Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneur about how they built their businesses. And I do it for an audience of entrepreneurs. One of the things that I noticed when I started doing these interviews is people would do these mind maps of what they learned from the interviews.
They would send me notes of what they learned from the interviews. They would really put in a lot of work to make sure that they were absorbing this properly. Now I’ve actually seen people use apps to listen to podcasts where they press a button, they save notes on what they heard and it’ll automatically transcribe.
These things are really cool, but you know what. I think if you’re listening to me, you should just trust the process. And the process is if you listen to, to somebody talk about how they started their business, if you hear the different challenges they had and what they did overcome, I mean, you don’t have to take notes.
That’s story. That experience becomes a part of who you are. You may not realize it, but the way you think is changed based on. Hearing how other people discovered their solutions, discovered their ideas got over their challenges. And that’s the way that storytelling has always worked. In fact, if you look, forget about going back thousands of years, if you look at how.
Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have worked in tech for decades. You will see people sitting around having coffee, telling stories about this thing, that bomb, that thing that worked out and this little hacky thing that they did that really made a difference. And that happened over coffee. It happened over dinner.
It happened on runs on walks. And the, the only innovation that I brought to Mixergy was saying, let’s put it on a podcast and better still let’s make it intentional so that you don’t have to have a conversation for an hour that maybe go somewhere and maybe doesn’t. And so that’s the idea here behind these interviews.
Joining me is a listener who has started a company that I think is just phenomenal, useful, and his business experience. The way that he came up with his idea, I think is going to help you think of, um, better product to create for your audience. His name is John Lee. He is the founder of pic Fu it’s a do it yourself, consumer research platform.
Here’s what he did for me. He said, Andrew, this is clever that you did as John actually. Why don’t I leave it for you to tell it I’ll first say that this interview is sponsored by HostGator. I’ll encourage people later on to go to hostgator.com/mixergy to create their, uh, hosting package there. And by top talent, I’ll later on encourage people, John, to go to that.
I might even try to encourage you John, to go to top talent, hire developer from top talent.com/mixergy. But I think it’ll give people a sense of what pig food does. If you describe what you did for me.
Li: Sure thing, Andrew. Great to be here. Um, so this all started when I received an email. I think I’m on your mailing list. And I received an email from you asking sort of as a call for sponsors, if anyone was interested. And so we, I was interested, I’m curious. I was curious to find out what those packages look like, what, what it came with and all of that stuff.
Um, and I think you respond and you’re like, well, you know, let, let’s learn more about pic Fu. So what I wanted to do was give you an idea of what pig food could do, and the most interesting way to do that is to actually run a poll on. Uh, customers, uh, own stuff. Right. So me and my co founder went and we found your, uh, I believe he was a.
Design contest. Yeah, it was a design contest and I design crowd where you were crowdsourcing, the design of your podcast, cover art. And so we found that design contest found, I think the Tufts six or the top four, uh, designs and put them up in a pig food poll and basically asked our panel of, uh, you know, I think it was, uh, I think I chose a hundred people or 50 people or something.
Which podcast cover art would make would be more compelling. And let me, yeah. Which part, which podcast cover art is more appealing and why? And I believe it was five options. Uh, ran that poll on our end and then sent that over to you for you to check it out.
Andrew: What I thought was interesting was. Ari saw the poll, Ari, our producer, and said, Andrew, we should totally switch to the one that they picked, which was a green background with office buildings. And it gave more sense of place and interest than the background that I picked, which was just a blank, blank, yellow background.
And I think that I intentionally and just always pick blank backgrounds. In fact, if you look over my shoulder over the last 10 years, there’s always been nothing but a wall. Even when there was something interesting in the room, I would go and pick a blank wall, um, because I liked that type of focus, but I have to admit when she made the point and she’s way more artistic than I am.
I said, yeah, I do like that. And I like the green background of the one they picked and. But I still like the font that I used for the title of the podcast startup stores. So I went to the guy who designed the first, um, one of my first, uh, cover arts. And I said, take this background, put it on. And I totally forgot to follow up until I saw that you and I were, were doing the interview today.
And I went back to him and I realized, wait, he asked me a question. I didn’t respond. We’re going to switch over and use the green background. Um, what I liked, huh?
Li: You’re switching.
Andrew: I’m switching. Yeah, we’re switching to the green background, but I still love the font that we have right now.
Li: I thought you went with the yellow background because that was more in line with your brand colors. I figured that, you
Andrew: It didn’t really matter. We do use office buildings on the site a lot, and I want to keep things interesting. And I do accept that. I tend to go for blue blank where. Where it’s more interesting to have some semblance of where you are and the background that you went with and the people voted for had a, had a skyline of San Francisco.
I think if at least the one that I’m going to be using is kind of out of San Francisco. And I liked all the different reasons that people gave, which helped them understand what it was about and so on. All right. That’s what you do, how much revenue you pulling in with the site?
Li: Um, so we are going to break seven figures this year. We’ve probably growing around a, at least a hundred percent per year.
Andrew: So you’re almost at a million a year. How much did you do last year?
Li: Uh, almost a million last year.
Andrew: Wow. How close did you get?
Li: Um, like two within 200 K or so.
Andrew: Okay. And it’s a bootstrap company.
Li: it is.
Andrew: Wow. How much makes it to the bottom line then?
Li: Depends on the year. Um, two or three, I would say
Andrew: Okay. I imagine
Li: co-founder I have one other co-founder his name is Justin. So we’ve been doing this for a really long time.
Andrew: and the two or three gets split up the bottom. The profit gets split up between the two of you at the end of the year. Got it. Um, how did you two meet you and Justin Chen?
Li: So we were classmates and housemates back in college at Berkeley.
Andrew: Okay. And what was it about him that made you say? I think I want to start a company with Justin.
Li: Uh, I think it was the general irreverence and lack of caring about school. When we were in classes, it was a lot of fun. Uh, there’s a lot of fun to be around. And I think, yeah, it’s more about having a really good friend, um, who is also a very competent business partner who happened to be a very competent business partner.
Andrew: How did you know, you’d be a competent business partner. If he was the guy who was just a Reverend and didn’t care about school.
