I learned so much. I met so many people. But I also like projects that have closure, and at the end of three years we’d all been working really hard and we just wanted to see our efforts go much further.
Andrew: You said your health suffered. You were pushing hard. You were not eating, not exercising, not getting much sleep. Then, you told our producer this one story about how you’d written the eBook, you’d started the business, you were in demand as a speaker, you spoke. You come off stage and you’re greeted like a celebrity. Right?
Andrew: Then, people want to go to dinner and what happens?
Trina: Oh, yeah. That super-stressful period was probably, I think, a year before we sold. So that was somewhere in the middle. Being an entrepreneur, I feel like every entrepreneur has ups and downs. It’s very roller coaster-y.
Trina: You get your second, third, fourth wins. So there was a period kind of right in the middle, where I was extremely burned out and we were just like very low on cash those days. I was speaking at all of these conferences and became, I guess, a micro-celebrity in these very specific circles of people that love data visualization and journalism. It was very stressful to feel like I couldn’t afford all of the things that I was doing. But I was just cranking anyway. It was a great learning experience.
Andrew: Apparently, people would want to take you to dinner, and you couldn’t really afford to go to dinner. There just wasn’t enough money in the company account.
Trina: Not, much. No.
Andrew: Wow. How did you find all these companies that were potential acquirers?
Trina: Conversations over the years. Honestly, it was something that we had in mind from the beginning. So we focused on building relationships early on.
Andrew: So there was someone who was a potential competitor, someone who was a potential acquirer. You’d keep them both in mind for the day when you wanted to make a phone call?
Trina: Yeah. Part of it was the idea that in the future maybe there would be an acquisition or a merger, but it was also just wanting to know people in the space, because there’s room for collaboration too. I want to know what other people are working on. I’m just genuinely curious, because it’s my space.
Trina: It’s my industry, and people are doing awesome things all over the place. So part of it was going to these conferences, where then I had the excuse to go into different cities, and then write people an email and say, “Hey, I’m going to be in your town for a few days. Let’s go grab coffee. Let’s chat.” So I had built up these relationships over the course of a few years.
Andrew: When it’s time for you to actually make a call because you were ready to sell, how do you bring it up? You can’t just say, “Hey, I’m ready to sell this company. Do you want to buy it?” Right? What’s your process? What was it?
Trina: What happened was that it started with one company that was interested. Then, that conversation started moving rather quickly and we said, “Well, before we get too far down this path, if this is going to happen, let’s talk to some other companies about this as well.”
Andrew: I see. Then, that one company that makes an offer gives you an opportunity then to talk to other people and say, “We’ve gotten an offer. We should talk to you too…”
Andrew: “…while we’re exploring.” I see. Wow. Was it hard after the sale? Or did you feel liberated, because you felt like, “All right. I’ve got closure on this and we can keep going to work every day, but at least I crossed a finish line a little bit?”
Trina: It was really nice. I mean, I think it’s every entrepreneur’s dream to get acquired. To do it on the first company that you ever built with no tech background whatsoever was pretty exciting.
Trina: I really do like what Tableau is doing. They’re a mission-driven company, and I just appreciate the way that they handled the whole process. I appreciate what we’re doing now at Tableau. So it was a relief. By the end of it, there was something nice about being able to go into an office where we could get snacks and have a normal day, and I get my weekends back. So it was a good thing.
Andrew: It’s been about a year now.
Andrew: Wow. Congratulations on everything you’ve done. Can people actually play with your software? Because I know now if I go to infoactive.co, that was the URL, it’s basically redirecting me over to Tableau. Right?
Trina: Yeah. Sadly, we did turn off the platform so that we could focus on the other things that we were doing at Tableau. We didn’t want to focus on continued maintenance for Infoactive.
Andrew: So the software doesn’t exist anymore?
Trina: Yeah. Sadly it’s off [inaudible 00:50:44]…
Andrew: So it was an Apple hire, then?
Trina: Yeah. I mean, they wanted both the team and our web technology and web frameworks.
Andrew: Now, your web frameworks are integrated into their software.
Trina: Well, yeah, with the idea that the iOS product that they were building would port over to the web, and we had already built an infrastructure that would help to do that.
Andrew: I see. But right now, your software is not using anything that’s live?
Trina: No. Sadly. No, it’s not online.
Andrew: Just in that iOS. Does that feel sad?
Trina: No. It feels okay, honestly. It was an amazing adventure. I had a great time. It’s okay to have closure on it.
Andrew: Did you make more money from it than you would have from a job at your skill level?
Trina: Yeah, for sure.
Andrew: For sure, okay. One of the reasons I ask is because I feel like a lot of times, entrepreneurs, you look back at the last few years and you realize, “You know what? If I had a job I would’ve made more money, and I wouldn’t have had any of the stress.
Trina: Yeah. I think that’s common. But for me, even if it hadn’t worked out, it still would’ve been an amazing experience, because I learned so much. I met so many people. For me, it was about the adventure. I didn’t go into it thinking that I was going to become a billionaire. I think it helps, it’s healthy to set those expectations. Because very, very few people do sell their companies and make a lot of money from it.
Andrew: Very few.
Trina: I feel very lucky and fortunate, and I definitely worked very hard for it. But it was worth it, no matter what.
Andrew: How’s your life different, like on a financial basis? You can afford dinners, of course, now. But did you get to buy yourself something, did you get to treat yourself now that you’ve sold a company?
Trina: When I sold the company the things that I was excited about were very simple things. I’m so sorry. I’m getting kicked out of this room.
Andrew: Oh, okay. Finish that thought, and then we’ll end it right there.
Trina: Okay. I was very interested in the simple things when it first happened. There were things that I couldn’t afford for a very long time. So the things that I really wanted were things like… I said, “I want to go and get the fancy olives out of the grocery store. Not garbage olives, the fancy ones. I’m going to get a Vitamix blender and have amazing smoothies every day.” So some people go out and they buy a car or a boat. For me, I’m just excited for the next project.
Andrew: Cool. All right. If people want to check you out, is there a website? I don’t think there is. It’s just Twitter, right?
Trina: Yeah. I have a Twitter, LinkedIn. I don’t have a blog or a website at this point.
Andrew: Yep. So they could see you on Twitter @TrinaCHI. Right?
Andrew: Trina, and the first three letters of your last name. My two sponsors, of course, are the company that will host your website right. It’s called hostgator.com/mixergy, and a site that will help you schedule meetings. It’s called Acuity Scheduling. See them at acuityscheduling.com/mixergy. I’m going to say goodbye right now. Bye. Thank you for doing this. I’ll let you give up the room. Bye, Trina.
Trina: Thank you. Bye.
Andrew: Bye, everyone.