Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy and a jerk. And it’s actually pretty good that I’m a jerk as the guy who runs Mixergy because I have to be selective about who I have on and I have to be selective about what we talk about, but in this context, I was a jerk to today’s guest years ago.
About six years ago–you’re kind of surprised–Clark, here’s what happened. About six years ago, you came on to do an interview with me, and you were really excited about this company that you had. It was called Ranker, Ranker.com and you had every reason to be excited about it. You just launched it, but I didn’t want to talk to you about it. What I wanted to talk about was this company I knew about that you built, that you sold, that you grew into this huge success. It was called eCrush.
Now, you’d already moved past it, but I felt like all I want to do on Mixergy is talk about people who built successful companies and dissect how they did it. So I spent a little bit of time on your new project, but mostly I talked about eCrush. I even talked to you about your own record company, the record store that you had, which if I remember right, even was in Rolling Stone. So we talked about how you built that up.
Well, in the years since then, Ranker has just shot up, shot up dramatically in traffic, and now I’m coming hat in hand to Clark Benson saying, “Dude, what happened to Ranker?” because I have a lot of researching skills here, a lot of tools for doing research. I still can’t fully figure out how Ranker shot up in traffic as much as it did. I can’t even figure out exactly where the revenues are coming from. So I want to do this interview to figure out how that happened, how he built it up, what all of us can learn about growing traffic from him, where the revenue is coming from and how he’s built up the company.
So Clark Benson is here with his second Mixergy interview. His company is called Ranker. You can see it at Ranker.com. It’s crowdsource ranking for everything on the planet. So, for example, if you want to know who the best actors who never won an Oscar are, that’s a great site to go and not just see them, but also vote on who you think should be at the top of that list. Best rock bands of all times, hottest celebrities of all time, that’s the kind of stuff and so much more you can find on the site.
This interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first will help you solve what Clark told me is probably the biggest problem of any entrepreneur, which is hiring and specifically hiring developers. That company is called Toptal. I’ll tell you about them later. The second company will help you organize your finances right as a business. It’s called Bench. I’ll tell you about them both later. First, Clark, welcome.
Clark: Thanks. Okay. So now I understand the context of how you described yourself as a jerk, and I would say you’re somewhat right in that everybody who’s out there pitching, which is something that I had not had a ton of experience with in my prior internet capacity, entrepreneurial internet capacity, we want to be pitching what we’re doing and we want to be hyping and selling. I will also say, though, I completely understood why you were being a jerk because as an entrepreneur I’m far more interested in people’s true paths to entrepreneurship and the growth and probably most importantly the paths and decision making in growing their companies, right?
Clark: You focused a lot on that. As a fan of the show, I couldn’t complain.
Andrew: Well, thank you. As I said, traffic really jumped up. What are your numbers now, your monthly uniques?
Clark: So we really, really had huge growth in the last 45 days. So, knock on wood, hopefully these are the new norms, but we actually did 27 million US unique visitors in November. We did 36 million worldwide. Revenues have also grown into the eight-figure range.
Andrew: What are the revenues?
Clark: Well, I’m not going to disclose the exact revenues, but they’re healthy eight-figure range.
Andrew: When you say “healthy,” does that mean like more than $10 million or more than $11 million? You’re saying significantly more than that low figure.
Clark: Yeah, exactly.
Clark: And to be clear, what’s exciting about that is that last year, in calendar year 2015–I’m trying to think what year it is, yes, we’re in 2016–they were $6 million. So we had some real, real heavy growth.
Andrew: From $6 million to a jump of eight-figures, of over $10 million?
Andrew: And are you guys profitable?
Clark: Yes, we crossed profitability around April this year, and we’ve sustained and grown net income solidly month over month all year, which is just a great situation to be in because we don’t have to raise more money. We have control.
Andrew: Which is good because, as you told me before this interview started, you had a lot of trouble raising money when you had this idea. I partially get that. I understood the value of Ranker. But I also saw it as just a listicle company. When you had a vision for it, you saw so much more than I saw when I went to the site and so much more, frankly, I’ll be honest with you, than I see today when I go to the site. What was the original vision for Ranker?
Clark: Well, remind me to circle back to what you see today because I think that’s an interesting topic.
Andrew: You mean like what’s here that I’m not noticing?
Clark: Yeah. It applies not just to Ranker but to almost every site on the web these days. But the original vision for Ranker was always the fact that I love lists. I’m a total list nerd. I’ve consumed information in list format for my entire life in a rabid kind of way, and I make lists all the time, but I always thought that on the internet, there are lists everywhere, but it’s usually like one editor’s opinion or one site’s definitive opinion and the three people that run the blog put together.
I don’t believe in that. I believe more in the wisdom of crowds. It’s not like those are not interesting things to read if the person is well informed, but if I’m trying to figure out what are the best current TV shows, that’s an area that I can always use a recommendation in because if you invest time in a new show, you’re talking about 20 hours of your life, you want to make a good pick in what to watch next.
Andrew: Yeah. I don’t fall for the next “Lost,” which was a horrible show for me to invest time in.
Clark: Yeah. Like if you get suck into a “Lost,” you watch 10 episodes and you get sick of it. It’s like, “There goes a big chunk of my life I could have spent on something else.” So Ranker is really useful for recommendations on things like that is because why it’s useful is because on our best current TV shows, there are 5,000 people that have voted on this list.
You can filter the list by demographics in many cases and see what do people in my age range, my gender, my country like versus just sort of one editor’s opinion. I generally believe that the wisdom of crowds is a better way to package opinion and determine proper sentiment than one person’s opinions being magnified.