Li: Um, that’s a good question. Um, I think when we were going through our senior years, we graduated back break before the first.com crash. And so we saw a lot of our classes. Uh, older classmates, move on, do the whole startup thing. So that was the mania back then. Um, but right when we graduated, that’s when the, when the.com bust happened.
So we went off to our corporate jobs, but we were always, um, talking about startup ideas. Hey, we should do this. What do you think about this idea? What do you think about this idea? So even though we were in completely separate geographic places, I was in Seattle, he was in Chicago. We were still always, you know, talking about ideas, talking about ideas and eventually.
We saw people go and do those ideas. So at least we realized we weren’t completely retarded,
Andrew: what’s, what’s one of the ideas that you saw somebody else jump on and pull off.
Li: um, online, uh, online calendaring. So I believe that was Justin Kan. They were doing Kiko at the time. That was before Google calendar, like, Oh, that’s a really good idea. Someone needs to do that. They’re doing it. We’re not doing it well, but at least we decided
Andrew: of that? When the, when the two of you were thinking of an online calendar, it was, what was the feature that you thought would make it interesting beyond the fact that it’s online?
Li: Shareable calendars.
Andrew: Yeah, so that I could see my coworkers calendars. I could share invitations. Right. That was one of the things that he ended up with, I think.
Um, all right. And so you saw him and you said, wait a minute, people are jumping on our ideas. We should do one of them. What was the people stock idea that you guys were kicking around?
Li: Oh, man, that was in college. That was more about, instead of paying attention to class, you would pay attention to classmates and see that. Oh, well, so and so, you know, you know that they’re going to go places. And so that would be amazing if there was a company where you could freely just invest in the entrepreneur, um, knowing that.
The person. Yeah,
Andrew: I’m totally with you on that. I don’t exactly know what shape that would take, but I agree with you. And the more people invest in you, the more, the more that you see investment happening within your class, the more incentive you have to do well, and to let people know who you are and.
Li: exactly. So.
Andrew: I just don’t know how to make that work because who would want it to take an investment instead of loan, when with, with a loan, those low interest rate and with an investment you have to give a big upside.
It would seem like mostly the losers would want to take the investment and the winners would want to take the loan.
Li: That’s true, but in the startup culture, you know, fundraising is, it’s a badge of honor, right. Or taking investment is kind of a badge of honor. So who knows.
Andrew: But it’s, it’s a great idea. And I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen people who early on, you know, they’re going places, no matter what they’re doing right now, you know, they’re going to do something really interesting and you want to financial incentive as a bond is a,
Andrew: a reason to stay connected.
Li: let me know if you find that surface, I’m all in on that.
Andrew: one of the things that you did end up going with was menu ism. What’s menu ism.
Li: So many wisdom is a crowdsourced menu, a restaurant menu listing site. That was the idea that, um, my cofounder and I started with first, when we left our corporate jobs, um, our intent was to basically build a restaurant directory, but then also have, have people be able to. Enter their own restaurant menus or other, other restaurants, restaurant menus to kind of replace the kitchen drawer back then where you would have all the questions on takeout menus.
Li: yeah, so that was our idea.
Andrew: And the incentive for people to add menus was what.
Li: That’s a good question. There wasn’t enough of an incentive to add menus. We ended up working with, um, so there were some people out there who are willing to do it, and they would be pretty good about adding menus for their immediate location, but essentially it was a nationwide. Um, directory of restaurant listings.
And so we ended up working with third party providers who were also doing the physical gathering of menus, or they would do online, ordering or delivery, and we would, uh, not licensed, but we would be a content play and licensed share their menu information on manual ism.
Andrew: But from what I can understand, there was no way for people to, to order food. Right.
Li: You could through affiliate relationships with delivery sites?
Andrew: Uh, and that was going to be your business model. Get the menus on the platform. No. What was
Li: Um, the original business model was to actually try to charge restaurants for building some kind of platform. We didn’t end up getting there. So instead the business, the what did, what we did stumble upon was actually organic search traffic and SEO.
So it became a site, uh, with a healthy amount of traffic with SEO, and then we monetized it at three display ads. Neither of which was on the plan when we first started it.
Andrew: And display ads. I can’t imagine would produce much money. Right.
Li: No, it wasn’t great. Um, there was a time when it was better, but over the years, both organic, both the SEO game and the display advertising. Um, market were both more and more challenging over time to, uh, to sustain.
Andrew: At your height, how much were you doing? Traffic wise at revenue.
Li: so at our height, we were probably doing four or 5 million page views a month and a little over a million in revenue per year.
Andrew: That’s significant from advertising from just SEO content.
Li: Yeah. From SEO content.
Andrew: Wow. That’s impressive. And then when you started to see that it fell down, it’s because other people are outranking you, is that the problem?
Li: So back in those days, I would say this was early. The early 2010s or so, um, Google was changing its search algorithm pretty often. Yeah. And when there, when there were changes, they would be pretty significant. So we, after the first couple of adjustments where we would see traffic steady and then traffic fall off a cliff, To a certain level.
And then we try to build back and then see a change. Again, we kind of realized the writing was on the wall. Um, it was still just the two of us, myself and Justin. We weren’t confident enough to try to build a team using that revenue to stay ahead in the rankings game. While also seeing that on the revenue side, the, um, The margins are for digital advertising, sort of the rates for digital advertising, where we’re shrinking on the other end.
So it didn’t feel like it was a good business to pursue or to keep putting resources into.
Andrew: Meanwhile, you had a problem internally because you’re two cofounders equal ownership, right? Equal input. What were the issues that you had.
Li: Um, so like I said before I met Jay, I met my co founder, Justin doing computer science at Berkeley. Um, so at our hearts, we’re both coders and builders and not designers. And so we’re both kind of designed blind. He’s actually a colorblind. We would always come into have debates about certain UX elements, colors, fonts, design stuff, and.
For some time, we would turn to our friends and family, um, to try to get some input, to try to break these tiebreakers, but at a certain point in your entrepreneurial journey, you know, like you’re turning just a friends and family for input is not necessarily the best, uh, for anyone. And they, they get kind of tired of you asking for it.
Andrew: This is not methodical. You want a process that you can keep improving. You want a process that you could count on,
Li: Exactly. Yeah. And we can count on that. I mean, I love my friends and family, but you know, you can’t just keep turning to them as for every, every single tie-breaking decision, right. On design stuff. And you want something where you want data, that’s you want feedback? That’s a little more unbiased.
So we ended
Andrew: why couldn’t you do AB tests? Why couldn’t you say, you know what? I have the idea that what we should do is have the menu up on top and the restaurant address below let’s test it and see why can’t you do stuff like that.
Li: We did do AB tests. Um, we actually did try some AB tests. One, you need a lot of traffic to make sure that it’s statistically significant to fit by definition, 50% of the people who you’re sending it to like they’re experiencing a poor user experience. Um, and then you don’t really understand the why. So you can AB test your way to a really ugly site, but it.
Converts, you know,
Andrew: Yeah. Also, there’s certain things that. There is no AB test. Like we’re talking about the cover art for mixer G’s podcast. How am I going to AB test that? How am I going to figure out how many people are going to click on it? Yes. I could buy some ads and see what people click on, but I just don’t feel like that’s enough.
I don’t feel like that’s the right the right way to measure it.
Li: Yeah. I mean, AB with AB testing, you need something that’s live and you need something. That’s getting enough traffic for you to really do that split testing. So, um,
Andrew: So the two of you then did what that led to pick Fu how did you first test out the idea?
Li: So I think it was over the course of the things like a long Thanksgiving break, we built a really quick prototype of pixel and basically it was all you could do was throw up two things and ask the crowd. What do you like better and why?
Andrew: Just pick it.
Li: Just pick it, just pick it. Yeah.
Andrew: Where are you doing this? Because you had an idea that this could be a good side business or because you needed just for yourselves.
Li: We needed adjust for ourselves. We didn’t really think about, yeah, we didn’t really think about it as a, I mean, we think it thought about it a little bit as a business, but the bigger thing was that, Hey, here’s this opportunity to build a service that week a tool that we could use that we know is unbiased and it’s fast and it gets us the results that we want.
So let’s try to build out, like, here’s this idea. Let’s try to build it out. It worked really well for us.
Andrew: Alright. How’d that? How’d you get people to come to the first version and decide?
Li: Um, Oh, you mean the panelists, so, huh.
Andrew: And I didn’t realize that’s what they’re called. Yeah. The
Li: Oh, sorry. Sorry. Yeah. Yeah. So, um, I think back then we were back then we were using mechanical Turk. I believe that they had just, uh, opened up an API. So we use mechanical Turk. Um, and we were trying to play with that API and that’s where the third party people came from.
Andrew: Okay. How did that test work out for you? Where are you actually getting meaningful feedback from mechanical Turk?
Li: Yeah, we were, um, there’s a lot of. Yeah. Um, there, I would say back then it was probably 70% meaningful and 30% kind of just rambling. Part of the reason we ask people to explain their choices was so that we can ensure that people were actually giving it thought instead of just clicking on a versus B, because when you can read the responses from people, you can tell, Oh, well, you’re not, you’re not really caring.
You didn’t actually like the options. You’re just writing chipper and so on. Um, so there was others, always a percentage of people who. Aren’t paying attention. But over the years we’ve basically built up a lot of tools to weed those people out and block them to make sure that you’ve got a lot of people
Andrew: My challenge with mechanical Turk, John, for stuff like that is that you get people who aren’t at all interested in your business. Aren’t ordinary customers. You know what I mean? And so you’re getting people for sure, but they may not be restaurant. Goers. They may not even have desktop computers. You know, they might be mobile first and mobile only people was that an issue in the beginning.
Li: Not in the beginning because the product that we were using it to test for, for many wisdom was a general purpose website, right? It was a website that anyone, anyone in the U S who was looking for a restaurant, they could come to many of them to look for a restaurant. And so we didn’t feel that, that, uh, we didn’t feel that that broadness of mechanical Turk was a limitation.
Um, over time while we did do was we actually built out our own profiles of the people. Who are responding to these polls. And so now we’re able to, with pig Fu you are able to target by gender age, all of that stuff.
Andrew: In a minute, we’re going to come back to what you did with hacker news to help you expand your, to get customers, not expand your customers, but actually get them. And then we’ll continue to sort of from there. But first, John, I’ve got to tell you about HostGator. One of the things that I love about HostGator is somebody has an idea based on what you just talked about today.
Maybe one of the ideas you didn’t pursue, maybe your idea is something that sparks one in their minds. If they have a HostGator account, They can instantly go and launch a site and see their idea, come to life and see if there are any orders. Do you have any, any ideas that you’ve run well that you’ve created websites for in the past?
Any throwaway ideas even that you built? Just because you’re good at building
Li: yeah, absolutely. Numerous. Huh? Um, we built a wedding photo sites for gathering, uh, wedding photos from guests.
Andrew: Ah, for after event, people upload their photos and yeah, total easy to build within a weekend on Gator, I’m going to say this, people are gonna hate it even with WordPress, but then once you get a sense of whether you like this, whether it makes sense, if you can give it to one person who is organizing an event, you get a sense of whether this thing has legs, whether you even care about it.
All right. If you’re out there and you’re listening to me and you have any ideas at all, I want you to take them to hostgator.com/mixergy. When use that URL, they’re going to give you a hosting package at the lowest price they have available. And what I love about HostGator is if you pick the middle option on that site, you’re going to get unlimited domain hosting.
That means you have an idea one day, you play with it. I don’t know what your schedule is like. Maybe in the middle of the night, you wake up with inspiration or worry or whatever, get onto your HostGator account and just fire up another WordPress site. And start and see where it goes. Use a free theme, adjust it, using free plugins and decide.
Is this something that you care enough about the show to the world, or maybe it’s just an idea that once you see it through you realize you have a better idea. That’s the benefit of having HostGator account. You get to see your ideas come to life easily. And I keep saying WordPress, but obviously they’ll let you host using lots of different, um, uh, platforms, hostgator.com/mixergy mix mixer is hosted on their platform.
Really go get him hostgator.com/mixergy. By the way, one thing that I know I shouldn’t even test is the logo on the bottom of our site, Michael R but put a big, giant fricking logo. It’s like a billboard on the side of a highway for HostGator. I said, Michael, I’m really happy with HostGator. Cause I am too.