Andrew: Was there also this sense that other people of course like lists, but if you let people vote on lists, they might get their friends to come in and vote because they want their top pick to jump up a little bit. They might have an interest in creating a list and then promoting it to have people vote on it so they get feedback on it. Is that it too, that it has some virality built into it?
Clark: That’s true. But that actually plays–maybe it would be better to circle back to that a little bit. There’s truth to that, but there’s not mega-truth to that, if that makes sense.
Andrew: What do you mean? Was that part of the thought and then it turns out it didn’t actually hold up?
Clark: Let me try to contextualize it by sort of explaining a little bit of the traffic growth of Ranker. So we launched the site in 2009, and initially, the economy had collapsed. I had put some of my own money into the business because I had a prior exit, and I ended up putting in a lot more money than I had planned on because trying to raise money at the end of 2009 was like a non-starter and then 2010 was a really rough time too. I kind of quickly said, “Okay, I’ve got to get up to a million monthly visitors before anybody’s going to pay attention to this.”
That took a little more time than I had hoped, because I didn’t have a big enough team and big enough resources to really scale it quickly. I learned SEO kind of cold. I had to. Every night I would spend three hours after running the team and working on building the product, learning how to get search traffic. Over time that worked.
So for the first probably three or four years of Ranker’s growth, as most websites do, you develop a community and an audience yourself, but the sort of dirty secret of the internet is unless you’re like a social network, probably no more than 15% to 20% of your traffic comes from like a true community. You need distribution, right? So, for us, it was search optimization. We grew year over year, 30% to 40% traffic year over year based on search growth mostly. We didn’t know how to do viral traffic. We really kind of sucked at it for a long time.
Andrew: I’m surprised because you’re the guy who had viral experience. eCrush was one of the most viral things you could imagine, right? If someone sends me an email saying they have a crush on me, of course I’m going to go see what it is. Did you try it at first and it didn’t work out for you?
Clark: So it’s the perfect case of–you’re absolutely right that I had this really early web viral experience. What I didn’t understand personally is I wasn’t a heavy Facebook user. I still am not. I just am running a business. I’ve got young kids. I don’t have time to really follow all this stuff on Facebook the way that my wife and most other people do. So I had this blind spot and I assumed–so, you made the case at the beginning here that like a list is something that you can share. You make your own version of a list or you share a list. It absolutely is a strong one-to-one sharing platform.
What I didn’t understand was that the true virality on the web, once Facebook sort of started ascending to–I don’t know if you or your viewers know this, but Facebook now drives literally about 40% of the traffic to publishers on the web.
Andrew: I didn’t realize that.
Clark: As recently as 2012, that number was like 10%.
Andrew: And you know what? The thing was when you were starting, it was bloggers that seemed to be the traffic drivers and what you did in the beginning to help them spread the list was you allowed them to embed it. You said, “If you create a list, you can embed it on your site.” So TechCrunch maybe could have created a list of the top new startups of the year, and everyone could have voted and that gave incentive to TechCrunch for promoting it and everyone who voted was then exposed to this list.
That I sensed was part of the reason for doing this list business. That didn’t work out the way we thought it would because bloggers lost their power and social media users gained power, and you’re saying you weren’t an expert in that and it took you by surprise. Search you were good at or at least you recognize it as far back as 2010.
The reason I know is Tony Adams is the guy who introduced us. He’s a guy who did search for Yahoo. Yahoo had properties. They wanted traffic from Google, and they hired Tony to do SEO on their stuff so they could get Google traffic and you brought him in as a consultant and he helped you out, right?
Clark: Yeah. Tony helped lay some of the really early groundwork and gave me sort of the base of education that I would literally spend hours a night reading SEO.
Andrew: Where? Where would you go study how to do search engine optimization on Ranker?
Clark: I would read every possible SEO blog out there, and god knows there are a lot of them. Search engine people love to blog. There are so many technical aspects–and I’m not like an engineer, so it took me a little more time to learn the technical aspects of it. But really, I’d spend half my time reading up and learning things, and I’d spend the other half of my time analyzing.
The thing about Ranker is that we are sort of a long and mid-tail site in a lot of ways, especially back in those days, where we have 150,000 different lists and rankings about things. So you may find many of them are getting 50 visits a day or something like that. But they’re getting 50 visits a day every day. So you have to do sort of a lot of spreadsheet and data analysis and cohort-level analysis to figure out what’s really working and what’s not working, and it’s just detail oriented.
Andrew: You used to do it on a spreadsheet, just check to see what you changed last week and did it impact numbers this week. What was one of the early wins you personally discovered by spending three hours a night studying all these SEO blogs?
Clark: I learned a lot about sort of like you’d read the SEO blogs and then you’d sort of do some iterative testing. The problem with doing SEO testing is you don’t see the results right away. You literally have to wait between one and six months to see the fruit of your labors. But I did find that I could learn–Google used to give us–and what Google giveth, they can taketh away. And Google used to give webmasters, people that run websites, lists of all the keywords coming into their pages.
Clark: So I would look very closely at those, and I would change title tags, for example, which are probably still to this day the single most important on-page element in ranking for something. I remember one time I took an entire code, I think it was movies by genre, which we had 500 different list–best romantic comedies, sure, but we have–there is a movie genre that is called Nunsploitation, okay? So people get really granular.
Clark: I don’t know.
Andrew: Like nuns living up to bad stereotypes.
Clark: I was surprised there were even 15 movies about nuns. When it comes to lists of things, you will find there is a genre and a niche in the film industry world for almost everything. So you’d have to kind of say, “Okay, I’m going to make this change across all 500 of these pages and do it scalabley,” and then wait for that month or so and then start to see the patterns. That kind of change, it was like once that happened, great, roll it out to 100,000 more pages.
Andrew: I see.