I said, it’s such a great deal. He goes, yeah. Um, Well, maybe we should put a link on there on your site. I said, yeah, we should. How about even put their logo on the side? He went and got the biggest fattest logo he could get from HostGator and put it on the site.
Li: I’m looking at it now. It’s, it’s prominent.
Andrew: It’s pretty dramatic, right?
Li: pretty dramatic. Yeah.
Andrew: I think he needs to take that down. A couple of sizes. I still, when people are nowhere on HostGator, I just don’t need them to be so overwhelmed that their whole screen is flooded with the HostGator logo. Maybe we’ll leave it up a bit so that when people hear this interview, they can go and see what I’m talking about.
Alright. What’d you do with hacker news?
Li: Um, hacker news was the only place where we posted about pic Fu because we thought we treated it as an internal tool. But what we did was we threw up a PayPal button and then posted it, uh, on hacker news to get a little bit of feedback. And I don’t think we ever did any promotion after that. Um, mixed there as, as, as always with hacker news, you know, pretty unvarnished. Um, there are generally people who said that they would find it useful. There were some people will told us, told us to up the pricing and that it was too cheap. Um, those were kind of the two big buckets we heard.
Andrew: Uh, yeah, I see it here. You got only 104 points, which is not that much posted it.
Andrew: No, not a lot, not a lot at all. Um, And I could see this was what, 11 years ago, you guys went in and responded to every single comment. Um, did you get any orders from it? Did you get any insights that you actually adjusted based on it?
Li: It’s hard to remember. Um, we’ve probably adjusted a couple of things from the insights. We left the price where it was. Um, and then we basically didn’t look at it for a number of years,
Andrew: The, the price was $5 from what I could see, right?
Li: uh, way back then. It
Andrew: Yeah. It was like post five bucks. And then I guess what you guys were paying was just a penny per vote per panelists from a mechanical Turk.
Li: yeah, it was like one or 2 cents back then. It’s not that now. Yeah.
Andrew: Oh, and look at this, it looks like somebody actually went and found your mechanical Turk offer. These people are pretty freaking clever.
Li: pretty clever for sure.
Andrew: And so you left it for a few years. Did you get any orders or anything from it?
Li: did though, just from this, I think, um, uh, was it Gabriel and Gabriel duck taco? I think he found it.
Andrew: Weinberg. Yeah. He told me that you guys in his Mixergy interview, I think,
Li: Oh, daddy.
Andrew: yeah. I’m pretty sure he did.
Li: Okay. Awesome. Yeah. So he found us, I think he was sharing it with other people. Um, so we got a very, very slow trickle of customers over the years as we continue to work on menu wisdom. Um, and at some point we decided we should double the price and we did. Um, and customers kept coming in. And then at some point when, uh, when we started to see the writing on the wall for many of them and realizing that, you know, we don’t want to give our like a hundred percent of our efforts to that, then we started pivoting slowly over to pick Pikeville.
Andrew: As it was growing. Why did you know that this was worth spending time on you are neglecting it? What, what was it doing while you were neglecting it?
Li: Um, it was spreading through word of mouth, um, in, in verticals that we never thought to target or to market to. Like for example, uh, we got to be pretty popular among self publishing authors for testing book covers and book titles before publishing because, you know, they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone judges a book by its cover.
So, um, we started getting some pretty good traction in that self publishing space. Um, and we would get feedback from those customers saying. This is amazing. You know, the fact like you saved me from a really bad decision, or I was fighting with my publisher, they wanted to go with this cover title. And I went, you know, and we threw up a pig food poll.
I was able to use it as ammunition to convince them otherwise. Um, yeah.
Andrew: It was just that one person would use it. Then they would start talking about it within their community and then others would go in and use it. Got it.
Andrew: And were they asking you for, for things that you were, you were able to put on a roadmap?
Li: Yeah. So they were asking us for features like testing more than two things, testing only one thing, a lot of different testing, kind of different types of testing that we ended up implementing.
Andrew: And it looks like one of the big requests, even from the beginning was let me pick who, who answers this. Let me ask for, let me pick based on demographics. Right?
Andrew: All right. You were still recruiting people. How’d you end up finding people who fit within the demographics that your customers were asking for.
Li: So every time a panelist or a respondent, uh, fills out a pig food poll, which is all it is, is one question. And then a couple of options and asking to explain why, um, we asked them a little bit about themselves a little bit. We gather a little bit of demographic information and so over. Time as the respondents as answer more and more polls in our platform, we’re able to build up a better, uh, I guess, profile of self-reporting and information.
So initially it was just gathering information like the basic demographics, like age, gender, all of that stuff. But then over time, We were able to gather demographic information and targeting and allow targeting by things that our customers cared about. Like for example, do you prefer fiction books or nonfiction books?
Do you own an Amazon Kindle? Um, how many books do you read per month? Since we knew that initially our target vertical or our target customers who are self publishing authors, we were able to go and segment our audience by that.
Andrew: And so were you, were you able to reconnect with people who you found it on mechanical Turk without having to pay mechanical Turk?
Li: Um, no, we, at that time we still went through mechanical Turk.
Andrew: So you can get demographic info on people and then re request them on mechanical Turk.
Li: Yeah, you can use qualifications. Um, you can assign qualifications to specific respondents on mechanical Turk. So we built out a system to be able to assign our qualifications, which were our demographics to the people who are responding to mechanical
Andrew: Right. But then once you’re asking people for, for their demographic information on mechanical Turk, how do you go find them again? If you ask them, do you
Li: next time we, the next time we post a poll, we say only limit this poll to people who have this qualification.
Andrew: Okay. So it’s not that you are collecting information on people and building a mailing list of panelists, is it?
Andrew: So that’s something I discovered from the pre-interview did with our producer. You realize that there are panel companies that you can go to, to find participants that are maybe more qualified for your customers, then mechanical Turk. How do you even find these companies? Where are they?
Li: Um, they’re actually everywhere in the market research space actually. Um, so they’re definitely out there. We are, we’re actively integrated with some, we’re going to integrate with a few more, um, just to make sure that, you know, we have the right set of panelists to be able to expand, uh, beyond just the U S
Andrew: What’s the category called. If I want him to go look this up, how would I find panelists?
Li: probably market research panel.
Andrew: All right. And so if you’re going through them, you have to pay them more than mechanical Turk, which means you have to increase prices. And if you’re going through them and finding demographics, I imagine some demographics are more expensive than others, right? That means that you have to start building up your product.
Li: Uh, we will, well, we’re still building up our product. It’s undetermined, whether we’ll have to raise prices, we already charge more for specific kinds of targeting. Like, for example, if you want to target, if you right now, if you want to target Amazon prime members who are avid home cooks because you’re selling a kitchen product on Amazon, that’s going to charge the that’s going to cost you more than the standard dollar per person that we charge now.
Andrew: Okay. And then did you start reaching out beyond your audience, beyond your customer base of, I guess authors at first?
Li: Uh, you would think so, but no, we just get, we just kept sitting on it. Um, the two, the two, the two initial customer bases that we served who came, who found us and found really good value from pick food where authors and actually mobile game developers.
Andrew: Who are just finding you with themselves and, and you weren’t doing anything to cultivate it, right? Yeah. From what I can see, you’re not going into their, um, into their forums. You’re not writing blog posts to teach them how to do this. You’re just. Sitting back and waiting for them to talk about you and
Li: Well, I think at the time we were just, yeah, at the time we were just focused on many of them, but over the, over that time, these verticals started building up for peak Fu.
Andrew: All right. One of the verticals that you discovered eventually was e-commerce people who are selling on Amazon, people who are selling on Shopify, and then you did eventually start reaching out to say Amazon selling gurus. Right? What I like about that is I keep hearing from my guests that. Most people think about either content marketing or they think about advertising, but they don’t think about these integrations with, with the people who have their customers.
I wonder how you did that and how it worked for you. How did you figure out who to integrate with how to become a part of their business? So they start referring people to you. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Li: Yeah. Um, that’s a really good question. Um, So when we first turned full time to focus on pic Fu our focus, um, our target customer vertical was actually, uh, mobile gamers. We didn’t have a lot of e-commerce sellers at the time. We thought that we provided. The best value for mobile game developers, because you could, uh, they were using pic Fu to test Gaymar game concepts, app store icons, and app store screenshots before they launched.
Right. And so we saw that we were providing a lot of value when we would speak with those customers. They would say, you guys are, you know, like our secret weapon, but we’re not going to tell anyone else because it’s a competitive advantage for them. Right. But we tried and we didn’t have the. Team size capacity or resources to go after those customers successfully.
I think we need to add back at that time, we need a lot more resources to either sponsor do booths, that game conferences, sponsor, you know, all of that stuff. So we split our wheels for awhile, trying to target. That market, then a guru. One of those, uh, selling coaches in e-commerce actually found pic fou found it useful for his business and more product on Amazon and started telling his people and once his students in e-commerce.
And once we saw that we were able to provide that value for eCommerce sellers. And we looked at the landscape, we realized, okay, this channel of building partnerships with. The gurus with the coaches, with the influencers in this space. This is something that we, that our team and our capacity can do. And so we pivoted and focused on building out, um, targeting the eCommerce channel through working with influencers.
Andrew: And what’s your, do they get an affiliate commission or are they just recommending you? They do.
Li: Yeah, they get an affiliate commission. Um, we definitely try to do a demo first. A lot of them use it for their own products and their own and their own online Childs too.
Andrew: No, it would be interesting is if you could somehow integrate with design crowd so that when I get a few designs, I don’t have to ask my audience because my audience doesn’t necessarily know what they love, but. I might want, I want my want to run it by somebody before showing it to my audience or what I see a lot of people do is they go on Twitter and they say, which one of these do you like best?
And then they do a Twitter poll, but I still don’t think that that’s enough. I think that’s more of a way of showing what you’re doing and less, it’s less helpful for getting feedback. What do you think.
Li: Uh, I think that’s a great idea. Uh, it’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time then I think next year, hopefully soon enough, we’ll start doing some outreach.
Andrew: And it’s not just that it’s Canva, for example, we’ll take some Google doc that I created and realized that people don’t value a Google doc and it’s also not transportable for them. So we’ll convert it into a PDF and make it look nice. I would love to, if we’re doing it in Canva to not have. Someone on the team saying, Andrew, do you like this design or that design better is what, what do I know?
I have my own quirky way of doing things. Like, for example, I might look at it directly on my computer, on my iPad. If we could just send it immediately out to a panel and get some feedback, it would be much easier for us to realize. This does look great on a computer, but the panelists are on phones. And if you have wide margins on phones, it’s hard to see.
Or if you have two columns on phones yeah. It’s annoying to read, right? And those, those types of insights are incredibly useful and very easy for people to give you before you give it to your audience for feedback.
Li: Also, we would love to do more integrations in the future,
Andrew: Alright, that kind of kicks into my second advertiser. I’m going to pitch you on, on top. Tell here’s the idea. Imagine you decide, you know, we need as an integration. I don’t have enough time. Who’s the coder on your team right now?
Li: myself, Justin, and one other person in Mexico.
Andrew: Okay. Imagine if you’ve got an idea, but the three of you do not have time to, in to create this integration. Well, you can go to top talent. Say we need somebody who’s worked with Canva in the past. We’re about to pitch them on an opportunity. We need somebody who’s worked with them. Do you have someone like that?
Boom, you go to them and then they get you somebody who has done that work before who’s done it for a company similar to yours who understands the quirks of working with canvas. And then they bring them to you and they say, John, you like this person. And if you have a conversation with them and you like them, you hire them.
You get started. The person has enough experience that they could build for you based on that experience, but also taking your feedback into account. And you’re up and running. If you decide, you know what we want to do, we want to experiment with a, I don’t know what a plugin we want to experiment with the Zapier integration.
You go to top talent and they have people who’ve done the work before and done it exceptionally well. That’s the advantage of hiring from top talent? What do you think?
Li: I think that I’ve heard your pitch for top towel on a lot of other episodes and I’m really used to it, but it’s so much more compelling when you’re pitching me directly.
Andrew: Do you want to know something? John? I’ve got two calls today. One of them is with the creator of levels where
Li: Can, can you get me one of those I’m on the wait list. Can,
Andrew: Everybody seems to be on the wait list. I’m going to ask you about that in a second. And then I’ve got something here for them. The other call is with a college professor who said that his class analyzes my ads and the way that I bring my guests into the ads and how it becomes part of the content.