Clark: And then you saw a month later from that a huge level up in overall traffic.
Andrew: What about revenue? Where did you think the revenue would come from?
Clark: So we’ve always kind of assumed that Ranker would be an ad-driven platform. But I also made sure that some of the lists on Ranker are of products and of brands, like if you Google–I think we still rank for even things that are somewhat mundane, like best brake pad brands because if you’re in the store and you don’t know much about brake pads, you don’t really want to read reviews about all that, you just want a quick, “Is this a good brand?”
Andrew: Which is part of the attraction of Wirecutter, that I can just go to Wirecutter and get a list of like the best of whatever, like the best projector for my computer and I just buy that best projector. I see it. How would that be sponsored? Sponsored by who, by the brake pad companies or by one of the resellers?
Clark: Well, one of the things you quickly learn when you’ve got a company like Ranker where you’re not about one vertical, you’re a really broad–we will rank anything that is rankable.
I would actually say that for the first half of Ranker’s existence, there were many times that I sort of rued the fact that we were trying to be everything to everybody because the problem is you can’t sell advertising direct when you are trying to be everything to everybody because you don’t have like endemic–like, if we were just a site about auto product rankings, you can get to a relatively–you can get to a million monthly visitors and you’re very valuable to advertisers in that ecosystem.
But when you have even 10 million or more monthly visitors–let’s say we go back to 2011-2012, we got up to about 10 million visitors, but we still weren’t about any one thing. So the challenge there is that it’s still relatively hard to make good CPMs because you have to use third-party networks for your advertising unless you have sort of a distinct demographic or distinct endemic kind of advertising. It is actually still a problem for Ranker. We’ve solved it with scale.
So, when you first build something like this, you don’t always know all the answers. I didn’t come from an ad agency and an advertising background. I knew a little bit about it because eCrush made some money on banner ads and stuff. And I regretted it when we weren’t huge. Then about a year and a half ago, we really started to crest into this like level of 15 million to 20 million unique visitors and also a lot more repeat visits, which is a factor in your ad dollars.
Andrew: I see. You always said advertising is going to be a thing. You also had this idea that data would potentially be something, but you weren’t sure what. The first ads came from where? I’m guessing it was AdSense, right?
Clark: Yeah, AdSense and a couple of other ad networks like AdSense.
Andrew: Okay. And then did you have any big successes with another network?
Clark: We were using at the time, we would use Yahoo’s network. We would use a network called Tribal Fusion. I think they’re still around.
Andrew: I remember them.
Clark: Yeah. So it’s interesting, because circa 2010-2011, this is sort of pre-programmatic advertising becoming the big thing. So we didn’t really have enough scale in those times where the advertising was paying the bills. But I also didn’t want to be one of those startups where you didn’t run any ads. I believe Quora to this day still might not run advertising.
Andrew: I think you’re right, actually. I didn’t think of that.
Clark: If you’ve raised like $100 million and you’re trying to build this massive endgame, you can kind of get away with that.
Andrew: Why did you think that you needed to have advertising even if it wasn’t going to contribute meaningfully to the bottom line?
Clark: I guess I’m sort of a Midwesterner, and I don’t have that sort of Silicon Valley like, “It’s $1 billion or it’s nothing,” kind of mentality. I feel like if you can’t run a business with your business model in the early stages, then you’re kind of selling a story that may be a lie in the long run and I’m not very good at hiding.
Andrew: I see. Let me take a moment here to talk about that company that you and I were discussing before the interview started. Can you see this on your screen? I don’t know if anyone else is going to be able to see it, but can you see that?
Clark: I can certainly see it.
Andrew: It’s a photo of a guy named Derek Johnson and a bottle of whiskey that he brought over here to the office yesterday. He happened to be in town. He’s a guy who had been on Mixergy before. And he also is a listener of mine. He heard me talk for a while about a company called Toptal for hiring developers and he was going through this process of talking to and interviewing 20 to 30 developers, constantly trying to find the right one. It didn’t work out. He said, “Let me try Toptal because Andrew is talking about them all the time.”
Toptal introduced them to two people. Either one of them would have been great. They picked the one they felt best with. He and his CTO just went with that person. His CTO eventually said, “This new developer we hired from Toptal is probably as good as the CTO himself.” And I’ve been telling people that in my ads for a while and that’s partially why he came over and brought this nice bottle of whiskey to the office. It’s a rye that I loved.
But yesterday he told me, “You know what, Andrew? I’ve actually hired six other people from Toptal because our business has just grown so much.” And I realized, “I should bring that up in the interview.” We’re not just talking about one lucky hit. We’re talking about a guy who had a good result from Toptal who keeps going back to them when he needs developers. The reason for that is–do you know Toptal, by the way, Clark?
Clark: I’m not familiar with them, no.
Andrew: Perfect. I get to introduce you to them. Here’s the thing about Toptal. They realize that the difference between the best developers and the ones who are just like half as good is dramatic, dramatic. The whole company changes if you get that.
So what they said was let’s get the people who are qualified to work for Google, who are qualified to work for Facebook but they happen not to want to be on Google and Facebook’s campus. They want to stay in Eastern Europe or maybe they can’t even make it to the US. They want to have some flexibility in where they work.
So they said, “Let’s get them in our network and when a guy like Derek needs a new developer for Tatango, his company, he can call us up. We’ll go to our network. We’ll do the screening and make sure they’re the best. We’ll make sure that we understand what Derek’s business is like and then we’ll match them up and Derek can often hire,” or anyone who’s listening to, “Can hire from Toptal and get started within a day or two.”
And that’s the whole idea. And you can hire them full-time, part-time, on a project basis, have a team of people all at once or hire just an individual. It’s that kind of flexibility that they offer.
Clark: I love it and I’ll say that from personal experience of years of not being an engineer and working with many, many different engineers over time, that old adage that you can have literally a 10x difference in output from one engineer to another is definitely true.
Andrew: Why do you think that is, by the way?
Clark: I think it’s because code is still like if you’re writing code and you’re doing something new, you’re breaking new ground. There is still no right way to do it. You’re literally iteratively typing things in, testing them and trying to do it as efficiently as possible and there’s sort of like I don’t know because I’m not an engineer what exactly this is, but there’s sort of just like a magic knack that certain engineers have for writing very efficient code that somebody else may be able to do the same thing but they may do it in three times as many lines of code and then once that’s in your system, if you ever need to change that, it’s living hell.
Clark: That’s sort of what seems to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Andrew: Well, if anyone out there is listening and wants to get a great developer, go to Toptal.com/Mixergy because when you go there, these are guys who are long-time Mixergy fans from the early days like you, Clark. I think they might have heard even your interview. That’s how far back they go. So, they said, “You know what? This is the only ad we’re doing right now, the only podcast anyway that’s working for us. We want to give the Mixergy audience a reason to go a special URL so they can tag themselves as Mixergy people.”
So here’s what they’re offering–80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours and that’s in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks. So, if you want that, go to Toptal–that’s top as in top of mountain, tal as in talent–Toptal.com/Mixergy and you’ll get that and I’m grateful to them for supporting it. Derek said that when he signed up with Toptal, after he signed up, he said, “By the way, make sure you give Andrew credit for doing this because I heard it on Mixergy,” and I really appreciate that.
Clark: And let’s be clear, Andrew, you’re grateful for the whiskey.
Andrew: You know what? I don’t know how he got it. Dude, this whiskey is one I talked about. Are you a whiskey drinker?
Clark: I’m a whiskey drinker, though not a rye drinker.
Andrew: I wasn’t either. This one got me into rye. Let me bring it over here. Leopold Brothers–we still have some from last night. We didn’t drink that much. There were like five of us. Just really good, but it was hard to find. I talked about it in interviews in the past and he just went to the concierge at his hotel here and said, “Is there a place to get Leopold Brothers?” The concierge found a place and he brought this hard to find whiskey over.
Clark: And clearly he was doing his diligence. He was noting that from your old interview.
Andrew: Isn’t that incredible?
Andrew: All right. So SEO is starting to work for you. Advertising, you were building up your experience with it, and you were building up the revenue with it. You went out for funding at what year?
Clark: So we’ve raised a total of $7.5 million to date. I have the initial seed investment as actually me.
Andrew: How much was it? I thought it was $100,000, but I could be wrong.
Clark: No. It was well over $1 million at the end of the day.
Clark: I did have a prior internet exit, so at the time, it was like, “I can do this.” But then of course the economic crash happened and all the money that we all had in our bank accounts at that time, if we had them in the stock market, it went down a little bit.
Andrew: Did you have it in the market in a diverse collection of stocks or in the company that you sold to? You did, diverse?
Clark: Diverse. But you know, everybody’s portfolio got cut in half in that rough time, right?
Andrew: So your portfolio got cut in half or got hammered. At the same time, you couldn’t get funding for your company and you needed to reinvest in the business to keep it growing.
Clark: Yeah. I’ll even say this. I’ve said this before in another interview or two. But I also made some crucial hiring mistakes. I should have used those guys.
Andrew: Why? What mistakes did you make?
Clark: I didn’t–when I sold my prior company, I couldn’t take the team with me. I was restricted by the covenants of the deal. I didn’t have an LA-based team. So I just kind of had to start from scratch. I made a few key engineering hiring mistakes that really cost precious time and money. I basically could have taken $300,000 and had the same outcome if I lit it on fire.
Andrew: Because of the bed engineers?
Clark: Yeah because if you do things wrong in the beginning, you then have to kind of rip it out and start over, right?
Andrew: You literally had to take the code out and start fresh?
Clark: Yeah. I probably should stop talking about this given some people that might be watching.
Andrew: Because it’s too painful?
Clark: Yes and I don’t want to. . .
Andrew: What did you learn about hiring then?
Clark: Probably the more important thing I learned, and this is kind of a joint thing–when I had my prior startup, my company was actually in Chicago and I was in LA–long story, we won’t go into it because probably talked about it last time. But I didn’t have a big network in LA because I was kind of doing things virtually and I didn’t go out and meet a lot of other startup entrepreneurs. That changed with this business.
Honestly, I don’t know if Ranker would have survived if I hadn’t taken it to have more of a network in this town. Probably the single-most valuable thing of the network is all towns have sort of tight tech communities. You can vet hires pretty quickly by just kind of canvassing your network and going, “Okay, I interviewed this guy. I really like him. But I see that you actually worked with him before or this person you know worked with him.”
There’s sort of a code, like a samurai code that startup founders have where we’re not going to tell another founder the wrong thing about a hire because we all know how painful it is to hire the wrong person.
Andrew: If we kind of know them a little bit–but we were talking over scotch the other night that if anyone calls us up and says, “What do you think about this person who worked for you?” there’s no benefit for us in putting that person down if there’s a stranger who calls us up. There’s got to be some connection, so we can signal.
Clark: Absolutely. That’s why the network helps. Maybe I just hung out with somebody for 20 minutes at a cocktail party, but that’s still a network, right? That’s still a personal connection and boom, then you’re going to get an honest answer versus kind of a cold rote, “Yes, they worked with us for three years and their title was this.”
Clark: That helped immensely and I didn’t have that when I was initially hiring and I really did make some bad decisions.
Andrew: Okay. So then at what point were you able to raise money?