He said, Andrew, if you want to come in. I’ll give you our zoom room, because now everything’s remote. You have to promise you’re going to change your photo on zoom so that they don’t see your icon as you’re logging in and change your name and just sit back and listen in and see how they analyze your ads.
Because I think it will be helpful. I can’t wait for that.
Li: That sounds really fun.
Andrew: All right. Listen to me. If you’re out there and you have not yet tried top towel, the next time you have a big project, the next time you get frustrated with something that you can do or something that’s not done, right? You have an alternative, and that is going to top towel.com/mixergy top isn’t top of your head towels and talent.
T O P T a l.com/m I E R G Y. I didn’t even tell people why they should use it. If you use my URL, you get 80 hours of developer credit when you pay for the first 80 hours, in addition to a no risk trial period. So you have an incentive. And so many people have done it. That’s why they continue to advertise.
You’ve firstname.lastname@example.org slash Mixergy. So here’s the thing I think, um, maybe I should drink it now. I’ve got this green juice here. I went to the, the really nice juice store here in San Francisco and I got a green juice. I will be drinking it. And then I’ve got this levels thing on my arm, which will be testing my blood sugar level.
Am I right?
Andrew: And I want to see how it influences it. Why are you interested in levels? Everybody seems to be on their wait list.
Li: Everyone seems to be, I know they’re doing a really good job content marketing or something. I think that, um, you know, as the technologist with the ability to sort of use technology nowadays to measure, uh, quantify yourself, quantify how, you know, like your sleep. I have one of those sleep rings and, um, I’ve always been curious.
Um, also I’m learning more and more about. You know, the impact of high blood sugar on your system and stuff. And so I’ve definitely been curious about how, uh, how my blood sugar is and the constant glucose monitoring sounds pretty sweet.
Andrew: It’s amazing that it’s constant. I want to know. I want to know how the food I eat impacts my energy level. I have been operating under the assumption that having a lot of carbs is good for me because I’m constantly wound up and I believe the carbs are doing it. What I’m understanding though, is that maybe I need constant carbs because I get my energy bump and then I go down and energy and then I go for another energy bump and then I go down.
So they sent me this. It, I had my wife put it in my arm and I thought at first, Oh, this is gonna be painful. You could see me in the video where I, where I put it into my arm squirming. And then she puts it in and go. That was nothing. And it’s, it’s, I’m such a baby around these things. I can’t look at it. I procrastinated for days because I was afraid to have anything touch my blood.
And then, uh, and then she did it. And it was such a nothing. And throughout the first week I got so fascinated by when my blood sugar levels going up. And when it goes down, the only thing that I recognized at first was. You could see a bump when I eat. And I don’t realize when I snack when I’m at home. So seeing it on a chart helped me realize Andrew you’re snacking a lot.
When you walk into the kitchen to get tea, you’re also grabbing a Cracker. You’re also grabbing a, this and that. And that was interesting. And then a few people went on Twitter and they started posting all of their, um, all their realizations about what food is impacting them. Right.
Li: of those, yeah, super interesting.
Andrew: Specifically, they’re saying, I realize I should not be eating this food.
It’s affecting me poorly. And I looked at the screenshot and I go, I don’t see that. And then it occurred to me. I’m not using the levels app I’m using this stupid. I shouldn’t say, I think it’s stupid. The stupid app that whatever medical company created this, this glucose monitor, it created. I needed to get, once I got their app, now it’s opening up whole world of, of, of utility before all I would see as a chart showing when my blood sugar level would spike.
Now, when I eat, I can take a picture of my food and then directly correlate the blood sugar bump with my food. And now I see how people are getting all that. Right. I could see why you’re on the wait list. It’s
Li: on the wait list.
Andrew: it’s the most dramatic change that I’ve seen. I have no interest in the blood oxygen thing that the Apple watch is adding.
It’s not that interesting, but, um, mostly because I see the people saying, people are saying that it’s not helping them. Um, but this, I want to know. I feel like what’s the point of cutting back on food. If, if I’m cutting back on the wrong food. I could talk about this far. All right. Let me just say, I gotta talk to him about this.
But one realization that I had was I beat myself up for eating peanuts a lot, but I have no issue eating a bagel. I looked at what happened after I ate the bagel this morning, it went up the peanuts and I had, because I was anxious today. I had a whole bowl of peanuts. It didn’t do anything. So I want to
Li: Oh for your blood sugar. That’s
Andrew: my blood sugar.
So is that, why is that awesome even, I don’t understand.
Li: Yeah, that’s super interesting. I mean, my, uh, Michael, founder’s really into Quito and fasting and I’m kind of into fasting too. So all of this stuff is super interesting. Um, also growing up, our growing up as a proper Asian boy, we were learned, I was taught that all you’re supposed to eat is carbs, you know, so
Andrew: I thought Carver fine. I mean, I thought carbs were fine because I’m a runner. I want the Atmel
Li: carbo-loading right.
Andrew: I can’t wait for that interview. Um, let’s, let’s continue then with your story, you, you started getting more and more customers by reaching out to them. One of the challenges that I imagined, and it seems like it has been for you is that you don’t get any recurring revenue.
Right. You constantly have to go out and hunt for another author who has another book and you don’t get any continued relationship with them.
Li: Yeah. That has been a challenge. Um, So one of the challenges that we had over the course of pic Fu was trying to determine the revenue model and the pricing model. Um, there was a time in which we really tried to make this thing assess because SAS is cool. SAS is sexy, right? Like recurring revenue sounds awesome.
Um, so there was a period where we tried to shoehorn more of a recurring revenue model. On to our service where people are coming in and purchasing poles, piecemeal, um, it was fine, but it wasn’t great. And the amount of customer service sort of issues that we had to deal with spiked dramatically when we try to, when we try to do that pricing change and when we try to like push them, uh,
Andrew: what I, I can imagine what you’re doing. You’re saying, listen, pay us. You’ll get a certain number of credits every month. Use those credits to get those panelists that you need. And this way you don’t have to worry. When you have a question, do I go and pay for it or not? It’s just money is no longer an issue.