Clark: So we raised money–I mentioned it that I made the decision to get up to $1 million unique visitors. So we launched the site in September of 2009. I think it took up to about a year to get up to a million unique visitors.
Andrew: A month?
Clark: That was sort of fall of 2010. That’s when we started going out to investors. We raised about $500k more in angel money at that time and then we raised a larger round about six months later. It was $1.5 million from our first sort of venture investors.
Andrew: So, before we started, you were saying that the way you presented your vision was what kept you from being able to raise money at first because of this whole data thing. What was it and what happened?
Clark: So there are sort of two factors. One of them is I’ll get to that in one second. But the biggest problem I think I had and I think this is important for everybody to hear who’s an entrepreneur is I made the assumption–so in our last interview, we talked about multiple companies that I had built, I had never actually had a company fail.
I’m kind of one of those guys who just gets in and I will do whatever it takes to make it and I hope that my ideas are good enough to not be the killer. If you’ve got a bad idea, there’s nothing you can do. I assumed that track record would lead to just like no problem, here’s more money. I think if it wasn’t for the economic clash, I could have probably raised relatively quickly in that early timeframe, but then after the crash everybody got more tight for a while.
So I’m trying to raise money when the economy is still not in a boom zone. I found that I can get meetings easily based on my track record but it didn’t matter from the point of view of like should we invest in this or not, it really didn’t make that much of a difference. They still had to be sold strongly on the vision, on the metrics and on the sizzle. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I’m still not the king of sizzle. So, I definitely–I’m not the king of making PowerPoint decks either and I didn’t have any help to help me in those things at the time because I was–
Andrew: You seem too practical for that, like too practical to waste your time on PowerPoint when you can thinking about how to tweak your site to get more traffic or to make it flow better.
Clark: That is so full on. To this day, I’m still not the best at branding and hyping Ranker because there’s always knobs I can be turning and things I can be doing and people I can be managing more to achieve those goals, and I tend to be one who believes more in results than in hype. To go to your other question, so what happened was we raised that money and we got the company up to a certain point. I think we built it up to probably 8 million to 10 million unique visitors and decent revenue. We were making a few million a year. The company wasn’t break even, but it wasn’t hemorrhaging cash.
So we decided okay, at that point maybe we had 12, 13 employees and we decided we’ve really got to go big. Let’s raise that $5 million round and take this thing to the next level. Ranker collects a ton of really interesting data from people voting on all these topics, like we collect–we had over 10 million granular, nuanced votes a month on all these things and that data is really interesting. We can tell you with more precision that probably anybody on the planet fans of this TV show also like this other 400 TV shows with these exact degrees of correlation and indexing and all that.
Andrew: I see. Then you thought, “I can take this to networks and say, “If you’re trying to advertise for new viewers of your shows, here are the shows whose fans you want to target,” and you didn’t know at the time when you were raising money exactly how that would work out. You just had a hunch this is going to work.
Clark: Exactly. I also would see, I’d read TechCrunch and I would see, “This place got a pile of funding because of a similar kind of hunch-based thing without an exact idea of. . .”
Andrew: But they weren’t buying that from you? Why do you think investors would give it to those companies that you read about on TechCrunch but not give you a shot with this idea?
Clark: I think there’s probably three reasons that are sort of all interrelated. One is geography is crucially important. It shouldn’t be as important, it isn’t quite as important now as it was even three or four years ago, but you’ve got different investors in different parts of the country who think differently and the investors in LA, first of all, there’s not a huge–there actually are very few venture funds in LA unfortunately. There’s a decent amount of angel and seed investors and that’s good and that helps get you started.
So I had to go up to Silicon Valley to make those pitches, go up to Sand Hill Road and try to raise that $5 million to $10 million round, and I didn’t have a network there. I didn’t have that personal tie up there that I think does, in many cases, make all the difference between–people talk about like if you were in Y Combinator, there’s a very good chance you’re going to have of just getting investment.
It could be just because you spent 10 minutes talking to somebody else who said, “I like this guy and I’ve got a lot of money to deploy and boom.” It’s odd how Wild West the thinking behind venture funding still is to some degree because it’s just so hunch-based and so personality based. So I think geography and connections are two.
And then the third thing is simply I am just not good at pitching. I must have heard–I was counting this for a while and I lost track when it got to about ten. I can’t tell you how many people have said to my face, “I think you’ve got a great business. I think you’ve got a nine-figure company but I don’t think this is a billion-dollar company.” I have a hard time–what, nine-figure exit isn’t good for you? Like, I have a hard time responding to that.
Andrew: What could you have done differently?
Clark: I’ve done differently but also there are very few billion-dollar companies.
Andrew: Right. But what could you–all this makes sense. With that, what could you have done differently? What could someone who’s listening who’s in the same situation, who doesn’t have the same network, who ends up going as a stranger to Sand Hill Road, not even sure which doors to knock on, what could they do? What would you do differently?
Clark: If I had to roll back the clock, what I would have done is I wouldn’t have tried to pitch the speculative side of our business, the side that I would compare myself to a TechCrunch article and not knowing all the reasons why that person raised money versus me. I would have just focused more on the business we had, which was growing nicely. I probably would have tried to raise a small round, which we ended up doing.
Everything worked out in the end. We did raise a few million more at that time. We raised enough to get the business to where it is now, which has been solidly profitable and growing nicely. It’s just that I wasted–when you’re in a hardcore pitch mode, it’s a couple hundred hours of your life that you’re not spending growing the business, hiring, running the business. If I could roll it back, I’d love to have that couple hundred hours back.