Just go and ask your question, get your feedback. Constant. Constantly improve. Why did that lead to customer service issues? Why did that lead to problems?
Li: because the, we do have a lot of customers who are repeat users, but the cadence at which they repeat is not necessarily monthly, right. Pick Fu is great for when you’re working on a project and you, there are certain times when you’re working on a project where, um, Prelaunch unbiased feedback would help you a lot.
But once you get that feedback, you’re going to go and iterate. You’re going to go and work on other things. And then maybe you come back later months later, and now you’re ready for the next round of feedback, your next round of iteration. So a monthly subscription doesn’t quite fit with that usage model.
So we had a lot of people who had come on, run a bunch of polls, subscribe. Wait a couple of months, come back and say, Hey, I have a recurring charge on my, on my credit card. What’s going on? And we can go back and look at those emails. And we were even corresponding with them over email. They were saying, Oh, this is awesome.
This is amazing. And now five months later, they’re, they’re saying, Hey, you get this charge off my credit card. I don’t recognize it. So we didn’t want any of that.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s so painful. I really envy people who have easy SAS models, you know, where it’s, it’s built into the business. If they cancel their membership. Some part of the business breaks and never going to cancel, and it’s really hard to not have that. So how did you, how did you deal with not having recurring revenue?
What do you do to bring people back when they’re ready for it?
Li: so it’s really about what we realize is that it’s really about customer education and just showing them more ways in which pig Fu can benefit their business.
Andrew: You know what that was the issue, right? From the first, uh, the first time you posted a hacker news, one of it, I think it was several people said, give me more examples, tell me what I could do with this. I see this as interesting, but what do I do, right.
Li: Yeah. And so the tricky part with servicing multiple verticals and different kinds of customer segments is really building out those examples and use cases in sort of education for different kinds of segments. So recently we’ve been focused a lot on e-commerce we’re trying to build out more use cases, more simple templates, all of that stuff, but yeah, we have a long way to go.
To build out our library of content for app developers, for authors, for people in the startup space. Right? I mean, we have, we don’t market to startups, even though we were S we ourselves are a startup and we use it ourselves. And there are a lot of other startups who use it. They use it for everything, but it’s more about them figuring it out for themselves, how they’re used, how to use it versus us educating.
And that’s a problem that we need to solve.
Andrew: I could imagine that if somebody has, who has ongoing needs, I could imagine somebody doing e-commerce that maybe they do have ongoing needs every time they want to post a picture. They want to know which photo should be my main and which of these four are less interesting. Do you understand what the product is from this photo?
That type of thing. Are they good customers ongoing?
Li: Oh, absolutely. Um, yeah, we have some really, really large Amazon, uh, customers where they’re using three or four polls for every single listing that they have.
Li: There are Amazon roll-up companies that are buying up the mom and pops, uh, the mom and pop Amazon sellers and take. Yeah. And taking, um, taking what is already a decently performing process, but now they have the re design resources and they’re going in for every product they buy.
They run a whole bunch of pig, food tests to validate their rebranding, their product packaging, you know, all their logos, all that new stuff. They do a redesign. And then that same listing now makes them an extra $2 million a year.
Andrew: Right. And I remember Gabriel Weinberg talked to me about you guys for duck. Duck. Go, let me see. When this was 10 years ago, he told me about Pikeville for him. It was part of his marketing stack. Right that he wanted to run his ads by someone to know whether he should invest money in testing them. Do people still do that? They do, even though now it’s easy to run a bunch of ads through Facebook and then let Facebook pick the ones that are doing best. They’re still using pixel.
Li: Dr. Coastal does that.
Andrew: Dr. Still does.
Li: And, and, um, yeah, we have a lot of customers who do do a lot of, uh, Advertising like pretesting on pig Fu because with the written responses, I mean the speed, you get it back super fast, right? Like 50 50 responses in about 15 to 30 minutes. But it’s the written responses that explain why people are reacting to one ad or one value proposition versus another, that kind of gives you the insight into like, what are you actually putting out there, right.
Because just because you have a higher converting ad doesn’t necessarily mean, Mike. Your ad is sending the message that you’re intending, you know?
Andrew: Hard to know. What do you think this means? What do you think this is about? Yeah, that’s the other thing I think of Pikeville is a place where people could pick from a collection of options. One of the things you told me before we started is it’s actually just great for feedback. So I can show, um, a headline to somebody for one of my blog posts and then see what, and just ask them, what do you think this is about?
I can show a company description and ask them, who do you think would use it? That type of thing? I could say, go to my website, mixergy.com. Do a search for pic Fu what are the problems that you’re having as you’re finding the, the, the interview.
Li: Yeah, I think it’s better to think of pixel more as like a, uh, instant online, like instant digital focus group, more than anything else. Cause you think about, you’re getting that quick feedback about something meaningful to you.
Andrew: What are some interesting use cases that you’ve seen that are a little bit out there
Li: Online dating profile pictures.
Andrew: really? Oh, that makes sense.
Li: Yeah. People posting on Instagram trying to figure out the right photo to post, um, people choosing their baby’s names, um, or at least getting
Andrew: What would they do with the baby’s name? Ask? Which it’s not. Which one do you like? But what? What’s the question?
Li: Um, I asked when, uh, when we were expecting our first, uh, we had a couple of top contenders and I was asking, give me the worst playground bully, uh, insult you. Can
Andrew: Oh, for this name,
Li: for the
Andrew: right? Right. Did you get any good ones?
Li: Um, yeah, I don’t have the poll in front of me, but I did.
Andrew: And did you, did you decide not to have the name, not to go with the name because of the bullies
Li: Uh, no, but it, it gave me insight into what people were thinking. So, yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: I could totally see that being helpful. I would even want to know how would you shorten this name? What’s the, what’s the nickname that would come from this because you just don’t expect where people go with it.
Andrew: Yeah. Um, All right. How about business uses anything, especially helpful?
Li: Yeah, I’m testing logos, testing, business names, uh, testing your domain name. Um, we have a lot of people who test a landing page. Copy. Or send, you know, well, they’ll post up just their URL to a link to a landing page or a screenshot of it. And just ask, you know, like you said, go find something on your landing page or what do you think about this page?
What would make it more compelling to you? Um, do you get the gist of this image? Um, yeah, we’ve actually seen, we’ve seen some people test, um, TV commercials actually, which is really interesting.
Andrew: understand what it’s not, will they buy or not? Right. It’s to understand if the message is clear.
Li: Yeah, that one is more of a comparison, like let’s say you’re selling levels, which levels a commercial is actually going to be more impactful to, uh, to the viewer, right?
Andrew: it’d be interesting. I wish that it was around when I was picking Mixergy as a name. So I could say, how would you use it? I have an idea for what I would have wanted to do. What would you do?
Li: We actually use pick food to pick, pick Fu as the name. Yeah. Yeah. We had a, we had a top 20 list of names with available domains. Um, we, we, we made a short list and we put it through Pikeville.
Andrew: For me, it would be about me maybe recording the name Mixergy and asking people to type it out, to see how they would mistype it, to see if they even understand it. You know what I mean? It might even be Mixergy. Does this. What, who do you think would it would appeal to basically to see, does the name mix energy makes sense or is it confusing?
Li: That’s a really good use case. And I wish we did that for pic Fu because we have so many myths. We have so many missteps.
Andrew: I would also do it for, um, maybe my ad reads. I should run through to see do people understand what top Toptal is? Do they understand how to even write top towel? I assumed in, in the past that if I just say, go to top tile.com/mixergy, that people would know where to go. And then I started listening more carefully to my own ad read, and I realized, I don’t even know what the hell I’m saying. Top one slower, Andrew, you know what I mean? That’s why I started spelling it. It would be really helpful to know that.
Li: Um, I guess the other big one that we’ve seen with businesses, larger businesses is besides creative stuff is email templates, email templates, deadlines, um, For example, let’s say you’re sending out a marketing email or you’re trying to do some kind of announcement, like which email template is actually going to get the message across right.
Andrew: By template. You mean like which email design gets the message across,
Li: Yeah. So we have actually, we have email, we have people testing, email template designs, and then also email subject lines as well. Um,
Andrew: you know, there was a site that kind of did something like that. It was called feedback army. Do you know anything about them? Why they, why they closed it up?
Li: I have no idea. I remember hearing about them a long time ago.
Andrew: There are a handful of sites that basically did what you did. They would let people ask a question. Then they would send it out to people on mechanical Turk and then bring back a bunch of feedback. And for some reason it feels like almost all of those side projects died and maybe like you, they just moved on.
But for some reason you were able to come back and, and grab a market that other people ignored that other people walked away from.
Li: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that’s a compliment towards us. I think we just are too dumb to know when to give up. I don’t know.
Andrew: don’t know. You know what Jason freed once told me the founder of base camp. He said, Andrew, sometimes you just have to let a project sit on the side. And I think he was saying that about sort folio, his, um, Site where you can see a portfolio of web design companies and then pick the one that you want to hire. And I thought about that a lot. There are businesses where if you just let them go without overcrowding them, you start to see who naturally comes to them and who doesn’t. You know what I mean?
Li: I agree with you a hundred percent. And that’s exactly how pic Fu I think because we didn’t have high expectations Florent, we weren’t actively trying to spend a lot of money growing it at the beginning and we’d let that, we let that user base organically grow. I think that’s what has helped, um, made it sustainable
Andrew: Without forcing it without trying to make it into something. It’s not kind of reminds me of that Derek Sivers article where people kept asking, what are you going to do next? And he said, I don’t know. And then he told the story of a university that didn’t know where exactly to put the, uh, pave the foot path so that people can get around the university’s campus.
And they decided to not do it for a while. Let people walk where they naturally wanted to walk on the grass and then based on where they stomped down the grass, that’s where they would go and put a sidewalk. And I feel like that same thing happened to you with pic Fu you didn’t do much with it. And you allowed people to just naturally come to you.
And based on that, you knew who’s coming, why and where you should pave. And it turns out at first it
Li: It’s a lot more meaningful when your customers are already coming to you and then you go and turn around and try to understand sort of why they’re coming to us. And what pain points is our general purpose tool actually solving for you.
Andrew: That’s my big takeaway from your story, John, that in the simplicity of the first version, here’s my problem. I can’t just let things be. I have to, I have to force every freaking thing. I can’t just, I can’t just be, are you like that too? You don’t seem to be.
Li: Uh, sometimes we, we spin our wheels a lot. Yeah. We have a lot of ideas.
Andrew: Yeah, I guess you work on a, forcing it with the whole SAS version where people were paying monthly, just kept trying and trying and trying, and sometimes you can’t force it in there. Alright. I was going to tell people that the website is pic Fu P I C K F u.com. People should go there and check it out.
But, um, I suggested that you have some URL for people. So you get a sense of, of how, whether the startup community would be a good fit for you. I want to be clear with my audience. I’m not taking an affiliate commission, but, um, but I, I would like for you to see if talking to entrepreneurs is a good market for you to pursue or with pick Fu so what’s the URL and why should people go there?
Li: Yeah, I appreciate that. You even brought that up, Andrew. Um, so you can go to pick food.com/mixergy. So P I C K F u.com/mixergy. Um, and that auto apply a coupon for 50% off your first poll. Um, so the, our polls are 50 bucks for 50 people. 25 bucks.
Andrew: 25 bucks, while anyone, whenever anyone has a question about what image they should put on their site, how clear their messaging is, whatever it is, bring it over, try it out. Alright. I think you should make it available for a limited time, but I don’t want to, I don’t want you to have to create an auto delete thing.
Why don’t you just, at some point, whenever you get fed up with it, go and cancel it. Right?
Li: Okay. So if you hear this, you should go try it out. Now, if it’s not working, email me, you know,
Andrew: I was gonna say, if it’s not working, just move on. I want to give people an incentive, some time pressure, but I could see
Li: All right. Let’s do two months. I’m
Andrew: two months.
Li: The two months,
Andrew: Pick food.com/mixergy. Go try it out now, everyone. And I want to thanks to sponsors who made this interview happen? The first I should say their name very slowly.
It’s top isn’t top of your head towels and talents. So it’s top towel.com/mixergy. And the second is the company that hosts my website, hostgator.com/mixergy. Thank you, John. Bye everyone.