Andrew: I had a friend who came out of P&G, raised $8 million, bang, right from the start. I asked him how he did it. He told me things like he had his pitch down so perfectly that he knew what joke he was going to tell, at what point based on what someone said and the other person on his team who was in the room knew this is the point where we laugh to get everyone else to laugh. It’s like this choreographed presentation is what he did fantastically well. That’s not you.
Clark: That’s not me. You’re right. That’s another big factor in what I didn’t do right. I would tell everybody if you’re looking to raise like from Silicon Valley-type investors or really anybody, it is absolutely worth what I consider drudgery of rehearsing a pitch. Very smart–find humor moments. Have all that stuff in there because it really does make the difference. What you have to understand is you’re going up against people who listen to 100 pitches a month
Clark: So, they’re already half dialed out. No matter what you’re doing, you’ve got to engage them and grab them fast. If there was one thing–two things that I wish I would have done before starting this company–one would have been take a really strong PowerPoint course because I’m like a self-taught guy, and learn how to pitch. Two would have been take a really strong Excel course because to this day, I’m still analyzing big spreadsheets but I never feel like I have the time to know how to run pivot tables.
Andrew: You know what, Clark, this is not part of the ad, but Toptal just bought a whole company that does nothing but stuff like this. They put together PowerPoint slides for executives and entrepreneurs who are raising. They do the financials in Excel for people who just don’t want to get to that level of sophistication in it. I never talk about it in the ads because I don’t know that people even understand that they need it.
Clark: What’s that company? I’m writing this down right now.
Andrew: Toptal. But now you’ve got a team. Now you don’t need that, do you?
Clark: There’s still always something. It’s good to have on the back burner if you need a quick pitch done.
Andrew: It is amazing how much of an impact that has.
Clark: Packaging is everything. That’s an area that I’ve never been a–
Andrew: But your site, dude–I was looking before we started. My whole browser crashed, so I’m not going to reopen it. But I was looking at earlier screenshots that I took of what your site used to look like. It looks really nice now. It’s totally dialed in, every element of it. How long did it take you to get it to the point where everything is thought out where you’re guiding me without pushing me?
Clark: So that’s kind of one of the real secrets to our growth is that we take data and we sort of bake it in. We spent years building this platform that has a lot of data on what people are voting on, what they’re interested in and then fans of this kind of thing also like this kind of thing. We’re using that all in these subtle ways. When you hit the site, you’re seeing things that would appeal to you and when your neighbor hits the site, they may be seeing totally different things.
Andrew: Meaning that because I looked at celebrities who wear Nike, I’m now also seeing 48 celebrities who have killed people. Oh, wow. 48 celebrities killed people?
Clark: Wearing Nike. No. Just kidding, Nike.
Andrew: It’s not connected, but it’s interesting.
Clark: Yeah. All of that stuff is going into machine learning that takes a long time to build the backbone for, but if you build it right, once you sort of hit that inflection point, it really scales and that’s what’s been sort of driving out–
Andrew: What about this–I notice that sometimes I see a list that’s fully expanded and other times I have to scroll to get the next item on the list. Is that based on my viewing habits too?
Clark: That’s based on a combination of your viewing habits but also frankly we use data in advertising yield. So Ranker, we have chosen a path of growth on the traffic side versus necessarily like having–we are literally just now hiring–we’ve just hired in a branded content team to take Ranker’s branded content to the agency world. So we’re kind of using third-party advertising very effectively and very profitably, but it’s still a lower CPM than you get if you’re out there selling it yourselves.
We built this backbone that kind of scales based on that and one of the things that it will do is in the world of programmatic advertising, viewability is one of the key metrics and you can literally make like a 5x difference–the publisher can make a 5x difference in a given ad shown to somebody depending on how well it’s actually viewed as they scroll down the screen.
Andrew: When you say how well, you mean the position on the page?
Clark: Yeah. There’s tracking in an ad now, pixels that are firing in that are telling that end advertiser that this was viewed for x-seconds and fully viewed versus only I looked at–
Andrew: How can they tell if I viewed the ad or not?
Clark: All kinds of crazy stuff is being tracked for you on the internet. They’re looking at what your browser is showing. They can’t necessarily see your eyeball moving, but they can see is it in your browser screen and is it centered? If it’s on the far right, they know that it’s not–the ad tech quality of tracking what humans are doing is still imperfect, but like every year as big players in the programmatic space, we sort of see these sea changes actually taking an impact. What it does is it cleans up content. Content has to get better. There used to be all kinds of shady robot ads firing and stuff like that. You’ll still read articles about it, but I think that problem is going away quickly.
Andrew: I just learned that and I also learned that Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death in 1978 and wasn’t charged for it. Instead, apparently he was charged for drug overdose at one point? Are you a fan of Sid Vicious . . .
Hey, let’s take a moment away from the interview for me to tell you about the sponsor that I picked for this interview. I picked Bench specifically because of a phone call that I got a few minutes before the interview started. This woman called me up and she said, “Andrew, help.” I said, “What kind of help do you need?” She says, “Help, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong as an entrepreneur.” I said, “Hang on, give me some details. What’s up?”
She said, “You know, I’m making more money than I’ve ever made before and still I struggle all the time to make sure that my cash balance and make account is above zero. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” So, of course I said, “Well, what is the revenue now? What are you doing on a monthly basis?” She said, “I’m not quite sure.” I said, “What about expenses? What did you spend last month?” She said, “I’m not quite sure.”
And the reason she didn’t know for sure is what’s causing her problem. She doesn’t do her books every week, every month. She does them kind of sort of gets a big picture idea, but not the details and then around tax time, she does what a lot of entrepreneurs do, she sits down and actually tries to organize it as best as possible. That’s a horrible way to do business. First of all, it creates anxiety around tax time, but worse than that, it means through the year, you do not know what you’re doing right and what mistakes you’re making.
Check out Clark, by the way, in this interview, you hear him talk about how data is influencing how much he’s growing his business. This entrepreneur who I talked to needs to do the same thing. You and I both do. I say you and I because frankly I made the same mistake. My books were a mess. I would wait until the end of the year to do them right and to finally organize them. It’s no way to grow a business. It’s a way to keep making mistakes and keep missing what’s wrong and what you could do better and what’s actually working.
So, if you want a good bookkeeper, a good bookkeeping service, I urge you to check out Bench. Bench will do it right. They have software that will suck in your data from your bank account, from your credit cards, from the processes you use to get payment from your customers and then they have real human beings, a team of them to make sure your books are done right. I urge you to go check out Bench.co/Mixergy, really do yourself a favor–Bench.co/Mixergy. They’ve got a discount on that URL. That’s why I’m offering you this special link–Bench.co/Mixergy. Let’s get back into the conversation with Clark.
. . . of the Sex Pistols?
Clark: I’m a huge fan of the Sex Pistols. I’ll say that Sid Vicious was really frankly a terrible bass player. The original bass player for the Sex Pistols, Glen Matlock was the one who played on all the albums and Sid was kind of a clown who they threw in as sort of a punk icon and not a talented musician.
Andrew: I love how you know that. You really are like a music nerd. You are like the guys from “High Fidelity” who make lists all the time and know details like that. Who is the guy who sang, “I Did it My Way,” from the Sex Pistols?
Clark: That was actually Sid. So I will say the one positive thing in Sid’s catalogue is that he did like one live show that they turned into an album and also on a movie he did “My Way” in this kind of like. . . I liked that.
Andrew: That was a really good version of “My Way” if you dig the whole punk attitude, you get it. Otherwise, you think he ruined it.
Clark: And he sang it. He didn’t play bass on it.
Andrew: I love that you know that too. So what about the data? Did it actually ever work out for you to be able to sell data?
Clark: So, yes. In fact, what’s funny is you pursue your sort of–well, at least in Ranker’s case, we pursue what we say is the mothership. The mothership is that we’ve got this eyeballs play, right? A really rapidly growing media company that’s built on rankings and there’s actually with the data, there’s a lot more that we can do off of it that isn’t just eyeballs. Like, for example, I can’t go into a whole lot of detail on this because it’s an unfinished Hollywood thing, but we’re working with a production company on using Ranker’s data to power a game show.
We’re talking to–we’ve launched a product, you can go to the site right now, Ranker Insights. It is a sort of portal to look at the data we have and see the depth of correlations we have If you take a TV show, we may have 2,000 data points on fans of that TV show also like these other shows, these celebrities, these musicians, etc.
Andrew: I see it. Justin Timberlake fans also like Blake Shelton and “Mythbusters.” “Star Wars” fans also like Taco Bell and the Minions. What percentage of your revenue is coming from this stuff?
Clark: Right now it’s a relatively small percentage of revenue because we literally just launch the Insights portal about three weeks ago. We’ve had the data, though, behind the scenes that’s powering insights. So in all the ways that we’re using that data, it’s probably about 10% of our revenue. That said, a year ago, it was 0.2% of our revenue, right?
So it’s certainly growing and now that we have a public facing portal for it, people are starting to check it out. We’re having a lot of discussions with the studios because obviously when it comes to marketing big budget movies and new TV shows, having entertainment preference, really, really deep data is valuable.
We’ve had places use it for social targeting, for example, in launching new shows with some really strong success rates. So this is sort of like business angle number two, right? You’ve got the media company that’s really working, but obviously you want to have some offshoots that are running parallel paths and growing and it’s certainly nice to see the growth in our data business.
Andrew: Here’s the part that blows me away. I just typed Motley Crue in there. And Motley Crue fans apparently also are fans of Mel Gibson. So if I wanted to sell something to Motley Crue fans, I would–I guess the way it would work is if I was on Facebook–oh, right, we only have five more minutes–if I was on Facebook and I wanted to target Motley Crue fans, I would come to Insights.Ranker.com and realize that Motley Crue fans and realize that Motley Crue fans also like Mel Gibson and “Two and a Half Men” and then I would buy ads that target those fans as a way of reaching Motley Crue fans? Is that the goal?
Clark: Yes. And you can use it for social media targeting, like Facebook is this great targeting platform. So you can target your new Motley Crue album release to Mel Gibson fans and get a really low CPM because that’s not the obvious thing and track those conversions really closely and that actually–using data as a mechanism like that is one of the main reasons that we’ve grown so much because we’ve grown our Facebook traffic by targeting sub-audiences within Facebook with content that’s relevant towards them and probably we’ve literally grown unique visitors 50% this year and it’s mostly from Facebook.
Andrew: What did you do on Facebook that helped you grow that much? Let’s go rapid fire because we only have like five minutes left.
Clark: Sure. So we take all this data that we have and we’ll have a piece of content about Motley Crue or about “Walking Dead” or whatever and we use it then to not just throw it on Facebook but to target on Facebook only–it’s not rocket science to target Motley Crue fans. But the rocket science is we will say let’s target the Mel Gibson fans and the. . .
Andrew: When you buy an ad for a list about Motley Crue, you will then go to Mel Gibson fans and target them? Is that what you’re doing?
Clark: You can use it for an ad, but what we use it for mostly is that when we do a post on Facebook–publishers have gotten a lot of traffic from Facebook over the last five years. Facebook has a glut of this now. So, basically Facebook gives you, I would say, about one-tenth of the reach that you used to get organically because Facebook is just there are so many things competing for people to–
Andrew: Are you using this for organic reach?
Andrew: How do you use that for organization reach, just using this Motley Crue example?
Clark: So when we’re doing a Facebook post, instead of just saying put it out to our whole audience on Facebook, we’ve got lot three million Ranker followers and about another three million on other various channels of Ranker, we say out of those three million followers, let’s just target these subsets and therefore it converts really well on Facebook’s level instead of just being this thing that nobody cared about.
Andrew: You can do that organically on Facebook? You can say, “On my Facebook page, I only want this to go out to Mel Gibson fans and Motley Crue fans,” you can do that?
Clark: At a post level. So, on this post, I want to target these subsets on Facebook, yes.
Andrew: I didn’t know you could do that. Without paying, a non-sponsored–really?
Andrew: Oh, I see now how that would help you. You’re saying we have this content. Why bother everyone? Not everyone loves Motley Crue, but Motley Crue fans should get it and Mel Gibson fans. I’m overly simplifying it, but that gives me an example of what they do. So, that’s one of the reasons why you got hockey stick in the last 24 months, hockey stick growth. What else got you hockey stick growth?
Clark: Using data for everything basically because all these years of using data to bake into our internal systems kind of pay off when a) Facebook, this main fire hose of traffic all of a sudden allows you to use that data to target within them and then b) we use that data for what we call recirc, which is keeping people on the site longer and sending them to more things that they like and then they then share that and it becomes this sort of virtuous cycle. They see more ads. We make more money, blah, blah, blah.
Andrew: Got it. This is overly simplifying but because I clicked over on the 48 celebrities who have killed people list, I also see on the right 23 actors who have done real time in prison and I see Jared, the former Subway pitchman on top trying to get my attention because I’m obviously interested in that and mug shots, including a Bill Gates mug shot–all that kind of stuff is powered by the data that you have over the years and that you’ve learned how to expose.
Clark: That’s exactly it.
Andrew: Do you do anything like that for advertising, to know which ads to serve up to me based on what I’ve done?
Clark: To some degree, yes. We have segments. So some of our data sales are advertisers targeting cohorts. It could be horror movie fans or cord cutters or coffee drinkers or something like that. So we have all of this data going into advertising segments that are bought programmatically. It’s kind of like we’re bucketing really intelligently and really micro-targeting and then the programmatic ad universe comes in and is targeting on top of that using our first party data. I know it’s getting kind of wonky.
Andrew: No, I get what you’re talking about and I do see what you mean, that it is getting a little bit wonky, but I get it. I have a note here to come back and make sure we follow up on what’s going on, on the site right now. We talked a little bit about that with data. Is there anything else you want to say about what’s going on, on the site that we wouldn’t notice that I wouldn’t see at first glance?
Clark: We also have a pretty robust Facebook video platform where we’re getting–I think we did last month about 50 million views on videos on Facebook.
Andrew: You guys are producing them?
Clark: We’re producing them in house and we’ve got an eight-person video team now. That’s more of a Facebook-based thing. We have some videos on our homepage, but the real distribution for videos has been on Facebook. We have Facebook Live events happening almost daily.
Andrew: Facebook Live happening daily for you guys?
Andrew: What do you guys do on Facebook Live? I didn’t see it.
Clark: Sometimes we do it on our channels. For example on Facebook, we have a channel called Total Nerd, which is geek culture content–comics, anime, stuff like that. So I believe once a week we’re doing a Facebook Live show on that channel and other channels that we have. I think on the main Ranker page, we do a Live once or twice a week. So we’re doing videos, Facebook Live, all kinds of multimedia. It’s not just about voting on lists anymore, but that still is kind of what drives the core of what Ranker is. It’s crowdsourcing peoples’ interests in things in a list format.
Andrew: It looks like you also have something called Tell Lily to Draw That, which is Lily with a pen and paper drawing whatever you guys say in the live chat.
Clark: Yeah. Facebook Live is such a new thing that we’re really–I’m just kind of like growth hack it.
Andrew: Just try and see what works.
Clark: Yeah, if it’s adding engagement, we’ll try anything. Some of it is not–like that, it’s not even really a straight list, right? It’s something a little different.
Andrew: Right. Cool. Congratulations on doing this and thanks for coming back on and I’m looking forward to seeing what you end up doing with the business.
Clark: Very good, Andrew. Thanks again for having me. I think it’s awesome to be able to come back and do the recap of all the ups and downs and what has been a rollercoaster ride.
Andrew: Frankly, five years ago you told me, “I keep a notebook of ideas because I can’t stop with my ideas.” We talked about four of your businesses last time. You had more ideas. I thought, “He’s going to do Ranker but he’s got this list. One of those ideas is going to then divert him and he’s going to have to sell Ranker to go do it.” But you stuck with it.
Clark: What’s funny is I keep writing down things in that notebook. I don’t look at it. I can’t look at it because I write it down so it’s preserving the ideas, if I start looking at it, I’ll start getting distracted and the thing I’ve learned with Ranker is when you go all in with something–usually I had multiple businesses running at once, multiple small businesses, but Ranker is now becoming a big thing and honestly if I had like been juggling multiple things, this would have failed. Sometimes you learn that you’ve got to go all in.
Andrew: I see. And that’s partially why it’s bigger than everything else you’ve done before, because you’re all in here where you weren’t fully. All right. Anyone out there should go check out Ranker.
Clark: And Ranker Insights too.
Andrew: Insights.Ranker.com to see that. Frankly, in many ways, that’s a little bit more fun for us just to see those questions–Insights.Ranker.com and of course Ranker.com if you want to see the lists we’re talking about. I’m grateful to the two sponsors–Toptal.com for hiring developers and if you need someone to do your books, go check out Bench.co/Mixergy.
Clark: Great. Thanks, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you. Bye, everyone.